Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Negative Campaign Dance

McCain Says Obama Plays Race Card

The McCain campaign won July 31, and they carried the day by expertly reversing a current that had begun to flow against them.

Obama made these comments in Springfield, Missouri on Wednesday:

“So nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Mr. Obama said in Springfield, Mo., echoing earlier remarks. “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He’s risky. That’s essentially the argument they’re making."

As many have pointed out, it's not the first time in recent days that Obama has made similar remarks. But the McCain camp eagerly seized on them Thursday; McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, accused Obama of playing the "race card" from "the bottom of the deck." I'm not entirely sure how a card from the top of the race deck differs from a card at the bottom of the race deck, but that's a pointless digression.

Why did McCain and his staffers jump on this when they did? There could be a thousand reasons, but I think it was a clever attempt to shift the topic of conversation and push the newscycle into a territory Obama dreads.

I posted on this subject earlier, but before Thursday's "race card" controversy, the media had begun to focus intensely on the new tactics displayed by McCain's campaign. From McCain's brutal "rather lose a war" attack to a series of negative ads widely derided as immature and inaccurate, the McCain camp resembled an eight year old sitting in the cockpit of an F-16, desperately pushing buttons in an effort to make the damn thing go.

That's a complete exaggeration. The polls showed McCain very competitive nationally and gaining ground in several key battleground states.

Shut up. I like the mental image.

Anyway, even an old McCain hand like John Weaver was publicly shaking his head at the strategy McCain had adapted. Many seemed particularly offended at a McCain ad alleging that Obama flipped off the troops in Germany and sneaked away to snort coke off a German dominatrix's thigh-high boots. The narrative had become "John McCain is a mean dude."

But with one press release, Davis changed the discussion, such as it is. McCain is still on the attack, but his people managed to craft an attack based on the idea that the campaign was responding to an unfair strike from Obama.

Reading the Obama quote, it's hard to discern actually who he's referring to when he mentions "they." The campaign spin will probably be that he was talking about those nameless, shapeless forces who spread false rumors about Obama's religion, patriotism and personal history.

If he was referring specifically to the McCain campaign the picture gets muddier. I would argue that McCain certainly has been questioning Obama's patriotism and loyalty. He's denied it, to be sure, but as I've argued before, there are very few ways to read "he'd rather lose a war than an election," and none of them speak highly of Obama's love of country.

But McCain has consciously avoided overt racial attacks. Some have argued that his most recent ad, putting video of Obama with images of Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears, plays on the classic "black man with blond white women" racist dynamic. I think that's probably reading too far into the (thoroughly silly) commercial, but then again, maybe it's a completely accurate reading. I don't know.

What I do know is that Davis and the rest of McCain's campaign have succeeded in shifting the context of that ad and the others recently shown around the country. Check out this passage from the Times link above:

Mr. Davis’s comments came as the McCain campaign has adopted a far more aggressive, negative posture toward Mr. Obama in recent days, trying to define him as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency. But until this week, the McCain campaign had not invoked race.

Mr. Obama has been the victim of some racist and racially tinged attacks this year, particularly during the primaries.

Underground e-mail campaigns have spread the false rumor that he is Muslim and questioned his patriotism by falsely charging that he does not put his hand over his heart when the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. A button spotted outside the Texas Republican convention asked, “If Obama Is President ... Will We Still Call It the White House?”

But Mr. McCain has condemned racist campaigning and has denounced Republican groups that tried to make an issue of inflammatory statements made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and one of his own supporters who referred to Mr. Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” at a McCain rally.

There's nothing wrong with that reporting. But see how the narrative has changed? We're no longer talking about McCain ridiculously placing blame for high gas prices on Obama, or his accusations of disloyalty or his "Obama hates the troops" spot. Now we're talking about a campaign where both sides are launching dubious attacks; sure, McCain is almost calling Obama a traitor, but Obama is unfairly calling McCain a racist. Look at those two. Tsk tsk. McCain's attacks get folded into a much larger story. They're lost in the shuffle and get banished from the front page.

There's little more dangerous in journalism than a moral equivalency; it afflicts reporting in the Middle East, and it's always been a problem for political reporters, most of whom are trying their hardest to write objectively. You can see what the reporters are doing in that passage above: acknowledge the false attacks launched at Obama, but defend McCain as playing no role in them.

The last four paragraphs of the story detail charges from both McCain's camp and the Hillary Clinton campaign that Obama's people have done this kind of thing before. Steve Schmidt, another high-ranking McCain aide, is quoted. So is Howard Wolfson, former Clinton communications director. So now the race card accusation is bi-partisan, lending credence to McCain's claims.

All in all, a fine bit of work from McCain's campaign. They ameliorated the criticism coming their way for the attack ads, and they did it without retreating one step from those ads.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

VP Profile: Aaron Burr

Age: 80. Or 252.
Current Position: Supine.
Former Positions of Importance:
  • Vice President, 1800-1804
  • Senator, 1791-1797
  • New York State Attorney General, 1789-1791
Pros: Brings definite experience and gravitas to the ticket, though at this point it's unlikely that Burr has any weight to lend Obama. The Illinois senator is something of a constitutional scholar, and Burr, who was around for the drafting of the Constitution, should help him hone his views on controversial issues.

An acclaimed veteran of the Revolutionary War, Burr should help blunt the hammer blows when McCain's supporters bring up the Arizona senator's Vietnam heroism. On a related note, those rural voters who cling to guns will be quite impressed with Burr's second amendment position. It might not make them vote for Obama, but they might be disinclined to get out of bed on Election Day and pull the lever next to McCain's name.

While McCain talks up his own foreign policy experience, it pales in comparison to what Burr went through in his day. McCain's war heroism is impressive, but even he hasn't tried to overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest and set himself up as emperor. "Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee" doesn't sound particularly impressive now, does it? Should Obama attempt to launch such a plot, Burr could provide invaluable advice and expertise.

That list of former positions is quite impressive, and betrays a depth of knowledge and experience. Very few men can claim to have been vice president, a senator and a state attorney general. And that's without mentioning his impressive list of state offices.

Burr was known in his day as a passionate advocate for women's rights, at one point introducing a bill in the New York State Senate that would have allowed them to vote. A Burr nomination would go a long way toward alleviating the hostilities between Obama's campaign and those female Clinton supporters who remain angry about the primary.

He has never been convicted of treason. Not once.

Burr is not a member of Obama's party, which will be somewhat awkward for the DNC, but will also go a long way toward proving that Obama's committed to changing the rules in Washington. What better way to show your bi-partisan credentials than giving the number two spot in your administration to someone who doesn't belong to your party?

Cons: Not technically "alive," in the sense of one's heart beating and circulating blood to one's various extremities. That could pose a few problems for the campaign in terms of Burr's effectiveness and ability to connect with voters. Plus, Burr's presence on the ticket could blunt concerns many have about McCain's age. Voters who are worried about McCain's advanced age can only be put off by the nomination of an 80 or 252 year old.

Much like Clinton, he would bring nothing to the ticket in terms of geographic appeal. New York is safe, as is the rest of the northeast. It is true that Burr has spent time in the American Southwest, and it's also true that the region is considered up-for-grabs this year. But Burr has a different definition of "southwest" than most modern Americans.

Other than that, I see no cons. Burr has no real baggage that I'm aware of.

Verdict: I don't know if Obama has the guts to make this kind of choice. It would certainly cause a buzz, and he would dominate the news for weeks, but I can't deny that it would be a risk. The media hates to be wrong, and no one is talking about Burr. It would hurt the pundits' egos, and that's always a dangerous game.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Waving the White Flag

Braves deal Teixeira to Angels for Kotchman, minor leaguer

The "minor leaguer" is Stephen Marek. Despite his last name, he is not an evil overlord or supervillain. He is, however, a 24-year-old reliever with some decent numbers in Double-A. (11.13 K/9, just two home runs in 43 2/3 innings and a vaguely acceptable walk rate) He had a great year in 2006 as a starter but has worked entirely as a reliever this season. Baseball America tabbed Marek has the sixth best prospect in the Angels organization. He's something more than a generic arm, but mostly, he's just a guy.

The "prize" here is first baseman Casey Kotchman, proud owner of a .287/.327/.448 line for the Angels. That's good for a 105 OPS+. For his career, he's hit .274/.337/.426. He's drawn only 18 walks in 373 at-bats. Kotchman has never been a power guy, and he doesn't project to ever be one.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that Kotchman's just 25 years old and put up a pretty solid .296/.372/.467 line for the Angels last year. For his career he's struck out only 108 times against exactly 100 walks; the decline in his plate discipline this year is kind of a mystery. He was one of those Angels prospects in the early-to-mid 00's who seemed to make Baseball America for about 13 consecutive years. Kotchman hit .325/.401/.493 in the minors while being age appropriate for the various levels at which he played. He'll probably get better, if not from natural age-related improvement then from the transition to the National League.

This is a completely unexciting deal, but likely the best Atlanta was going to get, considering both Teixeira's rent-a-player status and the Braves' need to acquire a young, Major League ready first baseman. Without Kotchman, the Braves would have to turn to a thoroughly depressing option like Greg Norton or Scott Thorman or Sid Bream. It certainly looks abysmal compared to the handful of treasure chests the Braves shipped off to Texas last year, but that was a different context. Besides, it's Atlanta's own damn fault for giving up that much in the first place.

If nothing else this deal demonstrates that Frank Wren has enough common sense to recognize a lost season when he sees one. He might turn around and trade for Jason Bay, but even that deal would be targeted at 2009 instead of this season. I can only hope he'll go all the way and attempt to find buyers for Will Ohman and Mark Kotsay. Ohman in particular should draw quite a bit of interest from lefty starved clubs.

Vice Presidential Speculation

Washington Post Outlines Obama's Options

The story focuses on Virginia governor Tim Kaine, about whom I know precious little. But it also includes a few other names. Aside from Kaine, the main options seem to be:

  • Senator Evan Bayh from Indiana
  • Senator Joe Biden from Delaware
  • Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas
Christopher Dodd, Hillary Clinton and Sam Nunn get cursory mentions. The report labels Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed as "longshots."

I'll have to do some reading up on Bayh and Kaine, but especially the latter.

Monday, July 28, 2008

John McCain Disappoints

When it became clear that this general election would be contested by Barack Obama and John McCain, there was at least some hope that the campaign would be different than what we had seen in recent years. Maybe it wouldn't be two white knights waging a noble battle. But there was reason to believe that the two would, at the very least, maintain a decent, respectful tone and keep disagreements substantive.

Obviously, that hasn't happened. Obama is not a helpless victim here; he's played a role in the disintegration of the campaign's uniqueness. He backed out on the idea of participating in joint town halls with McCain. He's reversed himself on public financing in an effort to raise ungodly amounts of money. His campaign has established rapid response teams that rival those assembled by the 2000/2004 Bush campaigns.

All of those moves are justifiable and understandable, but they have had the effect of rendering this campaign a thoroughly conventional affair. Obama might be a unique candidate, and I believe he is, but there's nothing unique about the campaign around him.

But it's McCain who has taken the most decisive step into the muck. You've undoubtedly heard by now the allegation that he slung at Obama:

"I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," John McCain said during a Rochester, N.H., town meeting on July 22. "It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."

I wanted to give this comment time to simmer. I wanted to give McCain some time to re-think the line and, if not apologize for it, and least quietly let it slip into the ether. He has not. In fact, the allegation has become a go-to attack in his speeches and interviews. Instead of abandoning it, he has embraced the line and reiterated his belief in its validity.

So let's be perfectly clear about what McCain is saying. Break down the statement, remove the parallelism used as a rhetorical flourish, and McCain is saying, "Barack Obama knows The Surge is a success. He knows it will ultimately result in victory. He knows that reversing that policy and withdrawing troops from Iraq under his timetable will result in defeat. But he is deliberately advocating a strategy he knows will end with an American defeat because he thinks it's the popular choice."

That might not quite rise to the level of a treason accusation leveled by one sitting senator against another. But it's darn close, and it certainly alleges disloyalty. It certainly says that Obama is unwilling to defend his country.

What's bizarre is that McCain has been leveling a perfectly legitimate, Surge-oriented attack on Obama for weeks, often in the same speeches where he later uses the "rather lose a war" line. It's not hard to tell the difference.

Attack One: Senator Obama opposed The Surge, which I championed and which has been a stunning success in reducing violence in Iraq. That goes directly to evaluations of our judgment and military wisdom. Furthermore, Senator Obama has refused to acknowledge The Surge's success, showing a Bush-esque stubbornness and unwillingness to adapt his views to changing circumstances.

Attack Two: Barack Obama knows The Surge is a success. He knows it will ultimately result in victory. He knows reversing that policy and withdrawing troops from Iraq under his timetable will result in defeat. But he is deliberately advocating a strategy he knows will end with an American defeat because he thinks it's the popular choice.

Attack One is a harsh, but entirely legitimate attack. Intelligence and judgment are key for any president, and a presidential campaign should be about discerning which candidate shows themselves superior in those qualities. McCain is well within his rights to question Obama's strategic wisdom. I quite obviously disagree with the details of his argument, but it's not an argument that crosses any sort of line.

Attack Two reads like it was crafted by Karl Rove, and it's the route McCain has decided to travel. It's a relic of the 2002 midterm campaign and the 2004 presidential campaign. It's an attack that doesn't focus on the other guy's intelligence or his policies. It attempts to eviscerate his patriotism and convince the public that Obama is simply not committed to American success overseas.

It is, in short, a brutal, flagrantly out-of-bounds smear. The Bush administration has spent the last eight years accusing all who dissent or disagree of disloyalty or, at the very best, an extreme lack of patriotism. There was reason to hope that John McCain wouldn't stoop to those levels. Tragically, he has disabused us of those notions.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

VP Profile: Joe Biden

Age: 66 going on Time.
Current Position: Senator from Delaware
Former Positions of Importance: None

Pros: You want weight on the ticket? Heft? Credibility? Biden's your guy. Summarizing his credentials as "senator from Delaware" is doing Biden a grave disservice. He has the sixth-longest tenure in the Senate and chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. He's on the Judiciary committee and heads the subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. He played a crucial role in the run-up to the Kosovo conflict of the late 90's.

In short, there are no options out there for Obama who would do more than Biden to add gravitas to the ticket. Biden is a legitimately intelligent man with good ideas and an agile mind. After one of the primary debates his campaign assembled a fairly amusing video containing a couple dozen instances of the various candidates saying some version of "Joe is Right." He could contribute in a big way to an Obama administration.

Oh, and this factor tends to get ignored in these discussions, but should something tragic happen to a President Obama, Biden could assume the office and hit the ground running. Obama would have left the country in good hands. (Obviously that's a macabre thought, but we're talking about the vice president here. "Take over in case something macabre happens" is pretty much the guy's job description)

Biden has a sharp tongue and could handle the attack dog role typically associated with the vice presidential candidate. He rather famously eviscerated Rudy Giuliani in one of the debates, and his takedown of John Ashcroft back in 2004 was quite impressive.

Cons: "Hi, I'm Barack Obama. I earned the trust, love and votes of millions of young people by promising them a change in the stultified culture of Washington D.C. My youthful appearance, impressive oratory and unorthodox biography convinced those voters that I meant what I said about changing Washington and taking the levers of power from the old white men who had been in office for decades.

"And on a completely unrelated note, let me introduce you to my nominee for the office of vice president, Joe Biden! He was in Washington when slaves built the White House and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back when the gravest threat to our national security were the Barbary Pirates. Hope you don't consider that a disappointment or a betrayal in any way."

There's also a fear that choosing someone like Biden (or Sam Nunn or Chuck Hagel) because of their experience could backfire on Obama. The message you want to send is that an Obama administration would include people who actually know how Washington runs. The message you risk sending is that when the phone rings at 3:00 am in the White House, it'll be Biden and not Obama who handles the crisis. If Biden comes off as more a babysitter than an adviser, Obama will look small and unworthy of the position.

Biden likes to talk. In this era of YouTube, 24 hours news networks and rapid response teams, Biden's admirable willingness to speak his mind and run his mouth is quite refreshing. He doesn't curl up into a ball and spout safe, uncontroversial catchphrases. It's impressive. It's also incredibly dangerous, as Biden himself can tell you. We all remember the "clean, articulate" gaffe he committed on the very day he declared his candidacy. That's a pretty poor way to kick off a campaign.

There's always going to be a fear that some rapscallion with dark hair will heckle Biden at a campaign event and Biden will respond by calling the kid a "dago." That's a good way to lose several newscycles.

Doesn't bring any geographic appeal to the ticket. Delaware's voted for a Democrat in every presidential election since 1992, the rest of the Northeast is solidly in Obama's camp and even if Delaware was in play it only carries three electoral votes.

Verdict: Not the odds-on favorite, but still a solid option. The babysitter dynamic is a tricky problem, but skillful campaigning can send the message that yes, an Obama administration will change things, even if the vice president is an old hand. Regardless, it's unlikely that many of Obama's young supporters will desert him simply because he chose a 66 year old as his running mate. Picking Biden would show how seriously Obama takes the VP's office and how dedicated he is to putting a top-notch intellect in the position.

Biden has also been mentioned as a potential Secretary of State for Obama.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight: Telling You What You Already Know

The Dark Knight is a good movie. You should see it.

That's pretty much all that's left to say about the latest installment in the revived Batman series. The riotous reviews have been flowing in from all corners. Professional critics love it. Pretentious amateur critics (hi!) love it. Comic book fanboys love it and proclaim it the best superhero movie of all time. On opening weekend it hauled in roughly the annual GDP of Belarus. Hell, we haven't even really seen the expected backlash yet; the movie's been out for a little more than a week and Slate hasn't published a contrarian column labeling it a scourge. So that's impressive.

First of all, let's establish what The Dark Knight isn't. It isn't the greatest movie ever, which is what the rankings on IMDB say. It isn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience you'll regret missing when you're in your deathbed. In that regard, the hype needs to be deflated just a little.

But the hype, the critical reaction, it's all irrelevant. The movie itself is all that matters. And The Dark Knight is legitimately outstanding.

The late Heath Ledger and his portrayal of The Joker has been the focus of many reviews. Again, the hype is slightly overinflated. Ledger's excellent and throws himself into the role so completely that the identity of the actor would be impossible to discern without any foreknowledge. Ledger's Joker is a cackling, clumsily made-up force of nature. He's an urban forest fire, an inferno with no real motivation. He has no origin story. He's simply a monster who has set his eyes on Gotham and Batman. So yes, Ledger's fantastic, but it's hard not to wonder if the delirious reviews are motivated in part by the actor's tragic death.

Ledger certainly stands out, in no small part because the nature of the role allows him to find a psychopathic glee that's amazing to watch. But he's not the only actor to turn in a great performance. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman do their parts to add heft and credibility to the summer blockbuster, and to their credit they take the job seriously.

Christian Bale does an admirable job carrying a tough role. He was allowed to stretch his legs a little and explore the difficult Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's initial entry in the Batman reboot. Bruce doesn't play as large a role in The Dark Knight, and Bale spends most of his time in the suit and mask; it's rather hard to convey emotion with only your eyes and a digitally enhanced voice. (That digital enhancement, by the way, is a little over-the-top in the movie and can make the actor's lines inaudible, especially when spoken over the soaring score.) But Bale takes advantage of the "Bruce Wayne- playboy" scenes when he has them and continues to delve into the deep-seated conflict between the billionaire and the bat without falling into angst.

Maggie Gyllenhaal thankfully replaces Katie Holmes as assistant district attorney and superhero love interest Rachael Dawes. She doesn't distinguish herself, but she's a solid improvement over the one glaring fault in Begins.

But Aaron Eckhardt deserves some real plaudits for his performance as district attorney Harvey Dent. He deftly handles Dent's arc, the gradual evolution of the crime-fighting, hard-charging white knight into something far more complicated. Eckhardt plays the role with genuine skill, and in some ways it's a pity he gets over-shadowed by Ledger's turn as The Joker.

The movie is two and a half dark hours. The first half of that running time is surprisingly slow and more than a little disappointing. If you go in with extraordinary expectations, the early returns aren't promising. Don't worry- it gets better. A lot better. Because halfway through The Dark Knight takes a turn that is shocking, effective and, well, pretty damn dark. Nolan plays the moment with all the skill of a violin virtuoso.

Nolan also did well in overhauling his fight scenes, which were widely panned in Batman Begins. He uses fewer sharp cuts in murky, claustrophobic environments and as a result causes far fewer headaches for the viewer. It's now possible to discern what's happening when two characters are trying to kill each other.

I don't know if this is "the greatest superhero movie ever," but it's not an irrational position. It's certainly better than Iron Man or Spider-Man 2, both of which were given that label when they were released. Regardless, don't be turned off by the hype.

Friday, July 25, 2008

David Brooks Needs to Remove the Stick Up His Ass

Barack Obama made a big speech in Berlin yesterday. You might have heard about it; it made all the websites. The transcript shows an address that was inspiring and high-minded, if admittedly light on substantive policy discussion. The 200,000 people who showed up certainly seemed happy with it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks was not.

Brooks, who was not initially hostile toward Obama, soured on the Illinois Senator roughly the second it became obvious Obama would win the Democratic nomination. Ever since he's devoted many columns to mocking Obama's supporters and tedious screeds pointing out that he's human. (Shock!)

Brooks' point here is that Obama really should have been grumpier yesterday. The key paragraph:

But now it is more than half a year on, and the post-partisanship of Iowa has given way to the post-nationalism of Berlin, and it turns out that the vague overture is the entire symphony. The golden rhetoric impresses less, the evasion of hard choices strikes one more.

The columnist gives Obama some begrudging credit for calling for an increase in the European troop presence in Afghanistan, an unpopular position in Germany. But generally, Brooks wanted Obama to dig into the nitty gritty of foreign policy and give a wonkish policy speech to the 200,000 gathered in front of the city's "Victory Column."

What Brooks ignores is that there's a time for hard-nosed pragmatism and there's a time for hope and inspiring oratory. When 200,000 Germans gather in front of the Victory Column in the middle of the July, that is not the time to talk about chlorine baths for chickens. (Seriously. It's an issue.)

And I'm brought back to the point I made yesterday; namely, that oratory isn't worthless. It's not something you do to pass the time while the grown-ups talk in a back room. Inspiring people is important, and we do a disservice when we claim otherwise.

Considering the context of Obama's visit, it would have been inappropriate for him to stand up in front of the world and lay out the detailed foreign policy he hoped to implement in his first term as president. It would have been seen as an American senator subverting the authority and credibility of a sitting president in an international forum. In fact, the Times' political blog cited Obama's call for more troops as an unusual, perhaps unprecedented move.

There's nothing wrong with speaking vaguely and inspirationally in that environment. There will be a problem if it comes out that Obama met with Angela Merkel in private and seriously argued that the problems with Iran could be solved by joining hands and praying. There will be a problem if Obama takes office and tells his Secretary of Defense that the troops in Iraq can deflect RPGs by chanting "Yes, we can." Since there's precious little evidence that Obama's an idiot, I don't anticipate either of those revelations.

My favorite part of Brooks' column?

Obama used the word “walls” 16 times in the Berlin speech, and in 11 of those cases, he was talking about walls coming down.

Brooks would evidently like Obama to spend more time talking about the impenetrable walls that continue to divide us.

"And then there's the Great Wall of China, a tragic reminder of a time when Mongol hordes roved the Asian continent, killing and pillaging. Can't see that one coming down any time soon. Oh, and the Ebola virus. That must suck. It definitely builds a wall between people and their desire to have healthy organs. No cure for that in the offing. Also, this isn't really relevant to what I was just talking about, but I think it's important for those of you are single to know that you're probably not going to find love. You'll likely die embittered and alone. And those of you who have someone shouldn't get too comfortable; more likely than not you'll end up loathing the person you now love. Thank you, Berlin! Yes, we can!"

Brooks ended with this:

But substantively, optimism without reality isn’t eloquence. It’s just Disney.

And cynicism without intelligence isn't wisdom. It's just unpleasant.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pat Roberts Hates The English Language

You might know Pat Roberts as the non-Sam Brownback senator from the great state of Kansas. Well, it's re-election time for the senator, and while he's almost certain to win with relative ease, it's always a good idea to make sure your constituents know you're on the ballot. So Roberts is running this ad throughout the state:

Roberts' message here is fairly clear: "Yes, there's a lot wrong with America today. But I've been here for awhile, and I have the influence to protect the aviation industry in Kansas." It's a classic incumbent tack. Emphasize constituent services and the extent to which you are an irreplaceable part of the voter's life.

I don't really care that much about the overall message, and I don't know enough about the situation to get into the Boeing/Airbus controversy. But something caught my ear the first time I saw the commercial, and it grates on me every time I see the spot:

"In Kansas, we build airplanes- the best."

What in the world does that mean? It's barely a sentence, and certainly not a coherent one.

Is Roberts trying to say, "In Kansas, we help build the best airplanes in the world?" Or is he trying to say, "Kansans build airplanes better than anyone else in the world?" Damned if I know.

Is this a big deal? On the grander scale of things, when you consider Darfur and Iraq and the Braves' outfield situation, not really. Both possible sentences work in that context. It was just lazy writing, which is surprising, considering the rest of the ad is quite slick and professional. (We can talk another day about the oh-so-popular advertising trope wherein a candidate visits a factory for a listening tour and ends up lecturing the workers while making decisive hand gestures.)

But the degradation of language, especially in the political sphere, is a poisonous development. Crafting beautiful language is difficult, to be sure, but writing a coherent sentence at the beginning of your advertisement shouldn't be that challenging. "I'm Pat Roberts, and I approve this message. Here in Kansas, we make the best airplanes in the world." There. Five seconds of effort.

You can see in the reaction to Barack Obama how the powerful regard political speech. Oratory isn't a parlor trick. It has intrinsic value. The ability to reach people and inspire them with your words is an extraordinary skill, and denigrating it as a meaningless bit of sorcery degrades us all. The 21st century presidency is, to a large extent, a communications position. The ability to effectively articulate your message to audiences both foreign and domestic is a crucial aspect of any modern presidential administration.

We trace our ideals to Rome and Athens, but those were societies that believed an ability to use words in defense of oneself was evidence of moral rectitude. While that's going a bit too far (many used car salesmen are quite eloquent), we have run in the opposite direction with too much celerity and fierceness. Any more, when a politician conspicuously lacks eloquence it is seen as a charming affectation, evidence of the man's deep connection to the average American.

In this case, the millions of Americans who have flocked to Obama, inspired by his oratory and his skill with the language, are showing more wisdom than the pundits and politicians who mock them for their excitement. Words matter. They've mattered since the day man grunted his first, barely coherent syllables.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

VP Profile: Kathleen Sebelius

Age: 60
Current Position: Governor of Kansas
Former Positions of Importance:
  • Kansas Insurance Commissioner, 1994-2002
  • Member, Kansas House of Representatives, 1986-1994
Pros: Arguably represents the prototype of a 21st century Democrat who can win in the reddest of red states. Kansas hasn't voted for a Democrat since Gaius Marius ran for consul in 100 BC on a populist platform. But Sebelius was elected governor in 2002 by a solid margin, in large part because she successfully exploited the long-standing economic conservative/social conservative division within the state's Republican Party. When she won the insurance commissioner office in 1994, she became the first Democrat in 100 years to do so. She won re-election in 2006 by more than 17 percentage points. Understand how impressive that is; Republicans vastly out-number Democrats in this state. She's clearly quite adept at succeeding in a hostile environment.

While Obama could completely win over the angry Clinton supporters by nominating Hillary, Sebelius would be a nice consolation prize if he decides to avoid that particular whirlwind. They might not know much about Sebelius, but they could identify with the way she's had to fight in a conservative, male-dominated Kansas political climate.

None of the TV pundits know how to pronounce her last name. That would be pretty amusing for awhile.

Sebelius would be a helpful presence in an Obama administration. She has six years of executive experience as governor, and it's highly regarded executive experience. (TIME named her one of the best governors in the country in 2005) Even her work as insurance commissioner was applauded.

Cons: Yes, Sebelius has legitimate experience, but not the right kind of experience. She hasn't traveled in foreign lands, negotiated with dictators or gained any kind of recognition as a domestic policy wonk. She isn't going to elevate Obama's profile with her very presence the way other candidates might. Seriously, look at that "Former Positions of Importance" list. Is anyone going to be terribly impressed by "Kansas Insurance Commissioner?"

While Sebelius deserves credit for winning in a conservative environment, the context of her gubernatorial victories is important. She won in 2002 in large part because of conflicts within the Republican Party and the lack of an inspiring Republican candidate. By all accounts she did a skillful job navigating the terrain, but she also had the good luck of avoiding the extremely popular incumbent governor Bill Graves, who was term-limited and couldn't run a third time.

Sebelius doesn't bring any geographic appeal to the ticket. The Obama campaign is making the right noises about competing in Kansas, and they have an office here, but they're not winning the state. The best they could hope for is to make McCain's running mate spend a few hours in Kansas and a single digit defeat come election day. Sebelius doesn't have great appeal in the Midwest outside of her home state; the Kansas-Missouri dynamic is such that voters in the swing state aren't going to be persuaded by the presence of a Kansan on the ticket.

Her maiden name is "Gilligan."

Verdict: Sebelius seems to be a popular choice, but I don't see it, unless Obama's desperate for a woman not named Hillary Clinton. She's hardly a dynamic figure, and this choice wouldn't let Obama dominate the newscycle like other options. It's hard to see where the campaign could utilize her on the electoral map; she was born in Ohio and spent some childhood years in Michigan, but that means less than nothing. ("I don't like Obama and his positions, but I lived next to the Gilligans for years. They're good people. Never stole my newspaper.")

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Five Worst Episodes of Futurama

I love TV, but I'm not a big fan of ranking shows. I know what I like, but trying to establish some kind of hierarchy is a foolhardy attempt to bring objectivity to an inherently subjective area. So as much as I might love, say, The West Wing, I'll try to avoid saying something like "The West Wing is the greatest hour long drama in television history."

That said, any list of the greatest animated series in television history has to include Futurama. Created by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Futurama managed to transcend the cartoon comedy genre and mine genuine emotional depths. But it never fell into melodrama and never took itself too seriously; Futurama was wickedly funny throughout its entire four season run.

Still, I'm a believer in a thorough and honest evaluation of those things we take seriously in life, so what follows is a list of the five worst Futurama episodes. This is a labor of love; by acknowledging the flaws in the show, it will only serve to make Futurama's (many) brilliant moments even better.

Honorable Mention: Bender's Big Score: If you divided this two hour, stand-alone movie into four 30 minute episodes, any one of them would easily be the worst episode in the show's run. BBS featured a bizarre and incomprehensible time travel plot that was clearly crafted to show off the writers' science credentials. (Many have degrees in math or science from MIT or other august institutions.) The jokes fell flat, especially an elaborate "Screw you" bit of catharsis aimed at the FOX execs who canceled the show. A couple musical numbers failed miserably. Even the animation, somehow. The high point of the movie was the voice work of Al Gore, which should tell you all you need to know.

#5: Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch, Season Four: Weak largely because of the episode's intense focus on Amy and Kif. Amy's just an annoyance and better left in a slapstick role where she can klutz it up and get some cheap laughs. Kif's more lovable, but is better utilized as a supporting character put-upon by the idiocy of Zapp Brannigan. They can't carry an entire episode, which is what they're asked to do in this episode, where a bizarre space station accident results in Leela accidentally impregnating Kif. (I know) Amy has to come to grips with the way this will change her life; see, in Kif's culture, she will be the true mother of Kif's children. She does eventually accept responsibility...only to have the episode end in such a way as to guarantee the birth won't actually affect anyone. Weak.

#4: Mars University, Season Two: Another early episode, and one of the first instances of the writers falling into a trap that would become familiar to fans: Bender's "B" plot, largely an excuse to focus on him committing various felonies and outrages, overshadows the "A" plot of Fry and Leela. In this episode, an Animal House parody, Bender takes over a lame robot fraternity and tries to make them cool. Meanwhile, Fry competes in various Mars University classes with a monkey made intelligent by a computerized hat. A lot of the show's premises are silly, but that's pretty bad. (Note: this episode is included in the first season DVD collection, but the online episode guide I'm using puts it in the second season)

#3: Obsoletely Fabulous, Season Four: This is really a tie between several Bender-centric episodes, namely "The 30 Percent Iron Chef," "Love and Rocket" and "The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz." Bender was a character who got a lot of funny lines from the writing staff, gained popularity and sort of took over the show at certain points. Bender's nature made him immensely fun as a supporting player who chimed in from time-to-time with a hilariously cruel joke. But when entire episodes were written around him, as they were in the shows I've named, his act began to wear a little thin. I can only get put up with so much cruelty before Bender starts to lose my sympathy. "Obsoletely Fabulous" was just the worst case of this.

#2: The Cryonic Woman, Season Three: The problem here can be summed up in two words: Sarah Silverman. I'll readily admit to a pre-existing bias; I don't like Silverman and I think the hype surrounding her has less to do with the actual quality of her jokes and more to do with the fact that she's a good-looking woman who tells sex and fart jokes. But even though I'm not fond of her, I'll acknowledge she has legitimate talent and a distinctive voice. Theoretically, that makes her perfect for a role like this. But she completely botches the role of Michelle, Fry's girlfriend from the 20th century who froze herself and woke up in Fry's new time. Her tone and emphasis are all wrong in this episode, most glaringly when she uttered the line, "He went to a law school so prestigious the basketball team was coached by Ruth Bader Ginsburg." A mediocre voice acting performance is not a big deal, but Silverman was distractingly awful in this episode. "The Cryonic Woman" did, however, feature one of the show's funnier lines, when Fry tells Michelle, "I want you to know I don't regret this. But I both rue and lament it."

#1: The Series Has Landed, Season One: This was the second episode of the series, and things were still a bit raw. The voice work was not refined to the level it eventually reached; there are subtle but noticeable differences in the way Fry, Leela, Bender and Professor Farnsworth sounded here than they did later in the show's run. The weak plot centers on an expedition to the Moon; it's a simple matter for the rest of the cast, but the temporally displaced Fry considers it a significant adventure. There are a couple of nice setpieces, including a lovely shot of Earth taken from the Moon's surface, but there aren't enough to salvage a forgettable episode.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hancock: Um, I Don't Know?

Ever leave a movie without knowing whether or not you liked it? I ask because I saw Hancock Saturday night and, well, for the life of me I can't tell you how I feel about that.

Will Smith does his usual Will Smith thing as the alcoholic, foul-mouthed title "hero." Smith isn't a particularly distinguished actor, but there's a real talent in his ability to maintain likability no matter the role he's playing or the lines he's spouting. Say what you will about the guy, but it takes skill to charm the audience while drinking, swearing at children and throwing said children several thousand feet into the air. Despite the boozing and the temper (Hancock blows up upon being called an asshole), Smith never threatens the audience.

Which is impressive on one level, but sort of drains the tension from the movie. See, Hancock is supposed to be a real bastard. He heroes drunk. His takeoffs and landings destroy property and injure people. His "heroics" cost the city of Los Angeles several million dollars in collateral damage. He ignores subpoenas. At the base level he might mean well, but when we first meet the guy, he's not sympathetic.

But Smith is just too damn charming, even in his cretin state, to make us lose sympathy with him. As a result there's never really any doubt that the Fresh Prince will mend his ways with the help of an idealistic PR man played by Jason Bateman. In the film's defense, there's really very little dramatic tension in most summer blockbusters. (Anyone who has seen The Dark Knight and offers any sort of spoiler will be banned.)

Still, Hancock doesn't really give you much chance to think through all that. Checking in at an anachronistically brief hour and 33 minutes, the movie flits effortlessly from scene to scene. We get one extended sequence of Hancock as a jerk hero. We get one extended sequence of Hancock heroing it up with the proper respect and dignity. We get one extended ending sequence. Sprinkle in some exposition and some jail time, and you've got Hancock.

There's a major, fairly nifty twist halfway through the film that's never quite adequately explored and should leave most viewers with a healthy case of fridge logic.

Oh, Charlize Theron is there. Remember when she won an Oscar? That was cool. You like looking at her, right? Well have at it, America!

So...yeah. That's Hancock: the movie that made no impression.

Friday, July 18, 2008

VP Profile: John Edwards

Age: 55
Current Position: Professional Scamp; Professor of Dual American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill
Former Positions of Importance:
  • Senator from North Carolina, 1998-2004
  • Gifted trial lawyer, 1978-1997
  • Son of a mill worker, 1953-1978
Pros: The Obama campaign has identified North Carolina as a vulnerable red state; polls there seem to indicate a competitive environment. Plucking the state and its 15 electoral votes from the GOP camp would be huge, both in terms of morale and electoral math. Winning North Carolina would largely make up for a loss in Michigan, for example. Edwards would not only help in his home state, he might be useful in Virginia, another Southern state Obama feels is in play.

Paul Krugman would be happy.

An Edwards nomination would be Obama's attempt to reach dissatisfied blue collar workers, men and women who feel squeezed by the current economy but are not touched by "Yes, we can" chants. Edwards is a legitimately gifted campaigner, a 21st century Bill Clinton. He has a wonderful ability to look a pained single mother in the eye and make her feel like he's listening, that he truly cares about her plight.

Dispatch Edwards to North Carolina, Virginia, rural areas of Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio, send him to speak to unemployed auto workers in Michigan, and he can be an extraordinary force. In that regard he complements Obama well; placing Edwards on the ticket would go a long way toward alleviating charges that the presidential candidate is elitist.

Cons: Been there, done that. See those last couple of paragraphs? If I wrote this post four years ago I probably would have used those exact same words to justify Edwards as John Kerry's vice president. It turns out the existence of John Edwards didn't do a whole lot to convince folks that John Kerry was anything other than an overly primped elitist.

No one cares what Paul Krugman thinks.

Nominating Edwards does nothing to alleviate concerns about Obama's inexperience and, in fact, might aggravate them. Edwards brings no substantial foreign or domestic policy to the ticket. He's already been tarred as "the Breck Girl of American politics" by the Republicans, and if there's one thing the Barack Obama campaign doesn't need, it's another inexperienced, good-looking guy who can speak well.

Nor does Edwards help Obama with those elusive "Clinton women" the campaign is trying to win over.

Verdict: People forget it now, but back in 2004, Edwards was the Barack Obama prototype. Great speaker, great biography, talked at length about changing the tone and culture of Washington.

Like most prototypes, Edwards has become over-shadowed by the perfected version of the original product. He has Obama's strengths and Obama's weaknesses, but Obama elevates the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses with a skill Edwards lacks. As such, it's hard to see what the campaign would really gain by a John Edwards VP nomination.

If you're scoring at home, he's a more likely nominee than Clinton, but less likely than Richardson.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

VP Profile: Hillary Clinton

Age: 61
Current Position: Senator from New York
Former Positions of Importance: First Lady of the United States, January 1993- January 2001

Pros: Any Democratic women still angered at both the tone and the outcome of the primary will be mollified by this selection. It would show Obama's respect and admiration for the historic nature of Clinton's candidacy. By accepting the position, Clinton would give those women concrete evidence that she had made her peace with her defeat and was excited about the prospect of an Obama presidency. Those supporters could take solace in the idea that their heroine would have a voice in influencing policy.

Paul Krugman would be happy.

The campaign could deploy Clinton in the blue collar areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania that provided the margin of her victory in those states. Toward the end of the campaign she managed to forge a bond with the kind of scuffling lower-middle-class voters who are desperate for economic relief after eight years of this Bush administration. Those voters haven't yet embraced Obama, and could be heartened by the presence of Clinton on the ticket.

She brings a measure of policy wonkiness to the table, a heft that Obama supposedly lacks. In other words, Clinton might not be answering that 3 am phone call, but she'll be right there by Obama's side when he does.

Cons: No one cares what Paul Krugman thinks.

Clinton doesn't give the campaign anything in terms of geographic appeal. If New York is in play come November it's because Fox News played a video tape showing Obama and bin Laden playing pinochle on the Shroud of Turin.

The big question is whether Obama and the campaign wants to deal with all the detritus that comes with having a Clinton in the spotlight. Does Obama want to fight the Ken Starr battles all over again? If you've read any of the several hundred post-mortems detailing the collapse of Clinton's primary campaign, you get the impression it was run by a group of back biters who wouldn't be out of place in "I, Claudius." Does anyone in the Obama campaign want to deal with that collection of egos? Does anyone in the Obama campaign want to deal with Bill?

A Hillary Clinton nomination would energize the base of the Republican Party, that group of people on the extreme right wing who quite fervently consider her the Whore of Babylon. In an election where many of those voters are dissatisfied with their party's choice of candidate, it would seem unwise to poke them with a stick until they get angry enough to read that piece of direct mail.

Verdict: I don't think so. Clinton can certainly play a role in the campaign, and Obama would be wise to use both Bill and Hillary in certain areas. The ex-president, for example, could make hay in rural areas of Virginia and North Carolina, both states the campaign thinks are vulnerable.

But he can do that even without his wife on the ticket. There's so much there there. So much baggage, so much history, so much rage. I just can't imagine Obama dipping a toe into that swirling vortex of resentment and psychological devastation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Newest New York Times poll

Poll Shows Racial Division on Obama's Candidacy

More "analysis" later, but my favorite statistic:

Among black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, Mr. Obama draws support from 89 percent, compared with 2 percent for Mr. McCain.

1. Two percent? I'm pretty sure Slayer would pull better numbers at Lilith Fair.

2. That still leaves nine percent of black voters who didn't choose McCain or Obama. Bob Barr is surprisingly popular.

3. Anyone who responds to that second point with some version of the phrase "I think that means nine percent of African-American voters are undecided" is getting banned.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The New Yorker: It's Relevant!

Obama Campaign Angry at New Yorker Cover

If the first casualty of war is truth, perhaps the first casualty of a presidential campaign is the candidate's sense of humor. This week's issue of The New Yorker features the following cover:

Suffice it to say the Obamas aren't terribly thrilled with this.

“The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create,” the spokesman, Bill Burton, said in a statement. “But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive –- and we agree.”

I sympathize with Obama's plight here. The campaign obviously knows the cover is satirical. It knows the magazine's readership knows it's satirical. The New Yorker's subscribers aren't the kind of people eagerly reading the anti-Obama emails making the rounds. The descriptions I've read of the accompanying story make it sound quite sympathetic. I'm sure Obama would like nothing so much as to have a hearty chuckle at the cover. (The depiction of Michelle Obama is particularly funny)

But this campaign has dedicated itself to the idea that it will be the polar opposite of the 2004 Kerry operation, and its candidate will be the polar opposite of the 2004 Kerry operation's candidate. That means setting up a website for the specific purpose of refuting scurrilous rumors. That means responding vigorously to the whisper campaign aimed at Obama.

Obama and his campaign likely fear that this cover will show up again, and in a forum far more hostile than The New Yorker. Photoshop out the masthead, and you've got a fun little photo attachment for your "Michelle and Barack Hate America" October email.

Plus, this entire situation surely offends the campaign's well-honed sense of message discipline. Wesley Clark's comments a couple weeks ago were eminently reasonable, but that newscycle was a loss for Obama, simply because any discussion of McCain's military service is a victory for the Republican. Similarly, any discussion in the "Barack's a Secret Muslim" or "Michelle's a Black Supremacist" forums is a defeat for the Obama campaign, even if that discussion is superficially sympathetic to Obama. There's no way for the campaign to win that newscycle.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

McCain to Abandoned Children: Enjoy the Orphanage!

McCain: I'm a Roosevelt Conservative

Interview Transcript

John McCain sat down in Hudson, Wisconsin with New York Times reporters Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper to talk about his brand on conservatism. In it, he rejects the "Goldwater conservative," "Reagan conservative" or "George W. Bush conservative" labels and instead calls himself a "Roosevelt conservative." (That's Theodore and not Franklin, in case you were wondering)

There's nothing particularly objectionable here. Well, OK, that's not quite true; I'm a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. Naturally I disagree with a lot of what McCain says in the interview. But there's not much in the transcript that offends me. It's a pretty standard series of Republican responses, though McCain seems more willing to accept an active federal government than some in his party would like.

There was, however, one exchange I found more than troubling. From the transcript:

President Bush believes that gay couples should not be permitted to adopt children. Do you agree with that?

Mr. McCain: I think that we’ve proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no I don’t believe in gay adoption.

Q: Even if the alternative is the kid staying in an orphanage, or not having parents.

Mr. McCain: I encourage adoption and I encourage the opportunities for people to adopt children I encourage the process being less complicated so they can adopt as quickly as possible. And Cindy and I are proud of being adoptive parents.

Q: But your concern would be that the couple should a traditional couple

Mr. McCain: Yes.

Excuse my bluntness, but this position is cruel and loathsome, and the only thing more appalling than McCain's expression of it is the fact that it won't garner any real attention on the campaign trail. McCain seems to go out of his way to avoid supporting an outright ban on gay adoption, but there's no way to read that exchange as being anything other than completely hostile to homosexuals.

Look, I'm dramatically more liberal on gay issues than the vast majority of Americans. I get that. I support gay marriage, but I can understand why that's a difficult issue for a lot of people. Marriage is an ancient tradition, with a long-established one man/one woman dynamic. I'm willing to accept that others might be unwilling to alter that dynamic in an effort to adapt to modern sensibilities. I disagree, but it's a difficult problem.

Adoption, by contrast, is not some sacred religious tradition tracing back through millennia. Adoption is a vital institution, but it is not one with a death grip on our soul. A ban on homosexual adoption falls under the same category as the older attempts to prohibit gays from teaching in public schools. At best, such a proposal comes from someone desperate to appeal to those ignorant enough to fear that a gay parent or teacher is inclined to acts of pedophilia. Far worse, and far more likely, is that such a proposal is fueled by hate and nothing else.

I'm not sure which is McCain's category. Later in the interview he expresses his distaste for gay marriage, but also says he considers it a state issue. (McCain did vote for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996) One hopes that President McCain wouldn't support a federal law banning gay adoption, though as far as I'm aware there's little to no talk of such a law.

The problem, however, is that President McCain would veto such a law not out of a respect for the humanity and decency of gay Americans, but because it violates his conception of federalism. In other words, the classic case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Based on this interview, it certainly seems like John McCain possesses the kind of distaste for homosexuals that has long poisoned American life.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Troubled Secondary Takes Another Blow

Florida Loses Safety Dorian Munroe for 2008 Season

Florida's pass defense was so bad in 2007.

How bad was it?

Florida's pass defense was so bad in 2007 that it ranked dead last in the SEC and 84th in the nation, behind such luminaries as Florida International, Northwestern and Duke.

That wasn't even a joke.

I don't want to overstate this; Dorian Munroe almost certainly isn't a great player. Nor is John Curtis, the senior walk-on and safety who also hurt his knee this summer and will miss the 2008 season. Truthfully, it's hard to get any real read on Dorian, who took over as strong safety in the 2006 SEC Championship Game when Tony Joiner got hurt and started the 2008 LSU game after Joiner's bizarre incident at an impound lot. Joiner was quickly inserted into the game and Munroe went back to the bench.

Considering the war crime that was Florida's 2007 pass defense, it's a little strange that Munroe never played his way into significant minutes. So it's not likely the Gators just lost the second coming of Reggie Nelson. But what he does have is two years of experience in Gainesville and a fair amount of talent. (He was a four star prospect and one of the top ten safeties in the nation as a high schooler)

Since the spring game, UF's safety depth has been eviscerated by injuries, transfers and criminal activity. Jerimy Finch got homesick and transferred to Indiana. Jamar Hornsby was involved in a rather sickening credit card case and was kicked off the team. Munroe and Curtis tore up their knees. Dee Finley, an incoming freshmen who was one of the best strong safety prospects in the country, failed to qualify academically and will head to military school for the fall semester.

What's left? Big hitter Major Wright, a sophomore who showed some flashes of excellence as a true freshmen, but spent most of the time replicating popular whipping boy Kyle Jackson's coverage issues. He's a great prospect, but probably ill-suited for the free safety position where he's currently the starter.

Then there's sophomore Bryan Thomas, about whom I know next-to-nothing. He's followed by sophomore Ahmad Black, a cornerback who didn't play in most of Florida's important games. Black is listed at 5'9, 177 pounds on Florida's official website; that's awfully small for a safety. Some reports indicate that Moses Jenkins, a tall, thin sophomore cornerback might be an option at safety.

The great hope is incoming freshmen Will Hill, the top high school safety in the country and UF's free safety of the future. And by "future," I mean "right freaking now, please." Hill was all world as a QB/DB in New Jersey and has every single tool you look for in an SEC free safety. Of course, much the same was said of the aforementioned Kyle Jackson when he first came to Gainesville, so there you go.

The Gators might well have to look at moving Wright to strong safety and starting Hill at the other spot. Or they might not. It's hard to say before fall practice starts up and Hill even sees a single practice snap.

Regardless, Florida's once again has a serious dilemma in the secondary. What many forget about the 2006 national championship team and its great defense is that the cornerbacks weren't great players. Ryan Smith was a decent player and intercepted a lot of passes, but second starter Reggie Lewis was largely a non-entity. Nickel back Tremaine McCollum did his best work sitting on the bench.

But the presence of Reggie Nelson made them all 300 percent better. Smith plays up at the line of scrimmage and gets beaten by Marcus Monk? No problem: Reggie was there to erase the mistake. Reggie was there to erase every mistake. He gave the cornerbacks and UF's defensive coordinators extraordinary freedom. He flew to every ball, blew up every vulnerable receiver, made every play.

If the 2008 cornerbacks play extraordinarily well, they might be as good as their 2006 counterparts. Maybe. They certainly didn't show much aptitude last year. Much of that can be blamed on youth, but the way Chad Henne and Michigan eviscerated them in the Capital One Bowl doesn't indicate that the kids learned all that much during the season.

Unless Wright breaks out and Hill explodes onto the scene, those corners aren't going to receive much help from their safeties. What does that mean? Easy third down conversions. An inability to stop the short pass.

And, perhaps, more frustrating losses.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Banner Day For the Environment

Court Rejects Clean Air Rules

EPA Refuses to Regulate Greenhouse Gases

I'm not an environmental scientist or a lawyer, so I can't speak intelligently in any great depth about these stories. I can guess, however, that the conservative, pro-business Supreme Court we have now is unlikely the overturn the DC Court of Appeals' decision. And I can guess that the EPA decision covered in the second story had little to do with rigorous scientific analysis by the non-political appointees in the EPA.

I make sure to read stories like these when I find myself upset and demoralized by Obama's various policy shifts. There's no danger I'll vote for John McCain, to be sure, but it would be nice to have a little energy and excitement about my candidate come November. And it's these behind-the-scenes issues, appointees to regulatory agencies, appeals court nominees, that can really define a president's legacy.

The last 28 years have seen 20 years of Republican presidential control. That's 20 years worth of conservative court nominees, 20 years worth of regulatory agents who don't like to, you know, regulate business and 20 years worth of entrenched power. Eight years of an Obama administration would be a nice start in seeding Washington with regulators who regulate.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What I'll Be Watching In A Few Hours

New season of Burn Notice starts tonight

Oh, Burn Notice. So silly. So predictable. So much fun.

BN debuted last summer on USA with a simple premise: James Bond gets fired. He lives in Miami. And...well, that's pretty much it.

Jeffrey Donovan, who you might know from his inspired work on Blair Witch 2: The Book of Shadows, plays Michael Weston, a spy for the US government. And if there's any justice on the internet, someone will start up a "Michael Weston Facts" page to rival the Chuck Norris version.

Weston's a ripped, stolid combination of Bond and MacGuyver, with a few of David Caruso's sunglass mannerisms thrown in for good measure. He grins, he does shirtless sit-ups, he assembles laser-guided nuclear torpedoes out of an iPod and a McDonald's wrapper. He does it all in an effort to find out why the government fired (or "burned") him. Oh, and he also runs an informal private detective agency that solves problems for the good people of Miami.

If you're reading this and saying to yourself, "Wow, that sounds stupid," well, you're not far wrong. It's a remarkably predictable show: Weston takes a step toward finding out who burned him. A poor schlub approaches him and begs for help. Michael says, "I'll look into it" and puts on his stylish sunglasses. He looks into it. It's more complicated than originally thought. Michael hatches a plan which involves improvised explosives and homemade listening devices. The plan goes off with few people being killed. The episode ends with Weston coming across a new piece of evidence in the burn notice arc.

There's very little real tension; Weston's too much of a badass for us to ever be convinced that he's in any danger. They play these annoying Miami montages before every new scene, as if we just can't quite believe that the show is based in south Florida without several scenes of bikini-clad women and sailboats.

Plus, the creative team has been desperately trying to make co-star Gabrielle Anwar (remember her from Scent of a Woman?) into the show's sex appeal. Since her body is obviously filled with more botulinum toxin than...well, a botulism victim, that's been a rather miserable failure.

But it's just so cool.

Donovan's great. Bruce Campbell, who plays Michael's best friend Sam, does his usual admirable work. The highlight of the show is Michael's running monologue; it's been said that the voiceover is a lazy writer's tool, but it just works here, likely thanks to the surprisingly chippy writing.

The second season premieres tonight.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Democrats cave on FISA

Senate Backs Wiretap Bill

Well done, Barack Obama. Well done, Democratic Party. Well done, United States Senate. The Times has the important details, beyond the well-documented immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with President Bush in the illegal wiretap fiasco after 9/11:

The legislation also expands the government’s power to invoke emergency wiretapping procedures. While the National Security Agency would be allowed to seek court orders for broad groups of foreign targets, the law creates a new, 7-day period for targeting foreigners without a court order in “exigent” circumstances if government officials assert that important national security information would be lost otherwise. The law also expands from three to seven days the period in which the government can conduct emergency wiretaps without a court on Americans if the attorney general certifies that there is probable cause to believe the target is linked to terrorism.

Oh, well, if government officials "assert" or "certify" that...government officials really, truly need the information, it's all good. I can't possibly foresee a situation where those officials would lie, manipulate evidence or even be blinded by a well-meaning patriotic zeal.

The Democrats caved. Period. It was an election year surrender, designed to promote the idea that the Democratic Party is as desperate to protect Americans as the GOP. That's a great message to promote, and this is absolutely the right way to do it, unless you're hung up on the fact that it won't work.

Kudos to, among others, Hillary Clinton for doing the right thing. Her statement on the issue is spot on.

It's necessary to single out Obama for opprobrium, and not just because of his blatant flip-flip on the issue. He's not simply the Democrats' presidential candidate and standard bearer. He is a man with a unique ability to articulate a national security message that stands in sharp contrast to the philosophy espoused by the Republican Party. With his intellectual and oratorical gifts, Obama should, at least, endeavor to convince voters that America's safety is secured by the rule of law and a reverence for the dictates of our Constitution.

Instead, he decided to fight on the GOP's terms. That simply doesn't work for Democrats.

Monday, July 7, 2008

What Was the Point Of That Again?

Braves Recall WonderBoy

So four days ago the Braves take the long overdue step of demoting Jeff Francoeur to Double-A. Upon hearing that he and his .234/.287/.374 line were being sent to the minors, Francoeur handled it with grace and humility :

"After three years, after playing hurt, playing every day, going in every day whether I got a hit and never complaining, I just played because Bobby [Cox] kept putting me in the lineup," Francoeur said. "But I just felt like a little three-minute thing — 'Hey, you're going down' — I feel like after three years, I was owed a little more of an explanation. But that's Frank's deal and that's what I guess they decided to do.

"My question is, what if I had hit a home run or had two hits [Thursday night]? Does it delay it one day, until I was 0-for-4? I was left standing outside in the dark on that. You almost felt like they had made [their minds] up before the game. That's where I felt frustrated, where I felt a little betrayed."

Francouer is far from the only reason the Braves are disappointing this season, but he's certainly a big part of it. Clearing him off the roster spared Braves fans from watching WonderBoy's horrendous at-bats, gave him a chance to clear his head and fix his attitude. It was, in short, the correct decision.

And today the Braves reversed it.

After Sunday's marathon victory over the Astros, Atlanta had to place Omar Infante, Manny Acosta and Jeff Bennett on the DL. Brent Lillibridge and Vladimir Nunez, whose big accomplishment was saving 20 games for the Miami Marlins in 2002, were called up to fill two spots. The third player recalled from the minor leagues?

Jeff Francoeur, Super Star.

A few questions come to mind: did Francoeur get a chance to unpack his duffel bag? Just how impressive were his 13 at-bats in Mississippi? When he hit the ball, did shards of angelic light fly from his bat and impale opposing fielders? Did he compel George Martin to write A Dance With Dragons?

Assuming none of that is true, assuming the Braves simply panicked after losing three players to injuries, or assuming that they made a conscious decision that Francoeur was a better option than, say, Brandon Jones, then the Braves have handled this situation as poorly as it was possible to handle it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Note to my Reader

I'll be on a kind of working vacation from Monday-Saturday. I'll have my laptop with me, but I'm not sure what kind of internet access I'll have. If it's consistent, I hope to maintain the normal blogging schedule. If it's...not there this page won't be updated until Saturday afternoon at the earliest. Just a warning.

VP Profile: Bill Richardson

Age: 61
Current Position: Governor of New Mexico
Former Positions of Importance:
  • Congressman from New Mexico, 1983-1997
  • Ambassador to the United Nations, 1997-1998
  • Secretary of Energy, 1998-2001
If you put a gun to my head and demanded I guess who Obama would tab as his vice president...well, you'd be a very bizarre criminal with an incomprehensible motive. But after I soiled myself, I would probably guess Richardson.

Pros: Richardson represents a nice middle ground between Obama's relative inexperience and the kind of stultified Washington insider against which the campaign has been crusading. Ol' Resume Richardson first came to Washington in 1983 as a representative from New Mexico's 3rd district. Before he left in 2001, he occupied a variety of positions that gave him a wide range of foreign and domestic policy experience. With energy policy a crucial issue in the campaign, his tenure at the Department of Energy is of particular importance.

But Richardson is a "young" 61, and he doesn't project the image of a crusty politico. As a VP candidate, he could help assuage fears over Obama's inexperience without coming off as a betrayal of the presidential candidate's message of change.

Politically, Richardson could exert influence in a state that, if recent history is any indication, could be quite close. Al Gore won New Mexico in 2000 by roughly 300 votes, while President Bush pulled the state in 2004 by less than 6,000 votes. He also hails from a Mountain West region that the Obama campaign feels could be swayed into the Democratic camp. (Not Utah so much as Colorado, to be sure)

Hispanic voters went in large numbers for Hillary Clinton during the primaries, and might well look on John McCain as an acceptable Republican option. Richardson, who has an extensive Hispanic heritage and grew up in Mexico City, could help there.

Cons: Despite all that experience, Richardson never caught on with Democratic voters. You can blame part of that on bad timing; in hindsight, it's hard to imagine any candidate being able to overcome the Clinton machine AND the Obama movement. Still, Richardson won't energize or inspire any voters.

I wonder if Richardson will actually convince anyone afraid of Obama's thin resume to vote for the man. And it would remain a complicated dance for Obama, who'd have to point to Richardson's experience without giving the impression that he'd be the one making decisions in the event of a 3:00 am foreign crisis.

And while Richardson likes to talk about his time at the Department of Energy, it was hardly a brilliant tenure. Certainly there were no dramatic breakthroughs in the field of alternative energy, though it's hard to expect such things during any given three-year span. But the department was racked with scandals when he was secretary. With McCain desperate to make this election about national security, Republicans will be thrilled to connect the word "espionage" with the Obama campaign.

The political advantages to a Richardson candidacy are debatable. I still question to what extent voters are swayed by a vice presidential nominee, and I certainly question whether voters in a given region will choose a president because the number two guy happens to be from their general area. And even if we granted the premise that Richardson could help deliver New Mexico, that's only five electoral votes. Not nothing in a potentially close election, but hardly a total that cries out "Pick me!"

VERDICT: I still think Richardson remains the odds-on favorite. He's a known quantity and doesn't excite the imagination; as such, there's always the potential a more exciting prospect could rocket up the lists. But Obama's got the charisma thing covered; there's no need for another jolt of hope on the ticket. The campaign could get good use out of Richardson by sending him to Hispanic voters in New Mexico and Colorado.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Song of Inpatience and Frustration

During my senior year of high school, I found a book in my dad's car called A Game of Thrones. I was between books at the time, so I decided to give it a try despite the fact that I wasn't (and am still not) big on fantasy novels. What I found was about two or three days worth of some of the most extraordinary writing, plot and character development I had ever seen in popular literature.

Thrones was merely the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, an epic fantasy series written by George RR Martin. It was followed by A Clash of Kings, which was every bit as good as the first book, and A Storm of Swords, which managed to take the series to an even higher level. These weren't fantasy novels, these were works of art. These books established a rich fantasy world that was almost completely bereft of magic or the other tired conventions of the fantasy genre. They placed the focus on deep, believable characters who didn't fall into easy categories. Intricate plots unfolded slowly, teasingly, over hundreds of pages divided into point of view chapters which focused on one particular character.

Martin took The Wars of the Roses and translated them to his world of Westeros, a kind of fantasy avatar for England. Noble families like the Lannisters and the Starks battled for control of Westeros, as Martin slowly unfolded a rich, staggeringly deep backstory. The supernatural element was always there, from page one of Thrones, hanging over the events like a dark cloud. But it was the human element that dominated Martin's saga. No character was safe; Martin killed off a key POV character halfway through the first book. There was no telling if the character whose perspective you were seeing would still be alive when you turned the page. I was hooked.

That was then. This is now.

See, Thrones was published in 1996. Clash came out in 1998. Storm debuted in 2000. And then...nothing. Martin decided the fourth book, A Feast For Crows, would be set five years after the end of Storm. A cute idea, except he couldn't pull it off. So much of the book was taken up with flashbacks that Martin decided he had to scrap everything he had written.

And then he couldn't stop writing. Feast became so long, so unwieldy, that the publisher couldn't publish everything Martin had written, let alone what he intended to write. So Martin and his editors devised a compromise: instead of finishing the book, cutting it in half and ending with a "To Be Continued" message, they would include the complete POVs of some characters while leaving others to be handled in an unplanned fifth book.

So A Feast For Crows was published in 2005, five years after Storm, and did not include some of the fans' favorite chapters. That was fine; the book as it stood remained excellent, if less action-packed than the previous three editions, and hey, we'd get that fifth book (A Dance With Dragons) soon enough. After all, Martin had already finished many of the chapters that would make up Dance, so how long could it take?

Three years later, we're still asking that question.

And the clock keeps ticking. Martin had hoped to finish Dance a few weeks ago before he went on a long-planned working vacation to Portugal and Spain, where he'd visit a gaggle of comic conventions and book stores. That would result in publication in September or October of this year.

No such luck. Martin crossed the pond without finishing Dance, and has reportedly told Portuguese audiences that his new goal is to finish by the end of the year, with a publication date of "some time in 2009."

Some of the delays were beyond Martin's control. After Feast came out, his publishers asked him to go on a four-month book tour in the US and Canada. Since Martin either cannot or will not write away from home, that pushed Dance back. So did a serious illness he suffered. And his fans like to constantly pester him about the publication date. I can only imagine how annoying that must be.

But Martin has developed an infuriating habit of posting a deadline on his site, going dark (and understandably so) until a few weeks before the deadline comes up and then writing a new entry that roughly says, "Sorry, not going to happen. But I hope to have it done by x."

You ever take one of those epic-length classes in college that met once a week for about three hours at a time? If you were lucky, you had a professor who'd get you out after about two and a half hours, maybe even less. However, you'd occasionally have to stay the full three hours. That would be more frustrating when the professor didn't warn you about the change; having your expectations disappointed is never fun.

I used to go around to various internet forums whole-heartedly recommending Martin's saga. I can't do that any more. The problem isn't so much A Dance With Dragons; we'll get that book in the (relatively) near future, and it'll be excellent. The question is whether a reader can have confidence that, once Dance is finished, Martin can finish the last two books he has planned with any kind of celerity.

That's a poor bet. And it's asking a lot to exhort someone to invest in this series when there's no guarantee of satisfaction.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Blow It Up

Braves Fall to Phillies...again

Nice try, but it's over. Time to give up the ghost.

Cole Hamels eviscerated the Braves again last night and the otherwise excellent Jair Jurrjens gave up three homers. Atlanta lost, 4-1, and they've dropped eight of nine games against the division-leading Phillies this season. They're seven games out, closer to last place than to first, the starting rotation is Tim Hudson, Jorge Campillo and three rookies and the highly touted offense completely shuts down against left-handed pitchers.

None of that gives me any reason to believe the Braves can make up the seven games they've given to the Phillies or the eight and a half games by which they trail in the wild card standings. Impossible? Of course not; the 1993 club trailed the Giants by seven games on July 4, and that San Francisco team was much better than the current iteration of the Phillies. But it goes without saying that these Braves don't measure up to the 93 team.

If you're not going to the playoffs, and the Braves are not, there's no point to playing out the string with the current crew of veterans. It's time to pack up shop and start thinking about 2009 and beyond. It's time to do something the Braves haven't done for at least 18 years: sell at the trading deadline.

The most attractive trading piece is undoubtedly Mark Teixeira, who has a disappointing air about him despite a basically solid .269/.373/.484 batting line. There's no chance the Braves will be able to re-coup their investment in him; no one will give up the equivalent of the Saltalamacchia/Neftali Feliz/Matt Harrison/Elvis Andrus package Atlanta surrendered last trading deadline. But a team like Anaheim, the third worst offensive club in the American League, could use even the sub-optimal version of Teixeira. Tampa's getting poor work out of Carlos Pena at first base. Both have lush farm systems, and a trade with one of them could help replenish Atlanta's minor league foundation.

But Teixeira's not the only desirable commodity. Teams are always desperate for left-handed relievers, and Will Ohman has been more than solid. Ohman's given up just one home run and 26 hits in 35 1/3 innings; some team could use him as a situational lefty. Jeff Bennett has done admirable work as a long reliever/set-up guy/spot starter and might command a mildly intriguing long-shot prospect. Omar Infante could hold some appeal as versatile bench player.

Cashing in the chips this July doesn't have to indicate that the Braves are in for a long, painful re-building process. Atlanta's assembled a pretty solid corps of young players, headlined by 24-year-old Brian McCann. But he's joined by 22-year-old Jair Jurrjens (having a fantastic year), 26-year-old Kelly Johnson, 25-year-old Yunel Escobar, 24-year-old Gregor Blanco, 24-year-old Brandon Jones, 23-year-old Jo Jo Reyes, 24-year-old Charlie Morton and 26-year-old Blaine Boyer.

Most of those guys are flawed, to be sure. Blanco can't hit for any power, Escobar has a similar (if not so extreme) problem, Jones isn't great and the pitchers all have question marks. But they're young and they've demonstrated Major League talent.

Noticeable in his absence from that list is Jeff Francoeur, who was yesterday demoted to AA after Gigli-ing the season to the tune of a .234/.287/.374 line. I remain unconvinced that he'll be a useful part of Atlanta's future.

With some luck and wise spending in the off-season, the Braves could go into 2009 with a young team headed by still feisty veterans Hudson and Chipper Jones. With a few lucky breaks, like a successful return to the bullpen by John Smoltz, improvement from some of those young players and contributions from a few minor leaguers (like Jordan Schafer), Atlanta could actually compete for the division in 2009.

2010 is a more realistic goal. More realistic than 2009, and certainly more realistic than 2008.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

You Stay Classy, Fox

Media Matters: Fox News airs altered photos of NY Times reporters
On the July 2 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade labeled New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg and editor Steven Reddicliffe "attack dogs," claiming that Steinberg's June 28 article on the "ominous trend" in Fox News' ratings was a "hit piece." During the segment, however, Fox News featured photos of Steinberg and Reddicliffe that appeared to have been digitally altered -- the journalists' teeth had been yellowed, their facial features exaggerated, and portions of Reddicliffe's hair moved further back on his head. Fox News gave no indication that the photos had been altered.

What I'm Watching

Sci Fi Channel's Schedule for July 3

For all that the Sci Fi Channel has screwed up over the years, they manage to do one thing well: show Twilight Zone marathons on every major and not-so-major holiday. ("Boys, it's Arbor Day. Everyone's too busy celebrating to watch our new made-for-TV movie starring Bruce Boxleitner. Put 'Sea Horse of Doom' away, pop in the Twilight Zone DVDs and go home.") July 3 and 4 will be all Twilight Zone, all the time on the Sci Fi Channel.

It's really rather extraordinary that these TZ episodes still work as well as they do. The original series ran from 1959-1964, and, per the standards of those years, the writing is unapologetically didactic and moralistic. It makes The West Wing, which was about as preachy as a 21st century show could be, look decidedly understated and nonjudgemental.

And yet the Twilight Zone never comes off as silly or dated, the writing is never oppressive. Check out series creator Rod Serling's epilogue to the famous episode "The Obsolete Man," starring Burgess Meredith as a religious librarian in a violently illiterate, atheistic society:

The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct. He was obsolete, but so is the State, the entity he worshipped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under "M" for mankind—in the Twilight Zone.

That's simultaneously over-the-top and painfully obvious. It should be laughable. And yet there's something about Serling's delivery and the quality of the proceeding episode that makes that statement seem particularly wise and insightful.

Who needs friends and fireworks when you have Twilight Zone re-runs?