Monday, November 30, 2015

Photo of the Day: ‘Typewriter Eraser,’ Washington DC

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999, composed of stainless steel and cement, was created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in 1999. I came upon this whimsical work of art by chance in the Sculpture Garden outside the National Gallery of Art, when I visited the nation’s capital a couple of weeks ago.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Rizzoli and Isles,’With Different Concepts of ‘Stylish’)

Jane Rizzoli [played by Angie Harmon]: [Maura is picking an outfit for Jane] “Looks like it came out of your grandmother's closet.”

Maura Isles [played by Sasha Alexander]: “You said ‘stylish and demure.’”

Rizzoli: “I have never used the word ‘demure’!”

Isles: “Okay, then.” [picks another dress] “This will be perfect.”

Rizzoli: “I'm interviewing with a condo board, not auditioning for ‘The Bachelor.’"— Rizzoli and Isles, Season 6, Episode 10, “Sister Sister,” air date Aug. 18, 2015, teleplay by Ken Hanes, directed by Steve Robin

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Flashback, November 1955: ‘National Review’ Publishes 1st Issue

Appalled by the march of collectivism and atheism around the world and liberalism holding sway at home, a new magazine of conservative opinion, National Review, released its first issue 60 years ago this month, announcing its intentions unapologetically in its publisher’s statement: “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

The name affixed to the bottom of that piece, William F. Buckley, Jr., was entirely superfluous. The hallmarks of the style that had made the magazine’s founder an enfant terrible of conservatism four years before, in his polemic, God and Man at Yale, were all here, too—notably, puckishness (their opponents made them “just about the hottest thing in town”) and polysyllabic vocabulary (“supererogation”).

It is fascinating to contrast “What Would Eisenhower Do?” a tribute in the magazine’s 60th anniversary issue to the Republican President at the time of Buckley’s broadside, with how the guiding light of NR felt about him at the time. Ike, according to historian Niall Ferguson, writing in 2015, “understood strategy better than almost anyone in his generation.” 

That kind of talk would have been hotly disputed in the Fifties by Buckley, who, when Ike announced his re-election bid in 1956, dismissed the leader of the successful invasion of Normandy a dozen years before as “undaunted by principle, unchained by any coherent ideas about man and society, uncommitted to any estimate of the nature of potential of the enemy.”

If an institution is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, “the lengthened shadow of a single man,” then it is entirely apropos to examine NR in the context of its founder. The magazine’s 60th anniversary issue this month makes this practically a necessity, since it contains even more self-congratulation than other journals of opinion, such as The New Republic and The Nation, have resorted to in the last year or so.

The label given Buckley by Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, “The St. Paul of the Modern American Conservative Movement,” captures the reverence with which Buckley is held on the right. According to The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Buckley brought three qualities to his fledgling movement: “extraordinary self-belief,” a large and necessary source of funds (his father’s oil business), and wit that not only won over conservative friends but disarmed liberal critics.

Like liberal counterparts The Nation and The New Republic, NR functioned as a kind of internal debating society for its movement. Its editor was ready and willing to isolate what he regarded as fringe elements that could damage the movement, including anti-Semites, isolationists, and the John Birch Society. In this, it was generally acknowledged, he was largely successful, though he was slow to acknowledge the moral necessity of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s until it had achieved its greatest successes.

Buckley, fighting a perception voiced by Columbia University’s Lionel Trilling that conservatism could only be expressed in “in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” recruited a host of thinkers from various strands of the movement: ex-Marxists or ex-leftists (such as Whittaker Chambers, William Schlamm, John Dos Passos, Frank Meyer and James Burnham), Catholics (L. Brent Bozell, Harry V. Jaffa and Garry Wills), and libertarians (by his own description, Buckley can be considered a charter member). In turn, the magazine influenced a host of politicians (Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich were regular readers).

A figure of astonishing energy, Buckley propagated the conservative faith in more than 50 books, 6,000 newspaper columns totaling some 4.5 million words, editing NR for 35 years, appearing on his own TV show, Firing Line, running for mayor of New York City in 1965, lecturing on college campuses, and founding Young Americans for Freedom at his Connecticut estate in 1960.

But being in the shadow of such a magnetic figure was a mixed blessing for both his son and a protégé.

In the case of the latter, Richard Brookhiser had been groomed for years to succeed Buckley as editor when, without warning, the conservative literary lion sent him a letter informing him of a change of plans. It was one of the quirks of a figure known for never uttering a word out of place on Firing Line that not only could he not deliver bad news to employees face to face but that he also (as in this case) flew out of the country so that the magazine’s publisher would do so in his stead. 

Buckley had an infinitely more complicated relationship with his only son, Christopher, who, in his memoir Losing Mum and Pup, described the death of both his parents in a single year. William not only locked horns with his son over the latter’s agnosticism and much of his writing (about his Christopher’s satire Boomsday: "This one didn't work for me. Sorry."), but excluded from his will Christopher’s out-of-wedlock son.  “I spent, whether consciously or unconsciously, most of my career trying to be something other than William F. Buckley’s son,” Christopher remarked in an interview with Alexandra Wolfe of The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “But it may just be that…the book that may remain in print 50 years from now is the one about being William F. Buckley’s son.”

What would Buckley think of the state of conservatism today? Unlike the younger, more neo-con, Rupert Murdoch-financed Weekly Standard, NR has held its nose at Donald Trump, and there is a strong possibility Buckley would have loathed the billionaire as a lowlife. On the other hand, the 60th anniversary edition of the magazine included a tribute to Buckley from Rush Limbaugh, who has helped dig  the fetid hole in which much of contemporary conservatism finds itself.

Quote of the Day (Pope Francis, on the ‘Culture of Deterioration and Waste’)

“Many are the faces, the stories and the evident effects on the lives of thousands of persons whom the culture of deterioration and waste has allowed to be sacrificed before the idols of profits and consumption….  Many lives, many stories, many dreams have been shipwrecked in our day.  We cannot remain indifferent in the face of this.  We have no right.”— Pope Francis, “Speech to UN Officials in Nairobi,” Vatican Radio, Nov. 26, 2015

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Flashback, November 1995: GOP Forces Government Shutdown

Twenty years ago this month, the Republican Party, given the upper hand in the prior year’s midterm elections, did something it would resort to repeatedly in the following two decades: badly overplay its hand. In refusing to come to terms with President Bill Clinton, they forced the U.S. federal government to shut down.

Americans in prior generations would have been astounded that for five days starting November 13, approximately 40% of the nondefense workforce went on “furlough”—the inevitable result when Congress sent Clinton a continuing resolution that would have raised Medicare premiums, forced him to balance the budget within seven years, and curtailed environmental regulations, among other provisions. The President, backed into a corner, came out swinging. His veto triggered the shutdown.

But even that wasn’t the truly amazing part.

This was: the GOP, having decided they had not really gotten the better of the President (even though he had agreed to their demand for a seven-year target for a balanced budget), refused to compromise again in December. Their continuing resolution passed in November to keep the government going lasted only a month. Their insistence that the President use budget projections by the Congressional Budget Office rather than the more optimistic Office of Management and Budget forced another shutdown.

Only this time, the mad act of destruction lasted 21 days, not just a weekend, as had occurred other times in the past. Unless someone was deemed “essential,” no government worker would pick up a phone or receive visitors at offices. This had immediate consequences, as Social Security checks weren’t mailed and national parks and landmarks couldn’t be toured.

(This threw a bit of a monkey wrench for my own plans for vacation in San Antonio that month. Although I was pleased that the Alamo—operated by the “Daughters of the Texas Revolution” rather than the federal government—would remain open, several of the San Antonio Missions founded in the Spanish colonial period were unavailable for touring.)

When the dust cleared, the party discovered that the American public blamed them, not the Democrats, for the disarray and disruption.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who had held the threat of a shutdown like a cudgel over the President’s head since the spring, was forced to back down. His capitulation damaged the GOP leadership in two ways.

First was the impact on Gingrich, who, as a bumptious back-bencher five years before, had helped trash a budget deal that many in the administration of George H.W. Bush were sure he had agreed to. That act of perfidy might have made him persona non grata with the Bush White House, but it had surely raised his stock among restless party members.

His prestige with the incoming GOP “Class of ’95” Congress was enormous: his political action committee had fed them favorite buzzwords like (e.g., "sick," "pathetic," "cheat," "corrupt," "radical," "traitor"--you get the idea), returning the GOP to power on Capitol Hill for the first time in 40 years. His “Contract With America” not only provided these candidates with a coherent national platform, but also invited comparison, as a blueprint for legislative governing, with the “American System” proposed in the 19th century by Henry Clay, another Speaker with ambitions for higher office.

All of this was catnip to Gingrich, who thought of himself as a conservative revolutionary. "A president who knows how to use the media is in fact President of the World,'' he had told Bush’s surprised OMB Director, Richard Darman, back in 1990. That arrogance came out again as he posed for Time Magazine’s KING OF THE HILL cover story in January 1995.

The 1995 government shutdown demonstrated that, when it came to undermining established leaders, he was not quite the Newt Guevara he saw in the mirror. He made three mistakes:

1) He predicted that Medicare would “wither on the vine,” allowing Clinton to claim that eliminating this popular program was part of the GOP’s real agenda;
      2) He guessed that Clinton would roll over without a fight, not understanding that the President was far better politically attuned to what the public wanted in this instance than he was; and,

      3)  He complained that, on a 25-hour plane flight aboard Air Force One for the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton had not talked to him about a possible solution to the shutdown—sparking a famous New York Daily News front-page cartoon of the Speaker in diapers, wailing, with the headline, “CRY BABY: NEWT'S TANTRUM: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit at back of plane.” The image made Gingrich a national laughingstock.

While he survived in his post for another three years after his disastrous shutdown miscalculation, Gingrich was forced to bank on residual credit from the party rank and file for returning them to power. In the meantime, he made Clinton—who had been forced to argue to a skeptical White House press corps after the midterms that as President he remained “relevant”—look like a giant killer, boosting his reelection campaign the following year. Gingrich’s own aspirations for the Oval Office were checked—as it happened, we now see, permanently.

The second way that the shutdown damaged the Republicans was the immediate fallout for the Presidential hopes of  Robert Dole. In vain did the Senate Majority Leader argue privately with Gingrich and the House leaders that a prolonged shutdown was not a desirable “endgame.” Before long, the Democratic Party was assailing the presumptive GOP nominee in devastating “Dole-Gingrich Monster” ads.

In the shutdown battle, the President employed the political version of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy against George Foreman in Zaire two decades before. Declining poll numbers had left Clinton metaphorically against the ropes. The GOP, like Foreman against Ali, believed that there was no way he could endure the full pressure of a government at a standstill, not to mention their own constant threats and unconcealed contempt (House Majority Leader Richard Armey and Senator Don Nickels simply didn’t want to deal with Clinton in meetings at the White House, press secretary Mike McCurry recalled in Michael Tariff’s oral biography of the President, A Complicated Man)

Clinton’s endurance of the GOP’s game of budget chicken marked the beginning of the turnaround in his fortunes. That, and an opportune lift from the economy, proved decisive in his triumph over Dole the following November.

(Clinton being Clinton, though, he squandered the advantage given him by the Capitol Hill Republicans. With paid staff sidelined during the shutdown, only volunteer interns could man White House phones and staff functions. On the second day of the November shutdown, one of them. Monica Lewinsky, flashed her thong at the President. To his dying day, Clinton will rue that he reacted positively to the sight.)

Capitol Hill Republicans learned nothing from their 1995 shutdown debacle. Two years ago, they shut down the government again, for 16 days, over Obamacare. This year, the Department of Homeland Security was almost forced to close because the GOP wanted to have it out with Obama over his immigration policies.

Now, the Senator who infuriated the GOP establishment—in much the same way that Gingrich did in the 1990s—with his grandstanding in the 2013 budget standoff has been rising in the GOP Presidential polls. But it wasn’t until I saw an exhibit over a week ago on Bob Hope and political satire at the Library of Congress that I saw a character similar to Ted Cruz. It was the vicious wildcat Simple J. Malarkey of Walt Kelly’s midcentury comic strip “Pogo.”