Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sunday Reading

A Lesson in Humility: New York Governor Eliot Spitzer finds that governing can be a tough lesson.

A year ago, Eliot Spitzer, the real-estate scion and crusading attorney general, won a lightly contested race for governor, against a Republican named John Faso, by promising to put an end to that dysfunction. Since then, Albany has in many ways become more dysfunctional than ever. The addition of an aggressive personality with an ambitious agenda has, perversely, gummed up the works. The acrimony between Spitzer and his enemies, born of scandal, policy disagreement, political desperation, tactical blundering, and personal animus, has all but stalled the workings of the government, or at least those which require the collaboration of the executive chamber and the Legislature.

The Governor’s aides like to refer to “the Spitzer brand.” Before his first year in office, Eliot Spitzer was a populist avenger, a media darling, a rising Democratic star, a progressive’s Rudy Giuliani, a panacea-in-waiting, a front-runner in the first-Jewish-President race. Somehow, he’s become an unpopular governor careering from mess to mess. Allegations that his office used the state police to smear Joseph Bruno for misusing state aircraft (an affair known as Troopergate), and a doomed proposal to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, have compromised the brand. His head shot has appeared repeatedly in the Post over the words “DIRTY TRICKS.” Lou Dobbs spent a month ridiculing him on CNN. The throngs of Wall Streeters who despised him for his unyielding prosecutions when he was attorney general have been joined by scores of affronted political professionals, whose egos, customs, or survival instincts demand that they indulge their negative reactions to his way of doing things. Against Faso, he got sixty-nine per cent of the vote; a few weeks ago, a poll found that only twenty-five per cent would vote for him if an election were held today. The common perception—the dominant story line—is that Spitzer doesn’t have the collaborative temperament or the tactical elasticity to be a governor. To his critics, who complained that he exploited the attorney general’s office to gain the governor’s mansion, he was too political to be a prosecutor and yet is now too prosecutorial to be a politician.

But amid all the rancor, the bad press, and the souring of his prospects, the Governor has kept at it, admitting little in the way of doubt or regret, and seeing the “pushback,” as he and his circle describe it, as evidence of headway. He has continued to conduct whatever business he can, drawing on the ample power granted him by the office, while travelling around the state, announcing initiatives and presiding at groundbreakings, as though taking refuge in the expanse of his obligations and the far reaches of his domain. He has not spent a great deal of time in Albany, the epicenter of his troubles, availing himself of the state-owned air fleet—a source and symbol of geographic freedom and power (and of its occasional abuses). As the early astronauts observed, altitude and distance bring a certain cohesion into view.

Read the whole thing as a cautionary tale for any politician who promises much and finds that reality has a sneaky way of making itself known at the most inconvenient — yet teachable — times.

The Double-O Factor: Patricia J. Williams in The Nation on the merger of politics and pop culture at the highest level.

The role of media, particularly the entertainment media, in allowing us to understand our civic life is not to be underestimated. Great actors, great orators and great businessmen draw upon similar thespian skills–it’s what makes them likable, salable, commercial. We Americans shovel money at those who can best perform our fantasies.

I say all this because I’m intrigued by the brouhaha attending Oprah Winfrey’s decision to endorse Barack Obama’s candidacy. The Internet is positively foaming at her decision to campaign for him. Celebrities–from Toby Keith to Sammy Davis Jr., from Barbra Streisand to Jon Bon Jovi–have always stumped for candidates, but a lot of people seem to feel that Oprah is different. She’s not a background singer; she is no mere decorative backdrop. Oprah can turn a book into a bestseller!, fume the blogs. When she lends her magic touch, it’s somehow complicated or even unfair. I suspect that some of the controversy comes from those who like Obama and don’t relate to Oprah’s television persona, or vice versa. But it’s interesting to contemplate: what does it mean that some people are so concerned about whether this particular celebrity ought to express herself in the political realm?

In a very straightforward sense, it’s no wonder that the Double O’s are such an arresting team: one of the world’s most influential black men links arms with the world’s most powerful black woman, and together they sell out an 18,000-seat arena in Columbia, South Carolina, so fast that the computers crash. It’s an unprecedented performance of black power in the heart of the old Confederacy. For someone who lived through the most hateful moments of the civil rights era, it’s exhilarating and hopeful–and vaguely scary in the vertigo it induces.

From another perspective, to many people Oprah embodies a comforting sort of motherly everywoman, whose embrace has been perhaps too comfortably nonpartisan. If some part of her audience felt betrayed when she lost more weight than the average soccer mom, it stands to reason that they’ll feel betrayed when she takes an overt stand in the political realm.

Beyond that, however, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are indeed remarkable for how unstilted they are in the public arena. Like the Wiley College debate team of old, they defy the sideshow of the exceptionally “articulate” colored person. The two of them are our most fluent contemporary orators. They are brilliant speakers, easy with large audiences, and both have a talent for translating hard topics into lucid argument. There’s good reason both Obama and Winfrey are so often described as trustworthy.

In addition, their particular form of raced celebrity enshrines the notion of American mobility at a moment when it is–in reality–sorely vexed. As I observed in an earlier column, Obama radiates a kind of hope that crosses the immigrant epic with a romantic desire for rainbow diversity. Similarly, Oprah is the black, female, Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story of our day. From her humble beginnings as a traumatized little girl, albeit pluckier even than Orphan Annie (we Americans do love “pluck”), Oprah reinvented herself by sheer will and rose against all odds to the very top of the phantasmagorical bubble machine we call the entertainment industry. There’s a general fear of, as well as attraction to, that bubble. Is the celebrity a platform or a dog-and-pony show? Is it serious debate or entertainment? How easy the purchase of cynicism.

But if we’re lucky, maybe something enduring comes of artfully imagining our ideals. Maybe, as with Wiley College, that’s how we escort them into renewed life. Maybe indeed it is not too much to hope that the redemptive power of an intelligent dream might reinvigorate the exhaustion of our embattled political landscape.

The GOP’s Obama: Frank Rich on Mike Huckabee as the Republican version of Barack Obama.

Though their views on issues are often antithetical, Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Obama may be united in catching the wave of an emerging zeitgeist that is larger than either party’s ideology. An exhausted and disillusioned public may be ready for a replay of the New Frontier pitch of 1960. That pitch won’t come from Mr. Romney, a glib salesman who seems a dead ringer for Don Draper, a Madison Avenue ad man of no known core convictions who works on the Nixon campaign in the TV series, “Mad Men.” Mr. Romney’s effort to channel J.F.K. last week, in which he mentioned the word Mormon exactly once, was hardly a profile in courage.

The fact to remember about Mr. Huckabee’s polling spike is that it occurred just after the G.O.P. YouTube debate on CNN, where Mr. Romney and Rudy Giuliani vied to spray the most spittle at illegal immigrants. Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the fringe candidate whose most recent ads accuse the invading hordes of “pushing drugs, raping kids, destroying lives,” accurately accused his opponents of trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.”

Next to this mean-spiritedness, Mr. Huckabee’s tone leapt off the screen. Attacked by Mr. Romney for supporting an Arkansas program aiding the children of illegal immigrants, he replied, “In all due respect, we’re a better country than to punish children for what their parents did.” It was a winning moment, politically as well as morally. And a no-brainer at that. Given that Mr. Tancredo polls at 4 percent among Iowan Republicans and zero nationally, it’s hard to see why Rudy-Romney thought it was smart to try to out-Tancredo Tancredo.

Mr. Huckabee’s humane stand wasn’t an election-year flip-flop. As governor, he decried a bill denying health services to illegal immigrants as “race-baiting” even though its legislator sponsor was a fellow Baptist preacher. Mr. Huckabee’s record on race in general (and in attracting African-American votes) is dramatically at odds with much of his party. Only last year Republicans brought us both “macaca” and a television ad portraying the black Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee, Harold Ford Jr., as a potential despoiler of white women.

Unlike Rudy-Romney, Mr. Huckabee showed up for the PBS presidential debate held at the historically black Morgan State University in September. Afterward, he met Cornel West, an Obama supporter who deeply disagrees with Mr. Huckabee about abortion and much else. I asked Dr. West for his take last week. After effusively praising Mr. Huckabee as unique among the G.O.P. contenders, Dr. West said: “I told him, ‘You are for real.’ Black voters in Arkansas aren’t stupid. They know he’s sincere about fighting racism and poverty.”

Mr. Rich might want to re-think his genial assessment of Mr. Huckabee after reading this story.

“Is He Dead?” Not Quite: A lost play of Mark Twain makes it to Broadway.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin opened a file drawer at the University of California’s Bancroft Library in Berkeley, where the largest collection of Mark Twain’s papers is archived. She was researching a project on racial themes in his work, and was not thrilled to find the drawer crammed with Twain plays she had not yet read and didn’t care to.

Those she already knew were dreary at best. “Colonel Sellers,” though a huge hit in New York in 1874, was pilloried by reviewers as “a wretched thing” and “excessively thin.” The Bret Harte collaboration “Ah Sin” was even worse: a cringe-inducing ethnic comedy and, unpardonably, a flop. Twain told its opening-night audience in 1877 that the play had improved each time the producer trimmed it, and that “it would have been one of the very best plays in the world if his strength had held out so that he could cut the whole of it.”

Still, Dr. Fishkin, who is a professor of English and the director of American studies at Stanford, decided (as she later put it) to eat her scholarly spinach and plow through the mess. The materials were filed chronologically, so it took a while before she got to a late comedy called “Is He Dead?” It was not exactly a discovery; the title had turned up in the occasional academic note or reference. But the play itself had never been performed or published or even, to judge from the condition of the manuscript, much perused.

And so, on a winter day in late 2001, Dr. Fishkin, expecting another fizzle from the period generally seen by scholars as the grim denouement of Twain’s brilliant life and career, instead found herself laughing out loud at the library tables.

“I hadn’t had that much fun reading a manuscript in a long time,” she recalled recently. “And I’d never been as surprised. It was a whole, finished play. He had even managed, and this was not necessarily his strong suit, a plot, with memorable characters and hilarious scenes. I thought it held great promise.” And she wasn’t the only one. In a letter dated Feb. 5, 1898, Twain wrote that his wife found the new comedy “very bully.”

Bully or not, “Is He Dead?” went unproduced in Twain’s time and turned out to be, despite its merits, unproducible as written in ours. That a comedy of the same name has finally reached Broadway, opening Sunday at the Lyceum in a version adapted by the playwright David Ives and directed by Michael Blakemore, is nearly as unlikely as the plot, in which a great but impoverished painter, based on Jean-François Millet and played by Norbert Leo Butz, fakes his own death in hopes of spurring sales of his work. He succeeds, but finds himself trapped in the postmortem identity he assumes as his own widowed sister.

When he wrote “Is He Dead?” — partly based on an earlier short story — Twain could almost have meant the title as a question about himself. Recently bankrupted by bad investments and in deep mourning over the death of his favorite daughter in 1896, he had moved to Vienna, where a great man could live cheaply. There, gradually emerging from debt and buoyed by the excellent theater he was seeing and translating, he was drawn back to the genre that had once made him buckets of money. (Dr. Fishkin pointed out that “Colonel Sellers” at one point brought Twain more annual income than all his books combined.) The theater offered him a chance to give the past a better ending and have it unspool nightly. Onstage, represented by his version of Millet, he could triumph over creditors, boobs, agents, snobs and even, in a way, over death itself.

Doonesbury: Where’s Fred?

Opus: Doing the puzzle liberally.