Tuesday, January 31, 2012

High Stakes of a Two-House Campaign

Reelecting Barack Obama this year won’t be enough. Unless Democrats retake Congress, gridlock in Washington won’t end.

Now, a Democratic statistician reports that winning back the House of Representatives “is in the realm of possibility,” citing “a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, in which, when asked which party they prefer to control Congress, voters cited Democrats, 47 to 41 percent, as well as a recent National Journal poll that found 48 percent of voters prefer Democrats to take control of the House while 37 percent want Republicans to stay in control. In October, the same poll showed a statistical tie.”

Such a rising anti-Tea Party tide is even more crucial than whatever happens in the GOP primaries. Another four years of Obama won’t turn the country around without loosening the grip of John Boehner and Eric Cantor, as well as Mitch McConnell, in Congress.

As fund-raising for the President goes on at a high level, disheartened voters may want to funnel some of their dollars at the diehard freshman class of 2010 in the other House, reminding voters of how they are wrecking the economic recovery with legislative tantrums.

A recent Obama fund-raising email from Caroline Kennedy cites her departed uncle:

“In his speech four years ago today, Teddy reminded us all of that bright light of hope and possibility that shines even in the darkest hours...I don't think he would be surprised to know that four years later, this president would have ended the war in Iraq, repealed ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell,’ and guaranteed women the right to equal pay for equal work...

“The 2012 election will be harder than the last. As you think about what role you can play this time, I want you to remember that when Teddy joined this campaign, it wasn't just Barack Obama who drew him in.

“It was you. The possibility of a campaign run by ordinary people determined to change our country for the better and willing to work as hard as necessary inspired him then, and it's what inspires me today.”

Well said, but it’s vital to remember that 2012 is a two-front political war, and it has to be won on both fronts.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Debate Drought: Bad News for Newt

No GOP slugfests for the next three weeks—-how will we get through the month?

Yesterday Gingrich gave us some venom to go, in the parking lot of a Florida mega-church with a Starbucks in the lobby, tagging Mitt as a "pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase moderate from Massachusetts" with "money from Wall Street" to spread lies about him, "as big an outrage as I've had in my career.” (Aside from that, Mrs. Romney, did you enjoy the Sunday service?)

Nationally, a new poll shows Newt’s Southern strategy, which won South Carolina. is not only fading in Florida but destroying his candidacy nationally. Head to head, Romney leads Obama by a percentage point, 48-47, but the President hammers Gingrich, 54-40, a turnaround of 17 points since early December.

"Gingrich's efforts to win the Republican nomination,” says a political scientist, “have set back his efforts to win the general election." Appealing to Tea Party conservatives has "moved him out of the mainstream of American politics."

As a blowout loss looms in tomorrow’s Florida vote, the former Speaker is turning up the volume full blast in retirement complexes, touting Herman Cain’s endorsement and that of Michael Reagan, the Gipper’s son, but the hard-of-hearing may not be enough to save him.

For those of us elsewhere, February promises to be a restful month.

Update: On the last day of campaigning, Gingrich plays the Yiddish card, telling Florida retirees that Romney eliminated kosher food for Jewish residents of nursing homes in Massachusetts. (Mitt’s minions say he restored the cuts.)

Newt, who was Protestant and is now Catholic, is now an equal-opportunity bigot or, as his new friends might say, putz.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

GOP "Stinky Feet" Stealing

A Gail Collins admirer has to tell her she has been taken in by Republican plagiarism of Michelle Obama.

In her column, she writes about Gingrich’s marital history and conservative voters:

“When all else fails, they have even been known to argue that everybody does it. ‘I’m just saying, they all have stinky feet,’ former Congressman J. C. Watts, a Baptist preacher, said while he was campaigning for Newt in South Carolina.

“Although actually, when you’re talking about 1) Committing adultery, 2) Divorcing your wife while she’s sick to marry your mistress, 3) Committing adultery, 4) Allegedly asking your wife to let you keep the mistress on the side and 5) Divorcing your wife while she’s sick to marry your mistress... it’s pretty clear everybody doesn’t do it.

“But in a way, Watts is right. (And we do like that stinky feet line.)”

Flashback to the campaign in 2007 when Mrs. Obama told Glamour Magazine about her two little girls: “We have this ritual in the morning. They come in my bed, and Dad isn’t there--because he’s too snore-y and stinky, they don’t want to ever get into bed with him...

“He still has trouble...putting his socks actually in the dirty clothes.”

Of course, the irony of Watts’ translating the phrase from a close, happy family to defend a serial adulterer is, to say the least, piquant.

Rooting around in my five-year-old blog posts, there is one several days later about Newt Gingrich explaining why he won’t run for the White House:

“’(T)he presidency is a minor post on the scale of change I'm describing,’ Gingrich explained to the Washington Post...

“Instead he will follow the example of Benjamin Franklin. ‘He didn't think he was less than Washington or Jefferson,’ Gingrich the historian explains. ‘He was deliberately eclectic and deliberately complex, and happy to be so.

“He was pretty interesting. If you had told him, 'If you could have been simple, you could have been president,' he would have said, 'That's pretty stupid.'"

Does Gingrich wonder about what Benjamin Franklin would be telling him right about now?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cancer Cures for the Body Politic

After months of trying to ameliorate a disease ravaging the GOP, Jon Huntsman Jr. has moved into fighting cancers that afflict human beings rather than the body politic by taking over as chairman of a foundation that funds his family’s Institute, a research, education and treatment center with a full-time faculty and staff of 1300.

In his political hiatus, Huntsman worked hard but failed to offer Republicans the radical surgery that might have saved it from the coma in which it now seems to be sunk. Let’s hope he encourages scientists to be more aggressive in the labs.

In the Weekly Address today, the President reminds us again of how far the Tea Party virus has progressed by citing the case of Sen. Mike Lee, who unseated long-time conservative Robert Bennett last year:

“Just two days ago, a senator from Utah promised to obstruct every single American I appoint to a judgeship or public service position-- unless I fire the consumer watchdog I put in place to protect the American people from financial schemes or malpractice.

“For the most part, it’s not that this senator thinks these nominees are unqualified. In fact, all of the judicial nominees being blocked have bipartisan support. And almost 90 percent have unanimous support from the Judiciary Committee.

“Instead, one of his aides told reporters that the senator plans to, and I’m quoting here, ‘Delay and slow the process in order to get the President’s attention.’

“One senator gumming up the works for the whole country is certainly not what our founding fathers envisioned.”

This particular pustule will be on the Senate’s backside for five more years but, in November, voters can start surgically removing some of the others.

Good luck to Huntsman in his quest for cancer cures. We are going to have find our own.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ganging Up on Gingrich

Ghosts of GOP past are rising from political tombs to sound alarms about Newt in the White House even as the last Florida debate has him on the defensive about the past and future.

Gingrich fails in his attempt to use Wolf Blitzer as the kind of tackle dummy he made out of CNN colleague John King in South Carolina, while 1996 candidate Bob Dole is joined by Tom Delay, Ann Coulter, Elliott Abrams and other Conservatives in a Matt Drudge firing squad against the former Speaker.

“If Gingrich is the nominee,” writes Dole, “it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices. Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him...

“By 1997 a number of House Republican members wanted to throw him out as Speaker. But he hung on until after the 1998 elections...His mounting ethics problems caused him to resign in early 1999. I know whereof I speak as I helped establish a line of credit of $150,000 to help Newt pay off the fine for his ethics violations...

“Gingrich had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall. He loved picking a fight with President Clinton because he knew this would get the attention of the press. This and a myriad of other specifics like shutting down the government helped to topple Gingrich in 1998.

“In my run for the presidency in 1996 the Democrats greeted me with a number of negative TV ads and in every one of them Newt was in the ad. He was very unpopular and I am not only certain that this did not help me, but that it also cost House seats that year.”

Now, his rivals have National Review and the GOP establishment sounding the alarm for them about Gingrich’s “grandiose” plans, the latest of which is colonizing the moon and eventually making it a state.

In the debate, Rick Santorum looks comparatively sane even as he complains that the President stole his ideas about stimulating manufacturing in the State of the Union and blames Obama for the downgrade of U.S. credit without acknowledging the Tea Party temper tantrum that caused it.

Romney, who now has an “attack coach,” is getting better at giving as good as he gets from Gingrich, who had been treating him like a rich kid in the schoolyard, stealing his lunch money and making him look bad.

Meanwhile, Ron Paul is relaxed and making jokes, as he goes on with a plausible case against foreign wars coupled with loony Libertarian railing over domestic spending.

Where are the men with nets now that we need them?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Time and Other Shaky Dimensions

For a while the other day, my life turned upside down—-literally. My computer screen inverted itself and would not return to normal no what matter what I did.

After numerous shutdowns, I adjusted to a world in which the cursor moved in the opposite direction from the mouse, managed to find a “restore point” and, clicking on it, brought the screen back to normal.

Curious about why the computer had turned on me, I Googled for an explanation and found it, but the experience has led me into wondering about other dimensions of life we take for granted and how much they change over time.

In the next week, two people dear to me have milestone birthdays—-one 85, the other 90—-and soon afterward, I will be 88. “Old age is a shipwreck,” a saying goes, and in many ways it is.

Even as friends and family gather to celebrate, the object of their love and warm feelings is, in many ways, physically and psychically, moving away from them. “We live in one universe,” Aldous Huxley wrote in a novel, “and die in another.”

We adjust in ways true to our nature. Most women I know are better than men at keeping up connections with one another in the real world. For someone who spent a working life as a writer and editor, transferring ideas and images from his head into those of unseen others, I spend much of my time now doing this, sending out notes in a bottle in the hope that other human beings will find them interesting enough to glance at occasionally.

In a sense, my blogging is an attempt to make connections between my own present and the past, when I was too busy coping with life to think about what it meant to me. Now I live in the past, because it keeps living in me.

All this is reinforced by release from the Kennedy Library of audio tapes that JFK had made, unknown to others, nobody knows why, of his last days on earth.

Listening to a fuzzy voice worrying aloud about his upcoming campaign for reelection would normally have led me to write a post connecting it to Barack Obama’s situation today, but instead it provokes a far different memory.

A friend who was a concert pianist had acquired a roomful of the most sensitive audio equipment available, and I brought a Louis Armstrong CD over to play on it.
The sounds were amazing, not only from his trumpet, but Louis’ breathing and mumbling, all that had been on those records unheard for half a century, waiting for future technology to give them to those who love his music.

That brought me back to the “restore point” of my computer adventure. If only we had such capacity to rewind our lives and find what lies hidden there and perhaps change what we then do...

Yet that recalls the warning of being careful about what you wish for. On the JFK tapes, there is an exchange on November 20, 1963, before he left for Dallas about his schedule for the following Monday.

“Well, that's a tough day," JFK says. "It's a hell of a day, Mr. President," an aide responds.

That turned out to be the date of John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Obama's Elephant in the Room...

...is the GOP Congress as the President does a deft job of trying to reboot his final year with small unilateral steps to get around the pachyderm squatting on the path to economic recovery, leading up to a plea for bipartisan cooperation on larger issues that hits a blank wall in the faces of McConnell, Boehner, Cantor and their Tea Party obstructionists.

Without explicit blame, Barack Obama (the man knows how to work a room) acts out a psychodrama of the leader who killed bin Laden and saved Detroit but could not overcome the intransigence of Republicans who say no to everything.

Only at the end, does he allude to the elephant in the room: “The greatest blow to our confidence in our economy last year didn’t come from events beyond our control. It came from a debate in Washington over whether the United States would pay its bills or not. Who benefited from that fiasco? I’ve talked tonight about the deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. But the divide between this city and the rest of the country is at least as bad--and it seems to get worse every year.”

For a rebuttal, Republicans send out smooth Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who asserts, “It’s not fair and it’s not true for the president to attack Republicans in Congress as obstacles on these questions. They and they alone have passed bills to reduce borrowing, reform entitlements and encourage new job creation, only to be shot down nearly time and again by the president and his Democrat Senate allies.

“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others.”

Say what? Daniels, who would have been crushed in 18 Obama-bashing debates if he had sought the presidential nomination, offers no evidence for these bizarre claims but Mitt Romney, taking time out from explaining away his 14 percent tax rate on last year’s income of $21.7 million, reacts to the State of the Union with puzzlement.

“What he says and what he does are so dramatically different. Where was he during his first two years? Why didn’t he get these things done during his first two years?”

In watching the President’s speech, Romney was looking right at the reason, his own party’s elephant in the room. If he can get past Newt Gingrich in the primaries, the President no doubt will explain it all to him on the campaign trail later in the year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Newt Wants His Claque Back

In the wake of a relatively brisk, civilized debate, ringmaster Gingrich is complaining about losing his rabble-rousing rights.

Reacting to NBC’s control of the kind of whooping and cheering that went on in South Carolina, Newt’s morning-after regret is that “I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong. And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media.”

“We’re going to serve notice on future debates,” he tells Fox. “The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.”

For a historian, Gingrich has failed to recall that the Kennedy-Nixon debates took place in a closed studio with only a handful of press and that the New York Times reported the next day that “the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”

The process has now been transformed from a relatively civilized exchange into an ugly spectacle of candidates under pressure to tear down one another with unchecked (until the next day, when TV viewers are gone) exaggerations, distortions and lies—-anything to stir up the partisan blood.

No wonder Gingrich is miffed. It’s not “free speech” when partisan claques are allowed to override moderators trying to conduct debates based on exchanges between candidates.

There’s another word for what he wants. It’s “demagoguery,” and even Fox News must know the difference.

Sticky State of Disunion

Now that future Presidents Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have had their say, a person named Barack Obama, who claims to hold the office, will face TV cameras tonight with what purports to be a State of the Union address.

Fact-checking of Gingrich and Romney eliminates many of their more stimulating claims, reducing Mr. Obama to such boring proposals as refinancing for homeowners in trouble, tax breaks for companies that bring back jobs to the United States and clean energy incentives along with new education and job-training initiatives for high school graduates to get technical degrees.

All this will surely fail to excite the joint session of Congress, and one of them has announced he won’t be there. Staying away will be a Colorado House Republican, who last year told a reporter, “I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby, and you get it--you know, you’re stuck, and you’re part of the problem now, and you can’t get away.”

The problem for those with a serious interest in the sticky state of the union is that they will have to go beyond the sound bites to evaluate Obama’s handling of the economy and read Ryan Lizza’s “The Obama Memos” in the New Yorker, an account of the “post-post partisan Presidency,” and go to Bill Moyers’ website for his interview about “crony capitalism” with David Stockman, a former proponent for Reagan’s trickle-down theory.

All this will involve more time and thought than election-year punch lines and leave behind a sour taste about politicians of all flavors, but these days boredom goes along with eternal vigilance as the price of liberty.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Too Many Mitts

During the 1960 campaign, JFK said he felt sorry for Nixon: “It must be hard getting up every morning and having to decide who you’re going to be that day.”

Now, Mitt Romney’s authenticity problem is front and center. Wobbling into a belated release of some tax returns for whenever, he is, like Nixon back then, still trying to create a real person Republican voters can believe in.

The obvious answer to Romney resistance is that he appears willing (flip-flops, anyone?) to be or do anything to get elected, and GOP voters are uneasy, not because he is too moderate, but because there are too many Mitts.

For better or worse, they have been gravitating to deeply flawed alternatives (Gingrich, anyone?) for almost a year (Bachmann, Cain, Perry) to channel the passion Romney can’t inspire. In this weird year, “electable” has become a synonym for “blah.”

At Bain, Romney was the “presenter” to sell vampire investments in vulnerable companies. That role required an affable pitchman who would not call attention to himself and distract buyers from the product.

Over two election cycles, he has been doing just that on the hustings, selling a product named Romney, when voters are looking for evidence of an actual person. Now that they are choosing a serial adulterer who has taken millions from agencies he now denounces, time is running out for a real Romney, however flawed, to come into focus.

His advisors can be seen tinkering with the robotic version, programming it to get aggressive and telling Florida hecklers to “take a hike,” while rolling out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as an attack dog on “Meet the Press” to take bites out of Gingrich.

With a problem so deep, however, the candidate himself may want to give his version of Nixon’s Checkers speech, hopefully less hokey, to tell the American people who that man behind the curtain really is.

Anything would be an improvement over the blur of so many manufactured Mitts.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Media Backlash Against Newt?

In South Carolina, Prof. Gingrich has combined theology with science: When a snake, i.e. the media, drops a bitten apple on you, deflect it back and reverse the momentum of your campaign.

Not quite Sir Isaac’s formulation, but Dr. Karl Rove, Newt’s former colleague at Fox University, validates the theory, “John King couldn’t have set up the question in a more positive way for Gingrich to just nail it and haul it right out of the park.”

Credit this new formulation to a series of earlier debate experiments, starting with his attack on Chris Wallace for a “gotchya” question and “playing Mickey Mouse games” about the disarray of his campaign last summer, followed by jousting with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo about health care in November and a racially charged encounter with another Fox questioner Juan Williams earlier this week.

Gingrich’s war against the press recalls the final year of Nixon’s presidency and his conflict with CBS’ White House correspondent Dan Rather after Watergate. At a news conference during the reelection campaign, when Rather stood up to ask a question, there were boos from Nixon supporters and cheers from fellow correspondents.

At the noise, Nixon looked down at him and asked sarcastically, “Are you running for something?” Rather snapped back, “No, sir, are you?”

The question now is how journalists respond at future debates. Few of today’s are as feisty as Dan Rather, but then again, Gingrich is not a president but an aspirant clearly bent on using media questioners as whipping boys.

They may not be as highly motivated as Woodward and Bernstein, along with Rather, were back then but, as the Romney campaign starts to hit Gingrich on details of his rosy picture as House Speaker, which actually ended with a cloud of ethics violations and a $300,000 fine, the media will be highly motivated to join in with pointed questions at the debates and, outside the halls, by reporting with gusto on exactly what happened.

If Gingrich is confident about beating back attacks from former wives, wait until he has to deal with the bruised feelings of platoons of media people. Unlike ex-spouses, they never retreat into silence.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How Live Audiences Kill Debates

The tone of last night’s GOP séance was set in the first minute, not by the candidates or moderator, but whooping and applause of hand-picked partisans in the hall when Newt Gingrich attacked CNN’s John King and all the media as “despicable” for asking about his second wife’s character charges against him that had dominated the news cycle all day.

In contrast, for 1960’s first presidential debate ever between JFK and Nixon, the only people in the studio, besides a panel of four journalists asking questions, were television crewmen, two wire service reporters, three photographers and an aide to each candidate.

“For the most part,” the New York Times reported, “the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about ‘image projection’ to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points.”

How did we get from there to today’s atmosphere of bear-baiting, bull-fighting and Roman gladiators, and was it worth the trip?

The process has been transformed from a relatively civilized exchange of views on issues, with the usual political posturing of course, into an ugly spectacle of candidates under pressure to tear down one another (and the President of the United States) with unchecked (until the next day, when TV viewers are gone) exaggerations, distortions and lies—-anything to stir up the partisan blood.

Saturday night, South Carolina will provide a partial answer to how well this kind of demagoguery works, with the likelihood that Mitt Romney’s big lead in the polls will dwindle or perhaps disappear altogether.

Meanwhile, one of the nation’s leading social critics has already weighed in. “The liberal media,” Sarah Palin observes, “and some of that GOP holier-than-thou machine overplayed their hand this time...I call them ‘dumb arses.’”

For those who want to rinse their minds of all this swill, recommended reading is Fareed Zakaria’s Time interview with President Obama on the changing nature of American power in the world, a thoughtful discussion that presumably was done without an audience cheering them on.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Blazing Saddles" in S.C.

Is Mel Brooks directing this movie?

Tonight’s final South Carolina debate will no doubt start as usual with the gang sitting under the palmettos full of Tea Party beans, competing to exude the loudest brain farts about Barack Obama and one another, but where do they go from there?

Will Rick Perry, who almost started a war with Turkey last time, punch another horse? (Nope, late news is that he's doing a "Shane" and riding off into the sunset.)

Can Ron Paul, booed for preaching the Golden Rule about foreign wars, escape being strung up by local Pentagon contractors?

What about Rick Santorum, who began debate season by constantly kissing his former Speaker’s ring? Now that they are neck and neck, will he roll up a sleeveless sweater to hurl at Gingrich’s head?

Will Newt himself, who insulted black sheriff Juan Williams last time to delight the crowd, show up in sheets to belabor Mitt Romney, who still has tax-return cream pie on his face. (“I fully expect the Romney campaign to be unendingly dirty and dishonest for the next days because they are desperate,” Gingrich declaims with a straight face.)

Or will it all end like “Blazing Saddles,” with a giant brawl breaking through studio walls and spilling from one movie set to another?

At least one such scene is at hand as the second Mrs. Speaker is scheduled to be interviewed on ABC's “Nightline” after the debate.

Odds are it won’t be a Gingrich endorsement but a detailed account of how Newt, who believes marriage is for one man and one woman, proposed adding Mrs 3 to the menage without divorcing Mrs. 2.

Mel Brooks, where are you now that we need you?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mitt: A Loser's Son Who Learned Too Well

Apology is overdue to George W. Romney for my remembering him only as an unsophisticated man whose remarks about being “brainwashed” in Vietnam cost him the 1968 GOP nomination.

In Rolling Stone, Rick Pearlstein summons up the elder Romney, with ancient videotape, to recall a time when some politicians still tried to tell the truth, even if it derailed their ambitions.

The lessons Mitt Romney drew from his father’s defeat were all the wrong ones.

Back then, George Romney was a successful auto manufacturer who campaigned against “gas guzzlers,” became governor of Michigan and had the silver-fox good looks of a president (Does Mitt dye his hair?) but, in that pre-everyday-debate era, frustrated the press corps with a salesman’s genial naivete on issues.

A fellow Republican governor observed, “Watching George Romney run for president is like watching a duck try to [George Carlin verb] a football.”

Yet Romney, as Pearlstein reminds us, had defied his Mormon church by leading a march for civil rights, advocated for them in the South in ’68 and, “after America's worst riot broke out in Detroit under his watch, the governor said that America could respond with a crackdown...‘but our system would become little better than a police state.’"

When the elder Romney turned against the Vietnam War (as the entire country was doing that year) with one unfortunate word, politicians and media jumped on him, and his frontrunner status was gone. Then LBJ stepped down, and we got Nixon, who prolonged the war for years, and gave us Watergate.

“Mitt learned at an impressionable age,” Pearlstein concludes, “that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician.”

George Romney made automobiles and gave back part of his salary and bonuses when he thought they were too high; Mitt has made only money, tons of it, and won’t say exactly how and how much.

George Romney and his wife supported Planned Parenthood; Mitt has flip-flopped into Right to Life.

George Romney was so much of a do-gooder that a critic described his political career as like “sending a Salvation Army lass into the chorus at a burlesque house.” Mitt Romney seems right at home in today’s GOP whorehouse.

Political patrimony in our time keeps producing disappointing results: Romney is following the footprints of George W. Bush. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo looms on the 2016 horizon, we can only hope that Democrats have stronger bloodlines.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Obama, Wherever You Are

The First Lady turns 48 today. I know because an e-mail from the President last week reminded me with two links to a fund-raising site:

“The decision to become part of this campaign was deeply personal for a lot of people, and Michelle and I are no exception...

“This fall, Michelle and I will have been married 20 years. The next 10 months will be harder than any we've experienced together, and I couldn't do it without her. I know she'd love to hear from you today.”

With this kind of robo-mail, the Obamas are a long way from 2007 when a campaigning Michelle talked about her husband’s domestic faults (not picking up his socks or putting butter back in the refrigerator) and offered a philosophical reason for doing so:

“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.”

Inevitably, the White House makes fictional characters out of its inhabitants with journalists like Bob Woodward and the like trying to get behind the façade. The latest, Jodi Kantor, was on the Daily Show last night, with Jon Stewart expressing surprise that her relatively mild book had drawn a counterattack from Mrs. Obama claiming it portrayed her as “some angry black woman.”

With Republicans demonizing her husband non-stop in debates, such touchiness is understandable, particularly since even Obama supporters like Arianna Huffington are blurting advice for her to be more like Eleanor Roosevelt who “at the same time that she's doing fundraisers in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, she should go to South Central [Los Angeles]...and seeing the places where there is pain, where there is struggle, where there is homelessness, where there is unemployment.”

The real person in the White House now did not sign on to be Eleanor Roosevelt or anyone since then, when most First Ladies had to do no more than stand behind their husbands, smiling for photo-ops.

So, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, Happy Birthday, Michelle Robinson Obama (no campaign contribution included).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hard Weekend for the Faithful

After pious Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is humiliated on the gridiron, there comes unsettling news for evangelicals who days ago met and decided to support Rick Santorum for President.

Even as ministers fall in line, the Daily Beast publishes a report (with photo) of Mrs. Santorum’s live-in relationship with a well-known abortion provider before she met her husband. (In a stranger-than-fiction turn, the doctor had delivered her 22 years before they got together when she was a nursing student and he was 63.)

Whether or not her past is germane to Santorum’s candidacy, Southern Carolina voters and beyond will have to think hard about how far religion, or religiosity, has been pushed into areas of American life where it did not predominate in the past.

Of all the damage George W. Bush did to our national character, not least is how his faith-based meanness obscured traditional admiration by Americans of all religions, or none, for figures like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, whose beliefs led to humility, self-sacrifice and good works rather than contempt for those who fail to share self-serving political certainties.

“Cheap grace,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a minister hanged by Hitler for denouncing the comfort his Church was conferring on believers while turning a blind eye to the inhumanity of the Nazis, "is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...absolution without personal confession.”

This year the Super Bowl will be won by athletic skill, not prayer, while voters, the Religious Right notwithstanding, will be picking a President, not a pastor-in-chief.

Update: In its own bubble, the GOP debate Monday night, according to the Caucus, leaves two imponderables: “The endorsement of Rick Santorum by a group of evangelical leaders over the weekend has the potential to affect the race” and “a smear campaign...aimed at influencing evangelicals who view Mormonism as a cult.

“But the two rivals of Mr. Romney who seem to be vying most strongly for the evangelical vote--Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum--are both Catholic, a religion that has sometimes been viewed with skepticism by certain evangelical voters.”

Outside of that, let the best candidate win.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Memory of Martin Luther King

Five years ago, in another political world when Barack Obama was getting ready to run for president, I wrote this:

West Side residents of Chicago now have a U.S. Senator who looks like them and it may be, in more ways than one, due to the man whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.
Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to the oppressed. “Our weapon is love,” he told them, and he used it with stunning force.

At the dawn of TV, he brought into American homes images of peaceful Southern protesters beaten, driven with high-pressure hoses and arrested without fighting back. Their body rhetoric exposed racial hatred as never before.

Then, in 1966 Dr. King wrote for me about the apartment he had rented in Chicago’s slums to connect with gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”

He asked them to join Freedom Marches in Mississippi and they did in carloads, where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies…..

“They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...

“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs...

“It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them—that nonviolence achieves results--was redeemed and their hopes for a better life rekindled, For they saw that a humane police force, in contrast to police in Mississippi, could defend the exercise of Constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.”

It is not hard to believe that some of those young men Martin Luther King helped to grow up and away from their worst selves exercised their rights decades later in voting for Barack Obama.

I wouldn’t change a word as we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday five years later.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Downton Abbey" Obsessions

The PBS series is becoming the “West Wing” and “Sopranos” of the century’s second decade, mirroring Americans’ longing for escape from the Obama and Tea Party era as surely as its predecessors reflected a desire for a more human society, high and low, during George W. Bush’s time.

As second season ratings soar, what is “Downton Abbey” telling us about ourselves?

In midlife, a dozen friends and I hired a small bus with a guide to tour England’s stately homes. After a week, the obscene grandeur of those palaces with huge tapestries of ancestors who had earned them by slaughtering enemies of royalty and passed them down to generations living in unearned luxury while countless others toiled away their lives below stairs made me homesick for America, where Adams, Franklin and Jefferson had resisted replicating such a society here, even as it took them a century and a war to stop enslaving a whole race.

Now “Downton Abbey” arrives to enchant an ambivalent Anglophile, who in the 1930s and 40s, grew up on Hollywood’s version of England in what John Updike called “those gargantuan, crass contraptions whereby Jewish brains project Gentile stars upon a Gentile nation and out of the immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.”

The movie moguls brought over Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Madeleine Carroll, Leslie Howard, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, among a colony of British actors, to people our imaginations with role models of how civilized people behave.

Decades later, American are more sophisticated but, in hard economic and political times, apparently hunger again for a world of order where decent people (mostly) struggle with their humanity. At the time “Downton Abbey” starts, E. M. Forster had just published “Howard’s End,” a novel in which a 20th century middle class was changing his country with motor cars and commerce.

“Only connect” was Forster’s theme: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

The world of “Downton Abbey” is certainly breaking apart in the days before World War I in a swirl of uncertainty above and below stairs about inheritance of the estate, intermingled with issues of love, marriage and ambition that affect everyone.

That Julian Fellowes has drawn us into their world so deeply is a tribute to his talent as “The Sopranos” was to David Chase and “The West Wing” to Aaron Sorkin—-the humane but outdated Lord Grantham in a losing struggle to hold his world together; his beautiful, headstrong and confused daughters; the almost masochistically noble valet Bates and the heartstrong housemaid Anna who loves him unconditionally; even the selfish schemers, O’Brian and Thomas, have dimension and complexity.

“Downton Abbey” is now assured of a third season next year, and one of the characters, Maggie Smith as the dowager countess, gives us some clues about where all these people may be heading.

In Fellowes’ script for Robert Altman’s "Gosford Park” (2001), Dame Maggie appeared, playing a similar role, but the mood of that manor house movie set in the 1930s, two decades later, is much darker than “Downton” with most of the characters upstairs and down self-seeking and dishonorable and, when the vile host is murdered, hardly anyone cares.

Meanwhile, we can all live at “Downton Abbey” now, and even newcomers can catch up with past episodes online and luxuriate.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Colbert Candidacy, the Put-On Perfected

The GOP debates could make a profit on Pay TV if they let Stephen Colbert join the panel. How much would it be worth to see him match wits with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry?

Sadly, like his other ventures, Colbert’s South Carolina candidacy is only fodder for his reality-blurring show, the perfection of a trend that began to emerge in the 1960s when TV made American life too complicated for Bob Hope-Milton Berle one-liners.

Rough sketches for the persona Colbert now presents were subjects back then for New Yorker critics such as Susan Sontag (“Notes on Camp”) and Jacob Brackman in “The Put-On” to define a slippery comedy in which the audience is in the know as a figure feigns utter seriousness while subverting a subject’s defenses.

Brackman could have been describing today’s Colbert in parsing the put-on as “it disorients the interviewee, ridicules the interview process, communicates ‘real’ ideas and feelings yet deflates the seriousness of questions and replies.”

Only clueless Al Gore has breached this implicit agreement by referring to “your character” during an interview, shocking Colbert into a “My character?” reaction.

Susan Sontag in her ambivalent book-length essay on Camp quotes Oscar Wilde, "One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art," linking it to a gay sensibility that emphasizes artifice but holding on to her own reservations about its ultimate value.

She would be in a minority today. For those who revel in being part of Colbert’s “in the know” audience, this week’s New York Times Magazine has a fascinating profile of how he came to be what is now an iconic 21st century figure.

He won’t be running for president, but he’s doing more than any of Obama’s challengers to help keep us sane.

Update: Colbert will be on ABC Sunday morning. Now that he’s turned his Super PAC over to Jon Stewart, the quasi-candidate is free to take his act beyond Comedy Central.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Yankee Acts in South Carolina

As Mitt Romney tries to seal the deal in the Palmetto state and falls in the polls, memories come back of a culture clash when I was in basic training there during World War II. How much has changed in seven decades?

The country boys in my company were excited by anything exotic and, given their lives before induction, it took little to tickle them. One day they were chortling over a guy in the next battalion named Zero.

He had been at City College a decade before me and in the 1940s was getting known in Manhattan night clubs for political satire that would later fail to amuse the House Un-American Activities Committee. The night I looked him up, Zero Mostel was on his way to becoming the pear-shaped presence that years later would charge around a Broadway stage and turn into a rhinoceros.

Sitting on his bunk, field jacket zipped to the throat, his big head seemed to be resting on a bulging bag of laundry. He was in his late twenties, but his eyes were a thousand years old. When I told him I was from the Bronx, he grabbed me as if I were a pastrami sandwich.

We went into town Saturday night to the Spartanburg USO, where local ladies entertained with doughnuts, coffee and Southern charm, and the troops entertained back however they could. When the hostesses heard Zero was a professional performer, they pushed him to the stage. I sat in the front row, happily awaiting my share of the attention he would be getting.

Zero slouched up to the microphone with a shy smile and a glint in his eye, gathered his bulk, fixed his face into a scowl and suddenly emitted the roar of a deep Southern demagogue. To this audience of dewy damsels and redneck recruits, he was offering his rendition of Senator Pellagra T. Polltax, a raging parody of the Mississippi racist, Theodore Bilbo.

As Zero flung his arms in all directions and turned up the angry rant about niggers and kikes, I slid down in my seat, looking for an exit.

By the time he finished, I was crouching near the floor. Through the startled silence, I heard the start of a low rumble, and I sprinted to the stage where Zero was beaming and bowing, grabbed his elbow and shoved him through a door toward the bus that would carry us, untarred and unfeathered, back to camp. On the ride Zero seemed relaxed, a small smile on his face. We never went to the USO again.

All these years later, Mitt Romney no doubt faces a different South Carolina, but the latest polls show him with only a slim lead there. If he can win, the nomination will undoubtedly be his but, somewhere in Comedy Heaven, I can picture Zero still smiling that knowing smile.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Also-Rans' Anti-War Vote

After all the demographic slicing and dicing, the final primary figures disclose one New Hampshire result pundits are ignoring: The only two candidates who unequivocally want to take us of out of Afghanistan and most of the Middle East muddle now, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, together received 39.8 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 39.6 percent.

In contrast, Rick Perry, who advocates going back into Iraq, got one percent as superhawks Santorum and Gingrich drew single figures.

Granted, the contest was about the economy, but both Paul and Huntsman kept pointing out that trillions being wasted on nation-building in the Middle East, to say nothing of the continuing human toll, could be better spent back home rebuilding America.

In his victory lap, Mitt Romney, having it both ways as usual, promises jobs to veterans when they come home but avoids taking any position on bringing them back, settling for jingo clichés about American power.

In the GOP fantasy world of 2012, the horse race will go on, but won’t change, as a New York Times editorial points out:

”The candidates’ economic arguments were disturbingly disconnected from economic reality. They spoke of government spending as if it were the sole cause of the federal budget deficit and cutting it the sole solution. In reality, it was tax cuts for the wealthy, an assault on social programs and a deregulatory zeal that allowed a recklessness that led to near economic collapse.

“The solution is policies that promote growth and help the middle class, not what the Republican hopefuls want. Mr. Obama said it well on Monday night: ‘We can’t go back to this brand of you’re-on-your-own economics.’ You couldn’t tell that by listening to Mr. Romney prattle about a merit-based economy and call for lowering taxes and cutting spending.”

To say nothing of completely ignoring the Middle East elephant in the room, unless Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman manages to get the Presidential nomination.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Trampling New Hampshire

Tomorrow residents of the Granite State will be feeling like Roxie Hart after the verdict in her “Chicago” trial, abandoned and forgotten by hordes of reporters and camera crews who have besieged them over weeks for every detail of their decision-making, leanings and doubts about the candidates.

All that ends tonight when votes are counted, and as the crafty lawyer explains in the movie, the “journalists” will all be rushing off for “fresh blood on the streets” in Florida and South Carolina.

As New Hampshire loses all the attention (and money) that has washed over the state, what will we have learned? Not much beyond how crafty the candidates have been in smearing one another with one PAC hand behind their backs (as John McCain notes), while posturing to the heavens as noble statesmen with the other.

The change in this year’s tone from 2008, when McCain won, might be encapsulated by a crowd booing Rick Santorum’s mention of his name as the kind of centrist candidate of the past, like Bob Dole, they have mistakenly chosen in the past.

Meanwhile, another non-centrist, Ron Paul, cuts off CNN again as Dana Bash tries to ask him about “connecting with New Hampshire voters” who have been crowded out of a diner by reporters and cameras.

After tonight, New Hampshire streets will be back to normal, and there will be empty stools at the diners, but what we will have learned about the nation’s political mood beyond what a crush of well-heeled pols and their media counterparts can fabricate for the headlines and TV cameras?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Obama's Two Mates

As Republicans loudly proclaim marriage as between one man and one woman, Democrats are quietly debating White House partnerships—-not only in a new insider book on the First Lady’s role but renewed discussion of Hillary Clinton joining the President on this year’s ticket.

In the book, a New York Times reporter describes Michelle Obama “as a woman who, despite her public face as ‘mom-in-chief’...has been a behind-the-scenes force helping shape her husband’s presidency as a steady reminder and custodian of the principles he touted as a candidate,” often in conflict with members of his staff.

Such speculation echoes the days when Nancy Reagan reportedly took on the same role and is less consequential to both the President’s chances for reelection and the nation’s future than the argument for Hillary Clinton running as Vice President this year.

The case for doing that is cogently made by Bill Keller, former executive editor of the Times and now an OpEd columnist:

“She would bring to this year’s campaign a missing warmth and some of the voltage that has dissipated as Obama moved from campaigning to governing. What excites is not just the prospect of having a woman a heartbeat--and four years--away from the presidency, although she certainly embodies the aspirations of many women. It’s the possibility that the first woman at the top would have qualifications so manifest that her first-ness was a secondary consideration.”

Two years ago, Bob Woodward, in another insider book, reported: “It's on the table. And some of Hillary Clinton's advisers see it as a real possibility in 2012. President Obama needs some of the women, Latinos, retirees that she did so well with during the 2008 primaries...The other interesting question is, Hillary Clinton could run in her own right in 2016 and be younger than Ronald Reagan when he was elected president.”

As GOP pygmies throw darts at the President’s foreign-policy successes, the presence on the ticket of a Secretary of State who helped implement them would be a constant reminder of how divorced from reality such blathering really is.

In private life, Barack Obama is the model for a one man-one woman union. Politically, he has the opportunity of blessing us all by taking his vows with a former adversary and worthy partner.

Update: As the President loses his ineffectual Chief of Staff William M. Daley, he takes on Jacob J. Lew, a longtime Washington hand from the Clinton days, one small sign that the White House may be moving Hillaryward.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Overdose of GOP Apocalypse

Just in time, our frayed nerves can go back tonight to the quiet and calm of “Downton Abbey” in World War I after a weekend of Republicans crying havoc over Barack Obama, pausing only in sniping at one another for restful outbursts of road rage, blaming the President for everything wrong in the 21st century world.

Robotic Mitt Romney, as befits a frontrunner, leads the pack in letting “slip the dogs of war,” stabbing today’s Caesar with a Tiffany icepick at every possible turn, claiming that the nation needs to be saved by the kind of downsizing he did at Bain and starting a trade war with China.

Newt Gingrich, who came out of Iowa snarling at Romney, backs off his attacks with sneers at Obama and a fervent defense of marriage as between one man and one woman, reminding those who have been paying attention that he has done it three times under two religious faiths.

Rick Santorum, trying to sound normal, backs off his “man on dog” rhetoric about homosexuality and, when asked what he would do if his son told him he was gay, says piously, “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it” and urge him to be celibate.

Only Ron Paul sounds relatively honest in defending his consistent views of an alternate universe, and Jon Huntsman's interjections of sanity seem too little too late.

How much of this can human minds take? The Republican campaign has gone well beyond unleashing the dogs of class warfare but poking at them with sharp sticks. When voters register with the Grand Old Party these days, do they get injections making them immune to truth?

The U.S. economy is improving, however slowly, and President Obama is winding down Middle East wars on George W. Bush’s schedule, but the GOP wannabes are picturing America as a burning Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind,” while debate moderators spent all their time trying to get them to pummel one another rather than acknowledging American reality toward the end of Obama’s first term.

Downton Abbey’s World War I will be a haven of human decency by comparison.

Update: Romney tries to have it both ways (what else is new?), declaring in the debate that his dad, who ran an auto company and became a governor, told him to “never get involved in politics if you have to win election to pay a mortgage.”

If that sounded elitist, he tells a crowd afterward, “I was just a high school kid like everybody else with skinny legs. And, you know, I imagined that I’d be in business all my career. And somehow I backed into the chance to do this.”

In Romneyworld, if your family is rich enough, you can back in all the way to the White House on skinny legs and a mouth only loosely connected to your brain.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Ron Paul, GOP's Satchel Paige?

With a double-header debate this weekend, memories arise of the legendary Satchel Paige who, before baseball was integrated, was the greatest pitcher in America, often starting two games in a day and was considered by Joe DiMaggio et al the best they never had to face in the big leagues during his prime.

Satchel pitched well into his sixties, famously saying, “Never look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Ron Paul, who will turn 77 in August, like Paige, is an all-star in his own Libertarian league, and the question arises: Is it too late for him to make it in the Big Show?

Between Iowa and New Hampshire, Paul was the only major contender to go home for a few days rest and his son Rand has been out stumping for him since.

To an observer particularly conscious of age, the elder Paul has seemed a little slower recently in his usually snappy debate responses.

How will he do Sunday morning after a Saturday night outing?

Update: Ron Paul did senior citizens proud this weekend, slapping down Rick Santorum and showing up the rest of the field by exemplifying a couple of Satchel’s other rules for the aging: "Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move" and "Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society—-the social ramble ain't restful."

Paul can still throw those fastballs.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Learning to Love Santorum

Three moderate GOP weathervanes—-George Will, Peggy Noonan and David Brooks—-are being blown by Iowa winds in Rick Santorum’s direction, but in a wobbly way.

The usually dour Will starts out almost giddy, claiming Republicans “crave fun. Supporting Mitt Romney still seems to many like a duty...Suddenly, supporting Santorum seems like a lark, partly because a week or so ago he could quit complaining about media neglect and start having fun, which is infectious.”

Backing off quickly, Will notes that the new non-Mitt “can, of course, be tenaciously serious” and ends the column wistfully, “Even if Santorum is not nominated, he might galvanize a constituency that makes him a vice presidential choice.”

Brooks, as is his wont, is more global, admitting he himself is to the “left on most social issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion,” but comes up with one of his deep-think conclusions:

“America is creative because of its moral materialism--when social values and economic ambitions get down in the mosh pit and dance. Santorum is in the fray.”

Noonan is more listless: “Rick Santorum has a lot going for him, most especially a deep identification with and caring for the working class, for the displaced and unempowered people who once worked in steel mills and factories and have seen it all go away. He is a Catholic who sees society not as an agglomeration of random Randian individualists but as part of a community...

“But his weakest spot is foreign policy, where he is not thoughtful but reflexively hard-line. It is one thing to say, as all candidates do and must, that America must be strong...It is another to be aggressive, to be too burly, to be all George W. Bush and no George H.W. Bush.”

So New Hampshire Republicans can avoid boring Mitt Romney, according to their leading pundits, by getting on the bandwagon of a fun-loving but tenaciously serious advocate of moral materialism who can’t be trusted with his finger on the nuclear trigger.

Sounds like a choice.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Anyone-But-Romney Sweepstakes Survivors

Parsing Iowa results is like trying to solve the old riddle of why French intellectuals loved screwball comic Jerry Lewis, critics gave “The Nutty Professor” their Oscar and the government showered him with honors.

In the world of slapstick, you never know which way the croissant will crumble and, post-Iowa, Michele Bachmann is gone, Rick Perry has his foot on a banana peel and Newt is revving up to pummel Mitt in a round of revenge debates.

In the Anyone-But-Romney Sweepstakes, the umpteenth frontrunner is now Rick Santorum, whose default facial expression is that of the kid in the big family who always got the smallest slice of pie, and he will do without help from previous nominee John McCain, who is endorsing Romney, at least in part as a result of Senate brawls over torture with Santorum accusing the former POW of “not understanding how advanced interrogation works.”

The next day on his Facebook page, a McCain aide wrote, “Ron Paul may be the wackiest candidate in the G.O.P. field. But for pure, blind stupidity, nobody beats Santorum. In my 20 years in the Senate, I never met a dumber member, which he reminded me of today.”

Back on the stump in New Hampshire, McCain is using former Governor John Sununu as a straight man, telling his old knee-slapper about “the two inmates in the chow line in the state prison and one of them turned to the other and said the food was a lot better in here when you were governor.”

Now, Santorum himself is facing advanced interrogation—-about his “man on dog” comments on gay sex, among other gems—-while Ron Paul’s best hope seems be a rich Conservatives’ “emergency meeting” in his native Texas to coalesce behind a single candidate.

The Obama White House, of course, is watching this with great interest, hoping the GOP will be French toast all year, and fervently praying over the two-party system, “Vive le difference!”

Monday, January 02, 2012

Iowa Caucuses Made Simple

For those who may be confused by the sophisticated ritual to take place tomorrow night, explains the NY Times Caucus, “the process requires a commitment of several hours for a voter. And it encourages campaigns to have a level of organizational sophistication that often helps separate candidates who can go the distance from those who cannot...

“Once voters show up at their caucus location, it is not as simple as just making a quick decision. Representatives of each campaign are typically given the opportunity to make remarks in an attempt to sway some people at the last minute.

“The better-organized campaigns will have members of the community stand up for them at every caucus location. By contrast, the candidates with passionate, energized followings often receive more spontaneous expressions of support.

“It is a very different kind of democratic process than in primary states, where overt electioneering is kept at a distance from the actual voting. In Iowa, the campaigns are waged up close and personal, all the way until the end.”

Few people realize that the Iowa Caucuses are based on an ancient British tradition, which is perhaps best understood in the graphic illustration here.

Update: In a last-minute tweet, Rupert Murdoch calls Rick Santorum the “only candidate with genuine big vision” for the United States. Apparently, the Caucuses have their roots in the Australian culture as well.

Who knew?

Mission Impossible: Humanizing Eric Cantor

No matter who faces him for the White House, Barack Obama starts 2012 with one advantage against the GOP—-the poster boy for intransigence, Eric Cantor, who proves again on 60 Minutes that there is no way to “humanize” him.

In an interview, the usually genial Lesley Stahl starts by saying flatly, “President Obama's nemesis throughout the year was 48-year-old Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader of the House, who played a major role in the Republican strategy.

“The White House blames Eric Cantor, more than anyone else, for disrupting the president's first term. Especially for scuttling one set of deficit reduction talks after another...the president's keying on him has taken its toll. He's been picketed and heckled.

“He has fallen in the polls and so has his party as, according to a CBS News poll, the public blames them more for the gridlock in Washington.”

Stahl presses the indictment: “Eric Cantor was the one who went out in 2010 and recruited most of the freshmen who are conservative and backed by the Tea Party.

“He meets with them regularly, and several of them told us Cantor is their inspirational leader and father figure. But Eric Cantor does not want to be seen as unreasonable.”

To that end, Cantor’s people obviously sought the 60 Minutes interview, inviting cameras into his home to meet his family. There Stahl found one point of agreement with Obama: Cantor’s mother-in-law lives with them as does the President’s. But his wife, a former Democrat, is pro-choice and for gay marriage.

As Cantor continues to “charm” Stahl, an aide is moved to yell out “That’s not true” off camera when she notes that his idol Ronald Reagan “raised taxes.” Mischievously, 60 Minutes inserts a clip of the Great Communicator doing just that.

Cantor concludes the séance by denying “personal animosity” between himself and the President, who recently told a crowd, “I'm going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor. Some day sooner or later he's going to say, 'Boy, Obama had a good idea.'”

But not before next November.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Heaven's Rap Sheet

The new year brings news of a 16-year-old girl named Heaven Chamberlain, arrested with Occupy the Caucus protesters in Des Moines along with her mother.

Heaven, detained once before at an Occupy rally in October, says her rap sheet is like lines on a résumé (“It shows that I’m active with the community and that I care about people’s opinions”) and that she plans to run for president in 2036 after a stop brief in the Senate.

Ms. Chamberlain (no descendant of Neville, by all evidence) takes me back over seven decades when I was her age and preparing to become a foot soldier in World War II, but my teen-age rap sheet was different.

College had become unreal, unbearable, so I signed up for a summer in the Maine woods on a Federal Youth Project, an odd choice for a kid who had never been away from city streets or held a shovel or an ax.

It was a fiasco, of course. I rode all night on the Boston & Maine Railroad, drank coffee on an empty stomach, threw up at 3 A.M., arrived in camp for a checkup by a gaunt woman doctor who sent me into a panic by fingering my scrotum and, after a day in the woods that is now a merciful blank, I was put back on a southbound train. So much for a would-be Paul Bunyan from the Bronx and, all in all, no preparation for going into the Army a year later to train for hand-to-hand combat.

But if I was afraid, and I certainly was, I was also restless. I couldn't concentrate on classes so that fall, when the Daily News had lost enough Irish Catholic copy boys in the draft to start hiring Jews, I left school and took a job there in some blind urge to meet what was coming head-on, an eager lemming packing his bags for a seaside vacation. If I was going to be shoved into the world, I wanted to take some experience with me, even if it meant being drafted before my college exemption ran out.

In four months, I learned a few things. While waiting to run errands, I taught myself to touch-type. Each day I carried gallons of coffee in cardboard containers to rewrite men with headphones while their fingers flew across keyboards and copy editors who sat around a horseshoe-shaped table pushing thick pencils, smoking and gossiping. (One of them, a nasty man who never let a copy boy keep the change, was later charged with treason for failing to stop moonlighting as a flack for the Japanese government after Pearl Harbor.)

On Saturday afternoons I would meet a photographer at Madison Square Garden and rush back with film of high-school basketball for the back page of Sunday’s early edition. The first Monday I turned in my expense slip: ten cents for the round trip by streetcar. The head copy boy tossed it back, “Put in for taxis, like everybody else.”

At a four-alarm fire, again a photographer’s coolie, I was clutching film through heavy smoke when a fireman spotted me, shook his head at my knickers and the press card in my cap, took me firmly by the shoulders and turned me in the opposite direction, away from the fire.

I tell all this to Heaven Chamberlain, and generations between, not only to underscore the difference in expectations back then but to suggest that something may have been lost in an era of self-entitlement that equates carrying placards for TV cameras as “being active with the community.”

All my best to Heaven and her counterparts now reoccupying Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, but they may want to consider trying some scut work like those of us did back then, and try bringing coffee to campaign workers and getting closer to the electoral fires by ringing doorbells.

Not all presidents start out by being community organizers or Wall Street tycoons.