My new “Think Again” column is called “Is Contemporary Conservatism Just ‘Payola’?” and it’s here. (Hint: it’s yes….)
A blast from the past: Journalists traveling on National Review cruises and writing articles about the funny people they encounter there have appeared in the past month in New York magazine and a couple of years ago in The New Republic. I did one in 1997, and since David Foster Wallace's famous cruise piece turned out to be largely fictional (according to Jonathan Franzen) I nominate it as the funniest (true) cruise piece, (though others may differ, as they so often do...). It’s called “Heart of Whiteness”—as we went to Alaska—and you can read it here.
Jazz now and then, live and not: The New York Winter Jazz Festival, The David Murray Big Band with Macy Gray at the Irridium; The Clifford Brown & Max Roach Emarcy Albums on Mosaic (vinyl only.)
I caught night one of the New York Winter Jazz Festival last weekend and saw three terrific sets. The first was by Cat Russell, whom I discovered, I imagine along with many others, because of Terry Gross’s enthusiasm for her, and she’s a wonderful throwback to what was, in most respects, a better time. Great voice. Great taste. Real presence. You can read about her here. (I also saw her in the band with Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, and she really helped make that night, especially the closing vocal on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” however it is supposed to be spelled. Next came the Monty Alexander Harlem-Kingston Express who I now see have a live album I have to buy as soon as I finish writing this. Monty’s had a long career, but I just got back from Jamaica, and while there is nothing like Bob Marley, I heard enough Marley while I was there to last a few months at least. Anyway, Monty’s got some Marley, some Harry Belafonte and everything in between. And what a party the band was having onstage, defying category or else defining a new one. That was followed by Don Byron who has also made a living defying category—my favorite set of his was a tribute he did one night to Sly Stone—but Friday night was pretty straight-ahead. (Le) Poisson Rouge was full by this time and it made one, temporarily, optimistic about the future of live jazz, though if you read Ben Ratliff in the Times, you’ll see that it’s a bit easy to fool oneself. For more on Don Byron, go here. (Hey wait a minute, how crazy is this? I want one of these too. Look up Mickey Katz if you’ve never heard of him) some wonderful shows.
Sunday night I caught a really weird show. I tend to feel guilty about how little attention I give to contemporary jazz musicians in favor of the ones upon whom I was originally schooled. One of the few exceptions to my failure, however, has been the amazing career of David Murray, who reminds me (and I suppose a lot of people) more of John Coltrane than anyone alive with the exception of Ravi Coltrane, both in regard to his originality and audacity. He does so many different things, many of them at the same time, it’s impossible to keep up with all of them. (I see 150 albums, are only the ones under his name.) At the Iridium on Sunday night, he had not only an amazing big band, but also Macy Gray. Ms. Gray is what she is. Fortunately, Sunday night she was in a pretty good mood, and the band was loose and in a good mood, and the Iridium is nice, intimate venue; it was a night like no other, save perhaps the shows on Friday and Saturday. There was some jazz, some funk, some R&B, and some stuff I’d hate to try to describe, though it apparently included lyrics by Ishmael Reed. But it was all pretty fun.
(And by the way, Lou Reed was sitting across the room a bit from me with Hal Wilner. The last time I saw Lou at a jazz show, it was at the Village Vanguard for a Marcus Roberts show, and his dates were Henry Kissinger and Vaclav Havel, who was still running that country of his at the time. When they left, Vaclav and Kissinger got into one car and Lou had to get into another one, so I don’t know how much they all three actually hung out together.)
Back to my retro-emphasis, the good news is that the folks at Mosaic are back on track. A few weeks ago I reviewed the marvelous new Mingus concert collection on CD, and now, on vinyl, we’ve got a beautiful new collection of the marvelous Clifford Brown & Max Roach Emarcy Albums. It is not uncommon for people to say that if “Brownie” had not been killed in the car accident at age 26, we might be speaking his name in the same hushed tones we say “Miles.” This is his best work and most important work and Mosaic has done its usual fine work. It’s four LPs and limited to 2,500 copies based on the original analog masters, which were remastered and pressed on 180-gram vinyl. The sessions included Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt, but the focus is on Brownie and Roach. As the (terrific) liner notes by Bob Blumenthal note, "the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet created one of the very greatest string of small-group recordings in jazz history, worthy of consideration alongside the Hot Fives and Sevens of Louis Armstrong and the quintets of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis." Really people, I lack the words. Nice photos by Chuck Stewart and Francis Wolff, too. More here.
Grand Bargain Hunting
by Reed Richardson
A lot of what passes for political punditry in Washington these days amounts to what I’d call intellectual big-game hunting. This tendency manifests itself through a compulsion to seek out the largest prey imaginable when trying to solve our nation’s problems. Chasing down more plentiful, more manageable, and more readily available quarry simply doesn’t hold much appeal, not when there are vague hints of an elephantine “grand bargain” lurking somewhere far off in the distance. The not so subtle implication: the bigger the game, the better the hunter, the broader the mind.
But there’s a critical flaw in relying upon this trophy-hunting approach time and again. Grand bargains, like elephants, are actually quite rare for good reason. The many disparate elements that naturally comprise them make them a) difficult to fully comprehend—as this old Indian fable about six blind men and an elephant illustrates—and b) vulnerable to accomplishing a lot of things poorly instead of one or two things well.
Thus, we can’t be allowed to simply raise taxes, extend unemployment, or authorize the paying back of our debts without this cohort shoehorning massive cuts to the social safety net into the debate. Thus, we can’t simply implement common sense limits on guns without wrangling video games and armed schools into the mix. Thus, when it comes to climate change, we don’t even consider a straightforward carbon tax and have instead settled on the worst of all grand bargains—doing absolutely nothing. No doubt, right now we’ve arrived at a moment where a preponderance of our national media elite believes that only great, big, all-encompassing policy fixes can save us. And pity the politician who doesn’t agree.
Pick a recent David Brooks column or something from the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and you’ll encounter this grand bargain obsession close up. But perhaps no one has better embodied how this fetish for complex, comprehensive solutions can morph into convoluted, even contradictory advice from National Journal’s editorial director, Ron Fournier. This is from a Fournier column this past week where he calls upon President Obama to step up to the plate:
First, the political landscape is ripe for bold ideas and big change: The public is overwhelmingly discontented with the direction the country is headed, and is craving outside-the-box leadership. In times of tumult, voters are likely to forgive a president, if not reward him, for compromises made in service of solutions. And if Americans can ever again be summoned to a spirit of shared sacrifice, this would be that moment.
Just two months ago, though, with Obama’s re-election literally just hours old, Fournier was singing a decidedly different tune:
First, lower expectations. Obama promised voters he would change the nature of politics in his first term. He failed. Rather than promise the unattainable, Obama needs to acknowledge the difficulty of tasks ahead, starting with curbing the nation’s debt.
Mandates are rarely won on election night. They are earned after Inauguration Day by leaders who spend their political capital wisely, taking advantage of events without overreaching. Obama is capable—as evidenced by his first-term success with health care reform. But mandate-building requires humility, a trait not easily associated with him.
The intellectual tension between these two bits of insight from Fournier is sufficient to replace a main support cable on the George Washington Bridge. (And, not for nothing, but Fournier’s sideways suggestions of Obama’s arrogance reach back years.) Setting aside his clichés and shopworn themes, though, there is a common thread to Fournier’s thinking here that is seen in other pundits of the same ilk. To me, it lays bare the glaring inconsistencies and oxymoronic logic involved in grand bargain hunting. It also begs some questions. So, I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Fournier:
OK, not much of a conversation, really. That follow-up question went unheeded. That’s too bad, because I am genuinely curious to hear Fournier’s response. Judging by the rest of the article and his curt, somewhat dismissive one-word Tweet, though, I suspect it’s difficult for him to answer because he, like many other Beltway pundits, is essentially reverse engineering political policy. He/they start by outlining the mechanics and maybe some broad characteristics of their grand bargain ideal and then try to work backwards to figure out the corresponding policy elements. Actually, that’s not quite true, because all too often these Beltway pundits don’t really bother with the heavy lifting of figuring out how the concomitant parts of these grand bargains would work, or if they would work at all.
In Fournier’s column from last week, when tiptoeing up to the point of having to advocate specific policy prescriptions, he, like many other Beltway pundits, suddenly starts shoveling warmed-over platitudes that mean nothing:
[P]olls show a majority of voters want Washington to address guns, debt, and the climate. True, there's no easy agreement on exactly how to solve the problems, but events of the past few weeks have at least galvanized the country behind the need for answers.
This section, which follows hard on the heels of Fournier’s whiplash inducing “big change” and “compromise” paragraph might best be described as the editorial equivalent of the meatpacking industry’s pink slime. That is to say, a lot of it is merely filler, and is so overly processed that it holds no intellectual value anymore for his audience. On complicated issues like these, to essentially say “people disagree” with little to no context is endemic to this strain of facile punditry, however.
To be fair, Fournier does finally come close to endorsing one actual example of policy solution later in his piece:
Banning semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles is favored by a minority of voters, just 44 percent, making it a test of Obama's ambition: The way to leave his mark on the guns issue is to support an assault-weapons ban and use the bully pulpit to shift polls in favor of it.
The jig is up here. Alighting on a warmed-over policy reform that was already the law of the land for ten years before expiring almost ten years ago—one that was so riddled with loopholes to ensure passage that it was rendered completely ineffective, I might add—hardly qualifies as big, bold change with compromises in service of solutions. Indeed, the latter rendered any chance of the former moot.
Now, Obama does seem intent on avoiding the law's previous mistakes and bolstering any new ban’s potential effectiveness through a package of accompanying reforms like high-capacity magazine bans and universal background checks. But real political courage wouldn’t stop there. Instead, the president would seek to not just slow the growth of guns in our nation but shrink it altogether, by, say, refusing to grandfather in the millions of rapid-fire, military-style rifles currently in the US and buying them up to take them out of circulation permanently. But these details aren’t what grand bargain hunters are really about, despite their rhetoric, because such a policy, though proven to be quite effective in Australia, wouldn’t provide the Republicans to chance to achieve what Fournier says should preferably be a “win-win” solution for both sides.
Of course, the notion that a party sworn to defeating the president the day he first took office would ever entertain anything other than a zero-sum approach to legislative battles with the White House is laughable. I mean, there’s now a faction of the House GOP that is so entrenched that its members reflexively vote no against their conscience. There’s an advantage to pundits for maintaining a certain naivete, though. If one doesn’t get lost in the weeds of the how and the why political actors disagree, then it’s much easier to make a supercilious appeal for everyone to just, you know, stop disagreeing so much.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Fournier and other grand bargain-loving pundits have warmed to the recent, PR-driven resurrection of the No Labels bunch. (Fournier, doing his part, has written three rather fawning stories on this group in the past week alone.) Founded two years ago, No Labels says it wants to “move America from the old politics of point-scoring toward a new politics of problem-solving.” Just last week, it announced as members 25 Congressional backbenchers (no one from a party leadership position and there’s only one subcommittee chair among them) plus former Utah Governor Jon Hunstman. Its “problem-solving” agenda, however, is noticeably light on discussing anything other than structural reforms and mostly its members seem to be motivated by the lonely, unhappy existence brought on by their career choice.
Fournier’s affinity for No Labels is no doubt strong because he attempted something similar in 2006, becoming the co-founder of the short-lived, bipartisan political community site HotSoup.com. Like No Labels, HotSoup and the other bi/non-partisan group Americans Elect, which crashed and burned last spring before it could nominate a presidential candidate, are notable for looking at our policymaking process and fixating mostly on process at the expense of the policymaking. Fond of the old Tip-and-Ronnie-drank-together-after-work approach, these groups find common cause with grand bargain hunters in the media because both willingly mistake better comity for better polity.
For example, here’s Fournier’s latest take on a No Labels gathering—“In Congress, Compromise is a 4-Letter Word.” (Compromise about a specific issue, of course, is never mentioned. The concept is treated more as an amorphous end-all, be-all in itself.) This bipartisan portrait is equal parts faux outrage and why-can’t-we-all-get-along kvetching and no doubt sounds a lot like a group of compromise-happy DC pundits convening to talk shop and BS at a Georgetown cocktail party. At times, I almost think Fournier, too, might have caught on to the pomposity of the proceedings, especially when he gives this group more than enough rope to hang their egos with:
Most lawmakers want to change Congress, at least in the abstract, [Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David] Cicilline says. But real reform on issues such as redistricting, filibusters and campaign spending are harder won. Like an unwelcome guest, reality silences the table—until Cicilline jump-starts the conversation with the smallest measure of optimism. “By the way,” he says, “just having a chat like this is monumental.”
God love ya, Representative Cicilline, but let’s be clear here—just having some very expensive drinks with other House members, some of them Republicans, at a tony restaurant on Central Park South is in no way shape or form monumental. It is conceit masquerading as sacrifice. It is not going to improve the lot of the American people tomorrow, or the next day, or even ten years from now. Like it or not, that has always and will always come from performing scutwork like winning elections and leveraging that political power bestowed by the voters, both inside and outside Capitol Hill.
This is perhaps the most important lesson Fournier and many others in our opinion media firmament need to learn. To routinely bemoan our messy exercise of partisan politics in relentless pursuit of some contrived, chimerical bipartisan solution that bundles all our problems up into one neat package is to present the public with a false choice. In the end, the institutional arrogance of grand bargain hunting not only shortchanges the very real impact politics has on people’s lives, it ignores the growing ideological extremism of this country’s right wing. And worst of all, it undermines the very foundations of democracy itself.
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