Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunday Reading

The Mask of Sincerity — David Denby at The New Yorker turns a theatre critic’s eye on the junior senator from Texas.

When Ted Cruz lies, he appears to be praying. His lips narrow, almost disappearing into his face, and his eyebrows shift abruptly, rising like a drawbridge on his forehead into matching acute angles. He attains an appearance of supplication, an earnest desire that men and women need to listen, as God surely listens. Cruz has large ears; a straight nose with a fleshy tip, which shines in camera lights when he talks to reporters; straight black hair slicked back from his forehead like flattened licorice; thin lips; a long jaw with another knob of flesh at the base, also shiny in the lights. If, as Orwell said, everyone has the face he deserves at fifty, Cruz, who is only forty-two, has got a serious head start. For months, I sensed vaguely that he reminded me of someone but I couldn’t place who it was. Revelation has arrived: Ted Cruz resembles the Bill Murray of a quarter-century ago, when he played fishy, mock-sincere fakers. No one looked more untrustworthy than Bill Murray. The difference between the two men is that the actor was a satirist.

Cruz is not as iconographically satisfying as other American demagogues—Oliver North, say, whose square-jawed, unblinking evocation of James Stewart, John Wayne, and other Hollywood actors conveyed resolution. Or Ronald Reagan—Cruz’s reedy, unresonant voice lacks the husky timbre of Reagan’s emotion-clouded instrument, with its mixture of truculence and maudlin appeal.

Yet Cruz is amazingly sure-footed verbally. When confronted with a hostile question, he has his answer prepared well before the questioner stops talking. There are no unguarded moments, no slips or inadvertent admissions. He speaks swiftly, in the tones of sweet, sincere reason. How could anyone possibly disagree with him? His father is a Baptist, and Cruz himself has an evangelical cast to his language, but he’s an evangelical without consciousness of his own sins or vulnerability. He is conscious only of other people’s sins, which are boundless, and a threat to the republic; and of other people’s vulnerabilities and wounds, which he salts. If they have a shortage of vulnerabilities, he might make some up. When the Senate Armed Services Committee was discussing Chuck Hagel’s fitness to be Secretary of Defense, last February, Cruz, who had been in the Senate for about a month, said that Hagel was weak on Iran, adding, “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that two hundred thousand dollars that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”

His strategy is universal aggression, aimed at everyone. Well, not quite everyone—lately, his popularity with the Tea Party cohort has increased. And at a recent rally at the convention of the Texas Federation of Republican Women, he was greeted with heated adoration. But normally Cruz resembles one of those war chariots with blades flashing from the wheels; he tries to cut up everything in his path. When things go wrong, he only sharpens the blades. From the Senate, he urged House Republicans into a government shutdown and a sustained threat not to extend the debt ceiling. When the President held firm and the Republican leadership backed down, the fallout included collapsing poll numbers for the Republican Party and the possibility, mentioned by nonpartisan political analysts, that the Democrats could pick up a serious number of seats in the House in 2014.

Stop Calling JFK Conservative — Paul Rosenberg at Salon debunks the latest attempts by the right wing to claim a liberal as one of their own.

Conservatives have two favorite ways to deal with liberals. The first, Plan A, is to slander and demonize them. It was part of Rick Santorum’s shtick, for example, to blast John F. Kennedy for supposedly kicking religion out of public life—or at least getting the ball rolling.  As he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos early in 2012, “Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, ‘faith is not allowed in the public square.  I will keep it separate.’ Go on and read the speech ‘I will have nothing to do with faith. I won’t consult with people of faith.’“  Of course Santorum was lying about what Kennedy said in his famous Houston speech on separation of church and state, where he allayed Protestant fears that he would rule as an agent of the Vatican, rather than simply as an American citizen.

But it wasn’t just Kennedy’s own words that refuted Santorum’s claim.  More importantly, as I explained in a column for Al Jazeera English, Kennedy refuted Santorum’s slander with his actions as well:

Kennedy never shunned religious leaders. To the contrary, on June 17, 1963, just two days before he introduced the Civil Rights Act (passed after his death), Kennedy met with a delegation of 250 religious leaders to discuss the issue. The meeting was held in the East Room of White House and Kennedy arranged for a follow-up process as well. What he did not do was take religious instructions, as opposed to exchanging ideas and opinions.

So much for conservatives “Plan A”—slandering JFK.  Now conservatives are trying “Plan B”–pretending that Kennedy was actually a conservative all along, just in time for the 50th anniversary of his assassination.  They’ve tried this repeatedly with Dr. Martin Luther King, but they never get any traction outside of the Fox News crowd—though not for lack of trying.  Now they’re going after Kennedy as well, lead by Ira Stoll and his new book, “JFK, Conservative.”

Stoll’s got his work cut out for him.  Kennedy was nowhere near as ultra-liberal as King was, but he was quite outfront in proclaiming himself a liberal, most notably in a  a speech accepting the presidential nomination of the New York Liberal Party on September 14, 1960, a speech commonly referred to as “Why I am A Liberal.

“What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label ‘Liberal?’” Kennedy began by asking, and quickly answered: “If by ‘Liberal’ they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of ‘Liberal.’”

Thus, from the very beginning Kennedy brings up—and rejects—the conservative framing of what it means to be a liberal, not just for himself, but for the Liberal Party as a whole.  So much for the conservatives’ Plan A. He then quickly lays out what it does mean, instead:

But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Never mind what Kennedy himself said, however. Being a conservative, Ira Stoll is sure he knows better, although Daniel Larison at the American Conservative disagrees—“No, J.F.K. Wasn’t a Conservative,” his response is titled, as if Kennedy himself hadn’t made it clear enough.

Ticked Off — Carl Hiaasen has some anger management advice for the president.

Mr. President, we’re here today because you obviously have a serious issue with your anger.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m the best anger manager that you’ll ever meet.”

That’s the problem, sir. When the American people get angry, they’d like to know that you’re feeling what they’re feeling. They’d like to see you lose your temper once in a while.

Staying cool and unflappable during a crisis is fine, but sometimes overmanaging anger can be just as unhealthy as undermanaging it.

“Of course I get angry. I get darn angry.”

And how might we know when that’s happening, Mr. President?

“When I say things like, ‘Hey, I’m just as angry as everybody else.’ ”

Clearly we’ve got some work to do. Let’s pretend this is a nationally televised press conference. I’m going to say a phrase as an anger prompt, and I’d like you to react spontaneously, emotionally, straight from the gut.

“Fine. Fire away.”

The first prompt is: Government shutdown.

“Reckless. Partisan. Blackmail. Unacceptable — ”

Sir, with all due respect, dour disapproval isn’t the same thing as anger. The shutdown instigated by the House of Representatives caused more than $20 billion in damage to the country’s economy. Didn’t you see the growth figures from last quarter?

“Yes, very disappointing. The whole thing was disappointing and unnecessary.”

Disgraceful is the word you’re looking for, Mr. President. Disgraceful and pathetic. The American people were highly ticked off by the shutdown and it would have been heartening for you to act ticked off, too.

“You mean like throw an ashtray at Boehner? Or flip the finger at Ted Cruz? Let’s be clear, doctor, that’s just not me.”

All right. Here’s another anger prompt: NSA spying scandal.

“Well, let me reiterate that I didn’t know our intelligence agencies have been tapping the phones of important allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Apparently this practice has been going on for decades.”

But doesn’t it make you mad as a hornet that you weren’t in the loop? I mean, you’re the commander-in-frigging-chief of the most powerful democracy on the planet!

“I’ve strongly expressed my concerns to all those involved.”

Your ‘concerns’? This is sort of a big deal, sir. Did you ever think about firing somebody for not telling you this stuff, so you wouldn’t have to read it first in the newspapers?

“Hey, I’m just as angry as everybody else.”

Doonesbury — Places, everyone!

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