Friday, February 29, 2008

Desperation, Thy Name Is Hillary ... It's Time for Her to Step Aside

I wrote in November that Democrats needed an intervention to break their addiction to Hillary Clinton, since she wasn't electable. I am happy to say that in the last 11 contests, America has listened, handing victories to Barack Obama.

The time has come to hold a second intervention, this time for Clinton herself. She has become so obsessed with winning the Democratic presidential nomination, despite a string of losses that would make even the hapless New York Knicks depressed (more depressed?), that she seems to have lost touch with the bigger picture.

Clinton has been a hard-working senator, attentive to the needs of New Yorkers. While her many detractors (part of the problem, but I digress ...) paint her as a flip-flopping opportunist desperate for power, I would reject that characterization out of hand. Rather, I think she is a well-meaning, truly engaged public servant who, unfortunately, too often behaves cautiously for political purposes (something, incidentally, nearly every politician could be accused of, even if Clinton may suffer from a more serious case of this malady). And because I hold the opinion that she truly is disgusted by the ruinous policies of the George W. Bush administration and genuinely wants to right the ship of the country, I believe that somewhere, deep down, she knows that she is treading on dangerous ground now. Maybe she has convinced herself that she is the only person that can save the country. Whatever the situation, she needs an intervention, where people tell her, "We like you, but you are hurting your party and, as a result, the country, and it's time to exit the race."

Don't get me wrong, as recently as two weeks ago, I begrudgingly acknowledged that she had every right to stay in the race to see if she is the choice of the party. But that right does not include running a cut-throat campaign that will harm the Democratic nominee in November.

I have come to the conclusion that it's time for Clinton to go as I've sat and watched in horror as she plunges the Democratic race further and further into the gutter, all while John McCain sits back, unchallenged, allowing Clinton to do his dirty work for him. It's like there is new story every day about some way in which Clinton has decided that she wants to win, no matter the condition of the party when it's all said and done. Today, there is word that she may legally challenge the caucus element of Texas's labyrinthine, seemingly illogical, hybrid primary/caucus contest. Why? Because she's looking out for the good voters of Texas? Hardly. It's because throughout the nominating process, Obama has consistently trounced her in caucus states, due to his better ground operations.

Let's think about that last point for a second. Clinton is the establishment candidate with most of the establishment endorsements. Early on, she was the dominant financial candidate. For a long time, she was the presumptive nominee. And yet Obama is the one who built a better field operation to get out the vote. Rather than resorting to legal machinations to avoid the prospect of another caucus loss, maybe she should look at the fact that she was outworked, outplanned and outmaneuvered and consider what that would mean for her prospects in November if she somehow managed to win the nomination.

And, not incidentally, the nominating process, from Iowa on, has been littered with quirks and silliness that call into question whether the true will of the people is being represented. How disingenuous is it of Clinton to raise the point now, in Texas, with the race almost over and her candidacy near extinction?

This possible challenge comes on the heels of yesterday's comment, quoting Obama's book, that he is a "blank screen." Sure, candidates vying for their party's nomination have to be able to show why they are a better choice than their opponents. But one thing that all the hopefuls have to avoid doing is making attacks that the opposing party can use in the general election. It's one thing to say, "I'm better than you, but we're both better than them," but it's entirely something different to say, "You're an ass." In the first instance, a November opponent has nothing to use. In the latter proclamation, the foe can stand up and say, "Well, even a member of your own party said you're an ass." All we need is John McCain reminding tens of millions of people that not only does he think Obama is too inexperienced to be president, but the esteemed former First Lady and current New York senator thinks so, too.

No, Clinton has crossed the line. She is endangering the chances of her party to win in November, and that's unacceptable. It's time for her to go.

The stakes are just too high. As much as McCain would like you to think he is a moderate (and the so-called liberal media loves to join in and perpetuate this myth), he has walked virtually in lock-step with Bush on key issues, including Iraq. Even when he has departed with Bush in the past, like on tax cuts for the rich, McCain has backed down now, saying he supports making Bush's tax cuts permanent. After the damage Bush has done in two terms, we can't afford another four years of Bush wearing a John McCain mask.

In recent days, there have been several reminders of what it is like to live under Bush rule. Earlier this week, in a story that was horrendously under reported, Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that combat tours had to be reduced, because the Army was under severe strain from the war in Iraq. He said: "The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future."

Bush's folly in Iraq has left us unsafe and less prepared to defend ourselves. And yet McCain would have us continuing the fight in Iraq, on the theory that the surge is working. Which, of course, completely misses the point. It should not surprise anyone that our military, which is quite effective, can go into any situation and take care of business for a limited period of time. But the point of the surge was to give "breathing room" for the political process of reconciliation to take hold in Baghdad. The Republicans love pointing to alleged signs of progress, but no meaningful change has taken place, and it seems as if the three main factions, the Sunni, Shia and Kurds, are as at odds with each other as they always have been.

In fact, this week, the Iraqi presidential counsel rejected provincial elections, even though the matter was approved by the parliament. The Shiite government in power is willing to take cosmetic baby steps to appease the United States, but when it comes time to make real decisions on power sharing, oil, or any other issue that really matters, they have shown an unwillingness to move. So what is McCain's answer to that? Do we keep more than 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next 20 years? Even he would not be in favor of such a policy.

This week also brought the story that Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey barely escaped going to prison. Did he steal money? Get overly amorous in a Minneapolis airport rest room? No. Rather, the U.S. Forest Service dragged its feet in complying with a court order to enforce certain environmental laws, and the judge in the case was ready to cite Rey for contempt. Based on the Bush administration's record, it's not much of a stretch to guess that Rey was taking orders from the White House. So, in effect, the Bush administration would rather violate a court order than enforce environmental regulations. This is just one of many examples of how the Bush administration stacked government agencies charged with protecting the American people with individuals who have no interest in actually doing so.

That's three stories in one week to remind us of the carnage left behind by Bush, and the need for a new voice to come forward to change the country's path. That change is more important than the individual fates of Clinton and Obama. And Clinton needs to realize that.

If nothing else convinces her, it's time for her to face the fact that she in not electable, despite her claims to the contrary. I have written multiple times on this issue, including in July, November and earlier this month, so I won't go into all the details here. But a quick overview of some recent news shows that while Clinton can come up with anecdotal evidence that she's better equipped to win in November (she's been smeared and survived, she says), all the numbers say that Obama has a better chance of prevailing in the general election.

Let's start with the polls, which have consistently shown Obama doing better in match-ups with Republicans than Clinton. The latest polls have maintained that trend. This week, CNN's amalgamation of the latest numbers show McCain even with Clinton, but trailing Obama by seven points.

More importantly, though, if you look below the numbers, you see that Obama has pounded Clinton with independents, both in their head-to-head primary races and in polls of proposed pairings with John McCain. The bottom line is, she cannot get much support beyond her Democratic base, which is a sure-fire way to lose a general election, while Obama can compete with McCain for independent voters.

Clinton has lost 11 straight contests. Even when she had her best financial month ever in February, she still raised less money than Obama. The momentum is with Obama. Obama, fair or unfair, has started a movement of sorts. People are excited about him. Nobody is excited about her. Again, fair or unfair, he is now perceived as an agent of change, while she is seen as a vestige of the past. It is his moment in time. And if Clinton tries to skewer his moment by going on the attack, even if she succeeds and wins the nomination, she loses, because she will have left her party in tatters. More likely, she will lose anyway, but will have fatally wounded Obama in the process.

McCain has had the stage to himself too long. It's time for the Democrats to unite around a candidate. And, whether Clinton likes it or not, the people seem to have spoken, and that Democrat is not her, but Obama.

The stakes are high. Winning is more important than ever. And right now, by flinging mud at Obama, Clinton is a part of the problem, not the solution. I believe she is a well-intentioned, competent, caring public servant. She is just not the choice of her party. And it's time for her to realize it and step aside. Even if it takes an intervention for it to happen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“In Treatment” and “Welcome to the Captain” Share Little, Except Being Smart and Entertaining

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Last weekend, I caught up on three weeks worth of two very different programs, “In Treatment” (HBO, episodes run for the first time Monday through Friday at 9:30 Eastern) and “Welcome to the Captain” (CBS Mondays at 8:30 Eastern). Which is saying something, since three weeks of “In Treatment” is more than seven hours of television. That’s okay, though. While the heavily dramatic “In Treatment” and the silly comedic “Welcome to the Captain” would seem to have nothing in common, they both manage to be both smart and entertaining.

HBO’s marketing tagline is: “It’s not TV ... It’s HBO.” At no time has that been more true than with the groundbreaking “In Treatment.” Gabriel Byrne stars as Paul, a psychologist with some difficult patients and a floundering marriage. Airing Monday through Friday, we are allowed to follow the same schedule Paul does, seeing several of his clients once a week. For the most part, each installment is one session. Since the episodes take place nearly completely in Paul’s office, and are virtually limited to him and the person or couple seeing him, “In Treatment,” which is adapted from a hit Israeli series, is closer to a bunch of one-act plays than a television series.

“In Treatment” features intelligent characters having heady discussions, while handling serious issues. The writers, under the command of series creator and executive producer Rodrigo Garcia (he also wrote and directed many of the early installments), make no effort to simplify things for the audience. The episodes display real, three-dimensional people, warts and all, sometimes posturing and sometimes brutally honest (and sometimes you don’t know which), without excuses. The show dives into their lives and hopes you’ll swim along. Of course, it does so in such an engaging way, you’re eager to dive in.

I fully realize that theater references and calling a show smart could serve to scare off some (most?) readers, but don’t let my eggheadedness dissuade you. This is good television. If you start watching episodes, you’ll find they are addictive, like eating potato chips. You just keep devouring them, and you won’t want to stop.

Paul’s Monday patient, Laura (Melissa George), is a beautiful doctor with commitment issues, who casually reveals in the first episode that she is in love with him. On Tuesdays, Paul contends with the combative Alex (Blair Underwood, doing some of his finest work), a Navy pilot who isn’t as okay with dropping a bomb on a school in Iraq as he thinks he is. Wednesday belongs to Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a 16-year-old gymnastics prodigy whose life is a mess, in and out of the gym. Paul’s toughest test may be Thursdays, when he counsels Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), whose decision on whether or not to abort the baby Amy is carrying is just the tip of their troubled iceberg.

So it should come as no surprise that by Friday, it’s time for Paul to talk to a shrink of his own, his now-retired mentor Gina (Dianne Wiest), whom he hasn’t seen in eight years. Not surprisingly, the two colleagues have all kinds of issues of their own. And Paul has plenty to handle with his possibly unfaithful wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes), who thinks that Paul cares more about his practice than his family (two sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 10ish to college-age).

When I first sat down to tackle the pile of episodes that had amassed on my TiVo, I didn’t know if I should watch them chronologically as they aired, or knock them off by patient. Fortunately, I watched them in order, since one of the brilliant elements of “In Treatment” is the way in which the episodes start out as insular one-on-ones, but soon, slowly and almost imperceptibly, weave together all of the story lines into Paul’s narrative.

“In Treatment” provides career-pinnacle acting opportunities for many in the cast. Byrne is relatable and powerful as a man who, by virtue of his profession, is required to behave in a supportive, detached and morally unimpeachable way, all while his personal life is tearing him apart. Too often, Byrne is asked only to tap the aggressive, alpha-male side of his personality, but Paul requires him to concentrate on his humanity and softer side, all while harboring a volcano ready to erupt.

Similarly, Underwood, who is too often asked to play off his good looks and be easygoing and affable, gets to stretch in ways that would be unimaginable to viewers who only know him from “Dirty Sexy Money” or “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” His Alex is rife with conflicts, polite one minute and curt the next, that leaves the viewer unsure of what he will do next or what he’s capable of. Alex is a character that would be hard to find on any other program, and Underwood slams the performance out of the park.

Best known for playing off her model looks as a cheerleader in the big-screen comedy “Sugar & Spice” and an action chick in the spy program “Alias,” George’s Laura is a complicated woman, constantly in turmoil with her relationship with men. She is asked to range from tearful (in relating an anonymous sexual encounter in a club’s bathroom) to blissful (convincing herself she is happy to have finally accepted her boyfriend’s proposal), and she deftly makes the transitions without missing a beat. George has you believing that Laura is up to going blow-for-blow with Paul, and you don’t wonder for a second why she is having such an effect on his psyche (something Gina is more aware of than Paul seems to be). I have to wonder, though, why Byrne (Irish) and Davidtz (raised in South Africa) are allowed to use their natural accents, while George (Australian) is required to speak like an American. She is usually up to the task, but during more emotional moments, she sometimes reverts to her natural speaking patterns on certain words (like saying “nawt” instead of “not”). The slips take me out of the moments and detract from an otherwise strong performance. I just wish her character was allowed to be Australian.

Unlike Australian Wasikowska, who flawlessly steps into the vocal patterns of a U.S. teenager in a star-making performance. Based on her age and the real perils she faces (she may have tried to kill herself, she may be sexually involved with her fortysomething coach), Sophie’s story can be sadder and more affecting than those of the other patients, and Wasikowska is masterful in nailing Sophie’s shifting moods. She is asked to play child-like and vixenesque, wearing youthful clothing one day and a revealing club dress the next. Wasikowska has difficult scenes, challenging the boundaries with Paul (differently than Laura, but no less forcefully), while shifting back and forth from looking for help and hiding her true emotions. It’s an astonishing performance by a relative newcomer, and, thankfully, she is given poignant material to match her work. When a Sophie episode begins, I have mixed emotions, certainly looking forward to the next installment of her saga, but at the same time, a bit nervous, knowing how painful it will be at times to intrude on the intimacy of her session.

Jake and Amy’s segments are less compelling, through no fault of Davidtz and Charles, both of whom do the best they possibly can with their material. The problem is that the brutish Jake and self-involved, deceitful Amy are nearly irredeemably insufferable people. Where Laura, Alex and Sophie test us, making us confront the good and bad in their personalities, it’s pretty easy to despise Jake and Amy 24/7. Sure, they have some problems, but what’s the difference when you think to yourself, “Who cares?” I was delighted when the majority of their second episode followed Paul and Kate, whose arguments and difficulties were far more engaging than those of Jake and Amy. I’m hoping that as the series goes on, there will be some revelation that makes me care more about what happens to Jake and/or Amy.

The episodes with Paul and Gina have a completely different feel, and not because they are the only ones to take place in a different location (Gina’s office, rather than Paul’s). It’s fascinating to watch Paul be far less than honest with Gina, often describing events from his sessions with his patients very differently than we’ve seen them unfold. He is also far less reserved with Gina, which makes sense, since he is now the person seeking help rather than the one dispensing it. With Gina, Paul can be combative and hostile, often even harsher than he is when fighting with Kate. Wiest is in her full-on squinty, squirrelly form, more classroom nun than comforting maternal figure. Like nearly everyone on “In Treatment,” her Gina is complicated, sending you back and forth in how you feel about her.

Despite its limitations of two (or three, in the case of Jake and Amy) people sitting in a room talking, the show manages to keep a momentum that propels you through the episodes. As crumbs of information are revealed, you sometimes feel like you’re watching a serial show like “Lost” or “Heroes,” waiting to figure out a plot point, which is amazing when you consider “In Treatment” consists only of some people telling their troubles to a shrink without a superhero or evil villain in sight. In the end, the one-act play analogy really tells the story. In the same way that good theater can keep you interested with only two or three characters (a good example being the Old Vic production of “Speed-the-Plow” with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum, which I was fortunate enough to see when I was in London two weeks ago), “In Treatment” manages to keep you riveted.

Less lofty but equally entertaining is the new CBS single-camera sitcom “Welcome to the Captain.” The brainchild of John Hamburg, writer of the very funny “Zoolander” and the unwatchably bad “Meet the Parents,” among other film scripts, the offbeat comedy is set in an old-fashioned, Old Hollywood apartment building called The Captain (or “El Capitan,” as the residents refer to it). New resident Josh (Fran Kranz) moves in at the behest of his womanizing, always-smiling accountant-to-the-stars (if you consider Joey Fatone a star) best friend Marty (Chris Klein), after Josh has trouble writing his follow-up screenplay to his Oscar-winning short film.

The building is filled with Hollywood types, including the place’s unofficial mayor, Saul (the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor), who likes to be called “Uncle Saul” and reminisce about his days as a writer on “Three’s Company” (or “T-Co,” as he calls it); Charlene (Raquel Welch), the past-her-prime TV starlet who desperately wants to be young again (or, more accurately, acts like she still is); and the clueless aspiring starlet Astrid (Valerie Azlynn), who is oblivious to her own potent sex appeal. They are looked after by the bumbling doorman Jesus (Al Madrigal), who pronounces his name like it is English, not Spanish, because, he says, he likes it that way.

Josh is ready to give up and go back to New York, when he meets the aptly-named Hope (Joanna Garcia), the adorable but clumsy aspiring acupuncturist staying at The Captain with her brother Brad (Michael Weston), a horror effects specialist who plans on proposing to his girlfriend by asking her to reach into his exposed faux abdomen and pull a ring from amidst the muck. Josh falls hard for Hope, who, of course, has a boyfriend, setting up the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic entanglement for the show.

Beyond being shot single-camera like a feature film, “Welcome to the Captain” doesn’t feel like a traditional sitcom. As I’ve written before, there is a difference between smart stupid and stupid stupid. “According to Jim” and “Two and a Half Men” are just stupid, but “Welcome to the Captain” uses silly situations to create smart comedy. The show doesn’t go for traditional set-up, punch-line laughs, mining deeper (and funnier) territory. The program lives in its quirks and its characters, and nowhere is that more apparent than with Uncle Saul. Tambor adds his usual natural off-handedness to this oddball. Uncle Saul is sweeter than Tambor’s George Bluth (“Arrested Development”), and certainly his Hank Kingsley (“The Larry Sanders Show”), but the character connects. One moment that sums up the world of the show occurs when Uncle Saul invites Josh to his weekend home, which turns out to be a second apartment on the eighth floor of The Captain. And, in the world of the show, soon after arriving, Josh finds it to be the perfect getaway.

The only sour note “Welcome to the Captain” hits is the Jesus character. Madrigal’s Speedy-Gonzales accent and exaggerated mannerisms border on offensive (if not already squarely in offensive territory). The writing and performance brought to mind Fred Armisen’s Ferricito character on “Saturday Night Live,” the salsa-drum-playing comedian who thinks having a catchphrase like an exaggerated “O Dios Mio!” is “professional.” I found myself uncomfortable when Jesus was on screen, especially when the script tapped into ugly negative stereotypes (Jesus is lazy and a rampant gossip).

But the one bum character is a small price to pay. “Welcome to the Captain” is a unique and, most importantly, funny sitcom in the “Arrested Development” tradition (although not yet up to the caliber of that classic). I only hope it doesn’t meet the same fate.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph Nader Is Delusional

[A] persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary

-- Definition 2 b of "delusional" on the Merriam-Webster Web site.

As I watched Ralph Nader on "Meet the Press" deny to Tim Russert his role in electing George W. Bush in 2000, I realized that arguing with this man is pointless. He is so embedded in his idealism that he has lost any and all sense of reality.

Nader's insistence that his presidential candidacy helps further the goals he believes in is, by Merriam-Webster's definition, delusional. There is "indisputable evidence" that his presence in the race in Florida gave the state (and the election) to Bush in 2000, and yet he maintains a "persistent" belief that it was not his fault, pointing fingers everywhere else but at himself. (I'm not a psychiatrist, so I can't speak to the "psychotic" part.)

After Nader declared his candidacy on "Meet the Press," Russert immediately provided a detailed analysis of how his voters gave Bush the victory in Florida in 2000 (including exit poll information) and asked him how he responds to charges that he put Bush in the White House and was thus responsible for the resulting events of the last seven years. (You can read a transcript of the interview here.) What was Nader's response?

First, he said it was Bush's fault. Then, he pointed to the Democrats in Congress. Then the 250,000 Florida Democrats that voted for Bush. Then "Katherine Bush" (Russert corrected him that it was Katherine Harris) and the Republicans running Florida. Then he blamed the U.S. Supreme Court's "politicized" decision on the Florida vote count. Then it was Al Gore losing Tennessee and Arkansas. Then it was the mayor of Miami holding a grudge against the Democrats. Finally, he accused the "
liberal intelligentsia" of only concentrating on one variable (him) as the cause of Bush's win.

Nader is right that after the 2000 election, Bush was responsible for his own bad decisions and policies, and that the Democrats acted like spayed lap dogs, giving Bush everything he wanted without a fight. It is also true that Gore ran a horrendous campaign (I often site his pathetic performance, with its nadir of his bizarre debate walkabout) and should have won by enough votes to make Nader irrelevant, and that Republicans from Florida to the Supreme Court participated in perverting the course of justice. I don't know anything about the Miami mayor having a grudge, but let's give him that one too, just for argument's sake.

Everything Nader said is true. To which I reply: "So what?"

Identifying other factors that cause a disaster doesn't absolve you of your role in the destruction. If a kid toilet-papered a house on Halloween, is he off the hook just because the hooligans down the block threw eggs at the windows and stink bombs into the doggie door? Hardly. And that's the problem with Nader's argument. He will tell you all the other reasons Gore lost in 2000, but he never takes responsibility for his part in what happened.

Nader is also a major hypocrite on the issue of his role in siphoning votes from the Democrats. In 2000, he argued that since the Democrats and Republicans were both beholden to corporations, there was essentially no difference between the parties. For example, in an October 29, 2000 interview with Sam Donaldson on "This Week," Donaldson asked Nader about this very issue, using the right to choose as an example of a difference between the parties. Nader's response:

"What it matters is the similarities—the enormous similarities, letting this national capital of ours be run by big business, just the way Business Week said the other day in a cover story, saying there’s too much corporate power over all aspects of our life."

He wouldn't give Donaldson any quarter on the point that there were differences between the parties and repeatedly strove to make the point that the parties were virtually the same.

Only, history showed that he was dead wrong. You have to believe that if Gore was president on September 11, 2001, the response of the U.S. would have been quite different. Gore would not have invaded Iraq, and, as a result, there is a good chance he would have finished the job in Afghanistan, something Bush failed to do.

Nader has to realize that there is blood on his hands. That he bears responsibility for the nearly 4,000 dead U.S. soldiers from the war in Iraq and the tens of thousands of others seriously wounded. There are certainly others responsible for the tragedy, but Nader has to take a share of the blame. And yet, instead, he is in total denial. He is delusional.

But on some level, he has to know that he was wrong. In his interview with Russert, he steered clear of "the parties are the same" arguments. He even admitted that there were differences between Obama and McCain. This time around, he is saying that a majority of Americans agree with his platform, and that the calls by Democrats for him not to run amount to a violation of candidate rights.

Both these arguments are shining examples of Nader's idealism clouding his sense of what is really happening in the world.

Whether Nader's positions match up with public beliefs or not, he is not going to garner a significant percentage of the vote. Again, in an ideal world, I understand the value of a progressive candidate championing popular ideas. But if the effect of that candidacy is to elect a more conservative president, then the campaign has destroyed the chance of most of these progressive ideas from being adopted. When exposed to the harsh light of reality, Nader's idealistic aims crumble.

As for Nader's decision to play the victim and whine about the right of candidates to run if they want to, again, he misses the point. Sure, he has the right to run a progressive bid for the White House. Nobody is talking about legally banning him. What Democrats are saying is, by running, the effect (that is, the reality) of Nader's candidacy is that his race will help elect a Republican. Sure, in an ideal world, there should be a progressive movement with a chance of bringing change to the way Washington does business.

But in reality, Nader isn't doing that. He got 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000 and, other than helping to elect Bush, he had no influence on the American agenda (three short years later, Bush was sending troops into Iraq, and the Democrats weren't fighting him). In 2004 Nader claimed that he was going to get enough support to change the equation. Instead, he got .38 percent of the vote, roughly the same total as
Michael Badnarik. Who is Michael Badnarik? Exactly. (Bednarik was the Libertarian candidate.)

Nader can say whatever he wants, but his "movement" was and is dead on arrival. The only effect he can realistically have is to help a Republican get elected.

I don't take any joy in assailing Nader as a delusional hypocrite whose inability to accept reality has done grievous harm to the country. His 30-year record as a consumer advocate is exemplary, and before 2000, he had to be considered one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. But his past accomplishments, while important, do not serve as an all-purpose "Get Out of Jail Free" card. The damage he caused in 2000 is mostly irreparable, and there is potential for him to do it all over again this year.

I prefer to look at Nader as a good man who now suffers from a sort of mental illness. We can feel sorry for him and respect what he's accomplished, but make no mistake: No good can come from Ralph Nader running for president. It is up to everyone to make that point, loudly and clearly, whenever possible, so the damage he caused in 2000 is not repeated again in 2008. I like to think that Ralph Nader of 1975 would approve of denouncing the Ralph Nader of 2008, the one who is delusional.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

It's a Sad Day for New York Islander Fans

I am ashamed to be a New York Islander fan today.

On its face, there is nothing unusual about that statement. For much of the 1990s, shame was a default position for a once-proud team (four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980 to 1983) that had fallen on exceptionally hard times, losing a lot of games and regularly jettisoning their best players to save money. One lowlight: In 1996, a guy bought the team, but, months later, it was discovered that he didn't actually have any money. As a result, he has spent most of the 2000s in federal prison for fraud. (You can read more about the John Spano debacle here.)

So what's the big deal about me being ashamed today? Because by nearly any estimation, other than the one thing bothering me, the New York Islanders are an exceptionally likable team, a hard-working, positive-thinking, stick-together underdog that has done well despite its nearly star-free roster. A team to be proud of.

A bit of history: In 2000, the Islanders were rescued from the fallout of the Spano debacle by Computer Associates founder Charles Wang, who bought the club and treated it like it was an important Long Island institution, rather than a for-profit venture (he reportedly loses millions each year on the franchise). Wang pumped money into payroll, as well as into the cozy-but-outdated and then-dilapidated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. After a seven-year drought, the Islanders made the playoffs in four of five years beginning in 2002. Sure, they never got out of the first round, but Wang had done something that seemed impossible in the mid-to-late 1990s: He allowed fans to regain pride in the franchise.

After missing the playoffs in the 2005-06 season, Wang brought in Ted Nolan, who had been out of the NHL for nearly 10 years despite winning Coach of the Year honors in his second of two seasons as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, to coach the team. Nolan preached hard work, camaraderie and discipline, and he led the Islanders, despite being picked to be at the bottom of the conference by most commentators, to an improbable end-of-season run to the playoffs (which I wrote about last April).

This year, again, on paper, the Islanders should be in last place. But led by Nolan and fortified by DiPietro, the team is in the playoff hunt with four more wins than losses on the season. The Islanders have also showed a lot of heart, winning their last five games, just after having dropped seven straight contests, and pulling off the run despite missing four of their top defensemen and their best defensive center. The players also personify the idea of "never say 'die'," having come back from 2-0 deficits in their last two games.

In short, under Nolan, the Islanders are a fun team to root for.

But anyone who has seen an episode of "E! True Hollywood Story" knows that in every fairy tale, something has to go wrong. Unfortunately for the Islanders, like an alcoholic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, there is one person who has ruined what would be an otherwise fun season: professional thug Chris Simon.

Hockey is a violent sport in which men engage in fistfights that result only in five minutes spent in the penalty box. So it is telling that even in a sometimes brutal game, Simon is reviled for his on-ice behavior. His rap sheet would make Pacman Jones blush: In 15 NHL seasons, Simon has amassed eight suspensions, with offenses ranging from violent conduct to using a racial slur against a black opponent.

You might wonder: How does an embarrassment to the league end up on a team known for its no-nonsense coach and hard-working players? Well, Nolan, as the first First Nation member to be an NHL coach, has been selfless throughout his life in helping other First Nation individuals. That effort included coaching Simon when he was a troubled, alcoholic teen. When Nolan took over as coach of the Islanders, he brought Simon, who had spent 13 years in the league as a thug-for-hire, to Long Island.

As much as it made me sick to see Simon wearing the Islander logo on his chest, it was hard to argue with Nolan's choice. Teams do need an intimidating presence on the ice to protect their more skilled players, and Simon did have some basic hockey skills (he once scored 29 goals in a season, although eight to 14 was a more typical output), unlike most goons who are essentially street fighters on skates. But I, and many of my fellow Islander fans, viewed Simon as being on a very short leash.

After making it through most of last season without any incidents, Simon snapped against the rival New York Rangers during a game in March. Ryan Hollweg cleanly checked Simon hard into the boards. Simon's reaction? A two-handed, baseball-style swing of his stick into Hollweg's face. (You can watch it here; there is a clear replay of the whole incident at the end of the clip. Fortunately and miraculously, Hollweg escaped major injury.) Using one's stick to perpetuate violence violates every written and unwritten code of conduct in the sport. As I watched the attack, I was sickened. Simon was a disgrace to the Islanders and to hockey as a whole. The one saving grace was that his subsequent 25-game suspension would last through the rest of the season, and with Simon's contract expiring, it would be the last we would see of this glorified criminal wearing the uniform of the New York Islanders.

But like the killer in a bad slasher movie, Simon wouldn't go away. Nolan said that Simon was a high-character, gentle, respectful man when he wasn't playing, and he just had to learn to better control himself on the ice. He said Simon deserved a second (wasn't it an eighth?) chance and signed him for this season. It took only 26 games before Simon struck again. This time, in a December game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, during a break in the action, he deliberately stomped on the foot of Jarko Ruutu as they headed to the benches. (You can watch it here.) The recent gruesome accidental slashing of Richard Zednick's neck shows how sharp hockey skates are, so Ruutu was fortunate to escape major injury. Simon was hit with a 30-game suspension.

Finally, I thought, this had to be the end of Simon's tenure with Islanders, but instead of putting out a press release saying that the Islanders were embarrassed and that Simon would never wear the team's sweater again, the club sent him to counseling and stressed, once again, what a great guy he is off the ice. I was shocked and disgusted, and I knew that the day would come when Simon would play for the team again.

And that day is today. According to Canadian sports network TSN, Simon will play tonight when the Islanders host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

All I can think is: Why? Of course, the most important question is why a proud franchise would allow a player with a history of shocking behavior to continue to sully its reputation. But putting the grander idea aside, I am shocked they would bring back Simon now. The Islanders have won five games in a row, winning the last two after overcoming 2-0 deficits. They have thrived despite a spate of injuries that allowed the team to promote and give significant playing time to some of their younger players. Everything is moving in the right direction. The team has nothing but positive energy associated with it. Why would you ever disrupt the feel-good environment by bringing back a ticking time bomb? A man who in the space of 29 NHL games slashed one player in the face and tried to slice open the leg of another opponent? What about the young player who is going to lose his spot in the lineup to make room for this morals-free thug? How can anyone justify that?

So in the middle of a fun, uplifting Islander season, the franchise is about to experience one of its darkest, most shameful days. Nolan, who has consistently displayed nothing but class, dignity and sound values as coach of the Islanders, will instead have his name sullied by his stubborn loyalty to a disgraceful player. And the sad thing is, it's completely unnecessary. All it would take would be for one man to see the light, whether it was Nolan or Wang, and make a statement that they will not let one player ruin the reputation of a proud and storied franchise.

That is why I am making this plea, despite the fact that it will certainly fall on deaf ears: Gentlemen, on behalf of loyal Islander fans, please, please do not embarrass us by letting Chris Simon skate on the ice tonight. Please allow us to point to Simon being released from the club and say, "That's my team. We do the right thing." Please show me that the team's statements throughout the year on what it means to be an Islander are more than just a marketing campaign.

But until or unless Wang or Nolan step up, when the game tonight begins and Simon is sitting on the Islander bench, it will be a dark day in Islander history. Maybe John Spano will listen to the game on his prison radio and say to himself, "Wow, I have no longer done the most disgraceful thing an owner of the New York Islanders has ever done!"

Unless someone takes action before tonight, I will be forced to say that I am ashamed to be an Islander fan. And after the thrills that Nolan and the players have given me this season, that's a shame.

Nominating System Puts Power in Wrong Hands for Democrats

Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are set to debate tonight in Texas. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But with Obama on a post-Super Tuesday run of 11 straight victories (including winning the Democrats Abroad primary), Clinton is desperate to score a win to stop his momentum. In an article on today, the network's senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, said: "Texas is the end game. Hillary Clinton has to stop Obama in Texas." And, to me, that is a problem.

No, I'm not talking about the fact that it's time for Clinton to drop out of the race so that Democrats can rally around the surging Obama and begin taking aim at presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who has already started firing at Obama. While I believe she should do so, that's not my point today. Rather, I find the fact that Democrats in Texas will play such a major role in picking the nominee to be bad for the party's chances in November.

Nothing personal against the Democratic faithful in the Lone Star State. In fact, I would imagine being a Democrat in bright-red Texas requires substantially more steel and commitment than is asked of me in true-blue New York. But strictly in the realm of planning for a victory in the general election, Democrats shouldn't give a lick about the thoughts of the party's voters in Texas, because come November, Texas is a state the Democrats can't win. Similarly, the party shouldn't care about who I vote for, since the GOP doesn't stand a chance in New York.

As I wrote last week in an article arguing that Obama is more electable than Clinton, of the 51 states (including Washington, D.C.) with electoral votes, the outcome in 35 of them is virtually assured for one or the other party, regardless of who runs. That leaves only 16 states where the result could realistically go either way. And Texas is definitely not one of those states. Ohio, which also holds its primary on the same day as Texas, March 4, is contested, and I am way more interested in what Buckeye voters think than their friends to the south.

I understand that, realistically, there is no way the Democratic Party could decide to only count the delegates from states that could be contested in November. So I'm not proposing that the system actually be changed to disenfranchise any states. But this sad fact doesn't stop me from lamenting the reality that voters who will have no effect on choosing the next president in the general election will play a leading part in choosing the Democratic nominee.

I would urge the brave Democrats in Texas to look at the results in the 11 states that are in play in November who have already held their contests (Ohio votes the same day as Texas, Pennsylvania's primary is set for April 22, West Virginia's primary will be May 13, and Michigan and Florida didn't hold truly contested votes because their delegates were stripped for moving their primaries too early in the calendar) and examine who has the best chance to win in November, before making their choices. At least if they want to see a Democrat inaugurated in January 2009.

Democratic voters in Texas, who will play no role in November, hold the power to seal the nomination for Obama, or breathe new life into the Clinton campaign. And that could be damaging to the party's fortunes in the general election. Lone Star Democrats have proven that they're tough. Let's hope they can also make the right decision.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's Time to Admit That the Iraq War Has Weakened the Military

The Iraq war has stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin. No, that's not me talking, but the belief of 88 percent of U.S. military officers, according to a recent survey reported by CNN.

I fully understand that reasonable minds can differ, and that as long as there are two parties vying for power, there will be disagreements over the best way to solve problems (or to choose which problems most need solving). But it seems to me that, although I wrote an entire article defending the idea of being partisan, once the cold, hard facts on an issue emerge, it's time to accept the reality and move on, regardless of one's position when the original policy was being debated. Let the reasonable minds differ on how to address the existing problem, not whether the problem actually exists.

In 2003, President Bush decided to invade Iraq. Since then, there has been a debate as to whether the invasion was a good idea or not. I think that discussion is perfectly reasonable when debating future policy, as well in a campaign, where American citizens have a right to judge the candidates based on their stances on the issues.

But it would seem to me that whether you support the war or not, it would defy all logic to say that it hasn't put an immense strain on the military. Just watching the services struggle with extending tours, sending soldiers back for multiple tours of duty, and loosening requirements for new recruits, it is apparent that there are staffing issues in the armed forces.

And yet, Bush and the Republicans, when discussing foreign policy, seem to act as if the military might of the U.S. is limitless. They talk of keeping America strong and safe and of actively fighting terrorists, and yet there is never a discussion of the very real reality that the U.S. involvement in Iraq has required such a large commitment of the country's military resources that we virtually have no ability to engage in any other military operation.

Or, to put it more colloquially, we are standing with our pants down, and the whole world knows it. So much for a strong, safe America.

The survey backs the idea that the administration's poor planning and unreasonable expectations for post-war Iraq caused the difficulties the country currently faces. But to me, what was even more compelling for the future of the country, is the dire state of our armed forces thanks to the war in Iraq.

More than half of the officers agreed that the military had been weakened by extended deployments and lower standards, and that the care of wounded soldiers was substandard.
Well more than half, 60 percent, flat out think the U.S. military is weaker than it was five years ago. Eighty percent of the respondents feel that it is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to fight another war while engaged in Iraq.

The survey reveals that the officers believe that Iraq has distracted the U.S. from threats by China and Iran. On a scale of one to ten, the respondents rated the military's readiness in Iran as a 4.7, the Taiwan Strait as a 4.9, Syria as a 5.1, and North Korea as a 4.7. These numbers should concern all Americans, regardless of party affiliation and position on the war.

The officers didn't seem real happy with the civilians they have to answer to and work with, either. Sixty-six percent of them felt that elected leaders were uninformed about military matters.

I'm sure most Democrats (and I plead guilty to this charge) looked at these survey responses and had an initial reaction of, "See! We were right! Bush has made us weaker, not stronger." But when my cooler head prevailed, I realized that the bigger issue is how we, as a country, act next, knowing that we are overextended militarily because of Iraq. And that realization led me to lament that such planning is impossible when the country's leader, or the Republican trying to succeed him, won't even acknowledge that there is a problem to begin with.

It's time to acknowledge that the war in Iraq has exhausted the resources of the military, and every candidate, Democratic and Republican alike, should articulate his or her plan for building the forces back up. If John McCain wants to keep us in Iraq for 100 years, he should tell us how he is going to do it without jeopardizing the ability of the country to defend itself or conduct military operations elsewhere in the world.

As I've said, I'm all for acting partisan when it means standing up for the ideals of the party. Presumably, both parties want a strong military. According to our officers, we're not as strong as we were. So it's time to put aside the subterfuge and address the problem. It's time to move the debate from the wisdom of invading to Iraq to military readiness. Otherwise, the next president risks being an American version of Baghdad Bob, telling the world about the strength of his country's army in the face of a reality that is far more bleak.

After all, it's hard to claim the country is strong and ready when 88 percent of officers think we are stretched too thin. When it comes to the facts on the ground, reasonable minds should not differ, even when seeking office.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Obama Is More Electable Than Clinton

With each day that goes by, I am more convinced that if the Democrats have a prayer of winning the general presidential election in November, they must nominate Barack Obama. While beating John McCain, a candidate perceived as moderate by a good amount of the electorate, will be a difficult task, the more I examine the state-by-state statistics, the more clear it seems that Hillary Clinton cannot win in November.

There is a basic, two-part formula for winning presidential elections: Get out your base, and win over the independents. Assuming the candidate is John McCain, he will have a great deal of trouble turning out the Republican base. Essentially, McCain has found his way to the nomination by getting votes from moderates and, in states that allow open voting, independents, while a host of other candidates, down the stretch Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, divided up the conservative base. He has yet to be embraced by the right wing of the party, and he has been the target of traditional conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

McCain’s weakness on his flank presents an opening for the Democrats. Except, if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, her existence in the race will rally conservatives to show up and vote to keep her out of office. In other words, Clinton’s appearance on the ballot will accomplish what McCain cannot do on his own – get conservatives to come out in force and vote for him. In fact, a article on Monday suggested that many Republicans in Virginia, which held an open primary on Tuesday, considered participating in the Democratic race so they could cast their vote for Hillary Clinton, not because they liked her, but because they wanted to run against her in November.

Peter Wehner, a former deputy to Karl Rove in the Bush White House, pointed out in a recent article in the New Yorker that “Hillary Clinton would provide a ‘much more target-rich environment’ than Obama,” since Republicans did not have to find any new scandals, but could just remind voters of old ones.

Obama, on the other hand, would not provide as much of an incentive to conservatives. Wehner opined: “He would be much more difficult for Republicans to handle. He has much more breakout potential.” Wehner thought the only thing that Republicans could exploit about Obama was that he was liberal, but even this arch conservative said, “I find him to be very impressive.”

I really don’t know why Republicans despise Hillary Clinton so much, and I don’t think it’s rational or fair. But none of that matters if the effect of her candidacy will be to inspire right-wingers to raise money and vote in large numbers for John McCain.

On the Democratic side, statistics show that Democrats have been happy with their choices in the presidential race, so there is no reason to think that Obama would be any less capable than Clinton of turning out the base of the party in November. You can even make an argument that Obama can do a better job in this area. After the brutal South Carolina race, many African Americans were angry with the comments Hillary Clinton made about President Lyndon Johnson’s role signing the Civil Rights Act, feeling as though she was disrespectful to Dr. Martin Luther King. Again, you can question whether the scrutiny of her is fair, but the reality is, come November, if Clinton is the candidate, African Americans may not come out in force for Clinton the way they would for Obama (or they would have for Clinton had the South Carolina race flap never occurred). The primary and caucus results bear this point out, as Clinton has been able to garner only a small percentage of the African-American vote in virtually every state.

On the issue of independents, whoever gets the Democratic nomination will face a Herculean task, considering he or she will be facing McCain, an opponent who has relied on these non-aligned voters to get to the front-running place he holds today. The question becomes, Who is in a better position to contest McCain for these votes, Clinton or Obama? The primary and caucus results suggest Obama would hold the advantage over his rival.

Like McCain, Obama’s success in the Democratic race so far has been helped greatly by independents. In race after race, he has consistently beaten Clinton in this group. For example, in yesterday’s Virginia primary, Obama beat Clinton by a margin of 64 percent to 35 percent, but his victory was even larger with registered independents, who chose Obama by a 69 percent to 30 percent margin. (All primary data in this piece comes from CNN's election center.)

Even in states that Clinton has carried, Obama has beaten her amongst independents. In New Hampshire, Clinton narrowly prevailed by two percentage points (39 to 37), but independents solidly chose Obama, 41 percent to 31 percent. Similarly, in California, Clinton enjoyed a comfortable ten-point victory, but amongst independents, Obama far outpaced Clinton, 58 percent to 34 percent.

Obama has also been successful in coaxing young and first-time voters to the polls to support him. For example, in Iowa, facing seven opponents, Obama managed to win 41 percent of all first-time voters. In New Hampshire, he got 47 percent of the newbies.

So if Clinton will help McCain get out the conservative base of the Republican party more than Obama, Obama and Clinton can, at least, equally turn out Democrats, and Obama can do a better job with independents than Clinton, then it would seem that Obama would be the better bet to go against McCain in November.

I’d argue, though, that the discussion cannot end here, because of the odd nature of American presidential elections, which, as any Gore supporter can tell you, is not based on the popular vote, but on a state-by-state, winner-take-all, electoral college. Because of this set-up, by my calculation, there are 34 states whose elections will be meaningless in November, since no matter who the nominees are, the results are predetermined. Republicans are all but sure to win 21 states (east to west, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Alaska). Meanwhile, the Democrats are virtually certain to get the electoral votes from 13 states (in the east, moving north to south, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland; Illinois; and, in the west, from north to south, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii).

That leaves only 16 states where votes really matter. I see this group in three categories: States that lean red, those that lean blue, and those that are genuine toss-ups. And when you look at the results of the 2004 election and the 2008 primaries, Obama is better equipped to succeed in a majority of these 16 states.

Let’s start with three states that are the only ones I see as truly up in the air: Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada. In 2004, President Bush edged John Kerry in Iowa by the slightest of margins (746,600 to 733,102). In the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, McCain was a non-factor, finishing tied for third, well off the pace. While McCain, as the Republican nominee, will pick up some support, this state would certainly seem to be an opening for Democrats. Not only did Obama handily win the Democratic caucuses in Iowa (with 38 percent of the vote), Clinton finished third. Obama also dominated amongst independents (41 percent for Obama, 17 percent for Clinton) and first-time voters (41 percent for Obama). In Iowa, advantage Obama.

New Mexico was also a state in 2004 with a razor-sharp margin of victory for Bush (372,513 to 364,240), giving the Democrats an opening in 2008. In a tight primary, Clinton edged Obama by just over a thousand votes. But the primary was open only to registered Democrats, and Obama trounced Clinton, 65 percent to 29 percent, among voters who identified themselves as independents. With the Republican primary not until June (and the race could be long over by then), there are no numbers to go on, but as McCain is a popular senator in a neighboring state, it would seem that the Democrats will need all the independents they can get in November. And, again, the advantage in this area goes to Obama.

Finally, in Nevada, while Bush beat Kerry by about 21,000 votes (representing just under three percentage points), there is an opening for the Democrats in a state that has been trending blue. McCain managed only 13 percent of the vote in the Republican caucuses, finishing behind both Romney and Ron Paul. Clinton beat Obama in Nevada, 51 percent to 45 percent, but the caucuses were only open to registered Democrats. Among moderates, again, Obama did better, falling only three percentage points short of Clinton. Independents were not accounted for in the caucuses, so there is no measurable data with which to document Obama’s strength in this group, except that he has consistently outdrawn Clinton with independents in other states. While Clinton may actually be in a position to beat McCain here in November, when you factor in independents, I’d still take Obama, but I admit it’s kind of a toss-up.

So, in these three critical states, Obama has a clear edge in two of them, while the third can be said to be too close to call.

As for states that are in play but lean to the Republicans (in my mind, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia), Obama has a clear edge in most cases, especially the more winnable races. In Colorado, where McCain got pounded by Romney (60 percent to 19 percent), Obama trounced Clinton (67 percent to 32 percent). Obama also enjoys an advantage in Missouri, where he edged Clinton by one percentage point, but, as importantly, dominated the independent vote (67 percent to 30 percent). In Virginia, as I noted, Obama not only won the primary going away, but he polled even more strongly with independents. Clinton would have an edge in Florida (with its large senior citizen population, a group that she traditionally does well with) and Arkansas (where she was the first lady for more than 10 years), but these are states that Bush carried in both 2000 and 2004 and may be beyond the Democrats’ reach in 2008. Time will tell what the primary voters will do in West Virginia and delegate-rich Ohio.

You can make an argument that in the states that are in play but lean to the Democrats (by my estimation, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), the comparison is less important, since either of the candidates would stand a good chance of sweeping them all. John Kerry won all of these states in 2004, and Al Gore carried all of them except New Hampshire in 2000. But Obama is strong in the state I’m most concerned about, Minnesota, where Kerry beat Bush by just under 100,000 votes (less than four percentage points). McCain is viewed as more moderate than Bush, so I’m sure the GOP is eyeing Minnesota as one they can steal, even if McCain fell badly to Romney in the Republican caucuses. Democrats should take note that Obama more than doubled Clinton’s numbers in the Democratic caucus, enjoying a 67 percent to 32 percent margin of victory.

Obama also handily beat Clinton in the Maine caucuses (59 percent to 40 percent), despite pre-election predications that it would be a strong state for her, and, as I wrote earlier, despite losing to Clinton by two points in a multi-candidate race in New Hampshire, Obama dominated with independent and first-time voters and would be in a stronger position to take on McCain. Clinton would be stronger in Michigan, based on her strength with blue collar workers (Michigan had its delegates stripped by the Democratic National Committee, and Obama did not take part in the state’s primary), but of the states in this group that have contested primaries or caucuses so far, it’s her lone bright spot in this debate.

So in the 16 states that will ultimately choose the next president, Obama would seem to be in a more advantageous position than Clinton in a majority of them. To be clear, I’m not saying that Obama will win in November if he gets the nomination. I’m only saying that of the two remaining Democratic contenders, he is in a better position to take on John McCain.

Democrats have let too many opportunities to take control of the White House slip through their fingers, whether it was by choosing an unelectable candidate (John Kerry, a wealthy, stiff, patrician, liberal, non-combative, sitting U.S. senator from Massachusetts), or having a seemingly electable candidate run a horrendous campaign (Al Gore, hiding from his role as vice president in a popular and successful administration and behaving like some kind of odd non-human cyborg in public, culminating with his red-faced, where-was-he-going wander towards an amused George Bush’s side of the stage during a nationally televised debate; you can watch it here). It’s time to put aside the question of which candidate is better and focus on which of the two aspirants can win. (I can make an argument as to why Obama is actually a better candidate, regardless of electabilty, but I’ll leave that to another day.)

When I look at the available evidence, I see only one correct answer to who has the best opportunity for winning the general election: Barack Obama. Lets hope Democratic voters in the last few primary states, especially Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, see it, too. If they don’t, I fear that we’ll have four more years of Republicans in the White House. I’m not sure the country can stand such a result.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Strike Demonstrates the Short-Sighted Approach of TV Networks

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I once worked for a publishing company that specialized in annual updates to books. Soon after I started there, I noticed that nearly half of the releases came out in the fourth quarter of the year. I later learned why the schedule was so unbalanced, when my boss told my team to scramble to get several of our first quarter publications out early, in time to qualify for the fourth quarter, so that the earnings reports for the year would reflect the greater revenue. Thus, every year, more and more of the companies products came out in the fourth quarter.

Curious, I asked some of the company’s bean counters if flooding one quarter with releases affected sales numbers, and I was told that the strategy absolutely led to more cancellations. Buyers who subscribed to multiple publications could not handle the sudden onslaught of bills, unlike when they were spread more evenly throughout the year. The finance folks confirmed what was now obvious to me: When making a decision, the company was vastly more interested in how it would affect the immediate situation, rather than what the impact would be in the future.

What does all of this have to do with television? This kind of short-sightedness is crippling the television networks, especially the way the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group of major producers in a labor dispute with the Writers Guild of America, is handling its impasse with the writers, along with how the programmers have been filling their time the last few years.

An article in Variety last week noted that, even taking into account other factors, the strike has hurt the ratings of network television shows. Considering how ratings have plummeted over the last few years as networks faced competition from tons of cable channels and the Internet, one would think that the networks would do anything to avoid angering viewers further. One would be incorrect, apparently.

To take a step back, it seems to me that the short-sighted approach of the networks to the changing broadcast landscape had already started to weaken the industry, even before the writers began manning picket lines. In the way that my former employer sacrificed the future of publications to maximize immediate revenue, networks began embracing reality television, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and able to garner decent to outstanding ratings, depending on the property. Scripted shows became less common, and sitcoms nearly qualified for federal endangered species protection.

I am not so narrow-minded as to believe that reality television has no place on the air. Well produced, exceptionally rated shows like “American Idol” and “Survivor” were effective shots in the arm for the industry in its battle with its new competitors. The problem is that, of course, producers figured out that cheap knock-offs of these shows, like “The Next Great American Band” and “Big Brother,” could be made on the cheap while either coming close to, or eclipsing, the ratings of scripted programs in time slots.

On the surface, getting similar ratings for a lower investment seems like a great idea. But television is not a normal business. There is a cultural aspect to the business model of television that is absent from selling laundry detergent. Television is integrated into the fabric of American life, and the job of the medium is to engage the public, keep viewers interested, and keep them coming back. Beyond a few crazies with nothing better to do, are people emotionally invested in second-tier reality shows like “American Gladiator” and the 47th version of “The Bachelor”? Sure, the programmers have secured the eyes on their programs today, but what about the future? By changing the very nature of the medium and offering disposable programming that viewers have forgotten about before the end credits have finished rolling (or speeding by at unreadable rates, like they do now for many programs), the networks are surrendering the very bond that kept people coming back for the last 60 years.

Put it this way: In 20 years time, people will still be watching episodes of “30 Rock,” even if only five or six million people are watching each week now. But who will be watching reruns of “The Biggest Loser” ever again, once the original episodes air?

Before you accuse me of being an idealist with no appreciation of the need to generate revenue, let me remind you of the magic word that sends producers, actors and writers dreaming of untold riches: syndication. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld or the creators of “Friends” and “Frasier,” to name three prominent examples of programs that have made a fortune being sold for reruns in local markets and on national cable stations.

It used to be that networks didn’t make any money on syndication, because they were not permitted to own programs. They were limited to acquiring content from production companies. Thanks to the deregulation craze of the 1990s, the rule has gone the way of Betamax, and networks now own a piece of nearly every minute of television that airs. They are finally cut in for a piece of these lucrative syndication deals, so what do they do? They stop making television shows that can be syndicated. After all, years from now, nobody will turn on a local station at 11 p.m. and watch a ten-year-old episode of “Wife Swap.”

Syndication raises the same short-term-versus-long-term argument. Sure, you might be able to squeeze a few more dollars today out of “Hell’s Kitchen” than a slightly lower-rated sitcom, but what about five years from now? When all the dollars are added up, which show will be more profitable? The long-term benefits of scripted shows are not limited solely to the sociological role of television in American life, but can be found in the hard dollars to be earned by a program down the road.

The lack of foresight shown by the embrace of reality television can also be seen in the way producers are nickel-and-diming the writers in the strike (actually “pennying,” since the union is reportedly looking for a few cents per download). Thanks to the walkout, network schedules are nearly completely bereft of new episodes of scripted shows. The networks have effectively provided viewers with yet another excuse to break the habit of watching television. Whether people go on to video games, the Internet or some other new form of entertainment that hasn’t been made apparent yet, they are finding alternate ways to structure their lives that do not involve settling in front of a traditional television set each night, something that was a given for most American families just a few years ago.

With ratings down, maybe it’s time for the networks to take a radically different approach to their industry and change the way they quantify the success of their programs. The chance of that happening, I fear, is roughly the same as my former publishing company adopting a balanced publishing schedule. Of course, the publishing company was acquired, moved and gutted a few years after I left. It’s too late for that business. The networks should act before it’s too late for them. They may not know it, but they are playing in the ultimate episode of “Survivor.” And there are no immunity idols in sight.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Next President Will Have to Position the U.S. in a New World Order

Today is Super Duper Tuesday, with contests in 24 different states that will go a long way toward determining the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. Numerous issues will drive the decision-making processes of voters as they step into the booth (or in front of a computer terminal of questionable reliability, built by a large Republican donor and lacking a paper trail, but I digress ...). As they pull their levers, punch their cards, or tap fitfully on their computer screens, I suspect that few Americans, if any, will be thinking about what I have come to view as the most important issue facing the next administration.

Am I talking about the war in Iraq? The sagging economy? Global warming? Steroids in baseball? Actually, all of them, because the concern I have would affect how we handle all of these problems (except steroids, I'm afraid). I believe that the next president's most important task will be to determine how to position the country in light of the new world order created in the last seven years, mostly, but not entirely, as a result of the incompetency, arrogance and hostility of the George W. Bush presidency.

Whether you like Bush's job performance or not (and judging by polls, the overwhelming odds are that you fall into the "not" category), it is virtually impossible to argue with the assertion that the United States has far less sway and influence in the world today than it did on September 12, 2001. As Bush perpetuated crime upon crime on the world, from the Iraq invasion itself, to the use of torture, to the public spectacle of Abu Ghraib, to the embarrassment of Guantanamo Bay, nations recoiled, and my feeling deepened that the U.S. had lost its moral authority on the world stage. After all, how can we protest human rights abuses abroad when we perpetuate them ourselves?

But my feeling that the loss of U.S. influence in the world is the paramount issue facing the next president was solidified when I read a detailed, in-depth, fascinating article written by Parag Khanna that appeared in the January 27 New York Times Magazine.

Khanna argues that while the U.S. was mired in Iraq and pursuing a combative foreign policy, the world was changing, and the administration failed to notice. His thesis is that U.S. dominance has been replaced by a three-way international competition between three powers: The U.S., Europe and China. (If you are wondering about Russia, Khanna argues that it is now "an increasingly depopulated expanse run by" that is beholden to, and slowly being absorbed by, Europe.)

The article goes through a number of areas in which the Europeans and Chinese have successfully played the game to expand their influence, and how countries navigating the new world order are strategically pitting the influences of all three powers against one another, making sure that none can assert full control, while maximizing the benefits from all.

Khanna, who has spent years traveling and living in so-called "second-world" nations, makes it clear that the U.S. has not adjusted to this new state of affairs, and, as a result, has lost ground to the Europeans and Chinese, who are manipulating the American missteps to gain power and influence with other nations, even if they are going about it in different ways.

I urge you to read the article in its entirety, since, at the end, Khanna lays out several steps the next president should take to position the U.S. more competitively in the world. While there is too much in the piece to relay every detail in this space, suffice to say that the whole article is loaded with very specific observations about what the U.S. has done wrong, and what the U.S. can do better, around the world.

It is clearly not coincidental that Khanna's long article begins by noting that the Republican and Democratic presidential contenders are debating foreign policy in a way that completely misunderstands the current global situation. He notes that Republicans are feverishly advocating what he calls a "muscular moralism," while Democrats want to "hit a reset button" to return the U.S. to its pre-Bush position of influence. Neither of these approaches, he explains, will work. The U.S. has expended too much of its military resources in Iraq, and even if it didn't, you can't bludgeon countries into doing what you want, so the Republicans are essentially offering a more-of-the-same policy that will continue to fail. And, as much as Democrats would like to turn the clock back to 2000, the world has moved on, and the fact that a Democrat is in office won't change that.

As Americans vote today, they should ask themselves, "Who is most likely to lead the United States in this new world order? Who is forward-thinking enough to expand his/her mind beyond traditional notions of Cold War alliances and us-versus-them mentalities to recognize the issues that are driving the decisions of fellow nations?"

Sure, as much as any other Democrat, I want a president who will pull the U.S. military out of Iraq, reinforce the troops in Afghanistan, institute policies to make the country economically competitive, and take action to stop the ravages of human-induced climate change. But to address these issues properly, we need a leader who recognizes how the world has developed, and how the U.S. can successfully take a leading role in this new global economic and political order.

And yes, of course, my blind item approach to the question is a load of crap. I clearly think that Barack Obama, the only candidate part of a new generation that views the country and the world through a more modern prism, is the remaining candidate best suited to expanding his mind and his ideas on what it means to be a world power.

If the next president can show the vision necessary to navigate the realities of the 21st Century, then smart decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy and global warming will fall into place. Alas, baseball will have to figure out its issues on its own.

Friday, February 1, 2008

"Eli Stone" is the Latest Entry in the Growing Greg Berlanti TV Portfolio

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

And to think, it all started with a critically beloved, relatively low-rated show on the old WB. "Everwood," whose fans were as ardent as they were few in number, managed to cling to the schedule for four years, exiting in June of 2006 when the WB transitioned into the CW. Who would have imagined that the show's creator, former "Dawson's Creek" writer Greg Berlanti, would be responsible for two of ABC's few bright spots of the strike-ravaged 2007-08 season?

Berlanti is an executive producer of the network's hits "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Brothers & Sisters," and on Thursday night, yet another of his creations, "Eli Stone" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern), hit the air. How does "Eli" stack up with Berlanti's two reigning offerings? It's not in the same league yet, but there are certainly flashes of Berlanti's wit and storytelling prowess.

"Eli" follows the eponymous big shot San Francisco attorney (Jonny Lee Miller), who, while representing a pharmaceutical company in a lawsuit brought by a mother claiming that her son developed autism because of an additive in a flu shot, starts to hear things. First, it's just organ music, but the chords eventually develop into the opening of George Michael's hit "Faith." Soon, Eli sees Michael (playing himself, and how grateful do you think he is for a chance to return to television in something other than a mug shot?) performing the song in his living room (interrupting sex with his blonde, patrician, attorney fiancé, Taylor, played by Natasha Henstridge) and later, in his office lobby. Eli starts out on a road that ends with the suggestion that he may be a modern day prophet.

Opening in the mountains of India, with Eli on some kind of mission, and then flashing back to see how he got there, beginning with a string of standard-issue clichés to identify Eli's lack of soul and impending awakening (did we need to see him dressing down an old woman on the witness stand and bullying the mom in the autism case?), "Eli" quickly reveals itself to be the latest entry into the "Regarding Henry" canon of movies and TV programs about soulless yuppies finding their way.

The first half hour of "Eli" is plagued with characters and scenes we've seen too many times before, from Eli's sarcastic-but-wise African American assistant, Patti (Loretta Devine, Richard's wife Adele on "Grey's Anatomy"), to Henstridge's ice queen fiancé, to the evil senior partner, Jordan (Victor Garber), who is only concerned with profits, along with the redemption of the yuppie who once wanted to "make a difference." Of course, Eli can't ride the horse in India, is disliked by his guides, and shows up on the mountain in his suit. Why is he dressed up? Apparently, so we can see what a jerk he is, because there is no logical explanation why someone would wear business clothing to fly from Northern California to India to climb a mountain.

The result is, at least for the first half of the pilot (more on this later), bland and overly plotted. Even the hook of "Eli," an attorney seeing things that aren't there, is so 1990s. It's not a big jump from "Eli" to "Ally," as Ms. McBeal was also prone to visual and aural flights of fancy.

But "Eli" shows some promise. The writing is sharp, as you would expect from a Berlanti show (he co-wrote the pilot with Marc Guggenheim). When Eli asks his brother Nathan (Matt Letscher), a doctor, what he should do if he sees George Michael again, Nathan tells him, "Ask for an autograph." And Miller is solid and engaging as Eli, believably perplexed at all the changes thrown at him.

The key to the second-half redemption of the pilot are twists that Berlanti and Guggenheim throw into the action, both of which serve to tweak some of the show's stereotypes. As I said, there is nothing new about a lawyer having wacky visions that help guide his/her spiritual growth. But just when you think you've had it with Eli's daydreams, they are revealed to be the result of a small aneurysm in his brain.

Having a medical reason for Eli's hallucinations is satisfying, not only because of the unexpected twist, but also because of how we're forced to rethink what we've been told about Eli's deceased father (played in flashbacks by the always terrific Tom Cavanaugh). Eli lived his life thinking that his father's unreliable behavior was due to alcoholism, but his diagnosis, and the revelation that it is hereditary, sends the show in a new and positive direction. Eli has to completely re-evaluate his opinion of his dad, and this epiphany gives sorely needed weight to Eli's emotional development. We eventually learn that he is in India to scatter his dad's ashes, something his mother didn't tell him was in his father's will until the new information about the aneurysm comes to light.

I also love what Berlanti and Guggenheim do with the herbal healer, Dr. Chen (James Saito), that Patti sends Eli to see about his hallucinations, before Nathan finds the aneurysm. In the first scenes in which we meet Dr. Chen, the character is borderline offensive, speaking in an exaggerated Charlie Chan Chinese accent. Dr. Chen is supposed to stand for the faith (thus, Mr. Michael's song) that balances Nathan's science, but it's hard to take him seriously as he cracks wise while treating Eli with acupuncture. (After Eli tells him about his father, Dr. Chen goes back to his instruments and says, "Dead father? Different needle.")

But once Eli comes to Dr. Chen with his true diagnosis, he reveals himself to be a perfectly articulate, American-born philosophy Ph.D., who went back to school to learn holistic medicine. Dr. Chen explains that he affects the Chinese accent to satisfy the expectations of Americans, who want their holistic healers to be exotic. Berlanti and Guggenheim expertly turn around the stereotype, implicating the audience for buying the Dr. Chen character for the first half of the episode.

Dr. Chen is the key to Eli's development, explaining to him the balance between faith and science, and suggesting that Eli may be a prophet. He points out several coincidences, including the autistic child spelling out "George Michael" with his building blocks, and the boy's mother, Beth (Laura Benanti), being the college fling responsible for Eli losing his virginity (while "Faith" played on the stereo, as we see in a charming flashback that reveals a dorky Eli, with Beth recognizing that he was bound to grow into being a catch).

Armed with a compelling reason for Eli's quest (the discovery that his father may not have been who Eli thought he was), Eli's journey suddenly becomes interesting, and we, as viewers, are given a reason to come back and see how Eli is doing. It's fortunate for Berlanti and Guggenheim, since the central plot of the pilot is a disaster, and certainly would not, on its own, inspire anyone to continue on with the show.

The courtroom drama in the pilot is so implausible, and so departs from basic legal rules, that I was amazed it was allowed to air. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an attorney, but I am in recovery, having practiced for less than a year in the mid-1990s. I don't expect stories centered on the law to get every detail of the justice system right, but I do hold the writers to what I like to call the "Perry Mason Rule," which simply says that the plot cannot violate what nearly every American knows about the law from watching legal television dramas and movies. "Eli" violates this statute, terribly.

Essentially, after Eli tries to bully her into a settlement, Beth comes to Eli's office and asks him to represent her. When he points out that he is barred from doing so by the rules of ethics, she informs him about the concept of a "Chinese wall" that would allow him to take the case while sealing himself off from the firm. Now, I don't expect the average viewer to have heard of a "Chinese wall," but I don't think you have to be the editor of the Harvard Law Review to figure out that no legal principal would allow the lawyer of one party in a lawsuit to switch sides and represent the other side in the same case. And yet that's what happens, with Eli representing Beth, while his firm continues to represent the pharmaceutical company.

Incidentally, a "Chinese wall" only allows a lawyer in a firm to represent a client that may have been an adversary to a party that was represented by another attorney at the firm in a different matter. I am explaining this not to show off (okay, maybe a little to show off), but to illustrate that I, a lowly small-firm associate who hasn't practiced law in 14 years, know what a "Chinese wall" is, but Jordan, the managing partner of a powerful firm, somehow is not aware of this concept.

To center the plot of your pilot on an action that most viewers will instantly know is completely ridiculous only results in quick detachment from the story. "Eli" gets so much wrong about the legal profession that everything feels false. Amazingly, the show also gets the medical profession wrong, featuring two major violations of physician ethics that I recognized even though I'm not a doctor. Nathan treats Eli despite their relationship, and he then proceeds to reveal Eli's diagnosis to a third party, their mother. (I checked with a physician friend of mine to make sure I was correct about Nathan's actions, and he assured me that no competent doctor would treat his own brother, and certainly wouldn't violate doctor-patient confidentiality.)

"Eli" is quite the interesting muddle. If future episodes can dodge the pitfalls of the pilot, moving away from the stereotypes and getting their legal ducks in a row, the clever dialogue and intriguing journey could make for interesting television. The show is nowhere near as entertaining as the over-the-top, whip-smart "Dirty Sexy Money" (which I reviewed on October 10, 2007), nor is it as well-constructed as "Brothers & Sisters," which overcomes its soapy story lines with an engaging group of characters, infused with life, played by a strong ensemble of actors.

But "Eli," in some ways, aims higher than both of them, trying to tread on more thought-provoking ground. As of the pilot, the show hasn't quite delivered on its ambitions, but in the episodes that were filmed before the strike, it's entirely possible that Berlanti and Guggenheim figured it out. After all, it's Berlanti's moment in the sun. Nothing, short of a writers strike, can seemingly stop him now.