Sunday, September 28, 2008

Is This Heaven? No, It's Milwaukee

For sheer drama, you could not beat the last week of the Brewer’s amazing run to the playoffs. Left for dead – by me and others – after their epic fail in Philadelphia two weeks ago, this remarkable group of cheerful and talented youngsters somehow found a way, with the much-appreciated help of the Mets.

Although baseball accomplishments can usually be determined by raw numbers – the unfortunate but entertaining steroid era notwithstanding – I don’t think there is a category for the kind of impact that CC Sabathia has had in terms of dominant pitching and team spirit since the trade that brought him here in July. Whatever you call it, his performance in the last three months of the season is nothing short of historic. He might end up 5th in the Cy Young voting, but he should be the league MVP.

And then there are Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. After the entire team sleep-walked their way out of the wild card lead in the first half of the month, Prince suddenly came alive in Chicago with two home runs on September 16th and stayed hot the rest of the year. He sparked this week’s magical run with his walk-off home run on Tuesday, followed by Braun’s grand slam walk-off on Thursday. Braun produced a similar blast today, breaking a tie while the Mets were losing and Sabathia was being nothing less than super-human on his third short start.

It remains to be seen how long the Brewers hang around in the playoffs. They stunk in almost every clutch series they had this year – from that fiasco at Fenway in May to getting swept twice by the Cubs at home and in New York and Philly this month. There is a difference between squeaking into the playoffs and being ready for prime time. But, in prime time they will be this week, and that alone is reason to party.

I know, I can read amateur baseball analysis in hundreds of places and people come to my little blog here to ponder more weighty affairs. Please, gentle readers, allow me this slight indulgence.

The Brewers and I have been through a lot since they came to town in 1970. I’ve been to hundreds of games through the years, mostly in small crowds watching mediocre-to-bad teams in County Stadium. I’ve been to Brewers games with the three most important men in my life – my dad, my brother and my son – and with lots of lovers and friends.

Dad, who brought me to Braves games in the ‘60s, took me to a game on my birthday in 1971. They had some poor old guy in a trailer perched up on the scoreboard, and the deal was he couldn’t come down until 40,000 people came to a game – sort of a variation on the famous National Lampoon cover: Buy This Magazine or We’ll Shoot This Dog. I don’t know what was so special about August 16th, but the weather was nice and enough people showed up that whoever had devised this tortuous promotion set the guy free. They gave him a rope after the game and had him slide down with no gloves, burning his hands. It was the last baseball game I ever saw with my dad.

The Brewers were a very forgettable team for the rest of the ‘70s – except for Hank Aaron’s last laps in ‘75 and ‘76 – until 1978 when Paul Molitor came up and George Bamburger somehow got them to play some decent baseball for the next couple of years. My brother and I were in the left field bleachers at Game 5 against the Angels in '82, when the Brewers came from behind to win and go to the World Series. While the ball was still rolling to short on the last play of the game, Jimmy was already over the fence, running for the infield celebration, where, he claims, he patted Robin Yount’s head. I was way behind him but eventually caught up and we danced on the grass and deliberately joined a traffic jam on Wisconsin Ave., taking turns driving and walking, high-fiving complete strangers on the usually deserted street.

Through the years, I continued to go to games whenever someone wanted to go, with friends, girlfriends, wives, nieces, nephews, sisters and in-laws. Baseball is a mellow game in the first place and, with the Brewers most of those years, no expectations. You can sit and talk, look up at the crack of the bat, and go back to your conversation. I have never had a bad time at a baseball game.

I was there for the last hit in Molitor’s hitting streak and Robin’s 3,000th. I missed Easter Sunday in ‘87 and promised never to forgive Bud Selig for losing the ‘94 World Series to labor strife. [To the anticipated right-wing snipers: save it. I know the union called the strike. I also know that baseball’s historically inept management’s failed miserably with their tough-guy strategy and still got rolled when everyone got back to work.]

I worked for the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers in the ‘90s and my partner there was a huge baseball fan. Even though he lived in Madison, he got season tickets and I took a quarter of the games. As the Brewers moved to Miller Park (and he moved to Story Hill), his seats got better and much more expensive – I went from a quarter-season to 20 to 15 to 10 games a year until, a couple of years ago, just taking his increasingly rare cast-offs. Mark Simons has become one of the most familiar faces in the Park – earning the title Doorman by showing Sammy Sosa the door to his dugout after strikeouts – and I was (and am) lucky to be part of he and Stephanie’s loyal baseball family. The seats are right on the 3rd base dugout and it was a great place to take my son as he grew up, being close to the players and getting loads of game balls from players and umpires.

I watched most of the game on TV today – actually, I was in the car listening to Uecker’s classic call of Braun’s homer when that happened. I called my boy and we smiled over the phone; called my brother and asked "where were you in ‘82" as we celebrated another milestone. We’ll all be in the Park when the Brewers have their first non-World Series home playoff game since that day when Jimmy and I jumped the fence and danced on that day’s Field of Dreams. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we can have that moment again, and – in our imagination, anyway – my boy and I can go out on the Field, and maybe even have a catch.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Palin Fatigue

Tina Fey, the most talented producer/writer/actor working in televison, has already had it with Sarah Palin. After winning a bunch of Emmys for her work on the superb 30 Rock, the extremely attractive (OK, maybe it’s just me) Fey, making a personal and slyly political point, said "I want to be done playing this lady Nov. 5. So if anybody can help me be done playing this lady Nov. 5, that would be good for me."

Although I haven’t been asked to play her on SNL or anywhere else, I am also sick of Sarah Palin. After bursting on the national scene in the most cynical use of running-mate selection in U.S. political history, Palin has quickly moved down the road of becoming irrelevant and tedious. The McCain campaign’s strategy of keeping her shielded from media inquiry – culminating in an overdue rebellion in the press corps Tuesday while she posed for holy pictures with Hamid Karzai – will prove self-destructive as soon as next week, when Palin will be clamoring to be heard over the din of financial collapse, McCain's crashing in the polls and the thumping Obama will deliver on McCain’s bald head in the first debate Friday night.

While Palin gallivants around the country in her protective cocoon, speaking to various highly-selected gatherings of right-wing base-heads, reporters continue to do the vetting that McCain should have done on the near-absentee Alaskan governor. Apparently, even when she was near the seat of government in Juneau, she was playing with her Blackberry during meetings and sending her husband out on various retaliatory missions. She was for the bridge before she was against it, she hired a lobbyist while in Wasilla to go to Washington and stir up more earmarks, she and the McCain campaign are in full coverup mode over her vindictive actions in Troopergate, etc. Both in terms of her cluelessness, policy positions and her contempt for the media and the democratic process, she has been widely exposed as Bush in a skirt.

The usual right-wing echo-chamber has been remarkably silent in defense of her loony positions and her single-minded approach to government. Instead, they play their usual game of Defining the Worst as the Norm, finding snippets here and there of fringe personalities saying fringe things, and pretending like that is all the left is saying of Palin. However, like most Obama supporters, I couldn't care less about her family members or personal choices that she would not allow to others. Her public record, such as it is, is bad enough to expose McCain as blowing his first major decision by naming her his running mate.

Yesterday, Palin was trotted around New York City, getting advice from notoriously-wrong war criminal Henry Kissinger and chatting up any foreign leaders that the McCain campaign could dupe into posing with her. Imagine a Democratic campaign using whatever pull it had to get its running mate his or her first meeting with head of state at the UN. You would be able to hear the squealing from here to Afghanistan. Palin's vacant, uncomfortable smile was like a Little Leaguer suddenly thrust in her uncle's big-league clubhouse. Nice to visit? Sure. Belong there? You've got to be kidding.

Palin's selection has provided a gut-check for right-wing commentators, and very few have passed, especially locally. While some right-wing memebers of the commentariat are lending themselves a modicum of credibility by criticizing McCain for his reckless pick, others make excuses for her enourmous short-comings and toe the party line. When this is all over, those seeking legitimate commentary will be able to look at whether the writer played Palin defense or called her out for the cypher she is.

Showing their characteristic fickleness, the American public has popped the Palin bubble. Like a movie with lots of buzz before opening, Palin has suffered from a lack of positive "word of mouth" since then. Good opening weeks may be sufficient for Hollywood's bottom line, but they don't do much for politicians running a marathon. By the time she gets to the debate with Biden next week, Palin will be reeling, back on her high-heels, wondering why she has to answer all these damn questions. It's the democracy, stupid.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sarah and Sean, Sitting in a Tree...

As I predicted, the Sean Hannity "interview " with Sarah Palin was a big, kissy-face love-fest between the two right-wing extremists. With Palin dolled-up in full shiny Fox Noise Female make-up, the two cooed and flirted with each other, as Hannity set the softballs up on the tee and Palin cautiously swung, hitting weak grounders to an infield that had already gone home for the day. As the ball trickled through the grass, Palin rounded the bases with no challenges. Hannity sat back in smug wonder and immediately declared a home run.

Here are the "questions" Hannity used to draw out Palin to her talking points. These are literally all the "subjects" covered:
  • You said when you were asked to be Senator McCain's running mate that you didn't hesitate, you didn't blink. Tell us about the call, when that came....What was your family's reaction? Was there time to huddle and have a hockey team meeting? Subtext: Let's hear how warm and cuddly you are.
  • Do you believe that the fundamentals of our economy are strong?...Is Senator Obama then using what happened on Wall Street this week? Is he using it for political gain? Is there a danger of a presidential candidate is saying to the world that America's situation of economic crisis is the worst that we've seen in decades — which was words that he was using yesterday — is there a danger in terms of the world hearing that? Obama = danger, get it?
  • Who is responsible for these failing institutions, in your view?...We read this morning that AIG is going to get some type of government bailout. Was that the right call? Even though you said it was a wrong call the day before...well, never mind that.
  • You have 354 lawmakers got money from Fannie and Freddie — 354. If you look at the years from 1989 to 2008, the second top recipient was Senator Barack Obama. Should there be an investigation in terms of the relationship between the political donations and then, of course, the bankruptcy that ensued and the impact on the economy? Release talking point on Obama's contributions. Don't mention McCain did exactly the same thing.
  • How do you make [the elimination of earmarks] happen? Look how partisan it is in Washington right now. How do you get that accomplished? Tell us, SAY-rah, how tough you and McCain are going to be.
  • The people of Alaska get — for example, there's no income tax, there's no sales tax in Alaska. The average citizen — if I was a resident of Alaska, you would write me a check every year for $2,069? And then you also gave recently an extra check for $1,200?...I have to move to Alaska. New York taxes are killing me. Ba dup bum
  • For those that maybe buy into that class warfare agreement or think, why shouldn't the rich pay more? My question to you is the converse: why does everyone benefit if the rich pay less or if everybody pays less in taxes? Why is that good for the economy? Insert GOP taxes-are-bad points here.
  • Do you think these attacks, ratcheting up these attacks by Barack Obama and by Senator Biden [on McCain] , do you think these attacks will be effective? I'm guessing "no".
  • How did you take on your own party, specifically? And do you think you'd be able to do that, as well, in Washington? Have Republicans in Washington lost their way in recent years? The hero, the marerick, Sarah America...
  • Governor, have you spoken with Senator McCain about your specific role in the McCain administration? No, really, have you?
  • You know, it's clear I've heard you talk passionately about your love for your state of Alaska...You know, why then why then would you support drilling in Alaska? Why would that be a good thing? Why would you want to do that? How good is drilling? Drilling is good right? Drill, drill, drill...
  • We're importing, what, 70 percent of our oil. Do you view this as a national security issue, an economic security issue? And what is the impact for Americans down the road if we don't do something to solve our energy dependence? Insert your energy-as-national-security-credentials here...
  • Did you watch Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live"? Yes, with the sound off, said Palin. Raise your hand if you believe that one. Not you, Esenberg.

Well, as it turns out, the air is out of the Palin bounce. And the New York Times poll shows that 75 percent of those polled said she was picked for cynical politcal reasons, not because she was qualified.

But don't tell that to Sean Hannity. He is still swooning over his date with Palin and hoping for more. He served his role as McCain campaign surrogate to the hilt, as expected. And Palin, even with his extraordinary help, continued to be remarkably bland and unimpressive. With his lame response to the finanical crisis this week and the new aggressive Obama hitting hard, the McCain campaign is in free-fall. And this embarassing make-out session between Hannity and Palin ain't gonna help.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mark Belling: Clear Channel’s Racist Pig

One of my favorite comedy movies of the past ten years is Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. It is a hilarious send-up of America, stupidity and the combination thereof. The premise is that, starting in 2005, smart people stopped reproducing and stupid people reproduced too much. The result, in 2505, when most of the movie takes place, is that the entire nation is incredibly stupid. You have to see how Judge (Beavis & Butthead, Office Space) sets it all up, but it is a very funny movie.

In the America of 2505, the top TV show – maybe the only TV show, except for porn – is "Ow, My Balls". In the show, a small and very fearful man is repeatedly hit in the groin by baseball bats, wrecking balls, and everything in between. At home, the citizens of the future howl with laughter at every painful thud. It is the perfect entertainment for the deliriously clueless populace.

"Ow, My Balls" is the ultimate result of a heartless corporation giving the people what they want, without regard to moral standards or the effect of electronic garbage on society in general. Are the ratings good? Fine, let’s do that.

People are not nearly as universally stupid as the characters in Idiocracy (however, according to Judge, we still have 497 years to go), but there are apparently enough stupid people in the Milwaukee radio market to make Mark Belling’s talk show the highest rated afternoon show. Belling’s frequently racist poison is broadcast by WISN, a formerly respectable radio station, now part of the notorious and mammoth Clear Channel radio chain. Clear Channel has been allowed to purchase 6 stations in the Milwaukee market, including, remarkably, a soul station (V-100.7). Do they work in the same building? Does Belling ever leave work with a bloody nose?

There used to be a sense of corporate citizenship, even for out-of-town companies with big local footprints. Companies might be able to make more money doing things that might have been more destructive to the community, but they didn’t. For one thing, they didn’t want to incur the wrath of other corporate citizens and other local leaders. For another, they had a moral compass and knew the lines they didn't want to cross in any event.

Not Clear Channel. They keep Belling on the air because of his ratings and couldn’t care less what racist tripe he spins into the air and the effect on the community. And Belling is transparently arrogant about his position with the company and his power to poison the city he inexplicably lives in.

The latest outrage from Belling was his show yesterday, in which he bloviated for an hour about how black people in the bars on Water Street are a danger to the area. He called for bars to stop playing hip-hop music and suggested the city may have to require bars to install metal detectors. "The more places you have on Water Street that play that kind of music, the more trouble there’s going to be." he said. "Now, nobody else will say that other than me." Fine. I’m sure Bull Connor felt equally brave.

The spark for Belling latest racist fear-mongering was, as usual, a tragedy that he chose to capitalize on. An incident between three Marquette students resulted in two of the young women being stabbed (one in the face, one in the shoulder) with a knife, allegedly by the third. All three students were African-American and underage. "There is a racial implication to the story," announced Belling, ominously. "I’m the guy that tell you what’s going on and doesn’t try to cover things up because of political correctness." You always know that, when Belling and other racists pull out the PC defense that simple incorrectness is coming. Sure enough: "Water far more racially mixed than it used to be...Water Street appears to be getting more violent."

There is a way to quantify this – Belling at least says he used to be a reporter and he could check with the District 1 police station and he’d have the information he pretends to know. But, like all good racists, he doesn’t want to be confused with the facts. Or, he just makes some stuff up. "There is a perception on the part of some bar owners [I’ll bet he can’t name one] that young black people tend to act far more aggressively than young white people."

This is all utter nonsense. But it goes on because it makes Belling’s angry-white-male demographic feel more comfortable in their own racist skin. I hear some of this stuff and think, jeez, is the program manager of the station (fill-in wing-nut Jerry Bott) or anyone in the corporate offices in San Antonio concerned that they have someone poisoning the community airwaves every day?

Nope. They like it. And, if they thought a radio version of "Ow, My Balls" would get big ratings they’d do that too. Maybe they could get Mark Belling to be the host; he could do it in blackface.

Interestingly, during his racist diatribe, Belling blamed some of Water Street’s imaginary problems on some owners of bars that don’t live in the area. "They’re pigs....They make a lot of money real, real fast, and then they walk away." Sounds like Clear Channel to me. Except they are not going anywhere, unfortunately.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fox and the Palins: Big Wet Kisses

Now that the extremely unqualified Sarah Palin has (barely) gotten past her first media interview with the very tepid Charlie Gibson, she has headed back to the Lower 48 for glittery campaign appearances before inexplicably adoring supporters. With a slightly revised script (the lie about the Bridge to Nowhere remains), Palin has been put back in the protective cocoon she has been in since she was announced as McCain’s running mate, screened off from any human contact with the press corps traveling with her. You wonder how long that media contingent will put up with this before they throw their pens and microphones at the stage and refuse to distribute the pretty pictures nationwide. There is such a thing as self-respect, you know, although you wouldn’t know it to look at Palin herself.

"She will do interviews, but she'll do them on the terms and conditions" the campaign decides, said McCain manager Rick Davis on September 7th on Fox Noise Sunday. And when might that be? At "the point in time when she'll be treated with respect and deference...We run our campaign not the news media." Well, alrighty, then. But, with those standards – respect having to be earned and royal "deference" not regularly conferred to mere mortals – Palin would never get to appear before the public except in campaign commercials and SNL parodies. The McCain campaign still needs to build on the Palin mystique by giving us glimpses of Her Wonderfulness without paying for it. What to do, what to do?

Enter Fox Noise, the RNC conduit that has featured outright GOP advocacy in its "news" and talk shows since its inception. Sarah Palin’s next "interview" will be televised this Wednesday with Sean Hannity, as partisan a hack as exists on any cable channel, anywhere. Fox makes a meaningless distinction between its "news" personnel and it "commentators", although both kinds of on-air personalities infect each other’s programs. Now, it will use its most rabidly Republican talking-head to make "news" by giving a beyond-friendly forum to Palin. One can only hope, for her sake, that they keep her away from the Fox make-up artists, where the women of Fox are lipsticked, hair-teased, rouged and tarted-up within an inch of their vacant lives.

We got a taste of what Hannity’s "interview" of Palin might look like last night, when the formerly-respectable Greta Van Susteren all but jumped into bed with Palin’s husband Todd in a fawning puff-piece. "What should I call you? First Dude?" "Just call me Todd." You can almost see Greta swooning...How about First Hunk, big boy? The most probing question, on Todd’s trip to Washington: "You got to meet the president? That must have been fun." Sheesh. The rest of it was just how cool is your house, how cool is your plane, how cold is it on the North Slope, how cool is it to have your wife as McCain’s running mate... You couldn’t tell it by Van Susteren’s ridiculous down-vested who’s-yer-buddy tour of the Palin estate, but Todd himself is a legitimate news subject, with recent reports that he plays an integral – if unofficial and unpaid – part in the governor’s office in Alaska. It was embarrassing to see Van Susteren, who grew up in Appleton and used to have a real show on CNN before getting her famous nose-job and moving to Fox, fall so completely off the edge of the journalistic earth.

Sean Hannity won’t have the same problem "interviewing" Sarah, having never done a lick of responsible work, pimping for the Republicans for all of his professional career. I never understood how Republicans get away with appearing with such dramatically partisan, lying shills like Hannity and Rush Limbaugh without getting tainted with host’s regular body of work, which includes the worst kind of lies and poisoning of the political climate. Imagine if a Democratic candidate allowed himself to be interviewed by Michael Moore (an unfair comparison – Moore is a real journalist). There would be three weeks of howling by the GOP echo-machine just for being in the same room with him. Yet, GOP candidates can get big wet kisses by any old reactionary wing-nut and be rewarded for "submitting to an interview".

I can already see Hannity’s smug smiling face asking Palin probing questions like "why do you think the mainstream media has been so unfair to you?" and "after all you have been through, how do you stay so wonderful" and "are you comfortable? Can I get you a soft cushion?" It will make news – one good thing about it is that Hannity will help Palin continue to paint herself into a right-wing corner.

But then what does the campaign do? Will she ever appear on a Sunday talk show? Is the debate with Biden the only time she is going to subject herself to independent questioning? The novelty of having the unknown Palin on the ticket, along with McCain's convention poll surge, is already wearing off, just like the Ferraro bounce in 1984. Then what do they do -- throw her out on Meet the Press to sink-or-swim? I think Palin will be spending a lot of time in the warm bosom of Fox, hoping the partisan network can save the doomed McCain from his own bad choices and wild gambles.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ralph Plaisted, Polar Explorer

It was somewhat jarring to see a headline starting with the name "Plaisted" on page 6 of the front section of the Journal Sentinel today. I thought at first it might be about me ("Plaisted post convinces paper to bring back Doonesbury") or my brother Jim, who is always quoted in the paper about his excellent work on east side economic development issues. But, no....

My dad’s first cousin, Ralph Plaisted, passed away in Minnesota at the age of 80. Back in the ‘60s, he was drinking in a bar with some friends and they all decided they would try to get to the North Pole by snowmobile. CBS newsman Charles Kuralt went along on their first try with a film crew, resulting in a prime time special and Kuralt’s first book: To the Top Of the World: The Adventures and Misadventures of the Plaisted Polar Expedition, March 28 - May 4, 1967. They failed that year, but made it the next, in 1968; becoming the first explorers to indisputably make it to the Pole (Robert Perry said he did it, but no one outside of his party was entirely sure). So, he got an obit in papers all over the country. Cool.

Ralph came to visit us in New Holstein once after he made it – as I recall he had some speaking engagement in Fond du Lac. He stayed overnight and, actually, I was kicked out to the couch so he could use my bedroom. I don’t think Dad knew him very well; I think he lived a little further north in Minnesota from where Dad grew up in Mora. But he was a nice enough guy, just salt of the earth with a little hard-earned celebrity under his belt.

That’s my family’s little brush with history and fame – a guy, a few beers and some snowmobiles.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sarah Palin: Deer In the Headlights

Holy, moley. Two weeks of intensive preparation, briefing books, talking points, schooling...and that’s the best she can do? Set afloat from her strict script for the first time in two weeks, Sarah Palin showed tonight how totally unqualified she is to be vice-president of the United States.

Charlie Gibson is the oldest and most bland of what now passes for the network anchors. After getting advice from everyone in the blogosphere, he ignored it all and came to his Palin interview with the simplest of questions. He started one big fuzzy softball – "Can you look the country in the eye and say ‘I have the experience and I have the ability to be not just vice president, but perhaps president of the United States of America?’" Well, duh – what do you think she’s going to say, no? But Palin even seemed to struggle with that one, denying that she hesitated at all when asked. "You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the can’t blink." Oh, great. Haven’t we just suffered through eight years of Mr. Non-Blink, Mr. Committed to the Mission? Do we really want even one more year of people leading themselves down blind paths just because they made the stupid decision to head that way in the first place?

But that was just the start. Palin failed on every substantive question Gibson floated out there, from Russia (sure, Georgia should be in NATO; sure, we would have to defend it, wait...) to Iran (she repeated three times that we should not second-guess Israel if it decides to take out nuclear facilities) to Pakistan (coming out, as far as anyone could tell – "is that a yes?" asked Gibson – in favor of unilateral strikes into the country). She clearly had no idea what the Bush Doctrine (strike first, ask questions never) was, asking "in what respect" Gibson was asking her that damn question. She even punted the issue after Gibson graciously told her what it was, saying that a president should act if "a strike in imminent", not realizing imminence has nothing to do with the dumb and hopefully dead doctrine.

Throughout the session, Palin was leaning forward in a defensive crouch, the file cards of her training shuffling in her head for the right category, subject and bullet point. Away from the safety of her script and the cheery surroundings of her stump speeches, she was much smaller in stature and presence, not that she was all that great to begin with. The look on her face was often one of confusion and impatience. Palin was in a tough situation. She had to do two things: 1) pretend she knew about things about which she did not have a clue; and 2) hide her true feelings about international relations, mostly, as much as she’s thought about it (obviously not much), having to do with "god’s plan". She failed miserably at both.

She was clearly out of her depth in the world of serious thought, even on the fairly lightweight issues broached by Gibson. She wasn’t even mildly conversant in any of the subjects regularly discussed by real and armchair politicians at all levels of government and in blogger basements all over the country. She didn’t have a clue and you couldn’t tell from her defensive posture and demeanor whether she cared that she didn’t.

Palin obviously cares about many things – mostly having to do with religious nuttery and using her position as governor to extract family vengence and to have her kids fly around with her at state expense -- but, still, she cares. But during the interview, it was clear that, until she had to, she had not given the great policy questions of our time any thought whatsoever.

If Gibson had put the same questions to Barack Obama, Obama would bat one and then the other out of the park, in the back of his mind wondering "what’s with the soft stuff?", waiting for the real interview to start. So would anyone in Washington at a rank above summer interns. Her lack of depth reveals an entirely different perspective on "experience" and its relevance to those who aspire to the presidency, vice- or otherwise.

It is one thing to manage the nuts-and-bolts of a town or state. It is quite another to act as the figurehead of a government that pretty much runs itself. A president has to manage the Big Picture of the country's direction and its role in the world. It really is essential to have talked and thought a lot about it; your ideas challenged in public and private debate. You can't just jump into it in a month or even a year, especially with the kind of obvious intellectual uncuriosity displayed by Paliin in the interview.

The interview with Palin tonight showed how utterly irresponsible John McCain was for putting this lightweight on his ticket. I sense, from the lack of celebratory clucking on the right-wing tonight, that his supporters, deep in their hearts, feel the same way.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Journal Sentinel Dumps Doonesbury, Readers

This morning brings us the new, thinner Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Apparently, the J-S has decided to continue the self-fulfilling prophesy of dead-tree decline by making itself even less essential to our need for information. The paper wants us to read more by making itself less irrelevant.

From a news perspective, the biggest change is in the second section. The former Metro section (in Milwaukee, anyway) is now titled Local. The J-S apparently has eliminated the targeted editions for various parts of the state and will try to cover all local stories in the state in two or three short pages of content (minus obituaries). "This move is an important step that recognizes a simple truth: We are all part of one local community," writes Editor Martin Kaiser in a Dear John letter to the jilted readership on page one today. Oh, there’s a simple truth, alright – the "zoned geographic editions" were just too expensive to continue. Why not just say that rather than pretend you are doing us a favor?

The fact is that our local paper has now officially abandoned its focus on the Milwaukee area. It has done to itself what it did to the various community newspapers it ate up and spit out into the pathetic Now tabloids – blended and pureed the important facts of our world into a jumble of irrelevancies. Strangely, Kaiser directs those starved for local news to the Now papers and websites, which is like sending a hungry child to the hardware store. The Journal Company that spent tons of money and expended a lot of what was left of its community goodwill in the ‘90s by gobbling up and destroying dozens of vital independent local newspapers now offers the bland results as a substitute for the abandoned content of the parent paper. What a joke.

Some of the pain of the ill-considered changes the Journal Sentinel has made this year might be easier to take if the paper was doing more with the less it has created for itself. For instance, Stuart Carlson’s unfortunate demise is felt the most of all the recently departed J-S writers, leaving a surprising hole in the soul of the newspaper. Now, there is no way local or even state politicians can be lampooned in the way only a local cartoonist can.

But, if you are going to become a second-class newspaper by forcing out your editorial cartoonist, you might want to bring in some of the better syndicated cartoonists, such as Tom Toles the Washington Post or maybe the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jim Borgman. But no. Instead we are seeing far too much of the repulsive right-wing nut, Michael Ramirez. Ramirez, who the defensive wing-nuts will tell you somehow managed a Pulitzer Prize for his undistinguished and unoriginal body of work, has a ham-fisted way of illustrating right-wing talking points, such as his recent drawing of a hurricane with the phrase "Tax & Spending" imposed over the clouds and the caption "Hurricane Obama". Clever insight, no? Er, no. Ramirez appears to be alternating with Chip Bok, a middle-of-the-roader with no discernable genius.

But, if you are talking about cartoon metaphors for the accelerating decline of the Journal Sentinel, there is nothing sadder than dropping Doonesbury. Ever since it started running in the old Journal Green Sheet way back in the ‘70s, the newspaper has never done right by Garry Trudeau and his strip. They never ran it according to Trudeau’s size specs so the art looks right. Then they caved in to right-wing pressure and moved it to the op-ed page. In recent years, they have run it next to the putrid Mallard Fillmore, a ridiculously unfunny right-wing strip, implying a creative and moral equivalence that exists only in the twisted heads of the clueless J-S editors. Now – starting today – Doonesbury is gone, even from the Sunday comics, squeezed out by the apparent elimination of the op-ed page on Saturday and Monday.

Doonesbury is the greatest comic strip in the history of publishing (challenged only by Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County). The development of the characters over time has been incredibly deep and believable, as they grew from carefree college students to late middle-aged adults. Most interesting has been B.D., who started as a hard-core right-wing quarterback trying to keep stoned Zonker on track in the huddle and now struggles with PTSD after being hit by an IED in Iraq. Trudeau has taken the daily strip and turned it into a living work of art with heart and brains. His political points still get made – from Mark Slackmeyer’s "guilty, guilty, guilty!" during Watergate to his deserved jabs at Bush and Cheney – but it always comes from a world we recognize and characters that we know.

The Journal Sentinel should be honored to be a home for Doonesbury, rather than treating it like so much surplus For Better or Worse. It's one thing for the J-S to be battered by economic info-market realities; it is quite another for them to be the victim of their own bad choices.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Rick Esenberg makes an argument in his latest post to eliminate the charge of hypocrisy from political discourse. While admitting the obvious by allowing that "intellectual consistency is a virtue and an important discipline" (which would seem to eliminate the need for the rest of his post), he worries out loud – as he often does when something in happening that he doesn’t understand or, more often, is a threat to his right-wing ideology – that the charge of hypocrisy has become "a preferred form of political attack".

Since hypocrisy is a necessary component of right-wing complaints and arguments, the attempt to remove the comparison between what somebody says and somebody does – or what somebody on their side does – is disingenuous and an effort that only would benefit one side. The self-righteous throwing of stones from within glass houses and the casting of stones by known sinners is part and parcel of inert wing-nut behavior. Without their constant squawking about people doing things in public that they are doing behind their closed doors, they would have nothing to talk about.

Take Sarah Palin – please! While the quietest candidate in U.S. history hides behind the ten-foot wall constructed by the McCain campaign and sends out hired guns to delay an investigation into her gubernatorial acts of vengence against a former brother-in-law, enough is known about her to know that she has all sorts of characteristics that have driven Esenberg himself just wild when they are supposedly also identified in Barack Obama. Given her thin record and lack of qualifications, her meteoric rise, at least in the eyes of the types of wild-eyed nuts and elitists who attended the Republican convention last week, can only be attributed to undue celebrity. Esenberg’s own "A Star is Born" post was an embarrassing swim in a sea of self-convincing hyperbole (update: and, this morning: "the killah from Wasilla ... the Barracuda .... Sarah America") Yet he is the first to criticize Obama for his own popularity, freely indulging in the ridiculous "messiah" and "anointed one" nonsense. Gee, I don't know anyone more recently "annointed" than Sarah Palin, do you?

Then there is Palin’s wack religious background; she is in all likelihood a Dominionist, who followed her religious advisors’ advice to change the world by infiltrating secular government. Among other entertaining anecdotes, her current church has entertained at least one anti-Semitic speaker (Palin was present and did not walk out). Esenberg, who waxed hysterical about Obama’s attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s church – and is bound to do so again several times before the election – was too over-the-moon to find room in his "Star" post to address the issue of Palin’s religious zealotry. I won’t hold my breath to wait for him to admit or recognize it.

The identification of such obvious hypocrisy is not "a form of political attack"; it is an important way to evaluate the legitimacy of the right-wing attacks in the first place. There are lots of ways to get at the right-wing’s attempt to portray Obama as an empty celebrity, but few are more effective than their attempt to pump up an empty celebrity of their own. Either "intellectual consistency is a virtue", or it’s not. Esenberg seems to be saying that those without virtue should not be called out while they harangue about everyone else’s.

Even more fun and instructive is pointing out hypothetical hypocrisy. This is the concept behind my soon-to-be-bestselling board game, What If A Democrat Did It? For instance, what if a Democrat decided to pick a running mate with a pregnant, unwed 17 year-old daughter. You would hear the caterwauling from coast to coast. If it was a Democrat, the weird speculation by one blogger that Palin’s youngest child is actually her granddaughter wouldn’t be restricted to just that one guy – it would be broadcast as fact on talk radio 24 hours a day like so many Clinton murders. Palin was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. Are you kidding me?

So, according to Rick Esenberg, we should not point out the hypocrisy of those who are hypocritical. Oh, I don’t think so. Hypocrisy is pretty bad and pointing it out where it exists is quite illuminating. Esenberg would be better served going back to just drawing distinctions and making excuses for the hypocrits.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Return of Queen Esther

One of my favorite scenes in Recount, the excellent HBO movie about the theft of the Florida vote by the Bushies in 2000, is when the delicious Laura Dern, as Katherine Harris, claims divine guidance and biblical validation for her manipulation of law and process to install her governor’s brother as president. "I have been reading my Bible quite a bit lately, and I have been feeling this extremely strong kinship with Queen Esther," coos Dern/Harris. "You recall Queen Esther. [Uh, no.] She was willing to sacrifice herself to save the lovely Jewish people. [Oh.] And that's exactly what I'm doing right now." The dreamy combination of cluelessness and determination with which Dern delivers the lines brings home perfectly everything that was wrong with Harris, as she was lead by the nose to do the Bushes’ bidding.

Well, guess who else feels guided by the unseen hand of the ancient Persian queen with her very own book in the Old Testament. That’s right – none other that the GOP’s It Girl, Sarah Palin.

The New York Times this morning reports that after she took office as governor of Alaska, she went to some other old guy, the former pastor of her former nutty church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, for spiritual advice. "‘She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership,’ Mr. Riley said", according to the Times. "He wrote back that she should read again from the Old Testament the story of Esther, a beauty queen who became a real one, gaining the king’s ear to avert the slaughter of the Jews and vanquish their enemies. When Esther is called to serve, God grants her a strength she never knew she had."

Well, you can tell he didn’t have to tell her twice. After that, she was off and running, trying to purge the state service of bad ex-brothers-in-law, demanding resignations of state agency heads, putting the fix in to get a pipeline done so Big Oil could continuing funding Alaska’s unique form of socialism, etc. All, no doubt, with god and Queen E on her side.

That Palin is a religious whack job should not be news to anyone – that’s why the out-of-touch, refrigerator-white Republicans who gathered in St. Paul this week just looove her so much. Her career path in government began right where the Dominionists tell their followers to start infiltrating the sinful secular government – on a school board. You could see it in her ditzy YouTubed talk just this past June to young and sadly impressionable A-of-G students about how "god has sent me from under the umbrella of this church throughout the state" and how the Stupid War and occupation in Iraq was a "task from god" and that Bush’s plan, such as it is, is "god’s plan". Hey, trouble in the Middle East? Hell, let’s send Sarah over there. Nah, they won’t care that she pretty much admitted that our Iraq disaster was just part of a New Crusades. Talk about your new era in foreign relations.

The Times’ story relates that the A-of-G stuff became a little too much for the Palins in 2002, right around the time she began her political career. I guess attending a church that claims "speaking in tongues and miraculous healings" was too much, even for the notoriously tolerant Alaskans. But that didn’t stop her from calling up its former pastor for the Esther tip.

All the wing-nuts who pretend to be sooo concerned with Barack Obama’s membership in a church are spending all of their time talking up the flash-in-the-pan known as Sarah Palin and ignoring or applauding her religious affiliation, even when she sat through a talk at the A-of-G by some asshole who described terrorist attacks on Israelis as god's "judgment of unbelief" of Jews who haven't embraced Christianity. Listening to goofballs with a tight grip on the pulpit is something all church-goers have to put up with from time to time.

But the difference between Obama’s former church and that of Palin is that Palin’s church, as part of its mission, sends its followers out into the world to deliberately infiltrate secular institutions. All Obama ever got from Jeremiah Wright is the name of a book and a headache.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Quick Draw McCain

Since their self-proclaimed "revolution" in 1994, the Republicans have pioneered a new kind of politics in the United States. Whether you think this is a good thing depends on what subjects you think should be discussed in a presidential campaign and otherwise and, as always, whose ox (or, in the case of rugged Sarah Palin, moose) is being gored.

For instance, with all the members of the right-wing echo chamber playing constant defense for all these years during the disaster that is Still-President Junior Bush, how are they going to complain about every dip in the economic cycle when a Democrat is in office? Every recessionary tic, every massive job-loss, every rise in gas prices, every Enron or Abramoff or sub-prime mortgage scandal was excused as either out of Bush’s control or caused by Bill Clinton two, then three, then seven years ago.

I know, I know...these hacks hardly pride themselves on consistency and will saddle President Obama with responsibility for every bad thing that happens anywhere, even if they defined the same as a good thing under Bush. Without the capacity for that kind of hypocrisy, these people couldn’t exist.

Now, with John McCain’s spectacularly un-vetted nomination of the less-than-rookie Sarah Palin as his soul- and running-mate, the GOP has re-written the rules of the game once again. Campaigns for both major parties can now forget about spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lawyers, accountants and investigators to vet their desired candidates. If Palin’s tenuous nomination survives, all those things that used to keep campaign managers awake at night – religious nuttery, the purging of disloyal city and state managers, attempts at book-banning, unwed teenage pregnancies, contributions to indicted an senator’s 527, even participation in a secessionist cult – just don’t matter anymore. What a revelation! What a gift to future campaigns!

No longer will "the first important decision" of a purported presidential candidate be judged by the standard of whether they proposed a vice presidential candidate can be ready to take over in a crisis or, at least, manage not to embarrass a campaign. Now, who cares if she’s ready; the 72 year-old cancer survivor is promising to last at least 6 months while she gets trained, I guess. And, embarrassment? Bring it on! We’re bold, maverick, risk-taking! We’ll see if the gamble pays off. It's as if McCain didn’t find Palin in Alaska, he found her at a high-roller craps table in Vegas. Come on, baby, roll a seven – baby needs shoes!

The standard now must be not whether the candidate gets it right, but how talented the candidate’s staff is to stave off the inevitable "reporting" by those pesky news organizations, who not only poke around about irrelevant stuff like the state-imposed vindictive punishment of a former brother-in-law, but also want to know how and why the candidate tried to pull this rabbit out of the hat in the first place. With the training by but none of the evil talent of Karl Rove, McCain’s henchmen have their leaden talking points in place about the supposedly sexist treatment of Palin (like they should talk – have you ever any Republican talk about Hillary Clinton?), the fact that she has "executive experience" (and never you mind how she used it) and blah de blah blah.

But, although they found themselves moderately capable of keeping the wolves from Palin’s door (at least until her first press conference, which, I’m guessing, will be in about a month), they were unable to explain themselves and how they got themselves in this situation.

The story in the Washington Post this morning about the accelerated, incomplete and inept vetting process on Palin was all too much for McCain senior campaign advisor and Rove wannabe Steve Schmidt, who pronounced today that "this nonsense is over" and claiming that the campaign will answer no more questions about the failed vet. Which is fine – why talk about something you can’t defend? Then the Post version stands as the final version of this part of the failed candidacy of the impulsive, not-ever-ready John McCain.

It is obvious what happened. McCain put an artificial deadline on the process. They finally came around to Palin last Wednesday (after McCain was talked out of his first choice – the now, after last night, officially pathetic Joe Lieberman – and with Tim Pawlenty as the only other possibility). The staffers met with her for the first time Tuesday and on Wednesday she let them know her unwed teenage daughter was preggers (Did she also tell them her daughter changed high schools and was living with her aunt this spring? Inquiring minds want to know...). But by that time, she was all locked in and McCain couldn’t go back and still meet his timeline.

It makes you wonder what they found wrong with Pawlenty, a safer choice and, I’ll bet, more fully vetted. But it also identifies a trait with McCain that we have seen too much of from the Bushies in the past eight years: Locked into a course of action, he’ll ignore any information telling him not to do it. We saw such a thing play out, in spades, in the Stupid War in Iraq. Do we really want to deal with this quick-draw, don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts attitude in the White House again?

This is all about McCain, not Palin. Palin will get a wild reception from the convention crowd tonight -- I mean, what else do they have to shout about? But the far-right Palin's popularity with the GOP base just shows how out of touch they are with normal people.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Bikes, Bruce & ‘Bama

It was quite a weekend in Milwaukee.
  • Under perfect summers skies all weekend long, we enjoyed or survived – depending on your perspective and tolerance level – our quintennial visit from Harley riders.
  • The generous HD company treated the bikers to an incredible performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (see first 3 songs here) and shared it with anyone else who wanted to take advantage of the cheap ticket ($40 – you didn’t need the $65 HarleyFest pass after all), not to mention free admission for any kid 13 and under, for which Ken and at least two other fine young men are eternally grateful.

  • And, finally, Barack Obama put 20,000 in the seats of the Marcus Amphitheater on a day’s notice for a subdued, but very effective rally on Labor Day evening.

If Harley riders were the hell-raisers of their own legend, we in Milwaukee would all be cowering behind locked doors during these things, hiding the women and children while all the boozing, whoring and terror went on all over town. That is hardly the case with the type of investment bankers, corporate lawyers and salespeople who have the tens of thousands of dollars to spend to revel in Harley merchandise and mystique.

The only thing you have to be afraid of with these respectable men and women is the lawsuit they would hit you with if you forgot to check your blind spot and sideswiped them while changing lanes on the freeway, a situation I only got close to once this weekend. Like obedient conventioneers, they dutifully congregated in the various sanctioned parties, drove up and down the lakefront and spent a wonderfully huge amount of money all over our fair city. The only obnoxious behavior was that damn thing where they make their engines sound like a machine gun. But, what’s a little noise between friends?

Speaking of friends, the Harley people spent five or six hours mingling with the loyal subjects of Springsteen Nation on Saturday night on the sprawling space of Veterans Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront. It was weird seeing so many people who were not dedicated Bruce fans at one of his shows – especially the last of a long, successful tour. While us Bruce-heads did our usual jockeying for space – which didn’t do much good, since, if you weren’t in one of the wristband areas, you were at least 100 yards away – the riders in their dusty jeans lounged on plastic sheets and, basically, couldn’t care less about "Sandy" or "Spirits" or "Rosalita" or any of the other special parts of the Springsteen oeuvre that we were treated to this night.

Which made it interesting, because I would say the "Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts", as Bruce kept calling them, made up more than half of the huge crowd (I still haven’t seen an estimate, but it had to be at least 50,000). Not that it mattered much to Bruce and the E Streeters, who played like they were in the bosom of their loving regular fans the whole night.

You’d think the mixed and sometimes indifferent nature of the crowd would be a bummer for Bruce, who tours a lot in Europe because he gets jazzed by the exuberant way the crowds react there. But he and the band had bigger fish to fry on this night, and they set about from the beginning to create a masterpiece. He started with "Gypsy Biker", his own ode to the biker nation from his latest album and ended with a perfect cover of Steppenwolf’s iconic "Born to Be Wild" (which I predicted, by the way, going 12-for-31), but everything else was up for grabs.

Unleashed from the structure of the Magic tour (although he stuck with the last three songs of the set he’s been playing all year), everything seemed to be an audible as he careened through his epic catalog of passionately poetic stories. He gave his body up to the crowd during "Spirits in the Night" – his trust was rewarded when they passed him right back to the stage. He challenged the crowd with a torrid version of the little-known "Youngstown", but still hammed it up with "Glory Days" and "Dancing in the Dark". He gave love to a fallen brother on "Sandy" and wasn’t afraid to get justifiably political on Bush’s ass during "Livin’ in the Future".

By the time he was done after three-and-a-half hours, if you weren’t a Bruce convert by then, you ain’t gonna be. I thought back when they rocked Miller Park in 2003 near the end of the Rising tour, they should have quit right there – it wasn’t going to get any better, for them or for us. Someone very close to me said before this show that this would be it for him going to Bruce concerts. It’s always possible at the end of a tour that we might have seen the last of the E Street Band – Clarence’s health has not been the greatest at times on this tour, and it can't be E-Street without him. Could it be that Ken and I were at both the last Bruce/E-Street show and the last Favre game in the same year? No, wait, that wasn’t the last Favre game. Never mind.

While my foggy mind was clearing Sunday morning, I found out my weekend was not quite done. It was in the morning paper that Obama was coming to the Marcus Amphitheater for a rally on Labor Day. All it took was a quick trip to the Obama web site to score some press credentials, and I breezed into the scene (after celebrating my boy’s birthday by attending a disappointing game by the playoff-bound Brewers - did I mention it was a busy weekend?) just as the first speakers were getting started. It was a friendly, upbeat, diverse crowd that was ready to roar.

Obama was politically subdued due to hurricane Gustav making landfall and creating still-unknown damage in Louisiana. "Tonight is not a night for political speeches," he said. He even mentioned that Bush and McCain cared just as much as he did about the unfolding events on the Gulf Coast, without a boo or a peep from anyone. It was billed as a "Rally for American Workers", and Obama apologized that he wasn’t going to be getting into what he had planned to say to the largely union crowd. But he segued from expressing his concern for what was happening in the gulf into a stirring, if brief, plea to achieve unity to reach important goals and to take up the challenge to be our brother’s keeper. “What makes us great is that we rise and fall as one nation,” he said. “The spirit that we extend today and in the days to come . . . that’s a spirit we’ve got to carry with us every day.” He spoke for less than 15 minutes and got a rousing reception and response from the large crowd.

Most important, Obama exuded cool on this hot day with unpredictable dangerous weather still churning in the ocean. It wasn't the cool of some jazz cat, but the cool of a calm and measured leader. While John McCain ran impulsively down to the gulf for photo-ops, Obama said yesterday he would go there, when the time was right. He used the shortened rally in Milwaukee to bring home the message of concern and to call his supporters to voluntary action by supporting the efforts of the Red Cross. What we saw on that stage in Milwaukee is the steady hand of someone who was ready.

And, if what we are hearing today about the vetting process for McCain's just-met-her-once stunt-pick for VP is true, McCain, for all his experience and valor, is not ready at all.