BROKEN IN HOBOKEN

(First published in The Washington Monthly)

Killing the Poormaster, the new book by Holly Metz, brings vividly to life 1930s Hoboken, New Jersey, making it easy to envision classic brownstones with street vendors, milk trucks, and boys in knickers in the same neighborhoods now filled with stockbrokers and hipsters. The book’s great achievement, however, is to take us inside the walls of those houses, to place us among suffering people, mostly ignored in their time and all but invisible to us today, and to disturb us about their condition.

The Hoboken of the 1930s is as lost to us as the nineteenth-century whaling villages of Nantucket. (This is illustrated by the book’s title, which demonstrates that we are visiting a time before the invention of euphemisms.) Today, people with very low incomes are in general entitled to receive a variety of government benefits, from food stamps to housing vouchers to Medicaid. But in the early twentieth century, in Hoboken, the indigent received funds, intermittently and begrudgingly, from the city’s poormaster, a title that implicitly suggests a master-slave or master-servant relationship. In 1938, as Roosevelt’s premature budget cutting refueled the Depression, Hoboken’s poormaster was seventy-four-year-old Harry Barck, who managed his office’s $3,000-a-month budget with a tight fist and a surly temperament. A big, bluff, irascible organization man, Barck—with his dismayingly apt Dickensian name—had held that office for forty-two years, through five political bosses and eight mayors. Barck was unchallenged in his administration of the funds, as his decisions about who got welfare and how much they received knew no appeal. For decades, the work performed by poormasters in New Jersey was administered at the state level. But with the Depression straining the state budget, power had devolved back to the cities, and Barck grabbed the opportunity. Armed with sharp disdain for “chiselers” and with statements like “I’m in favor of giving the old American pioneer spirit a chance to assert itself,” he zealously guarded the city’s coffers. At a time when Union City, a comparably sized town in the very same county (58,659 residents to Hoboken’s 59,261), was spending $6.34 per capita on relief, Hoboken was spending 90 cents.

To read the rest of the review, click here.)

EVEN MORE REJECTS!

(first published in The American Prospect)

The venerable publishing house Scribner recently published a new edition of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel A Farewell to Arms, complete with all the many endings the author rejected. “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied”, he told The Paris Review. Given a little more time, here’s 39 more that Papa might have tossed into the wastebasket.

I.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. That’s our book for tonight. You’ve been a great audience. Drive home safely.

II.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. The waiter brought me a plate of onion rings, and then everything went black.

III.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Blah-de-blah, blah-de-blah, blah-de-blah blah blah.

IV.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. I got there just in time to see the big right-hander hit a three-run homer. “The Giants win the pennant!’’ I said. “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!’’

V.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. Osgood was there. “I have to level with you,’’ I told him. “I’m a man.’’ He shrugged. Nobody’s perfect, he replied.

VI.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. As if! LMFAO

VII.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. Lennie was waiting in the lobby. He asked me to tell him about the rabbits again. I started to, but then I shot him.

VIII.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.

IX.
After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain, where I saw Ilsa. “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it”, I told her. But all she wanted to know was how this would affect us. Us? This chick is delusional. There hadn’t been an us in years. “Hey”, I told her, “We’ll always have Paris.” And she bought it!

(See the rest here.)

CHRIS MATTHEWS CLOBBERS GOP CHAIRMAN

On Morning Joe today, Chris Matthews, a bulldozer on most days, completely demolishes GOP Party chairman Reince Priebus. “That cheap shot about ‘I don’t have a problem with my birth certificate’ was awful,” Matthews said of GOP hopeful Mitt Romney’s Friday embrace of the birther notion that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. “It is an embarrassment to your party to play that card. This stuff about getting rid of the work requirement for welfare is dishonest, everyone has pointed out that it’s dishonest,” he continued. “And you are playing that little ethnic card there. You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is, your side is playing that card. You start talking about work requirements, you know what game you’re playing, everybody knows what game you’re playing. It’s a race card. And this thing about birthers — yeah, if your name’s Romney, you were well born, you went to prep school, you can brag about it. And this [Barack Obama] guy, he’s got an African name, he’s got to live with it. … This is absurdity! Making fun of this guy’s birth certificate issue when it was never a real issue, except on the right wing.”

“You got your monologue in, so congratulations,” Priebus quipped to Matthews. “You’re loaded up, you got it out. So, good for you. The fact of the matter is, is he’s from Michigan, he was born in Michigan, he was making the point that I was born in Michigan. And you know what? We’ve gotten to a place in politics that any moment of levity totally frowned upon by guys like you just so that you can push your brand.”

“It just seems funny that the first joke that he’s ever told in his life is about Obama’s birth certificate,” Matthews pointed out.

“I think Obama’s policies have created a sense that, for whatever reason, he’s looking for guidance, as far as health care is concerned, as far as our spending is concerned, as far as these stimulus packages are concerned — he’s looking to Europe for guidance,” Priebus explained.

“What?” Matthews exclaimed. “Where do you get this from? This is insane! … What’s this got to do with Europe and the foreignization of the guy. You’re doing it again now! You think he’s influenced by foreign influences? You’re playing that card again.”

“I’m not going to get into a shouting match with Chris,” the RNC chairman said, dismissing the MSNBC host with a wave of his hand.

“Because you’re losing, that’s why,” Matthews shot back.

“No, I’m not losing,” Priebus insisted. “I’m not going to sit here and take shots.”

“Cheap shots about how Obama being a foreigner is the thing your party’s been pushing,” Matthews noted. “[Romney surrogate John] Sununu pushes it. Everybody pushes it in your party.”

“It’s garbage,” Priebus replied. “Garbage.”

“It’s your garbage,” Matthews concluded.

THE KOCH BROTHERS’ LONG TERM PLAN?

Roger Stone, the notorious Republican operative and author of some most of the underhanded political tactics of the last four decades, is not a source normally to be trusted. However, when he says he smells a rat, only a fool doesn’t think it’s time to lock up the camenbert. Currently on his blog, Stone has the following entry:

“I’ve waited a few days to lay out my analysis of the selection of Paul Ryan for the VP slot on the Romney ticket. Unlike politicos like Dick Morris who bad-mouths the selection privately and shills for it publicly, I’ll tell you what I really think. My sources tell me David Koch played a key role in Ryan’s selection and that Koch’s wife Julia had been quietly lobbying for Ryan. The selection was cemented at the July 22nd fundraiser Koch held for Romney at the former’s sumptuous Hamptons estate. Koch pledged $100 million more to C-4 and Super PAC efforts for Romney for Ryan’s selection.”

Stone seems to think that the odious Kochs are doing this to help Romney win in 2012; with Ryan shoring up the right flank, and the Kochs supplying the juice, Romney can make his much-needed dash for the middle, and win the election. I’m not so sure. Romney is probably conservative enough for the Kochs, but it’s the long game that I suspect really appeals to them. If Romney loses, young Ryan is the heir apparent, and with nothing else to do, he seems perfectly set up to champion the Koch agenda in 2016. Intriguing stuff.

If nothing else, we need to throw out a big thank you to the Supreme Court for allowing us the amusement of this speculation. Until the Citizens United decision, the idea that a candidate could be a wholly owned subsidiary of a mysterious entity seemed wildly far-fetched Manchurian Candidate-type stuff. Now, as we see from Sheldon Adelson and the Koch boys, you can get these guys off the rack.

A CHOICE FOR THE UNCHOSEN

Choice is a word frequently heard among top Republicans these days (but no, not in the abortion context.) Mitt Romney has been saying “We offer America a choice.” Paul Ryan has said “We owe the country a choice of two futures, so that the American people can decide what kind of America they want; what kind of people they want us to be.”

Fair enough. And should America choose Romney-Ryan, it’s a fairly good bet that America will get the policies it has chosen. Some chunk of Democratic legislators always seemed to break off to give George W Bush enough votes to enact the tax cuts and the defense and security policies he wanted, at least until 2006. And even in 2008, it was Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats who saved the TARP plan, with all the pain it accepted for the next administration.

My question is, what will the Republicans do if the electorate chooses Obama? Will they continue to be obstructionist and uncompromising? Will they continue to use their control of one-half of one-third of the government to thwart the preferences of a majority of Americans?

I don’t know what the Obama brain trust plans for the crucial post-Labor Day phase of the campaign, but I hope with all my heart that the president stops the small ball strategy he has so successfully been playing against Romney. I hope he does more than defend the Medicare status quo, and in doing so, Mediscare his way to victory. He needs to do more. He needs to run on an actual platform that spells out what he plans to do in the next four years. He needs to run on an economic plan, a jobs-creation plan, an economic growth plan. Obama can win the election without winning any kind of mandate, and attain a second term that promises a lot of milling about it. Frankly, that doesn’t seem to be worth it. He needs the kind of win that throws Eric Cantor onto the defensive.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. PRESIDENT

President Obama turns 51 today, and is celebrating with a round of golf. When he hits the links today, he can do so with confidence that he is very likely to be holding the same job when he turns 55. In The Daily Beast today, Michael Tomasky writes something that I have long suspected (and have been keeping to myself): the polls say that voters are split damn close to even between Obama and Romney, but the mathematics of the Electoral College tilts decidedly in the president’s favor.

“There’s a secret lurking behind everything you’re reading about the upcoming election,” writes Tomasky, “a secret that all political insiders know—or should—but few are talking about, most likely because it takes the drama out of the whole business. The secret is the electoral college, and the fact is that the more you look at it, the more you come to conclude that Mitt Romney has to draw an inside straight like you’ve never ever seen in a movie to win this thing. This is especially true now that it seems as if Pennsylvania isn’t really up for grabs. Romney’s paths to 270 are few.” The reality is that there are only a dozen or so key swing states, and today Romney leads only in one of them, North Carolina, by three points.

In his blog in The New York Times, Nate Silver pegs Obama’s chances at reelection at 71.1%. Additionally, Silver has calculated the probability of Obaba receiving any given number of electoral votes. The probability that President Obama receives a given number of Electoral College votes, from none to all. The probability of most numbers falls between O and 2 percent. The probability of receiving 340 votes is around 7 percent. The probability of him receiving 330 votes is around 13 percent.

Don’t open the bubbly yet. A lot can happen. But as the unloved Mitt Romney stumbles home from Europe with his tin ear and his hidden tax returns and his CEO demeanor, it is hard to see how he begins moving big numbers of votes. Maybe this is one of those years, like 1980, where the election stays close all fall and then swings in the last weekend, but Obama is no Jimmy Carter. Right now, it says here that Romney has a better chance of wining the popular vote than the electoral college vote.

THE IRREPLACABLE GORE VIDAL

Gore Vidal, the eminent man of letters, died last week at 86. In the splendid obituary that appeared in The New York Times, Charles McGrath wrote “ Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, put-down or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy. Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office — in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate — and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

The thing that was valuable about Vidal is that he always saw through the natural inclination of people to make nice. He never succumbed to the reflexive patriotism, the willingness to go along, the desire to back a winner, and he was always ready to recognize the smallness, the fear, and the selfishness that seldom lurks very far from the surface in most people. Maybe he was too ready to recognize those traits. “He was not a sentimentalist or a romantic,” wrote McGrath, who then quoted Vidal as saying “Love is not my bag.” On another occasion, Vidal said “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

If so, then how terribly sad for him. Still, it was always helpful to turn to him for a reality check. He was a great puncturer of illusions; he knew that inside most Gucci loafers, there were feet of clay. He knew that American Exceptionalism has always sat cheek by jowl with Pathetically Disappointing American Ordinariness.

I had the great luck on day in April 2006 to be hanging out in the late, lamented Borders bookstore in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, when Vidal suddenly appeared. He was in town to receive the Borders PEN Award, and I guess as part of the honor, he had to make a store appearance. It was a shock to see him being wheeled in, and a tremedous treat–a kind of a bonus for hanging out in bookstores–to see him in person. Here are some of his remarks:

“I’m getting an award tonight. It’s one of those ‘Still Breathing’ awards. They look around and say ‘Oh look—he’s still breathing.’’”

“This appearance has been advertised as a reading, but it’s not. I find writing books hard enough. I’ll leave the reading to others.”

“I spoke to [Democratic presidential candidate and member of the House] Dennis Kucinich. I liked him. He’d been talking of impeaching the president. I said ‘Don’t do that. Impeach the vice president. We’ve never had one like him before—a rogue vice president.”

“In the old days, when you had a group like this running things, we would have an election and get rid of them. Now we have an election, and Diebold withholds the results. But we need to get this group out. O-U-T, as I say to my dog.”

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist—I’m a conspiracy analyst. But even if I was inclined to suspect that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks, I’d discount the idea. They’re just not capable. They couldn’t pull it off.”

“From George Washington to George W. Bush—it leads me to believe that Darwin had it wrong.”

“The Bill of Rights has been eviscerated by the Patriot Act. Habeus corpus is the only good thing the British left us, and we gave it up, without a voice raised in protest.”

In a great public service, The Daily Beast collected Vidal’s best lines:

On Sex:

“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

“Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels and sex certainly gives no meaning to anything in life but itself.”

“There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

On Envy:

“Envy is the central fact of American life.”

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

On Politics:

“Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so.”

“Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice like, Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.”

“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.”

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”

“Every four years the naive half who vote are encouraged to believe that if we can elect a really nice man or woman President everything will be all right. But it won’t be.”

“As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”

General:

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country— and we haven’t seen them since.”

“Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an I.Q. of 60″

“A good deed never goes unpunished.”

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

“The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”

“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”