Monday, April 28, 2008

The Wright Stuff

I held my breath as I watched Barack Obama eat a waffle on TV last week. It was from one of Jeannie Most’s always amusing video essays on CNN, this one about the left-over waffle and sausage from Obama’s breakfast in a Pennsylvania coffee-shop photo-op being offered on eBay (final bid: $10,000 before the diner’s owner put a stop to it).

Obama was sitting there peacefully, with an entire bank of reporters and cameras trained on his every move. He cut the waffle and turned his fork upside-down to pick it up. No, I thought. Don’t do it, man! Thankfully, he turned the fork around and took the food in his mouth like an American man, with the prongs pointing up; not down like some effete European wannabe. Thus did we escape a week of discussion on issue-starved cable TV about how Obama hangs around with elitists, talks like an elitist, eats like an elitist...

The Obama Destruction project being conducted by the right-wingers continues, with the full cooperation of the easily-manipulated nervous-nellies of the mainstream media, who think they have to take this nonsense seriously or they’ll be called "liberal". The result is that even faithful Obama-inclined Democrats are wondering whether Hillary Clinton has a point about his electability in light of the right-wing’s all-too-successful attempts to define him in a negative light before he gets a chance to define himself. We may end up thanking the wing-nuts for letting their various cats out of their bag before Obama had the nomination completely in his, but they just couldn’t help their hot-headed selves. They used to be so much better disciplined.

If Obama’s innocent friendship with former, unrepentant ‘60s radicals who happen to live in his neighborhood is not enough for you, there is still plenty of Jeremiah Wright to go around. Those keeping the video and audio of Rev. Wright shouting "god damn America" from his former pulpit running on a permanent loop now have lots more grist for the mill. The reverend spent most of the past several days providing fresh quotes and antics for those who like to feign outrage about such things, especially when they are trying to generate irrelevant distractions to destroy a candidate who would otherwise clean their candidate’s proverbial clock (and still might).

It wouldn’t take more than an hour of internet research to find all kinds of offensive, reactionary right-wing preachers supporting McCain specifically or Republicans generally spouting offensive nonsense. What’s the difference between the pathetic Falwell and Robertson blaming 9/11 on feminists and gays and Wright saying "the chickens were coming home to roost"? But the Gotcha Preacher game doesn’t work both ways – since Bakker and Swagert, etc., we expect right-wing preachers to say idiotic things while they root around in their parishioners’ pockets. As always, left-leaning churches are held to a higher standard, if only because they are rightly taken more seriously.

"For we have a choice in this country," said Barack Obama’s towards the end his terrific speech on the issue of race back on March 18th. "We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism...We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option...Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’"

Yeah, right. Obama is more hopeful than naive; hoping rather than expecting things to change. With Rev. Wright being very much his unapologetic self on his own personal campaign trail, Obama is stuck with the media narrative that could lead to Wright being perceived as his personal doppelganger. Since mainstream radio and Fox "News" will continue to whore for the GOP, granting unearned legitimacy to all sorts of ridiculous notions, Obama needs to find a solution, and fast.

And then, he needs to get ready for the next personal attack, because these people just don’t quit.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Audacity of Pope

You can be the president
I’d rather be the pope.
– Prince, "Pope"

The networks and cable news channels were out flexing their pomp muscles this week. It’s important for them to do this once in a while, especially for something planned in advance. You never know when an ex-president is going to die again and you want to be sure they have their deferential live-event chops in order.

Joseph Ratzinger made his first visit to the U.S. in his new name, costume and popemobile and the supplicant media beat a path to his door. Rather than spend their time on vastly more important but un-sexy matters like a disastrous Stupid War and a tanking economy, the nation’s news organizations spent most of this week sucking up to America’s 71 million Roman Catholics by uncritically celebrating the pageant of parades and Masses in Washington and New York.

The church took a giant step backward when it elevated the staunch conservative Ratzinger to pope status in 2005, a step the bishops apparently thought they could afford, since they were already a hundred or so steps behind the modern world. Accepting the earth revolves around the sun is one thing but – condoms? Tut, tut – we’ll have none of that. Maybe someday the church can make up a couple of those steps by recognizing the equality of women, but, let’s not go crazy out here.

In his prior position, Ratzinger cracked the whip for the church hierarchy as head of the office that, believe it or not, used to be called the Inquisition. Talk about your rich church history. As the Defender of All That is Wrong – I’m sorry, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (same difference) – Ratzinger put the hammer down on those who would try to bring the church into (at least) the 19th century on issues such as birth control and homosexuality, the result of the insane position on the use of condoms having caused untold death and disease in the third-world countries. He presided over various purges of those who would entertain notions of "liberation theology" (Jeremiah Wright, the cardinal will see you now) and helped, however temporarily, to keep the church’s sexual abuse under wraps.

The week-long media love-fest with the pope – on behalf and because of their Catholic viewer demographic – has done wonders for Ratzinger’s image. He has discussed the sex-abuse scandal early and often, even meeting with several victims in an unannounced location. Brilliant damage control strategy – who’s he got working that, Karl Rove? No word on whether he brought the church’s bulging checkbook with him – now that would be making amends. The awed anchors have found him nicer than they expected – what did they expect, that he’d swing his staff around like the explosion-loving Tim the Enchanter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, smiting cardinal sinners left and right? Ratzinger has obviously benefitted from low expectations and the intense security detail that preserves his beatific countenance from unworthy disruption.

This is all just casual amusement for the majority of American Catholics, an increasingly shrinking and aging group (other than the booming, younger Latino sector), who attend every other Sunday or so and otherwise ignore most of the church’s ridiculous teachings. The more doctrinaire, almost evangelical Catholics – which seems to include a remarkable proportion of local right-wing bloggers and national columnists like the putrid Bob Novak [ed. -- OK, Bill Kristol is not Catholic, but still putrid]– also pick and choose from the church’s teachings, beating people over the head with the church's anti-choice position (it has been said that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament) and conveniently ignoring the church’s strong statements against the death penalty and the Stupid War and U.S. occupation of Iraq and in favor of economic justice for the world’s poor. Same as it ever was for those of faith, who believe what they want to believe and leave the rest.

But, for now, the right-wing commentators are treating the pope’s tour like some kind of national cathartic event, claiming the smiles of the faithful crowds and pretty pictures as some sort of rejection of satanic secularism. It’s hardly that. The pope comes and the pope goes, but $4 a gallon gas and the rest of the disastrous legacy of Junior Bush will continue. It'll take more than medival scanctimony and Latin prayers to get us out of this mess.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Handling the Truth

This primary season has dragged on for so long, the 24-hour news-cycle purveyors are starting to get dizzy. On cable news and political web pages, they stumble from non-issue to non-issue, trying to stay interested in a race on the Democratic side that was been frozen for two months in an apparently insurmountable 150-delegate margin for Barack Obama. When they are not spending hours waxing quizzical about what Hillary Clinton could possibly be thinking of by staying in the race, they are scrutinizing the brow-furrows of her husband for signs of weakness or, at least, the Last Mistake.

Now, this week, everyone has something to say – repeatedly – about Obama’s "gaffe" when he discussed "bitter" working-class people finding cold comfort in guns, religion and anti-immigrant xenophobia. You could hear Democratic consultants tearing their collective hair out from San Francisco to Washington as they braced for the inevitable onslaught from the right-wing echo chamber, who, after having great success parsing 30 seconds from various Jeremiah Wright sermons now have 30 more seconds – this time from the candidate himself – to amuse themselves with. "Elitist!" scream the elitist wing-nuts from their government-licensed radio studios and Scaife-and-Bradley-funded "think tanks".

Unlike the hysterical Wright red herring, however, this one has even Obama sympathizers running for their pacifiers. Even the usually reliable Eugene Kane checks in this morning, lamenting that Obama was "talking down" to small-town voters. On Slate, Melinda Heneberger deconstructs the statement phrase-by-phrase, concluding that "connecting the two [guns ‘n god]" is "belittling in the extreme to the ‘average white person’". In the MSM and cable commentariat, the question isn’t whether the comment will prove damaging, but rather how much damage will be done by those who exacerbate the damage in direct relation to how long they talk about how much damage will be done.

The comment has been compared to images of John Kerry windsurfing, which was used by the Rove message machine to highlight the supposed "elitism" of the candidate in 2004. That the use of that image for that purpose was as ridiculous now as it was then is irrelevant because, it is now claimed, it worked. And who did it work with? Why, those bitter, frustrated, anti-immigrant and trade guns-‘n-god clingers, of course. And why are right-wingers spending all of their free radio time this week squawking about the exposure of Obama's supposed elitism? They know how well it plays with those bitter, frustrated...etc.

Obama’s astute assessment of the angry-white-male electorate actually comes fairly late in the day for the Democrats. Republican’s identified this group over 30 years ago, when manipulative paradigm-shifter Lee Atwater designed the win-at-all-costs scorched-earth campaign on behalf of Bush Senior against the supposedly "elitist" looks-funny-in-a-tank, Willie-Horton-loving Mike Dukakis. Karl Rove did nothing but exploit the bitter fear of these voters to put the incompetent Junior in the White House for eight years, with the willing help of the mainstream radio echo-chamber.

Those entities did nothing but encourage the base resentment of the working class backbone of the country, who saw their economic security pulled out from under them by the same elitist Republicans who now pretend to be their protector from "Democrat" designs on their guns, religion and racial purity. This was the message of Thomas Frank's seminal, now-historic What's the Matter with Kansas. The result of the relentless GOP campaign to disguise their economic thievery with irrelevant emotional "issues" like gay marriage, abortion and undocumented immigrants ("illegal aliens" to you, pal) has been more bitterness and more clinging to things that are not threatened by anybody.

Again, it was a little late, but Democratic consultants have been aware and strategized around the angry-white-male phenomenon for years. They just don’t want their clients out there blabbing about this kind of important but inside-baseball in public, where it can be mangled and manipulated for political advantage. If John McCain had praised the retreat of the disenfranchised working class to the phony safe harbor of, say, religion, he would be exalted by the MSM as keenly insightful. But Democrats are not allowed to celebrate the reciting of truth in this area. They still get defensive about just accurately discussing the lay of the land.

What Obama said just shows how smart he is about the political dynamics of America in a post-Rove world and the challenges that he would face in the general election and as president. He did not speak in disdain but, rather, in understanding. Republicans are shocked - shocked! - that anyone would think, much less say such a thing. But they have done nothing but exploit the angry-white-male reality for decades. And they are doing so with a vengance this week - unfortunately, with the help of too many Democrats, and that includes Hillary Clinton.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Classless with a "C"

The Mighty Mudhens are preparing for their second season in the Milwaukee Men’s Senior Baseball League, 48+ Division. Our first season was a gas, most of us – including me – playing real hardball for the first time since high school. I surprised myself by hitting pretty good, which I attributed to my five years of coaching Little League – I just did what I always told the kids to do and, son-of-a-gun, it worked. We were an expansion team in a six-team division and didn’t win one damn game, but a great time was had by all.

I was thinking of sharing some of the Mudhen experience with my readers this summer – you know, take a little of the edge off the political stuff that is bound to have us all tied up in knots until November with happy stories of older guys trying to play baseball. But then Jessica McBride pulled her little stunt yesterday and, well, I guess it’s best I not put too much personal stuff out there.

After giving all of us a break for the most part in the early part of the year from her ponderous and unintentionally hilarious postings, McBride the blogger lurched clumsily into the issues surrounding the Supreme Court race three weeks before the election by creating a second page called Election Watch Wisconsin. The page appeared to have two primary purposes: first, to conduct some extremely amateur and out-right wrong legal case analysis to try to prove that the Butler campaign was puffing up its estimate of how often the justice voted to uphold criminal convictions and; second, to promote her and her husband’s chosen candidate for the Second District Court of Appeals, who got thumped by incumbent Doyle-appointee Lisa Neubauer. It was an embarrassing, sloppy effort in all respects and a delight for those of us who like to watch arrogant no-talents get into slow-motion train wrecks.

The Second District electorate and anyone with any sense were rightly unimpressed with her hackneyed, embarrassing promotion of losing candidate Bill Gleisner. The series of comedic posts reached classic Soup-Nazi-like status when she offered a letter from Gleisner’s pastor to "prove" his anti-choice credentials, an event even more pathetic because Gleisner gave it to her.

But it was left to others to dig deep to expose McBride’s ham-fisted distortion of Justice Butler’s record on the Supreme Court. Although I read all the cases she initially cited and made an early effort to expose her deliberate cluelessness, learned counsel Illusory Tenant burned millions of pixels on his site during the last weeks of the campaign in an 11 (and counting) part series, coldly eviscerating, case-by-case, the lies of McBride and her fellow travelers in the "Coalition for Wisconsin Families", a nationally-funded advertising campaign disguised as an interest group. I personally wouldn’t spend that much time (even if I had it) dignifying McBride’s hack job with such an elaborate response, but, for anyone wondering if maybe she had stumbled onto some truth by accident, IT’s yeoman service exposed – alas, too late and too quietly – the lies for what they were.

Now, most nut-right operatives who had just gotten away with playing a part in a campaign of distortions that contributed, however minutely, to the defeat of the distinguished first African-American on the Supreme Court, would simply chalk up another one for their side and wait for their invitation to the WMC celebration, coming soon to an undisclosed country club near you. But not our Jess. Still stung by IT’s stellar posts during the campaign and the resultant mild celebrity that resulted in him being invited to chat for ten minutes on public radio, McBride decided to breach the unwritten and who-but-her-doesn’t-know-it rule that you don’t go around getting into personal lives of your opponents in the war of ideas. See, because of his radio appearance, McBride found out the formerly-anonymous IT’s name. The intrepid reporter googled and CCAPed him. She found out some stuff. Then she posted the results, employing the well-worn right-wing tactic of the politics of personal destruction in the hopes that people might forget or ignore how right he is and how wrong she is.

Now, if I were IT, I would be honored by a cheap hack like Jessica McBride flailing around and embarrassing herself in public just because she couldn’t take the heat. It’s like being on Nixon’s enemies list. But, really, none of us on either left or right out here should have to be looking over our shoulders to see who might be ready to expose our public-record weaknesses, much less our private ones.

McBride’s timing in her unwarranted personal attack is interesting, since it comes just after Owen Robinson bemoaned what he called "the decline of the Wisconsin blogosphere" into "insults and filth". I don’t agree with him necessarily. I think sharp language that keeps the focus on what people say and what they do to advance their own political agendas and those of others is fair comment. I say this knowing that I have been attacked for my own comments and characterizations. I try to challenge and engage people on the other side on their terms about what they are saying and doing on subjects they have chosen to engage in. For instance, when I call McBride a "cheap hack", that is judging her public persona, not her private one, about which I couldn’t care less.

Which brings us back to the Mudhens. The MSBL has a website, you see, and all my stats will be up there (not to mention my picture with the 38+/48+ All-Star team [scroll down on the main page], but I digress...). Although I batted a respectable .385 last year, what will happen if it goes south this year? If I go 0-for-4 early in the season, will McBride point to my inept hitting as analogous to my political swings-and-misses? If I go 0-for-May, will I be declared incapable of coherent political thought? I can’t risk losing my confidence at the plate, my spot in the batting order and my small niche in the blogosphere in this important season for the Mudhens and this important election in the fall. McBride, please stay away from the 'Hens. I can't take the pressure.

In the Information Age, we are all so vulnerable in so many ways. But none are so weak as those who exploit that information to prop themselves up.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The WMC Unbound

The classless, gloating radio and blog wing-nuts are having great fun this week grinding the salt of Louis Butler’s defeat into the open wounds of Wisconsin’s lost independent judiciary. When they aren’t childishly calling us whining losers, they are feigning outrage that anyone who tried to protect the state from WMC’s stack-the-court campaign would imply that the result of the Supreme Court election was anything but a reasoned choice of one "judicial philosophy" over another.

But they know what they did and what they do. The popping of champagne corks in country clubs, gated-community mansions and right-wing radio studios could be heard throughout the state – or at least in the North Shore and western suburbs – and throughout the nation, where the attack on the independent judiciary is driven (and funded) by the same devious greed-heads who brought you Junior Bush and the war in Iraq.

Governor Doyle and Justice Butler himself have talked in recent days about the "tragedy" of the election results, and, indeed, it is. I think it’s the worst thing to happen in electoral politics since the ultimate "activist" 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore stopped the recount ordered by the Florida courts, thereby appointing Bush as president by judicial fiat (to everyone’s eternal loss). Tuesday’s results here were tragic for different reasons – the election was not "stolen" in any way that I’m aware of. Wisconsin’s electoral tragedy lies in the result – another success in the continuing court-stacking campaign by WMC and national right-wing business interests. This was a power-grab accomplished not with a sudden dramatic event, but in slow-motion, through the course of a long, deceitful, racist campaign conducted with the sole purpose of installing another willing supplicant on the Court in the place of a talented, independent voice.

Let’s start at the beginning. If job-hopping McCallum fund-raiser Michael Gableman had decided on his own to run for the Supreme Court on his decidedly unaccomplished record in far-flung Burnett County and was left to his own meager devices, he would have had the same success as the-guy-that-ran against Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett did on Tuesday. But, of course, that’s not how Gableman got involved. It has never been denied that Gableman was recruited by the WMC – supposedly their seventh or eighth option, if he was on the original list at all.

Any "conservative" with any accomplishment or dignity apparently passed on the WMC invitation this year, probably in deference to Justice Butler (who is universally well-liked and respected in the legal community), his fine reputation as one of the most talented jurists ever to sit on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and his not unimportant historical status as the Court's first African-American. But the WMC, still feeling their oats after their successful installation of the ethically-challenged Annette Zeigler the year before, were not to be deterred just because Butler was a respected person of substance and stature or because they couldn’t find anyone who was qualified. They dragged Gableman out of his deserved obscurity, dressed him up and sent him out with a limited set of talking points. Gableman was all too willing to play along.

In the meantime, WMC surrogates went forth to poison the well of what passed for intellectual debate about the recent work of the Supreme Court generally and Justice Butler in particular. The Court was frighteningly "unbound", claimed a first-year Marquette law professor in a national Federalist Society-funded "white paper" that circulated predictably through the right-wing echo chamber. That professor spouted the same phony dire message in a video that was circulated throughout the nut-right bloggosphere and that was played at various WMC meetings with business people throughout the state.

While all this is going on, that same professor took an active part in the WMC’s campaign to make a pre-emptive strike against a State Bar committee that was created to try to keep the judicial campaign on a properly judicial keel. Knowing the virulent ads that were planned, a fair, judicial tone was the last thing the WMC wanted. By the time the shit really started to fly, the independent WJCIC was perceived and treated like Butler partisans by, at least, the Journal Sentinel, which only cited the committee if they were criticizing advertising by third-party groups friendly to Butler.

Finally, in a stroke of sheer genius, the most repulsive ad of this or any other campaign in Wisconsin – the racist Willie-Horton knock-off – was issued under the name of the Gableman campaign itself, thus limiting the focus on WMC’s primary role, which surely would have been more of an issue if the racist ad came from them. Gableman, having no shame or sense of judicial decorum, was all too happy to claim it as his own.

Given the fact that WMC and its nationally-funded surrogates probably outspent Butler-supporting third-parties by at least 3-to-1 and the hours and days of free advertising against Butler on mainstream radio for the entire campaign (Charlie Sykes even brags about how he uses his publicly-licensed soapbox to facilitate his undue influence on elections), it’s a wonder how the race got so close.

WMC, in the end, got what it paid for. When public-interest litigants come into the Supreme Court chambers in the fall to argue in a case involving a business, they will find at least two justices on either sides of the bench – Zeigler and Gableman – who might as well have a big yellow sticky-pad on their forehead that simply says "NO". And, no doubt, we’ll be right back here this time next year, after they have a crack at putting some lackey in the place of distinguished Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. It’s all too easy for them. Why stop now?

In the end, people get the government and – in this case – the justice they deserve. Some of the same people who believed the lies of the WMC and its surrogates may find themselves injured by the deliberate or negligent acts of a corporation; or damaged by a malpracticing doctor; or wrongly accused and convicted of a crime. They might find themselves before the Supreme Court, trying to right a wrong or correct an injustice. With Justice Butler there, they would have found someone who they could not predict, but at least someone who would give them an independent review of the facts and the law and a fair shake. Now, with Zeigler and Gableman, they have a known quantity – they’ll know what to expect. They should expect and they will get exactly nothing.

When that happens, I’m tempted to say "don’t come crying to me". But, it’s my job and my passion to help those who come crying to me. When it comes time for that crucial case analysis – what are your chances? – it might not be pretty. But, as bad as it may be with a WMC court stacked against you, I won’t make it worse. I promise not to ask how you voted this week, in the sad turning-point election in the once-proud history of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Lost World

There was this guy I knew when I was a kid.

Pillar of the community – the only lawyer in town, actually. Always in a suit, even hanging around in his own house. Real straight up guy – MC’d everything from the Holy Rosary athletic banquet to the Kiwanis Club Christmas night. Nixon Republican, Vietnam War supporter, fiscal conservative. He was pretty cool, though. Coolest guy I ever knew.

When I stride into the courthouse every morning, I think about him. He was gracious to everyone, friend and foe. He stood tall in that conservative suit. I can’t say I ever saw him actually practicing law, although I knew that’s what he did. But he brought his kind bearing with him everywhere he went. People may have disagreed with him, but nobody didn’t like him.

The Vietnam era was ugly and, with me as a teenaged know-it-all, we had some very intense conversations about the war and all of the other extraordinary issues of the day. He was a WWII veteran, serving in a boat on the Pacific for some very long years. He respected authority and often seemed bewildered by the freedom my generation felt and exercised. We talked and yelled and vented – understanding each other more than we could admit at the time.

I learned from him the bearing of a true professional man, the respect for opposing views, the value of informed argument and fair play. It was he who first got me interested in the law and the interplay of facts and precedent, even though we didn’t talk much about the details of his work and I never saw him appear in court.

The only case we ever discussed was a client of his who was charged with littering, raising the following issue: if you pick up a can on the side of the road and throw it into a nearby river, can you yourself be charged with littering for simply moving something that had already been littered? 40 years later – 22 as a lawyer – and I still don’t know the answer to that one.

He died in 1971, when I was 16.

I think he would have been surprised and saddened by the nasty partisan tone that politics and, now, the law has taken. He certainly did the best for his clients and his friends, but he was not a win-at-all-costs kind of guy. He would have expected better than Republicans and self-appointed conservatives have behaved in recent years. If Nixon’s crimes didn’t do it, the machinations of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove may have well turned him into a Democrat.

But, I like to think that he would be saddest about the state of the legal profession – the crumbling of impartiality, the selling of the state Supreme Court to monied interests. He would want to have his arguments rise and fall on their own merits, not because any court had been stacked for or against him. He would have been outraged by the racism used against the first African-American on the Supreme Court. He would have been sickened by an electorate that bought the lies of an out-of-state band of profiteers who propped up a disgraceful empty suit to carry their water.

I would have liked to have introduced him to my friend, Louis Butler. I know they both would have enjoyed each other’s company; the banter of engaged, open minds; the laughter of recognition of experiences somehow shared in dramatically different lives. Both would have met gladly on the field of intellectual debate. Louis probably would have "won" on points, but both would have reveled in the lost art of respectful disagreement and the meeting of the minds.

That guy was my dad. His memory is just one of the thousands of reasons that I'm sorry Louis Butler lost tonight.