Monday, August 25, 2014

The Horrible and the Miserable

The Horrible and the Miserable

There is a dusty box somewhere, perhaps in my storage room, or perhaps, somehow, thankfully, “inadvertently” discarded, and in it is a copy of my Junior High School yearbook, circa the Nixon Administration.  Along with the usual clichés and gruesome pictures likely to send my kids into paroxysms of laughter is a “Most Likely To Become…” page.

I was not voted most likely to be a CEO, or a corporate tycoon, or a doctor, or a car mechanic.  Nor a rock star or a movie idol or quarterback.  I didn’t even get something cerebral-but-drab like accountant or actuary.  Instead I was picked most likely to become a politician.  I wouldn’t have remembered this at all if it weren’t for the little caricatures that went with each job.  Cool ones for the cool guys with guitars, and actors with Dudley Do-Right smiles, and athletes in helmets.  As for the politician, there was a gnome-like man, balding, a bit overweight, in a rumpled suit, with his mouth open and his finger pointed towards the sky, ready to speechify.

I’m not sure this was considered praise, nor why I was selected for this particular “honor” but nevertheless, there I was, future politician.  The bad news is that the caricature turned out to be remarkable prescient (except for chubby part.) 

The truth was that I was a politics and history junkie even then.  I thought the two best jobs in the world would either to be a doctor like Joseph Bell (Conan Doyle’s model for Sherlock Holmes) or a Senator.  Either the acutely observant, or the acutely loquacious. 

History tends to be defined by great men and women, but American history is not just the story of the four up on Mount Rushmore, it’s something really quite unique.  In less than 250 years, we freed ourselves from a great empire, conquered a continent, won two World Wars, built an economic and industrial powerhouse with an expanding middle class, became the indispensible country, and did it all while working with a real democracy from the very onset.  This last part is what makes us different.  Other nations have risen to great power guided by monarchies, aristocracies, or dictatorships—central organizing forces.  We did it while being wholly self-governed, through a combination of individually directed and collective efforts.

There is a peculiar genius in this.  In effect, we created a gyroscope of competing economic and political interests that often tilts in one direction or another, but keeps spinning.  We make a great many mistakes; some acts of omission, some deliberate, more than a few of which brought us no honor.  We have wasted stupendous amounts of treasure and lives.  We have an unnerving propensity for occasional violence.  In a very short period of time, with limited effort, I could list 50 things we completely screwed up.

And yet, like the gyroscope, we keep spinning and moving, and accomplishing, all the while moaning and groaning about how hard our lives are, how horrible the rest of the world is to us, and how miserable our kids future will be.  Of course, there’s more than just self-pity here—we need to blame people for the awfulness of our day-to-day existence.  And there’s always someone out there who’s fault it is.  The guy who is richer than us, or the one who is poorer.  The moral scolds who want to tell us what to do or the libertine dopers.  The gun-lovers or the gun-haters.  The “program for every problem” and the “government is the only problem” crowds.  The list, and the opprobrium, is endless

And still, we keep moving, often with that great creativity that flourishes best in an atmosphere of political and economic freedom when matched with comparative stability.  But we aren’t a perfect machine, and there are times when our problems seem almost insuperable and our leadership inadequate to meet the challenge.   There is a terrific, understated moment in “Children of a Lesser God” where the hearing and speaking Leeds (William Hurt in the film) is so emotionally overloaded by the tension of communicating in sign language with Sarah (Marlee Matlan), his deaf lover, that he literally has to turn the noise off—by flinging himself down on the couch and turning on (quite loud) classical music. 

That’s very much where were are right now.  Too much noise.  The world is filled with invasions, lunatic murderers, virulent diseases, and intractable poverty.  And our leadership seems, well, just awful, from Mr. Obama’s apparent isolation and passivity, to the opportunistic and self-aggrandizing behavior of his opponents.  Our peculiar genius seems, at this moment, more attuned to pointing fingers and barking at each other. 

Every week, we seem to have a new challenge, and a new demonstration of our incapacity to govern well.  Today, the crisis in the Middle East and the rise of ISIL dominated the Sunday talk shows.  Each featured one Republican after another denouncing the enemy—Obama. They all want more manly muscularity—each one reads from the playbook, spouting off platitudes as if they were self-evident truths. Paul Ryan says “Obama must act decisively” and Kelly Ayotte says containing ISIL “won’t cut it”  and Mike Rogers claims, “ISIL is one plane ticket away from the US,”  Deep thinkers, all. My favorite is Senator’s McCain’s “ISIL could have been prevented.”

Sure, if only an American President had been willing to go to war in the Middle East with massive force, there would be no terrorists.  None.  The entire region would be a happy, peaceful land of freedom-loving capitalists.

We have to break away from this.  We have to acknowledge that the enemy is at the gate, and there’s no time for petty squabbling.  Tom Friedman of the New York Times nails it in this Sunday’s New York Times.  We’ve got to stop messing around at home as if this moment is just the same-old, same-old — and our real and tacit allies had better wake up, too. Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time.”

Can a democracy, where the constant struggle for power often obscures the greater good, accomplish this?  I still think so.  

Tony Blair, upon the occasion of his last “Question Time” as his ten years as Prime Minister drew to a close, said something remarkable, and oddly antique.  “Some may belittle politics but we know, who are engaged in it that it is where people stand tall. And although I know it has its many harsh contentions it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is on occasions the place of low skullduggery it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes, and I wish everyone, friend or foe well, and that is that, the end.”

Not so horrible, and not so miserable? Blair might have made a good Senator.  Of course, we split with those chaps a while back.

August 24, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Barber and the Doorman

The Barber and the Doorman

My father, who, in his time, was known to give a lecture or two, also had a showstopper when you were clearly "wrong" but foolishly tried to reason with him. “You talk too much.  Try listening.”

I have been writing for Syncopated Politics since September of 2011—over 150 items, nearly 200,000 words.  That is the approximate length of two epic novels, or, in the vernacular, an awful lot of talking, epic or not.  After all that, and having received an unusually large number of emails since “The Obama Paradox” including a few who questioned why I voted for Mr. Obama in the first place, I thought that perhaps Dad had a point.  For a week, I decided to try listening.

Barbershops are a wonderful place to start.  Lean me back in the chair, take away my glasses, let me give a couple of instructions (not much will help at this stage) and there is very little I can do beyond open my ears.   Let’s begin with the obvious. Floyd, of Mayberry, had to be a fictional character.  There are no American-born barbers in my neck of the woods.  If your shop is big enough, you are a melting pot.  A soccer-loving Argentine, a South Asian, a Russian woman, and even a Norwegian.  Mine, for the day, was a quiet, older man with a Romanian accent.  And, to my right, a classic of the genre, the Old Italian barber (I wondered if they came pre-made from the factory, having never encountered a young Italian barber.)     

A barber is like a favorite bartender. He knows all your secrets, particularly the ones that are no secret at all.  Since mine wasn’t the verbose type, I settled on the quiet, reassuring tones of the gentleman from Verona.   His customer liked to talk, and he had a big, gravely sound that had a touch of Brooklyn interspersed with an education, both formal and from the street. Gravely-man jumped from topic to topic; the long curly hair of his youth, his kids, work, vacations (a good place for the barber to join in “you’ve been to the Amalfi coast?”) and finally, to politics.

Now, we are talking (actually, now we are listening.)  I wanted to hear what this blowhard had to say.  What follows below is a reasonably close transcription:

“DeBlasio—a complete waste.  What an idiot.  He can’t even show up on time for his own press conferences.  Did (the barber) know only about 70,000 picked this guy in the primary?  That’s no way to choose the Mayor of the greatest city in the world.  He’ll never win a second term.  A bum. Too bad that guy who ran against him wasn’t better.”

Then, on to Obama.  After all the comments had I received recently, I was particularly interested in this one.  “Not good enough.  Came into a mess, but not good enough. Not enough experience.”  He ticked off a few policy points, most of them, in his opinion, mistakes in either concept or execution.  And then, he did something interesting.  He paused for a moment and I thought he would launch into some new round of denunciations, but he didn’t.  “The Republicans…they didn’t help.  They didn’t meet him half way—they didn’t do the right thing.”

At this point, my tonsorial experience was coming to a close, and my chair needed a new (perhaps apolitical) occupant, so I got up, tipped the barber, paid, and left.  But I could still hear the man’s voice in my head, and it rattled around for the rest of the day.  In a few short sentences, he had summed up almost the entire Obama Presidency and, to an extent, politics itself.  And the barber, a born diplomat, smoothly followed his customer’s lead with a few non-committal but oddly reassuring phrases.  Gravel-man had a point, and he made it far better than the usual ranters.

Later that afternoon, I said goodbye to the longest-tenured doorman in our building.  In all the years I’ve lived here, he was mostly a silent sentinel—unfailingly courteous, occasionally showing a glint of humor, but dignified in an old fashioned way.  He didn’t chitchat or banter.  Sometimes you wonder what the inner life of a doorman is like.  It’s not a great job—you are on your feet all day, you have to take angry calls from people who think the radiator is either too hot or too cold, and you have to be discrete and composed even when you would like exercise your vocabulary.  Doormen see everything—the misbehaving kids, the teens (or grownups) who have had one or two too many, the boyfriend being snuck upstairs after school but before the parents are home.  If they are there as long a time as ours was, they see life and death as well, the joy of newborns being brought home from the hospital and the sorrow of personal loss.

It wasn’t until his last day that this private man and I actually had a conversation that went beyond pleasantries. He’d come to America more than four decades ago.  Had a wife, one child and two grandchildren.  Was not only leaving the building, but also the city.  Moving upstate, to a community near where he had had a little summer place.  Bought a new house up there, a new car, now had to sell his place in the city.  No mortgages and no car loans.  In his years as a doorman he had managed to pay everything off and saved enough for the new. I realize there had to be much more to the man, and I’m sure he had his share of difficulties, but he seemed to have done so many things right, and now, health intact, was moving to a quieter and less stressful life.  A life that he and his wife had earned, through hard work, goals, and frugality.  In just a few short sentences, he, too, had summed up a way of living, a success that had seemed more enduring than just the collection of an infinite number of expensive toys. And one that stood as quiet rebuke to anyone ready to stereotype a person because of where he came from or the accent with which he spoke.

New ideas and challenged preconceptions can come from odd places.  There is an opinion piece by E.J. Dionne in Monday’s Washington Post, “Where Goes the Neighborhood” that is worth reading.  Dionne points out that, as we spend less time with our actual neighbors, and more with like-minded groups (usually political) we are effectively engaging in self-limiting behavior.  It’s easier and less challenging, for example, to engage with those who share our attitudes than to lend an ear to a neighbor who might be skeptical of our views on politics or religion.”   I would go further than that—your neighbor who just spent the entire Saturday with you, dawn to dusk, dragging ice and water and coffee urns and donuts to some school function has just earned some credibility, regardless of whether you agree with his position on the 2nd Amendment.  

And, it’s possible he might even have a point, because the world is nuanced, even if we refuse to be, and reality more complex than we are willing to acknowledge.  Picking a side and closing your mind doesn’t get you there.  Just listen to the blowhard in the next barber chair, or the quiet man who opened up your cab door. All kinds of surprises out there if you are willing to hear them.

Talk less, listen more?  

August 12, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Obama Paradox

The Obama Paradox-Climbing The Wall of Rejection

I am about to spend most of the next one thousand words criticizing President Obama, all without discussing one iota of policy, but first I wanted to tell a personal story.

About thirty-five years ago, through a very odd series of coincidences and busted plans, I found myself strolling around Manhattan with a beautiful French woman who, until that afternoon, was also a complete stranger.

We had a terrific time. She had this ridiculously charming accent and laugh.  It was a stunner of an early autumn day, and we just wandered aimlessly and took it all in. At one point we stopped and, having bought too much pastry for two people, found a bench in Central Park and gorged ourselves silly. We ended up on Fifth Avenue, and, as the wind had started to pick up a little, I gave her my blazer. 

What happened next is something I’ve never been able to forget.  An older woman, seeing this, looked back and forth between the two of us, shook her head vigorously, and then glared at me.  My companion may have been charming and beautiful and educated, but she was, quite clearly, also of at least part African ancestry.  And my completely harmless gesture of offering my jacket was just too intimate--I had crossed a barrier and broken a taboo.

Before you come to the conclusion that I’m about to tell you that all the opposition to President Obama is race-based, I’m not.  Kennedy faced serious doubts about his Catholicism, Mitt Romney his Mormon faith, and I’m sure the first serious Jewish or Hispanic candidate will also find an undercurrent of rejection from a segment of the population.  JFK and Obama won, and Romney was close, which just underscores that in a culture like ours, those willing to give everyone a fair hearing more than overwhelm the percentage of haters.  

But, what I am saying is that Barack Obama would have had to be a fool not to realize that there were people (including some in his own party) who weren’t going to be able to abide him being President because of who he was.  And when you add the far greater number of people who won't accept him as President because of what party he belongs to, his climb up the wall of public rejection was going to be that much steeper.  

His problems weren’t going to stop with the electorate.  Just five years before, he was only an Illinois State Senator.  He had served one term in the United States Senate, and, on the wings of his extraordinarily golden tongue, had vaulted over every other politician in the country to somehow, almost absurdly, become President of the United States. Washington is not known for its shortage of ego, and the reality of having the baseball equivalent of a high school fast-baller suddenly start and win four games of the World Series caused a lot of heads to do an “Exorcism” spin. John McCain has never gotten over it.

No matter how heady his triumph, he should have known walking in the door that there were a lot of really angry people who would be delighted to see him fall flat on his face. And he should have worked harder--far harder, to build bridges, find allies, schmooze, tamp down fires, soothe, cajole, appoint, and even bribe some of the opposition.  There’s a very good chance that many would have told him to jump in the lake anyway (I’m being discreet in my choice of language) but some of them might have taken him up on the offer.  Sow a little, and maybe, you can reap a little.

Obama had to raise his game, but he missed the signs. Perhaps others would have as well.  Not only had he won a decisive victory, but the Democrats also made major gains in the House and got to 60 in the Senate.  Felt like a mandate, and Pelosi and Reid carried the water for him and insulated him from the realities of Congress. Still, a really farsighted leader, aware of his own unique vulnerabilities, would have not only made friends in his own party, but also seen that a point of maximum Republican weakness was the very time to reach out a hand.  Maybe they would have slapped it aside, but the opportunity was lost.  He forgot the most basic rule of political physics—if you bring your opponent close enough to spit in your face, he’s also close enough to splatter himself.  Helps keep things dry.

Why didn’t he? Part of Mr. Obama’s problem was that he hadn’t had a lot of practice.  Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, writing about the surprisingly contested governors races in otherwise partisan Kansas and Hawaii, made an observation that might be particularly apt for Mr. Obama’s current difficulties: "To understand the difference between the gubernatorial contests and the Senate races, just remember the basic distinction between the two offices: governors act and achieve while senators talk and vote."

To put it more bluntly, Senators only have to talk about doing things; governors actually have to get them done. Presidents are governors on speed, with everything orders of magnitude more complex, more treacherous, and potentially of existential import. Being a Senator, and even a great candidate, is not necessarily the same skill set.

And, there’s a central fallacy we all indulge in when talking about the President.  He may be “the most powerful person on Earth” but that’s all he is, a person.  He’s not Superman.  He can’t run around making peace in the Middle East and Ukraine, stopping forest fires, easing droughts, turning back a hurricane, and doing it all before breakfast.  He doesn’t get a shiny new “Iron Man” suit with the latest bells and whistles.  Instead, he has to climb into a Rube Goldberg contraption that lurches and burps and stalls and still smells of the last occupant.

A President has to make that contraption work. That means picking good policies, getting them enacted and implemented, and choosing good people to run his departments and telling them what his expectations are.  And it means going down to the boiler room of Congress, and stroking the greasy mechanics in made-to-measure suits who know very well that all it takes is one spanner in the wrong place, and the whole machinery grinds to a halt.  And every one of those esteemed folk carries several in their pocket.

How did Obama do? On policy and appointments, all Presidents have their hits and their misses.  I could tick off consequential failures in every past Administration and countless Cabinet members who were eased (or shoved) out the door.  Obama is no different, and with the passage of time, I think his record in this area will be judged as mixed.

But, on the central issue of Presidential leadership, the ability to get as many people as possible to work to make the machine move, I think he has failed.  And it’s not just because of the nasty lady who threw me the dirty look 35 years ago, or her spiritual descendants.  She’s not irrelevant, but she’s not decisive.  It was his job to figure that out, find people he could work with, and act.  

How does a man twice get elected, and yet end up perpetual trench warfare?  When he’s paradoxically great with crowds, but not so great with people. 

I voted for Mr. Obama twice, and I don't regret my choice.  But at the end of the day, whatever the obstacles, the buck stops at his door.  He has to do better.  Not just for me, but for all of us.

August 3, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)