Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Erica Jong: Huffington's Fear of Paying

Here’s Erica Jong on Arianna Huffington’s not paying her legions of blogger/writers: “Artists who turncoat and exploit other artists—I have no words.” The interview’s on a new media site, The Slant, “a forum for the subjects of high-profile stories to respond to media coverage on them that they think is biased, one-dimensional or incomplete in some way.” (Lower down, Noah Michelson, who edits HuffPo’s Gay Voices, defends Arianna.)

Jon Stewart Takes on Rick Scott's Voter Suppression in Florida

One problem in conveying the dangers of the GOP’s war on voters is its manifold nature. When the public hears about voter suppression (if they do at all; the long, slow slog of stealing elections isn’t quite as MSM-ready as the latest poll or gaffe), sometimes they hear about voter purges or new voter ID laws; other times, it’s new restrictions on early voting or Sunday voting. Or maybe they hear about attempts to limit voter registration drives with killer deadlines, like having to turn in forms within forty-eight hours of being signed. The GOPtopus’s arms are many and confusing.

But here are Jon Stewart and John Oliver pulling it all together, at least in Florida, where voter suppression—and increasingly, the fight against it—has become an art form. If The Daily Show keeps it up, it might even do for voter suppression what Stephen Colbert has done for Super-PACS—make the absurdity and the threat to democracy palpable.


Is Chris Matthews a Better Communicator Than Barack Obama?

Friday was yet another day when I wished Obama could be locked up in a room alone with Chris Matthews. In my imagination—and I bet in Chris’s, too—the host of Hardball would yell in Obama’s ears until he really was “fired up,” as he still likes to say he is, and ready to fight for something real.

Before Obama’s press conference and the Republicans’ willful misinterpretation of his clumsy remark that “the private sector is doing fine”—he meant, of course, compared to the devastated public sector—Matthews was on MSNBC’s Jansing & Co. passionately urging Obama to turn his and the country’s prospects around with a big-spending infrastructure program.

Matthews was on fire—admittedly not hard for a man whose normal temperature is just short of kindling. Too often dismissed as an overexcitable, unintentionally comical pundit, Matthews has been arguing for months now that Obama needs to go “big and bold.” He thinks the president should brag about his accomplishments, talk more like Bill Clinton, and send out more and better surrogates,  because he seems eerily alone out there. Coaching Obama on how to market both his presidency and Keynesian economics itself, Matthews practically barked at him to go all Harry Truman–meets–Paul Krugman and rail against the Do Nothing Congress.

"He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to be big time,” Matthews said. “Stop this nickel and dime, ‘a couple bucks for the teachers, a couple bucks for the firefighters. I’m going to reduce the payroll tax.’ This is piss-ant. You can’t get re-elected with tactics. He needs a strategy. Which is, ‘we’re different from the Republicans.’ ”

“Go as big as possible and let [the Republicans] say no,” Chris advised. “If they’re going to say no to Spam, they’re going to say no to steak,” so offer steak and you “offer something big the American people can wrap their minds around. Then when Republicans say no, they will have something” to visualize, to understand, and to fight for.

When former George W. Bush deputy press secretary Tony Fratto, another guest on the show, started to argue the GOP talking point about tax cuts creating jobs, Matthews cut in, “Here’s that idiot Republican argument,” and later, “I feel like I’m teaching first grade here.”

Government has to take action because investors won’t and consumers can’t, he said. The Republican House won’t even pass the popular transportation bill, trying to block any job creation before the elections in order to sink Obama. When Fratto said, “This Republican obstruction story is fantasy,” Matthews drove a bulldozer over him: “You’re the roadblock party, the other party is the highway party.” (A possible slogan?)

Then, Obama took the podium for his presser. After explaining that the European economic crisis makes strengthening our economy that much more crucial, he did get around to some of the things Matthews advised—but without oomph. Obama said Congress should pass the America Jobs Act that he sent them in September; that’s the plan Matthews calls Spam compared to the steak we really need. But as Obama rather diffidently asked that Congress “reconsider” the bill, you could almost see why Republicans are getting away with the outrageous Big Lie that he never put forth a jobs plan at all.

And when asked if he agreed with Bill Clinton’s comment that  Republicans are now following Europe’s disastrous policy of austerity (“Who would have thought,” said Clinton, “after years and years, even decades, in which the Republican right attacked ‘old Europe,’ that they would embrace the economic policies of the euro zone—austerity and unemployment now at all costs?”), Obama agreed, but only indirectly so. He even echoed Krugman’s championship of John Maynard Keynes’s point that “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity”—it’s just that Obama’s wonky wordiness sounded like a seminar, not a call to action:

So the problem I think President Clinton identified is that if, when an economy is still weak and a recovery is still fragile, that you resort to a strategy of “let’s cut more”—so that you’re seeing government layoffs, reductions in government spending, severe cutbacks in major investments that help the economy grow over the long term—if you’re doing all those things at the same time as consumers are pulling back because they’re still trying to pay off credit card debt, and there’s generally weak demand in the economy as a whole, then you can get on a downward spiral where everybody is pulling back at the same time. That weakens demand and that further crimps the desire of companies to hire more people. And that’s the pattern that Europe is in danger of getting into.

Now, that’s all correct—but it gums the issue to death.

So Obama didn’t do Truman, he didn’t do Clinton, he didn’t even do Pelosi by demanding that Congress stay in session to pass a transportation and jobs bills. Nor did he to mention the Republicans directly when criticizing “Congress.” (Neither does this ad by his campaign, but it’s at least punchy.)

That is, even after Wisconsin and Romney out-fundraising him in the month of May, Obama is still reluctant to go big.

If, however, he fought and argued and bulldozed the opposition like legions of voters have advised, maybe the inevitable gaffes to come will seem all the more, to quote Matthews, piss-ant.

Is Donald Trump Actually Trying to Hurt Mitt Romney?


We know at least three reasons Mitt Romney won’t back down from appearing on a stage tonight with birther buffoon Donald Trump: the $2 million Romney is expected to raise at the fundraiser Trump is throwing for him in Vegas; Romney’s cowardice in ever facing down the Republican right (as the Obama video above only begins to hint at); and the probably accurate wager that any independents turned off by rants about Obama’s birthplace will forget who Romney liked to pal around with by November.

And we know why Trump wants to be on stage with Romney: to flaunt his powers and (in his mind) to avenge the humiliation he suffered last year when President Obama not only presented his long-form birth certificate but, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, made people laugh at Trump right in his face.

But maybe Trump, in his meanspirited, spiteful way, is also trying to hurt Romney. Not hurt his election chances so much as to stick it to him personally—to say to Mitt, “I own you.”

Consider: on the very day that Romney and Trump are to stand side by side, Trump upped the birther ugliness—as he did in this CNBC interview this morning, with Wolf Blitzer on CNN later in the day, and in this tweet in response to the Obama campaign video:

@BarackObama is practically begging @MittRomney to disavow the place of birth movement, he is afraid of it and for good reason. He keeps using @SenJohnMcCain as an example, however, @SenJohnMcCain lost the election. Don’t let it happen again.

Trump “is publicly challenging Mitt Romney to stay by his side even as the mogul makes birtherism his number one cause,” as TPM puts it. (In fact, it’s easy to misread the tweet to mean that Trump was saying that Romney is afraid of the birther movement and for good reason.) Trump can smell Romney’s fear not only of the birthers but of getting on the bad side of Trump. The reality-show star knows that Romney won’t speak out against him—and that only makes him want to see the possible future president of the United States pay obeisance to his nonsense. What a power rush!

Really though, I think that Trump might want to hurt—or at least leave his odor on—anyone who would take the mantle that was so briefly his: Republican frontrunner in the polls.

Wanting beyond all reason to be the center of media attention is, after all, the essence of Trump’s real résumé, and getting that media to fawn over his brilliance at getting media attention has always helped plump his bottom line. Nobody wants a dim-witted developer; they want a sharpie who can make the big projects happen.

That’s why Trump will forever hate on George Will for calling him a “bloviating ignoramus” on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “Donald Trump,” Will huffed, “is redundant evidence that if your net worth is high enough, your IQ can be very low, and you can still intrude into American politics.” If there’s one pathetic thing we know about Trump, it’s how much he needs to convince himself and the world that he’s “smart.” He said it again today on CNBC: “I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time.”

Will Trump go so far as to say something birthery on stage today, with or without Romney by his side? Even if it’s in some twisted form like, say, “I know some people don’t think Mitt Romney should appear on a stage with me because of my deeply held beliefs about where the president was born. But I’m here to tell you that’s why Romney’s your man—he stands by his friends, so let’s stand by him”?

And will Romney smile and produce one of those “inert” and “mirthless” laughs?

Mitt Romney: Heterosexual White Vampire Hunter

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

GOP pitchman Fred (“Demon Sheep”) Davis wanted Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts to give him $10 million for an ad campaign attacking President Obama for promoting himself as a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” It’s a great phrase, like “Etch-A-Sketch candidate,” but that trio of sneers sounds a lot more like the mood of those restive GOP debate audiences last winter.

The black part is pretty straightforward—the ad campaign would link Obama to his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has been code for “scary black man” on Fox News for four years running. “Metrosexual” is “a roundabout homophobia taunt,” as Charles Blow says, as well as demeaning code for Obama’s most annoying (to the GOP) trait—his cool, unflappable acceptance of contemporary life, including gay marriage, which is splitting their coalition (even the Ricketts family itself, since Joe’s daughter, Laura, is an LGBT activist and Obama bundler). And “Abe Lincoln” is, of course, ironic: Davis didn’t mean Obama is equivalent to the first Republican to be elected president, he meant that Obama sees himself as a charismatic leader on a moral crusade to win America’s current management/labor dispute. Billionaires like Joe think Obama taking the mantle of Lincoln is meant to make them look like Simon Legree.

“But, they still ‘like’ him,” Davis wrote in the fifty-four-page storyboarded ad proposal that appeared on the front page of the New York Times last week.

Bitter is the taste of another man’s bread, and the gall of Obama’s success with the American people taints every morsel of Davis’s text. This particular ad campaign will never air, of course, because both Ricketts, whose fortune comes from founding TD Ameritrade, and Mitt Romney repudiated it as soon as the Times exposed it. Brian Baker, head of Rickett’s Ending Spending super PAC, issued a statement saying that the campaign was “merely a proposal—one of several” and that “attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally” reflect “an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”

That may be, but it wasn’t as if Ricketts, or Baker, had previously rejected the plan out of hand. The day before its story broke, the Times asked Baker “whether Mr. Ricketts had rejected the advertising proposal, [and] he said only that no decision had been made.” You’d expect them to deny it now; the point is the proposal exposed the GOP’s nervousness about Obama’s personal likability. After three years of the GOP’s non-stop obstruction and economic hostage-taking, coupled now with an austerity program that’s being rejected around the world, the Republicans simply can’t believe people don’t blame the president for all that.

“Yet, we still ‘like’ him,” Davis wrote.

When you are running with a popsicle stick like Mitt Romney, that’s a problem. Most of the outrage over the Davis proposal stems from its willingness to dredge up Reverend Wright once more; his fiery sermons about “not God bless America, God damn America!”led to Obama’s eloquent speech about race in 2008, which pretty much ended the issue. Wright (and race) are still important reasons for the GOP base to hate Obama. But most of the Republican establishment thinks using race will turn off independent votes—just as the McCain campaign feared it would when they rejected an Obama-Wright ad Davis tried to sell them back in 2008.

Mark Salter, a close McCain adviser, figures that’s why the ad campaign ended up in the Times in the first place. “I suspect this was leaked by someone who wants to stop it from happening,” he told ABC News. The conventional wisdom now is to read this whole kerfuffle as a Karl Rovian warning shot that Citizens United freelancers need to fall in line and bear Mittness to a unified message.

Fred Davis has played for both the mainstream and Tea Party sides of the Republican roller derby since the McCain/Palin defeat. Davis’s greatest talent is for creepy, GIF-like visuals that invoke apocalyptic or occult imagery, like the red-eyed demon sheep he created for Carly Fiorina, the pulsing millennial strobe of the Obama “Celebrity” ad for John McCain, or Christine O’Donnell, candidate for US Senate, looking straight into the camera and saying, “I am not a witch.” Davis is still smarting that he wasn’t allowed to take down Obama the Wright way the first time, and he had reason to think Ricketts is, too. The proposal starts out by quoting Ricketts saying, “If the nation had seen that [2008 Davis] ad, they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”

Well, they saw something like it, in an ad by the National Republican Trust, which, as Dave Weigel says, went over “like a lead balloon.”


But there’s every reason, judging from the proposal, to think that Davis saw playing with racial anxieties as a door-buster, a budget multiplier:

Prepare for a great deal of howling and gnashing of teeth from all of the usual suspects and some of their weak-kneed Republican co-conspirators. Obama for sure will play the race card, as will the liberal press.

That gives us enormous free airtime and we will prevail provided our response is locked, loaded and ready.

It's a phenomenally powerful argument that's never been properly exploited.

Davis wanted to leach the sting of the racism charge by hiring “an extremely literate, conservative African-American” spokesman, and recommended California talk show host Larry Elder. According to the proposal, Davis’s people approached Elder “in confidence and he immediately understood and ‘got it.’”

Hundreds of thousands of Republicans were really taken with Herman Cain, too. All of this seems obviously racist to many of us, but to conservatives, it’s not. Think of it as identity politics in reverse—the more you claim to see no racial conflict in America, the more you establish your Republican identity. And yet many believe that Obama won because he’s black. Davis is groping towards a way of saying, “Of course you like the exotic, handsome black guy, but face it, you can’t afford him.” The long lines of devoted fans following Obama “like sheep,” stubbornly liking him after all the economic pain his administration has overseen, similarly defy the way the Republican establishment thinks of politics itself, chiefly as a way to apportion wealth.

And wealth, in many ways, is Mitt Romney’s race; for one thing, it’s both a positive and a negative. It’s Joe Ricketts’ race, too, and billionaire Frank Vandersloot’s,who gave a million dollars to a Romney Super PAC, took the title of Romney finance co-chair, and then complained that his private business had suffered prejudice because of his politics.

There’s nothing the GOP can do, really, about Obama’s log-cabin-to-the-White House story, which reminds us of another metrosexual from long ago (or wait—wasn’t he a vampire hunter? It doesn’t really matter). The essential thing is that selling a financial capitalist who favors austerity and the Ryan plan during the Great Recession won’t be easy, and to do it, this year, for the first time, a sitting president will have to be outspent in advertising. In all that paid time there has to be room for a few spots that really make you dislike the guy.

Not because he’s black, of course…

Mitt Would Force Us All to Take a Haircut

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The more we learn about Mitt Romney, the more it makes sense that his defining physical characteristic is his hair.

Since 2004, pundits have insisted that Mitt’s helmet, tinted silver at the sides just so, is “perfect” and “presidential.” His hair is one of his few natural political gifts—it is not dyed (as far as we know), any more than it ever gets mussed or hangs in his eyes. And now we know from period photos that his current do is the lineal descendant of his hair in prep school, where, in his senior year, Mitt attacked a fellow student for his defining physical characteristic: his hair.

As Jason Horowitz tells it in the Washington Post, in 1965, when Romney returned to Cranbrook School after spring break,

he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

Lauber’s hair wasn’t just long and free, like a woman’s, and bleached as only a woman’s would be in 1965; it also covered one eye. A person was hiding under there, peeking out at the others, keeping a secret—maybe he was winking—and this made the hair on the back of young Mitt’s neck stand to attention. “He can’t look like that! That’s wrong. Just look at him!”

Maybe none of the boys who attacked Lauber felt even a momentary attraction stirring in that repulsion, the kind of repressed homoerotic feelings that Colbert weaves into his standard parody of right-wing homophobia. Romney now claims that he, apparently unlike almost everyone else at Cranbrook, hadn’t a clue that Lauber was gay (which he was).He also says he doesn’t remember anything about the incident—which he nevertheless doesn’t deny and ever so weakly apologizes for.

An unnamed former classmate, who describes Romney’s behavior in the dorms as “like Lord of the Flies,” doesn’t believe Romney can’t remember the episode the other boys involved can’t forget. The classmate told ABC News: “It makes these fellows very remorseful. For [Romney] not to remember it? It doesn’t ring true. How could the fellow with the scissors forget it?”

But let’s take Romney’s word for it. If he really doesn’t remember, maybe it’s because he’s repressed the memory of Lauber’s sexual orientation along with any memory of why his hair was so threatening in the first place.

Well, not to get too Freudian here. Rush Limbaugh, for one, says that even if Romney did cut Lauber’s hair, it had nothing to do with the gay: it was just good ‘ol American hit-a-hippie fun.

1965—probably a stretch to say it had anything to do with the kid being presumed gay. You had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get razzed. It didn’t matter. They weren’t gonna think you were in the Beatles. If you had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get made fun of. See, 1965’s a great year; bullying was legal.

Kris Kristofferson’s 1970 song, “Law is for Protection of the People,” attests to how common unprovoked ganging-up on nonconformists once was:

Homer Lee Honeycutt was nothing but a hippie
Walkin’ through this world without a care
Then one day six strapping brave policemen
Held down Homer Lee and cut his hair

’Cause the law is for protection of the people
Rules are rules and any fool can see
We don’t need no hairy-headed hippies
Scaring decent folks like you and me
No siree

To this day, forced hair-cutting is used to punish those who flout authority. Last fall, Sam Mullet Sr. and fourteen members of his family were charged with conspiracy and hate crimes after allegedly cutting the beards and hair of fellow Amish men and women in Bergholz, Ohio. Mullet, the leader of the community, was apparently upset that they weren’t conforming to his religious commands.

Today, Romney won’t be pinned down about the Cranbrook incident. The really disturbing thing is that even as he insists he doesn’t recall the attack, he chuckles. Here he is on Brian Kilmeade’s radio show, jovially not remembering anything.

The laughing denial is a Romney tell—and not just when he’s talking about gay-bashing. He chuckles while chatting about anything uncomfortable, whether about the dog on his car roof or his dad closing down a car factory in Michigan, as Rachel Maddow showed last week.

But the guilty giggle over hazing homosexuals seems particularly strained, and not just because gays vote: hate crimes carry real penalties today, as the Amish are finding out. The state of New Jersey just convicted a college student for secretly taping his roommate (who later committed suicide) with a gay friend—and that perpetrator never laid a finger on his victim, much less swarmed him with a posse of preppies to throw him to the ground and cut his hair.

And that’s one reason Romney will surely ignore two smart proposals on how he can redeem himself. Joe Klein recommends that Romney say something like, “If elected President, I will try to atone for my teenage behavior by campaigning against bullying all across this country. What I did back then should be an example of how not to behave. I hope we can all learn from this. I know I have.”

Lee Hirsch, the director of the documentary Bully, suggests a similar salvage job. “What I see is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to lead and really be an advocate for decreasing bullying,” Hirsch told TPM. “It’s sad to hear what occurred many years ago characterized as ‘pranks’ and ‘horsing around.’…This was a presidential moment, and this should be a teachable moment for him.”

Such suggestions would require Romney to acknowledge that he was a bully, however, and that’s just not the way Mitt rolls.

Anyway, according to Limbaugh, the real victim in all this is Mitt Romney. “It is so pathetically transparent what this is,” he said on Thursday. “Media ganging up on Romney—a pro-Obama media ganging up on Romney.”

That is one of the stories right-wingers, like Karl Rove and Erik Erikson, tell themselves now, that somehow the Lauber story isn’t true, that it’s a liberal-media fabrication, and anyway, what happened in high school should stay in high school.

All this personal stuff is irrelevant, they say. The real issue is the economy, and the Obama team is using a cultural wedge issue to unfairly divide the GOP (where’d they get that idea?).

But maybe the public will see that this character question, about whether it’s okay for rich insiders to gang up on the weak and vulnerable, isn’t so distant from economics after all. The fear is that if this bully with no capacity for self-examination is elected president-–and if he is, opposing gay marriage and civil unions may be a big reason why—he and his Ryan-budget buddies will hold us all down and make us take a permanent haircut in medical benefits and programs like Social Security.

And we didn’t even wink at him once.

Is America an Abused Spouse?

If America were filling out a women’s magazine questionnaire about its relationship with the GOP, it’d be hard to deny that it’s fallen into a nightmare marriage with an abusive spouse. And we don’t even have to go into the House Republican bill that would weaken the Violence Against Women Act, to the point that it would actually leave some women open to more abuse.

Here are three of the serious warning signs that every spouse should heed. Ask yourself:

Does he impute bad motives to everything you do? 

On WNYC’s and PRI’s The Takeaway yesterday, Republican strategist and former Dick Cheney aide Ron Christie was asked (at 6:20) about a tweet he’d sent out about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. It read: “I wonder if #freechen was pro-choice rather than pro-life whether the Obama Admin would have been more forceful in protecting him.”

While it’s true that Chen has been supported by a church in Texas, lumping his case in with anti-abortion protests in the United States is really a stretch (Chen was protesting forced abortions, not endorsing personhood laws or forced ultrasounds for women seeking abortions).

Farai Chideya, also on the show, asked Christie, “Do you think that a…pro-choice dissident would get more favorable treatment? That I just don’t follow.”

Christie immediately backed down—and then denied he said what he said. “No, I will concede that. I think that’s right. But,” he added, “I put it out there [sic] how our administration’s dealing with it.”

To which the only possible reply is, Huh?

Does he send you messages that mention mass murderers?

If you believe in climate change, then you’re like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based right-wing think tank, says its other billboards feature Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.

“The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society,” Heartland’s website explains. “This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

“Of course,” it adds helpfully, “not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants.”

Does he routinely dismiss your achievements?

This week, Veterans for a Strong America, one of those anonymous, Citizens United–birthed black ops groups, tried to Swift Boat Obama on his greatest foreign policy victory, the killing of Osama bin Laden. They can’t exactly claim that Obama lied about it, as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth insisted that Senator John Kerry lied about his Vietnam record during his 2004 race against George Bush. But they are saying that Obama is stealing the credit from the heroes who really deserve it.  


Now the comeback to this ad—that Obama repeatedly gave credit to the Seals, the military, the intelligence agencies and everyone else involved—was made earlier, by Jon Stewart:


Stewart says, so yeah, the ad’s “a little bit of a cheap shot,” but then, as he notes earlier in the segment, “Bush landed on an *#!*ing aircraft carrier with a football-stuffed codpiece. He spiked the football before the game had even started.”

For all these reasons and more, the ultimate question for all victims of abuse is: If you can’t change him, when will you leave him?

The GOP’s Fear of a Cool Obama

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Republicans used to exult in fielding candidates that voters would like “to have a beer with.” This year, of course, their candidate doesn’t drink beer—in fact, Mitt Romney’s so socially challenged that his advance team is wary about letting him share cookies with voters. But lately Obama has been raising the ante on social comfort, asking which candidate would you like to share a song or nod to a pulsing beat with, and the GOP clearly considers this to be some kind of dirty trick.

And so in the two days since Obama and Jimmy Fallon “slow-jammed the news” on Fallon’s late-night show (specially taped at the University of North Carolina to underline the Democratic campaign to keep student loan interest rates from doubling), the Republicans have put out two web ads. Each tries to turn Obama’s strength into a weakness, insisting that the “Preezy” is too busy being cool to be presidential:

That was from the RNC, where heads seem stuck in the primaries still—the contrast between Obama’s supposed frivolity and Romney’s seriousness actually comes off as a contrast between O’s grace and Mitt’s forced emoting, but they can’t see that yet. Their ears are still ringing with triumphalisms from the debates about Obama’s “failures.” And here’s how Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC hit Obama just hours later:

Both ads, of course, are a reprise of John McCain’s 2008 “celebrity” ad, which likened Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and suggested that his fans had fallen into some kind of mass delusion. (McCain dropped that line of attack like a hot potato the moment he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.) And both ads, aimed at college students’ swing-voting parents as well as the base, try to obscure the fact that Romney only recently came around to keeping student interest rates at 3.4 percent, under pressure from Obama. What’s more, House Republicans are still grumbling about paying anything more for education.    

Nevertheless, the Republican media apparatus immediately picked up the tune, expressing horrified dismay that anyone in politics would stoop to being popular. “I think it’s nutso,” Fox & Friends’ Gretchen Carlson said of Obama’s appearance on Fallon, adding, “I just personally do not agree with the highest office of the land, the most important figure in the world, going on these comedy shows. I think it lowers the status of the office.”

Ann Coulter told Sean Hannity that it was “pathetic” for Obama to go on Fallon, where the audience, she said, is “only a few hundred thousand.” “Who are these shut-ins watching Jimmy Fallon?” (Apparently, about 2 million people tuned in the night Obama appeared.)

Never mind that Romney was on Leno recently or that during the primaries he read the Top Ten on Letterman (where he said, “What’s up, gangstas? It’s the M-I-Double Tizzle”) and is apparently weighing whether to host Saturday Night Live this fall. Almost every politician has been eager to do these comedy shows ever since Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In in 1968 to say, “Sock it to me?” There’s no good-faith argument here—per usual, the right is merely criticizing Obama for whatever he does, even when they do it themselves.

But as you watch the two ads above, it becomes clear that it’s not only Obama acting like a celebrity that has the GOP’s nose out of joint. He’s also “acting black”--in fact, he’s rubbing their faces in it, just like he did when he sympathized with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for getting arrested in his own home. And that gleams like troll gold to Republican strategists.

Obama has dared to be a cool black man more often lately. First, in January, he sang, “I—I’m so in love with you” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater, with Al Green in the audience, a totally engaging moment the Rove ad doesn’t fail to sneer at. (As Maureen Dowd wrote, “For eight seconds, we saw the president we had craved for three years: cool, joyous, funny, connected.”) Then, for a Black History Month celebration in the White House, Obama sang a few bars of “Sweet Home Chicago” with B.B. King, once again looking terrifically comfortable in his own (black) skin.

By March, the right was criticizing Obama for acknowledging, of Trayvon Martin, that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Newt Gingrich called that comment “disgraceful.”

At some level, much of the GOP base still believes that Obama’s race is somehow disqualifying for the Oval Office, and they can barely keep themselves from overtly attacking him for it. But the demographics are daunting, and their professionals know it. To see a white guy like Jimmy Fallon acting black—doing a silly Barry White impression with Obama and Roots vocalist Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter behind him—reinforces the fear among some on the right that the hip youth culture is increasingly a black culture and that it’s inexorably taking over. Obama, half-black/half-white himself, is at the center of this race jam, which is as “impure” as topical comedy itself--a mélange of news and clips of political speech marbled with rap, R&B, tech-talk and global kid culture. (Let’s hope we see more of that Saturday night when Jimmy Kimmel hosts the White House Correspondents Dinner.)

It's all that mixing that sparks miscegenation imaginations, creating GOP fears about cool whites leaving them behind in electoral limbo, forever.

Or, as Stephen Colbert called Obama’s slow jam of the news, a “pathetically successful ploy to be appealing.”

Sunday Talk Shows Still Skew Right and White, but There's Light at the End of the Week

The pundits and the guests on the major Sunday talk shows still to tend to come in three basic flavors: right, male and pale, according to a new study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Despite a few diversity tweaks here and there, the “Sabbath gasbag” shows (as Calvin Trillin has dubbed them) have been that way for decades. Major corporations—like GE, BP or Conoco Phillips—sponsor them in order to reach their most coveted audience—corporate-friendly, inside-the-Beltway players, who tend to tilt right-of-center. What’s different this time, however, is that two truly “liberal media” alternatives—Up with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry—have hit the Sunday circuit.

First, though, the devilish details from FAIR. The liberal media watchdog group monitored the four main Sunday shows—ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday—for eight months, from June 2011 through February 2012, and found:

    Of one-on-one interviews, 70 percent of partisan-affiliated guests were Republican. Those guests were overwhelmingly male (86 percent) and white (92 percent).

    The broader roundtable segments weren't much more diverse: 62 percent of partisan-affiliated guests were Republican. More broadly, guests classified as either Republican or conservative far outnumbered Democrats or progressives, 282 to 164. The roundtables were 71 percent male and 85 percent white.

    U.S. government sources—current officials, former lawmakers, political candidates, party-affiliated political operatives and campaign advisers—dominated the Sunday shows overall (47 percent of appearances). Following closely behind were journalists (43 percent), most of whom were middle-of-the-road Beltway political reporters.

“Middle-of-the-road Beltway journalists made 201 appearances in roundtables,” FAIR adds, “which serves to buttress the argument that corporate media’s idea of a debate is conservative ideologues matched by centrist-oriented journalists.”

OK, but the period measured was all about the Republican primaries, so, one might figure, the shows’ deep-red hue is understandable. But, FAIR points out, in 2003 and 2004, when it was all about the Democratic primaries, the Sunday talk shows still leaned right. Citing a Media Matters study of Sunday shows, FAIR writes that in 2003 a “tally of ideologically identifiable guests, both one-and-one and roundtable, favored Republicans/conservatives (57 percent) over Democrats/progressives (43 percent). The following year the breakdown was again Republican-heavy, 56 percent to 44 percent.”

Anyway, the GOP primaries don’t explain the dearth of women and nonwhite guests. “Women were just 29 percent of roundtable guests,” FAIR says. “The ethnic diversity was similarly woeful: 85 percent white and 11 percent African-American, with 3 percent Latino. Other ethnicities made up an additional 2 percent of roundtable guests.”

FAIR’s Peter Hart (not the democratic pollster Peter Hart) writes: “Even when the shows attempted more balance, the Democrats and left-leaning guests tend to be of a more moderate variety than the Republicans (Extra!, 9/10). Juan Williams—who, by the criteria of this study, counts as a left-leaning voice (but see Extra!, 3/12)—was on twenty-four Fox News Sunday broadcasts. As FAIR has argued (Extra!, 9–10/01), it’s likely that the politically connected corporations who sponsor these shows prefer a center/right spectrum of debate that mostly leaves out strong progressive voices who might raise a critique of corporate power.” (Voices like Paul Krugman or The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, both of whom have appeared on the network Sunday shows more frequently in recent years.)

Any whisper of change, and Republicans and corporate America push back. “During much of the study period,” FAIR writes, “ABC’s This Week was hosted by Christiane Amanpour. Perhaps due to her long career as a foreign correspondent, the show she hosted took a different approach than its network counterparts, often featuring reported pieces (not included in the study) from around the world. The show also featured guests that rarely make it onto the Sunday shows—feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi and Occupy Wall Street activist Jesse LaGreca.”

In December, ABC brought back This Week's previous host, George Stephanopoulos, to replace Amanpour.

That’s why the Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry two-hour Sunday (and Saturday) shows on MSNBC are so extraordinary, and I say this not just because they’re from The Nation. Theirs are the most diverse political weekend shows in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and the parts of the brain utilized. They draw guests from academia (Harris-Perry, of course, teaches at Tulane), activism and the arts. They avoid the lazy and masturbatory political horserace chat, and instead are willing to sound dangerously smart.

Hayes’s show, which debuted first, in September, is different still in that it’s almost all panel discussion (usually including at least one intellectually respectable conservative) all the time, which he moderates with an almost meta touch. Last Saturday, for instance, during a heated argument about the Trayvon Martin case, Hayes tried to pinpoint exactly why the case had become polarized in the first place. Why did it move, he asked, from a “general consensus that we have, yeah, a kid of 17-years-old buying Skittles and iced tea shouldn’t be shot and left dead” to “all of a sudden, on conservative blogs it’s all about the New Black Panthers are doing this or that. And my question is why is that the important thing? Why is there this—just because Reverend Al Sharpton is doing something, why do conservatives feel the need to take the other side of the bet, why does it have to be the case that you sort of mobilize in favor of George Zimmerman, or point out double standards? Why not just leave well enough alone, and say, yeah, the guy should probably be arrested and let the trial work?”

It’s discussions like this that make the regular Sunday shows seem all the more clueless.

The Language of the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney Phony Feud

Credit: Reuters Pictures, AP Images

When Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” she was trying to say that Ann Romney’s great wealth makes it hard for her to identify with women who must work for a living. But unfortunately, Rosen grabbed the first and most obvious cliché to blurt that idea out. “Never worked a day in her life” is such an inherently aggressive, formulaic insult that it guarantees an equally aggressive, formulaic response. Them’s not just fightin’ words, them’s media bait.

Not that the Republicans wouldn’t have tried to create a phony controversy had Rosen (or any Dem) issued a milder, less pointed remark—like, say, “Ann Romney doesn’t work or struggle, so she can’t really understand women who do.” Even such a prosaic comment could have set off a torrent of ginned-up outrage, because (1) manufacturing outrage is how the right is bringing manufacturing back to America, (2) Rosen directed her insult at a candidate’s spouse, always a risky gambit, and, most important, (3) the supposed bad blood between working women and “stay-at-home moms” (a loaded phrase itself, implying both contentment and immobility) is so pathetically easy to stir up.

Yes, women in one group may resent or envy those in the other group, but it’s essentially a dying and phony feud. These two “groups” constantly overlap, especially now as more women are forced to stay home because they can’t find a job or want to stay home but must work, not to mention every possible permutation in between.

But the phrase “never worked a day in her life” is just the sort of poke in the eye sure to resurrect old frustrations and resentments. The very structure of “never did blank a day in her life” is provocative. Never is a broad, sweeping assertion and already extreme; a day in her life narrows it right down to a specific individual, one person not doing (through luck or choice) something that most people do at least on occasion (exercised, been sick, or whatever). Rosen’s words all but dare you to prove her wrong, to find the exceptions to “never.” And when fraught verbs like worked, worked with his hands or set foot in church fill the blank, the phrase immediately sets up an Us vs. Them contrast, getting people to pick a side and lock themselves in. As Republican consultant Matthew Dowd said this morning of Rosen’s comment, “It’s the best thing to unify the Republicans behind Mitt Romney.”

Word that the DNC will no longer pursue the “Republican war on woman” line comes right as this kerfuffle reaches its peak. Do professional Dems believe that Rosen’s misstep lends credence to Mitt Romney’s absurd claim that Obama’s the one waging the war? That would certainly follow the pattern of the Democrats backing down just when they’re ahead.

Come on, guys, have the courage of your own convictions. Unlike the stereotype that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” the Republican war on women is real.

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