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Nuclear-Option Fallout: Better Democracy, Same Old Media | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

Nuclear-Option Fallout: Better Democracy, Same Old Media

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

My new Nation column is called "The Right Loses It Over Russia—Again" and it notes that "Conservative hysteria over Putin's aggression in 2014 is eerily reminiscent of right-wing reaction to a previous Crimean adventure, at the dawn of the Cold War.

Alter-reviews:

Spring Quartet at Rose Hall

Reed and I did not post last week so I have a number of shows to discuss. Two of them took place at Jazz@Lincoln Center. The first was a show of the Spring Quartet at Rose Hall featuring drummer and composer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Leo Genovese and bassist/vocalist, Esperanza Spalding. The warm-up was Cecile McLorin Salvant and she was wonderful. It’s the second time I’ve seen here at Rose Hall and each time, her goofy sartorial style threatens to overwhelm one’s impression of her but then she starts to sing and the beauty, self-discipline and intelligence of her delivery causes a feeling of near-hypnosis. This was completely uncaptured on the one CD she put out but the way she re-interprets songs you thought you never needed to hear again is awe-inspiring. And in such a large hall at such a young age, well, wow.

As for the headliners, they were a real band despite the generational divide separating the veterans DeJohnette and Lovano from the youngsters, Genovese and Spalding. They communicated wordlessly and mostly effortlessly, switching around on instruments on occasion. It required one to pay really close attention to appreciate this communcation and catch the threads that connected the musicians and the throughts they were articulating—a big risk in such a big hall. This is not a criticism but it is a contrast however, with the alleged opener, who simply commanded that attention.

Jim Caruso's Cast Party

A week later, I returned to Jazz@Lincoln Center, this time to the beautiful Appel Room, which is the Allen Room renamed in honor of a multi-million dollar gift, and for a show called "Jim Caruso’s Cast Party." Apparently, this show has been running for ten years at Birdland where it is more of a spontaneous thing and probably benefits from the alcohol being served, but boy was it fun the night I saw it.

Caruso is an old-fashioned, old-New York cabaret entertainer and, together with the pianist Billy Stritch, they hosted a truly wonderful set of singers on songs from old movies as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. They were joined by dancer Jeffry Denman, singers Natalie Douglas, Clarke Thorell, Jane Monheit, the wonderfully funny and evocative impressionist Christina Bianco, and the legend, Marilyn Maye.

There were too many highlights to even begin to do justice to them. Bianco’s vocal parodies of divas from Shirley Bassey to Ethel Merman to Babs to Adele were hysterical and powerful at the same time. And what a thrill it was to hear Maye, at 85, at the top of her game showing everybody else how it’s done but with a generosity of spirit and power in her voice.

The next American Songbook show will be Mark Mulcahy on March 19 at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. I learned about him on a really fascinating Terry Gross interview and I plan to try to check him out as well.

Drive-By Truckers

I also made two trips to City Winery last week. The first was a small show to celebrate the release of the Drive-By Truckers twelfth album, “English Oceans” on ATO. I don’t know why it’s called that. It’s a pretty silly name for an album from a band from Alabama, if you ask me. It’s the first one that’s come out since ex-DBT Jason Isbell put out his terrific album and if I were in the DBTs, I might consider it a challenge. If so, it was met in “English Oceans” in which dreamboat hillbilly Mike Cooley steps up and writes half the album with Patterson Hood, on whose shoulders one would have expected the band to rest.

Hood and Patterson did this show on their own for an WFUV broadcast, though at one point they thanked WFMU. It was especially intimate because you had to skip the Oscars to see it. And after they played the album, they came back for a few DBT classics and a splendid time was had by all. The album, as always, is pretty great too.

Cowboy Junkies

A few days later, I got to see the Cowboy Junkies again. What a combination of depression and exhilaration this band is. Margo Timmons can turn any room into her living room and share stuff with the audience as if we were really friends. I’ve been seeing this band for nearly thirty-years and they have grown so mature and knowing it’s kind of wonderful and kind of weird. Their music is hypnotic and works best when it’s familiar—which is part of the reason their covers are almost always so great. The shows were divided between their recent “Nomad Series” along with their excellent rock opera, “The Kennedy Suite,” about the JFK assassination. It’s an odd, impressive piece of work, odder still when you consider how Canadian the musicians all are. The second set featured Margo talking about Bruce and growing up with him and then singing “Thunder Road”—which I was ready to never hear again as long as I live but which made me tear up the way she sang it. 

Allman Brothers Band

Last and definitely not least, you may have heard that the mighty, mighty, but about to be deceased Allman Brothers Band have begun their final fourteen shows at the Beacon Theater last weekend. I saw Saturday night’s show and plan to see the next three Saturday nights as well. Come say hello if you’re there. If you’re not there—or when it’s finally, tragically, over, you can watch a new release of the September, 1991, Japanese TV show, “Live At Great Woods” show from the relatively brief Dickie Betts/Warren Haynes/Allen Woody era with a nice acoustic set in the middle. It’s much better than the crappy version I’ve been watching before this one came out, but unfortunately there’s no Blu-ray. The band has also released a two-CD set “Play All Night: Live At The Beacon Theatre 1992.” This is the same band as above, and I found it weird that they would pick this show since the Warren Haynes/Derek Trucks version of the band is not only the present (about to end) one but also one of the greatest musical ensembles since the great Miles Davis bands and given the fact that they record every show, and are so frequently joined by special guests—the two Clapton Beacon shows are as good as blues guitar ever gets—going back to Dickie’s era is weird especially since Greg gives every impression of hating the guy.

Two possible explanations: 1992 was the beginning of their extended run of shows, now topping off at 234. Second, some of this stuff is really standout, even compared to the zillions of version you’ve already heard. I was actually taken aback upon hearing it for the first time. Finally, Alan Paul has just published an oral history of the band called One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. These guys play a hell of a lot better than they talk, and so I would have thought it was only of interest to obsessives likes yours truly but lo and behold, it’s number ten on the NYTBR best seller’s list, so that shows you how wrong you can be.

Rhino's Little Feat Box Set

Finally, finally, the box set of the week is Rhino’s Little Feat extravaganza: 

"Rad Gumbo: The Complete Warner Bros. Years 1971-1990," which is thirteen CDs, including nine studio albums between 1971 and 1990 plus “Waiting for Columbus” and two CDs of outtakes that appeared on the previous box set and pretty reasonably priced for all that. The last box set—"Hotcakes & Outtakes: 30 Years of Little Feat,” which was four CDs released by Rhino in 2000—was pretty great but it spent a little too much time on the post Lowell George period, which is fine if you just want to go “join” the band live but can not stand up to the genius of the period that made the band a staple of pretty much every intelligent record collector’s collection throughout the seventies. George had a fatal heart attack in 1979, so as good as Hotcakes was, it’s good to have everything in one place. Little Feat was to the seventies as The Band or the Birds were to the sixties—an influence that helped to define an entire genre, and what a fun genre it was.

The box includes:

Little Feat (1971)
Sailin' Shoes (1972)
Dixie Chicken (1973)
Feats Don't Fail Me Now (1974)
The Last Record Album (1975),
Time Loves a Hero (1977)
Waiting For Columbus - Live (1978)
Bonus Disc from Waiting for Columbus: Expanded Edition 
Down On the Farm (1979)
Hoy-Hoy! (1981)
Let It Roll (1988) 
Representing the Mambo (1990)
Outtakes from Hotcakes and Outtakes (2000)

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 

And finally, finally, finally, the reason March in the city has been great in the past is not only the Allmans at the Beacon but also the annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I did not make it to any of the press screenings this year and so have only had the chance to see three films so far: Sébastien Betbeder’s clever debut, “Nights With Theodore,” Nicole Garcia’s “Going Away” and Katell Quillévéré’s haunting and painful “Suzanne.” All were worthwhile in particular ways, but I mention them, not only because if you’re in town, you should check out the schedule, but because after “Suzanne,” which ends with a Nina Simone version of the song, Quillévéré explained that she was inspired to write the story after seeing Leonard in concert three years ago and it was so powerful an experience she took it with her and made a movie out of it. The movie is not the song, of course, but I’ve felt similarly rapturous about the three LC shows I’ve seen since the great man returned to performing, and I find it kind of wonderful that seeing him perform—just about the most religious experience I’ve ever had—inspires others to create art in their own lives and work. 

Now here's um, finally, Reed...

Nuclear-Option Fallout: Better Democracy, Same Old Media

by Reed Richardson

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exercised the “nuclear option” last November, there arose a chorus of howls from the DC establishment. By daring to allow executive branch appointments and judicial nominees—but not for the Supreme Court—to be advanced with a bare majority rather than a 60-vote threshold, Reid was accused of no less than coarsening American democracy. Weighing in on Fox News, the Beltway’s Archbishop of High Dudgeon, George Will, minced no words:

“‘The founders knew that democracy had to be more than counting noses, more than simply adding up majorities. They had to come up with a way to measure intensity, which the filibuster does,’ Will said. ‘It's a sad day for what used to be a great deliberative body.’”

Not surprisingly, the same people who poured out their collective outrage at Reid’s alleged transgression were also conveniently uninterested in explaining how the world’s greatest deliberative body had been reduced to farce thanks to unprecedented Republican obstruction. This “intensity” that filibusters supposedly measured, which Will and other pundits championed, had long since been perverted into an anti-democratic cudgel deployed at the whim of individual Senators. Since the GOP couldn’t defeat President Obama at the ballot box, they instead chose to wage a guerrilla war of attrition on his choices to run our government. And aiding and abetting these efforts has been an establishment media that routinely disappearsthe word “filibuster” from its news reports.

Four months later, the impact of invoking the nuclear option is becoming clear, although you don’t hear much about it in the press—possibly because it’s proving to be a boon for our government. After years of unnecessary brinksmanship, the Senate is finally starting to consistently address the dangerous backlog of judicial vacancies, having approved 16 federal judges since November. Nevertheless, the number of nationwide vacancies still stands at 89. (Of note: 35 of those vacancies are classified as “judicial emergencies,” 32 of which arose since Obama took office in 2009.) Seemingly buoyed by this potential for progress, the White House—which, to be fair, has been dreadfully slow in identifying nominees—has put forward a record-high 64 nominations since the beginning of the year.

But at what cost to the Senate’s storied tradition is this post-nuclear option efficiency? One example of what we’ve “lost”: Last week 41 Republican Senators opposed the nomination of Pedro Delgado Hernandez, Obama’s judicial nominee to the federal district court of Puerto Rico, in what would have been a successful filibuster last October. Instead, the Democrats easily invoked cloture and his nomination moved ahead to a final vote. There, Hernandez narrowly won approval, squeaking by in a vote of 98–0. That’s right, a judge that just passed with unanimous Senate approval would have been filibustered without the nuclear option.

In a nutshell, this episode captures how broken the Senate had become and how worthwhile the nuclear option has proven to be. In short, it has rekindled the promise of responsible Senate governance. Hernandez’s case is not isolated either, as more than half of the 13 District Court nominations approved since December have garnered 90-plus votes, and all but one of those has passed with filibuster-proof margins. Who knows how many of these clearly qualified candidates would have been otherwise held up simply because of Republican spite? Just a hunch, but I think I know which interpretation of the Senate's rules the Founders would find objectionable. (This is, of course, after someone explained to them what a filibuster is in the first place, since it’s not to be found in the Constitution.)

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The risks of a short-staffing the upper echelons of our executive branch also came to the fore last week as the situation in Ukraine reached crisis level. At a moment when the international community confronted a cross-border incursion by a nuclear state, it was notable that, after more than 500 days, the Senate still hadn’t approved the White House’s permanent pick for Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. As this Carnegie Endowment analysis found, the primary objection—from Sen. Marco Rubio—to Rose Gottemoeller’s nomination had all the shameless hallmarks of “extreme partisanship.” Tired of the GOP’s endless stonewalling and prompted by the pressing need to fill a key diplomatic post, last week the Senate finally approved Gottemoeller 58-42, thanks, again, to the nuclear option.

These long overdue exercises in government functionality don’t mean the Senate is merely a rubber stamp on everything Obama wants, however. Despite the histrionic posturing of the all-access-filibuster crowd, the unfortunate tradition of keeping qualified executive branch candidates languishing in the Senate nonetheless continues by other means. In fact, more than 50 ambassadorial nominees—including those for nations like Canada and Saudi Arabia—are now stuck in the Senate awaiting confirmation votes. The reason? Brazen GOP payback for Reid’s nuclear option. Or, as Republican Senator Lamar Alexander whined to the Washington Post, much like a bully trying to justify his misbehavior after the victim finally retaliates: 

“If Senator Reid hadn’t manufactured a crisis and changed the rules, this wouldn’t have happened…He brought this all on himself, and it’s all his fault.”  

One might think the DC press corps would see right through such a childish, transparently false excuse. No such luck. Indeed, last Thursday, Politico penned what might be an instant classic in their missing-the-damn-point oeuvre, entitled: “Harry Reid has no apologies.” Though it sounds like it might engage in a sober examination of what the nuclear option has wrought in terms of improved governance, instead this “analysis” mostly offers Republicans a platform to bash Reid as dictatorial and Putin-like as well as lacking in leadership. (Which is it, fellas? I thought Putin was your party’s idea of a strong leader?) And you know the game is fixed when the authors trot out GOP claims like this with nary a hint of irony or pushback:

“Reid’s hardball tactics and coarse rhetoric have quickly made him perhaps the most reviled politician among conservatives. And in Washington, Republican senators say it has only helped tear down an institytion meant to foster bipartisanship. McConnell and the GOP are vowing to return order to the Senate if they regain the majority this fall.” [emphasis mine]

“Foster bipartisanship,” of course, being a favorite term in the DC vernacular, akin to “compromise,” which means “doing whatever Republicans want, all of the time.” But most outrageous about what Politico does here is the naïve narrative it pushes about the GOP’s disingenuous plans for the Senate if it were to take back the chamber in this year’s mid-term elections. In fact, just three days before this story came out, the New York Times talked to none other than Mitch McConnell about this very topic:

“As he looks ahead to the possibility of leading the Senate, Mr. McConnell is promising a more open floor, with senators from both parties able to offer amendments. He says committees would be given more independence and authority to advance legislation. While he would not commit to reversing the limit Democrats put on filibustering White House nominees last November, he said the idea would be on the table if Republicans took charge. [emphasis mine]

"On the table," LOL, as the kids say. Yep, Mitch McConnell is “vowing” to stand up and, well…kinda, sorta, possibly consider reversing the nuclear option. Maybe. Who can say? Certainly not Mitch, even though it would likely be up to him and him alone. No matter, I’m quite sure that when the Republicans do eventually retake the Senate and, predictably, choose not to undo the nuclear option, the press will readily accept whatever explanation given without any uncomfortable questions about legislative tyranny or party hypocrisy. Who knows, maybe that’s what it will take for our media to finally figure out that the nuclear option was good for our democracy after all.

The Mail

Cheryl Haaker

Albuquerque, NM

Good morning, Dr. Richardson!

I enjoyed your article about big media falling for hoaxes over and over again (man, that is some toilet!!). As far as I have been able to tell, even the major TV news stations and papers no longer fact check. That went the way of copy editing and simple spelchek. [Edit: I see what you did there.]

But seriously, while you are justifiably concerned about the impact of easy foolability on journalism and journalists, the impact on the public is also unfortunate. With our news being wrong on so many things, big and small, it becomes easy to justify selecting only the factoids that you WANT to believe, and disregarding the rest as "probably wrong again."

Or tuning out the news entirely and navigating purely by your gut and coffeeshop conversations with the like-minded.

Reed replies: I’m often tempted by your suggestion, but as a media critic, tuning out the news entirely presents something of a professional hazard. And I’m taking it as a compliment, but, for the record, I don’t have a PhD.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

 

Read Next: Nation in the News: Katrina vanden Heuvel discuss the crisis in Ukraine on MSNBC.

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