There are events that are so great that they define an era. Sometimes, the events are associated with transformational trends -- like the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. Sometimes they are linked to great individuals -- as in the Napoleonic or Victorian periods. And sometimes they are linked to a pivotal action or occurrence that captured the spirit of the adjacent years -- Woodstock or Watergate, for example.
The most recent such epoch ended yesterday.
Forever we will look back on this moment in time and we will define it in terms of the event that above all others embodied and communicated our own zeitgeist. I speak of course, of the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, which tragically and unexpectedly ended yesterday.
Why, dear God, did you deprive us of this and leave us with Hamid Karzai? Why did you take away this manifestation of what is purest and best about humanity and leave us with the festering problems of the Arab-Palestinian divide?
Of course, we can only for so long rail against providence like King Lear on the heath. Ultimately, life is about learning to come to terms with loss and about appreciating what is elevating and ennobling as best we can even if it must -- heart-breakingly -- be in retrospect.
And we did have our time with them, with our two shining examples. The 72 days of marriage don't seem like much, but take them and the months since Kim and Kris first looked beneath each other's strangely furry eyebrows into each other's eyes and saw that something special that cynics might call sponsorship dollars but we know in our hearts must have been true love and you have an entire year -- not just of good ratings, but of transformational changes in the world.
In the Era of Kim and Kris...
...Osama bin Laden was spotted and killed.
...Anwar al Awlaki met a similar fate.
...The Arab Spring kindled and freedom swept through the Middle East bringing down autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
...The Tea Party rose.
...Michele Bachmann rose and fell.
...Rick Perry rose and fell.
...Herman Cain rose and is falling.
...Mitt Romney remained the whitest white man in America.
...The Eurozone teetered on the brink.
...Wall Street was occupied ... as were 900 other cities.
...Steve Jobs died and the St. Louis Cardinals proved that reincarnation is possible.
Think of it, in that short time, ancient civilizations in Europe and the Middle East were shaken to their foundations. Capitalism went deeper into crisis and revolution brewed around the world. The earth shifted on its very axis.
And in that time, this simple beautiful act, this daring leap into love, elevated and distracted us and allowed us to cling to hope. Because if these two virtual strangers with no education and almost no talent other than ambition itself could will themselves into a marriage that made them millions -- even if it did last no longer than the Tweets by which they announced each of their carefully calculated mood-swings and spats -- then maybe riches were not just for Wall Street geniuses who went to Harvard, maybe TV shows were not just for the beautiful or the gifted, maybe marriage was not just for those who found real love. Maybe sub-average, sub-interesting, sub-useful people could fake their way through this mess just like the big time financial fraudsters and get loads of good gifts, press coverage, and big fat checks for their efforts.
No, this marriage may not have lasted long but that doesn't mean we won't always have its memory to remind us of precisely what kind of world we lived in back then in, well, you know ... last week.
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Wendi Murdoch slugged the wrong guy. While she has won worldwide admiration in the press for leaping to her feet without hesitation to defend her husband from a humiliating shaving cream pie attack, clearly the attacker was not the one doing the most to humiliate Murdoch. That, of course, would be Murdoch himself, who, in the course of his halting, uneven performance before a British parliamentary committee yesterday, only succeeded in demonstrating that a management change is long overdue at News International, possibly the most influential media company in the world.
Sure, it's tempting to say it was more humiliating for the anointed heir to the kingmaking top spot at News Corp., Murdoch's son, James, to be caught on camera leaning away from the attack while his flyweight stepmom connected with her roundhouse. And it would be even more correct to say that James's convoluted answers to questions about how the company handled the phone hacking scandal as it became revealed almost certainly disqualify him from further nepotism-assisted ascendancy within the company his father built.
But the hearing succeeded in clearly revealing that the company's deep cultural flaws flowed directly from Rupert himself. His response that he was not ultimately responsible for the apparently widespread criminality and absence of ethics within the company said it all. What happened to the old notion that the buck stopped with the man at the top? Murdoch was willing to mouth words of apology and feigned humility but then moments later reveal his view that the public reaction to the phone hacking scandal was overwrought, a media feeding frenzy of the type he made a career both fostering and profiting from.
Son James's responses to questions about who approved pay-offs to injured parties were also telling, of course. He noted that, because the amounts were comparatively low given the great size of the media conglomerate, they would never have come to the attention of top management like himself or his father. The fact that settlements concerning clear evidence of the worst kind of breaches of journalistic ethics wouldn't have come to the attention of people at the top is evidence of either a tacit or explicit acceptance of bad behavior, a failure of checks, or gross incompetence. (Not that all of the above is not also possible.)
After the big show of the hearings a more damning development emerged Wednesday morning with the release of the findings of the Parliament's all-party Home Affairs Committee which concluded -- in one of the least shocking findings in recent memory -- that News International "deliberately" tried to impede British police investigations into the phone hacking scandal. And that in turn was soon over-taken by the spectacle of British Prime Minister David Cameron defending himself in front of a special session of Parliament for having hired as his principal spokesperson one of the central actors in this sleazy affair while hobnobbing with others from the News Corp. hierarchy.
Cameron will likely survive this embarrassment. He is guilty only of seeking to advance his career by the same means of his predecessors, hitching his wagon to one of the most powerful media empires in the world. Murdoch should not be as fortunate. During yesterday's testimony he made it even clearer that he had failed to protect the interests of the shareholders (not to mention the customers) of his company through some failing of either his character or that of his management approach or of his company writ large.
It is time for the old man to go -- and that is a reality that even the nimble and courageous Wendi will not be able to swat away.
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It's the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists ... who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers of the Decade! Put that in your dreidle and spin it.)
Let's start with The Loveable Losers shall we? After all, while Vince Lombardi said that in football "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."In politics, most of the players are losers to begin with and watching them squirm is what makes Wolf Blitzer so damn irresistible. And that's not to speak of Gloria Borger or Chris Wallace. (Come to think of it, if those guys can make it in television, I have an idea: The Potato Channel. Wouldn't it be more fun to watch an entire field of tubers ripen and rot? That's reality television the average American viewer can relate to. Heck, the average American viewer is likely to think it's about them.)
And the Big Winners?
Yes, "Morning Joe" thought the hot story out of the Venice Film Festival was the footage of an exuberant gay Italian man stripping down and begging for a kiss from George Clooney. But they missed the bigger story. Perhaps they were too dazzled by the flashbulbs or their reporter was unable to make his way through the fawning, screeching crowds of fans. But there, upstaging the canals and the pigeons of St. Marks was Hollywood's newest hunk, Hugo Chavez. And just like Clooney, he had his retinue of crazed admirers. In Chavez's case however, the heavy-breathing was coming from director Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote his latest labor of love, a valentine to Chavez called "South of the Border."
And you thought George W. Bush was Yale's most embarrassing graduate...
This new film -- which is not, incidentally, named after the South Carolina roadside tourist trap of the same name -- builds on Stone's unwitting reputation as a master of historical fiction. Whereas some filmmakers are known for their camera work or story-telling, Stone is best known for his inability to separate fact from fairy-tale. First, came JFK, which provided the same view of the Kennedy assassination you would get after huffing glue while watching the Zapruder film. Other fantasies made their way into his movies on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Appropriately, therefore, the best of all summaries of his worldview came in the description of his "single plane theory" of the 9/11 attacks as reported by the Onion. (Given Stone's track record, the fact that it is completely made up is precisely the reason it should be treated as the truth.)
Here's an excerpt of Time's review of the film:
Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President's side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International's 2009 report on Venezuela: "Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country." Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that "90% of the media was opposed to him," and yet he prevailed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.
According to Variety, Stone said, ""You can't get a fair hearing for Chavez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press."
Yes. Outrageous. Let's just take a few items of Chavez news from around the world that have crossed the wires in just the past couple days and draw our own conclusions, shall we?
Let's start with the mildly comic. In Belarus, Chavez met with President Alexander Lukashenko (the White Russian version of a caudillo). There, according to AFP:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union.
Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future.
"We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarussian presidency.
Today, in moves that are not so laughable, Chavez will meet with Russian officials where he is expected to discuss further arms sales, military cooperation and energy deals.
More ominously, today Chavez also stirred up a torrent of controversy when he accused Israel of genocide.
The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Chavez said in an interview with Le Figaro published on Wednesday.
The Venezuelan president, who has just completed a tour of Middle Eastern and Arab countries, brushed aside Israeli assertions that its attack on Gaza was a response to rocket fire from Islamist group Hamas which rules the coastal enclave.
"What was it if not genocide? ... The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians," Chavez said, adding that sanctions should have been slapped on Israel.
While perhaps Stone would agree with these rants (and while he might disagree with Elliott Abrams's excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post taking former President Jimmy Carter to task for his similarly one-sided, overstated and distorted views), his past record of using and abusing the truth like other directors do starlets suggests that he might not dig far enough into the facts to recognize that his film's hero is deeply in bed with some of the very worst of the Middle East's bad actors.
Fortunately for the rest of us, there is the very thoughtful and profoundly disturbing column by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailing a growing case that Chavez and the Iranians are up to the worst kind of no good in this neighborhood. (Connecting the dots between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Chavez's views is very easy when you do a little more research than Stone did.) Morgenthau writes:
Why is Hugo Chávez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little shared history or culture? I believe it is because his regime is bent on becoming a regional power, and is fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S. The diplomatic overture of President Barack Obama in shaking Mr. Chávez's hand in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is no reason to assume the threat has diminished. In fact, with the groundwork laid years ago, we are entering a period where the fruits of the Iran-Venezuela bond will begin to ripen.
That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described "axis of unity," will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology. And it seems that terrorist groups have found the perfect operating ground for training and planning, and financing their activities through narco-trafficking.
His theory is supported not only by the evidence outlined in his article but also by statements earlier this week that Chavez intended to provide oil to Iran in the event the world's leading powers attempt to impose an embargo on the country should it continue to pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian intransigence could put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Tehran but with suppliers like Chavez -- a fact which could delay his getting a star on Hollywood's walk of fame indefinitely as well as causing a real foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.
However, there are always two sides to every story (at least ... around the dinner table in my house growing up there were typically many more than that). And as dark as is the picture of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation painted by Morgenthau there will always be someone who sees the happy Hollywood ending to such collaborations. And of course, for that we can always turn to Stone. Because according to The Guardian, Chavez's Leni Riefenstahl is currently planning as an encore "an interview film with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
Update: We just heard from Willie Geist of "Morning Joe" who noted that they did their takedown of Chavez and Stone earlier this week. I should have known that Geist, who has one of television's best B.S. detectors and, even rarer, a great sense of humor, would never have let this story slip through the cracks.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
In discussing last week's Aspen Ideas Festival with a friend yesterday, I mentioned that for all the big name policy types floating around Aspen Meadows and offering their views on the world that the highlight for me had to be standing behind "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi in the hot dog line. (Yes, they had little hot dog stands located at different spots where you could get free hot dogs.)
What's better than free hot dogs? Standing behind Padma Lakshmi while getting free hot dogs. This was even better than standing near Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Felix Rohatyn, and the Carlyle Group's David Rubenstein in the dinner line the night before. And not just because the gourmet nitrite and nitrate free hot dogs were so tasty. Padma was stunning, charming, and a magnet for all the little something-or-other fellows they had floating around Aspen imagining that someday they would be the aging millionaires and wiener-eating big thinkers who made up the rest of the crowd.
So as I described the scene, needless to say, my friend and I started to discuss what Salman Rushdie, to whom Lakshmi was married for several years, had that we didn't have. This in turn led to the creation of a new term and a new disorder from which I believe my friend and I now both suffer: fatwa envy. This is caused when a death sentence from one or more Imams suddenly transforms an otherwise ordinary looking man into something sexy, mysterious, and dangerous. After a certain point in life, it is really the only path open to some of us.
As a consequence, I am making it my stated objective to do whatever I have to in this blog to alienate at least one Imam, preferably one with a low fatwa threshold (so I don't have to be too offensive, as it is not in my nature.) I also am hoping it is an Imam with a very small, peace-loving following so it doesn't lead to anything untoward, like my premature death, which would undermine all the benefits of having the fatwa placed on my head in the first place.
(I will acknowledge that this approach may not work as Lakshmi explains her otherwise mystifying attraction to Rushdie at least in part because he reminded her of her father who she described as being "the most sexy, manic, in-shape, lean, tall, handsome man I have ever met." This is not a description that has ever been used to describe me, fatwa or none. In fact the only word from that list that has ever been used to describe me is "man" and that is only used by aging hippies who yell at me on the highway, "Hey man, get out of the way." This doesn't matter so much because, of course, my wife is every bit as lovely as Padma...the only real difference being that my wife did not have a part as a lip syncing disco singer in the immortal Mariah Carey movie, Glitter. Further, being from the Midwest, my wife did not require a fatwa. The fact that I was a kind of cranky Jew from New Jersey was plenty exotic enough for her. To this day I believe she still thinks a "knish" is a small, mountain-dwelling cousin of the chipmunk....and I believe the only member of her family to be circumcised was injured in a power tool accident.)
One group of people not likely to end up with any of that fatwa glamour any time soon are the leaders of the G8, who today continue their meetings in Italy. That's because in the wake of the recent fraud and brutality from nuclear weapons seeking, terrorist-sponsoring Iran, even as the discredited Iranian leadership warned of a "crushing response" to further protests, our men and women in L'Aquila, leaders of the world's most powerful countries, offered the following collective statement: "meow."
Admittedly, the G8 leaders were trying to portray their stance on Iran as tough. For example they condemned the recent violence in Iran and said the detention of foreigners and journalists was "unacceptable." They then said they would give Iran until September to accept negotiations over nuclear issues or else expect sanctions. As articulated by Canada's spokesperson, "All G8 nations are united. There is a strong consensus at the table that unless things change soon, there will be further action."
Of course, what he wasn't saying (and he wasn't saying much) was that they couldn't take a stronger stand because the Russians, ever helpful, obviously not persuaded by the recent visit of President Obama, simply would not accept action now. So "action" got punted till a September 24th and 25th G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. As for the Iranians, since what they want is time, any such deferral has to be viewed as a victory. And the fact that we couldn't mobilize the G8 to even describe a more detailed, credible track to sanctions now when the Iranian leadership has provided the icing on the yellowcake of its nuclear program with its recent stolen election and murders of its own citizens suggests we are going to have a tough time getting anything meaningful done ever.
Other than the unconvincing saber rattling of the G8 press release, the closest that they came to any additional action on either matter was, when thanks to the early departure of China's Hu Jintao who had to rush home to quash unrest in his own country, Barack Obama filled an open slot in his agenda with a meeting with Brazilian President Lula. At this meeting, Obama asked Lula to try to use his influence to get Iran to back away from developing its nuclear weapons capabilities. While I'm all for using every channel availability to us, offering up this punt to the Brazilians (whom we have been hectoring for years to avoid developing their own nuclear weapons capability) as a high point of our diplomacy on this issue at the Summit suggests how little of substance was actually accomplished.
So what's the message being sent to Tehran and Pyongyang and other would-be proliferators these days: the biggest real risk you face from creating a nuclear weapons program in today's world comes from the paper cuts you might incur while reading the impassioned press releases of the "great powers."
In other news, an AP story carried in this morning Washington Post, entitled "Drunken man shocks Spain with his generosity," described how an inebriated British citizen arrived yesterday at the airport in Mallorca started handing out wads of cash to passers-by. Needless to say, unsettled by the largesse that was the only thing that distinguished the gentleman from the other drunken Brits in the airport, the Spanish police immediately arrested the man. However, the story does have a happy ending and Prime Minister Brown was put on an aircraft back to the G8 meeting hours later.
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Two men were overheard chatting at a Cosi restaurant in DC this weekend. One said, "You know, with the death of Ed McMahon, Farrah, and Michael Jackson, I think the 70s also died. They're over with once and for all." The other guy said, without hesitation, "I'd believe that if Jimmy Carter weren't still president."
Hey, don't shoot the messenger. I just overheard the conversation. (Please read on for my rather different view.)
Personally, I found the obsessive retrospectives about Michael Jackson a little disgusting. His commercial success for a few years as a pop singer seemed to trump the dark and unsavory aspects of his life. But he was no hero. He was certainly no one to be celebrating. Unless of course, you were an ayatollah. Because one of the truly transcendental ironies of recent history has to be the fact that a symbol of the worst sort of Western spiritual and social corruption...celebrity worship, drug culture, financial excess, debauchery...ended up providing just the distraction that the keepers of the Islamic Revolution's flame in Tehran needed to direct the world's attention away from their abuses of their own people.
In an instant, the really important story of tens of millions struggling to be heard in Iran was swept off the air by the death of a 50 year old accused pedophile in America. CNN, which had been congratulating itself daily for bringing the "green revolution" in Iran to the world as only it could in an instant tossed its news judgment out the window and started offering 24/7 retrospectives on how Michael Jackson chose the red leather jacket he wore in the "Thriller" video. It was an appalling, cheap and cynical programming choice made worse by the fact that other major stories...from the Congress passing the landmark Waxman-Markey climate legislation to the coup in Honduras...were left to play the role only of journalistic spackle, filling in the cracks between paeans to a man who spent the last twenty years shocking the world with his unhinged depravity.
The sad reality is that none of the celebrities who died in the past week say much good about American culture or the state of hero worship in America.
Which brings us back to Obama and the overheard Carter crack. Because one way that Obama is clearly unlike Carter is that he has already achieved something momentous and, occasional cigarette aside, he actually does offer Americans a leader whose story is legitimately inspiring. It is far too early to tell whether he will be able to add to a legacy that has already been assured by the fact of his election...but Friday's passage of the Waxman-Markey legislation and the administration's vigorous defense of the bill is a sign that it just might.
The change in the America's stance on the issue of global warming is one of the most dramatic and meaningful of the Obama era. (Don't believe me? See Angela Merkel's recent comments on the subject.) It will not be easy to get Senate passage of similar legislation. Insiders on the Hill with whom I have spoken suggest that in all likelihood the Senate bill will be sidetracked by the healthcare debate and may not be even voted until after the Copenhagen climate summit. This in turn will mean the United States goes in saying "we can go this far if China and India commit to reductions" which is perhaps not optimal, but may well be a good negotiating position.
And if China and India and the other developing countries do commit to meaningful emissions reductions within a reasonable period, then early in 2010 Senate passage and a final bill going to the President seems likely. (One senator told me that the key to selling the bill is letting Americans know they won't be the only ones sacrificing and that for him, the Chinese are the lynchpin. In fact, he said the issue of coal-burning Midwestern states vs. the alternative energy loving coasts is overstated and that it will be fairly easily settled via "the usual horse trading that goes on up here.")
The United States has never been closer to meaningful action on combating climate change and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. It would be a simultaneous breakthrough in climate security, energy security and economic security. The opposition's antics on the legislation (including Representative Boehner's reference to the just passed legislation as a piece of shit) well illustrated their desperation and cluelessness. In fact, the people on the wrong side of this legislation once it passes will be seen as being on the wrong side of history and will be very vulnerable to election challenges on those grounds. Especially since recent estimates, like those of the Congressional Budget Office, underscore how minimal the financial impact of the cap and trade provisions of the bill will be on the average family.
I wish CNN and others in the broadcast media had covered this story as they should have and given the president the great credit he deserves for fighting for it. (A nuanced stance which, over the weekend included the airing of the president's principled objections to provisions in Waxman-Markey requiring tariffs be levied against nations that don't commit themselves to emissions reductions.) The well being of millions and perhaps the fate of the planet hangs in the balance and as a consequence, I think a fair case can be made that we could have cut back on the interviews with Lisa Marie and Dame Elizabeth long enough to let the news creep through the maudlin aggrandizement of a featherweight, self-inflicted, altogether tawdry American tragedy.
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What is it about this hemisphere? As Mark Sanford has once again demonstrated...and as Latins themselves have long known...the only thing worse than not having U.S.-Latin relations is actually having them. Perhaps that's why so few U.S. politicians care to get deeply involved in the region. Sanford, of course, is among the very few recent exceptions. The last American politician to care as deeply about our neighbors to the south was former D.C. mayor, Marion Barry, and that's only because that's where his coke came from.
Maybe that's it. Maybe it's just that Norte Americanos tend to get in trouble down in that part of the world. Think how many U.S. political careers have been damaged south of the border. (I'm speaking geographically here.) Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs. Kissinger will not be visiting Chile any time soon. You don't hear many people thumping their chests about all the support they gave to one-time U.S. favorites like Carlos Salinas or Carlos Menem or Fernando Collor de Mello. (It's a long list.) Other than NAFTA, which Bill Clinton doesn't offer high on his resume any more, the last big Latin achievement that helped a political career was Teddy Roosevelt's ride up San Juan Hill.
But of course, the fall of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, top Republican presidential prospect until he disappeared five days on the long stroll during which he became the first man ever to walk the Appalachian Trail all the way to Buenos Aires, is about more than his apparent weakness for tango music and alfajores. It's even about more than the romance novel prose of his email communications with his Porteno girlfriend. ("I could digress," he wrote, "and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night's light -- but hey, that would be going into sexual details ...")
No the story of Sanford is also about that special something, that yearning, that searching for love...that dark, standard-issue pol pathology...that makes the stories of fallen glad handers the Old Faithful of Washington press coverage, erupting regularly, offering a brief messy spectacle and then slithering back into a dark crack in the earth pending the next outburst. John Ensign last week. His fellow senators David Vitter and Larry Craig. Clinton himself. Eliot Spitzer. John Edwards. Time lists others like Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Mark Foley, Barney Frank, Gary Hart, and, of course, former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer. Springer, of course, earns a special place in this parade of libido casualties for his memorably stupid decision to actually pay off a hooker with a check. But there are more...so many more...Gary Condit, Vito Fossella, Tim Mahoney, Schwarzenegger's groping, Gavin Newsome's affair, Antonio Villaraigosa's affair, Jim McGreevey's dalliance with his homeland security advisor, and on into history...Bob Packwood, Newt Gingrich, Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays, George Bush, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt...back to James Buchanan and William Rufus King and then on to our founding philanderers Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and goodness knows who else. Could it be that Demosthenes had more than pebbles in his mouth?
Which leads us to the real question behind the Sanford story: Why is it even a story? It is as surprising as a hangover after Tequila Night at your local bar. Yes, the guy was stunningly hypocritical. Yes, he ran on family values and seems, in retrospect, somewhat conflicted on the subject. But shouldn't there come a time in the history of civilization where we realize this painfully predictable stuff has precious little to do with on-the-job performance? Some of our greatest political leaders have been hopelessly flawed as husbands. In fact, history argues that no matter what we do, we're going to elect people who will screw up on a personal level. Sure, it's fun to joke about how finally Sanford found a stimulus package he was willing to accept...but can't we get over it?
The E! Network yesterday announced that they would no longer be covering the exploits of Speidi --Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag-Pratt of "The Hills" -- because their stories were so contrived and superficial as to be beneath the high journalistic standards of Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic. The Book of Revelations speaks of this moment. When the time comes that entertainment reporters no longer cover contrived superficiality in Hollywood, Washington newshounds should it see it as a sign they should throw down their notepads and give up covering politicians who -- not satisfied with the high volume work they are doing in their day jobs -- start trying to screw their constituencies one by one.
I therefore take the oath: This blog will lead the way. I will never again write about a D.C. sex scandal. (Because it's a non-story distraction from real issues. Because American politicians have the unique ability to make love seem so dirty. And because this is, after all, FP...and if I ever feel the rest of you really do need a sleaze fix...or just some low comic relief...we still do have all the rest of the world to work with. Buon giorno, Silvio!!!)
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After all the flying I've been doing the past couple weeks, I was genuinely sorry to hear today's story of the Continental Airlines pilot who died while flying back from Belgium.
While resisting the tasteless temptation to observe that dying after having visited Belgium strikes me as needlessly repetitive, I have to say the story hit home because on my flight last night back from Latin America I was actually surprised that the "cabin service director" did not herself expire mid-flight. This woman was so old that at one point during the flight I thought I could actually hear her osteoporosis. While I admire her for setting such a good example for other senior citizens by continuing to work, I do feel that her insistence on wearing a leather flying helmet and a jaunty scarf she held on to from her days in the Lafayette Escadrille was a bit unnerving to the other passengers. It wasn't too unnerving however, because we hardly saw her. Being that this was a flight on a U.S. carrier from Latin America, she did not actually feel compelled to speak to a single passenger during the flight (I don't think I'm exaggerating here). She just sat up front and every so often would make an announcement that was so unintelligible that it made Jimmy Carter's mumblings the other day on behalf of Hamas seem coherent.
Speaking of that other octogenarian, you couldn't help but be struck by two things while watching Carter offer the weight of the office bestowed upon him by the American people to lend support to the Hezbollah-backed group of allegedly reforming terrorists. (You can imagine the 12 step program Hamas is running to keep its guys "political": "Hi, I am Khaled and I am a terrorist. I have not launched a missile at a nursery school in 17 weeks.")
The first was: "Aha! Here is an American president who is not afraid to stand up for an Iranian political movement."
The second was that for once I wish Walt and Mearsheimer were right, and that taking a stand that was anathema to the Israel Lobby really did mean the end of a political career in the United States, because Jimmy is well past his sell-by date. (For more on this last point, see Jeffrey Goldberg's observations on "The Taboo That Won't Shut Up.")
Carter's signature message was "Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself." The view is so typically one-sided in its selective recollection of history -- he neglects to note who, for example, fired the first 10,000 or so missiles in the recent confrontation -- that it would make Carter the Flat Stanley of U.S. politics were it not for the fact that Flat Stanley actually had two dimensions. (And I say this as someone who believes that the international community and the Israelis owe it to the Palestinians to help them heal and to find a sustainable solution that offers both them and their neighbors dignity, security, and a chance at prosperity.)
Finally, as a parent, I found myself misting up a bit at Chastity Bono's recent reappearance in the news. (Since her father ended up being a Congressman, I think it's perfectly appropriate to discuss her in this blog. Chastity is a Washington insider once-removed. Although frankly as a lesbian child of celebrities, she probably makes it as a Washington insider entirely on her own what with this being a Democratic administration and all.) In any event, given the fame of her parents, you can't help but feel for poor Chaz, wondering how she was going to make a name for herself. Yet, here she has done it. With her decision to have a sex-change operation, she boldly went into the one area of plastic surgery her iconic mother never considered. (Which is saying something, as the only thing left about Cher that is authentic is the signature on her monthly retainer checks to the plastic surgeon she keeps on call.)
And the international affairs insight in the Chastity Bono story? (Besides the fact that post-surgery she will be the only other person still using the same first name as one-time National Intelligence Council nominee Chas Freeman.) Well, presumably if she could find someone who would sew a pair on her perhaps we might look into a way to do the same for our current foreign policy.
Irresistible sexist jokes aside, I am pretty sure our current problem is not so much the amount of testosterone in our system -- the feminist in me actually thinks you can never have too little -- as it is the vaguely masochistic impulse to effectively respond to every threat or provocation with an Oliver Twist-like, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"
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Developing further my Airport Theory of Foreign Relations, it is impossible not to marvel at the creativity and industry of the Indians. Arriving after an eight-and-one half-hour-long flight from that shopping mall from Hell also known as Heathrow Terminal Five, we raced into Mumbai for a meeting. Naturally, we were seething with hostility after bad treatment and flying here on what seemed to be the original Boeing 777. In fact, parts seemed to be made from balsa wood suggesting they had been salvaged from earlier aircraft... a de Havilland Jenny for example.
At any rate, this is the kind of subtle undermining of international relations that our painfully inefficient and unpleasant system of connecting the globe produces. We were ready to be ugly Americans, well-prepared for the job both by circumstances and genetics.
So, what is rapidly expanding India -- today's papers announced that the country expects to grow in this global economic annus horibilis at the breathtaking rate of 7 percent -- to do with visitors like us? Answer: build in a cool-down period (no mean feat when the temperature is over 90 and everyone is nervously awaiting the arrival of the monsoon season). Where? The highway from the airport. A trip that should take 40 minutes took almost two hours. It was an exceptionally effective buffer. By the time we got to the hotel I could barely muster a sneer at the reception lady when she told me my room wasn't ready. Of course, I'll admit I was subdued somewhat by the sight of the gutted remnants of the terrorist gutted Oberoi which we passed on the way in. (And also by the security we had to pass through just to enter the lobby of this hotel.)
Admittedly, thanks to a tube strike, the city from which we came, London, is also offering massive traffic jams from the airport. The problem is they are also offering massive traffic jams to the airport. And they don't have anything like 7 percent growth to explain the rapidly growing number of cars on the motorways. Nor, of course, do they have anything like the slums that line the route into downtown Mumbai...but I'll admit it, despite the gut-wrenching deprivation in which the slum-dwellers live, it is hard to not to look around at cranes on the horizon or the ubiquity of cell phones (a phone line for life costs $2) or to think of the recent successful elections in this complex country of a billion and not think that India has the wind at its back at the moment. That doesn't minimize the social challenges but it clearly gives a feeling of vitality and hope.
What a relief to be seeing the stories of Manmohan Singh's new government on the front page of the paper and not the stories from the front pages in my last stop noting the electoral success of the BNP, the racist, troglodyte British National Party. America elects an African American. Britain sends haters to the European Parliament. (What a relief that it is a useless organization.) Worse, the papers also noted similar recent right wing successes across Europe. For example the triumph of anti-gypsy nationalists in Hungary. Great to see Europe stepping up to meet the great challenges of our times with these creatures who have crawled out of the shallow end of the political cesspool.
That said, I can't say that I am that heartened by the news my blackberry keeps sending me from home, either. Can it really be that America is either surprised or interested that Adam Lambert is gay? (Really? Really?!) Can a Washington Post columnist actually be praising Obama for boldly taking a stance against Holocaust deniers (what next, a bold defense of Copernicus?), even as he seems to be allowing the country of those deniers to creep its way into the nuclear club? (If you don't see the irony here, write in and I will draw you a picture.)Can the Obama administration really believe that merging Chrysler into Fiat
is actually going to help either? Chrysler's best minds left after their last merger with Daimler Benz. Fiat doesn't have one single leading international brand. Is it really credible that if one of the world's most successful auto companies (Daimler Benz) couldn't save Chrysler that a combination of one of the world's most mediocre (Fiat) and a bunch of government guys who don't know anything about cars plus some union members who helped screw things up in the first place are going to do it?
Here in India, taxi drivers talk with palpable pride at the advent of the Tata Nano, a tiny car that is a source of great national pride. Business executives cite the ease with which they meet much higher average gasoline mileage targets than posed in the United States. I mean, I get it, this is a very poor country with a wide range of desperate needs (over 40 percent of Indians don't have access to electricity yet). But you've got to ask which way the trends are pushing us...and you also have to ask why the United States has not made a more urgent priority of dramatically strengthening relations with this country. Such a relationship could not be more central to containing the threat in Pakistan, counter-balancing China, promoting democracy and managing a whole host of global threats from climate to proliferation. To be perfectly honest, I think a lot more real and lasting (rather than symbolic and likely to be fleeting) good would be likely to come from President Obama making a trip to the land of Gandhi than his recent trip to the land of Mubarak and Nasser.
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What with this being Memorial Day weekend and all the talk turning to grilling...and what with the fact that when talk in DC turns to grilling we mean "enhanced interrogation techniques"...I thought it might be entertaining to put together a list of the 10 people we would most like to see this weekend (or sometime soon) on the grill, the waterboard, under the hot lights answering the questions we need answers to. And by answering, I don't mean the kind of answers you get on "Meet the Press." I mean the truth.
So here they are, 10 people who I'd like to leave alone in a room with Dick Cheney, a car battery, and jumper cables:
10. Alvaro Colom...
My question for the president of Guatemala would be "How did you feel the first time you saw the video-taped murder accusation leveled at you by (now deceased) attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano?" Of course, given the web of accusations, counter-accusations, and dubious assertions surrounding this murder, another question that comes to mind is: "Did you do it?" And another is: "How much longer do you think you have in office if Guatemala descends into the kind of civil discord that has marked much of its modern history?"
9. Robert Mugabe...
Frankly, I don't really feel the need to have a good question, here. This is a guy who seriously could use a date with a Delco just because he's one of the vilest, most corrupt leaders on the planet. That said, because we like our enhanced interrogations to be productive around here, how about, just as an appetizer: "How could you possibly continue to support the appointment of Gideon Gono as Reserve Bank Governor given that he has single handedly achieved the impossible and made the Zimbabwean currency famous worldwide...as a laughingstock...while making hyperinflation a national tragedy for your country?"
8. Nancy Pelosi...
Ah sweet irony. The questions are easy here: "The truth now, what did you know, when did you know it...and most importantly, why didn't you do anything about it once you knew?" But just to add to the fun, maybe we could let Pelosi nemesis, erstwhile CIA Director-candidate Jane Harman, oversee the questioning.
7. Joe Biden...
This entry was suggested by an anonymous email from the address email@example.com. The reason it was picked was that in an inventive twist, it was suggested by this mysterious Mr. O that Biden only feel the heat from the alligator clips attached to his nipples if he actually attempted to answer the questions posed to him. Or speak. Or pretty much make any sound at all.
6. Brad Grey...
Mr. Grey is the CEO of Paramount Pictures. And my question for him is perhaps the simplest of all those posed here. Why, why, why would you ever greenlight a picture featuring the Wayans Brothers like this weekend's Dance Flick?" As amusing as a slideshow from Abu Ghraib, the last time these guys were funny...any of them...was in utero.
The list goes on here at number 5. This is a category where the question is the same and you can use it with any of a large number of people who need to provide us with an answer to that age old query: "What do you see in him?" The question can be modified, of course. So it can be, "Carla, what do you see in that little megalomaniac?" Or it can be, "Kate, what do you see in that preening steroidal late-season-choke-machine? Are you actually trying to kill Owen Wilson by dating this lug?" (And please be wary, Kate. When October comes, those big strong arms of A-Rod's turn to spaghetti. But who knows, the steroids may have produced the same effect elsewhere long before then.)
4. Hank Paulson...
What I want to ask is, "Hank, I know you are a sensitive, self-aware guy. You're even a bird-watcher for goodness, sake. So tell me, in your heart of hearts, what were you really thinking when you decided to pull the plug on Lehman? Did it make you feel good even a teensy-weensy bit? No, really, not even a little bit?
3. Bibi Netanyahu...
The question is "when?" You don't have to tell Barack, no matter what he says. But I want to know. Just in case things backfire. You know, so I can buy up what might become a few choice oceanfront lots in say, Amman, Jordan.
2. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad...
You didn't think I would make Bibi sweat under the hot lights and not you, did you? But here's the question: "How stupid do you think we are?" No, I know how stupid you think the officials of the international community are and frankly, I hardly blame you. If I were you and I could keep stalling for more time to advance my nuclear programs, all the while making belligerent noises and testing missiles, I'd do it too. But the question is: "Do you really think everyone is stupid enough to trust you with nukes? Everyone?"
1. Dick Cheney...
It wouldn't be Memorial Day without an All-American Hero at number one. And what a hero you are, Dick. You didn't flinch expending American blood to advance your far-fetched fantasies. And for that reason and hundreds of thousands of others, no one is a more appropriate main entrée on our grilling menu. Of course, you can't fry yourself...so we'll have to find volunteers. (That shouldn't be too hard.) The bad news is that the questions we'd like to ask may be a little uncomfortable. Like: "Did you or the president specifically ok individual instances of torture?" and "Did you knowingly lie to Congress or the American people to justify the invasion of Iraq?" But there's good news too, because as we understand it, you've never met a defibrillator you didn't like.
So that's 10. Eleven actually. And I resisted throwing in the American Idol judges because I realized I didn't want to interrogate them. I just wanted to torture them...just as they have tortured us with that show's bland caterwauling for the past eight years. But feel free to nominate your own victims...er, honorees...or to pose additional questions for the wonderful folks above. And have a great Memorial Day.
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Both were candidates for important national positions. Prejean's position would make her an ambassador for America and Freeman was a career diplomat. Both were denied those positions at least in part because of the unpopular views they expressed. And both were victims of blogospheric overkill that may have done more to damage their critics than it did to them. Certainly, the longer their controversies continued to bubble, the worse their opponents looked. (Last night, for example, even the Rush Limbaugh of liberal America, Jon Stewart, closed his Prejean story with a statement that made it clear he felt the attacks on her were unfair.)
Finally, today both are considerably better known than they were before the controversies they didn't seek and both are considerably more popular among key constituencies that are likely to provide them with long-term support as a consequence of their courage to say what they felt.
Unfortunately for Chas (and I think for the NIC), Barack Obama did not appoint Donald Trump director of national intelligence because he might have stood up for Chas like he stood up for Carrie. (Well, he would have if he thought Chas was hot in a bikini.) But Chas's defenders in the administration folded under too much pressure from the likes of noted intelligence connoisseur Nancy Pelosi.
In fact, given their winning smiles, the only real differences between the two are Prejean's implants and the fact that Chas is brilliant and she appears to be dumb as a box of rocks. (The rumors that Steve Rosen had nude pics of Freeman have proven to be as unfounded as some other charges against Rosen.)
That said there's a message here, people: beware the impulse to incite the virtual crowd, because as often happens with real mobs, e-mobs or their actions can get so out of control that they trample the reputations of their organizers and prove seriously counter-productive to their longer term goals. (See: Salem witch trials, McCarthyism, and votefortheworst.com.)
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Imagine, if you can, that you are me. I wish I could give you a taste of what it's like. Perhaps you have some idea. That throng of 10,000 models wildly stampeding in New York over the weekend? Despite what you may have heard or read, it was all over a completely unsubstantiated rumor that I was in New York to visit my poor brother who was suffering with the fact that his beloved Orangemen had once again choked in a big game...this year, on his birthday. There they were, thousands of semi-literate stick-figure women hurling their eighty-six pound frames into one another just for a glimpse of me, pushing, shoving, hungering as though I were that forbidden extra slice of tofu that they would later barf up when no one else was looking. Oh, I know, the news said they were all there to audition for the latest season of "America's Next Top Eating Disorder Victim" but seriously, don't you think that even the modeling community is sick to death of Tyra at this point?
And I understand it. She was a trail-blazer once: a breath of fresh air with a bright smile and an agenda to help others. But, now after an endless series of episodes in which chain smoking high-school drop-outs steal each other's hair products, we realize that this show isn't about helping people. It's all about Tyra all the time. The winners, the losers, they hear her pep talks, they get the benefit of insights from her hand-picked staff of fashion-world superstars, the crème de la crème of the world's narcissicists, but none of them actually win except Tyra who gets to keep her career going (and of course, the fabulous J. Alexander, who only actually exists inside Tyra's mind... as a kind of idealized image of what she would be like if she were actually a woman.)
Come to think of it, though, there is absolutely no fair analogy that I am willing to make between that show and anything currently going on in Washington. So, back to my weekend...which, of course, did not actually involve throngs of stampeding models. (Although my brother actually was devastated by Syracuse's loss, suffering that will only grow worse when North Carolina once again wins the NCAA Championships in a couple weeks.) Instead, it involved tramping through the mall trying to get Verizon to fix my daugher's cell phone, dealing with their special brand of customer service that puts a capital UCK back into the expression F YOU, and spending hours more switching her over to AT&T. Meanwhile, all the while I am actually thinking, what kind of a blog posting will I write on Monday morning?
I even put myself through the torture of watching of all the Sunday morning television talk fests. There the administration rolled out its economic spokespeople -- Austan Goolsbee on Fox, Larry Summers on "This Week" and Christina Romer on "Meet the Press" to say, in unison, "we hate AIG but other than that everything is under control." Of course, especially frustrating was the AIG rant which was certainly too little too late much as the time Tyra failed to move quickly enough to rein in Bre after she wrongfully accused poor Nicole of stealing her granola bars during Season Five. ("The Girl Who Retaliates.")
Also the focus on the AIG bonuses was a distraction from the much bigger and more offensive component of the AIG story that unfolded over the weekend thanks to the fact that they finally released the names of the counterparties who got made whole by tax-payer dollars. For example, Societe General, Deutsche Bank and Barclay's alone got over $30 billion (we'll leave aside the over $12 billion Hank Paulson's Goldman Sachs got because that is a story that is so breathtaking offensive that apparently no one wants to write about it). While much of this happened last year, let's face it, Tim Geithner was in the middle of it all from the outset, so was Ben Bernanke, the Obama team was looped into this from November on and they could have done plenty from the moment they got into office but they didn't. Of course, they could have done more had they actually made it a priority to hire a team at Treasury at some point during the past five months of knowing they were going to take over the country in the middle of the worst crisis since the depression or the Black Death of the 14th Century or the time Tyra was shown in an unflattering one-piece and accused of being fat in early 2007. (I'm not minimizing this. I am merely trying to track the Obama administration's move from the talking points produced by their initial economic spokesperson, Chicken Little, to those produced by their most recent hire in the press office, Alfred E. Newman.)
Of these performances by the way, I give Romer and Goolsbee each Cs, (able to translate complex ideas into simple English sentences, unfortunately obligated to tap dance around tough issue like just what exactly we are going to do about the financial crisis) and Summers an A (calm, thoughtful discussion of issues). Summers conversation actually contained a really important nugget: that the administration was working on moving derivatives transactions to an exchange setting which would regularize them and make them more transparent. This would be a big breakthrough and could in fact, be one of the most important steps of fixing what is broken in the financial world. Needless to say no one has picked up on it (that I have seen) since he said it. The "balance" on these shows was provided by the likes of what appeared to be cardboard cutouts resemblng Senators Mitch McConnell and Bob Corker and Representative Eric Cantor. Corker outshone his colleagues by seeming to actually think about the issues and gets a D. The other two get Fs only because I can't give anything lower. Reflexive, barren of ideas, purely partisan. America could do with an opposition party but truly, I think we may be heading into a period in which the relevant and defining political division in the U.S. is between moderate and liberal Democrats. McConnell and Cantor make us yearn for the refreshing relevance of say, John Bell, last candidate to run for president under the Whig banner. (As a reminder to all who do not think that political parties in America can come and go as swiftly as did Janice Dickinson off the judging panel at America's Next Top Model as soon as it was realized that she was both a psycho skank from hell and, at the same time, ten times more interesting than Tyra.)
Anyway, not only did the superficial discussions of the Sunday talkers drive me as crazy as usual (I was particularly infuriated with CNBC's Steve Liesman of CNBC who when asked about whether the media dropped the ball on the financial crisis responded by saying he was all over the mortgage backed securities risks in 2006...as though that were a good record given that these problems had been brewing for a decade and that the bigger issues of problems in the derivatives markets, Wall Street's failure to assess risk properly, the regulatory breakdown in Washington, the problems of mark to market financing, the corruption associated with Wall Street's revolving door in DC, and the wrong-headed decision to bring down Glass Steagall were more or less ignored), but I was also tormented by what they weren't covering. They let the Obama administration set the agenda by who was being made available. They bought into the Obama administration's theme of the week story packaging the way viewers bought into last year's heart-warming but completely fabricated ANTM victory of plus-sized model Whitney as she demonstrated that in the end "inner beauty" always trumps a love of Kit Kat bars.
Meanwhile, back in the real world you could feel America's Next Top Crisis brewing off camera. Soon, I couldn't help but sense, Obama's, Q-rating, his smooth talk and his desire to have it both ways (spend but lecture about responsibility, offer conciliation with the world but talk tough, declare the end is nigh but encourage everyone to cheer up) would no longer help. Tough issues that will pose tough choices about America's willingness to use force, to confront friends, to show political courage, were emerging.
Zardari's last days in Pakistan are once again producing the specter of a meltdown in that nuclear nation of 170 million. Russia is announcing plans to establish bomber bases in Cuba or Venezuela (and the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is shrugging it off). The left's victory in El Salvador extending Chavez's Axis of Bluster even as keen observers recognize that Mexico's war on its drug cartels is pushing them into Guatemala where, at the moment, the government is doing practically nothing. Meanwhile, the Chinese are announcing their discomfort with U.S. Treasuries (which Larry Summers fairly glibly dismissed as Chinese political posturing). The G20 ministerial revealed real divisions between the United States and Europe and between the United States and the BRICs. And the press entirely missed the subtext of President Lula's visit to meet with Obama over the weekend. While all was sweetness and light for the cameras, and while the two men genuinely did have a quick rapport, rumors among Brazilian officials suggest that Lula came away concerned about Obama's attitudes toward trade and what was characterized as a sense of Obama's naivety. Obama gave off signals in their talks that he was not going to push hard to get the Doha Round done and that fixing the distortionary U.S. tariff on Brazilian ethanol would have to wait. You've got to love it...and also, um, hate it...when an old-school leftist labor leader comes to Washington and comes away disappointed that the U.S. president is not going to do enough to liberalize the trade agenda or fight off protectionist forces at home.
Then, after all this, I ended up having to be up late at night sitting up while my high school senior age daughter -- who by the way deserves all the blame for making me watch "America's Next Top Model" -- worked on a creative writing assignment that was supposed to be stream of consciousness. So now, in retrospect, it is clear to me that even the structure for this post was not my own idea. But after such an enervating, mind-numbing weekend, there is a part of me that considers any consciousness at all to be something of an achievement.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.