Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh, Rush, Poor Rush

Rush Limbaugh, as far back as 1989, named his fans “dittoheads”, though he is the chief dittohead himself. I’ve been listening to Limbaugh since 1996, when he played a role in a book I was writing, Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch, a book on the Clinton-Dole presidential race, from the consumer, not the producer, side. Happily, when I finished the book, I didn’t have to listen to him anymore and I stopped, except, occasionally over the years, when I turned him on while driving through radio-deprived areas of the country, where the only thing you could find were evangelical programs or Rush. None of my cars had the new satellite connections, where all stations are possible.

I am an absolute free-speech advocate for a variety of reasons. Though there are many people I would like to be able to shut up, let them all blather on is my attitude and that includes Rush. The transactions here are complicated. I grew up with George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” you couldn’t say on the radio, much less the TV. In 1978 the Supreme Court decided F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation in favor of censorship (aka regulation) in a 5-4 decision. Sound familiar? 5-4 is the current far-right censoring vote on the Roberts Court.

Now it’s Erectile Dysfunction ads on all the channels and what is on Cable is anyone’s delight or cause for dismay. OK, back to Rush. After my campaign book appeared I was on the Michael Feldman show, Whad’Ya Know? Feldman, a funny guy, was miffed I seemed sympathetic at times to Rush (and not to him, a misreading) and I replied, “I have a soft spot for overweight overachievers,” and Feldman shot back, “Oh, and not underweight underachievers?” Feldman is skinny. Rush, of course, is a big fat pig.

The young Rush had been the underachiever of a substantial mid-Missouri family, the almost ne’er-do-well son with successful siblings. Rush’s biggest job back then was working PR for the Kansas City Royals. He was one bloated bumpkin. Then he got on the radio and found his fortune and his shtick: finally an overachiever! When I caught up with him in 1996 he was close to the zenith of his influence. Bill Clinton had energized him, along with Newt Gingrich, the contract on America, etc., the first rising of the New Republican Party, the one that has now reached its apotheosis in 2012.

By the time I was on the Feldman show Rush had gone into eclipse and, as I told my host, that was cyclical: Rush would wax and wane. The waning included his drug scandal in 2003. A number of media figures have survived these life-style scandals (such as Bill O’Reilly), and Rush did too. His subsequent hearing problems seemed punishment enough to the general public. Now he’s been waxing again, during these crackpot months of the Republican primaries. But once again he’s gone too far.

Or so many think. I’m not for silencing people. Let Rush say what he wants. Let the people see it, hear it – judge it. Rush is listened to, mainly, by white guys who drive a lot, salesmen, truck drivers, God knows who? (And God and the ratings people do know.) Dittoheads. When Rush’s current victim, Sandra Fluke, expressed surprise that it seemed “acceptable in today’s society to say these things about women,” one wonders where’s she’s been the last twenty years.

Rush was doing his best to be clever, lecturing the “feminazis” (one of his earliest coinages which he employed during his current remarks) on the notion that free contraception was payment for having sex and he used the words “slut” and “prostitute” to insult Ms. Fluke. (Then he continued, really letting his id out, imagining videos on You Tube.) What struck me, hearing reports on what he said (I, thankfully, was not listening to Rush) was that was just what many others were calling sexually active women lately, given the debate over contraception waged by the Catholic Bishops, Virginia lawmakers, and the Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum. Or, at least, what was implied, the unspoken words that traveled under the conversation, not above, except in the case of Limbaugh. Again, let free speech reign, let us hear what they really think.

The last First Amendment case I wrote about (in The Nation and elsewhere) was Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which was about go-go dancers in strip bars claiming that their dancing should be granted protection as speech. I agreed, but not the Rehnquist Court, which, in 1991, decided 5-4 (again!) in favor of police power, rather than artistic expression. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, but the swing vote then was Justice Souter, who held that Indiana’s (the case started in South Bend, of all places) statute helped prevent secondary effects, such as prostitution. Souter was more or less calling the dancers prostitutes, not to say sluts. But that was the implication. Since Ms. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown she should look up the case. If only one of the dancers had ended her routine making the black power fist, the Court would have been stymied.

Just as the public has profited from seeing the slap-stick show of the Republican primary candidates, it actually helps to see what men like Rush Limbaugh actually think – when he can be said to think. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Barney Rosset U.

Upon his recent death, I realized I had matriculated in the Barney Rosset School of Literature, or, more correctly (since I didn’t know who Barney Rosset was when I started), The Grove Press University of the Arts. I also went on to graduate school at New Directions U., founded by James Laughlin. I didn’t know him, either, back then, in my teens and early twenties.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning over the decades of how badly students are being educated, how little they know. Leave Most Everybody Behind, etc., has been the general rule. Since I came along at the pre-dawn of the Baby Boomers (born in December of 1945), my generation benefitted enormously from the paperback revolution that was underway. Why? Not just because of the cheapness of paperbacks, which took hold via the military, since they were distributed to WWII soldiers, but because of the authors they published. It wasn’t altruism, even in the case of Barney Rosset; it was because the great authors, or Dead White Males of yore, were out of print, not afflicted by copyright, and the publishers didn’t have to deal with even the minimum problem of royalties.

So, who did my generation get to read? What were the mass paperback books filling up newsstand racks (not the snooty “trade” paperbacks of today)? Oh, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Homer, Balzac, Victor Hugo, those guys. And cheap. Less than a buck. The first book Barney Rosset published at Grove Press was Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. That cost more than a dollar.

Try to find any of the above at an airport bookstore these days. And people wonder why everyone has gotten more stupid over the years. Take a look at the dates when the SAT scores turned downward. By 1972 the shelves began to be full of other sorts of books.

Publishers played an unique role for the 60's decade – and some of the 70's. They set the curriculum for a generation of curious and avaricious readers such as myself. It might all be called pornography now, but Rosset brought me D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the mid-sixties, which, of course, led me to other Lawrence titles. Rosset made available to my cohort almost the entire reading list of modernism, even as it swerved toward post-modernism. And it wasn’t just international. He championed Henry Miller, became the publisher of the sexual revolution of the time, literary division, and made a lot of young people eager readers. Now they have, alas, Harry Potter.

Grove Press led me to New Directions, which carried on the same tradition, though more thoroughly continental, Sartre, etc., but also the new expatriate American generation, Paul Bowles and his crowd, along with Tennessee Williams, authors who filled the list of doctoral dissertations to come and come.

When I got older and more established, I met an early Grove Press author, the world-class translator Anthony Kerrigan, who introduced Borges to the English speaking world, or, certainly, to Americans, with the publication by Grove Press of Ficciones in 1962. Tony told me Barney Rosset had asked him whether he wanted royalties, or cash now, a “for hire” contract, for his translations. Tony, being of the older generation of writer/bohemian, took the cash up-front. If he had waited for royalties, instead, he would have had an annuity for life – and he sorely needed one, which he didn’t have.

Of course, this super tutorial that two publishing houses carried out for so many students and writers-to-be didn’t last forever. But, it certainly helped fuel a good bit of what has become to be known as “the Sixties.” Yet when you’re filling a void, it sooner or later is no longer a void. Now, it’s a matter of oversupply. Publishers today are no longer playing that guiding role.

Now, with Amazon and other outlets, any book ever published is available for purchase. But when you can have everything, there is often no way to choose anything. Or too many ways. It was limitation, back in the ’60s, that had power. Grove Press and New Directions opened the literary world’s doors for me and many others. Now, there are nothing but doors open and, alas, very little (or far too much) awaits beyond them.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Contraception Wars and Woes

I share at least one attribute of the Catholic Bishops, now at war with the Obama administration: I don’t want to talk about contraception, either.

I’ve taught for over three decades at the university which some characterize as the place where the American Catholic Church “does it’s thinking.” Well, here are some thoughts on the matter. The first is the one above: the Catholic Bishops are really put out, miffed, because they don’t want to talk about contraception, but the Obama administration, allegedly, has forced their hands.

The Bishops don’t mind talking about abortion. They find some purchase on that topic, some sympathy with the larger American public, along with a good many of the “faithful”. Indeed, most everyone wants the number of abortions decreased to as close to zero as possible. But a debate over contraception puts the Bishops in another place altogether.

Had the Obama administration announced their “compromise” first, rather than second, after a bit of clerical harrumphing, the issue may have left the public square and gone away. Indeed, more than half the states, as it’s been pointed out, already have similar mandates, and Catholic universities and hospitals have been dispensing “birth control” for a variety of reasons for many years.

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration took this strategy – getting the Bishops all exercised – deliberately, or accidently, by mishandling the policy rollout. Regardless, it’s out there now. The Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception, because it puts a spotlight on one of the Church’s least defensible, and most paradoxical, strictures.

Oh, it can be defended alright: as a matter of faith. A show of loyalty demanded of the flock, an act of hazing and abnegation, aka sacrifice. My generation wasn’t to eat meat on Fridays, though this dietary no-no eventually just went away. But religions require this sort of thing on the part of their co-religionists; the secular version pops up in the news now and then when fraternity members die because their hazing rituals had become too intense.

And speaking against contraception in the 21st century makes the Bishops look anti-science. Catholics are not anti-science, though a number of their evangelical supporters certainly are. It puts Catholics in a crowd that they don’t necessarily want to be in: All those anti-evolutionary troglodytes scraping their knuckles on the ground, the we-don’t-descend-from-apes crowd.

Whenever the word “abortifacient” is uttered, the attack-on-science banner is raised. We’re down to molecules and bio-chemistry at that point. But, it is an attempt to drag contraception onto safer ground, or, at least, ground they have captured, the well-tilled anti-abortion fields.

But another important, but hardly mentioned, reason the Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception is it makes them talk about themselves, which highlights, in the starkest ways, the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its women problem. The control of women. And the Bishops did not want to get into any of that, since it is obvious to all that a totally male clergy, saddled with a vow of celibacy, wants its parishioners to be like them, mostly celibate, however preposterous that sounds today. Abortion, however, lets the Bishops talk about two people, one of whom might be male.

The pro-abortion movement has been saddled with a all-too-focused name. It’s actually a pro-woman movement, insofar it was always women who took the lead to change the laws of the land. The pro-“life” anti-abortion movement, began as a male-dominated movement and male figures are featured most prominently still. You should have seen the odious figures who showed up at Notre Dame when President Obama’s commencement speech was announced: Alan Keyes and Randall Terry, grubbing for attention (which they got).

Since the early 70s and the passage of Roe v. Wade the term Catholic Right has been more or less coined. Back when I originally published The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left–there is a new edition with a fresh Afterword out – what was new was the Catholic Left. There had been the old Dorothy Day Catholic Left, but the anti-war priests and nuns of the Vietnam period were the New.

They were in opposition to the Bishops back then, too; but the Catholic Church wasn’t thought of as the “Right” back then. The Bishops were, of course, that, but then there was no need for labels. But over the decades a Catholic Right was created, or, rather, more pertinently, a religious right was hatched, to try to ecumenically turn back the progressive impulses that reared their multiple heads throughout the period. The Catholic Bishops being the repository of authority does not go unchallenged, as Gary Gutting effectively points out.

Natural law, of course, is full of contraception. Garry Wills goes into the theological background of “natural law,“ but I prefer a more pragmatic approach: Fertilized eggs are lost in the thousands, if not millions, world-wide by couples trying to get pregnant. (There is always a poignance in the case of couples trying to get pregnant and the majority who are trying to avoid it, or those who become pregnant at the drop of a hat.) And Natural law also includes the ever-present, it seems, tried-and-true, centuries old, methods of birth control that include famine, pestilence, natural disasters; and, in place of abortion, we have infanticide. You see where all this sort of logic can lead.

Catholics have wrestled with contraception and the Church’s teachings on it over the decades, generation by generation. The younger generation seems to be wrestling less, given the advances in the methods of contraception now available. One of my sisters (I’m from a family of eight children) got birth control pills back in the 1960s when the doses involved would choke a horse (or, at least, make a horse infertile), because of her “irregular” periods, before she went off to a nunnery for a couple of years.

My mother, at the same time, had three painful, late miscarriages in a row, after having her eighth child, when a friendly priest finally permitted her to use birth control, saying she had brought enough Catholic children into the world. Such stories of my mother’s generation are legion – and often heartrending.

But, enough. Religion may no longer be the opiate of the people, but it is certainly the father – not the mother – of all political wedge issues.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Not Saving Social Security, Again (An Update)

The Republicans, once again, have “caved” on allowing the extension of the payroll tax reduction – if you consider furthering their anti-Social Security strategy an act of caving. Among the many stories the media has misreported over recent decades, Social Security is one of the most egregious. I have been writing about Social Security on and off for over twenty years, but the subject bears repeating. Even calling the monies going into the program a “payroll tax” is misleading. They are premiums, since Social Security is an insurance program.

It is actually called the federal Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program. So, you may call them taxes, but they are premiums. Do you want to stop paying your fire, car, life insurance premiums?

Insurance is usually a bet, because no one knows what hazards lie ahead or how long anyone lives. Do you moan the loss of your car insurance if you never have a wreck? The system works, since there are different outcomes for different people. It needs to be a pool of most everyone to insure a basic floor for everyone.

The anti-Social Security privatizers, though their various “think tanks” and talking heads, have spread so much misinformation about the program over the last three decades, it is no surprise that so many people are confused.

A curious shell game is being played by the anti-SSS forces: they have convinced most journalists that Social Security is supposed to be a “pay as you go” system. It is actually a transfer system, where one generation transfers wealth to the next. There wouldn’t be a trust fund surplus nearing 3 trillion if it was, or had been, a pay-as-you-go system. But, the fact that Social Security has taken in for years more than it has put out has somehow been ignored, made meaningless. It’s the new GOP mantra: keep saying it until people believe it.

George W. Bush, during his push for privatization, called the bonds issued to cover the Social Security surplus over the years worthless. (Tell the Chinese that the bonds they have been buying from us are worthless; see what kind of reaction you get.) Now the yearly surplus is less, but it remains – because of the interest paid on Social Security’s total income, according to the Social Security Media Watch Project. If the unemployment rate was cut in half, one wouldn’t even have to count the interest to see a yearly surplus.

But, GOP politicians and some journalists don’t consider the Social Security trust fund surplus a surplus; they consider it debt, because it has been spent: given to Wall Street and the military industrial complex, mainly. We arrive at the sad irony that America’s working stiffs have been paying the bonuses for all the investment bankers over the years, as well as for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush kept off the books, while lowering taxes for the wealthy at the same time.

But, the shell-game of now-you-see-the-surplus-now-you-don’t in the media continues. Journalists at both the Washington Post and the Kansas City Star have swallowed the sugar water that it doesn’t really exist. In the Post, Lori Montgomery wrote in October, “The 2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief,” and E. Thomas McClanahan, on the K. C. Star’s editorial board, claimed recently, “The payroll tax holiday is also destroying the myth of the trust fund.” Such remarks have now become the chief talking point of the anti-Social Security forces. Of course, they don’t say what I’ve said: We’ve stolen the payroll “tax” surplus over the years to fund the 1 percent.

And now, we have the sad, smaller irony that the American workers are continuing to provide for Obama’s administration tiny stimulus program, by means of lowering the “payroll tax.” We paycheck workers are giving ourselves the puny amounts each month that Obama takes credit for.

This is even worse. Everyone is used to the Republicans trying to damage Social Security. But it is the Democrats who need to be watched. They like this “tax” break because it is so “efficient”. No need to cut checks, start a program. Just reduce the amount coming in, and, voila, money in everyone’s pocket. Of course, it is their own money, which is being taken out of their insurance system and will eventually have to be put back – but at what cost? More federal workers furloughed? More Medicaid and Medicare cuts?

It was too tempting for the Democratic suits in Washington, all that efficiency. They consider it a version of domestic realpolitik. But their chipping away at the system allows other attacks to wiggle in. They’ve managed to give Social Security one fatal attribute of the 401(k) “retirement” program. It can be raided, gotten to when “emergencies” arise, which is why, among other reasons, so many 401(k)s have such small amounts in them at retirement.

But, again, the chief irony is that working Americans have been funding the bubble spending, the wars and the bonuses, as George W. Bush merrily spent the Social Security trust fund surplus and now everyone bemoans the deficit and wants to have the people, the workers, who contributed the cash for the bubble, take the hit and change Social Security so they will be paid back less, get fewer benefits and take the haircut that the Wall Streeters have avoided, in order for the rich to continue to give less and take more.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Halftime in Pink America

The Super Bowl was, well, super. The game had its moments: the first “free” touchdown in the big game that was, supposedly, not meant to happen (but once a running back turns around in a sitting position on the goal line, he’s only gonna fall in backwards, pushed by all the momentum he already generated) and Tom Brady’s last-second Hail Mary pass that was almost caught by a Patriot, but not quite.

But there were other Hail Mary(s) thrown that night. First there was Madonna, the original Hail Mary, her namesake that is. The present earth-bound Madonna, all 53 years of her, did the cougar world proud. All those hours working out over the years paying off big. Now there was a production! Those folk know how to put on a show. I kept wondering how many of its participants were in the Actors Equity union, but it was abundantly clear this sort of spectacle has replaced the Broadway Musical in the hearts of the younger generation, used to these sorts of extravaganzas at the concerts of pop singers for at least two decades now.

Madonna’s performance might have been aimed at her faux protégé, Lady Gaga, showing Gaga who’s who and what’s what. But there were also echoes of other, older grand dames, for instance, Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” given all the beef-cake “slaves” supposedly hauling Madonna onto the Lucas Oil field’s fifty yard line. After the Material Girl’s exhortation of capitalism unbound, she signed off with World Peace. Ho, ho, ho.

But it was another halftime performance that seems to have more legs: Clint Eastwood and his Chrysler commercial. It was instantaneously clear that it would be taken as an Obama endorsement. From Chrysler, which we, the people, more or less, still own. But, what struck me was that this commercial may be the first time the word “halftime” was used, or understood, politically to stand for a second term presidential election.

I wrote a book about the ‘96 second term election, Clinton v. Dole (Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch), which covered how the campaign was covered, and I don’t recall any of the hundreds of commentators I heard ever use the term “halftime” that way, meaning the pause between a possible two terms for a sitting president. But its usage was unmistakable in the Eastwood commercial.

Which is why Republicans are complaining. But, it’s been another bad week for the GOP, because of yet more Hail Mary(s). The Susan G. Komen for the Cure pink ribbon flap, defunding Planned Parenthood and, consequently, the women of America reacting and Komen’s decision eventually reversed. This, too, was a commercial of sorts, but one aimed at Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama. The Komen “charity” had managed all these years to avoid scrutiny the way anyone not running for president avoids scrutiny.

But, defunding Planned Parenthood put them in the election season spotlight and what was seen was not very pleasant. It was like seeing Mitt Romney’s 2010 and the “summary” of his 2011 taxes: all those Swiss and Cayman accounts. In Komen’s case, it was the ratio of what was raised yearly and what was given to breast cancer research, roughly 20%, while around 80% went into the fund raising itself. It was the same, it appeared, as the salaries and bonuses of the 1%, because the Komen foundation was run like any Wall Street hedge fund. The lion’s share in expenses, a pittance for the disease in question. Komen is certainly a job creator, since it does employ a lot of lawyers suing people who want to use the word “cure” in their fund raising.

Those who were paying attention learned more about the Komen foundation in the last ten days than they ever knew the last ten years and what they had known was next to nothing: How Republican it was, how its new, and now resigned, V.P., Karen Handel, was a GOP losing candidate running for governor in Georgia, like Romney is currently doing, on the I hate Planned Parenthood GOP platform.

Karen Handel carries on the GOP tradition of calling black white when she said, in her resignation letter, “no one’s political beliefs” were involved in Komen’s decision to defund PP. This is all an election period neurosis, an emperor’s new clothes phenomenon. The naked truth is clothed. What everyone can see is false I will claim as true.

But, back to the Super Bowl: Madonna said there would be no “wardrobe malfunction” in her show. Maybe not, though that malfunction had to do with a breast, and, thanks to the Komen foundation and Karen Handel, the malfunctions have been many and frequent and now Komen world stands as naked and exposed as poor Mitt Romney.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Let me be blunt: when Republicans run against an incumbent Democrat president, they usually choose a damaged war veteran as their candidate. The ‘96 election set the pattern: Bob Dole v. Bill Clinton. (A less caustic analysis is that they pick someone who has run before in primaries and lost. It was Dole’s turn, given that logic.)

The secondary GOP default for picking a nominee is to hand it over to whichever suitable patrician is available, one preferably with strong political family connections. In 2000 that was George W. Bush, who, though absent of most of his father’s abilities, had one large advantage his father lacked: his six-pack ordinariness, his common man touch. It proved to be the right cultural mix for the times, even though Al Gore won the popular vote and had the election stolen out from under him by the Supreme Court.

The Democrats in 2004 threw up their own patrician, John Kerry, also a war vet, perhaps damaged, at least by the Swift Boat forces. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama continued his run of electoral luck and the Republicans broke their pattern and nominated John McCain, yet another damaged war veteran, someone born to lose.

Among McCain’s problems was the conflict that damaged him was the Vietnam war. It was a war no one wanted to revisit. Indeed, when Dole ran in ‘96, it was at the height of the “Greatest Generation” craze. Dole profited from that, but nothing else. The Vietnam war in the 2008 primaries was shouldered by Hillary Clinton and, finally, Democrats turned away from Hillary and it: it was the war her husband, Bill, had managed to avoid. One reason Barack Obama won the nomination is that the electorate was tired of both the Vietnam war and the Clintons.

Obama represented the future. Boy, the public was thirsting for the future, to put behind them the Bush family, the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the Wall Street meltdown. They wanted to turn the page and no page was more different than Barack Obama. But when they fianlly read the page, it turned out to be the same old, same old.

Now, in 2012, we have a GOP with a unappetizing choice, devoid of damaged war vets; in fact, there are two chicken hawks available, with no more military service between them than Bill Clinton had: both Romney and Newt Gingrich had deferments from the draft, and when the lottery was inaugurated, Romney drew a high number. By that time, Gingrich had children from his marriage to his former history teacher.

Everyone, though, of the appropriate generation, has been damaged one way or another by the Vietnam war. Only Ron Paul, ancient as he is, brings up Romney and Gingrich’s lack of service, since he served in the Air Force from 1963 - 68 as a medical officer. It is nothing short of amazing to listen to Ron Paul take on (in his “victory” speech after his fourth place finish in the Florida primary) the mantle of the only anti-war candidate in the field, both Democrat and Republican. Apparently, it is one of the major things that attracts the young to his candidacy.

After Florida, it appears to one and all to be a “two man” race. Romney, like George W., is assuming the role of the patrician candidate, son of George Romney, born in Mexico, but a future presidential wanna-be (the birthers were a generation late; but John McCain had the same problem, since he was born in the Panama Canal zone), a governor of Michigan and a member of the Nixon Cabinet.

Gingrich will continue to be a pest, though it is not out of the world of probability to imagine a Romney/Gingrich ticket, if only to “bind” the splintered party together.

But, and this is a large but, Mitt Romney has one positive precedent hidden in his history that may ultimately benefit him. Romney personifies everything associated with Wall Street and the beleaguered 1%. He is the person who represents the 2008 meltdown, the cause of wealth disappearing everywhere (except into Swiss accounts and banks in the Cayman islands), the reason TARP and both the Bush and Obama administration spent the peoples money to bail out the too-big-to-fail financial industry.

One would think someone who represents to a tee everything the majority of Americans finds reprehensible in recent history could not win the presidency a mere four years after the crash and the start of the Great Recession.

Yes, one might think that. But here is the counter example: what would be the odds that seven years after 9/11 a man with the middle name Hussein would be elected President of the United States? A trillion to one? That is the precedent that Romney may be counting on. That the voters of America will do something totally unexpected and then suffer their bitter disappointment later, silently or not so silently, given their past precedents.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


One thing is clear: Newt Gingrich is not running as Ronald Reagan, but as Margaret Thatcher, at least the Thatcher caricatured by Spitting Image, the Brit satirical television show, circa 1984. Gingrich has often been lampooned as a puppet, one in particular, the malevolent horror-film character Chucky, but Spitting Image’s Thatcher seems the more pertinent choice.

Watching the new film, The Iron Lady, where Thatcher is portrayed magnificently by Meryl Streep, it was startling how many of Thatcher’s speeches of the 1980s sounded like Gingrich’s recent ones: get those children off their duffs and give them a broom! – all that sort of boot-strap rhetoric Thatcher favored: Let everyone pay the same tax, rich and poor alike, which will end the terrible graffiti in the council house neighborhoods, etc.

The two recent films about 20th century historic figures, the UK’s Thatcher and our own J. Edgar Hoover, are, oddly, both love stories. That might not be strange for Hollywood films (though The Iron Lady has a lot of British support – even, evidently, money from the UK’s public arts program. Thatcher would be spinning in her grave, if she was in a grave.)

Both films have the star power of famous American actors in the namesake roles, and both Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio give more warm human interest to their subjects than either of the individuals possessed. They make both figures somewhat lovable, not a quality either had, or projected, in their public roles.

But love stories both films are: Thatcher and her husband, Dennis, and J. Edgar and Clyde Tolson, whatever Tolson could be called, husband, confidant, bromance boy.

I wrote a book about a trial of anti-war priests and nuns Hoover instigated (The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left) and, back in 1972, Hoover’s visage kept reminding me of a line from a popular song of the period (MacArthur Park): Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain. That’s what Hoover looked like back then. DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar isn’t up to the quality of Streep’s; indeed, DiCaprio, however he ages, still looks like a little boy in all his roles, and, for Hoover, it is a strange look indeed.

Back in 1972 Clyde Tolson and Hoover’s relationship wasn’t commonly known; journalists were more discreet then, at least nationally. You had to be in the know. Now everyone’s in the know. When I watched The Iron Lady in a Midwestern cineplex there were only six people in the theater; even if Streep wins an Oscar for her performance, the film will still be a hard sell for Americans. You really need to know a lot about the history of the period to keep anything straight (though that is true even for J. Edgar), and even if you know – and I do: I wrote a novel about the Thatcher era NUM coal-mining strike (Notts) – it remains confusing in the film.

But history is always confusing, I suppose. We’ll have to ask our historian-in-chief candidate, Newt Gingrich. Less confusing if you say everything, as Newt does, with such conviction and bravado. The less conviction one has, the easier it is to sound absolutely certain. Like most serial adulterers, Newt shows signs of being a pathological liar, one well-practiced.

One historical comparison that offers itself is that Newt is playing J. Edgar to Mitt Romney’s Clyde Tolson. Gingrich is the huffer and puffer, a la Hoover, out front, hogging the limelight, while Romney remains the tall, handsome figure in the shadows, looking confused.

Because of the unprecedented number of debates and the compressed onslaught of caucuses and primaries, the Republican primary season has elevated all its participants to the realm of the grotesque. (Just name those who have dropped out and you can see what stalwarts in that regard even the B-team was.) So, it is fitting that the most grotesque figure of them all, Newt Gingrich, is now the Republican frontrunner. Spitting Image, indeed. He’s a Hogarth etching in the flesh, but, it doesn’t much matter, since we are now all living in a post-satirical age.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dr. Gingrich and Mr. Chucky

Now, we’re done with New Hampshire. The interesting development is the blowback criticism of Newt Gingrich toward the predatory capitalist, Mitt Romney, echoed momentarily by the national nonentity, Rick Perry. Newt made a mockery (and a web address) of Mitt’s “pious baloney,” describing how Romney has been a financial firm show horse candidate since the early 1990s, not the “job creator” he poses as. And, more, pertinently, Newt went after Bain Capital, Romney’s never-ending private equity piggy bank, via his SuperPAC, Winning Our Future, funded by the usual and strange FON, a casino-owning big better. Newt talks about Bain Capital “looting” companies, adding a laundry list of the usual corporate malfeasance.

It’s been effective. Too effective for the GOP and Gingrich is under considerable pressure to walk back all his criticism. I’ll wait to see if the half-hour 60 Minute-like take down of Bain actually runs anywhere. 30 second commercials have thus far, but, again, the question is, Will they continue?

Walking back will be nothing new to Newt. He did so shortly after, rightly, condemning Paul Ryan’s Gut Medicare program as “right-wing social engineering.” Later, he said anyone using the film of him saying so would be uttering a “falsehood”, since he was now unsaying so.

But, this larger change in rhetoric came before Newt’s appearance on Meet the Press back in May charging right-wing social engineering. I suppose one must credit Frank Luntz, or one of his Republican clones. Beginning in 2011 (and perhaps earlier), Republicans started appropriating the language of progressives: so one heard Sarah Palin (remember her?) denouncing “crony capitalism”; and other Republicans were whining about the evils of “class warfare.”

The logic seemed to be: if you use the other side’s words often enough eventually you will make the words meaningless. Since the GOP has been making words meaningless for years, it seems to be a long-term strategy. I’m not sure Luntz got everyone in the Republican fold to switch out “the rich” to “job creators,” but you won’t find the phrase job creators used much before 2011.

But Gingrich, et al., took the word-appropriation business a bit too far, since he was making whole sentences of them, not just phrases and sound bites. Mitt Romney has been speaking nothing but sound bites, pious baloney as Newt pointed out.

Only when Romney goes rogue, speaks for himself, as he did last weekend, saying “I like being able to fire people...” - it didn’t matter, as he claimed, the words were taken out of “context”, because Romney said them with such obvious sincerity – does his true self shine through. Romney may well win the Republican nomination, though, given his background as the former head of a predatory investment firm (private equity), it remains as improbable, given recent history, as someone with the middle name Hussein becoming the nominee of the Democrats in 2008.

Gingrich, though, will continue his usual Jekyll and Hyde performance; but I’m hoping, to update the analogy, that he lets his Chucky side come blazing through, rather than his professorial Dr. Gingrich side, creating mayhem all the while he continues to debase our poor, battered, language pell-mell.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The First Lady’s Lack of Firsts

Because of a new book, called The Obamas, a volume mainly about Michelle, the First Lady, there will be a lot of attention paid to her role in the White House and I’ve decided to write publicly what I have been saying privately for the last year or so, before all is lost in the deluge of print to come. The New York Times ran an excerpt from the book on Saturday – its author is one of its reporters, based in Washington (this is what is called being well placed) and reviews are just starting to appear.

One reason I haven’t written about this before is that it is a sensitive subject, and I was waiting for some woman to write about it. Coincidently, or not, the new book is by a woman, Jodi Kantor. Why be a critic, or critical of, the First Lady? I have enough problems. Well, in any case, what I was being critical of is the Obama administration, through the public persona it has created for Michelle Obama.

It is as if the ascendancy of a black American as president was enough of a break-through, that anything else would be superfluous. And the last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, had the experience of putting his wife front and center (better to keep her busy, doubtless) and that didn’t work out too well (see Hillary care). But the times had change; boy, have they.

But, in the White House, it’s been the 1950s for the First Lady. Her first big splash was her garden; it began in March of 2009. For months they (the press and the image makers in the White House) turned Michelle into a field hand. If I saw one picture with her posing with a yam in her hand, I saw a thousand. Of course, she was a more fashionable gardener than Martha Stewart, when it came to what she wore. But her first public image was field hand, the second image was clothes horse, and her third large public project was to scold fat people.

Now all of this has a purpose and isn’t necessarily venal, but it is so retrograde I was waiting for some feminist to point it out. But I didn’t see one do so. Not that that means no one did. But Michele Obama, one must remember, was a corporate lawyer, one that was asked to show the new guy, Barack Obama, the ropes when he joined the firm she worked for; when Obama finally won election to the Illinois State Senate she began to get even more gainful employment in the upper corporate management world.

But for the US Senate and the Presidency she’s been turned back into housewife, become a most traditional First Lady. Fine. But what it shows and highlights is all the other turn-abouts for the Obama administration – its (and his) tendency toward living high on the hog, palling around with the upper ups. Barack Obama successfully hid a number of things before he was elected president; had I known he was so fond of golf I would have been even more skeptical at the time than I was.

As I have written elsewhere, Barack marrying Michele was, for Obama, a political decision in the same way Bill Clinton marrying Hillary was. Clinton knew he couldn’t marry one of the bimbos he frequented if he wanted to be taken seriously as a politician. He had to marry someone serious like Hillary. Barack Obama faced the same sort of political choice.

Miraculous as Obama’s election was for a boy from a half-Kansas and half-Kenya background, the first president-to-be whose father hadn’t been born in the “new world,” he would never have been elected Senator, much less President, if he had married a white wife. But nothing said that after he was elected President he had to make his wife into a field hand, clothes horse, or scold of fat people. But, Obama, the great conciliator, evidently didn’t want to make any more waves than necessary, and certainly neither did all those “progressive” Chicago pols he brought with him into the White House, some of whom are gone, some of whom are still there. Luckily for him, the Republicans he opposes are so puerile he doesn’t have to be exactly pure. But, please, no more yams.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Superfluity of Iowa

As I wrote in my book on the ‘96 presidential campaign, Campaign America '96: The View From the Couch, the quadrennial election cycle is a WPA project for the upper end of intellectual workers: TV in all its forms, printers, newspapers, and their attendant personnel, all profit from the cash SuperPacs and the candidates lavish on the local media of various primary states, as well as the millions that will be spent on the national election itself. So who would want to put a stop to it? Certainly not the chattering classes, which gain so much from it. But Iowa does strain one’s credulity as being necessary to the political process.

Who cares about what the hundred thousand or so Iowans think about the candidates in question: in the case of 2012, the sorry group of Republicans vying for the nomination?

I’m certainly not the first or last to raise that question; this year it has already been batted around quite a bit. But it has provided a lot of fodder for discussion during the dull period between Christmas, New Year’s, and, what, Valentine’s Day? Look at Romney, who gets the same number of votes as he did in 2008 when he lost to the formerly obese former Governor of Arkansas, now Fox News commentator, Mike Huckabee. Romney, the 25 percenter. Same as Rick Santorum, more or less, the pol who will protect us all from bestiality, though he’s the Senator who lost his last race in the great state of Pennsylvania by over 15 percent. And Ron Paul, who is hardly a Republican, though he votes with its caucus, since he is so much a Libertarian, of the old school sort, crazy as a loon, who somehow still lures the most gullible young, with his promises of legal drugs and no war.

Thus far, Iowa has shown us nothing has changed; the only thing all the attention lavished accomplished was the jettisoning of Michele Bachmann, the native-born Iowan who now brings so much pride and honor to the state of Minnesota. Rick Perry (aka Governor Ferry) now pledges to continue to stumble on, providing low comedy and high jinks wherever he goes.

But, given the general uselessness of Iowa, a place where, when Chris Matthews asked where he was on his own MSNBC Hardball show and was told Des Moines – he indicated what he had meant was where, actually, was Des Moines located in the state and when he was told, somewhat in the middle, he offered up the excuse that he had flown into an airport and who would know, etc. - the meaning of flyover states came, once again, sharply into focus. Yet, Iowa did play a most critical role in recent American presidential history. I haven’t heard anyone mention it, though, doubtless, someone, somewhere, has. Certainly, when it comes to the GOP, Iowa is an empty hole, sound and fury signifying not much at all. But, when it comes to Democrats, Iowa changed history in 2008.

Iowa proved one thing: white people (aka Iowa) would vote for Barack Hussein Obama. That was its signal service to the commonwealth in 2008. And after Obama won Iowa (amassing nearly 100,000 votes in the primary), the red sea of racism was temporarily separated and the chosen people rushed through and managed to elect Obama to the presidency. I guess that’s enough reason for the east coast media to continue to dump so much money on Iowa and Iowans every four years. They’re owed.