Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sweetness and light

After months of being characterized as a Muslim (the new "Commie"), Barack Obama seems determined to prove he is a Christian. A turn-the-other-cheek, forgive-those-who-trespass-against-us Christian, too, in the mold of Martin Luther King rather than Jeremiah Wright. And those of us who voted for him without giving a frog's fart about his religious beliefs, if any, are entitled to ask, "What the hell?" I'm all for malice toward none and charity for all, but I'm not a great believer in political suicide. Why sit down with John McCain, who refused even to shake his hand after a debate, except maybe to get him into a chair that made him look even runtier? Why promise to put a Republican in the cabinet, unless it's the ghost of Jacob Javits? And why why why let Joe Lieberman, forever to be know as Jodas Iscariot, keep even one committee chair? Are the Democrats determined to be known as the party for which actions have no consequences? Is there a word in Harry Reid's language that means "discipline"? And could everybody just shut up about tents and urination, or think of another metaphor? Come on.

Everywhere I look, sickening spectacles. Ted Stevens gets convicted of seven felony counts, loses his Senate seat (all right, so Alaskans aren't completely insane), and returns to the Senate chamber for the kind of tribute Lou Gehrig got at Yankee Stadium. I tell myself, it's just an expression of relief that no way will Caribou Barbie get herself appointed to his seat now. I don't believe it. These people are without shame. Probably they're congratulating themselves on not getting caught the way old Ted did. Look, all politicians take little knick-knacks and stocking-stuffers -- apparently, half the Alaska legislature is on the Veco Oil pad. Stevens took a whole house full of goodies, and then some. It was too egregious for even the Bush Justice Department to overlook. And for this they break out the party hats? How many old ladies in wheelchairs do you have to push down stairs before the Senate gives you a dirty look? No wonder Beau Biden would rather be deployed to Iraq than take up his father's Senate seat. O Lyndon, where art thou?

Has McCain resumed his maverick ways? As his running mate would say, you betcha not. He's in Georgia campaigning for Saxby Chambliss, the vicious clown he once denounced for slandering Max Cleland. Chambliss has a perfect record of voting against every measure that might aid servicepeople and veterans; his opponent is a Vietnam vet like Cleland and McCain. It's a no-brainer, but then, so is McCain. What does he hope to gain? Another chance to run for president? He has a better chance of becoming emperor of Japan. He's a maverick the way James Garner was a Maverick. It's a role, and the comedy is ended.

And as long as I'm venting, why are CNN and MSNBC giving Mike Huckabee free airtime to plug his "book"? He's part of the Axis of Murdoch now, so let the News Corporation peddle his leftovers. Let him go on The View, if he has the guts. Is it so hard to fill up a program with trying to see how many times you can say "vetting" and "bailout" and "Big Three automakers"?
If there's not enough actual news, do what so many bloggers do: show us pictures of your cats and dogs.

Why in the name of Queen Anne's Revenge* are we even talking about "non-lethal" responses to Somali pirates? Water cannons? Searchlights in their eyes? Why not toss Tootsie Rolls in the water and steam off while they try to grab the tasty sweets? They're fucking pirates. We used to hang them in gibbets until their corpses rotted and crows ate their eyes. That's why piracy went away. Now it's back. Three guesses why. But you guys go ahead and offer them training in web design if they'll just stop seizing oil tankers. Let me know how that works out.

So many things to piss me off, so little time. Now I have to re-install my printer because the geniuses at Google keep reconfiguring their browser. I want them to die.

*A famous pirate ship, not the intestinal disorder it sounds like.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The long wait

Americans will tell you that the British cling to traditions which have lost all value except as remnants of a vanished past -- the monarchy, the established Church that almost nobody attends, the public schools and the class-based holidays like Boxing Day -- but in reality, it is the United States that is burdened by its history. Our whole political system is based on the Electoral College, which renders the votes of millions null and void and encourages candidates to treat neighboring states as if they were Balkan principalities to be conquered. Indeed, our union of quasi-autonomous states must look absurd to Europeans. The same system of laws, prisons and schools obtains from Marseilles to Lyon and from Newcastle to Land's End, but even a serious crime is treated very differently by Vermont than it is by Utah. And rarely is the business of America more ridiculous than right now, during the Transition. Teams of people are being assembled, offices furnished, vast sums of money expended, just so Brian Williams can tear up with pride about the orderly and peaceful succession from one administration to another.

This is how the hidebound Brits do it: the morning after the general election (with six weeks of campaigning at public expense), the loser packs a couple of bags and moves out of 10, Downing Street. The winner, after a ceremonial chat with the Queen, moves in that afternoon and names a cabinet. Transition complete. All the dress-up, the marching bands and choirs and clergymen, they save for coronations, of which there were exactly four in the twentieth century. Of course, we have to have a coronation every four years. Right now ballrooms are being booked, bands hired, flowers and champagne ordered, all paid for by generous rich people who want something from the new bunch; women are ordering gowns and accessories, scrambling for hair appointments and hotel rooms, while men thank their deities they don't have to climb into morning coats and top hats any more, and everybody speculates about the weather.*

The inauguration used to take place on March 4, as prescribed by the Constitution. (It also designated that elections be held in early November, when the harvest would have been completed.) This gave plenty of time for the vote to be reported to the state capital, which would then dispatch electors to meet in December and officially choose a president (and senators). Then a guy on a horse would ride to Mt. Vernon and give His Excellency the news, and General Washington would prepare for the coach ride to New York City in late winter, before spring planting. Worked well in the eighteenth century, but this is the twenty-first. Anybody see room for improvement? FDR did. In 1932, with millions out of work and banks failing daily, he had to wait four months to deal with the crisis. In 1936, Congress moved his re-inauguration up to January 20, still a two-month lag. There has been no action on this strange custom since then. Which is especially unfortunate when the new president has to deal with half a dozen crises as pressing as the Great Depression, and the old one continues to act as if the people had not just cried, "In the name of God, go."

So we wait. The news cycle abhors a vacuum, and the bloviators are in bloom. Topics as trivial as Supreme Court appointments and as crucial as Sasha and Malia's puppy fill the air, so recently clogged with attack ads, so soon to be alive with entreaties that we shop ourselves stupid. Nothing to report translates into TALK LOUDER, and where there is no news, everything is news. How else to explain the Palin Press Tour?

Failed vice-presidential candidates are supposed to go away, eventually becoming answers on "Jeopardy" or starring in American Express "Do you know me?" commercials (William Miller, remember?). In the past week, Caribou Barbie has given more exclusive interviews than Lena LaMonte on the occasion of "The Dancing Cavalier" ("A glittering, glowing star in the Hollywood feer-ma-mint"). Not since Madonna was a girl have I seen such raw ambition with so little talent to back it up. If John McCain was soundly clobbered a week ago -- and remember, I said if -- Palin can't understand how America could have failed, or what it has to do with her. She has all but announced her intention to lead the Republicans back to glory in 2012. If Todd has a rival for Sarah's love, it could only be Sarah herself. Her political purblindness is truly astonishing, as for instance when she bragged to CNN about the "toughness" of Alaska women: "They're commercial fishermen [sic], they're pilots, they're working up in the North Slope in the oil fields. You see equality in Alaska. I think that was a bit of a surprise on the national level." Because women in the other forty-nine states are sitting on the sun porch, waiting for the maid to bring tea. This is supposed to pull in that phantom army, the Disaffected Hillary Voters?

She's not a far-right Hillary Clinton, she's a Yukon Evita Peron. Did she "energize the base"? I don't have a finger on the basal pulse. Either some kind of Rapture/NASCAR convergence kept them away from the polls on November 4, or "the base" ain't what it used to be. In which case we can only hope the Republicans hitch their dogsled to Palin and keep it there. Mush, baby, mush!

*Tickets to Inaugural events are already being sold, illegally, for thousands of dollars. Thank you, eBay.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

To be, and to do

On Tuesday night, it was enough for him to be. The first African-American (more accurately, Kenyan-American), the first senator since 1960, the first Democrat to carry Virginia since dot, the mandate apparent to all but Republicans, the spark for celebrations planned (Grant Park, Ebenezer Baptist Church) and unplanned (the gates of the White House). Do Americans still gather in Times Square to mark anything but repetitive New Year's Eves? Do strangers dance and hug and cry for anything but victories as improbable as the 1969 Mets? Yes, we can.

Above all, there was relief. There would be no sinister election theft as predicted by people as sober as Mark Crispin Miller. Attempts to keep voters away were scattered, half-hearted and inept, defused by early voting and sheer numbers. No machines were hacked in Ohio, no ballots baffled the old people in Florida. Humorists who registered as Darth Vader or Frank N. Furter apparently didn't show up at the polls to make more trouble for ACORN. As of tonight the votes are still being counted in Missouri, but it couldn't matter less. A Supreme Court full of Scalia clones will not get involved. Ten minutes after the polls closed on the West Coast, millions of sphincters unclenched for the first time since Memorial Day. The man who says our economy is sound will not be president, and the overgrown girl who couldn't name the signatories to NAFTA will not be a heartbeat behind him. And so to bed, as the seventeenth century blogger Pepys would say.

By Thursday, he had begun to do, which meant it was whining as usual. The losers, losing big after months of dancing around the "n" word, began to employ the "b" word, bipartisan. (I remember 2006, Bush sitting stiffly between Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and promising to be bipartisan, just before he remembered that veto is not an Italian name.) How dare Obama appoint Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff instead of someone conciliatory like Karl Rove? Does he think all those votes give him the right to be some kind of -- what's the word -- decider? Of course John McCain was cruising to his rightful place in history until the economy imploded without warning, and then that woman pushed her way onto the ticket by threatening to deny him Alaska's three electoral votes. Flip a coin? Do-over? Rock/paper/scissors? My face hurts from grinning.

I also learned how cable news fills up twenty-four hours a day, every day, when they don't have any prison documentaries or O.J. Simpson trials. Yesterday two women spent the best part of an hour analyzing the dress Michelle Obama wore on election night (thumbs down), and today different people mused endlessly about her husband's probable appointments. They sounded like Vinnie from Queens calling ESPN radio to explain exactly what the Yankees need to do at the winter meetings, but slightly better educated.

Inevitably the Kennedys were cited as our "royal family," at least for Democrats. Would Robert Kennedy, Jr., get the EPA? Would Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg be ambassador to Britain, a post once held by her grandfather? What role would Ted play in getting the new administration's initiatives through the Senate? And somewhere in there, a thought struck me:

Barack Obama does not remember John F. Kennedy.

Boomers, the "Greatest Generation," even Jazz Babies remember where we were and what we were wearing when the news came from Dallas. Barack Obama was two years old. Maybe he recalls silent, shocked adults staring at the television that Friday morning and for the next three days; probably not. Everything he knows about that pivotal event, that piece of history that still refuses to fit into the jigsaw puzzle, he learned in school, from books and documentaries and maybe the ludicrous Oliver Stone movie. Which means it is no more real to him than VJ Day, and Lindbergh's flight, and whether Booth really died in the burning barn. What's real to some, forever, is a question on a history test to others. I could look out my bedroom window and see smoke rising from the World Trade Center. For a child born that September day, it will be one with the Arizona in Pearl Harbor and the Great Chicago Fire. History.

John McCain was ridiculed for never having used a computer until this year, but all he had to do was learn. He never needed to, or thought it was too difficult, or had people to do his Googling for him. But a man born in 1961 can never learn what it was like to watch those witty, urbane press conferences, feel the excitement of the Peace Corps and "Ich bin ein Berliner," hold our breath to see what the fat bald Russian would do with his missiles. Maybe that's a good thing; the Kennedys themselves and too many Democrats have sagged under the burden of that quasi-mythical "Camelot." Put it away like the New Deal, and the Progressive Era, and the early, hopeful days of Reconstruction. Do better. Make it new. Start fresh.

This month of November, we have made a turn. We also observe the 45th anniversary of Kennedy's death, and the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I, the war that set that mad bloody century in motion. We do not forget, but we move on.

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