Campaign ’08: The Other Edwards Speaks Out

Posted April 28, 2008 on 11:58 am | In the category Election 2008, Politics, Press | by Jeff

Sunday’s NY Times carried an Op Ed piece by Elizabeth Edwards (Bowling 1, Health Care 0) on the role of the press in the campaign and it is a dandy. It is no secret that she is a smart and honorable woman who is widely admired by people on both sides of the political aisle but the skill and grace with which she skewers the press is remarkable.

She suggests that we are getting a kind of “Cliffs Notes of the news”, and that the press’s group decision to ignore serious candidates like Senators Biden, Dodd and Brownback simply eliminated them from serious consideration leaving the press to its search for various personality cults. As she says:

The decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. …

…Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride. And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn’t fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.

The next time the NY Times is seeking a regular columnist they could do a lot worse than recruiting Ms. Edwards.

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Campaign ’08: A House of Cards

Posted April 26, 2008 on 11:04 am | In the category Election 2008, Politics, Press | by Jeff

A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction. – Graham Greene

Watching the first segment of House of Cards, a 1990 BBC series, recently I began to think that I had seen it already, but with an American cast. In the British version Ian Richardson plays Francis Urquhart (“F.U.” in the headlines) a tough, cynically self-serving Member of Parliament bent on gathering as much personal power as possible regardless of the cost to other politicians or his country.

I was particularly struck with the portrayal of a young, ambitious reporter who unwittingly becomes one of F.U.’s tools in destroying his political enemies. Urquhart simply provides her with “off-the-record” information that she then uses to beat up on whomever is next on Urquhart’s list. It is all easy work for her and effective politics for Urquhart.

And a lesson for all journalists covering today’s political campaigns in America: do what it takes to get “access” to the players, jump on anything smacking of scandal, pump it up and by furthering the interests of your “player”, enhance your own career. House of Cards has become a playbook for many of today’s American politicians and their friends in the press but it is a helluva lot more entertaining as fiction.

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Sports and Politics, Cont.

Posted April 25, 2008 on 1:02 am | In the category Canada, Election 2008 | by Mackenzie Brothers

As outlined by Jeff in a number of perceptive articles, the US primary system has fallen on hard times, if it is meant to display to the world the wonders of democracy. Not only have the so-called debates been at high-school level, most observers agree that the actual candidates might have something useful to say, if only asked or allowed to do so. Instead two intelligent and informed people are treated by questioners as fools, and do a pretty good job of confirming that with their answers. At the same time one of the areas of potential dramatic interest in US politics is sorely missing – sports. In this field Big George W. could finally show his prowess, and actually knew what he was talking about when baseball or football came up. But in the spring there is really nothing going on down below the border, and audiences can only be treated with ancient shots of Barack playing high school basketball and then promising to build a basketball court in the White House. So far we haven’t even seen Hillary in her field hockey duds, though she must have played it, or something, at some point or other.

This is Canada’s season and governments are wary of calling an election up north while the Stanley Cup playoffs are on, since the whole country can switch allegiances in a flash depending on which team(s) are still in the hunt. This year only one Canadian team has made it into the quarter final, but lots of sports lovers, like New Yorker star writer Adam Gopnik, would be glad to tell you it’s the grandest team of them all – the Montréal Canadiens – and the surprising march of them towards the Stanley Cup has any Quebec separatiste begging for no election in the next weeks. For as Gopnik (joining the late lamented Mordecai Richler) has argued convincingly, les habs are as good a force as there is for explaining why Canada functions so well despite all its apparent contradictions. (John Ibbitson’s recent statement that, without anybody paying much attention, Canada has suddenly become the most successful country on earth, fits nicely into this framework).

Playing out of the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, les canadiéns ice a team with a larger percentage of French-speaking players, and of course coaches, than anyone else, have a name which sticks in the gut of Quebec separatistes, who tried with no success to get it changed, and have hired several key Russian players this year who have flourished in North America’s most European city. They also have no hesitation to replace a French player with a better Anglo one if it will help the team. At a crucial moment in this year’s race they shipped their French goalie to Washington, gave the job to Carey Price, a 20 year old kid from Anahim Lake, British Columbia whose mother is the chief of a remote First Nations band on the edge of the spectacular true wild west Chilcotin Plateau, and ended up winning the race in the east. It’s that kind of mixture which makes the separatistes head for cover, because there isn’t anyone in Montréal wh o is not cheering for the native kid who had to fly with his bush pilot father to the metropolis of Williams Lake, 300 kilometers away, to play hockey. And there’s no Canadian who wasn’t cheering for the Habs as they opened their series today against Philadelphia. This is awful news for the enemies of Canadian federalism and they will lay low for the next months.

Oh yes, the Canadians were losing tonight 3-2 with 45 seconds to go, when one of the Russians scored, sending the game into overtime. They won it 28 seconds into the overtime period when another Russian scored. The crowd from Tuktayuktuk to Newfoundland went into a frenzy.


Campaign ’08:It’s the Press Stupid – And Vice Versa

Posted April 23, 2008 on 10:38 am | In the category Election 2008, Politics, Press | by Jeff

Last week’s debacle that barely passed for a debate on ABC is one more piece of evidence that we are stuck with a press and media that are committed to the avoidance of intelligent discussion of serious issues. The ingredients that are inexorably moving this election into a kind of fantasy-land of mind-numbing trivialities are all in place: lazy reporters playing off candidates’ criticisms of their opponents; the media’s willingness – no, eagerness – to pump up meaningless side issues like lapel pins and nutty ministers; endless hours of so-called analysts on cable TV pimping for their own candidates; an over-reliance on vapid man-in-the-street interviews and apparently an almost total unwillingness to explore serious issues in depth.

Senator Clinton’s campaign has mismanaged itself into a Rovian corner from which it is reduced to calling her opponent schoolyard names, hinting at character flaws in Obama (then denying she did any such thing) and feeding the lazy but hungry press with tiny little issues that they can then blow up into earth-shattering issues. That the Clinton campaign is deficient in honesty and seriousness is of course no surprise – it informed their earlier incarnation and for the most part people do not change. The Obama campaign has been caught in the position of having to defend the Senator on trivial issues, has not done a good job at it, and has become increasingly and obviously frustrated which simply feeds the beast.

But the really discouraging part of the situation is the complicity of the press in directing the interest of the voters towards meaningless issues while helping them avoid doing the hard work of thinking about real issues. This is old news but given the state of the country we need more and better not the same old crap. Now it is on to Indiana, another state where flag pins, nutty ministers, bin Laden and the over-rated threat of Iran can be used to pump up the volume and drown out serous discussion of serious issues.


What’s right about Bavaria

Posted April 15, 2008 on 2:56 pm | In the category Germany, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

My bother and I recently returned from a lengthy stay in Germany’s most engaging city, Munich, and decided it was time to admit that the citizens of Bavaria have made a wise decision. They have decided to go along with the tourist ploy that Berlin is the city to visit if you are going to make a brief sojourn into that nasty country that only one generation ago came close to wiping out European civilization. For European cities that become apples of tourist organizers’ eyes pay a heavy, sometimes fatal, price for paving their streets with the gold left behind by the hordes. For 8 months of the year, Florence and Venice, surely two of the world’s most splendid cities, cease to exist under the conditions that once made them so splendid, as they are overwhelmed with tourists anxious to have their pictures taken in front of nude David or a yodeling gondolier or two. Really big cities, like New York, Paris or London, not to mention gigantic ones like Shanghai or Tokyo, and even somewhat isolated cities like Stockholm, Vancouver and Helsinki, can brush aside the potential carnage by offering more space than the tourists can fill. But middle size cities like Munich, full of the cultural monuments that tourists crave and sitting right on the main road of the grand tour, run the danger of sinking like Venice.

And so Munich and Bavaria, the beautiful “free state” of which it is the capital, have made a deal that convinces the rest of the world to come in once a year for a couple of weeks in late September and early October and spend its money like drunken sailors, in fact spend their weeks like that as well, and then depart deliriously happy having had a time they can hardly remember. The coffers of Munich bulge at the seams, the countryside round about counts up the spillage from the overflow, and the local citizenry returns to going about its business, having limited the damage to the 17 days of the Oktoberfest, which most of them never visit unless it’s on business, while suggesting that Berlin would be a better place to visit the rest of the year. And off they go. Meanwhile we Münchners and our Upper- and Lower-Bavarian relatives and friends spend the splendid spring, summer and autumn evenings in beer gardens and quiet corners that other places can only dream about, quaffing a liter of Augustiner, Spatenbräu or Paulaner that other breweries , content to spend their money on marketing some kind of liquid that one could not give way under the chestnut trees of Bavaria, cannot even begin to try to copy. So pass the word – be sure to visit Europe’s most wonderful city, but be sure to do it during the Oktoberfest and don’t bother visiting the Hirschgarten, Taxisgarten, or even the Hofbräuhausgarten am Wiener Platz – the other one am Platzl you should definitely visit – because all you’ll find there are boring locals.


Playing Doctor in Germany

Posted April 4, 2008 on 2:38 pm | In the category Germany, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

US-American biologist Ian Baldwin has found out the black comic way that it is not true that the Germans don’t have a sense of humour. He made the mistake of responding to German attempts to make their leading research institutes more international by recruiting experts from around the civilized world, which Baldwin undoubtedly assumed included the elite US educational system out of which he came. The German academic selection committee must have considered him to have had an appropriate academic background, since they offered him the plum position of Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena. In fact Dr. (whoops!) Baldwin had a cv and a list of publications that made him just the right kind of internationalist to lend prestige to the faltering reputation of the German academic system on the international stage.

Imagine then his surprise when on January 9 as new Director he received a letter from the criminal inspection division of the Jena Police ordering him to appear before them for an “interrogation as an accused ” (Vornehmung als Beschuldeter), which involved a process which could only have reminded him of his undergraduate reading of Kafka’s The Trial. On Feb. 18 he was informed by the Culture Ministry of Thüringen that he had been accused of the following: “Im Rahmen Ihrer Tätigkeit führten Sie Ihren amerikanischen Hochschulgrad ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ in Form der Abkürzung ‘Ph.D’ (“In the framework of your activities you used your American (Presumably they meant US-American) title of ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ in its abbreviated form Ph.D.” But only those with Doctorates from EU countries could use such titles, not Americans. (My brother Doug failed to get a response from Thuringian cultural bureaucrats when he asked about Canadian titles.) Thus Mr. Baldwin discovered that if he had gotten his degree from a Latvian, Romanian or Bulgarian university he could call himself Doctor in Germany but not if it was from a university in Massachusetts, even if he was now the director of one of Germany’s premier academic research institutes, a position which of course demanded that he have a doctorate. And they say that you can’t write like Kafka any more. As is turned out, just as in “The Trial”, the process seems to have been initiated by a revengeful foreigner who also had a doctorate from a non-EU country and had been ordered not to use it on the basis of a law passed during Nazi time.

Fortunately for the German academic scene, Dr. Baldwin, after the intervention of German academic elite who were in a position to overrule Thuringian bureaucrats, can now once again use the title “Ph.D.”. And fortunately for them he also must have known that Kafka was also a great comic writer, even if the comedy had the potential of a dark nightmare if ever those bureaucrats came into power again. However, my brother and I still don’t know what happens to Canuck PhDs if their holders follow the lure of the Loreleis of German academia.

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