OPW, politics

OPW: Mo Udall and John McCain

This story seemed an apt and serendipitous follow-on to my post of yesterday, so here it is in today’s “Other People’s Words.” This is an excerpt recently shared by Slate, which they saw as a rather illustrative portrait of John McCain. It comes from from a decade-old article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine.

By 7:30 we were on the road, and McCain was reminiscing about his early political career. When he was elected to the House in 1982, he said, he was “a freshman right-wing Nazi.” But his visceral hostility toward Democrats generally was quickly tempered by his tendency to see people as individuals and judge them that way. He was taken in hand by Morris Udall, the Arizona congressman who was the liberal conscience of the Congress and a leading voice for reform. (Most famously—and disastrously for his own career—Udall took aim at the seniority system that kept young talent in its place at the end of the dais. “The longer you’re here, the more you’ll like it,” he used to joke to incoming freshmen.)

“Mo reached out to me in 50 different ways,” McCain recalled. “Right from the start, he’d say: ‘I’m going to hold a press conference out in Phoenix. Why don’t you join me?’ All these journalists would show up to hear what Mo had to say. In the middle of it all, Mo would point to me and say, ‘I’d like to hear John’s views.’ Well, hell, I didn’t have any views. But I got up and learned and was introduced to the state.” Four years later, when McCain ran for and won Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat, he said he felt his greatest debt of gratitude not to Goldwater—who had shunned him—but to Udall. “There’s no way Mo could have been more wonderful,” he says, “and there was no reason for him to be that way.”

For the past few years, Udall has lain ill with Parkinson’s disease in a veterans hospital in Northeast Washington, which is where we were heading. Every few weeks, McCain drives over to pay his respects. These days the trip is a ceremony, like going to church, only less pleasant. Udall is seldom conscious, and even then he shows no sign of recognition. McCain brings with him a stack of newspaper clips on Udall’s favorite subjects: local politics in Arizona, environmental legislation, Native American land disputes, subjects in which McCain initially had no particular interest himself. Now, when the Republican senator from Arizona takes the floor on behalf of Native Americans, or when he writes an op-ed piece arguing that the Republican Party embrace environmentalism, or when the polls show once again that he is Arizona’s most popular politician, he remains aware of his debt to Arizona’s most influential Democrat.

One wall of Udall’s hospital room was cluttered with photos of his family back in Arizona; another bore a single photograph of Udall during his season with the Denver Nuggets, dribbling a basketball. Aside from a congressional seal glued to a door jamb, there was no indication what the man in the bed had done for his living. Beneath a torn gray blanket on a narrow hospital cot, Udall lay twisted and disfigured. No matter how many times McCain tapped him on the shoulder and called his name, his eyes remained shut.

A nurse entered and seemed surprised to find anyone there, and it wasn’t long before I found out why: Almost no one visits anymore. In his time, which was not very long ago, Mo Udall was one of the most-sought-after men in the Democratic Party. Yet as he dies in a veterans hospital a few miles from the Capitol, he is visited regularly only by a single old political friend, John McCain. “He’s not going to wake up this time,” McCain said.

On the way out of the parking lot, McCain recalled what it was like to be a nobody called upon by a somebody. As he did, his voice acquired the same warmth that colored Russell Feingold’s speech when he described the first call from John McCain. “When you called Feingold … ” I started to ask him. But before I could, he interrupted. “Yeah,” he says, “I thought of Mo.” And then, for maybe the third time that morning, McCain spoke of how it affected him when Udall took him in hand. It was a simple act of affection and admiration, and for that reason it meant all the more to McCain. It was one man saying to another, We disagree in politics but not in life. It was one man saying to another, party political differences cut only so deep. Having made that step, they found much to agree upon and many useful ways to work together. This is the reason McCain keeps coming to see Udall even after Udall has lost his last shred of political influence. The politics were never all that important.


Review: Raining McCain

In her 1964 essay–if one can call an enumerated list an essay–“Notes on ‘Camp,'” Susan Sontag delineated what she called the Camp style. Though nearly every example she gives is obscure to me, the essential traits of camp are clear: it’s exaggerated, it’s methods overwhelm its message, and it thereby becomes a parody of itself.

Raining McCain” (playable at right), is the most delightfully bad music video I’ve seen recently. And is the quintessences of camp.

Taking off on the idea of the the Obama Girl, who herself played with elements of camp, “the McCain Girls” have created a video so campy as to be perceived as parody or satire. I’m rather confident that it was neither, and in that lies it’s brilliance.

The video laden with elements that seem too comical to be true. The effects, especially call out for attention. Of the three McCain girls, the left-most is notable primarily for her outfit. Making the mistake of wearing colors too similar to the green screen on which the after-effects were laid, she regularly and unintentionally fades into and out of the background.

Other special effects are so silly as to require attention. At one point, the disembodied head of Senator McCain bounces around the screen behind the singing girls. At another point, while full-bodied McCains are falling from the sky, the lead singer takes the opportunity to douse her face in her favorite presidential candidate.

The singing too, of a rewritten version of “It’s Raining Men,” is problematic. Not only are the girls not given the benefit of the technology used by professional singers to improve harmonizing, but there are also notable times when they seem to forget the words. The effect is damning in a video that already feels campy.

All of these reasonable mistakes combine to create a video more funny that serious. Whose message is largely lost in the over-wrought and flawed execution of the concept. And which has gotten ever-increasing attention for its flawed execution and not it’s political messages. Unsurprisingly, the commenter seem rather confused as to rather the videos serious or satire. That, then, is perhaps the state of camp today.

As Ms. Sontag said,

One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.

The commenter’s mistake is made because in the last few decades fake camp has proliferated. One need only remember the recent Snakes on a Plane or the older True Lies to understand the proliferation of intentional camp.

But these are, indeed, less satisfying. Something that sets out to be “campy” is automatically cursed by its self-awareness. It comes across in the reception, which even for the relatively well-executed True Lies was mixed.

This is what makes “Raining McCain” so interesting. In an era where we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be genuine, serious, and deeply flawed, here come three woman to show us the glory of truly naïve camp. I, for one, am very grateful for them.


About Super Tuesday

Josh ThompsonSuper Tuesday Voters

Let’s recap: A lot of people in a lot of states participated in presidential nominating contests yesterday. Though no one expected Huckabee to win anything, he did. And no one expected that McCain would be derailed; he was not. No one expected that the Democratic race would have a decisive conclusion; it does not. Ms. Clinton won more large states–as was expected–while Mr. Obama won more total states. What that means for conventional wisdom, delegate counts, and the public at large is still unclear.

And now let’s stop talking about it. And talk about how, again, I want to reconsider my support of this whole process. Well, not really. This time I still like the process. I like that average people are choosing these candidates and not merely a few party elites. I like that these candidates are becoming better understood by the people they so desire to lead. It’s not a bad process.

But I’m really really wondering what else we’re missing as we do all this. How much more attention would Kenya be getting if we didn’t worry so much about this game? How much more attention would be given to Tadic’s reelection in Serbia? How much more attention would have been paid to the skirmishes for Chad’s capital of N’Djamena?

How much more would we worry about President Bush’s proposed budget for 2009? Or about the efficacy of the stimulus package that Congress is putting to a vote? Or that the attorney general still refuses to say anything meaningful about waterboarding or torture?

The answer seems to be, upon reflection, not much. Those international stories are surely too obscure to get much attention in American media even on the slowest day of the year. And the domestic news is being ignored because the country has lost almost all confidence in–and perhaps more importantly, concern about–President Bush and all that he may or may not be attempting to do in his final year.

So perhaps it’s not so bad, the way that we’re flooded with campaign coverage. Surely some worthwhile things that would otherwise get coverage go missing while the media works to satiate our seeming unending hunger for presidential punditry, however oversimplified, overdramatic, or just plain weird.

But this country is in the process of making an important decision, and it’s not so bad that media outlets are trying to help us make the right one. We will, after all, let this person run our country for the next four years. Perhaps it’s not so bad making sure they are everywhere we look before we make that choice.


Savage Politics

Marc Nozell (cc)No Mudslinging

I admit it. I was wrong. I don’t like it. I don’t like this whole mess one bit. This presidential campaign has already disappointed me. A lot.

Last time I addressed the presidential nomination process, I called it “exhilarating.” And though I did hesitate to use the word at the time, I decided it was good enough. Now I’m certain that was never the right word for this process. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that when I wrote “exhilarating,” the “conventional wisdom” stated firmly that Barack Obama and John McCain were going to win their respective nominating contests. And at the time, the two men were both saying the right things.

Fast forward two weeks. We have continuous semantic sparring between Mr. Obama and Mr. and Mrs. Clinton about truly petty concerns, perhaps most notable is Mr. Obama’s unimpeachable statement that Mr. Reagan changed the country. The discussion is nearly as far divorced from the candidate’s real words as the earlier confrontation about what Mrs. Clinton had to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lydon Johnson.

Both of these disputes are purely superficial. It’s true that the Civil Rights Act couldn’t have passed without hard work by white politician like Mr. Johnson. It’s also true that Mr. Reagan’s vision inspired and transformed the country. The fact that either of these statements gave rise to all the confrontation and vitriol it did is a testament to our broken political discourse. To our collective inability to, to borrow Mr. Obama’s words, disagree without being disagreeable.

Who is to blame for all of this? There’s little question that NBC, who held the Democratic debate eight days ago, intentionally tried to create a fight over Mrs. Clinton’s Johnson comments. But there’s also no question that the candidates willingly bickered and sniped during Monday’s debate on CNN. To varying degrees we could easily blame “the media,” the candidates, and voters.

The Republican contest has seem much less mired in semantics, but that’s probably because the leading candidates all have distinctly different views. Mike Huckabee is certainly less economically conservative–and more willing to pander to Confederate flag fans–than Mr. McCain. Mr. Guilliani’s certainly more socially liberal than either Huckabee or McCain. And whatever Mr. Romney stands for today, you can be certain that it’s not the same as anyone, even his former self.

In a sad way, the fights among Democrats are a clear symptom of how much the candidates–and the party as a whole–agree upon. Unable to have a meaningful fight about anything but their health care plans, the media and the candidates have had to look for smaller points to harp on. Mr. Obama’s had to repeatedly insinuate that he’s being double teamed because Mrs. Clinton can’t handle him alone. And Mrs. Clinton has drudged up some scandalous-sounding issues about one Mr. Rezko.

Though I still agree that this process is good, I’m no longer enamored with it. It’s this type of knock-down drag-out everywhere-you-look conflict that turns so many people off of politics. And if I’ve learned nothing else in the past two weeks, I now know better why people say they hate this beast.

politics, USA

Moderating the “Undocumented” Issue

corazón girlDallas Protest March

They have a lot of names. Invaders. Spics. Terrorists. Wetbacks. Identity thieves. Less harshly, illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers.

They have been, over the last few years, one of America’s most important political flashpoints. Derided by some as simple lawbreakers who deserve no rights or preference. Praised by others as hardworking immigrants in the greatest American tradition that deserve a full place at the table.

Efforts to solve the problem that by various estimates includes 12 million, 17 million, or 20 million people have failed. After efforts to pass moderate reform laws twice failed, George W. Bush’s executive branch decided to make it appear that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm was serious about the problem. Raids on employers followed, with the brunt of the effort harming lay workers and the not the corporations that employ them.

This has brought the president some greater credibility with the “law and order” conservatives who seem to oppose any reform that doesn’t involve building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico and forcibly deporting all the undocumented.

But the Republican presidential field now lacks a member of that group. Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo–the immigration opponent–ended his presidential bid last month and threw his support behind the Massachusetts governor who had been accused (accurately it turns out) of running a “sanctuary mansion.” This detail came out in the same debate in which it was unveiled that the other governor, Mike Huckabee, didn’t oppose giving scholarship to the children of the undocumented. And the former mayor of New York City, like most other mayors of large American cities, had run a “sanctuary city.” John McCain, perhaps worst of all, twice supported the president’s push for moderation on the issue.

The Democrats’ history on the “undocumented” issue is much harder to pin down, current and former Senators that they (almost) all are. But Hillary Clinton fell into the fray about New York’s failed plan to license all drivers, legal citizens or not.

The whole issue has long been mired in two competing narratives, neither of which tells the whole story.

From the far right comes the narrative of inhuman criminals who are here to steal jobs. These Mexicans–they’re rarely seen as anything “white”–have broken the law by coming here, broken the law by living here, and broken the law by working here. The only way to make sure they leave never come back is to assure that their life in America is an impossible hell. We’ll have to assure they’re deprived government services, the right to work, and probably arrest a lot of them. And we’ll have to build a giant wall to make sure they never come back.

From the far left we get the narrative of the deprived and desperate economic refugees from an impossible life in Mexico. They’ve come here with hope and hard work in mind. They’re vital parts of their communities and should be treated with respect. Citizenship should be made available to them, as should larger quotas so people don’t have to come to America illegally.

The stark contrast between the two views is clear. As is the impossibility of a détente between them.

The country will not solve the problem unless the two views are rectified. And there are only two ways for that to happen. Moderates to win control of power in Washington, or the most determined partisans realizing that their views make them look like ham-handed buffoons (I doubt the latter will ever occur).

Americans do need to raise legal immigration levels, especially from Mexico and central American countries that have supplied most of the tide of illegals. They need to recognize that their immigration enforcement system is badly broken and in need of systematic repair. They must recognize that amnesty is not the answer, but also that a long wait, big fines, and a thorough background check is not amnesty.

Progress on this issues has been halting and frustrating. And though I sincerely hope that the new year and new president (I know that doesn’t officially happen until 2009, but it effectively happens in November) will bring a wiser political class with greater willingness to accept compromise and moderation, I recognize that I may be waiting some time.

politics, USA, world

The Nuclear Dilemma

I’m rather certain that my favorite Republican presidential candidate during the 2000 election cycle was John McCain. I’m also rather certain that he’s my favorite this time too. It’s not that he’s perfect. Far from it. I’m well aware that he’s got flaws, and I’ve certainly taken issue with some of the things he’s said.

Lest we go too far into America’s political realities, let’s get back to nukes. But this is not about Iran, North Korea, or the kind of nuclear technologies that go boom. We’re talking about the significantly less frightening kind that just boil water.

Nuclear technology and environmentalists have never been friends. And so the idea that they’ll suddenly become so is unlikely. But John McCain is right about one thing: environmentalists need nuclear power.

To their credit some have come to this realization. Stewart Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalogue, which The Economist described as “a path-breaking manual crammed with examples of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their environmental impact” that still has fans in environmental circles.

But Mr. Brand, like Mr. McCain, has embraced the importance of nuclear power to the greening of America. Also like Mr. McCain (and myself), he fails to see what’s so bad about nuclear power and the requisite waste storage. Again, The Economist:

For years, he held the orthodox environmental view that nukes were evil. He now confesses that this was merely “knee-jerk opposition”, and not a carefully considered opinion. His growing concern about global warming, which he calls “the single most important environmental threat facing mankind”, explains his U-turn in favour of this low-carbon but hugely controversial source of electricity.

The turning point came, he says, when he visited Yucca Mountain, a remote site in the Nevada desert where American officials plan to bury the country’s nuclear waste. … Although greens and other anti-nuclear activists oppose the Yucca Mountain project, Mr Brand says he realised that “we are asking the wrong question” about nuclear power. Rather than asking how spent nuclear fuel can be kept safe for 10,000 to 100,000 years, he says, we should worry about keeping it safe for only 100 years. Because nuclear waste still contains an enormous amount of energy, future generations may be able to harness it as an energy source through tomorrow’s better technologies.

Though I’m not as sanguine as Mr. Brand about the ease with which technology will reharness our spent nuclear fuel, I fail to see how opposition to nuclear power is anything but a knee-jerk reaction. Given the choice between filling even a few hollowed-out mountains with spent nuclear fuel or flooding a number of small island nations and coastal cities into nonexistence I think the choices is obvious.

Surely green power-generation technologies exist, and surely they’re becoming more efficient by the year, but they’re hardly ready to be the sole fuel sources for the world. The most well-known options–wind and solar–are both inefficient and far from dependable. It doesn’t take much to realize that without wind or sun they’d produce no power.

Nuclear power certainly is not a perfect technology, but it’s the most carbon-neutral and dependable option available. Power generation companies in this country and around the world realize this and are working to build bigger, safer, and more productive nuclear power stations (usually near existing ones, to avoid the “not in my backyard” problem). And though the most obvious allies for the power companies push to lower carbon dioxide emission are greens, they’re still the people most likely to step out and oppose it.

The issue of safety with nuclear power stations is still the foremost for most opponents. It’s worth noting, as I have, that compared with coal, nuclear is incredibly safe. The number of deaths related to the Chernobyl disaster is easily dwarfed by the number killed mining coal in China in a single year.

Certainly that doesn’t compare with the estimated zero killed by wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power plants, but this is again ignoring the issue of viability as dependable producers of electricity.

Nuclear is hardly the ideal choice. Were completely safe and renewable energy a viable option in the next few years, I would readily support it. But it’s not. What’s currently available is the unsavory choice between fossil fuels and nuclear, and between those two nuclear is certainly the safer and more environmentally-friendly option. Until renewable sources of energy are dependable and efficient enough, I think nuclear remains the only acceptable stop-gap for a carbon-concerned environmentalist. The sooner that’s realized, the better.


How John McCain Would Lose the “War on Terror”

McCain angryJohn McCain was on Charlie Rose this Monday (video here). On the program, he cogently explained what, if implemented, would surely be one of the best ways to lose the so-called “War on Terror.”

What McCain said was not so bad as the “all Muslims are evil” statements Americans still hear. His statement was rather moderate by that comparison.

What troubled me was a bad comparison he drew, and I’m not talking about the Iraq-is-Vietnam meme that has recently become popular with the right. Rather, McCain made the rather odd assertion that we have to create something akin to Radio Free Europe, only using new technology, in order to communicate with what is commonly called the “Arab street.”

He offered that, as we did during the Cold War, the United States needs to make sure that we spread “hope and optimism” to people behind some poor analogy’s “iron curtain.” But then he went on, saying:

We have got to describe to them why our values are superior, why their’s [are] evil, and why this is a titanic struggle, and one that they can’t join on the side of evil.

Hearing this, my jaw dropped. I wondered if this was really the man that many independents had wanted in 2000, the so-called “sensible Republican candidate.” His statement is absurd. It represents thinking that would easily worsen the causes of terrorism.

The first problem with McCain’s statement is that it draws on a terrible analogy. By and large, the audience for Radio Free Europe was comprised of those convinced that their authoritarian government was wrong. They took the democratic message of the program to heart because they had been raised to believe in it.

However, ‘radicalizable’ Muslims (those who could become terrorists) do not generally believe in American or even democratic values. They may not know them, but it’s unlikely they would be swayed by hearing them on the radio, or reading them on internet. If such an organization, in the model of Radio Free Europe, set about proselytizing for “American” value, it would likely make it easier, not harder, for al-Queda to recruit alienated Arabs.

Secondly, McCain’s statement divides the world into only two types of ideologies, presumably the Muslims and the rest. Is McCain unaware that this is precisely what the terrorists use to sway the impressionable? That they convince young kids that the United States, with the rest of the non-Arab world, is waging systematic and ideological war against Islam? Did he miss that memo?

Further, his word are rife with cultural paternalism chauvanism that is at best short-sighted. What is not needed here is the belief that American values are the best values, or even that they are exceptionally good values, but to show the “Arab street” that civil interactions and diplomacy can and do win you willing cooperation from the outside world.

The Hoover Institution (yes, it’s a conservative think tank) recently published a piece in the bi-monthly Policy Review that helps explain what is needed to prevent the alienation and fear-mongering that leads many Islamic youths to terrorism.

In “Strong Society, Weak State” (an article far better and more expansive than this summary), Lawrence Chickering and P. Edward Haley discuss the need for the US government to bolster local civil-society organizations (CSOs, which promote basic freedoms and democracy) as a strategic initiative. In summary, the authors write:

In this paper, we argue that in dealing with weak states [like those across the Middle East], foreign-policymakers must expand their intellectual horizons and attempt to influence societies and cultures. This means formulating two separate policies, one for states and one for societies — with conventional foreign policy addressing the objective interests of states and the other addressing the largely subjective challenges of societies and cultures.

Chickering and Haley’s proposal for the forward movement in the “War on Terror,” which they rightly point out is more of accurately ‘policy and police actions for sustained security’ (admittedly less catchy), requires more than the use of force. It also requires local efforts to foster democratic values (which are not inherently American values). They make clear that this cannot be overtly tied to the United States, but must be done by local CSOs run by local citizen. And if this succeeds, it and only it can delegitimize radical clerics and political parties like Hamas and Hezbolluh.

What Mr. McCain is ignoring is this crucial element. America’s proselytizing the Arab world and the Islamic citizenry is not the solution to our problems; in fact, it is the cause of the problem of Islamic terrorism.

What is needed is a long-term policy effort to delegitimize government sponsors of terror, while acknowledging the cultural traditions and governments that many terrorists see themselves as defending.

We do need to foster civil society, as McCain endeavored to suggest, but we cannot do it in the way he suggested. We must allow this to occur slowly, and locally. And though the US can offer funding to organizations, it cannot openly flout it’s cash and it’s values. To do so would only create more terrorists, not less.

In the ongoing “War on Terror,”America must be strategic and humble, not brash and bold as Mr. McCain seems to desire.