Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Reading

The Powerless Poor — Leonard Pitts, Jr., on why no one really noticed when the lieutenant governor of South Carolina compared the poor of his state to stray animals.

And though it drew some newspaper notice, a riposte from The Daily Show and rebukes from Bauer’s opponents, it never quite rose to the level of national controversy, as it would’ve had Bauer compared, say, women or Jews to the dogs one feeds at one’s back door. The relative silence stands as eloquent testimony to the powerlessness and invisibility of the American poor.

One is reminded how earnestly shocked news media were at the poverty they saw five years ago when New Orleans drowned. ”Why didn’t they get out?” observers kept asking — as if everyone has a car in the driveway and a wallet full of plastic.

The poor fare little better on television. The Evanses of Good Times and the Conners from Roseanne aside, television has been heavily weighted toward fresh-scrubbed middle- and upper-class families for 60 years.

Politicians? They’ll elbow one another aside to pledge allegiance to the middle class; they are conspicuously less eager to align with those still trying to reach that level.

Who, then, speaks for the poor? Who raises a voice when they are scapegoated and marginalized? Who cries out when they are abused by police and failed by schools? Who takes a stand when they are exploited by employers and turned away by hospitals?

As near as I can tell, no one does.

More after the fold.

Frank Rich — Asleep at the switch.

In Obama’s speech, he kept circling back to a Senate where both parties are dysfunctional. The obstructionist Republicans, he observed, will say no to every single bill “just because they can.” But no less culpable are the Democrats, who maintain “the largest majority in decades” even after losing Teddy Kennedy’s seat — and yet would rather “run for the hills” than accomplish anything.

What does strong Senate leadership look like? That would be L.B.J. in the pre-Kennedy era. Operating with the narrowest of majorities and under an opposition president, he was able to transform a sleepy, seniority-hobbled, regionally polarized debating society into an often-progressive legislative factory. As Robert Caro tells the story in his book “Master of the Senate,” this Senate leader had determination, “a gift for grand strategy,” and a sixth sense for grabbing opportunities for action before they vanished for good. He could recognize “the key that might suddenly unlock votes that had seemed locked forever away” and turn it quickly. The horse trading with recalcitrant senators was often crude and cynical, but the job got done. L.B.J. knew how to reward — and how to punish.

We keep hearing that they just don’t make legislative giants like that anymore. In truth, the long drought has led us to forget what they look like and to define senatorial leadership down. L.B.J.’s current successor, Harry Reid, could be found yawning on camera Wednesday night. He might as well have just taken the whole nap. Here was this leader’s pronouncement last week on the future of the president and his party’s No. 1 priority: “We’re not on health care now. We’ve talked a lot about it in the past.” Yes, a lot of talk — a year’s worth, in fact — with nothing to show for it.


A year in, we have learned that all the conciliatory rhetoric won’t cut it. But a president with a big megaphone and large legislative majorities has more powerful strings to pull, no matter what happened in one special election in Massachusetts. If he can’t get a working government, at least he can shake things up in November.

Just look at how a sharp public slap provoked Justice Alito, threw a spotlight on the court’s dubious jurisprudence and sparked an embarrassing over-the-top hissy fit on the right. A do-nothing Congress, at a time when ever more Americans are losing their jobs and homes, is an even riper target than the Supreme Court — and far more politically vulnerable. Without strong medicine from Obama, we can be certain of the same result: a heedless Congress will keep doing nothing. If he steps it up, there’s at least a shot that his presidency, and maybe even the country, will be pulled back from the brink.

A Night at the Movies — John Seabrook recounts a visit with J.D. Salinger for The New Yorker.

Twenty-four years ago this summer, my girlfriend and I were visiting my parents in Vermont, and my mother, who was conservative in such matters, didn’t want us to stay together in my room. My girlfriend thought that that was silly and that I was being a wimp for going along with the maternal regime, considering that we lived together in New York. My father was keeping out of it. It was not a happy household.

So when my college friend Matt invited us to his dad’s house, in Cornish, New Hampshire, about half an hour away, to watch an old movie, all parties were relieved. However, as we wound our way along the dirt roads leading up from the Connecticut River, my girlfriend and I became tense all over again, for a different reason. We were both young writers, and we were about to meet J. D. Salinger.

The house was built into the hillside, and we entered through what seemed like the basement, walking through a concrete-and-cinder-block passageway with a rocky dirt floor. In the kitchen, a tall, slender man with a full head of graying hair, wearing a white shirt and a dark vest, was pouring popcorn into a Hamilton Beach popcorn popper. He had a long, ascetic face, large ears, shy but curious eyes, and a wide-lipped mouth, “a mouth with a lot of Capricorn in it,” as he later said of my mouth, by which he meant, I think, that it had an openness but also a resolve in the way the lips pressed together at the corners. We could see that he was just as nervous as we were, and that made us feel more at ease.

Later, when we knew each other better, and Jerry felt comfortable enough to be himself around us, I got to see what a sweet, swell guy he was. We played golf on the nine-hole course in Windsor, Vermont, and he wouldn’t let us keep score. He played with bamboo clubs and cursed like a sailor when he hit a bad shot, which was often, though not as often as we did (we were secretly keeping score, so we knew). A few years later, I spent a wonderful afternoon with him going around San Francisco’s Chinatown, looking at exotic mushrooms, roots, and herbs. Jerry had an encyclopedic knowledge of mushrooms, and often travelled under the alias Mr. Boletus, which was one of his favorite varieties.

But, on the occasion of our first meeting, everyone was wary; we quickly left him in the kitchen and hustled into the main part of the house, while Jerry (as we awkwardly called him) saw to the popcorn. The living room had a dorm-room air about it. We sat down on the uncomfortable, worn furniture and tried to think of something to say to each other. I listened to the popcorn—the first heraldic explosions of the kernels, followed by the dramatic crescendo, and then the dying fall—thinking, J. D. Salinger is in the kitchen making popcorn. After a while, Jerry came out and went to the back of the room, where he kept, on shelves, a collection of old 16-mm. films, the kind where you have to change the reel three or four times in the course of the movie. An old-fashioned projector had been set up behind the sofa. He ran through some titles; we settled on “Sergeant York.” Jerry threaded the film through the projector, and then he turned the lights off and remained behind us, his face illuminated by the flickering projector. The movie was captioned, perhaps because he was going a little deaf. Toward the end, he seemed to get choked up.

After the film ended, we talked for a while, and for some reason my girlfriend and I told Jerry about the war over sleeping arrangements in my parents’ house. What did he think we should do? He had been on our side, hadn’t he, ever since “The Catcher in the Rye”? Salinger was probably weary of people wanting to claim him, which may be one reason that he stopped publishing. Nevertheless, he listened closely, smiling, his head cocked back a little, his old Yankee white eyebrows raised. When we had explained it all, he said, to my girlfriend, “Nervy girl! Nervy girl!” That was all he would say.

That night, she slept in the guest bedroom.

Doonesbury — A shot at the Olympics.