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Leslie Savan | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Stewart v. Maddow: The Thrilla Was Vanilla

 It was heady, it was thoughtful, it was nuanced out the wazoo—the Stewart/Maddow Comedy/Journalism Conference of 2010 was the opposite of everything that Jon Stewart objects to in our “24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-o-nator.” But much like his fellow believer in bipartisanship, Barack Obama, Stewart came away empty-handed this week from a high-stakes political summit. 

Stewart had asked for the interview with Rachel Maddow in order to clear up the perception that his rally last month was whiffy and not about anything, as Bill Maher put it. Of course it was about something—it was about the corrosive effect of the hype, noise, and tone in political media today. Stewart has always had a tone jones: If a presentation is too loud (Olbermann), too goofy (Rick Sanchez), or too shrill (Code Pink, he says), it waves a red cape before his comedic bull. Last night he cited a clip he used to promote his rally of a woman shouting that Bush was a war criminal. “Technically he is,” Stewart said. Then why equate that charge with the far right’s contentions that Obama is Hitler, a socialist, and/or a Kenyan anti-colonist Muslim, none of which is technically, or otherwise, remotely true? “We were talking about tone there, not content necessarily,” Stewart told Maddow.

 

We were talking about standing up in the middle of a meeting and shouting that. My problem is it's become tribal. And if you have 24-hour networks that focus, their job is to highlight the conflict between two sides where I don't think that's the main conflict in our society. That was the point of the rally, was to deflate that idea that that's a real conflict, red/blue, Democrat/Republican. I think there's a bigger difference between people who have kids and people who don't have kids than red state/blue state.

That last point is particularly ridiculous, but Stewart’s broader argument, that too much screaming about “My side is better than your side!” is bad for our country, is well taken.

But it’s inadequate, and kind of lazy. This Crossfire–era criticism of cable punditry was apt back in 2004, when Stewart almost single-handedly got that CNN show canceled, but it’s way past its sell-by date today. That was two losing wars, a collapsed economy, and a Citizens United decision ago. The reason so many people are disappointed in Stewart’s rally is that after 12 years on the air,  they had hoped he would have developed his argument further.

Stewart maintains that the two sides—whether you call them right and left, Tea Party and MoveOn, or Fox and MSNBC—are like squabbling babies. Now, squabbling babies are funny, and when Stewart shows us the supposed wise men of political journalism swatting one another with hollow rattles, it’s hilarious.

But what Rachel and many of us wanted to hear was some acknowledgement that, in fact, the fight isn’t really between two babies. The right in this country is acting more like an adult stealing candy from a baby. And the elected opposition is more like an adult who mumbles “Stop, thief!” once the crook is safely around the corner.

Because that’s how one-sided the political debate has become, how out of balance Fox’s propaganda and the elimination of restrictions on campaign finance have left our political culture.

And it’s inescapable that neither Stewart nor Maddow would be quite where they are today if Fox News didn’t exist. Stewart would never have been able to draw 300,000 people to the Mall in DC if his ongoing criticism of Fox hadn’t resonated with a disgusted public. (Stewart, of course, modeled his Rally to Restore Sanity on Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, and tens of thousands who attended the Stewart version considered it an anti-Beck, anti-Palin protest, no chaser. Not to mention that Stephen Colbert’s character was deliciously inspired by “Papa Bear” O’Reilly himself.) Nor would Maddow and Olbermann be so appreciated had Fox and the GOP not been so successful in chasing opinions like theirs out of the media at the beginning of the 21st century.

As much as Stewart insists that Fox and MSNBC (“in the aggregate” if not in the specifics) are alike, so he insists that what he and Maddow do are unalike. He’s comedy and she’s news, and therefore they’re not even in the “same game.” “You're on the playing field and I'm in the stands yelling things,” he told her. Part of the distinction he makes comes, I think, from a real modesty, and from a respect for both comedy’s and journalism’s traditions.

But a lot of his fans think he is on the playing field; he’s their answer to Fox’s end-runs on reason, the cultural push-back to birther hysteria and Muslim witch-hunts and those “tribal” ululations at town hall meetings around the country. He may think he’s not a team player, but believe me, Fox knows he’s ain’t wearing their jersey.

Here’s Maddow/Stewart uncut:

Olbermann's Suspension Was the Worst Person(nel Decision) in the World

Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC last week really frosted progressive spines because, coming just days after the midterm elections, it felt like the second shoe dropping: It wasn’t enough that we can’t count on the Democratic Party, we can’t even count on MSNBC’s primetime line-up. Even though Keith’s suspension lasted only two days (and was maybe even self-imposed), everybody knows that the only big media outlet that mans-up to the Fox Republican Party every day is for sale, to cable giant Comcast. Was a Keithless Countdown just a trial balloon, as more than 300,000 petitioners demanding his return feared?

Keith’s return Tuesday night will undoubtedly break ratings records and polish his status as a tribune of the left, possibly making him, in the end, even more secure at his post. But his suspension did seem unfair, and scary. It was only the most recent in a series of corporate disciplinary actions against journalists that, one way or another, usually redound to the right’s favor. When CNN axed Rick Sanchez and Octavia Nasr for supposedly anti-Semitic remarks, it was succumbing to conventional neocon wisdom; when NPR fired Juan Williams for supposedly anti-Muslim remarks, Fox News rode in like a white knight, offered him a $2 million contract, and self-righteously campaigned to defund the (minimally) federally funded public radio net. After all that, Olbermann’s disappearance seemed to fulfill Bill O’Reilly’s prediction that, once the election results were in, the MSNBC hosts “may commit suicide.”

Fortunately, as the weekend wore on, it became apparent that Olbermann’s suspension was just another of NBC’s endless squabbles with its talent, more about Keith showing respect for the suits than a change in partisan direction. (We hope.) MSNBC has spanked its talking heads before, from David Shuster (suspended for taping a pilot with CNN) to Donny Deutsch (briefly suspended for criticizing, believe it or not, Keith Olbermann). But this time, MSNBC prez Phil Griffin, having consulted with outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker (the genius who welched on a deal with Conan O’Brien in favor of Jay Leno), lost the support of the all-important stand-up comic demographic (more on that later). Moreover, the scolded employee received a sudden outpouring of affection, a welcome boost for Olbermann, who’s been somewhat eclipsed of late. NBC would never let Keith pack his fans into a rally on the D.C. Mall, but he could get at least as many people to sign a petition for him, and that’s something.

But the larger pattern for liberals is icy clear nonetheless. From Obama not putting single-payer on the table to his firing of Shirley Sherrod for fear of what Fox News might say to the Democrats preemptively caving to the GOP on tax cuts for the rich, it’s painfully obvious that when Fox Republicans growl, Dems and the mainstream media back down.

The problem comes down to the fact that one side wants to play by the rules while the other side doesn’t believe in rules. MSNBC slapped Olbermann’s wrist for breaking NBC News’s rule forbidding journalists from making political donations without prior approval from the network’s president. (On Sunday, Mike Allen of Politico, which broke the story of Keith’s contributions, reported that Olbermann said he didn’t know he had to get permission and refused to make an on-air mea culpa.) Yet, even discussing the fine points of Olbermann’s transgressions gives lie to the notion, aided in no small part by Jon Stewart, that MSNBC is the leftwing equivalent to Fox News.

Which is so ridiculous, both in terms of intent and result, that it makes you want to scream. Not only did News Corp. president Rupert Murdoch give $1.25 million to the Republican Governors Association and another $1 million to the GOP-linked U.S. Chamber of Commerce but, as Media Matters reports, “During the 2009-2010 election cycle, more than 30 Fox Newsers have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or organizations in more than 600 instances.” Most notably perhaps, Sean Hannity, whom Christine O’Donnell bragged was “in my back pocket,” donated $5,000 to Michele Bachmann’s PAC.

“Heck,” Rachel Maddow said in an eloquent defense of Olbermann and MSNBC, “there are multiple people being paid by Fox News now to essentially run for office as Republican candidates….They can do that because there's no rule against that at Fox. They run as a political operation. We're not….We are a news operation and the rules around here are part of how you know that.”

This business of avoiding rules and professional standards of all kinds, of course, is a basic tenet of the GOP—they don’t like mine safety regulations either, or environmental protection rules, or banking laws, or even the Geneva Convention against human torture. Democrats have been trying to cage the Republican Party behind the bars of the law since Richard Nixon. During the Reagan years, they passed the Boland Amendment outlawing aid to the Contras, who were losing a civil war in Nicaragua. So Reagan set up Ollie North to run guns to Iran in a totally wacky attempt to fund them “privately.” (Fox News has given Ollie his own show, War Stories.)

Nobody ever went to jail for violating the Boland Amendment. Creating cut-outs that escape government regulation and then undermine the rule of law throughout entire sectors of the economy has since become a basic tool of conservative politics. In the ‘90s, hedge funds set up an unregulated “shadow banking system” that was so profitable envious commercial banks marshaled lobbyists to tear down the regulations that had kept banking safe for 50 years; the capitalist crash of 2007 was the result.

Fox, as the current Harper’s cover story by Marvin Kitman points out, is itself a kind of off-shore cut-out. In the 1990s, Republicans helped Australian Rupert Murdoch circumvent U.S. communications law so he could purchase a series of media properties that foreigners weren’t allowed to buy. And ever since, Fox News has been undermining professional standards and laboring mightily to wean American journalism away from what is quaintly called “the public interest.”   

The election aside, the last week or so has been a dizzying period of soul-searching for some of the non-Fox media. At his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the Mall in Washington, Jon Stewart suggested that Olbermann and Ed Schultz were mirror images of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. Last Monday, Olbermann announced that he was going to indefinitely suspend his “Worse Persons in the World” segment because Stewart’s rally reminded him that “the tone needs to change.” Tuesday was the election. On Wednesday, Stewart kept pushing his thesis, telling Fox’s Chris Wallace that MSNBC is “making a mistake by becoming equivalent to Fox…” (Even Wallace didn’t buy it.) Friday, the Politico story broke, Olbermann was gone, and Stewart received two knock-out punches—from Maddow, indirectly, and from Bill Maher, right to the kisser: 

With all due respect to my friends Jon and Stephen, it seems to me that if you truly wanted to come down on side of restoring sanity and reason, you’d side with the sane and the reasonable--and not try to pretend that the insanity is equally distributed in both parties. Keith Olbermann is right when he says he’s not the equivalent of Glenn Beck. One reports facts, the other is very close to playing with his poop. And the big mistake of modern media has been this notion of balance for balance’s sake, that the left is just as violent and cruel as the right, that unions are just as powerful as corporations, that reverse racism is just as damaging as racism. There’s a difference between a mad man and a madman.

It makes me want to vote for Bill.

UPDATE: Wow. Last night, Stewart responded, defensively, to Keith, Rachel, and Bill’s charges about his false equivalencies, right down to enacting the knock-out punches mentioned above. More later.

More a Wake for Sanity Than a Rally to Restore It

Jon Stewart knew what the real measure of success for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear would be. As he came onstage Saturday he said it would be judged on its "intellectual coherence," but then he stopped. "Nah," it was about "size and color." Looking out over the estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people crowding the Mall from the west front of the Capitol almost to the Washington Monument, he said, "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to count off. Pass the mike around, and say your number and then identify your demographic—you know, like Native American/lesbian."

Because everyone knew that a prime point of the event was to show that what Glenn Beck did with his (nearly pure white) Rally to Restore Honor on August 28 was like bragging about having over 100 friends on Facebook. By all counts Stewart's (mostly white) rally was at least as large as Beck's, especially if you count the thousands who turned away because they couldn't get close enough to hear. (And for the record, CBS News, which gave Beck his lowest crowd size estimate of 85,000, put this one at 215,000.)

Size mattered, but Comedy Central wasn't prepared for it. Not that it seemed to dampen the crowd's spirits, but the only big TV screens were near the stage and invisible to anyone under six feet tall or not sitting on top of a Port-o-Potty, as some lucky few were. Loudspeakers hadn't been placed at intervals down the length of Mall, and so anyone more than a few blocks away could only intermittently detect what was going on onstage, who was singing, or what Stewart or Colbert were drawing laughs for. At about 1 pm, the crowd back where I was began shouting goodnaturedly, "Louder! Louder! Louder!" Somebody behind me, who had to be from New York, shouted, "Are they cheering Ron Lauder?" Another yelled, "Quieter! Quieter! Quieter!" Everybody seemed to have passed through some tempermentally mild force field for the event.

Eventually some of the crowd broke through flexible plastic fences to open squares of grass to get more space. They didn't do it with '60s-style "sticking it to the Man" (er, the fence) fervor. They did it with a guilty "should we or shouldn't we?" until jumping the barrier seemed like a sensible decision. As it was for Amy, 50, a Detroit art teacher who had never before been to DC and who described herself "one of the reasonable moderates" that Stewart had put out an APB for. She said she was ready to vote for McCain until he chose Palin. "I'm not happy with either party, but you have to be realistic," she explained as she held the fence aside to let people through, telling each one, "Be careful. Be careful."

Call of the Mild

And it was the mildness of the crowd, not its size, that was the real surprise for me: This was just what John Stewart called for it to be: a gathering of moderate, "reasonable" people who perhaps had never attended a political rally, but were responding, en masse, to the call of the mild. I had assumed that Stewart and Colbert would, whatever their intentions, produce a ventfest, with some frustrated people to the left of whatever Stewart claimed to be, or, on the other hand, folks coming mostly for the entertainment. There were plenty of both these types, to be sure. But most of the people I spoke to weren't faking this reasonable moderate thing to please Stewart—it's who they were.

Like Bill James, a 48-year-old social worker from San Diego, who said he was unlikely to attend any other rally, "progressives or otherwise, other than what my church does." He came all this way to "support moderation and to speak out against the hyberbole in our political discussion." He describes himself as "moderate Democrat. But I don't agree with everything the Democrats do. I'm a union member [SEIU], and I don't agree with everything the union does. But I don't call them bad names." He brought his 17-year-old son, who's turning it into a school project by asking people "What do you think sanity is?" (Good question.)

Then there were the fake Tea Party people, whom I at first mistook for the real deal (journalism gold would have been someone who attended both this and Beck's rally, but it wasn't to be). They were six friends in their 40s and 50s who live on the same Baltimore street, and were holding signs like "Think outside the Fox" and "I masturbate and I vote (not simultaneously) (anymore)." Brande Meese, a retired decorative artist, said, "We tend to be a little more hard left. Republicans have moved the center to the right in a very deliberate, cynical way." Her friend Chris Mitchell, a 44-year-old tailor, wore his teabags from a tricorn hat made of tin foil. "I'm here for the Keep Fear Alive rally. I think fear keeps people in line." Stewart's a tad too moderate. "He doesn't want to get Bill Mahered," said Brande, referring to the way ABC kicked the host off the air when he said the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards. "But we like how Stewart and Colbert blur the lines," she said, meaning between real and fake, politics and comedy. "We're here for the fun, real fun."

MoveOn communications director Ilyse Hogue told me that, too, when I asked if she was concerned that the same people who might otherwise be canvassing in toss-up districts on the last weekend before the election will instead be going to the rally, a concern some Democrats and writers have raised. Not at all, she said. MoveOn was organizing house parties to watch the rally and make election calls. A contingent of RepublicCorp, the mock MoveOn group that Lauren Valle was working for when she got her head stomped in Kentucky, was marching on the mall (without incident this time, of course). Independently, Facebook sites are coordinating meet-ups in at least forty-seven states and other countries via satellite.

In any case, the rally drew its people who weren't going to vote no way, no how. "I'm a big Jon Stewart fan. But no, I'm not voting. I never heard anything coming out of a politician's mouth that in any way represented me," said Greg Harris, 49, a portrait artist in Athens, Georgia. Harris supports the healthcare bill even though "it didn't go far enough," but won't vote to keep the party that passed it in the House. "It's a waste of time."

Then there was Doug Healy, 47, a Boston history teacher (the mall was crawling with teachers) who said that after voting for Obama, "I took a solemn oath never to vote for a Democrat again—even if he's running against Palin in 2012. As long as the Republicans roll over the Dems, and the Dems keep rolling over progressives, I won't vote." This was news to his best friend, Evan Driscoll, 41, a software engineer who flew in from San Francisco. "I didn't come here for the entertainment, but to hopefully get counted at probably the last big liberal rally we'll see in a long time."

There's no excuse for not voting, regardless of which party you vote for, said Brendon, 30, a landscaper from Long Island, who said that Big Sanity was definitely not taking him away from GOTV work. "I'll still be doing that Monday and I'll be doing that Tuesday," he said adding that the rally is more important than another round of door-to-door: "For this generation, this is the way to motivate them."

Echoes of Beck

This was the anti-Beck rally, not just politically (at one point a group of protesters surrounded the Fox News truck near the stage and started a loud little demonstration just for them), but conceptually, too. It was theater meant to critique theater—very Artaud, very Yippie and sometimes seemingly motivated as much by a revulsion for crude, over-the-top stagecraft as for conservative politics. And yet there were curious similarities between the two restoration events.

Beck and Stewart both asked their people to leave the mall cleaner than they found it. While Beck used his cleaned-up mall as a weapon to denigrate the much larger and messier 2008 Inaugural (so full of, uh, urbanites), Stewart took it to another level: "I would like to see some topiaries that weren't here before."

But the interesting thing was that both crowds did pretty much what the TV guy told them to do. When Beck pleaded with his marchers not to bring signs, it was out of fear that they would bring the sort of racist, Obama-is-Hitler signs that had branded the Tea Party as extreme, and indeed, his rally saw very few signs. Stewart's folks had clearly been on the Daily Show website, where there seemed to be a competition to create the most absurdist, Jon-like parody signs, and where the spirit of Halloween had gotten across. The "worst" Sanity sign I saw was held by a guy wearing what looked like a shroud-sized condom and read, "I've been a bad, bad penis."

I caught only one sign that endorsed a specific politician (for Charlie Crist). Mostly the place was popping with like-minded understatements, though I never saw the same sign twice:

"Glenn Beck is NOT very good."
"I am willing to compromise."
"This sign is spelled correctly."
"Have you seen my honor?"
"Let's keep mustaches where they belong" (over a drawing of Charlie Chaplin).
"Obama is my Ninja."
"Pat Paulsen for President."
"I'm mad as hell at the people who are mad as hell."
"Death Panelist."
"Colbert for malevolent dictator" next to "Stewart for benevolent dictator."
"Restore Whitey, not Sanity."
Painted on the side of a truck: "Angry Mob on Board."

Jibes against the Tea Party abounded, but very few that impugned it for imitating National Socialism: "Screw Tea—This IS America. Join the Beer party." "Every time Sarah Palin Tweets, God kills a kitten." "It's not tea" over a hand-drawn picture of a tea pot pouring into a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Perhaps the tone was best set by the man who carried a pole from which dangled a puppet with Glenn Beck's face—which was itself carrying a smaller puppet with Glenn Beck's face.

In the end, Stewart was clearly claiming that his rally was aimed at America's true center, perhaps even suggesting that the left (or, anyway, certainly not the right) is now the center of US politics. But what does "the center" mean, exactly? Do you find it at the midpoint on the bell curve where most people are economically, and the thing to do is to try to push those people to the bell's better side? Or does Stewart think the center lies on a cultural gradient, somewhere equidistant between Pope Benedict XVI and Marilyn Manson? Or is the center wherever people are who don't feel the need to amplify their anxieties, where they're focused on raising families or pursuing their careers, where politics are school board meetings and church poverty drives—really, a place not very far from where Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority" lived?

Actually, I think Stewart's center is more on a sentimental continuum, focused on the "little guy" and what he feels and needs. It's a personal politics, bounded by normative conventions like family, sex, friendship, intoxication and a modicum of courtesy and comfort. And what Jon Stewart finds excessive is any politics that disrupts those personal values in the name of a putatively overriding moral or political goal. There is a long Jewish tradition of political humor (that seldom calls itself political) dedicated to this sort of thing. It grows out of minority status—where House Democrats, they tell us, are about to return—and tends to punch up at bullies and jingoistic patriots even as it enshrines the courage it takes to distinguish yourself as outside their control. Think of Groucho Marx in vaudeville, taking his brothers' musical act to Nagadoches, Texas, and being loudly mocked and ignored by the locals until he comes to the front of the stage and says, "Nagadoches...is full of roaches." The house comes down.

Maybe it's because America is such a diverse land, which greatly needs a unifying concept to bind it together, that this sort of humor, aimed at the pretension of those who claim to have found the nation's purpose, is so common. Or maybe it's because this is a country that is uniquely dedicated to the personal in the first place—we're supposed to be pursuing happiness, after all, Thomas Jefferson put that in the Declaration of Independence. There's an inherent irony there: we've built an empire that spanned an entire continent, developed the atomic bomb and established a global hegemony just so some guy could carry a sign below the Capitol that reads, "Vote Palin and Beck" (above photos of Monty Python's Michael Palin and guitar fusion hero Jeff Beck).

"I can't control what people think this was," Stewart said, in a closing speech that attempted to explain why everybody showed up. "I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do.

"But we live now in hard times, not end times. The country's twenty-four-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictenator did not cause our problems, but it's existence makes solving them that much harder.... If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partyers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate."

"We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is," Stewart said, and "how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. But the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don't is here or on cable TV."

It's the media, stupid. As I walk across 7th Street to leave the Mall, the crowd is quiet, almost no one speaks. A woman says, "It's too quiet." Then a young guy shouts, "Marijuana made me gay." Laughs. Another guy answers, "My gayness made me smoke marijuana." A middle-aged man, catching the spark, says, "Hitler was a Nazi! This is true!"

And it is.

NPR Fires Juan Williams Into Its Own Foot

Recently I wrote that CNN shouldn't have fired Rick Sanchez for his offensive remarks about Jews, Jon Stewart and his CNN bosses. Last week NPR reacted with similar hair-trigger speed to Juan Williams, firing him for his offensive remarks about Muslims. As satisfying as it was to see a major media outlet finally treat an anti-Muslim slur as if it were as routine a firing offense as an anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli comment, I have to agree with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which says that firing Williams was "a mistake."

Look, NPR—or CNN, NBC, or any other corporate alphabet that solves a PR problem by summarily firing an employee over a phrase or a perceived intent without first giving that worker a chance to publicly explain—is trying to send a signal about its own morality at the expense of its axed employee. But the larger point about firing journalists left and right is that it plays into Fox';s dominant narrative, which entails a direct assault on journalism itself. Remember, Fox has expanded its snipe hunt for "liberal bias" in the media to attacking even-handed journalism of any sort, which puts NPR squarely in its sights. By canning Williams when and how it did, NPR has allowed Fox to make its case that the media voices you hear aren';t there because of their seasoned reporting but because they push a hidden ideology. You can';t trust any of them—except for Fox, of course, which is completely out front about whose side it';s on.

Meanwhile, NPR';s sometimes prissy rules for its staffers—like banning them from participating in Jon Stewart';s Rally to Restore Sanity next week to avoid appearing partisan—won';t protect the news outlet from the right';s mounting insistence that ousting Juan Williams proves its underlying bias. And anyway, there';s a much better way to handle occasional eruptions of forbidden speech than sacking the talent.

Fox was helped in all this by the fact that both Sanchez and Williams let loose boneheaded slurs in the context of a confused but larger argument. Sanchez was trying to say that cable news doesn';t have enough black and Latino primetime hosts. Williams was trying to simultaneously agree and disagree with Bill O';Reilly';s blanket statement that "Muslims killed us on 9/11," the line that caused Whoopi and Joy to walk out on him on The View and which Bill-O provocatively refuses to qualify with the word "extremist."

Here is Williams';s prevaricating response (video below):

Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don't want to get your ego going. But I think you're right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality.

 

I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts. [They';re simply not the facts, as Michael Moore details here.] But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it's not a war against Islam. President Bush went to a mosque—…if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don't say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That's crazy.

 

That last part is true, but is it really a big enough fig leaf to cover Williams telling O';Reilly he';s right to blame all Muslims indiscriminately? Williams has come out of this whole thing much, much better than Sanchez—Fox rewarded his seconding of O';Reilly';s bigotry with a $2 million contract, and since then, he';s been attacking NPR as a "gulag" of "one-party rule." On the other hand, Rick Sanchez, who apologized profusely to CNN and Stewart, is for now off the media and out of a job.

Yet there are probably more similarities between the two cases. CNN may have wanted to fire Sanchez all along, and merely used his uncharacteristic remarks about Jews as an image-saving excuse, not caring if they stained the guy as an anti-Semite (which Stewart himself says he';s not). NPR seemed even more eager to shake off its in-house embarrassment, and found a pretext to do so in Williams';s latest lickspittle observations.

There';s little doubt that NPR has been onto Williams';s game of using his public radio reputation to lend credibility to Fox';s "fair and balanced" act for some time. It told Williams to stop identifying himself with NPR on Fox in January ';09, when he said—again to O';Reilly, whom he seems anxious to impress—that Michelle Obama has "this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going." It';s hard not to see the pattern NPR saw, nor is it difficult to distinguish Williams from fellow NPR-to-Fox loaner, Mara Liasson, who does a better job of speaking primarily as a reporter.

But there';s a cannier way to handle this sort of problem, as the Rev. Al Sharpton insisted during Don Imus';s "nappy-headed" stumble in 2007: Instead of firing somebody, let';s have an open discussion of race, with all sides taking part, every time this happens. Christiane Amanpour did something like that on This Week earlier this month, devoting her hour-long show to a town-hall debate on the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque, with representatives from Muslim groups, anti-Muslim groups, families of WTC attack victims on both sides and Franklin Graham to boot. It was a fascinating discussion, good TV, and even better Americanism. Instead of leaving us more confused and divided, it leached some of the hysteria out of the issue.

Wouldn';t it have been better for NPR to have done an hour-long show where Williams could explain not only his statement about Muslims but the role he plays on Fox? Maybe, with the right moderator, instead of asking who fired who for saying what, we might get to the question of who pays who to say what.

Of course, Fox—which never fires anybody for bigotry, but did allegedly fire a black technician after he complained about workplace racism, according to a lawsuit filed last week—would not air a show like that. But that';s what a policy of more discussion, more communication, here in the land of free speech, could help do: isolate Fox, and make it a little harder to exploit ethnic tension for political fun and profit.

Why DC Doesn’t Think Stephen Colbert Is Funny

The best part of Stephen Colbert's appearance before a House subcommittee to talk about immigrant farm labor wasn't his opening statement, delivered in character. Oh, his performance as a pampered, supercilious, hypocritical Republican was great, as you'd expect. He complained about the indignities he suffered working for one day on a farm as part of the United Farm Workers "Take Our Jobs" campaign, which is intended to call the bluff of those who insist that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. On his Thursday show, Colbert had shown how picking beans was beneath him, literally; on Friday morning, seated next to UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, he departed from his bland written remarks to go with this:

During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Colbert transformed the subcommittee’s Repubs into straight men. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked, "Does one day in the field make you an expert witness?"” Colbert: "I believe that one day of me studying anything makes me an expert." Did he know many of the workers he toiled with were illegal? "I didn't ask them for their papers, though I had a strong urge to." And so on, right through volunteering, "I endorse all Republican policies without question." 

It was shtick, good shtick, but the best part came when Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) asked, "Why of all the things you could testify about did you choose this issue?" Colbert seemed to surprise himself as he fell out of character—he rubbed his head in thought and said:

I like talking about people who don't have any power, and this seems like, one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That’s an interesting contradiction to me. And, you know, "Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers"—and this seems like the least of brothers—right now. A lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard. And I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish anything like that. But migrant works suffer and have no rights.

 

It was a powerful moment, all the more so because catching Colbert out of character for more than a few seconds of unguarded laughter is almost as rare as catching snow leopards mating. It was perfectly natural for Colbert, who has taught Sunday school at his Catholic church in Montclair, New Jersey, to quote Matthew 25:31-45 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”). The tender earnestness of that brief moment when Colbert slipped the mask undercut any suggestion that his snottiness was a self-promoting stunt.

A bit of non-Colbert news was also made at the hearing. As we learned more about how farms are closing for lack of workers to harvest crops, several Republicans said that if you just paid higher wages and provided better working conditions, then real Americans would take these tough jobs. To which Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) rather pointedly noted that three of the GOPers at the other end of the dais had voted against raising the minimum wage.

Afterwards, the press mobbed Colbert, and we heard one male reporter ask, "Are you worried about trivializing a serious issue?" Colbert's answer, if any, wasn’t audible, but here’s mine: Would you even be here (or would I even be writing this), about a hearing on immigrant farm labor conditions, if he didn’t "trivialize" this issue?

Anyway, it’s difficult to measure what’s trivial in Washington, where politicians like, say, Representative Steve King (R-Iowa), regularly trivialize human suffering into homophobic, Islamaphobic, or anti-labor soundbites for political gain. (Gay marriage, says King, is a "purely socialist concept.") At the hearing, King told Colbert that he couldn’t tell from watching him on tape whether he was packing or unpacking corn. Colbert replied, "I was a corn packer. And I know that term is offensive to some people, because corn packer is a derogatory term for a gay Iowan, and I hope I didn’t offend anybody." 

That was juvenile, but to listen to the Washington press corps, you’d think he'd just put a condom on the Washington Monument or something. Even the NBC guys were ruffled—Chuck Todd said he was "offended" and couldn’t understand why all the committee members didn't walk out, while Savannah Guthrie told Brian Williams on the Nightly News that the Dems may have hurt their chances by having a comedian come in and mock the institution they lead just before elections. Yeah, right—the Dems are going down in defeat in November not because they couldn't take a popular vote to preserve middle-class tax cuts while nudging rates a smidgen higher for the rich but because they let Stephen Colbert mock Congressional indifference to hardship in America. (As it turns out, even WSJ.com readers voted yes, 62 percent to 37 percent, to the question: "Should Stephen Colbert have testified in character before Congress?")

To see the Beltway media types wrinkle their noses at the rambunctious comic was déjà vu all over again—that’s exactly how they reacted at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when Colbert, in character, mocked the George Bush/Dick Cheney torture regime by sayingm "They are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!" Maybe that was juvenile too, but it was also utterly fearless, bearding the malcompetents right in their own den.  

I’ll remember that at Colbert's March to Keep Fear Alive, at the Lincoln Memorial in DC on October 30.

Could Christine O’Donnell Really Win?

As I was flipping between the Sunday morning political shows—where the most animated talk was about Christine O'Donnell’s abruptly canceled appearances on the Sunday morning shows—and a cable station playing School of Rock, it became painfully clear why O'Donnell has way more than a snowball’s chance in hell to become the junior senator from Delaware. 

I was trying to watch David Gregory, Bob Schieffer and Chris Wallace, but Jack Black and his rockin' 10-year-old students were irresistible. Christine O'Donnell is no Jack Black, but, like him, she and her Tea Party compatriots cannot wait to blow the minds of the establishment and drown out all the nay-saying number crunchers like Karl Rove with another stunning battle-of-the-bands upset.  

It helps, of course, that O’Donnell looks like Sarah Palin—the round face and pop-out cheeks, the shoulder-length, big-banged brown hair—even without the Tina Fey glasses. There's always a satisfaction, in the media and in us, in discovering lookalikes. The fun process of comparing and contrasting itself makes us want to keep O’Donnell on the national stage. And many of us are deciding she’s "better" than Palin. Next to the lipsticked pit bull, Christine has the face of an angel.

"She does not have a mean bone in her body," says Bill Maher, who claims O'Donnell is a "close friend." "She's a lot more relaxed.… More fluent with the English language," says Joe Scarborough. "She is better in front of cameras than even Sarah Palin."

She should be. She’s defended her flakesville follies on Maher’s old show, Politically Incorrect, on some twenty-two episodes. On Friday, he ran a clip in which she laughingly admitted that she had "dabbled into witchcraft," and he warned her, hostage-crisis style, "If you don’t come on this show, I’m going to show a clip every week." Who knows if those tapes hold anything more wicked than Wicca, but (again, unlike Palin) she seems able to laugh at herself. "I think she's a goof and a good sport," notes Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher. "She's got a smile that could light up an abortion clinic bombing." 

Besides, in the Christian-inflected Republican and Tea parties, you can get a pass for screw-ups if you claim to now be saved. Witchcraft? A teenage indiscretion that opened her eyes to the evils of Halloween. Anti-masturbation nuttery? Extremism in pursuit of virtue is no vice. Wouldn't lie to Hitler to save a Jew? A silly hypothetical. Believes scientists have developed "mice with fully functioning human brains"? Why not?! The elites have developed a Muslim commie with fully functioning presidential powers. Wake up, sheeple!

Perhaps a more worrisome infraction among her crowd is that O'Donnell is not a Mama Grizzly—she’s 41 years old and has no kids. But, eh. None of that matters any more than facts—or logic or reason or consistency—have ever mattered among the faith-based political base. As one woman who called into a radio station years ago said, "President Bush would have to murder my mother before I’d turn against him."

What matters is the passion, the televisual sparkle, or, as Chris Matthews has been hammering home recently, the "juice"—"the desire to get to that voting booth and vote with all you got against what is going on now," he said. "That comes at the Democrats in November, that juice."

So far, though, the Democrats have been delighted that O'Donnell, and not the popular, moderate Mike Castle, will face Democratic senate nominee Chris Coons in November. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the witch business or the watchdog group CREW's charges that O’Donnell is a "criminal" who has been "embezzling" campaign money will eventually repulse the far right in Delaware.

But for now the 11-point spread favoring Coons does not seem insurmountable, and the money—$1 million reportedly the day after the primary—is flowing O'Donnell's way, in part to punish Rove for saying that she lacked "rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character" (this from a man who allegedly engineered the imprisonment of the Democratic former Alabama governor Don Siegelman on trumped-up charges and who still insists the Iraq war was justified). And anyway, most of the races pitting Tea Party types against Democrats are close or tinged red: Rand Paul v. Jack Conway in Kentucky; Sharron Angle v. Harry Reid in Nevada; Joe Miller v. Scott McAdams in Alaska. And who saw that Scott Brown would take Ted Kennedy's seat this long before election day?

But even if O'Donnell doesn’t win this battle of the bands, she’s already won the battle of the BS. She’s shown that no matter what stupid things you’ve done, if you have a certain twinkle in your eye while you spout rightwing shibboleths, the media will find you bewitching.

How’s That Hopey-Faithy-Charity Stuff Workin’ Out for Beck?

Not too bad actually. A week out from his "Restoring Honor" rally Beck—and by extension, Tea Partyers everywhere—have given themselves a good whitewashing, a God-washing really, that should keep ‘em smelling clean at least until the November 2 midterm elections.

No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch wrote in Sunday's Times that at Beck's rally, as at Martin Luther King Jr.'s forty-seven years earlier, "sweet piety floated above tribal antagonisms." David Brooks chimed in that "the spirit was really warm, generous and uplifting," adding, "The only bit of unpleasantness I found emanated from some liberal gatecrashers behaving offensively…"

Oh sure, in the days since "8/28," as Beck calls the event, elevating it to his 9/11-9/12 pantheon, he's received his knocks, mostly from lefty bloggers and MSNBC's nighttime lineup. They've called him out for disappearing MLK's focus on social justice, twisting the history of the Washington monument and lying about handling the original of George Washington's first inaugural address. But Beck has flicked all that off as so much factual dandruff.

For now, the consensus, in the mass media and in our heads, is that the rally was "not political." And so, because it fell short of the torch-carrying mob that many of us expected, the floodgates of goodness have almost washed the Beck brand clean of partisan taint. He seems suddenly scrubbed of, say, Andrew Breitbart's smear of Shirley Sherrod, which Beck at first supported. (Nevermind that Beck's new website, The Blaze, will be run by a Breitbart alum.) Maybe the rally won't end up restoring advertising to Beck's show on Fox, but it was a start.

Beck and his people, goes this emerging new image, are positive, tolerant and as harmless as Beck's big cheeks are soft. The rally, Beck said later on TV, was one of the greatest displays of "cleanliness and politeness" ever (and to prove it he compared an aerial long-shot of an all green Washington Mall after his rally with close-ups of the litter left after Obama's inaugural gathering, which, as you may have noticed, was a bit more, um, diverse than Beck's). Yes, Beck's folks were clean, not contentious; polite, not political. Did you see the zero number of signs?! Beck banned signs, and, as further evidence of his power over their psyches, his flock lay down their swords.

But then, Beck and his guest star, Sarah Palin, were the signs. Had they done nothing but stand before the Lincoln Memorial and smile… well, less is more, and we could measure their virtue by how well they resisted saying "Pelosi." Anyway, the only signs you really need are from God, like that wedge of geese that flew overhead, prompting Glenn to gush that their presence was a "miracle"—only an unbeliever would point out that flying fowl formations were a popular form of divination among the pagan Romans, too.

The more obvious politics could, and did, come later. In fact, the very next day, when Chris Wallace asked Beck if he regretted calling Obama a "racist," Beck unloaded. The word racist, Beck admitted in the passive tense, "shouldn't have been said." But he didn't apologize, and he showed no charity, much less faith in the truth, when he "amended" his judgment that Obama, instead, "is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology.… It's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation.…"

Reparations! (to take just one outrageous charge in his harangue): why, that's the essence of the political lie that Beck, and Limbaugh, have been hurling at Obama, and the NAACP and Acorn, for years now. The "reparations" charge, in fact, betrays the bigotry lying in wait in so much of the anti–Big Government free-market capitalism: "Those people" want our money! Starve the beast so they can't have it!

But such negative thoughts were on the down low at 8/28. And so the mass media mind, which never saw an either/or it didn't like, couldn't help but juxtapose Beck's nice beige gathering against that other rally, the one with the Others, and find it, tsk tsk, political. There was Al Sharpton, going on about how Beck's people "want to disgrace this day" by hijacking MLK's legacy. Glenn gave Al every reason to believe he'd do just that, but when he didn't, at least not overtly—well, that made Al look like… an angry black man—and a stand-in for the secretly angry, secretly Muslim reverse-racist black president.

And all week long, Beck has been speaking in his 8/28 voice, trying to gaslight the libs, hoping they'll get crazy angrier as he gets eerily calmer.

We can debate which is the real Beck: the above-the-fray messianic Beck or the political demagogue Beck? It doesn't really matter. His rally allows him to play roles both more successfully. He created what he set out to: a sacred day, a talisman of apparent goodness that he could forever glory in, and replay and replay, with selected images, especially of supportive black people, no matter how much he might partake in the sin of politics later.

The False and 'Seedy' Claim That Obama Is Muslim

Not that there’d be anything wrong with it, but President Obama was not, as the Reverend Franklin Graham so unequivocally states, “born a Muslim.”

After that sad Pew Research poll came out suggesting that a record 18 percent of Americans now believe that Obama is Muslim and 43 percent say they don’t know what he is (he is, of course, Christian), Franklin Graham, son of evangelist icon Billy Graham, went on John King’s CNN show and spouted this drivel: 

“I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim. His father gave him an Islamic name. Now it's obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”

So much is so wrong with that, starting with the Rev’s “that’s what he says” dog whistles. Hillary was slammed for punting that “as far as I know” Obama wasn’t Muslim, but now coy innuendo about Obama’s faith is standard GOP fare. "The president says he's a Christian,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on Meet the Press. “I take him at his word." (Mitch and Franklin say they’re Christian family men with valid birth certificates. I cannot say they’re not. So I just have to believe that they are what they have said.)

Meanwhile, Graham, who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” was foisting outright falsehoods. The president has not, as Graham claimed, “renounced” Islam—and before some winger twists that to “The Nation admits Obama never renounced Islam!”—let’s be clear: He had nothing to renounce. He was not a Muslim, he wasn’t raised as a Muslim, nor did he choose to practice or worship as one. Perhaps Franklin Graham (who surely has his own daddy-seed issues to deal with) has confused Obama with his Kenyan father, who was indeed raised a Muslim. But, as the president writes, “by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.” Which leads to Graham’s next doozy: The atheist father was highly unlikely to have given his son “an Islamic name”—but he did give him his own name, Barack Hussein Obama.

And though the next night John King brought on a religion professor who scorched Graham for his Islamophobia, King didn’t challenge Graham’s central claim, that President Obama was “born a Muslim.” 

This misconception has long been out there, and was neatly shot down during the presidential campaign. The military historian Edward Luttwak had written an embarrassing New York Times op-ed stating that because “Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood,” he’d risk his life visiting Muslim countries for having committed the “apostasy” of “converting” to Christianity. Again, he “converted” from being nonreligious, not from Islam. But just think: for Fox News–type purposes, how much better it’d be if some foreign Muslims whacked the president than American whites, or white supremacists—who, in reality, have been the prime source of plots and threats against Obama. In any case, Obama’s successful trip to Egypt last year pretty much shut down the false “apostate” alarm.

And thanks to then–-New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, who essentially fact-checked Luttwak, we learned that he--and now Graham--are way off on the “born a Muslim” meme.

Hoyt interviewed experts on Islam and, he wrote, “All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong…. including assertions that in Islam a father’s religion always determines a child’s, regardless of the facts of his upbringing [and] that Obama’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity was apostasy…”

In fact, one scholar, Hoyt wrote, cited an ancient Islamic jurist “who said, ‘If you divorce a Christian woman and ignore your child from her to the point that the child grows up to be a Christian, the child is to be left,’ meaning left to make his own choice.” Obama’s father, of course, divorced his mother and left the family when Obama was 2 years old.

But if Graham really wants to pick at genealogical grubs, what’s he to make of the fact that Obama’s father’s father was a Christian who converted to Islam (and only then took the name Hussein). Aha! What religion is that seed now?

Personally, I’m stuck on the word seed. Graham meant it in the Biblical (or Koranical) sense, but when I hear about a “seed passing through” in the context of an American president, I can’t help but see Monica Lewinsky and her “semen-stained blue dress.”

Regardless of what the Muslim world may or may not believe, this whole seed fixation is profoundly un-American. It says that genealogy is destiny, that a man is Muslim regardless of what he espouses or believes. It’s all about descent—and nauseatingly close to the “one drop rule” of the post-Reconstruction South. That rule held that if a person had any African or Indian ancestry whatsoever, he or she was classified as “colored” and subject to anti-miscegenation laws, voter disenfranchisement, and segregation at large. At least eighteen states adopted some form of the rule; Virginia’s 1924 law, for instance, was called the Racial Integrity Act. 

Whether it’s a drop, a seed, a particular kind of birth certificate, or a distance of six blocks from Ground Zero instead of two, these selectively applied purity tests are far more dangerous to our national character (and, as Frank Rich points out, to our overseas troops who rely on Muslim goodwill) than Islamophobics accuse Muslims of being to our freedom.

'Reverse Racism' Is a Weapon of Mass Distraction

Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who helped destroy ACORN with heavily edited, racially tinged videos (the unedited versions of which have still not been released), just scored another victory over reverse racism, proving once and for all that it’s just like old-fashioned, regular racism: when it occurs, it's always a black person who suffers.

If you need to search for culprits in the railroading of USDA worker Shirley Sherrod, Breitbart is the obvious heel, but hardly the only one. (Tip to kids who live in Ag Sec Tom Vilsack's neighborhood: this Halloween, dress up like Glenn Beck, and the Vilsack household won't just give you all the candy you want, they'll shoot the family dog and cook it up for you.)

The real creeps are anyone in the media who excuses or erases the role played by Breitbart, Fox News, and the Tea Party blogosphere in smearing Sherrod as a racist.

I say that because, once the full video had proven that Sherrod was not shooting off bigoted remarks but actually explaining how she overcame her own bias against whites (and after the white farmer’s wife had confirmed that Sherrod saved the family farm from auction and was a “friend for life”), the right-wing media turned on a dime and gave us nine cents change. Following Breibart’s lead, the winger media began parroting the line that the controversy wasn’t about Breitbart or Sherrod herself but about the NAACP calling the Tea Party racist, and about NAACP members laughing when Sherrod said she had been tempted to do the wrong thing. To do that, they had to write Breitbart out of the story. The villains, they insist, are the NAACP and the Obama administration: those two organizations—both headed by African-Americans, BTW—fell for some silly ol’ video and beat up on Sherrod, who the right is now trying to claim as their sister in victimhood. As conservative David Frum writes:

There will be not even a flutter of interest among conservatives in discussing Breitbart’s role. By the morning of July 21, the Fox & Friends morning show could devote a segment to the Sherrod case without so much as a mention of Breitbart’s role. The central fact of the Sherrod story has been edited out of the conservative narrative, just as it was edited out of the tape itself.

It’s true that the NAACP and Vilsack acted like Pavlovian dogs, conditioned to cower before endlessly replayed video on rightwing TeeVee. But the overreactions on the left and on the right are in no way equal. NAACP head Ben Jealous made a heartfelt and cogent apology for allowing himself to be “snookered” into throwing Sherrod under the bus; Vilsack not only offered Sherrod an apology and her job back, he tried to get her to accept some sort of promotion, apparently to help clear the massive overhang of minority lawsuits against the agriculture department left over from the Bush years.

On the other hand, on the basis of the edited tape, Beck bashed Sherrod as a reverse racist on his morning radio show ("Have we suddenly transported into 1956, except it's the other way around?” he queried). Later that afternoon, as word of the full video was coming out, he defended her on his Fox show, bashing anyone (though not himself or Breitbart) who was stupid enough to take her speech out of context. At the same time, he kept hurling reverse racism charges, asking, "When was the last time the NAACP didn't give someone the benefit of the doubt right away who was African-American?”

As for Breitbart, well, he’s still being reverse-whipped on his reverse-plantation, crying out in anguish, “How long, O Lord?” Last night on John King show, Breitbart didn’t so much defend the cleverly edited smear he’d promoted as try to change the subject, harping repeatedly on videos that he insists “prove beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the Congressional Black Caucus members who said they were called the N-word at a Capitol Hill Tea Party rally back in March are lying to make the TP look racist. (Here are the videos and they prove nothing.) More weirdly, Breitbart suggested  that Sherrod was hoodwinking CNN, asking King, “You're going off of her word that the farmer's wife is the farmer's wife.”

Let’s be clear about the media hoopla over reverse racism this past month, from Rush Limbaugh’s claim that Obama is causing high unemployment as a “payback” for black slavery to Michelle Bachmann’s assertion that Obama is creating “a nation of slaves” to Fox host Megyn Kelly’s eye-popping claims that the New Black Panther Party is somehow immune to prosecution by the Obama justice department: We are not in a race relations crisis. We are in an economic crisis. And these manufactured racial melodramas are meant to frighten Vilsackian Democrats to never dare do anything that might ruffle Tea Party feathers, like push through a desperately needed second stimulus or nominate Elizabeth Warren as head of the consumer protection agency.

As Shirley Sherrod said in her speech, “It’s not about black and white, it’s about poor versus rich, and how the system works to keep it that way….

“[Historically, dividing the races had been] working so well, they said, Gosh, looks like we've come up on something here that can last generations—and here we are. Over 400 years later, and it's still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it's health care or whatever it is, they'll do what they need to do to keep that power.”

Somehow, that part of her speech didn’t get much play on Fox.

Biden's Crystal Balls

When the job numbers for May were announced back in early June, I felt like my favorite Uncle Joe had just sucker-punched me in the kidneys. It wasn’t the disappointing numbers alone—411,000 of the new jobs were temporary Census jobs—but that Joe Biden had, once again, been so confident and so wrong, this time for predicting that the May numbers were “going to be well beyond” the previous month’s. If you counted the temp work of the Census, he was technically correct, but the 41,000 reasonably permanent private-sector jobs created in May were in fact a big disappointment after April’s creation of 218,000 private sector jobs. (The later revised numbers show an even larger discrepancy.)   

The problem is, Biden just keeps on saying stuff like this no matter what happens. Even after the June jobs reports showed a net loss of 125,000 jobs, Biden went on to boldly tell Politico, “We’re going to range—on average, by the time we get to Election Day—probably between 100,000 and 200,000 job creations a month.”  

In fairness, Biden’s jobs forecasts have occasionally been right, and sometimes he’s merely echoing analysts’ overly optimistic forecasts. He does know that his monthly forays onto weak limbs can really piss people off: "Even some in the White House said, 'Hey, don't get ahead of yourself,'" Biden relayed this spring. But Joe just can’t help himself—and his lunchbucket Nostradamus act goes far beyond jobs alone:

On the chances that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan when Obama promised: “In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out,” he told Jonathan Alter last fall. “Bet on it.”

On how the rest of the planet would treat the new Obama presidency: “Mark my words: It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy,” he said shortly before the 2008 election. “Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.… As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it's gonna happen.”

And, perhaps most important, on the Democrats’ chances in the midterms: “I think we can beat Rand Paul—absolutely,” Biden said recently. “I do not see this grand debacle,” he added, laying odds that Senate majority leader Harry Reid would beat Sharron Angle in Nevada with “a 55 percent chance or better.”

Well, some folks say the home team will win every game as they switch on the set, even when they’re Cubs fans. I think Biden’s likely way off on Afghanistan (though his idea of targeting Al Qaeda with special forces and drones may eventually prevail), but can anyone tell me if Joe ever identified the international “generated crisis” that tested Obama in his first six months? And I’d love to think he might be right on the Dems’ chances overall—if not specifically about Reid and Paul—but his track record on jobs and wars makes me think he’s whistling past a Democratic graveyard.

Joe’s frequent forecasts are clearly a subset of his outsized need to tell whoever he meets what they want to hear. But they are not at all “gaffes”—and they certainly don’t fit Michael Kinsley’s much-quoted definition of a political gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth." These hardcore predictions may or may not have anything to do with truth. Rather, they’re part of the popular parlor game that politicians, pundits and journalists play nonstop, both in order to reassure themselves of their insiderish importance and to sway public opinion. At their most malevolently propagandistic, you have predictions like those of another former vice president who divined that American troops would be ''greeted as liberators'' in Iraq and that the insurgency there was “in the last throes.”   

Biden, on the other hand, is more like the gassy uncle who’ll reassure a niece who’s put on an extra 20 pounds, “Whaddya mean, sweetheart?! You’re beautiful! You’re gorgeous! It’s just more to love!” My sneaking worry is that Joe applies the same gusto to administration policy decisions: Don’t sweat it, kid! Half a loaf is better than nothing! I mean, can’t everybody see we have their best interests at heart?

You gotta love the guy, just for his downright convivial garrulousness. He’s in your court and that is a big f**king deal. But like most absolute certainties—and, let’s face it, we all have them—Biden’s are less about the issue at hand than about himself: “I guarantee you,” “I promise you,” “Bet on it.” He has, as his late mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, might say, that Irish grace to lead with his chin, and he really doesn’t seem to care how many times he gets cold-cocked.

Let's just hope his election predictions are better than his jobs predictions. The worry is that they are pretty much the same thing and that Joe is walking into another punch this fall.

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