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Why Won’t Congress Follow? | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Why Won’t Congress Follow?

I’ve got a new Think Again: A Realistic Approach to Syria. Read it.

(I wrote this earlier): Here’s an idea for Tina Brown: Fire the clownish, incompetent Howard Kurtz, replace him with Conor Simpson or Jamison Foer.

A “Howard Kurtz is a clown” sampler: 
Kurtz suggests Fox News is balanced, WaPo editorial page is liberal
Howard Kurtz's double standard on double standards
Howard Kurtz's bogus conflict-of-interest defense
Howard Kurtz's wasted opportunity
or Alex Pareene here too, or one of the anchors on that website where they strip when they read the news. Really, who could be worse?

Hey look:
This just in. Apparently I telepathized my idea to Tina and Kurtz is “resigned” in the ignominy he has been so richly earning for the past two decades.

Isn’t this a funny comment? I read it in Tablet:
“In a characteristically candid interview, he said that, despite his patronage of arts institutions from the Metropolitan to the Israel Museum, he never thought about donating the collection.
“There’s a virtue in these things being in homes rather than on some museum shelf,” he said. By many accounts, Steinhardt’s collection, focusing on ceremonial objects for home and synagogue, is the most significant of its kind to come to market in the half century since the 1964 Sotheby’s auction of Judaica amassed by Polish émigré Michael Zagayski.”

What a humanitarian, making millions so that people can keep this stuff to themselves rather than share it with the wider world. Oh and the Met and the Israel Museum did team up to buy an illuminated Torah for over $4 million. Too bad that won’t get to be held privately so only rich folk could see it like the great humanitarian whom Tablet quotes so crazily sympathetically would have liked.

Does Steinhardt fund Tablet? I dunno...But if he does, it would esplain the above.

Alter-reviews: Catherine Russell and the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra does Duke
I went to Jazz@Lincoln Center on consecutive evenings last weekend. Friday night, at the club, Dizzy’s, I caught one of my favorite female singers, Catherine Russell, with her band, doing a jazz and blues set. (Catherine is also top-tier backup singer for bands like Bowie’s and Steely Dan.) The daughter of Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's long-time musical director, she sure is schooled in the history of the music, and picks out chestnuts from the past which you can’t believe you’ve not heard before. She makes them her own, at least as far as I can tell, being unfamiliar with the originals, but they sure do sound great with her band (and of course, against the background of Columbus Circle at Dizzy’s). I first discovered her because Terry Gross is a big fan and then I caught her singing with the Donald Fagen/Boz Scaggs/Michael MacDonald band, where she pretty much stole the show. See the woman if you can, or at least check out her cds. I think there are two of them.

The following night, however was one for the ages. The full Jazz@LC orchestra—which strikes me as a pretty difficult get, of late, playing an all Ellington night. There’s no question that Wynton Marsalis has always modeled his adult self on Duke, but there are many other influences fighting for pride of place there as well (Miles, Louis, his dad, etc.) Bak in 1988, Wynton Marsalis put together members of his (then) septet which included Ellington alumni Jimmy Hamilton, Willie Cook, Jimmy Woode, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, and Joe Temperley  to create the first iteration of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he and the players have always demonstrated a special relationship to the enormous Ellington oeuvre and it’s hard to imagine a group of musicians alive today who could do this body of work greater justice than this band did the night I saw them.  Joe Temperley  is still in the band and he played masterfully. Ditto Walter Blanding on sax and Wynton himself, letting go on solos that were written as if for him to play that way on that night. The two versions of “Mood Indigo” were the highlights, together with “Do Nothing ‘till You Hear from Me,” at least from my seat, but I can tell you, everyone in that full hall (and there were four shows) felt him or herself lucky to be there.

The Jazz@LC calendar is here. Sorry if you don’t live in New York.

Though, come to think of it., it’s the second weekend of Jazzfest in New Orleans. Teaching commitments kept from going to what I insist is the Western world’s best party, but The Nation’s Katelyn Belyus is there and has volunteered for the role of Altercation Roving Reporter. Here is her first filing (Reed appears below):

Wed night arrival:  It began at the Howlin' Wolf's Megalomaniacs Ball. I rolled into a gnarly, open space filled with a mixed crowd spilling out of the open bar into the street. Not a surprise, since every place down here spills onto the street at some point or another. Marco Benevento, the brilliant indie pianist from Brooklyn, was just finishing his set. I'd had the pleasure of catching Benevento a couple of years ago at the House of Blues' Piano Night, and I marveled at his performance then-- using a guitar pick on the piano strings while he accompanied himself on the keys; the covers of Amy Winehouse and Cee Lo Green. He is a true experimentalist.

Benevento made way for the Mike Dillon Band, and Dillon's lunatic artistry crept over every inch of the stage with tentacle-like majesty. The band is a collaborative effort that sounds like a combination of punk and ska, Zappa and Sublime, with a touch of marching band and hardcore. I know that sounds crazy, but the really crazy part, is that it actually succeeds. Dillon's work on the vibes is enthralling, but perfectly in sync with Carly Meyers on trombone. A tour de force, Meyers fronts that stage with frenetic energy that lends a new interpretation of the trombone-- and of the police whistle, which she also aptly “plays.” This was not the first I'd seen her, but it was the first I'd seen her so completely absorbed with the music. Where I had detected shyness now held court for a fierce vitality and abundant energy. She practically galloped around stage before diving off into a crowd of devotees and then finishing the set. “That was intense,” breathed a lady behind me.

Dillon's band left the stage to the Stanton Moore Trio, always odd to me that the band is named for the drummer, until you watch the drummer drum. Stanton Moore shows up to the kit looking like a kid fresh out of Sunday School. Skerik on sax and Charlie Hunter on the eight-string round out the trio, and their synergy is tight. Everyone knows their place at any given moment, even if that place is to repeat a riff forty or fifty times to keep the others on track. Mike D and Benevento dropped back in, and the crowd relived their favorite Garage A Trois days. They are so striking in their shared smiles and laughs onstage. Skerik's gotta take a leak? Moore and Hunter have him covered. And though all are remarkably talented, Hunter remains my personal favorite. Eight-String Guitar: that means he's playing bass, rhythm, and his solos simultaneously, and though he's certainly not the only person to do it, he's the only one I've ever seen do it so with such grace and with seemingly little effort. I wanted to write that his fingers flow like water over the strings, but it wouldn't be accurate. They move more like gears, like watch gears, touching and pressing in on themselves to make the thing work, to give it purpose. His fingers give that guitar purpose and to elevate Moore, Skerik, and the rest of  their buddies-- indeed, they act like buddies-- to a place of eclectic soul.

Thursday—I arrived at the Fair Grounds for the first day of the final weekend after multiple rainstorms had passed through. The grounds themselves function as a horse racing track for most of the year, and the place was ripe with mud, hay, and the smell of manure. In some places, the mud was four inches deep, and people were digging out their flip flops like amateur archaeologists. But no one seemed to mind, and though folks were clad in rain boots and ponchos, they could still be found dancing near the stages. There are ten music stages, and the smaller ones each feature a different genre like blues, brass band, contemporary jazz, zydeco, and gospel.

After an oyster po' boy doused in hot sauce, I got comfortable next a lady wearing full-on waders. We were checking out the Forgotten Souls Brass Band, a classic jazz brass band with over nine members. They were a solid group and gave Charlie Parker a shout-out, but once they slowed down their set, I moved on to something more upbeat.

The Hot 8 Brass Band were up on the Congo Square Stage, a traditional brass with a little more soul and funk. Like most of the New Orleans-based groups, they wore matching tee shirts and strutted with confidence. There was the obligatory roll call for members, and Big Peter matched the crowd's cheers with some riffs of his own-- on sousaphone.

I moved to higher, slightly drier grounds for Henry Butler, and was immediately sucked in. Butler is a legendary New Orleans pianist who was blinded at birth. He doesn't just know his way around the keys: he gives direction around the keys (he is also an avid photographer and has been taking pictures for nearly thirty years). Butler plays in a variety of different styles of jazz piano, but with a nod to the blues, and his voice-- equal parts soul, blues, butter, and grit-- complements the music perfectly. The thunderclouds rolled in, everyone's phones flickered Flash Flood Warnings via emergency texts, but Henry Butler and his Friends paid no heed. And towards the end, in the middle of “Big Chief,” a classic Professor Longhair piece that I'm sure to hear at least three more times before the end of the weekend, I was stunned yet pleased to hear Butler's guitarist launch into what could only be Slash's final solo in “November Rain.” “That,” I said, “was freakin' awesome.”

The flash floods had me worried, and I made my way for the exit, but not before stopping off at the gospel tent to check out the Bolton Brothers in their flashy vests singing in smooth harmony. Of all the music I don't listen to regularly, gospel is the most accessible. Even though for me it's ideologically problematic, there's something very universal about gospel's message of hope that appeals to me. The four brothers (of twenty total siblings) gave a stand-out (and stand-up) performance, and during their cover of “We are the World,” even the out-of-sync arm-waving felt right. The brothers dropped down to the audience and invited random people to sing the verses, and when a person stumbled over the lyric or skipped a line, the backing band skillfully brought them back into the fold. In the middle of the flash flood warnings and downpours, the Bolton Brothers were a fun, shining moment.

Now here’s Reed:
Why Won’t Congress Follow?
by Reed Richardson

“Why won’t Obama lead?” Posed as an innocent question, variations of this disingenuous critique can be found lurking all across op-ed pages, political blogs, and cable news shows of late. To be sure, this caricature of a cold, aloof, and distant Obama, who is uninterested in the nitty-gritty of political back-scratching, is not a new one. During the past few weeks, however, this idea that Obama is almost spitefully refusing to steer our ship of state has now achieved critical mass, becoming the leitmotif through which, many pundits believe, all of Washington’s political paralysis can be traced. But to lay the blame for the acrimony and gridlock on Capitol Hill at the feet of Obama is be guilty of intellectual malpractice. For, if all of Obama’s commonsense efforts at compromise—everything short of full capitulation—still come up empty, it’s time for the media to start honestly scrutinizing the flip side of the coin and ask the next question: “Why won’t Congress follow?”

That these pundits will likely resist any such re-orienting of their rhetorical slings and arrows is no surprise. In their estimation, the President, as the country’s chief executive, enjoys an almost superhero-level of influence over events—a viewpoint sometimes jokingly referred to as “Green Lantern Theory”—and so if he doesn’t get his way in Congress, it’s indicative that he just didn’t try hard enough. But, to be fair, the Beltway media is not alone in routinely misunderstanding the dynamics between the leader-follower relationship.

“There is no leader without at least one follower—that’s obvious,” notes author and Harvard lecturer Barbara Kellerman in this Harvard Business Review article. “Yet the modern leadership industry, now a quarter-century old, is built on the proposition that leaders matter a great deal and followers hardly at all.” In fact, Kellerman argues this kind of apportioning of power is exactly backwards. “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers,” she writes in her 2008 book, Followership. “Leaders are often incidental to the action.”

To proclaim the president as “incidental” to a legislative debate, of course, doesn’t exactly suit a pundit class that needs to cast a dramatis personae of heroes and foils in a column twice a week. But to ignore the critical role followership plays in how our government functions is to continually engage in facile, one-sided analysis. It unfairly denies the followers, in this case Congress, any agency in the decision-making process, while it conveniently relieves them of all accountability should things go wrong.

Just listen to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, ranting about Obama’s helpless attitude after his press conference this past Tuesday. “Actually, it is his job to get them to behave,” she cavils. “The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.”

The concept that Congress has as much, if not more, of a democratic responsibility to follow as the President does to lead is anathema to the self-defeating Beltway logic on display here. Dowd’s condescending and infantilizing tone (“dunderheaded,” “behave”) effectively lets Congress off the hook while demeaning Obama, a typical Dowd two-fer. And then she, like so many other pundits, lets herself off the hook as well, by never offering up a single specific example of what this magical leadership might look like or why a Congress hell-bent on undermining the President would ever respond to it.

Indeed, if you needed any further proof that Republicans in the House and Senate will sacrifice any good idea and absorb any indignity as long as Obama does too, GOP Senator Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania offered up yet another smoking gun this past week. While revisiting the filibuster that killed an expanded gun background checks amendment he and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin had hammered out, Toomey admitted: “In the end it didn’t pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.” It’s no surprise then, that some pundits even counseled Obama to “lead from behind” on immigration reform, warning that it he became personally involved “that is the surest way to piss off Congress, especially congressional Republicans, just as it is children and bosses.”

Put simply, this is anti-followership—whatever you’re for, I’m against, precisely and only because you’re for it. Who cares if nine out of 10 Americans support expanding gun background checks or eight out of 10 Americans want a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? According to this zero-sum thinking, if Obama wins, then Republicans in Congress see themselves as having failed. And a myopic media plays along, never quite comfortable enough to state the obvious—that the modern day GOP’s goal is not good governance, it’s defeating the president, as it has been, literally, since his first day in the White House. Needless to say, one cannot lead followers who don’t operate in good faith and who only see incentives in opposing rather than cooperating.

And let’s be clear, this wholesale embrace of, well, not following is by no means an exaggeration. Extreme conservatives in the House and Senate are further polarizing Congress and wresting ideological control of their party away from their own caucus leaders (as we saw again this week). As a result, Congressional Republicans are increasingly drawing power from an energized base of extremists who are more than willing to engage in electoral self-immolation and punish those who dare to negotiate. For instance, when a study of Tea Partiers finds an overwhelming majority want no compromise with political opponents and, likewise, care more about their chosen candidate winning a party primary than a general election, the foundation for legitimate cross-party followership can never exist.

Nevertheless, this idea, that the President and the Republicans in Congress are not cooperating but competing, just will not compute in many pundits’ minds. Thus, we get an entire column from the National Journal’s Ron Fournier torturing an old sports canard about great players and leaders always overcoming bad breaks to win. Remarkably, in Fournier’s analogy, he acknowledges the President and Republicans in Congress are not on the same team, yet in a somewhat incredible twist of reason he still expects the latter to follow the former. You know, because whenever the Red Sox come to New York, they look to Joe Girardi for guidance on how to beat the Yankees.

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Ironically, within Fournier’s hackneyed, nonpartisan critique of Obama is the real, uncomfortable truth about what it will take to break the logjam in Washington. “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team," he writes. "They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”

Fournier’s right in one respect, when one party all but gives up on governing, all that’s left is lousy politics. But what he and his pundit brethren will never admit is that the most effective way to fight lousy politics in Washington right now is with more, better politics. In fact, the best thing the president could probably do for his country is spend the next 18 months campaigning for a Democratic majority in the House. Of course, the Beltway conventional wisdom would roast him alive for such a transparently partisan strategy. But at least it would be an honest attempt at creating the conditions for a functioning democracy. The fundamental problem plaguing our country isn't a shortage of leadership from Obama, in other words, it's a shortage of his followers in Congress.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
Michael Green

Las Vegas, NV
Dr. A., many thanks for a solid piece on the fraud that is MoDo (and the fraud that is Politico, while we're at it).  If you read the columns for which Dowd won her Pulitzer, once you get beyond the fact that she could not even carry one of the keys from Russell Baker's typewriter, you notice that they are all about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and all reflect a sense of proportionality about the Republicans involved and, indeed, Clinton's failings—in other words, while they could be called well written (they certainly are more readable than whatever it is she is submitting and calling a column nowadays), they also have a serious undertone and deal with broader issues.

It also strikes me that while she may have influenced today's alleged reporters in the tendency to focus on the trivial, we also can credit or blame that on news magazines and perhaps even on Theodore H. White.  The difference is, those writers at least thought about it before they wrote it.

Kevin Rothstein
Oceanside
Dear Mr. Alterman:
You are my favorite journalist. I look forward each Friday to read your (and Reed's) column. I also enjoy your Center for American Progress articles.

I must take issue, though, with your list of the worst mistakes of the 20th Century. I believe the worst mistake committed in the prior century was when Archduke Ferdinand's driver took a wrong turn down a street in Sarajevo back in June, 1914.

Eric replies: Ok, Ok. It was just the last 98 years....

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