erik lundegaard

Sunday November 30, 2008

Torture to Watch

Last week Patricia and I, Seattle’s fun couple, watched a couple of documentaries before Thanksgiving. The first, Alex Gibney’ s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” won the Academy Award last year, while the second, Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure,” is one of 15 docs up for the prize this year. Neither is pretty.

“Dark Side” uses the incarceration and subsequent death of an innocent Afghani taxi driver while in U.S. military custody as the starting point to examine our entire post-9/11 system of torture and humiliation — specifically at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It’s a good overview of what will surely be one of the blackest marks of the many black marks on the Bush administration. For some, of course, the mark isn’t even black, but this doc should give pause to proponents of torture, as well as to regular viewers of “24” — where the efficacy of torture in extracting accurate information is regularly dramatized.

Morris’ film is more focused and creepier. He trains his eye on Abu Ghraib, on what was done there, on the photos that were taken there, on what they say or don’t say and how they lie or don’t lie. He interviews, almost exclusively, the various “bad apples” who forced Iraqi prisoners to debase themselves. It’s beautifully shot, but claustrophobic and so sad about human nature. What people can convince themselves to do — particularly when ordered to do so. What they can convince themselves of afterwards. A few small apples were scapegoated for our unethical system, and their main defense is the Nuremberg defense: I didn’t know any bettre; I was just following orders. They also blame the photographs. They blame the evidence rather than the crime. It’s as if being scapegoated for the crime is keeping them from examining their role in the crime.

I’m not sure what happens when we stare into those faces as they justify their actions, but it’s definitely uncomfortable. Would we have done the same in their situation? Are they us? The tawdriness of the enterprise is overwhelming. Maybe it says something that the talking head who is least culpable — who was not even a guard at Abu Ghraib, but who wound up in the background of some photographs and was prosecuted based on that evidence — blames himself the most. Maybe that’s something the rest of us could begin to emulate.
No tagsPosted at 11:35 AM on Nov 30, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Oscar Watch — The Carpetbagger

The Carpetbagger (aka David Carr) is back in the NY Times and his first column on this year's Oscar race contains his usual mix of fun, breezy writing, industry gossip, celebrity details (Kate Winslet wears size 11 shoes, which makes Patricia, same, happy) and throwaway personal info (“the Bagger has been on the circuit on your behalf, enduring abundant buffets and spurning proffered cocktails...”), but mostly he's good at taking the Oscar race both seriously and not-so-seriously. He's also got his early picks for Best Picture noms in more or less this order of likelihood:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire
Revolutionary Road
The Reader
Gran Torino

Buzz must be strong. He agrees on the first four with EW — same order and everything — but has more doubt about “Doubt,” which slips to sixth, overtaken by “Milk.” He also adds two more quiet somber films, “The Reader” and “Gran Torino,” instead of the noisier films “Dark Knight” and “Australia.” We'll see. That is, we'll see these films when they arrive. Six of the eight are December releases. But so far it hasn't been a great best picture year. So far this year, so far this decade.

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Posted at 10:33 AM on Nov 30, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Saturday November 29, 2008

Oscar Watch — Entertainment Weekly

In the latest issue EW lists their front-runners for the Best Picture nom in order of likelihood:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire
Revolutionary Road
The Dark Knight

We'll see how things play out. Interestingly, "Slumdog" made no. 2 before its Mumbai locale became the top news story of the week.

Of the eight, I've only seen, um, one: "The Dark Knight." Hoping to see "Milk" and "Slumdog" this weekend. Racked my brain for other, deserving movies that should get nom'ed and came up with zilch.

No tagsPosted at 02:58 PM on Nov 29, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Two-Minute Review: E.L. Doctorow's “Creationists”

E. L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is ordered chronologically — from an essay on Genesis to one on the bomb, or from the beginning of the world to its possible end — and these essays tend to get more interesting the closer Doctorow gets to his own time.

I’ve found this to be true for his novels as well. I love The Book of Daniel (1940s to 1960s) and Ragtime (early 1900s), and like well enough, but have read only once, the trio from the 1930s: Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate. But once E.L. went into the 19th century he lost me. I barely made it through Waterworks (post-Civil War) and couldn’t get into The March (Civil War). It's as if the 19th century stilts his prose.

Most of the essays here weren’t written as essays anyway. Some were written as lectures and some were written as introductions to classic texts (Tom Sawyer) or afterwords to less-than-class texts (Arrowsmith), and I often felt something was missing. What’s missing is their context, or the primary text to which they’re supposed to relate, and to which Doctorow is silently alluding. They’re less essays than addenda; they don’t have legs to stand on.

Still, as I said, the closer Doctorow gets to our own time the more interesting he becomes. The stuff on Poe and Stowe? Drags. Melville, too, though I was amused that he writes about Moby Dick (“The surpise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is...”) in the sane way that I wrote about The Book of Daniel (“What a surprise that some of the forgotten lines of my life are in here...”).

Yet Doctorow did make me want to read Dos Passos and re-read Kafka. He made me want to see more Arthur Miller plays:

...among the protagonists of these plays, there are those incapable of self-reflection who choose rather to destroy themselves...and those who undergo the crisis of self-revelation and find some means of stumbling on. ... But there are no easy answers. ... Lyman Felt says “A man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both.” That is one tough line and it could not be uttered in a facile moralistic tale.

He’s particularly good on Kafka’s Amerika, in which Kafka learned, according to Doctorow, that his characters needn’t travel anywhere to be trapped. But he’s best outside of literature: on Einstein and his genius — which prefigures Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions on the communal context of creativity — and on the bomb: the why and the how and the oops of it, and the difference, in layman’s terms, between the A- and H-bomb. The A-bomb exhausts its own chain reaction, which limits its destructive power. “The H-bomb has no known limits,” he writes.

I don't get Doctorow's fascination with the 19th century but he keeps drifting further and further back into it. Note from the 21st century: Come back, E.L. You're needed.

Posted at 01:12 PM on Nov 29, 2008 in category Books   |   Permalink  
Friday November 28, 2008

Scientific Quote of the Day

“Think of science as a powerful searchlight continuously widening its beam and bringing more of the universe into the light. But as the beam of light expands, so does the circumference of darkness.”

—Dr. Morris Meister, Principal of the Bronx High School of Science when E.L. Doctorow was a student there, and quoted in E.L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays: 1993-2006.

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Posted at 11:22 PM on Nov 28, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

...And I Feel Fine

Interesting group of trailers before "Quantum of Solace," by the way. It was nice seeing the "Star Trek" trailer on the big screen rather than this screen. It was nice seeing those original uniforms, and hearing those sound effects, and I liked the allusion, at the end of the trailer, to the show's original opening chords. They kind of sound like the notes of greeting in "Close Encounters," don't they? Never thought about it before.

Then we got trailers for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Watchmen" and "2012." The first is about the end of the world, the second is about the end of the world, the third is about the end of the world.

I sense a theme.

No tagsPosted at 02:47 PM on Nov 28, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Thursday November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I know what I'm thankful for. It happened exactly 23 days ago.

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Posted at 08:26 AM on Nov 27, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Two-Minute Review: Quantum of Solace (2008)

Went to see “Quantum of Solace” last night and there were so many quick-cuts in the first two minutes I felt like Grandpa Simpson: Whuzzat? Hoozat? Whassaguy? There were probably more quick-cuts in those two minutes than in all of “Dr. No.” An old complaint, but the movies keep moving away from a story-telling form to a mere sensory delivery mechanism. The point isn't to know who's in which car which is going where but to experience life as faster and more thrilling than it can ever be. “James Bond,” in a way, has never been more superfluous.

SPOILER ALERT. “Quantum” got mixed reviews (65% on Rotten Tomatoes), which isn't a surprise. The surprise is that so many critics liked it. “Casino Royale” was a good movie, a classic reboot, but this thing is just noise. Bond has become the terminator. Does he ever sleep? He wounds now but the wounds don't seem to hurt. And what exactly to make of the plot? This organization (Quantum?) winds up controlling most of the water in Bolivia in order to...double the price of water. Basically they're Standard Oil. They monopolize a product and then raise the price of the product.  A far cry from SPECTRE. Dominic Greene seems the leader of this organization but turns out to be just another flunky. And why should Bond leave him in the desert when he could take him back to MI6 and extract information out of him? What happened to delivering the bad guys to justice rather than torturing them in some random way?

Nice Goldfinger homage with Fields. Great Jeffrey Wright cameo. (For the first time, I wanted to see the Felix Leiter movie more than the James Bond movie.) And Daniel Craig on the motorbike looked more Steve McQueen than ever.

BTW: Did he ever sleep with the Bond girl? I forget. Isn't that awful? I should know but it didn't even register. Someone needs to slow these things down before they become movies for mosquitoes. 

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Posted at 08:25 AM on Nov 27, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday November 26, 2008

Debating our National Story

More suggestions from readers on the “American epic” front, including “Hawaii,” “Big Country,” “Gods and Generals,” “Gettysburg,” “Cold Mountain,” and (from me) “Raintree County.”  You can read more here. None would be good enough for my Top 5, or, really, my Top 10, although maybe “Cold Mountain.” If you went that route. If it mattered.

It doesn't. Lists like these, if they're done carefully, are attempts to order the messiness of our culture, but mostly they ignore the larger questions they raise.

I went into the piece, for example, thinking we don't make American epics anymore, but we do, to a certain extent. At the least, we make shorter versions of epics — sans overtures, intermissions and entre’acts. What we don't do is go see them. And even if we do, the epics don't leave the kind of mark on our culture they used to. “Dances with Wolves” was probably the last to do so. The question is why.

I would argue that it has less to do with a general disinterest in our country's history than a general disagreement on what that history is or means. We no longer agree on our national story.

In the past, films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” could sub for our national story, but each has a casual attitude toward slavery and its aftermaths, and, for each, the triumph is not the removal of the great stain on our nation but the South rising again after the stain is removed — either individually, like Scarlett, who would never be hungry again, or collectively, like the Klan in “Birth of a Nation,” who are essentially our first superheroes, a team of Lone Rangers riding to save the virtue of white women from carpetbaggers and freed darkies. That was the lie we told ourselves 100 years ago.

We’ve grown, as a country, but we haven’t been able to take our national story with us. We haven’t been able to dramatize it. We’ve only been able to dramatize it abroad, where the enemy was clear (“Saving Private Ryan”) or ourselves (“Apocalypse Now”). But at home?

The great battle within the United States in the 19th century was the Civil War, which was the subject of a ton of movies. They’re still turning them out. From this decade: “Cold Mountain” and “Gods and Generals.”

The great battle within the United States in the 20th century was the civil rights movement, which has been the subject of... what? “Mississippi Burning”? About white FBI agents?

How much has Hollywood, this supposed bastion of liberalism, ignored the civil rights movement? This much: No theatrical film has ever featured, as the main character, an actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr. None. On the other hand, the same could be said, in the era of talkies, about George Washington, so one wonders how much racism, or at least monetary calculations involving race, play a part. You know they do, you just don’t know how much. And if, in an era of Will Smith and Barack Obama, things are changing.

Or are we shying from the epic because we no longer believe the lies we once told ourselves to create such national stories as “Gone with the Wind”? Rather than a misty, nostalgic eye, we keep casting a cold eye upon our past: “There Will Be Blood,” for example.

Others may argue that the multiculturalism of the United States — and the insistence on recognizing each, specific culture and its contributions, however small, to our society — disallows a national story, but I don’t agree. You can find the universal in the specific — that’s the best place to look — and you can find the American-ness in the ethnic story. Just look at “The Godfather.” No movie’s more Italian, no movie’s more American.

I’d be curious to hear what stories, fictional or not, that seem to reflect some aspect of our national story (whatever that is), people would like to see made into movies. There is an epic, I know, to be made out of the civil rights movement. Someday, someone will do it. And if they do it right, people will come.

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Posted at 09:30 AM on Nov 26, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Tuesday November 25, 2008

Is "There Will Be Blood" an Epic?

In the great battle for the American epic, an astute reader suggests "There Will Be Blood."

Once again, here are the parameters I gave for an American epic:

I define “American” as about Americans and set in America; I define “epic” as long (150 minutes of screen time, 5-10 years of onscreen time), grand, nostalgic, and with a hard-to-define “sweeping” element.

So "TWBB" is about Americans and set in America. It's 158 minutes of screen time and over 10 years of onscreen time. It's grand. It "sweeps."

Is it nostalgic?

Not really. It doesn't mourn the loss of that time — for either us as a nation or those people as characters. Doesn't mean it's not an epic; it's just not an epic by these parameters I've set up.

Which raises the larger question: Does an epic, by its nature, have to be nostalgic? Many of them are but do they have to be? Another adjective, which I didn't use in the above description, is "romantic." Epics are often romantic — see: "Un long dimanche de finacaille" or "A Very Long Engangement" — and "TWBB" isn't that, either. It's harsh. It's brutal. So are "The Godfather" movies, but those films also seem romantic and nostalgic to me. There was a nostalgic tone to both Little Italy, and to the Corleones at the height of their familial power — when Vito controlled, with judgment and respect, when Michael was an outsider, when the family was together. Coppola romanticized his Corleones. They were big and grand and almost everyone against them was racist in some fashion. When you went against the Corleones, you almost always had to spew a racial epithet; then you got yours. Nothing like that in "TWBB."

But my definition of "American epic" is just that. Mine. It doesn't mean much beyond that — particularly if it doesn't make sense to you. The American Film Institute, for example, defines an epic this way:

...a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past. Their scope defies and demands—either in the mode in which they are presented or their range across time.  

By their definition, which involves no specific time parameters, or inclusion of nostalgia, "TWBB" would be an epic. Maybe it is.

But even if I'd included "TWBB" in the discussion, I doubt it would've made my top 5. Unlike some people, many people, I was disappointed in that film. Maybe my hopes were too high when I first saw it. I recognized its artistry but it felt limited — nothing resonated beyond the screen for me. By the time we knew the main character he was already morally lost. It was in seeing him act immorally that we finally knew him to be immoral. But what we don't know, and what the film doesn't help us with, is whether he was always this way or became this way. Since we don't what he was, we don't know what was lost.

Writing that out, one wonders if that's not a truer definition of humanity than the nostalgic, Edenic one we cling to.

Regardless. The main point of this post is to raise the question that has been gnawing at me for the last month: Just what the hell is an epic anyway? You may choose your parameters, as I did, but dissatisfaction always seeps through, as it has for me.

No tagsPosted at 08:47 AM on Nov 25, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Monday November 24, 2008

Ann Patchett on Philippe Petit

Yesterday the New York Times Magazine had one of their year-end thingees in which they asked wide-ranging and head-scratching whozits (Ken Layne; Starlee Kline) to comment upon their favorite wide-ranging and plugged-in yadda yaddas (“7 Things”; Grand Theft Auto IV) of 2008. The world is getting away from us, or from them, and this is an attempt to both bring it all together and show that the New York Times Magazine is still hip. It somehow has the opposite effect.

One bit I liked: author Ann Pachett's take on James Marsh's documentary about Philippe Petit, “Man on Wire,” which I wrote about here and here. You can read Ann here, about halfway down.

I never did get around to writing about the doc myself, which I saw in August. Conventions got in the way, then campaigns, then elections. In Minnesota, they're still getting in the way.

Not much to add to Ms. Patchett. I like her comment about the intersection of recklessness and precision. Put another way: to be gloriously reckless you have to be precise. These guys were. Petit was.

What a time. Imagine a group of foreigners huddled together, plotting and scheming for months and years, and bringing in their equipment from foreign lands in order to do something to the Word Trade Center. In their case it was to celebrate it. Petit loved it at its birth. We only got there at its death.

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Posted at 08:42 AM on Nov 24, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Saturday November 22, 2008

The Unsexiest Cover

I got turned off, immediately and ironically, by Entertainment Weekly's latest cover story, "The 50 Sexiest Movies Ever."

It's not the picture. Who doesn't love and lust for Kate Winslet? It's the fact that four movies are mentioned on the cover — Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Notebook, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and, most prominently, Little Children — and none of them was released more than 10 years ago.

The list is worse. Of the 50 films, only five were released before 1980. The list is weighted for race, for sexual preference, but hardly at all for history. For shame.

As for the list itself? It's easy to disagree with whatever choices anyone makes in this kind of thing — people do it to me all the time — so I'll just mention the ones I absolutely agree with: Out of Sight, Body Heat, Bull Durham ("Oh my"), Y Tu Mama Tambien (their no. 7; I'd have it higher), The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Seven Year Itch, Mulholland Drive (Paul Allen? Seriously?), Swimming Pool, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Secretary.

Oh yeah, and the car-washing chick from Cool Hand Luke. Puttin' em on here, boss.

No tagsPosted at 03:32 PM on Nov 22, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Friday November 21, 2008

On Meeting Stan Lee in 1975 — or — Another Practically Priceless Blog Entry in the Mighty Marvel Manner

A belated shout-out to Marvel Comics Everything Stan Lee who was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal at the White House a few days ago.

I met the man once, back in the mid-1970s, when he was promoting Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics, and my father, a journalist for the Minneapolis Tribune, interviewed him for what was then called the “Variety” section of the paper. The interview took place at a fancy restaurant in downtown Minneapolis and my brother and I were allowed to leave class early (I was 12) to attend the back-end of it.

I think I was disappointed when I first saw him. He wore dark glasses in a dark restaurant and he had a moustache and a loud and brash manner. He seemed like a villain on a cop show. Not sure what I thought he'd look like. Reed Richards? Peter Parker? Me?

Stan Lee, Spider-Man and the Hulk

But he turned out to be about the nicest famous person I've ever met. First, he let us sit in on the interview. Then when the interview was over, he didn’t turn off. I don’t know if he had an “off.” He invited my brother and I over and brought us out. He drew a cartoonish Captain America holding a banner up to his nose —like Kilroy — and on the banner he wrote: “To Chris and Erik. Excelsior! Stan & Cap.” Below it he added, in that great mix of irony and braggadaccio he had: “Another practically priceless Stan Lee original!” He signed our books. He gave us nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner. “To Charismatic Chris,” he wrote in Chris’ Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics. “To Erudite Erik” he wrote in my copy of The Origins of Marvel Comics. The first thing I did when I got home was look up “Erudite” in the dictionary.

I stopped collecting comics in the late '70s and I don't know what happened to my autographed Origins of Marvel Comics, but I still have the Cap drawing.

My father's article on Stan Lee, by the way, wound up on the back page of the “Variety” section, where they put the unimportant stuff. That's how comics were viewed back then. Now, though actual sales are way down, the presence of comic books is everywhere. As you know.

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Posted at 04:24 PM on Nov 21, 2008 in category Superheroes   |   Permalink  

Whatever Happened to the American Epic?

I’m writing a piece for MSNBC about American epic movies — to coincide with the release of the Aussie epic “Australia” — and I’ve included the films not in my top 5 below.

Some parameters. I define “American” as about Americans and set in America; I define “epic” as long (150 minutes of screen time, 5-10 years of onscreen time), grand, nostalgic, and with a hard-to-define “sweeping” element.

Of the films eliminated from competition, most simply weren’t long enough: “Duel in the Sun,” “East of Eden,” “Bound for Glory,” “Days of Heaven,” “Superman,” “Glory,” “Goodfellas” and “Far and Away” are all under 150 minutes of screen time. “Nashville” involves only a few days of onscreen time and is only a minimalist kind of grand and isn’t set in the past. “America, America” is mostly set in Greece.

Some I just forgot about until it was too late — “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Aviator,” “Wyatt Earp” — but of these only “Earp” (the Costner version) had a chance of making my top 5. I like that film. I know. I’m one of the few.

The films below, which fit all of the above parameters, didn’t make my top 5 for other, usually aesthetic reasons. From the discards you can may be able to guess my top 5. I just know I’m ready to watch some short movies again.

Giant (1956)
Sorry, but James Dean is all wrong for (dopey name) Jett Rink. Or maybe I’m just no longer interested in this kind of method acting: all its mumbles and pauses. Say your line! Move the story along! Whatever Jett is feeling, I don’t feel it. When he’s young and sober in the beginning, he doesn’t seem much different from when he’s old and drunk in the end. Meanwhile, Rock Hudson feels too Midwestern to play (dopey name) Bick Benedict. John Wayne, one of the actors originally mentioned for the role, would’ve worked, but then you would’ve had less of a love story. I can’t imagine a moon-eyed John Wayne on the train trip back home, for example, but I can imagine Wayne as Bick and Robert Mitchum (another early choice) as Jett. Wow. Talk about giants.

You really have three stories in this one movie. The first, and, to me, the most intriguing, is the fish-out-of-water story. Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) marries for love and is transplanted from the rolling greenery of Maryland to the flat, empty dust of Texas, where, trying not to wilt, she clashes with Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), for some measure of control of the ranch. This part ends, more or less, with the death of Luz. The still shot of the ranch, where the riderless horse slowly limps into frame, is exquisite.

The second part of the movie wanders in the wilderness. Leslie works with the Mexicans, against her husband’s wishes, while their son, Jordy, projects interests (doctoring) against his father’s wishes. Mostly we’re just waiting for Leslie and Bick to break up or stay together (they stay together), and for Jett to strike oil or die trying (he strikes oil).

The third part, after the intermission, concerns the Benedicts’ increasing irrelevance in the Lone Star state. They still own half a million acres but they’re made to feel small by jet-setting oil barons like Jett. A confrontation is inevitable — particularly given Jett’s interest in Leslie, which he sublimates into an interest in Leslie’s daughter — but the confrontation, when it comes, fizzles. Instead we get more sublimation. Bick fights, not Jett, but Sarge at Sarge’s Diner, where, despite the Benedict name, Bick’s Mexican daughter-in-law and half-Mexican grandchild are barely allowed to stay but other Mexicans are forced to leave. Bick loses. This battle feels right. In the beginning, Bick cautioned his wife against even talking with Mexicans, but, by the end, he defends his new bi-racial family against bigots like Sarge and Jett, even though, or because, he’s full of the same bigotry himself. Back at the ranch, he admits his grandson looks like “a little wetback.” Shocking to hear today, but that’s part of why it feels right. And maybe this is how things change. What we don’t want to become ours, becomes ours, and we’re forced to defend it. Amazingly, the diner confrontation prefigured Greensboro and Nashville by 4 to 5 years.

But the editing. What’s with the long, unnecessary pauses — particularly in the bed-time conversations between Bick and Leslie? The editor is William Hornbeck, one of the most acclaimed ever (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Place in the Sun”), and whose style was eclectic and served the needs of the story and director. So...was it George Stevens? Who knows? All I know is that from the beginning the movie seemed to be trying to say something meaningful about where we came from, the myths we tell ourselves, the east-west battles we fought and are still fighting:

Leslie: We really stole Texas, didn’t we? From the Mexicans.
Bick: You’re catching me a bit early to start joking, Miss Leslie.
Leslie: But I’m not joking, Mr. Jordan.
Bick: I’ve never heard anything as ignorant as some eastern people!

A great American story is here. It just gets lost in the vastness of Texas and epic filmmaking.

How the West Was Won (1962)
It’s certainly epic. It was made during an era of epics, when the film industry was trying to distinguish itself from its bastard cousin, TV, by making everything big and long. This thing is so big it required three directors to finish and contains almost every genre Hollywood created: the western, the musical, the war picture. Its all-star cast includes Gregory Peck and John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, even if the movie itself focuses more on the less-interesting Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard.

It begins during a time when there was land for the getting but you had to get there. A family of Quakers, led by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden), head west down the Ohio river and run into the usual problems: first, river pirates, whom they escape with the help of mountain man Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart), and then rapids and waterfalls. These kill Zebulon and his wife but their deaths leave their daughter (Carroll Baker), named, of course, Eve, determined to set up shop exactly there. “This is far as they got,” she says. “Seems to me this is where the Lord wanted them to be.” Amen. She also stills the restless spirit in the mountain man, who joins her, but younger sister Lil (Debbie Reynolds) continues on to St. Louis, where she’s part of a musical hall act, and then on further west with the wagon trains, which are attacked by Indians. En route to San Francisco, her heart is broke by gambler Gregory Peck.

Meanwhile back at the farm, the U.S. Civil War is starting and Eve’s son, Zeb (Peppard), is hot to follow in his father’s footsteps and go. He does. But youthful enthusiasm is quickly extinguished in the Battle of Shiloh, and he’s in the act of going AWOL with a Reb (Russ Tamblyn) when they happen upon Generals Grant and Sherman (Harry Morgan and John Wayne). The Reb tries to kill Grant but Zeb stops him. Then the war is over, mother and father are dead, and Zeb heads further west with the railroads, who are breaking treaties with the Indians. Eventually he becomes a marshal. We get an old-fashioned railroad robbery stopped by Zeb, who has become the law in what was once lawless. The final shot is what all that struggle was for: the modern L.A. freeways.

What a mess.

In 1962 we were beginning to seriously question our various Manifest Destiny myths, but the film, while admitting to some broken treaties, mostly goes hokey. And it never even raises the most basic questions of all. Why our restless spirits? Why this need to go? Eve, unknowingly, says it best: “Half the people that come west don’t make much sense, I reckon.” This is the movie for them.

Ragtime (1981)
Read the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Its epigraph is from Scott Joplin — “Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast” — but you can’t help but read that novel fast. It moves.

The movie, which can’t collapse years into a sentence, or represent desperation and yearning as succinctly, loses a lot. It loses the better part of Tateh’s story, which, in the novel, is so sad and desperate that when he finally sells that silhouette cartoon book in Philadelphia, it become a moment of pure joy — as opposed to the ho-hum moment in the movie. Mostly it loses that great interchange between historical and fictional people that made the novel so unique. No J.P. Morgan here — except for his N.Y. mansion. No Henry Ford — except for his Model “T.” No Emma Goldman. No Kaiser. No Houdini.

Does “Coalhouse” Walker dominate the novel? I think he does, but not much. He dominates the movie but should’ve dominated it more. Howard E. Rollins is so handsome, has such life, and what happens to him is so awful that is sears into the middle of the movie, obliterating all else. His revenge is awful, too, particularly as viewed through a post-9/11 prism. (It also makes one wonder why there weren’t more Coalhouse Walkers in the days before MLK. No caves to hide in, probably. No neighboring country to hide in, probably.) And check out the members of his gang. You’ll see both a young Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison (“The Wire”).

The “Coalhouse” centerpiece works. The rest gives us an OK glimpse into life from the turn of the last century, and all of the forces at work that would make the century, for good and ill, what it was. But read the novel.

The Color Purple (1985)
Most epics are nostalgic, such as “Gone with the Wind,” which was nostalgic about, of all things, slavery. Steven Spielberg understands he’s making an epic with “The Color Purple,” based upon the best-selling epistolary novel by Alice Walker, and so the film has a sweeping, nostalgic tone. Yet what is the film nostalgic about? We get sweeping shots of this beautiful farm...right before Mister tries to sexually molest Celie’s sister. Ah, the good old days.

Maybe the film should’ve been grittier, tighter, less epic. Maybe it should’ve started out in black-and-white and eventually, as Celie grew and came into her own, expanded its palette. Instead Spielberg went epic, and nostalgic, and celebrated a time when the protagonist had very little to celebrate. Celie’s babies are taken from her, her sister is taken from her, she’s married (but not married) to a man who despises her, forced to mother horrible children to whom she’s not mother, forced to lay beneath a man who “does his business” when she feels nothing. Mister keeps from her (yet, oddly, does not destroy or even open) the letters Nettie sends her from Africa. He’s a horrible man yet comic. He’s predatory one moment, clownish the next. The film resolves none of these dichotomies. It veers between pathos and slapstick.

The main storyline I remembered from my first viewing, years ago, involved Oprah Winfrey’s Sofia. There’s tragedy there: How a mighty spirit is beaten down. We have less patience for Celie. She’s a mostly mute, internal character, which is why she works in a novel but feels blank on screen.

The last half-hour drags. Mistakes are made. It was a mistake to bring in Mister’s father to help explain Mister. It was a mistake to resolve, or even bring up, Shug’s father issues. (In a world where fathers rape their step-daughters, who cares that one father ignores his willful, jazz-singing daughter?) It was a mistake to juxtapose the African knife-cutting ritual with “shaving” Mister. It was a mistake to spend so much time in Africa. It was a mistake to redeem Mister.

Mostly, it was a mistake to make “The Color Purple” an epic.

Pearl Harbor (2001)
I’ll give Michael Bay this. The biggest box office hits of all time — “Gone with the Wind,” “Titanic,” “The Sound of Music” — concern a woman choosing between two men against a backdrop of historic tragedy, and that’s what he tries to give us with “Pearl Harbor.” His movie made a few bucks, too: $449 million worldwide, to be exact, good enough for 84th place on the unadjusted list. And dropping.

But it’s an epic for yahoos. The two men, Rafe and Danny, Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, are both countrified flyboys who don’t exist beyond these rather narrow parameters. Rafe is cocky, Danny quiet, but that’s the extent of their personality differences. Hell, it’s the extent of their personalities. They just want to fly. Let them. The woman who has to do the choosing is also without personality. They give her the name Evelyn Johnson. They make her a nurse and a lieutenant. In the beginning she’s oddly spunky, overdosing Ben Affleck’s backside, but even this trait disappears under the weight of sudden love. Does she even do any choosing? She falls for Rafe first but he dies in England. Then Danny appears and they make love amidst the silkiness of parachutes. Then Rafe turns up alive but by this time she’s pregnant by Danny. “And then all this happened,” she tells Rafe, by which she means the Japs bombing Pearl Harbor. Surely one of the dumbest lines in movie history. As Anthony Lane wrote back in 2001: “I guess we should thank Michael Bay for so bold a revisionist take on the Second World War: no longer the clash of virtuous freedom and a malevolent tyranny but a terrible bummer when a girl is trying to get her dates straight.”

Everything is romanticized, glossy, in slow-mo, even (or especially) the destruction at Pearl Harbor. The film glorifies it, loves it. I’d say these scenes are like the probing of a wound, but it’s not our wound, it’s someone else’s wound, someone whose pain we don’t feel. We feast upon their anguish and call it empathy.

So “Pearl Harbor” is beyond bad; it’s morally repugnant. It glorifies two things it doesn’t feel: love and death. It takes stick figures and puts them in stick situations and calls it history. It’s a movie that will live in infamy.

Gangs of New York (2002)
They should’ve lopped off the opening battle scene. Warriors out of “Mad Max” following the Priest (Liam Neeson) into battle against the nativist elements of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis)? They even had a catwoman. How dumb is that? It’s supposedly historically accurate but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t look ridiculous. And a movie in this position can’t afford to look ridiculous.

Imagine, instead, the movie opening with Amsterdam (Leo) getting off the boat. That way we’d be wondering who he is — as he wonders who he is. We’d wonder what his connection with Bill the Butcher is — as he agonizes over it. And once we know, once we realize that Bill the Butcher killed his father, we’d wonder why he doesn’t take his revenge — just as he begins to. We’d be with him instead of twelve steps ahead of him.

As it is, we’re set up for a revenge flick when this is more a voyage of self-discovery. Amsterdam isn’t initially geared for revenge; he’s geared for survival. Sixteen years on his own taught him that. It’s only the return to the Five Points that begins to spark his need for revenge — and his interest in Jenny (Cameron Diaz), and her relationship with Bill, sparks it more than any stories about his dead father.

I do like the end. The backstory (U.S. Civil War, draft riots) overwhelming the main story (the gangs fighting for their turf). The Irish gang emerges pumped up for their fight but to a different world: an elephant being chased through NYC. You think this story is about you? It isn‘t. You’re about to be swept aside by history

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Posted at 01:33 PM on Nov 21, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Thursday November 20, 2008

15 Films Up for Best Documentary

The documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has already tightened the race for Best Documentary to 15 films. They are:

  1. Steve James and Peter Gilbert's death-penalty critique "At the Death House Door"
  2. Ellen Kuras' "The Betrayal," about the impact of 1980s U.S. military operations on a Laotian family
  3. "Fuel," Josh Tickell's examination of America's oil dependency
  4. "I.O.U.S.A.," Patrick Creadon's primer on the nation's fiscal crisis
  5. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's Hurricane Katrina chronicle "Trouble the Water"
  6. Errol Morris' Abu Ghraib thinkpiece "Standard Operating Procedure"
  7. Werner Herzog's visit to the South Pole, "Encounters at the End of the World"
  8. Gini Reticker's celebration of female peace activists in Liberia, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"
  9. Daniel Junge's true-crime account "They Killed Sister Dorothy"
  10. Roberta Grossman's "Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh," about a Hungarian-born Jew who fought to save her people during WWII.
  11. Stacy Peralta's "Made in America"
  12. Scott Hamilton Kennedy's "The Garden"
  13. Scott Hicks' "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts"
  14. Jeremiah Zagar's "In a Dream"
  15. James Marsh's "Man on Wire."

Check 'em out wherever you can. I've only seen two of the 15: "Man on Wire" and "I.O.U.S.A." The first was uplifting and beautiful; the second was scarier than all hell. And that was before banks starting collapsing.

I'm particularly interested in seeing the death-penalty critique. If the use of DNA evidence has taught us anything, it's that we sometimes arrest and convict people innocent of the charges against them. And the only reason we haven't yet found a case where an innocent man was put to death by the state (that is, by us), it's because the dead don't petition for a new trial.

No tagsPosted at 09:23 AM on Nov 20, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Wednesday November 19, 2008

DFMF Quote of the Day

"So, Barry. What have you brought me from America?"

I reached into my bag and pulled out one of the portable cassette players that I had bought for him [Abo] and Bernard. He turned it over in his hands with a thinly disguised look of disappointment.

"This brand is not Sony, is it?" he said. Then, looking up, he quickly recovered himself and slapped me on the back. "That's okay, Barry. Thank you! Thank you."

I nodded at him, trying not to get angry. He was standing beside Bernard and their resemblance was striking: the same height, the same slender frame, the same smooth, even features. Just shave off Abo's moustache, I thought to myself, and they could almost pass as twins. Except for...what?  The look in Abo's eyes. That was it. Not just the telltale redness of some sort of high but something deeper, something that reminded me of young men back in Chicago. An element of guardedness, perhaps, and calculation. The look of someone who realizes early in life that he has been wronged.

Barack Obama, visiting Kendu Bay in Kenya in the 1980s, in Dreams From My Father, pg. 384

No tagsPosted at 11:34 AM on Nov 19, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Monday November 17, 2008

All Hail King Albert!

So Albert Pujols of the fourth-place St. Louis Cardinals was voted the National League MVP today by the BBWAA. I'm a fan of not limiting the MVP to players whose teams made, or nearly made, the post-season, so I was a fan of the decision in that regard. Pujols' main competition, Ryan Howard of the eventual World Series-champion Phillies, came in second with 308 points. Pujols had 369. Close but not that close.

Rob Neyer has a piece suggesting other worthy candidates, including Lance Berkman, and I went to the stats to see what I could see.

First. The main argument for Howard is the gross numbers. He led the majors in HRs (48) and RBIs (146) but struck out a lot (199 times). The main argument for Pujols is the percentage numbers: .357 BA, .462 OBP, .653 SLG for a 1.114 OPS. Best in the majors. He also hit 37 HRs and drove in 116. Howard's percentages aren't lousy (.251, .339, .543 for a .881 OBP) but not MVP-calibre. Put it this way: Pujols' BA was higher than Howards' OBP. By nearly 20 points.

That's one thing I saw. Here's another thing, and this wowed me. I sorted by HRs, with Howard on top, and I was glancing to see what other homerun hitters struck out a lot: Howard (199), then Adam Dunn (164), then Carlos Delgado (124)... The next number stopped me cold: 54. Only 54 strikeouts for a homerun hitter? I looked over. Pujols. I looked down. None of the top 15 NL homerun hitters struck out fewer than 100 times. None. And Pujols struck out only 54. Plus he walked 104 times. 

Pujols is 2nd in the NL in walks and tied for 116th in strikeouts. 

Howard is tied for 13th in walks but 2nd in strikeouts.

Berkman? Fourth in walks (99) and 38th in strikeouts (108).

I know. Walks/strikeouts. Who cares? But it is indicative of who's the dangerous hitter, and Pujols' ratios are like Ted Williams' ratios. It's rare to find anyone in the majors these days, let alone a slugger, who strikes out fewer times than they walk. And a ratio of almost 2-to-1? For a slugger? Wow. 

This isn't the argument why Pujols deserved the MVP. Just interesting.

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Posted at 04:18 PM on Nov 17, 2008 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
Sunday November 16, 2008

New Yorker Quote of the Day

"At a Clinton event in Hampton, New Hampshire, a seventy-one-year-old woman named Ruth Keene told me that 'the Republicans would chew Obama up.'

"They tried like hell. They called him an élitist, a radical, a socialist, a Marxist, a Muslim, an Arab, an appeaser, a danger to the republic, a threat to small children, a friend of terrorists, an enemy of Israel, a vote thief, a non-citizen, an anti-American, and a celebrity."

—George Packer in his article "The New Liberalism: How the economic crisis can help Obama and redefine the Democrats."

No tagsPosted at 11:37 AM on Nov 16, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Saturday November 15, 2008

Quote of the Day

“The Rush Limbaugh attacks and other attacks from the far right generate a lot of heat but not much light.”

—Colin Powell, in “The Joshua Generation: Race and the Campaign of Barack Obama” by David Remnick, in the latest New Yorker

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Posted at 07:35 PM on Nov 15, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Friday November 14, 2008

David Grann on Why McCain Lost

I began David Grann’s New Yorker piece about John McCain, “The Fall,” in a magnanimous yet suspicious mood. What could Grann tell me about the campaign that I didn’t already know?

But as I read, I began to sense in John McCain (again) a tragic figure out of Shakespeare: The honorable man who once lost honorably (in 2000), yet who betrays that honor in order to try to win (in 2008). Worse, he betrays it with the same men who had dishonored him during his defeat. Worse, despite all he gives up, all he pretends to be in order to win, he loses. Badly. The dishonorable and divisive methods used to defeat him, are, when employed by him, part of the reason for his defeat. To get what he desires he becomes his enemy, but by becoming his enemy he is kept from getting what he desires.

Somewhere in Grann's piece I not only began to feel sorry for McCain but identify with him. Most of us lose in life more than we win, and, despite being a U.S. senator, McCain lost big. Twice. He knew 2008 was his last chance and he gave up everything for it.

In the process, because of all that he gave up and all that he pretended to be, long-time allies turned against him. William G. Milkien, former Republican governor of Michigan, who endorsed him in 2000 and again during the 2008 primaries, said in October, “McCain keeps asking, ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?,’ but what I want to know is who is the real John McCain?” Frank Schaeffer, son of the man credited with starting the religious right, who backed McCain in 2000, and for whose 2006 book “AWOL,” McCain offered a blurb, said the following, again in October, in an open letter to the candidate:

“If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as ‘not one of us,’ I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence. ... You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations.”

I’ve written about what McCain said about John Lewis during the final debate, and Lord knows I was pissed off then, but my anger softened when I read this:

Though McCain publicly called [Lewis’] accusations “shocking and beyond the pale,” a campaign aide told me that when McCain first heard Lewis’s remarks he sat in silence inside the campaign’s official bus.

So I was feeling a little sympathetic for John McCain.

Then Mark Salter opened his piehole.

Salter still doesn’t understand any of the criticisms of McCain and the way that he and Steve Schmidt (his Iago) ran his campaign. He accuses the press of a double standard that favored Obama. He fobs it all off on the “liberal media.” He brings up the few positives McCain did (his poverty tour, his town-hall suggestion) and all he didn’t do (playing the Rev. Wright card), and thinks that’s enough to demonstrate his candidate’s positive side — not bothering to explain away the reactions of Milkien and Schaeffer, let alone McCain’s own brother, Joe, who pleaded with the campaign to let McCain be McCain. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Where’s the old happy warrior?’ It was fucking crazy,” Salter says.

The best response to Salter is Grann’s next graf:

But many who hoped that McCain could modify his policies without sacrificing his identity felt that he had crossed the line. He surrounded himself with conservative economic advisers, such as Phil Gramm, a fanatical proponent of deregulation, and Jack Kemp, the apostle of supply-side economics. He called for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. He declared that the estate tax, which he, like Teddy Roosevelt, had championed, was now “one of the most unfair tax laws on the books.” ... [He] reversed his position on offshore drilling and endorsed the teaching of “intelligent design.” He disowned his own bill on immigration reform. Whereas he had once decried the use of torture under any circumstances, he now voted against banning the same techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that had been practiced against him in Vietnam.

This election won’t truly be over until the side that lost realizes why it lost. Yes, it was the economy. But it was also who was the stronger candidate, and who was the weaker. In Ryan Lizza’s piece on Obama’s campaign, in which Obama comes off as a tougher Chicago pol than people give him credit for, the “crucial moment” for many aides came way back in July 2007 when, during the YouTube debate, Obama said he would meet world leaders without preconditions. Hilary pounced. The aides worried. They were thinking about backing off, changing the subject, bobbing and weaving, when Obama, overhearing, spoke up:

“This is ridiculous. We met with Stalin. We met with Mao. The idea that we can’t meet with Ahmadinejad is ridiculous. This is a bunch of Washington-insider conventional wisdom that makes no sense. We should not run from this debate. We should have it.”

In Grann’s piece on McCain, here’s the key moment:

Just before the Republican Convention, McCain, who often seemed miserable in his new right-wing guise, tried to resurrect his former identity. He decided to choose as his running mate Joe Lieberman—a pro-choice Democrat who shared McCain’s views on foreign policy. The choice would have signalled both McCain’s independence and his return to a more bipartisan agenda. “He wanted Lieberman badly,” a McCain confidant said. But when leaders of the base threatened to challenge him at the Convention, McCain did the one thing that he believed a great politician never did. As the confidant put it, “John capitulated.

One candidate stood up to his aides, one didn’t. One candidate ran his show, the other let it run him. One won, the other lost — not just the campaign but himself. It’s tragic, yes, Shakespearean even, but only for the candidate, not for us. By losing, in fact, you could say John McCain finally lived up to his campaign’s motto: He put country first.

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Posted at 03:01 PM on Nov 14, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Baffling Republican Quote of the Day

More than halfway through David Grann's must-read piece in the post-election issue of The New Yorker, "The Fall," about John McCain and his disastrous campaign, Grann paraphrases McCain speechwriter and close aide Mark Salter:

In a recent conversation, Salter told me that at one moment the press was criticizing McCain for lacking a central message and the next was castigating him for not being spontaneous.

First, the media is not monolithic. More importantly, those two criticisms are not mutually exclusive — as the sentence seems to imply. One can have a central message and be spontaneous. Just look at Barack Obama. Unfortunately, McCain didn't have (a central message) and wasn't (spontaneous). The worst of both worlds.

No tagsPosted at 01:02 PM on Nov 14, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

007 for 2008

Has it been only two years since Daniel Craig first showed up as Bond, James Bond? I'm hoping to see QUANTUM OF SOLACE this weekend but in the meantime here's the stuff I did two years ago for MSNBC. First, a piece on the history of James Bond. My favorite graf — and apologies for quoting myself:

Bond’s goals with both villains and women were the same — to infiltrate the seemingly impenetrable fortress, make things explode and then get away — and many feminists thought him a misogynist. Yet if you look at the early films, sex is one of the ways Bond differs from his villainous counterparts. The bad guys were either clumsy around women, like Goldfinger, or asexual beasts in starched Nehru jackets, sublimating their sexual desires by repeatedly petting cats. The meta-message was that sex was good. As soon as it was denied, well, you began thinking up ways to destroy the planet.

Then there's the James Bond quiz: 25 questions in all. Fairly in-depth since I re-watched all of those 21 official James Bond films. How in-depth? I just re-took it and got a 24. (I missed no. 15 if you're keeping score.) So even the quizmaster can't master his own quiz. As Bond would say, "He always did have an inflated opinion of himself."

No tagsPosted at 11:22 AM on Nov 14, 2008 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Thursday November 13, 2008

Dan Savage Opens a Can of Whup-Ass

A lot of what I've been posting lately comes from Andrew Sullivan. As does this. The Prop. 8 vote is beginning to feel like a case of losing the battle and winning the war:


No tagsPosted at 10:39 AM on Nov 13, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  
Wednesday November 12, 2008

TDS: RIP? — Addendum

So the argument — jumpstarted, post-election, by Dan Kois — is that “The Daily Show” will have trouble with an Obama presidency because Jon Stewart and his writers are basically Dems who will have trouble mocking a Dem president. Certainly Bush provided a wider target than Obama, or anyone, will, but I've argued that Stewart's main target isn't really politicians anyway but the mainstream media and the effed-up way it portrays our world. 

As for the whole Dem thing, I suddenly realized — today — that the funniest thing I've seen on TDS in months, maybe ever, was the show's reaction to John Kerry's attempt to explain a “Depends” joke he made at the expense of John McCain. They spun it into its own mini-segment: “John Kerry Ruins Your Favorite Jokes.”

Patricia can back me up. When we were watching this, I could barely breathe I was laughing so hard. The good stuff starts at 3:30 in.

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Posted at 05:20 PM on Nov 12, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

When Bush Met Obama — 2004

Jan Schakowsky told me about a recent visit she had made to the White House with a congressional delegation. On her way out, she said, President Bush noticed her “OBAMA” button. “He jumped back, almost literally,” she said. “And I knew what he was thinking. So I reassured him it was Obama, with a ‘b.’ And I explained who he was. The President said, ‘Well, I don’t know him.’ So I just said, ‘You will.’ ”

— from William Finnegan's article, “The Candidate: How the son of a Kenyan Economist became an Illinois Everyman,” in the May 31, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. Recommended reading.

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Posted at 04:41 PM on Nov 12, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Hertzberg on McCain: 9/13/04

From the same column:

McCain—who in 2008 will be three years older than Reagan was in 1980—faces a different problem [than the moderate Republicans]. Though wobbly on gays, he is solidly anti-abortion and firmly in favor of the Iraq war. But it’s hard to see how he can ever win back the trust of the hard core.

As hard to see as Russia from Sarah Palin's backyard.

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Posted at 04:00 PM on Nov 12, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Hertzberg on Obama: 9/13/04

From a “Talk of the Town” piece: 

When Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic Convention in Boston, a lot of people thought—and hoped—that they were seeing the future. Half Kansas and half Kenyan, half black and half white, yet all-American in a novel and exhilarating way that seemed to transcend the usual categories, Obama, who on November 2nd will be elected to the United States Senate from Illinois, embodied and expressed a fresh synthesis of the American civic religion —one that fused not only black and white, and immigrant and native-born, but also self-reliance and social solidarity. “He represents the future of the party,” Stephanie Cutter, the communications director for John Kerry’s campaign, said by way of explaining why Obama had been chosen to deliver the keynote speech. And it is not hard to imagine circumstances under which, a decade or two hence, he might represent the future of the country as well.

Or sooner.

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Posted at 03:59 PM on Nov 12, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Reader Quote of the Day

"In Norway I live in a little town outside Oslo. Movies here are subtitled save for the Disney films directed at the children. They tried the dubbing thing with a TV series 10 years ago and there was a public outcry and it was stopped. "

— Reader and Bob Marley fan Badru, from East Africa
No tagsPosted at 10:33 AM on Nov 12, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Tuesday November 11, 2008

DFMF Quote of the Day

"Life is short, Barack," he would say. "If you're not trying to really change things out here, you might as well forget it."

—Community organizer Marty Kaufman to the future president in Dreams From My Father, pg. 229

No tagsPosted at 02:43 PM on Nov 11, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

The Best Argument for Gay Marriage

This is one of the best arguments I've heard in the battle for gay marriage, and it's just one sentence. Irony in it, too. One of the questions (whispered or otherwise) in the civil rights struggle was, "Yeah, but would you want your daughter marrying one?" It was the anti-progressive argument. Now it's the progressive argument. What gets whispered now is all that's implied in that question. Would you want your daughter involved in a marriage with someone pretending to be what they were not? Someone incapable of loving them fully? Lying to them — daily? There's an overwhelming sadness in it. The time lost. The lives lost. C'mon, people, wake the eff up. It's hard enough to do this without barriers.

No tagsPosted at 10:34 AM on Nov 11, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  
Monday November 10, 2008

Obama in '03: Mistaken for Waiter, Deemed Unworthy of Magazine Profile

Via Eric Alterman, the WSJ's Katherine Rosman has an account of meeting a young state senator at a literary party five years ago. At the time he was about to run for the U.S. Senate. He's now president-elect.

The punchline is that, back then, an author at the party mistook the future president for a waiter:

But what I will always remember is as I was leaving that party in 2003, I was approached by another guest, an established author. He asked about the man I had been talking to. Sheepishly he told me he didn’t know that Obama was a guest at the party, and had asked him to fetch him a drink.

Equally telling to me about the way the world works is the fact that Rosman, impressed with the young man, tried to pitch a story about him to a national magazine but got shot down. They weren't interested.

Obama? Apparently there was nothing to sell there.

Posted at 11:41 AM on Nov 10, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  
Sunday November 09, 2008


Sully points out some idiotic commentary, from Dan Kois and Joe Carter, on the future of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report during an Obama administration. Can they skewer a Pres. Obama as effectively as they did a Pres. Bush? Both say the fun's over. Kois indicates that Colbert will  overtake Stewart while Carter actually suggests replacing  Stewart with something for a “hip, young, right-leaning audience” and offers up Dennis Miller.


OK. Yes, it will be tougher for these two shows during an Obama administration. But what they skewer more than anything else is hypocrisy and there's still plenty of that to go around. There always will be. Start with the media. The best bits of The Daily Show have focused on the hypocrisy, or just the absolute stupidity, of many in the media, mainstream or otherwise, and that ain't going away. Kois' and Carter's inch-deep articles are testament.

As for the right-leaning audience thing? Republicans don't do comedy well. Sorry. Humor comes out of powerlessness, and, no matter who's in power, Republicans, by virtue of their wealth, are never out of power. There may be a Dem in the White House, but, in business and industry, it's Republicans who are still running things. Running them, I should add, poorly. Which is why we'll have a Dem in the White House in January.

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Posted at 02:59 PM on Nov 09, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Levittown Speaks

So NY Times reporter Michael Sokolove returned to his hometown of Levittown, Pa., on Election Day to find out how and why people were voting. Great piece. Read it in full.

Some might wonder how this differs from what Maureen Dowd does. The biggest difference is in the question itself: “Why are you doing what you're doing” vs. “How do you feel?” The latter is a lousy question even when it comes from a reporter and is directed at a championship-winning athlete, and it's positively abyssmal when it comes from two citizens partcipating in the same democratic process. It implies a separation (as between reporter and athlete) when there should be none. It also assumes that people within a generalized group (that is, African-Americans) fit the generalization (that is, support Obama), and Dowd's black bartender, a Libertarian, was one of 4 percent nationwide who did not fit this generalization. Oops.

Sokolove asks a real reporter's question (or a reporter's real question?) and gets great results. Why did this area, which went overwhelmingly for Hilary during the primaries, now go for Obama?

  • “McCain pointed a lot of fingers instead of giving answers,” Steve O’Connor, a plumber, told me.
  • “I don’t want a clone of George Bush,” Mark Maxwell, 47, a corporate chef, said. “With McCain, that’s exactly what we’d get.”
  • Said Lisa Winslow, a 20-year-old college student: “I’m not rich. I can’t afford to vote for McCain.”
  • Levittown is filled with a great many veterans of the Vietnam War, not all of whom served happily. “I didn’t want to be there when I was told to go,” said Frank Carr, 62, who recently retired from his shipping job in a corrugated box factory. “I know how the boys feel. I believe Obama is a man of his word.” When Mr. Obama says he is going to bring home the troops, “I believe him,” Mr. Carr said.

Sokolove then concludes smartly:

The people I met in Levittown were not on Mr. Obama’s e-mail list or among his donors, but they may be more likely than his younger supporters and more affluent ones to give him what he most desperately needs: time and patience. Like characters from the songs of one of Mr. Obama’s celebrity endorsers, Bruce Springsteen, many Levittowners have been weathered by life. They haven’t benefited from a lot of quick fixes. Others of his supporters say they’ll be patient, but I sensed these people really mean it. They were harder to sell, but they could end up being pretty loyal.

“How long did it take Bush to get us into this mess?” Mr. Carr, the Vietnam veteran, asked. “It’s a lot easier to screw things up than to make them better.”
Posted at 11:58 AM on Nov 09, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Maureen Dowd Sucks (Again)

I've been waiting for the Sunday Times since Tuesday evening around 8 PM (PST). Wasn't the first thing on my mind, certainly, but at some point I wanted to hear how Frank Rich, et al., reacted to Obama's victory.

Rich's main point is that we're a better country than we (and the Rovian Republicans) think we are. Thomas Friedman wants foreign leaders, giddy over an Obama victory, to remember to back Obama when things get tough: when we try to extricate ourselves from Iraq without collapsing the entire structure, or when we have to put pressure on Iran to keep them from developing nuclear weapons. Nicholas Kristof, echoing what I've long felt, wonders if Obama's victory is as much a victory for another embattled minority group, intellectuals, as it is for African-Americans. 

And Maureen Dowd? She begins her column not poorly:

I grew up in the nation’s capital, but I’ve never seen blacks and whites here intermingling as they have this week.

That made me want to read on. Until the very next sentence:

Everywhere I go, some white person is asking some black person how they feel.

I thought: Surely not everywhere you go. Surely there are white people in D.C. who realize how condescending that is. Surely there are white people in D.C. who are happy enough to bask in their own joy without probing into the joy of perfect strangers — as if an Obama victory went beyond their ability to understand or experience. As if it wasn't for them as well.

But Ms. Dowd finds them. Or at least writes about them. A white customer quizzing his black waitress. White women quizzing their black bartender. A white-haired white woman and a UPS delivery guy. Dowd herself and her mailman. Each instance involves a black service-person and a white customer. Nice. Where does she live again? Maybe she needs to get out more. Or further.

And the point of her column? It comes in the second-to-last graf:

But is it time now for whites to stop polling blacks on their feelings?

Yes. Yes it is, Maureen Dowd. 

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Posted at 10:54 AM on Nov 09, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Karim Sadjadpour Quote of the Day

“If you’re a hard-liner in Tehran, a U.S. president who wants to talk to you presents more of a quandary than a U.S. president who wants to confront you,” remarked Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “How are you going to implore crowds to chant ‘Death to Barack Hussein Obama’?"

—from Thomas Friedman's column "Show Me the Money."

No tagsPosted at 10:24 AM on Nov 09, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Frank Rich Quote of the Day

I recommend everyone read the entire column, but here (to me) are the highlights. It explains why we all felt so good Wednesday morning:

On the morning after a black man won the White House, America’s tears of catharsis gave way to unadulterated joy. Our nation was still in the same ditch it had been the day before, but the atmosphere was giddy. We felt good not only because we had breached a racial barrier as old as the Republic...

For eight years, we’ve been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid — easily divided and easily frightened. This was the toxic catechism of Bush-Rove politics. It was the soiled banner picked up by the sad McCain campaign, and it was often abetted by an amen corner in the dominant news media. We heard this slander of America so often that we all started to believe it, liberals most certainly included. If I had a dollar for every Democrat who told me there was no way that Americans would ever turn against the war in Iraq or definitively reject Bush governance or elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama president, I could almost start to recoup my 401(k)...

...Even the North Carolina county where Palin expressed her delight at being in the “real America” went for Obama by more than 18 percentage points.

The actual real America is everywhere. It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of “patriotism.” What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That’s not who we are.

So even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Obama said in February, and indeed millions of such Americans were here all along, waiting for a leader. This was the week that they reclaimed their country. 
No tagsPosted at 09:34 AM on Nov 09, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  
Friday November 07, 2008

Obama Quote of the Day - for Patricia

From the president-elect's first press conference earlier today. The economy, jobs, Iran, were all dealt with. Then this.

With respect to the dog, this is a major issue. I think it's generated more interest on our Web site than just about anything.

We have — we have two criteria that have to be reconciled. One is that Malia is allergic, so it has to be hypoallergenic. There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic.

On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog, but, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me. So — so whether we're going to be able to balance those two things I think is a pressing issue on the Obama household.

The “mutts like me” line. Jesus, I love this man.

Posted at 03:07 PM on Nov 07, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Sullivan Hammers Krauthammer

Must reading from Andrew Sullivan about the post-election Republican spin.

I had this argument, even at the time, with people who were nominally paying attention to events, both political and financial, but who weren't obsesssing as much on the polls as I was. I remember when Obama was down to 220+ electoral votes on, the panic I felt, the relief I felt when his numbers began to go up before the Lehman Bros. collapse. Those who weren't obsessing didn't get this. They attributed Obama's surge to the economic collapse when it began before — around the time the shine began to wear off of Gov. Palin.

Lord knows Lehman didn't help McCain, but then McCain didn't help himself, either. Despite Krauthammer, an argument can be made that with a better VP choice, with better debate performances, and with a steady campaign that seemed to anticipate events rather than reacting wildly to them, McCain, at the least, would've had a better shot. But to pull that off (particularly the “anticipating events” part), both he and Steve Schmidt would have had to be completely different people. 

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Posted at 08:46 AM on Nov 07, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Le Plaisir

Madame, reading from newspaper: “Fears of war in the Pacific.”
Woman 1: What does “Pacific” mean?
Woman 2: "Peace."

— from the English translation of the "La Maison Tellier" segment of Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir (1952)

The film, based upon the works of Guy de Maupassant, is split into three stories that reflect three levels of pleasure. The first, "La Masque," about an odd man at a dance, may be the best cinematic representation of a short story I've ever seen. An event unfolds. It feels sad, and not. Lessons are learned, and not. Nothing more can be done with this. It's deep, but perfectly enclosed.

Ophuls is great at giving us such sad, deep, shrugging moments in his films, no less than in the second part and centerpiece of Le Plaisir, "La Maison Tellier," in which a house full of prostitutes close up shop for a weekend to attend the communion of the Madame's niece in a nearby village. On the train there, an older couple gets on, the women pretend to be more than they are, and Madame Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), who will factor greatly as the story unfolds, feigns a husband: a thoughtful man, she says, who sends her dresses and jewelry and flowers. "He kisses my hand and tells me wonderful things." The conversation is with her friends, but is meant for the older couple, the scowling old woman. Ultimately it's a conversation with her heart. It's a bittersweet moment, but, in Ophul's hands, it's more sweet than bitter, and more poignant as a result.

Ophuls keeps doing this kind of thing: Here's life. He's not even shrugging. He's not pushing.'s life.

No tagsPosted at 08:20 AM on Nov 07, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign   |   Permalink  
Thursday November 06, 2008

“These are not the Snickers bars you're looking for.”

My nephew, Jordan, dressed as Obi-wan Kenobi. Somehow, on the last day of October, he managed to get almost everyone in his neighborhood to part with free candy. I'm assuming Jedi mind trick.

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Posted at 04:37 PM on Nov 06, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  
Wednesday November 05, 2008

Anonymous Quote of the Day

One other thing: this is a country whose President-elect's middle name is Hussein. That is a fact to be celebrated. I received an email from a young friend, an entrepreneur in Kabul, this morning. He said, "We are all smiling now," and he attached a Pakistani press clipping--the Taliban greeted the new President and said they were ready to commence talks.

Joe Klein, Time magazine

No tagsPosted at 03:54 PM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Patricia Quote of the Day

In an e-mail to Jeff and Sullivan...

"I have a slight headache but I can't think of anytime I've been happier. There were tears and cheers at our place. Andy, who had gone door-to-door in Ohio for Obama, was in tears. And Laurion's parents came up from the Bahamas just for the election. His dad. who's black, said to me as he left, 'I'm so proud of your country. This is very special day.'"

No tagsPosted at 01:24 PM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Quote of the Day at Arnellia's

"Our community, we're used to the legal system letting us down," he said. "I'm used to [things] going wrong. I distrust the system so much, but this is the first time I've seen the system work in my life, and I'm 40 years old. That's harsh, but it's true. It's a relief. It's a relief to say, 'Finally. Something right happened.' But not right just for me, for everybody."

— David Hall, 39, in Jim Walsh's MNPost piece "Jubiliation at Arnellia's."

No tagsPosted at 01:10 PM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

We Never Imagined That In Our Lifetime...

The editor-in-chief of Super Lawyers was in Georgia yesterday with our chief photographer shooting photos of our feature subjects for the March issue. One is a late 50s African-American attorney. He's one of nine children — and the only professional in the group, but his daughter is now second-year at Harvard Law. She applied too late for an absentee ballot so flew back to Atlanta just to vote. The attorney, a real gentleman according to our EIC, was stunned by Obama's victory. He twice said he never imagined he'd see a black president in his lifetime.

A common refrain. It was my refrain five years ago.

Meanwhile the writer of that piece told me the following: “On a totally personal note, I live in John Lewis' district and my neighborhood was also a great place to experience an Obama victory last night — white people setting off fireworks for our first black president. It was fabulous!”

Posted at 01:01 PM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Repeat Quote of the Day

"Tonight we got Hayfield. Like all the other schools in this conference they're all white. They don't have to worry about race. We do. But we're better for it."

—Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) in Remember the Titans.

And we are.

No tagsPosted at 12:52 PM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

Quote of the Day

From James Wolcott, via Sully:

It amazes me how commentators, especially conservative commentators, can argue that (a) Obama is a socialistic avatar and a radical redistributionist and yet (b) that his election doesn't mean that the voters have been pulled to the left or bestowed a liberal mandate—that the U.S. is still (this week's reigning buzzphrase) “a center-right country.”

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Posted at 12:50 PM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Quote of the Day   |   Permalink  

My Election Day

One day I'll live blog one of these things (World Series, unprecedented presidential elections), but here's the retroactive version:

5:30: Woke up, showered, coffee, etc. Read Andrew Sullivan. Wrote a bit.

6:30: Left our place and walked in the rain to the T.T. Minor Elementary School to vote. My first time voting there. Usually my polling location is within five or six blocks of my home but this was over a mile away. Seems a bit screwy but Seattle often seems a bit screwy. Got wet despite the umbrella. Rain forecast for the entire day, with thunderstorms in the afternoon.

7:05: Arrived at the school to find a line of about 100 people. Again: new. Usually it's just me and the old ladies in the basement of the church. The school is a sweet elementary school (Andy's daughter goes there) and has kids' names on all of the lockers. The woman in front of me commented on what great names the kids had — not the dull Marys and Davids of our childhood — and I pointed out one name and said, “Yeah, when I was growing up, 'Isis' was just a heroine on a Saturday morning TV show.” She then surprised me by repeating the whole “zephyr winds” line and we got to talking about “Shazam” and “H.R. Puffenstuff” and how the creators of the latter must've been high while making it (a magic talking flute?), and how the star of the show, Jack Wild, had played the Artful Dodger in the 1968 musical Oliver! and may have been the best thing in the movie. I was pretty sure he'd been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He also sang the film's most memorable song: “Consider Yourself.” This woman then began to sing the song to herself. Consider of the family

7:45: Voted. (Psst. Barack.)

7:55: Walked to Broadway on Capitol Hill. The rains had stopped. Passed a garage on John Street between 12th and 13th where the owner had painted the famous “Barack Hope” poster on the door. Painted it well, I should add.

8:05: Arrived at Starbucks ahead of the precinct captain, Stuart. Phoned him. He said he was still at campaign headquarters on Pine — that there were tons of people there — but he had our packet and would meet me in about 10 minutes.

8:05-8:15: Sat in the back of Starbucks on a couch. Starbucks was giving away free coffee to anyone who voted and the woman at the table in front of me, overhearing the barrista talking about it, said to her friend, who was sitting on the couch next to me, “Oh, is it election day?” I thought: “And that's why we have a GOTV effort. Some people just don't know.” Then the woman asked the man who was gonna win:

He: Well, Obama's ahead nationally but the electoral college is close. It might come down to Hawaii.
Me (butting in): If it comes down to Hawaii, Barack wins. Hawaii always goes Democrat and he's from there. No way he's losing Hawaii.
He: No, I'm just saying it might be close.
Me: Uh huh.
She: I've heard he might have trouble anyway. Because he's against the second amendment and all.
Me: He's not against the second amendment.
She: (Exchanges meaningful glance with the man as if to say, “Lookee here who's been brainwashed.”)
She (to He): So how long have you been hypnotizing people?
He: Oh, about 45 years.

They then went on to have a serious talk about hypnosis.

8:15: Stuart arrives. Hallelujah.

8:15-9:15: Stuart and I walk the precinct that he's walked four times in the last month, usually alone, getting out the vote. We only had about 20 names left on his list, and a couple were his neighbors with whom he'd just spoken. They'd voted. Off the list. Getting down to the bare nub. The goal.

Stuart was from Chicago, had lived in Seattle for...8 years or so? I'd met him the night before and given him shit about his Chicago Cubs cap. “You know, Barack's a White Sox fan,” I said. He smiled and said, “Well, I think we have room in the party for both Cubs and White Sox fans.”`Some part of me was actually worried about that Cubs cap: That it might transmit its losing ways into the campaign. I wondered who the Steve Bartman of the Barack campaign might be.

9:15: Stuart and I finished the packet, we said our goodbyes, and I walked the packet over to Obama's Capitol Hill headquarters on Pine. It was getting chillier but the rain wasn't coming back. In fact, the sky was beginning to clear. Nice.

Campaign headquarters was packed. I'd arrived planning to phone-bank into the early afternoon but looked at the second floor, where phone-banking was supposed to take place, and thought it made more sense to split. They had more volunteers than they knew what to do with. Again: Nice. On the walk home, ran into our neighbor, Laura, who was on her way to vote.

10:00-4:00: Got our place ready for what I continually called a “gathering.” Didn't want to jinx us with the word “party.”

4:00: First results. McCain leads in the electoral college 8-3: Kentucky vs. Vermont. Damn!

4:15: Andy and his girls arrive. Mathilda, the youngest, wears wings. I ask her if that was her Halloween costume but she says, No, she went as Dora.

4:30 and on: More people arrive. Jeff and Sullivan, with two kids. Chasing games ensue throughout the condo. Charges of “schnookering” are made. Balloons are blown up. Balloons are played with. All evening.

Around 25-30 people show up. At some point we order Indian food. I drink: beer and saki and red wine and champagne. By which time the gathering has become a party. I began to use the word: party.

You know the rest. I was worried about Virginia, initially, but when Pennsylvania broke early and clean for Obama, I thought: Good sign. By the tme Ohio broke, giving Obama 207 electoral votes, Jim and I did the math. The three western states, California, Oregon and Washington, would give him 280. It was all over but the shouting. Then came the shouting.

Today: A new day. Welcome.

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Posted at 10:41 AM on Nov 05, 2008 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  
Tuesday November 04, 2008

GOTV in America


Posted at 07:12 AM on Nov 04, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Monday November 03, 2008

GOTV in Pennsylvania

Spent a good part of yesterday at home making phonecalls for Barack Obama as part of his campaign's Get Out The Vote effort. Their online set up is pretty smart, and allows a volunteer to choose which (leaning, toss-up) state to call. I chose Pennsylvania, for obvious reasons, and it mostly went OK, although at least 90 percent of my calls resulted in 1) leaving messages, 2) wrong numbers, or 3) nobody home, which is different than 1) in that there was no answering machine or service to leave a message on or with. The phone just rang and rang and rang. A throwback to the '70s.

The most interesting person I talked to was an 80-something year-old woman who was voting for Obama, and who complained about all of the mail and robocalls she was getting from the McCain camp. “I'm not a Republican!” she kept saying indignantly. She also implied that FDR helped her father get a job during the Depression. Apparently he told his kids, and he had 12 of them, before he died, “If any of you vote Republican I'll roll over in my grave.” She was proud of that.

The most interesting polling location? “Prison Training Academy” in Philadelphia. 

My friend Andy, who was doing the same all weekend, got me on board yesterday and probably immediately regretted it, since I called him about five times with various questons. During one of those calls we got to talking about McCain's robocalls and what a nuissance they were. Andy said that whenever he left a message he always used the voter's name so they'd know it wasn't a robocall. That's when it hit me. Why McCain uses robocalls. Because he doesn't have people like us.

Yet another difference between the two campaigns. McCain uses a dehumanizing technique to dehumanize his opponent. Obama uses actual volunteers from around the country to make sure everyone gets out and votes.

A demain.

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Posted at 08:12 AM on Nov 03, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Sunday November 02, 2008

My First Blog Post

Eight years ago, either the night before or a few nights before the 2000 election, I read Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker before going to bed and panicked. I couldn’t sleep.

I hadn’t gotten involved in the campaign much — I was a freelance writer, struggling to keep my head above water during a time of great prosperity and opportunity — but I was definitely for Gore, and not simply because I was a Democrat, but for all the reasons Hertzberg laid out in his column.  What I didn’t know, what Hertzberg began to let me in on, was how bad it had gotten, and how culpable the media was in making it bad, which is to say close. Too close to call. We had to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decided for us, by a 5-4 vote, on December 12, 2000: a date which will live in infamy. (For more on this, please read Boies v. Bush v. Gore, about Gore’s lawyer David Boies, which I edited for
New York Super Lawyers magazine this fall.)

That evening, instead of sleeping, I got up, turned my computer back on, searched online for the Hertzberg article (futilely, for this was 2000), and then proceeded to type the whole damn thing up and send it to everyone I knew. I suppose it was my first blog post. READ this, I told everyone. SEND IT to everyone you know.

We've come a long way baby since then, and mostly, like the old Springsteen song says, down down down down. It's amazing to consider the country Bush inherited and the country he leaves behind. Only the most blinkered among us would consider the last eight years anything other than an unmitigated disaster.

We can't re-do that choice but we can do this one right. My god, what would it be like to have a smart man, a really smart man, in the White House?

Here's the Hertzberg column I sent out eight years ago. Read it and weep. Read it and hope:

After the polls close next week, we will learn what Presidential politics in the year 2000 has been “about.” Specifically, we will learn whether it has been about “issues” or “personality.”

If the campaign turns out to have been about “issues,” then the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, will be elected, because he is the superior candidate in point of both command and positions...

Vice President Gore has shown himself to be, in comparison with the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, more fiscally responsible (because he proposes to spend somewhat less of the chimerical surplus than does Governor Bush), more socially responsible (because he proposes to spend more of that surplus on social needs such as education and health care and divert less of it to individual consumption), and more egalitarian (because his plans for changing the tax code, combined with his spending plans, would ameliorate inequalities of wealth and income while Bush’s would exacerbate them).

Gore’s foreign policy would be more energetic in its promotion of democratic values than Bush’s, and probably more so than President Clinton’s. Bush has offered few clues to what his foreign policy might be, except to say that he would build a missile-defense system whether or not it was technically workable or strategically advantageous, and that he opposes the American military presence in Haiti (where, at last count, we had 29 soldiers) and in the Balkans, where a unilateral withdrawal would have the effect of weakening the Western alliance and America’s role within it.

As for the superiority of Gore’s command of the issues, this is not a matter of opinion — or, if it is, everyone’s opinion is the same, even (to judge from his defensive jokes) Bush’s: Gore knows more, understands more, and has thought more, and more coherently, about virtually every aspect of public policy, domestic and foreign, than Bush has...

Bush’s point of superiority, then, is in the matter of “personality,” and it is striking how narrowly that word seems to have been defined for electoral purposes. Personality apparently excludes, if not intelligence itself, then such manifestations of it as intellectual curiosity, analytic ability, and a capacity for original thought, all of which Gore has in abundance and Bush not only lacks but scorns. Personality apparently excludes courage: Gore put himself in harm’s way during the Vietnam War; Bush did not.

Gore’s tendency to embellish anecdotes, especially about himself, is real and undeniable. Even so, some of his alleged lies have turned out to be strongly rooted in factuality. He did not “create” the Internet, obviously, but he was one of a tiny handful of politicians who grasped its significance when it was in its infancy, and he did take the lead in writing legislation to spur its development.

In the debates, Bush uttered inaccuracies that, unlike Gore’s, falsify the underlying essence of his point — as, for example, when he said that Gore was outspending him in the campaign (when the reverse is true, to the tune of $50 million), and that he fought to get a patient’s bill of rights passed in Texas (when he actually vetoed one such bill and allowed another to become law without his signature), and that his health-care proposal would “have prescription drugs as an integral part of Medicare” (when this is precisely what Gore’s plan would do, while Bush’s would dismantle Medicare as we know it in favor of a system of subsidized private insurance).

Still, there’s no denying that a large number of people find Gore irritating; to prove it, there are polls, to say nothing of the panels of “undecided voters” — that is, clueless, ill-informed citizens who even at this late date cannot summon the mental energy to make up their minds — assembled by the television networks into on-camera focus groups. Gore can be awkward and tone-deaf, and he sometimes has trouble modulating his presentation of himself, and he plainly lacks the instinctive political exuberance of a Bill Clinton or even the slightly twitchy easygoingness of a George W. Bush.

Gore is aggressive, assertive, and intensely energetic, qualities once counted as desirable in a potential President but now evidently seen by many as disturbing. At a time of domestic prosperity and tranquility, much of the public seems to have developed a thirst for passivity, a thirst that Bush is eager to slake.

This may explain the paradox that while Gore was widely judged the substantive winner of all three of the televised debates, he lost the battle in the post-debate media echo chambers, and perhaps partly as a result, in the opinion polls. In the final debate, Gore stretched the rules, while Bush complained and turned beseechingly to the moderator for help. To caricature them both, Gore was a smart bully, Bush a hapless tattletale. Neither attribute is attractive, but it may turn out that fear of the first will outweigh contempt for the second. In that case, “personality” will definitely have triumphed over “issues,” and the transformation of the Presidency of the United States into the presidency of the student council will be complete.

 — Hendrik Hertzberg

No tagsPosted at 08:36 AM on Nov 02, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
Saturday November 01, 2008

All Hail Hendrik Hertzberg!

No doubt this election has turned me into an up-to-the-minute news/blog junkie. (Thank you, Andrew Sullivan.) It’s gotten to the point where my guys, Frank Rich in the Sunday Times and Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, whom I used to read with great anticipation, now often feel like old news by the time I see them in print. That? They’re still talking about that? It’s like they’re writing about a foul-out that began the inning when currently two runs have scored and there’s men on second and third. One fears for the print form (and thus the thoughtful form) in political coverage.

Still, these guys are so good they often come through. Loved Rich’s piece last week and particularly loved Hertzberg’s latest “Talk of the Town.” Everything you wanted to know about socialism but were afraid to ask. “You” being you. Or possibly Joe the Plumber.

It’s more than John McCain’s comment to the daughter of a doctor who, during the 2000 campaign, complained we were getting too close to socialism in this country (“...when you reach a certain level of comfort,” he told her, “there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more”), or the fact that Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which has no sales or income tax, funds itself with huge levies to oil companies and then gives what’s left back to (or just “to”) its citizens. Talk about spreading the wealth. And these two are basing their entire presidential campaign (this week) on attacking Barack Obama for similar economic plans? Their hypocrisy is overwhelming. One wonders, for the thousandth time, how they sleep.

Hertzberg fires this:
The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35 per cent and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6 per cent. The latter is what it would be under Obama’s proposal, what it was under President Clinton, and, for that matter, what it will be after 2010 if President Bush’s tax cuts expire on schedule.
More comprehensively, he gives us this, which has always been my argument:
Of course, all taxes are redistributive, in that they redistribute private resources for public purposes. But the federal income tax is (downwardly) redistributive as a matter of principle: however slightly, it softens the inequalities that are inevitable in a market economy, and it reflects the belief that the wealthy have a proportionately greater stake in the material aspects of the social order and, therefore, should give that order proportionately more material support.

On HuffPost, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, of all people, who supported Hilary Clinton earlier this year and is now supporting John McCain, has an anti-Obama post in which she raises the same stupid fears. I’m not sure what her game is — is she really that greedy or does she merely want McCain to win in ’08 so Hilary can win in ’12? — but she trots out that familiar Republican talking point against higher taxes for the wealthy:
Today, the top 1% of earners contributes 40% of the nation's $2.6 trillion tax intake and the bottom 50% pay 2.9% of our nation's total needs.
I can’t think of a better argument for a more steeply progressive tax system than this. If the top 1 percent, paying at a rate similar to mine, already pay 40 percent of our taxes, think how much money they’re making. If these people are lucky enough to have the skills that allows them to prosper in the kind of system we currently have, then they should be paying even more to keep that system running smoothly. And they haven’t. It’s time the bastards paid up.
No tagsPosted at 08:59 AM on Nov 01, 2008 in category Politics   |   Permalink  
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