Saturday Mornings at Ten — Mary Norris fondly remembers calling in to “Car Talk.”
For years, “Car Talk” has served as the Saturday-morning cartoons of my adult life. If I am home, I turn on the radio at ten, and I don’t turn it off until I’ve wasted another hour listening to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, and heard the complete list of fake staff members: Marge Inaverra, the bookkeeper; Pickup Andropov, the Russian chauffeur. If I am leaving on a trip, I time my departure so that I can listen in the car. Like Tom, the older of the Magliozzi brothers, who died this week at the age of seventy-seven, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, I like to drive with the windows open.
Click and Clack stopped making new shows a few years ago, but the best segments of old shows are still on the air, and “Car Talk” still sounds fresh to me. Maybe, like Tom, I have a touch of Alzheimer’s. (Ray was the first to make a joke about how his brother really did not remember last week’s puzzler.) I follow “Car Talk” on Facebook, where they post pictures of eccentric cars sent in by fans. I wish I had sent them my shot, taken in Howard Beach, of the car in the shape of an avocado before someone else did. There’s also a funny-sign contest. I could have sent in “ASS COLLECTION,” the segment of crawl on the L.E.D. sign outside an optical shop in Rockaway that you see only if you’re stopped at the red light at exactly the right moment (“DESIGNER SUNGL … ASS COLLECTION”).
I called “Car Talk” for advice once about my ’85 Ford Escort, which I had dubbed the Death Trap. It had a lot of problems, number one being that it was so rusty that parts were always snapping off, but the car was always cheaper to fix than to replace. Sometimes, it would just be dead on arrival: that is, on my arrival at wherever I had parked it to try to start it up and go someplace. I suspected a bad connection—if I opened the hood and took off my shoe and whacked the engine, sometimes it started. Success depended on the style of shoe. When that didn’t work, I’d call AAA (not to be confused with A.A.), and they’d send a tow truck, and the driver would shake his head and say that a jump would not take me very far, and then he’d tow the car to some cavernous garage on the far West Side, near the car pound, and the mechanics would fleece me for the cost of a new battery and an alternator.
It wasn’t easy to get on “Car Talk,” I discovered. I was not put through to Click and Clack at Car Talk Plaza. Instead, I was instructed to leave my name and number and a brief description of my problem. The calls were prearranged—no doubt by their producer, Doug (Bongo Boy) Berman—but the guys heard the problems for the first time on the air. I soon realized that my problem was nowhere near entertaining enough for “Car Talk.” I was competing with the guy in Brooklyn who parked on the street in a car that drove only in reverse. And the woman in Colorado who was looking for a used stretch limousine so that she could roll up the window between the driver and the passengers and not have to listen to her grandchildren bickering. And the woman in Maine, or somewhere, who drove to the grocery store, parked and locked her car, did her shopping, and only when she came back out to load the groceries into the car saw that there was a rat in it. Eek!
But the idea of calling Click and Clack had the same effect as drafting a letter to Ann Landers: it was enough to make me figure things out for myself. Obviously, I should get rid of the Escort before it got rid of me. My next car was a 1990 Honda Civic—not the most boring car on the road, according to Tom and Ray (that distinction was reserved for the Toyota Corolla)—and my problem with it was not the car but the mechanics. Informed through the mail that I had an unpaid parking ticket, I requested a copy of the original summons, and, sure enough, the ticket was acquired while the car was in their hands. One of the mechanics must have been running an errand (a test drive?) and parked the car illegally somewhere I had no reason to go. What do you do when your mechanics stiff you with a parking ticket? Do you confront them? Or do you shut up and pay?
I paid the ticket and kept the mechanics, and my local stand-ins for Click and Clack (decidedly not educated at M.I.T.) never overcharged me, even though they knew I loved that car and would spend any amount of money on it. I think they loved the car, too. Once, when I picked it up, I found in the back seat a gift of men’s cologne from Lacoste, the company with the crocodile insignia (or is it an alligator?). It was shortly after Valentine’s Day, and I hypothesized that the second-generation mechanic had received it from a girlfriend while on a date in my car. Should I return it? Why? He obviously didn’t want it or he wouldn’t have left it there. Regift it to a friend with a February birthday, without telling him of its provenance? That seemed slightly cynical, but better than the more forthright “Happy Birthday! My mechanic left this in my back seat.”
I wonder what Tom would think of the new speed limit in New York City: twenty-five miles per hour unless posted otherwise. “Whaddya kidding?” he’d say. “You’d be lucky to get a car up to twenty-five miles per hour on the streets of New York City!” And then the laugh.
Tom will drive off into the November afternoon today as Ray does a show in his memory. The Best of “Car Talk” will play on, like the classic it is.
Now What? Steve Coll on what the president can do with two more years.
The Republicans won a clean technical knockout against a hamstrung opponent, but they pranced as if they’d walloped Joe Louis in his prime. Party spokesmen described the victory as a referendum on Obama’s failed leadership. That was spin, yet Obama does deserve much of the criticism he has taken for his party’s defeat. Before the midterms, amid public scares over Ebola and ISIS, approval of the President’s performance sank. He was late to lead in these crises and he failed to inspire swing voters with his successes: for one, his Administration is presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the industrialized world.
Now Obama seems at risk of running out his time in office by accepting dutifully the shrinking boundaries of his Presidency. Last Wednesday, at a press conference in the East Room, he spoke about how, even without congressional support, his Administration might yet improve customer service at government offices—an aspiration so small that it would sound sad if voiced by a mayor of Topeka. Asked about being called a lame duck, Obama replied, “That’s the label that you guys apply.” He outlined a modest legislative agenda that might be pursued with Republican coöperation, if such a thing could be obtained: infrastructure spending that would create high-paying jobs, a raise in the federal minimum wage, and programs to expand early-childhood education and to make college more affordable.
In private, Obama and his aides are discussing a different agenda, one that could be achieved without Congress, through regulation and executive orders, such as the ones he has already signed to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers and to triple the government’s use of renewable energy. Separately, the E.P.A. has proposed to reduce carbon emissions from electricity plants by thirty per cent before 2030, which could hasten the country’s transition away from coal, if the regulations are seen through. In the aftermath of the Ferguson crisis, civil-rights groups have pressed the White House to order the Justice Department to end racial profiling in federal law enforcement. And the President is reportedly considering two exceptionally bold ideas: to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay and to temporarily normalize the legal status of undocumented immigrants who have been living and working here for years. These proposals would require enormous political tenacity, but would greatly elevate Obama’s legacy.
Last week, McConnell said that if Obama acted unilaterally he would so inflame Republicans that it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” Obama’s choice of sports metaphor involved basketball. He’s playing in the fourth quarter, he said, but “the only score that matters” is how he serves the American people. The President has always preferred to win his points through legislative process. Bill Clinton, who faced Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for six of his eight years in office, signed three hundred and sixty-four executive orders; Obama has signed a hundred and ninety-one. The reality now is that either Obama outruns McConnell’s bulls or he waddles down Pennsylvania Avenue like a certain duck.
Why Not Al Franken? Charlie Pierce thinks he’d make a great president.
Brother Dave Weigel points out that Al Franken ran a populist campaign for re-election — straight, no chaser. His ads were direct, and their message was impressively disciplined. (It also helped that the Republicans ran the perfect foil for Franken’s message, a guy who makes Willard Romney look like Henry Wallace.) If you’re looking for a way to do this, Franken and his people have written the primer. So here’s what I’m thinking — why don’t we hear Franken’s name bandied more about as a Democratic presidential possibility in 2016? I suspect that the chances of Martin O’Malley, Esquire’s Favorite Politician ™, rather cratered the other night when his lieutenant governor got whipped, largely because he was a terrible candidate, but also because he was lieutenant governor under, ahem, Martin O’Malley. Senator Professor Warren doesn’t want to run, even though the most compelling conclusion to be drawn from the blasted landscape of the Democratic campaign is that running away from her particular economic message is disastrous, no matter where you happen to be running. Franken showed through his campaign how you embrace the themes on which Warren has based her career in the context of a political campaign.
Since arriving in the Senate, Franken clearly has made the decision to be a workhorse, and not a show pony, which was something that his friend and mentor, the late Paul Wellstone, once told me was the first decision any new senator has to make. You can’t run for president without showing a little show pony. Maybe he doesn’t want to do that. But given the choice between the coronation of Hillary Clinton, and the suddenly desiccated range of options, it’s hard not to see a space for Franken to run. Hell, back in the day, he even wrote a novel about a Franken Presidency. Was he kidding on the square? Good enough? Check. Smart enough? Check. The fact that this would cause Bill O’Reilly’s head to detonate in a gorgeous orange fireball is merely a bonus.
Doonesbury — Tobacco states.