Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Reading

The Comeback Trail — Adam Nagourney reflects on how political parties have come back from the wilderness.

How far can a major political party fall?

It’s a question Republicans seem determined to test these days. The party is shut out of power in the White House. In Congress, the Democrats now have enough votes to block a filibuster. Approval ratings for the Republican Party are at near-record lows. Worse still, at a time when Republicans are yearning for someone to lead them back to power, the party’s next generation of stars is drawing precisely the wrong kind of attention — from Sarah Palin’s jarring announcement that she was quitting as Alaska’s governor to the acknowledgment by Senator John Ensign of Nevada on Thursday that his parents had sent nearly $100,000 to a woman with whom he had had an affair.

But both political parties have come back from bad situations before. Republicans can look back to the election of 1964 and its aftermath. Lyndon B. Johnson was elected in a historic landslide that delivered huge Democratic majorities — 295 House seats, 68 Senate seats, and 33 governorships — and left the Republican Party saddled with the “extremist” conservatism of Barry Goldwater and a roster of tired leaders.

And yet only two years later, Republicans took back 47 House seats, 3 Senate seats and 9 governorships. Richard Nixon, whose career had seemed finished after he lost races for the presidency in 1960 and California governor in 1962, positioned himself to lead the party to victory in 1968 as Johnson chose not to seek re-election in the face of rising opposition to the Vietnam War, racial turmoil at home and widening divisions within his party.

But are those lessons relevant today? Might Republicans be mired in a different and deeper rut, dragged down by an unusual confluence of problems as the party faces an exceptionally potent opponent in Barack Obama? And are the conditions ripe for the kind of return both parties have staged in the past?

Continued below the fold.

Frank Rich on Sarah Palin — She broke the GOP; now she owns it.

Were Palin actually to secure the 2012 nomination, the result would be a fiasco for the G.O.P. akin to Goldwater 1964, as the most relentless conservative Palin critic, David Frum, has predicted. Or would it? No one thought Richard Nixon — a far less personable commodity than Palin — would come back either after his sour-grapes “last press conference” of 1962. But Democratic divisions and failures gave him his opportunity in 1968. With unemployment approaching 10 percent and a seemingly bottomless war in Afghanistan, you never know, as Palin likes to say, what doors might open.

It’s more likely that she will never get anywhere near the White House, and not just because of her own limitations. The Palinist “real America” is demographically doomed to keep shrinking. But the emotion it represents is disproportionately powerful for its numbers. It’s an anger that Palin enjoyed stoking during her “palling around with terrorists” crusade against Obama on the campaign trail. It’s an anger that’s curdled into self-martyrdom since Inauguration Day.

Its voice can be found in the postings at a Web site maintained by the fans of Mark Levin, the Obama hater who is, at this writing, the No.2 best-selling hardcover nonfiction writer in America. (Glenn Beck is No.1 in paperback nonfiction.) Politico surveyed them last week. “Bottomline, do you know of any way we can remove these idiots before this country goes down the crapper?” wrote one Levin fan. “I WILL HELP!!! Should I buy a gun?” Another called for a new American revolution, promising “there will be blood.”

These are the cries of a constituency that feels disenfranchised — by the powerful and the well-educated who gamed the housing bubble, by a news media it keeps being told is hateful, by the immigrants who have taken some of their jobs, by the African-American who has ended a white monopoly on the White House. Palin is their born avatar. She puts a happy, sexy face on ugly emotions, and she can solidify her followers’ hold on a G.O.P. that has no leaders with the guts or alternative vision to stand up to them or to her.

For a week now, critics in both parties have had a blast railing at Palin. It’s good sport. But just as the media muttering about those unseemly “controversies” rallied the fans of the King of Pop, so are Palin’s political obituaries likely to jump-start her lucrative afterlife.

It’s a Puzzlement — What happens when papers cut back on the crossword puzzle pages?

It is hard to believe that Sam Szurek, 63, a copywriter from the Upper West Side who consumes two to three crossword puzzles each weekday and up to five with his wife on Sundays, didn’t know that The Atlantic Monthly was dropping its legendary brain-buster, The Puzzler. All the clues were there.

The Atlantic stopped making room for The Puzzler in its print pages two years ago and shifted it to the Web, where crosswords have historically languished.

Mr. Szurek’s other favorite puzzle, the one in The New York Sun, gasped its last breath on the Internet last year (as did the rest of the newspaper). And rumors of The Puzzler’s demise had been floating around puzzle blogs all week.

“She is going to be absolutely heartbroken,” Mr. Szurek said of his wife, Karen, a psychotherapist. “She will probably be among the many people who will personally e-mail the Cox-Rathvon folks,” he said, referring to the husband-and-wife team behind The Puzzler, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, who may as well be Brangelina to hard-core puzzle enthusiasts.

Then there is Genevie Urban, 79, of Bethesda, Md., who is still sore about The Washington Post’s decision last year to cut its Saturday acrostic.

“It was my Saturday afternoon thing, and it didn’t take up much space,” she said. “There is all this other trivia on the page that takes up much more space they could have gotten rid of.”

For people like Ms. Urban and Mr. Szurek — who calls himself “a habitual user” — the greatest puzzle of all these days can be finding one. As magazines and newspapers cut pages to save money, crossword puzzles, acrostics, sudokus and other games are being left on the production-room floor.

The Atlantic’s Puzzler, which will take its final bow in September, and The New York Sun’s crossword are among the most notable recent casualties, in part because of their Ivy League street cred. (Let’s face it: the crosswords in TV Guide and People magazine seldom generate heat at Hamptons dinner parties.) But The Washington Post, The New York Times and countless local newspapers have also trimmed their puzzle space for financial reasons.

The human toll? Ruined Sundays, furious e-mail messages from loyal subscribers and fewer reasons for members of the Obama generation to pause an iPod and pick up a pencil.

“Crosswords are not going to die, because they are popular in book and magazine form, and they’re very profitable in print,” said Will Shortz, the crossword editor for The New York Times. “But I think crossword and pencil puzzles in general are ideally suited for newspapers because they become a part of your daily routine. You don’t get that in a book.”

50 Years of Honda in America — It all started with a little motorcycle.

After 50 years in the United States, the Honda name has blended into the culture alongside Sony, Nestlé and Adidas, another foreign brand now embraced as a reliable provider of high-quality, well-conceived products. That is a noteworthy achievement for a company that made its name selling a puny plastic-clad motorcycle just as Detroit’s was birthing its most flamboyant whales.

For a broad swath of American consumers, Honda — a brand applied not only to cars and motorcycles but also to generators, lawn mowers and anything else the world’s largest engine maker could power — is the maker of unpretentious good stuff at accessible prices. Usually without flashy or distinctive styling, Honda’s products can be said to define the leading edge of ordinary.

It is an unlikely position for a company that, had it complied with collusive Japanese business traditions and paid heed to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, would be stuck in obscurity making piston rings.

“When you look at how Honda was born, it was basically told it couldn’t enter the motorcycle business,” said John Mendel, executive vice president for automobile sales at American Honda. “And that it couldn’t enter the automobile business. But it has pushed against all those things.”

That rebellious streak can be traced back to the company’s founder, Soichiro Honda, the eldest son of a blacksmith. Born in 1906, Honda apprenticed in auto repair shops before opening his own garage in Hamamatsu, Japan, in 1928. In a 1964 interview in Newsweek, Honda said that the business “became famous as a wild shop, for my geisha parties and antics.”

Doonesbury — planning ahead.