Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
Has there ever been a more sublime version of Danny Boy than Ben Webster’s? I doubt it. He was living in Copenhagen when he died in Amsterdam in September 1973, almost 10 years after deciding to quit his native grounds and live in Europe. His death warranted all of three paragraphs, cribbed from a UPI wire story, in The Times. He’d played with Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Norman Granz, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter and Andy Kirk. He was overshadowed by the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, but only in his lifetime. Death has been kinder to his legacy. “Webster’s playing,” John Wilson wrote in an appreciation for The Times in 1986, “focused on two extremes. One was a raw, tough, swaggering drive that became overwhelming at fast tempos. The other was his ballad approach – tender, melting but with phrasing so accented that even at its gentlest and most introspective his playing swung. Using both aspects, he was completely at home in any musical circumstance.” Here’s his Danny Boy.
For a moment there I wasn’t sure if this was the second inauguration of Barack H. Obama (the Hussein having in every case but one, during the actual swearing in, been ashamedly abbreviated to a less Koranic initial), or if somehow Karl Rove had managed to short-circuit the space-time continuum and jiggered us back to a Bush inaugural. Or worse: a disinterred Romney inaugural.
Gone, for our musical bits, was the grace of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma or the soul of Aretha Franklin, replaced by James Taylor making sap of “America the Beautiful” (an incredible feat for a song that could resist almost any attempt to demolish it), and the bombast of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir lashing two verses from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—the two most bellicose verses of that anthem to jingoists and Christian crusaders, sung at the Washington Cathedral, let’s not forget, three days after the Nine-Eleven attacks. And 23 days before the United States loosed the fateful lightning of its terrible swift sword on the latest of its perpetual wars, the one still marching on us in Afghanistan.
“Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” we were soon to hear from the mouth of Barack H not a few minutes later. Then why those three minutes of worship—an eternity at an inaugural—to Julia Ward Howe, first horsewoman of the apocalypse, and her rewrite of a half dozen of Isaiah’s most vengeful verses?
There were other discordant notes: the presence of the two former Democratic presidents, but neither of the two former Bushes (the elder Bush may be excused: he just got out of the hospital), though Clinton was at Bush’s second inaugural. That’s not Obama’s fault: Bush the Lesser, an AWOL veteran, donned his father’s ill health for fig leaf.
Other unhappy chills, though Washington was in balmy upper 40s: there was not a degree of warmth between the president and Chief Justice John Roberts, who at least didn’t flub the oath giving this time. And at lunch in the Capitol later, even the steamed lobster or the hickory-grilled bison couldn’t warm the last spot on earth untouched by global warming: the space between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, who nevertheless had to present a flag to the president. It never fluttered. Nor did Boehner’s heart. Or ours.
The greatest discordance was between the gilded, arrogantly religious and pompous frame of the inauguration ceremony itself, and the president’s speech: one of his better ones, because it managed to mix the humble with the ambitious, the doable with what’s over and done with. This was not Mr. Nice Guy speaking. Nor, he seemed to say, will Mr. Nice Guy be back any time soon, that stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue aside.
Obama has—or had—always been a gifted speaker (and more so an orator than a writer). But his last great speech was delivered on the campaign trail in 2008, in Philadelphia, when he took on race. That was his “More Perfect Union” speech. His speeches were less than perfect after that. It’s as if he’d taken offense for being seen as a great orator. We were surprised by the soberness, the subdued, unremarkableness of his first victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park that distant night of November 2008, mistaking his strange caution for tiredness, or strategic prudence. Maybe he didn’t want to come off looking like a Triumphant Negro on a night when, beyond Grant Park, millions of shell-shocked bigots who’d spent their lives and their ancestors’ lives swearing that this day would never come were having trouble digesting their crow. Anyway, many of us thought the anti-climactic tone of Grant Park was calculated modesty.
It wasn’t. It was the beginning of a long dusk of half-measures, underscored by the strange timidity of his first inaugural, of bending over backward to accommodate an opposition interested only in slamming it in his rear, of suppressing resolve behind rhetorical flourishes rather than using rhetoric to fuel resolve.
Here was the consummate compromiser who’d deluded himself into thinking that he could create a “post-partisan” age: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply,” he said in his first inaugural. Oh, how wrong he was.
He’d tipped his hand before inauguration day, and by then he was already half devoured by his own caution, down to the cabinet he put together: These weren’t men and women ready to remake the financial world that had just destroyed us, but to mend it as it was, while letting the millions of people who paid the price continue to pay it. As they did. The stimulus package was a half measure. Health care reform was a half measure. The Afghan surge was a half-measure. His prevarications on gay rights, on taxes, on global warming were all half-measures. He broke his promise on Guantanamo’s concentration camp. He was dismal on protecting civil liberties (if less dismal on protecting civil rights), reaffirming some of the worst impulses of the Bush years down to domestic spying, unlimited detentions and the assassination of American citizens.
We survived, but we never thrived, because he was too willing to submit and, stupidly, hope.
The turn-around, oddly enough, was not of his making. It was Joe Biden’s, when old Joe let loose that he was all for gay marriage. None of those half-measures for him. Obama had resisted that switch, assuming still, until then, that the country wasn’t quite ready. Biden taught him a lesson. Make your own resolve, don’t let it be made for you. Obama conceded (after letting Joe make it for him one last time).
And from that point on his rhetoric and his approach on all other matters changed. Gone was the timid accommodator, the appeaser, the nice guy Republicans loved him to be, because he’d always been easier to beat that way. A pre-2009 Obama returned. The Obama of the 2008 campaign. And he won. His victory speech at 2 a.m. on Nov. 7, which most of America missed, was among the best of his life: combative in victory, suggesting the war was ahead. Finally.
The he won the first battle of his new term, beating back the Republican attempt to send the nation over that illusory “fiscal cliff” and winning the first significant tax increase on the rich since 1993. His resolve doesn’t seem to have abandoned him since. The question was whether the resolve would survive inauguration day.
It has. Far from a dud, as these second inaugurals tend to be, today’s speech was bracing in its realism, and very hopeful, ironically, for having finally shed the imagery of hope for hope’s sake. It was much less of the inspirational claptrap of, say, Reagan’s second inaugural (that indoor, clubbish affair, delivered inside the Capitol, because it was very cold: Reagan was already in assisted-living mode), and more of a to-do list wrapped in the awareness of a veteran.
Two themes coursed through the speech: “we, the people” (people was mentioned 11 times, the “we, the people” formula five times) and equality (mentioned eight times): no president has made equality a centerpiece of his intentions since New Deal Democrats: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Joseph Stiglitz must have been smiling. The age of social Darwinism has lasted long enough (1981-2013).
And one of the lines of the day: “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
He also, daringly, finally, took a swipe at Romney’s obscenity of the 47 percent, still gospel on the right-wing talk circuit and looking for a new champion: “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
If he’s framing the next four years into a vision (after being criticized for lacking that vision during the campaign), he’s doing it with seize-the-day assurance: “[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we,” and “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.” It was surprising to hear “climate change” make a cameo in the speech, but disappointing, once again, to hear that Guantanamo did not. It is the forgotten shame.
And here was one of my favorite lines: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” I should add that to our comment policy.
The line was followed by a brief, anxious apologia for half-measures again: “We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years…” But the lines could just as well be read as the awakening of a realist speaking to a nation that has yet get past black-and-white expectations. The adolescent years of the Obama administration may be over. It was about time.
There were a few wonderfully subtle thematic echoes, as when, for the first time ever in an inaugural speech, Obama recognized gays and lesbians in one of several exhortations to equality—that line about our journey not being complete—shortly before Richard Blanco, the first gay poet at an inaugural, recited his uneven but Whitmanesque “One Day” (Whitman, too, was gay).
And when Obama spoke of “the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal,” as “the star that guides us still,” he was as if anticipating the final lines of Blanco’s poem:
And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
That was even more hopeful than Obama’s last line, the one about carrying “into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” The president is self-assured enough this time to embrace uncertainty, and let mere hope, that cheap drug of the gullible optimist, finally be bygone. Good for him. And us.
The following is a transcript of President Obama’s second inaugural speech:
MR. OBAMA: Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, Members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
For more than two hundred years, we have.
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.
But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.
We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.
For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction – and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.
They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope.
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
Thank you, God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America.
I’m having severe morning sickness. Day after day I’ve been waking up to “breaking news” flashes at the New York Times, on ABC News and a couple of other sources about… Kate Middleton’s pregnancy?
I actually clicked on this morning’s “breaking news” email from ABC. Here’s what it said: “Kate Middleton Leaves the Hospital After Being Treated for Severe Morning Sickness [6 a.m. ET].” Each word capitalized in the original. It was right after the email from the Florida Highway Patrol informing me of a fatality on I-95, a woman in her late 20s, killed last night just across the Flagler-St. Johns county line. She was either standing on the road or crossing it when southbound vacationers from Pennsylvania in their late 50s and early 60s (a couple from Selinsngroove, a town the size of a Florida subdivision) struck her with their RV-pulling SUV. Night had just fallen. The F-150’s right-front bumper struck the young woman and sent her flying to the shoulder. And Charlotte and Richard Stanley, who were in the F-150, must now live the rest of their lives with this inadvertent fatality on their conscience.
It could be a suicide. It could be that the woman was not well. She hasn’t been identified: had no identification on her (otherwise FHP would have known her age), no identifying marks, other than the telltale signs of homelessness. “Next of kin has not been made,” the report says, in what could be the final official words on the woman’s life. The woman’s parents, her siblings, her “kin” are out there, unknowing. It’s often said of some people that they know more about Britain’s royals than they do about their own family. For one family this morning it’s as literal a fact as it gets: they know more about Kate Middleton’s morning sickness than they do about their own kin’s death.
This unknown dead person is as far removed from royalty as she can possibly be: a homeless, nameless, dead woman who had “come to final rest on the west grassy shoulder” of an Interstate, as abject a place to die as any. Yet if I were to judge what matters more in the world today between Middleton’s nausea and that woman’s death, it wouldn’t be a choice. Only the fate of the homeless woman is news. Whatever happens to Middleton or to any royals is clutter. These people, these meandering parodies of a past stuck in formaldehyde, aren’t news. They’re show business. They’re soap operas. They’re spectacle and buffoonery 76 years past their expiration date. Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 was the perfect opportunity to abolish a monarchy that has no place in a democracy. Awe and deference to inheritance, privilege and patronage as opposed to merit and usefulness is the daily embarrassment of a nation whose monarch still speaks in terms of “empire” and “subjects”—a monarch who still speaks at all, even addressing Parliament in an annual New Year ritual of time-sucking—when she should have been hauled off to a nice country estate near the Land’s End Hotel in Cornwall, with a comfortable pension and a chauffeur, and left to answer fan mail there decades ago.
It’s not for lack of royals that Buckingham Palace (the world’s most expensive and tax-supported assisted living facility) and the Tower of London (the city’s chief attraction) will lack for tourists anymore than the disappearance of the Bourbons has diminished foot traffic at Versailles and the Tuileries. The lurid antics of Charles Diana Camilla and whoever was the sister or sister in law who alternately posed nude or got fat and thin on Oprah’s body clock (I’m grateful for these memory lapses) have piled on the reasons to do away with the circus, which cutely flew when the queen supposedly did at the opening of the London Olympics.
There’s one good argument for maintaining the monarchy: people want it. “That is the contradiction at the heart of a constitutional monarchy,” the Economist wrote in 1994, “that an unelected institution, redolent of authority and selected by accident of birth, depends for its legitimacy on the popular will.” A referendum would likely keep the circus in place, because people are too fond of crowning distractions from their own lurid lives.
But when national media such as the Times and ABC News play along, we have our own constitutional crisis on our hands. Democracy doesn’t long survive the idiocy of its constituents. Tanks are being deployed in Cairo, the fear of chemical weapons drifts across the Syrian civil war, untold thousands are left reeling from their own Hurricane Sandy in the Philippines, our own political clowns have yet to scale the cliffs of their fiscal cheapness in Washington, but Kate Middleton’s morning sickness is what warrants the modern version of press-stopping “breaking news.” It would be nice to be spared the exhibitionism.
That nameless woman who died yesterday evening on I-95 is right now on a slab at the medical examiner’s office in St. Augustine. She never was news and never will be again. But chances are she had a more interesting life, if not a life worthier of attention, than Kate Middleton ever has, or will.
On Monday Palm Coast City Council member Bill Lewis sent me a note correcting an error in my Sunday column: he had in fact run a competitive campaign once, though he has yet to win one. I’d mistakenly written that he had done neither. The error was immediately corrected.
The following day however, Lewis took to the floor of a city council meeting for a little over two minutes and publicly but inaccurately ridiculed me. You can hear his two minutes below. The ridicule is not objectionable. It’s every journalist’s vest at one time or another. But Lewis’s inaccuracies—at least six of them in two minutes—are objectionable, considering that Lewis’s complaint was about getting one’s facts straight. I would have normally addressed him between me and the Sunshine law in an email. Since he chose to broadcast his errors publicly, they must be corrected publicly.
“If you want to be an avenging angel,” you said in remarks directed at me from your council seat Tuesday morning, “you should perhaps get your facts straight.”
You might want to take your own advice, preferably without abusing your council seat to falsely scold others. If your two-minute comment had been published on FlaglerLive, I’d have had to run at least six corrections, two of them about your own personal history. You publicly ridiculed my memory. I won’t ridicule yours, having a mother dying of Alzheimer’s in our lovely town here. But I will correct you.
One error was made in the article in question: you never won a competitive race, but indeed ran one in 2005. The original line had it that you hadn’t run one. You alerted me to the error in an email on Monday, at 12:53 p.m. The error was corrected 24 minutes later, and a confirmation email sent to you to that effect, a faster correction turn-around than you’d get in any other media. FlaglerLive publishes on average 5,000 words a day, or the weekly equivalent of a magazine in the thick-paged 1960s, before ads devoured all content. It’s a lot of volume produced with a premium on immediacy over 15-hour days. Mistakes are made and are regrettable. The New York Times runs 10 to 20 corrections a day, despite the benefit of a few hundred editors lucky enough to work eight-hour days. But mistakes are corrected promptly and gladly, and if we could afford free hats to tip and gift to those who point them out, we would (and soon might).
What you did not do, Bill, is note to your little audience that the mistake was immediately corrected, an error of omission on your part that belies a sly bit of dishonesty I did not know you capable of. Live and learn.
Second, you stated, incorrectly but to much snickering mileage from your colleagues, that I endorsed you while at the News-Journal, and that I forgot that I endorsed you. My memory is often a wreck, but not so much that it would require an ex-chemist to tell me why I wrote what I wrote in 2005. And you misunderstand the way a newspaper editorial board works. We debated, argued, deliberated, and only then voted. You might try it sometime. The News-Journal editorial board as a whole voted to endorse you. I personally did not, and was often in dissent on that board, particularly in matters dealing with Palm Coast recommendations, where age or incumbency or skin color or party affiliation sometimes took on innate virtues I categorically disagreed with. You were three-for-four coming into the interview. You were in a four-way race (you seem to have forgotten Cunnane and Crabill), though you and Alan Peterson were clearly the front-runners. But I admired Peterson then and considered him far more in command of his facts and his eagerness to do his homework than you were. His years on the council and the county commission since only confirmed my original impressions, as your years on the council have as well. I was, of course, outvoted at the time, as were you, until your coin toss.
Third, you have not won a competitive race, and to claim that running unopposed in a city where the mayor was elected by barely 5 percent of the electorate amounts to an endorsement of the voters is a little disingenuous. We were never given a choice to vote for you or not. You won by default. You could say the same of Barbara Revels or Suzanne Johnston, but they each won their first election competitively, appearing before forums, facing the challenges of a campaign and of a challenger, answering the tough questions, as you never have in a winning campaign. It’s obviously a sore point with you, but it’s neither semantics nor accurate to say that you have won a competitive election. You simply have not. Maybe you’ll change that in 2014.
You mentioned being appointed to the council two years after your first run. It was actually three. Not a big deal, but your error would have required a correction in any self-respecting publication all the same. You mentioned running two years later unopposed. It was actually one year later. You twice mis-identified FlaglerLive—as “Flagler Times” and “Flagler Online,” two outlets that have long gone the way of the 8-track. Again, not a big deal, though the casual derision you show a local non-profit business supported by innumerable local businesses and 9,000 daily readers, while not surprising (you channel your city manager well), is nevertheless distasteful for an elected representative. Perhaps some small businesses are worthier than others in your eyes, a mode of discrimination I would rather not know you capable of. Or perhaps you thought it was your turn to take a shot at local media, after Jon’s and fellow-Bill’s shot at WNZF.
And I did not “castrate” the city council on how it approached the Ferguson appointment, as you put it. I only castigated it, though as a metaphor for the council, you might be on to something. I’m not in the habit of exploiting verbal slips, either. It’s quite crass. But so is publicly lecturing someone about getting his facts straight from behind a house glassier than Sammy Davis Jr.’s left eye.
Of course, you never addressed the essence of the article in question, choosing to divert an argument about a council’s arrogance to a councilman’s dented pride. But between your sneers and the attaboy titters of your very grown-up colleagues, you illustrated the original point very well. Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving.
“The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their place,” Lillian Smith writes in Killers of the Dream, her 1949 memoir of growing up in Jaspers, Florida. “The father who rebuked me for an air of superiority toward schoolmates from the mill and rounded out his rebuke by gravely reminding me that ‘all men are brothers,’ trained me in the steel-rigid decorums I must demand of every colored male. They who so gravely taught me to split my body from my feelings and both from my ‘soul,’ taught me also to split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from southern tradition.”
Let’s not pretend, in the euphoria of returning one Negro to the White House, that certain realities of southern tradition have changed that much. The map above, duplicating a different red-blue divide, says plenty. “Every now and then,” Michael Lind wrote in Slate two days ago, “someone highlights the overlap between today’s Republican states and the slave states of the former Confederacy. As clichéd as the point may be, it remains indispensable to understanding what is happening in American politics today.”
That can be summed up in a different overlap: between what Lilliam Smith wrote some 60 years ago and what Lind writes today, a nearly perfect overlap of the social and the political in the southern psyche: “Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.” The difference, Lind writes, is that race is not the dominant motive. Economics is. Southerners push a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation economy that has its roots in slavery’s no-wage, no-tax, no-regulation economy, and that carries over today, altered somewhat, in the way southern states market themselves to companies. Florida’s Rick Scott is a standard-bearer of that economic devolution.
“White supremacy,” in other words, “was never an end in itself, but a tactic used by the Southern oligarchs to divide white workers from nonwhite workers. But the Southern elite can dispense with racism, because it has never cared what color its serfs are.”
But it isn’t all economics. The white working class southerner isn’t conducting business strategy when he perpetuates the institutional bigotry described by Smith. Racism in the south is also identity. And, beyond the enormous gender gap (the largest in the hostory of Gallup polls), it was an ugly identity at play in Tuesday’s vote. “For close to the surface lies a political racism that harks back 150 years to the time of Reconstruction, when African-Americans won citizenship rights,” Steven Hahn, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Times Sunday. “Black men also won the right to vote and contested for power where they had previously been enslaved. How is this so? The ‘birther’ challenge, which galvanized so many Republican voters, expresses a deep unease with black claims to political inclusion and leadership that can be traced as far back as the 1860s. Then, white Southerners (and a fair share of white Northerners) questioned the legitimacy of black suffrage, viciously lampooned the behavior of new black officeholders and mobilized to murder and drive off local black leaders. [...] The truth is that in the post-Civil War South few whites ever voted for black officeseekers, and the legacy of their refusal remains with us in a variety of forms. The depiction of Mr. Obama as a Kenyan, an Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim — in other words, as a man fundamentally ineligible to be our president — is perhaps the most searing. Tellingly, it is a charge never brought against any of his predecessors.”
Today’s tactics have only changes in style, not in substance: the bogus witch-hunt of voter fraud that led innumerable states to pass voter ID laws, restrict early voting days, intimidate or delay voters at voting time, and the equally bogus pandering to the middle class as one way to ignore the more serious issues the country has been so adept at ignoring since the age of Reagan: “THE repercussions of political racism are ever present, sometimes in subtle rather than explicit guises. The campaigns of both parties showed an obsessive concern with the fate of the “middle class,” an artificially homogenized category mostly coded white, while resolutely refusing to address the deepening morass of poverty, marginality and limited opportunity that disproportionately engulfs African-American and Latino communities.”
Democrats haven’t fought back. Obama won, but his victory was driven by demographic, not by ideas. The egalitarian ideal is dead. He’s doing very little to revive it, or to counter–as Bill Clinton more effectively did, and as Lyndon Johnson last did most effectively–the nation’s deepest corrosion and greatest liability in the long term: inequality (of which deficits are a symptom).
So we wait for an Obama who, effectively emancipated from the burdens of re-election–and the shattering consequences of not winning it, which would have been far greater for Obama than they are for Romney, who’s just another white male in a long line of losing white males–offers up a new vision, or at least a rediscovered vision, for a nation now almost three decades retarded by southern conservatism. Maybe his second inaugural will point the way. The nation is well overdue. But so is Obama.
I doubt this state of mind I’m in is unusual for Americans around this time: aggravated, exasperated, infuriated, hopped up on the latest blips of polling from Florida or Ohio or Virginia, a fugitive from campaign ads, a hostage to campaigns’ phone calls, an unwilling witness to the every-four-year massacre the American language–the most imaginative and inventive language on earth as far as I’m concerned–endures from candidates and pundits and mercenary mouths. It’s the quadrennial Olympics of our great national delusion. (Democracy, Bertrand Russell wrote, “means despair of finding any heroes to govern you, and contented putting up with the want of them.” Not that there’s a better alternative out there.) Is there a more embarrassing reflection of the juvenile state of our politics than the contest between the two campaigns over which candidate looks more “presidential” (one of those words that should really be banned for the six months leading up to a presidential election)? Is there anything more smarmy than candidates who speak like hobbits on furlough from Neverland (our local congressional candidates especially come to mind)? At least it’s Halloween night: fantasy without the hypocrisy. But there’s six more days of crud, and not enough oxycodone on earth to dull the torture. At least there’s Schubert. He’ll have to do as an antidote for today. The rondo from his A major sonata, played with an entirely non-party-affiliated fluidity by Alfred Brendel.
To call the Orlando Sentinel liberal of course is to seriously misread the house organ of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, central Florida edition. That the Sentinel can count Scott Maxwell among its saving graces (for now) doesn’t mean it’s less of a traditionally right-wing apologist for the all-business faction of the Republican Party. A quick reminder: The Sentinel endorsed the first Bush both times (in 1988 and 1992), it endorsed Bob Dole in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2000. It came to its senses, as many newspapers did, in 2004, when it endorsed John Kerry, and Barack Obama in 2008, when endorsing John McCain would have been like choosing a mortician to officiate a wedding. Nevertheless, a newspaper endorsement is a newspaper endorsement, whatever that means anymore now that what’s left of newspapers’ readership looks like a diminishing mass of John McCains with late-Reagan memory problems.
The Sentinel endorsement: “Economic growth, three years into the recovery, is anemic. Family incomes are down, poverty is up. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, highlighted these and other hard truths in this week’s second debate.” Substitute half for hard and you have a more honest assessment. The Obama years may have managed to create more jobs than the first four Bush years (or the four years of the first Bush), even though W was emerging from a much shallower recession, but the judgment on Obama will always be made as if the Great Recession had barely happened. It’s an article of faith now that mentioning his economic inheritance is unacceptable, as if history, like facts, were the disagreeable obstacles to the mythology powering Mitt Romney’s unicorn campaign. Incidentally, the anemic Obama years have created more jobs than all eight years of the Eisenhower administration).
The endorsement continues: “We have little confidence that Obama would be more successful managing the economy and the budget in the next four years. For that reason, though we endorsed him in 2008, we are recommending Romney in this race.” Cleaning up after Bush’s wars, getting health care reform passed, putting the economy back on its rails, reforming the banking system (albeit too timidly): none of those things really matter.
Elizabeth Drew in the current issue of the New York Review of Books describes Obama pointedly as “a contradiction of ambitious and cautious,” a contradiction that often infuriates those of us who consider ourselves his supporters. But she goes on to describe what it is that infuriates his ardent opponents too, and why it’d be a loss to have that once again replaced by the more conventional oiliness of Romeny’s garden-variety politicking. Of Obama, Drew writes, “He’s simply different from the conventional politician. He’s more self-contained, less needy, than almost any president in modern times. (Certainly less so than Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson.) He’s quite evidently not displeased with himself—and there’s much to be pleased with himself about. And Obama’s unique personality affects his political dealings. He conducts the business of politics but keeps a certain part of himself in reserve, holds it back. Why this matters is that Obama’s reserve can come across as aloof, be off-putting to other politicians, and translate into a reluctance to get his hands dirty by working with them. It can irritate businessmen who do not understand why he isn’t falling at their feet, doing whatever he can to win their approval.”
Barack Obama’s enduring sin: the negro is not only not prostrate before his masters. He makes them look small, for good reason: they are. And he enjoys it. A bit too much maybe, which ultimately may bring his downfall.
Late afternoon update: From the Times: “Mitt Romney may be something of a Utah native son, having helped turn around the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, attended Brigham Young University and once owning property there. But on Friday, The Salt Lake City Tribune tossed its support to President Obama, in a editorial titled “Too Many Mitts.”
Give Obama this much: he had good reason, standing on that stage at the University of Denver last week, to feel contempt for Mitt Romney and wonder what on earth he was doing, sharing the stage with an intellectual vacuum cleaner. Today’s foreign policy address by Romney, to the Virginia Military Institute, was better suited for the Hoover Historical Center in Canton, Ohio. He spoke for about half an hour. He said absolutely nothing of substance. He did the expected, saying “hope isn’t a strategy,” blaming Obama for not standing by Israel (well, aside from sending Israel $10 billion in free military hardware, at our expense), blaming Obama for doing nothing about the 30,000 Syrians massacred by Assad;’s regime, blaming Obama for letting Iran march toward a nuclear weapon, blaming Obama for losing the peace (what peace?) in Iraq.
OK. He had to to that. It’s what good speeches are made of: diagnose the problem, then tell us how you’d do things differently.
But he didn’t.
Here’s what he said, for example, on Iran: “I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” Really? You promise? Better yet: “I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its securityy—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.” Good. I was really getting tired of Obama lumping Israel with North Korea and Iran in Axis of Evil Redux. And the last thing our dark-age relationship with Israel needs is daylight. “I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.” Funny, he didn’t mention any names. Let’s do that: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and a few other backward, anti-democratic, authoritarian and illegitimate regimes that think nothing of murdering their own citizens to keep their version of peace, and whom we, going back decades, have called “partners.” In that regard, there is no daylight between Romney and Obama.
I was really curious about what he was proposing for Syria. “I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.” That’s it? That’s it. Also, this: ” I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” That’s anice change from his famous address that included his slur about the 47 percent, when he trashed the two-state solution: ” “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way. [...] “[S]o what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” No Romney speech is complete without a few barrels of flipflops.
And gross, outright errors. “The President has not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years,” Romney said. Someone should be editing his speeches. Here, for example, is how one of a few thousand stories headlined it last October: OBAMA SIGNS FREE TRADE AGREEMENTS.” Notice the s in agreements. A little detail for the guy who is reportedly not even reading the briefing papers his foreign policy team is writing for him: “President Obama has signed into law the long-awaited free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, as well as the latest trade adjustment assistance for workers.
He also repeated a lie he’s made his own: “The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916.” He’s already been slapped with a pants-on-fire rating from Politifacts for that one. But he keeps repeating it: not just a liar, but a malicious one, too. He relies on a Heritage fear sheet about “The State of the U.S. Military” from 2010, which says, on page 17, that “The U.S. Navy’s fleet today contains the smallest number of ships since 1916. The total number of active ships in the Navy declined from 592 to 283 between 1989 and 2009.” Heritage does that with a straight face. It is literally comparing this:
That’s the sort of math we have to contend with from Romney. Not to take a sledgehammer to it, but considering the very large number of people who still take Romney seriously, it’s worth restating explicitly, as Politifacts did: “Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney’s comparison ‘doesn’t pass ‘the giggle test,’ ‘ said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia. Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles and four specialized submarines for launching Cruise missiles — all categories of vessels that didn’t exist in 1916.”
It’s a particularly long list–much longer alas than my list of favorite Arabs–but these two are pretty near the top, especially since, to my knowledge, the “I Voted” sticker on the little one’s head wasn’t revelation of his first absentee ballot for Benjamin Netanyahu, though rumor has it he might vote Likud given the chance. (Sam, as the tiny one is known, and who’s made an appearance in these pages once before, was born during Netanyahu’s cataclysmic first stint as prime minister, when he gave Clinton so much grief that Clinton sought refuge in Monica’s mouth; it’s a wonder “Bibi” hasn’t yet screwed up Obama’s mind or loins. Can’t fault him for not trying.) So these two, Markowitzes by name, each had a birthday in the last few days. Sam is 14, Dave is somewhere in his late 80s, which is rather young in his family. His parents are well into triple digits and still crusading for unions, the Yankees and the Dead Sea scrolls (authored in part by Dave’s dad). I’d have wished them a happy birthday in person, but a paywall now separates us fatally, and the News-Journal, where Dave is serving a sentence of undetermined length, has a visitor policy a little tougher than Evin prison’s in Teheran. So I got Duke Ellington to wish them both a happy birthday:
Brilliant opening to Mark Lilla’s review of Charles Kesler’s new book on Barack Obama: “Once upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers’ health and safety. Had Congress not stood in his way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it off, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized. His name was Richard Nixon.”
The rest of the review isn’t a bad read either, summing up conservatives’ fear and loathing of liberalism in the Obama mantle more wittily than I usually see it done by liberals, who tend to be more dour than necessary (the brooders Lilla calls “the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine”). Kestler is a professor at Claremont McKenna College, a temple of conservative ideology, where he also edits The Claremont Review of Books. Lilla demoloshes his book with praise: “A sense of proportion, once the conservative virtue, is considered treasonous on the right today, and Kesler cannot be accused of harboring one. But his systematic exaggerations demonstrate that the right’s rage against Obama, which has seeped out into the general public, has very little to do with anything the president has or hasn’t done. It’s really directed against the historical process they believe has made America what it is today. The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation. If you want to experience what it’s like to be within that mind on a better day, then you need to visit I Am the Change.”
And if you don’t have time for 276 pages of the stuff (at my literacy-challenged 25-pages-an-hour reading rate, that works out to an investment of 11 hours, not counting the scream-in-the-pillow breaks), Lilla’s 2,800 words (a 15-minute read) should be plenty. Here. Treat yourself.