Misty, Water Colored Memories

Remember the 4th Amendment? Well, it's just a memory now. Can't you just hear Babs singing now?

From the ACLU:

Subject: Outrageous and un-American


Did you know that Congress has signed away our right to privacy?

It’s true! By making FISA law, the President and Congress have made it legal for US agencies to spy on our text messages, email, and phone calls to people outside the US, without any cause, reason or warrant. Does that sound like a right to privacy to you?

Help the ACLU overturn FISA by sharing your message of support now!



I Used To Be Worth $8 Million!

EPA says the value of an American life has decreased.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered its “value of a statistical life” measure to $6.9 million in today’s dollars, which is “a drop of nearly $1 million from just five years ago.” In other words, in the eyes of the EPA, the value of a human life has decreased. Here’s what the change means:

Though it may seem like a harmless bureaucratic recalculation, the devaluation has real consequences.

When drawing up regulations, government agencies put a value on human life and then weigh the costs versus the lifesaving benefits of a proposed rule. The less a life is worth to the government, the less the need for a regulation, such as tighter restrictions on pollution.

Critics say that the Bush administration is “changing the value to avoid tougher rules.” “It’s hard to imagine that it has other than a political motivation,” said former senior EPA official Dan Esty.

Starry, Starry Night

Wow. Ever felt like wandering around a Van Gogh painting? Well, here....

The 4th Amendment

Just in case you were wondering....
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


The Sergeant At Arms Was Here!

Yes. The Sergeant At Arms of the Senate was Googling "Russ Feingold" and apparently ended up here yesterday. Now, I wonder why Sarge would do that? But really, I wonder if he even noticed me. It's hard when a visitor enters and exits this blog in the same minute to know what they may have gleaned.

And this is kind of cool (from the SAAOTS website):
The Sergeant at Arms is authorized to arrest and detain any person violating Senate rules, including the President of the United States.

Kucinich: Why We Must Impeach

Dennis Kicinich laid his article on us today. He preceded it with a letter to his colleagues. You can read it here (pdf).

Here is the important part:
Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or with Al Qaeda's role in 9/11. Iraq had neither the intention nor the capability of attacking the United States. Iraq did not have weapons of Mass of Destruction. Yet George W. Bush took our troops to war under all of these false assumptions. Given the profound and irreversible consequences to our troops, if his decision was the result of a mistake, he must be impeached. Since his decision was based on lies, impeachment as a remedy falls short, but represents at least some effort on our part to demonstrate our concern about the sacrifices our troops have made.
I think we should nickname Kucinich "Jiminy Cricket"

What Would Albert Shanker Do?

The Achievement Gap is a problem, no doubt. What created it? How to fix it? Does it exist because teachers suck and can't close it? Or, do kids and families suffering from poverty need better health care, early childhood education, AND good teachers? Here is an interesting article that says it's a bit of both.

Money quote:

What Shanker never did, however, was demonize teacher unions or say teachers alone should be held accountable. Oddly missing from the Sharpton/Klein mission statement is any call for student accountability. Why, as Shanker asked, would kids work hard to do well when told: If you fail this test, we won't punish you, but we will punish your teacher? Kids going to selective colleges have a strong incentive to do well, but for the vast majority of students who attend nonselective colleges, or go straight into the work force, doing well academically doesn't really matter that much.

Hey, Sergeant At Arms!

Karl "Turdblossom" Rove has decided not to testify today, citing Executive Privilege. He was subpoenaed. I think the Sergeant At Arms should go drag his ass to Congress! Go on Sarge! Go get him!



Last night on Countdown, Rachel Maddow interviewed Jonathan Turley about the FISA vote today (the bill passed). The telecoms, as Turley said last night, are surely celebrating.

Here are the important votes:

Boxer: nay
Feinstein: yea
Clinton: nay
Obama: yea

So, I just need to say how disappointed I am in Obama and Feinstein. Unless Obama has a plan to file criminal charges against those who broke the law (possible, legally, but not likely), we, the people, deserve whatever we get!


Hertzburg Does Not Like Electoral College

Small State, Small Mind
by Hendrik Hertzburg

On the eve of Independence Day, the Governor of Rhode Island, Donald L. Carcieri, vetoed the National Popular Vote bill, which had been passed by both houses of the state legislature and which, according to a recent poll, was favored by 74 per cent of the state’s voters.

The three key paragraphs of the Governor’s veto message deserve scrutiny. They are a concise statement of several misconceptions about (or misrepresentations of) this blog’s favorite achievable reform.

Paragraph one:

This legislation attempts to eviscerate the Electoral College and subvert the Constitution of the United States.

The “Electoral College”—a term that appears nowhere in the Constitution, by the way—was eviscerated and/or subverted a long time ago, as I will explain anon. But the Constitution quite clearly provides that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors,” etc. Italics mine.

This power, as Bush v. Gore affirmed, is “plenary”—i.e., “full, complete, covering all matters.” The National Popular Vote compact—under which the contracting states agree that once enough of them have subscribed to the compact to account for a majority of the electoral vote (270) they will cast all their votes for the winner of the national popular vote, thus guaranteeing that winner the Presidency—simply uses this constitutional power.

Paragraph two:

Our Founding Fathers established a process by which the American people would elect a President and Vice President. Despite the cries from those who believe the current system is unjust, and that the only legitimate way to select a Commander-in-Chief* is by direct election, no serious effort has been made to amend the Constitution to provide this “remedy.”

Our Founding Fathers did not establish “the current system.” They directed the legislatures of the several states to “chuse” electors, but that was meant to be only the opening step in a complicated dance. The chosen electors would meet in their own states (all on the same day, to prevent collusion) and “give their votes”—which would be signed, sealed, and delivered (by horse and rider, presumably, or horse and carriage, or barge, or ship, or riverboat, or guy on foot carrying sack, or some combination) to the President of the Senate, in the nation’s capital. The President of the Senate would open and count them in the presence of both Houses of Congress. It was taken it for granted that, post-George Washington, hardly anyone would manage to capture the Presidency outright by garnering an electoral-vote majority. The usual procedure, it was assumed, would be for the House of Representatives to pick the President from among the top five finishers, with each state delegation casting a single vote. In other words, the “Electoral College” would be a kind of slow-motion nominating convention, with the final choice being made by the House under a regime designed to maximize the power of states with small non-enslaved populations. That’s the “process” the (by then exhausted) Founding Fathers hammered out in Philadelphia and thought they were establishing.

It didn’t turn out that way. The winner-take-all rule, which only three states used at first, was one of many spanners tossed into the works over the years. The practice of legislatures delegating the choice of electors to voters was another. The emergence of national political parties was yet another. For a variety of reasons, the “current system” bears little resemblance to the zany compromise the Framers, in their wisdom, ended up adopting. We can be grateful for that small favor, but the “current system” is unjust nevertheless—not only because it can easily deprive the people of their preferred choice but also, and mainly, because it shuts the citizens of the thirty or more non-“battleground” states out of the game, effectively disenfranchising them.

It is not true that no serious effort has been made to provide the “remedy” (why the sneering scare quote marks, Governor?) of instituting direct election via constitutional amendment. In fact there have been several such efforts. One of them, mounted in the wake of the 1968 squeaker, had the support of both President Nixon and the opponent he had lately vanquished, former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, plus the most prominent leaders of both parties and large majorities in the House, the Senate, the state legislatures, and (not that it mattered) the public. It was killed by a Senate filibuster.

An effort of comparable seriousness is hard to imagine now, mainly because of the changed attitude of Republican leaders for whom the 2000 result was an occasion for rediscovering the lofty virtues of the “current system.” As it is perhaps superfluous to mention, Governor Carcieri is a Republican. Not all Republicans are averse to popular election, of course, but enough of them are to make a constitutional amendment, which can be blocked by the non-assent of a quarter of the states, vanishingly unlikely. It won’t be so easy to block N.P.V.

Paragraph three:

The appropriate forum to change or eliminate the Electoral College is through a constitutional amendment to the United States Constitution. The state legislature should focus on legislative matters that are germane to our state and leave federal matters to our congressional delegation.

An appropriate forum, not the appropriate forum. Electing the President by popular vote wouldn’t be the first great democratizing change to have bubbled up from the state level. That’s how we got two others, the popular election of senators and woman suffrage. Oregon found a way to have its senators picked by its people in 1907; by 1913, when the 17th Amendment was finally added to the Constitution, popular election was already a reality in twenty-nine states. Wyoming enfranchised its female citizens as early as 1869; by 1912 eight other states had followed suit. The 18th Amendment was ratified in 1920, by which time the women of Wyoming had been voting in local, state, and federal elections for half a century. The National Popular Vote plan is in this venerable tradition. And once Americans have experienced the advantages of one or two national popular elections—dramatically higher turnout, campaigns waged on national issues, political energy in every corner of the country, candidates turning up in more than a dozen or so states, every vote counting equally, and no more red state/blue state blather (to say nothing of no more losers stumbling into the White House)—the new arrangement will quickly be formalized in the Constitution itself.

*The Governor here commits the common, lazy error of referring to the President as the “Commander-in-Chief” without specifying that, under the Constitution, the only thing the President is Commander-in-Chief of is the armed forces. He is not the Commander-in-Chief of the United States. By the same token, the President of the Senate—i.e., the Vice-President—is the President of the Senate. Cheney to the contrary notwithstanding, he is not the President of the United States.

FISA Immunity? What Crimes?

Senators Arlen Spector and Russ Feingold talk FISA immunity. They don't even know the crimes to which immunity is being sought! If Feingold ran for POTUS, I would vote for him!


Hitch on Helms

I love Christopher Hitchens (well, sometimes). Here he writes the right obit for the Right's Jesse Helms.
Farewll to a Provincial Redneck
by Christpoher Hitchens

It seemed somehow profane that Sen. Jesse Helms should have managed to depart this life on the 232nd anniversary of the declaration of American independence. To die on the Fourth of July, one can perhaps be forgiven for feeling, is or ought to be a privilege reserved for men of the stamp of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom expired on that day in 1826, 50 years after the promulgation of the declaration. One doesn't want the occasion sullied by the obsequies for a senile racist buffoon.

Or, as the obituary in the New York Times so gently phrased it, for a man for whom "the orderliness of the small town even encompassed racial segregation; as a child, he saw it not as a great evil but as an accepted part of his world." He continued to "see" it that way as an adult, too, switching his party allegiance from Democrat to Republican in tune with the Nixon "Southern strategy" and famously deploying the "white hands" ad 20 years later, in which the genius of Dick Morris exploited the woes of the rejected white job seeker. That episode did get a mention in the obituary, but there was no recollection of Helms' role in opposing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, in protecting the apartheid state from the imposition of sanctions, or in defending white Rhodesia. (Margaret Thatcher's government complained officially at one point about the role played by Helms staffer John Carbaugh in urging the white settler regime of Ian Smith to hang tough in the independence negotiations.)

His chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a period of national embarrassment and, sometimes, disgrace. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, imposing additional economic sanctions on Cuba, multiplied the misery and beggary of Cuba's luckless inhabitants while doing nothing whatever to weaken its military dictatorship. Helms' amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1973, forbidding American aid to any family-planning groups that even mentioned the option of abortion, also greatly added to the woes and miseries of millions of Africans. (Fairness obliges me to say that in his last year in the Senate he did somewhat relax his equally stubborn and reactionary opposition to measures designed to combat AIDS in Africa. But this was only because it had by then become obvious that the disease was heterosexually transmitted. In general, his attitude to the AIDS plague was determined by a Bible-based bigotry that saw it as divine retribution for perversion.)

I make no apology for calling him a provincial redneck, because that, to be fair to him once more, was how he thought of himself and even described himself. It was a scandal that a man with so little knowledge of the outside world should have had such a stranglehold on American foreign policy for so long. He once introduced Benazir Bhutto as the prime minister of India. All right, that could have happened to anybody. But what about the hearings on North Korea in which he made repeated references to "Kim Jong the Second"? In order to prevent any repetition of this idiotic gaffe, Helms' staff propped up a piece of card on which was clearly written the pronunciation "Kim Jong ILL." The senator from North Carolina duly made the adjustment, referring thenceforth to the North Korean despot as "Kim Jong the Third."

I remember watching him at a hearing in the early 1980s, on the confirmation of Richard Burt as ambassador to Germany, and marveling that such a venomous hick could be in a position to block a treaty or to stall a nomination. To the delicacy of foreign relations, he brought all the sophistication of a crusader against "modern art." (On this issue, the New York Times obituarist felt more confident, I noticed, allowing himself a mild smirk at Helms' admitted failure to "figure out" the Alexander Calder mobile that was installed in the lobby of the Senate's newly opened Hart Building. Philistinism is an offense, even if it is not as rank as racism.) Had it not been for Helms, it is unlikely that the United States would have become so fatally embroiled with the scabrous contras of Nicaragua. And probably nobody but Helms could have surveyed the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s and concluded that the problem with that small and tortured country was that its government was already too socialist.

In his own deceptively folksy fashion, Helms was extremely beady-eyed when it came to questions of money, and his long-term dominance of what was deceptively called the National Congressional Club gave him a position of ultra-patronage in the world of the political action committee and the direct-mail slush fund. This ability to shake the trees and to distribute the fruits of fundraising secured him a tremendous deference at the time, not just among liberal Republicans but also among Democrats who needed a favor. I recall wincing at the way Madeleine Albright fawned on him when she needed Senate support for the elementary business of paying America's outstanding dues at the United Nations. The reward, for her and for those like her, was to hear Helms say in 1994 that if President Clinton ever visited North Carolina, "he'd better bring a bodyguard." This coarse remark was later disowned to everyone's satisfaction, but by that stage it was becoming clear to anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear that Helms was over the hill.

The way to mark Helms' passing is to recognize that he prolonged the life of the old segregated South and the Dixiecrat ascendancy and that in his own person, not unlike Strom Thurmond, he personified much of its absurdity and redundancy.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.

Airport Security Is Becoming Even More Shocking!

Can you believe this Washington Times story? Jeebus, I hope it is unbelievable.

Want some torture with your peanuts?
by Jeffrey Denning

Just when you thought you’ve heard it all...

A senior government official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expressed great interest in a so-called safety bracelet that would serve as a stun device, similar to that of a police Taser®. According to this promotional video found at the Lamperd Less Lethal website, the bracelet would be worn by all airline passengers.

This bracelet would:

• take the place of an airline boarding pass

• contain personal information about the traveler

• be able to monitor the whereabouts of each passenger and his/her luggage

• shock the wearer on command, completely immobilizing him/her for several minutes

The Electronic ID Bracelet, as it’s referred to as, would be worn by every traveler “until they disembark the flight at their destination.” Yes, you read that correctly. Every airline passenger would be tracked by a government-funded GPS, containing personal, private and confidential information, and that it would shock the customer worse than an electronic dog collar if he/she got out of line?

Clearly the Electronic ID Bracelet is an euphuism for the EMD Safety Bracelet, or at least it has a nefarious hidden ability, thus the term ID Bracelet is ambiguous at best. EMD stands for Electro-Musclar Disruption. Again, according to the promotional video the bracelet can completely immobilize the wearer for several minutes.

So is the government really that interested in this bracelet? Yes!

According to a letter from DHS official, Paul S. Ruwaldt of the Science and Technology Directorate, office of Research and Development, to the inventor whom he had previously met with, he wrote, “To make it clear, we [the federal government] are interested in…the immobilizing security bracelet, and look forward to receiving a written proposal.” The letterhead, in case you were wondering, came from the DHS office at the William J. Hughes Technical Center at the Atlantic City International Airport, or the Federal Aviation Administration headquarters.

In another part of the letter, Mr. Ruwaldt confirmed, “It is conceivable to envision a use to improve air security, on passenger planes.”

Would every paying airline passenger flying on a commercial airplane be mandated to wear one of these devices? I cringe at the thought. Not only could it be used as a physical restraining device, but also as a method of interrogation, according to the same aforementioned letter from Mr. Ruwaldt.

Would you let them put one of those on your wrist? Would you allow the airline employees, which would be mandated by the government, to place such a bracelet on any member of your family?

Why are tax dollars being spent on something like this? Is this a police state or is it America?

As we approach July 4th, Independence Day, I can’t help but think of the blessing we have of living in America and being free from hostile government forces. It calls to mind on of my favorite speeches given by an American Founding Forefather, Patrick Henry, who said,

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Obama Said What To The NEA?? Oh, No. He Didn't.

Great takedown over at Edwise of the voucher-lovers' spin on Obama's NEA speech.

Spinning Like Tops: These Responses To Obama's NEA Speech Are No Motown Classic

Filed under: Education by Leo Casey @ 5:19 pm

It is enough to induce vertigo, but watching “the spin” on Obama’s NEA speech from the usual quarters is informative. If you have some free time on your hands, check out the video of the speech and accompanying commentary by professional anti-teacher union blogger Michael Antonucci. Then do the rounds of the post-modern Four Tops, singing their spinning ditties in harmony: Joe Williams of DFER, Wall Street hedge fund operator Whitney Tilson, NCLB hawk Charles Barrone, and Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham, who sums it all up in Rod Paige style falsetto notes by comparing the NEA to the Kremlin.

Much is made of the few sentences of the Obama speech on teacher compensation. After talking about the need to increase teacher pay across the board and provide more support to teachers, Obama said:

Under my plan, districts will be able to design programs to give educators who serve them as mentors to new teachers the salary increases they’ve earned. They’ll be able to reward those who teach underserved areas or take on added responsibility. As teachers learn new skills or serve their students better or if they consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well. In some places we have already seen that it is possible to find new ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on teachers.

This statement, we are told by the Four Tops, is anathema to teacher unions. A few scattered boos at the NEA Assembly are treated as great signifiers, though they were clearly overcome by the cheers. But virtually all of these proposals by Obama are unexceptional here in New York City and in many other cities around the country. Paying educators more to be lead teachers with additional responsibilities such as mentoring and to serve in high needs schools are proposals that the UFT has long supported, and which we have discussed here at Edwize in the past. The New York City experiment with school wide bonuses adopted last fall demonstrate that when such proposals are “developed with teachers, not imposed on teachers,” to borrow Obama’s words which were dropped from Antonucci’s account, there are willing partners on the teacher union side.

What is more revealing is what in the Obama speech the Four Tops don’t discuss, especially given that they go to such hyperbolic lengths in their claims that the NEA is picking and choosing from the speech. There is no mention of Obama’s line “what I do oppose is using public money for private school vouchers.” Yet not so long ago [here, here and here], the Four Tops were putting words into Obama’s mouth suggesting just the opposite, and then howling cries of betrayal when he repudiated their spin.

Also missing were Obama’s words on the educational issue of the moment, No Child Left Behind. The Four Tops are among the most outspoken supporters of the law as its exists, so one might think that they would find it worthy of note that Obama spoke of “fixing the broken promises of NCLB,” specifically noting that “forcing teachers to teach to a test at the expense of music and art is wrong” and “forcing our kids and our schools to accomplish [all of the goals of NCLB] without the needed resources is wrong.” But not a word.

What a tale we spin…

At Least Franken Is Interesting

Mike Kinsley, of Kinsley Gaffe fame, has a post at the Post about gaffes!

The Real Joke in Minnesota
By Michael Kinsley

Monday, July 7, 2008; 12:00 AM

Americans say they want to be represented by "real people" and not by "professional politicians." But with their votes they reward professionalism and drain the reality from politics. Real people haven't spent their lives plotting a political career, and therefore real people may have said things from time to time that an aspiring politician would not. Departures from the official script are called gaffes. This election year, the script has been more important than ever. Despite the Iraq war, despite the sinking economy, despite the price of gasoline, we have frittered away our politics in a round robin of gaffes, mock indignation, demands for apology and more gaffes.

The surest way to stumble into a gaffe is to tell a joke. Jokes are risky; they are a game of percentages. That is why jokes are best left to professional jokesters. Certainly they are too dangerous for politicians to play with. Any joke that doesn't offend at least a few people is unlikely to be funny. You have to hope that many more will be amused than are offended. You have to come as close as you can to the line of justifiable, widespread offense without crossing it. This is why I never found George Carlin, who died last month, terribly funny: He walked up to the line and simply crossed it. Where is the art in that?

The professional politician, by contrast, lives to avoid giving offense. This isn't easy. In today's Culture of Umbrage, taking offense is a major sport. Everybody is on hair-trigger alert. And once a voter is offended, he or she is probably lost. On the other hand, keeping the voters amused is difficult and probably not worth the trouble. A voter who is amused may vote against you anyway or may seize an opportunity to take offense and turn against you tomorrow.

This year a professional jokester, Al Franken (D), is challenging a professional politician, incumbent Norm Coleman (R), for a Senate seat in Minnesota. Not every joke Franken wrote or told over a third of a century in the joke business was hilarious, okay? Minnesota voters will have to decide whether their dislike of professional politicians trumps their enjoyment in taking umbrage, or vice versa. Coleman is a man of no interest, a run-of-the-mill professional politician who started out as a standard issue long-haired student rebel leader on Long Island in the 1960s and surfed the zeitgeist until now. Today he is a standard-issue pro-war tax-cut Republican. Franken, by contrast, needs no introduction and from Day One would be one of the most interesting people in the Senate. "Interesting," of course, isn't the most important quality in a senator. "Honest," "smart" and (for my taste) "liberal" are more important. But "interesting" would be nice.

Franken's problem is that he spent three decades as a professional comedian before turning to politics and thus has a large inventory of potential gaffe material to explain away: a 1995 magazine article describing Franken as proposing rude, unfunny jokes about rape at a Saturday Night Live staff meeting; a 2000 article in Playboy fantasizing about three-way sex with robots (or something); an ungallant crack about women in Afghanistan (a place Franken has visited repeatedly with the USO); and so on. Take the SNL staff meeting: None of Franken's rude fantasies made it onto the air, and there is no evidence that he especially wanted them to. He was thinking out loud, an activity vital to professional comics and fatal to professional politicians. The only way a meeting to plan a comedy show can possibly work is if everybody feels free to say absolutely anything. If comedy writers are thinking "I'd better not say that because it may not be funny and in 13 years I may decide to run for the Senate," we will end up with fewer good jokes on TV and even fewer interesting people in the Senate.

Franken (a slight but friendly acquaintance of mine) is in a quandary. He can't stop his campaign to defend every joke he's ever written that someone now finds offensive, or pretends to. Trying to explain a joke is notoriously pointless anyway. But Franken also can't let his opponent create the impression that he is some kind of sexist monster, rather than the long-married, deeply uxorious family man that he is, with the progressive views on abortion choice and related issues that you would expect from a Democratic liberal. If the voters of Minnesota would rather be represented by a hack like Norm Coleman than laugh off a few jokes that didn't work, then they should stop complaining about being stuck with professional politicians. And the real joke will be on them.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time magazine and washingtonpost.com.

Jim Webb Says "NO" to VPOTUS

Here is his statement:

"Last week I communicated to Senator Obama and his presidential campaign my firm intention to remain in the United States Senate, where I believe I am best equipped to serve the people of Virginia and this country. Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for Vice President. A year and a half ago, the people of Virginia honored me with election to the U.S. Senate. I entered elective politics because of my commitment to strengthen America's national security posture, to promote economic fairness, and to increase government accountability. I have worked hard to deliver upon that commitment, and I am convinced that my efforts and talents toward those ends are best served in the Senate. In this regard, the bipartisan legislative template we were able to put into effect through 18 months of work in order to enact the new, landmark GI Bill will serve as a prototype for my future endeavors in government. This process, wherein we brought 58 Senators from both parties to the table as co-sponsors, along with more than 300 members of the House, gives me renewed confidence that the Congress can indeed work effectively across party lines and address the concerns of our citizens.

"At this time I am also renewing my commitment to work hard to make sure that Senator Obama wins both Virginia and the presidency this November. He is a man who speaks eloquently about our national goals and calls for the practical solutions that must be put into place to obtain them. I will proudly campaign for him."

TNR Goes All Literate On Obama

The New Republic has a great review of Obama's books. Not late, rather, a study in, well, read on.....

Deconstructing Barry
by Andrew Delbanco

A literary critic reads Obama.

Andrew Delbanco, The New Republic Published: Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"Le style, c'est l'homme," a Frenchman said a long time ago. If style is indeed the man, and the man is on the verge of being nominated for the presidency of the United States, it seems the moment to ask what his style might tell us about his mind and heart.

Many Americans have already decided what they think about this question. Some find in Barack Obama's eloquence the promise that he will be a leader of insight and inspiration. Others distrust his verbal fluency and feel he is nothing more than a smooth-talking huckster. I know discerning people on both sides of the question. And, since there is no evident correlation between eloquence and executive leadership (Washington was an indifferent writer, Lincoln a great one), it may not be possible to know who's right except in retrospect.

Even after his breakout into national prominence, Obama has remained a largely unknown politician whose air of destiny can make him seem distant and opaque. Yet, by listening closely to his language, I think we can learn something about who he really is.

Everyone, pro and con, seems to agree that he is an unusually gifted writer. So gifted, in fact, that the biographer and critic Arnold Rampersad describes himself as "taken aback, even astonished" by the "clever tricks" and "inventions for literary effect" he finds in Obama's books. Consider this account in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, of playing basketball in prep school, which starts with short sentences, each ending in a percussive or sibilant monosyllable, then moves into a run-on sentence that mimics the flow of the game:

"By the time I reached high school, I was playing on Punahou's teams, and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn't just have to do with sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up. That you didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions--like hurt or fear--you didn't want them to see.

"And something else, too, something nobody talked about: a way of being together when the game was tight and the sweat broke and the best players stopped worrying about their points and the worst players got swept up in the moment and the score only mattered because that's how you sustained the trance. In the middle of which you might make a move or a pass that surprised even you, so that even the guy guarding you had to smile, as if to say, 'Damn ...'"

This is a young writer (he was around 30 when he wrote Dreams) strutting his stuff. Sometimes he overwrites, as when he describes police cars cruising past groups of sullen black teens in "barracuda silence" or compares a row of scrappy trees to "hair swept across a bald man's head." He has a habit--almost a tic--of throwing in a cinematic flourish when none is needed: "a spotted, mangy cat" runs among weeds with a crumbling housing project in the background; a torn poster-photo of the recently dead Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, tumbles down a windswept street. And, as Rampersad suggests, he is a master of sleight of hand, as when, recounting his trip to Kenya as a young man in search of traces of his father, he takes what were clearly multiple conversations with his half-sister and stitches them into a seamless family history.

But none of these techniques strikes me as a "trick"--a word that implies fraudulence. What struck me instead about Dreams from My Father is the feeling that through and beyond the local details the writing opens out into universal experience. Obama describes his childhood in Hawaii, where his white Midwestern mother and his black African father met as students, in language so vivid that we almost taste the "rice candy with edible wrappers" and feel the relief from the tropical heat in the "cool rush of Manoa Falls, with its ginger blossoms and high canopies filled with the sound of invisible birds."

But sooner or later in this Eden the serpent will make an appearance. And so she does--in the form of a red-haired girl in his fifth-grade class, who asks, with a hint of prurience, if she can touch his hair. Having been raised largely unaware of race, Obama begins to notice that "Cosby never got the girl on I Spy" and that the "black man on Mission Impossible spent all his time underground." The schoolgirl's question is followed by the shock of coming upon a photo in Life magazine of a black man, his skin blotched and made pallid by a "chemical treatment" he had "paid for ... with his own money" in an effort to bleach out his blackness.

I am imputing a theme here--the fall from paradise--that Obama suggests only lightly even as he tends to group his memories into episodes of temptation and redemption. In a chapter on his college years, he hints at having been tempted by drugs and what he calls "African nationalism." After college, playing half- willingly the role of Model Minority in a New York consulting firm, he fears the "beauty, the filth, the noise" of the great city, where, in order to resist its allure, he takes "on the temperament if not the convictions of a street corner preacher, prepared to see temptation everywhere, ready to overrun a fragile will."

Fleeing to Chicago, he confronts new tempters--old pols, gangbangers turned radicals, and, most dangerous, the sins of wrath and despair--until he finds the promise of redemption in service itself.

It is in Chicago, where "the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground," that he gets to know the sort of people who seem wary of him today--"men and women who smoked a lot and didn't watch their weight, shopped at Sears or Kmart ... and ate in Red Lobster on special occasions." Perhaps because he grew up in a fatherless house (his father left when Barack was barely two), he feels a special connection to the mothers and grandmothers, mainly but not only black, who harbor childhood memories of church-centered Southern towns, and of the tidy city to which they brought their hopes, before the meatpacking or auto-parts plant closed and their fathers, brothers, or husbands lost their jobs and dreams. He writes about these people with great sensitivity--watching through women's eyes as their children's "eyes stop laughing." He is touched by their practice of wrapping treasured sofas and carpets in protective plastic--to be peeled off, they still dare to hope, on the day when the family will rally for the graduation or wedding of a child who has not fallen to the drug culture of the streets.

The climactic section of the book is the account of his journey to Kenya--"a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers"--in which he reverts to the lush language with which he had recounted his childhood in Hawaii. To his Western eyes, Kenya sometimes seems a picturesque "fable, a painting by Rousseau" in which lions yawn in peaceful repose while "a train of Masai women" passes by, "their heads shaven clean, their slender bodies wrapped in red shukas, their earlobes elongated and ringed with bright beads." The family members he comes to know--sisters, brothers, even a surviving grandmother--are warm and welcoming people, but this Eden, too, turns out to be a mirage.

On the one hand, it is a loving world where "nobody sends their parents to an old people's home or leaves their children with strangers"; on the other hand, it is a world of mud-and-dung huts where, witnessing a young mother with her child, he has to fight "the urge to brush away the flies that formed two solid rings around the baby's puffed eyes." Looking back in his imagination from this dual world to his native America, he sees its own dualities more clearly from the distance. Shooting hoops with a young half-brother in Kenya, he "tried to picture the basketball courts back in the States. The sound of gunshots nearby, a guy peddling nickel hits in the stairwell--that was one picture. The laughter of boys playing in their suburban backyard, their mother calling them in for lunch. That was true, too."

Obama's trip to Kenya, where he learns about the dashing but ultimately defeated father whom he barely knew, seems to free him from his enervating struggle to overcome temptation and find redemption. There is a feeling of release as he comes back home with a deepened appreciation of the complexities of history and a sense of his own opportunities and obligations in America.

Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, which takes its title from a sermon by the now-notorious Jeremiah Wright, was written a decade after Dreams from My Father. It is less personal and more miscellaneous--a set of loosely linked reflections on the effects of the press on politics, on the compromising clubbiness of the Senate, on the insularity of powerful people living in a kind of quarantine that only beneficiaries and would-be benefactors can violate. Though here and there his literary instincts reassert themselves (there's a nice description of the "python curves" of the Mississippi as seen from the air), this is basically a policy book in which the writing is more efficient than expressive. We get some familiar lamentation about gridlock politics--about the effects of gerrymandering or the irony that the filibuster, once an instrument used by reactionaries to obstruct liberal legislation, is now used (or threatened) by liberals to obstruct the appointment of reactionary judges. Sometimes the whole book seems a farewell to, or at least a rationale for leaving, the Senate.

Yet the voice of the writer is fundamentally the same as the one we hear in Dreams. There is the same internal counterpoise in the sentences: "Most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual" ... "most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows." When he scans the human landscape, Obama tends to notice contradictory individuals more than coherent interest groups. His sentences are alive because they are in tension with themselves:

I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who won't give a loan to expand his business. There's the middle- aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager's abortion ...

This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though it lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other--a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.

Both these books are the work of a dialectical mind. Both are written by someone who believes in progress but not that all liberal social programs constitute progress. "By detaching income from work," he writes of "the old AFDC program" (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), it "sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self-respect." He has an Orwellian alertness to how easily language degenerates into cant, as when the term of praise "bipartisan" is used to dress up a sacrifice of principle by the weaker party in a political dispute. And he understands the presence of the past in public life--not only of recent history, as in his discussion of the Democratic Party since the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, but of distant history, as in his reflections on the imperiled idea of deliberative democracy as inherited from the founding fathers.

Remarkably enough for a contemporary politician, Obama's sense of the American past includes our literary past. His books are allusive--sometimes overtly, as when he dissents from F. Scott Fitzgerald ("in politics there may be second acts, but no second place"), sometimes obliquely, as when, relating an incident with a waiter in Nairobi, he echoes W.E.B. DuBois's famous passage in The Souls of Black Folk on "double consciousness." The waiter is a Kenyan citizen but still a colonial-minded servant fawning on white customers while snubbing blacks: "And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition."

Writing recently in The New York Times Book Review, George Packer recommended that Obama read Theodore Dreiser's great Chicago novel Sister Carrie--in order, Packer wrote rather patronizingly, to learn about "the sort of American he doesn't know." If Obama hasn't already read Dreiser (I suspect he has), he needs no tutoring about the kinds of lives Dreiser wrote about--lives of unfocused longing, vulnerable to temptation and exploitation. Indeed there is a sense in which he brings together in his memoir, as Dreiser did in his fiction, the two basic American stories--stories of rising and stories of awakening. His books are "how-to" books about his own exemplary success at competing with others in the marketplace, but they are also conversion narratives about his discovery that serving others is the only way to save oneself.

It is hard for any writer, no matter how selective his memory or guarded his words, to conceal himself in his writing. I suspect (I've never met him) that the weaknesses and strengths of Obama's writing reflect those of his character-- a virtuosity that tempts him to be pleased with himself and impatient with others, but also an awareness of human complexity that made me think of a writer to whom he does not allude, Henry James, whose criterion for the artist as someone "on whom nothing is lost" he meets.

Finally, one feels in Obama's books as well as his speeches the presence of that iconic American, Abraham Lincoln, whom he sometimes names and sometimes namelessly invokes. In The Audacity of Hope, he tells of having once received a rebuke ("not entirely undeserved") for presumptuously likening himself in print to Lincoln. On his first visit to the White House as a freshman senator, he tells us, Lincoln appeared to him as a ghostly figure "pacing the hall, shouldering the weight of a nation," the moral and political genius who managed to maintain "within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas--that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence."

This description of Lincoln as a man of self-doubt yet with an unswerving sense of mission is as instructive as it is insightful. Obama seems to have composed his public life in conscious emulation of Lincoln. He announced his candidacy in Springfield and delivered his speech on race in Philadelphia, where Lincoln, en route to his first inauguration, gave a great speech on the Declaration of Independence as America's secular scripture. In his victory speech on the night of clinching the Democratic nomination, Obama incorporated or played variations on several phrases from Lincoln--"the last full measure of devotion," "the last best hope of earth," "the better angels of our nature."

To some, it all seems calculated and hubristic, and they will no doubt continue to detect in his style a self-involved inwardness. But, to me, it feels like heartfelt homage from someone with a keen sense of the complexities and commonalities of human experience. On the hopeful premise that style really does tell us something about the man, this man--to my ear, at least--is the real deal.

Andrew Delbanco teaches at Columbia, where he is Levi Professor in the Humanities and director of American Studies.


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