Monday, March 31, 2014

Good for what ails you



The 2016 Republican nomination may come down to an ophthalmologist and a neurosurgeon.  We already know about the incredible rise of Randall Howard Paul, aka "Rand" Paul, from a Kentucky eye doctor to US Senator on the back of the Tea Party in 2010, but the Tea Party is currently punch drunk in love with Dr. Ben Carson, a noted neurosurgeon, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Affordable Care Act, taking the President to task at a National Prayer Meeting in 2013, which made him an overnight celebrity.

The President and Vice-President sat politely as the good doctor referenced the Bible, the Founding Fathers,  Alexis de Toqueville, the War of 1812, and the Bald Eagle in his condemnation of "Obamacare."  Dr. Carson has been riding this hobby horse the past year, and has inspired a great number of Teabaggers who see him as their political savior.

Unlike Herman Cain, the only skeletons in the good doctor's closet have long been banished and there is virtually no likelihood of a woman to emerge to challenge his fidelity, unlike "Hermanator" in 2012, who loved to boast of his virility at the expense of Obama.  A "Ben Carson for President" spokesman calculated that all Uncle Ben has to do is get 17% of the "Black vote" and "Hillary loses every swing state in the country."  Pretty compelling numbers, assuming Carson can get through the ugly nomination process.  He doesn't seem to like to field questions.

Carson did place third in a recent CPAC Straw Poll, so one has to consider him a serious contender.  It seems Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers are interested, but Carson is aiming at the religious heart of the rank and file of the Republican Party with his evangelical messages.

He found God toward the end of high school, pulled his inner-city life together and got into Yale Medical School where he excelled in pediatric neurosurgery, eventually being honored by George W. Bush.  You can see his life story in a made-for-TV-movie from 2009.

At a Heritage Foundation conference last year, Carson launched his harshest broadside yet at "Obamacare," claiming the ACA to be the "worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery."  He seems to have forgotten all about Jim Crow, which he is old enough to remember.   No matter, his views are perfectly in sync with the Republican National Committee and political pundits at Fox News where he is often called in to offer his expert views on the subject.

Now that he is being considered as a presidential candidate, Ben has tried to expand his range of views, weighing in on everything from the Ukraine crisis to energy reserves in this op-ed piece for The Desert Sun, repeating the old Cold War maxims Republicans love to hear, but showing he is in tune with the current trends in renewable energy resources without stating any specific one that might get him in trouble.

Yep, Uncle Ben seems to be the man of the hour, the anti-politician who just might save America from the rampages of Socialism we have seen these two terms of Barack Obama, or so some Republicans would like to think.

The GOP Chorus Line


That's all well and good but show me your legs

Potential Republican presidential candidates were in Vegas auditioning for Sheldon Adelson and his conservative Jewish Coalition.  Adelson was apparently none too happy in 2012 when he tossed away $90 million of his hard-earned money on candidates like Moonbase Newt and Rombo, and vowed to scrutinize his candidates more closely this time around.

Unfortunately, good ol' Chris Christie stuck his foot in his mouth once again, referring to the "occupied territories" of the West Bank.  Of course, he meant it as a compliment to the Israeli security forces, but conservative Jews don't consider this occupied land, rather their own sovereign territory, so the guv was forced to apologize for "misspeaking."

Even George Bush recognized the West Bank as "occupied land" and pushed for a two-state solution during his two terms in office, but if you want the big bucks you have to cater to the likes of Adelson, who seems determined to buy this election.

I've got a lead this big!

One wonders if Christie knows at all what he is saying anymore.  After that faux inquiry into "bridgegate," clearing himself of all charges.  He seems to think he is a front runner again.  But, alas the GOP lead horse appears to be Rand Paul, who carried the CPAC straw poll recently, well ahead of Christie who finished a distant fourth behind Ted Cruz and the Republicans' favorite doctor, "Uncle Ben" Carson, who compares Obamacare with slavery.

The Jersey boss isn't going to let this one go without a fight, even if he has to show off his legs in front of the Vegas judges.  Quite frankly, none of the candidates look very appealing, which is why Sheldon may have to look beyond the front runners and see who else is lurking in the GOP chorus line.  But, is America ready for another Bush?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In His Element



It seems the latest gambit by the Republicans is to show the President as having lost the respect of world leaders in the face of the Crimean crisis.  They point to figures that show the President's popularity abroad has waned since 2009, but fail to note that there is still a yawning gap between Obama and George W. Bush, who consistently ranked at the bottom of international approval ratings along with the former presidents of Iran and Pakistan.

With the mid-term elections coming up you can expect this kind of rhetoric, but one has to wonder what Mitt Romney's stake is in this, as he has been one of the most vocal in criticizing the President as of late, blaming Obama's "naivete" for not seeing Russia's move on Crimea.  I guess the only thing Rombo knows how to do is run for President, after having spent so many years on the campaign trail.  Obama had a terse response for Romney, when these accusations were thrown at him by an ABC reporter.

Of course, Vladimir Putin doesn't have to deal with such an adversarial press or national assembly, and his approval rating is sky high in Russia following the annexation of Crimea.  Yet, on the world stage, Obama is still the most popular leader, with a median popularity twice that of Putin.  I know that whatever doubts there were concerning Obama's leadership in Eastern Europe have been erased almost over night with his quick response to the Ukrainian crisis.  Even Polish leaders, who were notably miffed when Obama scrapped the missile defense system, have praised him in recent weeks for his assertiveness in boosting NATO presence all along the Eastern European borders.

This leads one to ask if Republicans even read world headlines?  It seems they live in some kind of echo chamber where they only hear what bounces back from their own mouths.  Of course, the conservative blogosphere only amplifies this sound, refusing to fact check any of these assertions.

Meanwhile, the President continues being the President, meeting with world leaders in the Hague and stopping by to visit the Pope in the Vatican, which is probably what rankles Republicans the most, especially Mitt Romney who obviously feels he is better suited for these responsibilities.  Even David Brooks had to admit Obama has handled the Crimean crisis quite well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Where Waco Went Wrong



There were little more than a handful of survivors of the Branch Davidian sect that fateful day in 1993 when the US government laid siege to their Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas.  For most Americans it is an ugly chapter long forgotten, but for Clive Doyle it is a set of very painful memories that needed exorcising in a book, A Journey to Waco.

Malcolm Gladwell summarized the book in his lengthy article for The New Yorker  , showing sympathy for Doyle and this branch of the Seventh-Day Adventists that Doyle became a part of.  It's probably more than most people want to read as it is hard to fathom the millennial nature of these Protestant Christians, who focus so heavily on the Book of Revelations, preferring to find support more in the Old than in the New Testament.

Seventh-Day Adventists appear to seek comfort more in the Book of Moses than the New Testament, and in this sense share a spiritual chord with the Mormons, which they believe set them apart from other Christians.  You may ask why they just don't become Orthodox Jews, especially since one of their beliefs is that one of the Lost Tribes of Israel ended up in America and that they are the spiritual descendants.  However,  the Seventh-Day Adventists are one of the many branches of Protestantism that flourished in America, particularly after the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, when William Miller founded Adventism and Joseph Smith Mormonism.

Gladwell notes that the particular branch of Adventism that David Koresh subscribed to grew out of the early 20th century, when a "prophet" named Victor Houteff tried to bring Adventism even more in line with Old Testament teachings, feeling the faith had lost its moral compass.  He founded Mt. Carmel in 1934.  He tried to bring his new found religion back to his native Bulgaria, but wasn't accepted into the national socialist movement.  This led him to wander far and wide, even to Australia, where a young Clive Doyle became mesmerized in his teachings, and eventually found his way to Waco.

The story reads like something out of a Stephen King novel with these "Millennials" seeking a spiritual home in waiting for the Apocalypse.  Koresh appears like one of the characters out of The Stand, able to draw the congregation to his unique interpretations of the Bible and proclaiming himself "The Lamb of God."  He convinced those around him that they were living in the "Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse."  Doyle firmly believed as did the others, and they gave themselves fully over to Koresh of their own "free will."

Gladwell spends much of the article on the siege and the inability of FBI negotiators to understand the depth of the Branch Davidians faith.  This is when James Tabor, a Biblical scholar, came in and tried to reach out to Koresh on his own terms rather than those set by the FBI and ATF, which had made a bloody mess of the situation.  As Gladwell noted, there had been ample opportunity to arrest Koresh away from the compound before the siege as he frequently came into Waco, and many of the Mt. Carmel congregation lived and worked in Waco.

Tabor was finally able to reach some kind of agreement with Koresh but the FBI was too impatient to wait another two weeks for the latter-day prophet to write his statement and rushed the compound.  The tragic result was the death of over 70 parishioners, including more than 20 children.  A totally senseless act that probably did more to embolden the "Millennial" movement in America than any other single event.  It served as the inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, who with the help of Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City two years later, killing 168 federal employees.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The President's End-Run



Apparently, Obama's decision to designate a 1600-acre nature preserve a national monument was the last straw for Utah representative Rob Bishop, who has sponsored a bill that would revoke much of the 1906 Antiquities Act and end all future executive decisions when it comes to designating federal lands.  It is hard to understand why this particular parcel is so contentious given that only last year the House voted unanimously to add Point Arena to the California Coastal National Monument but the measure has dragged in the Senate.

It's not likely that this "No More National Parks" bill will pass the Senate, but it isn't stopping House Republicans from fomenting on the runaway executive authority the President has been using of late, essentially "punking" the House.  If there is anything the majority Republican House can't stand it is the President doing an "end-run" on this hallowed hall of Congress, to use Rep. Bishop's nixed metaphors.

It's not like Obama has been declaring national parks each month.  The last time he did so was a year ago in honor of Harriet Tubman and Colonel Charles P. Young, both of which got support from prominent Republicans.  But, designating land is another story, especially when there are other interests involved, in this case hunting, fishing and off-road vehicle use, which most likely would be prohibited under a new management plan.  You simply can't have the federal government imposing its authority on good citizens.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Let me articulate this better



It would seem the Republicans want desperately to reach out to a broader audience, especially those Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2016, but it seems that at every turn they stick their proverbial feet in their mouths.  Case in point, Paul Ryan trying to address the issue of poverty:

 "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work."

The Wisconsin Congressman seems to view poverty as a matter of choice, fostered by years of welfare subsidies,  an all too common GOP refrain.  Apparently in an effort to appeal to women, Ryan placed the onus on inner city men, which carries with it rather obvious racial repercussions.  But, in this case Ryan apparently felt he didn't articulate his point properly and that his personal views on the subject were misinterpreted by the mainstream press.

This isn't the first time a Republican has had a problem with articulation. It seems these good folks would like us to think their heart is in the right place, but after decades of sponsoring corporate subsidies, tax breaks and just about everything else to lure industry into their states, addressing poverty is proving a bit difficult, especially for a political party that never took the issue seriously to begin with.

Republicans seem to think there are plenty of jobs out there but that Americans are simply unwilling to work.  They don't take into account all the civil service jobs they cut, particularly in a state like Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker ushered in draconian budget cuts, adding tens of thousands to the unemployment lines.  The much vaunted private sector simply doesn't have enough meaningful jobs for all those former civil servants.  Meanwhile, schools find themselves having to make do with depleted staffs as the number of kids in the classrooms haven't shrunk accordingly.

It seems Republicans are trying to steal a page from Bill Clinton and pitch the old mantra, "I feel your pain," as they try to reach out beyond the GOP rank and file, which has been ardently against social welfare programs, the entire government for that matter.


The odd thing is that food stamp use and other forms of social welfare are highest in "red states."  In fact, many red states, particularly those in the South, take more out than they pay into the federal government, essentially making them welfare states. Despite all the hue and cry about FEMA, when there is a natural disaster you don't see red states rejecting federal emergency relief assistance.  They only object to it when some other state is getting it.

It would seem that Republicans recognize government as a necessary evil and are even willing to pay some lip service to social welfare programs, but in the end they still think poverty is a matter of choice, as witnessed in the food stamp surfer, who purportedly turned down an 80K job (offered by Sean Hannity) to live the Life of Reilly at taxpayers' expense on California beaches.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Winter of Discontent


Doesn't seem like much to talk about
It would seem we are on the brink of a renewed Cold War as both the United States and Russia have issued travel bans against well-recognized politicians and businessmen.  Both sides have scoffed at the bans, notably John McCain, who wears his ban like a "red badge of courage" for having stood up against the Soviet Union, er I mean Russia, for so many years.  However, the latest move to suspend G-8 meetings until the political situation changes is a much bolder move.

There are talks of economic sanctions.  The US has few ties with Russia, but then the sudden sell-off of over $100 billion in government bonds by Russia and China did raise some concerns.  I suppose this was in response to the hit the ruble took these past few weeks as Russia made its move to annex Crimea.

Russia has a strong emotional stake in the Crimea, and you might even say a cultural stake in the peninsula.  It has long been a popular Russian tourist destination and over the last two centuries numerous Russians have settled in the Crimea, essentially taking over the peninsula.  So, it came as little surprise that over 95% of "Crimeans" voted to secede from the Ukraine and become part of the Russian federation.  However, the Crimean Tatar community, which has a much longer relation to the peninsula, sat out the vote.

What is surprising is the brazen way in which Vladimir Putin orchestrated this move, inspiring awe by some American politicians, former Mayor Giuliani, while scorn from others, our dear Senator McCain.  No sooner does the ash settle from the protests in Kiev than Putin sends in military forces to back the breakaway "republic" of Crimea, which had stormed the local parliament, and immediately put this "independence" referendum on the table.  The West didn't even have a week to relish its political victory in Kiev before all attention turned to Simferopol.

The Russian literary legacy is steeped in references to Crimea from Tolstoy's battle pieces from Sebastopol to Chekhov's classic novella A Lady With a Dog, but go beneath the surface of all these literary evocations and one sees that Russian presence in Crimea only dates back as far as the 1850s, the time of the Crimean War.  Sure, Russia had annexed the peninsula a few decades earlier, but it wasn't until after this famous war that Russians began to settle the peninsula in mass, driving out ethnic Greek and Tatar communities.

I suppose if you wanted an American equivalent it would be Texas, which we seized from Mexico about the same time, and has recently expressed secessionist thoughts of its own, although I doubt it wants to return to Mexico.  Crimea became as heavily Russified as Texas became "Americanized," although with a distinct southern pecan flavor.

Putin striking his best John Wayne pose
Putin's brashness is not much unlike that of Rick Perry, although Putin seems the more shrewd of the two, knowing better when to pick his fights.  They've both been in power about the same length of time, but Putin has no intention of stepping down.  There is talk of doing away with the consecutive two-term limit in Russia so that Putin won't have to use Medvedev as a filler, much like George Wallace used his wife, Lurleen, in Alabama to rule the state for two decades.

The Russian president continues to use the thin guise of democratic government to impose his autocratic control over the nation.  Given the emotional chord Crimea has with most Russians, he is able to get away with it.  Even the last Soviet premier Gorbacev praised the move, and he is normally a very sharp critic of Putin.  Fact of the matter is that most Russians see all of the Ukraine as an extension of themselves, which is similarly steeped in literary references, notably Gogol's Taras Bulba.  Gogol was born in the Ukraine, but like many Ukrainians had mixed blood and swore his allegiance to Russia.

If history has taught us anything, it is best to keep Russia at arm's length, at least politically.  We don't need to ratchet the current crisis into a full blown Cold War, but at the same time it is important to send Mr. Putin a message that the US will not sit idly by while he pushes at his boundaries, "protecting" the rights of Russian minorities in other countries, especially with other ethnic Russian enclaves now contemplating similar referendums like the one we saw in the Crimea.

It is also important to differentiate between the autocratic government in Moscow and the Russian people, who are being whipped into an emotional frenzy much like George Bush was successfully able to do with Americans in the wake of 911 and carry out unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama has kept a cool head, unlike his Republican adversaries and is targeting sanctions rather than lowering a wall in relations with Russia.  However, I'm sure his patience will be sorely tested in the months ahead, as he stages the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, using Russian transport corridors, which had previously been negotiated.

Meanwhile, Mackie will have to plan his trip to Yalta for some other time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Of Quarks and Man



One of the areas the US still excels in is theoretical physics, at least in terms of providing formidable research departments.  So, when a retired physicist learns that his theory on "cosmic inflation" is no longer just a theory, it is an immense reward for Andrei Linde.

Of course, this doesn't sit well for advocates of "intelligent design" who continue to discount the "Big Bang" theory and hold onto their belief that all things sprang from the hands of God in a divinely inspired moment.  Most of these ecclesiastical physicists (for lack of a better description) no longer hold to the straight creation story advocated by Ken Ham, but see the earth and the universe as stretching back millions if not billions of years.  In part, they do accept scientific findings, but prefer to fill in the gaps with divinely inspired notions.

This is particularly true of evolution.  These divine geneticists simply refuse to accept man evolved from apes, and were particularly upset with Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent episode of Cosmos where he delved into the theory of natural selection.

Tyson has been ruffling feathers for years and has taken it a step further by reviving Carl Sagan's Cosmos, on Fox television no less.  Seems Murdoch and friends don't mind adding fuel to the fire of the so-called "debate" by having the science side presented without the intrusion of "creationist" hecklers.

Tyson is charismatic and brash, not afraid to brawl with the deniers.  He also has the ability to reduce complex scientific theories to layman terms, manning the helm of his cosmic voyager like Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise as he takes viewers on a bold new voyage.


Like Sagan, Tyson also feels it is important to pitch the big ideas, seizing on young persons' imaginations.  I'm not sure if the simple cartoons work very well given the CGI movies kids watch these days.  The show should definitely beef up the graphics if it plans on holding teenagers' attention.  However, it was an excellent introduction using the artificial selection of dogs over the millenia since the Ice Age to illustrate how breeding is a form of evolution.

Most important Tyson appears to be making an impact, judging by the strong reactions to his show.  Nice to see "intelligent design" on the defensive for a change.  Here's Tyson pitching Cosmos on Colbert Reports.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Battle Pieces




For those who can't get enough of the Civil War, The Library of America now offers the complete set of chronicles (four volumes) compiled by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Brooks D. Simpson, and Stephen W. Sears.  This ambition undertaking started in 2011 and now numbers over 3000 pages of letters, diary entries, speeches, articles, legal opinions, poems and songs from the tumultuous years 1860- 1865.  The Final Year, edited by Dean, is due out April 3.

Each volume takes in roughly a year of the war, starting with the eve of Lincoln's election in  November 1860 and ending with the proclamation of emancipation in Texas in June 1865.  Along the way, the reader is treated with such diverse participants as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, George Templeton Strong, as well as numerous first person accounts by soldiers on both sides of the war.

It should make for a great reference, although you can probably find most of these accounts on line these days, as there are vast Civil War archives easily accessible on the Internet.  The photo above is of a Union private at Fort Benton, Missouri, and is from the Liljenquist Family Collection on display at the California African American Museum.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A very questionable bellwether



It would seem that the Republicans are placing a lot of weight on the recent Florida Congressional Special Election where their man, David Jolly, beat Alex Sink in a race that apparently was largely over "Obamacare."  It seems Democrats had high expectations, but prevailing conservative attitudes won out. Rep. Bill Young, a Republican who passed away last year, had represented the House district for decades.  However, Obama had carried the district in 2012, and so Republicans take this as an important victory.

Robert Gibbs, Obama's former press secretary, talked about another "wave election" like in 2010 that swept Democrats out of the House, which this time could wash away the Democratic control of the Senate.  There are some signs of worry for Democrats, but Scott Brown's much talked about bid for the New Hampshire senate seat seems a bit overblown, as Brown is viewed as little more than a "carpetbagger" in the Granite State, and I doubt could mount a serious challenge, but I guess once you've had a taste of the Senate, it is hard to go back to normal life.

Like much of this early election talk it is mostly speculation, and one House race is little to hang your hat on for a political party that has shot itself in the foot repeatedly since its sweeping electoral mandate in 2010.  It has lost a number of key elections, including the governor race in Virginia last year.

Then there is Kentucky, one of the states where the roll out of the Affordable Care Act has been successful, thanks largely to Gov. Beshear, who has actively promoted the ACA.  This doesn't bode well for Mitch McConnell, who finds himself in a very tight race with Allison Lundergan Grimes.

But, the Republicans scored the first significant win of 2014 and I guess that's what counts most in this election year.  For the record, Jolly edged out Sink by less than 2 percentage points, but close doesn't count except in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Crazy like a fox


Ailes with Count Murdoch

According to a recent book, The Loudest Voice in the Room,  Roger Ailes parlayed his experience at NBC into Fox News, thanks to the deep wallet of Rupert Murdoch, who was willing to underwrite this venture in the formative years, 1996-2002.  Ailes had a dispute with the conservative NBC top brass over the newly launched MSNBC and pitched the idea of a 24/7 news channel to Murdoch, who didn't seem to need much convincing.  Murdoch put $200 million behind the network, essentially buying space on cable that gave Fox News an early advantage.  That was all Ailes needed to reach his intended audience -- a disgruntled, largely white elderly electorate who didn't feel they were getting the straight news from the existing broadcast news providers.

Gabriel Sherman meticulously charts Ailes' rise to power, and how the media news mogul has both helped and hurt the GOP, notably in his insistence to present highly contentious political figures that don't reach across the political spectrum.  For Ailes, it doesn't seem to matter as long as Fox remains King of the News Hill.  Sherman describes Ailes as having enter the King Lear phase of his life, himself 72 years old.

Much of Ailes' success has come from seeing news as entertainment, essentially co-opting the conservative radio format of volatile pundits and opinionated news anchors who are guaranteed to incite reactions.  He initially teamed up with Joseph Coors in a failed bid to launch a similar cable news network, but the timing wasn't right back in the 70s, and he seized his opportunity in 1996 when things went sour with NBC.

Looking a bit like Hitchcock with Baba O'Reilly

He has turned radio shock jocks into television celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (who oddly enough started out at CNN).  According to Sherman, Ailes set the tone, offering a distinctive format that was unheard of on television before 1996.  He even gave television news the "crawler" at the bottom of television screens.  It seems there wasn't a detail Ailes didn't overlook.

Alas, this highly volatile form of news that had stood Republicans in good stead for almost two decades, seemed to blow up in their faces in 2012 when they failed to unseat Obama after one term in office.  Ailes had literally made it his mission to defeat Obama by putting just about every would-be GOP presidential candidate on Fox's payroll between 2008-2012, starting with the feisty Ms. Palin.

Sherman says it was this media overload than killed the Republicans.  Their early hit in the 2010 midterms, when the Republicans were able to take back the House failed to materialize in a 2012 national victory, largely because their brand of news does not extend far beyond its narrow viewer base.  This led the RNC to ponder afterward if they should rethink their strategy, relying less on demagoguery and more on a softer message that might lure back some of the women, Hispanics and Asians they lost to Obama and the Democrats.

Rove and Bush: the early years

Unfortunately, the GOP is still letting the windbags call the shots, largely because they now have so much pull that even a master strategist like Karl Rove finds himself odd man out, despite having been the only man to engineer a successful Republican presidential victory in the last 22 years.

The book is probably more than most anyone can take, but the review by Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books gives you all the pertinent details.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Reconciling Lincoln



Despite recent attempts to embrace Lincoln by conservative politicians and pundits, it seems most conservatives still don't consider Lincoln one of their own.  Probably the most vociferous Lincoln basher is the outspoken Judge Andrew Napolitano, who believes Lincoln was a tyrant, greatly overstepping his executive authority during the Civil War to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  At least the Judge shows a sense of humor in "The Weakest Lincoln" segment of a recent episode of The Daily Show.  You'll love Eric Foner on the historians' panel, helping to correct some of the Judge's bolder assertions.

Of course, the Judge's view is nothing new.  Democrats were very much against Lincoln's executive order at the time, rallying against Lincoln in the 1864 election, where former Union General George McClellan (best known for his cold feet in the early stages of the war) ran against Lincoln.  It seems many 19th century Democrats were perfectly content with the status quo.  The Republicans had formed as a predominantly abolition party and had won their first Presidential election in 1860.  It was a seismic shift in the body politic, with the Republicans controlling Congress when the Dixiecrats seceded from the Union.

Not surprisingly, Northern Democrats were anxious to restore Southern voting rights once rogue states were readmitted to the Union, notably Tennessee, the first Confederate casualty of the Civil War.  This was why Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, as his running mate in 1864.  As fate would have it, Lincoln won the election but lost his life, vaulting Johnson to President for the duration of his term. Johnson fought the Radical Republicans tooth and nail over Reconstruction, surviving an impeachment attempt in 1867.

Lincoln's legacy has been disputed ever since.  John Hay's biography of Lincoln, first published in 1890, probably did more than any other single volume to establish Lincoln's reputation.  It also helped re-assert progressive values in the Republican Party, which had been drifting to the right ever since Lincoln.  Teddy Roosevelt cited Lincoln as his prime inspiration while serving as President.

But, not all Republicans shared the President's view, and were glad to see him step down in 1908, resulting in the much more malleable William Howard Taft as the GOP nominee.  Roosevelt tried to reclaim the party in 1912, but lost a Republican nomination bid and subsequently ran as an independent candidate, much to the chagrin of the GOP.  Wilson won the election, and the Democrats seemed to absorb much of the progressive agenda that had formerly been the Republican agenda, except for the Southern Democrats who continued to hold to the old conservative Democrat positions, especially when it came to civil rights.

Oddly enough it is the Republicans of the 1920s that conservative politicians and pundits tend to extol today, notably "Silent Cal" Coolidge, who Amity Shaes offered high praise for in her recent biography.  Most historians tend to rank these Republicans at the bottom of their polls, while Lincoln remains firmly at the top.

To Dixiecrats, the GOP was still the Party of Lincoln.  However, they found themselves increasingly at odds with a Democratic Party that grew ever more liberal during the Depression years.  It wouldn't be until after the passage of the monumental Civil Rights legislation of 1964 that the Dixiecrats began their exodus to the Republican Party, which no longer seemed to identify itself with Lincoln, but rather with Barry Goldwater, a firm advocate of states rights.

It wasn't like Goldwater turned his back on Lincoln.  He positively cited Lincoln in his 1964 GOP nomination acceptance speech.  But, Barry's opposition to the Civil Rights bill earned him many friends among Dixiecrats, notably Strom Thurmond, one of the first Democrat-turned-Republicans, who campaigned for Goldwater in the Deep South.  Goldwater won five Democratic Southern states in the election.

Goldwater may have been an unwitting accomplice to the realignment of political parties that would occur in the subsequent decades.  He spoke out strongly against the religion that was creeping into politics and I don't think would have embraced the radical conservative views we see in the Republican Party today.  Especially its enmity toward Lincoln, which we so often see expressed by the likes of Napolitano.  Yet, there are still those Republicans, notably the Log Cabin Republicans, who identify themselves with Lincoln, but alas there isn't much room for gays and lesbians in today's Republican Party either.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

No Regrets



I have to admit I hadn't heard of Tom Rush before seeing a copy of a concert CD/DVD, Celebrating 50 Years of Music, on my amazon page, so I had a listen on Grooveshark and very much liked what I heard.  Here's The Circle Game.  He is one of those figures I should have known about given his influence, but it seems he has kept a relatively low profile over the years, playing with various groups, who support him in this concert.

Last year, also saw a documentary on him that premiered at the New Hampshire film festival, with Rush on hand to play a few songs after the screening.  You can find clips of the documentary and festival appearance on Youtube.

It really is amazing the urban folk music legacy we have in America, and that so many young persons are tying into it again.  Rush was one of the key figures of the 60s.  His 1968 No Regrets is one of the standards of the era and has been covered several times, including by Emmylou Harris on her album Bluebird, which is where I first heard the song.

The Geritol Network



According to the Nielsen ratings the median age of a Fox news viewer is 68, leading liberal pundits to dub the network a "retirement community."  Yet, this is a network whose pundits have consistently assailed so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, which most senior citizens rely on to get them through their golden years.

Frank Rich goes onto note some of Fox News's other woes in this op-ed piece, notably its failure to reach a young market despite feisty young anchors like Megyn Kelly, who gave us the contentious White Santa story back in December.  Rich doesn't let rivals off the hook, who picked up the story and ran with it, essentially allowing Fox to set the tone for what passes for "news" on television these days.

MSNBC, CNN and other cable news providers don't have a very young audience.  Their median age viewers are 62 and 64, essentially splitting the elderly vote, as Fox viewers exceed those of these two networks combined.  It seems where Moderates and Liberals have a number of choices as far as news is concerned, Conservatives have only one, so Fox is able to seize a big chunk of this demographic.

Younger viewers apparently rely more on the internet for their news than they do cable television, which explains why the Democrats have embraced the internet as their principal medium.  This has been reflected in recent elections, where the Democratic voter base has helped swing key races, such as the governor's race in Virginia, which by all accounts should have gone to a Republican, but Cuccinelli was too far-right for most Virginia voters to stomach.

Cooch was actually a pretty young guy (45) but his campaign played straight into the Fox nation narrative, which led Frank Rich to ask, why not let Fox continue its assault on America's intelligence, as it doesn't seem to be greatly influencing elections these days?  Rich notes that since 1996, when Fox News was launched, it has only managed to get one President in the White House, and probably wouldn't have succeeded in this if it wasn't for the questionable Florida ballots of 2000.

Fox has certainly helped to sway state and local elections throughout the country, but even when we look at Congress, Republicans have essentially split the chambers with the Democrats since 1996.  They haven't been able to gain the stranglehold they hoped for when they briefly controlled both chambers of Congress from 2002-2006.


So, this vast "echo chamber" of conservative values that Fox news has generated has failed to make a significant impact on the broader viewing market.  It seems that all they have been able to create is a protective "cocoon" for a mostly elder audience who still yearns for a pre-laptop era when Reagan was king, Geritol was popular, and key issues were presented in simple terms.

It just maybe that Fox News has run its course ; )



Monday, March 10, 2014

Blowback



I watched part of Fair Game the other night.  It came out three or four years ago and tells the story of Valerie Plame, as played by Naomi Watts.  Sean Penn plays her husband, Joe Wilson.  Not the best movie in the world but fills the viewer in on some of the particulars surrounding the controversial leak of Plame's CIA identity by Robert Novak, which he regarded as "no great crime."  Many felt it was a vengeance hit for Wilson's criticism of the Iraq War.

Wilson had been a hero back in 1991 for staring down Saddam Hussein, as he harbored American citizens in the US Embassy awaiting exfiltration, or whatever the CIA calls it.  Seems he and his wife worked in concert in a number of covert cases, and they provided valuable intelligence to George H.W. Bush during the Persian Gulf War.

But, when Wilson did not play in to Dubya's war in 2002, he became much reviled in the White House and among conservative pundits, especially when he said to the New York Times that he felt many of the allegations leveled at Hussein's regime had been exaggerated, including buying nuclear material from Niger.

Novak claimed he was just filing a story on the Niger connection, and that the White House had not said that revealing her name would endanger anyone.  He was the only journalist to publish her name.  Other journalists had deferred to the White House's request not to reveal any sources.

Wilson was livid and went on air decrying Novak, as well as Karl Rove, who he believed to be behind the leak in the White House.  It became known as the Plame Affair, and gained widespread notoriety when the lovely Ms. Plame was exposed in the CIA leak hearings which followed suit.

Valerie and Naomi
Naomi Watts was certainly a good casting call, as was Sean Penn as Joe Wilson, but somehow the film wasn't able to capture the urgency of the situation.   The only person to face any charges was Scooter Libby, who many felt served as the fall guy for Karl Rove.   Bush later commuted his 30-month sentence.

Plame parlayed her experience into a book, which the movie was based upon, and has since become an author of espionage thriller, Blowback, following the spy Vanessa Pierson.   She reportedly signed a 7-figure contract for the initial book, along with other lucrative deals, making her a celebrity in her own right.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

It's that time of year ...



Oh, the Horror!  Once again Conservatives have gathered together to bitch and moan about Obama as if he is the reincarnation of Soviet socialism in America, spouting off one damn fool thing after another in what they  call the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Numerous comments jump out like the one from Rick Perry who thinks he has the magic formula for success by pushing ever lower taxes, claiming his Texas is growing faster economically than any other state in the Union.  Of course, no one bothers to fact check any of these outbursts, least of all Conservatives who clap like a bunch of trained seals in the audience.  Texas is an impressive fourth in economic growth in the country, but Oregon and West Virginia are both ahead of the Lone Star State with (gasp!) Democratic governors, and California, which he denounced, is in the Top Ten and may very well get the first high speed rail in the country.

But, Perry wasn't alone in making absurd comments.  Ted Cruz stood up and claimed Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney all lost their Presidential bids because they didn't fully embrace conservative values.  He seemed to forget that when George W. Bush ran in 2000 he promoted "compassionate conservatism," not this rabid race-bating crap we see today in the Republican party, eking out a dubious victory that pried open the door for the radical conservatism so much on display.

Bush did much better in 2004 (62 million votes), but Mackie and Romney polled 59 and 61 million votes respectively, so there didn't seem to be any appreciable fall off in the conservative electorate.  Obama had enough popular vote (69 million and 65 million) to beat Bush both times.  So, one can assume it is just the opposite, it was McCain and Romney catering to the rabid right in the primaries that left both GOP nominees virtually no middle ground to work with in the general election.

Not to be outdone, Huck extolled the virtues of Vladimir Putin. The political tele-evangelist said the new Russian emperor is not the least bit worried what we think about him.  Then why, Huck, does Putin continually deny Russia has no troops in Crimea?  This despite a steady convoy of military trucks crossing the border into Crimea.  If he is oblivious to our criticism then surely he wouldn't be making such pretenses?  Jon Stewart has great fun with this newfound conservative love for Putin in his segment, Big Vladdy.

It really makes you wonder how anyone can take any of these persons seriously.  Yet, there was the Human Hair Piece boldly predicting the Republicans would take the Senate this Fall.  Of course, Trump offered a similar prediction back in 2012 and the GOP ended up losing two seats.  Wouldn't it be sweet if this year one of those lost seats is Mitch McConnell's chair.  He strode into CPAC waving a rifle over his head, apparently evoking the specter of Charlton Heston.  This is the sorry state to which the Republican Party has devolved.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Star is Born




It seems just about every year a new star is born out of the Academy Awards.  Last year it was Jennifer Lawrence.  This year it is Lupita Nyong'o.  Of course it helps to be young and beautiful, but one can look back and find male actors who emerged from the Academy Awards as full blown stars like Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade). Thornton won for Best Screenplay, although he was nominated for Best Actor.

If you go back even earlier, most persons never heard of Meryl Streep before The Deer Hunter.  As the story goes, it was De Niro who had spotted her in a summer theater group and introduced her to Michael Cimino.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and won the following year for her supporting role in Kramer vs. Kramer.  Since then she has garnered a record 18 nominations, winning three times.

But, this was an unusual year in that Lupita wasn't the only newbie to win.  Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won for their first ever nominations from the film, Dallas Buyers Club, which really seemed to strike a chord with the Academy.  I was rooting for Michael Fassbender, who I think is one of the best actors of his generation, and turned in a mesmerizing performance as a plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave.

For Lupita, the sky now appears to be the limit.  She has quite an international upbringing, ranging from Kenya to Mexico to the United States, and is being heralded for her poise and style much like Grace Kelly when she emerged on the international stage.  Funny enough, Grace's first big movie was Mogambo, set in Kenya, but she didn't become famous until after her work with Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, in 1954.



As for Jennifer Lawrence, last year's darling, she now has major competition, but she seems like a good sport and I wouldn't be surprised if Hollywood tries to pair these two young women in an upcoming movie, as it would be a sure bet at the box office.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Our Man in the Middle East



In The Good Spy, Kai Bird tells the tale of CIA superspy Robert Ames, who many believe best understood the Middle East.  Unfortunately, he died in a bomb blast outside the US embassy in Beirut in 1983,  Surprisingly, there hasn't been much written on Ames, and google searches yield little in the way of information, so this book will no doubt shed a considerable amount of light on him.

It seems the biography came out of the research on a previous book, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, which covers the period 1956-78 in the Israeli-Arab conflict, in which Bird grew up.  The reviewer described it as a "meandering family scrapbook cobbled together with an earnest, condensed history of the region," whereas The Good Spy appears to be more deeply researched, like his and Martin Sherwin's biography of Oppenheimer.  The book is due out in May.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black Orpheus



For Carnival fans this is the big night.  I suppose Barack Obama could have picked any number of films to highlight his relationship with his mother, but he chose Black Orpheus, a movie that tells the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice during the time of the Carnival in Rio.

The movie was a little before Obama's time, but it was in the mid 70s that he recalled his mother taking him to a showing in New York.  He treated the film as a window on his mother's soul, helping him to explain his mother interest in black men and why she chose to marry his Kenyan father.  I suppose we all need explanations especially when our parents are not always forthcoming.

Obama has referred to this film several times, including his visit to Brazil in 2011.  I think Pan-American leaders were hoping for more out of Obama these past five years.  There were a lot of expectations raised when he attended the Organization of American States (OAS) conference back in 2009, and he never really lived up to them.  The US relationship with its fellow American states is cordial but not overly so.  No sooner does it appear that Obama makes an in-road into a hot spot like Cuba or Venezuela than it becomes quickly closed off.  We still seem to view Latin America in the same terms we saw it back in 1959 when this film first came out, and ironically when Fidel Castro first came to power.

Still from "I Am Cuba"
A few years later another classic film came out, Soy Cuba, a remarkable evocation on the Cuban independence movement, as told by Mikhail Kalatozov.  It begins with Havana high life in the days before the revolution and then shifts to the sugar plantations to show the oppressive conditions most Cubans lived under during the Batista regime.  It is pure Soviet propaganda like the Eisenstein films of old, but is absolutely mesmerizing to watch.  It too is a love story not that far apart from Black Orpheus, which probably had an influence on Kalatosov.

It seems Latin America is still a mystery to many of us.  We tend to view it in exotic terms, as Obama did in his reveries of that visit by his mother and half sister in New York.  I suppose that's because most US citizens visit the other America only for vacations, usually hedonistic ones.

We continue to see Latin America as a threat to our peace and security, and it doesn't help when Russia stirs the pot by doing naval maneuvers off the cost of Venezuela.  Surprisingly, Obama and Bush before him have said very little about Russia's military assistance to Venezuela and Bolivia.  There's even talk of building naval bases in Latin America.  In light of Russia's incursion into Ukraine, I imagine we will see the US take a stronger stance.

Marpessa Dawn with Marcel Camus
But, Latin America is not some black void on which to project our fantasies as Marcel Camus did, and especially not our nightmares as we did during those tense 13 days in October, when the world's attention focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Brazil is one of the 20 most powerful countries in the world, and strong trade relationships are coveted by both the United States and Russia.  But, it seems the indelible images of Black Orpheus live on.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Window on Russia



"After the Russian army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama's reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence – the kind of response that would only encourage Russia's Putin to invade Ukraine next," she said in Reno, Nevada on October 21, 2008.

The media appears to be fully enjoying Sarah Palin's seemingly prophetic words from 2008.  the only problem is that Obama wasn't President then, George Bush was, and it was he, not Obama, who chose not to act against Russia's invasion.  But, to be fair, George Bush was in the midst of an economic collapse so we can pardon him for having other things on his mind.

Once again, the media has made Palin into a celebrity.  Virtually every news outlet is running the story, and Sarah is positively glowing in the limelight.  Why, she might even seriously consider a presidential run in 2016 now that her foreign policy creds have been significantly enhanced.  

McCain in Ukraine
Of course, she's not the only Republican saying "I told you so."   John McCain is similarly looking smug on the talk show circuit.  The unrepentant Cold Warrior has long had a hard on for Russia and sees Putin's latest incursion as proof we have underestimated Vlad the Conqueror's  broader ambitions.  He was particularly hard on Obama when the President scrapped the missile defense complexes in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Mackie felt was the only deterrent we had in place against Soviet, I mean Russian, aggression.

Before we have too many "I told you sos," here was Romney just one month ago telling the world that Putin has "outperformed" Obama on everything from Syria to the handling of Eric Snowden, and praising the Russian president's handling of the Winter Olympic games.  Romney wasn't the only Republican praising Putin.  Here is Pat Buchanan extolling Putin just three months ago.  In fact, many Republicans side with Putin when it comes to social conservative issues, particularly Vlad's stance against gay marriage, leading Jason Jones to ponder the parallels in one of his amusing segments Live from Sochi-ish.


But, here we are with Vladimir Putin once again public enemy number one for having the gall to invade Ukraine, ostensibly to protect Russian nationals in Crimea.  On a more serious note, Stephen F. Cohen recently told Fareed Zakaria that Russia is only protecting its geopolitical interests, and the US would do the same if American nationals were threatened in Canada.  I did say serious didn't I?

Here you have the two extremes.  An off-the-cuff statement by Palin five years ago, and a recent academic appraisal of the situation by a NYU professor in Russian studies.  Of course, the conservative press is jumping all over Cohen's statements, but the professor is a well-respected conservative who advised President George H.W. Bush.  

The Crimean standoff
Meanwhile, Obama is discussing with world leaders the best economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia.  We are told nothing is off the table short of war, which essentially has already been declared.  John Kerry will be traveling to Kiev to provide moral support to the new government in Ukraine, but it seems that Crimea may have been irrevocably severed, and at best only some kind of face-saving gesture can come out of this. As Bob Gates noted, Putin is sitting in the catbird's seat.

The real corker is that the same Republicans who opposed an attack on Syria back in October, which was aimed at bringing Russia to the negotiating table (as it was the country supplying Syria's arsenal) are now saying that Obama didn't act strongly enough, among them Bob Corker.  You really have to marvel at all this wiggling and squirming in an attempt to make Obama look weak.

I guess the only question is what would Sarah Palin have done?  It doesn't seem like she really offers any plan of action in her rambling statements on Fox News, too proud to go very far beyond her bold prediction five years ago.  It's hard to take anything she says seriously, but that seems to be what the "lamestream" media is doing.