Robert Stein 1924-2014

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If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Washington Uplift

At one point, the Stewart-Colbert crowd was urged to jump up in unison to get a seismic reading (no luck), recalling the day in 1967 when Vietnam protesters tried to levitate the Pentagon by chanting at it.

That didn't work, either. Washington is hard to move at any time for any reason, particularly sanity.

For a long-time observer of such events now reduced to watching on TV, this assemblage seemed placid compared to the time we came down on buses with the righteous satisfaction of bonding together to stop others from being killed and Norman Mailer would write an operatic book about it, "The Armies of the Night," that won a Pulitzer Prize.

A full hour of rock and rap before Stewart and Colbert appeared did not herald serious intention and must have persuaded any Tea Partiers who tuned in to scoff at what looked like another pleasure-seeking enterprise of the young and ethnic.

By the time Jon Stewart got around to articulating the point of the gathering, some minds and hearts may have been turned drowsy by what had been billed as "a Woodstock for the millennial generation."

But Stewart's take on Sanity was moving: “To see you here today and the kind of people that you are, has restored mine.

“What exactly was this? This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith. Or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies...

“The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker...And yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly good.”

A Marx Brothers routine comes to mind: Groucho and Chico are going through a contract, tearing up each paragraph. "What's this?" "The sanity clause." Rip-rip. "There is no Sanity Clause."

Maybe not, but all in all for a Halloween weekend, not a bad party.

Myth of the Independent Voter

The phrase conjures a clear-eyed figure standing tall above the partisan fray to assess merits of candidates and their stands on issues, and there may be such paragons, but for the most part the so-called Independent Voter appears to be a ragtag collection of the too lazy, dim, immature, self-involved or all of the above to take the political process seriously and think for themselves.

What else explains the wild swing of "a bloc of voters"--millions of individuals--who saw Barack Obama as the second coming of Hope and Change and now condemn him for not living up to the Hype they swallowed without grasping the complexities of governing?

After eight years of Bush disaster, the country, ready for someone different, was fortunate enough to elect a president of intelligence, seriousness and determination to meet the worst challenges in generations.

Obama never promised miracles and certainly didn't deliver any. He made mistakes and miscalculations but avoided a total economic meltdown with reasonable competence. In the face of mindless and near-treasonous Republican opposition, he got the country back on the track to recovery.

His record of meeting one crisis after another--the credit freeze, Detroit fiasco, Gulf Coast Oil Spill--is far from perfect but impressive in the face of GOP determination to make politics the Art of the Impossible.

“The single most important thing we want to achieve," says their Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, "is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

If Independent Voters provide him with a cadre of clowns and incompetents such as Joe Miller, Sharron Angle et al, they will condemn the country to two more years of gridlock and social discord.

In that event, independent will become a synonym for stupid.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Funny Thing Happened to Obama Last Night

The President's Daily Show drive-by was a sad reminder that comedy and colloquy don't always mix, but even worse for those who admire both Barack Obama and Jon Stewart, it reflected the country's mood swing over the past two years.

The Tea Party temper tantrum is the headline, but this encounter was a sour reminder of how far those who were high on Obama's coming have crashed and burned. Days before election, to persuade supporters to get out and vote against the likes of Rand Paul, Christine McConnell and Linda McMahon, he has to explain why he turned to Larry Summers for economic advice. Would they have preferred John McCain and Joe the Plumber?

Across the political spectrum, the grownups are gone, unwilling to give Obama credit for what he calls "making progress step by step and inch by inch."

Yet, there are good reasons to be disappointed in the President's performance, and his unequivocal defense of the health care reform mess as getting "90 percent" of what he wanted is one of them. But days before the election, on the Daily Show, are not the time and place for debating his shortcomings.

If Obama was in full professorial mode, Stewart seemed flummoxed in the role of inquisitor--polite deference is not his best move. But the point of the duet was to energize dispirited admirers to get out and vote.

If they want to pull the levers thinking "Yes, we can but--," the President will take gladly take it.

Update: If the doubles act disappointed the President, it didn't do Stewart much good, New York Times culture critic Alessandra Stanley points out:

"The country long ago stopped wondering whether a president demeans his office by appearing on a late-night comedy show. The more immediate question...is whether a political satirist loses credibility when hobnobbing with a sitting president...

"Mr. Stewart usually has no trouble interrupting or getting the better of his most celebrated guests, but even he didn’t want to push too far when face to face with the commander in chief.

"Access is everything in Washington, but it can be the death of political satire."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Driving a Metaphor Into the Ground

The President won't let go of the car image--Republicans spending eight years crashing the economy and expecting him to pull it out of the ditch in two.

Now the highway metaphor is in a linguistic pileup as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times posits an ambulance picking up a roadside heart attack victim, taking him for treatment that results in "a protracted but partial recovery," then two years later having him sue the paramedics and doctors for malpractice, insisting "he would be good as new...if he had been left alone."

We are in "no good deed goes unpunished" territory here, victims turning on helpers in denial of their distress and the need to blame someone, a condition first described to me by a friend who grew up in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression to see saved farmers turn on FDR and become solidly Republican to erase the memory of their helplessness.

The nation's financial condition is not exactly a roadster, and the Federal government is far from an auto club, but Presidents can't seem to resist seeing themselves behind the wheel.

After retirement, Eisenhower described his executive style as reasoning with competing interests to drive in the middle of the road "with all its usable surface and avoid slipping into the ruts and ditches on either side."

A comfy image during post-World War II prosperity, but Obama's road is cracked and twisty, with forward motion impeded by Republican linguistic improvised explosive devices like those used against our troops in the Middle East.

Andrew Sullivan maintains "Obama's record is about as good as one can expect from a human being inheriting a catastrophe and acting with limited knowledge in real time...

"Obama is the president many Independents voted for: pragmatic, smart, non-ideological and remarkably successful under the circumstances. But they have been blinded by propaganda, enabled by profound and resilient joblessness that, in a perfect world, Obama might have prevented, but in the real world, did about as much as he possibly could to alleviate, within prudent parameters."

But "alleviate" and "prudent parameters" are not sound-bite or bumper-sticker language to derail the Tea Party steamroller from tearing up the American road ahead.

In the real world, the economy is sputtering along, but even those nine out of ten voters who still have their jobs are like deer caught in the headlights, too terrified to get out of the way of an ideological disaster.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

As Real as It Gets

This final week has dwindled down to a precious few days for Democrats to offset Republican enthusiasm and Tea Party mania by bringing out their "base."

Ages ago, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, a comedy team for people with a pulse and an IQ, had an exchange mocking their overeducated audiences' tendency to talk about social problems rather than act:

"Actually, it's a moral question."

"Yes, and moral questions are so much more interesting than real questions."

Next Tuesday is as real as it gets--for dispirited Democrats and Independents to stop talking and blogging wittily about "nut jobs" heading for Congress and join in the scut work of getting out the votes of people who make their choices on something more than primal fears.

"Sometimes it can wear you down," the President tells a rally, referring to "big, messy democracy." Yes, but isn't messy far better than the orderly vision of naysaying ideologues on the Right who would take America back to a world free of government--and devoid of justice, compassion and human decency?

It's crunch time for liberals, progressives, elitists, humanists--whatever they choose to call themselves--to stop bloviating and help turn out crucial votes that could mitigate a disaster.

In an e-mail to supporters, Barack Obama puts it more plainly than he can on the stump.

"The journey we began together," he says, "was not about putting a president in the White House. It was about building a movement for change that endures. It's about realizing that in America, anything is possible--if we're willing to work for it, if we're willing to fight for it.

"That's what I believe. And if that's what you believe, I need you to knock on doors, and make phone calls, and talk to your friends, and talk to your neighbors. And I need you to dig deep and give what you can."

In the next seven days, we will see if the old Nichols-May joke is an artifact of the past--or an accurate description of where we are now.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Marilyn Monroe: A User's Manual

"Why," she asked me in 1955, "do they print things about me that aren't true?"

Marilyn Monroe was only a superstar then, not yet a legend who, almost half a century after death, is now on the cover of Vanity Fair. Three films about her are in the works, and a journalist just came from France to interview me about the week I spent reporting on her in New York.

Back then, I answered Marilyn's question: “Because pictures of you sell papers and magazines, and when there’s no excuse for running them, they’ll print rumors, gossip, anything they can get.” Something pushed me to go further. “They’re not trying to hurt you, just use you.”

Marilyn looked at me with a flinching smile that said she knew all about being used, and I recalled a story about her as a starlet: When a studio executive had sent for her to show a magazine publisher her breasts and lifted her sweater, she had never stopped smiling.

Now, in the era of Lindsay Lohan et al, Marilyn is still being used to sell books, magazines and movies, but the use was always mutual.

"She was smart enough," Maureen Dowd writes, "to become the most famous Dumb Blonde in history. Photographers loved to get her to pose in tight shorts, a silk robe or a swimsuit with a come-hither look and a weighty book...Men who were nervous about her erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually."

That week in 1955, she was at the Actors Studio to study for parts like Grushenka in “The Brothers Karamazov.” The papers dug out cliches about comedians who want to play Hamlet, underlining their ridicule with photos from “The Seven Year Itch,” Marilyn on a subway grate, an updraft billowing a white dress over her hips.

When she married Arthur Miller, a headline read "Egghead Weds Hourglass," but a few years later, after he had publicly described her as an "Earth Mother," she was devastated to discover a diary entry by Miller complaining she embarrassed him in front of his friends.

Miller used her more than anyone else. As their marriage was falling apart, he wrote "The Misfits," a movie that exploited Marilyn's psychic fragility, and after her death, wrote "After the Fall," a play that portrayed her as a shrill harridan.

In her 36 years, Marilyn Monroe lived in a world where people (including those like me) use one another ruthlessly, but there was one exception--Joe DiMaggio.

Even after their divorce, DiMaggio was always there to take care of her when she was in distress and, after her death, kept the funeral private and sent flowers to her grave three times a week. And never said a word about her publicly.

Whether she was aware of it or not, Marilyn Monroe had known true love.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tea Party Two-Step

To a 1970s' hit tune, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," the GOP and their new best friends are dancing in the aisles these days, looking past November to sashaying into the White House in 2012.

"It may be," President Obama said recently, "that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible." If he believes that, Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, has a sneak preview for him of the next two years:

"Look, the time to go along and get along is over. House Republicans know that. We’ve taken firm and principled stands against their big government plans throughout this Congress, and we’ve got...a cavalry of men and women headed to Washington, D.C. that are going to stand with us."

Translation: "No" will harden into "Hell, no!" As a majority, the GOP's "firm and principled stands" will make the gridlock after 1994 look like an action movie. With the sole goal of unseating a Democratic President, as it was back then, Republicans will have Tea Party accomplices in their (pace Hillary Clinton) vaster right-wing conspiracy.

What's different now is that, added to the traditional two-party struggle for power, will be a sizable fringe caucus that won't abide by the usual rules of the game.

With Christine O'Donnell as an example, it's clear that Republicans have developed remarkable tolerance for "nut job" candidates, as Meghan McCain puts it. But limits will be tested by such new voices as the Republican contender for a Texas House seat espousing violent overthrow of the government.

“If the government is not producing the results or has become destructive to the ends of our liberties, we have a right to get rid of that government and to get rid of it by any means necessary,” Stephen Broden declares, pointing to the founding fathers' uprising against Britain.

Asked if violence is the answer now, Broden explains, "The option is on the table. However, it is not the first option." What a relief!

A new poll by Newsweek shows Democrats closing the "enthusiasm gap" with the President's approval ratings rising. Not a moment too soon, because from here to 2012, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Update: Pence, the poster boy for GOP-Tea Party obstruction, has his eye on 2012, letting out word that Congressional House leadership may not be enough for him with the White House available for tenancy. The political Right is running amok with delusions of adequacy.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bill Clinton to the Rescue

The feel-your-pain politician of all time has saddled up to snatch his beloved Democratic Party from Karl Rove and the Tea Party villains who have her tied to the tracks for the oncoming November 2 locomotive.

This is Bill Clinton at his best, telling crowds, “Essentially what our party is asking in these elections is four years to get out of a hole the American people gave them eight years to dig. It seems fair to me, don’t you think?”

Whatever his character defects, the former Comeback Kid has the empathy thing down pat, telling a rally, "I know you're angry. I know you're scared...But concentrate your anger so that it clarifies your judgment instead of clouding it...The worst thing you can do right now is bring back the shovel brigade to start digging the hole again...

"To hear the Republicans tell it, from the second President Obama took his hand off the Bible taking the oath of office, everything that happened after that was his fault, I'd like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds."

In painting the picture so vividly, the former President is doing what the current one can't, constrained both by the dignity of the office and his own temperament.

"I called the president the other day," Clinton told another rally, "and I said: 'Relax. They haven't said anything about you they didn't say about me. The only reason they're being nice to me right now is because I can't run for anything any more.'"

But Hillary can, and as usual in Clintonland, there may be an element of calculation for her future in her husband's all-out effort to save Democrats this year.

But with so much at stake, the party may be wishing it had a dozen Slick Willies out there delivering the message the way only Bill Clinton can. At election time, being a very good politician is not a bad thing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Slightly Less Than Supreme

The Triangle of the Week is morphing into a debate about the human beings behind the Supreme Court's robed figures.

The overture to Anita Hill by Mrs. Clarence Thomas, piquant as it may be, leads to speculation about her career as head of Liberty Central to oppose the "tyranny" of the Obama Administration and from there to the increasingly overt politicization of the Court.

On the day she left the now-famous message, Mrs. Thomas was profiled in the New York Times, citing "the most partisan role ever for a spouse of a justice on the nation’s highest court, and Mrs. Thomas is just getting started. 'Liberty Central will be bigger than the Tea Party movement,' she told Fox News in April, at a Tea Party rally in Atlanta."

Imagine the reaction on the Right if Justice Ginsburg's husband had been panhandling for ultra-liberal attack ads. (In contrast, Martin Ginsburg, a law professor and amateur chef who died in June, once told a reporter that "my wife does not give me any advice about cooking, and I do not give her advice about the law.")

Now, in the final days of campaigning, the Citizens United decision, which the President denounced in the State of the Union to a headshake from Justice Alito, is looming large in the surge of Republican money to drown Democratic incumbents.

Bad enough for the Roberts Court to have opened the floodgates, but having the wife of one pouring the muck is insult to injury.

In a symposium inspired by all this, one Supreme Court scholar notes, "While we no longer believe that justices are 'black-robed gods,' as they were routinely described until the 1930s, we do expect them to perform a feat that is, on a certain level, superhuman...to perceive their own biases, confront their own prejudices and wrestle them down. Subdue them. Refuse to be governed by them.

"This is the 'judicial temperament,' as it’s known, and Lord knows it can’t come easily."

These days, what does? But if the last bastion of government not under frontal attack by the forces of ignorance starts to crumble, the worst fears of the Tea Party about destruction of American values may well come to pass, leaving us all to ponder the wisdom of Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The voting on November 2 is about more than which flavor of folly dominates the next Congress. If ignorant insurgents take over a Republican majority, will be this Supreme Court be willing and able to curb their excesses?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Over-the-Hill Revival

Justice Clarence Thomas hardly ever speaks in Supreme Court sessions (281 words in three years by one count), but his wife has reached across almost two decades to revive his most painful public moment--the sexual harassment accusations at his confirmation hearing in 1991.

In a voice mail message, Virginia Thomas asks accuser Anita Hill "to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband...And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. O.K., have a good day.”

Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee back then that Thomas, her boss at government agencies, had sexually harassed her with remarks about pubic hair in his Coke and a porn star named Long Dong Silver.

The ensuing soap opera of character assassination by both sides was a national disgrace, which ended only after Thomas, who had been deferential until then, expressed his anger over what he called a “high tech lynching” and was eventually confirmed.

Mrs. Thomas' motive in revisiting that mess is obscure, but it brings back a memorable picture of pre-Obama America, limned by my friend and one-time colleague, the late Walter Goodman, who reviewed the hearings as a long-running TV show for the New York Times:

"The days and nights of Senate Judiciary Committee coverage...brought out realities of American society in the form of the faces of white power and black achievement.

"Most conspicuously, there was the committee itself--14 white men sitting in judgment of a black woman and a black man…The Senators seemed self-conscious in this neighborhood, like tourists on a visit uptown. In their questions to the nominee, the Democrats tiptoed around him as if he were an undetonated mine...

"(R)eporters found many blacks who were distressed that so distasteful an episode was being exposed to the nation...but in fact the picture presented of black Americans was very different from most of what ordinarily reaches television sets and was nothing to be unhappy about.

"Here were none of the criminals who populate the local news shows, nor any sappy sit-comer or preening celebrity. Instead, the screen was opened up to black professionals, successful students, successful lawyers, successful Americans.

"Along with declaring themselves united against racism, the bickering white men also joined in opposition to sexual harassment...brought on by a storm of anger over the committee's perceived lack of passion on the subject, and the Senators wanted to make one thing clear: they really hated it.

"But how could their chorus of sympathy for women compete with the picture of them up there hour after hour, day after day, all men, all white? Their existence had never been a secret, but in this situation it assumed a kind of notoriety."

Demographics and public attitudes have changed somewhat since then, but the hypocrisy remains and is being amped up at this moment by the Tea Party rampage.

Anita Hill says she has nothing to apologize for, since she was just telling what happened, but Virginia Thomas wants her to "pray about this" and find some higher truth. After all, her husband's vote got George W. Bush into the White House and made truth through prayer a popular form of public discourse.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Weird Year for Women in Politics

Since Hillary Clinton came thisclose to winning the White House, the gender wars have taken a right turn and gone internecine, but could all the conflict energize a huge traditional Democratic base--women? Not likely, but still possible.

The latest all-female mud fight has Bush spokesperson Dana Perino taking on Maureen Dowd for a "stereotypical and uncalled for" attack on Republican and conservative women.

Perino is irked by a Dowd column about "Republican Mean Girls, grown-up versions of those teenage tormentors who would steal your boyfriend, spray-paint your locker and, just for good measure, spread rumors that you were pregnant.

"These women--Jan, Meg, Carly, Sharron, Linda, Michele, Queen Bee Sarah and sweet wannabe Christine--have co-opted and ratcheted up the disgust with the status quo that originally buoyed Barack Obama...replaced Hope with Spite and Cool with Cold. They are the ideal nihilistic cheerleaders for an angry electorate."

This prompts the notoriously even-tempered Perino to respond: "Can women have moments they aren’t proud of? Sure. But to write all conservative and Republican women off as mean is...mean."

Chalk this spat off to partisan reflexes were it not for other symptoms such as Meghan McCain's swipe at Christine O'Donnell as "a nut job," even as her father is out stumping for Carly Fiorina.

In these last days before the balloting, such female fisticuffs may portend something more than the kind of entertainment that enriched wrestling impresaria and would-be Senator from Connecticut Linda McMahon.

As Democrats scramble to rally their traditional strongholds--youth, African-Americans, Latinos, organized labor--there may still be untapped gold in the women's vote.

Are the majority willing to be represented by Sarah Palin's Mamma Grizzlies with moola? Will they allow a new falsehood about them--feisty but clueless--to replace the old pretty-but-dumb stereotypes?

For someone who edited magazines for millions of them and has a plaque for vocally supporting the Equal Rights Amendment back in 1979, this looks like a big step back from three women on the Supreme Court and a near-miss at the Presidency two years ago.

If men are too thick to see they are being sold a Tea Party bill of goods, women should do a much better job of comparison shopping. They still have two weeks to do it.

Update: A dumb debate, but at least a start, stirs MSNBC pundits on why so many women support the Tea Party. Bafflement is followed by explanations that they write the household checks, are disturbed by the state of their family economies and, of course, blame politicians. If the level of discourse stays that low, Democrats are doomed. But will it?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Obama's Too-Early Concession

Taking transparency too far, the White House is recapping a midterm disaster prematurely with what Mark Shields calls the President's "retrospective before the election."

"How would you like to be a Democratic member of the House fighting for your life right now," the PBS News Hour guru asks, "getting hit over the head for having voted for the stimulus bill, and have the president say in the New York Times Sunday magazine, there's no such thing as a shovel-ready project?"

Obama's Times interviewer acknowledges the oddity: "It would be bad form for the president to anticipate an election result before it happens, but clearly Obama hopes that just as Clinton recovered from his party’s midterm shellacking in 1994 to win re-election two years later, so can he...

"Two years ago, Obama scorned the 42nd president, deriding the small-ball politics and triangulation maneuvers and comparing him unfavorably with Ronald Reagan. Running against Clinton’s wife, Obama was the anti-Clinton. Now he hopes, in a way, to be the second coming of Bill Clinton. Because, in the end, it’s better than being Jimmy Carter."

Barack Obama's downfall, unlike that of Carter, has all the elements of classic tragedy--a heroic figure with high ideals but a fatal hubris, trying too hard to do too much and being punished by the political gods of stupidity and meanness for his presumption.

But American politics is not Greek tragedy, and a philosophical President is the last thing his supporters need right now or, as Shields puts it, "we have gone from perhaps the least introspective president to the most introspective...he sits there and talks about what it means to him and all this. For goodness' sakes, he's got a responsibility to his party."

Barack Obama may be unflappable to a fault, saying about Republicans slavering for power: “It may be that regardless of what happens after this election, they feel more responsible, either because they didn’t do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything...and throwing bombs didn’t work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way.”

If he really believes that, the President is living in a dream world. What he faces next year is a GOP focused on bringing him down in 2012, goaded by Tea Party newcomers in Congress who will be setting the Republican elders' pants on fire.

In the remaining two weeks of the campaign, he still has a small window to rouse his supporters to minimize that by fighting ferociously for key House and Senate seats. After that, le deluge could give him plenty of time for impotent philosophizing as Washington grinds to a standstill that could make 1994 pale by comparison.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bank Night at the Movies

"The past is a foreign country--they do things differently there" is the opening line of a 1950s novel and movie evoked by the mortgage mess splattering the American landscape now with greed, misconduct and, worst of all, a breakdown of social trust built up over more than two centuries.

Bank stocks are plummeting as financial institutions, courts and endangered homeowners scramble to cope with the "near certainty that significant numbers of borrowers are being defrauded--charged fees they don’t actually owe, declared in default when, by the terms of their loan agreements, they aren’t."

Worse, as state attorneys general try to deal with the massive fraud, the legal system may be swamped. "If the basic principles of property law have been violated here," says an understandably anonymous Federal bank overseer, "it may be extremely difficult to fix. There is a chain of questions that no one seems to know the answer to."

Now here is a subject to bring together Tea Party adherents with those who oppose them in a nostalgia for the past that transcends immediate politics, involving as it does failure of Bush oversight then and an Obama crackdown now.

Perhaps they should attend screenings together of classics showing the "foreign" country we lived in more than half a century ago.

Start with "It's a Wonderful Life," in which small-town banker Jimmy Stewart ruins himself personally to protect his depositors and then go on to "The Best Years of Our Lives" to see Frederic March struggle to make loans to other returning World War II veterans over the opposition of older hidebound bankers.

During the Great Depression, there was a fad called "Bank Night" at movie houses, essentially a lottery in which patrons saw a double feature and had a chance to have their ticket stubs drawn for a cash prize. Banks were a symbol of hope as well as dread.

There were no mortgage brokers then, no Wall Street sharks to buy up and bundle obligations into opaque gambling chips, no "robo signers" of foreclosure notices.

As critics sneer at Tea Party longings for a simpler time in our national life, they might take a look at celluloid artifacts of the past, stop shouting at one another and try to figure which was the baby and which the bath water of earlier times.

Update: Look for a happy ending for bankers with a retroactive stealth bailout, as a CNBC editor predicts "the screwed up paperwork, lost notes, unassigned security interests will be forgiven by a legislative act...The lame duck session of Congress will pass a bill that essentially papers over the misdeeds of the banks that originated mortgage securities."

Those old movies were made before "too big to fail."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

NPR No, No on "John" Stewart

Long-time admirers of National Public Radio (including moi) may be taken aback by a recent memo from Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice President for News:

"NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming John Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies."

Jon will doubtless have some comment of his own on the Daily Show, but journalists may be as alarmed by a News head with a spelling deficit as an organization whose Executive Chief endorses the order and adds, "So please think twice about the message you may be sending about our objectivity before you attend a rally or post a bumper sticker or yard sign. We are all NPR.

"If you have any questions or concerns, please speak to your supervisor. "

Achtung!

Does the First Amendment say anything about yard signs?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Down in the Political Pits

Democrats must be feeling like the Chilean miners except that, after being buried alive for months, there is no end in sight.

Now Obama supporters are selling raffles for a chance to meet the President backstage in Las Vegas while industry lobbyists grovel to get back into the good graces of the GOP for having cooperated on health care last year.

How bad can it get? Even worse, it seems, as the majority party goes into full triage mode to save Democratic seats once considered safe.

The coming electoral tsunami is being powered not only by Tea Party rage but a concurrent tide of despair from the other direction as, in a new poll, more than four out of ten former Obama backers say they "are either less supportive or say they no longer support him at all," citing his failure to turn the economy around.

"The excitement they once felt is gone," one of the disappointed explains, "and they are left wondering if they were sold a bag of goods."

All this sounds like the griping of patrons who bought a ticket to a highly touted movie and lost interest when the popcorn ran out.

From the perspective of one who has seen 13 presidents in adult life through an actual Depression, four bitter wars and a Cuban Missile Crisis, such consumer dissatisfaction is surreal enough to raise second thoughts about the upbringing of the Baby Boomers, cushioned from the pain and disappointment of previous generations.

It's enough to make an aged observer want to shake these "whiners" (pace Joe Biden) and tell them to stop bitching, go buy a raffle ticket and get out the vote for November 2nd.

If they stay buried alive after that, nobody is going to come and rescue them.

Update: A live-streamed town hall to rev up young voters who helped put him in the White House two years ago underscores the President's Sisyphean task now. Voicing the mantra of Hope and Change in the abstract was a far easier rallying mission than defending the complicated results.

“One of the challenges of this election is to make sure we understand that as difficult as things have been, we are moving in the right direction,” he told them. “The challenge is to make sure that once again hope overcomes fear.”

Fear is turning out to be a more formidable foe than McCain and Palin.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vote-for-Me Hate Speech

With each passing day, New Yorkers face a choice of electing Carl Paladino as their governor or reporting him to authorities to be prosecuted for hate speech.

The Republican candidate wants to make it clear he disapproves of homosexuality. Point taken, but with all the problems facing voters, does he have to make his prejudice a campaign issue?

Last week, he told Orthodox Jewish leaders, “I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option--it isn’t."

That must have been a relief for Orthodox Jews who stay awake nights worrying about it, but Paladino wants to be sure he has made his stand perfectly clear. On the Today show, he criticizes his opponent Andrew Cuomo for having attended a Gay Pride Parade.

“Is that normal? Would you do it? Would you take your children?” Paladino asks Matt Lauer. “I don’t think it’s proper for them to go there and watch a couple of grown men grind against each other...I think it’s disgusting.”

New York voters may be impressed with a candidate so dedicated to exercising his right of free speech, but are they ready for a governor with such violent prejudices and a strong instinct for his own jugular?

Perhaps as the campaign goes on, Paladino will enlighten them with his views on other minorities, but they would be well-advised to keep the kids out of earshot.

Update: A day late and a dollar short, Paladino apologizes for "poorly chosen words" as his campaign cites a gay nephew, who is not appeased. Family values are tricky.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Social Network" vs. "Network"

In this culturally fractured moment, the buzz is suddenly about connection.

A Facebook film breaks out of entertainment to serve as a metaphor for political columnists while Jon Stewart uses a 1976 movie with half its title in calling for a Rally to Restore Sanity.

Is America "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" or a huge circle of Friends creating digital democracy and instant political giants? Or, if you look closer, something new and grotesque?

The original "Network" was a howl of pain by my classmate Paddy Chayevsky over a world in which human decency was disappearing down a media drain. His angry anchorman doesn't start a revolution. He is milked for profit by an amoral corporation that then has him killed on camera when he stops delivering.

"The Social Network," as befitting our times, is more complex. David Brooks notes that its protagonist is not "a bad person. He’s just never been house-trained...raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct...becomes a global business star without getting a first-grade education in interaction."

The picture, Maureen Dowd adds, "unfolds with mythic sweep, telling the most compelling story of all, the one I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?"

In this atmosphere, the nominal political bigwigs are toppled from thrones, only to be replaced by the same kind of faceless big-money powers behind them that pulled the strings in Chayevsky's time.

Frank Rich says that "you leave the movie with the sinking feeling that the democratic utopia breathlessly promised by Facebook and its Web brethren is already gone with the wind."

He cites Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker arguing that "social media increase the efficiency of the existing order rather than empowering dissidents. In his view, social networking is far less likely to recreate the civil rights movement of the 1960s than to track down missing cellphones for Wall Streeters."

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote "The Social Network," has a gift for turning public longings into powerful entertainment. In the Bush years, he fed the craving for intellect and instinct in Washington with "The West Wing." What is he trying to sell us now?

I would give anything to know what Paddy would make of all this. It's safe to say he wouldn't be thrilled.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Taxing Professors and Cowboys

A Harvard economist and former George W. Bush adviser explains it all in a piece titled, "I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less."

Less scholarly mortals should be grateful for enlightenment about how earning $1000 for an article is such a burden for a professor with more than $250,000 a year in income that the economy will crash if Congress doesn't extend the tax cuts his former boss gave people in his bracket.

More than half a century ago, when the top bracket was 84 percent rather than 39.6, a similar grumble came from the celluloid cowboy John Wayne, whom I ventured to tell, "If I were getting that many millions for making faces at cameras, I wouldn't complain about giving most of it back to people who buy tickets to see me do it."

That was in the Eisenhower era, when a small fraction of a lot was still a fortune, and the tax rate did not discourage Wayne from making movies as fast as he could.

Whatever happens now, here's hoping the professor keeps up with his writing too, even if he has to waive the fees for articles like this one.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

President McCain's Midterm Woes

If the 2008 presidential election had gone the other way, would there be a Tea Party today?

Unless the economy had magically recovered with nothing but tax cuts, a voter uprising seems inevitable. And would it have targeted only Congressional Democrats without spreading to "the treachery" of President John McCain, never accepted as a true believer by the Rush Limbaughs of his party and fervent followers of a Vice-President Sarah Palin?

A new Vanity Fair piece reports McCain's primary opponent in Arizona this year arguing "the country was better off with Obama as president than it would have been with an unreliably conservative McCain."

In office, the former maverick would have resisted a Detroit rescue, the stimulus and health care reform but arrived with the TARP bailout in place and irresistible momentum to do something in the face of economic collapse and soaring unemployment

After battles, cutbacks and veto threats, that "something" would surely have been enough government interference to rouse Tea Party patriots, particularly with their poster girl presiding over the Senate a heartbeat away.

In that event, Sarah Palin would surely have become the most activist VP since Dick Cheney--only not as loyal. Could she have resisted airing her campaign struggles in "Going Rogue" and sharing her thoughts with other Momma Grizzlies on Facebook?

What McCain called "background noise" when Palin's book appeared would have come front and center with her Congressional admirers like Jim DeMint, instead of predicting Obama's Waterloo, targeting their own President for defeat.

The blueprint for a GOP midterm revolt to take over the party and make McCain a one-termer would be in place. Karl Rove wrote it in 2000 to get W the Republican nomination, and one of its pillars was that five years as a POW had unhinged McCain.

A decade later, at 74, under the pressures of the Oval Office, that case would be easier to make, and there would be millions of Tea Party patriots out there making it.

Update: Back here, presumably on planet Earth, today's Sarah Palin has left McCain far behind and is pushing her 2012 electability with comparisons to...wait for it...Ronald Reagan The widow Nancy may have a word or two to say about that.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

An Unspeakable Campaign Commercial

Here's an idea for a revolutionary ad: Candidate looks into the camera to say: "My opponent is a decent, honorable person, but we disagree on issues A, B and C. If you share my views, vote for me."

Don't look for this one any time soon, because truth in advertising would make it unairable: not only a shortage of honorable opponents but an absence of issues in the ritual disembowelment that is now passing for election campaigns.

In West Virginia, a Senate aspirant runs a "reality" spot of two guys in a diner badmouthing his opponent, the sitting governor, that turns out to have been shot in Philadelphia with professional actors reading from a script, dressed in "hicky" clothes prescribed by the casting director.

In Connecticut, Gail Collins notes, Linda McMahon "has already spent so much money that residents of this small state may be wondering why she keeps deluging them with mailings and TV ads instead of just buying everybody a car."

Aside from attacking the character of her opponent, the former wrestling promoter is a "total wimp when it comes to taking a political stand...Her response to virtually any controversial question is that the matter needs to be studied. If you asked her...whether restaurants should be allowed to serve fried puppies, her answer would probably be that it should be looked into."

Elsewhere, TV screens are filled not with debates about issues or paeans to the virtues of those who want to be in Congress but character shredding of whoever stands in the way.

Democrats are in triage mode for the final weeks as covert money unleashed by the Roberts Court's Citizens United decision fuels tons of money from unknowable sources in an effort to take away their control of both houses

But judging from what they have been doing so far, their commercials won't be adding much substance to the campaigns.

Update: Instead of being submitted for an Academy Award, the West Virginia commercial is being withdrawn, presumably out of embarrassment that Republicans couldn't find local residents to employ in smearing their Governor.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Economic Stimulus of October 2010

Congress is pumping money directly into the economy, but the bipartisan bonanza will end November 2nd.

Republican enthusiasts are spearheading this stimulus by a 7-1 margin of $80 million spent so far compared to $16 million at this point in 2006, with benefactors choosing anonymity far more than ever before.

Democrats may be catching up, raking in $16 million during September alone from small donations that could signify a stirring of the Obama base that has been bombarded with multiple e-mail requests for $5 apiece in recent months.

The irony here is that such relative pin money is being expended in a "debate" wherein both sides are treating the TARP bailout, which has just expired, as politically toxic, despite objective opinion that it kept the economy from going over a cliff.

What's worse is that American corporations are now sitting on their biggest pile of cash in decades--$1.6 trillion--at the expense of retirees and other savers, who are getting nothing in return for the money they prudently saved over a lifetime, and failing to use any of it for job creation.

What's holding the recovery back? Corporate heads must surely be cheered by the prospect that Republicans will be taking over at least one house of Congress, and that the President has signaled his intention to scale back his push for new legislation that might make them nervous.

At this point, only politicians and their backers are plowing money into the economy. Perhaps the answer is to make the election cycle permanent.

Then again, that won't work because it already is.

Christine O'Donnell's Campaign Candor

Apologies may be in order for calling the Delaware senatorial candidate "a content-free politician" as she starts filling in some of the blanks in her contested resume.

In the first campaign ad, she tells voters, "I am not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard...I am you." So much for previous statements about "dabbling" in witchcraft.

Her father straightens out family claims about his career as Bozo the Clown, divulging he was one of many, only "part-time" and not "official."

Next up for clarification: Her assertion in a 2006 debate that China was plotting to take over America and that she had classified information about it that she couldn't divulge.

No word on her statement that she decided not to become a Hare Krishna because "I love meatballs."

At this rate, Delaware voters should know all they need to know about their future Senator by November 2nd.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Palin, O'Donnell: The Politics of Pure Attitude

Sarah Palin took us halfway there, and now her Delaware clone is the final product--the completely content-free politician.

Disappearing for three weeks after a primary victory, Christine O'Donnell emerges at an invitation-only crowd of 100 supporters and, in a no-cal interview with AP, "vows to control her political message."

Decades ago, when Marshall McLuhan asserted the medium is the message, there was still room for debate of issues. Now, the president of a conservative policy group lauds O'Donnell for her "real gift for personal presentation,” grounded, “in the ease in which she gives her personal testimony.”

This sounds more like revival meeting fare than politics, but it is reality-based in a year when attitude is all in the electoral process.

The usually astute Peggy Noonan gets it totally wrong in claiming, "The Internet changed everything. Everyone has facts now, knows who voted how and why. New thought leaders spring up and lead in new directions. Total transparency leads to party fracturing. Information dings unity. We are in new territory."

The last thing O'Donnell represents is information and transparency. Forget all the sad history of, as Karl Rove put it, "saying nutty things," a fictionalized biography and psychiatrically shaky life as an unemployed 41-year-old woman who, when asked for the Senator she most admires, after a long pause names Jim DeMint.

Her South Carolina hero is a perfect example of the bipartisan weirdness that has infected the electoral process as he enrages fellow Republicans and, in his own campaign, coasts to reelection against a flaky Democrat who makes O'Donnell look like Winston Churchill.

Frank Rich sees in her a "Tea Party everywoman, who just may be the final ingredient needed to camouflage a billionaires’ coup as a populist surge. By the time her fans discover that any post-election cuts in government spending will be billed to them, and not the Tea Party’s shadowy backers, she’ll surely be settling her own debts with fat paychecks from 'Fox & Friends.'”

Perhaps, but in today's climate, she could be sitting in the United States Senate for the next six years, next to such policy savants as Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Linda McMahon and Joe Miller.

If, as Democrats claim, they are closing "the enthusiasm gap," they had better do it fast.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rahm, Rick and an Old, Old Story

As the President bids a warm farewell to his Chief of Staff, the news is all about...Rick Sanchez.

Who? A daytime CNN anchor vents his displeasure in a radio interview about Jon Stewart satirizing his work, escalates into an aria against "Jewish" control of his own network and is instantly fired.

Sanchez's sad fate intersects with a memory evoked by Rahm Emanuel's decision to run for Mayor of Chicago, a hereditary position held by the Daley family--of the 1968 Democratic Convention hosted by the current mayor's father, caught on camera yelling at the podium what lip readers decoded as "“[Bleep] you, you Jew son of a bitch! You lousy mother[bleep]er! Go home!"

Sen. Abraham Ribicoff had been impolitic enough, while making a presidential nominating speech, to criticize the "Gestapo tactics" of the Mayor's minions in the streets outside acting out what was later officially described as "a police riot."

As the first would-be Jewish Mayor of the Second City, Emanuel will be running against that backdrop of what Rick Sanchez now reminds us is not ancient history.

If anything, Sanchez's anti-Semitism is relatively pathetic, coming from a second-tier TV anchor out promoting a book unfortunately titled "Conventional Idiocy" after losing a briefly held prime-time slot.

If Jon Stewart is half the human being he seems to be, the Daily Show host should invite Sanchez for a "beer summit" on air and coax him to attend his "Rally to Restore Sanity" in Washington at month's end.

As for Rahm Emanuel, as he courts voters in the land of Daley and Blagojevich, he will need all his abrasive charm and a psychological suit of armor for the campaign.

Would, as they used to say in my old neighborhood, having one of our own take charge of an ungovernable city be "good for the Jews?" Or should we be taking it with that time-honored shrug, "Things could be worse"?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Tony Curtis

As he morphed from Bernie Schwartz, a Depression kid of my generation who believed in the immigrant dream and lived it, Tony Curtis, who died this week, never lost the exuberance that came from growing up in a time when everything seemed possible because life couldn't possibly get worse.

Unlike most of us, who counted on our brains to escape Bronx squalor, Bernie was also blessed with a pretty face and he made the most of it, graduating from Universal's good-looks can't-act mill, along with Rock Hudson and others, to make a star of himself by working hard and choosing his mentors wisely.

He shone as "a cookie laced with arsenic" in Burt Lancaster's "Sweet Smell of Success;" chained to Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones;" and, most of all, in drag and doing a Cary Grant impression to woo Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic, "Some Like It Hot."

That year, on my first trip to Hollywood as a magazine editor, he was married to the lovely Janet Leigh, who had chided me when we met in New York for titling a piece about Tony, "I Grew Up Stealing," but relented and invited my family to visit.

My wife, new baby and I arrived at their Beverly Hills home with a circular driveway full of antique cars. Inside, we met the children, a sweet little girl named Kelly and a baby sister, Jamie Lee. As Janet took my wife on a tour of the house, Tony took me aside.

He gave me an abashed Bernie Schwartz smile and admitted he didn't know to make the martini my wife had asked for. I gave him a demonstration of the fine art of handling gin, vermouth and lemon peel, a social skill he would put to good use in the following decades as a suave international movie star.

He never stopped learning, as an actor and as a painter with enough skill to impress the Museum of Modern Art, even through a life filled with failed marriages, bad movies and a stay at the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol abuse.

That baby back then, Jamie Lee Curtis, now a movie star herself, estranged from him after her parents' divorce, now sums up Tony Curtis:

"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages. He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."

R.I.P., Bernie.