Thursday, November 28, 2013

So you think you can do better!



This sounds like a very engaging documentary about George Plimpton.  There was a time he was a celebrity, famous for Paper Lion, his account of his tryout with the Detroit Lions in the 1960s.  It seems Plimpton prefigured the celebrity reality show, so common today.  He was also an excellent sportswriter, covering Ali's grand comeback in his victory of George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire, otherwise known as "The Rumble in the Jungle."

His greatest legacy is The Paris Review, which he co-founded with Harold Humes and Peter Mathiesen, putting him in contact with virtually all the leading lights of literature, including Ernest Hemingway, who he apparently rubbed the wrong way when he asked him about the white birds popping up in Hemingway's sex scenes.

George Plimpton generally tended to play himself in film, but he popped up in a few movies as other characters, including the psychologist, Henry Lipkin, in Good Will Hunting and the President's lawyer in Nixon.  He even had an uncredited role as a bedouin in Lawrence of Arabia, no doubt an opportunity to interview Sir David Lean.

Plimpton died in 2003.  He has had many tributes since then, but one would think the most gratifying would be having an asteroid named after him.  Here's the trailer to the film.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Franksgiving



All kinds of protests leading into Thanksgiving Day weekend.  There is the National Day of Mourning for Native Americans, or Unthanksgiving as they call it on the West Coast, first organized in 1970 by the United American Indians of New England who wanted Americans to take note of the "democide" that took place in the wake of the first Thanksgiving all those years ago.

In addition, Macy's has come under fire for a Sea World float, which protesters claim misrepresents the way Orcas are treated in captivity.  This is in the wake of a recent documentary, Blackfish, which examines the life of Tilikum, who killed a trainer at Sea World in 2010.

But, it seems that most persons are upset that Black Friday has been moved up to Thursday with many greedy retailers offering big discounts on Thanksgiving, which has been traditionally reserved as a family holiday.  This means a lot of workers will have to report for duty who otherwise would have had the day off to be with their families.

Ironically, it was FDR who moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday in November so that retailers could have the traditional start of the Christmas holiday shopping season start as early as Friday, Nov. 23.  For a brief while, the holiday was dubbed Franksgiving.  Unfortunately, for retailers the fourth Thursday fell on the 28th this year, with Black Friday on the 29th, which meant they would lose 6 days.  Unprecedented!

Even with all this controversy, the show will go on.  Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will take place with marching bands, Rockettes, the gargantuan floating balloons and of course Santa at the end of the long line to usher in the Holiday season.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Twilight for the Republicans



What a month!  Even with a major diplomatic coup in bringing Iran to the table to discuss a nuclear weapons ban, the Obama administration still finds itself under fire for the bad roll out of "Obamacare," with many media outlets presenting it as his Waterloo.  Few news outlets mention the 26 Republican governors who refused to extend Medicaid in their states for those who fall between the cracks of current Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, nor the steady stream of deceit and lies by the Republicans to mischaracterize the ACA.  It seems the GOP, and in particularly the Tea Party, thinks it can ride a failed Obamacare to victory in the 2014 midterms.

The only problem is that Obamacare isn't failing.  It may have gotten off to a bumpy start but as of Tuesday afternoon (November 19), at least 130,000 persons had signed up for insurance plans in 14 states under the new state health insurance exchanges.  The federal exchanges have reported fewer new subscribers, but HHS seems to be working out the bugs at HealthCare.gov, so enrollment should rise considerably in the months ahead.

Of course, this doesn't stop the GOP from flogging Obamacare every chance it gets.  It realizes it has one and only one issue to exploit.  Even the historic Geneva agreement on Iran's nuclear program is being cynically presented as a "ploy" to deflect attention away form Obamacare.  I suppose it is also deflects attention away from the Democratic Senate greatly reducing the Republican use of the filibuster with the so-called nuclear option.  

Many conservatives see their loss of the filibuster on presidential appointments as the loss of checks and balances.  This after blocking no less than 80 Obama appointees, including Elizabeth Warren, who ended up in the Senate thanks to their efforts and now sits in the Banking Committee.

So, what's left for the Republicans?  It seems that all their best laid plans to reclaim Congress and in turn the White Hosue have been laid to waste.  Never have the Republicans looked so impotent.  Even with Obama's sagging approval ratings (currently standing at 42%), he polls much better than the abysmal Congress, at an historic low of 9 per cent. While it seems voters blame Republicans and Democrats alike, Republicans have been fairing the worst in House and Senate state polls.

At what point do the Republicans quit trying to blame what they perceive as a "failed state" on Obama and actually become involved in the political process?  There really has been nothing like this in the recent past.  You'd have to go back to antebellum America to find a more recalcitrant Congress.  Even during the notorious Jim Crow era there were in roads made.  Today, belligerence seems to be what Teabaggers respect.  Any attempt to compromise is seen as weakness and the potential for Republicans to be "teabagged" in the primaries.

While the Democrats' future may ride on the success of the Affordable Care Act, an initiative which began in Congress, not the White House, the President continues to serve his role on multiple fronts, including engagement with perceived "terrorist states" to achieve a common good.  One can only hope Americans come to recognize these efforts as being in their best interest.

The Black Dahlia



A recent television series, American Horror Story, raised the specter of the Black Dahlia, literally, and wove the gruesome 1947 murder into its narrative.  Mena Suvari reprised the role of Elizabeth Short.  The series is no great shakes but has some fun with the idea of an Eternal Darkness Tour in Los Angeles, and the "Murder House" in particular, a 1920-era Victorian inspired mansion that becomes the epicenter of all things heinous in LA.  For my taste, they could have had a lot more fun with the series, picking up on the many unsolved murders in Tinseltown, but instead it reads more like a Southern Gothic thriller set in LA.  Nevertheless, the reference to the Black Dahlia was interesting.

Brian de Palma made a movie in 2006 based on James McElroy's earlier novel, which explored the infamous murder.  McElroy kind of became the king of a resurgent LA noir with other books like LA Confidential, which was also made into a movie.  1940s Hollywood is a great backdrop for such murder mysteries.  Alan Ladd starred in The Blue Dahlia back in 1946, which actually prefigured this grisly murder.  It was based on a Raymond Chandler novel.

Library of America has put together a collection of Crime Novels, which includes stories by James Cain and Edward Anderson among others.  LoA also has separate collections of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  It seems like it is a genre that never dies.

But, what makes the Black Dahlia so intriguing is that it still haunts us all these years later?  Even Joyce Carol Oates has taken a turn at the case in her collection Black Dahlia & White Rose, as well as explores the strange fate of Norma Jean Baker.  It seems that after all these years, Tinseltown has turned in on itself and become a great source of macabre tales.  Who needs the sleepy South with its wistful wisteria and creepy Spanish moss.

BTW, the image above is probably a prop.  Here is what Elizabeth Short looked like before she was brutally disfigured.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Apotheosis of John F. Kennedy



It was an odd confluence of events yesterday.  While CNN was having a prelude to the memorial of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, BBC was highlighting the birth of the long-running British elevision series Dr. Who, which began on the same day.  In time, both networks were covering the memorial services in full, apparently the first for JFK in Dallas since his assassination.  It seems that not only Dallas but Americans as a whole have come to terms with Kennedy, who tops the list of most popular past presidents at 90%.

Dr. Who would probably be the best person to explore the events surrounding JFK's death with his famous time travel machine machine, Tardis.

Kennedy's approval rating in November 1963 stood at a respectful 58%, but was down 22 points from his high in March, 1962, following an international disarmament conference that led to draft treaties between the US and USSR on nuclear disarmament, an attempt to set the Doomsday clock back a few minutes.  A clock Kennedy had dramatically pushed forward during those 13 days in October, 1962.

There was growing disgruntlement with Kennedy on both the right and the left.  The Birchers went so far as to distribute "Wanted for Treason" leaflets prior to his arrival in Dallas on that fateful day, and there was much anxiety in the South over the civil rights legislation the Kennedy administration was proposal.  The Dixiecrats had effectively been able to block all legislation, but Kennedy is probably best remembered desegregation attempts at the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama, which became battle cries for Southerners determined to keep Jim Crow laws in place.

Kennedy was also having a hard time getting a tax cut bill through Congress, which he felt would go a long way to easing the US out of economic recession.  Seems the post-war boom had finally abated, and the Kennedy administration was looking for any kind of stimulus to get things moving again.

A Fair Housing bill had also stalled in Congress, which Johnson would get passed in 1964 along with all the other bills the Kennedy administration had failed to get moving, precipitating a massive boom in public housing across the country, which indeed would get the economy moving again.

One certainly has to credit John F. Kennedy for all these initiatives, but they probably would have all died on the vine if it hadn't been for that great transformative event on November 22 1963.  Robert Caro argues, as have other historians, that by acting quickly Johnson was able to use JFK's death to mobilize Congress in a way that hadn't occurred since the end of the Civil War.

Of course, FDR had passed some monumental legislation during his time, but he too had been afraid to touch Jim Crow laws.  The first real dents came with the desegregation of the military of the military in 1949 by Truman, and the famous Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which Eisenhower enforced by having Ruby Bridges escorted to her first day of elementary school in New Orleans.  Civil Rights legislation was eventually enacted in 1964, and a federal ban on lynching finally passed through Congress in 1968, after having first been rejected by Roosevelt out of fear of losing the Southern vote.

As history becomes a blur, it seems most Americans point to Kennedy as that great transformative figure in contemporary events.  He received an even higher approval rating than Ronald Reagan, which is pretty impressive in this day and age.  Of course, Lyndon Johnson is all but forgotten, but it is safe to say that without LBJ there would not have been this great JFK legacy.




Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Inside Caffe Lena


Whether you like Inside Llewyn Davis or not, the film is inspiring yet another folk revival with a number of odd combinations like Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong (of Green Day), who take the Everly Brothers' Songs Our Daddys Taught Us as a departure point for Foreverly.  But, much more important are two great projects that bring Caffe Lena and Washington Square back into the fore.

Lena Spencer with John Hartford, 1989

Caffe Lena has been doing "good folk since 1960" and has hosted every folk musician of note over its 50+ year history.  Lena herself passed away some years back, but the cafe kept going, and remains an unpretentious fixture in Saratoga Springs, New York.  A beautifully illustrated book and CD box set paint a broad picture of the famous coffee house.

Van Ronk, Dylan and Suze Rotolo

The other collection is of the Mayor himself, ostensibly the subject of the Cohen brothers film, Dave Van Ronk.  This is a box set compiled by Smithsonian Folkways that not includes many of his early recordings, but those recorded shortly before his death in 2002.  Van Ronk became quickly overshadowed by Bob Dylan, but many credit him for opening the door for Bob in Greenwich Village all those years ago.  The film was largely inspired by the memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, edited by Elijah Wood.

Photo Credits: Caffe LenaNippertown! and American Songwriter

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tempest in a Teapot



In the wake of electoral defeats in Virginia, Alabama and Florida, Tea Party conservatives aren't backing down and Republican conservatives appear to be doubling down, intent to not lose their base of support in the South.

Several Republican Senators appear vulnerable of teabagging in the primaries, notably Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell.  These conservative stalwarts have recently been viewed as sellouts.  McConnell especially for reaching an 11th hour deal with Harry Reid to lift the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.  Graham was also an outspoken critic of the shutdown.  Fortunately for both of them, they seem to be facing an onslaught of Republican challengers who will most likely cancel each other out.  Still, it is a taxing process, and one that could hurt McConnell in the general election as he faces a strong Democratic challenger in Alison Lundergan Grimes.

So, what have we learned?  Not much it seems.  Despite Chris Christie's clear victory in New Jersey, Republicans across the country and particularly those in the South aren't ready to embrace moderation.  Far from it, they see the bumpy roll out of Obamacare as their prime target in 2014, and plan to beat this "dead horse" once again.  Tea Party conservatives firmly believe Cuccinelli would have won in Virginia if he had one more week.  They seem to forget Tea Party candidates also lost in Alabama and Florida.  In Florida, the former Republican state house representative actually endorsed the Democratic challenger over Teabagger Bill Gunter.  But, the TP sees the narrow defeats as "moral victories," especially since Cuccinelli was outspent 10-1 by McAuliffe in the final stretch.  Andrew Kohut reinforced this message in a recent WSJ op-ed piece, offering a few numbers in a feeble attempt to bolster his case.

Once again, religious conservatives view these as tactical losses.  They still firmly believe they have the "moral majority" on its' side, forcing Congressmen like Marco Rubio to reaffirm his Christian conservative values by keynoting a fundraiser for a virulent anti-gay Family Policy Council.  Rubio rode the crest of the Tea Party wave into Congress in 2010 and obviously has to show contrition after supporting a highly contentious immigration reform bill that remains stalled in Congress.

For their part, McConnell and Graham are leading the filibuster against Obama's judicial nominations, all women with presumed liberal agendas.  Graham had been called out by conservatives in South Carolina for going soft on Kagan and Sotomayor.  No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Noble Savage



I thought this was an interesting take on Lone Ranger, as the writer delves into the history of subversive westerns in American cinema, noting how Gore Verbinski's movie differs from Quentin Tarrantino's Django in its much more ambiguous take on history.  Of course, neither hold a candle to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, but it is nice to see anti-Westerns and anti-histories making a comeback.

Johnny Depp is no stranger to the anti-Western.  I thought he was fantastic in Dead Man, which had a very limited release because Jim Jarmusch refused to change the ending to suit Miramax tastes.  To some degree, it seems Depp tried to reprise this role, giving Tonto a similar controlling force as Nobody in Dead Man, only Gary Farmer gave the character a fine ironic touch.  But, it was a game effort on Depp's part, even if the movie fell flat at the box office.

Americans prefer their Western heroes writ large, and have a hard time wrapping their thoughts around anti-heroes.  Even John Wayne's Ethan Edwards remains an enigma in devoted John Wayne fans' minds, because Ethan doesn't fit comfortably into the heroic image of the West.

Leone took John Ford one step, maybe even two or three steps, forward in casting Henry Fonda as the notorious Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably the best of all anti-Westerns.  Ironically, Fonda may have very well been cast as Ethan if he hadn't had a falling out with John Ford.

Verbinski seems to draw on all these films in creating Lone Ranger.  You can easily spot many visual references, but there is a number of other references in the story. His Pirate movies also rise above standard swashbuckler tales in that he draws on a wide body of themes, not content to deal with the standard narrative.  I found myself particularly intrigued with the second film in the series, Dead Man's Chest, because he got into the concept of Manifest Destiny and gave his villainous Davy Jones a much deeper character than we usually see in these films.  Unfortunately, Verbinski didn't successfully close the deal in At World's End, but then I think this was because he was forced to throw too many new characters into the mix.

To some degree, Hollywood now seems to be embracing these darker characters and story lines, I suppose because teenagers today don't want standard narratives and identify themselves with these darker characters.  Otherwise, there would be no money to be made from it.  Even if Sergio Leone made Clint Eastwood, his films were not embraced at the time.  It was only in retrospect that critics came to appreciate Leone's unique take on the American Western.

Fortunately, Lone Ranger is far away from the original television series.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Your Tomorrows Never Come



You don't hear Eddie Cochran mentioned much these days, but Jim Jarmusch took the time to remember him in his new film, Only Lovers Left Alive.  While the film is ostensibly about melancholy vampires, it showcases one vampire's passion for vintage electric guitars, notably the hollow body Gretsch, which was Cochran's signature guitar.  It was also Chet Atkins' go-to guitar.

Cochran had an all too brief shining moment.  He was one of the kings of Rockabilly, which competed with early Rock and Roll.  He couldn't have been more than 17 in this clip from The Girl Can't Have It.  Cochran would have a much more pronounced role in Untamed Youth, which made Rebel Without a Cause look pretty tame.  He was as big a draw as any of the top performers of the era.  Sadly, he died in a car accident while on tour in England.

His songs were covered by everyone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, shaping the music that would become the British Invasion in the 60s, making him one of the most influential musicians and songwriters of his era.  Here is YourTomorrows Never Come with the Cochran Brothers.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Riches to Rags



This memoir caught my eye.  Alexandra Aldrich recounts her story of growing up in the shadows of the Astor family in a sprawling 43-room house in Rockeby, New York, where her father was reduced to pawning family heirlooms to make ends meet.  Her Polish mother thought she was marrying into a rich family only to find the kitchen cupboard bare.  It has all the making of a frightful childhood tale, but comes off as a misspent childhood journal.  Nevertheless, it is apparently enthralling to read if you are into tales of decaying aristocratic families.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Welcome to North Colorado



Colorado like many states in the US is politically divided.  All one has to do is look at the election returns to the see the swathes of red and blue counties.  However, twelve northern counties voted this past Tuesday to secede from the rest of the state.  Eleven are contiguous and want to form their own separate state.  The 12th would either have to go solo or request to join Wyoming, as the Constitution forbids non-contiguous states.

This is not new.  As Michael Tomasky notes in his article.  Staten Island recently voted to secede from New York City, but it has been a long time since any of these secession bids have been approved.  West Virginia, I believe, is the last example of citizens splitting from their home state in 1861.  Their secession bid was approved in 1863, during the height of the Civil War.  Before, the thirteen original states gave up their western possessions, allowing for states like Kentucky and Tennessee to come into the Union.

Despite these precedents,  it is highly unlikely Congress will approve current efforts.  As for Coloradans, it seems they can't even agree on their motto.  The direct translation of Nil sin Numine is "Nothing without Providence," but apparently this isn't explicit enough, so a special investigation was made and it was determined that the original framers meant "Nothing without the Deity."

At the heart of these secession bids seems to be anti-immigration sentiments fueled by the Tea Party. It seems the teabaggers are coming to the realization that their bid for control of the Republican Party, much less the country, appears to be evaporating, and now they want to form their own white-only enclaves.  It's amazing they still want to remain in the Union.

It's not like these conservative counties don't already have semi-autonomous control of their affairs.  A lot of these remote places have become havens for survivalist groups, conservative religious sects and other right-wing element, loosely affiliated with the Tea Party, which have pretty much rejected federal and state government, often refusing to pay taxes.  But, apparently in Northeast Colorado (to be more geographically precise) they want to make a clean break.

In an effort of compromise, Tomasky noted that the Colorado state legislature is considering the idea of distributing senators evenly between counties, regardless of population.   This, of course, would lend much more weight to Republican counties, which dominate the state.  The legislators cite the U.S. Senate as a precedent, but apparently what is good for the goose is not good for the gander and state senates must be a fair representation of the population.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before such efforts picked up steam, given how deeply divided the country has become.  Democrats find themselves herded into metro areas in most states, with much more sparsely populated rural counties being heavily Republican.  If elections were a matter of land area, Republicans would dominate politics in America, as they control much of the farm belt.  Of course, the irony is that so many of these conservative farmers and ranchers rely heavily on state and federal subsidies, making them essentially wards of the state.

So, until these rural communities can truly attain the self-sufficiency they extol, they should quit trying to extort the government.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Documenting America



Docuamerica was a six-year photographic project supported by Gifford Hampshire, who hoped to bring the impact of environmental damage home by evoking Barry Commoner's laws of ecology.  Commoner had stated that "everything is connected to everything else."  By stressing the human dimension, Hampshire thought the project would more deeply touch Americans.

The National Archives resurrected the project this year, sponsoring a traveling exhibit and the EPA has created a "then and now" photo-sharing campaign on Flickr.  There were over 22,000 photos in the original collection, and with Flickr no doubt that will increase exponentially.

The 70s were a time of ecological awakening, with numerous attempts to spur interest in the environment.  Books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Barry Commoner's Four Laws of Ecology became required reading.  Another great book of the era is E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, which promoted small sustainable economies, less reliant on fossil fuels.  The big event that decade was Expo '74 in Spokane, which stressed the environment, getting away from the high-tech themes of the past.  Jimmy Carter made sustainable design and renewable energy a signature part of his presidential term, only to be unceremoniously ripped apart when Reagan had the solar panels removed from the White House.

Apparently, Barry wasn't satisfied with Carter's administration either, mounting a third party candidacy in 1980.  He headed the Citizens Party ticket, and had La Donna Harris as a running mate.  This was their platform, but environmental awareness didn't top their list of issues.  They managed to get over 200,000 votes.

Fortunately, today there seems to be a renewed awareness that is becoming so persuasive that it is virtually impossible to ignore, although most Republicans still try to do so.  It is nice to see the EPA revisiting Docuamerica.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bonfire of the vanities



As an antidote to Chris Matthews' effusive Tip and The Gipper, there is Mark Leibovich's This Town, in which he paints Washington as a completely dysfunctional city driven by influence peddlers.  He doesn't extol the past but notes that former congressional lobbyists have risen ten fold over the years, with 42 per cent of congresspersons remaining in town after their terms, providing valuable access for lobbying groups.  In many cases, they "retire" because of the much more lucrative offers.

Leibovich seems to draw on Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke, lacing his pithy narrative with a number of barbs that should make for entertaining reading.  Critics have been gushing over the book, with Fareed Zakaria going so far as to consider it a "primary source" for future historians in finding the point at which America went wrong.  Indeed, Leibovich seems to view America very much in decline, noting how cynical Washington funerals have become in chapters on the deaths of Tim Russert and Richard Holbrooke, with Obama looking like a weary emperor as Clinton and others use their eulogies to "plunge a stealth dagger" into the man, who Kissinger likened to Nixon in preferring to be alone.

For those already cynical of Washington politics, this will only make you moreso to read the reviews.  Leibovich appears to come across as a modern-day Henry Adams, who loved nothing more than to skewer Washington social life, considering it hopelessly provincial in his time.  It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The New Novel



I thought Michael Gorra's chapter Maupassant (from Portrait of a Novel) on the concerns of women reading novels was priceless, and so well explored.  Apparently, it was seen by many as illicit for women to read novels, especially questionable novels.  As a result, many French novels and stories were banned in translation, including many of Maupassant's short stories.  It took over 30 years for Flaubert's Madame Bovary to find its way into English print.  Zola was considered outright pornographic.

While the situation had relaxed a little in Henry James's time, he consciously set Isabel Archer's arrival in Paris in 1872, only a year after the Paris Commune, the fourth revolution to rock France.  One can imagine Isabel like one of Homer's women, having secretly read novels, maybe even French novels, but still blushing when she reached Paris.  James didn't revel in sexuality like Flaubert and Zola, but he did explore its tensions.

According to Gorra, the author more fully exploited sexuality in later novels like The Americans and The Golden Bowl, but like George Eliot preferred to deal with the consequences rather than the acts themselves.  This was generally true for English writing.  Even Thomas Hardy dealt more with consequences as seen in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Not so for the French writers, who reveled in brothel scenes and other carnal delights, allowing their women to experience much more pleasure than could be found in English novels, which no doubt would have made them quite tempting to read in their time.

It makes you wonder what Winslow Homer chose for his young lady in red.  The theme seemed to delight him, as he painted several young ladies reading novels, including this one of a young woman reading under an oak tree, with red once again figuring into the image.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me



In peddling a new campaign trail book it is important to get some juicy nuggets out there.  Halperin and Heilemann are doing just that, offering up such tasty morsels as Obama "reportedly" questioning himself after his first debate against Romney with his chief adviser, David  Plouffe, in a panic.  The other morsel is that there was serious consideration of placing Hillary on the ticket over Biden.  Both are pure speculation based on second and third hand sources, but that doesn't seem to bother these intrepid journalists.

I don't think Obama ever doubted himself.  If anything, he didn't take Romney seriously in the first debate and suffered what turned out to be a relatively minor setback.  It's also worth noting that the media was desperate to make this into a horse race when it looked like Obama was leaving Romney far behind in the polls, so it played up Romney's faux victory.

While Obama's overall numbers fell, he continued to lead in key states, so I doubt his campaign staff panicked, but rather sought ways to strengthen the message, while Obama prepped himself better for the subsequent debates.  Not that they mattered much, as debates rarely do.  Bush arguably lost all three debates to John Kerry but still won his re-election by 2-1/2 percentage points, and hotly contested Ohio by 5 percentage points.

The second talking point defies all credulity as Biden was one of the best things Obama had going for him.  Biden is good-humored, a tireless campaigner, and generally well liked.  It would have been pure folly to drop him from the ticket, if for no other reason than it would have indicated he really was worried about his re-election.  However, I have to think in surveying his potential opponents, Obama must have felt pretty good about himself, and I don't think dropping Joe ever entered his mind.

We also learned about Romney's misgivings about "Pufferfish," aka Chris Christie.  Halperin and Hellemann suggest that Christie smelled a little too fishy for Romney's taste, who preferred the much leaner Paul Ryan.  Fact of the matter, Christie wasn't very well liked by the base of the party, which Romney found himself having to cater to time and again, but the base of the party loved Paul "P90X" Ryan.


By contrast, Dan Balz's Collision 2012 seems to take a less sensational approach, and look more at the underlying factors, namely Obama's "computer-driven voter-mobilization machine," which he feels has set a new technical model in political campaigning that will become the standard in 2016.  Balz finds it odd that a former venture capitalist like Romney with obviously a good head for numbers could allow himself to be outsmarted by Obama.  But, it seemed to be the case at every turn.

Balz describes the first debate not so much as a turning point for Romney, but rather the ultimate delusion in the former Massachusetts governor believing he had reached the people.  What we got after Denver was the new "emotional" Romney as opposed to the technocrat we had previously been subjected to.  Balz also covers the Christie angle, noting that Romney actually wanted "Pufferfish" to resign as governor to be his running mate.  Paul Ryan wasn't forced to resign.  Fortunately for him, he ran a concurrent House campaign so that he would still be in office come November.

For my money it seems Collision is the better of the two books, relying less on apocryphal quotes and speculation, and more on attributed quotes and statistics.  "Specific without being tedious," as Howell Rains noted in his review.

Save the Last Laugh for Me



I'm sure the book will be very engaging, but it seems that our dear Chris Matthews is once again dabbling in revisionist history in his portrayal of the working relationship between Tip and The Gipper.  Matthews did have a front row seat in that he served the venerable house speaker at the time.  But, the Democratic House leader blocked Reagan's spending bills on more than one occasion, with the eventual compromise solutions resulting in the highest percentage increase in national debt (187%) of any presidential administration.

As the old saying goes, it takes "two to tango" and these two managed to find a way to increase military spending while keeping domestic spending in check along with a new wave of tax cuts.  I suppose many would consider that a good thing, but given that the Cold War was winding down and the US was funneling money to dubious insurgency movements around the world, you have to wonder what the big threat was to our national security.

Of course, we are told over and over again that the CIA never saw the fall of the Berlin wall coming, much less the collapse of the Soviet Union.  However, that's a bit hard to swallow given the Solidarity movement in Poland at the time and the number of concurrent independence drives throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, not to mention a war in Afghanistan that was bleeding the USSR dry.  It seemed Reagan choose to prop up the "Evil Empire" rather than see the prime motivation for his massive increases in military spending crumble along with the Berlin wall.

Personally, I don't look back on the era of Tip and The Gipper as a time when politics worked, except in the most cynical and empty handed of ways.  In fact, virtually all the groundwork was laid during this time for the kind of ideologically-driven politics we see today.   The budget deals may have kept hope afloat, but in the end the Democrats suffered badly for it, eventually losing control of the House in 1994.

Sorry, Chris, I didn't see politics as working very well then or now.  As far as I'm concerned the last laugh is at our expense.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Breaking Bad



I found myself sucked into the series Breaking Bad on Fox Life, which distributes a great number of American television series overseas.  It's too bad we don't get AMC.

Walter White is certainly a very compelling figure and the writers find ways to twist and turn his character over the long run.  It has to be very difficult to sustain a continuous narrative, but they've done so begun getting the former Chemistry teacher ever more deeply embedded in the drug world, with season four picking up on the vast Mexican cartel that now controls the production of Meth.

Meth is not new.  It was first developed in the early 20th century and used by WWII pilots to overcome drowsiness and fatigue. However, the debilitating nature of the drug was discovered and this practice was discontinued.  It reappeared as an anti-depressant and diet drug in the 50s.  In the 60s, it was used as an alternative for recovering heroin addicts.  It wasn't until the 1970s that it became more tightly regulated, although it was still widely available in the form of "speed."

It might have been best to set Breaking Bad in the 90s, as this is when it was rediscovered by drug dealers, and became a cheap alternative to cocaine.  A huge cottage industry spread quickly from the Southwest to the Midwest, making it more widely available than ever before. This has been chronicled in Methland. Eventually, the Mexican cartels took over, "cooking" meth in large labs and distributing it in the United States. By the 2000s, meth was well regulated again, only by drug dealers this time, who kept a tight control over their product, squeezing out rivals.

What makes the show compelling is that the writers carefully script Walter's involvement, from small time "cook" to a man who ultimately wants to be in charge of his own destiny.  He gets a lot of help along the way, and the road becomes ever darker.  As the premise becomes harder to swallow, the writers wisely shift to moral and ethical concerns.  Throughout, we see an ongoing DEA investigation, carried out by his brother-in-law.  Meth distribution is slippery, and the DEA has had a particularly difficult time reining in the devil's drug, but still you figure Hank would have caught on by now given Walter's erratic behavior.

Hank recommends a copy of The Last Narco for young Walter to read.  Walt's namesake is equally oblivious to what is going on.  The burden falls on Walt's wife to wrestle with the moral anguish of it all and I think Anna Gunn does a great job of projecting this.

Meth is a horribly destructive drug.   It can be consumed in a wide variety of ways and has infiltrated every segment of society, much like cocaine did in the 80s.  There are many first person accounts now available.  I think the show probably could do more to show these debilitating effects, but the writers are obviously more interested in the labyrinthine set of connections that allow for its widespread availability.