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