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.