Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Reading

That Was Then: Twenty years ago, Molly Ivins offered her views on a vice presidential pick.

A week of watching Senator Lloyd Bentsen canter along the campaign trail still hasn’t answered the question that first came to mind when Gov. Michael S. Dukakis announced he was putting Bentsen on the ticket: Why?

The trouble with Lloyd Bentsen is that there’s no Elvis to him. He dresses well, his manners are good, you can take him anywhere; not an ounce of fool to him. But no passion, no warmth and only trace elements of humor. When people describe him as patrician, they mean that when he wades into a crowd he wears a faintly pained expression, as though he were wishing they had all used Dial.

When he first went to Washington, some citizen suffering from post-L.B.J. stress syndrome asked Bentsen if he was one of those wild Texas cowboys. He favored this twit with a glacial glare and asked, ”Do I look like a cowboy?” He looks like what he was: a top corporate executive.


A fair number of fools confuse dullness with seriousness. There are those who think any politician who is witty, like Ann Richards or Jim Hightower, or who can stir our emotions, like Jesse Jackson, is somehow shallow, or a showboat. As a result, we now have a lower level of voter participation than the Republic of Botswana – where, I suspect, it’s harder to get to the polls.

We do well to beware the demagogues, people from Jimmy Swaggart to Meir Kahane, who can manipulate our emotions. But there’s a world of difference between the racist Leander Perez, appealing to people’s hatreds and fears, and Jesse Jackson pleading, ”Keep hope alive. Keep hope alive.” No one is suggesting that we choose our leaders by who among them is the funniest or the most rhetorically stirring. On the whole, demonstrated competence in office is still a good bet, and the most useful way to judge politicians is on their records. But surely we are entitled to listen to someone who can rise above the level of ”having trouble with the vision thing.” Other institutions have suffocated from boredom – I suspect that’s what’s happening to the mainstream churches. It would be an awfully ignoble end for democracy.

A Maple Leaf Rag: David Shribman in the Toronto Globe and Mail on the U.S. political conventions:

U.S. political conventions have become the appendix of the body politic: a vestige of something that once had a function but no longer does. And yet they endure, against all reason.

They endure, because politicians, like everyone else, enjoy a party. And at Denver and St. Paul, the party animals will party, often thanks to spending by the same special interests and lobby groups that both Senator Barack Obama, who is to become the Democratic nominee, and Senator John McCain, who is to become the Republican nominee, agree have played too much of a role in U.S. politics in the past quarter-century.

They endure, because without them, U.S. political parties themselves would hardly exist. The parties come together, after all, only once every four years, at these gigantic conclaves, and there they vote on nearly meaningless manifestos that are neither paid attention to nor remembered a week later.

They endure, because reporters and news executives like to spend a week at a showy, glittery anachronism that H..L. Mencken celebrated for their colourful mischief and irresistible sideshows, their utter vulgarity and utter stupidity. “I confess that national conventions always entertain me immensely,” he said. From the 1924 Democratic convention, which lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select a nominee (John W. Davis), who didn’t have a prayer against Calvin Coolidge, Mencken wrote: “One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell — and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

Instead, the modern event more nearly resembles the characterization of Murray Kempton, the irascible columnist who died 11 years ago: “A political convention is not a place where you can come away with any trace of faith in human nature.”

Frank Rich: Rebooting Obama.

“Change We Can Believe In” was brilliantly calculated for a Democratic familial brawl where every candidate was promising nearly identical change from George Bush. It branded Obama as the sole contender with the un-Beltway biography, credibility and political talent to link the promise of change to the nation’s onrushing generational turnover in all its cultural (and, yes, racial) manifestations. McCain should be a far easier mark than Clinton if Obama retools his act.

What we have learned this summer is this: McCain’s trigger-happy temperament and reactionary policies offer worse than no change. He is an unstable bridge back not just to Bush policies but to an increasingly distant 20th-century America that is still fighting Red China in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in the cold war. As the country tries to navigate the fast-moving changes of the 21st century, McCain would put America on hold.

What Obama also should have learned by now is that the press is not his friend. Of course, he gets more ink and airtime than McCain; he’s sexier news. But as George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs documented in its study of six weeks of TV news reports this summer, Obama’s coverage was 28 percent positive, 72 percent negative. (For McCain, the split was 43/57.) Even McCain’s most blatant confusions, memory lapses and outright lies still barely cause a ripple, whether he’s railing against a piece of pork he in fact voted for, as he did at the Saddleback Church pseudodebate last weekend, or falsifying crucial details of his marital history in his memoirs, as The Los Angeles Times uncovered in court records last month.

What should Obama do now? As premature panic floods through certain liberal precincts, there’s no shortage of advice: more meat to his economic plan, more passion in his stump delivery, less defensiveness in response to attacks and, as is now happening, sharper darts at a McCain lifestyle so extravagant that we are only beginning to learn where all the beer bullion is buried.


Is a man who is just discovering the Internet qualified to lead a restoration of America’s economic and educational infrastructures? Is the leader of a virtually all-white political party America’s best salesman and moral avatar in the age of globalization? Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe?

R.I.P., “Change We Can Believe In.” The fierce urgency of the 21st century demands Change Before It’s Too Late.

Doonesbury: Summing it up.

Opus: Ticked off.

– A Video Tour: Stratford, Ontario, where I’ve been the last few days.