SPRING CLEANING RUN AMOK

There’s a new spirit loose in the land. Call it Abolishomania. Maybe it’s part of a growing trend. Perhaps once you get rid of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, profligate bonuses and expense account conferences and start thinking about a world without Chysler and The New York Times, a certain bloodlust rises to the fore, and people start searching for new targets for extinction. Or maybe it’s simpler; maybe the onset of warm weather has evoked a spirit of spring cleaning. But whatever the reason, wherever you look for the last week or so, people want to get rid of stuff.

In The Washington Post, Ana Marie Cox wants to get rid of the White House Press Corps. “Name a major political story broken by a White House correspondent,” she tendentiously demands. “A thorough debunking of the Bush case for Iraqi WMD? McClatchy Newspapers’ State Department and national security correspondents. Bush’s abuse of signing statements? The Boston Globe’s legal affairs correspondent. Even Watergate came off The Washington Post’s Metro desk. Here are some stories that reporters working the White House beat have produced in the past few months: Pocket squares are back! The president is popular in Europe. Vegetable garden! Joe Biden occasionally says things he probably regrets. Puppy!” Cox thinks most White Hosue correspondents are “journalists at the top of their game” who are wasted at the White House.

In Slate, Bruce Ackerman wants to get rid of the position of White House Counsel, and the Office of Legal Counsel. “The torture memos are symptoms of a deeper structural problems in both the White House and the Justice Department. These failures enabled John Yoo, David Addington, and others to rush to their decisions without exposing themselves to the ordinary checks and balances that constrain professional legal judgment. Without fundamental changes, the same politicizing dynamic may well repeat itself after the next terrorist attack.”

Back at The Washington Post, Thomas Ricks wants to get rid of the service academies. “After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades,” he writes, “I’ve concluded that graduates of the service academies don’t stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I’ve been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.” He also wants to shut down the services’ war colleges.

Over at The New York Times, Mark Taylor, a religion professor, wants “to end the university as we know it.” He says that “graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).” Among his proposed remedies: getting rid of tenure. (He seems OK with keeping big-time college football.)

Finally, in the New York Post, Stephen Lynch tells us about Helen Goltz, a professor from Australia, who wants to get rid of marriage, or at least the “’til death due us part” part, which when you think about it, is one of the two elements–the other being sex all the time, whenever you want it–that defines marriage. Says Goltz, “We have fixed term-contracts for the buying of property, cars and insurance, but there is only one contract available for marriage and it is for life. Is it time to consider introducing fixed-term marriage contracts?” She wants newlyweds to sign 5-year or 10-year contracts, which would then be renewed at their expiration, “to encourage partners to work towards maintaining a good relationship — in effect, it opens communication akin to a marriage performance review.” If the couple decides not to re-up, the marriage is over, without the “shame and stigma” of divorce.

Me? I’m pretty easy-going. I’d just like to get rid of bad people who do bad things. What about you? Is there anyone or anything whose existence you’d like to destroy?

THE FIRST 100 DAYS: BEST AND WORST

There was a moment on D-Day, related in Cornelius Ryan’s great history The Longest Day, when American troops landing on Utah beach discovered they had disembarked their landing craft in the wrong place, at a point significantly removed from the planned point of attack. Surrounded by confused and anxious captains, Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the former president, calmly said “Very well–we’ll start the war right here.”

What has been most admirable about Barack Obama as he has landed on his Normandy is that very same sense of confidence. Facing a once-in-a-generation economic crisis, Obama has just worked the problem–that one, and others too. Remarkably, while doing so, he has not betrayed his inner anxieties. Each of our recent presidents, without exception, gave away something of what was happening inside. The elaborate handling of Ronald Reagan showed that there was concern about overexposure. George H.W. Bush’s wordy, tangent-laden speaking style revealed the existence of an inner editor who distrusted the man who was talking. Bill Clinton’s over the top eagerness to charm and impress displayed an outsized hunger for approval. And George W. Bush’s resolute self-discipline showed a man working to compensate for his manifest deficiencies with the only tools at his disposal. So far, there is no evidence of Obama displaying any of those anxieties. The way Obama has performed as president is reminiscent of nothing so much as the way Joe Montana played quarterback, with a very cool confidence rare among even other highly successful athletes, a confidence that quietly says `Come on, we can do this, let’s get going, let’s win the game.’

The worst part? Well, nothing has made me cringe. But there are still open questions. I won’t use the word `toughness’–Obama has shown kinds of toughness, particularly in terms of self-discipline–but there will be a moment, probably many moments, where he will have to lay down the law and enforce his will. There are talents involved in doing that, aptitudes for the tasks involved. The world is full of good cops and bad cops, lovers and fighters. In Obama, we have seen the uniter, the community organizer, the open hand, the smiling face, the bipartisan invitation, the willingness to admit error. We haven’t seen Obama the Bare-Knuckled Brawler yet, and only time will tell if that’s part of his game.

THANKS, HUGO–WHAT A BEAUTIFUL GESTURE

chavezbook351Writing on TrueSlant.com last week, I observed that the Number 2 book on amazon.com was Eduardo Galeano‘s Open Veins of Latin America, a book about America’s involvement in Latin America first published in 1997. To what did Galeano owe his sudden surge into best-sellerdom? Why, simply, to a genius act of product placement on the part of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, who had pressed a copy into Barack Obama‘s palms. This left with a simple question: How the heck can I get Chavez to give a copy of my book to Obama? Thanks to the mad skills of my friend Ken Smith, I can visualize the dream.

SAY HEY TO CITI FIELD

dscn0603dscn0607Thanks to the largesse of my friend David Jensen, I got a chance to see Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets. Compared to old, dingy, dank, smelly Shea Stadium, which every day of the last ten years seemed dscn06151less and less like a major league ball park, Citi Field is a tremendous improvement: it has wide, open concourses, spacious food courts, inviting souvenir stands, attractive amenities, clean bathrooms, and from all I could tell from a seat in the second row from the top, excellent sight lines. The iron work and brick design also is attractive, and if it doesn’t invite the breathless wow! with which I greeted Oriole Park at Camden Yards on my first and only dscn0612trip there a decade or so ago, it is still very nice indeed. I’m sorry to say that the much-ballyhooed Jackie Robinson Rotunda is underwhelming, and as gestures go, it falls squarely into the better late than never category. By the way, the Mets won, beating the Nationals 8-2, and although David Wright (pictured swinging, not effectively) didn’t hit so much, he made four very snazzy plays at third. Flash that leather, Mr. Wright!

“MRS. ROBINSON, ARE YOU TRYING TO SEDUCE ME?”

graduateLast week Ginny and I went to the Jacob Burns Center to see The Graduate, and also to hear Mark Harris discuss his book Pictures at a Revolution. The book focuses on the five films that were nominated for Best Picture in the watershed year of 1968–The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and preposterously, Doctor Doolittle: two ground-breaking pictures, one awful retrograde picture, and two films that grappled with the most insistent question of the day. First, it was interesting to see The Graduate on a big screen. It was a fairly dirty print, and seeing all the squiggles and smudges put me back in the Earle Theater on Belair Road. It wasn’t hard dscn06011to recognize many of Mike Nichols‘ innovations–the seeing-Ben-through-glass motiff, or long takes across various settings–which must have seen terrifically fresh at the time. It was interesting to see Ben come so alive with Elaine while eating burgers after the strip club debacle, but then to revert to haplessness in Berkeley, where she still found him so appealing (or at least more appealing than Carl.)
Mark, who I knew a little bit from when I worked at Entertaiment Weekly, was interviewed by Janet Maslin. Among the juicy bits he accumulated during the course of his research: that Simon & Garfunkel didn’t have the entire song `Mrs. Robinson’ ready for the movie, that the early fragment that appears in the film was all they had, and that two songs Paul Simon had written for the film, `Punky’s Dilemma’ and `Overs’ were rejected by Nichols, who then used pictures_l`The Sounds of Silence’ and `April, Come She Will’; that most of the dialog in the film comes straight from Charles Webb‘s novel; that the bedroom scene between Ben and Mrs. Robinson (the one where he marvels that “Old Elaine Robinson got started in the back of a Ford” originally ran 27 minutes long, and that one reason Mrs. Robinson turns the lights on and off so much was to enable Nichols to cut out large chunks of the scene; that Robert Redford was seriously considered for the part of Ben but was rejected because Nichols didn’t think he looked like a loser (when Nichols explained this, a surprised Redford wondered why. “Have you ever struck out with a woman?” Nichols asked. Replied Redford, “What do you mean?”); that Nichols and Buck Henry changed the ending so that Ben makes his appearance in the church after Elaine has been officially married, not just before, and that Webb had serious objections to that switch on moral grounds; and that Anne Bancroft, who is so great in the film, had trouble finding her character until she tapped into her own anger. So illuminating was the evening that I bought and read Mark’s book, which I recommend highly.

BARACK THE BARBARIAN?

In June we will welcome a new comic book, Barack the Barbarian: Quest for the Treasure of Stimuli. Barack the Barbarian? Did you see him at the White House Easter Egg Hunt yesterday? Here are two images that have been released.

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Is that supposed to be Hank Paulson behind Obama? Is that Michelle or, like, Beyonce by his foot? And why is that wolf woman on the right wasting her time on politics?

APRIL, TIME FOR BASEBALL AND TAXES

citi_field_1_-_entrance1Although every year April brings the start of baseball season and tax season, this year the two events seem more commingled than coincidental. In New York, two new taxpayer-subsidized stadiums are opening. One, the home of the New York Mets, is Citi Field, Citicorp having bought the naming rights back before the crash, when its stock prices were in the fifties and no one ever imagined that one day taxpaying fans of the Cubs and the Dodgers and other National League teams would send a portion of those dollars to Washington, which would then TARP it over to Citi, which would transfer it to the Mets, who would then use it to sign free agents like Frankie Rodriguez, who would then do his best to defeat those Cubs and Dodgers and other National League teams.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx, home of the celebrated New York Yankees, the new Yankee Stadium is opening, and the big news there is that for the first time in about a decade, seats are still available: fans are balking at the idea of paying $1000 a seat (admittedly, very good seats) to watch the Yankees, a splendid team, but one, let’s face it, that has not won a World Series since the turn of the millennium, and which last year did not even qualify for the post season playoffs. The most expensive seats in the house, the premium Legends Suite seats that are located on the field level behind the dugouts and home plate, go for $2,650 each. That means it would cost a family of four $10,600 for a night at the ballpark, and that’s before peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Of course, the ordinary family of four—my family of four, for example–doesn’t sit in those seats. My family of four watches the games on TV. Those seats are for the very rich. But even those seats are tax-supported, by people like me.

This happens in one of two ways. Many of those seats are bought by corporations, who then distribute the tickets as rewards to top executives for personal use, or who aysuse them to entertain clients and business associates. The corporation then deducts the cost of those tickets as a business expense, whether it had any bearing on business or not. It’s a splendid perk; no wonder that when the legendary Jack Welch left GE, his severance package included lifetime season tickets to both the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. No doubt the shareholders of GE, a company which lost its AAA rating the other week, are delighted to keep sending the fabulously wealthy Welch to the ballgame, long after he stopped earning his keep.

The other, less obvious way these seats are supported are through low tax rates. Apart from a few heirs and heiresses and film stars, the only people who could afford Legends Suite seats are the masters of Wall Street, the investment bankers and hedge fund operators who year after year pulled down eight figure incomes. One reason they can toss money around is relatively low tax rates. There was a time in the United States when people who earned such vast sums surrendered a big portion over to the tax man. In 1935, for example, the top rate was set at 79 percent; it applied to people who had incomes over $5 million (worth about $75 million today), which in practice, meant that it affected only one person in the entire country, John D. Rockefeller. From the forties through the sixties, the top rate hovered around 90 percent; it kicked in at an income of $400,000, which is worth about $3 million now. That doesn’t seem like much, but in those days pro athletes and movie stars were living lavishly on five-figure incomes.

Today’s top rate is 35 percent, and kicks in at a relatively modest $357,700, the amount a hard-working surgeon or attorney or president of the United States ($400,000) might earn, people who might be able to afford $2650 for a very special night out, but who would probably be sorely disappointed to have spent $2650 to have seen the 15-5 drubbing the Yankees suffered last night, but which mercifully occurred in Tampa. The relatively low tax rates applied to the incomes of, say, credit default swappers (the pirates of New York harbor who have been vilified but not yet shot by Navy SEALS) allow them buy baubles like Legends Suite seats with a wave of their platinum cards.

No doubt those days are coming to a close. The Obama administration is going to have to start raising money somewhere, and a good start will be the cuurently friendless rich. They will squeal and start backing Republican candidates who have no agenda beyond lowering income taxes that have not seen an increase in sixteen years, and complain that high marginal tax rates discourage people from working hard to earn more money. It’s just not true.

BULLY!

dscn05992Ginny and I took a ride out to Oyster Bay New York this morning to visit Sagamore Hill, the home of Theodore Roosevelt, his wife Edith and the six Roosevelt children. A beautiful estate, tr-huntingalthough hardly ostentatious by the standards of his day, let alone ours. I enjoyed seeing his house, although there were waaaaaay too many hunting trophys to suit my taste. Okay, dscn0600Teddy, you like to hunt. I get it. I got after the first 20 stuffed heads. Although I guess if I shot a water buffalo and an elephant and so on, I’d probably show off a bit, too. Still, if I had done all the other stuff that he did, I’d show of that stuff, too. Something from the Panama Canal, models of the Great White Fleet, some more junk from the Rough Rider days, something from The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. No doubt about it, he was one of our most astonishing presidents. And by all appearances, a pretty fun guy, too–as long as you weren’t some gigantic Africanhenryfonda_longestday_01 mammal with an attractive horn on your head. There was also a very nice museum in a home that was built by his son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was a general during World War II, and who died in combat after the Normandy invasion. (He was memorably played by Henry Fonda in The Longest Day. What was his great line? “We’ll start the war from right here.”) In many ways–his vigor, his exuberance, his appetite for political combat, his scholarship, his devotion to family–TR was the American Churchill. And here’s a question–what difference would it have made if he had been elected president in 1912, instead of Woodrow Wilson? Could he have averted the Great War? Above left, Ginny on the front porch of the house.

BACK TO LA SALLE

dscn05961I’ve never been much for looking back, but the deaths of my dad and of Jack Grady last summer have made me a bit more respectful of the need to acknowledge the people who’ve been important in my life. Last Friday (April 3), I went back to LaSalle (a College when I was there, now a University) to attend a reception for the graduates of the political science department. The most important reason I went was to see Dr. Michael Dillon, who was one of, if not my most favorite teacher in college. I had him for Political Philosophy, Constitutional Law, and a terrific seminar called Theories of Democracy and Civil Disobedience, which really fired up my young imagination. I had looked for Dr. Dillon’s name on the faculty roster at LaSalle from time to time, and was astonished by never being able to find it. And yet, to my surprise, when the invitation came, it showed that not only was he on the faculty, but he was chairman of the department. Well, as it turned out, he had left LaSalle and become an attorney, and spent 20 years or so as an environmental litigator. When his wife died, he began looking for something more slowly-paced, and on a lark, responded to an ad for department chair. And he got the job, which was a smart move on La Salle’s part. His ambition is to instill a sense of excitement to the department. I wish him lots of success.

dscn0597One very pleasant surprise was meeting Nora Barry, who is one of my fellow bloggers on the True/Slant site, where she is writing a lot about women and politics. Nora was a few years behind me, but she was friends with my friend and onetime housemate Francis Nathans, who is married to Sallyanne Harper, who was also a good friend and is now a big cheese at the GAO. Nora is friendly with Sally’s sister Kate, who is a state legislator in Pennsylvania (and who, if I remember correctly, dated Tim O’Toole, my roommate and London host.)