DON’T BOGART THAT JOINT

This photo was taken on August 5, 1977, in the San Francisco offices of Rolling Stone on the last closing night (issue No. 247) before the magazine relocated to New York. From left to right: Virginia Team, Susan Vermazen, Susan Hemphill, Wendy Stahl, unidentified, Nancy Butkus, Mary Shanahan. I don’t know any of these people (apparently the rank and file of the art and production departments); on the other hand, I feel like I know them all.

NO MYSTERY

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, the paradigm of unintentional hilarity, writes a furrowed brow analysis of Mitt Romney‘s inadequacies. “Here’s one tough, cool-eyed report on what is happening in the presidential race,” Noonan writes. “It’s from veteran Republican pollster, now corporate strategist, Steve Lombardo of Edelman public relations in Washington. Mr. Lombardo worked in the 2008 Romney campaign. He’s not affiliated with any candidate. This is what he wrote Thursday morning, and what he sees is pretty much what I see. “The pendulum has swung toward Obama.” Mitt Romney has “a damaged political persona.” He is running behind in key states like Ohio and Virginia and, to a lesser extent, Florida. The president is reversing the decline that began with his “You didn’t build that” comment. For three weeks he’s been on a roll. The wind’s at his back.”

Well–yeah! That’s what’s happening, and it doesn’t take the Oracle of Delphi, or even the Oracle of Edelman, to see it. Romney’s flaws were visible months ago. It’s true, his recent howlers have been unforced errors of such singular significance that we haven’t seen since President Ford insisted that Soviet-controlled Poland was free, or President Carter revealed that he discussed nuclear decisions with his daughter Amy, and no one could have predicted them. But Noonan, in her earnest high school student way, quotes Lombardo’s exegesis point by point, noting that Romney came out of the primaries a damaged candidate, and that the Democrats defined Romney before he had a chance to define himself, and so on, as though one could pinpoint a batter’s untimely pop-up or a fielder’s costly error as the specific reasons why a team didn’t win the title. But doing so is like looking at a bunch of dead trees and coming to the tough, cool-eyed conclusion that we have a dead forest on our hands. The flaws and mistakes haven’t prevented Romney from doing better; the flaws and mistakes are Romney.

Were Noonan as clear-eyed about these things that she pretends to be, she would have realized nine months ago, when she looked at the array of Republicans who were offering themselves to the nation, that there was no president getting out of that clown car. Mitt Romney was a good enough candidate to outlast nitwits like Cain and Bachmann, and the passion play that is Newt Gingrich. He was very lucky that Rick Perry shot himself in the foot, very lucky that Rick Santorum couldn’t scrape Gingrich off the bottom of his shoe fast enough, and tremendously lucky that Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie all declined to run. But Romney’s stiffness, his tin ear, his corporate princeliness, and above all, his astonishingly naked emptiness have been obvious for literally years.

Fortunately for Romney, Noonan’s belief that his campaign is “a rolling calamity” doesn’t mean that the election is over. Taking a good long peer into the abyss, Noonan has discerned a path to the presidency: Romney just needs to get the great James Baker or a damn good facsimile to come in and the last minute and rescue this campaign. Hah! Someone should make it clear to Peggy that there will be no Man or Horseback performing last minute heroics in this campaign–and more to the point, someone should ask her if she would really want that to happen? After all she’s seen, does she really think Mitt Romney has what it takes to be president? Does she really think Romney measures up to the sainted Ronald Reagan or her beloved George H.W. Bush?

Here’s another question that she should take a tough, cool-eyed look at before answering: can this Republican party as it is presently constituted–in thrall to the radical right and to the radical rich, with its difficulties including minorities and immigrants–ever expect to win the presidency?

SOMETIMES IT DOESN’T PAY TO EAT

In the wake of Mitt Romney‘s problems this week with remarks that he made at a fundraising dinner in May, Bloomberg ran an article about another swell dinner that doomed a Republican presidential candidate in 1884. According to an article by Richard John of the Columbia Journalism School, in October of that year, the GOP standard-bearer former Speaker of the House James G. Blaine of Maine, running neck and neck with Grover Cleveland, came to New York for a series of speeches. On the 29th, he attended a rally hosted by several hundred Protestant clergymen at which a Presbyterian minister denounced the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” Unsurprisingly, the slur outraged Irish Catholic voters, who soon turned out in droves for Cleveland. But the real blow came that evening when Blaine, known in the press as The Plumed Knight, attended a sumptuous fundraising dinner at Delmonico’s, a financial district restaurant favored by high rollers. Among the guests, as John points out, were several of the richest, best-known and most politically connected businessmen in the country, including the Navy contractor John Roach and the financier Jay Gould. This enabled illustrator Walt McDougall of New York World to have a field day. His cartoon — titled “Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings” — portrayed Blaine as a supplicant answering to plutocrats who dined on “monopoly soup,” “patronage” and “lobby pudding” while a humble laborer and his family looked on, begging for crumbs. A few days later, when Cleveland carried New York by 1200 votes, the cartoon was credited with tipping the election.

IT’S JUST AN HONOR TO BE NOMINATED. . .

. . .but, really, I want to win. Turns out the profile of Deadspin founder Will Leitch that I wrote for Illinois magazine has caused the magazine to be nominated for an Eddie. Yeah! Until this happened, I’m not positive that I knew what an Eddie was, but as it turns out, it’s an award for journalism presented by Folio, the eminent magazine association, which I’ve definitely heard of. In any event, Illinois has been named a Finalist in the category “Association/Non-Profit >> Consumer, Frequency less than 6 times a year >> Single Article.” The other finalists are Lupus Now and Nature Conservancy. Congratulations to Hugh Cook, the editor of the magazine, and thanks to him for asking me to write the piece. The awards will be presented on Halloween. Come on now, I want to hear everybody say it: Beat Lupus!

THE BLOODIEST DAY, THE TWISTIEST YEAR

On this, the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam, which, thank God, has not yet been replaced as the bloodiest day in American history, please allow me to recommend a new history of the battle, Richard Slotkin‘s The Long Road to Antietam. As the title suggests, the book is about much more than the battle, but about how the war changed in 1862, after both sides woke up to the fact that this would not be a short rumble but a prolonged and challenging struggle. In the south, this meant evolving a victory strategy of invasion; in the north, more dramatically, it involved a prolonged struggle between Lincoln and his generals, principally George McClellan, as well as the lengthy decision to win the war by emancipating the slaves. Slotkin does a wonderful job of showing how emancipation grew not from a moral conviction, but from a growing understanding of Lincoln’s presidential power as commander-in-chief. Where Slotkin really shines, however, is in his portrayal of McClellan, a man as opposed to abolition as he is to secession, and who conducted a mild war designed to promote a stalemate that would see his elevation as a Julius Caesar-type dictator who would save the nation. It’s hard enough, in writing history, to capture what really happened, but it’s sheer brilliant to be able to bring out what people were really thinking while it happened. We forget what a young country America was in 1862; we forget that the Constitution was untested and that everything was up for grabs. Many previous civil wars had ended up with the country entrusted to a military dictator–Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon. That was always the shadow play behind his relationship with Lincoln, and Slotkin does an amazing job of showing all these threads came together and ultimately reached their bloody resolution in western Maryland 150 years ago today.

HOW ROMNEY CAN WIN

As someone who spent a good part of the eighties arguing how such manifestly incomplete candidates like Carter, Mondale and Dukakis could–yes, truly, absolutely could–fill the inside straights that would take them to the White House, I sympathize with the excruciating efforts of those Republican loyalists who are trying to convince people, most importantly themselves, that Mitt Romney can still win this race. Run as a true conservative, says Joe Scarborough. Get on message, says The Wall Street Journal. Fellas, have a seat. Save that energy for another day.

And yet, of course, Romney could still win this race, just as I, a Catholic male over the age of seven, could be elected Pope. I’m technically eligible, but I’m not going to get myself measured for a miter, just as Romney shouldn’t avoid a good deal on a Caribbean vacation next January just because he feels obliged to keep the 20th free for the Inauguration. Romney’s inadequacies have always been visible, but like a Polaroid photograph, they grow clearer and clearer and clearer by the moment. He has gone through the Republican primary season and the debates without once ever showing that large and in charge posture we yearn to see in our presidents, he has never lost that falsely jovial opacity so many corporate bosses wear during Christmas parties when they have to interact with their workers, and he has shown himself to have a miserably tin ear.

Sunday’s appearance on Meet the Press was a great case in point, when he said he would keep parts of Obamacare. That, after spending all year saying with unequivocal force that on the first day of his presidency, he would repeal Obamacare. If you are a Tea Party activist in Florida, your head must be exploding. And if you are any Republican serious about governing, you must be coming to the conclusion that this man this limited would soon turn into a disastrous president, a brand killer, and that everybody would be better off with Obama back in the White House and the Republicans in Congress continuing to play defense.

There is one way Romney can still win. As one sage said over the weekend, he needs to find an issue he can own, an issue where his position is the one that causes people to say “I agree with Governor Romney on this one.” And that issue could be tax reform. Romney needs to release–no, no, I’m not joking–several years of his tax returns, and then stand up and pledge that when he becomes president, he will fight to close every loophole, gimmick and shelter that he and his fellow billionaires use to reduce their tax bills. That position would help him win the attention of the middle class, middle of the road voter, and lend some coherence to his tax rate and budget proposals. And frankly, he could claim a Nixon Goes to China kind of credibility on the issue that Obama never could, even if they had precisely the same proposals.

Yeah, don’t worry. It’l never happen.

JOHN STACKS, 1942-2012

I was terribly sad to learn that my friend John Stacks died last week, finally succumbing to the cancer that he had been fighting for the last four years. I got to know John Stacks when I was running the Notebook section at Time in 1997 and 1998, and he was the Executive Editor to whom I reported. Walter Issacson was running the magazine back then and it was very much his magazine, but John and Chris Porterfield were like cardinals in the Vatican, keepers of faith and tradition, and I admired and valued the steadiness and calm and attention that they brought to helping this big, sprawling weekly magazine succeed. I remember one of the first times Ken Smith and I met with him to talk about our line-up, he said “Oh, you’re a communicator,” and I took a great deal of confidence from that. He had a sense of fun and sociability, but he was fundamentally a serious man, serious about his responsibilities as a journalist and as a leader. I felt I could always turn to him with my problems and doubts and anxieties, of which I had plenty, and he graciously shepherded me through them. He taught me to trust my own judgement, to be alert for problems but not to force them, to be patient. He taught me not to let my own fears or anxieties or vanity get in the way of doing what had to be done, because what had to be done would always be done, and if you were letting your own ego prevent you from doing what had to be done, somebody else would do it, and you would be the loser. John conducted himself at work with a sense of service. He helped other people succeed at their jobs, but in a way that taught them that in the end, it was doing the job well that mattered. The byline on the article mattered a great deal, but the success of the magazine as a whole mattered more.

So long, John. I’ve tried to pass your lessons along. Thanks again.

GREAT CONVENTION!








Was this best political convention of my lifetime? Almost certainly; not only was the roster of spectacular speakers unbelievably rich, bu whoever assembled the order respected the themes of the speech with a subtle and almost literary elegance.

Invoking Ted Kennedy near the beginning of the proceedings Tuesday was a brilliant stroke. Summoning the ancients is always a powerful move, but in this case, Kennedy’s appearance resonated with particular strength. The fact that his loss was recent delivered poignancy; his oratory from 1980 was inspirational; and his role in Obama’s ascendency in 2008 was palpable. But most important, the story of Teddy’s life is the answer to the pressing question of this election: do we stay the course or change? Teddy’s life was all about staying the course, and like Moses, he never reached the Holy Land, which would have been the enactment of national health care insurance, during his lifetime. But it happened, in part because Kennedy anointed Barack Obama to carry on; by implication, we have not attained economic recovery yet, but if we stick with Obama, we will. This theme was reprised by Julian Castro, conjuring the struggles of his grandmother and mother that resulted in his present stature, and Michelle Obama, with her stories of her family and marriage. All of these speeches were cashed in on Wednesday, when Bill Clinton not only defended the administration, but exposed the poverty of the Republicans, in a brilliant speech that at once skewered the Republicans while investing the entire campaign with a previously elusive optimism: not only are we going to get out of this predicament, not only do we have a plan, but we are going to be better equipped for the economy of tomorrow, and we will be a more inclusive, more prosperous, more equal nation, a more perfect union, than ever before.

Along the way there were revelations. Tammy Duckworth delivered a no-nonsense speech, and the image of her artificial legs beneath her skirt tells me that no one on the room is tougher. Deval Patrick delivered a stemwinder, Jennifer Granholm tore down the house, John Kerry joyfully and hilariously ripped the opposition, Elizabeth Warren showed her clear-eyed grit, and the gallant Gabby Giffords showed that the convention planners were ruthless in their refusal to leave any emotional stone unturned. It’s true that the last night of the convention didn’t live up to the previous two. Joe Biden‘s talk was rich with emotion, but it seemed that he went on too long, and by the time the president spoke, everyone was suffering speech fatigue. By the time he talked, we were stuffed. Oh, no thanks, I could not possibly have not another plate of auto rescue! But the president is never bad, and while he wasn’t brilliant last night, he wasn’t bad. He was strong, he was hopeful, and he was humble; his use of Lincoln’s quote was highly effective. The Republicans should take little solace in Obama’s failure to deliver a coup de grace. Obama will get a small bounce from the convention, but my guess is that he will get separation in the swing states, and Romney with dimming hope.

THE MOST IMPORTANT ARTICLE OF THE CENTURY. . .

. . .so far, anyway, has appeared in The American Conservative. It is called “Revolt of the Rich,”and it is by by Mike Lofgren, who spent 16 years as a Republican staffer on House and Senate Budget Committees. In the article, he makes a case that very few other Republicans are willing to advocate: not only is wealth not the be-all and end-all of existence, but it is actually a pernicious and corrupting force. In the article, Lofgren calls the super rich “the new secessionists,” by which he does “not mean secession by physical withdrawal from the territory of the state. . . withdrawal into enclaves, an internal immigration, whereby the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well being except as a place to extract loot. Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it.” And, as Lofgren argues, this separatism causes the super rich to be antagonistic, if not downright hostile, to any government programs that try to sustain or support those who live in the country of the less well off.

But they don’t stop with hostility; “The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves.”

“After the 2008 collapse,” write Lofgren, “the rich, rather than having the modesty to temper their demands, this time have made the calculated bet that they are politically invulnerable—Wall Street moguls angrily and successfully rejected executive-compensation limits even for banks that had been bailed out by taxpayer funds.” With the Supreme Court removing “the last constraints on the legalized corruption of politicians” and with the American standard of living falling at the fastest rate in decades, conservatives face disturbing questions. “Almost all conservatives who care to vote congregate in the Republican Party. But Republican ideology celebrates outsourcing, globalization, and takeovers as the glorious fruits of capitalism’s “creative destruction.” As a former Republican congressional staff member, I saw for myself how GOP proponents of globalized vulture capitalism, such as Grover Norquist, Dick Armey, Phil Gramm, and Lawrence Kudlow, extolled the offshoring and financialization process as an unalloyed benefit. They were quick to denounce as socialism any attempt to mitigate its impact on society. Yet their ideology is nothing more than an upside-down utopianism, an absolutist twin of Marxism. If millions of people’s interests get damaged in the process of implementing their ideology, it is a necessary outcome of scientific laws of economics that must never be tampered with, just as Lenin believed that his version of materialist laws were final and inexorable.

“If a morally acceptable American conservatism is ever to extricate itself from a pseudo-scientific inverted Marxist economic theory, it must grasp that order, tradition, and stability are not coterminous with an uncritical worship of the Almighty Dollar, nor with obeisance to the demands of the wealthy. Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?”

Many people on the left have been offering this kind of critique, but I’m not aware of other conservatives who have been willing to advance the heretical idea that the drunken binge of marketism that has governed our politics for more than three decades needs to ratcheted back. Three cheers for Lofgren for stating so emphatically that the right’s addiction to money is destroying the country.

Lofgren’s article, no doubt, is from his new book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, which I am going to buy right now. I will be curious to see how much he makes of this Old?New Secessionists comparison. I think there is quite a bit there. Many of the Old Secessionists were super rich as well, and many put their wealth and their lifestyle above the good of the country.