Mike Kueber's Blog

March 11, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #16 – Game Change

Filed under: Movie reviews,Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 12:47 pm
Tags: , , ,

Game Change was literally Saturday Night at the Movies when it premiered on HBO last night.  The movie, which is based on a best-selling book of the same name by respected journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, focuses on the game-changing role played by Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential election.  When I reviewed the book, I blogged that the book was primarily about the Democratic primary contest, but that it did say the following about Palin:

  • McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was an example of risky, gut-based behavior.  For several weeks, McCain was planning to pick qualified, liberal senator Joe Lieberman, but that pick was derailed shortly before the planned announcement.  With only a week to select a replacement, McCain reacted by selecting Palin, and because Palin hadn’t even been on his short-list, she received only a five-day vetting.  When the chief vetter concluded that Palin was, “high risk, high reward,” McCain responded that the vetter shouldn’t have phrased it that way because McCain always loved to gamble.

At the end of the blog review, I concluded the following:

  • Early in this review, I suggested that reading Game Change was unlikely to change many votes. Did it change mine? No, I voted for Obama and would do so again. My rationale was that McCain behaved erratically during the campaign, not only by picking Palin, but also by proposing a gas-tax moratorium and suspending his campaign to address the financial crisis, but then doing nothing to address it. By way of contrast, Obama was steady and analytical. Obama is like a calculating athlete who works hard to put himself in the best position to succeed, whereas McCain doesn’t put a lot of stock into preparation and instead excels at playing the game. McCain has been able to succeed in life because of his common sense, good judgment, and the force of his personality.

The HBO movie Game Change accurately reflected the tone of the book – Sarah Palin is a wonderfully talented politician with the charisma of a Ronald Reagan, but she was woefully unprepared to be on the ticket as a vice-presidential candidate.  Julianne Moore plays Palin, and the other major actors are Ed Burns as McCain and Woody Harrelson as McCain’s leading advisor Steve Schmidt.  Harrelson has almost as much screen time as Moore, and you almost get the feeling that this story is being told from his perspective, although he was only one of 300 sources that the book’s authors relied on.   

Many Republican partisans have already lambasted the movie as false, a criticism they leveled at the book, too.  But two leading McCain partisans have confirmed the accuracy of the movie.  As reported in Wikipedia:

  • However, Steve Schmidt, the campaign’s chief strategist, stated: “Ten weeks of the campaign are condensed into a two-hour movie. But it tells the truth of the campaign. That is the story of what happened.”  He later said that watching the film was tantamount to “an out-of-body experience.”
  • Nicolle Wallace, a chief Palin 2008 aide, said she found Game Change highly credible, saying the film “captured the spirit and emotion of the campaign.”[

Wikipedia also reports that Moore does a better job of capturing Palin than does SNL’s Tina Fey:

  • David Hinckley of The New York Daily News wrote, “Julianne Moore’s physical Palin in Game Change, which debuts March 10, is even more dead-on than Tina Fey’s.”  The comedian Tina Fey, who was noted for her physical resemblance to Palin, won an Emmy Award in 2009 for her satirical impersonation of Palin on the sketch comedy TV show Saturday Night Live.

I agree with Hinckley, but I am also reminded of SNL’s Fey saying that she was not nearly as attractive as Palin.  I have been watching Palin make regular appearances on Sean Hannity’s TV show on Fox, and she is an incredibly attractive person.  Julianne Moore may be more attractive than Tina Fey, but she pales in comparison to the real thing, Sarah Palin.

Ronald Reagan lost his first attempt to get on the Republican ticket, and end up as a Republican icon.  Although this movie does nothing good for the Palin brand, I would hold off on printing her political obituary.

September 23, 2011

Gotcha questions

Filed under: Issues,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 7:35 pm
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The Urban Dictionary defines gotcha questions as “simple, straight-forward questions that cannot be answered by inept politicians.”  There’s a lot of truth to that tongue-in-cheek definition, and an example would be Sarah Palin’s assertion of “gotcha journalism” when Katie Couric asked her what newspapers and magazines she read to stay informed on world affairs.

A more conventional definition of gotcha journalism can be found in Wikipedia:

  • A term used to describe methods of interviewing which are designed to entrap interviewees into making statements which are damaging or discreditable to their cause, character, integrity, or reputation.  The aim is to make film or sound recordings of the interview which can be selectively edited, compiled, and broadcast or published to show the subject in an unfavorable light.”

The key to this definition is that it involves a journalist trying to make the subject look bad by using unfair questions or editing.  Palin never argued that Couric’s question was unfair, but she did claim that Couric edited out several substantive foreign-policy responses that Palin did well on, and retained the one where she stumbled.

I disagree with Palin on this – it would have been journalistic malpractice to edit out the failure of a stature-challenged vice-presidential to identify any magazine or newspaper that she read to keep up on world affairs.

A different form of gotcha question is one that comes out of “left field,” – i.e., one that you have never thought about.  During my congressional campaign, I fielded one of these questions during the taping of a public-TV interview in which I was given 90 seconds to respond to each question.  “What new programs would you support that enhance the ability of people who are currently living paycheck to paycheck to save for their retirement?”

I was dumbfounded.  The first part of the question focused on living paycheck to paycheck and the second part concerned saving for their retirement.  The question was further complicated because I was running as a fiscal conservative who wanted to reduce government spending, not create expensive new programs.  As you might expect, I stumbled badly, not wanting to be heartless, and mumbled something about improving the availability and effectiveness of the 401(k).

Last night Rick Perry fielded a question that came from even deeper right field.  He was asked what he would do if he was suddenly told about a rebellion in Pakistan that resulted in its nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.  Several pundits have acknowledged that this was a tough question (oh, really?), yet criticized Perry for stumbling with his response and mumbling something about the need to establish relations with all the key parties, including India.

Like the question to me, this question is probably something that Perry had never expected and hadn’t pre-formulated a response.  Worse, it was not conducive to an ad-libbed response.  If Perry were given a minute or two to think, or if he were afforded a lifeline (like on Who Wants to be a Millionaire), I’m sure he could have come up with something.

As I was on my bike ride today, twelve hours after the debate, the perfect answer came to me – I would immediately get on the phone
with Jack Bauer.

September 20, 2011

Sarah Palin in the news

Filed under: Issues,Media,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:28 am
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According to news reports, a book being released this week includes allegations that Sarah Palin, while a new sports reporter for an Alaska TV station more than 20 years ago, had a one-night stand with a star basketball player for the University of Michigan.

Many of those in the mainstream media have opined that publishing salacious allegations such as these violates journalistic standards, but they don’t see anything wrong with widely publishing their condemnations of initial allegations.

My favorite Sunday morning talk show, Reliable Sources, claims an unfettered pass to discuss salacious stories because the show’s stated objective is to analyze the American news media, and moderator Howie Kurtz took full advantage of the pass on Sunday.  His lead story was the book on Sarah Palin, and he started by reciting all the allegations – not only the hook-up with Glen Rice, but also cocaine use, marital problems, and Trig not being her biological baby.  He then raised the following journalistic issues:

  • Can you report on the allegations with independently confirming whether there is a factual basis?
  • Should Palin be treated as a serious person or as a celebrity?
  • Does it matter whether she is a serious person vs. a celebrity?
  • Does it matter whether the story is being published in a reputable magazine or a nondescript website?
  • Does a newspaper have higher standards than a book publisher?

I believe that a biographer of any politician certainly should include stories such as the Rice hook-up in a biography.  That information is relevant to understanding the type of person Palin was at that time.

The tougher question is whether the American news media should repeat the story.  Most people in the media don’t think that a politician having pre-marital sex more than 20 years ago is newsworthy.  But as a guest on Reliable Sources noted, this is the type of thing that drives ratings and internet clicks, and the various news outlets are competing for business.

The famous standard at the New York Times is “all the news that’s fit to print,” and the Times maintained that standard by choosing not to discuss the Palin allegations.  In fact, it reviewed the book this past Sunday and simply noted that the book contained a sprinkling of tangy, scandalous morsels.

But other media outlets don’t have the financial strength of the Times, and they obviously find it difficult to turn away business.  Their standard is to give the people what they want.

September 4, 2011

Our newest Teflon candidate, or Fonzie vs. Richie

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:17 pm
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A couple of prominent Republicans have come out in the last few days to suggest that America’s ills can’t be solved by career politicians.  I suspect it’s not a coincidence that career politician Rick Perry has suddenly vaulted to the front of the Republican field.

The first to take a shot at Perry was Mitt Romney.  While speaking at the VFW convention in San Antonio, Romney said, “I’m a conservative businessman.  I spent most of my life outside politics dealing with real problems in the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don’t know how to get us out.”

The next to take a shot was Sarah Palin at a TEA Party rally in Iowa yesterday.  According to a NY Times blog:

  • Ms. Palin criticized career politicians. She did not mention any candidates by name, but her aides have quietly pushed back against the conventional wisdom that she was considering endorsing Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. She criticized career politicians and said that it was not enough simply to replace Mr. Obama with an ordinary Republican administration.  She suggested that the ‘permanent political class’ — Republicans, too — needed to be rattled.  ‘You know that it’s not enough to just change up the uniform,’ Ms. Palin said. ‘If we don’t change the team and the game plan we won’t save our country.’”

Romney and Palin are correct in charging that Perry is a career politician.  He was a student politician at A&M, and after an 11-year hiatus while serving in the Air Force and farming cotton with his dad, he became a state representative in 1984, the state Agriculture commissioner in 1990, the Lt. Governor in 1998, and the Governor in 2000.  He has secured quite a pension with the state of Texas, and most TEA Partiers don’t consider that to be an honorable thing.

But I don’t think the “career politician” charge will stick.  Perry has presented himself as an anti-government outsider for so long that it has become a part of his persona, and that is why he was able to portray Kay Bailey Hutchison as a government insider in his most recent election.  Talk about the kettle calling the pot black.

The same Teflon ability applies to his soft position on illegal immigration.  Although conservatives have never forgiven Mitt Romney for dealing pragmatically with his Massachusetts electorate with respect to RomneyCare, I suspect they will overlook Rick Perry’s squishiness in dealing with his Texas electorate with respect to illegal immigrants in Texas.

Why the double standard?  I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with charisma.  Perry has it (he was a yell leader at A&M), and Romney doesn’t.  As Mark McKinnon said on Meet the Press this week, Perry is like Arthur Fonzerelli (Fonzie) and Romney is like Richie Cunningham.

June 28, 2011

Exploding medical costs because of unlimited coverage

Do you wonder why health-insurance premiums are going up so fast?  President Obama likes to blame the insurance industry.  Two recent newspaper articles, however, suggest that there are other systemic intractable causes:

  1. An article in the NY Times today reports that there are three promising new drugs that can help a man with late-stage prostate cancer live an additional six
    months – i.e., his life expectancy can be increased from 18 months to 24 months.  The problem is that the drug therapy could cost as much as $500,000 over the course of treatment.  Of the potential patients, 80% are on Medicare, and although Medicare is running out of money, the article reports that the expensive treatment will probably be covered.
  2. An article in the NY Daily News last week reported that New York had become the 26th state to require “that health insurance cover the screening, diagnosis, and
    treatment of autism spectrum disorders.  Such coverage would include toddler screenings, speech, physical and occupational therapy – and behavioral treatment.”

Sarah Palin warned about Death Panels and Republicans rail against rationing, but there is no way to get medical costs under control unless we start limiting coverage.  America can’t afford unlimited coverage.

 

May 17, 2011

The gutsy call

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is arguably the most respected American in public service, and he is preparing to resign next month after five years on the job of directing two wars.  Last night on “60 Minutes,” he had a quasi-exit interview by Katie Couric, the scourge of Sarah Palin.  Katie wasn’t as tough on SecDef Gates, whom she introduced by saying, “You are the ultimate soldier’s secretary.  

During the interview, Gates showed himself to be thoughtful and self-effacing, quite unlike his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld.  Everything Gates said made sense except his homage to President Obama for the assault on bin Laden.  In previous posts, I have suggested that the assault was a no-brainer, and blog readers responded that I was a rank partisan who refused to give credit where credit is due.  Add SecDef Gates to that camp of critics.

Gates, who has 30 years of public service and has worked for seven presidents, called the bin Laden mission one of the most courageous calls by a president.  He explained by noting that they weren’t even sure that bin Laden was in the compound – i.e., they had no direct evidence, only circumstantial evidence.  He also noted that there were consequences if the mission went badly.  And finally, there was the risk of lives.  Gates summed this up by saying, “It was a very gutsy call.”

If I had been Katie Couric, I would have followed up by asking, “If the call were so gutsy, so courageous, what alternative did you or anyone else suggest?  You have already said that, ‘Everybody agreed we needed to act and act pretty promptly.’  So if you needed to act, and the three options were to (1) send in SEAL Team Six, (2) bomb the hell out of the compound, and (3) get the Pakistanis to help with an assault, and you weren’t as gutsy and courageous as President Obama, which were you recommending?”

From the position of a Monday Morning Quarterback, it would be completely irresponsible to involve the Pakistanis, and bombing the hell out of the compound might risk those pilots and would leave an ambiguous inconclusive result.  The guts and courage belong to the SEALS.

March 19, 2011

Sunday book review #20 – Decisions Points by George W. Bush

Last December, I suggested that there was so much interesting material in Decision Points that I would break my review into three parts, with the first part reviewing the five pre-9/11 chapters and the second and third parts on the chapters dealing with post-9/11 foreign policy and post-9/11 domestic policy.   After reviewing the first part of Decision Points, I was detoured by a series of books that became available at the SA Public Library.  One of those library books, Because It Is Wrong, critiqued Bush’s post-9/11 handling of surveillance and interrogation issues, which are precisely the issues that Bush discusses in Chapter Six of Decision Points – War Footing.  I review both Because It is Wrong and the War Footing chapter in a subsequent blog entry.   

After reading the library books, as well as a few others that squeezed ahead of it in my reading queue, I finally returned this week to Decision Points and found the remaining chapters to be even better than the early chapters.  The War Footing chapter is followed by separate chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Chapter Seven is titled “Afghanistan.”  Shortly after 9/11, Bush was briefed on three options for dealing with al Qaeda in Afghanistan – (1) cruise missile strikes, (2) cruise missiles and manned-bomber attacks, and (3) missiles, bombers, and boots on the ground against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  During the briefings, some advisors suggested dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the same time.  Ultimately, Bush decided on option #3 (America would not be, as bin Laden suggested, “paper tigers who would run in less than 24 hours”), but he declined to take action against Iraq – “We would fight the war on terror on the offense, and the first battleground would be Afghanistan….  Unless I received definitive evidence typing Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically.”

In his 2000 campaign, Bush had said, “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and 9/11 changed his opinion.  But America was not prepared for nation-building, and Bush concedes that helping the Afghan people to build a functioning democracy has been more daunting that he anticipated.  He is confident, however, that we will ultimately succeed, especially since President Obama has apparently shares the same objective.

Chapter Eight, titled “Iraq,” describes the drawn-out process of going to war against Iraq.  Bush details (a) the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and (b) the diplomatic efforts to avoid war.  When those efforts failed, General Tommy Franks started war-planning.  He had been impressed by the ability of the military to destroy the Taliban and close al Qaeda camps without using a lot of troops.  The key to this so-called “light footprint” was that America was not viewed as invaders or occupies, and General Franks decided to apply the same strategy in Iraq.  Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested to General Franks that he would be better served applying the so-called Powell Doctrine (deploying massive, decisive force), but Franks chose not to adopt it and Bush decided to defer to his military advisors.  The Iraq chapter ends in 2004 after the successful invasion, but the story of the war will be picked up in a later chapter titled, “Surge.”

In Chapter Nine, titled “Leading,” Bush describes his leadership style.  He describes how he worked with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind law and how a variety of compromises resulted in the flawed Medicare prescription-drug benefit.  But he laments his inability to reform Social Security and immigration laws.  In hindsight, he wishes he had attempted immigration reform early in his second term instead of going first for Social Security reform because the former had more bipartisan support.

Incidentally, I was happy to learn that Bush’s five-part proposed immigration reform was very similar to the proposal on which I ran for Congress: (1) hardened border security, (2) temporary-worker program, (3) enhanced enforcement with employers, (4) improved assimilation by requiring immigrants to learn English, and (5) a path to citizenship for long-term, working residents.

Also incidentally, Bush closed the Leading chapter by urging that Congressional districts be drawn by nonpartisan panels instead of legislatures.  He reasoned that legislatures tend to draw polarized districts, which result in polarized politicians, which result in dysfunctional government.  Although this is an excellent argument, talk is cheap – I don’t remember Bush speaking up on this issue when he was in a position to do something about it.

Chapter Ten is titled “Katrina,” which was the costliest national disaster in America’s history.  Bush does not do a lot of finger pointing (he never mentions the poor performance of the citizenry) and takes responsibility for government letting down its citizens – “Serious mistakes came at all levels, from the failure to order a timely evacuation of New Orleans to the disintegration of local security forces to the dreadful communications and coordination.  As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.  I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions.  Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen.  The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions.  It was that I took too long to decide.”  

Bush gives a detailed discussion of four important events:

  1. He pushed hard for Mayor Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation of the city.  The order came less than 24 hours before Katrina landed.
  2. His decision against visiting New Orleans shortly after the flood was correct because he would have interfered with the rescue efforts, but he should have landed in Baton Rouge to meet with the governor and show his concern.
  3. He pushed hard for Governor Blanco to authorize the federal government to take charge of security in New Orleans, but she never agreed.  Eventually, Bush sent in federal troops and General Honore, but because of Blanco’s resistance they had no law-enforcement authority.  Yet they succeeded in bringing order to the city.  “Had I known he could be so effective without the authority I assumed he needed, I would have cut off the legal debate and sent troops in without law enforcement powers several days earlier.”
  4. Although he had encouraged FEMA’s Mike Brown with, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he eventually replaced Brown because Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said Brown had frozen under pressure and became insubordinate.

Chapter Eleven, titled “Lazarus Effect,” describes Bush’s fight to secure funding for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Although Bush’s efforts are commendable, there really wasn’t a lot of opposition to overcome.  Getting Congress to spend money does not require superhuman efforts.

Chapter Twelve, titled “Surge,” brings us back to the war in Iraq.  By 2006, sectarian violence had caused the Iraq situation to deteriorate.  Even Republican whip Mitch McConnell was lobbying Bush to bring the troops home.  After the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, new Speaker Pelosi declared, “The American people have spoken….  We must begin the responsible redeployment of our troops outside of Iraq.”  But Bush remained committed to prevailing in Iraq, and eventually he concluded that the “light footprint” strategy espoused by Rumsfeld and Generals Casey and Abizaid was the problem.  In its stead, he adopted a “surge” strategy developed by National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and General Petraeus.  At the close of one preliminary meeting with General Petraeus, Bush used the gambling expression that America was “doubling down,” and Petraeus one-upped him by responding that “we were all in.”  

Opposition to the surge was immense, with notable exceptions like Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman.  The House passed a nonbinding resolution disapproving the surge.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared, “The war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything.”  According to Bush, this declaration “was one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington.”  I agree that, for a leader in Congress, Reid’s statement was contemptible.        

Eventually, the surge succeeded, and it is enabling President Obama to conduct an orderly withdrawal.

Chapter Thirteen, titled “Freedom Agenda,” describes Bush’s efforts to implement the fourth prong of the Bush Doctrine throughout the world.  For those of you, like Sarah Palin, who aren’t familiar with the Bush Doctrine, it means:

  1. Make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbor them.  We will hold both to account.
  2. Take the fight against terrorists to the enemy overseas before they can attack us at home.
  3. Confront threats before they fully materialize.
  4. Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

The Freedom Agenda was implemented in several ways:

  • Supporting fledgling democracies in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
  • Encouraging dissidents and democratic reformers in repressive regimes like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.
  • Advocate for freedom while maintaining strategic relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and China.

Bush says that in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, he placed much focus on the Middle East because “the great tide of freedom that swept much of the world during the second half of the twentieth century had largely bypassed one region: the Middle East.”

After describing successes in his Freedom Agenda, Bush concedes disappointment with Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela – “Still, given what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War, Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.  Russia was not the only one.  I was hopeful that Egypt would be a leader for freedom and reform in the Arab world, just as it had been a leader for peace under Anwar Sadat a generation before.  Unfortunately, after a promising presidential election in 2005 that included opposition candidates, the government cracked down during the legislative elections later that year, jailing dissidents and bloggers who advocated a democratic alternative.  Venezuela also slid back from democracy.”

Chapter Fourteen, titled “Financial Crisis,” is the last chapter.  Bush said that Bernanke and Paulson, two of his best appointments, warned him that the crisis could be as bad as the Great Depression.  Bush’s great response – “If we’re really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”  His actions reflected that sentiment – he bailed out the banks, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and two auto manufacturers.

Also in this chapter, Bush responded to a couple of common criticisms relating to his role in causing the financial crisis:

  1. He failed to ask Americans to sacrifice while we were fighting two wars.  Bush counters that this wasn’t like World War Two where we had to convert to a war-based economy.  “I’ve always believed that the critics who alleged I wasn’t asking people to sacrifice were really complaining that I hadn’t raised taxes….  I am convinced that raising taxes after the devastation of 9/11 would have hurt our economy.”
  2. He squandered the massive surplus that he inherited.  “Much of the surplus was an illusion, based on the mistaken assumption that the 1990s boom would continue.  Once the recession and 9/11 hit, there was little surplus left.

Decision Points concludes with a short Epilogue, in which Bush reveals complete serenity about his presidency.  He believes that the central challenge of his presidency was to keep America safe and that mission was accomplished.  He “pursued his convictions without wavering, but changed course when necessary…trusted individuals to make choices in their lives… used America’s influence to advance freedom.”

I remember back in the 80s when I would defend Reagan against those who thought he was a dunce or a Neanderthal.  In my mind, Reagan was a national asset, and that’s how I’ve felt about George W. Bush.  After reading Decision Points, I believe that America was fortunate to have him as president from 2001-2009.

February 28, 2011

Sunday book review #16 – Dirty Sexy Politics by Meghan McCain

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:34 am
Tags: , , , ,

No, the title of this book isn’t what attracted me to it.  Rather, it was seeing Meghan interviewed three times on the Imus in the Morning talk show.  As Imus observed more than once, Meghan is bright, interesting, and personable.  That same person comes through in this book.  It’s been a long time since I have read a book so easily readable.

The title of this book has virtually nothing to do with the book; rather it was merely a slick artifice designed to buy some attention and sell some books.  Apparently the title was derived from a Barry Goldwater quote – “Sex and politics are a lot alike.  You don’t have to be good at them to enjoy them.”

The book chronicles Meghan’s time spent with her dad’s 2008 presidential campaign, which Meghan joined right after graduating from Coumbia in NYC.  The book starts with Meghan worrying that her dad was going to pick Mitt Romney for his running mate.  She had been rooting for the selection of family friend Joe Lieberman and was worried about how her free-spirited personality and liberal use of the f-bomb would mesh with the straight-laced Mormon family.  She quickly learned, however, that meshing with the Mormons would have been easy compared to dealing with the prima donna Palin.

Although Meghan comes across as frank and critical, she isn’t catty.  She is struck by Palin’s beauty and charisma, and likes how Palin stands up to bad-guy Steve Schmidt, the Nazi-like campaign manager.  But Meghan also admits being a bit resentful that Palin attracts so much publicity and seems to have her own agenda.

Regarding Meghan’s role in the campaign, she acknowledges that there was a conflict between (a) the way she was raised (to be independent and to speak her mind freely) and (b) the proper way to conduct herself during a campaign (to be a wallflower).  If she had been more mature at the time, she might have been able to recognize and deal with this conflict instead of continually fighting to be herself.  But being herself caused the campaign managers eventually to decide that she was more trouble than she was worth, and they reassigned her from the main campaign to a secondary campaign that traveled by bus to low-visibility events. 

In addition to attending the low-visibility events, Meghan published a campaign blog with the help of two assistants – a photographer and a videographer.  Eventually, it received more than 10,000 hits a day.  Although that number sounds astronomical to me, she says that it is dwarfed by other popular political blogs.     

Reading this book is like spending some time with a refreshing person.  But is also gives an interesting perspective on the 2008 presidential campaign.  Don’t expect to read anything complicated (Reaganesque) about her relationship with her parents.  She obviously thinks they walk on water.  Her loyalty to her dad is such that she has never forgiven George W. Bush for the dirty tactics that earned him a primary victory over her dad in the 2000 South Carolina primary.  And this loyalty seems to have caused her to be mildly negative about Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, as well as Laura and Jena Bush.

I detected one significant inconsistency in Meghan’s stated philosophy.  She started the book by saying that she joined the campaign when it was broke, and they took her on board only if she paid her own way – “To bankroll myself and the blog, I used the money that my grandfather had left me, even if, by the end, I had spent every dime.  It was a better education than graduate school and more worthwhile to me than opening a boutique.”  Then she ended the book by noting – “I had been raised to speak my mind freely and be independent.  If there was one thing that my dad wanted for me – and all of his kids – it was to be strong, think for ourselves, and support ourselves.  We were never supposed to rely on government or family money or a trust fund to take care of us.  We were supposed to work, make a life for ourselves, and find a way to make things better around us.”  This is one case where consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.     

Meghan concludes by taking the Republican Party to task for abandoning the conservative principles of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.  She thinks the party should expand its tent by welcoming social liberals like her.  I agree.

February 21, 2011

Michael Medved defends President Obama

While watching my favorite Sunday-morning talk show – Reliable Sources – I heard Howie Kurtz interview conservative talk-show host Michael Medved about a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.  According to the interview, Medved and his op-ed piece took to task those conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh, who argue that President Obama is intentionally trying to weaken America. 

Although I find it hard to believe that any reasonable person would think that about our president, I confess that conservative talk-show host Michael Savage comes close to that position in his book Trickle Up Poverty.  And I do recall Limbaugh asserting several months ago that he wanted the president “to fail.”  So I decided to read the op-ed piece to learn what evidence Medved could marshal to support his thesis.

In the op-ed piece, Medved quotes from four conservatives:

  • Blogger Victor Sharpe said, “My fear is that Obama is not naïve at all, but he instead knows only too well what he is doing, for he is eagerly promoting Islamic power in the world while diminishing the West.”  There is certainly a lot of raw meat in the quote, but who is Victor Sharpe and why do we care what he says?
  • Erstwhile vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin said on a radio show, “What I believe that Obama is doing right now—he is hell-bent on weakening America…. What Obama is doing” is “purposefully weakening America—because he understood that debt weakened America, domestically and internationally, and yet now he supports increasing debt.”  This quote seems like the typical vapid, vacuous comment that comes from Palin; I don’t detect any serious effort to accuse the president of evil intent.
  • Dinesh D’Souza’s best-selling book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” is being pitched with a promise to “reveal Obama for who he really is: a man driven by the anti-colonial ideology of his father and the first American president to actually seek to reduce America’s strength, influence and standard of living.”  This quote, not even from the author, seems merely to indicate that the president wants to pursue a less aggressive international policy.
  • And finally, Rush Limbaugh said, “I think we face something we’ve never faced before in the country—and that is, we’re now governed by people who do not like the country….  There’s no question that payback is what this administration is all about, presiding over the decline of the United States of America, and doing so happily.”  This quote reads a lot like the D’Souza blurb – i.e., a president who is less enthused about American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny than his predecessors. 

Based on these quotes, I don’t think Medved made his case.  The only serious charge – that the president is loyal to Islam, not America – is made by someone who isn’t even profiled in Wikipedia.  How obscure is that?  Palin’s charge is empty rhetoric, and D’Souza and Limbaugh merely charging that the president prefers a less muscular America.  These three pundits aren’t charging the president with conflicting loyalties; they are merely using rhetoric to rouse their constituencies.

February 6, 2011

Sunday book review #12 – The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

In the past few weeks, I’ve blogged quite a bit about Barack Obama, especially on the subject of American exceptionalism.  As those postings reveal, I’ve grown disenchanted with Obama since voting for him in 2008.  

Obama earned my vote in 2008 because of his steadiness in reacting to the financial meltdown and his post-partisan demeanor, as compared to McCain’s unsteadiness in dealing with the meltdown and his selection of Palin for VP.  Since 2008, however, Obama has sacrificed his post-partisan demeanor to achieve a big-government agenda, most particularly ObamaCare. 

Obama’s policy shift is not difficult to understand.  According to an article in the latest issue of Time magazine, Obama dreams of joining the pantheon of America’s six transformational presidents – Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt-1, Roosevelt-2, and Reagan – who were catalysts who challenged the orthodoxy of their time.  Whereas Reagan persuaded Americans that government was the problem, Obama wants to persuade Americans that government can be a big part of the solution.   

A liberal friend of mine suggested that before I jump to conclusions about Obama’s overarching objectives, I might benefit from reading his book – The Audacity of Hope.  In fact, she was dismayed that I hadn’t already read it.  The following is what I learned from the book:

Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope in the small window of time between winning election to the U.S. Senate and beginning his run for president.  Say what you want about him, the guy does not lack energy or ambition.  He wrote his first book – Dreams from My Father – shortly after finishing law school, while working as a lawyer and law professor.  Four years later, he successfully runs for the Illinois State Senate and formally begins his life as a professional politician. 

In the Prologue of The Audacity of Hope, Obama stakes out his post-partisan position – i.e., that shared ideals and common values of Americans are more significant than the disagreements that politicians and the media amplify. 

Chapter One is titled, “Republicans and Democrats.”  It elaborates on the disservice done by those who polarize Americans, especially Karl Rove and Tom DeLay.  Although Obama admired Reagan’s connection with Americans, Obama disparages Reagan for “his John Wayne, Father Knows Best pose, his policy by anecdote, and his gratuitous assaults on the poor.”  (Where I come from, it’s not a good idea to disparage the Duke.)  Obama understands Democrats who want “to match the Republican right in stridency and hardball tactics,” but he suggests there was a post-partisan majority waiting to be lead:

  • I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point….  They are there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.”

Chapter Two is titled, “Values.”  Not surprisingly, Obama posits that “Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values.”  His starting point with values is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  After giving props to American individualism as a bedrock value, Obama qualifies that by saying, “Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends….  In every society (and in every individual), these twin strands – the individualistic and the communal, autonomy and solidarity – are in tension.”  Obama correctly notes that finding the right balance between our conflicting values is difficult, but then provides an excellent description of why he is a Democrat:

  • “That is one of the things that makes me a Democrat, I suppose – this idea that our communal values, our sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity, should express themselves not just in the church or the mosque or the synagogue; not just on the blocks where we live, in the places where we work, or within our families; but also through our government.  Like many conservatives, I believe in the power of culture to determine both individual success and social cohesion, and I believe we ignore cultural factors at our peril.  But I also believe that our government can play a role in shaping that culture for the better – or for the worse.”

Chapter Three is titled, “Our Constitution.”  Obama taught constitutional law, part-time, at the University of Chicago for ten years after graduating from Harvard.  Suffice to say he doesn’t believe in construing the document as it was written.  Rather, he prefers to read it as a “living document” to be interpreted by nine wise Supreme Court justices, although he acknowledges that many conservatives view the courts as “the last bastion of pro-abortion, pro-affirmative-action, pro-homosexual, pro-criminal, pro-regulation, anti-liberal elitism.” 

Chapter Four is titled, “Politics.”  As an amateur politician, I found this chapter most interesting.  Obama’s first point is that politics is humbling in the same way that I have heard Jerry Jones and Red McCombs describe sports – i.e., unlike business, in sports there is only one winner and everyone else is exposed as a loser.  Obama’s experience at losing occurred when he took on Bobby Rush for a congressional seat and lost by more than 30%.  His description of the situation rings true:

  • I’m not suggesting that politicians are unique in suffering such disappointments.  It’s that unlike most people, who have the luxury of licking their wounds privately, the politician’s loss is on public display….  They’re the sorts of feelings that most people haven’t experienced since high school… – the kinds of feelings that most adults wisely organize their lives to avoid.”

Aside from the pain of loss, Obama says, “Most of the other sins of politics are derivatives of this larger sin – the need to win, but also the need not to lose.”  According to Obama, “without money, and the television ads that consume all that money, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose.”  When he decided to run for the U.S. Senate, his media consultant David Axelrod told him that they would need $500k a week for a 4-week TV-ad campaign in Chicago and another $250k a week for the downstate ad campaign.  To accomplish this financial need, Obama cold-called Democratic donors for several hours each day for three months, and this resulted in a mere $250k. 

Then:

  • For whatever reason, at some point my campaign began to generate that mysterious, elusive quality of momentum, of buzz; it became fashionable among wealthy donors to promote my cause, and small donors around the state began sending me checks through the Internet at a pace we had never anticipated.”

Although Obama doesn’t explain where the groundswell came from, he does note eight pages later in this chapter that his relations with the media were exceptional:

  • A disclaimer here: For a three-year span, from the time that I first announced my candidacy for the Senate to the end of my first year at a senator, I was the beneficiary of unusually – and at time undeservedly – positive press coverage.  No doubt some of this had to do with my status as an underdog in my Senate primary, as well as the novelty as a black candidate with an exotic background.”

You have to give the guy credit for acknowledging that he received undeservedly positive coverage, but what does that say about the “impartial” media?  Also, Illinois already had a black senator (Carol Moseley Braun), although she didn’t grow up in “exotic” Hawaii or Indonesia.

I also give Obama credit for acknowledging in this chapter that the access that campaign contributors buy results in favorable treatment, either because the contributors are better able to articulate and justify their positions or because the candidate spends so much time with fat cats – “Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met.”

You may recall that during Obama’s presidential campaign, his intellectual connection with some San Francisco donors led to a comment about common folks “clinging to their guns and religion.”  This chapter contains an eerily similar reference when Obama described his donor base, although it does not drip with condescension like his SF talk:

  • Most were adamantly prochoice and antigun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.  And although my own worldview and theirs corresponded in many ways – I had gone to the same schools, after all, read the same books, and worried about my kids in many of the same ways – I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations.  On core issues I was candid; I had no problem telling well-heeled supporters that the tax cuts they received from George Bush should be reversed.  Whenever I could, I would try to share with them some of the perspective I was hearing from other portions of the electorate; the legitimate role of faith in politics, say, or the deep cultural meaning of guns in rural parts of the state.”

Special interests are the next biggest corrupter in politics.  According to Obama, they have outsized influence because “organized people can be just as important as cash, particularly in the low-turnout primaries that, in the world of gerrymandered political map and divided electorates, are often the most significant race a candidate faces.”  Well said.     

Obama concludes this chapter by describing the critical role played by TV (free and paid) and how negative ads can distort a reasonable statement into an incendiary sound bite that outweighs a history of sound thinking.  He notes that because of circumstances he had never been subjected to a negative ad, but failed to explain what those circumstances were.

Chapter Five is titled, “Opportunity.”  This chapter is Obama’s economic vision for America.  Although he sees the American economy as based on the free market, he also sees three important roles to be played by government – (1) providing infrastructure (including education, science & technology, and energy independence), (2) regulating the market, and (3) “Finally – and most controversially – government has helped structure the social compact between business and the American worker.”  I couldn’t agree more – i.e., the first two are no-brainers and the last one is controversial. 

Obama doesn’t believe in the Ownership Society; he prefers the welfare state with social insurance:

  • That’s the basic idea behind the Ownership Society: If we free employers of any obligations to their workers and dismantle what’s left of New Deal, government-run social insurance programs, then the magic of the marketplace will take care of the rest.  If the guiding philosophy behind the traditional system of social insurance can be described as ‘We’re all in it together,’ the philosophy behind the Ownership Society seems to be ‘You’re on your own.’….  In other words, the Ownership Society doesn’t even try to spread the risks and rewards of the new economy among all Americans.  Instead, it simply magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner-take-all economy….  It’s not who we are as a people.”

I’m not so sure about that.  When Obama emphasizes the communal nature of Americans, I wonder where he learned that.  It’s almost utopian and is not the economy that I am familiar with.

One issue where Obama is completely out of step with America is unionization.  He thinks the playing field needs to be leveled between organized labor and employers.  One of his recommendations – “Employers should have to recognize a union if a majority of employees sign authorization cards choosing the union to represent them.”  That may sound benign, but is it highly misleading.  The alternative is to have the employees decide by secret ballot.  I would love to hear Obama make an argument against a secret ballot because I have never heard one that makes sense.

Obama concludes this chapter on economics by describing a visit with the sage from Omaha – Warren Buffett.  During that visit, Buffett provided an interesting analogy in support of an estate tax.  He suggested that giving wealth to heirs without any taxation is like selecting the 2020 Olympic team by picking the children of the winners at the 2000 games.

Chapter Five is titled, “Faith.”  Obama was not brought up to be religious.  His parents were apparently atheists, although he claims his mother was a highly spiritual person who viewed religion through the eyes of an anthropologist.  His grandparents had been brought up as Christians, but had abandoned the religion.  When Obama was searching for religion, he was attracted to black churches because they were concerned not only with personal salvation, but also with social justice. 

Obama’s take on faith is that the Democrats need to understand that religion in America is not dying out and that the party must realize that religion informs that policies and conduct of successful politicians.  His political formulation – “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.  It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.”  Well said.

Chapter Six is titled, “Race.”  Obama had surprisingly few insights regarding race in America.  He acknowledges the progress made since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, but warns that America still has a long way to go.  As proof of this distance, he notes that blacks make only 75% and Hispanics make only 71%  as much money as whites – “How do we close this persistent gap – and how much of a role government should play in achieving that goal – remains one of the central controversies of American politics.”  At a minimum, civil rights deserve more vigorous enforcement, and affirmative action can be helpful, if properly structured.  Obama does not give a full-throated defense of affirmative action, but instead focuses on government action that would help all poor – “And what would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that lead to such jobs, labor and tax laws that restore balance to the distribution of the nation’s wealth, and health-care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.”

Did you notice Obama’s comment about restoring balance to the distribution of the nation’s wealth?  He went on to claim that black income rose to record highs under Bill Clinton because “government took a few modest steps – like the Earned Income Tax Credit – to spread the wealth around.”  Sounds like his comment to Joe the Plumber about “spreading the wealth around” was not a slip of the tongue.

Obama concluded the Race chapter by describing two insoluble problems – (1) inner-city poor, and (2) illegal immigrants.  About illegal immigrants, he admits:

  • And if I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I’m not entirely immune to such nativist sentiments.  When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment.  When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

Chapter Eight is titled, “The World Beyond our Borders.”  This chapter consists of Obama’s description of America’s foreign policy since the days of Washington.  Not surprisingly, he took a shot at manifest destiny – “the conviction that such expansion was preordained, part of God’s plan to extend what Andrew Jackson called ‘the area of freedom’ across the continent.  Of course, manifest destiny also meant bloody and violent conquest – of Native American tribes forcibly removed from their lands and of the Mexican army defending its territory.  It was a conquest that, like slavery, contradicted America’s founding principles and tended to be justified in explicitly racists terms, a conquest that American mythology has always had difficulty fully absorbing but that other countries recognized for what it was – an exercise in raw power.

I don’t know where Obama learned his American history, but it sounds like he learned it in Indonesia or while being home-schooled by his mom.  Texians earned their independence by defeating an invading army from Mexico.  Several years later, Texas sought and achieved annexation by the United States, and this annexation caused a war with Mexico over a boundary dispute.  In no way was this a “bloody and violent conquest… of the Mexican army defending its territory.”  And in no way is manifest destiny a racist evil comparable to slavery.  The frontier was waiting to be developed, and Native America and Mexico were not up to the task.

Regarding America’s current foreign policy, Obama reasonably argues against isolationism and in favor of our unilateral right to defend ourself (such as going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban).  But:

  • Once we get beyond matters of self-defense, though, I’m convinced that it will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world.”

Chapter Nine is titled, “Family.”  In this chapter, Obama describes the difficulty in raising kids when both parents have to work.  And he admits that he has been sheltered from much of those difficulties because of his resources (money, his wife, and his mother-in-law).

Epilogue.  The Epilogue consists primarily of Obama telling the story of his keynote speech at the Kerry convention, but I couldn’t figure out the purpose of the story.  He closed the book by quoting Benjamin Franklin explaining to his mother why he devoted so much of his life to public service – “I would rather have it said, He lived usefully, than, He died rich.” 

That explains Obama – he wants to make America better. 

In reading The Audacity of Hope, I am reminded of why I voted for Obama in 2008.  He is a fine person and a capable politician.  But I think America would be better served by a president who leans more toward expanding free enterprise and less toward expanding the welfare state.  Government has a role to create opportunity, but I think it diminishes opportunity when it seeks to “spread the wealth around.”

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