Archive for September 2008
We remember Paul Newman today as a distinguished actor, philanthropist, committed progressive, and a truly decent soul. And on this day of his passing, his unique career does us an additional service. It helps us to understand why Obama won the debate and why he is going to win the election. As everyone knows, Paul Newman had a one in million smile, and he would certainly be flashing one now if he knew that he had made this contribution.
All we need is one film to make the case. While Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may not be a great movie, it is a very good one, and perhaps more importantly, it was a timely one. It was a zeitgeist film. It connected with an audience that understood that time was out of joint in America, that we were adrift, that we were losing our collective soul, and that we needed to set things right. When the “bad guys” become the good guys, and “the law” is viewed as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you know that the world has been turned topsy-turvy. And when an audience feels so undermined that it can immediately connect with the line, “Who are those guys?” that is, those guys who can’t be stopped from chasing us (think here of the Vietnam War and a nation in turmoil back in 1969), you know that things have run amok.
Paul Newman’s films were often successful not only because of their success as works of art, but because they understood the importance of speaking to an audience, something which many of our pundits and commentators still do not seem to appreciate. How so? Last night I spent hours, UP@NIGHT, in true political junkie fashion, listening to commentators on the first debate between Obama and McCain. I would listen to the first round of comments, and then since I couldn’t be in two virtual places at once, turn to reruns of earlier broadcasts. I have also looked at many of the editorials in print today.
Time and time again, commentators insisted on using sports metaphors to describe the debate, primarily from boxing (points, knockouts) and baseball (home runs, strikes). There were exceptions, but just turn to the print media today. What’s the big headline? “No Knockout.” We hear about jabs that were thrown, and counter punches, etc. We hear criticisms that Obama didn’t throw enough punches, and that he could have brought McCain down by going more on the offense I am sure that you have heard this stuff. I won’t belabor the point.
But Obama understands, like Newman did, that acting is about audience. And presidential debates have more in common with acting than they do with sports contests. Or let me put this another way. Presidential debates are like auditions, and if you are going to be successful in an audition, you’ve got to be able to have a sense of what the director is looking for and the possibilities of a role. In this case, the director is the American people and the role is president. And the goal of the debater is not merely to score points, but to give a performance that resonates with the desires and hopes of the people. The debate is not an end. It is a means, and it is not a means to merely “winning” the debate in terms of points, but of winning the election.
I am not surprised that polls and focus groups show that more people thought Obama won. (Two examples, a USA Today/Gallop Poll, a CBS poll.) Nor am I surprised by the internal numbers in the polls showing that Obama went a long way toward crossing the biggest hurdle that he needed to cross, making voters feel comfortable with whether he is ready to be president. If you think about the debate in terms of an audition, then Obama was wildly successful. Obama appears to have convinced a significant number of people that he is ready to lead, cool under fire, knowledgeable, not easily flustered (by a cranky old guy telling you that “you don’t understand”), and energetic. Further, he reinforced his message that he understands “people like you and me,” which was already one of his strong suits. It was actually a beautifully orchestrated event, right down to the ads Obama has started to run.
Obama won this debate in the only terms that he needed to win it. He connected with a larger number of people in the audience than did McCain, and made them feel comfortable with his “playing the role” of president, while discussing a topic that was supposed to be McCain’s strong suit. Obama is going to win the election. And unlike Butch and Sundance, this story is going to have a happy ending.
Okay, here is my take about what has been going on in terms of Palin and McCain. The writers for the Daily Show are actually trained undercover agents. They have infiltrated the McCain/Palin campaign and have been writing speeches, talking points, and press releases. How else can one account for Palin’s statements? Seeing Russia from Alaska counts as evidence of foreign policy expertise. Who can deny that this is a beautiful piece of writing? And now there are the cows.
From The NY Times:
WASILLA, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal.
So when there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency.
Ms. Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Ms. Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages. The New York Times, Sunday, August 13th. Link
Does it get better than this? VP candidate appoints classmate, real estate agent and cow fancier, Franci Havemeister (is this a real name?), as head of State Division of Agriculture. (Did I miss something here? Agriculture=Cows.) I mean, let’s suppose this was President Palin: For Secretary of Defense: Bobby Have A’meister, friend, used car salesman, lover of Colt 45′s, and Moose hunter. Why not?
Palin and her good friend Bobby Have A’meister:
Well, there is the, “but seriously folks,” to all of this. The problem with Palin is not just that she places friendship over expertise, but that she also appears to be Nixon-like (remember his Enemies List) and Bush-like in the way in which she goes after perceived enemies. The Times article goes on to make the following point, which we have seen made in other venues.
But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.
Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.
Wow….Opponents are haters! Unfortunately this is not a corny reference to a group of aliens in a bad sci fi flick. It is Palin unfiltered. They are Haters because they are perceived to be her enemies.
What we have here is one of the oldest ethical failings in the book, and conservatives, as well as moderates and liberals, should be very concerned. In the first book of Plato’s Republic various definitions of justice are offered. All prove inadequate. One of the earliest ones to be shot down is the following:
Justice is helping friends and injuring enemies.
While this definition is pretty common in gangster-land, it reflects a poor and limited understanding of justice. Here are a few of the issues: 1) our friends may prove to be bad people; 2) there may be good individuals amongst our enemies; 3) we need intelligence and knowledge to determine who are our real friends and who our real enemies; and 4) we can injure (or do an injustice to) our friends if we don’t understand what we are doing (for example, the incompetent physician who gives his friend the wrong medicine).
It’s simpleminded in the extreme to think that we can be just by merely helping those we take to be our friends and injuring our enemies. Those who call themselves our friends may not worthy of our support. Or to take this closer to home: they may not be competent to hold the positions to which we appoint them. (From Real Estate to Agriculture Honcho via a love of cows….a friend is a friend is a friend.) It appears that Palin never considered that it might be unjust (as well as unwise) to appoint friends instead of those who have genuine expertise. After all she was climbing a ladder to break her own personal glass ceiling. She is much like Bush. And this is indeed no laughing matter. So maybe the Daily Show people are not actually behind her words.
(Yes, there are times when we may have to hurt good people, for example, when we are in a war. But we must not slip into the mentality that we are always at war or at war against our fellow Americans because they disagree with us or don’t share our values.)
One last point, the sort of mentality that I have been describing–let’s call it: loyalty fanaticism–is not confined to the head honcho. It pervades the culture of the administrations of such people. I leave you with one small example from Palin’s current administration in Alaska, which should make bloggers of all political stripes take to the barricades. (It’s from the NY Times article quoted above.)
And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.
“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”
If you thought that the country might have a problem with McCain being too much like Bush, think again, and again….
Much of the attention regarding Palin has focused on her inexperience and duplicitous statements, e.g., about the Bridge to Nowhere. But as it turns out, Palin is not just your everyday inexperienced politician who happens to be a conservative. She is an ideologue and appears to be very Bush-like in her commitment to a loyalty culture. I can’t think of a worse combination for a president: ideologue and loyalty enforcer. And Palin is just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office if McCain becomes president. Obama and Biden, on the other hand, are moderately liberal pragmatists and their MO is compromise. I plan to write more about the contrast in the future, but I want to share here four striking “windows into Sarah” (directly quoted) from today’s (September 2nd) New York Times article, “Palin’s Start in Alaska: Not Politics as Usual.” Link to article
“Sarah comes in with all this ideological stuff, and I was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Mr. Stein [the previous mayor of Wassila-M.A.], who lost the election. “But that got her elected: abortion, gun rights, term limits and the religious born-again thing. I’m not a churchgoing guy, and that was another issue: ‘We will have our first Christian mayor.’ ”
Ms. Palin also upended the town’s traditional ways with a surprise edict: No employee was to talk to the news media without her permission.
Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said. The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.
“Just as Ms. Palin terminated employees on her way into office, she also let some go on the way out, including Mr. Cramer. When Ms. Palin completed her second and final term, in 2002, her stepmother-in-law, Faye Palin, was running to succeed her. It seemed like a good idea, except that Faye Palin supported abortion rights and was registered as unaffiliated, not Republican, people who remember the race said. Sarah Palin sided instead with Dianne M. Keller, a religious conservative and an ally on the City Council. Ms. Keller won.”