Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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

'God What a Simonizing Job…'

My new "Think Again" column is called "The End of Newspapers and the Decline of Democracy."

Though I was shocked to see it at first, I supposed it should have come as no surprise to me that Judith Miller is at least as discerning a theater critic as she is when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and Bush administration lies, deception and folly. Her pan of Mike Nichols’ revival of Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffmann, is one of the most wrong-headed pieces of prose I’ve read since her parroting of Dick Cheney’s nonsense about yellowcake uranium, though to be fair, few people are likely to die as a result. More optimistically, few people are likely to do anything at all as a result, given the deservedly unreserved raves the production received in New York and The New Yorker. I vaguely recall seeing both the George C. Scott and Dustin Hoffman versions of the play and while it was too long ago for me to make any sensible comparison, I can hardly remember being so riveted (often painfully so) by any performance anywhere as watching this magnificent play. Much of it is cliché today, but here is where the cliché was invented and, seen in context, these clichés take on added power for the truths they reveal about life in a capitalist country and what it does to men. I actually left the theater speechless and since I saw it just before opening night, I sent a few emails out to friends suggesting that they buy the tickets before the reviews came out; even friends who lived out of town. Hoffman’s performance is one for the ages, but the rest of the cast has the right combination of explosiveness and tenderness you’d want in this play. I’ve been writing about Arthur Miller for my next book, but I’ve never “felt” the power of what made his reputation live so long and travel so far and wide until I saw Nichols’ Salesman. 

And while we’re on the subject of Miller, my friends at the Library of America have just released volume II of his collected works. Not many people sit down and read plays but Miller’s later works are useful exceptions to this rule. Not many people ended up seeing Miller’s works after the big four (All My Sons, Salesman, The Crucible and View from the Bridge) and now’s your chance to see what you missed. Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1964-1982 (Library of America)

I also want to mention the terrific and completely crazy evening I spent at 92Y for the Friars’ Club celebration of Jerry Lewis’ 86th birthday. What an amazing guy. I have never seen anyone so needy and so mean (often at the same time) to his audience. But you can’t, nor should you wish to deny his genius. So thanks to the folks at the Y for that. (The evening began with Richard Belzer crooning, “Barechu es adoni homoverah.”) Read all about it, here. Oh and last night, I saw Nathan Englander and Joshua Foer discuss their new New American Haggadah, published by Little Brown. I am an enormous fan of Englander’s and strongly recommend the audio version of his new short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I’m looking forward to using the Haggadah.

Now here’s Reed:

Citizens United Blowback: How the GOP’s Super PAC addiction is helping Obama’s reelection chances 
by Reed Richardson

Give someone enough rope and they’ll hang themselves, goes the old saying, and the 2012 election may prove that the same is true when it comes to money in politics. Indeed, the easy-money political climate ushered in by the Citizens United case two years ago just may turn out to be the undoing of the Republican Party’s chances against Obama this November.

This is not to say, however, that because there exists a potential silver lining to the Supreme Court’s radical decision, liberals should find anything to cheer about it. Make no mistake, Citizens United undermined our democracy and, as a large majority of the public agrees, the inequality it unleashed on our political system should not stand.

Perhaps the most well known symbol of this glaring inequality is the Super PAC. By allowing a few wealthy individuals and corporations to funnel unlimited amounts of cash into our political system, these so-called independent entities can unfairly skew our national discourse and buoy candidates that enjoy little public support. And since this is the first full election cycle where they’ve been in place (only a few existed by the 2010 midterms), it’s instructive to see how their presence has impacted the Republican primary process.

Here’s what might come as a surprise: the first, full-fledged presidential primary campaign of the Super PAC era has been accompanied by a big drop in overall spending. Of course, the increased number of primary debates and cable-TV platforms—and all that free media exposure they provided—no doubt contributed to this decline in spending. But I’d submit that the rise of Super PACs have as well.

Fundraising is one of the toughest tasks for any political candidate. So, encountering a new political environment, one where a campaign’s stalking horse PAC can quickly and easily bring in millions of dollars from just a few generous benefactors, can make the hard work of cobbling together thousands of small-dollar donors seem like a wasted effort. In fact, Super PAC spending now represents a sizable chunk of the Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich campaigns’ advocacy efforts, as this Open Secrets report shows. (In Gingrich’s extreme case, Super PAC expenditures on his behalf have dwarfed official spending, and through February, nearly half of this outside money came from a single individual, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.) So, though there's been less money spent, what has been spent is even more concentrated among donors that are rich and powerful.

To be sure, one could argue that the Republican field’s depressed level of official fundraising is also a function of an unenthusiastic primary electorate. (And substantially lower primary turnout than four years ago would go a long way in making that case.) But there’s something else at work here and, again, I believe it’s an unintended consequence of the rise of Super PACs in our politics.

What little rules there are regarding Super PACs involve the prohibition of any ‘coordination’ between these groups and a candidate’s official campaign.  As a result, all those everyday, nuts-and-bolts aspects of a campaign—location scouting, event staging, staff transportation, phone banking, GOTV efforts—become de facto forbidden activities for Super PACs. The most notable campaign expenditure that’s left, something that can be easily scheduled ahead of time simply by looking at the calendar, is obvious: campaign advertising. And so it’s no shock to learn that the Republican Super PACs have spent most of their money on just that. (And of that campaign ad spending, a majority has been spent on tearing down the primary opposition, as this Slate interactive guide shows.)

Rather than treat the millions of dollars of Super PAC-funded TV advertising as but one tool in their campaign toolbox, however, it’s becoming clear that the Republican candidates are instead relying upon it as a crutch, an inexpensive proxy for actually building out a campaign. As Nate Silver of the New York Times’ Five Thirty Eight blog noted last month:

The ‘super PACs,’ however, have spent almost all of their money on television advertising — much of it negative — leaving candidates without the robust organizational infrastructures that the Democrats built in 2008 or Mr. Bush did in 2000. Although Mr. Romney’s ‘ground game’ is strong compared with that of his rivals, it is fairly weak by historical standards, with his campaign generally establishing just one field office in each major state, according to his campaign Web site.

How weak are we talking, historically? Well, Romney’s single field office in New Hampshire this year compares to the 16 opened by Hillary Clinton four years ago when she won that state’s Democratic primary. (Obama and John Edwards had 16 and 19 offices there, respectively.) As the 2012 primary calendar has progressed, Romney’s shortchanging of infrastructure has only grown, as his campaign has become increasingly reliant on an electoral strategy of ‘carpet bombing’ each state with negative ads to eke out a narrow victory, only to then abandon it just as quickly. This excellent National Journal article from earlier this month, worth reading in its entirety, peels back the lid on all this ephemeral spending to demonstrate just how little Romney and the Republican Party are getting for their money and how well positioned Obama is in comparison.

[T]he Republican primary so far has largely resembled a traveling road show. Candidates hurriedly establish a presence in the state next to vote before packing up and moving to the following one, leaving the Obama campaign with the run of the place. Obama has eight campaign offices in Iowa, eight in New Hampshire, three in Nevada, and 12 in Florida. The campaign also has six sites in Wisconsin, a state the Republican candidates have thought little about because it doesn’t hold its primary until April 3.        


Romney’s failure to organize on the ground level at this stage of the election cycle is partly a function of the circumstances of the 2012 campaign, which has unfolded in strikingly different ways from the 2008 Democratic primary.

It’s not just the easy money that’s undermining Romney’s chances to win a general election against Obama, it’s also the relatively weak campaign opposition that he’s only barely beating.

Case in point, Newt Gingrich, who spent much of last summer on a five-star, vanity book promotion tour thinly disguised as a presidential run. (Who can forget his July pledge to fly commercial after his debt-ridden campaign divulged it had spent $500,000 ferrying him on private jets owned by the metaphorically prescient Moby Dick Airways?) His fortunes only improved once the GOP primary’s Ring Cycle of debates got into full swing later that fall and by December he (briefly) claimed the mantle of frontrunner largely because of his performances therein. But as far as campaign infrastructure goes, Gingrich’s belated rise in the polls left him woefully unprepared to do battle in Iowa, leaving him all that more vulnerable to the negative ad blitz Romney’s Super PAC unleashed on him in the days before the caucuses.

Still, Gingrich’s brief flirtation with running a serious presidential campaign, even after his South Carolina primary victory in late January, didn’t last long. His evanescent political success began a precipitous downfall at around the same time—naturally—that the televised debates ended. Now, he’s back to spending money as fast as he can just to keep alive a self-serving twilight campaign (and, according to his February FEC filing, shelling out $75,000 to fly Moby Dick Airways again). Indeed, at this point, he’s all but hustling donors for vacation money—a Politico reporter covering the Gingrich campaign this week noted its lack of outreach to, well, not just registered voters, but humans: “A lifelong animal lover, the former speaker has been scheduling more time at zoos.”

As disorganized and dishonest as Gingrich’s campaign is, though, Rick Santorum’s may be even more so. Just three weeks ago, The New Republic characterized his campaign thusly: “By any conventional measure, there is no Santorum campaign beyond his allied Super PAC and the bare infrastructure that makes his TV ads. Otherwise, it’s just the candidate winging it.” Since then, Santorum has, at least, opened a national campaign office, but his campaign remains so bereft of paid staff that he heavily recruits volunteers to phone bank from their personal homes (as does Romney). Sure he’s scored primary victories in Iowa, thanks to a dogged retail politics strategy that can’t be repeated, and in the South, where his culture war message resonates with evangelicals, but none of this is translatable into any kind of follow-on, general election strategy.

That leaves Mitt, still facing off against two tomato cans for opponents (and one can of corn in Ron Paul). After Romney’s victory in Illinois Tuesday, his Super PAC showed little signs of letting up on its mission, as it reloaded for TV aerial bombardments in Louisiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin. But leaning on his Super PAC so heavily has finally begun to take its toll, apparently, as last month Romney’s own neglected campaign coffers spent money faster than it took it in. Still, even this renewed emphasis on the part of Romney may suffer from a sort of Super PAC hangover effect, since big donors have been courted much more consistently than grassroots supporters throughout his campaign, as the National Journal story details: 

Romney’s small-donor fundraising is weak not only in comparison with his Republican rivals and Obama but also by historical standards, said [Campaign Finance Institute] President Michael Malbin.

 ‘It’s not the only metric for measuring grassroots strength, but it tells you what kind of campaign they are running,’ he said. ‘Governor Romney’s campaign is mostly funded by people who write large checks. He’s not mobilizing the base as he competes for the nomination, though on the day he becomes the presumptive nominee, the entire situation will change.’ 

Count me somewhat skeptical about that last assertion. Romney’s wins have primarily come in spite of, not because of, the support of the party’s most conservative—read passionate—supporters. But even if Republicans of all stripes do enthusiastically rally round Romney by this summer, his campaign’s strategy of favoring Super PACs over the grassroots will leave it months behind the president in terms of building out a crucial ground game in closely fought states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. Plus, the remaining primary calendar does Romney no favors, forcing him to mostly fight over negligible turf, as only six of the final 24 contests (Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, and New Mexico) are in what were considered swing states in 2008.

This all redounds to Obama’s favor come November, as well as our democracy’s. Because as important as November’s vote will be with regard to major issues like the economy, health care, reproductive rights, and the social safety net, Obama’s reelection could also prove to be the spark that eventually reverses one of the most corrosive distortions of our political discourse.

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

The Mail
Stephen Judge

Mr. Alterman,
I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the state of newspaper media organizations in the United States. Sadly, as most are so enamored with "digital media", few people know that it is traditional media that does essentially all the reporting on issues.  However, I would counsel you to take heart at a bit of information that the financial media seems not to recognize.  If you burrow, or even scratch a bit at the financial statements at the New York Times Company, you will see that the New York Times Paper has actually been growing revenue for 2 quarters now, year over year.  All of this growth has come from "circulation" (i.e. paywall) and has outpaced the rate of decline in advertising.  Therefore, even though the larger NYT holding company is shrinking, the NYT paper is growing again after many years.  That paper is essentially saved.  As paywalls get put up in Boston and the International Herald Tribune, I think we will see revenue growth at the larger holding company within a year, maybe two.  As for the wonderful NYT, take heart!! 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Hot Rocks

My latest "Think Again" column is called “Homeless Hotspots? Reality Bites.”

And my New Nation column is called “Gaddis's Kennan: Strategies of Disparagement.”

Read ‘em and weep.

Got my copy of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, yesterday. Amazon has it at 419 pages and $29.95 but it's really 576 pages and $32.95. They're selling it for under twenty bucks. A steal I tells ya..

So Tuesday night I went to the eigth annual benefit for kids’ music programs produced by the City Winery owner Michael Dorf at Carnegie Hall, this one dedicated to the Stones, based on Hot Rocks, 1964-71. It was the best of these shows so far, not including the forty or so minutes that Bruce actually appeared at his. No Stones showed up, Keith-related rumors not withstanding. And Bruce remains the only principal to appear at any of them. But this one surprised and delighted both the spirit and quality of the performances as a well as the fact that it turns out Stones songs can be great even when other people perform (and re-interpret) them.

There were really too many wonderful performances to even begin to do justice to most of them (and a crack house band led by Lenny Kaye). Among the most fun/interesting: 

Peaches, in a tight black hooded jumpsuit, open down to her pipik, doing a nasty of “Heart of Stone”; Juliette Lewis, my old friend from Jay Leno’s couch—“You know a lot of big words,” she told me--who I didn’t know could sing, doing a perfectly credible and rather exciting “Satisfaction” in silver sequined hotpants, screwed-up lyrics not withstanding; Marianne Faithfull with “As Tears Go By” and (a bonus track), “Sister Morphine”; David Johansen, doing “Get Off of My Cloud” at least as well as Jagger could these days; Art Garfunkel’s ethereal “Ruby Tuesday”; Rosanne Cash’s “Gimme Shelter,” Jackson Browne’s “Let's Spend the Night Together,” Steve Earle’s “Mother’s Little Helper,” were all sterling. The opening, TV on the Radio with a choir from Young Audiences New York doing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” was moving and thrilling in equal parts.

OK, I could go on, Taj Mahal’s “Honky Tonk Woman,” Ronnie Spector’s “Time is On My Side,” but you get the point.

Sorry, that’s all we got that week. Reed is away or something. 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

We Take Care of Right-Wing Nonsense about Bruce...

My new "Think Again" column is called “Labor and the 'Civil Right' to Organize.” 

Tuesday night I went to an extremely well produced benefit for the Blues Foundation in Memphis designed to celebrate (just one year late) the centennial birthday of the (literally) legendary Robert Johnson. Assembled by the actor Joe Morton, the house band was insanely great. Keb Mo, Colin Linden and James Blood Ulmer on guitar; Sugar Blue on harmonica; Willie Weeks on bass; and Steve Jordan on drums. And the lineup: Sam Moore, Taj Mahal, Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, Chuck D., Bettye Lavette, Macy Gray, Sarah Dash, the Roots, the Dough Rollers, Shameika Copeland, Living Colour and Geoffrey Wright.

The peformances were, inevitably, hit or miss. Rundgren was a treat. Sam Moore did a quiet, haunting “Sweet Home Chicago.” Elvis sang “From Four Till Late” also rather quietly explaining, “They don’t allow hellhounds on our trail in England..They worst we get is bloodhounds.” The real revelation of the show, however were the songs played by Keb Mo, who, grown up and gray, gives the impression of carrying Johnson’s ghost inside him. His solo versions “Crossroads Blues” and “Love in Vain” were show highlights sent shivers down my old bones. Show was kinda long, but not at all haphazard, and held together, as I said earlier, by the amazing house band. Give some money to the Blues Foundation here

For the high-minded amongst us, I recommend a recent release by Acorn’s documentary line Athena, of IN THEIR OWN WORDS, a series which features interviews and short readings by Sigmund Freud, George Orwell, Ian Fleming, Evelyn Waugh, among many others, and the only surviving voice recording of Virginia Woolf. It’s never been aired in the U.S., and it’s worth your time. Acorn is also now responsible, somehow for the future of FOYLE’S WAR, which is one my household prized discoveries of the past few years. And you can start at the beginning while they are making new ones.

The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Vols. 1–3. Edited by Melvyn. P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2010. 1999 pp.
Far be it from your humble author to even attempt to do justice to this approximately two thousand page collection of essays by some of the most distinguished diplomatic historians alive. What I find most interesting in thumbing through them is the manner in which what historians agree to be true is often at odds with what our political culture insists must be true. The historiography of the Cold War has gone through many phases from orthodoxy to revisionism to post-revisionism (which some call “orthodoxy with footnotes”) and from being an entirely US-Soviet focused field to one that has engaged historians from many nations who write about Europe and what used to be called “the periphery” as if it were part of a shifting center. Of course these authors take advantage of methods of inquiry that were never dreamed of in the respective imaginations of previous generations of historians and remain controversial to many today.   

Volume I (Origins) examines the origins, causes and early years of the Cold War while Volume II (Crises and Détente) examines the developments that made the Cold War into a long-lasting international system during the 1960s and 1970s. Volume II examines the developments that made the Cold War a long-lasting international system during the 1960s and 1970s. And Volume III tries to ask the question of why did it end, why did it end the way it did, and who was responsible?

Some of the most interesting articles I read were those that might be considered furthest afield from traditional lines of inquiry, such as the one on the intellectual history of the Cold War by Jan-Werner Müller, on science and technology by David Reynolds, the world economy by Giovanni Arrighi and others on topics like migration and consumerism by Matthew Connelly and Emily Rosenberg respectively.

Perusing Volume 3, the articles that made the greatest impression on me, given my own interests, so far, were Archie Brown’s essay on "The Gorbachev Revolution" and Matthew Evangelista on the role of transnational organizations. Together (and with others included here) they easily refute the triumphalist narrative that dominates almost all political discussion of the Cold War in the United States as well as the almost religious mythology that has been purposely propagandized by adhererents to the cult of Ronald Reagan.

Gorbachev, Brown argues, instituted a "conceptual revolution as well as systemic change" in great power foreign policy, rejecting entirely the "common simplification" which credits Reagan’s arms build up for this. And Evangelista demonstrates the key role that transnational organizations played in communicating the bases of some of these ideas between East and West, during times when little communication appeared possible. The two arguments complement one another as Brown also emphasizes the role of "informal transnational influences," in creating the “new thinking” that eventually overthrew the regime. Here is the Amazon page for Volume 3. (I’ll have more to say about some of these issues in my Nation column next week.)

Now here’s Reed on a topic dear to all of our hearts, particularly this week of all weeks, followed by a guest review of Netflix “Lilyhammer” by the Renaissance Record Executive, Danny Goldberg.:

Do You Hear What I Hear?
by Reed Richardson
For those in need of a dose of unintentional, yet laugh-out-loud hilarity this week, I offer up Politico’s take on the conservative’s field guide to the Bruce Springsteen catalog.

Published this past Monday, just one day before Bruce’s new album dropped, as the kids say, this piece of shameless journalistic linkbait joins a small pantheon of other laughable examples of this genre. (Yes, that is Tammy Wynette’s classic country ballad “Stand by Your Man” inexplicably listed among the top 50 conservative rock songs.) In this latest version, we once again find right-wingers straining to gain any kind of ideological purchase from which they can plant their flag on a popular artist’s work, and falling mightily on their faces in doing so.

To wit, who knew that Bruce’s music oeuvre is all about emphasizing Randian philosophy and avoiding the dole? Or so says some conservative blogger/comedian named Evan Sayet: 

"But his lyrics, over and over again, mention some of the fundamentals of conservatism—that though life is horrible, it’s not horrible enough for you to need a handout. When he talks about interpersonal relationships, or the responsibilities we have, one on one … he almost—unconscious to himself—has a conservative message."

Talk about taking the ‘fun’ out of fundamentals. And as far as intellectual loopholes go, one could drive a whole lot of Pink Cadillacs through that wonderfully obtuse “almost—unconscious to himself” phrasing. What’s more, I guess I totally misinterpreted Bruce’s total bummer of an underlying message all these years—life in America sucks, but not as bad as it would if those suffering had to further endure something like, say, free, government-subsidized health care. 

One Mike Brownfield, who works at the right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation (from whence Obama’s gravest threat to individual liberty ever known also originated), shows his capacity for conservative projection with a similarly wonkish take on what is perhaps Springsteen’s best-known song:

"When I listen to ‘Born to Run,’ I’m hearing about a man who is struggling to find happiness, not a song about someone who is trying to find happiness and wants the government to step in."

It’s most assuredly also not a song about trying to find happiness amid the joyous invisible hand of capitalism, but I digress. I suppose we now know why Brownfield thinks the lyrics don’t go: ‘’Cause baby, I’m just a scared and lonely [free] rider.’ Because, dammit, that that kind of individual-mandate thinking is just a trapdoor for the federal government’s tyrannical abuse of the Commerce Clause

To find out how academia might treat such a stupid musical premise, Politico readers also get to hear from a professor at Columbia Muhlenberg College, who teaches a course on TV, Media, and Culture Springsteen, meaning that, as someone once told Alvy Singer, “his insights have a great deal of validity:”

"[Springsteen] references flags; he references Jesus; he references God. His approach to lyrics, from a political sense, often uses conservative-tinged words that might resonate with voters who are by no means liberal."

Please to be stopping with the shallow, non-contextual, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks analysis, Mr. Borick, it’s sounds ridiculous. And it makes one long for Bruce to step in Marshall McLuhan-style… But to be fair, Borick does reappear later in the article and sort of backs into the truth about conservative ideology in talking about the themes from the first single of Bruce’s new album, “We Take Care of Our Own.”

"‘This is very much a message that you hear echoed by conservatives—responsibility for one’s self and immediate family,’ said Borick."

Hard to argue with that last statement, I admit. I mean, just look at current Republican presidential frontwalker Mitt Romney. If anyone has any questions about which constituencies he does or doesn’t favor, his hardcore base of wealthy votersmega-rich Super PAC funders, and self-enriching policy proposals should erase any doubt. Maybe Springsteen really is subtly making common cause with a fellow supply-sider here? 

Maybe not. Even the Politico author can’t miss the song’s accusatory allusions to the Bush administration and its inexcusable response to Hurricane Katrina. “[N]ot your typical conservative fare,” the article concedes, in an understatement akin to saying Katrina was not your typical rainstorm. 

Of course, Springsteeen is not your typical musician either. He’s a master storyteller. Someone who’s spent his entire career expertly evoking the experiences of everyday Americans. And while his music has the power to inspire or affect everyone differently based on their own individual interpretation, one can’t ignore as mere coincidence that during Springsteen’s four-decade career his songs have slowly taken on a harder, more complex, and even desperate tone. That’s because life has too, for far too many Americans.

So, one might ask, how do conservatives deconflict their passion for Springsteen’s music and its clear embrace of a competing narrative about the increasing inequality in our country? The answer, we find, is as simple as it is symbolic about the broader, disconnected state of conservative political thought right now: 

"‘I’m going to embrace it as it fits with my way of thinking’ […] Sayet said, admitting that while there is an alternative explanation for ["We Take Care of Our Own"], he’s going to listen to it the way he wants to hear it."

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

By Danny Goldberg
Although the American advertising for “Lilyhammer” seeks to exploit Steve Van Zandt’s previous role as Silvio Dante, the aesthetic of the series is more evocative of “Portlandia” than “The Sopranos.”

The publicity around “Lilyhammer” has focused largely on the novelty of the internet service Netflix being an originator of programming in the United States rather than a secondary source, the series was originally produced for Norwegian television and the delight of it is how quirkily Scandenavian the series is. The majority of the dialogue is in Norwegian with English subtitles although the protagonist, a New York gangster named Frank Tagliano played by Steve Van Zandt speaks in English. His character is depicted as being able to understand enough Norwegian to get by.

The premise is a pretty simple “fish out of water” gimmick. Tagliano’s life is threatened by a new crime boss so he rats him out to he government in return for being put in a version of the witness protection program. He chooses Lillehammer, Norway because he’d liked Winter Olympics broadcasts he seen years earlier. Why the spelling of the name of the series differs from that of the city is never revealed.

Tagliano’s new Norwegian name is Giovanni Henrikson and the series created and written by Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, (Van Zandt shares writing and production credits) revolves a lot around gently lampooning assorted politically correct Norwegian cultural and governmental practices. The natives seem to envy the ability of a fantasy mobster to get things done. 

There are times when the series is a little disquieting for admirers of Scandenavian socialism. I kept hoping that Van Zandt’s character would learn to internalize some Scandinavian communitarian impulses but there isn’t much of that. As with the experience of empathizing Tony Soprano, I felt a little weird at times rooting for an amoral thug but since “Henrickson” is a benign Norwegian’s notion of such a thug he has enough of a heart of gold to make him a protagonist one can root for with relatively little guilt. The one character he kills is a sociopathic violent monster who kidnaps his girlfriend’s young son. 

The plot is nothing special but the glimpses of Norwegian culture are far more quirky and entertaining than what can be found in the films based on the Stieg Larsson novels.

The revelation is that Van Zandt can actually act. His character in the Sopranos was so wooden it was never clear whether it was the performer or the producer who was responsible. Van Zandt has a wide range that includes epathy, nuance, romance and a much more subtle with than Silvio Dante ever let him show.

Marian Saastad Ottesen as a (possibly) single mother who becomes his romantic interest has an understated glamour charm and that will likely translate well into a global career. “Lilyhammer” neither attempts nor achieves the gravitas of “The Sopranos” or other classic American cable series of recent years. But it’s funny and smart and unique and demonstrates beyond doubt that Van Zandt’s improbably career has many interesting chapters ahead.

And as someone who prefers to watch TV series, one episode after the other, I appreciate that Netflix released all eight episodes at the same time. 

The mail:
Dr. Howard Brooks
Philadelphia, PA

Eric Alterman writes, “If a Jew-hater somewhere, inspired perhaps by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, sought to invent an individual who symbolizes all the anti-Semitic clichés…” He goes on to characterize Sheldon Adelson as Fagin the Jew to Gingrich’s Oliver Twist. Then he goes on (sorrowfully) to announce the death of that prejudice. “The bugaboo of anti-Semitic accusation is almost nowhere to be found." Oh it’s here alright. But we have internalized it. The author of this screed himself takes up the old, time-honored tropes. He tries to discredit Adelson by listing some "allegations" ("bribery", "prostitution", "organized crime"....). His contributions to Gingrich's Super Pac are stigmatized as a "perversion" of democracy rather than an exercise of democratic free speech. Surely, the Supreme Court would support this exercise of Free Speech even if, like the author, it disagreed with its point of view. That's the point of this Right, isn't it? Oh, and Adelson funds an (Israeli) newspaper to express his point of view? Yo “The Nation”, you got a problem with that? The author also reports Adelson's agreement with Gingrich's domestic policy as "barely concealed racist hatemongering". A bit over the top, no? He then characterizes a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities as "yet another potentially disastrous pre-emptive attack". More “endless Israeli aggression"? Is he conveniently forgetting Ozrick in Iraq and the North Korean reactor in Syria destroyed by Israel? Not the same sized task, to be sure, but successful with little blowback. The author concludes "given the near-complete disappearance of this wholly respectable American prejudice"... Don't worry Alterman, Anti-Semitism is alive and well here on “the Left”, and when convenient on “the Right” as well. 

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

You Are Only Coming Through in Waves

My new "Think Again" column is called “Cracks in the Worldwide Murdoch Empire” and it tracks the happy events reported here.

My Nation column is here.

I believe my review of a wonderful show by John Hammond and John Mayall at the Jazz@Lincoln Center’s Allen Room a couple of weeks ago got lost somehow, due to my own personal screwups. I managed to stay up late enough to see the final of four separate sets.

Hammond has recorded over thirty albums, all of them interesting and surprisingly fresh takes on orthodox blues, both delta and urban.  Mayall is one of the few people in our benighted world for whom the world “legend” is not overstatement. He founded the Bluesbreakers in 1963 and among those who passed through his bands over time included Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor to name a few.  He’s 78 now, but a pretty lively 78 even by the standards of, say, fellow 78-er L. Cohen.

Hammond opened with his typical set, which changes all the time and contains great stories and solid picking. It is what it is. Mayall, with a full band, paid tribute to the wonderful room with a jazzier set than I’ve seen him play in the past. Put together, the show was kind of like going to blues school, which would be a great idea, come to think of it, especially if one’s classroom were the Allen Room.

Earlier this week, I caught Lyle Lovett’s show/party at the Concert Hall at the Ethical Culture Society.  The show was a celebration of Lyle’s new cd, “Release Me,” in which he sings other people’s songs that he (no doubt) wishes he had written. A few of them, like  Michael Franks’s “White Boy Lost in the Blues” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” he probably wishes he had written about himself. The album is almost all covers and duets, as was the concert, with classics like aforementioned “Brown-eyed” which revealed itself anew in Lyle’s interpretation and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which reminded one of its wonderfulness without much in the way of reinterpretation. (And really, who wants to compete with Ray Charles and Betty Carter?)

You also get k.d. lang playing the role of Kitty Wells on the title track and a “White Freightliner Blues” by Townes Van Zandt, who has become an obligatory contributor to every Texan’s repertoire of late. The show was a hoot because of Lovett’s shy charm and the assembled muscians’ virtuosity and affection for one another. It featured Lovett's longtime band (Keith Sewell on guitar, Viktor Krauss on bass, Luke Bulla on violin and Russ Kunkel on drums) plus Sara and Sean Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek, and Mickey Raphael, the longtime harmonica player in Willie Nelson’s band, added to the falsetto backup vocals of Arnold McCuller.  Hard not to like, but I could have used some more of the “classics” that Lyle himself has written. More about the new cd here.  

Speaking of “classics,” it’s that time again. The colossus formerly known as “Pink Floyd” has graced us with “Immersion” and “Experience” editions of The Wall, their second biggest-selling album and the album that broke Roger Waters—its principal author—away from the rest of the band, and also caused millions of drunken frat boys to sing “We don’t need no education” as if this were something of which to be proud.  

The album works best as a coherent whole, than as individual songs, although I still maintain that “Comfortably Numb” is one of the greatest songs ever written. Even so, it’s hard to get a handle on the whole “Wall” phenomenon because it’s taken so many massive forms over the years from the 31 performances the band staged in 1980-81 in which a 40-foot wall was constructed, brick by brick, across the front of the stage during the performance. Then in 2010 and 2011 Roger Waters toured a new production of The Wall during which I purchased a counterfeit ticket outside Madison Square Garden and am still mad at myself for how obvious it should have been.

The Wall Immersion 7-disc edition is driven by the “No Such Thing as Too Much” philosophy that we saw with “Dark Side” and my favorite Floyd album, “Wish You Were Here,” and so comes as a big box with seven discs and includes a DVD featuring a film clip from the 1980 tour and a Behind The Wall documentary. It’s also got  Waters’ demos and stuff that are the experience version. There’s a live version of the entire album too, compiled from the 1980-1981 original tour.

There’s so much here, as a matter of fact, you’re going to have to read about it.  But yes, the remaster of the original is breathtaking in places. Of course it ain’t cheap. More here.

Now here’s Reed.

Bunker Bluster
by Reed Richardson

If you want to get a sense of the ominous turn toward bombing Iran our national discourse has taken in just the past few weeks, there’s perhaps no better place to begin than with the media’s coverage of ground zero for all those bombs. Or more specifically, the brand new bomb designed to penetrate beneath ground zero.

Prosaically nicknamed MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator), this new 30,000-pound bomb was built to be a bunker buster of magnitude beyond the previous ‘shock and awe’ era. Designed to dive down a full 200 feet through rock and concrete before detonating, the MOP was developed to directly counter the defensive tactic of burying strategic WMD targets within hardened bunkers and inside mountains. Besides one nuclear facility in North Korea, the only other practical targets for the MOP are Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities at Fordo (Qoms) and Natanz (As evidence of how specialized the MOP’s role is, consider that the U.S. Air Force had only contracted to build a mere 20 of these new bombs, at an startling-even-for-the-Defense-Department cost of $330 million.)

Now, the connection is rarely made in the mainstream press, but the notion that Iran’s two key enrichment facilities could now be destroyed by an U.S. air strike—thanks to this new bunker buster—marks a subtle, but critical shift in the policy discussions toward Iran. So much so, the fact that Israel lacks anything close to the same kind of specialized ordnance is now a strong reason many military and policy experts say a unilateral strike on its part against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a wasted effort. 

Couple that with all the logistical hurdles Israel would have to overcome to pull off such a raid—explained in the New York Times last month—and even former Bush administration officials have started dismissing the efficacy of a standalone Israeli attack.

Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009, said flatly last month that airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program were ‘beyond the capacity’ of Israel, in part because of the distance that attack aircraft would have to travel and the scale of the task.

Indeed, the prospect of an Israeli air attack against Iran has all the earmarks of a political, military, and humanitarian debacle. To merely put a temporary halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Israel would have to undertake not an overnight strike, but a concerted air campaign of hundreds of sorties waged over days, if not weeks. Such an extended engagement could quickly exhaust Israel’s military’s capability, leaving it more vulnerable to counterattack. What’s more, that scale of bombing would make it all but certain that Iranian civilians will be killed, which would no doubt drive an often unruly Iranian populace right back into the Ahmadinejad’s arms and generate plenty of sympathy for Iran among world public opinion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to arrive at the White House on Monday, doubtless knows all this. And so all his government’s apocalyptic talk of an Iranian ‘zone of immunity’ could easily be interpreted as an implicit call for the U.S. to step in and act in its stead. After all, the U.S. has both the power projection capability and specialized weaponry to make quick work of the Iranian nuclear program. Right?

Maybe not. In fact, in January both Reuters (Iran’s nuclear sites may be beyond reach of ‘bunker busters’) and the Wall Street Journal (Pentagon Seeks Mightier Bomb vs. Iran) published articles that cast serious doubt on the MOP’s ability to take out the facility at Fordo (Qoms).

Noting that “the narrow, technical question of whether such an attack is feasible is therefore central to strategy,” the Reuters story called the chances of a MOP strike destroying Fordo as “slim.” The report went on to pour more cold water on this strategy, citing other military experts skeptical of such an approach.

Doubts were echoed by Robert Henson, Editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons, to Reuters, who said it was likely that Fordow had been built to survive a sustained assault.

‘We know for a fact—or as near a fact as possible—that you will not be able to stop this program with air strikes. There continues to be a whole lot of hysterical posturing about this.’

The Journal report from the end of January, ostensibly more of a defense industry story, was even less sanguine. Citing Pentagon officials in its very first sentence, the story flatly declares the MOP ‘isn’t yet capable’ of taking out a facility like Fordo.

[I]nitial tests indicated that the bomb, as currently configured, wouldn’t be capable of destroying some of Iran’s facilities, either because of their depth or because Tehran has added new fortifications to protect them.

Doubts about the MOP’s effectiveness prompted the Pentagon this month to secretly submit a request to Congress for funding to enhance the bomb’s ability to penetrate deeper into rock, concrete and steel before exploding, the officials said. 

To further illustrate how uneasy the Pentagon is with the proclaimed capabilities of the MOP, the Journal offers up another keen bit of journalistic insight, gleaned from the acquisition process. The Pentagon’s secret request involves diverting $82 million from other ongoing defense projects, a move designed to avoid any budgetary tripwires that might arise from having to pass new appropriations. In addition, the story quotes another unnamed Pentagon official who casts doubt on the MOP’s effectiveness against the less-fortified Natanz site: ‘But even that is guesswork.’

If one is starting to get the sense that maybe this new, $16.5-million-a-pop bunker buster might be something of a bust, never fear. Because this past Wednesday, just a few days before the impending U.S.-Israeli summit, you could run across a front-page Washington Post article (Iran’s underground nuclear sites not immune to U.S. bunker-busters, experts say) that reads like an upside-down version of the aforementioned Reuters and Journal pieces.

As befits its decidedly glass-is-half-full headline, the report plays up the positive and pushes any doubts about the weapon way down into the weeds. For example, in its second paragraph, it cites U.S. military planners who are ‘increasingly confident about the ability to deliver a serious blow against Fordow.’ Then, two paragraphs later, right before the story notes how bunker buster capabilities will likely play a notable role in next week’s U.S.-Israeli talks, the Post writer trots out this line of dizzying spin from an anonymous official:

Massive new ‘bunker buster’ munitions recently added to the U.S. arsenal would not necessarily have to penetrate the deepest bunkers to cause irreparable damage to infrastructure as well as highly sensitive nuclear equipment, probably setting back Iran’s program by years, officials said. (italics mine)

Ah ha, so maybe the Pentagon should consider calling their new weapon MOWNNP instead?

To be fair, the Post article is no different than the two aforementioned reports in that all three spend time discussing how merely damaging the infrastructure around the enrichment sites at Fordo and Natanz would be viewed by some as a worthwhile, albeit temporary, victory. But this defining down of what would constitute a successful attack is troublesome to say the least.

Nonetheless, I get it—opinions differ. And if a reporter talks to certain Pentagon officials and military experts and not others, they’re likely to hear a different party line, emphasizing different things. 

But then, we start to go off the rails a bit in the Post story:

U.S. confidence has been reinforced by training exercises in which bombers assaulted similar targets in deeply buried bunkers and mountain tunnels, the officials and experts said.

Unless these training exercises occurred within the past month—the Journal did admittedly use the term ‘initial tests’—what we see is fairly significant disconnect between its reporting and the Post’s. Who’s right? Who knows? But I began to have my suspicions when I finally got to the Post article’s rather innocuous discussion—buried in the 26th paragraph—of the Pentagon’s additional MOP expenditure request:

The Pentagon is investing tens of millions of dollars to enhance the MOP’s explosive punch and concrete-piercing capabilities.

Lost entirely here is the context needed to genuinely understand the why behind this budgetary request. Situated as it is within the Post’s unquestionably sanguine analysis, we have a glaring sin of omission. As a result, the reader almost assuredly interprets this as a move by the Pentagon to simply improve the MOP’s already impressive capabilities, rather than what it really sounds like based on the Journal's reporting—a hurried bureaucratic attempt at fixing them. 

The real danger, in the end, is that this credulous page-one story from the Post and others like it begin to unjustly circumscribe the limits of the serious policy debate we should be having about Iran’s nuclear program. But if anonymous sources, hawkish spin, and incurious reporting can marginalize legitimate uncertainty about these bunker buster bombs, the likelihood that broader policy questions could be hijacked is even greater. And if we let that happen, policymakers are liable to, once again, find out that the supposedly precise, assuredly easy, military solution they thought they’d chosen is no such thing. And, once again, the rest of us will pay the price for it. 

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

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Rubin Agonistes

My new "Think Again" column is called "The Long March of Patrick J. Buchanan" and it’s here.

And I did a column on Obama’s tax plan, (and Romney’s) for The Daily Beast here.

I don’t know why I’ve become obsessed with the issue of phony anti-Semitism claims, but I have. I wrote my last two Nation columns on it, so I probably should lay off there for a while. And if I hadn’t quit my column in The Forward, I would probably find a way to note the following developments which, according to the anti-Semitism lobby, ought to be impossble or at the very least evidence of alleged anti-Semitic feelings on the part of their authors (or perhaps the absurdity of the argument). They are:

1) Anti-Semitism in France drops 16.5% in 2011, study shows.

2) AIPAC and the Push Toward War.

3) Senior U.S. And Israeli Officials Express Serious Reservations About Israeli Strike On Iran.

I saw a sweet show by Laura Cantrell at Hill Country Barbeque last night. It’s a really sweet, Texas-but-not-Bush-Texas-in-New-York kinda place and her gig, which was part of a four week residency, had a wonderfully relaxed feel to it. The musicians, who included Jeremy Chatzky of the Seeger Sessions Band, and a duet with Teddy Thompson, was first rate and there was no distance at all between the audience and the band. Cantrell has a number of songs that feel like they’ve been around forever; she’s written some and some have been written by her friends. My favorite is her first album, Not The Tremblin' Kind. And if you’re in town, check out the schedule at HQB.

Oh and I saw Steve Van Zandt interview Dion about his career at the 92nd Street Y Sunday night. It was pretty fun. Read all about it here.

Really short book reviews:
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
The range of this book, about the music scene in downtown Manhattan of the early seventies by Rolling Stone editor Will Hermes is really amazing. I worked at RS for a couple of years in the 90s but I don’t recall ever meeting the guy...but he was a suburban kid a year younger than I am and we shared the experience of being turned away from the Bottom Line despite our "Official New York State Identification Card" purchased at Playland on 42nd street. I’ve not had such fun with a book in a long time.

Arthur Miller, 1962-2005. Christopher Bigsby
I thought the first volume of this book was terrific, expansive in just the right ways and respectful, without being uncritical of Miller’s achievement and drama-filled life. I read all of volume 2 because Miller is a subject in my next book but it is a much tougher haul. His life was hardly as dramatic in its second half and rather than expansive it feels kind of padded. It’s smart and learned and almost certainly definitive, but nobody should even consider reading this without reading volume one first.

Suzzy Roche, Wayward Saints
Suzzy is like, the world’s nicest person and a brilliant, unique artist. My friend Deb Kogan says about this novel “I swallowed WAYWARD SAINTS whole, in a single day’s gulp, until I was left gasping at the end. Suzzy Roche has always had perfect pitch, the voice of an angel, and the wit of a jester, but here she takes her prodigious gifts and runs with them, weaving a golden-threaded tale of mother/daughter redemption, of the transformative power of art, and of the mysteries, pains, and sacrifices of love. How is this her first novel? She’s already a master.”

I also have two books in two of the smaller rooms in my house. One is The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times. It’s a friendly, well-researched book about one of the great men of all time, that is um, best read in small doses.

Matthew Silverman’s Best Mets: Fifty Years of Highs and Lows from New York's Most Agonizingly Amazin' Team is an easier read, and for a while, all we Met fans are going to have is a past so here is a useable one. Silverman is also the author of a fancy coffee table 50th anniversary book on the Mets, New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History which is much better written than one would expect of these things. And the writing is not really the point, so that makes it almost great.

I’m also reading Thinking the Twentieth Century which consists of Tony Judt’s wide-ranging conversations with historian Timothy Snyder, a longtime friend of the late intellectual Tony Judt, There’s a conversation with Snyder about it here.

Now here’s Reed:

Rubin Agonistes: The Washington Post’s not not-Romney blogger
by Reed Richardson
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Romney campaign has planted a mole on the Washington Post op-ed page. And her name is Jennifer Rubin.

Indeed, to read on a daily basis the Post’s “Right Turn” blog, for which Rubin prodigiously generates long, discursive posts, is to routinely peer into what the Romney campaign’s opposition research might look and sound like with a better vocabulary and more than 30 seconds of Super PAC-funded air time.

The signs began to manifest themselves last fall. When the campaign of the first big not-Romney candidate, Rick Perry, suddenly took off, Rubin quickly joined the battle and relentlessly trained her rhetorical fire on him. Writing dozens of unmistakably anti-Perry posts (at one point, eight in a single day), she picked away at Perry’s policies and character with the meticulousness of a turkey vulture going back again and again to get every last bit of meat from a roadkill carcass on a hot Texas highway.

But her obvious animosity for Perry was soon supplanted with an almost unchecked dislike for former Speaker Newt Gingrich. So much so that, after Gingrich’s romp in the South Carolina primary sent his momentum and poll numbers skyrocketing, Rubin churned out a panicked blog post that was akin to climbing up on the roof, Commissioner Gordon-style, and sending up a bat signal to the rest of the Republican Party leaders not currently running for president. Complaining about Gingrich as an “egomaniac” whose “hyperbolic rhetoric” would leave the GOP “(correctly) mocked,” she plaintively wrote, “My own view is that any one of you would be preferable as a candidate to Newt Gingrich, as would either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney.”

That she would put Santorum on par with Romney at that moment was somewhat surprising, but also telling. Because perhaps nothing better displays Rubin’s willingness to selectively engage threats to Romney’s struggling candidacy as does the complete, 180-degree turnaround of her editorial treatment of Santorum—from attraction to admiration to apprehension to dislike—in the past two months. The headlines alone give you a sense of her intellectual malleability, but digging down into the text is even more illuminating. What follows is a lengthy exegesis of her evolution.

In the accommodating, uplifted spirit of the New Year, Rubin started off 2012 with rather charitable setting of low expectations on Santorum’s notoriously belligerent personality:

Certainly he’s a bit intense, which can come across as angry. But he’s got a lovely family, and he’s not going to embarrass you in public. “Santorum woos Iowa”1/01/12

A day after damning with that faint praise, and with Santorum’s ascendancy in the Iowa caucuses now abundantly clear in the polls, she made a point of making nice with someone who just might (and ultimately did) become the public face of the GOP’s not-Romney candidate:

And, moreover, in comparison to his opponents, [Santorum] has come to be seen as a practical politician rather than an ideological zealot. “Santorum is no extremist” 1/02/12

(Remember that phrase, ‘ideological zealot,’ class, as it will show up later in our course.) A week later, Rubin was off chiding the pundits for supposedly ignoring Santorum’s intellectual bona fides in order to exaggerate his moralistic obsessions with anything related to sex:

Despite Santorum’s expressed views on birth control (he’s opposed to it as a Catholic but wouldn’t outlaw it and recognizes it would take a constitutional amendment to do so), liberal columnists like my colleague Eugene Robinson insist on painting him as a bug-eyed radical out to snatch up birth control bills. “Brainy conservatism is in style again” 1/08/12

Post New Hampshire, she was bemoaning the fact that both mainstream and conservative media pundits don’t give him any credit for how likeable he really is to those in the ‘real America’ hinterlands:

[H]is appeal, as he argued in the interview, is to blue-collar workers and stressed Rust Belt Americans. “Santorum’s path out of the pack” 1/15/12

By late January, with Gingrich riding high once again, Rubin continued to push Santorum as the best not-Romney, although she’s still careful to give him second billing to Romney himself:

It’s quite telling that conservatives who merrily went along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an American hero but arguably the worst GOP candidate in decades, are angst ridden over selecting an overly-prepared Romney and are ignoring the consistent conservative (Santorum) for whom they pleaded. “Conservatives need to get a grip and pick a candidate” 1/24/12

But when it comes to angst, Rubin can’t seem to let hers go even when Gingrich starts to fade, to the point where she pretends that Santorum’s prickly, bitter worldview doesn’t even exist:

As a smart and articulate proponent of conservatism with an interesting twist on traditional free-market economics, [Santorum will] be a welcomed alternative to the Newtonian politics of outrage, anger and self-delusion. “Will Santorum overtake Gingrich?” 1/27/12

By early February, with her flirtation in full bloom, Rubin could be found tut-tutting those arrogant conservatives who dismissed Santorum as a hopeless, reactionary also-ran with no message or chance:

The right made a critical error in not recognizing Santorum’s strengths earlier in the race. “Path to the nomination” 2/07/12

Following Santorum’s electoral hat trick in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, Rubin elbows Gingrich aside and all but declares it a two-man race, talking up the formidable, and eminently electable nature of Santorum:

It was by any measure a hugely impressive evening for a candidate who had not won since Iowa. […] The good news for the GOP is the race is now essentially between two credible, intelligent and experienced candidates. Each will improve as time goes on. “Romney has a fight on his hands” 2/08/12

But just a day later, what’s that off on the horizon? Storm clouds. Thanks to Santorum’s ominous predilection for unabashedly spouting conservative, culture-war dogma without couching it in friendlier, less frightening platitudes like everyone else does:

Santorum can’t and shouldn’t change his core beliefs or his agenda. But a candidate running for president can constantly improve his presentation and must be mindful of the issues voters care about most. “Santorum’s dilemma” 2/09/12

Plus, the GOP cavalry candidate isn’t riding into the picture to save the party from a lackluster field, so Republicans better get right with the idea that they are now down to two “serious” candidates (who are trying really hard not to be awful):

In all likelihood, either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will be the GOP nominee. The Republican Party has had better nominees and worse ones. But these two are giving their all. They are serious people who have come up with serious policy ideas. “Republicans will have to get real” 2/10/12

Once Santorum starts to threaten Romney nationally and moves into the lead in Michigan, however, Rubin makes her pivot. And she starts by somewhat hilariously pointing out how stupid some members of the media were to ascribe any importance—ahem, “hugely impressive evening”—to the former’s three primary wins the week before:

It is only fitting that two relatively meaningless wins in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll and the Maine caucus for Mitt Romney should rewrite the media narrative created after three equally unmeaningful wins for Rick Santorum last Tuesday. “Romney wins a couple contests, confuses the media (again)” 2/12/12

And for someone she once lauded for his ‘consistent conservative’ principles, Rubin now blithely suggests that Santorum try a little inconsistency. Otherwise, he will continue to come across as the same jerk who wrote a sanctimonious, sexist book way back in his youth—seven years ago:

Santorum will have to deal with the words he wrote, and, if his views have evolved, he should say so quickly and definitively. The issue is potentially critical because it goes to his electability and because it makes a positive — his strong social conservative stances — into a negative. It’s time for him, or someone on the campaign, to go back and read the book and figure out what he can live with and what he can’t. “Sometimes it takes a book to trip up a candidate” 2/13/12

And about that ‘appeal’ he reportedly has with all those blue-collar voters out in the Midwest? Yeah well, all his birth control talk pretty much cuts that number in half now:

The impression that Santorum finds the prevalent practice of birth control ‘harmful to women’ is, frankly, mind-numbing. If he meant to focus on teen sexual promiscuity, he surely could have, and thereby might have sounded less out of touch. […] If he is the nominee in 2012, he might get some blue-collar fellows, but what about those women in Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.? And what about more secularized suburban communities? Fuggedaboutit. “Santorum: Birth control ‘harmful to women’” 2/15/12

Alienating large swaths of general election voters by trying to wrench the country back 50 years is probably a bad campaign strategy, but Rubin decides to focus on the one GOP candidate who doesn’t try to hide that plan (and is threatening to defeat Romney in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio). And so in the last week we finally witness Rubin’s inevitable, full-throated, double-barreled assault on Santorum:

[T]here are a raft of statements on women, personal morality and the family that will, in the minds of many swing voters (especially female voters but also upscale, suburban voters), render him unpalatable. “Santorum can’t expect to coast” 2/16/12

Sounding almost like David Axelrod in the process, Rubin laid it on the line this past Sunday—Look, the GOP can’t survive, much less succeed, with a candidate who is willing to always say everything conservatives actually believe:

Santorum likes to say that he is principled, but in fact he’s vividly demonstrating day after day that his strongly held social views, when uttered aloud in dogmatic tones, sound outrageous to voters who aren’t hard-core social conservatives. […] Ironically, he is the worst possible spokesman for social conservative views that are within the mainstream because he intersperses them with stances that make him sound extreme. “Santorum adds fuel to the culture wars” 2/19/12.

When he talks about conservative ideals, in other words, Santorum makes those unpopular ideals even more unpopular, Rubin cavils. The solution: change our ideas, stop Santorum from talking! On the same day, we also get a subtle edit to the January “Right Turn” archives. To wit, Santorum is not an ideological zealot:

Average Americans are tolerant people, increasingly inclusive in their views about their fellow citizens with which they disagree, and when they hear this stuff [Santorum saying in 2008 that Satan is attacking the United States] they think ‘wacko’ and ‘zealot.’ “Is the not-Romney an improvement for conservatives?” 2/19/12

And as for all those elitist, establishment Republicans that Rubin scoffed at just two weeks ago for not recognizing the ‘strengths’ of a Santorum campaign? Well, maybe they had a point:

There is no ‘back-up’ plan circulating if Romney wins. […] But for Santorum, the opposite is true: His nomination, experienced Republicans know, would sink the party. “Is Santorum the Sharron Angle of 2012?” 2/19/12

The wheels might be coming off this Romney thing, so shut up already, dude:

Running through Santorum’s statements is a common failing. Santorum says controversial things couched in the harshest terms possible. When he’s misunderstood (or even understood correctly but greeted with shock) he complains that the media are twisting his words or fixating on a few small issues. “Santorum’s divisiveness” 2/20/12

On Tuesday, another slight revision to the January archives: Santorum is not an extremist:

In short, Santorum on social issues is not a conservative but a reactionary, seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion. “It’s not conservative, it’s reactionary” 2/21/12

Yesterday, Rubin resorted to a true last gasp for conservatives—identity politics—with a “think of the women (who vote, but not for crazy Santorum)” appeal:

Perhaps when discussing electability we should not focus solely on geographic (Rust Belt) or class (blue collar) appeal but at gender appeal as well. It might put Santorum’s rhetoric and electability arguments in their proper perspective. “Santorum scares off women voters” 2/22/12

By the time of what might have been the last Republican debate on Wednesday, Rubin, perhaps tired from all her rhetorical pugilism, had dropped all pretense at intellectual justification and was essentially punching flat-footed. An early morning blog post of hers yesterday could be boiled down to Santorum, bad; Romney good. What else do you really need to know?

For starters, Santorum didn’t collapse on his own; Romney sliced and diced, deploying data and keeping Santorum on his heels. And he did it without losing his temper (the same can’t be said for Santorum). But that’s still not going to be good enough to win over the Romney-averse. Romney, you see, only wins by ‘default.’ Whatever.

But not everyone on the right has drunk the anti-Romney Kool-Aid. Jim Pethokoukis said Romney’s tax plan "goes the full Reagan." […] I suspect with each passing week you’ll see that sort of analysis become more the rule than the exception. The perpetual search for, celebration of and then disappointment in the fatally flawed anti-Romney flavors of the month can be exhausting, not to mention fruitless.

And based on her body of work over the past six months, Rubin certainly ought to know.

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

The mail:
Jim Ojala
Bellingham, Washington

Mr. Richardson,
I appreciated your article on the development of public opinion polling in the U.S. As many people have done before, you begin your narrative on the subject with a reference to the "Literary Digest" debacle of 1936. (Their presidential poll that year was essentially an unscientific straw poll on steroids, with all the flaws inherent in that methodology writ large.)

You may find interesting therefore a monograph by Melvin Holli, retired professor of history from the University of Illinois-Chicago, titled, “The Wizard of Washington.” [Full citation: “The Wizard of Washington: Emil Hurja, Franklin Roosevelt and the Birth of Public Opinion Polling,” by Melvin G. Holli (New York, NY: 2002) — ISBN 0-312-29395-x — a volume in Palgrave Macmillan’s Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Series on Diplomatic and Economic History, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor] In this slim volume, Holli argues forcefully that Emil Hurja, FDR's pollster from the dawn of the New Deal through the ’36 election, was the true “father” of modern public opinion polling as we know it today.

George Gallup learned his approach to opinion polling at Iowa State University. It was based in part on the statistical methodology of genetics. Gallup and Hurja exchanged a series of letters during Gallup’s early years as a pollster in which Hurja tutored Gallup on some of the finer points of polling that were as yet under-appreciated by him. Traces of their correspondence remain in some of Hurja's extant papers (mostly at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY and the Tennessee State Archives (i.e., Andrew Jackson's Hermitage) in Nashville, TN. Interestingly, the keepers of the truth protecting Gallup's correspondence refused Holli access to their copies of the Gallup-Hurja correspondence.
To the cynics and conspiratorial theorists amongst us, that was but one more example of the victors rewriting history to suit their purposes and embellish their own reputations. But then, Emil Hurja was my uncle and godfather, so I must admit an a priori bias on this particular subject.
Best regards,

Charlie McBarron
I've enjoyed your work for a long time, both the blog and your books. I'm always interested in your music writing, which is why I thought I'd send you the following. The Grateful Dead Covers Project is underway on You Tube and, as I know you're a big fan, I thought you'd like to know about it if you didn't already. Specifically, I wanted to draw your attention to this cover of Bertha. The performer is a professional who happens to be my nephew. If you like it, I hope you'll "Like" it on You Tube and encourage others to do the same.
Thanks again for the great work!

Pat Healy
Vallejo, CA
"...Thompson is not so pretty to look at..."
Dude, really? You wanna go there?
Besides, if you can't see him, you can't watch his fingers and go "Daaaamnnn. How's he do that?"

Eric replies:
Hey, I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant, it’s ok to see the guy play even if you’re behind the pole, (as I was), because it’s not really a visual show.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Poll Dancing

My new “Think Again” column is called “Is America Getting More Conservative?” and it's here.

Richard Thompson live, in person and on bluray:
I saw Richard Thompson do one of three “all request” shows at City Winery. It was a particularly engaging affair. Thompson sort of did the requests that had been deposited in a bowl beforehand, and sort of didn’t depending on whether he felt like it. Some of them he did even though they were pretty silly, including McCartney’s “Blackbird” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” He was playing solo and not all the sightlines were great, but it’s ok, because Thompson is not so pretty to look at, and the sound was crisp and clear particularly on his guitar. The song selection turned out to be pretty excellent too. There’s a new Eagle Rock Entertainment's release both on DVD and bluray of Thompson’s band called Live At Celtic Connections.” It’s got twenty songs on it and comes in at nearly two and a half hours. The sound on bluray is killer. The song selection leans heavily on Dream Attic, his last album, which was recorded live, and the second set does the catalogue back to 1972, and is, I suppose, a matter of taste. You get “Wall of Death” and “Tear Stained Letter” but I could have used “The Dimming of the Day” in either place but nobody asked me. The bonus features include two extra songs filmed at the 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival: "Uninhabited Man" and "Johnny's Far Away."

Now here’s Reed:

Poll Dancing
by Reed Richardson
The American press has long been infatuated with the allure of campaign polls, and understandably so. Thanks to their headline-ready horserace numbers, reams of topline data to be further parsed and charted, and the public’s natural curiosity in predictions about the future, polls satisfy almost every journalistic need an editor or producer might have on a slow news day. (And let’s not overlook the increasingly salient fact that, unless your news organization commissioned the poll, reporting such a story requires minimal resources.) But this symbiotic relationship has a downside too; one that is growing more insidious with every election and, if left unchecked, could start to erode the very foundations of our Constitution. 

Ironically, the rise of modern public opinion polling can be traced back to perhaps the worst media-polling blunder in our nation’s electoral history. On the eve of the 1936 presidential vote, the magazine The Literary Digest—just as it had for the five previous elections—released its public opinion poll of the race. Gleaned from an amazing 2.4 million reader responses, the magazine confidently predicted Kansas Republican Alf Landon would sweep incumbent Democrat Franklin Roosevelt out of the White House, winning 55 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes. The election, to put it mildly, didn’t pan out this way—Roosevelt’s nationwide landslide (he even won Kansas) left Landon with a measly eight electoral votes.

It’s easy to look back now and laugh at The Literary Digest’s woeful prediction as mere hackneyed guesswork. (The poll’s inherent flaws are rooted in relying upon voluntary responses from a non-randomized pool of middle and upper-class voters.) But it’s important to realize that, at the time, the Digest’s presidential poll was considered cutting-edge and had proven itself extremely accurate, having correctly chosen the presidential victor since 1916 and predicted to within one percentage point the final popular vote tally in the 1932 election. 

The public furor over the incident redounded to the benefit of one George Gallup. His new, more scientific polling methods had led him to the conclusion—months before the actual vote—that Roosevelt would win in a walk. And this thinking would forever change the way polls approached both the public and public figures.

That is to say, it also changed the way the public and public figures approached polls. A mere five years after that landmark 1936 presidential prediction, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was already sounding very much like a modern-day politician, lamenting the “the temperamental atmosphere of the Gallup poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature.” For decades this mindset remained entrenched in both the media and political ruling classes. The madding crowd’s fickle and often fair-weather opinion, in other words, need not be heeded in between Election Days.

Though polling remained rather limited even during the Watergate era— the vaunted CBS News/New York Times poll was only conducted four times a year in 1977—it nonetheless fit in with the media’s evolution toward a more aggressive, bottom-up approach to news coverage. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rise of Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign first prompted Gallup to commit to the idea of ongoing tracking polls. By the time of Clinton’s impeachment six years later, the growing online newshole coupled with the public’s striking disconnect with the pundit class’s disapproval of Clinton pushed some pollsters into weekly tracking. And by the time the 2000 presidential election rolled around, daily pulse-taking during the final campaign stretch made its debut, albeit with extremely volatile results.

In the aftermath of that election, some in the media became increasingly suspect of polling’s journalistic news value as well as their sheer volume, as this American Journalism Review essay from early 2001 attests.

[Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy], says the increasing use of tracking polls ‘represents less than the best of contemporary journalism—putting it most charitably.’


[A] count of polls available in the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research database shows about 130 taken in the two months preceding the 2000 election. In the two months before the 1980 election, there were about 20.

Once again, in hindsight, these complaints look prescient, if rather quaint in terms of scale. Four years later, ABC’s daily presidential tracking poll upped the ante again. Then, in 2008, prompted by the heavyweight Democratic primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton, Gallup started its daily political tracking poll in March. By the time that November arrived, no fewer than seven different national tracking polls were in the field.

But even that pales in comparison to this election cycle, which has become one of endless, ongoing polling. Forget the old adage that polls are mere snapshots. Their now unceasing frequency allows the media to weave together a day-by-day, if not hour-by-hour, moving narrative of the race. Indeed, in just the past two months, one can count nearly 90 different national poll releases on the GOP primary campaign (roughly two-thirds of these come from Gallup’s daily tracker) and more than six dozen state-specific polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. And this total leaves out the dozens of other poll releases on President Obama’s job approval (tracked daily by Rasmussen Reports) and his head-to-head matchups with the various GOP primary candidates. 

Right now, we sit in what amounts to the Siberian wasteland of the GOP campaign calendar—the last debate was fully three weeks ago and the next primary isn’t for another 11 days. As such, this steady barrage of polls offers the media a convenient lifeline, a ready-made way to fill the ever voracious maw of airtime, blogs, and Twitter feeds. In effect, these polls—whether they be of the national, state, or head-to-head vs. Obama variety—represent hundreds of little proxy elections, each one judged to be worthy of being breathlessly reported, Tweeted, and analyzed for larger meaning.

Therein lies the danger, however. What might otherwise just be statistical noise in one poll now gets picked up and amplified by the campaign trail press corps and the punditocracy. Unwilling to be late to the zeitgeist, the establishment media finds itself all too eager to interpret the latest blip up or down in the polls as the sign of some larger, deeper shift in the populace’s political thinking, whether it’s real or not.

But by broadcasting and highlighting these supposed swings in opinion, the press runs the risk of distorting the very perceptions of the public they're purported to be objectively measuring—akin to the “observer effect” in physics. With each new poll and its subsequent coverage, the media begins to create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby a politician deemed as “surging” (see Santorum, Rick) receives more positive press coverage and, in turn, becomes more attractive to the public, all the while someone whose momentum is seen as slowing (see Romney, Mitt) gets more critical and dismissive coverage, which can then further sour the public on his candidacy.

By ratcheting up the frequency of these polls and the coverage devoted to them, the press fosters a volatile discourse that is more prone to radical shifts in public opinion. Certainly that looks to be the phenomenon affecting the GOP presidential primary, as the right-hand side of this RealClear Politics chart of the last year’s polling attests. Even the candidates are wise to this newly heightened climate, as Newt Gingrich on Wednesday referred to the “Space Mountain” nature of this primary campaign’s many wild poll swings.

Of course, the tenacity, if not the consistency, with which Republican primary voters can’t yet abide giving Mitt Romney their party’s presidential nomination can’t be wholly blamed on polls and the media. His political baggage can apparently make almost anyone appear to be an attractive alternative to conservatives, no matter how unappealing they are to the rest of the country. Still, Romney’s current campaign struggles are rooted in the failure of his underlying “electability” argument, which relies upon a similar, poll-based intellectual foundation—this notion that what most people think or agree on is always the best course of action.

Writ large, this policy-by-what’s-most-popular approach is precisely the tyranny of the majority that the Founders hedged against when writing the Constitution and, more specifically, the Bill of Rights. All too often, however, the media has become susceptible to this argument when it applies to fundamental issues that shouldn’t be decided by the whims of majoritarian rule. And to me, it’s what makes the ‘most people agree’ defense of Obama’s just and honorable federal contraceptive mandate just as wobbly as those arguments that justify his troubling Gitmo policy and predilection for legally unaccountable drone strikes.

Just where this slippery slope can lead our country will be on full display in my home state of New Jersey this coming week. When the state Assembly joins the state Senate in passing a gay marriage bill, my not-so-esteemed governor Chris Christie will undoubtedly veto it, as promised. And by way of excusing this behavior, he will once again fall back to the notion that the state should settle the issue through a referendum and, as political cover, he will cite a few opinion polls, which show a slim majority favor the bill.

In our democracy, however, minority rights are never something to be granted or denied by popular vote. Sadly, my own hometown newspaper’s editorial page disagrees. It believes that those few positive public opinion polls that Christie not-so-innocently cites should convince the Democrats in the state legislature to drop their “mistrust” of the “will of the people.” (What could go wrong? Just ask the people of California.) But when our media invests too much stock in polls and public opinion as the best way to guide our politics, it’s perhaps not surprising that we end up hearing tendentiously anti-democratic arguments like this: “Theoretically, rights should be afforded equally. But pragmatically, history is the struggle for securing rights against political opponents.”

Indeed, our nation did have to fight a war of the latter, but history tells us that what compelled the Founders to revolt in the first place was their unshakable belief in the former. Indeed, we’ve fought too long and too hard aspiring to those theoretical ideals to now fall victim to the notion that 51% of us always know what is best for our country or its citizens. It’s a lesson the press would do well to remember, especially since its poll numbers don’t look too good right now.

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

The Mail:
Ken Waltzer

East Lansing

Seems to me that a single case -- the popular response to Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich -- proves little about the ostensible disappearance of antisemitism in the United States, and other singular cases -- like the widespread entrance into mainstream language of the idea of a secret Jewish power manipulating American foreign policy -- suggest something quite different. Yes, the response to Wall Street malfeasance creating the recession suggests the same thing your article suggests -- antisemitism wasn't and isn't the frame, antisemitism is down and declining; and yet isolationist strains and neo-realist complaints, from Ron Paul to Mearsheimer and Walt, have little problem renewing classic antisemitic themes....

The reality is thicker, considerably more complex, than you purport it to be.  There is declining antisemitism and there is also increasing antisemitism. Both exist together.  The really challenging issue is to sort this out and explain it.

Eric replies:
I’m not sure I disagree with any of the above, except in the particulars.  The phenomenon is certainly there. Its significance is the question and I think that is deeply overr-ated. Anyway, It’s hard to do justice to such nuance in a nine-hundred something word column. I thought the phenomenon about which I wrote was worth pointing out, and was something I had not seen anywhere else.

Michael Green 

Las Vegas

Dr. A., now you've done it.  In Las Vegas, our best columnist is John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and when he wrote a book telling what Adelson has done and been accused of, and Adelson sued him for libel and drove him into bankruptcy.  So, expect a call.  We have some law firms out here that have benefited greatly from Adelson always suing people.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form. 

The Protocols of the Elders of Sheldon

My new “Think Again” column is called “Charles Murray and the Power of Mainstream Media Amnesia” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “Sheldon Adelson and the End of American Anti-Semitism” and it’s here.

And I did a Daily Beast column called “The Election Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” here. 

Now here’s Reed:

Water Wet, Sky Blue, Far Right Sees Media Bias Everywhere
by Reed Richardson

On Tuesday, the folks over at the Pew Research Center put out another in a series of surveys examining how the public engages with the ongoing presidential campaign through the media. Its findings were, shall we say, not terribly surprising. Among the more unremarkable conclusions—cable news is increasingly popular and is now the top campaign news source and a growing number of Americans now say they detect a “great deal” of bias in political news coverage. 

Dig down into the details of the survey, however, and you’ll find that fueling both of these trends is one specific segment of the political spectrum—Tea Party Republicans. As the study noted, Tea Party Republicans and Tea Party-sympathizing Independents are especially likely to rely on cable news for information. And of this segment, 53% say they get most of their news about the election from Fox News, compared with just 26% of other Republicans and Republican leaners.

When it comes to identifying supposed news bias, the same unmistakable trend appears. According to the study, nearly three out of four Tea Party Republicans—74%—claim to see a “great deal” of bias in the news, a figure that, once again, is roughly double that of other Republicans (33%). Even more striking, Independents (35%) as well as conservative Democrats (30%) and liberals (36%) all seem to share the non-Tea Party Republicans’ sentiments about the prevalence of media bias to roughly the same degree.

Now, my one rather large glaring problem with this Pew study is its failure to, in any way, define what form this “bias” takes in the press. No doubt the Tea Partiers watching Fox News would define this slant along partisan lines. However, for years I have argued that the establishment media suffers from a kind of systemic, institutional bias, one that prizes access over accuracy and displays an overweening deference to power and authority rather than any subconscious fealty to a specific ideology.

As a perfect example of this, consider this Politico op-ed from Tuesday that rails against the Obama administration’s recent decision to mandate federal contraception coverage in most employer health plans. Written by one David Addington, the Heritage Foundation’s “vice president of Domestic and Economic Policy,” the column throws out a lot of overheated hyperbole about how the HHS’s decision runs afoul of the Constitution on First Amendment, Freedom of Religion grounds. (Those vocal opponents within the Catholic Church who are supposedly bemoaning their loss of “religious liberty” pretty much give the game away here, however.)

Now, sharp-eyed readers might recognize Addington’s name as one of the most controversial players in the Dramatis Personae from the previous White House. Taking over as the Vice President’s chief of staff after “Scooter” Libby found himself indicted for Plamegate—and known colloquially as “Cheney’s Cheney,” a shudder-worthy term if ever there was one—Addington spent most of his Bush administration tenure focused on national security issues. That’s actually putting it very lightly, as Addington was perhaps the foremost legal architect behind the Bush administration’s rampant abuse of presidential power, thanks to his abhorrent intellectual justifications of everything from torture to indefinite detention to abrogating due process to executive signing statements.

Indeed, as Jane Mayer spelled out in a devastating New Yorker profile of him five years ago, Addington is someone who, even according to high-ranking Bush administration colleagues, didn’t believe in co-equal branches of government and whose opinions were often “unconstitutional as a strategy.” That such a man is ceded valuable editorial space by a supposedly prominent political news publication to expound on what is or isn’t constitutional is a travesty. It’s on par with asking Genghis Khan to pen a foreign policy essay on the proper methods of leveraging soft power. (Although, to be fair, a fair-minded liberal could make a twisted argument in Addington’s defense that he, of all people, would recognize executive overreach when he sees it.)

This mainstreaming of extremist, intellectually dishonest thinking, whether it’s the viewpoints offered up, the person doing the offering or, in Addington’s case, both, is nothing new under the sun, unfortunately. But by legitimizing falsehoods and lending credence to conspiracy theories as well as ignoring factual history and dismissing scientific documentation, the establishment press simply plays into the hands of Fox News and conservative talk radio. These unabashedly biased media platforms, in turn, fashion ever more outrageous claims and slanted reporting to create a damning indictment of the rest of the establishment media when it fails to keep up or follow suit. This creates an endless feedback loop that merely serves to reinforce a paranoid mindset, one where audiences like the Tea Party end up viewing the accuracy of the information in the news as inversely proportional to its acceptance outside their cloistered world.

What’s left is sad irony about this increasingly disconnected segment of the populace, which the Pew study sort of stumbles upon: "Among news audiences, those who cite the Fox News Channel or the radio as their main source of campaign news are the most likely to say there is a great deal of bias in news coverage."

In this one instance, at least, the Tea Party-types happen to be absolutely right. Of course, just not in the way that they think they are. But pretending that their heavily blinkered outlook toward the media and the truth is in no way different than the rest of the public’s does a disservice to them, the press, and, in the end, our democracy.

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

The mail

So very cool re Bruce.  And you deserve those accolades for your great work, but to have it come from Springsteen. Takes ones breath away. Speaking of oxygen, I'm reminded that the Beethoven/Shakespeare oxygen has once again burned up your little lungs, and you return to Mozart/Shaw.  However, someone far more eloquent than I has set you straight.

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa

I can't believe you are backtracking on Mozart just because Ben Willis of Queens blinded you with an obscure intellectual-sounding argument that said nothing. Music isn't about argument, it is about pleasure. And in the end, arguments are just intellectual exercises to justify what one feels. My regard for Mozart grows every year. Although I admire Beethoven, I cannot say the same for him. When I read your parenthetical aside, I was gleeful. You are *not* a philistine. Ben is a prat!
Eric replies:
Thanks Frank. I’m not sure I “backtracked.” I just admitted that my preference need not carry much weight in the world of classical music. I still prefer Mozart, but I never argued he was in any way “better.” Someone could prefer, say, Peter Frampton to Bruce Springsteen, and I would think that’s ok. Taste is taste. But if they argued that he was “better”—as I heard so frequently in the years 1976 and 1977, well, them’s were fightin’ words.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Sparks Fly on Spring Street…

My new Think Again column is called "When Books Disappear" and it's here.

And I appear to be in the news: (From the NY Daily News, at a luncheon for The Giants on Wednesday):

While the luncheon brought out a bipartisan crowd, there was a little Republican-Democrat friction when the Nation columnist Eric Alterman approached Bill O’Reilly to thank him for apologizing on-air in 2004 for calling Alterman a “Fidel Castro confidant.” (On a later show, O’Reilly sarcastically claimed he was “foolin’ around.”) Alterman says “O’Reilly responded by twice saying, “Get away from me,” and eventually summoning a handler to intervene. O’Reilly told us there was “no run-in,” but Alterman said, “I’m beginning to think that maybe he wasn’t all that sorry.”

And while this was not in the news, this really did happen Wednesday night:

There was a reception in Soho for Steve VZ's new Netflix series. I had a close friend in town, who happened to have been my volunteer intern for the Bruce book, but is now a macher in the TV biz and he took me out to dinner. Since it was his business to develop such shows, he did not want to “work” and so we did not make the screening but as I thought it would be interesting to see who was at the party, I said let's eat down there.

So we did and when we were done, we walked by the hotel and the screening wasn't over, so I asked the girl at the door if I could see the list of who had come to it so I could decide whether to wait the ten minutes until the reception started. I couldn't believe it when I saw the name “Bruce Springsteen” with a check next to it. 

So we went downstairs and Steve was waiting for it to end and we waited with him and then everyone came out and Bruce and Steve took photos with Tony Bennett (and David Chase and other Soprano types) and then I waited and introduced myself  and thanked him for the lyric permissions I had gotten from him for my new book, (of which I’m pretty sure he had no idea) and he said "Hey, thanks for all your terrific writing in The Nation all these years" (or something like that) and then we talked for about 10-12 minutes, about lots of stuff, including our daughter’s respective tastes in music—I told him she was much bigger on Kanye and Jay Z than on him--and happily, I refrained from gushing but did find a way to congratulate him on being the only goy who had made it into my kid's Bat Mitzvah service.

It was the second time I've met him but the first time we spoke and it couldn't have gone better. I broke off the conversation after telling him I didn't want to talk to him too long lest he say something that might screw up my relationship to the music. He liked that too, I think. 

That’s all. Great guy, Bruce…. He’s playing the Apollo for Sirius Radio on March 9 if anyone has tickets and wants to take me. If not maybe you should buy the book.

Jaimo’s Jasssz Band and Joe Henry:

I also saw two shows this week. The first was the new Jaimoe's Jasssz Band at the Gramercy Theater and it was a lot of fun. Did you know that Jaimoe toured with Otis Redding before he became the original drummer for the Allman Brothers Band. We’ll be seeing them a couple of times in March, but in the meantime, this Jasssz Band is a really fine blues band with a heavy jazz flavor. To be honest, it is dominated by the great Junior Mack, who is lead singer, songwriter and a great lead guitarist. The song selection was first rate, leaning on the same stuff that’s on their new album, “Renaissance Man” and including especially "Melissa," "Rainy Night In Georgia" and "Leaving Trunk.” It is, by my count, the fifth fine band to come out of the current Allman lineup and further makes my case that they are the single most virtuosic group of musicians playing anything, anywhere right now, (especially if you include Greg’s amazing voice). Read about the Jaimo record here.

Then Tuesday night I went to City Winery to catch a show by Joe Henry (with Marc Ribot joining on guitar). The entire show, or at least Joe’s part was dedicated to Joe ‘s new record, Reverie, an all acoustic album recorded in Joe’s basement with sounds like birds chirping through the windows to the ticking and stuff like that. It’s intelligent, moving and challenging in equal measure, as all Henry’s music is, but it’s also ironic since he is best known as a producer for people ranging from (my buddy) Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, the forthcoming Bonnie Raitt cd and his close relation and occasional meal-ticket, Madonna. Ribot is all over the record and Tom Waits does a turn too. What’s not to like? More about Joe here.

Now here’s Reed:

Mitt Romney’s Sorry Foreign Policy
by Reed Richardson
That Mitt Romney, the current GOP presidential frontrunner, called his thinly veiled 2010 campaign treatise “No Apology” should come as no surprise. Though it was no doubt written before Obama’s first year in office had yet to conclude, the book and its title—which not so subtly draws upon a stubborn conservative myth about this President’s foreign policy—perfectly captures the rabidly reflexive nature of the modern Republican Party.Of course, with the economy still struggling to dig its way out of a massive hole and unemployment and jobs foremost on voter’s minds, the Republican primaries have spent little time debating foreign policy. (Some debates have skipped the topic altogether.) In many ways, though, what effort they do expend on foreign policy is ripped right from the same Obama-can’t-do-anything-right playbook. And Mitt Romney is, by no means, an exception, as his latest stump speech now includes a throwaway line that the president’s foreign policy amounts to little more than “pretty please.”

But the real conundrum facing Romney and the other GOP pretenders to the throne isn’t that Obama’s foreign policy has some notable successes. Or that the current administration’s actions, whether withdrawing from Iraq or fighting terrorism and scaling down the war in Afghanistan enjoy popular support from the public. It’s that their campaign trail criticisms have, as their foundation, little actual policy differences behind them.

Case in point, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It should come as no surprise that the latest version of Candidate Romney offers up to Obama faint praise for taking out the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. While he did offer begrudging approval last May—he couldn’t bring himself to mention Obama’s name—this past December Romney was blithely telling MSNBC: “I think other presidents and other candidates like myself would do exactly the same thing.” Setting aside the often-overlooked fact that Obama had to lay the groundwork for that moment two years earlier, by restarting a covert program aimed at finding Bin Laden that George W. Bush had abandoned, it’s worth pointing out that the 2008 release of Candidate Romney was singing a different tune. For, back then, when Obama was pledging to unilaterally enter Pakistan to kill Bin Laden if such a chance arose—which it did and he did—it was Romney who was all about asking for permission: “I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours… I don’t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort.”

Good luck hearing someone from the traditional media confront Romney on this raging hypocrisy, however, because this notion among conservatives that the whole Bin Laden raid was some kind of happy coincidence is now slowly but surely being embedded into the Beltway media’s consciousness. For example, it’s no coincidence that, as part of her criticism of Obama’s recent State of the Union address, Washington Post columnist and Romney consigliere Jennifer Rubin had the gall to write: “After an easy applause line for killing Osama bin Laden, Obama then plunged into his economic defense.”

See what she did there? When I first read that sentence, I immediately had flashbacks to this old Saturday Night Live bit, and wondered if Rubin hadn’t initially practiced the above sentence by mumbling the words “applause line for” under her breath. By the time Romney debates Obama next fall, others in the media might be going so far as to suggest that Bin Laden somehow accidentally left his address on Leon Panetta’s voicemail and then willingly threw himself in front of Seal Team Six’s gunfire, all in an effort to avoid his later, inevitable assassination under a new Romney administration.

Indeed, on issue after issue, Romney’s shameless proclivity for trying to have his foreign policy cake and eat it too manifests itself time and again.

-He blasts Obama’s full withdrawal from Iraq as “sheer ineptitude” yet calls it “fortunate” the troops are now home and conveniently lacks the courage of his convictions to send them back if he were to become President.

-He repeatedly criticizes White House policy toward Iran while calling for “crippling sanctions,” kind of like the policies Obama and our European allies put in place this past week, which just so happened to have spurred Ahmadinejad back to thenegotiating table and which went unmentioned by the Romney campaign.

-He bemoaned that Obama was “leading from behind” and “following the French into Libya.” Yet when the regime of longtime dictator Qaddhafi finally crumbled under the dual pressures of a committed ground rebellion and a U.S./European air coalition, the Romney campaign’s first instinct was to bash the president and absolve him of any credit.

-Romney willingly joins in the GOP chorus in an attempt to out-butch Obama and position him as soft on terror. In fact, this administration has decimated Al Qaeda, thanks in part to a ramped-up policy of CIA drone strikes that—far from being “judicious” or asking “pretty please”—routinely tramples upon the sovereignty of foreign nations and has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.

-He dismisses as “hiding from reality” Obama’s 2013 Pentagon budget, which, absent a war in Iraq and with a dwindling role in Afghanistan, would trim 100,000 active-duty personnel from the military. Seemingly out of little more than spite, Romney instead calls for an increase of 100,000 personnel instead.

-In his campaign literature and debate rhetoric, Romney often dismisses Obama’s foreign policy decisions as predicated on an idea that “America is in decline.” But the president very publicly believes and espouses the reverse to be true.

-And just this week, he labels as “misguided” and “naïve” the Obama administration’s new deadline for exiting the wildly unpopular war in Afghanistan, yet when Obama’s predecessor proposed a similar timeline for leaving Iraq, Romney contorted himself into supporting timetables based on caveat that the White House and Iraqis keep it a secret from the public.

As one might expect of this generation’s political Zelig, a list of Mitt Romney’s hypocritical foreign policy positions runs much longer than the few I have documented above. Now, I would love for Romney to have to fully answer for any one of his aforementioned bouts of shameless anti-Obama grandstanding. But I’d settle for the press just laying bare his campaign’s single greatest foreign policy paradox—that his primary critique of Obama’s domestic policy and prescription for reinvigorating our nation’s economy both rest upon on a fundamental misreading of the state of the world. 

Romney continually pillories Obama in his stump speech by saying: “I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.” Europe, in this case, being Romney’s not so subtle stand-in for notions like “elite” and “foreigner,” both of which bring with them well-known responses among a public that has endured years of Birther conspiracies and numerous storylines about the president’s so-called arrogance.

What’s most striking, however, is that, once again, Romney has it completely, utterly backwards. It’s his own misguided economic package that takes the “worst of what Europe has become” and tries to apply it here. His plan for massive tax cuts for the rich and deep cuts to the federal budget would not only balloon the deficit and shred the social safety net, it would embrace the exact kind of austerity measures that have sent European economies tumbling back into recession.

Obama’s stimulative economic policies, though tepid, have at least enabled the country to reverse course and fashion together an unmistakable, though weak, recovery. For a Romney administration to come in next year and impose even more draconian spending cuts would be to risk plunging our still vulnerable nation back into fiscal crisis. That Romney would so misread the lessons of the rest of the world in order to advance a political agenda that only benefits the 1 percent speaks to how far the modern Republican Party has sunk. That he would undertake such reckless policies, both here and abroad, unapologetically, doesn’t make them any less perilous. In the end, it will be the American people who will be sorry.  

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

The Mail:
Ben Willis


Dear Alterman,
Over the years I have had my issues with some of your opinions (most notably Ralph Nader, and your unwavering support for the Democratic party), but now I understand why you write the things you do. Mozart over Beethoven?!?!?!? Are you serious? Mozart was a lyrical genius. Every musical idea he wrote was melody and no doubt his appeal is universal, yet his compositions never reached the transcendence of those by Ludwig van Beethoven. I challenge you to compare any of Mozart's works for string quartets or chamber ensembles with Beethoven's late quartets. Ops. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135 and the glorious Grosse Fuge revolutionized music and can be heard not only as romantic works but as precursors to the modern age where the sound of the notes/chords themselves are as important as to how those musical ideas fit within the hierarchy of the key or the rigidity of phrase forms that mark Mozart's oeuvre. There is also the slight issue of the position of Beethoven's symphonies within the pantheon of great repertoire of the "classical" music. Not even Mozart's "Jupiter" can compare with any one of LVB's more well known symphonies such as; the "Eroica" (3rd), the iconic 5th, the Pastoral (6th), the Tanze (7th), and the glorious Ninth. (Not to mention the underrated 8th and the almost unknown Missa Solemnis which is considered Beethoven's Tenth). Ok, Mozart has his operas and Beethoven only has one. Mozart has his twenty-something piano concerts. But Beethoven's five are outstanding and the sonatas for Hammerklavier are light years ahead of anything Mozart wrote for the soloist.
  I thank you for the review of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Some of my friends, including Claudia, were there playing that night. I also know Scott Ligon of NRBQ from way back in his Peoria days. I'm glad you're covering these events. But please save the missive about Mozart over Beethoven for some other forum.

Eric replies:
Dear Ben, 
I’m sorry. I should have pointed out that I’m a complete philistine when it comes to such things. I’m sure you’re right (and I’m not being sarcastic) but to be fair to me, I mentioned only as way of mentioning the Shaw/Shakespeare thing.

Asher Fried
Reed: I don’t think Obama is so naïve. I think he’s decided that he’ll be Mr. Conciliatory Compromiser and let the GOP look like the hardliners.  He really doesn’t believe he’ll achieve his goals by compromise; it’s just a posture that suits him. When he states he is for certain goals: public option, or the government’s right to negotiate drug prices or re-importation of drugs, he is telegraphing what he is willing to cave in on. He never expected to achieve those goals so he’d rather look like he is compromising by giving up items he deems important [knowing they were unachievable because of the GOP hardliners] to get agreement on anything.  Thus when the GOP threatened the government shut down, Obama caved on renewing the high-end Bush tax cuts, but he did get things he wanted.

It’s a tactic; it works to the extent that the President can get some things accomplished. The problem is that after a while unless he is willing to draw an absolute line in the sand somewhere the GOP push back will eventually get him nothing.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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.

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.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

So Long, It's Been Bad to Know Ya…

My new Think Again column is called  “The Tea Party: Struggling for Political Relevance” and it’s here.

The tsoris that forced me to write last week’s Forward column continues in lots of places, most of them foolish. What I found craziest about the Josh Block/Ben Smith accusations was the notion that there is any relationship whatever between alleged anti-Semitism and the desire to resist a potentially disastrous attack on Iran. Block was quite explicit about his desire to shut down all debate about Iran’s nuclear program with his McCarthyite accusations, even though nobody really knows, including the IAEA and the US Director of Central Intelligence.  But that’s not my point: My point is that both nations are going to be competing for the “Best Foreign Film” Oscar this year, Israel with the truly excellent Footnote, and Iran with the truly great A Separation. And the latter is going to win, despite the fact that Hollywood is approximately a billion times more Jewish than it is Iranian. So Josh Block and his friends might wish to start planning to call all of Hollywood anti-Semitic in preparation.

Now here’s Reed:

The 27 Percenters
by Reed Richardson
Much has been made in the past few months—and rightly so—about how our nation’s political system all too often operates merely as a lever that the 1 percent use to control the other 99. But what’s just as important to understand is that there’s another minority cohort out there exerting an out-sized influence on our democracy. And though this subset of our citizenry can be reliably counted on to be either spectacularly misinformed or willfully ignorant on any particular issue, their opinions are nonetheless being allowed to shift the center of gravity of our country’s discourse. 

Now the notion that some number of Americans will always fail to exercise any intellectual capacity beyond that of a sea cucumber when it comes to politics is admittedly not a new one. “Some of the people,” as Abraham Lincoln famously noted more than 150 years ago, can be fooled “all of the time.” But it wasn’t until six years ago, in an insightful post by blogger John Rogers, that someone finally put an exact figure to this phenomenon. During a discussion of, coincidentally, Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate the year before, Rogers notes that Obama’s opponent, the self-immolating, out-of-state, unstable candidate Alan Keyes, was still able to attract 27 percent of the electorate:

They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That’s crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

Of course, picking a rather random data point and bestowing upon it such broad political significance sounds very much like the kind of irrational, conspiratorial behavior that Rogers himself is trying to quantify. Except that, like a bad penny, this 27 percent figure stubbornly shows up in our recent political discourse again and again. 

- Remember the level at which President Bush’s free-falling job approval ratings finally had their hard landing in the summer of 2008 and roughly remained through Obama’s election?

- Or how about the number of people who, fully a year into Obama’s presidency, still thought ACORN stole the election for him, despite a victory margin of more than 9.5 million votes?

- Halfway into Obama’s term, that same percentage of people remained stubbornly in the thrall of the “Birther” crowd.

- On the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, there was the number cropping up in a poll that asked registered voters if political quitter and intellectual paperweight Sarah Palin was “qualified” to be president.

- Last month, it was the ratio of Americans who characterized themselves as supporters of the Tea Party.

- Earlier this week, it was the percentage of respondents saying Obama has accomplished “little or nothing” during his term so far.

- And just this past Wednesday, guess how many Americans thought Republicans in Congress were genuinely trying to “work with Obama”, despite countless examples of legislative brinksmanship to the contrary?

Now, it’s not fair to say that all these surveys and polls are capturing the same set of people time after time. But while the demographic composition of all the 27 percenters listed above no doubt varies from issue to issue, the thinking that informs those arguments is very much the same.

Are these people really ‘crazy’ as Rogers asserts? Probably not. But his broader, rhetorical point is made—they are likely to be ‘dead-enders’ and ‘true believers,’ people who simply have no capacity to endure cognitive dissonance or curiosity in learning basic facts. The implication being that if you peel away the rational pulp of our body politic, the one quarter or so that’s left represents the hard, unthinking pit of the American psyche.

In our country’s defense, this ratio of is likely the same all around the world. What’s unique and unfortunate about our situation, however, is that, increasingly, one of our two political parties has decided it is in their and our nation’s best interests to tailor public policies around this irrational, unyielding worldview. Crackpots and conspiracy theorists get to enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean they should be afforded the responsibility of crafting legislation and reshaping the whole of society in their image.

Nevertheless, that is exactly the strategy the modern Republican Party is engaging in. What other conclusion can one draw when, for every example from above, there’s a corresponding effort from within the highest ranks of the GOP to embrace it and enact it?

- Re ACORN: The Republicans openly kill the organization in 2010 through intense Congressional bullying, despite no proof of actual voter fraud.

- Re Birthers: Republican lawmakers in more than a dozen states and the U.S. Congress introduce birth certificate-verification legislation since Obama’s inauguration.

- Re Palin: Despite a large majority of the public doubting her fitness as a politician, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich announces this week that she would play a ‘major role’ in his administration.

- Re Tea Party: Republican lawmakers kowtow to its extreme ideology in this past summer’s debt ceiling fight, pushing the economy to the brink of disaster.

- Re “little or nothing” accomplished: The Republican presidential candidates manipulate this displeasure with Obama among primary voters by counter-intuitively feeding them an apocalyptic taleof a tyrannical second term.

- Re “work with Obama”: The Republican Senate Minority Leader publicly states that making Obama a one-term president is “my single most important political goal along with every active Republican in the country.”

These are but a few of the most notable examples of ‘27-percenter’ thinking driving Republican policy, of course. The ongoing Republican presidential primary can provide almost daily examples of this same phenomenon. And while catering to one’s hardcore political base is part and parcel of a primary campaign, the remaining candidates, including frontrunner Mitt Romney, show little appetite for tacking back to the center policy-wise once the general election begins in earnest later in the spring.

Indeed, just as the Republican-dominated 112thCongress demonstrated yesterday and nearly every other day it has been in session, the extreme goals and detached-from-reality ideals of those hardcore constituents now dominate the party’s orthodoxy. Compromise is simply no longer a part of the current Republican Party’s lexicon because the GOP has thoroughly abandoned its moderate base.

All too often, however, the press and the punditocracy don’t recognize the reality of the GOP’s recent rightward lurch. Consequently, they increasingly accept as reasonable the party’s embrace of the ‘27 percenters,’ which unwittingly pushes the nation rightward as well. But this slow drifting into reactionary seas presents a perilous dilemma for our democracy, because it only further emboldens the entrenched powers that enforce one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest of us. In other words, in this political calculation, taking 27 percent away from the 99 leaves only the 1 percent in charge.  

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

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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