Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Wiliam Halsted For President

William Halsted For President

I have a confession to make.  I was always a history junkie, but I wanted to be a doctor when I was growing up. 

Some of this passion for medicine was no doubt induced in me by the rather steady stream of pro-doctor propaganda that passed for career counseling in my household.  My extended family respected hard work and success in business, but doctor/scientist was simply a higher order of being (out of delicacy, we need not discuss the status of lawyers here.) 

I wasn’t totally unaware of the motives of all this well-meaning pressure, and I probably wouldn’t have gone along without some external force.  I found it in a soft-covered version of  “The Great Doctors” which was about—great doctors.  Chapter after chapter contained heroic portraits of great doctors doing great things.  Hippocrates, of course, and Galen, the Greek-born Roman physician who dominated thought for nearly a millennium. Vesalius, who snuck into graveyards to dig up corpses for dissection, and, with his drawings, blasted apart Galen’s anatomical theories.  Also, the 16th Century French physician, Ambroise Paré, who rediscovered ligature for treatment of battlefield and surgical wounds. William Harvey, the English physician who first accurately described blood flow and the workings of the heart.  Albert Jenner, who discovered vaccination for smallpox.  Walter Reed, who linked tropical diseases to mosquitos and drained marshes to combat them, and people like Lister for antisepsis, and Salk for polio.  But two men interested me intensely.  Harvey Cushing, who pioneered new methods in brain surgery, and William Halsted, the great, innovative surgeon at Johns Hopkins under whom Cushing had trained a resident.

Even at ten, I knew myself.  I wasn’t going to be blundering about in cemeteries (my mother wouldn’t let me even if I wanted to) and Hippocrates was way out of sight (my skinny legs would never have worked with those togas.)  I didn’t see myself in a lab, playing with beakers and burners. Swamps were out of the question. Cushing’s extraordinary skill seemed beyond my capacities.  But in Halstead, as remote and forbidding a figure as he could be, I thought I found someone I could relate to.  

Halstead revolutionized the way surgeons thought about what they did.  Up until the discovery of anesthetics in the mid-19th Century, speed was everything—think of all those Westerns where the injured man takes a big swig of liquor, bites down on something, and, then is held down by his mates while the doctor applies the instruments of torture.  You either did it fast, or the patient could expire from sheer shock alone. 

Speed wasn’t pretty. A shattered bone often resulted in amputation—there was neither the time nor the tools to do better. Few made the connection that Lister and Pasteur did in the 1850s and 60’s, between dirt, contaminated hands and instruments, and infection.  Those few that suggested it (including Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the future Supreme Court Justice) were often considered impolite and sometimes shunned.  So, the surgeons not only operated quickly, they did so with bare and unwashed hands, and unsterilized equipment.  Not surprisingly, mortality rates were exceptionally high—shock from loss of blood or trauma, and infection carried away close to fifty percent.  You cut only when you had no other choice.

Halstead helped change that.  Not only was he creative—he did the first gallstone removal, the first radical mastectomy, and developed advanced techniques for hernia and aneurism repairs, but he also insisted on absolute sterility, washing his hands and instruments in a solution of carbolic acid.  And, he taught his students to both slow down and speed up.  You move faster because the freedom that anesthesia brought allowed you to push your instruments deeper.  But you moved slower, because precision was important. You could kill tissue, and sometimes the patient, by being too rough in making the incision, too crude in using the surgical tools, and too inattentive in suturing the wound.  Better technique led to better outcomes, Halstead preached, and his students carried the message to their own practices.

All pretty terrific, but the clincher for me was the rubber gloves.  Halstead’s wife, Caroline, was also his operating room nurse.  She had complained about the effects that the harsh carbolic acid had on her skin, so they made plaster casts of her hands and sent them to Goodyear.  The gloves produced were perfect for sterilization, but they were stiff and too clumsy for a surgeon.  So Halstead had a second pair of casts made, of his own hands, but this time he made them in bronze.  Ask what a late middle-aged man remembers of a book he read nearly fifty years ago, and one phrase sticks with me “the era of the barehanded surgeon was over.”

It really was a thunderbolt.  Something so obvious, something even a boy could figure out, yet so overlooked.  As was true with much of the rest of Halsted’s clinical approach was.  Care, deliberation, preparation and attention to every detail. 

Halsted, I was later to learn, had his demons.  Like many men of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (including Freud and Sherlock Holmes) he injected himself with cocaine (legal in those days.) When his addiction became problematic, his colleagues sent him to a sanitarium to dry out. There he was weaned by replacing cocaine with something more benign—morphine.  By all accounts, Halsted would remain an addict the rest of his life.   But he continued to achieve.

I guess I really didn’t want to grow up to be Halsted, but there is something about his story that remains relevant today, and even relevant politically (you knew I had to get there.)

Ask yourself, regardless of what your party identification is, or your ideological preferences are, what you expect out of elected officials. It’s patient outcomes, isn’t it?  You may not love government, but you want it to work.

Not to state the obvious, but it's not.  Instead, we have a bunch of quacks crowding around the hospital bed, each with their own agenda, not looking at the chart (another Halsted innovation!) and most of the time, not bothering to look at the patient.  The guy with the leeches looks particularly spooky.

We need a William Halsted—in fact, we need a lot of them.  We have to find people willing to think differently, to challenge existing orthodoxy, to try new approaches, and finally, to focus on “patient outcomes” instead of just attaining power, grabbing a knife, and hacking away.

I don't have much confidence in the Republicans.  They have a core orthodoxy that seems to trap new ideas with the intense gravity of a black hole. The debate in this election cycle is whether to double down on those ideas, and the electorate it attracts with ever-greater fervor, or to look to appeal to a handful of others to get to 50%+1.  They don’t seem to have an interest in treating the whole patient, except, perhaps, for sexual diseases.

For the Democrats, my group practice, I don't know if they have ideas at all, but I would start by challenging Hillary Clinton, from both the left and the right.  Make her work—make her work hard.  Don't make it personal—instead ask her to defend her policy proposals—will they actually help the patient?  If not, then what else does she have in her little black bag? More importantly, what do we Democrats have in our bags?  If it’s as little as I suspect, we can either adapt, or we can slide into irrelevance.

Unfortunately, the era of the barehanded surgeon may be over, but the era of the empty-headed politician is not. 

Maybe we should all call our lawyers?

March 31, 2015

Michael Liss

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Teddy Makes Me Sweaty

Teddy Makes Me Sweaty

He’s in.  I know, it’s one of the more profoundly surprising moments of the 2016 Presidential campaign.  Ted Cruz wants to be our Fearless Leader.  And that unhinges me a little. 

Does he have a chance?  That is for Republicans to decide.  If they want Ted Cruz, then Ted Cruz they will have.  Right now, he’s not exactly a real contender.  Polling shows him 8th.  Larry Sabato puts him in his Second Tier, behind Jeb, Walker, and Rubio, and with a passel of “outsiders” that include Huckabee, Rand Paul, Santorum, and Ben Carson.  But Sabato’s Third Tier includes Governors such as Christie, Perry, Jindal, Mike Pence of Indiana, and John Kasich of Ohio, some of whom have more of a chance then the Second Tier.  Still, a WSJ poll indicates by a 42%-40% plurality that Republican primary voters would consider voting for him.

Cruz is another side of the Scott Walker phenomenon.  Both Ross Douthat and David Brooks have spoken favorably of Walker’s chances, particularly as someone they see as a fresh face, battle tested, and saying all the right things to the base.  Walker is an egg-breaker.  He walks over to the refrigerator, takes out the box, picks out the 6 that say “Democrats” and smashes them on the ground.  Cruz, good lawyer that he is, has first done a background check on the chickens, so he snatches the box, stalks over to the cook, and one by one, crushes the eggs in his hands—then wipes them on her apron and stalks out. 

Read the transcript of Cruz’s “I’m ready for love” speech at Liberty University and you have a checklist of GOP passions. There’s the Good—Established religion, guns, morality (his), Bibi, Ronald Reagan, drilling.  And the Bad—well, you know, Obama, Obamacare, ISIS, IRS, gays.

I don’t want to dismiss his ideas just because they aren’t mine.  They are certainly within the spectrum of conservative thought.  And he’s unquestionably intelligent—he shares one thing with Barack Obama—they were both on Harvard Law Review.   Two things make Cruz different from any of the other “name” candidates:  First, his record is devoid of any significant accomplishments, unless you count obstruction as an accomplishment.  Second, and clearly related, his insistence on purity, and his intensely confrontational approach isolate him from virtually everyone but his acolytes.  Cruz has virtually no friends on either side of the aisle—there’s a touch of John Brown at Harpers Ferry in him.  He seeks not only freedom of the enslaved, but Biblical vengeance on the “oppressors.”

Cruz presents a challenge for the GOP, and the GOP commentariat. Ed Rogers is out today in the Washington Post with a “better not” piece, as is Jennifer Rubin.  Both have their own agendas, but Cruz brings a different emotional challenge to the GOP, something that no other candidate can match.  He’s the political equivalent of a new-drug trial, where efficacy is matched against toxicity.

Think about the higher visibility “non-Rand Paul” Republican candidates and you can see how they sort themselves out into three types.  All are conservative (it’s not possible to be otherwise) and most are conservative across the spectrum.  Other than in minor variations in degree, and a touch of populism from Huck, the only real differences are on the flashpoints of immigration and Common Cause.  Jeb is the only one who supports Common Core, Jeb, Huck, and maybe Rubio are softer on immigration.  You could take Cruz’s speech, omit the personal narrative, and it could serve for any of them.

Voting Republican in 2016 means choosing a very distinct conservative ideology/theology.   The real differences between candidates are in temperament, roughly the temperaments of Jeb, Walker, and Cruz.  Jeb is Establishment.  He’s reassuring.  His demeanor, to the middle of the country, is something akin to “don’t worry, things are going to be different around here, but you won't really notice it, and I’m not arresting anyone.” In Jeb’s group we can add people like Rubio, Kasich, Huckabee, Pence, and even Rand Paul.  Walker is the new broom.  “Things are going to be different around here, and I’m going to make an example of a few of you who don’t go along with the program.”  In Walker’s group are Christie (and his “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” side) and Perry.  Cross them, and they will make you pay.  Cruz is on his own island.  He is just flat out confrontational on everything. 

When it comes to quotable, Cruz is, well, radio-shock-jock quotable.  He’s neck and neck with Rudy Giuliani with over-the-line comments about Mr. Obama. He accused Chuck Hagel of taking money from the North Koreans.  Said there were a dozen Marists on the Harvard Law faculty who advocated the overthrow of the United States government.  He’s suggested that George Soros and the United Nations are on a crusade to close suburban golf courses in America. And he’s an equal opportunity insulter—he compared people who wouldn’t support his shutdown strategy to defund Obamacare to Neville Chamberlain.

Yet, do we really know who Ted Cruz is, beyond supremely ambitious?  And, can he actually pull this off?  First, I would say it’s a mistake to underestimate him. The choice of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University was an important tactical stroke (and it didn’t hurt that Liberty made attendance mandatory for all students.)  Cruz identifies four legs of the GOP—Tea Party, Libertarians, Establishment, and Evangelicals.  The Teas are definitely gettable—they love his scorched-earth demeanor.  The Evangelicals he’s working on-the preamble to his speech focused on the importance of faith in his life.  The Libertarians are Rand Paul’s to lose, but Cruz made a nod to them at Liberty when he talked about privacy. The Establishment?  He’s probably 21st out of 20, but Cruz understands something that some of his opponents haven’t quite grasped.  The Establishment wants to win, period.  They would rather win with one of their own, but any Republican—even Cruz, is better than any Democrat.  If he’s the presumptive nominee, they will hold their noses and open their wallets.

And yet, as I write that last sentence, I am not sure it’s really true.  A Presidential candidate is a brand for a party.  The Republicans have 24 Senators up for reelection in 2016, the Democrats just 10.  What is the impact of a Cruz nomination, down-ballot?  How would he balance his ticket, and who would even want to be his running mate?  How will Ted play in swing-states?

I think the Establishment (big “E”, not just Republicans) would worry that a Cruz missile could go off course and hit all sorts of things, even them. So here is my slightly conspiratorial, almost certainly crazy hunch: If the Democrats nominate Hillary, or Jim Webb, or even Kirsten Gillibrand or Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (both of whom would only run if Hillary dropped) a whole lot of big money, secret money, Wall Street money, might be making a surprising left turn.

Crazy? Well, if Ted Cruz is ready to rally seniors in three-cornered hats and muskets to protect golf-courses from United Nations peacekeeping (or is it grounds-keeping?) forces, then I can suggest the completely outlandish idea that wealthy folk might place a small bet on the Hill and Bill show. 

OK, I admit to being unhinged.  While I might not yet be Ready for Hillary, Teddy makes me Sweaty.

March 23, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Hill-Mails and Why-Mails

Hill-Mails and Why-Mails

There was a lot of going postal this last week.  Some old, some new, all bad.

We can start with Hillary Clinton’s private email server back in good old Chappaqua, which is apparently as secure a location as the place Dick Cheney keeps his compassion.  Tens of thousands of emails from the period when she was Secretary of State didn’t run through government channels (which, as we all know, are impregnable) and instead entered the Hillary Clinton Presidential Library zone.

I have no idea what she was thinking.  Her public statements are she did it for convenience, but I don’t think too many people actually believed that.  Hillary (and Bill) are both very smart, and very gifted, but the wheels are always turning in Clinton-Inc., and people know it.  Whether you are a Clinton fan, or a Clinton hater, you know it as well.  It's simply a question of what you think the motive is, and whether you actually care about that motive.

Bill is one of the few political geniuses we’ve seen in the last 40 years.  He just has the gift, as Reagan did.  It’s a gift that allows people to enjoy the things they want to see in him, and ignore those they don’t care for.  Hillary is a different sort.  She’s not the acrobat Bill is, but she’s a worker.  When she first ran for Senate in New York she went everywhere, including counties that had not voted for a Democrat since time immemorial.  People who think of New York as Manhattan don’t realize that much of the state is actually rural and quite conservative—even beyond Staten Island. Hillary talked crops, she talked milk, she talked cows, she talked open space, trees, apples, etc.  It worked—while she never completely shrugged off the carpetbagger label, more people began to think she was one of them. 

In the Senate, she continued the hard work—even Republicans agreed. She could have been President, and maybe would have, except for the once-in-a-generation talent of Barack Obama.  I always thought it was interesting that she agreed to be Secretary of State.  While six former Presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren and Buchannan) had the post prior to being President, it’s not been considered a stepping-stone to the Presidency by anyone in modern memory.  Perhaps she had an itch that couldn’t be scratched, or perhaps she made the same mistake William Seward made when he became Lincoln’s Secretary of State (and assumed he would run the government.) 

If her accession to Secretary of State was a curious one, I think the Hill-Mail controversy more bizarre, especially for someone so bright and so able. She couldn’t possibly have expected them to remain secret.  The number of people working day and night on Hillary-opposition research is probably enough to move the weekly unemployment data.  And, the Hillary-haters have the advantage of taxpayer subsidies as well—Trey Gowdy, who is heading up the 842nd Benghazi investigation, is already in denounce and demand mode.  That investigation (and others) will be sure to continue until…well, hope springs eternal, so why not the committees?  

Yet, and I realize this is counterintuitive, I think this can be a serendipitous thing for the Democrats.  First, it’s inoculation, if Hillary is the candidate.  Emails aside, Gowdy and every other Republican in Congress with access to an unlimited checkbook and subpoena power were going to have at her the next couple of years anyway.  There is a point of diminishing returns on persistent partisanship, and having watched the GOP unbound when it comes to Mr. Obama, it wouldn’t surprise me if Hillary takes on a certain stature similar to Bill (“yes, he was a womanizer—that’s the best you can do?”) 

Second, if there really are “incriminating” communications, and those are so bad that they really endanger Hillary’s legitimate chances to win, then she will withdraw, and likely sooner rather than later.  That will give other Democrats an opportunity to step up, away from her substantial shadow.  And, it will also reveal some imperfections in some of the Republican candidates.  Jeb Bush, for example, harshly criticized Hillary, but then had to try to explain the rather embarrassing fact that he did everything possible to keep his emails as Governor secret.  Naturally, he insists it’s different (it's always different when you do it) but I doubt that will meet with universal asset.

My best guess about the Hill-Mails is that there will be some unvarnished, unattractively critical comments about both some of her adversaries (and possibly even some of her allies) and some unflattering evaluations of foreign governments.

This last part, the country doesn’t need, particularly because of the second mail problem we had last week—freshly minted Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s remarkable letter to the Iranians, as merrily signed by 46 of his co-religionists. The letter, in my opinion, is far more embarrassing than any private snideness Mrs. Clinton might have shared with an aide.  It is the ultimate “Why-Mail”. 

Let’s start at the beginning; “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.”

Who writes stuff like that?  Did they hire someone whose last experience was working on 50’s B-movie script? At least they got to it quickly—no wasting time with “we come in peace” nonsense, just get to the arrogance and condescension quickly.

Then, it went on to discuss the differences between treaties and “executive agreements” and, my personal favorite, showed the Iranians an acute knowledge of the eternal life of a Republican Senator from a Red State, as opposed to the firefly existence of a mere President; “As applied today, for example, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond that, perhaps decades.”

From there, it points out that whatever is signed now by President Obama will be quickly reversed when they are in charge.  The next President could end it “with the stroke of a pen” and  “future Congresses could modify the terms at any time.”

Finally, (the letter is mercifully brief) it signs off with hope that the letter “enriches your (the Iranians) knowledge of our constitutional system…”

I don’t want to fall into the easy trap that the New York Daily News (an otherwise persistent critic of Mr. Obama on foreign policy) did, and call the signers “traitors” because I think that is an unwise and unfortunate use of the dirtiest word in the English language.

Stupid, is what I would say, and no matter how many giggles emanate from the summer-camp bunk that appears to house the nine-year olds who signed this letter, it remains an appalling act of peevish childishness.  Boehner bringing Bibi in at least had a point.  This letter does nothing good at all besides giving us an opportunity to see Cotton smirk—and he has a formidable smirk. The Iranians laughed it off, the Germans, who are participating in the talks, were furious, and, not entirely surprisingly, so were a lot of conservative commentators. 

How come people like Kathleen Parker, Michael Gerson, and the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal excoriated it?  Two critical reasons: the first is that Republicans have a deep faith in Executive Power—when they are the Executives.  Presidents have entered into literally thousands of executive agreements, and future Republican Presidents will do the same, and they are not going to tolerate any pesky liberal Senators from interfering. The second is something that practical conservatives have understood for some time: a stunt like this by a few wayward Senators is just a little bad press.  47 Senators?  That shows that the party just isn't ready to govern.

That freaks out the Establishment Right.  If it's a choice between some unflattering Hill-Mails, and some destructive Why-Mails, the public might just choose the veteran warrior princess.  Or, worst-case scenario, they might choose someone younger, and scarier, maybe with a slight Massachusetts accent. 

There are mailrooms, and executive suites, that think that could be almost as bad as the Iranians getting the bomb.

March 16, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sheet Music Politics

Sheet Music Politics

This past week, the last New York City bricks and mortar store that sold sheet music rang up the cash register for a final time.  It wasn’t a pretty tune.  The business is dying—the world has changed, and everyone buys their sheet music on line--or downloads it but doesn’t pay for it—or gets someone else’s score and scans or copies it.

When I first heard about the imminent demise of this mecca, I immediately texted my daughter, who is a conservatory student.  I got an almost instantaneous response, the content of which showed me that she might be a teenager, but already she is becoming sophisticated in the ways of people who try to make a living at music—I should only buy things if they are on sale. 

I ignored this.  First, I felt a going out of business sale would mean good prices—after all, the luggage store across the street was offering up to 90% discounts on their “lost-their lease” clearance.  Secondly, I wanted the feeling of going into a great old store, like Argosy, or Strand, and just soaking in all the atmosphere of being surrounded by works of genius.  In my mind’s eye, musicians (and parents who look after them?) would crowd the halls, looking for each scrap, cherishing each note.  If, by some chance, I paid a couple of bucks more for a real version, not some dusty used one, so what?  It would be special. 

The building was perfect—old time New York City pre-war-worn-to-a-nub. The elevator creaked charmingly, opening up to a floor that had been divided into practice rooms, studios, and the obscure object of my search (I walked past it as I came in.)  From the floor above I heard a baritone warming up.  I was psyched.  Tosca and Tristan are what my daughter wanted, and Tosca and Tristan was my mission.  I would not fail. 

The owner had them.  In fact, she had different versions of each, leading me to ignore the “no cell-phone" sign I missed, and call the child in question for guidance.  We decided on the Schirmer Tristan and I picked the Ricordi Tosca with the excellent footnotes.  Ringing off, with a second “don’t buy it unless it’s on sale” ringing in my ears, I made my purchase.  The books were placed into a nice store envelope, to give it an extra touch of formality, and I walked out, past real musicians thumbing through sanctified pages.  I felt good—out of all this digital air, I would give her the real thing, something she could write in and make her own.  I imagined her studying, annotating, going to them again and again until they became like beloved, worn slippers.

It helped that I was clueless. No only did I have no idea how much these things were supposed to cost but they weren’t even marked.  So, I paid what the owner asked, and left with my treasures tucked inside my raincoat.  Suffice to say, it was not my shrewdest purchase of all time, but I will chalk it up to a paying a premium for the experience.  The scores, over-priced or not, will go to good use.

Yet, there was something about this that just didn’t sit right with me.  The store first opened in 1937—it seemed a shame to see it fade into irrelevance, especially since it still sold something of value.  The owner simply could not adapt to changing circumstances—the only visible evidence of even 80’s modernity was an old calculator.  Everything else could have been done by gaslight.  In the end, she was left with a diminished product wedded to an unviable business model.  Maybe there was no way out, but she had clearly made the conscious decision not to try.  She just couldn’t wean herself from the old ways. 

I couldn’t get this experience out of my system; it struck me as so resonant with the messy wider world we live in and the hapless way we are dealing with it.  Just as there are no certainties in business, there are no certainties in the marketplace of political ideas.  Things change, and ideally political parties change with them.  That is hard to do on the fly, because many of their adherents still believe in that old time religion, and because too much of modern politics is about taking. It’s far easier to justify that taking—either liberty or property—by couching it terms intended to imply Constitutional fealty and moral force.  That gives it a virtue that purely secular motives, even those ostensibly for the common good, cannot approach. Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, makes this argument in the context of human advancement in The Case for Old Ideas.New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.”

What is fascinating about Douthat’s piece is what it does not say. He wants innovation wedded to faith—his kind of faith.  But the linkage between “very old moral and religious commitments” has been tested severely by the coopting of the language of religion to justify the use of purely political force to limit freedom. And, there has been a bifurcation, in both parties, in a way that Douthat fails to acknowledge.  The Democrats are far more likely to encourage the social reforms that Douthat professes to admire, albeit it in a secular, government-directed way.  The Republicans have embraced Douthat’s personal religious fervor and desire to proselytize, but have withdrawn from the pastoral aspects.  The true reformers, people like William Lloyd Garrison and Jane Addams, whose passion for justice were clearly influenced by their faith, would probably have felt unwelcome—in both parties.

I think that people in the great middle of the electorate sense this inconsistency as a bankruptcy of conscience, and are looking for a way out. They really do believe this country is the greatest place on Earth, and they wonder when their leaders will be worthy of our heritage. They know that businesses don’t succeed when they turn aside customers—to thrive, you have to adapt and grow.  

That is really the point--to be part of something bigger. As Lincoln, our Poet Laureate once said.  “We can succeed only by concert. It is not "can any of us imagine better” but "can we all do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

The Sheet Music lady couldn't disenthrall herself from the old assumptions, until it came time to close the store.  Will politicians take the hint?   Will they disenthrall themselves before we disenthrall ourselves of them? .   

March 10, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Monday, March 2, 2015

First, Second, and Third Acts

First, Second, and Third Acts

The great composer, Gioacchino Rossini (Barber of Seville) was an extraordinary prodigy whose first opera (a one act) was performed in Venice when he was 18. He was also a man of exceptional physical laziness—he liked to compose in bed, and, according to one story, dropped a page of music on the floor, and, rather than getting up to retrieve it, simply rewrote the page.

Still, he was tremendously talented—even the notoriously cranky Beethoven agreed.  He could power up—all of us know the “Lone Ranger” overture to William Tell when we hear it.  And he had gift for melody, subtlety, lightness and even humor.  Warner Brothers used him in several Bugs Bunny cartoons, including the immortal “Rabbit of Seville” and “Long-Haired Hare”.  Walter Matthau sings Largo al Factotum while driving off in Hopscotch—proof enough that Rossini’s music can stand any and all mistreatment.

Rossini essentially retired at 37, at the height of his fame, living the rest of his life to travel, to cook, and to eat.  Some musicologists have noted that this was perhaps a good thing.  Opera had begin to move towards the denser and more dramatic—towards Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. Rossini never really tried to regain his previous eminence.  It’s perhaps a function of this that the general public recognizes his music more as snatches of melodies than as part of a larger body of work.  His time had largely passed, and he lacked the motivation to innovate.   

Second acts are tough. They take hard work.  Rudy Giuliani can confirm that. Rudy, as you may have heard, grabbed a mike at a fundraiser for Scott Walker, Wisconsin Governor and new heartthrob of the pugilistic right, and crooned a number of choice phrases about President Obama.  Obama doesn't love America.  Obama has Muslim sensibilities.  Obama isn’t one of us, doesn’t understand us.  Obama isn’t a patriot.  Following those comments, Rudy compounded them in subsequent interviews and in a longer editorial in the Wall Street Journal. 

There are a lot of theories as to why Rudy did this.  There are Rudy insiders who say that he spoke what he genuinely believes—elevating the comments to the level of brave truth-telling at a time of national crisis.  I have a less charitable view. He’s 70 now, and has been out of public office since 1991.  He’s been the gourmand that Rossini was, just in different areas—he’s maintained his visibility and successfully monetized his post 9/11 brand into substantial wealth.  But that’s as far as he could go.  He’s not in the Oval Office.  He wasn't invited to serve in in a Cabinet Post during the eight years of the Bush Presidency.  He can get airtime anytime he wants it, but more and more he appears to be a man of the past, even an irrelevant man. His music is dated—he hasn’t composed anything new in two decades. 

But while the curtain may be falling, Rudy’s ego is not ready to leave the stage, and his businesses need him as rainmaker.  He is a little like Sarah Palin in that respect.  So, rather deliberately, he choose to make some highly inflammatory remarks, knowing they would get out, and knowing that the spotlight would swing to him.  It did, although in a way that shows a fascinating split in the Republican Party.

Rudy blew the dog-whistle and some of the dogs started to yelp.  Rudy was speaking their language, speaking the truth they felt in their gut—that Obama was an alien force with a secret agenda to destroy the America they knew.  A recent poll shows that 54% of Republicans think that “deep down” Obama is a Muslim.  There were more than a few “amens” that followed Rudy’s rant.

Yet, this reaction wasn’t universal.  The GOP is desperate to win the Presidency in 2016.  As this ludicrous debate over funding the DHS demonstrates anew, they really want to be in charge.  And there is a growing realization among the more serious of them that, while Obama is a fabulous foil, they might be better by served nailing him on policy issues.  A number of prominent Republicans, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, wasted little time in distancing themselves from Rudy’s remarks. 

Republicans are faced with an intriguing dilemma. They hate Mr. Obama.  For six years they have pelted him with every bit of invective imaginable. And, objectively, putting ideological battles aside, the Obama Administration does not have a splendid record of accomplishment.  Yet Obama’s approval rating hovers in the mid 40’s—and regardless of conservative insistence, pure demographics do not explain that.

I think part of Obama’s comparative resilience has to do with a growing anger among some Democrats that causes them to circle the wagons. There is a sense that Republicans can’t agree to anything—that every single policy matter, large and small, can only be dealt with brinksmanship and insults.  And, if the GOP is given command, their first order of business will be to settle scores. 

Scott Walker, the immediate “beneficiary” of Rudy’s remarks, is Exhibit A in this argument.  The Democrats are used to people like Ted Cruz throwing verbal napalm around, but Walker, by virtue of his hold on Wisconsin, and his willingness, even eagerness, to use his power to press down on the windpipes of his political opponents, is far more dangerous. I want to draw a distinction between Walker and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.  Brownback is conducting a conservative experiment in his state.  You might not like the emphasis, and you might not like his personality (he’s a humorless scold) but it’s intellectually consistent and political only in the sense that Republicans occupy the conservative side of the aisle.  I’m convinced Brownback really believes in the virtue of his position, and his purges of less orthodox Republicans in his ranks are a matter of theology to him.

Walker, on the other hand, is a purely political animal on a seek-and-destroy mission.  He has declared war on two enemies—labor, particularly organized labor, and education, particularly higher education. And he’s winning those wars in a big way.  The labor union movement in Wisconsin is for all intents and purposes dead, the final blow delivered by right-to-work legislation just passed.  The respected University of Wisconsin, good enough to be a magnet for high performing students of out of state families, is also perceived by Walker and his allies as a cesspool of liberalism, and will be taking massive cuts in state aid as a result.

This brings joy to the base.  Walker is hot.  He finished a close second (to Paul) at CPAC this last week, and U. Va. Professor Larry Sabato, probably the best non-partisan observer out there, just put Walker into his “Top Tier” along with Jeb Bush. 

But Walker isn’t really a grown-up, and may not be ready for his close up.  Besides what can only be described as meandering pandering to the base (he can’t even give a straight answer on evolution) he doesn’t bring much that isn’t scripted.  Muscle flexing is his calling card.  At CPAC he compared his experience with Wisconsin’s unions to fighting ISIS. 

The Iranians want to build nuclear weapons, Putin dreams of being Stalin, we are (still) involved in two wars, there are crazy people ready to kill for the pure pleasure of it, Bibi is coming for dinner tomorrow, and we have four days within which to resolve funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

And Scott Walker is ready for those challenges.  He’s faced down an angry teacher armed with a poster.

On that note, I feel I would be remiss in not mentioning another of Rossini's best-loved works, La Cenerentola (Cinderella).  While life doesn't always imitate art, I think we can all agree there are a lot of ungainly feet trying to slip into those famous glass slippers.

March 2, 2015

Michael Liss