September 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Naming the Great Recession, Paul Robeson’s tragic American life, the limits of international law, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WILL THIS GLOBAL ECONOMIC DOWNTURN BE KNOWN AS “THE GREAT RECESSION”? The term has become ubiquitous, appearing constantly in the mainstream media—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and that traditional arbiter of journalistic practice, the Associated Press. Back in March, Catherine Rampell in the Economix blog looked at the etymology of the phrase and found “Great Recession” had been applied to nearly every downturn since the Great Depression.

But should this slump be called the Great Recession—a near-Great Depression—or is it just another very severe economic downturn? Its relative severity depends, in part, on your perspective. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.” (He went on to add the punch line: “And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”) Judged by some economic yardsticks, the use of the adjective “great” seems overblown. National unemployment has hit 9.8%, but falls short of the 10.8% level of 1983. Employment has held up in some sectors of the economy (biotech, education, government) while cratering in others (construction, real estate, financial services). Now economists say that quarterly GDP is growing again.

Yet there are aspects to this downturn that are unique and historic—especially the stress on the financial system caused by the real estate bubble bursting and the crisis on Wall Street in September and October of 2008. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced on September 15 that the recession was “likely over” and that “it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time, as many people still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was.” The prospects of a jobless recovery make the impact of the 2008-2009 recession long lasting. Two Rutgers economists now say that employment levels could remain disappointing until 2017!

Based on the lingering effects of this downturn, and its persistence negative effect on the job market, perhaps the phrase used should be the Long Recession, not the Great Recession.

PAUL ROBESON (1898-1976) WAS AN AMAZING RENAISSANCE MAN—A SINGER, ACTOR, SCHOLAR, ATHLETE, CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE, AND, SADLY, AN UNREPENTANT STALINIST. Peter Applebome of the New York Times recently reported on a concert to celebrate Robeson’s life in Peekskill, N.Y., near where local thugs disrupted a planned Civil Rights Congress concert in August 1949. (The Civil Rights Congress was a Communist-dominated organization that often clashed with the NAACP and ACLU over emphasis and tactics).

Robeson’s life was tragic in many ways—his turn to Communism largely a response to the racism he faced despite his out-sized record of accomplishment. His ideological commitment caused Robeson to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s excesses, and there’s evidence that he had firsthand knowledge of the Soviet purges. Tim Tzouliadis’ recent book The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia relates the story of how American emigrants to the Soviet Union experienced the horrors of Stalinism, and recounts Robeson’s encounters with persecuted expat Americans and Soviet Jews and his public silence about their plight. Robeson never renounced the Soviet experiment, even after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes.


International law is only as strong as the states with an interest in upholding it. Ambitious schemes that seek to transcend countries’ interests routinely fail. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war shortly before the worst war in world history. The League of Nations was bypassed and ignored. The United Nations has never lived up to its ambitions and has only proved effective for narrow projects after expectations were scaled down to a realistic level. The greatest achievement of international law — the modern trade system institutionalized in the World Trade Organization — depends for its vitality on the good faith of a handful of great powers relying on weak self-help remedies.

Human rights fare best in affluent countries, Posner notes, and suggests that economic development is more important in protecting those rights than what he calls global legalism. Posner also predicts that President Barack Obama will disappoint the liberal-left with a realpolitik approach to international law.

ALONG WITH BABE RUTH, DEREK JETER WILL BE SEEN AS THE CONSUMMATE NEW YORK YANKEE. On Sept. 11 Jeter passed Lou Gehrig for the most hits (2722) ever as a Yankee, and the hard-working shortstop “plays the game the right way.”

SEPTEMBER’S UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY WAS GOOD FOR SOME LAUGHS. As Jay Leno joked: “Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi-duck, this moron, was at the U.N. today. He talked forever. He talked on Israel and the swine flu and the JFK assassination. Where was Kanye West to grab the microphone away?”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM THE MAN FROM INDEPENDENCE, PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN (1884-1972): “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders


July 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Universal health care and American history, Cronkite’s many sides, Anthony Blunt the hollow man, and other observations

With an acknowledgment to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

OUR FRONTIER HERITAGE EXPLAINS, IN PART, WHY AMERICANS HAVE BALKED AT UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE SCHEMES, whether proposed by President Harry S Truman in 1945, Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993, or Barack Obama in 2009. (One irony of history is that Richard Nixon’s vision of private-public universal health coverage, proposed in 1974, garnered bipartisan support but was derailed by Watergate.)

A national identity founded on rugged individualism has translated into a reluctance to embrace programs aimed at collective welfare, even during periods of crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal positioning of Social Security as, in effect, a government-backed individual retirement account (rather than a transfer payment program for the elderly) was a recognition of that reality.

It is this uniquely American emphasis on individual liberty, coupled with uneasiness about centralizing power in the federal government, that makes passing health care reform so difficult. While it’s true that the Feds currently control between 35% and 45% of what’s spent on health care in the United States through Medicare, Medicaid, etc., the idea of further expanding that power (what the Obama plan’s town hall critics have been labeling “socialism”) runs counter to a national identity founded on self-reliance and personal freedom. For now, many Americans (if you believe the public opinion polls) prefer to see power dispersed among many interests (insurance companies, doctors, trial lawyers, Big Pharma) rather than concentrated in the hands of an all-powerful government.

There are less centralized ways to move closer to universal coverage. (Whether 97% or 98% coverage is close enough is another question). The idea of decoupling health insurance from employment and establishing individual portable health insurance accounts (with contributions from the employer, the individual, and the government) seems much more in keeping with American traditions. John Mackey of Whole Foods recently made the case in the Wall Street Journal for altering the tax code so that that employer-provided health insurance and individually-owned health insurance enjoy the same tax benefits. Properly constructed, such an approach could also introduce true competition into the health insurance marketplace and lower costs (see Geico’s impact on car insurance rates as an example of how competition can work to drop prices).

THE “BEER SUMMIT” AND “BIRTHERISM” PROVIDED A MEDIA-CIRCUS DIVERSION from the political struggles over ObamaCare in July. The confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer James Crowley that led to the White House sit-down had great cable news appeal: black versus white, town versus gown, working class versus upper class, Boston Irish versus Black Irish (Gates has traced his white heritage back to Ireland, and is distantly related to Crowley!).

President Obama’s involvement insured that the dispute took on much greater significance than it deserved by linking it to racial profiling. Since Crowley and Gates dispute what they said to each other, it’s impossible to say whether race played a part. Certainly Crowley’s decision to arrest Gates was an overreaction to what was, most likely, Gate’s overreaction to being asked for identification while standing in his own front parlor. The most fascinating question: did Gates actually say “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside“?

Meanwhile a ragtag group of right-wingers, the Birthers, had their moment in the sun, courtesy of CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who helped them tout their bizarre theory—that Barack Obama was born in Kenya not Hawaii and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be president. Throughly debunked in 2008, this conspiracy theory proved irresistible for cable news executives hungry for controversy-driven ratings and liberal Democrats looking to connect the Republicans to the crackpot strain of the radical right. The Birthers share a culture of conspiracy with the 9/11 Truthers and JFK assassination Buffs, a topic I’ve addressed at greater length at the Washington Decoded website (“Birthers, Truthers, and Buffs: The Paranoid Style.”)

BROADCASTER WALTER CRONKITE, A JOURNALISTIC LEGEND OF THE OLD SCHOOL, died on July 17 and his obituaries revealed a much more complex and interesting figure than you’d imagine for America’s Anchorman. Cronkite might actually have deserved the title of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

For example, Cronkite’s impoverished Depression childhood included eating hamburgers his mother made from dog food. In the 1950s, he hosted CBS’s The Morning Show with a puppet (Charlemagne the Lion). He was a college drop-out. He swapped off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and considered Dwight Eisenhower a hero. He liked scotch and cigars, dancing, and playing practical jokes. He flew on B-17 combat missions. According to Edward Alwood in the Washington Post, Cronkite “became a behind-the-scenes ally” of the gay liberation movement. An avid sailor later in life, he had been an aspiring race car driver in the 1950s, participating in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959. He helped nudge along peace between Israel and Egypt.

In short, “Uncle Walter” crammed an amazing amount of living in his 92 years on this planet.

IN ANTHONY BLUNT’S POSTHUMOUSLY RELEASED MEMOIR, ENGLAND’s “FOURTH MAN” expressed scant remorse for spying for the Soviets for some three decades and betraying Queen and Country. As Ben Macintyre noted in The Times of London, Blunt’s manuscript is “remarkable for what it does not reveal. Blunt does not go into detail about his own spying activities, or the consequences for others of his actions.”

Blunt should have been called “The Hollow Man,” not the “Fourth Man,” for his careerism and narcissism. When his espionage on behalf of the Soviet was discovered by British counterintelligence, Blunt struck a deal with the authorities so he could stay in England and continue his career as an art historian. (“I realised quite clearly that I would take any risk in this country, rather than go to Russia.”) Not until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher exposed Blunt’s treason and the Queen stripped him of his knighthood, did Britons learn of his double-dealing.

PLENTY OF REMORSE IN RED SOX NATION AS BOSTON HERO DAVID “BIG PAPI” ORTIZ was implicated in baseball’s steroid scandal when it became known that his name had appeared on a list of players who tested positive for doping in 2003. Ortiz denied using steroids, but apologized for the distraction and acknowledged being “careless” in using supplements and vitamins which may have caused positive test results. Baseball fans continue to wonder, however, whether any of the records set or championships won during the Asterisk Era should be considered authentic. A sad day in Mudville…

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN RABBI AND THEOLOGIAN ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL (1907-1972): “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

President Obama’s magical first pitch

President Barack Obama’s awkward ceremonial first pitch at the 2009 All Star baseball game last night was saved from bouncing in the dirt by Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

It was a shaky toss (Obama, known for his talent on the basketball court, admitted to the Fox Sports: “I did not play organized baseball when I was a kid and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren’t so natural to me”) but you wouldn’t have known that from many of the media accounts.

Barack Obama’s first pitch is a success” was the headline for Carol E. Lee’s piece in Politico, although her lead did admit: “It was low, and didn’t quite reach home plate.” Jack Curry’s New York Times blog post (“Obama to Pujols, Without a Bounce“) and’s coverage (“Obama gets first pitch to home plate“) reflected the generally positive spin in the mainstream media. You would have to turn to Fox News or, surprisingly, to the left-of-center British newspaper, the Guardian ( “Obama’s first pitch as president falls flat“) for a more clear-eyed account.

White House aides were apparently worried about the symbolic nature of Obama’s performance. They had to be happy with the  sympathetic media’s pro-Obama spin. Of course it didn’t really matter—so what if Obama looked uncomfortable throwing? President George H.W. Bush bounced a first pitch at an All-Star game, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney at the opening of the Washington National’s home season in 2006.  And George W. Bush demonstrated he could reach the plate, as he did at the 2001 World Series. In short, whether a politician’s throw reaches home plate or not shouldn’t be a symbol of anything (certainly not “manliness” or leadership). The losers in this silly episode: any journalist who bought into applauding Obama’s magical first pitch.

(Ted Guthrie, general manager of the minor league Charlotte Rangers, gave me this priceless tip for ceremonial first pitch throwing back in the mid-1990s: throw the ball high, aiming for a spot several feet over the catcher’s head. This compensates for the tendency to short-arm the ball, and the difficulty in gauging the distance from the pitching mound. The advice worked!)

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

June 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama’s Afghan war-by-drone, Sanford as tabloid delight, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA INTENDS TO FIGHT THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN ON THE CHEAP, with bare-minimum American troops levels and drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders substituting for the more substantial commitment many counterinsurgency experts believe is needed. But will this limited-resource strategy (war-by-drone), coupled with political reforms and a build-up of Afghan troops, work in establishing a stable Afghanistan?

The odds of war-by-drone succeeding are long. Despite the introduction of additional ground troops in June, the level of NATO forces in Afghanistan aren’t adequate for the mission of nation-building. The subtext of U.S. Afghan commander David McKiernan’s replacement by Stan McChrystal is that McKiernan wanted more troops than the Obama Administration was prepared to furnish. Already there are signs that force levels aren’t sufficient for a “clear and hold strategy”: the complaints by Allied field commanders in the Helmand River valley that Afghan military support is lacking illustrates one disconnect between strategy and resources. The substitution of air power for ground troops has also led to counterproductive bombing raids on Afghan villages.

Obama has dramatically expanded the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is some irony that this tactic—of questionable legality under international law—has been embraced by an Administration concerned that harsh interrogation tactics are war crimes. Would an international court consider drone attacks an acceptable military tactic, or would they be regarded as illegal assassinations? What about the loss of civilian life when drones launch missiles at residential compounds thought to house Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? What about Pakistani sovereignty?

Obama campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan should be the chosen battlefield in confronting America’s Islamist adversaries. Convinced that the situation on the ground in early 2009 was rapidly deteriorating, Obama chose incremental escalation, a more politically palatable course, but one that ignores the lessons of Vietnam (encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine) by failing to bring overwhelming force to bear and by finessing the exit option. Will it buy enough time for the recruitment, training, and deployment of an indigenous Afghan military? What will Obama do when “clear and hold” requires much higher troop levels and the Afghan government and military can’t deliver? Will he endorse further escalation and pay the political price at home with the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or will Afghanistan in 2010 look like pre-surge Iraq in 2006-2007?

The strategy Obama is adopting may allow for a temporary, and fragile, stability in Afghanistan, but it will mean American ground troops must remain in the country for a much longer period of time. A true surge could accomplish more, produce fewer civilian casualties by lessening the need for airpower, and allow for a faster NATO exit.

THE PHILANDERING OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S GOVERNOR MARK SANFORD HAS BEEN A DELIGHT FOR TABLOID NEWSPAPERS. Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman and his public disclosure of his messy emotional state inspired editors at the New York Daily News to produce this memorable front-page headline (wood): “BUENOS AIRHEAD.”

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE “BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED” MEME, COURTESY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, FROM THE GRAVE. Before his execution, Iraq’s former ruler told his American interrogator that he refused U.N inspection and let the world believe that he had weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t want Iraq to appear weak in the eyes of his Iranian adversaries. This approach, of course, convinced Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was continuing to pursue WMDs.

Further debunking of the “Bush Lied” allegation: Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (“‘Bush Lied?’ If Only It Was That Simple.”) notes that in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in June that Bush’s pre-war claims about the threat from Hussein were generally substantiated by intelligence information. The report found that the consensus in the intelligence community supported Bush’s claims about Iraq’s biological weapons, chemical weapons, its nuclear weapons program and it links to terrorist groups. Yes, the intelligence was later proved to be flawed in the extreme—but until Bush’s critics can show that the president knew that what he was hearing from the CIA, and other Western intelligence agencies, was faulty, he can’t be accused of lying.

WHILE IT’S A FUNCTIONAL AND PRETTY PLACE, THE RECENTLY OPENED CITI FIELD, HOME OF THE NEW YORK METS, has a decidedly artificial feel to it. By choosing to build an “instant classic” ballpark with red-brick facades and wrought-iron gates, the Mets are fabricating a tradition that doesn’t exist. That’s evident with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which celebrates the legendary African-American pioneer who broke the color bar in major league baseball, but who played for the Dodgers and has the flimsiest of historical connections with the Mets, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

RECOMMENDED READING: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ABILITY TO ENTERTAIN AND ENLIGHTEN is evident in his Atlantic Monthly reminiscence of an obscure British author, Edward Upward, “The Captive Mind.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM BRITISH SCIENTIST AND PHYSICIAN SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682): “Men live by intervals of reason under the sovereignty of humor and passion.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

April 2009: Nobody asked me, but

Kant and the torture debate, Coors Field East, and other observations

With tip of the ballcap (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

THE RECENT DEBATE OVER TORTURE HAS FOUND THE NATION’S CAPITAL FILLED WITH… KANTIANS. The 19th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, famous for his advocacy of duty-based ethics, argued that universal maxims, once established, should be followed no matter the circumstances or consequences. President Barack Obama and many liberal Democrats have taken a decidedly Kantian position on what they call torture (and neo-conservatives call “enhanced interrogation techniques”), maintaining that it should never be employed under any circumstances, and that captured terror suspects should be interrogated only under the restrictive rules of the Army Field Manual.

Obama and his allies have undercut their profession of Kantian absolutism, however, by considering the question of whether the CIA’s waterboarding of Al Qaeda terrorists was effective (they say it was not, although Obama’s director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, stated that those harsh interrogations did  produce “high-value information”). But as any self-respecting Kantian knows, the utility of an action is immaterial to its morality. To put it another way: if you decide torture is always wrong, if you make its abolition a Categorical Imperative (in Kantian terms, an unconditional moral law) it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. Kant on this question: “Do what is right, though the world may perish.”

A different strain of moral philosophy, consequentialism, holds that the morality of an action should be judged by its results. This, of course, is the philosophic position taken by the circle around President George W. Bush. They argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved American lives by staving off additional post-9/11 terror attacks.  Consequentialism is a more pragmatic approach, which is perhaps why the philosophic movement advanced by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey was called Pragmatism. It’s a theory with clear appeal for results-oriented Americans.

What if the CIA takes an Al Qaeda leader into custody who is likely to know the operational details of a planned attack on the New York subways? Under Kantian principles, you would refrain from torture (or “enchanced interrogation techniques”) no matter the consequences, no matter the potential loss of life. Would CIA head Leon Panetta and Obama hold to their Army Field Manual standard for interrogation, which one critic argued “is so anemic, that it goes below the level of coercion associated with police station level of interrogation”? Panetta has sent mixed signals about how far he would be willing to go, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee in his confirmation hearings:

“If we had the ticking bomb situation and I felt that whatever we were using wasn’t sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president and request any additional authority that we would need.”

Establishing an absolute ban on torture but seeking “additional authority” to “enhance” interrogation could easily mutate into a policy very much like the Bush Administration’s. Or as the Who once sang: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The most puzzling aspect of the torture debate is President Obama’s decision to release memos from the Bush years dealing with enhanced interrogation, and then “making it clear that he does not intend to press charges against those involved in the decision-making or the interrogations. ” Why trigger a national debate over the issue if you aren’t going to seek a resolution either through prosecution or Congressional hearings? (For the record: I take a Kantian position against any use of  those techniques, like waterboarding, which have been regarded as torture for centuries and “shock the conscience.”)

MONEY CAN’T BUY LOVE, IT’S SAID, AND THE NEW YORK YANKEES WILL ONCE AGAIN PROVE THAT IT CAN’T PURCHASE THE AMERICAN LEAGUE PENNANT. The Yanks are off to a slow start, dropping their first five games to their hated rival, the Boston Red Sox, and watching home runs sail out of the new Yankee Stadium at record pace (some are calling it Coors Field East!). All this despite (or perhaps because of) the highest payroll in major league baseball!

COUNT ON COLUMNIST FROMA HARROP FOR UNCONVENTIONAL INSIGHTS, nowhere more apparent than in her recent musings on the state of marriage circa 2009: “A Nation of Unwed Drudgery.” Harrop looks at the growing trend of  single motherhood and notes that the fathers involved often go AWOL, walking away from their responsibilities for childrearing. The result: “Most such single mothers become beasts of burden.” To provide some context: when Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of the dangers to social cohesion presented by illegitimacy in his controversial 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the illegitimacy rate stood 22 percent for black Americans and 8 percent nationally. Today, those numbers are 71 percent and 38 percent.

It is hard to imagine how many of the pressing domestic challenges, from income inequality to crime to inadequate education, can be effectively addressed without confronting this breakdown in the nuclear family. That will require changes in government tax policy to support married couples, a change in the cultural attitudes about unwed motherhood, and a recognition that silence about these issues no longer suffices. Can these disturbing trends be reversed? Difficult, but not impossible.

WHAT IS GLOBAL CAPITALISM’S FUTURE? Paul Kennedy offered his predictions in a fascinating Financial Times essay in March. Kennedy discounts the prospects of an egalitarian, Marxist alternative, and instead posits a “new post-excess neocapitalist political economy.” He adds:

It will be a system where the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years.

“DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO” MUST BE THE MANTRA OF THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY, as its hard-ball negotiating tactics with the Boston Globe hardly match up with the editorial positions taken by the Times on employer-labor issues. The New York Times Company has successfully pressured the unions at the Globe for major concessions (including cuts in health care and other benefits) and threatened to shut down Boston’s leading newspaper if it didn’t get those givebacks. It’s not the stance you would expect from an organization whose flagship newspaper has long carried pro-union editorials (including support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would eliminate secret ballot elections on the question of union representation). Full disclosure:  In the past, I worked for both the New York Times Company and the Boston Globe.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN WRITER SUSAN SONTAG (1933-2004): “I envy paranoids. They actually feel someone is paying attention to them.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserve

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…


1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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October 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Waterboarding kabuki, truth to power, and other observations…

With a tip of the fedora to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE (AS I DO) WITH JOHN MCCAIN AND THE MILITARY’S LEGAL ESTABLISHMENT that waterboarding is torture, or to believe that the United States should never engage in torture (as I do), to recognize the elements of kabuki theater in the recent Washington back-and-forth over the question of harsh interrogation tactics.

Senate Democrats, who know that Attorney General designee Michael B. Mukasey won’t publicly characterize waterboarding as torture, are looking to wring the most symbolic, and political, value out of his awkward situation. Mukasey recognizes that such a concession might trigger lawsuits against the government or even potential war crimes prosecutions; further, it would directly challenge the Bush Administration’s long-held position that it has not practiced torture.

The entire question of “War on Terror” interrogation techniques and torture is more complex than the stylized drama in Washington suggests. The Democratic presidential front-runners, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, have all been careful to say they renounce the use of torture as a policy of the U.S., but have been less clearcut on whether they would endorse its practice in the Al Qaeda terrorist-with-the-ticking-atomic-bomb hypothetical ( a favorite presidential primary debate question this campaign season). Indeed, former President Bill Clinton endorsed harsh interrogation tactics in such cases (as NBC newsman Tim Russert pointed out at the Democratic debate in September); and there is Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz’s controversial idea of “torture warrants” issued by a judge to “obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it.”

STEPHEN COLBERT PROVED HIS ON-AIR HUMOR can translate to newsprint when Maureen Dowd turned her New York Times op-ed column over to him (“A Mock Columnist, Amok). Colbert’s comic two-sentence recap of a typical Frank Rich NYT column is a classic:

Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

TIME TO BREAK UP THE BOSTON RED SOX? Two World Series wins in four years and there is talk in the Athens of America of a potential baseball dynasty in the making. Good pitching beats good hitting (one diamond truism that holds up in practice), and since the Red Sox can send Josh Beckett, Dice-K, and Jonathan Papelbon to the mound, you have to like the club’s long-term prospects.

JUSTIN CURRIE, FORMER LEAD SINGER OF DEL AMITRI, has released his first solo album, “What is Love For,” eleven well-crafted, haunting songs. Currie sings about yearning for the Other (“Only Love”), about loss (“Not so Sentimental”; “Still in Love,”), and about his vision of the bleak 21st century landscape of materialism, apathy, and anxiety (“No, Surrender”). Del Amitri fans will not be disappointed.

HOW ABOUT AN INFORMAL BAN ON THE USE OF THE PHRASE “SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER?” A quick Google search of recent news stories and editorial columns reveals a bizarre list of those said to be “speaking truth to power” including Cindy Sheehan, Ron Paul, the young Hillary Clinton, Lawrence Summers, Ward Churchill, Dan Rather, Al Franken, Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell, J.K. Rowling, Anita Hill (her book was entitled “Speaking Truth to Power”), Mother Teresa, and, my favorite, the former TV psychic, Miss Cleo. (Miss Cleo does her “speaking truth,” we are told, on her recently released rap CD).

(If you’ve noticed a left-ward tilt to the list, that’s because the phrase has been a favorite for many “progressives” since Quaker anti-nuclear activists first began using the slogan in the 1950s.)

But what does the phrase really mean? That the speaker is courageously “telling it like it is?” Yet, as Canadian journalist David Warren has noted, this “speaking truth to power” is often performed by “people who have taken very few risks in their lives, and take no risk in speaking publicly.”

That icon of the American left, Noam Chomsky, rejects the slogan, regarding it as “self-indulgent.” His explanation deserves to be quoted:

…First of all, power already knows the truth. They don’t need to hear it from us. Secondly, it’s a waste of time. Furthermore, it’s the wrong audience. You have to speak truth to the people who will dismantle and overthrow and constrain power. Furthermore, I don’t like the phrase “speak truth to.” We don’t know the truth. At least I don’t.

Chomsky has (some of) it right: employing the phrase reflects a holier-than-thou sanctimony more often than not, and skepticism about those who claim to have found “the truth” is well warranted.

WORTH READING: RYAN LIZZA’S NEW YORKER piece, “The Mission,” on Mitt Romney’s life story and its impact on his presidential candidacy; Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal on “The New Girl Order” about the spread of the “Sex in the City” lifestyle globally; ’s witty review of Beantown-based movies, “Ben Affleck’s Boston,” from Slate.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, lyric poet, provides this month’s quotation: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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