Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankful for Simple Pleasures on Thanksgiving

[The editors of asked me to write a Thanksgiving-themed column. What appears below is the result. You can access it on from my author page here.]

I have so many important things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

I could write about how thankful I am that my country decided to send a smart, forward-thinking Democrat to the White House just four short years after re-electing a historically awful president who had demonstrated his incompetence in myriad ways, including ensnaring the nation in a needless, poorly managed and draining war in Iraq. And I could express my thanks that my country, with a difficult history of race under its belt, looked to an African American candidate to lead us at such a difficult time, no matter if a voter opted for Barack Obama despite his race, because of it (for what it would mean symbolically to the world), or if race had no bearing on the decision at all.

I could write about how thankful I am that Arianna and her stellar editorial staff have allowed me to express my opinions in such an important forum like, and that so many people seem to read my work and chime in with their own comments.

And I could write about how thankful I am to have a supportive and loving wife, a great family, and a fun and inspiring group of friends.

But I won't be writing about any of these important things, mainly because I just don't think it would be especially interesting to anyone not named Mitchell Bard. No, instead, I'm going to express my thanks for some of the simple pleasures in my life. Because no matter how silly nearly everything on my list is, every item brings me joy on a regular basis.

I am thankful for the Mount Rushmore of current network situation comedies: How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, 30 Rock and The Office. I am old enough to remember a time when comedies dominated the networks' schedules (as well as the ratings), when a serial drama meant a nighttime soap and a reality program was the news. So with fewer and fewer sitcoms on the air, I savor the 30-minute bursts of smart, original laughs these four programs provide to me, week after funny week. And with the news the way it's been the last few months (years, really), we all need to laugh.

While I listen to all kinds of rock music, I am thankful that I have recently rediscovered my guilty-pleasure love of rock anthems, which make me smile and allow me to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. My five favorite classic rock anthems, which I define as dramatic, emotional, over-the-top songs in which the singer seems to be pleading for us to do something and which contain at least one passage that induces audiences to pump their fists, are, in order: "Baba O'Riley" by the Who, "More than a Feeling" by Boston, "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2, and "Alive" by Pearl Jam (with honorable mention to "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC, "I Love Rock N' Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, "Juke Box Hero" by Foreigner, "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, and "Find Your Way Back" by Jefferson Starship).

And speaking of music, I am thankful that my midlife crisis this year didn't involve a sports car or a fling with a younger woman, but instead led me to purchase tickets to seven concerts this past summer, all by artists who got their starts in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s (The Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, a triple bill of Cheap Trick/Heart/Journey, Pearl Jam, and the Regeneration Tour, which featured Naked Eyes, Flock of Seagulls, ABC, Belinda Carlisle and the Human League).

I am thankful that even as I make my way into my early 40s, I can still appreciate a stellar teen movie like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which features two talented, relatable and likable leads; genuinely smart and funny writing; and a dead-on eye for downtown Manhattan (not to mention a great soundtrack).

I am thankful that after more than 200 trips to Yankee Stadium in my lifetime, I still got a thrill all 10 times I entered the Cathedral of Baseball this past season, and was genuinely emotional during my last trip to the stadium for the third-to-last home game ever in the old building. And I am thankful that despite the Yankees pricing box seats in the new stadium at an amount roughly equal to the gross domestic product of several Central American countries, I will still be able to retain my $25 nosebleed seats for my Friday night season ticket plan next season.

And while we're discussing ridiculously overpriced sports tickets, I am thankful that this year I got to attend my first Arsenal match at the wondrous Emirates Stadium in North London and not only enjoy 90 minutes of outstanding atmosphere, including non-stop chanting and singing, but also witness a 2-0 victory for the Gunners.

And finally, I am thankful for my pet rabbit Oscar, who can be found roaming free in our kitchen and living room. Despite being convinced at every moment of his life that predators are out to get him, he manages to remain a ridiculously cute, well-behaved and entertaining presence in our home. Maybe there is a lesson in there for all of us. Or maybe it's just fun to watch a rabbit submerge his head in a pile of hay looking for the perfect strand to munch on. I'll leave that for you to decide.

I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's Time for a War on War on the "War on Christmas"

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

After enduring eight years of a president who was determined to impose his religious beliefs on the country, I've just about had it with people trying to shove religion down my throat. Maybe that is why I have no patience for the (completely ludicrous) claim that there is a "War on Christmas," made by right-wingers like Bill O'Reilly. But what put me over the top is that now a deputy editor of the once reputable Wall Street Journal has weighed in on the issue, actually equating the current economic crisis with the fact that people say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

Daniel Henninger wrote in the WSJ yesterday:

"This year we celebrate the desacralized 'holidays' amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin -- fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man's theory: A nation whose people can't say 'Merry Christmas' is a nation capable of ruining its own economy."

Henninger's point is that the economic downturn was caused by "borrowers, lenders and securitizer shamans" who were "operating in a zero-gravity environment, aloft on moral hazard," which was due to a loss of "responsibility, restraint and remorse." He goes on to say that "responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments," and that "the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous." He claims that the "disappearance of 'Merry Christmas'" is indicative of this "dereligioning." Thus, the link between not saying "Merry Christmas" and the failing economy.

Convinced? Me neither.

Somehow, people like Henninger and O'Reilly think it's important that people say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays." But what Henninger and O'Reilly don't seem to want to understand is that the United States of America, as much as they would like it to be otherwise, is not a Christian nation. The majority of its citizens may currently be Christian, but, again, that does not make the country, as an institution, Christian.

(Full disclosure: I am a nonreligious Jew, so the "War on Christmas" crowd will, no doubt, dismiss all of my opinions.)

The last time I checked, the First Amendment was still in full force and effect. As a reminder, it says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

You will notice in the very first words of the Bill of Rights that the founders made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that there was to be no one religion "established" for the country. The First Amendment makes clear that everyone should be allowed to practice his/her religious faiths ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"), but that no one faith was to be elevated above the others by the government. Being Christian does not make one more American.

And yet that is exactly what the O'Reillys and Hennigers of the world seem to want. I'm sorry to report this fact to them, but not everyone in this country celebrates Christmas. According to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study from earlier this year, 1.7 percent of the population identified themselves as Jewish, 0.6 percent as Muslim, 0.7 percent as Buddhist, 0.4 percent as Hindu, 0.7 percent as Jehovah's Witness, and more than 0.2 percent as from "other world religions." On top of that, according to the Pew study, more than 16 percent of Americans do not consider themselves any religion.

All of that translates into millions of people who do not celebrate Christmas. Do O'Reilly and Henninger think that these people should be made to feel "other," outsiders in the American experience? I hope not. That is not what America is about. Many of the founders of the country moved here to flee religious persecution. They just wanted to be free to practice their own religion here. And that doesn't mean that only they get to do so.

This country has some tragic history when it comes to its treatment of minorities. We enslaved African Americans as recently as 145 years ago, and we had laws on the books repressing them until quite recently. It was only 65 years ago that we rounded up American citizens who just happened to be of Japanese descent and placed them into internment camps solely because of their country of origin. And it was only two weeks ago that three states voted to amend their constitutions to ensure that homosexuals cannot enjoy the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.

In light of that history, it seems to me that we, as a nation, should be looking at more ways to come together and make everyone feel a part of the American family, not stressing our differences and making those in the minority feel as though they are not true Americans. And through the simple act of saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," we, as a country, can show our tolerance for other faiths and make everyone feel a part of the holiday season.

If nothing else, doesn't it come down to simple manners? Why would you want to say "Merry Christmas" to someone that doesn't celebrate the holiday? Clearly, such a greeting is only going to make the recipient uncomfortable, pointing out that he/she does not practice the same religion that the majority of the country does. Meanwhile, the dreaded "Happy Holidays" invocation is actually inclusive and polite, saying, in effect, "There are a lot of holidays this time of year, so if any of them apply to you, we hope it's a nice time for you." Isn't such a tolerant attitude more in keeping with what the United States is supposed to represent?

Of course, nothing I've said would stop those who observe Christmas from going to church, decorating their houses (inside and out) and celebrating with their families and friends. And certainly, saying "Happy Holidays" in public venues doesn't stop two people from greeting each other with "Merry Christmas" when they both observe the holiday. My only point is that in public displays, when not all of the recipients will be Christian, there is nothing wrong with using the more inclusive "Happy Holidays." That idea hardly constitutes a "War on Christmas."

There is also a dangerous, insidious strain to the movement complaining of a "War on Christmas." Go back to Henninger's words in the WSJ. He says that "the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous." I refuse to accept that the immorality of finance professionals is due to a lack of religious piety. The implication is that without religion, there can be no morals or ethics. I, and I'm sure many others out there, absolutely reject such an assumption. Moral behavior does not have to come from the teachings of a religion. An atheist is every bit as capable of drawing on his/her beliefs to lead an ethical life as a religious person.

And by turning to an argument about Christmas, Henninger is also implying that it's not enough to be religious, you have to be an adherent of his religion. That is certainly a dangerous idea, and it is also completely sanctimonious, given the myriad scandals that have enveloped U.S. churches in recent years. Being religious didn't stop, for example, priests from molesting boys (and the church covering it up), nor did it prevent Rev. Ted Haggard, the founder of the New Life Church, from getting caught buying crystal meth and patronizing a male prostitute (after crusading against homosexuals).

I would further argue that the injection of religion into politics has not produced the kind of moral and ethical behavior Henninger longs for. It seems to me that the emergence of an argument that if you oppose the Republican party and support the Democrats, you are somehow not righteous in the eyes of the church, is a pretty dangerous way of thinking. I don't think it's helpful that a South Carolina priest would tell his parishioners that they should not accept Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama. And I don't think the national interest is served by actions like the recently deposed Republican North Carolina U.S. House of Representatives member Robin Hayes saying during the campaign that "liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God."

Clearly, I'm not making the argument that all religious people are bad. (Sorry, but I can't help but anticipate the potential "he is criticizing religion!" charge of those who believe there is a "War on Christmas.") What I am saying is that there is nothing in being religious that makes someone inherently more moral and ethical than someone who is not religious.

So you'll forgive me if I don't buy into the Henniger/O'Reilly view of America. I see this country as a place in which we respect the religious beliefs of all of our citizens, and, more importantly, we would not seek to impose our faiths on our neighbors. And yes, I would like to see a country where we don't seek to make non-Christian citizens feel like they are not part of the national fabric by pointing out to them, again and again, that they are different than a majority.

Or, put another way, I want to live in a tolerant, respectful country that says "Happy Holidays," rather than a divisive nation that seeks to make people uncomfortable by saying "Merry Christmas." Isn't that what "peace on earth, good will toward man" entails? There is no war on Christmas. We only ask that those who celebrate the holiday not insist that those who don't celebrate with them. Actually, that statement of my belief is my declaration of war on the war on the "War on Christmas."

Happy holidays everyone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Samantha Who?" and "The Big Bang Theory" Are Very Different, but Both Deliver Laughs

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

"Samantha Who?" (ABC, Mondays at 9:30 Eastern) and "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 Eastern) have a couple of things in common. They are both sitcoms in their second seasons, and both air on Monday nights. But beyond those surface facts, the two programs are different in nearly every way. Well, except one: They're both funny.

"Samantha Who?" is an ambitious, single-camera comedy that burst onto the scene last season with high ratings, mainly thanks to its cushy scheduling slot after "Dancing with the Stars." The high-concept premise follows Sam (Christina Applegate) as she wakes up from a coma with amnesia (she was hit by a car), only to discover that she was a mean, boozing, selfish, cut-throat workaholic before her injury. Determined to be a better person, she sets out to do better, which isn't easy, since she is surrounded by a motley crew of potential obstacles: her manipulative, trophy-wife-gone-to-seed mother, Regina (Jean Smart); her fellow barracuda best friend Andrea (Jennifer Esposito); and her awkward, Newfie-loving, terminally uncool childhood best friend Dena (Melissa McCarthy), who used Sam's amnesia as a way of reinserting herself into Sam's life.

The first season of "Samantha Who?" was clever and ambitious, and Applegate showed a great comic touch, especially in essentially playing two characters: the current "good Sam," and, in flashbacks, the old "bad Sam." (You can read the review I wrote last year here.) As last season came to a close, "Samantha Who?" had cemented a place on ABC's schedule, and I had high hopes for the future.

Which is why the season premiere was such a disappointment. The episode turned on a predictable and less-than-funny dance contest that Regina wanted to win over her long-time rival. She dumps her delighted husband (Kevin Dunn) as her partner in favor of Sam after seeing one of her old dance recital videos (Applegate, who starred on Broadway in "Sweet Charity," certainly knows how to move). But, of course, post-accident Sam turns out to have forgotten how to dance. By the time the episode's climactic contest scene rolled around, in which Regina asks Sam to dance with her, even though she's awful, I felt like I was watching any run-of-the-mill sitcom, not one that was so promising last season.

Luckily, as the season wore on, the show started to find its footing again. An episode about Sam deciding to work as a volunteer in Africa, but then chickening out and going into hiding in Chicago instead, had as silly a premise as the season premiere, but the comedy was sharper, and it was good to see "good Sam" in a little more human way. Things got much better with the next installment, "The Pill," in which Sam's doctor gives her a pill that helps restore some of her memories (but only while she's under the influence of the drug). The flashbacks gave Applegate the chance to play "bad Sam," to great comic effect. By the time the end of the episode rolls around, and Sam is desperately trying to act on what she has discovered about herself and her relationship with her ex-boyfriend/current roommate, Todd (Barry Watson), before the drug wears off, the "Memento"-like sequence was both funny and heart-tugging. In other words, like the old "Samantha Who?"

"The Pill" seemed to turn the tide, and the three offerings that followed, which have concentrated on Sam's new relationship with a wealthy environmentalist, Owen (James Tupper), and her new real estate business with Regina, were much stronger. Sam working her way through her feelings for Todd has been fertile ground for comedy and plot development, and her "Odd Couple"-like business interactions with her mother have been very entertaining (like Regina's declaration that cupcakes are in for house showings, while chocolate chip cookies are passe, but Sam saves the day by serving smores).

To me, "Samantha Who?" works best when the action revolves around Samantha. I still don't like Tim Russ's doorman, Frank, which I still think is a case of monumental miscasting, and as much as I loved McCarthy as Sookie on "Gilmore Girls," Dena is like Sookie on amphetamines, and she's sometimes a bit hard to take. As is spending time with the with the loathsome Andrea, who starts to grate after a while. I am totally uninterested in whether she will succumb to the wooing of Todd's old friend Seth (Stephen Rannazzisi). But when we are with Sam, the show works. Full credit to Applegate, who gives the performance of her career, and to the writers, led by executive producer Donald Todd, a true TV veteran (he was a writer on "Alf"), who keep things funny and interesting.

As an aside, Applegate's breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy before the season started hasn't been a distraction. I'd challenge anyone who didn't know about the story to see any difference in her performance, wardrobe or appearance. Obviously, Applegate's health is far more important than "Samantha Who?", but it's nice that she seems to have both under control.

"The Big Bang Theory" is, in so many ways, the opposite of "Samantha Who?" "Big Bang" is a traditional, multi-camera, studio-set sitcom, with more of a set-up-punch approach to its comedy. When it debuted last year in the slot after the great "How I Met Your Mother," I thought it was funny, but I wasn't sure there was enough there to support an ongoing show. (You can read my review here.) A little more than a year later, I am happy to say that the concept works just fine.

Far less plot oriented than "Samantha Who?", and also less interested in character development, "Big Bang" goes straight for the laughs. The program follows roommates and friends Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), two physicists who share an apartment in a slightly run-down Pasadena building. In last year's pilot, blonde aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moved in across the hall, and Leonard was immediately smitten. The Penny-Leonard will-they-or-won't-they arc was the closest thing "Big Bang" had to a an overriding plot, and it was nearly disposed of in last season's finale and this season's debut. Leonard and Penny finally go on a date in the finale, but by the end of the first episode of this season, Leonard had blown things, and the two were just friends again. So much for any plot dependence.

"Big Bang" is happy to introduce a new story each week meant to mine comedy from its ensemble. Leonard is the more socially adept of the roommates, able to successfully interact with other human beings in normal situations. He's even been able to bed two women this year, including fellow scientist Leslie (played by Galecki's former "Roseanne" castmate Sara Gilbert, who is a recurring presence on the show). But Leonard knows he's a nerd, and while he's not entirely happy about it (he will often try and hide a geeky activity when Penny enters the room), he also has enough self-esteem to know that he's fine as he is. As the more human of the two, Leonard is the heart of the show. He's the guy we're rooting for.

Sheldon, on the other hand, is the guy who makes us laugh. Although Sheldon may not always know why. He is completely befuddled by societal niceties (and he only has a passing interest in them, at best). For example, when a science groupie offers to bring Sheldon dinner, he doesn't see she is smitten by him, so that when Leonard asks him if he knows what just happened, he responds, "Yes, I just got a free dinner." Sheldon is really not, by any definition, a nice person, what with his single-minded pursuit of his goals (which range from his lofty science ambitions to his refusal to change his everyday routines, like where he sits in the apartment and what night the group plays "Halo"). But as "Big Bang" is going for laughs first and foremost, we, as an audience, are more likely to give Sheldon a pass, especially since, nearly always, he faces comeuppance for his selfish actions.

The excellent ensemble is rounded out by the two scientists who hang out with Leonard and Sheldon. Raj, from India, somehow plays into and also explodes the worst TV stereotypes of people from his country. His computer video conversations with his parents, which bring out the cultural tug-of-war Raj experiences, are always good for laughs. He is no wilting flower around the guys, but in the presence of a woman, he is unable to speak (unless he's drunk, in which case he becomes another person, confident and arrogant).

The funniest character on the show just might be Howard (Simon Helberg), usually referred to by his last name, Wolowitz. Howard lives with his mother and "only" has a Masters in engineering (as Sheldon likes to remind him, even though he builds stuff for the space program), but he is constantly on the prowl, trying to land beautiful women. You have to give the guy credit for taking so much abuse but continuing to move forward. While watching "America's Next Top Model" (a shameless plug for a corporate sibling of "Big Bang"), Howard refers to each of the women as "the future Mrs. Walowitz," and he ends up using every scientific tool at his and Raj's disposal to track down the models' house. Once they get there, when Raj asks which way they should go, he says, of course, to "follow Mrs. Walowitz."

The producers made a smart decision this season to slowly develop Penny from the kind of traditional sweet-but-dumb bimbo she was early last season into a more three-dimensional character. Penny now may not be book smart, but she is certainly sharp enough when it comes to people. A credit to the show is that even though Penny has dated a parade of good-looking guys, you totally believe she would hang out with the four dweebs in the apartment next store. Because to Penny, they are not just four dweebs. They are individuals: One she genuinely likes (Leonard), one she tolerates (barely) because she understands that he doesn't know better (Sheldon), one she likes but can't really have much of a relationship with because he's mute around her (Raj), and one she can laugh at while rejecting his advances (Howard).

"Big Bang" has developed into the kind of solid, funny sitcom that used to be more common on the networks' schedules. It is looking for a broader audience than "30 Rock" or "The Office," and it doesn't aim to be as cinematic as "Samantha Who?" It just wants to make audiences laugh. And it does so, in fact much more so than "Two and a Half Men" (Chuck Lorre is an executive producer on both "Big Bang" and "Two and a Half Men").

As different as "Big Bang" and "Samantha Who" are, they both deliver laughs on Monday nights. And with so few sitcoms on the air right now, I am grateful to have them both.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mitchell Appears on GRITtv with Laura Flanders

I appeared on the first segment of the November 18, 2008 episode of GRITtv with Laura Flanders ( as part of the panel discussion on the proposed bailout of the U.S. auto manufacturers. You can watch it here:

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Meaning of Change Will Be Tested With the Auto Industry Bailout

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

On Meet the Press yesterday, Tom Brokaw presented the two sides of the proposed $25 billion auto bailout debate. Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, argued that it was essential to help the car manufacturers survive, since not to do so would mean the loss of millions of jobs. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican of Alabama, responded that the government should not be in the business of propping up failing companies, and that a Chapter 11 filing might be the best thing for an organization like General Motors that has been so poorly run. (You can read the transcript here.)

Both of them made solid points, even as they were both coming from exceptionally tainted places. (Shelby was espousing a right-wing, markets-cure-all philosophy that has been discredited by the current economic crisis, while Levin has been a central player in the group of Michigan members of Congress who have protected the auto industry from any environmental or other federal regulations, helping to cause the current state of failure for the three companies.) Levin is correct that in the current economic climate, the loss of millions of jobs would be catastrophic. And Shelby, too, is right that the bailout would be throwing money at an industry that has been exceptionally poorly run.

But, to me, the Levin-Shelby argument is like two passengers fighting for a deckchair on the Titanic. No matter who wins, the ship is still going down.

Both of the senators on Meet the Press missed the larger point, viewing the issue in a short-sighted manner. They failed to address the 35-year history of this country not adopting a sound energy policy to combat the dangers of relying on foreign oil imports. The Levin-Shelby smackdown on Meet the Press (which correctly portrays how the battle seems to be shaping up on Capitol Hill now) demonstrates a "same old" approach to this enormous problem, with one side fighting for its special interest and the other side mindlessly clinging to an outdated ideology, all while the larger, politically thornier challenge goes ignored.

Didn't we just have a presidential election that was built on the idea of change?

This country faces an energy crisis that will have a profound effect on our future fortunes in myriad ways. Economically, the swings in the oil market can wreak havoc on the day-to-day fiances of average Americans, as we saw when gas prices soared to more than $4 a gallon. From a foreign policy standpoint, our dependence on oil from the Middle East has forced us to engage in the region in ways that have not served our national interests. And from the point of view of global warming, if we don't do something to lower the level of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, all of the other problems we're facing could become moot if the very habitability of the planet is called into question.

Simply put, after 35 years of sticking our heads in the sand, it's time to address the overall energy situation, rather than running to address crisis after crisis resulting from a lack of a sound energy policy. Or, as Barack Obama put it on 60 Minutes last night, "We go from shock to trance" when gas prices go up and down, and that kind of approach has to stop. (You can read the transcript of the interview, or watch it, by clicking here.)

Since Obama campaigned on a message of change, I was hopeful that his take on the auto industry financial woes would reject the Levin-Shelby view of the issue and adopt a broader point of view. And on 60 Minutes last night, Obama delivered. He said:

"For the auto industry to completely collapse would be a disaster in this kind of environment, not just for individual families but the repercussions across the economy would be dire. So it's my belief that we need to provide assistance to the auto industry. But I think that it can't be a blank check. So my hope is that over the course of the next week, between the White House and Congress, the discussions are shaped around providing assistance but making sure that that assistance is conditioned on labor, management, suppliers, lenders, all the stakeholders coming together with a plan what does a sustainable U.S. auto industry look like? So that we are creating a bridge loan to somewhere as opposed to a bridge loan to nowhere. And that's, I think, what you haven't yet seen. That's something that I think we're gonna have to come up with."

I liked that Obama wants any solution to take into account what "a sustainable U.S. auto industry" will look like, because the big three U.S. car manufacturers have not demonstrated that they have a plan to survive in a 21st century energy environment. I took his statement to mean that for these companies to be sustainable, they have to be part of a national energy policy that looks to wean the country off of its addiction to oil.

Obama and the increased Democratic majorities in Congress do not come into power until January, and it is, apparently, not certain that General Motors can last that long without aid from the government. But if George W. Bush and the current Congress decide not to act, and the company survives to next year, the fate of the U.S. auto industry could provide the new president and Congress with their first test of what change really looks like.

I do have confidence that President Obama will propose that any assistance to the car manufacturers be part of a larger plan that changes the way the United States approaches its energy use. I have less confidence that such a plan will find enough support in Congress to pass, especially in the Senate, where it would take only 41 Republican votes to keep any legislation from moving forward.

If, come January, the debate over aid to Detroit is framed strictly as a Levin-Shelby showdown, we have all lost, no matter which side prevails. Such an outcome would demonstrate that despite the best intentions of a President Obama, the power structure in Washington is not really open to fundamentally changing the way business is done, and, more importantly, is unable to tackle the real problems facing this country.

The question shouldn't be whether or not to bail out the U.S. auto industry. Rather, the debate should be how assistance to the car manufacturers fits within the larger national energy plan that is greener, self-sustaining and economically positive.

Sure, David Brooks is correct that the U.S. auto industry has no right, based on its track record, to be propped up by the government. And Paul Krugman was correct (as he discussed on This Week yesterday) that the effect of the U.S. automakers going out of business in the current economic climate could be devastating to the economy. But, in the long run, what really matters is that the U.S. develop an energy policy that not only ends our dependence on foreign oil and combats global warming, but also provides an engine for 21st century economic growth. And in doing so, that plan would provide aid to the U.S. auto industry that is consistent with this policy, addressing the concerns of both Brooks and Krugman.

Obama was elected because Americans wanted change. I take that to mean that the American people are ready for big solutions to big problems. I hope that the crisis in the U.S. auto industry provides the first chance to address a big challenge, rather than ignore it and battle over an issue that is merely a consequence of a much larger problem. I believe Obama is up to the task. The question is, will Congress let it happen?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Are “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office” Holding Up Over Time?

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

Since my last column covered the fantastic "30 Rock" and hideous "Kath & Kim," I thought it would be a good idea to tackle the other two NBC Thursday night sitcoms, "My Name Is Earl" (8 p.m. Eastern) and "The Office" (9 p.m. Eastern). As the veterans of the evening ("Earl" is in its fourth season, while "The Office" is a year older), and as shows that adopted nontraditional, even innovative, styles that define them ("Earl" is shot like a film and is built around the main character's list of things he has done wrong in his life, "The Office" is a mockumentary), it seems like a good time to check in on how they are handling the demands of sustaining their high quality over time.

"Earl" is the more outwardly commercial of the two sitcoms. As creative as executive Greg Garcia is with his premise, the show's humor is pretty straight-forward. Small-time-crook-turned-do-gooder Earl (Jason Lee) is surrounded by a group of loony (and funny) characters in his small town of Camden, including his dim-bulb brother Randy (Ethan Suplee), his bitch-on-wheels ex-wife Joy (Jamie Pressley), Joy's witness-protection-program-resident husband Darnell (Eddie Steeples), and Earl and Randy's friend, the hotel maid and exotic dancer Catalina (Nadine Velazquez).

For the first two seasons, each episode centered on Earl trying to atone for one of the sins on his list, with essentially the same structure each time (Earl and Randy find the person, Earl thinks he's fixed the problem, everything goes horribly wrong, and Earl ends up saving the day for the person, allowing him/her to move on happily in life). The setup allowed for the inclusion of the town's recurring cast of small-town goofballs (like a "daytime prostitute," a one-legged ex-girlfriend, a one-eyed mailman, a formerly in-the-closet nebbish, and Earl's beaten-up-by-life parents, played by Beau Bridges and Nancy Lenehan, just to name a few). It also opened the way for the savvy use of guest stars, including Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rappaport, David Arquette, Jason Priestly, Burt Reynolds and Norm McDonald (who played Reynolds's character's son, which was very funny, since McDonald essentially reprised his killer Reynolds impersonation from his "Saturday Night Live" days).

Last year, Garcia took a risk and threw Earl into jail, where much of the strike-shortened season played out. This season finds Earl back on the outside and back solving items from his list, but with a more liberated approach to structure. Last night's episode, for example, took place mostly eight years earlier, when Earl and Joy were still married, Darnell had yet to meet Joy, and Catalina was new to the country.

I give Garcia credit for not playing it safe. He is clearly actively trying to make sure that "Earl" (as well as Earl) remains vital and fresh. And while some of the charm of the uniqueness of the characters has worn off a bit (Joy's selfish, child-neglecting and morals-free pronouncements don't shock like they did four years ago), "Earl" still delivers a steady diet of laughs. The program works, even when things go a bit over the top, as they did in this season's premiere, in which Earl atones for stealing the wish of a one-time Make-a-Wish kid (Seth Green) by helping him make his epic superhero movie. Like "Earl," the episode was silly, strained plausibility, and leaned on the quirks of its characters (even Green played the same obnoxious-but-wounded guy he has perfected), but also funny and even a bit ambitious. I liked how Randy fell so easily into acting (his simple-minded explanation of the job was surprisingly accurate), and how Joy, who is an attention hog in life, was so completely stiff on camera.

I have also enjoyed episodes this year that put Joy in "Bubble Boy"-like quarantine (thanks to Earl giving her a used hot tub that had been a shelter for a homeless guy) and challenged Earl to help Sweet Johnny, who, thanks to a hit on the head, suffered from "Groundhog Day"-style amnesia, waking up each morning not remembering anything that happened the day before (which was helpful, since Earl's crime was sleeping with Sweet Johnny's girlfriend).

"Earl" has always set out to be a better-than-average, but still mainstream, comedy, and, more often than not, it has hit the mark. Think of it as the poor man's "Arrested Development" or the smart man's "Rules of Engagement." "Earl" adroitly splits the difference and manages to be an entertaining half hour. And thanks to Garcia's toying with the premise to keep things fresh, it is holding up fine in its fourth season.

Greg Daniels and his crew at "The Office" have a far tougher job. But then again, from the beginning, the task facing this show has been monumental. When you hear "American remake of a hit British sitcom," thoughts of "Coupling" spring to mind. And the Ricky Gervais version of "The Office" was groundbreaking and beloved by its rabid fans. That was the buzz saw that awaited the American adaptation, and after a couple of episodes essentially re-shooting scripts from the English series, the American model found its footing. Before long, the U.S. "Office" had garnered critical and fan approval as a buzz-worthy show of its own.

Having dodged the adaptation bullet, the American "Office" now had an even bigger challenge, which was to sustain its off-center, unique and fresh approach to comedy. The subtle glances to the camera by underachiever Jim (John Krasinski) quickly went from simple pleasure to pop culture icon. The eventual consummation of the Jim-Pam (Jenna Fischer) flirtation ran the risk of a "Cheers" or "Moonlighting" fate of ruining the dramatic tension (something from which "Moonlighting" never recovered). And the politically incorrect, obtuse, but harmless observations of self-deluded boss Michael (Steve Carell), and the nut-job, paranoid career-angling of assistant to the general manager (as opposed to assistant general manager) Dwight (Rainn Wilson), after five years, are no longer surprising to the audience.

Throw in that the fate of NBC's once-vaunted Must See TV Thursday night lineup was now depending on the strong demographic ratings of "The Office" (Thursday is the most important ratings day, and "The Office," while low-rated in overall audience share, does very well in the demographic targeted by advertisers) and that the show was asked to produce more material than most other sitcoms (including extended and extra episodes), and I think it would be hard to rebut an argument that few sitcoms have ever faced the challenge of remaining successful that "The Office" has.

And now, in it's fifth season, is it standing up to the test of time? I would have to say yes, but with an asterisk.

"The Office" is still one of the smartest and funniest shows on television. This season has brought us such outrageously entertaining concepts as the company's weight-loss contest, an ethics seminar (at Dunder-Mifflin, go figure), Michael throwing a shower for Jan's baby (only to find out that she gave birth without telling him), Jim and Pam's micro-Bluetooth earpieces (hands-down my favorite bit of the season), Kelly (Mindy Kaling) sabotaging the customer reviews of Jim and Dwight (for blowing off her party), and Michael's touching and awkwardly funny end-of-episode balling out of his boss last night. We've also been treated to Ryan (B.J. Novack) falling back to earth and taking a receptionist position at the Scranton office, where he had to watch his ex, Kelly, enjoy a new relationship with warehouse manager Darryl (Craig Robinson). When Ryan finally won Kelly back last night (using, of all things, push-ups to impress her), his idea to break up with Darryl by text message (and his response) was very funny. As was the final tag, when the reality of being back with Kelly hits Ryan square between the eyes.

So what is the asterisk? Well, "The Office," while still funny, has lost its status as an "event" show. While I used to go into each episode wondering, "What will they do next?", the show is now an institution, a known quantity that you can count on to entertain you. Put another way, it's closer to "Earl" than it used to be.

But it's not anyone's fault. With all the mountains "The Office" has climbed, the one thing it could not overcome was familiarity. I'm not sure there is any way to make a program in its fifth year feel ground-breaking. (It's not a coincidence that Gervais ended his "Office" after only 14 episodes, and his very funny "Extras" after only 13.) Individual episodes can become buzz-worthy, but not the series as a whole. And it's not like there hasn't been an effort. This season, Pam was sent to New York to study graphic design, thus separating the most talked about pair of characters on the show (Jim and Pam). While the idea spawned some memorable gags (like the mini Bluetooths), over all, I think we, as an audience, miss seeing Jim and Pam together. I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that Pam's return to Scranton at the end of last night's episode was for good.

And I loved Amy Ryan's Holly providing a love interest for Michael. Holly was the first woman who actually made sense as Michael's girlfriend (Melora Hardin's Jan was funny precisely because she and Michael were completely illogical together), and her loopy, off-center energy was great for the program. I was almost as sad as Michael was to see her shipped off to the Nashua office last week.

But even if "The Office" no longer feels as exciting and fresh as it did in its first season, it is every bit as funny. The sitcom has successfully answered so many challenges over the last four-and-a-half seasons, and the fact that it still generates so many smart laughs is really all that one can reasonably expect.

All in all, "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" are doing their jobs anchoring NBC's Thursday night lineup, and "30 Rock," newer and buzzier, is a nice fit, too. Now all the network has to do is find a replacement for "Kath & Kim" and it will be all set.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

AC/DC Is Still Rocking After All These Years

Pure energy. That is about the most succinct way to sum up an AC/DC concert, and the description certainly applied last night, as the band played the first of two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.

Hitting the road for the first time since 2003, AC/DC ran through an 18-song, 100-minute set that sprinkled five cuts from its solid new CD Black Ice amongst the band's hard rock standards from its 35-year career. Many of the elements fans expect to see in an AC/DC show were present and accounted for: the giant inflatable bimbo bouncing to the beat during "Whole Lot of Rosie"; lead singer Brian Johnson swinging from the rope/clapper of a giant bell during the opening of "Hells Bells"; lead guitarist Angus Young performing a striptease out of his English schoolboy uniform while the band kept a 12-bar-blues beat during "The Jack"; Young gyrating on an elevated hydraulic platform at the center of the arena's floor seats (and elsewhere) while soloing to the "Ballroom Blitz" drum beat of main-set finale "Let There Be Rock"; Young emerging from below the stage wearing devil horns for "Highway to Hell"; Young suggestively thrusting his guitar between Johnson's legs while churning out riffs; rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bass player Cliff Williams walking in unison to and from the microphones at the front of the stage to sing their backup parts; and the firing of antique cannons during the show-closer "For Those About to Rock." And for this tour, the band added a giant train crashing onto the stage from behind at the end of an animated short film that kicked off the show, leading into the opening number, "Rock and Roll Train."

But the continuity was a good thing, since there is no reason to mess with a winning formula. Angus Young, 53, and Johnson, impossibly 61, seem to be more than just defying their ages; they are kicking time's ass. Young, as always, was in constant motion, marching in place, running around the stage, falling onto his back, and Chuck Berry duckwalking, all while continuing to lay down iconic guitar licks. Johnson, too, moved constantly, mostly playing to the sides of the stage or walking down the long ramp to the center of the floor, ceding the center stage spotlight to Young. (AC/DC is one of the few bands whose central performer is the lead guitarist, not the lead singer, although that is more a testament to Young's chops and manic stage presence than any kind of knock on the dynamic Johnson.)

The spectacle of an AC/DC show is awesome. The band does a great job of walking the fine line between cheesy fun and just cheesy. And the pyrotechnics are unleashed in measured doses, so that there is no overkill effect. They make each blast matter. I'm not sure there is much out there to contend with the power of the antique cannons firing during "For Those About to Rock." With all due respect to Pink Floyd's pig, which I've seen live, and Tommy Lee's spinning drum kit, which I've only watched on television, I think "For Those About to Rock" is my favorite spectacle concert moment, with the song's ominous guitar lines, Johnson's "Fire!" exclamations, and the firing and recoiling cannons all coming together into a perfect fit.

But if AC/DC was only spectacle, you could go to a laser show and save a ton of money. What makes an AC/DC concert a must-see event is the combination of spectacle and great hard-driving rock music. There is not a lot of variety to the band's songs, but they somehow manage to give each one just enough individual personality so that it all doesn't start to run into one long mush (like Cure concerts do for me). AC/DC may reuse key words in their song titles ("Back in Black" and "Black Ice"; "The Jack" and "Big Jack"; "Highway to Hell," "Hells Bells" and "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be"; and "For Those About to Rock," "Let There Be Rock" and "Rock and Roll Train" ... it could have been a "rock" foursome if they had played "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)"), but the performances never felt repetitive.

The band has written some of the most enduring hard rock songs, and they are as heavy and spooky (as appropriate) today as they were when they were released. The ominous openings of "Hells Bells" and "For Those About to Rock" still send shivers up your spine, and the thundering riffs of "Highway to Hell," "TNT," "Dirty Deeds," "You Shook Me All Night Long" and "Back and Black" still send your head bobbing along to the beat.

And, above all else, an AC/DC show is fun. The entire crowd was on its feet from the first minute to the last, singing, pumping fists, and moving to Cliff Rudd's thundering drum beats and Young's guitar explosions. Even with five new songs in the set, there wasn't a this-is-a-good-time-to-hit-the-rest-room moment the whole night. The band generates a momentum that other acts would envy.

Since this is the fifth time I've seen AC/DC (the first was in October 1988), I couldn't help but compare the shows in my head. And I found that nearly nothing has been lost despite the band members getting up in age. The only real thing I could come up with was that Young used to hop on Johnson's shoulders for a guitar solo, which didn't happen last night. The band still sounds great, and Johnson's yowl of a voice, while maybe a trifle thinner than it used to be, still serves the music well. Johnson handles the Bon Scott-era numbers as readily as the ones he performed originally, and his knack of knowing when to engage and when to step back remains intact.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that it's hard to describe the appeal of an AC/DC show to someone who has never seen one. After all, it admittedly reads weird that a highlight of the night was a scrawny, pasty 53-year-old, sweat-covered man doing a striptease out of an English schoolboy uniform. But all the elements somehow work, melding into as good of an arena rock show as you'll ever see. I guess that's why there is no band quite like AC/DC.

And I only hope I'm as energetic as Brian Johnson is when I'm 61.

Opening act The Answer, from Northern Ireland, performed an energetic and tight 30-minute set. The band members are clearly devotees of Led Zeppelin, from the shaggy-haired blonde frontman to the Les Paul-playing guitarist to the cement-fisted drummer, and the Zeppelin-esque songs, filled with heavy blues riffs and near-falsetto dramatic vocals, feel like unreleased tracks from Led Zeppelin I. There is little original about The Answer, but the members' performance chops and decent songs made for an entertaining set.

Set List
Madison Square Garden
November 12, 2008

Rock 'N Roll Train
Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be
Back In Black
Big Jack
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Black Ice
The Jack
Hells Bells
Shoot to Thrill
War Machine
Anything Goes
You Shook Me All Night Long
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Highway To Hell
For Those About To Rock

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How Nice Is It to Finally Have a Smart President?

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

The week that has passed since Election Day has been a blur. There was worldwide joy over Barack Obama's victory. There were also many words of caution that if Obama and the Democrats didn't play their cards right, things could turn ugly very quickly (some guy named Mitchell Bard wrote such an article the day after the election).

But now, with some time having passed, my ability to focus is slowly returning to normal. The first realization that has emerged through my election-induced fog has been: What a nice change it will be to have a president who is smart and cares about competence. See, no matter what happens in the future, whether the Obama presidency is a roaring success or gets stymied in enacting its goals, we will still be able to point to our president and say, "Yeah, we elected a really bright guy." Which is a huge improvement over the last eight years, when we had to look at our president and say, with a groan, "Did he just say that? Is he back on the bottle?"

For me, the first jolt was Obama's press conference on Friday (you can watch it and read the transcript here). As I watched, I smiled at finally being able to see a president speak with knowledge, intelligence, subtlety and depth of thought. Again, regardless of political ideology, whether you think Obama's policies are exactly what America needs to get back on track or a one-way ticket to disaster, Obama's intellect is what you would hope for in a president, especially after eight years of a "decider" mangling the English language (not to mention every issue he tackled).

The press conference offered many moments that made me happy. Obama's well publicized answer to a question about the family's impending puppy acquisition was funny and illuminating, and his tone and thoughts on the problems facing the country were of a level we haven't seen since the Bush brood took over the White House.

But one passage of his introduction stood out to me as a great example of how nice it is to have someone with intelligence in charge. Obama discussed aid to the automobile industry in a way that not only demonstrated a command of the issue, but that also showed the tact and skill to be absolutely clear on his position without being unduly harsh on those who would disagree. And, of course, in doing so, he made it far more likely that he could actually get something accomplished. Obama said:

"I would like to see the administration do everything it can to accelerate the retooling assistance that Congress has already enacted. In addition, I have made it a high priority for my transition team to work on additional policy options to help the auto industry adjust, weather the financial crisis, and succeed in producing fuel-efficient cars here in the United States of America."

Translation: We're not throwing money away on loans and grants to an industry that is stuck in the past -- aid that will only prolong an inevitable death -- but if the industry wants to modernize and change course to be a positive force as part of a forward-thinking energy plan, then we absolutely will help. In an nutshell, there is money for modernization and retooling, but none to maintain the status quo.

In style and substance, it was the perfect statement. The auto industry is a tricky problem to take on. Politically, Democrats have to be supportive or risk votes in what has been an increasingly reliable blue state. And the industry is responsible for providing millions of jobs at a time when unemployment is on the rise. At the same time, high oil prices, increasing oil demand, and foreign policy and environmental concerns have conspired to place urgency behind finding alternatives to oil as an energy source, something the auto industry has not been willing to address. And the American car-makers have been on a long, slow slide for some time now, with its executives unwilling or unable to do anything to reverse the tide.

Obama handled this complicated, contentious and difficult problem in a graceful and effective way. Republicans who accuse Obama of being beholden to traditional liberal special interests (like unions) can't say he was toeing anyone's line in this case. But at the same time, those on the left who demand energy reform will have to be behind this kind of initiative, even if it rankles the union constituency. And Obama delivered his stance with a positivity that looked to find a solution, not to call out an industry that has failed miserably in adjusting to the new realities of world energy production and consumption (a future that has been inevitable for decades).

I was so impressed with how Obama handled the issue, and I was even more impressed that he brought it up himself, rather than wait for a question from the press.

Quite a change from Bush's simplistic pronouncements like, "They hate us for our freedom," no?

And it's not just Obama, but the people who surround him. The new anti-anti-intellectual wave (yes, I meant to write that) that Obama is carrying with him to Washington was apparent as I watched his transition team member and long-time friend Valerie Jarrett on Meet the Press on Sunday (you can read the transcript of the show here). Tom Brokaw, knowing that many viewers didn't know much about Jarrett, began the interview with a quick "Meet the Press version of a baseball card" of her. The mini bio noted that she graduated from Stanford University and the University of Michigan Law School (and her daughter is at Harvard Law School), worked as a deputy chief of staff for the mayor of Chicago, and currently serves as the CEO of a real estate development company.

As I watched Jarrett speak with knowledge and insight on the Obama family, the transition, and potential members of the new administration, I was struck by the difference between the people Obama has surrounded himself with and the parade of unqualified and under-educated cronies and ideologues that made up the Bush administration. I immediately flashed back to Bill Maher's "new rule" in April 2007 about the importance of competence, and how Bush's anti-intellectual, political, competence-disdaining approach to staffing was epitomized by Monica Goodling, who was the number three person at the Justice Department before she resigned as part of the U.S. Attorney scandal. As Maher pointed out, Goodling was 33 and had no prosecutorial experience, even though she was charged with overseeing the performance of the more than 90 U.S. Attorneys around the country (who, in turn, managed thousands of lawyers under them). It seems Goodling's qualification for the job was that she attended Pat Robertson's law school, Regent University School of Law, which is ranked in the last tier of schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Maher reported that 150 Regent graduates were hired by the Bush administration.

Goodling was emblematic of Bush's sea of crony appointees. There were so many embarrassing appointments, but these three jump out at me: He put Michael Brown, the judges and stewards commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, in charge of FEMA, with disastrous results after Hurricane Katrina; he tried to appoint his buddy Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, even though she was a commercial litigator with a law degree from Southern Methodist University (nothing to be ashamed of, but not a resume for a Supreme Court justice); and he placed the overmatched political lackey Alberto Gonzales in charge of the Justice Department, resulting in the least independent, most politicized Justice Department in modern history.

And now, here was Jarrett, on top of her game, and the contrast was unmistakable. And the qualifications of the numerous names kicked around for cabinet posts in an Obama administration were equally impressive when weighed against Bush's choices.

George Monbiot wrote an article in the U.K. paper the Guardian last week that sought to explain why the U.S. has such an anti-intellectual streak to its politics, despite producing some of the greatest universities and research institutions in the world. When I read the article for the first time this morning, it crystallized all that had made me angry about the Bush presidency, and it helped accentuate what a breath of fresh air listening to Obama has been in comparison.

For the last eight years, I have bemoaned the growing idea in the United States that presidential candidates can be "too smart." I was sickened by the idea that the electorate seemed to demand mediocrity as a way of ensuring that a president could understand its concerns. As I wrote after the vice-presidential debate, I don't want a president who is "just like me," I want someone better. Watching Barack Obama this week, it occurred to me that, just maybe, America has decided to value intelligence over relatability, and competence over fear mongering. And that makes me very happy, no matter what the upcoming months and years hold for the new president.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes We Did! But There Is a Lot More to Do

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

I am truly moved by the historic nature of Barack Obama's victory. And I fully understand the need for his supporters to celebrate. After months of hoping, waiting and fearing the worst, Obama's win was like a giant catharsis. A communal breath of relief.

But let us not linger too long on his triumph. Because if an Obama presidency is not successful, much of what was gained will be lost. And quickly. The last thing we need is another Jimmy Carter (which brought us Ronald Reagan), and Obama may not have the time to rebound after a tentative start, like Bill Clinton did early in his first term. The election is not the end of this journey. In fact, it's close to the beginning. Obama has not hit a home run; he has merely earned the right to step into the batter's box.

First, though, we should absolutely pause for a moment to recognize and take pride in what has occurred. It is monumental that the United States has elected an African American to be president. Given that racism is still felt in so many aspects of our society, that mere fact alone is worthy of celebration. But what I find exceptionally gratifying and moving is that the country turned to a black candidate because it wanted a smart, unifying, transcendent leader. Race took a back seat to excellence. It was an important step for the U.S. to take.

Equally exciting to me is that the American electorate rejected negative smear tactics and a campaign of fear to elect a candidate who had demonstrated that he was competent, smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking and a man of big ideas. For the last eight years, we have endured the polar opposite. George W. Bush ruled by fear, scaring Americans into accepting what he wanted. He was a beacon of anti-intellectualism and shallow thought. And competence was a dirty word in the Bush administration, forever personified by the president's compliment, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," when the head of FEMA, who was totally unqualified for the position, completely dropped the ball as death and destruction were allowed to rage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In this election, the citizens of this country reached a point where they were not going to accept another campaign of fear and smears. No amount of talk about Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, or accusations that Obama was a socialist and a friend of terrorists, or the not-so-subtle hints about "real" Americans and "pro-America" parts of the country, would sway voters from choosing the candidate they felt was the better man for the job. And this is something of which we should all be proud.

So rejoice fellow Obama supporters. Take in this moment. Feel the pride and the hope and the optimism. It's all well deserved.

But eventually, and soon, we have to move on. Because tremendous challenges await the Obama administration (how cool is it to write that?!?), and failure is not an option, not if the Democrats want to hold onto power. Again, if Obama turns out to be as unsuccessful as Carter was in addressing the nation's woes, what, other than the symbolic breaking of a barrier, has been accomplished?

Obama will take office facing a mountain of problems that are, in aggregate, far worse than those faced by Carter: an economy in recession, reeling financial markets, a broken military, two wars, an energy crisis, the need to overhaul the nation's health care system, the spiraling cost of Medicare and Social Security, and a huge deficit that will limit the resources available to address all of these problems.

And Obama will have to act with an angry, bitter, very conservative minority in Congress waiting for him to fail and committed to do what it can to see that he does. Remember, with the Democrats mustering only 56 Senate seats (if you include Joe Lieberman, plus Jeff Merkley and/or Mark Begich if either prevails in their late-running races), the party is far from securing the 60 votes it needs to bring legislation to a vote. That means it takes only 41 Republicans to block anything from getting done in the chamber.

If you think the Republicans have been humbled by the drubbing the party took, consider that House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio (a state Obama won) said yesterday: "Democrats would be making a big mistake if they viewed these results as a repudiation of conservatism or a mandate for big government." Boehner also said that Obama "has sketched a troubling policy road map that will be run through a Congress that was purchased by powerful liberal special interests." Without filibuster power, House Republicans won't be able to do much to block Obama's plans, but Boehner's bellicose words, which are, frankly, shocking in light of the country's repudiation of Republicans in the election, illustrate the kind of nearly irrational hostility the new president will have to face from the GOP.

And when you consider the election as a whole and look beyond Obama's win, there are some disturbing signs that the Democrats will be at great risk of losing power in 2010 if they don't start solving some of the country's problems very soon. Consider that 2008 was a perfect storm rushing at the Republicans: a despised Republican president was in office, an economic crisis hit less than two months before the election, the country was engaged in an unpopular war, and Democrats experienced record turnout (including African Americans and young people).

It would be hard to conceive of a set of circumstances, short of a Watergate-like scandal, that would be worse for the Republicans. And yet, in the end, they did better than they ever could have hoped. While Obama's victory was solid, in the end, he only bested McCain by six percentage points. While gains were made in the Senate, the Democrats failed to capture any of the three vulnerable deep red states in play (Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi), prospects look bleak for a victory in blue Minnesota, and there is no guarantee of winning in blue Oregon. Even in the House, where seats were picked up (we don't know for sure how many yet), it looks like the total will be on the low end of the expected range, and several Democratic incumbents actually lost, including one in Louisiana who earlier this year won a special election to gain the seat in a predominantly Republican district.

My point is that, even with an extremely favorable situation in place, the Democrats' gains were relatively modest. It would not take much of a turnaround for these swing House districts to swing back to the GOP, and for the Senate races to be less hospitable to Democrats than they were in 2008. And in 2010, the party will not be able to count on the historic turnout that came with Obama's run for the presidency.

Which is why the journey is not over with Obama's election. It is essential that the Democrats take a smart and bold path to make the lives of middle and working class Americans better. If the party can succeed in this regard, the 2010 doomsday scenario will never occur. Bold options have to be considered, such as the Green New Deal Van Jones has talked about. Jones argues that investing in green energy production as both an economic stimulus and a way to address the country's crippling energy problems can ensure that Obama does not meet the same fate as Carter. (Jones wrote an article in the latest issue of The Nation about building a coalition to make a Green New Deal a reality.) Whatever path Obama and the Democrats take, they have to put the United States on a path to recovery.

As excited as I am about Obama's big win, I can't help worrying about what comes next. If he handles the presidency as deftly and assuredly as he ran his campaign, we have nothing to worry about. Let's hope the Democrats are able to start getting the job done in the next two years. The legacy of this election depends on it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who Would Be a Better President? I Say, Who Ran a Better Campaign?

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

With Election Day upon us, it seems like there couldn't possibly be a fresh argument to make for either candidate. But I think I have one.

The policy differences between Barack Obama and John McCain are clear and stark. It seems to me that, at this point, if a voter is choosing based on issues, it's a no-brainer which of the two is closer to his/her values. And for voters choosing based on personality (that is, who they want to have a beer with, or who has a certain skin color), not much can be done to change their minds.

But there is one valid factor that has not been discussed much, and that goes beyond issues of policy or philosophy. We have watched Obama and McCain run their campaigns for nearly two years. These are sprawling organizations with huge budgets and vast staffs. And they have had to act as almost shadow administrations, taking positions as issues arose in the world.

To me, watching how Obama and McCain ran their campaign operations provided the best insight into how competent each man would be in running a presidential administration. In a post-Katrina world, the American people certainly should be holding competency high on the list of criteria necessary to be president.

I think a question every voter needs to ask himself/herself before voting is: Which candidate has run the kind of campaign operation I would like to see the federal government emulate? I think the answer to this query has a clear and simple answer: Barack Obama.

I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion (any discussion, really) in any quarters (the campaigns and the media) of this simple fact. Obama's campaign has been run like a well-oiled machine (often to the frustration of his opponents), while McCain's campaign has been a circus. Consider these areas:

The two leading figures in Obama's campaign, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, have been with Obama since his 2004 run for the U.S. Senate. Obama and his team settled on a message and a plan that they have stayed on for two years. You've heard it so many times, you can probably recite it along with me: change (ending the financial and foreign policy strategies of the last eight years and adopting new ones that work better for all Americans), inclusion (no red states or blue states, only the United States), and hope (inspiring rather than tearing down).

Obama identified a goal, came up with an effective plan to attain that goal, and followed it. Not a bad thing for an administration to do, no?

And what of McCain's campaign? The only continuity was the consistent lack of it. There were two staff shake-ups. The message veered from point to point with no overriding theme. As easy as it was to predict the three things I would write to describe Obama's vision, what can you say McCain has stuck with for his two years on the campaign trail? McCain started with the experience argument. When that didn't work, he shifted to national security. When the economic woes prevented that from getting traction, he belatedly moved to the economy, careening around for a couple of weeks before finally embracing a tax argument in time for the last debate (and the appearance of the overexposed Joe the Plumber).

In the end, McCain has relied on telling us what Obama is not, rather than what he is. When he scolded Obama in the third debate that he was not George W. Bush, the reason the argument didn't resonate with voters was not just because he voted with Bush 89 percent of the time since he has been in the Senate, but because he spent the whole primary season telling Republicans how much he agreed with the president.

During one of the debates, McCain argued he should be elected president because he would be a "steady hand" at "the tiller." But from watching two years of running their campaigns, Obama has proven to be the steadier hand.

If Obama wins, the big story will be the historic act of America electing an African American president. And it should be. But what may be lost is the impressive feat that Obama pulled off, namely that as a first-time candidate for the White House, he was able to put together and oversee a vastly better operation than either of his two well-connected insider rivals, Hillary Clinton and McCain.

Starting from scratch, Obama and his campaign built a large, powerful, active, engaged and effective organization that worked harder and better than anyone else's. It allowed him to dominate the Democratic caucuses and get out the vote for the Democratic primaries, and it looks like it will allow him to win in the general election in states in which nobody thought a Democrat could be successful.

After eight years of a government that is broken, it would be great to have an administration that works as well as the Obama campaign has.

And for those who say, "Well, he had so much money," I have two replies: First, how do you think he got all that money? Sure, people had to be excited about the message, but without a well-organized campaign, Obama would not have been able to turn that enthusiasm into millions of small donations. Second, even with a money advantage, Obama's campaign was leaner and meaner than McCain's. Of the 10 highest-paid campaign employees, seven of the 10 work for McCain, including the three highest earners. At a time of economic crisis, the ability to work efficiently is essential, and Obama has proven he can do it.

Sean Quinn at did an excellent job of discussing the strength of the Obama "ground game."

Big Decisions
As John Kerry pointed out on Meet the Press on Sunday, the candidates have had two major decisions to make during the general election campaign: Who should be their running mates, and how they should handle the financial crisis. On both, the candidates showed how they operate.

Regarding the vice presidential selections, Obama's vetting process was so thorough, Tim Kaine joked on The Daily Show about how in-depth it was (including his "high school girlfriend's middle name"). The result was the selection of Joe Biden, an experienced Senator with impeccable foreign policy credentials, the one area that was perceived to be a weakness for Obama.

And what did McCain do? When the right-wing elements of his party would not let him choose Joseph Lieberman, he responded by impetuously going with Sarah Palin. He reportedly made the decision after having had only one meeting and one phone conversation with her, and with no formal vetting process. And how did that work out for McCain? Palin has been roundly criticized, by individuals with a range of political orientations, for being unfit to be vice president. And while her selection energized the base and gave McCain a much-needed jolt of excitement in the campaign, the long-term results were far less positive. Her shocking lack of knowledge and depth of thought, as exposed in her disastrous interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric and her talking-points spewing performance in the debate, ultimately caused her to become a drag on the ticket, preventing many independents from supporting McCain. And she seemed to have an endless stream of skeletons in her Nieman-Marcus-stuffed closet, from ethics violations to the secessionist party her husband belonged to.

Palin's fall from grace was not outside the realm of prediction. A careful vetting process would have revealed the very problems that caused her to be a net negative on the ticket. McCain's impetuousness, along with his shocking lack of judgment, don't bode well for his ability to make decisions as president.

To be clear, I'm not talking about my judgment of Palin (if you want that, you can read this). I am saying that, objectively speaking, Palin's selection was impulsive and reckless, and, in the end, was damaging to McCain's campaign (judged by the polls, including a recent one by CBS News/The New York Times that Found that 59 percent of respondents found her not qualified to be vice president).

On the running mate issue, Obama conducted himself more as you would want a president to act. Just as he did when the economic crisis hit last month.

McCain, days after declaring that the "fundamentals of the economy" were "strong" (watch him say it here), was forced to change his tune as the crisis deepened. He responded by "suspending" his campaign to rush to Washington to "help" get a deal for a bailout package. (This was after he did a 180-degree turn on the bailout of AIG). He also tried to get the first debate postponed.

McCain's poll numbers took a nosedive after Americans watched his unsteady handling of the crisis. McCain's conduct was in stark contrast to the way Obama handled things. He took counsel from economic experts, stayed in touch with Congressional leaders, made his feelings known, and, most importantly, didn't try and disrupt the legislative process by thrusting himself into the middle of it. And most of all, he remained calm, steady and collected. As John Kerry pointed out on Meet the Press on Sunday, the four principals Obama laid out as being essential to any bailout legislation were contained in the final bill.

As you look back on the 2008 election, whose campaign would make you prouder to be an American? Obama certainly ran some tough ads challenging McCain's policies and voting record, but McCain took the campaign into the gutter, allowing McCarthy-esque attacks on Obama as a socialist, calling out Obama on his patriotism, and running the same kind of smear-filled robocalls that McCain himself was a victim of in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

McCain ominously asked in television ads, "Who is Barack Obama?", as if there were deep mysteries that had to be uncovered, instead of Obama being one of the most heavily vetted candidates in the history of elections. (You know that if Obama had tripped over an American flag as a third-grader, some right-wing investigator would have uncovered it by now.)

But keep in mind that Obama never asked, "Who is John McCain?", even though Obama really would have had more to say. The best McCain could do was talk about Obama sitting on the same charity boards as Bill Ayers or a meeting with a Palestinian Columbia professor (to whom McCain's organization had given half-a-million dollars). But Obama never struck back, allowing McCain to portray himself as he saw fit, unchallenged.

Anyone who has read Tim Dickinson's well-researched, scathing piece in Rolling Stone on McCain knows that he is not the man he portrays himself to be. Had Obama done many of the things that McCain did, McCain would have them plastered in ads in every swing state. But Obama never raised anything from McCain's past, even though I have no doubt that many undecided voters would be greatly affected if they read Dickinson's article. In six months, you have never heard Obama utter the name "Keating," and even when given a chance to say something bad about Palin during the third debate, he declined to do so (and McCain followed by eviscerating Biden).

At a time when the standing of the United States in the world has been battered by eight years of damaging conduct by the Bush administration, it is important for America to re-establish its international credibility. That is why looking at the way Obama and McCain conducted themselves during the campaign is so important. Obama offered an approach we can all be proud of, while McCain's descent into the gutter is all too reminiscent of Bush's behavior.

Top Staff
Compare Obama's inner circle to McCain's closest advisers. McCain has relied on a team of lobbyists. Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with payments reportedly made to his company as recently as August, and the nation of Georgia paid the firm of McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randall Scheunemann, nearly $900,000. As the Washington Post pointed out, nearly every one of McCain's top advisers is a lobbyist, including Steve Schmidt, Mark McKinnon and Charles Black Jr. CNN confirmed that seven of the top officials in the McCain campaign were lobbyists.

Which might explain why the McCain campaign was run so poorly that it drew angry criticism from conservatives.

McCain's biggest misstep of all might have been allowing Phil Gramm, the former Texas Senator, to be the chief architect of his economic plan. Gramm was primarily responsible for knocking down the 65-year-old protections of the Glass-Steagall Act, which many analysts agree was at the heart of the recent credit crisis.

As a voter, is this how you want your White House run?

Obama has rejected money from lobbyists and surrounded himself with advisers who have distinguished themselves in their fields (people like former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former National Security Advisor Tony Lake).

You may not agree with the politics of Obama's advisers, but they are unquestionably less tainted than the lobbyists with whom McCain surrounded himself.

And again, in a post-Katrina world, isn't competency important?

Obama took a 21st Century, post-partisan approach to the campaign, saying early on he would compete in traditional red states, a position that was roundly dismissed as wishful thinking by both the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

But Obama was proven correct. He is ahead in the polls in the Bush-won states of Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa; he is essentially tied in the formerly red states of North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri and Florida; and he is close in the formerly bright red states of Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Georgia and Arizona. Meanwhile, McCain is trying to piece together an electoral college victory while defending states that were once thought to be safe for him, and through a quixotic, Hail Mary effort in Pennsylvania. As Nate Silver wrote on about McCain's hopes of competing in Pennsylvania (having a bit of fun with Hillary Clinton's old jibe at Obama), "hope is not a strategy."

If you put aside the issues and personalities and judge Obama and McCain based on their campaigns, there is a clear choice as to what kind of America you want for the next four years. And if you're looking for competence, organization, steadiness, vision, good judgment and behavior we can be proud of, the choice is obvious: Vote for Barack Obama.