Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Reading

Marco’s Pals — Carl Hiaasen looks at Senate candidate Marco Rubio’s friendship with Ray Sansom, who is on trial for corruption.

Marco Rubio’s campaign to win the Republican Senate primary revolves around the now-famous hug that Gov. Charlie Crist shared with Barack Obama during a presidential visit to Fort Myers last year.

Now Rubio, the darling of Tea Party conservatives, is getting uncomfortably squeezed himself.

Last week, a committee of the Florida House of Representatives put Rubio’s name on a list of witnesses who could be subpoenaed to testify about the Ray Sansom scandal.

Sansom, a fellow Republican from Destin, was Rubio’s handpicked budget chief while Rubio served as the House speaker in 2007-2008. Sansom used his leverage to route more than $35 million in public funds to little Northwest Florida State College.

The most flagrant waste was $6 million to construct a 30,000-foot airplane hangar for one of Sansom’s pals and campaign donors, a developer named Jay Odom. Sansom liked to fly on Odom’s plane and bill the state GOP for the ride.

Florida TaxWatch flagged the airport project as a “turkey,” but it sailed through. Crist chose not to veto it.

The scam unraveled soon after Sansom took over the powerful House speaker’s post from Rubio. It was discovered that on that same day Sansom had become a vice president of Northwest State at a salary of $110,000.

It smelled like a payoff, and prosecutors perked up. Samson, who eventually resigned as House speaker, was indicted for official misconduct and is now awaiting trial.

Once the story broke, Northwest Florida State officials insisted the airplane hangar was really “an emergency-training education” facility where students could attend classes, presumably while perched on the wings of private jets.

You can understand why Rubio isn’t thrilled to talk about his old pal. It was only a year ago that Rubio said Samson should stay on as speaker, and called him ”one of the best people I ever interacted with in the legislative process.”

That statement raises a serious question about Rubio’s judgment: What judgment?

More below the fold.

Frank Rich — Sarah Palin’s sleight of hand could be trouble.

The Palin shtick has now become the Republican catechism, parroted by every party leader in Washington. Their constant refrain, delivered with cynicism but not irony, is this: Republicans are the anti-big-government, anti-stimulus, anti-Wall Street, pro-Tea Party tribunes of the common folk. “This is about the people,” as Palin repeatedly put it last weekend while pocketing $100,000 of the Tea Partiers’ money.

Incredibly enough, this message is gaining traction. Though Obama remains more personally popular than the G.O.P., Republicans pulled ahead of the Democrats in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, among others, in a matchup for the 2010 midterms.

This G.O.P. populism is all bunk, of course. Republicans in office now, as well as Palin during her furtive public service in Alaska, have feasted on federal pork, catered to special interests, and pursued policies indifferent to recession-battered Americans. And yet they’re getting away with their populist masquerade — not just with a considerable swath of voters but even with certain elements in the “liberal media.” The Dean of the Beltway press corps, the columnist David Broder, cited Palin’s “pitch-perfect populism” in hailing her as “a public figure at the top of her game” in Thursday’s Washington Post.

That Republican leaders can pass off deceptive faux-populism as “pitch-perfect populism” is in part a testament to the blinding intensity of the economic anger and anxiety roiling the country. It also shows the power of an incessant bumper-sticker fiction to take root when ineffectually challenged — and, most crucially, the inability of Democrats to make a persuasive case that they offer anything better.

Director’s Notes — Alex Witchel goes clothes shopping with David Cromer, the director of the revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs that closed in a week after rave reviews.

The goal that day was for Cromer to live it up and buy a suit for his Broadway opening. Two openings, actually. “Broadway Bound,” the sequel to “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” was to open seven weeks later; together, they were marketed as “The Neil Simon Plays.” Joining us was Cromer’s old friend David Korins, a tall, trim scenic designer wearing jeans and a Paul Smith jacket. Offhandedly stylish, he had been recruited to exert an encouraging influence on someone who was not born to shop.

“This is just another way in which I’m a terrible homosexual,” Cromer fretted in advance of our outing. “I should have nice clothes, I should be in better shape, I should cook, I should have a nice apartment. I live like a college student. I always have. It’s a very arrested thing. It’s hard to grow out of that.”

But not impossible. Cromer, who is 45, grew up in Skokie, Ill., dropped out of high school and eventually earned a G.E.D. He then enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago. Again, he didn’t graduate. This seems less a comment on the quality of education in Illinois than on Cromer’s lifelong ambivalence toward following rules. He delights in iconoclasm — until the moment he needs a hug — and he’s self-aware enough to mine that contradiction for good material. He is a master of self-deprecation, someone who is happier in bed watching a full day of “Brideshead Revisited” than spouting ornate theatrical philosophies. He is a slight man with a gentle demeanor, possessing that Midwestern affinity for speaking in paragraphs without saying anything specific — conversation as warm bath. Then suddenly, he’ll deliver two pointed sentences that are very, very smart or very, very funny.

Much of the hype about his suddenly thriving career has etched him as a visionary wunderkind, a genius in a black cape with secrets up his billowing sleeves. While there are indeed elements of sorcery in some of his unorthodox staging choices (sense of smell is key to a climactic scene in “Our Town”), he is also tenaciously invested in the ditch-digging necessary to limn a character’s psyche. As one local New York television reviewer put it, Cromer can “locate human qualities in a head of cabbage.” So, as he set out to buy the opening-night suit, it did seem like a classic Cromer choice — unexpected and funny while simultaneously courting disaster — to cast as his personal shopper a heterosexual man.

The mostly empty store still managed to be glitteringly intimidating. Cromer embarked on a running monologue: “In places like this, my sense of not having nice things and not being able to take care of nice things is heightened.”

“Everything is expensive, and I don’t feel I deserve it.”


So, buying this suit was a landmark of sorts. He tried on a pinstripe jacket. “That feels like the best you,” Korins offered, glancing at his watch. Cromer shook his head. Irv whipped out suits by Jil Sander, Prada and Ralph Lauren. They fit well. Irv told him so. Korins told him so. Cromer turned to me with pleading eyes. “This is the point where I usually give up and we just go eat,” he said.

We should have done just that. Because what Cromer didn’t know, as he tried on one gorgeous suit after another (knit cap firmly in place), was that after 25 previews and 9 performances, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” would close. And “Broadway Bound” would never open.

What happened? It wasn’t the fault of the reviews, which were mostly positive: “the revival strikes an exquisite balance between comedy and pathos, its impeccable ensemble landing every laugh while exploring every emotional nuance to build a tremendously moving portrait of family life,” Variety wrote. Though much ink has since been spilled on what went wrong, and Cromer and I would have plenty of time for post-mortems later, the quick answer was the producers’ mistaken assumption that in this era of star-driven Broadway vehicles — think Hugh Jackman, James Gandolfini — Neil Simon had similar drawing power.

But that day at Barneys, when he could have been running for the hills, or at least a thrift shop, everything was still possible. Except perhaps for Korins’s patience lasting more than two hours. After Cromer modeled the third Prada suit that fit like a charm, Korins put away his BlackBerry and stood up. “Buying a suit is like life,” he announced. “In the end you do it alone.”

Mr. Cromer is slated to direct a revival of William Inge’s Picnic on Broadway this year.

Doonesbury — Take a number.