THE TOP TEN OF 2012

1love-for-levon-3-600x-1349361870This year that is fast disappearing will not be remembered in these quarters with very much warmth. It was a fairly hideous, sickening year, the year that I felt I got old. But like all good things, the bad ones come to an end as well, and thanks to some much appreciated end of the year action by Richard Plepler, Steve Koepp, David McCormick and others, we begin 2013 on an upswing, and with hopes for better times to come. In the meanwhile, here are some jewels, personally chosen and wholly idiosyncratic, recovered from 2012:
1.) Love for Levon. Without a doubt, everything about the tribute concert to Levon Helm–reporting the story, meeting the people involved, attending2searching-for-sugar-man-poster_large the event, the reception to the article, what may happen yet–turned this into the best thing that I was involved with this year.
2.) Searching for Sugarman. This modest documentary about a real-life Cinderella made my heart leap with joy. A very 3carly-rae-jepsen-jimmy-falloninspirational story.
3.) Call Me Maybe. Carly Rae Jepson‘s unassuming, sweet, girlish, flirty hit was attractive enough, but the way it went viral and enveloped everyone from the US Olympic Swim Team to Colin Powell was delightful. The song never failed to bring a smile to my lips, especially in Jepson’s collaboration with Jimmy Fallon4choir_2238852b and the Roots.
4.) The dauntless, rain-drenched performance of the young people of Royal College of Music Chamber Choir during the flotilla of the Queen’s Jubilee was simply stirring, especially when they sang “Land of Hope and Glory.”
5bill_clinton_dnc_cc_120905_wg5.) The presidential campaign as a whole this year was a fairly tedious affair, but the rousing Democratic convention, driven by one splendid speech after another culminating in Bill Clinton‘s masterful dissection/deconstruction/destruction of the GOP position was fairly brilliant, just as the Republicans’ ceaseless rhetorical self-destruction–“Oops”, “Nine, nine, nine”, “I like to fire people”, “legitimate rape”, “the 47 percent”–was the best long-running comedy series on TV.
6.) The Giants Win the Super Bowl. Just as in 2009, 6manningham_catchthe inconsistent Giants managed to win four–or in this case, six–games that they could win but were not likely to, and managed, one play at a time, to walk off with the hardware.
7he-hour7.) The Hour. A splendid, sophisticated, intelligent BBC series about a ground-breaking TV news magazine being produced in the early fifties. I love the way they can combine news judgment, inside baseball, and messy personal situations. Dominic West, Ben Whislaw and Romola Garai are just terrific. We also liked the posh Downton Abbey and the relentlessly vulgar The In-Betweeners. (I must say, I haven’t seen Homeland yet.
8.) Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Having loved Wolf Hall, 8809-11booker2_full_600I feared its sequel would suffer by comparison. I shouldn’t have worried. Other enjoyable books this year: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon; Passage of Power, by Robert Caro; The Long Road to Antietam, by Richard Slotkin.
9.) I went to Lincoln fearing a Spielbergian historical romance, full of longing gazes and quivering lips and swirling strings. But while there was some of that, it wasn’t enough to 9lincoln-daniel-day-lewissicken the whole deal. I give total credit to screenwriter Tony Kushner for his decision to hang this pageant on a moment that has been largely overlooked by historians, the passage by the House of Representatives of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Historians undercut the importance of that moment because there were other ways to accomplish Lincoln’s end, but that’s not the point: whether or not the vote had significant is irrelevant10Superstorm_Sandy_Keel-1_t618, it is a perfectly splendid motor for an historical drama.
10. Superstorm Sandy. “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result,” Winston Churchill once said. I have no reason to dispute him, but I can tell you this: it’s a humbling thing to realize that the killer hurricane has come and gone and that you’ve been missed.

A NEW STATUS QUO?

Like a political Punxatawny Phil seeing his shadow, George Will has seen the president re-elected, Democrats returned to their majority in the Senate and Republicans to theirs in the House, and proclaimed four more years of winter, or at least gridlock. “A nation vocally disgusted with the status quo has reinforced it by ratifying existing control of the executive branch and both halves of the legislative branch,” Will writes in The Washington Post. “After three consecutive “wave” elections in which a party gained at least 20 House seats, and at a moment when approval of Congress has risen — yes, risen — to 21?percent, voters ratified Republican control of the House, keeping in place those excoriated as obstructionists by the president the voters retained. Come January, Washington will be much as it has been, only more so.”

Well, that’s certainly the way to bet, but I would point out that already some things are very different than they have been since this date in 2008. For one thing, Barack Obama cannot run for a third term. Mitch McConnell cannot have as his principal political objective the denial of another Obama term. In fact, Ol’ Mitch is likely to have as his primary objective his own re-election, and just might need a few accomplishments to leaven his steady stream of negativity if he is to win himself another ticket back to the big leagues.

That applies to the entire Congress, the House included. Stopping Obama can no longer be the raison d’etre. Moreover, now that Obama doesn’t have to play to his left wing to get reelected, I expect him to inundate the Congress with a whole range of reasonable, middle-of-the-road proposals, and fairly force them to agree. (One remembers former Secretary of State George Schultz explaining why the Reagan administration was going to sign some nuclear reduction deal with the Soviets. “Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to take yes for an answer.” If Reagan could deal with the communists, surely John Boehner et al can deal with Obama.)

The other thing that has changed is that a lot of Republicans just lost elections–not only Mitt Romney, but also establishment guys like Tommy Thompson and weirdos like Muordock and Aiken. This should be a chastening experience. Hopefully more than a few Republicans will grasp that that they failed to defeat a president who has presided over a historically poor economy not because people weren’t open to making a change, but because the Republicans offered no change, merely a return to the status quo ante which failed so spectacularly. It seems to me that after eight failed years of the Bush presidency, followed by four years of failed obstructionism, it ought to occur to at least some Republicans that they need to have a hand in a few accomplishments, just so they can claim in elections going forward that they still do remember how to govern. Boehner may have been signaling this in his post-election comments. “Mr. President, this is your moment,” he said. “Let’s challenge ourselves to find the common ground that has eluded us.” We’ll see.

A WIN, NOT NECESSARILY A VICTORY


Thank goodness this crap campaign is over. It turned out to be a bit of nail-biter, but it should never had been so close. Obama should have walloped Romney, who was a man with no rational to his candidacy other than that he wasn’t the incumbent. In some other era this might have been enough, but the fact is that we are in such a bad predicament that a candidate could not simply offer his different person, but actually had to present a plan, and Romney’s plan was simply the impeached plans of George W. Bush. But he was always a bad candidate; that was clear during the primary season, from the way the Republicans squirmed after one obviously inadequate candidate after another before finally settling on the guy who didn’t know enough to know that he wasn’t wanted. He was always stiff, he was always the false-faced boss, he was always the guy who pocketed every possible dollar in every deal and then wouldn’t leave until he made you agree that what he did was both admirable and good. In the end he was done in by the rust belt, where people don’t really like men who like to fire people.

And thank goodness Obama won; his had real accomplishments during his first term, and now there is no chance that they can be rolled back. The Republicans, moreover, are the party of yahooism, and they do not deserve to rule. Joe Scarborough quoted Nicole Wallace as saying “People debate whether we should be a conservative party or a moderate party, but one thing we have to stop being is the stupid party.” She may have meant tactically, but I hope she meant overall–the stupid anti-woman party, the stupid anti-science party. But let’s face it: the president ran a brilliant campaign in which he sought no mandate for action. As far as I can see, he has an mandate to be empathetic, to micro target voters, and scare us about Romney’s shortcomings.

That won’t be enough. The country has “unfinished business,” as John Kennedy so eloquently put it. The president and the Congress need to come together. Perhaps with their hell-bent fever to deny Obama a second term having been extinguished by events, Republicans will drop their monomania and work out some compromises. I hope so.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Nobody ever said it better than John F. Kennedy, speaking before a rally in Boston Garden on November 7, 1960, the day before the national elections:

“This is an important campaign, because it involves a high and distinguished office, an office which is given great responsibilities and great powers by the Constitution, and also by the pressure of events. The next President of the United States on his shoulders will rest burdens heavier than have rested on the shoulders of any President since the time of Lincoln. War and peace, the progress of this country, the security of our people, the education of our children, jobs for men and women who want to work, the development of our resources – the symbolic feeling of a nation, the image the nation presents to the world, its power, prestige, and direction – all ultimately will come to rest on the next President of the United States. This is the most responsible time in the life of any citizens of any free country, and I do not run for the office of the Presidency after 14 years in the Congress with any expectation that it is an empty or an easy job. I run for the Presidency of the United States because it is the center of action, and in a free society the chief responsibility of the President is to set before the American people the unfinished public business of our country.”

A GARTH STRATEGY FOR OBAMA?

Why isn’t President Obama running harder against Congress?

The president was effective in Tuesday’s debate, but he won only narrowly, even though Mitt Romney revealed an ugly side of himself that fits all the stereotypes about bullying bosses. Everything about the way he handled himself underscored the old “I love firing people” image. When he said “You’ll get your chance in a moment, I’m still speaking” and followed it with “That wasn’t a question, that was a statement”, the nastiness in his tone and manner revealed a disdain that made my skin crawl. For some reason this has not been very effectively examined in the post-debate autopsies–too much about `binders full of women,’ perhaps. But if Saturday Night Live decides to paint Romney as a bully tomorrow night, and does a good job, the election could be over.

Unfortunately for Obama, Romney on at least two occasions punched very effectively on the issue of the economy, repeating a “we don’t have to settle for. . .” phrase that racked up points: “”We don’t have to settle for what we’re going through,” Romney said at one point. “We don’t have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don’t have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don’t have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don’t have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job.”

How I wish those words had been spoken by the president!

In 1969, when John Lindsay was running for reelection for Mayor of New York, David Garth, the preeminent political guru of his generation, created a TV ad in which Lindsay on the back porch of Gracie Mansion and acknowledged a few of the humdingers that he had been guilty of as mayor–underestimating the difficulties posed by crippling blizzard, making some poor choices during a teachers’ strike. But after admitting those mistakes, he then reviewed some of his accomplished, using after each the line “–and that was no mistake.” Garth successfully used that same approach in campaign for Gov. Hugh Carey, Gov. Brendan Byrne and others.

Obama needs to acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to do, and that he, personally, is frustrated that progress has been made so slowly. And he needs to point a finger at the reasons why. Yes, he deserves a share of the responsibility–not pushing for a larger stimulus, not doing enough to get rid of housing debt. Admitting it will give him greater credibility when he then turns around and blames the recalcitrant Republicans in Congress for stopping his jobs bill, and when he says we can’t afford to let Romney take us back to the bankrupt policies that got us here.

There are a lot of unhappy voters in America today. Obama needs to show them that no one is unhappier than he.

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.

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.