Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Important News From Iraq This Week, But You Probably Didn't See Much About It

While the news outlets have been obsessed with the Austrian father who kept his daughter as a sex slave, the weirdo religious sect in Texas that paired middle-aged men with teenage girls (is this a trend?) and non-stop discussion of Rev. Jeremiah Wright (wait, is he running for office?), there is precious airtime, print space and bandwidth left for less interesting stories ... like what is going on in Iraq. At least that's how it seems the TV news folks see it.

As a public service, here is a reminder of some Iraq-related stories you might have missed in the last week.

Last Friday Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who does not support the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, spoke out to clarify exactly what he and his army stand for. He said, "When we threatened to declare an open war until the liberation, we meant war against the occupier." He made it clear that he had no interest in fighting the Iraqi government, who recently tried to clear his army from Basra, but only the American forces currently in Iraq.

This statement is actually pretty staggering when you consider that George W. Bush, John McCain and the rest of the Republican crowd supporting the war in Iraq tell us over and over again that if the U.S. was to pull its forces out of the country, there would be carnage. Others have argued for quite some time that the American presence in Iraq is the very factor that gives rise to much of the violence, and if the U.S. was to leave, the violence could actually abate to some extent.

It would seem that the statement by al-Sadr, one of the most powerful anti-government leaders in Iraq, leaves the foundation of Bush and McCain's position quite shaky. Al-Sadr's remarks only serve to focus how the U.S. is now simply refereeing a civil war, a venture that has broken our army, killed more than 4,000 of our soldiers, injured tens of thousands of our servicepeople, and sucked hundreds of billions of dollars from the country at a time of economic uncertainty.

But none of the television news outlets saw fit to give this news much air time. I guess if Al-Sadr had admitted to having sex with a 15-year-old girl, the story would have rocketed to the lead.

Monday brought the news that Shiite insurgents launched rockets and mortar shells into the Green Zone in Baghdad. As you will recall, the Green Zone is supposed to be the safe, protected area of the capital and the center for the international presence in the country. Now, Republicans keep telling us that their vaunted surge made Iraq safer, and that this improvement is why more than 140,000 U.S. forces have to remain in Iraq. So what does it mean now if things are at the point where the Green Zone isn't safe? Similarly, demonstrating that the surge was not something that could be sustained, it was reported today that the death toll in Iraq for April was the highest in seven months. The month has seen 47 American soldiers killed.

The news outlets are so quick to parrot Republican claims that "the surge is working," but apparently reporting the rise in deaths in Iraq is too much of a downer. Now, if American soldiers in Iraq were having sex with 15-year-old girls in the Green Zone, that just might warrant at least a fraction of the coverage now devoted to the speeches of a guy who used to be the pastor for one of the presidential candidates. (As I wrote about on March 24, the news media, despite being obsessed with Rev. Wright, seems not to care at all about the war-mongering, homophobic and downright loopy statements made by the Rev. John Hagee, a man McCain was "very proud" to have endorse him, but I digress.)

Also today, a U.S. report found that al-Qaeda has rebuilt much of its pre-9/11 capabilities from its refuges in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would be the same al-Qaeda that Bush and McCain keep telling us is the number one enemy, and the same al-Qaeda that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. One can only wonder how much damage the U.S. military could have done to al-Qaeda if Bush hadn't lost focus and moved the bulk of American military capabilities from Afghanistan to the useless, unjustified, poorly planned, disastrous, draining entanglement in Iraq.

On September 13, 2001, Bush said, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him." By January of 2008, the top military officer in the pentagon, Adm. Mike Mullen, said, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."

In other words, Bush chose to pursue his war in Iraq at the expense of fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How many Americans do you think agree with that decision (even accounting for the section of the country that believes, thanks to Bush's propaganda, that Iraq was behind 9/11)?

The report that al-Qaeda is resurgent should be breaking news. Maybe if al-Qaeda was having sex with 15-year-old ... yeah, yeah, you know where I'm going with this.

As I discussed at length on April 14, it has become clear, even in the minds of the U.S. military and some Republicans in the Congress, that the U.S. cannot sustain its current level of engagement in Iraq for much longer (or, more accurately, any longer). The stories of the last week in Iraq only crystallize that there is no justification for the U.S. to remain there. And yet, these news items were buried behind sensationalistic tabloid stories. It's shocking to think that the mainstream media has become not much better than the National Enquirer.

Then again, if you were watching the news for the last week, you are probably an expert on the teachings of Rev. Wright, and you've heard a lot about religious fanatics dressing women in pioneer outfits, not to mention getting your fill of the "Saw"-like sadistic thrills hearing about the sicko in Austria who brutalized, isolated and sexually assaulted his daughter for decades.

Personally, I found the interest in the Wright story overblown, the religious sect silly, and the Austrian criminal sick, and I'd rather hear more about the truth of what's going on in Iraq. But I guess, to television news executives, I'm the odd one. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Democrats Failing Despite Having Everything Going Their Way

As I look at the poll numbers and the never-ending stream of stories about the Democratic presidential race, I feel like my head is ready to explode. At first glance, nothing seems to add up.

Consider the following:

In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 81 percent of respondents said that the country is on the "wrong track." That same poll also revealed that 78 percent of those asked think they are worse off than they were five years ago, which represents the highest total since CBS started asking that question in 1986. The poll also found that 21 percent thought the economy was in good shape (the lowest number since 1992), and that the economy is the number one concern of voters, far outdistancing the second-place finisher (the war in Iraq).

President Bush's approval rating in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll was 28 percent, with 69 percent of respondents disapproving of his performance. And a Congressional Quarterly voting study revealed that John McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 (and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office). The alleged maverick McCain managed to vote with his fellow Republicans on 98 percent of his votes (43 of 44) in 2007, up from a still-high 76 percent in 2006.

And, in a recent AP-Yahoo! News poll, people chose a generic Democrat over a generic Republican for president by 13 points.

With that body of evidence, you would think that it is the Democrats' race to lose, and with the right candidate and a good campaign, the party should have no trouble securing the White House in November.

And yet, here is where we stand: The same CBS/New York Times poll has Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both only five points ahead of McCain. In fact, compared to many other polls, that's a positive result for the Democrats. Gallup has McCain beating Obama by two points and trailing Clinton by only two points. Obama's margin over McCain is merely two points according to Rasmussen and three points according to Newsweek, while Clinton's advantage over McCain is only one point in Rasmussen and three points in Newsweek.

How do you explain such a huge disconnect between the mood of the electorate in general and its views on Obama, Clinton and McCain specifically?

I see three main factors in play.

First, as I have been writing since last year, the Democrats seem to actively ignore the history of past elections in choosing its candidates. As I laid out in great detail in my July 31, 2007 piece on why Clinton is not electable, since 1964, the U.S. has not elected a U.S. senator to the presidency (that will change this year, of course), and, as importantly, no Democrat from a blue state has won the Oval Office during that time. The only Democrats to win were Lyndon Johnson (Texas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia) and Bill Clinton (Arkansas).

So who are the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination now? Two blue state U.S. senators. This fact, while not dispositive on its own, is symbolic of the failed approach of the party in selecting the types of candidates Americans tend to elect to the presidency.

The second factor is the challenges facing the two Democratic front runners that could be a fatal impediment to winning in November. As I noted in that July 31, 2007 column, Clinton's history of staggeringly high disapproval ratings would make it very hard for her to prevail in a general election. And her decision to "throw the kitchen sink" at Obama in Pennsylvania, while successful in the short run, only damaged her already sketchy public perception further. As I noted on April 22, Clinton's numbers have plummeted recently, with a Washington Post/ABC News poll showing that only 39 percent found her to be "honest and trustworthy," only 63 percent of Democrats found her trustworthy, and only 37 percent of independents said they trusted her.

Obama's albatross seems to be his lack of appeal with white working class voters. While there are a load of factors that have played into this challenge of his (from hot-button issues like race to more subtle perceptions of personality), the real threat facing Obama's candidacy now is how the Republicans, Clinton and the media have teamed up to fan his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright into a huge issue with voters. Obama is finding his sheen of being above the fray greatly tarnished. He is sounding more and more like a typical candidate, agreeing to go on Fox News for an interview after a two-year embargo and strongly denouncing Wright's most recent remarks at a press conference today. Not surprisingly, the increasingly bitter campaign is affecting how Democrats view their own candidates. Obama's appeal has always been his message of hope and how his campaign would not be politics as usual. That line of argument has taken a major hit in recent weeks.

Finally, The media has bought whole-heartedly into McCain's fairy tale that he is a "maverick" who is not a traditional Republican. That narrative has given voters leeway to support him even though they do not want to continue the policies of the Bush administration. McCain's successful poll numbers have come at a time when he is not being challenged by anyone, since the Democrats have been busy training their fire on each other. The Democrats have to show the American people that McCain has faithfully supported Bush's presidency at virtually every turn, but that's a hard thing to do when the media is more interested in perpetuating the myth. And it's especially hard when the two Democratic contenders are ripping each other to shreds.

So, despite everything pointing to a Democratic success in November, the party finds itself in a dog fight it could easily lose. I am sick and tired of the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot time and time again. It's too late to find a more ideal candidate, but it's not too late for the candidates themselves to start taking smarter steps. For Obama that means remembering what got him this far and conducting a more hopeful, forward thinking campaign, and for Clinton that means dropping out. (I wrote on April 1 and April 22 about why that is the appropriate course of action for her.)

Most of all, the party has to unify and show the country not only what it stands for, but also that McCain's record demonstrates that his presidency would essentially continue the failed policies of the Bush administration.

It's all sitting there for the Democrats. Let's hope they don't blow it. Again.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Networks Should Be Concerned When Even I Have a Post-Strike TV Hangover

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

I write a television column. I have two TiVos. I have set these TiVos with Season Passes for 26 programs. I follow at least 10 other shows on a less TiVo-formalized basis. I can wax rhapsodic about television classics from six decades (thanks to reruns, I’m not THAT old, thank you). And I confessed last week in this space to an addiction to Hulu.com. So I think it’s safe to say that I like TV. A lot. Probably too much. Oh, hell, let’s be honest: There is no “probably.” I watch too much television. Which is why the broadcast networks should be worried.

You see, over the last two weeks, most network programs have returned from their strike-imposed hiatuses. But I haven’t returned to my pre-strike viewing habits. Not yet, anyway. I currently have sitting on my TiVo two episodes of one of my favorite new comedies, “Samantha Who?”, along with new offerings of “My Name is Earl,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “South Park” and “Back to You.” And it’s taken me far longer than usual to get to many other shows, days or even weeks after their air dates, stretching the industry concept of “time shifting” to its limits.

In February, as the strike took hold, I wrote about how the short-sighted approach of the broadcast networks and their inability to adapt to the changing media landscape had already weakened the traditional bond between viewers and television, even before the impasse with the writers hit, and how the studios’ decision to nickel and dime the writers, resulting in the disappearance of scripted programming for months, had given viewers yet another reason to get out of the habit of watching network programs. What I never imagined is that I would fall prey to the same pitfall.

After months of getting out of the habit of watching a nightly load of network offerings, it’s been hard for me to get back into the swing of things. Part of me even liked the dearth of programming, feeling like a pressure to watch had been lifted off of my back. (Well, not completely. I still wait for Monday nights and “How I Met Your Mother” like a kid hoping for his birthday to arrive faster, and Thursdays still don’t come quickly enough with new episodes of “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Scrubs.”) It’s hard to write this, but aside from my Mount Rushmore of sitcoms, I have found the influx of new programming to be a bit annoying, actually. Like a friend that deserted you but then returned and demanded your attention, meanwhile, you got to see what life was like without the responsibilities of the friendship. I liked having the extra time at night.

Surely, if I, an admitted television junkie, am experiencing these emotions, it stands to reason that casual viewers are checking out, too. And the ratings seem to be reflecting this trend. I noticed that juggernauts like “Desperate Housewives” and “American Idol” have not been immune. Last Sunday’s return of the women of Wisteria Lane garnered ratings below the soap’s pre-strike level, and the numbers for the “Idol” charity edition fell far short of last season’s version.

I fully admit that the time of year could have something to do with it. For decades, Americans have been trained to ride a February-to-May, sweeps-to-sweeps, run of new episodes, leading to a June-to-September break for the summer. When shows disappeared in February (and they did disappear, with new programming, mostly reality shows, taking their spots instead of reruns), and the calendar went deep into April with no new episodes, we, as an audience, slid firmly into summer mode. It’s like we told ourselves we were done with TV until September. Asking us to check back in now, knowing that the end of the season is only weeks away, might have been too much for our delicate inner television time clocks to handle. Maybe next fall, when new series and new episodes of existing programs appear as they do every year, viewers will fall back into their regular habits and watch.

But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. There will always be a demand for content, but there are no guarantees that any one content delivery system will maintain its dominance. The networks dominated the media landscape for more than 50 years but have faced an erosion more recently, with ratings far below those achieved 20, 10 or even five years ago. It’s hard to say where the floor is for the networks. There is a generation being raised as I type this that thinks of television as something the user controls the timing of, whether its via a DVR or watching online. The concept of Must See TV is evaporating, at least in terms of Must Seeing it at a time and location designated by the broadcaster.

It would have taken a kind of visionary and bold leadership to ride out the technological and social evolutions that threatened the traditional power held by the networks, but instead the reaction was to try and save every rating point in the present with no apparent plan for the long-term future. And nowhere was this lack of leadership more apparent than when the networks allowed a strike to happen at a time when they were already in trouble. It will be interesting to see down the road if the interruption of this season will be viewed as a kind of turning point, a fundamental shift in the power and reach of the networks. Not necessarily the television version of the Napster moment for the music industry, but a new paradigm, and not a better one, nonetheless.

As for me, while I embrace new media (just ask anyone who is waiting on me to do anything while I’m watching yet another episode of “Studio 60” on Hulu.com), I am a traditionalist at heart. I have, for example, desperately held on to the notion of the traditional sitcom, even as they become nearly as antiquated as the Betamax. I even write a blog that looks more like a newspaper column than something cutting edge you might see online. So it is likely that when the networks let loose with their new programming in the fall, I’ll be there, TiVo remote in hand, ready to record a chunk of the schedule.

But still, my current rut can’t be good news for the struggling industry. If they are losing me, even for a few weeks, things are moving in the wrong direction for the networks. Did I mention the two TiVos and 26 Season Passes?

************************************************************************
NOTE:

A week after I published this column, the New York Times ran an interesting article on the declining ratings of hit one-hour dramas returning from their post-strike hiatuses (including "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "House"). You can read it here. No matter how you spin it, the strike has disrupted television viewing habits this spring. Only time will tell if the damage is more long-term.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Clinton May Have Won Pennsylvania, but Democrats Were the Real Losers

Fourteen delegates. That should be the story from yesterday's Democratic presidential primary. Because as of this morning, according to CNN, that's the number of delegates Hillary Clinton picked up over Barack Obama (80 to 66, with 12 more delegates to be determined). Put another way, the grand result from yesterday's vote is that Obama's lead in pledged delegates has been shaved from 168 (1418 to 1250) to 154 (1484 to 1330). That's all.

What hasn't changed? Clinton can't catch Obama in pledged delegates (and likely can't even chop her deficit to under 100). Clinton can't catch Obama in the number of contests won. Clinton probably will not catch Obama in the overall popular vote, barring some kind of epic collapse (even with picking up just over 200,000 more ballots in Pennsylvania, Clinton still trails Obama by more than 500,000). And Clinton can't win without the superdelegates stepping in and overturning the lead handed to Obama by the voters.

Even more importantly, Clinton still has no path to securing the nomination while also keeping the Democratic party from imploding.

Paul Begala said on CNN last night that Clinton can be wonkish, offering an array of multi-point solutions for every problem. (And he's a Clinton supporter.) But the one issue she has not been able to address is how she can lead the party after gaining the nomination only by the exertion of influence from party insiders? If that happens, how does she make the argument that she can change the "old" politics that have ruled Washington for decades? More importantly, what message does such an insider switcheroo send to the millions of newly registered Democrats, many of whom were inspired by Obama? And what do you think the base of the party, especially African-Americans, will do if Clinton wrestles the nomination from someone who, by the vote of the people, had a claim to be the first major-party minority candidate for president?

Barring some kind of legendary gaffe by Obama, there is no scenario under which Clinton can be the Democratic nominee and have the party emerge united and energized. After all, it is likely that her win would not even be secured until the convention at the end of August, giving the Democrats less than 10 weeks to put the pieces of their broken party back to together.

That's why the real story of yesterday's Pennsylvania presidential primary is the mere 14 delegates Clinton picked up on Obama. There is no real issue of who will win. Or, maybe more accurately, there is still only one way for Clinton to be the nominee -- through the hand of the unelected superdelegates -- and that has not changed in any way based on yesterday's results.

As I watched Clinton's supporters celebrate at her victory speech, I couldn't help thinking to myself, what are they so happy about? Yes, I understand, the candidate they want to be the nominee won a primary. I get it. But what I don't follow is what exactly they think they accomplished. Do you think the Republicans were happy with yesterday's outcome? Do you think John McCain is delighted that the two Democrats will continue to battle each other, slinging more and more mud, while he glides through campaign stops gilding his completely fabricated persona, removed from any scrutiny into his actual record and positions (this guy has flip-flopped on key issues like taxes, torture and abortion more than John Kerry ever did)? I would say yes and yes. Which is why I don't understand the excitement of the Clinton supporters.

I would love to ask Clinton's voters a few questions:

- Do they honestly believe that their candidate will be the Democratic nominee?

- If so, how will the nomination will be secured?

- Do they honestly think it's acceptable that McCain is allowed to campaign unopposed, painting his own distorted picture of who he is and what the Democrats stand for?

- Is there any way for her to win the nomination and leave the party energized and united for the November election?

- If so, how?

- And how can such a unification take place in 10 short weeks, especially when McCain will have had a head start of five months?

These are honest questions facing Clinton supporters at this point, and they are questions that nobody is really stepping forth and answering.

It doesn't help that Clinton's campaign now essentially boils down to one argument to the superdelegates: She is more electable than Obama in November. This argument fails spectacularly on two grounds.

First, at this point, the question isn't pristinely who has the best chance of winning against McCain in November. Sure, back before Iowa, that was not only a fair question, it was the most important question. But now that all but seven states (plus Guam and Puerto Rico) have voted, and now that Obama has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and contests won, it is no longer as simple as deciding who has a better chance in November. Because giving the nomination to Clinton would have consequences, ripping the Democratic party apart, which would have a direct effect on her electability. Her ability to win can no longer be judged in a vacuum.

Second, Clinton claims she's more electable mainly based on primary results, with her frequent claims that she has beaten Obama in key swing states and won the big states like New York and California. The problem with this approach is that her argument assumes that her voters in a primary won't vote for Obama. In other words, she is implying that the 55 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats who voted for her would not vote for Obama in November. The test of which candidate is better suited to win in the swing states has nothing to do with who wins the primaries, but who would beat McCain in a head-to-head match-up. It's silly to assume that a Clinton voter will prefer McCain to Obama in November. Logic says that Democrats will "come home" in November and prefer their candidate to McCain. The only major threat I see to this happening is a party (or section of the party) angry over one candidate stealing the nomination. So Clinton being the nominee would itself be the biggest threat to Democratic victory in November. (We won't even discuss Obama's victories over Clinton in key swing states like Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.)

I get even angrier that the media never challenges Clinton on her argument that her victories in big states like New York and California show that she would be stronger than Obama in November. These states will vote for the Democrat whether its Clinton or Obama on the ticket. Hell, the Democrats could nominate Jerry Springer for president and still probably carry New York and California (along with a bunch of other solidly blue states). And if the Democrats are even in danger of losing New York and California, then we would be looking at a rout of Reagan-Mondale proportions. So Clinton's claims over her wins in the big states is completely disingenuous.

Which leads, really, to the biggest problem of all with a Clinton candidacy: too many Americans don't like or trust her. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last week, only 39 percent of respondents found Clinton to be "honest and trustworthy." Only 63 percent of Democrats found her trustworthy, and, even more importantly, only 37 percent of independents said they trusted her. In considering electability in November, no factor may count more than Clinton's consistently high unlikability ratings, which have been hurt in recent weeks by her attacks on Obama. How do you think she will do if it is perceived that she stole the nomination from Obama? It is an uphill battle to be elected president when half the country won't vote for you.

As Democratic voters in Indiana and North Carolina go to the polls on May 6, they should be thinking about more than just, "Do I like Clinton better than Obama?" At this point, the question should be, "How can I vote in a way that gives the Democrats the best chance of beating McCain in November?" Or, "Is there a path for Clinton to secure the nomination and lead a united, energized party into the November election?" If these questions are on the minds of Democrats in Indiana and North Carolina, it will be a good day for Barack Obama. If they are not, it will be a good day, not for Hillary Clinton, but for John McCain.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Thanks to Hulu.com, Your Television Is No Longer the Only Place to Find Your Favorite Shows

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

Here is what I’ve watched today so far: A second-season episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (Mary gets involved with a governor’s aide who keeps canceling their dates), a third-season classic from “NewsRadio” (the staff goes wild with a new complaint box), the second ever “Dana Carvey Show” (the short-lived sketch extravaganza’s ensemble featured Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert) and last week’s installment of “How I Met Your Mother, ” as well as parts of episodes of “Ironside,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” I also watched a home video taping of a table read for this season’s debut episode of “Scrubs.” Later, I might try and watch “The Girl Next Door,” “The Big Lebowski,” and/or “Some Like It Hot.” All of this viewing cost me absolutely nothing, and I never made use of my TiVo, nor even my television. Nor did I visit The Paley Center for Media. How did I do it? If you know the answer to my question, then you are no doubt as excited as I am about the answer: Hulu.com.

The name might sound like the site for a Hawaiian restaurant, Voodoo spell-caster or bathroom guide, but Hulu.com is actually a joint venture between NBC and Fox that is a vast depository of current and classic television shows, including full episodes, clips, and special features, as well as a small selection of full-length movies. While NBC and Fox shows dominate, Hulu.com also links to programs available via other network sites.

The idea of watching any of the shows the site offers on demand is pretty powerful. Hulu.com is YouTube, but with the content provided by networks instead of idiots with access to a camera, an Internet connection and a sleeping cat. Okay, I know that YouTube has a lot of great stuff, but when using Hulu.com, you are immediately struck by the quality of the material and the presentation. The user experience is vastly more consistent and satisfying than what one experiences on YouTube (or any other video site I’ve visited). Although the phrase has been used to death, it’s accurate to say that Hulu.com is a truly groundbreaking site. Considering the vast array of programs and movies available, you would be hard pressed to ever run out of things to watch. And, over time, even more shows and episodes will be added.

I think of the site as Web quicksand. Once you step in, it’s impossible to leave. There is so much to grab your attention, from classic shows to successful guilty pleasures to modern hits to short-running curiosities. The picture is sharper than most Web viewing, and the commercial breaks are far less frequent (once or twice a half hour) than on broadcast television and consist of only one ad. You can also jump around (although that often means watching a commercial first), and there are even ways to cut, save and send clips, but to do so, you need a more adventurous spirit and more patience than I possess.

The special features are the cherry on the video sundae. The “Scrubs” table read was a gem for devotees of the fanatically loved comedy. The cast sits around someone’s home (a dog wanders into frame at one point), scripts in hand, and reads through the material, all captured by a single hand-held video camera. It was interesting to see the performers laughing at the jokes, and to watch the interactions between the actors. It seemed like these people truly enjoyed the process of making us laugh. We got an insight into the world of the creative process, with such anomalous sites as Zach Braff wedged on the couch next to Ken Jenkins, the two of them all chummy, something you’d never see their characters (goofball resident J.D. Dorian and chief of medicine Bob Kelso) ever do.

But to me, nothing sums up what is great about Hulu.com more than this: I clicked on the second episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” to watch the great last few minutes (a sketch on the show-within-the-show that is a riff on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major-General’s Song,” only with lines like “We hope that you won’t mind that our producer was caught doing blow”), but before I knew it, I was sucked into Aaron Sorkin’s smart, sharp, funny and moving patter and the stellar cast, and I ended up watching the whole show. I was paralyzed. I had this column to write, I had a trip to prepare for, and yet I was watching Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, et al bantering instead. So, what’s the big deal about that? Well, I’m fully aware that most people found “Studio 60” precious, self-involved, smug and preachy, and that the ratings plummeted from 13 million viewers for the premiere to seven million stragglers the week before it was shelved.

In other words, “Studio 60” didn’t attract enough loyal fans to stay on the air, but it did make an impression on a sizable niche, and as a proud member of that niche, it is satisfying to me to have a place to go to watch the 22 episodes that were produced. Short of convincing somebody to pony up the millions of dollars per week needed to crank out another season (so it can go ignored again by the audience at large, I’m sure), Hulu.com is the best option I can imagine. I can watch any of the existing episodes whenever I want (assuming I’m near a computer with a high-speed Internet connection). And for every weirdo like me who misses “Studio 60,” there is someone equally devoted to “Firefly,” “Andy Barker P.I.,” “Dream On” or one of the other under-the-radar shows that can be found on the site.

So if you haven’t heard of Hulu.com, or if you haven’t visited the site yet, I heartily recommend you do so. Only don’t blame me if you find yourself four hours later in the same position in front of your computer, with all of your responsibilities still unattended to. It’s a small price to pay for the chance to enjoy many of your favorite shows on demand. Just be careful. You don’t want to walk around your office singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes with drug references. Bosses may frown on that kind of behavior.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Realities Will Dictate the U.S.'s Future in Iraq

There has been a lot of talk about Iraq this week. As I processed the fallout of last week's congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and the reactions to what was said, it became clear that all the talk in the world from politicians doesn't matter, because the realities of the situation will dictate the upcoming moves.

Specifically, we will begin to disengage from Iraq. What makes me so sure? It is becoming incontrovertible that our continued presence in Iraq is not sustainable. To make my point, I will rely on the recent statements of three individuals with a lot more knowledge of the military and political realities of Iraq than I have. And, to prove I'm not being partisan, the three experts I will cite to are a general, a Republican, and, wait for it, a Republican general (retired).

A week before Petraeus and Crocker appeared before Congress, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, testified before the readiness panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Cody said that he thought that the strain on the military due to the extended engagement in Iraq was "substantial," saying, "When the five-brigade surge went in . . . that took all the stroke out of the shock absorbers for the United States Army." Cody went on to say that the military is so overstretched that even if five brigades are pulled out of Iraq by July -- something the president later said would not happen -- it would be a long time before the Army could return to 12-month tours of duties while maintaining the current force levels.

In assessing the Army's current state, Cody observed, "I've never seen our lack of strategic depth be where it is today."

What should be most chilling to Americans is Cody's observation that the Army does not have troops ready to go if a threat or conflict were to pop up. After laying out what the country needs to be ready for "full-spectrum operations," he said, "we don't have that today."

In sum, according to a press release from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Cody testified:

"Today, our Army is out of balance. The current demand for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds our sustainable supply of soldiers, of units and equipment, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies. Our readiness, quite frankly, is being consumed as fast as we can build it. Lengthy and repeated deployments with insufficient recovery time at home station have placed incredible stress on our soldiers and on their families, testing the resolve of the all-volunteer force like never before.”

Another voice on Iraq that needs to be considered is Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In anticipation of the Petraeus/Crocker appearances on Capitol Hill, Lugar laid out five "premises" for any Iraq discussion based on a series of hearings held by his committee (including one at which Cody testified). According to Lugar's press release, these five premises are:

1) Militarily speaking, the surge has worked. Lugar said, "[T]he surge has succeeded in improving the conditions on the ground in many areas of Iraq and creating 'breathing space' for exploring political accommodation."

2) Militarily, we've done all we can, and now only diplomatic efforts will make any real difference. "[S]ecurity improvements derived purely from American military operations have reached or almost reached a plateau. Military operations may realize some marginal security gains in some areas, but these gains are unlikely to be transformational for the country beyond what has already occurred. Progress moving forward depends largely on political events in Iraq."

3) The Iraqi government has not done its part to further political progress in Iraq. Lugar noted, "The Iraqi government is afflicted by corruption and shows signs of sectarian bias. It still has not secured the confidence of most Iraqis or demonstrated much competence in performing basic government functions, including managing Iraq’s oil wealth, overseeing reconstruction programs, delivering government assistance to the provinces, or creating jobs."

4) Iraqis are more interested in sectarian battles than seeking peace. Lugar observed, "[S]ectarian and tribal groups remain heavily armed and are focused on expanding or solidifying their positions." He went on to say, "Iraq will be an unstable country for the foreseeable future, and if some type of political settlement can be reached, it will be inherently fragile."

5) The Iraq operation has stretched our military capability, and we will be unable to sustain our current commitment. In addition to laying out the Cody quote I reprinted above, Lugar also pointed to chilling statements made by other generals, including Gen. Barry McCaffrey's observation that due to loosening standards to try and meet recruiting goals, 10 percent of recruits "should not be in uniform," and Maj. Gen. Robert Scales's testimony that "for the first time since the summer of 1863, the number of ground soldiers available is determining American policy rather than policy determining how many troops we need."

Lugar noted that if you accept these five premises, "[s]imply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient." He went on to note, "The debate over how much progress we have made and whether we can make more is less illuminating than determining whether the administration has a definable political strategy that recognizes the time limitations we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect American vital interests."

Of course, Petraeus and Crocker, and later the president, completely ignored this conclusion. Petraeus echoed his testimony from 2007 and said, essentially, "Wait 'til September," and Bush not only failed to withdraw troops, but actually suspended the drawdown to bring the number of military personnel in Iraq back to pre-surge levels.

(As an aside, David Broder did an excellent job of publicizing Lugar's five premises, something that went virtually uncovered by the useless mainstream media.)

Finally, the former general and Republican secretary of state Colin Powell weighed in on the Iraq situation after the Petraeus/Crocker testimony. On ABC's "Good Morning America," Powell's remarks were so direct, there was no ambiguity as to where he stands. He said, "The United States Armed Forces are very, very stretched. It appears that after the surge is over, we're going to go down to 140,000 troops in Iraq. That's 10,000 more than we had before the surge. ... There is something of a continued surge there with that extra 10,000. And based on what Gen. Petraeus has said, he wants to let the surge troops go by July and then take 45 days to see what it looks like, and then begin a process of assessment. Well, that tells me that we know what the administration strategy is going to be through the end of the term of the administration. And that is, we're going to maintain a very significant presence." Powell concluded that "That is an extremely difficult burden for the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, to keep up."

In assessing what the next president will face upon taking office, Powell's conclusion was quite stark: "I'll tell you what they're all going to face — whichever one of them becomes president on Jan. 21 of 2009 — they will face a military force, a United States military force, that cannot sustain, continue to sustain, 140,000 people deployed in Iraq, and the 20 (to) 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan, and our other deployments."

To be clear, none of these three experts, Cody, Lugar or Powell, offered an easy solution. Powell even noted that pulling the forces out of Iraq will not be as simple as just saying, "We're out of here, turn off the switch, turn off the lights, we're leaving."

But what these three experts agree upon is that the U.S. military is stretched beyond a safe level and cannot sustain the current troop levels in Iraq. And, to be clear, we're talking about a powerful general, a Republican senator, and a former general who served as a Republican secretary of state.

When Republicans and generals are saying, "We can't do this anymore," why is the issue often portrayed as some kind of partisan battle? And why is the debate about "should we stay" rather than "how can we get out"?

I hope that the eventual Democratic presidential nominee (who, barring some kind of 2007 Mets-like meltdown, will be Sen. Barack Obama) does not allow himself to get drawn into the Iraq debate on Sen John McCain's terms. Obama has to turn the debate from "surrender dates" and "choosing to fail" to reality: Our experts tell us that our military cannot remain in Iraq, and we need to figure out the quickest and best way to withdraw our forces and rebuild our military preparedness.

Any other discussion, ultimately, will just be talk.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

“Rock the Cradle” is “Idol” for Kids Lucky (or Unlucky) Enough to Have Pop Star Parents

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

Sitting in front of the series debut of “Rock the Cradle” (first airings on Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on MTV, subsequent airings at numerous times all over the MTV empire), I watched as the performers I enjoyed, disliked and/or laughed at when I was in my school years paraded in front of the camera to sing ... the praises of their offspring. Yes, “Rock the Cradle” is a singing contest for the adult children of music stars, specifically Bobby Brown, Tom Johnston (Doobie Brothers), MC Hammer, Kenny Loggins, Eddie Money, Olivia Newton-John, Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Al B. Sure! (his exclamation point, not mine) and Joe Walsh (the Eagles).

These people have children old enough to compete in an “American Idol” knock-off. How can that be? Give me a second to step back off of the ledge. Okay. Back to my thoughts on the show.

Before I could even figure out if I liked “Rock the Cradle” or not, I had to get past the fact that these aging pop stars, most of whom are long past their expiration dates, seemed more than happy to squeeze out another 15 minutes of fame by pimping out their kids. I’m sure the parents are rationalizing the decision by telling themselves that they’re doing it to help their children, but you have to figure that strategically placed phone calls to key producers and record executives would do far more for the long-term success of their sons and daughters’ budding music careers than sending them to compete on a cheesy basic cable singing competition.

Kudos, by the way, to Joe Walsh, who was “busy touring” in Europe and did not appear on the first episode. I checked the Eagles Web site, and the band was, indeed, in Europe. Let’s hope the U.S. leg of the Eagles’ tour continues to keep Joe, one of the few parents on the show who can still sell out an arena, away from the Los Angeles faux theater where “Rock the Cradle” is based.

“Rock the Cradle” is the latest in the growing list of musical competition programs, sending its contestants out to perform, get evaluated by judges, and then wait a week to find out the results of viewer voting, with the lowest polling singer sent back to his/her cushy, celebrity-offspring life. What is the twist of “Rock the Cradle”? You mean beside the fact that the contestants all lead cushy, celebrity-offspring lives? Well, not much. The judges do have some extra clout, actually giving numerical scores to the performers instead of just making comments. And the highest-ranking singer with the judges gets immunity from the audience vote. Other than that, there is nothing new here.

Except maybe the host, Ryan Devlin, who makes Ryan Seacrest look like Ed Sullivan. With his baby face and calculatedly hipster wardrobe (sorry, but none of my twentysomething friends wear an argyle sweater/hoodie combo under a blazer, especially indoors under hot lights), Devlin looks like a sophomore in high school who has raided his college freshman brother’s closet. In the debut, he often tripped over his words, maintained a constant tone of false excitement, and demonstrated all the life and charisma of Gen. David Petraeus testifying to Congress. Only Petraues showed more spontaneity.

The judges are suitably bland. Go-Go’s frontwoman Belinda Carlisle was brutally honest about how she felt, but I was distracted by how she looked. While admittedly beautiful, she also resembled a creation by Madame Tussauds. Choreographer Jamie King and stylist June Ambrose were a bit too smug for my taste, as was manager Larry Rudolph, although having turned Britney Spears into a star, he pretty much has proved that he could take any of the nine contestants and find a way to ensure that they had a singing career. Paul Mirkovich, the stellar musical director of the backing band on “Rock Star: INXS” and “Rock Star: Supervova,” does an equally great job leading the crack ensemble on “Rock the Cradle.”

To me, the presence of the parents felt weird. Whether they were hands-on stage fathers (yeah, I’m looking at you Eddie Money and Tom Johnston) or clearly not significant parts of their children’s lives (do I have to even write Bobby Brown’s name here?), they all seemed to be horning in on their kids’ moments. And what is the point of asking the parents after the performances how their offspring performed? Shockingly, they were all proud, supportive and moved. Not exactly great television.

On the flip side, the privileged status of the singers made them less relatable as competitors. We hear Olivia Newton-John’s daughter talk about growing up in “big empty houses,” and Al B. Sure! say that he always spoiled his son, and, suddenly, you are feeling, “Who cares if this person wins?” On most of the “Idol” knock-offs, you know that if a contestant makes it to the top, it will really change his or her life. That is half the fun of watching. And that issue is nearly irrelevant on “Rock the Cradle.”

Now to the $64,000 question: Can the offspring of the former stars sing? Too often, I felt like I was watching a high school talent contest, something that occurred to me before Rudolph made that very observation to Newton-John’s daughter, Chloe Lattanzi. But Lattanzi’s performance of “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS demonstrated how limited a show like “Rock the Cradle” is. With her zeppelin-like lips and anime-reminiscent eyes, Lattanzi’s appearance is way too exotic for her to become a bland pop sensation in the “Idol” tradition. And her quirky, off-kilter performance of the INXS ballad (more Siouxsie Sioux than Kelly Clarkson) seemed like a misfire in the context of “Rock the Cradle.” But so what? When did becoming a bland pop star become the most important ambition for a singer? I’m not sure if Lattanzi has something interesting to offer, but my point is that we won’t know from “Rock the Cradle.”

I thought better candidates for high school talent show allusions were Eddie Money’s daughter Jesse (an oversung take on “When I’m Gone” by 3 Doors Down), 17-year-old Lara Johnston (Avril Lavigne’s treacley ballad “I’m With You”) and Landon Brown (a laid back to the point of Valium take on Seal’s “Crazy”). It’s not that these performers had no talent, but there are a lot of people in this country who can sing a little. I just didn’t see anything in these three that would allow them to emerge from the herd.

Slightly better were Al B. Sure!’s son, who, hands down, has the best name on the show, Lil B. Sure! (again, his exclamation mark, not mine; he took on Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You”), and A'Keiba Burrell, Hammer’s daughter (credited on-screen as A'Keiba Burrell-Hammer, which was very entertaining in and of itself; she performed “Love You I Do,” sung by Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls”), although I’m not sure they have what it takes to be stars, either.

Crosby Loggins, a dead ringer for his father, unfortunately seems to have inherited his dad’s inherent blandness, rendering his edgeless rendition of Elvis Costello’s “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” totally forgettable. Maybe Loggins has a career ahead of him as a Jack Johnson/John Mayer sensitive boy type, although part of the appeal of this group of singer-songwriters is their boyish good looks, and Loggins can only lay claim to the boyish part of the equation.

Which leaves the unquestioned high and low of the night. The best performer in the debut episode, hands down, was Lucy Walsh. She chose a song by her father’s bandmate, Don Henley (“Heart of the Matter”), and knocked it out of the park, finding the right balance of sadness and strength in the ballad, not an easy skill to perfect. The judges rightfully awarded her the highest scores, ensuring that no matter how the public votes, Walsh will survive for next week.

And the worst celebrity spawn? Easy. Jesse Snider’s take on Led Zeppelin’s classic stomper “Rock and Roll” was so bad, you had to see it to believe it. Watching Snider cockily claim he could do justice to Robert Plant’s performance, and then butchering it beyond recognition, was like watching a little leaguer try and hit a Joba Chamberlain fastball. He wasn’t even close. Dee Snider said he personally contacted the band to get permission for his son to perform “Rock and Roll” on “Rock the Cradle.” I really wish the Zeppelin boys would have just said no. With his platinum-dyed hair, eruption of hair on his chin, and open shirt, exposing his hairless, workout-fanatic chest and abs, Jesse Snider looked less like the heir apparent to Plant than like a reality show contestant trying to be the next Nick Lachey. I think rock fans should petition for a restraining order keeping the younger Snider at least 100 yards from any rock and roll classic.

To me, the question of whether I enjoy watching any of these music contest shows essentially comes down to if the singers are doing a credible job covering songs I like. I’m not much of a pop guy, so I’m not an “American Idol” fan. On the other hand, I enjoyed both “Rock Star: INXS” and “Rock Star: Supernova,” since decent singers routinely took a shot at an array of classic and modern rock hits, even if the results ranged from awful to great.

“Rock the Cradle” falls somewhere in the middle for me. And that’s not enough to get past the fact that these nine performers are getting their shot at a place in the music business solely because of who contributed the DNA for their creation. There is a lot of talk of “making it on my own” on the show, as if the contestants survived some kind of audition process. Making it on their own would mean trying to get on “Idol” or one of its many knock-offs. “Rock the Cradle” is, in fact, about these kids making it on their parents’ coattails. Well, that and how desperately the older generation is trying to grab onto another few hours in the spotlight. None of which adds up to much fun.

Aside from Lucy Walsh, I’m not sure there is any reason to watch “Rock the Cradle.” Then again, if Joe Walsh doesn’t see fit to be present, I have to wonder, why should I?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Year Later, But Bush and Petraeus's Story Is the Same

Wait 'til September. Like a modern, grotesque version of the "Wait 'til next year" mantra of fans of the perpetually losing Brooklyn Dodgers, Gen. David Petraeus went back before a Senate committee yesterday and said essentially the same thing he said a year ago: Wait until September, and then we'll reassess.

The Bush administration's strategy, as articulated by its token military mouthpiece, is like a seven-year-old's approach to staying up late. Ask your mom to go to bed at midnight? You're sure to get a no. But if you can push it as far as you can with anguished pleas of "ten more minutes," you might get close. Essentially, that has been the Bush approach for the last few years.

After four years of the "stay the course" disaster in Iraq, and after the American people spoke loudly and clearly in November 2006 by handing control of the house and senate to the Democrats based solely on the war issue, Bush instituted a "surge" of American troops. We were told the reason for the surge was to provide security and lower the level of violence, thus giving the Iraqi government the breathing space it needed to to take over security responsibilities and begin the reconciliation process.

Don't believe me? Well, let's look at Bush's own words, in his January 10, 2007 address to the American people:

"I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people."

"America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced."

"To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution."

How much of the president's promises were met? Nearly none of them.

Last year, Petraeus came to Congress and said, in essence, let the surge do its work, and then we'll see what the situation is. The surge might have brought down violence, but it failed in its main intention, which was to have the Iraqi government take real steps to move the country forward. So, by the terms laid out by Bush and Petraeus last year, the surge's goals have not been met. By those rules of the game, it seems like it's time to start bringing the troops home. But Petraeus is asking for yet another wait-and-see period. For what?

The administration and its GOP flunkies in Congress love to talk about how the surge worked, because violence levels were temporarily reduced. But what the president and his followers (including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain) no longer talk about is the progress of the Iraqi government, because the Iraqis have fallen far short of the benchmarks it laid out itself (and which were embraced by Bush). If not for some late, ineffectual moves, the Iraqis would have accomplished nearly nothing since the surge. Even with their recent efforts, they have only fulfilled four of the 18 benchmarks.

Reconciliation isn't happening in Iraq, as the recent clashes with al-Sadr's forces have shown. Even Petraeus admitted in his testimony to the Senate committee: "We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel."

While the U.S. pours half a trillion dollars into Iraq during an economic downturn and risks the lives of hundreds of thousands of its soldiers, the Iraqis haven't done nearly enough to save their own country. In fact, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed out yesterday that Iraq has $30 billion in oil revenue kept in U.S. banks. Remember all those claims by the administration in 2003 that the Iraqi oil revenue would pay for the war? That's okay, Bush doesn't either.

Apparently, Bush was just kidding when he said in that 2007 speech that he would hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks, and that the American commitment was not open-ended. Because when Petraeus testified to the Senate committee yesterday, he asked them (and us) to wait until September. Again. Just like last year. And when the last of the surge forces are sent home in July, the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq will be the same as it was in January 2007 when Bush made his speech and admitted that "we need to change our strategy in Iraq." In other words, Petraeus wants to go back to the status quo of a time when even the ever-optimistic president said things weren't working.

I think I speak for a majority of the American people when I say that time has run out on the president. Bush told us for four years to "stay the course," but his policy was a failure. He then asked us to give the Iraqi government a chance with the surge, but the Iraqi government didn't step up. It's time to say enough is enough. From the economy to health care to our infrastructure, the U.S. needs to invest in our own country now.

As importantly, the Iraq war is weakening us as a nation. As the whole debate over keeping troops in Iraq goes back and forth, two factors are not mentioned nearly often enough. First, it is questionable as to whether the U.S. can sustain such a large deployment of soldiers in Iraq for much longer. We are stretched to our limits. Some would say beyond. Sen. Joseph Biden said keeping 140,000 military people in Iraq is "unsustainable." Army vice chief of staff Gen. Richard Cody testified to a Senate committee last week that the army is"out of balance," worn out from the extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Petraeus admitted that long and repeated tours have led to "considerable" stress on the troops.

If we know we can't keep such a large force in Iraq indefinitely, what are we waiting for? As Sen. Barack Obama asked during Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony yesterday, what constitutes enough gains to warrant a pull-back of American troops? Or, put another way, Petraeus wants us to wait until September, but what are we waiting for?

The second under-discussed issue is the profound negative effect the war in Iraq has had on America's military readiness. As Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) pointed out today, "Iraq is also preventing us from effectively preparing for the next conflict." Cody said in his testimony last week, "I've never seen our lack of strategic depth be where it is today." Cody also laid out what the military needs to be ready for "full-spectrum operations," and noted that "we don't have that today."

Americans like to think of our country's military capabilities as being bottomless, but they are not. And if you read the statements of too many military officers and experts, the commitment of Iraq has made the country vulnerable in a way it hasn't been previously.

Republicans love to argue that anything short of "victory" in Iraq would be catastrophic. But, of course, by framing the question that way, the GOP is stacking the deck. It is important to note that there is a school of thought, with many military men like retired Lt. General William E. Odom a part of it, that while the surge has had some effect on the violence in Iraq, it has done more harm than good, further deepening the factionalization of the country, rather than moving to bring people together. Others, like Biden, believe the ultimate solution will be to give more power to the provinces and the local sects, allowing Sunni areas to be governed by Sunnis, and Shia tribes to be ruled by those tribes, for example. These views of the situation in Iraq agree that the American troop presence is actually spurring violence, and if the U.S. was to withdraw, it could actually be beneficial to the situation on the ground.

An open-ended U.S. commitment also fails to give any incentive to the Iraqi government to work out the hard issues it faces. After all, if we're there to protect them, why shouldn't the Maliki government use its power to settle old scores rather than move the country forward? Republicans like to talk about "surrender dates," but, again, such language stacks the deck. It is more likely that if the Iraqi government knew its security benefactor would be leaving, its officials would move quickly to cut the best deal it could.

Since this administration has gotten virtually every prediction about what would happen in Iraq wrong from the first day of the war, you'll forgive me if I don't accept as gospel its view of what will happen if we pull out of Iraq.

With the Iraqi government falling short of its own benchmarks, the country fractured by ethnic divisions, an unacceptable amount of American lives and finances disrupted, and the U.S. military in need of an opportunity to rebuild, it's time to tell Petraeus and Bush that we will not wait until September. It's time for a new Iraq policy, one that will support our troops and our financial and military well-being. It's time to begin a responsible withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.

We can't afford to wait until September. No more "ten more minutes" requests should be granted. It's bed time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Rice for VP? Failure Has Its Rewards, Apparently

On Friday night, as I sat in Yankee Stadium on a beautiful night for baseball, despite the insistence of the weather professionals that rain was imminent (it never came), I said to my friend, "Being a meteorologist is one of two jobs in America where you can be consistently wrong and still keep your job. The other is President of the United States."

With the abject failures of the Bush administration taken as a given by the majority of the electorate now, it amazes me that, if you believe media reports, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is a serious candidate to be John McCain's running mate. (Two sample stories can be found here and here.)

As one of the few Bush cronies to actually make it through the entire run of his disastrous presidency, I am shocked that anybody would say to themselves, "Now, who would be a good person to put in front of the American people and ask for their trust for the next four years? Hey! What about the right-hand woman to George W. Bush?"

Let's face it: Judged on competency and results, Bush and Rice would have been fired a long time ago from 99 percent of the jobs in America. It makes me wonder what it would look like if Rice had to go through a standard job interview, the way most Americans must when applying for work:

"Secretary Rice. Thanks for coming in. Did you find parking okay?"

"My driver dropped me off, so ..."

"Right. Sit down. Please."

"Thank you. Here is my resume."

"I have a copy already, thanks. My staff says this Internet thing is really handy."

"Yes, I'll have to try using it some time."

"So, Madame Secretary, it says here that you were the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from January 2001 to January 2005."

"That's correct."

"Okay, tell me a bit about your responsibilities."

"Well, that was my formal title. Most people refer to me as the National Security Advisor. It's a very important job. I was the president's chief advisor on security issues."

"Great. Now, if I remember correctly, that was a tumultuous time."

"Yes, we were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001."

"I remember, of course. Just so I understand, you were the National Security Advisor when we were attacked."

"Yes, Senator, but in my defense, how could anyone have known something like that would occur?"

"Well, didn't the CIA have intelligence that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack?"

"Yes, Senator, but as i explained when I testified in front of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the indication was that the attacks would be in Europe."

"Yes. But Madame Secretary, and I don't want to be rude here, but didn't CIA Director George Tenet write in his August 6, 2001 President's Daily Briefing that there was a threat from bin Laden for an attack on the U.S.?"

"Yes, Senator, but there are so many briefings ..."

"Again, I don't want to be rude, but wasn't the briefing called, "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US," and didn't it talk about hijackings?"

"Again, Senator, so many briefings. Who could have known that this one was so serious?"

"Well, Madame Secretary, didn't a CIA officer fly to President Bush's ranch to tell him about the report, because it was so serious?"

"I don't recall, Senator."

"This fellow at Slate.com seems to think that you were a bit of an embarrassment in your handling of the bin Laden briefing and in your testimony to the commission. I'm not sure what Slate.com is, but my aides tell me lots of liberals read it."

"There you go, Senator. Are you going to believe the rantings of some left-wing radicals? Fox News said I did a great job."

"Okay, let's move on. I believe the Iraq War began during the time you were President Bush's National Security Advisor."

"Yes Senator."

"And all of the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction turned out to be wrong."

"I was fooled just like the president was. And really, my job is to report the intelligence findings. I wasn't in charge of the CIA."

"And the lack of planning and mismanagement that resulted in a five-year-and-counting quagmire in Iraq?"

"Again, not my department. That was Don Rumsfeld's purview. And he lost his job for it, while I was promoted. So, there you go, I must be blameless, right?"

"But, just to be clear, and, again, I mean no disrespect, but you were the chief security advisor to the president at a time when we were attacked, and when we stumbled into one of the worst planned occupations of the last 100 years."

"Sure, but, again, none of it was my fault."

"Okay. Moving on. You were made Secretary of State in January of 2005. How have our diplomatic relationships been going since then?"

"I think very good."

"You do. Well, how does the world look at our efforts in Iraq?"

"They're coming around."

"Actually, they're not."

"They will. And besides, running the war is not my department. Again, Don Rumsfeld ..."

"Yes, I know, he was fired after the Democrats took back Congress in November 2006 based primarily about anger over the war."

"There are many interpretations for any election result ..."

"Maybe. But not this time. And Katrina?"

"Again, not my ..."

"Department. I get it."

"The shoddy treatment of veterans, condoning torture, the disappearance of billions of dollars unaccounted for in Iraq, the contractors like Blackwater lawlessly running wild while taking in huge profits, the loss of focus on Afghanistan, skyrocketing oil prices, ignoring global warming, deteriorating relationships with Russia and Europe, failures to address the changes in the world brought about by the rise of the Chinese, skyrocketing food prices, the subprime mortgage scandal, numerous government failures in areas ranging from mining to product safety, illegal wiretapping, the demise of habeas corpus, and a crashing economy. All while you were a top officer of the Bush administration."

"And all outside of my department."

"Do you have any accomplishment you can point to during your last three-plus years as Secretary of State?"

"Well ... hmmm ... I met with the Israelis and Palestinians a bunch of times to get them to agree to a peace deal."

"Did they?"

"Not yet."

"Okay. Anything else?"

"Absolutely. Wow, I'm drawing a blank. No idea why. Can I send you a follow-up memo later?"

"Sure. So let me sum this all up, Madame Secretary. On your watch, the U.S. was hit with the worst terrorist attack in its history, even though you had a memo specifically warning of such an attack a month before. Then, the U.S. invaded Iraq based on bad intelligence, and proceeded to botch the occupation through a potent mixture of incompetence, arrogance and poor planning. You were the president's chief advisor on security matters during this time, and during this time, nearly nothing was accomplished, while great damage was done to the nation. Colin Powell fled the administration after Bush's first term because he was so aghast at how things were handled, and yet you were promoted into his position, where you serve to this day. And you can't point to a single accomplishment during your term as Secretary of State. Lots of bad things happened on your watch, but none of it was your fault. Do I have that about right?"

"I wouldn't quite phrase it like that, but ..."

"Thank you for coming in Madame Secretary. We'll be in touch."

"Did I get the job?"

"How can I put this politely? I'd ask my driver to be my running mate before you."

Alas, that interview will never happen. It gives way too much credit to McCain, who was lockstep with Bush nearly every step of the way of his failed administration.

It would seem that Rice would make the McCain ticket even more vulnerable to "four more years of Bush" attacks, which is McCain's main weakness in November. Personally, I will be shocked if she is the choice, mainly because of how unpopular Bush is with the American people. But if Bush's win in 2004 proves anything, it's that the U.S. electorate is capable of electing just about anyone. I only wish someone would put Rice through the interview the American people deserve.

And if all else fails, Rice can become a weather forecaster. She's already proven she can be consistently wrong. Does Stanford have a meteorology program?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lewis Black Is Funnier Than His New Show; “Human Giant” Is Funnier Than Most

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

What is it with funny performers choosing to star in mediocre programs? Add Lewis Black to this ever-growing list with the appearance of his new Comedy Central show “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil” (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, after “South Park”).

In the past month alone, I have twice lamented in this space the cases of funny people being stuck in series and roles not up to their talents. I wondered why Rashida Jones would follow-up her career-making stint on “The Office” with a second banana (at best) part on the silly “Unhitched.” I also complained that Judy Greer, who has made a career stealing scenes in supporting roles, settled for a one-dimensional character surrounded by an inferior cast when she finally got a lead, starring in the sitcom “Miss Guided.” (As an aside, “Miss Guided” has grown on me, while I’m finding “Unhitched” more an more unwatchable, with its repetitive date-gone-wrong plots and insanely predictable punchless punch lines.)

And now Black, who is sharply funny in his stand-up specials and memorable “Back in Black” segments on “The Daily Show,” has made a questionable choice with “Root of All Evil.” Each episode pits two comics against each other in a mock trial to determine which of two nominees is the titular root of all evil, with Black serving as the judge. The topics range from the controversial (Oprah v. the Catholic church, in the series debut) to the mundane (last week’s showdown between weed and beer). The advocates come from a pool of veteran comedians that includes Andrew Daly, Greg Giraldo, Andy Kindler, Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins. The comics present opening arguments/monologues, followed by a pre-recorded segment (usually interviews or man-on-the-street pieces), an “Inquisition” from Black, and each side’s “Ripple of Evil” (that is, why this bad thing will lead to the end of the world). After closing arguments/monologues, Black renders his decision.

Oddly, the format puts the spotlight on the comics, relegating Black to acting as a traffic cop for the comedians around him (think Colin Quinn on the old Comedy Central comedy “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn”). And hosting does not work to Black’s strengths as a comedian. The guy has made a career based on his stage persona as the rumpled, cranky (angry, really) contrarian who gets agitated and animated about things that piss him off, especially in politics. In “Root of All Evil,” Black gets to be cranky, but too often he is forced to squeeze rushed, well-rehearsed, television-friendly zingers into the super-structured action, rather than letting his angry persona have room to breathe.

I couldn’t help thinking that Black would be funnier than any of his guests at taking one of the positions. If Comedy Central wanted to give its long-time collaborator his own show, maybe the format should have been to have a different comedian debate Black each week, rather than pushing him to the sidelines as the judge. That show, I think, would have made better use of Black’s comic gifts.

Having said all of that, once you get past what “Root of All Evil” could have been, the show does have its charms. Black manages to throw in some good jokes throughout the proceedings. During the beer v. weed debate, he noted: “Weed should be harmless enough, because as pot-heads argue, mother nature put it here. But, mother nature gave us other things that aren't a good idea to smoke, such as oregano, magnesium and puffer fish.” I like the good-natured insults that the advocates throw at each other, like when Kindler referred to Giraldo as the “poor man’s George Lopez” during the debate of Donald Trump vs. Viagra. Some of the segments provide laughs, like when Tompkins interviewed Aimee Mann to prove that songwriters can be creative without getting high. And each episode does find the comics hitting pay dirt on the occasional observation, like when Giraldo, who comes up with many of the best lines on the show, observed: “The Virgin Mary. God impregnated Mary. We have a whole religion based on one woman who really stuck to her story.”

But too often, the monologues descend into lowest-common-denominator clich├ęs. During the beer v. weed debate, Tompkins sadly went the well-traveled route of pointing out that the Grateful Dead’s music was bad and only sounded good to people who were stoned, and Daly offered the dead-on-arrival line: “Hops are what you find in a basketball player’s shoes.”

“Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil” takes a very funny comic and a premise filled with potential, but manages to squander it. I wouldn’t say the show is the root of all evil. It’s funny enough. But you would be better off waiting for Black’s next comedy special.

Or tuning into the MTV sketch comedy program “Human Giant” (Tuesdays at 11 p.m. Eastern), which is currently in its second season. The under-the-radar cast members -- Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer -- perform funny, irreverent sketches. While they push the boundaries of basic cable propriety (the air time is 11 p.m. for good reason), the performers never rely on the raunch at the expense of wit.

More often than not, the sketches strike at the heart of cultural phenomena. I liked Huebel’s character that was so desperate for fame, he made a viral video in which he cuts off his own penis. The whole thing cleverly ends up with Huebel’s character on a talk show, where he shares the bill with Ansari’s funny-face-maker, who secured far more views of his video, and did so without doing harm to his body. I also really liked the parody of the true-crime shows that can be found all over the air, with the actor in a re-enactment of an office shooting spree similarly going postal and shooting people on the set, leading, of course, to the inevitable re-enactment of the re-enactment. The original killer (played by guest Brian Posehn) notes that the “re-enactment had become an enactment.” Posehn isn’t the only veteran to guest on “Human Giant.” This year’s episodes have featured Bill Hader and Andy Samberg of “Saturday Night Live” and Will Arnett.

I especially liked a sketch in which Ansari played a guy in a car wreck who is haunted by the ghost of a gay porn star killed in the accident. The ghost turns Ansari’s daily activities into instances of homosexual sex, leading to an unanticipated “Sixth Sense” twist ending (complete with an M. Night Shyamalan credit). The sketch was a reflection of the show: dirty but smart. It also showcased how “Human Giant” films its sketches like short films, not relying on live-audience performances on more theatrical sets (like “Mad TV” and “Saturday Night Live”).

If you want to let your TiVo keep running after “South Park,” there are worse comedies on the air than “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil.” But you can find even more laughs over on MTV with the out-there antics of the cast of “Human Giant.” Let’s wish Ansari, Huebel and Scheer good luck on choosing their next projects. After the past month of talented performers debuting in inferior shows, history says they’re going to need it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Clinton Has a Right to Go On, but Why Should She?

Three hypothetical scenarios:

- A woman tells a local news reporter that she believes that blacks and Jews are inferior human beings.

- A 450-pound man walks down a New York City sidewalk wearing only a midriff-baring sleeveless undershirt and a banana hammock.

- A New York Yankees executive asks a reunited Backstreet Boys to sing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium.

What do these three people have in common? All of them have a right to do what they're doing, but in each case, they should choose not to. And if they opt to go through with the actions in question, anybody of conscious will rebuke them for what they have done.

And that is exactly the situation facing Hillary Clinton.

Clearly, Clinton has the right to continue on in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But, like the racist, the fat streaker or the Backstreet Boys fan, that doesn't mean she should exercise her right.

In fact, Clinton, with the dutiful assistance of the same media that she says is unfairly harsh on her, has completely refocused the issue of her campaign away from the practical eventualities of her staying in the race to an ideological question of what she is entitled to do.

If you listen to Clinton speak, you would think that she and Obama were tied, and that the race could go either way, but the forces that be are trying to get her to drop out anyway. Consider these recent quotes of hers:

"I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention - that's what credentials committees are for." (From cbsnews.com.)

"My take on it is a lot of Senator Obama's supporters want to end this race because they don't want people to keep voting." (From Yahoo!/AP.)

The problem is, she's wrong.

According to CNN's tally, Obama currently has 1,414 pledged delegates, while Clinton has only 1,243. Of course, if this was a sporting event, you would be fully correct in looking at the numbers and saying, "Wow, that's a close race!" Except this is not a basketball game. With only 10 states left, and with the Democrats awarding delegates on a proportional basis (rather than bestowing a state's entire delegate count on the winner like the Republicans do), it is virtually impossible for Clinton to significantly cut into Obama's lead. And yes, even if Clinton takes her case to the credentials committee at the convention and gets the delegates seated from Florida's beauty contest and Michigan's USSR-style one-candidate primary (both held earlier than Democratic National Committee rules allowed), Clinton still cannot catch Obama.

In other words, the only way for Clinton to secure the nomination is to keep the delegate count as close as possible after the 10 remaining contests are completed, and then persuade roughly two-thirds of the superdelegates to go against the will of the voters and give her the victory. Let's look at the repercussions of such a turn of events:

- It would mean that the party elite would have taken away the opportunity for Obama to become the first African American major party nominee, even after he won more pledged delegates, more states, and probably more popular votes than Clinton. How do you think that will go over, not just with the African American community, but with Obama's supporters as a whole? What kind of message does that send to the American people, who are already wary of insider politics?

- It would also mean that Clinton will have dragged the race not only through the end of the primaries into June, but through to the convention in August (assuming there isn't a mass movement of superdelegates to Clinton before July 1, which seems highly unlikely). All while John McCain builds an infrastructure and raises money in the warm glow of his unopposed GOP coronation. That would leave the Democratic winner with less than three months to heal the wounds of the party's intramural slugfest and put together a campaign operation aimed at McCain. By then, McCain will have had a massive head start in framing the issues and painting the Democratic contender however he sees fit.

- And what would be left of Clinton on September 1, assuming she pulls off this Houdini act and takes the nomination? Her attacks of the last few weeks (the only way to catch Obama was to tear him down) have worked in one way, in that her poll numbers against Obama showed some improvement, at least until her story about snipers in Bosnia was embarrassingly contradicted by CBS News footage. But at what cost? Polls show Clinton currently has her lowest favorability ratings in years. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 29 percent of respondents had a "very negative" opinion of her, compared with 15 percent for Obama and 12 percent for McCain. The same poll also found that 48 percent had somewhat or very negative opinions of Clinton, while 37 percent found her very or somewhat positive, a change from two weeks earlier when her negative was 43 and her positive was 45. If you think her likability took a hit due to her Bosnia fabrications, imagine what would happen if she engineers a party-elite-driven campaign to take the nomination away from Obama? (Obama's numbers in the poll, by comparison, are 49 percent positive and 32 percent negative.)

The bottom line is that while the Clinton campaign and the media would like you to believe this is a close race, the fact is that it is all but over. At this point the question isn't whether Clinton has a right to stay in the race, but what she has to gain by doing so. A March 21, 2008 article on Politico.com suggests that the media is buying into the Clinton argument that the race is close because, among other reasons, it's good for ratings. So the media's motivation can be easily ascertained. But what does Clinton have to gain?

One amazing element of this story that doesn't get enough play is that Clinton acts (and is portrayed) like an underdog, which is preposterous, when you consider how this race shaped up a year ago. She was the establishment candidate. Her husband was a popular, two-term president. She had the elite Democratic advisers on her side, and an early jump on fundraising. Her earliest strategy was "inevitability," so much so that the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" last September began with a message from the "All-but-Certain-to-Be-Next-President" Hillary Clinton (played, as always, by Amy Poehler).

And yet, not only did Clinton slip behind Obama in votes and fundraising, but despite all of her entrenched advantages, her campaign did not display the one quality you want from a president (especially after seven-and-a-half years of George W. Bush): competency. The campaign failed to adjust to Obama's rise. She has been dogged by stories about the lavish spending on the infrastructure of her campaign, while at the same time battling claims that they are not paying their bills on time (today it came up on CNN that, of all things, the campaign had failed to pay staffers' health insurance premiums).

Most of all, the Clinton campaign failed to build a field operation anywhere near as effective as Obama's, leading to Obama winning nearly every caucus. Which resulted in the Alice-in-Wonderland effect of the former first lady saying that caucuses were undemocratic, since it rewarded the ability to get out the vote rather than the will of the large electorate. But isn't it establishment candidates who usually have the organizations in place to get out the vote for caucuses? By admitting to Obama's preeminence in this area, isn't she essentially admitting to failure?

If Clinton was the underdog from the beginning, an outsider like Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee, it would be hard to argue with her for staying in the race this late even though victory is all but impossible. But even putting the issues aside of the damage Clinton is doing to the Democrats by staying in the race and the unlikelihood of her prevailing, for the establishment candidate to be losing to the upstart by any amount at this stage should be viewed as a loss.

No, it's time for Clinton to go, and to let Obama begin his campaign against John McCain. Does she have a right to stay in the race? Sure, but who cares? She has nothing to gain and everything to lose. And she just may bring down the Democratic hopes in November with her.