Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Reading

The Most Trusted Name in News… is Jon Stewart.

Mr. Stewart describes his job as “throwing spitballs” from the back of the room and points out that “The Daily Show” mandate is to entertain, not inform. Still, he and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day — “the stuff we find most interesting,” as he said in an interview at the show’s Midtown Manhattan offices, the stuff that gives them the most “agita,” the sometimes somber stories he refers to as his “morning cup of sadness.” And they’ve done so in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that their political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious.

“Hopefully the process is to spot things that would be grist for the funny mill,” Mr. Stewart, 45, said. “In some respects, the heavier subjects are the ones that are most loaded with opportunity because they have the most — you know, the difference between potential and kinetic energy? — they have the most potential energy, so to delve into that gives you the largest combustion, the most interest. I don’t mean for the audience. I mean for us. Everyone here is working too hard to do stuff we don’t care about.”


Mr. Stewart can be scathing in his dismantling of politicians’ spin — he took apart former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s rationalizations about the Iraq war with Aesopian logic and fury — but there is nothing sensation-seeking or mean-spirited about his exchanges. Nor does he shy away from heartfelt expressions of sadness and pain. The day after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, he spoke somberly of the tragic situation there and asked his guest, Ali Allawi, a former Iraqi minister of defense, how his country handled “that sort of carnage on a daily basis” and if there were “a way to grieve.”

Most memorably, on Sept. 20, 2001, the day the show returned after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Stewart began the program with a raw, emotional address. Choking up, he apologized for subjecting viewers to “an overwrought speech of a shaken host” but said that he and the show’s staff needed it “for ourselves, so that we can drain whatever abscess there is in our hearts so we can move on to the business of making you laugh.”

He talked about hearing, as a boy of 5, of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He talked about feeling privileged to live where you can “sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks.” And he talked about “why I grieve but why I don’t despair.”

Mr. Stewart now says he does not want to listen to that show again: “The process of the show is to bury those feelings as subtext, and that was a real moment of text. It’s laying bare the type of thing that is there hopefully to inform the show, but the show is usually an exercise in hiding that.”

In fact, Mr. Stewart regards comedy as a kind of catharsis machine, a therapeutic filter for grappling with upsetting issues. “What’s nice to us about the relentlessness of the show,” he said, “is you know you’re going to get that release no matter what, every night, Monday through Thursday. Like pizza, it may not be the best pizza you’ve ever had, but it’s still pizza, man, and you get to have it every night. It’s a wonderful feeling to have this toxin in your body in the morning, that little cup of sadness, and feel by 7 or 7:30 that night, you’ve released it in sweat equity and can move on to the next day.”

Dana Torres: inspiration for us older folks.

This was for all of us fortysomethings with clouded minds and sagging bodies. This was for all of us parents who lose focus playing chauffeur.

This was for the divorcees who start over, the dreamers who fight the dimming light, the defiant who feel the doubts and keep moving forward.

This was Dara Torres, 41, mother of one, on the medal platform again.

How did she do it?

Not how did she win silver today in the 50-meter freestyle, outtouched for the gold at the wall by the same one-hundredth of a second that made Michael Phelps a winner the day before. But how did she get here in the first place? How did she get up each morning? How did she train twice each day?

At 41, you stay in bed. With a child, you enjoy an extra cup of coffee. Swimming, above all, penalizes age. The women who swam against Torres showed that much. Women? Australia’s Cate Campbell, who took the bronze, is 16.

Germany’s Britta Steffen, who won the gold, was born eight months before Torres won her first Olympic medal at Los Angeles in 1984. Five of the other seven women in her final weren’t even born by then.

“Dara is truly remarkable,” Campbell said. “She was talking about childbirth in the ‘ready’ room.”

What did Torres say about it?

“It’s painful,” Campbell said.

Somewhere along the way we lost this thread about what Torres is doing here. That’s because somewhere Marion Jones is in jail, Mark McGwire is in hiding and an entire generation of sports fans has tested positive for suspicion about any performance out of the ordinary.

Do you believe in miracles?

Well, maybe.

Frank Rich: Tell us more about John McCain.

So why isn’t Obama romping? The obvious answer — and both the excessively genteel Obama campaign and a too-compliant press bear responsibility for it — is that the public doesn’t know who on earth John McCain is. The most revealing poll this month by far is the Pew Research Center survey finding that 48 percent of Americans feel they’re “hearing too much” about Obama. Pew found that only 26 percent feel that way about McCain, and that nearly 4 in 10 Americans feel they hear too little about him. It’s past time for that pressing educational need to be met.

What is widely known is the skin-deep, out-of-date McCain image. As this fairy tale has it, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors. He strenuously opposed the execution of the Iraq war; he slammed the president’s response to Katrina; he fought the “agents of intolerance” of the religious right; he crusaded against the G.O.P. House leader Tom DeLay, the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their coterie of influence-peddlers.

With the exception of McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam, every aspect of this profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct.

McCain never called for Donald Rumsfeld to be fired and didn’t start criticizing the war plan until late August 2003, nearly four months after “Mission Accomplished.” By then the growing insurgency was undeniable. On the day Hurricane Katrina hit, McCain laughed it up with the oblivious president at a birthday photo-op in Arizona. McCain didn’t get to New Orleans for another six months and didn’t sharply express public criticism of the Bush response to the calamity until this April, when he traveled to the Gulf Coast in desperate search of election-year pageantry surrounding him with black extras.

McCain long ago embraced the right’s agents of intolerance, even spending months courting the Rev. John Hagee, whose fringe views about Roman Catholics and the Holocaust were known to anyone who can use the Internet. (Once the McCain campaign discovered YouTube, it ditched Hagee.) On Monday McCain is scheduled to appear at an Atlanta fund-raiser being promoted by Ralph Reed, who is not only the former aide de camp to one of the agents of intolerance McCain once vilified (Pat Robertson) but is also the former Abramoff acolyte showcased in McCain’s own Senate investigation of Indian casino lobbying.

Though the McCain campaign announced a new no-lobbyists policy three months after The Washington Post’s February report that lobbyists were “essentially running” the whole operation, the fact remains that McCain’s top officials and fund-raisers have past financial ties to nearly every domestic and foreign flashpoint, from Fannie Mae to Blackwater to Ahmad Chalabi to the government of Georgia. No sooner does McCain flip-flop on oil drilling than a bevy of Hess Oil family members and executives, not to mention a lowly Hess office manager and his wife, each give a maximum $28,500 to the Republican Party.

While reporters at The Post and The New York Times have been vetting McCain, many others give him a free pass. Their default cliché is to present him as the Old Faithful everyone already knows. They routinely salute his “independence,” his “maverick image” and his “renegade reputation” — as the hackneyed script was reiterated by Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column last week. At Talking Points Memo, the essential blog vigilantly pursuing the McCain revelations often ignored elsewhere, Josh Marshall accurately observes that the Republican candidate is “graded on a curve.”

Most Americans still don’t know, as Marshall writes, that on the campaign trail “McCain frequently forgets key elements of policies, gets countries’ names wrong, forgets things he’s said only hours or days before and is frequently just confused.” Most Americans still don’t know it is precisely for this reason that the McCain campaign has now shut down the press’s previously unfettered access to the candidate on the Straight Talk Express.


Some of those who know McCain best — Republicans — are tougher on him than the press is. Rita Hauser, who was a Bush financial chairwoman in New York in 2000 and served on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in the administration’s first term, joined other players in the G.O.P. establishment in forming Republicans for Obama last week. Why? The leadership qualities she admires in Obama — temperament, sustained judgment, the ability to play well with others — are missing in McCain. “He doesn’t listen carefully to people and make reasoned judgments,” Hauser told me. “If John says ‘I’m going with so and so,’ you can’t count on that the next morning,” she complained, adding, “That’s not the man we want for president.”

McCain has even prompted alarms from the right’s own favorite hit man du jour: Jerome Corsi, who Swift-boated John Kerry as co-author of “Unfit to Command” in 2004 and who is trying to do the same to Obama in his newly minted best seller, “The Obama Nation.”

Corsi’s writings have been repeatedly promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News; Corsi’s publisher, Mary Matalin, has praised her author’s “scholarship.” If Republican warriors like Hannity and Matalin think so highly of Corsi’s research into Obama, then perhaps we should take seriously Corsi’s scholarship about McCain. In recent articles at, Corsi has claimed (among other charges) that the McCain campaign received “strong” financial support from a “group tied to Al Qaeda” and that “McCain’s personal fortune traces back to organized crime in Arizona.”

As everyone says, polls are meaningless in the summers of election years. Especially this year, when there’s one candidate whose real story has yet to be fully told.

Doonesbury: Tough booking.

Opus: under the scope.