Monday, September 29, 2008

A Bailout May Help the Economy, But Does that Mean It's the Right Thing to Do?

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Man, this bailout business has created strange bedfellows. The Democratic leaders of Congress have pushed a measure originally proposed by the Republican president (albeit in a very changed form, but still with the support of the administration), and the Republican House minority leader also supported the legislation, and yet, the bailout still went down to defeat today, 228-205.

The vote made for strange bedfellows, with 95 Democrats and 133 Republicans teaming up to say "no." (140 Democrats and 65 Republicans supported the bill.) It's not very often that I am sympathetic to the position of 133 House Republicans (and by "not very often," I really mean "virtually never"), so even if the reasons behind the votes differ, I knew I had to take a deeper look at what was bothering me about this whole bailout deal.

After all, it seems pretty clear that while the subprime mortgage crisis was caused by Wall Street recklessness in an environment of deregulation, a policy urged by Republicans and tolerated by Democrats since Ronald Reagan was president, failure to address the current situation could devastate the finances of the average American. Even the esteemed, even-keeled Warren Buffett warned Saturday that if Congress didn't act, there was a risk of "the biggest financial meltdown in American history."

So for the purposes of this discussion, I'm willing to take at face value that the current bailout legislation, which even in its amended form gives unprecedented power to the executive branch and requires the commitment of an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars, is vital to secure the economy. (For now, we will assume that other alternatives, such as the Swedish approach in 1992 that asked more of the banks, or an idea floated in an article on that would impose a securities tax to both pay for the past damages and encourage responsible trading in the future, are not going to do the trick, since, realistically, the government is not considering those ideas, regardless of how effective they would or would not be.)

But what I have come to ask myself is, "So what?" Does the imminent meltdown of the financial markets mean, automatically, that the American taxpayers have to bail out the system? While we know that the immediate good could be served by the government putting up $700 billion of taxpayer money to undo the damage done by Wall Street greed, is such an action really in our long-term national interests?

As I've written before, I'm a strong believer in the idea that an electorate gets the government it deserves. The current economic crisis did not come about in a vacuum. Rather, the need for Congressional intervention was the always-inevitable result of a policy of rampant deregulation. So this crisis isn't something that was suddenly thrust on the American people out of nowhere. Rather, by electing politicians that espoused the system that collapsed, the U.S. electorate also has to take responsibility for the mortgage meltdown.

A part of me feels like if the government now steps in to bail out Wall Street, it will mean that both the financial industry (which behaved in such a manner to foist the current crisis upon us) and the voters will be spared having to suffer the consequences of their actions. So what is to stop the same kind of greed from taking over in the future? Where is the deterrence?

And more importantly, where is the remorse of those responsible for the meltdown? Where do you see the guilty parties taking responsibility for their actions? Even as the bailout was being debated last week, you still heard from a lot of Republican members of the House and Senate who were supporting the concept of a bailout that oversight should be limited so as not to impede Wall Street's ability to prosper. After our economy was pushed to the abyss, they were still fervently clinging to their deregulation Kool-Aid. They were still defending the very policy that had allowed the financial meltdown they were seeking to address. I can't help but feel like the message of why this all happened and how damaging it has been to the country hasn't gotten through to these people.

Sometimes I think, maybe, just maybe, the only way for the politicians, and even more so the electorate, to understand that a more civic-minded approach to governing is needed would be for the full force of the Bush/McCain view of the world to be thrust on the country. Maybe Americans need to connect the dots directly, so that they vividly see with their own eyes that the policies of the elected leaders they supported have directly led to the unemployment, lack of credit, loss of retirement accounts, bank failures, etc. that they would be experiencing (if Buffett is right). Maybe it would foster an aversion to the kind of get-rich-quick, something-for-nothing, support-corporations-over-people approach to governing that has reigned in recent years.

I'm not prepared to say for sure that Congress should turn a blind eye to the economic crisis and say, "You guys made your coffins, now lay in them." But that doesn't mean that we are not losing a big piece of our democracy when we allow the government to socialize $700 billion worth of Wall Street mistakes, and, as importantly, allow the sins and greed (and the governing policy that allowed them to occur) that led to the current crisis to effectively go unpunished. It really is a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don't situation. The taxpayers will pay dearly if Congress doesn't act, but that doesn't mean there won't be a price, perhaps different but possibly equally high, if the government does bail out Wall Street. It's just a matter of which loss you want to accept.

And maybe that' s why a big part of me just wishes that Wall Street is left to solve (or not) its own mess. Yeah, I know that people would be hurt, and I would hardly be happy with that. But, again, maybe we would be better off in the long run, with a better understanding of the importance of governing the right way.

There has to be consequences for actions. Without them, a society can't function. If Congress manages to overcome today's setback and pass a Wall Street bailout this week, those who have profited from advocating a system that was always destined to implode will, in the end, pay no price for their actions. The American taxpayers will be picking up the bill, instead. And that, to me, is a dangerous thing, maybe as bad as the potential financial meltdown Buffett has warned about.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

It's the Democracy, Stupid: Campaigns of McCain and Palin Show How They Would Govern

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

You hear a lot of laments about the lack of substance in the 2008 presidential campaign. How issues are taking a back seat to inanity, often represented by the McCain campaign's made-up outrage over Barack Obama's use of an expression about putting lipstick on a pig (one, of course, that John McCain had used multiple times in the last year). To me, the real problem is that there is no discussion about the basic vision of the candidates, or what kind of United States they want to see and lead.

After all, taking a stand on an issue is fleeting. McCain flip-flops on his positions on a regular basis (I collected some here), sometimes even in the same day (like his 180-degree turn on the bailout of AIG). And as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out on This Week last Sunday, it's not enough to know the candidates' takes on specific issues, since, inevitably, once in office, they will have to confront unforeseen problems as they arise.

That's why, to me, a candidate's approach to governing, and the candidate's view of what the United States should be as a nation, is so important.

There is widespread agreement now that George W. Bush was a terrible president. (His disapproval rating is at 68 percent in recent polls by both CNN and CBS News/New York Times.) He presided over five catastrophes that will forever define his presidency: 1) He failed to act on the intelligence warnings about al-Qaeda's plans to fly planes into buildings before the 9/11 terrorist attacks; 2) he lied to Americans and Congress to gain support for an unnecessary war in Iraq; 3) he mismanaged the war in Iraq, leaving America's military broken and its diplomatic standing in the world severely damaged; 4) his administration bungled the reaction to Hurricane Katrina, leading to a humanitarian disaster of a proportion that should never occur in a country as wealthy as ours; and 5) he was the last president (in a line of four) to push deregulation to the point of anarchy, allowing the current subprime-mortgage-related economic crisis to occur.

But any president can make bad judgments. Jimmy Carter was (and is) an intelligent, dedicated and warm-hearted person, but he nevertheless made a series of ill-conceived governing decisions during his four years in office that left his legacy as one of failure.

No, it was not just Bush's blunders that appalled many Americans. Rather it was his disregard for the American values of democracy and respect for the rule of law that has left such a bitter taste in our mouths. Rather than protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States of America (as he swore he would do in his oath of office), Bush pledged to protect and defend his political position and extreme right-wing ideals. His administration lied to justify the war in Iraq. It conducted warrantless wiretaps of American citizens. It politicized the Justice Department, turning it into a body that protected his administration, rather than the American people. He appointed incompetent cronies to government positions, and his administration chose individuals for non-political positions based on political litmus tests. The administration ignored Congressional inquiries and subpoenas, acting as though they were above the law. Nowhere was that attitude more apparent than in the outing of an active CIA agent as political payback to her husband, and then pardoning the only government official convicted in criminal court for having a role in the scandal. Bush's White House condoned the use of torture, thrusting the images of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding into the world.

In my view, Bush destroyed any moral right the United States had to speak out about civil rights abuses in other countries. He took the notion of the country as a beacon of freedom and democracy and turned us into a nation that isn't trusted in most of the world. That is the Bush legacy.

And that is what voters should be thinking about when voting in November.

Want to know how McCain would govern? Just look at his campaign. Since it became clear that Obama would be his party's nominee, McCain has conducted his campaign in a manner that no American should be proud of. He has lied and played games, treating the election like it was a schoolyard football game with no referees rather than a civic process to decide the course of the next four years. He has been widely derided, including by many conservatives (even noted conservative George Will blasted McCain on Tuesday), for his shameless dishonesty and political game-playing.

McCain's rap sheet is long and growing, with highlights including: His pandering "celebrity" ad, personally attacking Obama for being popular; his knowingly false ads on the benefits of offshore drilling (blaming Obama's opposition to offshore drilling for $4-a-gallon gas prices, even though he and everyone else knew those charges were false); portraying Obama's support of funding to teach children to recognize and evade sexual predators as "sex education"; saying his lie-filled ads are the fault of Obama, because he did not agree to his demand that they do joint town-hall meetings together; his ceaseless flip-flopping on issues, seemingly taking a position with the sole purpose of making a political point that day (like his 26-year history of deregulating tossed aside to blame Obama for the current economic mess because of a campaign donation); pretending that the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was because she was the most qualified candidate for the job; and his baldly political gambit of "suspending" his campaign and trying to delay both his debate Friday and the vice-presidential debate next month, using the legitimate economic crisis as a cover to stem the free-fall his poll numbers had suffered.

Not to mention McCain campaigning on a pledge to clean up government, all while his campaign is being run by lobbyists. The company of Rick Davis, his campaign manager, accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (both of which were bailed out by the government earlier this month), with payments reportedly made to his company as recently as last month. And the nation of Georgia paid the firm of McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randall Scheunemann, nearly $900,000 since 2004. That's the same Georgia that McCain steadfastly supported during the conflict last month. And what about McCain taking millions of dollars from oil companies while advocating for their two pet projects: massive tax breaks for them and offshore drilling.

The disconnect between McCain's words and his actions, all in an effort to distort his record into something more palatable for voters, is the central approach to his campaign. And it smells a lot like the last eight years of the Bush administration.

And what of Palin? Her behavior since being nominated has been disturbingly similar to Bush's "I'm above the law" take on democracy. She has ignored subpoenas in the Troopergate investigation (even though a Republican-majority committee in Alaska authorized the probe). She has shut out the media, limiting her appearances to tightly controlled, one-on-one sit-downs with a handful of interviewers. And she has lied over and over again, on issues small (the myth that her teleprompter stopped working during her convention speech) and large (that she opposed the infamous Bridge to Nowhere).

Most disturbingly, as her attacks on Obama's community organizing show, she has an anti-intellectual, culture-war bent to her view of government that is, again, just like the approach of the Bush administration. And her questionable knowledge of the world, from her lack of international travel to her inability to talk about nearly any foreign policy issue without clinging to her talking points (like her trouble with Charles Gibson's question about the Bush Doctrine), is disturbingly reminiscent of our current president.

Obama, on the other hand, has exhibited a different approach to leading a campaign, one that would presumably extend to a different, more open way of governing. Obama's ads, even the toughest ones, have not contained lies and distortions like those of his opponent. He has consistently avoided getting into the muck of dirty politics. He immediately declared a "hands off" policy on statements about Palin's pregnant unmarried teenage daughter. (You think the McCain campaign would have reacted similarly if Obama had a 17-year-old daughter who was expecting?) He consistently praises McCain's patriotism and service, even as McCain uses his time as a prisoner of war to score political points, wielding it as an all-purpose defense to every attack on his record. And Palin mocked Obama's work as a community organizer, turning something that should be lauded by all Americans (giving up financially lucrative employment to help others) into a sneering put-down.

Obama has taken hits for not being specific enough in his plans on specific issues (I guess those critics can't be bothered to read his Web site), but he has done a remarkable job of articulating his vision of what America should be. He has shown himself to be forward-thinking and modern, recognizing that the U.S. is a leader in the world, but that we can't bully other countries into submission whenever we like. Contrast this to McCain, who thinks we can impose our military will to get what we want, with his approach nowhere more apparent than his remarks about meeting with the prime minister of Spain. McCain's gaffe at not understanding that Spain is not in Latin America got the headlines, but lost was his view that leaders only "deserve" to meet with the U.S. president if they've earned it. So Spain, a member of NATO, a democracy, and a country in the European Union, may not merit a meeting since after the elevation of the prime minister's party to power (in an election), the country pulled its troops out of Iraq. Is that really how we want to portray ourselves as a country?

The 2008 election is about which candidate's view of governing America you want to buy into. McCain and Palin have demonstrated, through their behavior, that they will govern like Bush, not just in their policy beliefs, but, like Bush, with a greater interest in political gain than serving the American people. If you enjoyed living with the consequences of Bush's philosophy of government, then you'll love four years under the boots of McCain and Palin.

After all, as voters, we get to choose the type of America in which we want to live. And that's something I take very seriously. As unlikely as it may be, nothing would make me happier than for James Carville to look into the camera on the morning after Election Day and explain an Obama win by tweaking his famous proclamation by saying, "It's about the democracy, stupid." Especially since democracy isn't something we've seen a lot of the last eight years.

CBS Unveils Two New Sitcoms, "Worst Week" and "Gary Unmarried"

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

Is it better to aim high and miss, or aim low and hit the mark? Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of such mind-bending scripts as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," once said: "I'm a big proponent of failure. I would much rather see an honest failure in a movie than a slick piece of trash." On a much smaller scale (much, much smaller), two new CBS sitcoms (both of which made my list of the five new programs I was most looking forward to seeing), "Worst Week" (Mondays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Gary Unmarried" (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern), represent the two sides of this dilemma.

"Worst Week" may be part of the most mismatched pairing of shows in the history of television, as it follows "Two and a Half Men," an insipid crapfest that would be raising its aim if it started pitching to the lowest common denominator. "Worst Week," on the other hand, sets its sights high, maybe impossibly high, by deconstructing the entire sitcom format. I'm sure the show will benefit from the "Two and a Half Men" lead-in, but I can't imagine anyone finding both shows funny. The sensibilities are that different.

"Worst Week" took the number-one slot on my top-five list based largely on its creator, Matt Tarses, who cut his teeth on two of the most innovative and influential single-camera sitcoms ever, "Sports Night" and "Scrubs." Like those two originals, "Worst Week," also using a single camera, doesn't go for easy laughs, instead throwing itself head-first into its world. In this case, it is the spectacular messes Sam (Kyle Bornheimer) gets into whenever he is around his girlfriend's parents, Dick and Angela (Kurtwood Smith of "That 70s Show" and Nancy Lenehan of "My Name Is Earl").

"Worst Week" is dedicated, really singularly, to making you uncomfortable. Rather than concentrating on a wacky plot to drive the action (think Lucy wanting to work in Ricky's club) or the antics of the characters (think Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer creating havoc in and around New York City), the show piles disaster on top of disaster, all relating to Sam becoming a human wrecking ball in the presence of his (supposed-to-be) future in-laws. You see, Sam has gotten his girlfriend of two years, Melanie (Erinn Hayes), pregnant, and the two plan on marrying. But Dick and Angela don't like Sam much (referring to him exclusively as Melanie's "friend"), so Sam and Melanie haven't broken the news to them just yet.

The debut episode takes a classic sitcom premise -- Sam is derailed on the way to an important dinner with Melanie and her parents, at which they are going to share their big news -- and just pummels it into the ground until it's powder. To say that there is a plot arc to "Worst Week" is really a stretch. Rather, the first installment is a series of supreme screw-ups by Sam that cause increasingly more heartache for Dick and Angela.

Think I'm exaggerating? Well, Sam misses the dinner in question when a co-worker with a crush on him tries to drive home drunk from an office party, leading Sam to take her home in a taxi, in which she vomits on him and then passes out. Bad for Sam. They are ejected from the cab by the driver (who asks Sam how he would like it if he came to his place of business and vomited). Worse. Sam then carries her in the rain for miles so that she gets home safe. He decides to shower (since he is soaked and covered in vomit), and when there are no available towels, he walks into her bedroom nude, at which point the co-worker wakes up, thinks he is hitting on her, and throws him out of the house with no clothes. Even worse. Which leads to him showing up at Dick and Angela's house late at night in a diaper made from a plastic garbage bag, asking to borrow money to pay for the taxi he took there. Really worse.

That would be enough (and then some) to fill a whole episode of most sitcoms, right? Well on "Worst Week," that gets you to the halfway point. And what happens afterwards is exponentially worse for Sam, Dick and Angela than what we've seen thus far. Seriously. It involves, among other things, Sam urinating in Angela's marinating goose, Dick slipping on a pool of Sam's urine and getting a concussion, Sam coming to believe that Dick is dead (and telling Melanie, Angela and Melanie's brother in Kenya about it), and Sam slamming Angela's car head-on into a car driven by the undead Dick. Truly, for Sam, the worst week.

Does it work? I guess it depends on your tastes. This is challenging stuff. Nothing Sam does is intentional. As he tells himself in a conversation with Melanie (and she agrees), he's a good guy. There is no reason for all this bad stuff to happen when he's with her parents. So you feel uncomfortable for every minute of the half hour (or 22 minutes if you use a DVR). While Smith's familiar crustiness is good for some laughs (at one point he deadpans, "I'm just going to rinse the urine out of my hair and I'll be off"), Dick is not Red from "That 70s Show." As Red, Smith got to act big and give a lot of kick and emotion to the punch lines. As Dick, he does most of his work with a sarcastic tone and a withering glance. "Worst Week" doesn't offer a refuge of classic set-up-punch jokes or neatly tied together endings. In fact, the debut episode ends with no resolution, just a final act of destruction by Sam (one which you know is going to happen the second you see the prop in question earlier in the half-hour).

If you like comedy in a nontraditional (almost avant-garde) format, which aspires to make you desperately uncomfortable (and succeeds), then "Worst Week" is right up your alley. I don't suspect that's a terribly large audience, but then again, the "Meet the Parents" movies were big hits. On the other hand, "Worst Week," while smarter than those films, is also less traditional. If I sound confused, I am. I'm not sure what the audience will make of the show. I do know, though, that it is probably the most challenging sitcom on the air now, for better or worse (again, which is determined by your tastes).

I think the biggest problem, though, is where do they go from here? Are we going to watch week after week as Sam implodes around Dick and Angela? How do you do that without becoming repetitive? And how do you top the shock value of Sam's exploits involving urine and death? I wonder if Tarses has painted himself into a very uncomfortable corner.

While I admired the effort of "Worst Week," I can't say I enjoyed it, either. I don't want to sign its death warrant after one episode, but it just may be the "honest failure" Charlie Kaufman talked about.

On the other hand, "Gary Unmarried" could not be more different than "Worst Week." A traditional multi-camera sitcom, "Gary" follows "The New Adventures of Old Christine," and the two shows are a perfect match, as "Gary" in many ways is a male version of "Christine." House painter Gary (the great Jay Mohr) has recently become divorced from Allison (Paula Marshall), and while the marriage may not have worked, they are both dedicated to making things work for their two kids: the Gandhi- and Al Gore-worshipping pre-teen Louise (Kathryn Newton) and the awkward 14-year-old Tom (Ryan Malgarini).

In the first episode, Gary, for the first time since the divorce, has sex with another woman, Vanessa (Jaime King), whose condo he's painting. When Allison unexpectedly walks into the house with the kids, Vanessa has to sneak out. Gary thinks Allison would be upset if she found out, but she later springs on him that not only is she engaged, but the lucky guy is their touchy-feely marriage counselor, Walter (Ed Begley Jr.). The four of them end up being thrown together in a "Christine"-style extended family.

If you go into "Gary" looking for a genre-busting piece of transcendent television, you will certainly come up empty. There is something almost old-fashioned in the construction of the show, even if the content is modern in its frankness. There are enough punch lines to make Henny Youngman happy. You never seemingly go more than a line or two without a zinger. Some work (like when Allison tells the kids, "Have fun with your father; I never did," or when Gary facetiously responds to Allison's description of seeing the older Walter in the bathroom, "Were you helping him in or out of the tub?"), others fall with a thud.

But that's okay. "Gary" is funny often enough to be an entertaining diversion. Mohr and Marshall seem to be embracing the simple nature of their show, giving what might be called "sitcomy" performances, playing up the jokes in a heightened way. And Begley Jr. is playing a character he has taken on numerous times, the tweedy, pompous, less-than-masculine intellectual. Or put another way, Mohr, Marshall and Begley are great, but nobody is being asked to do their most challenging work here.

In the end, "Gary" is pleasant enough, like cotton candy, sweet but lacking in any nutritional value. The show is definitely worth watching, but it's hardly appointment television, something that "Worst Week" is certainly aspiring to, but hasn't reached, at least not yet. "Honest failure" or "slick" entertainment? (I won't call "Gary" "trash," because it's funny enough, but I have no doubt Kaufman would put it on that side of the comparison he set up.) It's up to you. I'll happily keep watching "Gary," even if it is just a trifle, but "Worst Week" is living week-to-week with me. While I admire the effort, I don't feel the need to be uncomfortable by choice. Life gives me enough of those opportunities every day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

It's Time for the "Deregulators" Like McCain to Step Aside and Shut Up

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House Minority Leader, made this statement on Sunday's edition of This Week regarding the need for a bailout plan to deal with the subprime mortgage fiasco: "We need to rise above partisan politics ... and deal with this as adults."

My response? That's a load of crap. (Yes, I'm being graphic on purpose. I'm mad.)

Of course, yes, the two parties need to come together and come up with the best long-term solution to what many are calling the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. So in that sense, Boehner is correct.

But that's not what Boehner really meant. In the context of the discussion, he made the statement to defend the position that Congress should pass the "clean bill" proposed by the Bush administration, which would provide for buying up "illiquid" (financial speak for "junk") mortgages with no limits or regulations for the institutions taking advantage of the benefit.

And that is why Boehner's comment was crap.

The current crisis, which is requiring a proposed $1 trillion bailout by the government, is the coming to fruition of more than a decade of a policy of deregulation of the financial markets. It was an experiment in letting the free market, completely unfettered, regulate itself. And the experiment has failed. Miserably. So much so that the tax payers will now have to front more money than we have spent so far in Iraq, and twice what we spend on health care each year (according to George Stephanopoulos on This Week), to keep the reckless behavior of the unregulated institutions from affecting the everyday finances of Americans.

Deregulation has been the mantra of George W. Bush and of John McCain (who said recently, "I'm always for less regulation ... I'm fundamentally a deregulator"), and of former Senator Phil Gramm, who is the architect of McCain's economic policies, and of, yes, John Boehner, who in this very appearance on This Week again boasted of being a deregulator.

So, yeah, I'm angry when a guy like Boehner, who got us into this mess in the first place, has the unmitigated nerve to try and dictate the terms of how to fix things. Who is he to tell anyone how this should be handled? The deregulation-happy politicians need to shut up and stop urging us to continue the same policies that allowed the crisis to occur in the first place.

I am not an economist, and nobody would read a 10,000-word description of the mechanics of the subprime mortgage debacle if I was, but at its core, what happened is actually pretty simple. Lending money for the purchase of a home used to be fairly straight forward: An applicant would undergo close scrutiny from a bank to determine if he/she would be able to pay back the loan. Banks knew a small percentage of these borrowers would default, necessitating foreclosures and the bank reselling the properties, but the plan was for a vast majority of buyers to pay their bills.

But then came deregulation, which took down the barriers that prevented lenders and borrowers from acting irresponsibly. After the Glass-Steagall Act (which was put in place after the 1929 stock market crash to separate investment banks, which engage in risky behavior, from commercial banks, which operate with average consumers) was gutted and derivative securities were taken out of the realm of regulation, everything changed. (As an aside, in 2003, billionaire Warren Buffet warned that derivatives were a potential "mega catastrophe" for investors.)

In this new world, companies issuing loans were no longer doing so with the idea of the borrower repaying them. Rather, the institutions were earning fees just to issue the loans, with the knowledge that they would immediately be bundled and securitized. As a result, the institutions issuing mortgages were encouraged to write more and more loans so that they could be sold off, and the granters of the mortgages were no longer at risk, simply collecting their fees and passing the loans along.

The result was lots of loans that people couldn't afford. Some of it was irresponsible borrowing, some of it was predatory lending, but all of it was made possible by deregulation.

And where has it left us? With a tough decision to make. Do the American taxpayers, most of whom did not engage in irresponsible behavior, pony up the money to bail out the institutions and borrowers that acted recklessly? Or do we leave those that abused the system to handle their own losses, with the effect being that the American taxpayers are left in a severely damaged economy?

The frying pan or the fire, essentially.

Which is why Boehner's fake pleas for nonpartisanship and demand for a "clean bill" are so outrageous. What he and other Republicans are saying is, "Give us the money to bail out the people who abused the system, but we don't want to put any limits on the abusers, since, after all, the free market works."

Does Boehner not understand that executives at these companies have walked away with unprecedented millions in compensation, all while the government now has to spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to bail these same companies out? You can argue all day and all night that the bailout is necessary to save the economy, and that is probably true, but it doesn't change the fact that the offenders got rich off their schemes, while the government is paying to clean up their messes.

Thankfully, for once, it seems like the Democrats, who have done nothing in the last 20 years to stop the Republican drive to deregulate, are finally finding their footing. (I know you thought I was going to reference another part of their anatomies, and I almost did.) On This Week, Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut agreed that something needed to be done fast, but he also noted that Congress had to act "quickly but deliberately." Dodd said that any legislation had to account for "reciprocity," "oversight and accountability," and "governance" and "debt issues."

In other words, Dodd doesn't want to bail out the reckless companies without getting something back for the taxpayers. And that idea is present in the Democratic proposal made today that would require companies selling their junk mortgages to the government to give the taxpayers a stake in those companies, to limit the compensation of the executives running those companies, and to increase oversight of the companies while they work out of their troubles using taxpayer money.

I wrote earlier this month that McCain's claims of being an agent of change, when he was at the heart of everything that needed changing, was the ultimate example of the Yiddish word chutzpah (nerve). McCain's statements about the financial crisis show an equal amount of chutzpah. McCain, who still calls himself a deregulator, says that we need sweeping regulations to make sure a meltdown like this one never happens again.

It's like Wile E. Coyote, with feathers coming out of his mouth, asking to be appointed the guardian over the Roadrunner.

McCain, who has spent more than 25 years in Congress and has as his main economic advisor Gramm, the man most responsible for the gutting of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of derivatives, decided on the campaign trail yesterday that the person responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis was Barack Obama. McCain said something about Obama being in bed with special interests, which is interesting when you consider that McCain's campaign is dominated by lobbyists, including Rick Davis, his campaign manager, who has accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (both of which were bailed out by the government earlier this month) with marching orders to, you guessed it, defend them from stricter governmental regulations. Yes, this is the same McCain who, as a member of the Keating Five, was at the center of the savings and loan debacle of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which also required a government bailout (at a cost Stephonopoulos put at $120 billion).

If this whole thing wasn't so serious, it would be a laugh riot.

Let me be clear: I don't absolve the behavior of the Democrats over the last two decades. The party did not do anything to prevent the Republicans from deregulating the financial industry and creating a lawless environment, which led to the abuses that caused the current crisis. And I'm not arguing that Obama's policies are some kind of all-encompassing cure-all for the debacle.

What I am saying, though, is that there needs to be attention focused on the fact that this mess was created by a mass of deregulators, who now have the chutzpah to try and tell the American people how to fix the debacle they have caused. And I am saying that for McCain, who sells himself as a proud deregulator, to try and portray himself as the man who is going to come in and rein in the companies he has made a career out of setting free is absurd. And such a course of action would be a horrible idea for the American people.

"We need to rise above partisan politics ... and deal with this as adults." I agree. So, as adults, let's agree that complete deregulation was a failure, and let's require the companies being bailed out by the taxpayers to have to accept some consequences for their actions. And let's put a system in place that regulates the worst impulses of the financial industry to ensure that greed does not push Wall Street to the brink of a meltdown again (and do so without being overly intrusive in a way that hurts legitimate business).

It's time for us to move forward in a smart fashion, and it's time for Boehner, McCain and the other self-proclaimed deregulators to accept their responsibility in this debacle and stop preaching more of the same. That's the kind of nonpartisan politics I can get behind.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Football Night in America" Is Perfect for Football Night in America

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

Every Sunday is a sea of football broadcasts. You can count on a minimum of three games between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Eastern) on CBS and Fox, all leading to the glamor slot of the weekend: NBC's "Sunday Night Football" game. So it's not surprising that NBC pulls out all the stops with its pre-game show, "Football Night in America" (Sundays at 7 p.m. Eastern). And while the program is top-quality all around, the one thing that allows this clip and feature hour to stand out from similar offerings on CBS, Fox and ESPN is the reteaming of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. (I also love how the name "Football Night in America" is a riff on "Hockey Night in Canada," but with all due respect to my Canadian friends, I prefer Olbermann and Patrick to the loose cannon Don Cherry.)

Olbermann and Patrick essentially invented the modern personality-driven approach to reading highlights, which is now standard at ESPN, when they teamed on "SportsCenter" in the mid-1990s. The guys always made for a kind of great yin-yang, opposites-attract pairing, with the deadpan, dry-humored Patrick acting as the perfect counterbalance to the also dry but more rambunctious Olbermann. And when Aaron Sorkin's great "Sports Night" hit the air in 1998, there is no doubt that his sportscasting team of Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause) owed a heavy debt to Olbermann and Patrick, right down to the styles, cadences and rhythms of the broadcast.

But what the two broadcasters shared was an intelligent but irreverent approach to doing the highlights, as interested in entertaining and commenting on the spectacle of an event (good or bad) as the plays in the event itself. And Olbermann and Patrick bring that same team dynamic to their work on "Football Night in America."

The program occupies a unique spot in the football calendar, airing before the big Sunday night contest, but also just as the rest of the Sunday schedule is winding down. So the program operates as both a pre- and post-action show, bringing you up to date with what has happened, and getting you ready for the game about to start.

Olbermann and Patrick concentrate on the post-game aspect of the program, taking care of most of the highlights of the day's contests. And if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine that you were watching "SportsCenter" circa 1995. When the guys launch into the action, hold on tight, because it's off to the races.

For example, last Sunday, Olbermann and Patrick started with the Raiders-Chiefs game, and Olbermann ran off three one-liners (without a word in between) before making a single comment on the game action. He dove in with: "It's the readily resistible force against the easily moved object" (since both the Raiders and Chiefs are less than good this year), moving right into: "All human history divides evenly into those times (Raiders owner) Al Davis is about to fire a young coach and those times he is about to hire a young coach," adding: "Lane Kiffin is on the hot seat, but the hot seat is in Kansas City, so it's not that hot." By now, we've already seen the Chiefs quarterback throw in interception in a highlight, but Olbermann hasn't referenced a single thing on the field. But unless you root for the Chiefs or Raiders, who cares about this game? Olbermann and Patrick make it interesting for the bulk of fans with no stake in the outcome, but, somehow, manage still to show respect for the game and the players.

But it's not like Olbermann and Patrick don't understand the game. Quite the contrary. What makes their humor and sarcasm work is that it is rooted in deep knowledge. The Raiders-Chiefs jokes assume you know Davis's history with coaches. In a later highlight, Olbermann described an awkward, left-handed desperation toss by Eli Manning that turned a sure sack into a decent gain by saying: "He looked like Jared Lorenzen, only it was complete." The humor only works if you know that the portly, less-than-graceful (and less-than-successful) Lorenzen was the Giants' backup QB last year.

Patrick, too, isn't going to jump up and down to make sure you understand that he's kidding around. When a Titans running back scored a touchdown on a one-yard run in a highlight, Patrick deadpanned, "Nobody can celebrate a one-yard touchdown run quite like Lendale White can."

The rest of the show is top-notch. Bob Costas is a master at overseeing proceedings, and he is in his element here, orchestrating the movement of the show from dramatic packaged pieces (like Sunday's profile of the late Syracuse star Ernie Davis), to the Olbermann-Patrick highlight segments, to football discussions with panelists like the goofily entertaining and insightful Cris Collinsworth, the smooth and confident Tiki Barber, and the exuberant and sometimes coherent Jerome Bettis.

But, ultimately, while Costas, Collinsworth and Barber (along with contributor Peter King) lift "Football Night in America" above its competitors at the other networks, it is Olbermann and Patrick that provide the special element, the one thing that makes the show a can't-miss for football fans.

As much as I enjoy Olbermann and Patrick doing the highlights, there is one element that feels a bit odd. When the guys were on ESPN in the 90s, they were just two sports anchors, Keith and Dan. There was no baggage attached. But now, sitting in the NBC studio and riffing on games, there is something oddly regressive about it. Like watching the Rolling Stones play "Satisfaction" in a hockey arena. Patrick has gone on to be a successful broadcaster, hosting a daily radio show and writing columns. And Olbermann's career has ventured away from sports, as he is now the host of the politics show "Countdown" on MSNBC. So as you watch the highlights, the guys' commentary is undoubtedly entertaining, but it just feels off somehow. They're off-NBC lives intrude on the football broadcast. Especially for Olbermann, as it is hard to separate Olbermann the sports guy from Olbermann the fiery liberal commentator.

For example, in Sunday's show, Olbermann, in a highlight, mentioned a hurricane charity, which required him to also mention Hurricane Katrina. I was bracing for an Olbermann screed against Bush's handling of Katrina, most likely with a reference to "Brownie" and the great job he was doing. It never came. Olbermann just went on with the highlight. I'm not sure if I was disappointed or relieved that he didn't go off on a rant. I was relieved, because I was positive that if he did pontificate, it could all get ugly. As much as I agree with Olbermann politically, there is a time and a place for everything, and I think liberals and conservatives can agree that "Football Night in America" should be a politics-free zone. But at the same time, I was disappointed, since we all know from Olbermann's MSNBC show how passionate he is about the Katrina issue, so when he didn't say a word about the failures and just went on with the NFL business, he came off as defanged a bit. It's not really fair to say that, since Olbermann was just doing his job for that night. But I'm sure I'm not the only one that nevertheless thought it felt a bit off.

Which is, really, a compliment to Olbermann. I don't want to say too much about "Countdown" in this piece, but suffice to say that I think his work on the show is stellar. Critics call him a liberal loudmouth answer to the Bill O'Reillys, Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world, but I think that is a simplistic comparison. Olbermann's interviews and commentaries are always meticulously researched. You can criticize his ideology (that is, if you're conservative, you can not like what the guy is saying), but you can't criticize his methodology. He alsways has facts well-researched. Where O'Reilly will post his own words in a graphic next to his head while going on a rant, Olbermann regularly shows graphics of quotes and other materials to provide factual backing for his arguments. Olbermann may be as partisan as the right-wing blowhards, but he is infinitely more prepared and thorough in his reporting.

But that one issue aside, I am ecstatic to see Olbermann and Patrick back on the air together, lobbing smart, funny grenades while catching viewers up on the day's NFL action. When on Sunday Patrick said over a shot of some loopy fans, "The new Olympic sport, synchronized cheering," I smiled. Count me in as a fan of Olbermann and Patrick, and of "Football Night in America."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why McCain's "Fundamentals of the Economy Are Strong" Remark Was in Line with His Strategy

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

John McCain is not as dumb as those of us on the left want to believe. So don't think his comment yesterday that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" was a gaffe. I don't believe it was. I think he knew exactly what he was saying.

McCain has campaigned using unbelievably transparent lies, making sleazy and wacky assertions that nobody in their right mind would believe. (A list of criticisms of McCain's ads can be found here, and an Obama commercial also did a good job of showing how low McCain has stooped in his attacks.) And yet the strategy gave McCain a bump in the polls. He then picked an unaccomplished, inexperienced, scandal-dominated, less-than-exceptionally-intelligent candidate to be his running mate, even drawing fire from Republican pundits, and it gave him an even bigger bump in the polls.

And now, on the day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America, and AIG moved to restructure itself, McCain told an audience that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." (And Barack Obama responded with a well-done television ad that nails McCain for his apparently tone-deaf statement.)

Yes, I understand that, factually, McCain was wrong. The "fundamentals of the economy" are generally accepted to refer to figures like growth, inflation and unemployment, none of which are especially encouraging right now. Growth has been glacial, unemployment is at its highest rate in five years, and the actual buying power of middle-class families has dropped since Bush took office.

No, as much as McCain's claim was incorrect, I believe that like the lie-filled attacks on Obama and the choice of Sarah Palin, McCain's affirmation that things are rosy with the nation's finances was a move that, on the surface, looks ludicrous, but, in practice, helps him accomplish his goal of getting elected to the presidency.

How can that be? Easy. It talks directly, in not-too-subtle terms, to the needs of two audiences he has to mollify. First, it tells financial conservatives that he's their guy. That despite any rhetoric he may have to espouse in the coming weeks, in the end, he will do nothing to rein in the complete freedom and absence of regulation that the financial industry has enjoyed under the administration of George W. Bush. After all, Obama is pointing to the banking crisis as a big problem that will require the government to reinstitute some regulation, the last thing the financial institutions want. By indicating that the current troubles on Wall Street are not such a big deal (since, as McCain is claiming, the "fundamentals of our economy are strong"), he is telling the powers-that-be in the financial industry to relax with the knowledge that he has no intention of changing the (lack of) rules they are currently enjoying.

Second, McCain's statement on the economy was meant to win over undecided voters. As I discussed in my article last week on the behavior of the American electorate, one of the reasons that undecided voters are moving to McCain rather than Obama is because of a change in the culture that no longer has citizens willing to sacrifice. Obama is out there telling the electorate the truth, making the point that the economy isn't working for most working- and middle-class families, and that the energy situation requires changing habits and a large-scale solution rather than stop-gap fixes.

McCain, on the other hand, is the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" candidate. He's telling U.S. citizens that things are fine, we can drill for our own oil, and we really don't have to make any major changes to our way of doing things. Oh, and we're going to win in Iraq, too! So what if nothing McCain is saying is backed up by the facts or based in reality? He's pitching a feel-good message. It's like he's saying, "Don't listen to that pessimistic, America-hating elitist with the Ivy League education telling you America isn't great. You know America is great. We don't have to change anything. Things are fine. Just go about living your life, and I'll take care of everything. After all, I'm a war hero and I was in a POW camp for five years."

If a voter is willing to plunge his or her head into the sand, ostrich style, and ignore the realities of the failing economy, the energy crisis and global warming, well, then McCain's message is very uplifting.

And that is where his statement on the economy comes in. It gives these undecided voters a chance to buy into McCain's "it's all all right" mantra. "Don't worry about the unemployment, foreclosures and failing banks. The fundamentals are strong. We don't need Obama telling us to sacrifice. That guy is a downer. McCain says the fundamentals are strong and we can keep doing what we want."

As long as the culture of the American electorate is such that it is willing to be swayed by outright lies and smears, and as long as voters take a me-first (ironic, given McCain's completely bogus "country first" slogan), I-don't-want-to-change approach to choosing a candidate, McCain's "gaffes" will only help him attract voters.

Considering the GOP's success in the 2000 and 2004 elections, despite everything that was going in favor of the Democrats in both races, and considering that many of the same folks who ran Bush's campaigns are in place for McCain's current run for the White House, it would be foolish to think that McCain's strategies and statements are as dumb as we would like to think. And the Obama campaign should not assume that swing voters will hold McCain accountable for his actions.

Sure it's remarkably out-of-touch to claim that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong." But if it attracts voters, McCain's statement will have done its job.

Friday, September 12, 2008

“Gavin & Stacey” Wrings British-Tinged Laughs From a Simple Premise

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

While a few networks have debuted a handful of their new shows already, we are in a moment of calm before the storm. In the next few weeks, a cavalcade of new and returning programs will hit the air. Naturally, the launch of the new season has commanded nearly all of the television-related attention.

Which is why I don’t understand why BBC America waited until late August to roll out the British sitcom “Gavin & Stacey” (Tuesdays at 8:40 - 9:20 p.m. Eastern). This cute, off-beat comedy, which first aired in 2007 on the BBC in the U.K., is worth watching, and would have been an ideal summer trifle had it arrived in June or July. I fear it will get lost with all eyes turned to the new season.

My introduction to “Gavin & Stacey” actually goes back to February, when, while on a Virgin flight to London, I watched two episodes on the airline’s personal video center. What I saw turned out to be the final installments in the six-episode first season, so I was especially excited to be able to catch the first four shows when BBC America announced it had picked up the program.

The fact that “Gavin & Stacey” is a British sitcom should not lead you to believe that it has much (anything?) in common with the Ricky Gervais version of “The Office.” “Gavin & Stacey” doesn’t aim nearly that high, mixing simple, silly, classic (or tired, depending how you look at it) sitcom premises, but giving them a smart, distinctly British spin. And while it is a single-camera, location-based production, it maintains the domestic, digital video, slightly generic feel of many British programs.

The plot is pretty simple: As the debut episode opens, Gavin (Mathew Horne), a twentysomething desk jockey at a computer firm in Essex, England, has arranged to meet Stacey (Joanna Page), also in her 20s, an office worker in Barry, Wales, for a date in London. Gavin and Stacey have been talking on the phone for some time (their companies do business with each other), and they have gotten along so well, they are ready to try the next step.

To protect themselves, each brings along a best friend. In Gavin’s case that is Smithy (James Corden), a portly, baby-faced, beer-guzzling, emotionally regressive loudmouth with a high-school-aged girlfriend we never see. Smithy is worried about Gavin meeting up with Stacey, almost as nervous as he is that her friend will be unattractive. As Gavin and Stacey’s relationship progresses, Smithy is less and less happy, seeing Stacey as an interloper to his man-bond with Gavin.

Stacey’s second is Nessa (Ruth Jones), a portly, tattooed, chain-smoking, goth/punk chick with an exceptionally shady past, one that is revealed in dribs and drabs over the course of the series. For example, we learn that Nessa lost a husband to a firing squad in an unnamed country due to drug smuggling. Even more entertaining is her story about her affair with the guy who runs Harrods (she has no idea she is talking about Egyptian millionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed), who took her to football games (Al-Fayed owns the soccer team Fulham FC) and then passed her off to his son, who soon after stopped calling her (Al-Fayed’s son, Dodi, was killed in the car accident that also claimed the life of Princess Diana). That kind of joke demonstrates the irreverent tone of the comedy, something you don’t see as much of in American television.

Of course, Smithy and Nessa hook up on the date, but the kinky nature of their coupling and their banter before and after (which ranges from indifferent to hostile, but never to affectionate) are far bawdier than anything you would find on the American networks. And the dynamic between Smithy and Nessa, Smithy and Gavin, and Nessa and Stacey reminded me of a less toxic version of the quadrangle of relationships in the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore film “About Last Night.”

Gavin and Stacey, who both still live at home, have wacky families that, while very British, follow in the American TV tradition of wacky relatives. Gavin’s businessman father, Mick (Larry Lamb), has the patience of a saint (usually, anyway) with Gavin’s mother, Pam (Alison Steadman), a bleach blonde, trophy-wife-gone-to-seed who can be histrionic and discombobulated, especially when she’s been drinking (this being a British show, everyone drinks, and a lot).

Stacey’s Welsh clan includes her simple mother Gwen (Melanie Walters), who is still mourning the loss of her husband, and the stand-in man of the house (although he lives across the street), Stacey’s Uncle Bryn (Rob Brydon), a good-hearted Cliff Clavin with a Welsh accent, who intervenes in his relatives’ lives way more than he should (often making things worse), but does so completely to protect them, which he views as his life’s work (and the wish of his beloved dead brother). Brydon steals virtually every scene he’s in, equally adept at delivering pitch-perfectly timed punch lines and broad physical comedy. Brydon also shows emotional depth at key moments, like in a speech to get the two families to stop fighting. His words manage to be both heartfelt and funny.

But, of course, in a show called “Gavin & Stacey,” everything rests on the shoulders of the two love birds of the title. And they definitely make it work. Page is adorable as Stacey, who is infused with a mixture of youthful naiveté and the world weariness of someone who has had to overcome some major life troubles. Her combination of joy and vulnerability, and her genuine affection for the people in her life, make her an exceptionally likable lead. I would fully understand it if some viewers with an aversion to on-screen syrup found her to be annoyingly sweet. But the character and the performance work for me.

And Horne’s Gavin is every bit what you would expect from a son whose mother routinely refers to him as her “little prince.” He has excellent manners and is an all-around good guy, but he also has a mischievous streak born of someone who has been able to charm himself out of trouble in the past. Like when he’s quick to take "sickies” (sick days) so he and Stacey can spend time together. Gavin’s tight relationship with the socially inept Smithy is a bit of a stretch, but as they’ve known each other for so long, you can just chalk it up to loyalty.

In the end, these are two characters you root for, even if their courtship rushes forward in a manner that strains credibility.

Interestingly, the show’s creators and writers are the performers who play Smithy and Nessa, Corden and Jones. The two prove adept at setting up funny situations; penning smart, sharp lines; and creating characters who are likable, relatable, but also flawed. Again, the plots can be paper thin (Stacey is aghast when she wakes up her first morning at Gavin’s house with a pimple, and Stacey thinks Gavin is breaking up with her when he can’t talk freely with his boss next to him, for example), but the comedy and the characters pull the show through.

The six episodes of the first season run from the couple’s first date in the debut to a wedding in the finale, with a sea of road bumps in between. Should Stacey tell Gavin that this is her sixth engagement? And how will Gavin react when he finally learns of her dicey history with grooms-to-be? Will the families, who differ in nationality and economic station, be able to get along? And how will the friends handle this new relationship, and the new roles it creates for them?

These are all questions that you will want to see answered, and they will be addressed with a healthy dose of offbeat comedy. Some of the jokes hit the mark, while others go horribly awry. But in the end, following Gavin and Stacey is a journey worth taking.

Hopefully BBC America will pick up the second season (which has already aired in the U.K.). And if it does, hopefully the programmers will slide the show into the less competitive summer months next year, far away from the hustle of September and October. Summer would be the perfect season to spend some time with Gavin & Stacey, filling the down time until your favorite shows return.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Close Presidential Race? Don't Blame the Media, Blame the Voters

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

In civil tort law, it's not enough for a defendant to have done something wrong. The wrongful act has to be the "proximate cause" of a plaintiff's injuries. So, for example, if you leave an open bear trap in front of your house (happens all the time, I know), you clearly have done something negligent. But that doesn't mean that someone who trips and falls across the street can sue you for negligence, since you were not the proximate cause of the person's injuries.

I flashed back to my first year of law school and the concept of proximate cause when I read Adam McKay's great article yesterday. In a nutshell, Adam makes the argument that in the same way that the casinos always win at blackjack because the odds are stacked in their favor at 51 percent to 49 percent, the Republicans win presidential elections because they, too, have a 51-49 advantage, thanks to the lack of meaningful mainstream media to vet the lies told by the GOP.

While I agree with virtually everything Adam wrote regarding the sorry state of the U.S. press, I disagree with his conclusion that it is the media that gives the Republicans an odds advantage. Put another way, I'd argue that the media is the homeowner with the bear trap, in that they are clearly not doing their jobs, but they are not the proximate cause of this particular injury (GOP presidential wins with seemingly less qualified candidates).

So if it's not the media that are to blame, who do I point the finger at as being the proximate cause? Easy. The voters themselves.

I agree with the premise that the media, which is controlled by a handful of major corporations, is far more interested in making money and consolidating power than fulfilling its responsibility to inform the electorate. Where I break from the liberal orthodoxy on this issue is on the effect of the media's failings. The argument often goes that, "If only the people had the information to make an informed choice, they would choose the Democrat, but because those bastards in the mainstream media won't do their jobs, the voters don't have the tools to make the correct choice, and thus vote differently than they would if they had the benefit of a functioning media to vet the GOP lies."

You could make a strong argument that this was true in 1988 (the shameful Willie Horton ad and Michael Dukakis's ill-fated ride in a tank), and maybe -- maybe -- you can make that argument for 2000 and 2004. But in 2008? I think the argument no longer holds water. Voters have (or could have) all the information they need to make a choice this year. They're just making a choice that we on the left would consider a bad one.

Let me take a step back. Republicans have won the presidency since 2000 by combining three constituencies:

- Economic conservatives,
- Religious conservatives, and
- Voters who describe themselves as "moderate," "independent" and/or "undecided."

Even with a perfect media system in place with every piece of information available, you have to believe that the first two categories of voters are going to vote overwhelmingly Republican anyway. Those who narrow-mindedly vote based solely on macroeconomics under the belief that the free market will cure all lean naturally to the GOP (no matter how many studies show that Barack Obama's economic plan means less taxes for most Americans than John McCain's proposal). And religious wackadoodles have been trained to believe that the Republicans are the party of the Lord (even though there are numerous references in the bible to poverty but only one to homosexuality, but that's a completely different article topic for a different day). So Democrats will always have trouble with the religious right.

Really, when we talk about the importance of the media, we're talking about the ability to reach the third category of moderates, independents and undecided voters. Those are the citizens, the argument goes, who would vote for Obama (or would have voted for John Kerry or Al Gore) if they knew all the facts.

Specifically, in 2008, the argument goes: If the media would point out McCain's strictly GOP voting record of the last eight years in the Senate, and how he voted with Bush 90 percent of the time, plus how McCain has claimed not to no much about economics and how his economic policy was crafted by the former senator behind both the subprime mortgage crash and the increase in gas prices, and how he favors the same tax cuts for the rich instituted by Bush; and how he was an early advocate of the war in Iraq and was disastrously wrong about all of his predictions, and how the surge has failed when measured against President Bush's January 10, 2007 address to the American people announcing the reason for the plan (since the Iraqi government has not taken the painful but necessary steps toward self-governance), then these undecided voters would flock to Obama.

The argument follows that if only the media would report that Sarah Palin and other GOP convention speakers lied over and over again, that Palin lobbied hard for the so-called "bridge to nowhere," that she wanted to fire the librarian of Wasilla for not banning a huge list of classic literature from the shelves, that she is in favor of teaching creationism in schools, that she is against abortion even in the case of rape, that she has had no foreign policy experience as the titular head of the Alaska National Guard, that she had connections to Ted Stevens and his activities that led to his indictment, that her husband belongs to a party that advocates for secession and whose leader professed hatred of the U.S. government, and that she is patently unqualified to be president by any objective standard and represents a cynical grab for votes by McCain, then independent and moderate voters would wake up and vote for Obama.

I don't buy it.

The U.S. electorate has already demonstrated that it does understand that there are problems, and it is ready to take action. Even as measured by the right-wing Fox News, Bush currently enjoys an approval rating of only 28 percent. An August 3 CBS News/New York Times poll revealed that 81 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, and only 14 percent believe we are headed in the right direction. And in November 2006, Americans were angry enough about the war in Iraq to boot the Republicans out of control of both houses of Congress, and that anger continued into 2007 and 2008 as they replaced Republicans with Democrats in three special House elections in traditionally GOP districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Illinois. And according to RealClearPolitics, a generic Democrat still enjoys a lead over a generic Republican in Congressional elections.

In other words, Americans know they are pissed off, and they have demonstrated the ability to effectuate "change" with their voting power. So if they wanted to do it for the presidency, they could.

With all the media coverage of this campaign (even if it's been lousy), and all of the information available for people on the Internet, there not only is no excuse for not knowing the facts the mainstream media isn't reporting about McCain, Palin and the Republicans, I would argue that most voters do, in fact, get the gist of what's going on. In an August 29 USA Today/Gallup poll, only 39 percent of respondents thought Palin was qualified to be president. Most independent voters know that she was involved in some less-than-nice stuff in Alaska and holds extreme right-wing positions. I even think the electorate has a strong sense that McCain has sided with Bush most of the time and would operate as president much like the current administration does. A USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed that while McCain got a bounce from the GOP convention, 63 percent of respondents were concerned that he would continue Bush's policies if elected (virtually unchanged from 64 percent and 66 percent in earlier polls).

What I'm getting is, voters essentially know what's going on. They just don't care. I believe that "undecided" voters that go to McCain aren't doing so because of any lack of information, they are doing it despite that information. I think there are two explanations for this phenomenon.

The first one is easier and more obvious: race. I do believe that there are people in this country who, for whatever reason, can't bring themselves to pull the lever for an African-American presidential contender. I often go back to Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes interview before the Ohio primary with an undecided voter who was leaning towards Obama, but had concerns because he "heard" Obama was a Muslim who wouldn't salute the flag during the pledge of allegiance. Some voters are open about it, a lot more aren't (maybe even trying to convince themselves that it's not about race). These folks are just looking for an excuse not to vote for Obama, something to justify their "discomfort," claiming it has nothing to do with race.

Nothing the media could do would make Obama a more palatable option for the group of ignorant Americans who won't vote for a black presidential candidate.

The second reason some voters seem not to care about the facts in selecting a candidate is more subtle, but may be more powerful: They don't want to be asked to sacrifice. As a nation, we have become a what's-in-it-for-me, sacrifice-free culture. During World War II, Americans were asked to make all kinds of sacrifices, including rationing, and they did so to support the war effort. Sixty years later, it would be hard to imagine any leader having the guts to make the same requests of the American people, since they would correctly fear being turned out of office in the next election. Any politician who advocated raising taxes, instituting the draft or rationing the use of oil to support the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan would be roundly smacked down by the voters. The culture has changed.

So it's not surprising that Obama's message is not resonating as well as McCain's with a certain group of undecided voters. Obama is telling Americans, in essence, "Things are bad. We're in a bad war. We're in a bad economy. And our energy policy is killing us. We can fix it, but you will have to make some changes. You have to accept that there may not be a traditional victory in Iraq. And you have to change the way you use energy, or else the country and the planet will be in bad shape." That puts a lot of pressure on Americans to actually have to take responsibility for their actions and their country, something they are no longer ever asked to do. Obama is saying Americans have to sacrifice. That's brave. And it's the right course of action. But it's dangerous when you're looking for votes.

Meanwhile, what is McCain saying? His message is: "We're going to win in Iraq. The economy is basically fine. And if we drill offshore, we can produce our own oil, and you can keep using as much energy as you want ... and it will be cheaper. You don't have to change a thing." Clearly, if you stick to the facts, McCain is lying to Americans. We can't drill ourselves out of our much larger energy crisis, and the offshore drilling won't produce any oil for ten years and will have virtually no effect on gas prices, even in the estimation of Bush's own Energy Information Administration. McCain knows that under Bush's economic policies, the gap between rich and poor has widened to a historically high level, that Americans are in debt like never before, and that the subprime mortgage crisis has weakened the economy. And McCain has been front and center as a supporter of the war in Iraq, one of the costliest and most ill-conceived foreign policy blunders in modern U.S. history.

But it doesn't matter. When faced with a choice between the guy that's telling them that nothing has to change and everything is okay, and the guy who is telling them that everything has to change and nothing is all right, many self-interested voters are opting for the guy telling them that they can keep living their lives as they have been. No facts are going to disrupt this line of thinking. Fixing the incompetence and abdication of the mainstream media would have no effect on these people.

It's important to remember that democracy works, but not always the way you might think. The government reflects the will of the people. If the electorate wants to check out and vote for a fantasy rather than addressing the real problems facing the country, then that country's citizens will get exactly what they deserve. If they know that the last eight years have not gone well, and then they return to office the people who got us into this mess in the first place, they deserve to live in four more years of the same mess. If Americans want to delude themselves to believe the lies and distortions pumped out by the GOP attack machine, then they deserve to be governed by the Republicans. It's really that simple.

The media might be derelict in their duties, but they are not the cause of the current tight race for the presidency. And for once, we can't blame the candidate, since Obama has done an immeasurably better job so far than Kerry did in 2004 or Gore did in 2000. No, this time, the blame has to go to the voters themselves. One consolation: No matter who wins in November, Americans will get exactly what we deserve.

Friday, September 5, 2008

90210: Back to West Beverly High With the Next Generation

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

Okay, if you're over the age of 35 and didn't catch the premiere of "90210" (CW, Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern), let me answer the number one question I'm sure you have on your mind: Yes, the new show uses the same theme song, although it's rocked up a bit for the new century. (And I'm sure the duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh riff is now firmly implanted in your head.)

Is the show similarly updated for new audiences? Very much so.

Don't get me wrong: "90210" is fully a nighttime soap, invested in issues of who is sleeping with whom (or who slept with whom, or who is dating whom) and with dramatic plot shifts and coincidences and sometimes overwrought dialogue. (Sample: A girl asks as guy, "Are you breaking up with me?", to which the guy responds earnestly, "I'm breaking up with us.") But the current version of "90210" is smarter, better acted and ultimately more enjoyable than it's 1990s predecessor.

The newbies to West Beverly High in the new "90210" are the brother and sister team of Annie and Dixon Wilson (Shenae Grimes of "Degrassi: The Next Generation" and Tristan Wilds of "The Wire"), whose parents, Harry and Debbie ("Melrose Place" refugee Rob Estes and TV veteran Lori Laughlin, most recently of the sitcom "In Case of Emergency"), have taken them halfway across the country from Kansas to live with Harry's boozy ex-actress mother Tabitha (Jessica Walter, not far from her brilliant parent-from-hell turn on "Arrested Development"). Harry, who grew up in Beverly Hills and attended West Beverly High, is taking over as principal there, much to the chagrin of Annie and Dixon, who don't relish life as the principal's kids. The 21st century update to the central siblings is that rather than being twins like Brandon and Brenda Walsh, Dixon is African-American and adopted.

Annie and Dixon are immediately thrust into the middle of drama in their new school. Annie, who has a boyfriend back in Kansas, is looking forward to seeing Ethan Ward (Dustin Milligan of "Supernatural"), a boy with whom she had a summer fling a couple of years back. But when she first sees Ethan, he is in an SUV being orally serviced by a girl who turns out to be a drug-addicted friend of his girlfriend. If that's not bad enough, Annie soon stumbles into a friendship with queen bee, rich girl Naomi Clark (AnnaLynne McCord of "Nip/Tuck"), who, surprise, happens to be Ethan's girlfriend. Annie also finds herself the subject of a vicious blog attack by Erin Silver (Jessica Stroup of "Reaper"), who goes by Silver and, we soon learn, is the half-sister of Kelly Taylor, as the offspring of her mother and David Silver's father, Mel, all characters from the original series. Annie's crime was allowing Naomi, Silver's arch enemy, to drag her away from their conversation.

Meanwhile, Dixon tries out for the lacrosse team, and when he takes the spot in the starting lineup of pretty boy Steve (Chuck Hittinger), the guy slashes him with his stick, leading to a fight. Ethan, covering for his teammate, initially lies and says Dixon started the fight, leaving the too-cool-for-school English teacher/lacrosse coach Ryan Matthews (Ryan Eggold of "Dirt") with no choice but to boot Dixon off of the team.

The adults have their own issues, too. Tabitha isn't interested in giving up her "iced tea" (of the Long Island variety) or her desire to drive, which is a bad combination. She also makes no effort to hide her dislike of Debbie. But Debbie has bigger fish to fry once Harry's high school girlfriend Tracy (Christina Moore, the replacement Laurie on "That 70s Show") starts hanging around him (after she asks Harry to drive her home, Debbie offers to drive him instead, saying, "We can swap stories about Harry's penis," to which a defeated Tracy replies, "I have enough of them"). The reason, we find out, is that Harry fathered Tracy's child in high school, who she then put up for adoption. And since this is a soap, Tracy is Naomi's mother, so Harry and Tracy have to interact at school when Naomi fails to complete her English paper (she's too busy preparing for her party, an excuse her father can't believe the teacher won't accept).

If you think this is a lot of plot for a one-hour drama, it is. And yet executive producers Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs (writers on Judd Apatow's classic "Freaks and Geeks") manage to cram a whole lot of the original "90210" into the new version. In addition to Erin Silver, there are passing references that fans of the 1990s incarnation are sure to catch (like a glimpse of Hannah Zuckerman-Vazquez, the offspring of Andrea Zuckerman and Jesse Vazquez, and how Annie and Dixon's rooms are connected by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom, just like Brenda and Brandon's rooms back in the day). But even more prominent is the presence of Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), now a single mother and guidance counselor at West Beverly High, who is being courted by fellow teacher Ryan, and Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty), visiting for a month to do a play in Los Angeles. Joe E. Tata also returns as Nat, owner of the hangout the Peach Pit, which is now a hip cappuccino place rather than the old-fashioned diner Kelly, Brenda, Brandon and the gang used to frequent.

It was a smart move to rope in the older generation with the characters from the original series, but their story lines, at least as of now, seem almost jammed in, separate and disconnected from the new generation's goings on. (Quick check-ins between Kelly and Silver aren't enough to bridge the gap.) And observing how time has been quite unkind to some of the original actors, especially Doherty, takes some of the fun out of the nostalgia factor.

But other than the collision of the two versions of the show, Judah and Sachs have made exceptional choices with their characters and stories, as well as infusing the scripts with enough smart lines to let you know that this is not the old "90210."

Annie is way more likable and relatable than Brenda ever was. (Some might call her the anti-Brenda, considering the strong dislike many fans held for Doherty's character.) Annie is smart and unassuming, but also not perfect, willing to jet to San Francisco for a first-date dinner even though she knows her mother would not approve (and does not, when her trip comes to light). Annie's will-they-won't-they relationship with Ethan is far more compelling than the Brenda-Dylan connection, mostly because Ethan isn't a cartoon like Dylan was. Dixon is an interesting character too, less of a goody-goody than Brandon, but also more fun and less pompous. There are some interesting elements to explore with the relationship with his family.

In fact, all of the actors in "90210" are infinitely more low-key and less angsty than their colleagues from the 1990s. From Luke Perry's James-Dean-on-Valium moves as Dylan, to the hysterics of Doherty, Garth and Tori Spelling, "subtlety" is not a term that would ever apply to the original cast. But even with over-the-top characters like Naomi, McCord, Grimes, Wilds and the others in the new "90210" don't try and do too much with the soapy material. They approach the scripts like they're real dramatic stories, a tribute to both their skill and the writing of Judah and Sachs.

Most of all, the new "90210" just feels less cartoony, and yet also more grand, than it's forerunner. The debut episode's central event was Naomi's "not so sweet 16" party, an event lavish enough to put the dog and pony shows of some of the girls featured on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" to shame. (And, in the "90210" tradition, the band at the party was the hip Omaha indie pop outfit Tilly and the Wall, just as indie legends the Flaming Lips appeared at the Pit in the 1990s version of the show.)

I loved many of the casually tossed off lines, from a reference to Ethan that "he's the one with the spotlight shining out of his ass," to Naomi responding to Annie's declaration that she would love to attend her birthday party with, "Of course you would."

In my article two weeks ago listing the five new shows I was most looking forward to watching, I wrote that I hoped the choice of Judah and Sachs to run "90210" would mean that the network envisioned the show having more depth than the original series. It's clear that while nobody will confuse "90210" with "The Wire," it just may be a smart, fun escapist romp, closer to "Dirty Sexy Money" than, well, the original "90210."

I wrote in my top-five article that while I would watch the first episode of "90210," I couldn't promise that I'd watch the second one. Well, the CW aired the first and second installments back-to-back, and I did, in fact, watch both. I'll even watch the third one next week. Based on the ratings of the debut, which were the highest for a fiction show in the network's short history, I will be far from the only one.

McCain's Claims of "Change" in His Acceptance Speech Are New Standard for Chutzpah

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

"And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: change is coming."

"And when we tell you we're going to change Washington, and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it. We've got a record of doing just that, and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you."

"We need to change the way government does almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children. ... We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington."

- All quotes from John McCain's acceptance speech at the Republican convention, September 4, 2008

There is an old story used to illustrate the meaning of the Yiddish word chutzpah (roughly translated as "nerve" or "gall"): A man kills his parents, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.

That story has had a nice reign, but I think from now on, it will be replaced by John McCain's speech last night accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency.

McCain argued that Americans should vote for him to bring change to Washington. It's a good position to take, since Americans certainly want change. But the policies and practices that Americans want to see changed are policies and practices that were supported -- and continue to be supported -- by none other than John McCain.

McCain is essentially arguing: Elect me to fix all the problems I caused. It is an argument that an engaged and educated electorate would reject out of hand as preposterous, which means that it has an excellent chance of working in a presidential election in the United States.

More than anything else, Americans want change in the economy. Unemployment is at 6.1 percent, its highest point in five years. Americans have accumulated an unprecedented amount of debt, and the gap between rich and poor has grown to a discouragingly large chasm. (Steven Hill pointed out in a article in 2007 that the Federal Reserve reported that the "top 10 percent of income earners in the United States now owns 70 percent of the wealth, and the wealthiest one percent owns more than the bottom 95 percent.") And the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis has led to millions of foreclosures, among other hits to the American economy. But the real visible, hard-to-ignore symbol of the tough economy for many Americans has been the explosion of the price of gas.

While economic conditions are not completely and directly linked to the policies of the president, George W. Bush's philosophy of deregulation and giving unfettered power to corporations has not helped. One of the key factors that allowed the subprime mortgage crisis to occur was the gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was passed in 1933 after the stock market crash of 1929, with the primary purpose of keeping commercial banks (who concentrate on consumers) separate from investment banks (who can engage in more speculative activity). Who was responsible for knocking down this wall and ending the limitations of Glass-Steagall that had stood for more than 65 years? Former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, who is the architect of McCain's economic policy (and the man who has now on two occasions called the economic setbacks "mental" and Americans "whiners" for complaining about the economy).

What about gas prices? As prices are set by a global market, there is no one cause for skyrocketing numbers, with factors ranging from increased consumption by India and China to a lack of increase in processing capacity in the U.S. partly to blame. But Republicans and Democrats alike agree that a major factor in increasing gas prices was the passage of the so-called Enron Loophole (officially known as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act), which exempted energy trading from regulatory oversight. In other words, speculation was brought to the gas markets. (Keith Olbermann did an in-depth, fact-heavy, flawlessly researched report on this issue, which you can watch here.)

Who was the person responsible for the Enron Loophole? Do I have to even say it: Gramm, who received major campaign contributions from Enron.

McCain's economic plan calls for maintaining the key elements of the policies of the Bush administration, namely tax cuts for the rich. (In a great clip, which you can watch here, McCain supporter Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina cannot come up with a single difference between the McCain and Bush economic plans.)

And, like Bush, McCain has thrown his lot in with the big oil companies, taking millions from them while advocating for their two pet projects: massive tax breaks for oil companies and offshore drilling.

Clearly, the big oil companies have a lot to gain in maintaining the status quo and everything to lose if energy policy changes to bring about reduced use of oil and the increased prominence of renewable sources of energy. Not surprisingly, McCain has opposed tax breaks for wind power and other renewable energies.

McCain is asking to be the agent of change to reverse our economic and energy policies, even though they are the very policies he supported, and even though his current plan calls for maintaining these very policies he says have to change. That request is the living embodiment of chutzpah.

The other issue on which voters want to see change is Iraq. In 2006, the electorate booted Republicans from control of the House and Senate, almost solely on the issue of Iraq. And both parties agree that Democrats are likely to make further gains in Congress in November. McCain was an early and avid supporter of invading Iraq, telling Americans that, "I believe we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time," and that "we will be welcomed as liberators" once Saddam Hussein is deposed. (You can see for yourself here.) McCain opposed any move to set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and he has maintained that position even though virtually everyone around him has arrived at the conclusion that such a date is necessary. The Iraqi government itself has insisted on a certain date of withdrawal, and even the Bush administration has agreed with the Iraqi government to set such a date.

McCain is at the forefront of a war that was unnecessary, made us less safe, was fought on fraudulent grounds, eroded our country's standing in the world, cost us more than 4,000 U.S. lives, adversely affected hundreds of thousands of other Americans (soldiers wounded, families burdened), and took $1 trillion from American coffers.

Again, McCain is asking to be the agent of change for a disastrous policy he virulently supported (and continues to support). Textbook chutzpah.

The bottom line is that on every key issue facing Americans, McCain is essentially arguing to continue the status quo of the Bush administration, with whom he voted 90 percent of the time. Claiming that to be change takes, say it with me, chutzpah.

So when McCain says, "And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: change is coming," I can only reply, "But Sen. McCain, you have been part of that 'Washington crowd' for 26 years. You put oil companies (and other corporations) ahead of average Americans over and over again, voting for oil tax breaks, tax breaks for the rich and privatizing social security, but opposing the GI Bill, increased benefits for veterans, a ban on torture, health insurance for children, and a campaign finance reform law with your name on it."

And when McCain says, "And when we tell you we're going to change Washington, and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it. We've got a record of doing just that, and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you," I can only reply, "But Sen. McCain, you have a record of supporting the very policies you now say you will change, including tax cuts for the rich and $1 trillion of spending in Iraq that is funded solely by borrowing, thus passing the burden to 'unluckier' generations. So you haven't shown any 'strength, experience, judgment and backbone' in addressing these issues so far."

And when McCain says, "We need to change the way government does almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children. ... We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington," I can only reply, "But Sen. McCain, over the last eight years, we have protected our security in your way, competed in the world economy on your terms, responded to disasters with an incompetent government you backed and to which you did not stand up, fueled our transportation network via the oil companies that you unfailingly supported to the detriment of our country's future, failed to provide training to our workers under your watch, educated our children under a federal policy you were in favor of, and did business in Washington in a manner you were an integral part of. So how can you now put yourself forward as the person to make these changes?"

One answer: chutzpah.

Move over guy who killed his parents, there is a new embodiment of chutzpah, and his name is John McCain.