ELEVEN FOR 2011

As has become our custom, here is a wholly individual, utterly personal, completely idiosyncratic list of the top 11 whatevers of 2011.

11. THE MIDNIGHT RAMBLE
On a freezing night last winter, a group of us took a limo to Woodstock to see the great Levon Helm and his amazing band in concert in Levon’s home/recording studio. I loved every minute of it. Well, okay, after a while the wooden benches proved more enduring than my ass, but that’s all right; for much of the time, I was actually on my feet, doing an old white man’s version of dancing. The music was great, the vibe was relaxed and fun, and if I am called to my eternal rest tomorrow, I go knowing that I heard the peerless Levon, backed by twenty-odd other musicians, perform The Weight, and that it was sublime.

10. HURRICANE IRENE
It was no fun being clobbered by a storm (the 1999 Floyd experience was plenty, thanks), but fleeing through this monster bitch of a storm, and being sheltered by the Schmidts were memorable experiences. A long fall of recovery featuring Italian plumbers, an Irish mason, a Brazilian carpenter, and Central American laborers became the ongoing (and as yet unended) theme of the year’s last third.

9. WAR HORSE
The National Theater of Great Britain’s production of this play, adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, was simply the most amazing piece of theater I have ever seen. Far better than the film, which had its scenic charms, but not much else.

8. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
We watched all five seasons of the series this year, and admired every episode. Led by a superb cast fronted by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, the show did what great fiction does: held up a mirror to life. The show was about an entire community: the rich and the poor, the lucky and the lost, ordinary people facing the ordinary challenges of love and joy and sadness and loneliness. One of the best parts of the show was its unswerving faith in true conservative virtues—in the belief that hard work, loyalty, dedication, honesty and family may not answer all questions, but are the things that will see us through.

7. OCCUPY WALL STREET
Angry, inchoate, long overdue, the ragged remnant of the American left expressed itself. The terrible, terrible shame is that there is no leader who can speaks for that sweet spot where OWS and the heart of the Tea Party overlap—the anti-money element that wants to put an end to special privilege.

6. THE REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL REVUE
It was the year in which Sarah Palin mangled the story of Paul Revere, Michelle Bachmann showed real chootz-pah in misremembering how the Founders ended slavery, Herman Cain intoned a simple-minded 9-9-9 (don’t forget becky-becky-beckystan), and Rick Perry couldn’t remember three departments of government he aimed to close. Throw in Ron Paul’s extremism, Newt Gingrich’s astonishing bubble, and most of all, Donald Trump’s oozing cynicism, and you have a vintage year. Sadly, the robotically careful Romney seems poised to seize center stage.

5. THE MILESTONE YANKEES
Moving in tandem into the twilights of astonishing careers, two great Yankees achieved notable milestones. After struggling during the first half of the year, Derek Jeter marked his 3000th hit by hitting a home run, the high point of a singular day at the plate in which he went 5-for-5 and had the game-winning hit. Later in the year, the Great Rivera became MLB’s all-time leader in saves, a tribute to his longevity, excellence, and nerve. In an observation that shows just how the obvious can be overlooked, someone remarked how often many stats in baseball are amassed in both wins and losses alike, but all of Rivera’s saves mean wins.

4. AND THE ANNIVERSARY CAME
The Civil War sesquicentennial was very good to me this year: The Disunion series in the Times; the Cliopatria Award; the trip to Williamsburg; the surprise publication of And the War Came; the dream-like panel discussion with Ken Burns and David Blight; covering The Conspirator and interviewing Robert Redford; speaking at the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York; and the generous remarks of my friends.

3. ADELE
The British singer with the dominating voice and the luxurious hair might have made this list solely on the basis of the raucous, stomping, furious Rolling in the Deep, but then she revealed the soulful Someone Like You, an all-time great ballad to lost love. It was wonderful to be reminded of the pure pleasure of a powerful pop song.

2. KENTUCKY CARA

Cara’s success has been an enormous sense of pride and happiness for Ginny and me. She did an extraordinary job getting into a good situation, and, so far, making the most of it. We couldn’t be more delighted.
1. THIS MAGIC MOMENT On the last night of March, a rainy, chilly midweek spring evening, I’m sitting in Dad’s old Buick behind Tazza waiting to pick up Cara. As the very last of the light is about to yield to the night, Ginny pulls up in the Toyota and gives me a big smile. There had been a miscommunication: Cara had forgotten that I was coming and called Ginny, who was coming home from work late. No problem–I went a picked up the pizza I had ordered for dinner. And I left with an unaccountable feeling of happiness–a good day’s work accomplished, Cara collected, a warm pizza in our warm living room on a chilly evening, my wife’s smile.

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AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT: CHRISTMAS EVE 2011

The Christmas Eve party was at our house this year, and love and joy came to us, and to our wassail, too. Ginny outdid herself in the kitchen, making a Beef Wellington that disappeared in no time. Bad puns were entertaining, the Giants won, and apart from a malfunctioning flash which gave us far too few photographs with which to mark the event, we had a merry time.

GIVE ‘EM HELL, BARRY!

“You know, you never want to say, ‘It’s all them,'” President Obama told Barbara Walters last week, “But I do think that right now at least, in the Republican Party there are a couple of notions. Number one is that compromise is a dirty word. Number two, anything that Obama’s for, we’re against.”

Come on, Mr. President, what is this “you never want to say it’s all them” crap? You’re acting like you’re taking your political strategy from Dr. Phil‘s relationship advice. Maybe you should watch The Fighter instead. Study Mark Wahlberg. Listen to the disturbed recovering addict played by Christian Bale. Lose touch with your Venusian side, Mr. President. Get ready to rumble.

At some point in the next few months, Mr. President, you’ve got to stop the sulky griping about the Republicans in Congress. Really, the only way it could get worse if you shrugged at the end and sniffed “Just saying.” You need to work up something resembling a full-throated Harry S Truman battle cry (“”I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s Hell.”) Because here’s the thing: you’ve been a pretty good president. When you’ve been left alone to act unilaterally, you’ve shattered Al Qaeda into a shattered shell, brought Osama bin Laden American justice, and backed a controversial plan that ousted Gaddafi without losing a single American life.

It’s when you’ve had to act with Congress, and most particularly, the Republican-controlled House, that you can’t get anything done. Worse, they humiliate you, and when their recalcitrance causes trouble, like damaging the credit rating and the economy, you’re the one who suffers the blame. So it is all on them, Mr. President, and if you’ve got to go all Buford Pusser on them, then fine: make it clear to them with a two by four.

This shouldn’t be a tough one, Mr. President. It’s not like you’re being sent to Canada to clobber baby seals. This is the Republican Congress whose approval rating has dropped from 29% at the start of the year to 11% today. According to the Washington Post, this makes Congress less popular than polygamy, Paris Hilton, caning, and BP’s handling of the Gulf oil spill.


It’s your John Wayne moment, Mr. President. The traditional American hero is slow to anger; well, Mr. President, you’ve got that part down. Now you need to work on the part where you punch the bully in the nose. The American people need to see you that you believe in what you stand for. They want to see that you have the courage of your convictions. Remember what John Wayne said? “If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?” Simplify things for the voters, Mr. President. Make it clear that the only thing standing between the country and the path to recovery is John Boehner and Eric Cantor and a band of irresponsible, self-indulgent hard-liners.

But here’s the thing. Not only do you need to fight, Mr. President–that’s really the easy part–you need to take the fight to them. They’re going to want to make the election a referendum on your administration; you need to make it a referendum on theirs. It won’t do for you to age a tactical campaign and win the election by waiting for whoever your rival turns out to be to reveal his manifest limitations. That kind of campaign carries the risk of a Republican majority returning to the House, and that’s just not god enough. The country cannot continue to endure the stagnation of the last months. You need to come out fighting, Mr. President, and challenge the American people to not only re-elect you, but to give you a Congress that is willing to work on your agenda of reform and revitalization. Sure, it’s a risky strategy, Mr. President. Given how many voters are legitimately dubious about the big-government propensities of a Democratic Congress, you might be better leaving every man for himself. But we can no longer afford the status quo. We have long ago left the waters of divided government. We’re even beyond divided non-government. We’re sitting in divided entropy, headed for divided collapse.

Once and for all, Mr. President, it is all them. Get up and say it. And put some muscle behind it.

PRAIRIE HOME COMPANIONS ON THE TOWN

Cathy, Tim, Greg, Susan, Jo, Dave, Ginny and I hit Town Hall on Saturday evening to attend a taping of the radio show Prairie Home Companion. We enjoyed Garrison Keillor‘s low key, folksy, whimsical fun, and his guests Gillian Welch, Joel Grey and especially Itzhak Perlman (with a very fine Klezmer orchestra!) were a treat. I do have to say that if and when I return to Town Hall, I’m definitely sitting in the orchestra, where we sat for Thursday’s Wainwright concert; sitting in the balcony for Keillor wa terribly tight and uncomfortable. After the show, however, we creaked ourselves to our full heights and walked around the block for an excellent dinner at a French restaurant on 44th Street called Saju Bistro. My friends ate things like rabbit, octopus and beets, and the food and the company were top notch.

PROGRESS AGAINST GERRYMANDERING

In Slate, Will Oremus reports the very good news that non-partisan citizen efforts in California and Arizona have attracted lawsuits from aggrieved professional politicians. Excellent news! The cure seems to be working!

“Often,” explains Oremus, “congressional gerrymanders are the result of bipartisan compromise—an agreement that allows the majority party to solidify its hold on the state while throwing bones to the minority party’s incumbents. . . Such back-scratching was absent from the citizens redistricting commission’s process. It dispensed with the old maps entirely, drawing new districts that look less like abstract doodles and more like, well, districts. One result is that Democrats appear poised to pick up a few seats in California in 2012, assuming the new maps stand. Another is that some unlucky incumbents, including Democrats, have been drawn out of their own districts—a grim fate normally reserved only for those who have egregiously offended higher-ups within their own party as well as the opposition. The prominent Southern California Democrats Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, for instance, have been thrust into the same district, setting up a costly Berman/Sherman primary showdown. No wonder the commission has taken heat from all sides. Arizona’s commission actually had an explicit mandate to promote competition between parties, almost assuring that its plans would meet resistance. It upset the current 5-3 Republican House majority with a map that leaves two seats safe for the GOP, two for the Democrats, and three up in the air.”

The voters of this country will be cheated out of their Constitutional birthright as long as the nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach to redistricting persists. Self-preservation by incumbents cannot be the goal; power maximization by professional cannot be the goal. Creating a system that maximizes the number of competitive seat is the only way to end of with a government that is responsive not to politicians, and not to parties, but to voters. It should be the goal of all lovers of democracy in this coming decade to make sure that this current redistricting that is left to insiders and partisans.

(Slate has a great slide show showing how progress is being made in California and Arizona, including the picture of a redrawn western AZ district above. Check them all out here.)