Wednesday, January 25, 2012


January 26, 2012

The Republican voters of South Carolina turned the race for President on its head last Saturday by turning themselves on their heads. In the space of less than a week, Mitt Romney's double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich in the polls became a double-digit deficit in the voting booth. The candidate deemed most electable was unelected.

For Mitt, it was the perfect storm; for Newt, it was the perfect wave.

The PAC ads may have had something to do with it, but moistly it was the debates. Pressed to disclose his tax returns as his dad George had done in his own bid for the nomination in 1968, Romney the Junior got that deer-in-the-headlights look and finally blurted out, "Maybe." Asked to estimate his tax rate, he stammered, "It's probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything because my last ten years, my income comes overwhelmingly from some investments," immediately evoking in his listeners the "Buffet Rule," Barack Obama's tax-the-rich proposal based on billionaire Warren Buffet's critique of a tax code that gives investors like him a lower rate than wage-earners like his secretary. Then there was that remark calling the $374,000 he'd earned in speaking fees last year "not very much," which opponents quickly pointed out is around ten times South Carolinians' average yearly income. Add to all that the millions he's stashed in tax shelters in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere, and you've got a little income-inequality problem here.

Suddenly Romney was transformed — or rather, transformed himself — from Horatio Alger to Jay Gould, from boot-strapper to robber-baron. Suddenly it looked like he just might do to the country what he did in his years at Bain Capital, his private equity firm: take it over, milk it for a few years, and flip it to the Chinese for a tidy profit. His flustered responses to these questions made a lot of people think that he was not the solution to the nation's problems but a primary cause.

For Gingrich, it was the same, only opposite. Pressed to comment on his second wife's allegation that he'd asked her for an "open marriage" so he could consort with Callista without having to move out, he took the lash to the media, his choice whipping-boy, for their petty preoccupation with the personal. Asked about his own tax return, he trotted it out the next day, revealing he'd payed over 30 percent, looking by comparison like a middle-class schoolteacher instead of the guy that got $300,000 a year from Freddie Mac to serve as their historian. As the debating progressed, he got that tiger-in-the-headlights look, yellow eyes burning brightly in the night, confident of forcing the Romney victory van to a screeching halt. At every turn, his rhetoric buried his reality.

The ironies are dizzying. Romney's tax rate — actually 14 percent, based on the returns that he grudgingly released on Tuesday — makes him Exhibit A for Obama's Buffet Rule and renders laughable his own proposals to eliminate estate taxes (yes, one day he too will die) and to "hold the line on individual income tax rates," most especially his own. Gingrich's self-serving repentance for his marital compromises — no dust-and-ashes there — must surely be suspect among Evangelical voters; leopards, especially of the political breed, are unlikely to change their spots. Nor could voters in general consider trivial his financial shenanigans and reputation as an erratic tyrant as Speaker of the House; those spots are even less likely to change. Yet they swallowed their suspicions and flocked to him in the final hour, demonstrating that the supposedly hard-core principles of family values and personal integrity turn to mush in the desperate desire for someone to unseat Obama. Even the squeaky-clean, up- from-the-working-class Santorum, acceptable to them in every principled way, they rejected as too much of a niche-candidate.

Now the ever-hopefuls are blanketing Florida with ads and debates in anticipation of the next showdown, January 31. But somewhere down there, in the swamps and on the beaches and amidst the foreclosed homes, an unexpected threat lies in wait. After spending millions on ads and bloodying one another in debates, they face a specter lurking in the mists who may wrest the nomination from their grasp as dissatisfaction and deadlock loom down the line — an apparition, a Burning Bush.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012


January 19, 2012

The South Carolina primary is coming up on Saturday, and — surprise! — the Republicans may have found their nominee much sooner than anyone expected, even a month ago. Mitt Romney, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (without the angst), The Man Nobody Knows (just one step down from Jesus, whom the book by that name calls "the world's greatest business executive") — is charging to the convention, despite being The Man Nobody Wants. His once- formidable opponents are shriveling like prunes in the Southern sun.

Jon Huntsman, lower in the polls than comedian Steven Colbert, dropped out on Monday. You wonder why he never got any traction — he was the most reasonable of the lot (maybe that's why), thoughtful, composed, balanced, experienced both nationally and internationally (ditto), good-looking, family man, his Mormon faith a non-issue (as with Romney this time around; another hurdle of bigotry cleared?). Perhaps he was too much of a wonk to win; perhaps it was the China connection (colluding with the enemy, and I don't mean China); or perhaps it was the sense that he really didn't crave the job, just wanted to serve the country. Whatever the case, the media ignored him and the public wrote him off.

Another one down. Rick Perry's next, running a smidgeon above Colbert, though his hybris won't let him drop till Saturday night at the earliest.

The future's not bright for Newt Gingrich either, whom the voters have finally concluded is too erratic and delusional to trust with high office.

Evangelical groups got together last weekend to draft an A.B.M. ("Anybody But Mitt") treaty and endorsed Rick Santorum to represent the family-values agenda and the Art of Tea, but it looks like many South Carolina evangelicals will turn to Romney the Electable.

Lastly but not leastly is Ron Paul, the libertarian fly in the anointment, whose views are simultaneously attractive/repulsive to both the left (demilitarize/deregulate) and the right (deregulate/demilitarize). His ideological consistency and blithe disregard of polls, focus groups, and issue-du-jour spin is entirely refreshing: Liberals long for a liberal Ron Paul, conservatives for a conservative one. But Paul can be just who he is because he knows he'll never be nominated; the ones who have real hopes almost always have to be double- talkers.

Romney, in fact, is the anti-Paul, and it's no wonder Republican voters are gritting their teeth while marking their ballots. He's the chameleon of chameleons, turning from blue to red to fit the background. He's as shallow and insipid as any candidate since James Buchanan. His sole desire is not to do but to be, which sounds pretty Zen but it's pretty high-school — what he really wants in life is not to act as president but simply to be president, and his history has shown he'll make any accommodation in order to one day bask, however fleetingly, in the adoring glow of the nation.

This is a candidate without a single fresh idea. At least Herman Cain came up with 9-9-9 and Gingrich with mining the moon and repealing child-labor laws. All Mitt can do is parrot the threadbare Republican laundry-list: dismantle "Obamacare," (or is it "Romneycare"?), cut taxes, shrink government, drill-baby- drill, equate the effectiveness of national defense with the amount spent on it, and of course, that perennial bill of goods, "create jobs."


In the frenzied months before Iowa, Republican voters kissed one frog after another, hoping for their prince or princess charming, and all they got was warts. Now it looks like they're giving up and settling for the boy next door. Think he'll have the moxie to beat that big guy across the street?

* * * * *

Uh-oh. I'm channeling Andy Rooney: "Did you ever notice how many presidential aspirants have one-syllable names? This time around you've got Mitt, Newt, Ron, and two Ricks. In the recent past you had Joe, Mike, Fred, Bill, Al, Bob, and probably others I can't think of at the moment. Why is this? To show they're tough? (You know, like ‘Spike.') To show they're just folks? ("Shucks, just call me Al.") To show they're not all that serious? Maybe that's it. It's just a small point, but it'll keep me wondering till next week."


January 12, 2012

Oh, there's nothing half-way
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you,
Which we may not do at all....
You really ought to give Iowa a try.

So sang the townspeople of River City to that conniving Music Man, Pseudo-professor Harold Hill, fresh off the train from Gary, Indiana, to perpetrate his latest scam.

There was nothing half-way about Iowa's treatment of Republican presidential aspirants this season, either. Seven of these traveling salespersons gave Iowa a try, descending on the state like four-year locusts, pitching their politics retail and jostling for customers by debating the merits of their snake-oils ("Ya can bicker-bicker-bicker, ya can talk all ya want.").

Four of them were thrown out on their ears. Pizza godfather Herman Cain made an early surge among these prudent Christian people with his 9-9-9 tax plan, only to turn his numerals upside- down and become the personification of 6-6-6, the Sign of the Beast; they shoved his own pie into his face. Michelle Bachmann, an Iowa native no less, won the straw poll in the fall and then came a cropper, so to speak, at the caucuses, returning to Minnesota a sadder but (possibly) wiser girl. Pseudo-professor Newton Gingrich popped into town with a suitcase full of trumpets and uniforms, touting his innovative "Think Method," but the voters concluded he was carrying too much baggage, was fleecing the citizens, and couldn't even shape up a boys' band, much less a country. And Rick Perry, despite looking a lot like Robert Preston, flubbed up all the patter-songs, and the audience gave him the hook.

But what the heck, you're welcome,
Glad to have you with us,
Even though we may not ever mention it again.

Only three of the bunch seemed to know the territory well enough to make a modest sale. Ron Paul appealed to Iowan contrarianism ("And we're so by-God stubborn / We could stand touchin' noses / For a week at a time / And never see eye-to- eye."). Mitt Romney promised miraculous (that is, undefined) salvation from Democrat-caused economic disaster ("Oh-ho, the Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin' down the street, / Oh please, don't foreclose on me!"). Rick Santorum whipped up a citizenry alarmed at the rejection of family values, crying trouble-trouble- trouble: "Libertine men and scarlet women! / And ragtime, shameless music / That'll grab your son, your daughter / With the arms of a jungle animal instinct! / Mass-'steria!".

Trouble, all right, with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pols.

Well, they all gave Iowa a try, except John the Huntsman, who sensibly realized he didn't know the territory. Instead he focused on New Hampshire, where people practice extreme moderation and at least some of them around Dartmouth speak Chinese. Having carved out a tidy niche for himself and his prospects, he lay in wait for his competitors, who abandoned Iowa on election night with hardly a thank-you and headed for the Granite State, packing their posters and pollsters, invading the coffee shops and nursing homes, and spinning their stories in the climate-changed, snowless streets.

To those stoic New England souls, who are either living free or dead, Paul preached his gospel of self-reliance ("If any would not work, neither should he eat."), Santorum endured the jeers of skeptics and idolaters, Perry babbled on about Babylon-on-the- Potomac, and Gingrich appealed to the angels of our better nature while simultaneously unleashing his fire-breathing PAC on Romney, who like his own angel Moroni sounded the golden trumpet high above the fray. Through it all, the Huntsman held his fire, hoping against hope that his foes would eat each other up.

Iowa and New Hampshire — two quirky states elbowing to be king-makers. How they ever got there is an equally quirky matter of history, but they've come to be the winnowing-fan of presidential politics, as Tuesday's results showed.

Regardless of how skewed the social demographics of these states are (and by the way, TV pundits, the word is not "skewered" — that's what Gingrich tried to do to Romney with his PAC ads), their elections work psychologically on primary voters down the line, either supportive or reactive. The pundits may think that with a faux victory in Iowa and a real one in New Hampshire Romney has skewered his opponents, but that's far from certain.

And that's why even the bottom-most candidates press on to South Carolina. Like Harold Hill, they hope a miracle will happen before the citizens see through them and pummel them out of town.

The lyrics above, with one satyrical modification, are excerpted from The Music Man by Meredith Willson, copyright 1957.


December, 2011

Reagan was dead to begin with. Dead as a door-nail, and Senator Mitch McConnell had proof: He'd stood before the body lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda and took leave of his hoary partner for what he thought was forever....

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old McConnell sat busy in his office. Now Senate Minority Leader, he had once more succeeded in keeping the Congress in session to the brink of a holiday, wearing the Democrats down till they submitted to another compromise they had declared they never would make.

The door of McConnell's office was open, that he might keep an eye upon his staff, lest one or other abandon their stations to partake of Yuletide cheer.

"A Merry Christmas, Senator!" cried a chipper voice. A young intern peeked through the door, his head topped with a furry Santa cap.

"Bah!" said McConnell. "Humbug!"

"Don't be cross, Senator," said the intern.

"What else can I be," returned McConnell, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? What's Christmas-time but a time for paying bills without money; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em presented dead against you? Let me hear another word from you and you'll keep your Christmas by losing your situation."

The intern, bemused, shook his head with a hearty laugh, the bell on his cap jingling gaily.

"Very well then," said McConnell. "You may go. I suppose you must have the whole day tomorrow. Be here all the earlier next morning. We have Democrats to deter."

Late in the evening, McConnell walked to his house near the Capitol. His wife was home in Kentucky; she'd take care of Christmas for him. Putting his key in the lock of the door, he glanced at the very large door-knocker and saw not a knocker, but Reagan's face.

"Humbug," he said to himself. Entering the cold foyer, he heard a clanking noise from the cellar, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain. The cellar door flew open, and the visage that came forth was unmistakable: the coiffed hair, the crinkly face, the actor's gait. Only the shackles on his feet looked amiss to him; cowboy boots should have spurs.

The Ghost lumbered with its load of iron to a chair in the living room, and sat down.

"Ronnie!" McConnell said imploringly. "Old Ronald Reagan. Speak comfort to me, Ronnie!"

"I have none to give you," the Ghost replied; "I am only the Communicator. Tonight you will be haunted by Three Spirits. Look to see me no more."

The living-room window opened of itself, and the specter floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

The grandfather's clock in the hallway struck twelve, and McConnell found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor. It was a strange figure. The arms were very long and muscular, the hands the same. It wore a brown double-breasted suit and had a shimmering aura about its head.

"Who, and what are you?" McConnell demanded.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."

"You look like Jimmy Stewart."

"Just call me Smith. Rise, and walk with me!"

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and in an instant were standing in the well of the Senate Floor.

"I saw your movie when I was just a poor Kentucky kid, going to trade school," said the Senator. "It made me want to get into politics, to make a difference, just like you did. I loved how you fainted at your filibuster, and how you licked all those corrupt politicians. I got elected to the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980. Together we would change the world: Government didn't solve problems, it was the problem. And look what all we did: Freed up those forests for logging, spotted owl be damned! Busted the unions. Deregulated the airlines and the S&L's. Flushed out those welfare queens. Laffer Curve! Trickle-down! Ah, bliss! We'd started dismantling the New Deal. Not only that, but we changed the rules of filibuster so we could obstruct legislation without having to blab away night and day like you did. Those were the days!"

"Yes, they were," replied the Spirit. "Then, you were young and idealistic. Now you are old and ideological. I guess you never saw It's a Wonderful Life — but that's all humbug to you. You wanted to make a difference, and you surely have, as your next uninvited guest will show you."

Smiling, the Spirit disintegrated into tangled coils of celluloid. McConnell found himself in his own house, and had barely time to reel to bed before he sank into a heavy sleep.

The clock struck One, and the Senator awoke with a start. A blaze of ruddy light shone round his bed, and he began to think that its source might be in the adjoining room. He got up softly, and shuffled in his slippers to the door.

"Come in!" cried a voice. "Come in, and know me better, man! I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me!"

Before him sat a giant of a man with a silver cigarette holder clenched between his teeth and a woollen throw cast over his lap. A pair of crutches lay on the floor beside him.

"I know you," said McConnell.

"Indeed you do," replied the Spirit. "Come with me; I'll show you around."

The Ghost cast off the throw and rose, hoisting his torso up with the crutches. Pivoting, his legs came together with a clink of iron.

"Braces," murmured McConnell. "A literal shade of Tiny Tim."

"So you've read the book," said the Spirit.

"Couldn't avoid it. A flight of Dickensian fancy, I thought ... at the time."

"Let's take our own little flight," the Ghost invited.

The next moment found them jostling among gleeful shoppers and gazing at graceful skaters around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The Spirit had discarded the crutches, and the braces on his legs seemed no longer an impediment; indeed, he moved lithely through the crowd, sprinkling passers-by with ash from his glowing cigarette.

"Here you see some of the top one percent," said the Ghost, "people like you and me. But I favor the poor the most."

"Why the poor the most?" asked the Senator.

"Because they need it most. Come with me."

They descended into the subway and boarded the "D" train for the Bronx, crammed to standing room with people bearing gifts. At 59th Street the affluent exited; remaining in the car were a scattering of weary workers heading home. McConnell and the Ghost sat down.

"I live elsewhere now," said the Spirit, "but I still read what newspapers are left, and listen to the radio. I like the radio. You and your party have tried to reduce funding for almost every program that betters the condition of the poor and unfortunate — unemployment benefits, food stamps and child nutrition, low-income housing and heating assistance, medical care. You've also opposed almost every program that betters the condition of the whole country — transportation, environment, infrastructure. And you've especially targeted for elimination the intangibles, like funding for the arts, which lift the human spirit in dark days. Now you're plundering Social Security and calling it a tax cut. Everything I envisioned to bring the country together and regain its self-respect, you have strived to take apart. Why?"

"People should take care of themselves. Are there no workhouses?"

"They're coming back. Your man Gingrich wants to repeal the child-labor laws."

"The Treadmill?"

"Another Newtonian idea for energy independence — tens of thousands of prisoners, children, and indigents generating electricity. Here's our stop, Tremont Avenue."

They ascended the subway stairs.

"We'll drop in on a family I know," said the Ghost. "We'll see them but they won't see us."

They entered a cold and crumbling apartment. A woman and her young son and daughter were sharing chicken and fries, while in a corner of the room a family of mice delighted in an unguarded bowl of cat food.

"O Man! Look here!" exclaimed the Ghost. "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both. The boy will turn to drugs and guns, the girl will die of asthma."

"Have they no refuge or resource?"

"Not if you can help it."

McConnell looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. Then, lifting up his eyes, behold a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, toward him.

"I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?" asked he.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand. The Senator followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.

The Ghost ruffled its shroud, the gloom surrounding it lifted, and there they stood at the Tidal Basin in Washington. The cherry trees were in bloom, their petals gently floating like snowflakes to the ground.

A young man and woman chanced to meet along the path.

"Merry Christmas!" they exchanged.

"Really balmy, don't you think?" smiled the man.

"You can't walk much further down this path," said the woman. "Everything's flooded."

"Thanks to old McConnell and his successors for blocking every climate-change treaty. Not much to be merry about these days — all our beaches underwater, international drought, twenty- year depression, the health care laws rescinded. But they've balanced the budget."

The Phantom beckoned and the Senator followed to a darker scene: A churchyard. The Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood. McConnell crept toward it, trembling as he went, and following the finger read upon the stone his own name, and below it the epitaph: "NO!"

Therewith the Phantom shrank into a bedpost. It was McConnell's own bedpost, on his own bed, in his own room. Best of all, the Time before him was now his own.

What then transpired is left to the reader to invent.