Politics, media and the politics of media.
The Onion News Network was always the best place to look for an honest review of George W. Bush’s post-presidential painting hobby, and here it is at last—including an analysis of the “ghost of an Iraqi child that follows him everywhere” that should be in every painting but, sadly, is usually replaced by a puppy dog or an impersonal caricature of some foreign leader’s Google photo.
It’s hard to tell which is funnier: the paintings themselves (the Onion artist who copied Bush’s primitive style captures his flat planes and between-the-lines coloring practice), or the upbeat chit-chat of the Onion News host and correspondent, who perfectly mimic the mainstream media’s happy-talk accounts of Bush’s surprising hobby.
Showing one morbid painting after another, the host says, “You can see that Bush’s art is improving over time. At first he could barely draw the Iraqi child’s transparent hands, but now they look much more realistic!” George and Laura are shown smiling in one work, and seem not to notice that W is holding the bleeding, dead Iraqi child in his arms.
This is, of course, the opposite of what Bush’s paintings really do, as they tend to hide things about the ex-POTUS rather than reveal them. Just as his self-portraits in the shower cover up his private parts, Bush would rather paint Putin or a Saudi noble than one of his own controversial lieutenants, like Cheney or Rumsfeld. That would be getting too close to home.
The Onion paintings get grislier and grislier. One depicts Bush’s bedroom at the Crawford ranch splattered in blood with Manson-like zeal. “Laura Bush says he’s more focused than ever, locks himself away for hours at a time and won’t talk to anyone while he’s painting,” the host says.
It’s more or less what many of us have imagined: that George Bush is going quietly bonkers after years of repressing the reality of what he’s done. In real life, however, Bush paints to forget, not to expose.
Watch the Onion video below (and a similarly themed video from cartoonist Mark Fiore here):
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A couple days ago, a friend of mine witnessed this scene on West 65th Street in Manhattan: in a crowd lining up to get tickets for The View, two middle-aged women were talking excitedly about Joy Behar, though the comedian hasn’t co-hosted the show for nearly two years. Suddenly, one of the women lunged at her friend, acting out that startling moment when New Jersey governor Chris Christie stole the podium from Behar during a ninetieth-birthday roast of former Governor Brendan Byrne on April Fool’s Day.
“She’s my heroine,” the lunging lady said. “She stood up to that fat man.”
The second woman replied, “She’s fearless. She got right up in front of him.” Then she mimed the stern posture of what might be a mother reprimanding a son who towered over her. “I’ve known women like her in my neighborhood all my life,” she said.
Other women in line were nodding in agreement, one saying to another, “If Chris Christie thinks he’s going to get somewhere by treating her this way, he’s a fool.”
It’s easy to overlook the effect Behar’s run-in with Christie has had on public perception, especially on women. When the governor tried to intimidate the 71-year-old comedian, as he has so many women before her, she called him a bully and a coward. And when he physically got up in her face, she came back at him with more searing jokes.
Christie attacks anyone who publicly disagrees with him, of course, but he’s best known for bullying the female teachers who’ve protested his cuts to education, or the mother who politely asked, “You send [your children] to private schools, so I was wondering why you think it’s fair to be cutting funding to public schools?” (“Hey Gail,” Christie responded, “…it’s none of your business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me where I send mine.”) His lawyer’s report that “exonerated” him of Bridgegate tried to paint Bridget Anne Kelly as psychologically unstable after another Christie aide broke off a relationship with her. As if feminine emotion caused the five-day traffic nightmare on the world’s busiest bridge.
Five former governors and five comedians spoke at the Governor Byrne roast, and Behar wasn’t the only one who detoured to roast Christie instead. But she was the only one he took on physically. We know all this thanks to Ryan Lizza, who led a long New Yorker piece, “Crossing Christie,” with the roast incident and put his cellphone video of it (below) on YouTube. (A clearer but edited version is here.)
It went down like this: Like others at the event—including Governor Byrne himself—Behar cracked wise about Christie’s weight. “You have to have your eye on the White House,” she said. “It used to be the House of Pancakes.” Sitting on the dais next to the lectern, Christie touched Behar’s arm and reminded her, “This is a Byrne roast.” When that got big applause, he stood up and, amazingly, tried to grab Behar’s notes. “Stop bullying me,” she told him. The audience laughed awkwardly: She called him the B-word to his face. Back in his seat, Christie said something that was inaudible and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?”
No doubt she provoked him, but, unable to control himself (you might say he was too emotional), he took the bait. He stood up again and, as she backed away in fear, he took over her space at the lectern, asking her, “Really? Really, is that what you’re thinking?” Christie went beyond, say, Rick Lazio’s infamous move into Hillary Clinton’s space during a 2000 debate and into something more reminiscent of Ralph Kramden telling Alice “to the moon!” But Christie regained his composure, delivered a zinger (“At least I don’t get paid for this”), and returned to his seat.
Behar was noticeably rattled, as Lizza says, but she didn’t back down. “I really don’t know about the presidency,” she jibed. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”
In this brief encounter, you could find Christie’s entire governorship: he intimidates, he threatens, he can’t stand not to control the mic and he always gets the last word.
But Behar was, for once, a female who got the last word—she signed off with a joke about feeling safe from Christie’s wrath because she was “taking mass transit home.” Sure, she was scared of him, but she rebounded. Repeatedly. That’s why she’s a hero to the women waiting in line to get into The View.
I’ve tried to avoid posting yet again on Morning Joe, but the strained psychodynamics of the show have bumped it into the faux news again. And it’s just so irresistible.
On The Daily Show last week, Samantha Bee did a nearly seven-minute bit on MJ, portraying Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and supporting players as a sicko family. It was painfully unfunny, but it did get in some jabs about how the “boy pundits” are “always completely agreeing with their dad.”
The more amusing and yet more damning parody of the show, however, came in the form of “Morning Jolt,” a 4:23-minute video from Morning Joe itself. Launched last week, with clips from it now running as MSNBC promos, “Morning Jolt” (see it below) inadvertently reveals why the relationship between Joe and Mika, and between Joe and the boy pundits, is getting increasingly hard to watch.
Starting with a gospel singer belting “Jesus get me through this day,” “Morning Jolt” is intended to be a self-deprecating and obviously exaggerated look at what the MJ crew goes through to get to work in the still dark hours of the morning. They did something similar in 2011, in a bit panned as “icky” and sexist—Joe and the boys carouse all night while Mika jogs before dawn in a skin-tight dress. But this newest video moves beyond sexism: the real jolt is the smell of a little S&M in the morning.
Mika portrays herself (as she often does on the show) as an overly diligent but discombobulated dame. She drops her coffee and her many newspapers; she trips and breaks a stiletto heel; driving herself to work (what, no limo?), she nearly runs over a construction worker and parks her SUV right on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.
Joe is the laid-back screw-up, a guy’s guy who oversleeps and casually rebels—when the alarm clock rings at an ungodly hour, he throws it onto a pile of other clocks.
It’s then that the promo starts to edge into Republican war-on-women territory. When Mika calls and Joe sees her photo on his smart phone, he hurls it too, but this time into the toilet. Other cell phones marinating there indicate that she bothers him daily. So, hmmm… maybe she’s a little unstable, stalkerish even—the next time we see Mika’s picture on a cell, she's bugging sex symbol Bradley Cooper, who tosses his phone into the trash. The camera catches Brzezinski’s face landing on a paper plate smeared with leftovers.
When Joe and Mika eventually meet in the corridor leading to their studio, they become the normals, braving a gauntlet of stereotyped New York weirdos—a juggler, a mariachi band, a half-naked guy throwing glitter at them, two hot babes fighting. At the end, in the video’s only dialogue, Mika tells Joe, “I tried to call you.” “Yeah,” he says, “I, um, dropped my phone.”
Even if Mika and Joe’s bickering has become their trademark shtick, what goes down in “Morning Jolt” is different. It’s not about politics or even who interrupts whom. Putting her face in the toilet and then the trash is simply demeaning. It’s odd that Mika (not to mention the show’s producers) would want to blare that to a national audience.
And you might think that Joe himself wouldn’t want to go there. After all, he was pretty humiliated last year when, after Mika called him a chauvinist, he angrily snapped his fingers at her, as if to make her come to heel. (They later apologized to each other.) And the same day that “Morning Jolt” debuted, Mika and Joe both railed against the report that “exonerated” Chris Christie for branding Bridget Kelly as an emotionally unstable wreck after she was dumped by a guy she worked with, Bill Stepien. The report’s sexist, gratuitous attack, Joe later said, was “shameful.”
But Joe and Mika are going there because they’ve apparently convinced themselves it’s all a joke. Last week Joe had to fend off people who didn’t get how funny it was when, after Mika told him to stop obsessing over the missing Malaysian jet, he told her to lower her voice. “For humorless liberals who thought I was being rude to Mika today,” he tweeted, “my sincere apologies that you are too thick to get the joke.”
Ok, let’s say it was a joke. But the lameness of such jokes and his thick sarcasm often make it hard to see the humor. It’s not like Scarborough is Colbert, comedically playing the role of a guy who condescends toward women. With the possible exception of his #CancelColbert fracas, it’s usually crystal clear where Stephen stands.
Joe, however, operates from a more passive-aggressive place. There’s an anger in him that he denies but can’t quite hide from view. For her part, Mika swings between vigorously defending herself and willingly making herself the butt of a joke gone ugly.
As Samantha Bee points out, you tune into Morning Joe to see Joe and Mika squabble and wonder how far they’ll go. But the dramatic tension only works if you think they have a real reason to stay together, like Archie and Edith or Ralph and Alice.
Joe, of course, wants us to believe he’s just horsing around, and the video’s fantastical morning commutes are supposed to clue us in: Scarborough stands in the prow of a small boat crossing the Hudson, à la Washington crossing the Delaware, as if he’s invading New York to bring some red-state virtue to Sin City. The guys—Mike Barnicle, Willie Geist, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Donnie Deutsch, Steve Rattner, Dan Senor, et al. (Tina Brown is one of only two women; Al Sharpton’s the sole black person)—arrive together on the subway, like working-class stiffs, setting them apart and below the more individualistic Joe.
Mika and the boys humor Joe, and themselves, that he’s only kidding. But hoping you’re not going to be flushed down the can isn’t the same thing as love.
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Have Harry Reid and the order of the fact-checkers beaten back the the brothers who shall not be named (at least in their own ads)? That is, has a Koch-supported group been forced to “abandon” its powerful but false Obamacare “horror story” commercials, as some believe?
After Senate Majority Leader Reid attacked the oil billionaires for trying to “buy” elections by blanketing battleground states with more than $30 million worth of ads that he called “lies,” the Koch-funded advocacy organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) appears to be easing off the misleading campaign. In it, real people claim that they can’t afford Obamacare or that they’ve lost coverage because of the Affordable Care Act.
In the most glaring case, a spot targeting Democratic Senate candidate Representative Gary Peters, a Michigan woman with leukemia, Julie Boonstra, says she was forced off her old plan and onto Obamacare, which makes her life-saving medications unaffordable. “If I do not receive my medication, I will die,” she says. But the Detroit News found that Boonstra would actually save more than $1000 a year on the ACA plan. (She insists that “can’t be true.”)
Maybe it’s because of Reid’s barbs, Representative Peters’s letter telling TV stations they’re violating FTC rules by airing a misleading ad about health or all the Pinocchio noses and “False” ratings the ads have garnered from fact-checkers, but the AFP has just laid out $1.7 million to run a spot so understated and reasonable-sounding that it might indeed seem as if the Kochs are backing off.
Running in Colorado against Senator Mark Udall and in Louisiana against Senator Mary Landrieu, the spot doesn’t feature an aggrieved real person sitting at home but a slightly hip, even liberal-looking, actress standing against the kind of all-white background you’d find at an art gallery. She speaks straight to the camera and makes empathic hand gestures.
“People don’t like political ads,” she says. “I don’t like them either. But healthcare isn’t about politics. It’s about people. It’s not about a website that doesn’t work, it’s not about polls numbers or approval ratings, it’s about people.”
Up until this point, this could be an ad from Planned Parenthood, or any group supporting the ACA. Healthcare, it seems to say, shouldn’t be based on the GOP’s cynical politics, and getting rid of Obamacare is going to hurt people—real, uninsured and poorly insured pre-existing people.
But the actress (Where have we seen her before? Anyone?) continues: “And millions of people have lost their health insurance. Millions of people can’t see their own doctors. And millions are paying more and getting less. Obamacare doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.” Onscreen at the end: #PeopleNotPolitics.
Who knew the Kochs were such people persons? At this rate, they’ll one day add Orwellian hashtags like #PeopleNotProfits or #PeopleNotPipelines.
It’s hard to tell which people this ad is targeting. People who are sick of the scare tactics that the Koch millions are incessantly hitting them with? Politically moderate people who’d like a plausible but un-angry bottom line (“Obamacare doesn’t work”) to take to the voting booth? Harry Reid and the fact-checkers, who might figure that this time the ad is too vague to be lying?
Turns out, though, that even this seemingly “fact-checker-proof” ad is rife with falsity, particularly the claim that under Obamacare people are “paying more and getting less.” PolitiFact, noting “signs that the rate of the increase [of premiums] has declined since the law was passed,” said: “Most people on the individual market are getting more benefits under the law. At worst, they’re paying more to get more, though in many cases they’re actually paying less.” It rated the ad as “False.”
Anyway, the new toned-down ad isn’t new and isn’t a reaction to backlash over the horror story spots. It ran before and simultaneously with some of them, in November of last year against Senator Kate Hagan of North Carolina and in early February in Arkansas, against Senator Mark Pryor. Nor have the Kochs “abandoned” the personal victim MO. Just last week AFP dropped $700,000 to launch another real person ad against Pryor. This time a woman named Wanda says her insurance company told her that because of Obamacare it would no longer cover her. Though this claim, too, hits a big pothole.
And Julie Boonstra is still the first one to greet you at the AFP website, which maintains, “She lost her insurance and now the left is trying to discredit her, silence her and all Americans.”
However, we should definitely believe the Koch group when it says it has no intention of abandoning the horror stories. “We are currently on-air with many different types of ads, including personal testimony of Obamacare impact,” AFP spokesman Levi Russell told TPM. “This is the same strategy we’ve been using for 6 months.”
It’s going to take far more than Harry Reid and dogged fact-checking to blunt their campaign. The real question is, as Dave Weigel asks, “Why aren’t Democrats running ads showcasing the people who have been helped by Obamacare?” It’s a strategy, he notes, the Dems “perfected” in ads featuring workers who were laid off by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. (PolitiFact gave one of those ads a “False” rating, too.)
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee sent out an e-mail a couple days ago, saying “our grassroots fundraising is on pace to match the Kochs’ $30 million dollar-for-dollar.”
Good. But what are they going to do with it?
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Joe Scarborough recently got into quite a huff—and got the Morning Joe crew to huff with him—over Harry Reid’s attacks on David and Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialists who fund dozens of conservative causes and Republican campaigns. Reid had said, rather catchily for him, that Senate Republicans “are addicted to Koch.” The Senate majority leader also said the brothers “have no conscience and are willing to lie” in political ads, and that they’re “un-American” for trying to “buy America.”
Reid said he doesn’t begrudge the Kochs their wealth, but “what is un-American is when shadow billionaires pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system and benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent.”
That might sound hyperbolic unless you have followed the long list of ways the Kochs are indeed buying America. For starters, while their Koch Industries is the one of the nation’s largest air polluters, their money is a huge factor in blocking climate change progress and spreading know-nothing denialism; they fund ALEC and its stand-your-ground political agenda; and they’re waging a multimillion-dollar war against the Affordable Care Act, trying to convince young people, through ads like the one with the creepy Uncle Sam gynecologist, that they should be afraid, very afraid of Obamacare. Through innumerable think tanks, PACs, nonprofits and dark-money trap doors, Koch money has formed a veritable “Kochopus” that reaches deep into academia, industry, state legislatures and Congress. (For more, see here and here.)
But what’s really gotten Harry Reid to put up his dukes is that the Koch-funded PAC Americans for Prosperity (AFM) has spent more than $30 million, and counting, on ads attacking Democratic senate candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. To defeat Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, for instance, AFM has already dropped $8.2 million on TV, radio and digital ads. As Politico puts it, that’s more “than all Democratic outside groups in every Senate race in the country—combined.” Koch money could easily flip the Senate to a Republican majority, leaving little but presidential vetoes to blunt the GOP House’s politics of cruelty.
Joe Scarborough understandably fumed at the “un-American” charge, but he framed the Koch’s power quite differently.
“Let’s first tell the truth about them and what they do, put some perspective in it,” he said Thursday. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve done for cancer research, what they’ve done for the arts, what they have done for education.”
Indeed, you can tell by the way the bros have been slapping their names on cultural institutions that they think they can get their reps fixed wholesale. In New York City alone, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center has become the David H. Koch Theater. As you enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, signs tell you you’re standing on the new David H. Koch Plaza. David Koch’s name had also been elevated by his contributions to WNET, the city’s PBS affiliate. That ended last year, however, when WNET ran an independent documentary critical of him. To placate Koch, they axed a second similar film, but Koch resigned from the board and took his money with him.
But by emphasizing the Kochs’ philanthropy—which, come on, is the least two men worth $40 billion each and tied at number four on the Forbes rich people list, can do—Scarborough was providing exactly what their largesse was intended to produce: praise and a media force field that can deflect political criticism. Not that Joe is terribly adverse to their politics, but the point of his outrage in the Morning Joe banter was to shift focus away from Koch policies to Reid’s breach of polite discourse. Willie Geist said that the “addicted to Koch” line “seems beneath the office.” Former congressman and nominal Democrat Harold Ford sniffed, “There’s no need for that kind of vitriol.” Only Donnie Deutsch got close to the heart of the matter, asking whether the “Koch brothers spending a billion on advertising is good for democracy.”
Training your eyes on an oligarch’s philanthropy and away from what it camouflages is to accept in some way the essential justness of great wealth. As if to second that notion, Governor Chris Christie said at CPAC last week that Reid was “rail[ing] against two American entrepreneurs who have built a business, created jobs, and created wealth and philanthropy in this country. Harry Reid should get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating great things in our country.” Some of those great things include millions in donations to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie (still) heads.
Reid’s attacks are part of a larger Democratic pushback, which includes TV spots (see below) and sites like KochAddiction.com and StopTheGreedAgenda. The strategy is transparent: link GOP candidates to the Kochs and make the Kochs into villains.
Creating a visible villain is, of course, a time-honored political activity. The Dems have vilified Newt Gingrich and more recently Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, while the Republicans’ demons include Nancy Pelosi, the Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers. As for “un-American,” a few years ago Glenn Beck falsely portrayed George Soros, the closest big-time funder progressives have to the Kochs, as a Nazi collaborator.
But beyond a bunch of liberals who follow the Koch trail, will voters know or care about what the billionaire brothers do with their money?
Paul Waldman in The American Prospect doubts it. And so far, he says, the Democratic ads aren’t up to the job. In the very busy spot below, running in Michigan, the Koch brothers appear as barely identified ghosts amid a jumble of hard-to-follow words.
For what it’s worth, the things-don’t-go-better-with-Koch message is getting across, at least with focus groups. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told the Times, “Our research has shown pretty clearly that once voters recognize the source of the attacks [on Democratic candidates], they tend to discount them substantially.” Focus groups, he said, had an “overwhelmingly negative” reaction to the Kochs’ political involvement and believed that the Kochs’ “agenda will hurt average people and the undermine the middle class.’”
Billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins might have been only kidding when he said that democracies should be run more like corporations: “You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes.”
But if you pay for enough misleading ads, that is, in effect, what a million bucks can do. And the more the media unthinkingly hail your charitable giving, the more mileage a million dollars will get you.
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Lately, MSNBC seems to be waking up every few mornings to find a celebrity rattlesnake in its boot. First, Bill Maher said MSNBC was obsessed with Chris Christie and that Bridgegate had become its Benghazi. Then Alec Baldwin took to the cover of New York magazine to denounce his former network for running “the same shit all day long.” “The only difference” between shows, Baldwin wrote, “was who was actually pulling off whatever act they had come up with.”
MSNBC killed Baldwin’s Friday night talk show after only five weeks when the actor made a homophobic remark, which he contends in New York wasn’t homophobic at all. He also calls Rachel Maddow, whom he suspects was behind his ouster, a “phony.” But such Hollywood hairballs, coming on the heels of a series of apologies, anchor defenestrations and schedule rejiggering, could make a casual viewer wonder, Could there be buried in Baldwin’s bruised ego a critique of the network worth listening to? And is Maher right that MSNBC is in danger of becoming the Fox News of the left?
First, Baldwin: he’s right about one thing. With exceptions like Morning Joe with its center-right tilt, the wildly erratic Chris Matthews and Steve Kornacki’s and Melissa Harris-Perry’s two-hour, in-depth weekend shows, there is a sameness to MSNBC’s roster. The daily, hour-long format, often featuring hosts from other MSNBC shows and a familiar rotation of guest pundits can be mind-numbing—just as it can be on Fox News and CNN. (I’m tempted to say, just as it’d be on any cable news network with twenty-four hours to fill. But Al Jazeera, by emphasizing granular reporting across the world, is disproving that old saw.)
Ronan Farrow’s new show may evolve, but when I flipped it on Monday and saw him chatting it up with MSNBC’s favorite Republican, former RNC chair Michael Steele, and MSNBC host Alex Wagner, it could have been any one of the network’s shows—this one just had a young semi-celeb at the glossy desk. MSNBC should at least give him some fresh material—and running a daily segment called “Heroes and Zeros” doesn’t cut it.
I admit, most of my frustration with MSNBC is my own fault: I watch it too damn much! It pulls me in. I still marvel that a TV network can be so unabashedly left-liberal and survive in the corporate media—much as I marveled during the several years of Air America radio (where Maddow began). MSNBC is light years ahead of its rivals in its racial diversity; most of its hosts are super-smart (unfortunately, producers keep trying to leaven the wonk with whimsy, like the ironic music accompanying Chris Hayes’s pre-taped pieces or Maddow’s too-cute re-enactments); and the network delves regularly into under-covered subjects, like the environment (which, by the way, Hayes and Maddow excel at).
Of course, you don’t hear a peep from MSNBC about its corporate parent Comcast and its controversial proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable. And it doesn’t often venture off the Democratic Party ranch. But until Keith Olbermann—who not surprisingly endorses Baldwin’s rant—fitted MSNBC with a left foot, Fox seemed to have snuffed out any hope that “the liberal media” might actually live up to its name.
Saying things on national TV once relegated to The Village Voice or The Nation understandably lends MSNBCers a confidence, almost a sense of triumphalism, which sometimes trips them up into merely nyah-nyah-nyahing the right. Fox does this with far more gusto at the left, but it doesn’t serve MSNBC well. A friend of mine says she can’t watch MSNBC anymore, because “they’re smug. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them, they treat like they’re stupid.”
The flip side of smug is a sense of insecurity. Hosts are coming (the estimable Joy Reid, as well as Farrow, debuted a show this week) and going (Baldwin, Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Dylan Ratigan). Clearly they’re under constant pressure to rack up ratings, something the Chris Christie scandals have indeed helped them do.
Which brings us to Bill Maher’s critique. Unlike Baldwin, Maher “loves” MSNBC. But in a Valentine’s Day post he decided to break up with the network because it’s preoccupied with another man, the New Jersey governor.
Maddow defended the heavy coverage on Maher’s HBO show the next week. “I am totally obsessed with the Christie story, unapologetically,” she said, “and will continue to be obsessed with it while amazing things in that story continue to happen.” Maher conceded that Benghazi isn’t a real scandal while Bridgegate most definitely is—though, he added, “It’s just that it’s not Watergate.” And he softened that too-easy trope that MSNBC is the Fox News of the left, saying, “I hate false equivalency. MSNBC, one of the great things about it is that they are scrupulous fact-checkers whereas Fox News are scrupulous fact-maker-uppers.”
If the non-Fox media have been hard on Chris Christie lately, it’s in direct proportion to how hard they fell for him before. For years, the media—and this includes MSNBC stars like Scarborough, Matthews and, on occasion, Al Sharpton—loved the blunt-talking, fuggedaboutit Jersey guy who had the guts to “work across the aisle.” When Bridgegate revealed that in fact he had been intimidating and threatening Democratic office-holders all along, it unleashed a torrent of pent-up, actual reporting.
So, yes, as Bill Maher says, MSNBC has been obsessed with Christie, but no, they’re not covering him too much. And yes, as Alec Baldwin says, in stronger words, the shows have fallen into a sameness.
It’s a problem, however, that can be remedied, sometimes as simply as having a host light out for the territory. Ed Schultz, for instance, is running a weeklong series on the Keystone XL Pipeline, reporting from Nebraska and listening to the citizens TransCanada is trampling over. Ed, who began as a (surprising) supporter of the pipeline, now appears to be leaning against it. It’s a change of heart and venue that’s making his show, and at least one hour of MSNBC, suddenly suspenseful and dynamic.
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Governor Chris Christie says he’s been humbled, that he’s been doing some “soul-searching” after his staff got caught arranging traffic jams to punish political enemies.
But bullies bully out of weakness, and Christie is now weaker than he’s ever been. He can’t possibly give up his only real political asset—a talent for intimidation that makes victims want to be on his side to win his protection—when he needs it most.
In only the latest example, his legal team is spitting paper at the Jersey pols who’ve crossed him. Christie’s choice as lead attorney for his office’s “internal review,” Randy Mastro, sent a letter, obtained by the Bergen Record, to Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer requesting a “private interview” and documents, including her correspondence with the press.
“In a show of force,” the Record reports, Mastro also wrote to “Hoboken officials that he had assembled a team of ‘five former federal prosecutors’ to look into Zimmer’s claims.”
Zimmer, of course, claims that Christie officials had threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid if she didn’t support a particular real estate development, charges those officials deny.
At the same time Christie lawyers were beckoning Zimmer to their den, the governor’s office sent a memo to supporters with press clips about Zimmer that, it says, found “serious questions of authenticity, contradictions, and hypocrisy.”
Zimmer’s allegations are now the subject of a US Attorney investigation, and her attorney replied to Mastro by saying, “We question whether it is appropriate for the Governor’s Office, in essence, to be investigating itself, particularly when an investigation of the same subject matter is being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
“Five former federal prosecutors,” charges of hypocrisy, a “private interview”—this stuff reeks of bullying. But Mastro, the Record writes, “seems to try to dispel any notion that the letter is meant to intimidate a witness—he notified federal authorities in advance that he would be contacting potential witnesses, he wrote.”
Still, as James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, told The Star Ledger, Mastro’s letters show him acting more like a defense attorney than as a fact-finder conducting an “internal review” to learn who dunnit. “The letters strike me as a fairly heavy-handed attempt to intimidate—and cleverly done,” Cohen said.
No matter how much humble pie Christie insists he’s eating, he just can’t quit the bullying. Remember how, during his marathon press conference, a reporter told him that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said it’d be “premature” for the governor to visit his town and apologize for the dangerous, five-day traffic jam his people created at the George Washington Bridge? Christie ignored Sokolich’s wishes, parked his entourage at Sokolich’s office, staged some photo ops with citizens not throwing tomatoes and left the Fort Lee mayor saying he was relieved that Christie promised there’d be no more retribution. Now Christie’s lawyers have invited Sokolich and his staff to hand over documents, too.
The attempt to put the squeeze on New Jersey mayors does double duty by also intimidating other potential witnesses and officials receiving subpoenas (the New Jersey legislators investigating the bridge scandal issued eighteen new subpoenas yesterday).
It’s all part of the web of fear that Christie has established throughout New Jersey. It’s aimed as much, if not more, at Democrats than at Republicans, and until the GWB scandal broke, that fear was passed off as the Christie miracle of “bipartisanship.”
Even though the former front-runner in the GOP presidential race now looks like he’ll never make it to the primaries, even though Christie boosters like Joe Scarborough say he should resign as the head of the Republican Governors Association, anyone who the governor’s office can conceivably touch still lives in fear of his wrath.
The bully can still steal their lunch.
UPDATE: This afternoon Christie spokesperson Colin Reed sent an e-mail pushing back against New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, saying she made “no fewer than five misleading statements” on Morning Joe today. Most irksome perhaps was what she said about Mastro’s letters: “They’re trying to sort of threaten people, not explicitly, but saying, you know, we’re going to go back after you if you come after us.”
Read Next: Jarret Murphy on de Blasio’s State of the City Speech
Chris Christie was not only booed at a couple of Super Bowl events this week but he’s now catching flak for blowing the big bucks the game was supposed to rain down on New Jersey in the first place.
Four years ago Christie celebrated the deal with the NFL that would bring the game to his state for the first time, saying, “It’s great for New Jersey’s morale and the sense of who we are.” But as The Star-Ledger wrote in an editorial yesterday, Christie allowed Jersey communities to be treated like a “bunch of nobodies who just happen to have a football field close to Manhattan.”
“The NFL promised some $550 million would be coming to the region. Most of it will be going right back out” with the league, the Ledger says. “New Jerseyans probably ought to blame our embattled governor for the second-rate treatment we’re receiving today.”
“New Jersey did not fare well,” the paper quotes the chair of the New Jersey Hotel and Lodging Association as saying. “We didn’t get the windfall we all thought.”
That’s in part because the NFL deal included Sochi-like measures to “wall off the MetLife Stadium from the surrounding community,” meaning that “local bars and hotels would not be permitted to run the shuttle buses they normally use to transport fans to the games.” (Fans who booked hotels within walking distance of the stadium had to take $35 cabs to Secaucus, where they then waited hours in an overheated, overcrowded “mass transit debacle.”)
And while New York City retained official Super Bowl naming rights (like calling Broadway near Times Square “Super Bowl Boulevard”), towns like East Rutherford, home of the stadium, and Montclair weren’t allowed to call their Super Bowl parties “Super Bowl” parties “because of threats from the NFL’s lawyers,” the Ledger says.
Less than two months ago, the Super Bowl was on track to be another opportunity, like his re-election itself, for Christie to “run up the score” on his way toward the GOP presidential nomination. But fixated on national glory, Christie forgot the locals—like all those people still waiting for the Hurricane Sandy relief funds he promised amid great media hoopla. Apparently, millions of those dollars have become part of a political slush fund. (See Steve Kornacki’s comprehensive report here.)
One measure of how much has changed for Christie is that the local Jersey color he used to revel in now seems entirely out of reach. In October, before Bridgegate and before he went all faux humble, Christie recalled telling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that if the lights went out for his Super Bowl the way they did at New Orleans’s a year earlier, “there will be bodies strewn in the parking lot for the people who are responsible for the lights going out, because that’s the way we handle matters in New Jersey.”
Christie knows better than to say that today. The people who shut down the lanes on the GW Bridge aren’t lying in a parking lot somewhere—David Wildstein at least is asking for immunity, and promising Christie’s political corpse in return.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on images of the military during the Super Bowl.
The twenty-year Republican reign over one of nation’s most liberal cities has officially come to an end: Bill de Blasio, a true progressive, will be the next mayor of New York City.
De Blasio, who ran on both the Democratic and the Working Families Party lines, is expected to beat former Giuliani deputy mayor Joe Lhota in a historic landslide. With 69 percent of the vote in, de Blasio is up by forty-eight points, and exit polls have him winning across the city and with voters “regardless of race, gender, age, education, religion or income.”
Whatever the final numbers are, de Blasio will clearly have the mandate needed to start the long, hard work of shifting power and resources from the 1 percent the last mayor favored to the middle-class and poor.
De Blasio and his team will be up against not only entrenched Wall Street interests but also Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has already signaled he’s opposed to one of de Blasio’s signature goals, funding pre-K and after-school programs for all New York kids by increasing taxes on those making $500,000 and up.
“Obviously the higher the percentage” of the vote, de Blasio said yesterday, “the more the work ahead is facilitated and strengthened.”
It’s too early, of course, to predict how the city will change under a de Blasio administration, but one thing at least has already changed. As a Nation editorial said, “de Blasio won big in the primary, and then ignored the conventional wisdom that after a primary, Democrats must pivot to the right. He describes himself as an ‘unapologetic progressive.’ ”
De Blasio—and, more important, the voters—also ignored the right’s fear-mongering “soft on crime” and “class warfare” attacks, attacks that had worked only too well for decades. But this year, they became more ludicrous with every repetition—hitting a nadir of self-parody yesterday with a New York Post cover that posed de Blasio’s face next to a hammer and sickle on a commie-red background. The confidence with which voters seemed to flick off these stale tropes indicates we’ve moved into a new era—at least in NYC.
There’s reason to hope that de Blasio’s win will help boost progressives elsewhere, but all politics is local. Indeed, right across the Hudson River in New Jersey, millionaire-protecting, teacher-and union-bashing Governor Chris Christie has won big (but not nearly de Blasio big) against another real progressive, Barbara Buono. It’s different there. Christie manipulated his electorate by calving off Cory Booker’s Senate race a couple weeks ago; some Democratic machine politicians actually endorsed Christie; and, especially after he hugged Barack Obama like a life preserver in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, voters came under the sway of his bluff personality and media that happily mistake him for a moderate.
We might not know for days what percentage of voters who pulled the lever for de Blasio did so under the Working Families Party line. But he and the two other candidates running for citywide office won as Working Families Democrats, and serve as evidence that this progressive victory is not merely the result of “Bloomberg fatigue” or a craze for the latest celebrified pol but rather a conscious vision of a politics that actively, and unashamedly, fights for economic and social justice.
UPDATE: The final numbers: de Blasio's margin of victory—a historic 49 points—is better than the polls predicted, and it's more than double Christie's winning edge of 21.5 points, which is a drop from the 30-plus points that many polls had him at.
The Nation editors endorsed de Blasio for mayor back in August.
We all know that Bill de Blasio will win the New York City mayoral race by a landslide tomorrow—but the right is desperately hoping that maybe, just maybe, some last-minute explosive revelation about de Blasio will help his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, “eke out” a victory, as Lhota told Chuck Todd this morning he would indeed do.
Crazy, huh? But in just the last few days, de Blasio has been hit with negative stories, from the minor to the self-inflicted to the ridiculous, that could ever so slightly knock a few points off his margin of victory, which polls have steadily put at around forty points. Let’s start with the ridiculous:
He’s still a commie! Really!
Having failed earlier in the season to red-bait de Blasio for supporting the Sandinistas in the late ’80s, the New York Post—remarkably, at this late date—is at it again, and with a laughably desperate Hail Mary. On today’s cover, they’ve smeared de Blasio in red ink, literally, showing de Blasio’s face next to a hammer and sickle. The headline: “Back in the USSR!: ‘Progressive’ Bill’s secret Cold War trip.”
It’s hard to say which makes the Post look more frozen in amber: the quotation marks around the word progressive (that’s just code for pinko, see?) or the word secret, a notion that’s belied by the unrevelatory story inside, “De Blasio visited Communist USSR in college.”
De Blasio didn’t try to hide the trip he took as a NYU student in 1983; as the Post itself writes: “De Blasio listed the trip on a résumé from the 1990s. Under ‘travel,’ he said he visited ‘West Africa, Europe, Israel, Puerto Rico, USSR.’ ” These are the sort of places that college students, if they’re lucky, get to write home about. As a spokeswoman for the de Blasio campaign, said, “When he was a presidential scholar at NYU, Bill attended an annual trip that took him to Lithuania and Russia. In other years, he traveled—along with other presidential scholars—to Spain, Israel and Senegal.”
But the Post, forever trying to frame its foes, wants to make the trip sound subversive, if only because it went against the prevailing group-think of the time: “It was the same year,” the Murdoch paper reminds us, “that President Ronald Reagan referred to the country’s regime as ‘The Evil Empire.’ ”
The Belafonte Bump
Introducing de Blasio at a Harlem church on Sunday, Harry Belafonte likened the Koch brothers—actually, their supporters—to the KKK. From the Politicker:
“Already, we have lost 14 states in this union to the most corrupt group of citizens I’ve ever known,” he said near the end of his speech. “They make up the heart and the thinking in the mind of those who would belong to the Ku Klux clan. They are white supremacists. They are men of evil. They have names. They are flooding our country with money. They’ve come into New York City.… The Koch brothers, that’s their name,” he said, adding, “They must be stopped.”
As Mr. de Blasio took to the stage, he greeted Mr. Belafonte with a big hug, before heaping praise on the singer and civil rights activist, who remained seated by his side.
Asked about Belafonte's comments afterwards, de Blasio said, “I have great respect for Harry Belanfonte, but I think that was the wrong way to talk about them and I don’t think that’s fair.” He rightly reminded reporters what’s wrong with the Tea Party–supporting Koch empire: “I do think the Koch brothers have hurt the American Democratic process greatly. I think they have been amongst the most aggressive at trying to undermine campaign finance laws that keep money out of the political system.”
It’s too late for even the New York Post to turn Belafonte into de Blasio’s Rev. Wright. But Lhota’s campaign gave it a shot, releasing its own over-the-top statement, saying: “It’s reprehensible that a candidate for mayor of the city of New York would closely associate himself with an individual who has equated the American government to al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers and has a long history of hateful, racist remarks.”
David Koch gave big money to a pro-Lhota PAC before the general election kicked in, and just a few days ago, donated $200,000 to a second pro-Lhota PAC after it won a Citizens United–like court decision to lift New York State contribution limits.
Stop-and-Frisk Lives to See Another Day
At least for a while. Conservatives are hoping that another court decision will hurt de Blasio. On Thursday, a federal appeals court temporarily halted reforms of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy that de Blasio has fought hard against and that a judge had earlier determined was unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.
Former Mayor Giuliani campaigned in Staten Island with Lhota, who served as one of his deputy mayors, hailed the latest decision. “The court of appeals has just basically said to [de Blasio]: that is a bunch of malarkey,” he said. “I hope it had a dramatic effect on the race.” He later added, “I think [Lhota’s] gonna to win the election,” he said.
But de Blasio has said that, if elected mayor, he’d drop the city’s lawsuit, effectively stopping the worst of stop-and-frisk.
Sleep for Me but Not for Thee?
This was one of those self-inflicted wounds. De Blasio is known for being late. No huge deal, lots of pols are late (remember Bill Clinton and his “Elvis time”?). But on Saturday, de Blasio screwed up beyond the usual:
From The New York Times:
Even with a relatively light schedule for the final Saturday before the election, Mr. de Blasio was an hour late for his first rally, on the Upper West Side. “I am not a morning person,” he told reporters later, explaining that he had been awakened by a phone call at 5 a.m. and then had to rest for a few more hours. (A spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio’s Republican opponent, Joseph J. Lhota, posted on Twitter that he wakes up at 5:15 a.m. every day—even on weekends.)
At a “Women for de Blasio” rally later that day
Mr. de Blasio encouraged his supporters to go without sleep in the final days of the campaign. “A combination of espresso and Red Bull will take you all the way through,” he said, “and people will admire you for it.”
None of these developments will derail de Blasio, as the right would wish. At most, they might cut into his margin a tiny bit, becoming footnotes to a historical victory.
Katrina vanden Heuvel throws her support behind Bill de Blasio on the Working Families Party line.