Sunday, November 30, 2014

Looking for the Letters of Transit

Looking for the Letters of Transit
Sam’s Piano was sold at auction the other day.  That’s the Sam’s Piano, the one from which Dooley Wilson serenaded Ilsa and Rick in Casablanca, the one where the Letters of Transit were hidden in plain sight.

The little upright and stool, mounted under a protective shield (can you imagine someone sitting down to actually tickle those ivories) went for $3.2 Million, and you can well understand why.  There is something about Casablanca that holds our attention and our loyalty, something about it that doesn’t age.  It’s hokey, it’s improbable, and it has just about every cliché we’ve come to love, and repeat, and giggle over.  One of my favorite reviews was by Pauline Kael, who claimed, "It's far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism...” Whenever I come across that, my thought is always some variation of “enjoy your snotty elitism” (or something less printable…)

It was a serendipitous coincidence that the New York Times ran a story about the auction on the same day that the conservative columnist David Brooks published The Unifying Leader.  Brooks strikes me increasingly as a lost soul, unable to find an intellectual home in a Republican Party that has become fiercely anti-intellectual.  Not that he’s in the least bit interested in being a Democrat.  But, if you asked Brooks, privately, what he thought of the GOP of Palin, Bachmann, and Stockman he might point you in the direction of Irving Kristol, considered a founder of neo-conservatism and a man of great intellectual depth, and his sophomoric son, William Kristol, who trades off his father’s name and makes an industry out of vacuous rabble-rousing.  Irving is gone, and Bill is not, and Brooks has run out of kindred spirits.  He needs an emotional bridge to the next President, and we need one as well.

What Brooks wants is a “collaborative leader,” someone who has “rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.” 

To paraphrase, collaborative leaders share certain qualities; they create a culture of collaboration and not competition, they tone down the partisanship, they bring multiple interest groups to the table in drafting and enacting important legislation and look for bold solutions, not tepid compromise, they empower groups to come up with solutions by giving them responsibility without micromanaging, they place themselves as a center of gravity, an honest broker between extremes, they understand that the sausage-making process can be messy but the mess is less relevant than the result.  What Brooks also craves is a leader with the strength of ego to have a thick skin about the slings and arrows thrown his way, mixed with a certain ruthlessness when it comes cutting people from the herd, regardless of their talents, when they simply refuse to play well with others.

Brooks’ piece is interesting in that it’s completely non-partisan, beyond the inevitable tacit conclusion we draw that the person he describes is to be found nowhere in Washington—particularly in the White House.  But I also think it's an exercise in worship of an ideal that has never existed in history, a hagiographic rendering of a wise Philosopher-King such as Marcus Aurelius, who embraced Stoicism and was informed by it as a ruler.

Brooks is being impractical.  The type of leader he describes has been President only in bits and pieces—FDR’s “first class temperament” and Reagan’s sunny self-assurance, Lincoln’s extraordinary sense of purpose, Jefferson’s intellect, LBJ’s cat-herding ability, etc.  Look out at the current cast of 2016 aspirants, and you don’t see anyone projecting those types of strength.

And, I think Brooks is wrong.  We really don’t want a collaborative leader.  She isn’t going to be able to get anything done—likely sabotaged by ideologues on both sides of the aisle or held hostage by nihilists who prefer scorched Earth to any type of compromise. 

Rather, I think many of us are looking for something out of Casablanca—a reluctant but tough warrior, someone who can tell the difference between right and wrong, regardless of which side it comes from, someone just world-weary enough to be able to make the right decision even when it involves personal sacrifice.

We don’t want Victor Laszlo, a man who, having recently escaped from a concentration camp, shows up remarkably healthy and impeccably dressed at Rick’s Café.  It's an interesting bit of trivia that Paul Henreid, who plays Laszlo, didn’t want the role because he felt it showed him as stiff—he was right, Laszlo may be “the leader of a great movement” but he leaves us cold and uninvolved.  Watch Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in the great “dueling songs” scene, where Laszlo leads the band, and eventually the crowd, in "La Marseillaise."  Her beautiful face registers admiration and concern, not love.

We certainly don’t want Louis Renault, the gleefully corrupt and libidinous local Vichy Captain.  Given some of the best lines in the movie, Claude Rains is wonderfully suave and witty.  He would make a great Senator, charming and cajoling, happily patting backs and taking bribes, but he’s not the right man for the top job. 

It’s Rick, or Richard, as Ilsa called him when they were in Paris.  The very embodiment of embittered rationalism when we first meet him, hurt to the core when Ilsa arrives with Victor, we see him show exquisite compassion to the beautiful young East European woman who, out of love, is willing to do anything (including sleep with Captain Renault) to escape with her husband.  We watch him wrestle with his emotions, marinate himself in self-pity, then, after Ilsa's explanation and confession of continued love forces him to confront his own pain, rouse himself to give everything up and plan Victor and Ilsa’s escape.  It's the right thing to do, for himself, and for the world. 

Rick isn't David Brooks’ ideal.  He is not a collaborative leader at all—he’s a loner who didn’t convene committees or hold community-building exercises before moving decisively.

But he might just be our kind of guy—the one with the Letters of Transit, the one who can take us from being stranded in Casablanca to a better place. 

For my next President, I’d like to see a little FDR, and a little LBJ, and a little Jefferson and a generous dollop of Lincoln and even a dash of Reagan.  But I’m also rooting for just a touch of Rick. 

Find that person, regardless of the party he or she belongs to, and it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

November 30, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thirty-Four Minutes With An Opera Singer

Thirty-Four Minutes With An Opera Singer

November 18, 2014

Have you ever noticed that “Opera” and “Obama” are both five-letter words, starting and ending with the same vowels? Coincidence, or conspiracy?

The similarities don’t stop there.  Both words are of foreign extraction, both elicit deeply passionate reactions, and both evoke legends that often have very little relationship to reality.

After the riotous booing by the electorate after Scene I, Act II, there have been some cast changes, made with the expectation of a more harmonious collaboration between the leads, the chorus, and the orchestra.  The show must go on.

As you might have guessed, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the audience reaction, although I have to admit the performances could have used a little extra polish, so I went looking for some professional advice.

The great American mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, seemed the perfect place to start.  First, my daughter adores her.  Secondly, she loves baseball, a clear sign of a discriminating temperament: If you don’t know who she is, she sang the National Anthem (opera singer, baseball fan, and a patriot!) prior to the seventh game of this year’s World Series.  Third, she showed uncommon grace when something unexpected occurred.  And finally, the woman can really bring it.  Check out the range, check out those high notes.

So, what could Joyce DiDonato teach pretty much everyone in government, from Barack Obama on down?  Watch this clip of a portion of a master-class she gave at Julliard.

For this half an hour, she just talked to the students.  About life, and her (and their) choice of a career, and the incredible demands that career will make upon them, about success and failure, about commitment, about hearing that little critical voice in their heads, and knowing when to heed it and when to ignore it.  Most importantly, she talked about the work.  What it takes beyond just talent—the time in the practice room, the knowledge that you won’t be perfect in performance (and the audience will remember the botched F a lot more than the cascade of beauty that will surround it.)  She tells these eager, ambitious, immensely gifted young people to take their eyes, for the moment, off opera.  Instead, they should go abroad, learn Italian, French and German, since they will be singing in these languages, read books, look at beautiful paintings, immerse themselves in living, because only through that extra knowledge of experiencing and loving and feeling can they truly project on the stage all the emotions that a great performer must show and a great performance must deliver.

What she’s talking about, without saying it explicitly, is that her work demands a commitment to excellence, and excellence doesn’t come easy. Want pressure?  How about preparing for the lead in the Metropolitan Opera’s premier of Donizetti’s torturous Maria Stuarda and knowing that “there are 100 notes” she’s not perfect on.  That little voice, whispering doubts?  The only way you hold them at bay when you walk on stage is to do the work, all of it, so the mistakes you make have nothing to do with preparation.

Last week, I wrote about putting humans in charge, about freeing the individual from the narrow confines of bureaucracy to succeed, and I suggested that the Democrats learn from the pasting they took by advancing a broad-based agenda of liberty, with responsibility, on both social and economic issues. Like DiDonato, celebrate both the effort, and the accomplishment, of the individual.

This week, I want to take a different tact.  Government isn’t just about the individual, even the Presidency.  It's truly like an opera.  Even with the most stellar of leads, you don’t make beautiful music when the orchestra is dull, the conductor uninspired, and the chorus flat. 

Why do so many of our electeds make such an unpleasant sound?  Some just can’t help themselves.  But vast majority of others just haven’t taken the time to prepare themselves for their responsibilities. How many in Washington have done anything close to what Joyce DiDonato told her audience was a necessity for a life in music? What is their experience in running large organizations?  What technical expertise do they bring to the committees they head? What do they know of the private sector, or how legislation is actually drafted and enacted?  Do they speak any other languages, have they any understanding of the culture in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East?  What background do they have in military deployment or procurement?   In short, have they put in the work, so when they get on the big stage, the false notes they will invariably hit won’t come from a lack of preparation?  Or are they there simply either because they were “electable” or just kooky enough to make it through the primaries in an ideologically driven district?

If you want an answer to that, take a look at the three most prominent pieces of legislation that have emerged in the Obama Presidency: First, Obamacare, well-intended but poorly thought-out and drafted, which would have been helped immeasurably if either side had the courage (courage is the right word) to amend and improve it with the technical fixes that are commonplace.  Second, Keystone, a pipeline over the United States, which does virtually nothing for the American consumer and has the potential for significant environmental risk, but does stimulate construction jobs and economic activity.  Finally, immigration reform, a seething mess of poor planning, appalling opportunism, ugly prejudice, and blatant political opportunism.  We couldn’t do better on any of these?

Of course we could, if only we demanded better of both political parties and the candidates they nominate.  We don’t because we, too, don’t do the work.  We neither inform ourselves on the issues, beyond slogans, nor bother to vote. They won’t or can’t, and we let them be that way.

About twenty years ago, my wife and I went to a performance of Aida. The male lead, Lando Bartolini, had been the victim of one of the worst opening night reviews imaginable (“crushing dullness” was one of the kinder comments.)  In Act I, Bartolini appears (to a few snickers) in tunic and elevator sandals, he looks into the audience with an expression that surely meant “oh, no, I’m sure they have all read it” and launches into his big, opening aria, Celeste Aida. He finishes, frozen, and is enveloped in silence.  It must have been the longest few seconds in his career.  Then a smattering of polite applause, and he exits, stage left.

Right now, there are a lot of people in Washington I wish would follow Lando’s lead.  Maybe if we promise them polite applause, they will agree to exit?

Somehow, I fear it won’t be that easy.  So I suggest we be proactive, and send them thirty minutes of Joyce DiDonato.  Or, better yet, add the two from her performance at the World Series.  Turns out that at the conclusion, she tripped and took a header in front of millions.  Got right back up to thunderous cheers.  When you do the work, you are prepared for anything.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Comments?  Email us.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

After the Floor--Putting Humans in Charge

After the Flood—Putting Humans in Charge

As expected, the Democrats were demolished last week.  Their losses, invariably characterized as a wave with an enhancing adjective (epic, tidal, monumental) really are hard to grasp without acknowledging reality—those voters who did turn out engaged in a remarkable exercise of repudiation.

They deserved every last bit of the licking they took.  Not because of any of the usual reasons, not even because of the public perception of Mr. Obama’s performance.  They lost, to paraphrase a friend, because they have no unifying ideas—they are just a collection of special interests, and when it came to casting a ballot, those interests weren’t very interested.

My friend is a “soft” conservative who is enthusiastic about all the wonderful new people the GOP has just elected.  As you might guess, I’m considerably more sanguine about the immediate future—as a precaution, I checked my passport and made sure the apartment had extra water and dried foods.

But still, he’s right.  The Republicans offer some coherence even beyond Obama-bashing.  They are pro-business, anti-tax, pro-religion, pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-drilling, anti-environment, etc. etc.  The ground they stand on is very logically laid out.  There are some intra-party disputes, but those disputes are largely of degree and not of direction. The Democrats don’t bring the same consistency to the table.  Their philosophy is a bit akin to your aging uncle who is still living in the 1960’s—what's left of his hair is in a pony-tail, he’s still playing vinyl, still has one of the original Honda Civics, and still has a basement finished in knotty pine.  He’s actually a very good guy, but on his horizon is a fuzzy, warm egalitarian place where everyone has enough, and no one is burdened with excessive responsibility. 

The Democrats think that their utopia is superior to that of the Republicans—a stark, cold one where contraception and abortion are denied, the babies are then put out on the ice with nothing more than a Bible and a rifle, and the only ones who survive are those who can swim in the globally warmed seas. 

Morally, I can make an argument for kinder and gentler, but practically and politically--not within the construct that the Democrats are defending.  By focusing on a system-wide safety net, a web not only of support but also of constraint, they are estranging themselves from individual aspirations and individual accomplishments. Ask nothing of people, and you run the risk of having them give you what you asked for.

This point was driven home to me last Thursday, when I was fortunate enough to attend a conference sponsored by Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, and Common Good, “The Future of the Individual: Social Protections Constricting Innovation and Accomplishment.”  The panels included Philip K. Howard, who is the Founder and Chair of Common Good, a non-partisan organization devoted to legal reform and the reduction of bureaucracy, three Nobel Prize winners, Edmund Phelps, Robert Schiller, and Daniel Kahneman, along with people like the philosopher Esa Saarinen, Mark Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, and William Brody, former President of Johns Hopkins and now head of the Salk Institute

With some differences in nuance, the panelists all agreed that Western nations were all organized in a way to reduce individual initiative and choice.  This governing philosophy applies not only to governments but also to many large corporations, resulting in a stifling of innovation in both the public and private sector.  To grossly oversimplify, you aren’t asked to get something done, rather you are told how to get it done, and observance of form is more important than actually accomplishing the task. 

The net is either poorer performance, or even non-performance, and a sense of estrangement from the entire process. Their solution is greater empowerment of the individual, the reduction of regulatory overhead and superstructure, and the creation of what Howard called a “corral” with an “open area for human responsibility.”

It is a very powerful argument, but doesn’t take note of a serious hurdle.  Change such as the panelists want requires both a real desire for individual freedom, and a political climate that is willing to experiment.  I am not sure we have either, rather, I think we have one in which the winners are the purse-holders for those freedoms.  

The first problem is that most people don’t really believe in individual freedom as a unifying concept, except in the abstract. They really don’t buy the “corral” idea.  Rather they prefer to see freedom on a spectrum—freedoms they passionately want for themselves, freedoms that don’t touch their lives and they are roughly neutral on, and “anti-freedoms”--freedoms they passionately want to keep others from exercising.

The second is that our political system has developed a peculiar form of inflexibility, in that neither party seems able to accommodate much internal variation from orthodoxy, but both need to find ways to attract less monolithic “swing” voters in the general electorate.  Rather than move on ideas, they focus on packaging and tactics.

This leaves the voter to be treated as a shopper.  You can hone a specific message compatible with a specific market for a particular freedom or anti-freedom. If it is something resonant with that market (a classic example is the 2ND Amendment) the rest of your “product” doesn’t come under such close scrutiny.  These voters you interest aren’t necessarily single-issue as much as issue-prioritized—but they are highly motivated, and they go to the polls.

When you think about this, it makes perfect sense, because most people are both informed by their own life-experience, and self-interested.  You saw this last week, when the 65 and older crew voted at twice the rate of Millennials.  What did the Seniors want prioritized? Social Security and war (they were for both.)  The Millennials wanted more education and more economic opportunity. Part of the (tactical) story of last Tuesday was that Mr. Obama and the Democrats were unable to persuade younger voters to turn out, in large part because of the (practical) reason that the President and his party haven’t really been able to show they can deliver on what Millennials need the most.   

That Senior vs. Millennial voting behaviors demonstrate the central paradox that the Democrats face.  The things that Seniors voted Republican for—socialized medicine (Medicare), risk-free pensions (Social Security) and an aggressive and muscular military and foreign policy, all require the large scale “Big Government” action that the modern state does tolerably well. The things that Millennials want—better education and work opportunities and a vibrant economy, are things that centralized government fails at.  That should tell the Democrats that their core organizing electoral principle no longer works.  It’s time to change, the sooner, the better.

The Democrats have been offered a huge opportunity—in defeat, they should re-think why they were rejected, and forget every tactical excuse.  They should seize the mantle of personal responsibility and personal empowerment, not just in the bedroom, but also in the economic sphere.  They don’t need to be Republicans—in fact, the GOP is just as much in love with state action as the Democrats are, and have no problem outsourcing government to corporate interests and social issues to organized religion.  The electorate isn’t all that much in love with that either.  Rather, Democrats should challenge themselves, as the conferees suggested, to strip the superstructure of bureaucracy and entrenched interest, including their own.

Once they do that, once they decide what they really want to accomplish, what beans they really want, rather than just how to count them, then they can truly “put humans in charge.”

They might surprise themselves.  Those humans just might appreciate the trust.

November 11, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Jonah and Queeg

November 3, 2014

Tomorrow, the Republicans are going to absolutely obliterate the Democrats.  They will materially increase their majority in the House, and they are going to take the Senate with room to spare.  Mitch McConnell has not only measured the drapes, he’s going to have the entire place reupholstered.

I could give you a lot of tactical reasons.  The Republicans have a better ground game this year.  The Kochs have poured money everywhere—the return on their investment will be many-fold, but they are long-range investors, and the really gigantic yield will come in 2017.  There are no Mourdochs, no Todd Akins, no kooky major candidates.   Several popular Democratic incumbents have retired, leaving a lot of turf to defend.  Some of the at-risk seats were grabbed by Democrats when Obama won his first election, in 2008, and they may be standing on less firm legs.  All true, all tilt things in the GOP direction.

But nothing compares to the enormous impact of the widespread unhappiness with Barack Obama.  Much of it entirely merited.  I like Barack Obama, I voted for him twice, I am much more in sync with him on many major issues than I am with the GOP, I had hopes he would really move the country forward, I acknowledge he was dealt a horrible hand, but at this point, it really doesn’t matter.  Obama has a 40% approval rating because he deserves it.  If you went to a doctor with a difficult and debilitating set of conditions, and he probed you and tested you and examined you and prescribed for you, and some of the problems you had were somewhat better, but you still felt lousy every morning, you might very well blame the physician instead of the disease.

Of course, this is unfair.  We have an absurd desire to hold our leaders to an impossible standard of being supermen, while at the same time insisting they do everything exactly the way we would.  Or, if we happen to be nothing but a partisan or ideologue, nothing they could possibly do would ever be anything less than awful, even if what they did we basically agree with, or everything they do would be absolutely wonderful, even if what they did was against our interest.  That is the nature of the political animal, and it is human nature as well. 

But when it comes to a President, just like the doctor, fair doesn’t matter.  We want to feel better, and Obama hasn’t made us feel that way. On the two seminal issues, peace and prosperity, we are all unhappy. The war in Iraq that all but the most die-hard neocons wanted to end, has basically ended, but a new and virulent disease has sprung up, allowing those die-hards to demand it continue endlessly to legitimize their mistakes.  The economy is better (and much better if you compare it to the day Obama took office) but the recovery is uneven—the rich are richer than ever before, and the middle and working classes are just getting by. 

That backdrop makes it far harder for Obama to persuade people that things are improving.  Then, you layer in the big, ugly social issues that enrage subsets of the population; abortion, guns, gay rights, immigration, the role of religion in public life—all of which have played out with great violence over the last few years, and you have an unhappy stew of dissatisfaction.  Everyone has something to complain about.  

The Democrats know it.  They have been running as fast as they can from Mr. Obama. Obama is like the biblical Jonah, whose presence on a ship induces an enormous storm, and needs to be thrown overboard for the seas to calm.

But, I don't think the Jonah analogy is at all apt, if for no other reason that tossing him isn't going to save anyone.  Rather, I keep coming back to a different trope I’ve seen in far-right publications.  Obama is like Captain Queeg, perhaps competent for some lower-level job, but burned out, unhinged in a typhoon, unable to deal with myriad crises, and ultimately relived of command for being unfit. The brave officers who stepped in did so at the risk of their own reputations and their own professional futures.

It’s a tempting analogy, and one easily repeated and adapted.  But one of the nice things about fiction is that it’s a lot like politics, in that the teller can demonstrate a convenient memory and an even more convenient conscience.   Watch The Caine Mutiny to the end, and you get a little different take.  Barney Greenwald, the defense attorney who gets Queeg to crack on the stand (the strawberries) later shows up at a cocktail party where the now-acquitted mutineers are celebrating.  He’s a little drunk, and a little indiscreet, and throws a little cold water over things. It is true that Queeg failed—he was intellectually and emotionally exhausted, but he wasn’t helped by any of the officers at the party, who spurned him and made fun of him and thought he wasn’t good enough.  

Bad government (or even less-than-perfect government) doesn’t just happen. It's a team effort, and whatever Mr. Obama’s flaws are, they are matched by a large number of officers (our officers, since we send them there) who just weren’t going to help.  Six years of government, not one single moment of cooperation.

That’s a winning strategy.  As The Hill points out this morning, the GOP has succeeded in making this election about Obama, and is about to reap the rewards.  But later, there’s a ship to run, and typhoons seem to be popping up everywhere.

When I look at the leadership in Washington these days, from Mr. Obama on down, I don’t see a lot of hope for positive change.  The GOP has a big stake in showing they can govern responsibly, as a predicate for attempting to sweep in 2016, but I honestly think they don’t have it in them. 

Still, tomorrow night, the champagne will flow, and flow red.

Wednesday morning, the rest of us will have the hangover.  It’s still our ship. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please follow us on Twitter @SyncPol