Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday Reading

Little Havana Going Blue? A follow-up to this post on the shifting politics in the Cuban community here in Miami.

On the surface, political life in Cuban Miami seems unchanged. Little Havana is still partly a Disney version of a displaced Cuba and partly a genuine community hub, where families who have long since left for suburbia still come for nostalgic weekend lunches. At the Versailles Restaurant, the community newspapers preaching no compromise with Castro are all that are on offer. For almost four decades, the Versailles has been an obligatory stop for Washington politicians courting the Cuban-American community, visits that, as photographs in the restaurant attest, have often involved putting on a white guayabera, the four-pocket dress shirt that often replaces a coat and tie in the Caribbean. This familiar theater of intransigence — a staple of South Florida life at least since the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when C.I.A.-backed Cuban exiles tried to overthrow the new Communist regime — is ubiquitous. Some Cuban-Americans point hopefully to a softening in the Spanish-language, Cuba-focused radio outlets that now dominate the South Florida market. But for an outsider, what is striking is the degree to which the hard-line stance endures, since it might have been supposed that 50 years of failure to influence events on the island might have led to the conclusion that the hard-line position needed to be reconsidered. Most officeholders in Florida and, for that matter, most national politicians continue to at least pay lip service to the dream of a post-Communist Cuba, even though, early this year, Fidel Castro succeeded in seamlessly handing over power to his brother Raúl — testimony, if any was needed, to the stability of the regime.

Yet if Cuban Miami does indeed continue to dream, it is also beginning, quietly, tentatively and painfully, to adjust. Backstage, something very new is happening. Call it the Miami Spring, or Cuban-American glasnost. This community that has clung for decades to its certainties — about the island itself, about the role the exile community would play after the Castro brothers passed from the scene, about where Cuban-Americans should situate themselves in terms of U.S. domestic politics — is in ferment. This matters not only in terms of the destiny of the Cuban-American community itself but also in terms of the 2008 elections since, despite claims made on background by some of Barack Obama’s advisers, Florida is likely to play a pivotal role in determining whether Obama or John McCain becomes president, and the Cuban-American vote is likely to play its usual outsize role in deciding which candidate prevails in the state.

In the past, both Democratic and Republican contenders tried to conform to the hard-line expectations they perceived as the overwhelming consensus within the Cuban-American community. But Obama has recently strayed from orthodoxy by criticizing aspects of the American embargo on Cuba and asserting that he is prepared to open talks with the regime. This might seem like a golden opportunity for McCain to solidify his hold on the Cuban-American vote, but Obama’s views appear to be resonating in Cuban Miami more than anyone could have predicted. Two Democratic Congressional candidates in the Miami area — Joe Garcia and Raul Martinez — were added last month to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of potential “red to blue” conversions, bringing to 37 the number of seats nationally that the Democrats hope to flip away from the Republicans. For the first time, the hard-line consensus is being challenged. There is real debate in Cuban Miami these days about the embargo, above all about the series of further restrictions that were imposed by the Bush administration in 2003 and 2004. These limited travel for so-called people-to-people educational exchanges, abolished the category of “fully hosted” travel (under which travel to and from Cuba was underwritten by non-U.S. citizens and which Washington long suspected of being a scheme for money-laundering), reduced family visits to once every three years and limited the sending of money from Cubans or Cuban-Americans living in the United States to the sender’s immediate family — parents, siblings, children — rather than, as before, to his or her extended family. A decade ago, support for such restrictions and any other confrontational policy was a certainty in Cuban South Florida. So was its domestic corollary: dependable support for Republicans both locally and nationally. Today, and quite suddenly, that unwavering support for Republicans is no longer a given.

Not As The Stranger: Billy Joel, aka The Piano Man (and classic motorcycle enthusiast), will help say goodbye to Shea Stadium this summer.

Those of you who detest Billy Joel, you self-assured music critics and self-appointed cultural arbiters, you who have Reagan-era flashbacks of being stuck in summertime traffic in a car with only AM radio and hearing “Uptown Girl” or “Pressure” or “Tell Her About It” no matter what button you push and traffic still isn’t moving — consider this:

When tickets went on sale several months ago for an absolutely final Shea concert, starring Mr. Joel and taking place this Wednesday, more than 50,000 were sold in 48 minutes; a sellout. Promoters were so, um, touched by this response that they added a final, we mean it this time, absolutely final show for Friday; those tickets sold out in 46 minutes.

That’s a lot of Brendas and Eddies buying tickets. Not bad for a 59-year-old piano player who hasn’t released an album of new pop songs in 15 years.

A few weeks ago, during a sound check just hours before another sold-out Billy Joel concert at the Mohegan Sun casino in eastern Connecticut, the drummer tested his drums, the saxophone player his sax. Then a short, stocky man in a T-shirt and baseball cap limped up the steps and gimped over to the piano, looking every bit the road-battered stagehand making one last check for Mr. Joel.

He sat down, turned his cap around, propped his coffee mug on the piano — oh, the boss ain’t gonna like that — and started fluttering with the keys. A medley of opening strains to old Billy Joel hits echoed through the empty arena, then segued into a little of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto.” Satisfied, the man collected his mug and hobbled offstage to have a cigarette.

Two hours later, this same balding, gray-haired man — Himself, of course — sat before the same piano, in a dark blazer and blue jeans but still looking just as short and stocky. As 10,000 people rose to their feet, a not so angry, not so young, but energetic as hell Billy Joel ripped into the first of two dozen songs, most of them written before the births of the women worshiping him from the front rows.

And here’s the thing. He gets it. “I’m just this shlubby guy who plays the piano,” he says later.

He knows that save for those large, please-don’t-hurt-me eyes, he looks nothing like the bushy-haired young man communing with a white mask on the cover of “The Stranger,” the album that launched him into the stratosphere, now being released in a 30th-anniversary deluxe package. (What happened to the 25th anniversary?) Nothing like the baby-faced entertainer asserting in old video loops playing in the casino gift shop that he didn’t start the fire — a fire that, post-9/11, seems almost innocent.

While Bruce Springsteen has stalled the aging process through blessed genes or some Faustian bargain, Mr. Joel looks like every heartbreak, bad review, car crash and attendant tabloid dig has exacted a physical toll, so much so that if those adoring young women were to encounter him at the mall, he says, “they wouldn’t look twice at me.”

But he clearly understands this; he even seizes upon it to mock the myth of the ageless, unapproachable rock star. “I’m from Long Island; I’m not going to delude myself,” he says. “I know what I look like. And I want them to know that I know how absurd all this is.”

A Visit Home: NTodd and his traveling companions stop by our old school.

The Maumee Valley weathervane

Frank Rich: The Final Days of the Bush administration.

“The Final Days” was published in 1976, two years after Nixon abdicated in disgrace. With the Bush presidency, no journalist (or turncoat White House memoirist) is waiting for the corpse to be carted away. The latest and perhaps most chilling example arrives this week from Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, long a relentless journalist on the war-on-terror torture beat. Her book “The Dark Side” connects the dots of her own past reporting and that of her top-tier colleagues (including James Risen and Scott Shane of The New York Times) to portray a White House that, like its prototype, savaged its enemies within almost as ferociously as it did the Constitution.

Some of “The Dark Side” seems right out of “The Final Days,” minus Nixon’s operatic boozing and weeping. We learn, for instance, that in 2004 two conservative Republican Justice Department officials had become “so paranoid” that “they actually thought they might be in physical danger.” The fear of being wiretapped by their own peers drove them to speak in code.

The men were John Ashcroft’s deputy attorney general, James Comey, and an assistant attorney general, Jack Goldsmith. Their sin was to challenge the White House’s don, Dick Cheney, and his consigliere, his chief of staff David Addington, when they circumvented the Geneva Conventions to make torture the covert law of the land. Mr. Comey and Mr. Goldsmith failed to stop the “torture memos” and are long gone from the White House. But Vice President Cheney and Mr. Addington remain enabled by a president, attorney general (Michael Mukasey) and C.I.A. director (Michael Hayden) who won’t shut the door firmly on torture even now.

Nixon parallels take us only so far, however. “The Dark Side” is scarier than “The Final Days” because these final days aren’t over yet and because the stakes are much higher. Watergate was all about a paranoid president’s narcissistic determination to cling to power at any cost. In Ms. Mayer’s portrayal of the Bush White House, the president is a secondary, even passive, figure, and the motives invoked by Mr. Cheney to restore Nixon-style executive powers are theoretically selfless. Possessed by the ticking-bomb scenarios of television’s “24,” all they want to do is protect America from further terrorist strikes.

So what if they cut corners, the administration’s last defenders argue. While prissy lawyers insist on habeas corpus and court-issued wiretap warrants, the rest of us are being kept safe by the Cheney posse.

But are we safe? As Al Qaeda and the Taliban surge this summer, that single question is even more urgent than the moral and legal issues attending torture.

On those larger issues, the evidence is in, merely awaiting adjudication. Mr. Bush’s 2005 proclamation that “we do not torture” was long ago revealed as a lie. Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated detainee abuse for the Army, concluded that “there is no longer any doubt” that “war crimes were committed.” Ms. Mayer uncovered another damning verdict: Red Cross investigators flatly told the C.I.A. last year that America was practicing torture and vulnerable to war-crimes charges.

Top Bush hands are starting to get sweaty about where they left their fingerprints. Scapegoating the rotten apples at the bottom of the military’s barrel may not be a slam-dunk escape route from accountability anymore.

Doonesbury: Don’t ask.

Opus: Intelligent falling.