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The Winter of Our Discontent | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Winter of Our Discontent

My new “Think Again” column is called “As Ronald Reagan Said... Oh Never Mind” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “Of Semites and 'Anti-Semites’" and it’s here.

Alter-reviews:
If you’ve been reading “Altercation” for a long time, then you may have heard my argument that I prefer Shaw to Shakespeare (and not that it’s relevant, Mozart to Beethoven). That argument didn’t look so great last weekend, but it was not a fair fight. Saturday afternoon I saw the Pearl Theatre Company revival of Shaw's The Philanderer. Originally written in 1893, it was banned for 15 years. And it’s a nice light piece of Shaw, who, having only written a single play before this, was just beginning to develop to the crazily self-confident genius/philosopher/playwright he would soon become. It’s got some interesting ideas about relations between the sexes and “Ibsenism” and you will thoroughly enjoy it—Pearl’s production is flawless (though the chairs could be more comfortable).

At BAM’s Harvey Theater, however, where Richard III marks the third and final installment of the transatlantic Bridge Project, co-produced by London’s Old Vic (where Kevin Spacey is artistic director), BAM and Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions staring Spacey, and directed by Mendes and co-produced by the Old Vic company is the kind of performance one recalls, however faintly, for a lifetime. Spacey is a man possessed, as Richard must be, and the staging is scary and sparse at the same time, allowing you to focus not only on the words but on what is unspoken but nevertheless communicated (or at least “felt”) by a rapt audience over a period of three and a quarter hours. The rest of the performances were good too, but it is almost impossible not to be overwhelmed by Spacey. From the opening lines—see the hed—the effect is hypnotic. If ever an actor was meant to play a role….

So I’m sticking to my argument, just not this once… (And I think tickets are sill available for the run.)

I did, however, get to the tenth anniversary performance of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra last week at Symphony Space, conveniently located two blocks from my apartment. I saw the first of two nights, which was the star-studded one. The orchestra, founded and directed by the pianist Arturo O’Farrill, spent its first five years as a resident ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center where I saw it a few times. Its current 18-piece lineup plays old fashion Latin jazz, but also newfangled Latin jazz. It’s a really important institution. The show I saw included an original arrangement of the Tito Rodríguez hit “Estoy Como Nunca,” sung by Carlos Díaz from the Cuban a cappella group Vocal Sampling; the songwriter and author Ned Sublette in a big-band bolero; the Latin jazz composer and arranger, Ray Santos doing “Browsing With Bauzá,” a tribute to Mario Bauzá, a founding father of the music. Next came Colombia’s Edmar Castañeda playing a harp, Argentine pianist Fernando Otero, the great (and sexy) Chilean Claudia Acuña sanging the Violeta Parra song, “Volver a los 17,” amazingly arranged by Jason Lindner . And it just kept coming. Randy Weston, Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, the great sax player Donald Harrison who sang “Iko Iko…” well, you shoulda been there. I’m sure glad I was…

I also caught a show by NRBQ last week at Irridium, which confused me because:

a) I read that their drummer, Tom Ardolino, died two days before the show.
b) I used to go see NRBQ in high school and most of the guys in the band looked as if they were born after I graduated.

Then I read an article saying that while they had been broken up for a while, one of the main guys, Terry Adams reformed the band, without the other guys, one of whom had died a while back. Adams had left the band because he had cancer and didn’t want anyone to know. First he named the band something else but then switched back to NRBQ. It’s not quite Roger Waters and Pink Floyd but it is confusing. Anyway, it was still fun, and they did play the classic “Cap’n Lou” but without the “Fifty Percent of the Gross, 80 percent of the net” part at the end.

Great movies (finally) on bluray:

1) Annie Hall and Manhattan. What can one say. Both are in the top ten of the best movies of the past forty years. I prefer “Manhattan,” which together with “Diner” and “Groundhog Day” and GF, I and II make up my top five, but others disagree. They can get their own blogs. No extras on those, though.

2) “Notorious” and “Spellbound” and “Rebecca.” Two terrific Hitchcocks’ and one pretty extremely interesting Hitchcock. Two wonderfully luminous Ingrid Bergman; one Cary’s best performances, a nice Claude Rains, a better than usual Gregory Peck; terrific scripts (in the first two cases) and “Rebecca” has Olivier and Joan Fontaine and some excellent creepy music. It’s a chick flick, though. Lotta extras but you can look them up.

3) "The Apartment." The great Billy Wilder’s 1960 Best Picture winner with nice performances by Jack Lemon and Shirley McClain. Again, Lotta extras, look ‘em up.

Glee: The Concert bluray. I got this for the kid, who is a “Glee” fanatic, but she still hasn’t watched it. That’s all I can tell you. I’m not gonna. She says she will. You can if you want. I hate that show and I’m sure I would hate the concert even more.

Archer: For Your Eyes Only: 'Archer: The Complete Season Two.' If you’re not hip to “Archer” yet, get thee immediately to seasons one and two. Trust me. Season three just started. You’ll want to catch up. It’s actually so great you won’t believe you didn’t know about it. There are some extras. I’ve not gotten to them yet.

My friend Patti Cohen has written her first book and it’s called In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.

The idea was actually my friend Susan Lehman’s and she came up with it at dinner on my porch at the beach. So I got bitten by lots of mosquitos so this book could be born. Read all about it here.

Also, if anyone has a Bruce ticket for me at the Meadowlands or the Garden for Philly, gimme a call. (And if you don’t you can still buy this still-royalty producing gem)

Now here’s Reed.

Re: When Presidents Lie (to Themselves)
by Reed Richardson
For a Washington press corps that loves process stories, pulling back the curtain to reveal how a presidential administration really functions amounts to something like its Prime Directive. As such, the ability to interview the powerful players involved in a tense or momentous White House meeting often makes for the kind of gaudy journalistic coup one can build a whole book (or career) around. The ne plus ultra of this Beltway phenomenon is unquestionably theWashington Post’s Bob Woodward. For decades, he has made a living churning out numerous insider accounts of Washington palace intrigue, all of which prominently feature behind-the-scenes set pieces and blockbuster quotes that place the reader “in the room” as historic events transpire.

Though this type of “fly on the wall” storytelling is no doubt sexy and dramatic, a heavy reliance upon personal testimony and after-the-fact interviews presents several structural problems. The first of these, which is a frequent knock on Woodward, involves the inherent conflict-of-interest issues that can arise when one is granted such privileged access to high-level officials like the President and his staff. Then, there’s the susceptibility to selection bias, where the official version of events becomes skewed by who is available and/or willing to cooperate on the story. Finally, there’s the age-old problem of faulty memory, which numerous studies of eyewitness testimony have shown plagues our ability to precisely recall events, locations, dates, and conversations from last week, let alone years ago.

Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, takes a decidedly different journalistic tack this week in his long, but worth-the-read political analysis, “The Obama Memos.” Whereas Woodward and others tend to favor a personality-driven, outside-in approach to White House reporting, Lizza, in a subsequent interview with Politico, says he consciously chose to construct a portrait of Obama and his administration using a more document-driven, inside-out approach:

“I spoke with dozens of White House officials over the last few years, and what I learned is people don’t have very reliable memories,” Lizza said. “They contradict themselves. You look at the paper trail, and you realize what they told you isn’t true. So I decided to rely almost exclusively on primary source material.”

This isn’t just a canny, CYA move on Lizza’s part. (Though it is worth pointing out that there’s been virtually no pushback from the White House about the story). Instead, it’s rather an inspired strategy for pushing past the axe-grinding and ego-polishing that often accompanies these insider accounts to better understand what happened in Obama's first term.

How so? Well, as business historian JoAnne Yates explains in her book “Control through Communication,” the internal records, reports, and memos that an organization generates are much less susceptible to artifice, rhetoric, and retroactive spin. As working documents they serve to distribute information or prompt decisions and, as Yates puts it, “reflect a desire to rise above the individual memory and to establish an organizational memory tied to job positions and functions, rather than to specific individuals.” (italics mine)

Indeed, to work through Lizza’s article is to encounter a narrative that is much more broadly historical than narrowly journalistic in tone. For long stretches, his analysis remains so rooted in the textual back-and-forth within the Obama administration that one might easily think the 44th President served 100 years ago and no members of the White House staff are extant. As a result, the tale of this president’s first three years in office is slowly but deftly built around him, issue by issue, memo by memo.

However, Lizza’s doggedly straightforward reporting of Obama’s time in office serves a purpose beyond merely documenting for the record his decision process. As he acknowledges to Politico, Lizza’s premise for this story (which blossomed out of a book deal on the administration he signed in 2008) was to illustrate how much of Obama’s first-term stumbles result from a critical miscalculation on the part of the president.

"My contention, not to be too cynical, is that it really was impossible to change Washington and that Obama should have always known that,” Lizza told POLITICO. “Given the polarization story, there was never a real chance for him to have a post-partisan presidency.”

He’s undoubtedly right. And this fundamental error on Obama’s part continues to haunt the administration to this day. Now, this isn’t exactly a revelation to many liberals who have watched Obama intentionally negotiate or inadvertently fritter away one political opportunity after another over the past three years. And yes, many of the specific policy decisions in Lizza’s story are well known thanks to contemporaneous reporting by others. But woven together into a larger composite of this president, Lizza demonstrates how all these tactical errors can be traced back to a single strategic failure—what amounts to the biggest lie Obama has ever told.

Now, it’s conventional wisdom today that all Presidents lie to the public. (And looky here, someone even wrote a book about it.) But I would submit that “The Obama Memos” show that the biggest, most dangerous lie Obama has told as president was to himself, by believing in his own ability to create some chimerical, post-partisan political climate. Sure, he rode into Washington three years ago buoyed by stellar, bipartisan approval ratings, but, as Lizza ably details, the partisan storm clouds were already on the horizon.

Within days of taking office, Republican intransigence was on full display. When the still too-small stimulus, which saved the economy from ruin, passed with nary a GOP vote in the House, a wiser politician would have caught on. Yet time and again Obama kept believing in his own campaign rhetoric, convinced he could overcome an insurmountable ideological divide fed by elements within the opposition that questioned his very political legitimacy. At times, this willingness to continue to deceive himself in the face of entrenched opposition is not only frustrating but downright laugh-out-loud funny. As Lizza tells it, when Obama’s aides bluntly tell him Congress won’t approve emergency funds for—of all things—nationalizing a few of the country's largest banks, the president’s response is as revealing as it is naïve: “Well, what if we really explain this very well?” Oof.

Even after passing his administration’s crowning domestic achievement—the Affordable Care Act—Obama didn’t fully abandon his post-partisan predilections, despite the fact that he and the Democratic Congress had to engage in full-on partisan hardball to win even that victory. Only after this past summer’s ridiculous debt-ceiling debacle did Obama finally appear to have the scales lifted from his eyes. (Although, ominously, vestigial elements of this post-partisan affliction still echoed through parts of Tuesday’s State of the Union speech.) But then, as now, it was too late to do too much, as he confronted an even more extreme House Republican majority intent on his political destruction.

It would be easy for some on the left to dismiss Obama’s disappointing self-deception as no great surprise; his track record in Illinois and the U.S. Senate was always that of a center-left politician, they might say. But that’s not exactly fair in my view. Sure, he can be criticized for almost eagerly capitulating on a public option, but when everyone else in the White House—save his wife—was advising him to ditch health care reform altogether, Obama’s progressive roots steered him toward a real policy win.

Whether that momentous policy win stays on the scoreboard remains to be seen. Certainly, the two most likely Republicans vying to replace Obama and erase nearly everything he’s done won’t be guilty of falling victim to the same level of self-delusion. They save their outright hustling and lying for the masses. Whether it’s Newt Gingrich playing up the media as the heavy in GOP debates only to wine and dine with the press in cozy, off-the-record chats back at the hotel or Mitt “Will Say Anything To Get Elected” Romney touting an endorsement from a hard-line anti-immigrant politician when he’s really quite OK with undocumented aliens working for him, for pete’s sake!

The prospect that either of these two men could concoct lies to tell the American people that will be as ostentatious and as costly as those from Obama’s predecessor is not far-fetched. (OK, maybe the odds are closer to 50-50.) But neither can this country afford a second term of an Obama administration where the president fools himself into striking legislative compromises on what is essentially GOP policy turf. And the possibility that a re-elected Obama, eager to accomplish something (anything), might do so with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate only amplifies this concern.

Our democracy faces a stark choice this November, one that could lead to radically different realities by the time the 2016 White House process stories get published. If Obama wants to be more than an afterthought in those stories, however, he must finally accept that what failed him in his first term wasn’t a lack of explaining the political reality to the public, it was a lack of accepting it himself.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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