Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Decoding Mitt's Magical Mystery Tour

As he lurches homeward, what have we learned? Beyond the gaffefest, is there a sharper focus on the man who would be president in this time of dangerous turmoil?

Parsing Mitt Romney's trip may require a cultural context rather than political, starting with the Beatles’ 1967 LP and TV film, “Magical Mystery Tour,” which was also greeted as “a disaster” by British critics.

Like Romney, the Fab Four were emblematic of their times, with mindset and lyrics not easily decoded. Their soothing songs had embedded messages (LSD in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) of a psychedelic worldview that infuriated insensitive onlookers.

Just so now with the GOP contender. Below all his apparently aimless babbling is a vision. In contrast to those cheeky outsiders, Romney is the embodiment of today’s country-club insider. How else to explain his implicitly equating Palestinians’ economic woes vs. Israelis with the culture gap between Americans and Mexicans?

Romney’s essence may be glimpsed by going back even more to the 1920s and Sinclair Lewis’ Nobel Prize portrait of “Babbitt,” the prototypically narrow-minded American businessman with a booster mentality who “considers it God's purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements.”

With such a challenger and the President’s defensive status (Babbitt vs. the embattled), little wonder that the campaign, according to David Brooks echoing Peggy Noonan, is “incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time,” reaching “intellectual stagnation” of political debate.

In the larger scheme, Mitt Romney’s trip won’t weigh heavily in the dehumanized, computerized mechanics of the 2012 campaign, but for those who still care about the human side of it all, the Beatles and Babbitt offer clues.

Update: Maureen Dowd weighs in: “Mitt’s foray showed some new colors, as he intended, but they were not flattering ones. We now know how little he knows about the world, how really slow on his feet he is, what meager social and political agility he has.

“Wherever he went, whatever situation he was in, he remained frozen in himself.”

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cheney, Clinton: Ghosts of Elections Past

As voters sleepwalk toward November, apparitions from their troubled history rise up to remind them of past errors.

Dick Cheney, the vice-president who picked himself, proclaims that naming Sarah Palin to succeed him was “a mistake,” while Bill Clinton emerges for a marquee role in the Democratic convention to nominate Barack Obama for a second term.

Such Scrooge-like emanations may serve, not only as the inspirations they are intended to be, but as warnings to the electorate to mend its ways in deciding the future.

In dismissing Palin, Cheney echoes Lloyd Bentsen’s classic putdown of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate: “I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

“I like Gov. Palin,” says Cheney. “I’ve met her. I know her. But based on her background, she had only been governor for, what, two years? I don’t think she passed that test of being ready to take over. And I think that was a mistake.”

When Cheney ended his search for George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000 by looking in the mirror, he was more than ready to take over and did--in an imperial vice-presidency that led to doctoring espionage reports for Colin Powell’s UN speech to justify a needless war in Iraq and dispatching Scooter Libby to out Valerie Plame as a CIA agent when her husband raised questions Cheney didn’t like.

As Mitt Romney ruminates about his tax returns and picks his VP, Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman et al may look like safer investments.

On the other side is the perennial Comeback Kid. Says Obama strategist David Axelrod, “There isn’t anybody on the planet who has a greater perspective on not just the last four years, but the last two decades, than Bill Clinton. He can really articulate the choice that is before people.”

Just so. But the former president may also remind voters of other events in those two decades: impeachment that brought him thisclose to being ousted for unzipping in the Oval Office as well as reckless attacks on Obama only four years ago during the 2008 primaries.

Yet, in the “Christmas Carol” spirit, redemption may be what counts. By the time the Ghost of Elections Future arrives four years from now, a gifted-wrapped Hillary Clinton may be ready and waiting.

Update: A new Gallup poll shows 66 percent of Americans now have a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton.

How far does nostalgia go? How many would want Cheney back, too?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

British Out of Bounds on Romney

The spirit of Olympic competitiveness raises unexpected patriotic fervor to protect Mitt Romney from Brits who have been bashing him so joyfully. He is, after all, our boob and they have no leftover colonial right to exercise their snobbery so freely at his “blunders and clangers.”

What if he did say on arrival that the state of preparedness was “disconcerting?” Does that give the Mayor of London the right to use him as a punch line to rouse Olympic crowds? Or PM David Cameron to sniff, “Of course it’s easier if you hold Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” in a bitchy putdown of those Romney managed in Salt Lake City?

Americans watching him through two election cycles understand that Romney is a stereotypical rich kid among political rowdies, trapped in a school where they routinely steal his lunch money.

If he gets mussed up here over tax returns and Bain claims, there is something substantial at stake, not just a verbal gaffe like his unfortunate anatomical reference to the “backside of 10 Downing Street.”

As he tiptoes overseas with the announced intention of not setting off foreign policy land mines, the Republican candidate keeps stepping into cow flops instead, but it may be asking too much of him not to do so.

He is clearly a new incarnation of “Babbitt,” the narrow-minded American businessman in a novel that helped Sinclair Lewis win a Nobel Prize almost a century ago for his depiction of a booster who “considers it God's purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements.”

In that role, Mitt Romney is also the undisputed champion of issue flip-flopping but there is no reason to expect him to show a matching verbal dexterity on more mundane matters.

As he makes his way to Israel and Poland, patriotic Americans can only hope the possible future President can show restraint in trying to ingratiate himself with Yiddish expressions or Polish jokes.

Intentional standup comedy is not his long suit.

Update: The campaign has found a way to protect Romney from himself, by taking the unprecedented step of barring the press from his Jerusalem fundraiser with casino owner Sheldon Adelson and other fat cats of the Jewish persuasion.

That will cut down on reported gaffes but hardly improve his relations with media mavens who have been increasingly complaining about Palinlike efforts to keep him under wraps.
 
Update update: Another flip-flop: Reporters allowed to hear Romney remarks but not Q&A.
   

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Defying the NRA Death Lobby

Half a century ago 60 percent of Americans favored a ban on hand guns. Now, 53 percent don’t want to outlaw even assault rifles.

Such a massive shift in public opinion has been spurred, sponsored and legislatively enforced by the National Rifle Association, tagged by journalists as the gun lobby but more accurately described as the gun death lobby.

As Mitt Romney disdains new firearm restrictions in favor of “changing the heart of the American people” and Democrats, including the President, shy away from gun control, advocates point out that the NRA may be a “paper tiger” in elections yet terrorizes Congress with its rating system.

“We do absolutely everything they ask,” says a Democratic staffer,

The few vocal politicians who resist include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is too rich to cower, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, whose husband was gunned down on a commuter train. Elsewhere, even after shocks such as Aurora, there is silence on Capitol Hill.

Yet, isn’t an election year the time for voters to push Congressional candidates on the issue? 

Shouldn't both presidential candidates be under pressure to move toward some semblance of gun control?

Shouldn’t the silent majority that abhors random violence be pushing back against an organization that last year arrogantly refused to even discuss the issue with the White House? "Why should I or the N.R.A.” huffed its president, “go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?"

As those who retain their humanity in the face of such bluster try to redefine guns as a public health issue, isn’t it far past time for voters to push back against the death lobby? 

Shouldn't they let its paid advocates know what's really in their hearts?
 
Update: A Friday New York Times editorial says it all:

At a moment when the country needs resolve and fearlessness to reduce the affliction of gun violence that kills more than 80 people a day, both presidential candidates have kicked away the opportunity for leadership. On Wednesday, reacting to the mass murder in Colorado last week, Mitt Romney and President Obama paid lip service to the problem but ducked when the chance arose to stand up for their former principles.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Candidates' Sanity Pause

Predictably, the presidential campaigns have looked at the spaced-out face of the Aurora rampager and opted for a sanity pause in the madness of their mutual bashing. In the immortal words of Geraldo Rivera, “Anyone can fake being sincere for five minutes.”

After the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, even John Boehner and his Tea Party bullies toned down their rhetoric briefly before going back on the loony attack.

In a new TV ad described as “striking in its subdued tone and restraint,” Obama looks into the camera and explains that the election is “a choice between two very different plans for our country. Governor Romney's plan would cut taxes for the folks at the very top. Roll back regulations on big banks. And he says that if we do, our economy will grow and everyone will benefit. But you know what? We tried that top down approach. It's what caused the mess in the first place...

"Sometimes politics can seem very small. But the choice you face, it couldn't be bigger."

For his part, Romney is off for a week to Israel, England and Poland, with his advisers solemnly promising that he will avoid criticizing the President on foreign soil.

It’s comforting that murderous orange-haired lunacy can prompt such delicacy in high places, but it would be crazy to bet that it will last until August.

Meanwhile, a new poll shows voters overwhelmingly feel they know enough about Obama with only a minority wanting to hear more about Romney’s record as governor, his tenure at Bain and his tax returns.

The majority seems ready to vote now and skip the conventions and the debates. Before the SuperPAC money kicks in, are they just trying to preserve their own sanity?

Monday, July 23, 2012

College Football Is Pure Again

The commanding generals of college football come down from the safety of lofty positions during Penn State’s battles to shoot the wounded and pick their pockets.

Taking away $60 million in fines and dozens of future athletic scholarships as well as past victories, the (paid) president of the NCAA harrumphs, “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”

Purists can all rest easy now. College sports have been cleansed to continue under NCAA rules that turn institutions of higher learning into profit centers where student athletes, with no compensation or insurance, labor for the glory and financial gain of celebrity coaches and TV networks.

Joe Paterno’s statue is down, and all is well in the land of Saturday afternoon slavery except for those Penn State players who signed on for the possibility of future fame and wealth, only to be undermined by nasty news of a child predator in their midst.

Someone is paying a price for all this unpleasantness, but as usual, it’s not those who profit from it most.

Another NCAA official declares that college sports’ win-at-all-costs mentality has “got to stop...We’ve had enough.”

Of what?

 Update: Suitably enough, it is a columnist from the business and finance pages of the New York Times who makes the most apt comment on the Penn State penalties.

Joe Nocera points out that “at big-time sports schools, football is always placed ahead of everything else. The essential hypocrisy of college sports is that too many athletes are not real students--and no one cares. Coaches make millions and lose their jobs if they fail to win.

“Universities reap millions by filling stadiums and making attractive television deals. They serve as the minor leagues for the pros. Everybody knows this--including the N.C.A.A. The notion that the Penn State case is going to change all of college sports is absurd. College football almost can’t help but corrode academic values.”

Yet, even in a bad economy, the amount of money involved keeps mounting.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Moral Price of Movie Tickets

Looking for a good movie? A New York Times review reveals, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the Batman auteur has taken “an existential drama and expanded that concept to encompass questions about power, the state and whether change is best effected from inside the system or outside it.”

The British Guardian/Observer, after recounting its sleazy history, declares the film has “intelligence, epic thrust and visual grandeur.”

Sorting through Aurora’s emotional carnage and looking for reasons and/or scapegoats, consider those deep thinkers who elevate hyperkinetic junk into art—-the nation’s “serious” movie critics who tell today’s generations that lowbrow comic books of half a century ago have morphed into graphic novels of intellectually high caliber and guilty-pleasure movies of back then are must-see cultural events.

We are a long way from the 1950s when a pop psychiatrist “attacked Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson's menage as a covert celebration of homosexuality. Ten years later, however, when Susan Sontag's seminal essay Notes on Camp promoted kitsch and the idea of ‘it's good because it's bad,’” Batman was on its way to today’s respectability.

In the post-9/11 world, dominated by nameless dread and a desperate need to be in-the-know, there is certainly a market for amped-up vicarious experiences of power and superiority by anxiety-ridden audiences. Yet at what moral price?

For the latest mass murderer, dressing up in costume to kill innocent people at a midnight showing must have seemed like a logical extension of the Batman values being projected on the big screen.

Hollywood has a long tradition of scoffing message movies, which attempt to elevate audiences’ thinking and end up boring them to death.

Shock for its own sake has always been the last refuge of the untalented in art and commerce. Assaulting the senses to grab attention is easy. Rewarding the mind is not. 

Will movie makers and critics who slavishly take their output on its own terms give some serious thought to what they are unthinkingly selling? The hype has higher costs than the price of tickets and popcorn.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Shots in the American Dark

Once again psychotic rage rises up to preempt our attention. Real blood splatters innocents enjoying movie mayhem and sets off another round of parsing a twisted soul’s life and motives.

In coming days, curiosity about the “Batman” killer will sweep aside everyday anxieties to swamp us with unanswerable questions about mental illness, popular culture, gun control and the degradation of American life.

James Holmes will join Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in dominating the Google universe, leaving them--and us--helpless to do more than express shock and grief in a literally unspeakable situation.

As HBO’s “Newsroom” ends its weekly installment of agitating us into reflection about our media diet with last year’s Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona, our nerve endings are now in a Denver suburb.

Slowly, the victims will acquire names, faces and life histories to let us mourn them as real people rather than statistics, but what then?

In time, the unspeakable will exhaust its 15 minutes and we can go back to worrying about the presidential campaign and who is sleeping with whom in Aaron Sorkin’s fevered imagination.

The darkness will still be out there.
 
Update: The Day After brings the usual news of national helplessness. We learn that a semi-automatic rifle used in Aurora would have been banned if a 1994 law were still in effect and are reminded that “presidential candidates look at this issue and see the same thing other elected officials do: a rich, fierce, loopy lobby on one side, and, on the other, people with petitions, slogging along.”

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Tuscon. Aurora.

Almost a century ago, in “A Farewell to Arms,” Hemingway disavowed abstract words about the slaughter of innocents as “obscene,” saying that "finally only the names of places had dignity.”

So it is today.   

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Romney Runs, But Can He Hide?

Even before his choice of VP, GOP strategists have their Great White Hope in modified crouch, a version of the 2008 Sarah Palin strategy: keeping him under cover while furors over Bain Capital and his tax returns have Mitt Romney reeling on the defensive.

He surfaces this week only twice, in Ohio and New Hampshire, then goes into hiding before a trip to Israel, England and Poland, where he can blame Obama for worldwide economic woes while ducking questions about his own.

All this recalls what Joe Louis, the fabled Brown Bomber of the 1930s, said about one of his nimble foes while defending his title against bum-of-the-month contenders, “He can run, but he can’t hide.”

As Romney’s campaign falters and tries to run out the long clock, it becomes clear that withholding his tax returns beyond the most recent two years will cut into their man’s credibility both ways.

If he refuses to reveal more, some voters will assume the worst. If he caves in and finally agrees, the opposition will be able to pick apart his doublespeak about blind trusts.

Back when Joe Louis was being patronized as “a credit to his race,” some admirers were insisting that it was more about the human race.

Will it be again this year?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Penn State's Other Parenting Problems

A Casablanca moment leaves Americans “shocked, shocked” about gambling in the casino, even as Joe Paterno, in his last interview, claims to have been “shocked and saddened” by revelations of child abuse and cover-ups at Penn State.

At the same time, a scathing report details the university’s “slavish devotion” to its own needs that overrode “everything, including the law, basic human decency and the bedrock obligation we all have to protect defenseless children from harm.”

We can turn the page now on the Sandusky mess, cathartically comforted by the sight of all those guilty others to be flogged on the media square and forgotten. But a few questions about our own complicity may be in order.

Nowhere in the recriminations is any serious debate about why and how college sports under NCAA rules have turned institutions of higher learning into profit centers where student athletes, with no compensation or insurance, slave for the glory and financial gain of celebrity coaches and TV networks.

Saturday afternoon watchers will go back to enjoying games with little thought about those who labor now for future fame and wealth but with no protection against career-ending injuries.

If the pillars of higher learning collude in such exploitation, why are we surprised by the failure of such elites to fullfil “in loco parentis” duties to protect other students as well as helpless children from big-name predators?

In an age of hypocrisy, where social trust in institutions from the White House to the Supreme Court has eroded, why should colleges and universities be immune? And why should we who can watch games a day later where players are properly paid and protected?

As the Olympics loom, it may be past time to rethink amateur purity. 

Update: To complete the circle of hypocrisy comes news of a sweet deal Paterno was negotiating at his death.

He would get $3 million if he agreed 2011 would be his last season. The university would forgive previous interest-free loans of $350,000 as part of the retirement package, and he would have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for himself and his family over the next 25 years.

No word of anything for the player-students who would labor on in the games below.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Romney's Alternate Realities

The GOP campaign is a sci-fi movie with computerized flashbacks to former times and places. 

Tonight takes “the candidate” to a Wyoming of yore, transporting the Mitt cyborg for fund-raising to a bygone Bush-Cheney era that has otherwise been erased from memory in 2012.

In Jackson Hole, it will spend congenial hours in a virtual reality simulation of a decade ago, mingling with Dick, Lynne, Liz and their very rich friends with checkbooks after being projected back to the old civil rights era the day before to be booed by the NAACP, a scene designed to be explicated for the faithful by Rush Limbaugh.

Romneybots are everywhere to be tracked down in a grownup version of “Where’s Waldo?”

If there is a real person in all this, he is as elusive as those 21st century actors constantly being teleported to movie sets of the 1930s or 1960s, depending on the plot’s requirements. While flashbacks create an appearance of actuality, the audience knows some demented director is really pulling the strings.

Lovers of old movies will recognize all this as a high-tech update of what Mel Brooks did in “Blazing Saddles,” the classic spoof of cowboys sitting around a campfire emitting brain farts and punching horses in the tale about undermining a black sheriff that ends with a giant brawl breaking through studio walls and spilling from one movie set to another.

Sci-fi spectacular or Brooksian comedy, will the real Mitt Romney stand up? Voters need a reality show before November.
    

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Learning to Love Obama Again

Four months from now, voters will either have renewed their vows in a shaky marriage or taken their chances with a parody of the rich guy who promises them the moon with no evidence of reliability.

For guidance, they can turn back to a primary source about the ups and downs of life with Barack Obama—-Michelle Obama herself. Back in 2007, the future First Lady warned against expecting too much from him:

“Barack is very much human. So let’s not deify him, because what we do is we deify, and then we’re ready to chop it down. People have notions of what a wife’s role should be in this process, and it’s been a traditional one of blind adoration. My model is a little different--I think most real marriages are.”

Mrs. Obama could not have foreseen how much chopping down would occur in her husband’s first term, how the politics of hope would morph into the politics of nope with wall-to-wall GOP refusal to man the fire hoses as the national economy was burning down.

Now, as Mitt Romney woos the most unlikely constituencies, the question is: Do voters have to rekindle that 2008 rapture to escape their frying pan/fire dilemma? Can a new generation of young people, facing unemployment after college, fall in love with Obama now as they did then? Or must politics, like most marriages, go beyond that first fine passion and evolve into respect, sharing and caring?

Those are the questions this summer and fall. As they look for answers, voters may want to consider Michelle Obama herself, a woman of her time who knows that “blind adoration” is a myth of the old politics, in which wives gazed at their husbands like inflatable dolls during a campaign.

Americans may not be as much in love with Barack Obama this time, but do they want a four-year fling with the likes of Mitt Romney?