Friday, January 30, 2009

"Trust Me" Is Not Bad, But It's No "Mad Men"

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

A creative director stands in a boardroom filled with nervous colleagues and skeptical clients, and using the information he's picked up about himself and the world over the last 45 minutes of television time, he improvises a brilliant, edgy, smart campaign that blows away the client and saves the day. Am I talking about Don Draper of "Mad Men"? Well, I guess I could be, but I am actually describing one of the last scenes in the debut episode of the one-hour dramedy "Trust Me" (TNT, Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern).

"Trust Me" pairs Eric McCormack (Will on "Will & Grace") and Tom Cavanagh (Ed on "Ed") as Mason McGuire and Conner (he only has one name, like Madonna), a creative team at a swanky looking Chicago advertising agency (Mason is the artist, Conner is the writer). As the show opens, we are immediately clued into the roles each plays in the relationship: They are sitting poolside in L.A., hung over, having completed their work on a photo shoot, when a call comes in to their cells from the office in Chicago. Conner doesn't want to answer it and proceeds to jump into the pool and swim over to talk to a beautiful woman, while Mason, unable to shirk his duties, picks up the phone. Voila! Mason is the responsible one, Conner is the immature and independent one.

Not that they had to really tell us anything, since both actors have made their careers playing these particular types of characters. Mason is like a straight version of Will, only with five-o'clock shadow, and Conner fits nicely into Cavanagh's line of goofy, likable man-children, from Ed to J.D.'s brother on "Scrubs" to his lead in the short-lived "Love Monkey."

Before you can say "premiere episode plot twist," Mason and Conner have to fly back to Chicago to work on what they think is a Super Bowl ad, but which is really an effort to keep an existing client, Arc Mobile, which is unhappy with the campaign proposed by Mason's boss, the mercurial, erratic, obnoxious and talented creative director, Guy (played by Jason O'Mara, who is light years here from his time-traveling detective on "Life on Mars"). Guy conveniently drops dead shortly after giving a speech on the role of creatives in advertising (it's not so sad, he is such an unlikable jerk, at his memorial service, nobody can bring themselves to say anything really nice about him). The group creative director, Tony Mink (a low-key Griffin Dunne), then offers Mason the creative director job. Mason wants Conner to be promoted too, but Tony explains that Mason is all about advertising, while Conner is not. And thus the dynamic for "Trust Me" is set up.

I really don't have a single bad thing to say about "Trust Me." The cast is very good. Monica Potter does nice work as the hot-shot, neurotic and abrasive veteran copywriter, Sarah, who is new to the agency. Geoffrey Arend and Mike Damus are entertaining as Hector and Tom, the young, up-and-coming artist-writer team (upon Sarah's arrival, they steal her Clio Award). Dunne does a nice job playing the boss as couching his steel fist in a tweedy glove, a nice change from the man's man approach usually taken for a character like this one (Miles Drentell of "thirtysomething" would think that Tony is a mess). And McCormack and Cavanagh are, well, McCormack and Cavanagh. If you like what they've always done (I fall into that category), you'll like them here, and if you don't, then you won't.

The writing is solid. There were some smart lines (O'Mara bellows, "clients are idiots," to end his big speech, which was funny and observant), and the plot moves along briskly. The show looks great. It feels like a big Hollywood romantic comedy, all bright and shiny with luxurious sets and flashy visual gimmicks, like the use of split screens and on-screen supers (like "It's her first day" as Sarah enters the agency). And since the creators, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny ("The Closer"), actually worked for many years in major Chicago ad agencies, the world of the show feels real, at least to me, who, admittedly, knows little about the industry.

If I don't sound so excited, it's because while there might not be anything bad to say about "Trust Me," there is also nearly nothing particularly great about it, either. It's not the show's fault that "Mad Men" has aired two near-perfect seasons and is amongst the handful of best programs on the air. (I've seen in interviews that "Trust Me" was in development long before "Mad Men" hit the air.) And, in fairness, "Trust Me" and "Mad Men" have little in common, beyond both being about advertising and the creative director saving the day with an ad lib thing I talked about earlier (although that method is de rigeur for Draper, it is a first-time occurrence for the rookie art-director-turned-creative-director Mason). The tones of the programs are completely different, as "Mad Men" is deliberate, dark and moody, releasing even the most basic pieces of information in measured doses, while "Trust Me" is less challenging, faster-moving, lighter and chattier.

But fair or not fair, "Mad Men" exists, and "Trust Me" just feels unoriginal, not just in light of "Mad Men," but also considering "thirtysomething." In fact, Mason and Conner's relationship is disturbingly close to that of Ken Olin's Michael and Timothy Busfield's Elliott in the 1980s critical favorite. Like Michael, Mason is the responsible one of the pairing. Like Michael, Mason is promoted without his partner. And like Michael, Mason is told by his partner that he is the less talented of the two, and like Elliott to Michael, Conner tells Mason that others had suggested he end the partnership, but he refused. (The only swap is that Mason is the artist, whereby Michael was the writer, but it's a distinction without any real difference to the show.) Granted, the Michael promotion happens two or three seasons into the run of "thirtysomething," but the dynamic that drove those later seasons seems to be the same one that is pushing "Trust Me" forward: How will the new roles affect the long-time partners, both in their own lives and in their interactions with each other?

Pilots are notoriously bad test cases to see what a show will actually feel like. After all, the debut has to introduce you to all of the characters, locations, relationships and key plot points, all in a short period of time, and all while, like any other episode, telling a good story and being entertaining. (Ironically, McCormack's breakthrough show, "Will & Grace," is one of the best pilots I've ever seen in managing to hit all of these bases successfully.) So I don't think it is fair to judge "Trust Me" until it's had its chance to air some regular installments (even though I did just that in this review ... oops!). But my sense is that "Trust Me" will always have to fight to escape the shadows of its predecessors, even if it will likely be very different and, not coincidentally, able to draw a bigger audience.

Despite the unflattering comparisons, the debut of "Trust Me" was entertaining. I'll keep watching. But as far as supremacy in the ad agency world goes, Don Draper and Sterling Cooper have nothing to worry about.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Republicans in the House Are Behaving Like the Collapse of Bush's Policies Never Happened

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

Say you belonged to a charitable organization, and you and your friends were appointed to the steering committee for a big fundraiser, so you chose to have a combination bake sale and casino night. And let's say that you scheduled it on the same night as the town's homecoming football game, so nearly nobody showed up, and the peanut butter cookies in the bake sale gave the few guests that did visit salmonella. Oh, and let's say that in setting up the casino equipment, you accidentally cut off the electricity for the entire block. When the time rolled around the next year for the annual fundraiser, would you stand up and advocate a salmonella bake sale held on the same night as the big game? Of course not. You'd sit down, shut up, and wait for someone else to come up with a new idea. Even if you thought a bake sale/casino night could work under the right circumstances, you would probably be able to figure out that having overseen a colossal failure, the timing might not be right for you to pitch the same idea again.

Unless, apparently, you are a Republican member of the House.

Look, I had no illusions that everything would change the minute Barack Obama took the oath of office, and that the Republicans would immediately burn their Ronald Reagan pictures and pledge allegiance to Obama. But I did think that Obama's solid victory in November, if nothing else, would make it clear that the bankrupt (literally) policies of the last eight years would no longer be seriously considered as a solution. I certainly knew that the Republicans would try to claw their way back to power, but I never imagined they would pull a Groundhog Day, acting as if the absolute meltdown of the last eight years hadn't happened. After all, by electing Obama, the American people pretty directly rejected the failed ways of doing business.

Of the myriad problems George W. Bush and his enablers in Congress left on Obama's desk, the most pressing is perceived to be the economy. So Obama's first major legislative initiative was the stimulus package. Under the market-cures-all philosophy of the last administration (and, in fairness, every administration going back to Ronald Reagan), the financial system collapsed as the greed and irresponsibility of institutions finally reached a tipping point. But what was even more acute during the last eight years was the historic and devastating redistribution of wealth, whereby Bush's tax cuts for the rich and unfailing support for corporate interests led to a situation where, as former Rep. David Bonior put it on Meet the Press on January 11:

"over the last 20 years, the top 10 percent took 90 percent of the income gains in this--in the country. And the top 1 percent took roughly 60 percent. And the top 1/10th of 1 percent took 35 percent of that. I mean, it's skewed the wrong way."

The system of tax cuts and the like turned the surplus of the Clinton years into a massive deficit, even before the $700 billion financial bailout and current stimulus package came into play. And the Bush years allowed massive gains for the wealthy, all while middle class wages, in real dollars, fell.

So, if nothing else, we should all be in agreement that the Bush years were a debacle, and that the policies of the administration need to be rejected, much like the bake sale/casino night of my analogy.

And yet, on the first major piece of legislation that the popular new president advanced, what did the Republicans in the House do? Suggest a bake sale/casino night.

On the January 11 Meet the Press episode I mentioned above, all of the economists, liberals and conservatives, agreed that some kind of stimulus is necessary to kick-start the economy. Economists will also tell you that if you genuinely want to stimulate consumer spending, tax cuts, especially for the middle class and wealthy, are less effective than government spending, since those tax cuts are more likely to be saved than spent. Programs that aid those in trouble (like food stamps and extended unemployment insurance), as well as programs that create jobs (like infrastructure projects), are far more effective in stimulating consumer spending.

And despite all of this information, not one single Republican member of the House voted for the stimulus bill yesterday. (It still passed, 244-188, with 11 Democrats joining the 177 Republicans in opposing the bill.) Not one. Zero. Zippo. Nada. Nil. None. There wasn't one Republican in the whole House of Representatives who could see his or her way clear to support legislation to help our tanking economy, even if they thought the bill wasn't perfect. And what was the primary objection of the Republicans, based on the GOP's suggested alternative bill (that was voted down by the House)? They wanted more tax cuts.

Seriously? More freakin' tax cuts? What's next? Are they going to be asking for less regulations on Wall Street? Another invasion of Iraq? Were they not watching what happened the last eight years (and, more importantly, what the American people voted for in November)?

Th vote on the stimulus bill was not an isolated incident. The Republicans in the House made a less important but more egregious move out of the Bush-era repertoire when they killed a measure to extend the deadline for the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting. A two-thirds majority was necessary for passage in the House, but thanks to the GOP, the vote in support was only 258-168, with 155 Republicans joining 13 Democrats in opposition to the measure. It was such a noncontroversial proposal that the Senate unanimously approved it without a single objection.

In killing the extension, the Republicans in the House were choosing the bottom lines of major corporations over the day-to-day lives of, mainly, working class, elderly and poor Americans. The extension was sought because millions still do not have the adapter boxes necessary to receive digital transmissions on their analog television sets. Those affected tend to be the least well-to-do and most vulnerable citizens, those who can't afford cable television and rely on old-fashioned over-the-airways reception to watch. And the government's program to help pay for the adaptor boxes is out of money (they can't issue any new coupons until unused ones that were already issued expire). The legislation was meant to help these people avoid losing access to television.

But the Republicans in the House was more concerned that stations might lose money having to devote advertising time to announcements about the transition. It was a move right out of the Bush years, prioritizing the earnings of corporations over the lives of less-than-wealthy individuals.

The bottom line is that this country is in a very dark place right now, and the reason we're there is not a mystery. It is, in large part, the direct result of a set of policies advocated and carried out by the Bush Administration. Those policies, including tax cuts for the rich and the facilitation of movement of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the upper class, have failed. While Republicans are free to oppose President Obama's solutions to this mess if they think they have better ideas, merely advocating the old failed policies should not be tolerated.

Obama deserves credit for trying to foster a bipartisan atmosphere in Washington, and I laud his efforts in this regards. But if the Republicans are going to be obsructionist, clinging to failied policies and trying to score political points by keeping the new president from passing the programs he wants (or at least making them look partisan), Obama and the Democrats have to move forward on their own. They have large majorities in both houses and, more importantly, the mandate of a solid presidential election win.

It's time for the House Republicans to offer something useful or shut up and let the rest of us try and undo the mess they helped make. We're just not interested in their bake sale/casino night ideas. I'm not sure we can survive another salmonella outbreak or blackout. We're still picking up the pieces from the last ones.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Scrubs" Returns With a New Direction, and Networks Should Take Note

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

After the completion of its seventh season (cut short by the writers' strike) last spring, NBC dropped "Scrubs." But ABC swooped in and picked up the single-camera sitcom, launching it as a mid-season replacement (Tuesday nights at 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. Eastern). The ABC version of "Scrubs" debuted with two episodes on January 6, with two additional installments airing on January 13, and the ratings have been far from stellar. The show finished third in its time slot on January 13 at both 9:00 and 9:30, attracting right around 6.7 million viewers for each. So was ABC's decision to pick up "Scrubs" a failure? No, it has actually been a success, and on two completely different levels.

Business before pleasure, as they say. No matter how you slice the "Scrubs" ratings, they aren't great. It was trounced by both NBC's "The Biggest Loser" (more than 12 million masochists tuned in to watch obese people try and lose weight) and CBS's newest granny-skewing procedural, "The Mentalist" (with more than 19 million cataract-threatened pairs of eyes on hand). (Interestingly, "Loser" far out-performed "The Mentalist" in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic by more than a full rating point, but "Scrubs" trailed them both.) So what can possibly be the spin that can make "Scrubs" a business success? One magic word: syndication.

You see, "Scrubs" is produced by ABC Studios (formerly called Touchstone Television), even though the show spent its first seven seasons airing on NBC. Until the mid-1990s, federal rules prevented networks from owning programming. The result was that when shows went into syndication, the producers, not the networks, reaped the financial windfall. So, for example, Warner Brothers was the primary financial beneficiary of the success of "Friends" in syndication, not NBC. Same for "Seinfeld" and Castle Rock.

But in a stroke of irony, just as the networks finally secured the long-lobbied-for right to own all or part of the programs they aired, they started filling their schedules with reality programs that had little to no value in syndication. With the amount of sitcoms produced each year falling, syndicators have had to dive deeper to find content, leading to syndication deals for comedies that wouldn't have had a prayer for such distribution 20 years earlier (like, say, "Reba").

Which brings us back to "Scrubs," which was, as a result, in high demand when it hit the syndication market in 2006. Now you can find "Scrubs" everywhere you turn, from your local station, to Comedy Central, to TV Land and elsewhere. "Scrubs" is nearing the "Law & Order" level of ubiquity. And who is profiting from the syndication treasure trove? Not NBC. No, ABC, as the owner of the program, is the one pulling in the big syndication bucks.

So when "Scrubs" airs on Tuesday nights and attracts its meager six-plus million viewers, ABC executives can still smile, because they know that each episode they produce for the rest of 2009 will bring back multiple times its cost in syndication sales. The fact that the show can draw a respectable audience (it still nearly doubled Fox's viewership for "Fringe" on January 13, and more than tripled the CW's number for "Privileged") is almost a bonus. Make no mistake, "Scrubs" is a hit, financially anyway, without generating a hit-level audience.

(Of course, if the ratings for "Scrubs" really tank, ABC could pull it from the schedule and either burn off the episodes after May sweeps or air them online, while still selling them into syndication. But even if that happens, it will only demonstrate that if a network can get a sitcom it owns through four seasons, it then will have the safety net of syndication for subsequent seasons if the ratings don't pan out.)

It amazes me that "Scrubs" is one of the few instances of a network taking advantage of this kind of situation. But it shouldn't be too surprising, since the networks have such a short-sighted, win-now, this-quarter's-earnings-above-all approach to programming (I discussed this problem in a column last February). As the television landscape continues to change, and the power of the networks continue to wane, the "Scrubs" model offers one way to gain some long-term traction, if only the networks could see past last night's ratings to access it.

Business dispensed, on to the pleasure, and this season of "Scrubs" has certainly been pleasurable. In my January preview of new shows, I relayed that Bill Lawrence, the creator of "Scrubs," promised in an online video that the program would go back to its early season roots, mixing wacky comedy and gut-punch drama. After watching the first four installments of this season, it seems to me Lawrence was throwing us a bit of a curve, because he's shepherded the show into new territory. I like it, but it was jarring at first, and it took me a couple of installments to adjust. (All four episodes are available for viewing on

Even though the characters retain their jovial natures, this eighth season has everyone behaving a bit more adult (just a bit ... this is "Scrubs," after all). As befitting the development of the characters, J.D. (Zach Braff) and Elliot (Sarah Chalke) have a new maturity that marks a subtle shift from earlier seasons. In the second episode, "My Last Words," J.D. and his best friend, Turk (Donald Faison), give up their "steak night" tradition to keep a lonely, dying man company in the hospital (the gravitas-infused Glynn Turner, who did a great job as Blair Underwood's angry and grieving father on HBO's "In Treatment," plays the patient), with the discussion inevitably turning to death. There is a darker and moodier vibe to the season (even the photography seems more nuanced) that was really at the fore in the bedside scenes.

That's not to say the episodes can't also be funny. In fact, one of J.D.'s lines at the dying man's bedside made Entertainment Weekly's weekly roundup of humorous snippets of dialogue (J.D. to Turk after he pokes holes in J.D.'s claim to be allergic to beer in front of the patient: "Even though I'm a man, I don't like beer. I prefer appletinis, they make me feel fancy. There, you hurt and embarrassed me. Are you happy?").

This season really hit its stride in the fourth episode, "My Happy Place," the latest one to air, and the first one after Courtney Cox's three-episode guest arc ended. (Cox was great, but her role as the new chief of medicine dragged attention away from the core group of characters, which is not what we "Scrubs" fans want in the final season.) Two major ongoing plot arcs are addressed in "My Happy Place": Dr. Kelso's (Ken Jenkins) retirement and the will-they-or-won't-they dance between J.D. and Elliott. The way the show handles both of these story lines demonstrates why it is so unique and beloved.

As for Dr. Kelso, after hapless lawyer Ted (Sam Lloyd) asks the question everyone has wondered (why Dr. Kelso continues to hang out in the hospital's coffee shop after his retirement), Dr. Kelso talks about going on a trip with his wife, only for J.D. and Elliott to catch him in a different coffee shop across town. Dr. Kelso's reaction -- and his ultimate course of action -- were not what you would expect from a typical sitcom. (I won't say more in the hope that my constant drumbeat of support for "Scrubs" might actually get some people to watch the show, and I don't want to be a spoiler.) But as Dr. Kelso prepares to leave J.D. and Elliott in the coffee shop, the tone and the music were more reminiscent of Braff's feature film "Garden State" than a sitcom.

But the highlight of the episode is the conversation that J.D. and Elliott have about the prospects of the two of them trying again as a couple (after Dr. Kelso mistakenly thinks they are back together). The conversation scenes are borderline surreal, taking place in total blackout, as if the characters were on the stage of a dark theater with a single spotlight on their table. Which is appropriate, since the scene plays more like a snippet from a play than it does like a scene from a television comedy. The back-and-forth is naturalistic and smart and funny, with multiple references to past episodes, feeling at times like the characters are articulating what the audience must be thinking, especially when J.D. and Elliott "blah-blah-blah" each other when they say something that has been said so many times before.

Lawrence's approach to the J.D.-Elliott relationship throughout the show has been to get away from done-to-death sitcom conventions, something he pokes fun at in the scene. J.D. says to Elliott, "We don't have to be that couple where one of us says that they're moving out of town, the other has to rush to the airport to stop them; we don't have to argue about whether or not we're on a break," to which Elliott replies, "You watched the 'Friends' marathon last night, didn't you." Again, I won't ruin the outcome of their discussion, but suffice to say that it comes off with such subtlety, intelligence and feeling, it is deeply affecting and satisfying, even though the resolution is incredibly simple and low-key, especially for a major plot twist.

Television is a better place for the presence of "Scrubs" on the schedule, even if it will only be there for a few more months. It's true that I'm talking about the quality of the entertainment, but I could just as easily be talking about the business decisions behind this eighth season as well. Maybe the lesson of ABC's actions with "Scrubs" will lead the networks to think long-term and invest more resources in quality comedies and wean themselves off of low-quality, middling-rated reality programs, which offer only short-term benefits. The odds of this happening are long, but so were the chances of "Scrubs" surviving for eight seasons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Address Shows that Barack Obama is Worthy of the Number 44

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

As Dianne Feinstein introduced Barack Obama as the 44th president, and as Obama noted in his inauguration address (you can read the full text here) that he was the 44th person to take the oath of office, it struck me that 44 is about as apt a number for the Obama presidency as you could find.

Why? Well, as a baseball fanatic, I relate most numbers to the sport. Sure, 42, worn by Jackie Robinson, the man who broke Major League Baseball's racial barrier, on the surface, would seem to be the most appropriate number for Obama. But for someone of my generation (much to my chagrin, I am not old enough to have seen Robinson play), the number 44 carries more emotional resonance.

On April 8, 1974, I sat in my living room with my parents and watched as Henry Aaron, wearing uniform number 44, hit a home run to break Babe Ruth's long-standing career home run record. I, a seven-year-old devoted to baseball, looked on, mesmerized. As Aaron rounded second base, two fans ran up behind him. (You can watch the home run at the end of this video.) My parents gasped, but the men innocently patted Aaron on the back, congratulating him. I asked my parents why they were worried, and they nervously explained to me that some bad people wanted to hurt Aaron because they didn't want a black person to break Ruth's record. I remember being confused and upset. To my mind, why would anyone want to hurt the great Henry Aaron? He was a hero! It was one of my first lessons in racism.

Three years later, Reggie Jackson would join my team, the New York Yankees, and wear uniform number 44. Jackson spent most of the season at odds with teammate Thurman Munson, manager Billy Martin and owner George Steinbrenner, but I thought he was a great player, and he quickly became my favorite Yankee. Which was why I was thrilled when I sat in Yankee Stadium on October 18, 1977 and watched Jackson hit three home runs (on three consecutive pitches) in Game 6 of the World Series to power the Yankees to victory over the Dodgers and their first World Series title in my young lifetime (and first since 1962).

While baseball might seem trivial on such an important day, I couldn't help making the connection. Barack Obama, the 44th president, is a pioneer, much like Aaron, who started his career in the Negro Leagues. And his skill and intelligence, on display in his inaugural address, showed the superstar abilities of Aaron and Jackson. I, like many Americans, have hope that Obama is capable of successfully leading the country back, much like Jackson did for the Yankees in 1977.

The historic nature of Obama's election has been well-chronicled, and rightfully so. The elevation of an African American to the presidency, coming against the backdrop of hundreds of years of racism and oppression of blacks in this country, marks a powerful moment, one filled with symbolic and actual meaning. Watching Obama stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, taking the oath of office, inspired a sense of pride in my country that has been lacking for the eight years of the Bush administration. After all, we are told that Europeans are more progressive than we are, and yet the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Italy have never elected a black leader, nor have nearly every other country on the continent.

But as great as it was to watch an African American man take the oath using Abraham Lincoln's bible, I was even more moved listening to Obama's inauguration address, because it showed that after eight years of the Bush presidency, we finally have a worthy leader. Sure, I had felt throughout the campaign that Obama was the best man for the job, a leader of intelligence and talent. But seeing him on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20 really hammered the idea home. This was real. Obama was the president. And I was proud, and it went far beyond his race.

In the summer of 2004, I spent three months living in Helsinki, Finland. By my second week there, I realized that when meeting new people, I had to change my introduction from, "Hi, my name is Mitchell," to, "Hi, my name is Mitchell and I didn't vote for him." Bush's absolute contempt for government and the constitution, as well as the rest of the world, tarnished what it meant to be an American. (Keith Olbermann did a great job summarizing the failures of the Bush administration in this segment of Countdown last week.) With Obama taking office, the job of restoring the shine of being an American is off to a rousing start.

The entire speech was brilliant, and many lines will be held up for praise. But to me, personally, here were some moments that jumped out as I watched, signalling that a new, better era had begun:

- "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." One of the legacies of the Bush administration will be its use of fear to ram through policies that threatened our democracy. Those days have ended, at least for the next four years.

- "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less." And later, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." We have become a nation of shortcuts. This sense of entitlement has been pervasive, infecting everything from television and movies to politics. It was satisfying to here a leader come out and say that things have to change, that to solve the myriad problems facing the nation, we, as citizens, have to start doing the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing.

- "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations." Music to my ears, more pleasing than the joyous vocals of Aretha Franklin singing "America." Translation: No more using terrorism as an excuse to torture. No more using terrorism as an excuse to take away the rights of American citizens (and non-citizens, too). No more using terrorism as a premise to destroy the ideals of the American democracy. And no more using terrorism as a political ploy.

- "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers." And later, "We will restore science to its rightful place..." After eight years of Bush injecting religion into every aspect of his administration, both expected (stem-cell research) and unexpected (150 graduates of Pat Robertson's low-ranked Regent University School of Law getting jobs at the Justice Department because they had the "right" religious beliefs), the fact that a president would legitimize the position of non-belief and extol the virtues of science was welcomed.

No matter how you slice it, today was a great day for the United States. The problems we face are daunting, both in number and depth, so much so that they may be beyond any president to solve. But it's nice to know that the guy in the batter's box taking his hacks to try and fix them is worthy of the number 44. I'm sure Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson would agree.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"American Idol" Returns With a New Judge in Tow

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

I am not a fan of "American Idol" (Fox, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern), but it's not for the reason you might think. I am not against all reality programs. I am fine with highly rated, fairly harmless entries. There is nothing wrong with a network programming a reality series that is a proven hit, especially when it is innovative and shakes up the schedule a bit. It's the mid-level, middling-rated, thrown-together knock-offs that really bug me (yeah, I'm looking at you "Superstars of Dance"), since they only exist because they are cheap to produce, and they take a place that could be filled by a similarly rated (but more expensive) scripted show. (I discussed the long-term risks of this strategy in a column last February.)

The only real reason I haven't been a fan of "American Idol" is because I don't like teeny-bopper pop music, which is the bread and butter of the show. "Idol" hit the air when boy bands and empty-headed young singers like Britney and Jessica ruled the music business, a time I like to refer to as The Year the Music Died. And not much has changed. The introductory montage of this season's premiere included a room of tween girls breathlessly awaiting the verdict as to who would be last year's winner, and then sobbing in anguish because light rocker David Cook bested hearthrob David Archuleta. That, to me, summed up the appeal of "American Idol," and that is something I want no part of.

After all, when the networks have featured rock-themed talent contests, I've been on board (like both seasons of "Rock Star," first finding a new singer for INXS, and then casting a front-person for a made-for-the-show band consisting of Tommy Lee, Gilby Clarke and Jason Newsted). But because I never cared about the Clay Aikens and Kelly Clarksons of the world, I mostly steered clear of "Idol."

What caused me to take a look at this season's first two two-hour episodes? No, not the singer who auditioned in a bikini (although she was exceptionally easy on the eyes). It was the addition of a new judge, songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi. "Idol" has been a top-five show for the past seven seasons, so to make a major change to the winning formula is big news (DioGuardi joins the regular panel of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson). Since "Idol" lost a chunk of viewers last season, and this season's premiere rated even lower than last year's, it is understandable that the producers would want to take some risks to reinvigorate the program.

So is DioGuardi a good addition? Unequivocally, yes. First of all, she lends a measure of credibility to the panel. She is a current hit-maker, writing and producing successful songs for popular artists like Pink, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Celine Dion and Carrie Underwood. Cowell will still write a hit now and again (like for Leona Lewis), but he is more of a television personality now than anything else, and Abdul hasn't been culturally relevant as a performer since the Soviet Union still existed.

More importantly, DioGuardi lends a second passionate voice to the panel. Cowell's bad-guy shtick may have grown tired and cliche, but at least he offers a strong opinion (usually some variation on "that was dreadful" or a begrudging admission of quality with a half-smile yes vote). Abdul is the same to every contestant, nice and nurturing, whether she votes yes or no. It's a quality that might make for a good person, but not for interesting television. And Jackson is just plain odd. It's like he is so ingrained in doing the show that he feels like his reactions don't have to actually relate to anything going on in front of him anymore. When he is outvoted, he doesn't seem to care. All of his comments seem to have "just as long as the check clears" as their subtext.

But DioGuardi, maybe because she's new, but also because she's current and smart, speaks her mind. She's more specific in her notes than Jackson, more direct than Abdul, and certainly more likable than Cowell. She was put to the test in the debut when a high-school-aged auditioner showed DioGuardi a binder filled with songs she had written, explaining that the new judge was her role model. The girl clearly wasn't ready for a professional singing career, and DioGuardi, despite being a rookie, expertly let her down easy, providing better advice than Abdul, and showing more compassion than Cowell, even as the girl was pathetically begging for inclusion in the finals. (After clearly being told by the panel she wasn't good enough, she nevertheless says: "I know that, like, some of you are kind of on the fence about me now.") I'm not sure how die-hard "Idol" fans will read DioGuardi's blend of experience, knowledge and passion, but to a non-fan like me, it was a nice change from the predictable and tired personas of the three veteran judges.

It's been about four years since I last took in some of "Idol," and after watching the first four hours of this season, I don't like the show any better than I used to. Again, the idea of listening to wannabe pop stars singing pop hits (or worse, standards like "Over the Rainbow") doesn't float my boat. And I'm no fan of host Ryan Seacrest. Watching him brings to mind Jimmy Fallon as Carson Daly on "Saturday Night Live," starting each sketch with, "I'm Carson Daly, and I'm a massive tool." Seacrest has clearly gone to the Carson Daly Tool Institute for Annoyingly Vacant Television Personalities, and graduated with high honors. His much-maligned attempt to high-five a blind contestant in this season's premiere didn't feel like something out of the ordinary. This guy is such an empty-headed moron, I wouldn't be surprised for a second if he did it again this year.

"Idol" pioneered a structure that is now familiar, but is a bit odd: It's really two shows. First, for some weeks, there are auditions. And then, the "new" show begins, when the finalists convene in Los Angeles for the competition. There is an aspect of the early audition episodes that really rubs me the wrong way: the exploitation of rejected singers. I have no problem with "Idol" getting comic mileage out of the William Hung-like auditioners, those people who should know that they're horrendous but try out anyway. These contestants aren't showing any respect for the art and craft of singing and performing, so they deserve no respect in return. And there were no shortage of whack-jobs totally asking for humiliation in this year's auditions (my favorite was the nerdy version of Jake Gyllenhaal -- yes, you read that right -- who couldn't have carried a tune if the judges placed it in a backpack for him).

But where "Idol" drifts into sadistic territory is when the producers present for mocking auditioners who are not good enough, but who take the whole process seriously and are destroyed by their rejection. One moment that stuck out for me was a 19-year-old pretty blonde woman who was probably the most talented performer in her small town, but was clearly not up to the task of being a professional singer. Unlike the Hung-variety idiots, you can completely understand why this woman would think she was good enough to make it onto "Idol." She was shocked and devastated by the outright rejection of the judges, and the way it was handled by the show was far too exploitative for my tastes.

But aside from this low-rent tactic and the unwatchability of Seacrest, I completely see why people like "Idol." It offers an interesting and potent mix, combining the drama of the personal stories (one contestant breaks down crying after making it to the next round, explaining to Seacrest that the show is a chance for him to help his struggling family) and music (if you like the pop genre). There is plenty going on to keep your attention. And the addition of DioGuardi brings a positive new element to the veteran program.

I can't say I'll watch "Idol" as the season progresses, but once the auditions are done, I might take a look at an episode, maybe a theme night when the featured artist is someone I like. Even with its small but significant loss of audience, the "Idol" juggernaut will go on, with or without me. Which is fine. I'll take "Idol" over "Superstars of Dance," any day of the week.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Stimulus Package Must Include a Commitment to Green Energy

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

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office next Tuesday, he will have a huge pile of problems on his Oval Office desk awaiting his attention. (Thanks George W.!) You have to think, though, that the number one issue facing him will be pushing through a stimulus plan to help the economy out of the current morass. Economists from both sides of the aisle seem to agree that some kind of stimulus is necessary. While I fear partisan bickering will delay or water down the final package to the point that it doesn't address the dire problems in the economy, I am even more concerned that in the battle, an important (maybe the most important) component will be lost.

Whereas a plan like the $700 billion financial bailout worked on one level (keep the financial system from collapsing), the stimulus package should, if it's done right, work on two equal tracks: In addition to the obvious -- boosting the economy by increasing consumption via government-funded projects -- the nearly unprecedented government investment in the economy also provides a unique opportunity to reposition the country for success going forward regarding our energy policy. What concerns me is that even if not a single dollar of stimulus money goes to pork, and every penny goes to projects that will actually contribute to our society (like building highways and schools), we still could miss out on a golden opportunity, one that may not happen again for quite some time.

As a nation, we can no longer avoid the fact that from an economic, environmental and foreign policy perspective, the energy policy (or lack thereof) that has reigned for the last 60 or so years cannot be sustained. No matter how you spin the energy situation, the U.S. is a follower, not a leader. We use far more oil than we produce. We do not build vehicles that our citizens want to buy. And we don't have any national plan or commitment to address our dependence on foreign oil. It seems to me that this massive government stimulus initiative, if combined with government action and, more importantly, a commitment by Americans, can launch the United States into the forefront of world leadership on energy. But if we don't act, we will just fall behind again.

Consider these two news stories that quietly broke in the last week. Toyota announced that it is speeding up its production of green vehicles, and that it will introduce an all-electric car for sale in the United States in 2012. The car will release only 99 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer. Even more troubling was the news that Abu Dhabi plans to spend $15 billion dollars -- to start -- to develop green energies. Realizing that oil is a finite resource, the Abu Dhabi crown prince wants to make sure his government will continue to prosper in the future energy market. The plan includes building a "zero-carbon" and "zero waste" city of 15,000 people in the next few months.

So while the Democrats in Congress complain that too much of the stimulus package is dedicated to tax cuts, and while the Republicans try and slow the stimulus train down as best as they can (especially direct aid to the states), the Japanese are jumping ahead of us in the future generation of car production, and Abu Dhabi is beating us to the punch with green energy.

Do we really want to lag behind again?

Barack Obama has said often, "This is our moment." I know I'm moving his words to a new context, but this is our moment to assert control of the next generation of energy production and use. It's time for a confluence of government and industry, rules and innovation, investment and sacrifice. It's time for the government to set standards for vehicle efficiency that revolutionize how we look at car travel in this country. It's time for the government to create an atmosphere in which American automakers (assuming there still are any in the near future) know what they have to do to take the lead in the next generation of green vehicles. And it's up to the American people to agree to the changes in habits that will allow all of these initiatives to flourish.

And none of it can happen if the stimulus package doesn't sufficiently address these issues, providing the money and direction to ensure that the United States can take the lead in green energy production and smart energy usage policies.

Luckily, it seems like Barack Obama is on board with this approach to the stimulus package and our future. On Meet the Press on Sunday, former Congressman David Bonior (of Michigan, not incidentally), an Obama economic advisor, said this:

"But I would say that if we run this--we run the program that President Obama has suggested on the spending side through a prism of a green new energy economy, there ought not to be a worker in this country, a building trades person that's on the bench. They out to be out rebuilding our schools, our highways, our bridges, our buildings, our office buildings, our autos and our trucks. All of that needs to go through a prism of a green new energy economy, because I think that's the new economy that he is striving for, the president and the Congress, and that's the one that's going to really bring us out of this."

My hope is that when the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are finished with their political turf battles, the notion expressed by Bonior survives.

As a country, we are tired of playing second fiddle to the Japanese in the car industry (with the resulting loss of jobs) and to the traditional oil-producing countries on energy. We are tired of the economic impact of our oil dependence, as well as the foreign policy decisions that result from our oil addiction. And we should all be worried about global warming and other environmental perils that have resulted from our lack of an energy policy. The stimulus package needs to do more than just jump-start the economy; it needs to make sure that as the 21st century energy world order takes shape, this time, the United States is at the forefront.

The Japanese and Abu Dhabi aren't waiting to make their initial moves. We shouldn't be, either.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The MLB Network Launches, and, So Far, It's an All-Star

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

Baseball may be the third one onto the field of the major sports leagues launching signature cable networks, but they may just be playing the game the best.

On January 1, the MLB Network launched with its "Hot Stove" studio show, followed by the original broadcast of Don Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series (for the first time on television since that day), complete with the original commercials and commentary and in-studio interviews with Larsen and his catcher, Yogi Berra. Since then, the network has continued to follow the same model, mixing "Hot Stove" with, mainly, rebroadcasts of important games and other highlight/retrospective-type programming.

Simply put, in nearly every way, MLB has gotten it right. The NFL shot itself in the foot by failing to come to a deal with some major cable operators, leaving most Americans with no way to get the NFL Network. As for the NBA, if not for Bill Simmons's obsession in his columns with a studio show featuring Gary Payton and Chris Webber, I'm not sure if I would even know that NBA TV existed. I'm positive that I don't know if it's even available on my cable package. (In the interest of full disclosure, of the four major sports, basketball is my least favorite.)

So while the MLB Network may be a bit of a Johnny-Bench-come-lately, baseball gets full credit for doing it right. Maybe they learned by watching the ups and downs of the NFL Network (including the idea of allowing Bryant Gumble to do play-by-play on games) and NBA TV. MLB brought in veteran television wizard Tony Petitti (who was instrumental in the formation of the BCS) from CBS to run the whole thing, and the experience he brings is evident in every aspect of the venture.

The "Hot Stove" show seems to be the heart and soul of the network, as when the season begins, it will morph into a highlights program that may just be a must-see for baseball fans. In addition to highlights and interviews, the show will look in live on key moments of games in progress. The "Hot Stove" is broadcast out of a vast, state-of-the-art series of studios named for famous players (like Studio 42 for Jackie Robinson, which features a large baseball diamond on which the analysts can demonstrate plays, and Studio 3, for Babe Ruth). The mere visual scope of the set-up surpasses anything I've seen on network television. It's not just flashier, which would be easy to do, but also more interesting, putting the analysts and guests in positions that facilitate the viewing experience.

The talent on the show is fine, but as time goes on, I'm sure Petitti and his crew will find everyone's niche and move people around accordingly until the blend is right. "Hot Stove" definitely has succumbed to the modern crutch of sports producers to throw as many analysts as possible into the studio until the audience is overrun by talking heads. In addition to hosts Matt Vasgersian, Victor Rojas (for you old-timers out there, he's Cookie's son) and Greg Amsinger, as well as reporters Hazel Mae and Trenni Kusnierek, the list of ex-ballplayer analysts is lenghty: Harold Reynolds (who seems to be the lead analyst), Al Leiter, Barry Larkin, Mitch Williams, Dan Plesac and Joe Magrane. Plus, Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated is the resident reporter on staff. If you're counting, that's enough people to field a baseball team for a game and still have some subs on the bench. They all don't appear at once, of course, taking turns night by night, but if feels that way sometimes.

Vasgersian, the lead host, is fine, if a bit bland. Mae and Kusnierek are solid, too. The analysts are mostly on the new side, with a couple of veterans mixed in. The hiring of Reynolds was curious, and not just because he left ESPN under the cloud of a sexual harassment allegation. The problem with Reynolds is that he suffers from a mild (repeat, mild) case of Joe Morgan Syndrome (is it something about diminutive second basemen?), which causes the dual symptoms of thinking you know everything because you played the game and making ridiculous statements with conviction as if saying them strongly will make the nonsense seem to make sense. To me, Reynolds is the only real misstep the network made with "Hot Stove."

Leiter is the best of the bunch, which surprised me a bit, because I'm luke-warm on him as a game broadcaster (he works Yankee games for YES). He's more effective in the studio, where, frankly, he doesn't have to fill as much time. His analysis of baseball matters is sharp, his opinions are well-founded, and his on-air presence is more confident than cocky. He also has a sly sense of humor. Williams was better than I expected, and I liked Larkin's ability to communicate, although I found his opinions to be a bit wacky at times. Magrane, a veteran of network broadcasts, is polished and professional, if not spectacular. The on-air crew has a lot of potential. It may lack the pure star power of the network shows, but for real baseball fans, that might actually be a good thing.

In the week or so since the MLB Network launched, I have been impressed with the caliber and volume of guests on the "Hot Stove" show, ranging from the inspired (Ken Burns talking about the update of his baseball documentary) to the mundane (Scott Boras planting propaganda about, er, I mean discussing, his free agent clients).

And based on how the network handled the show about Larsen's perfect game, I wouldn't be surprised if some special programs await us down the road. Bob Costas was tapped to host the show, and he was in his element, interviewing Larsen and Berra and commenting now and again about the game, giving perspective on everything from the players to the announcers. Larsen and Berra have been interviewed endlessly about that day in 1956, and Costas didn't really break any new ground, but what he did brilliantly was keep the conversation to the relevant moments of the game, so that it added to the drama. And the producers smartly didn't go back to the studio after every half inning, letting the game flow without the constant interruptions.

Obviously, the main appeal was watching one of the greatest games in baseball history (in addition to Larsen's perfect game, his opponent, 39-year-old Sal Maglie, threw a gem, giving up only two runs and five hits, one of the runs coming on a Mickey Mantle homer). But the icing on the cake was the experience of watching a game as it was viewed in 1956. A daytime World Series game, no center field camera, minimal graphics, and only a single announcer working without an analyst (Yankees legend Mel Allen the first half of the game, Dodgers legend Vin Scully the second half). The old Yankee Stadium was cavernous (with the three monuments on the field in deep center). The players tended to be smaller and less fit than many of the modern athletes, and the crowd consisted mainly of men in suits and fedoras. But, amazingly, baseball is baseball, and as much as everything changed around it, the playing of the game itself -- and the drama of watching -- remains essentially the same. Oh, and the commercials were entertaining. All but one were for Gillette razors, and each one was different, some with animations, some with ballplayer endorsements, and some with the announcers chiming in. They were quaint by modern standards, but they also provided an interesting little peak at life in 1956.

The MLB Network's airing of the Larsen game is about as good as baseball on television gets. The network may not have thrown a perfect game in its first week, but it definitely has put up a quality start. So while the NFL Network airs for the 14 people who get it, and NBA TV plays hide-and-go-seek on the channel lineup, the MLB Network has jumped over both of them, setting the pace for what a league's network should be doing. If you're a baseball fan, the network will probably become a must-see for you, if it hasn't already.

Video Reveals that a Lack of Moral Center Is Central to Hamas's War Strategy

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

After writing two articles in two weeks defending Israel, I thought I was done with the topic for a while. (One piece showed why Hamas is responsible for the current conflict, and the other laid out why Hamas is responsible for the civilian casualties in Gaza.) After all, one glance at my HuffPost author page will reveal that I am interested in a range of issues, not just the Middle East, and, in fact, until last week, I had never written about Israel for the site.

But then a friend sent me a link to this video, and I felt I had no choice but to comment.

The clip shows Hamas urging its citizens, including children, to go to a house to act as "human shields," after Israeli security forces, in an effort to limit civilian casualties, called the owner to inform him that the house was to be bombed.

Anyone who is interested in the Israel-Hamas conflict needs to watch this video. It's sickening.

The whole world is quick to condemn Israel for civilian deaths in Gaza, but there is utter silence over Hamas's blatant disregard for the lives of its own citizens. It is an unfair double standard, which should come as no surprise, since Israel is always held by the world to unfair double standards, asked to endure things (like rocket attacks on its citizens) without reacting that would be asked of no other nation.

But once I got past feeling ill as I watched a terrorist organization herd its population toward the site of a potential bombing, it occurred to me that the video really demonstrated that to support Hamas over Israel, you have to leap through a moral looking glass, where right is wrong and wrong is right.

I say that because the video crystallized something for me: That Israel has a moral center and a sense of right and wrong, while Hamas completely lacks either. Don't agree with me? That's okay, because you know who does? Hamas.

I'll explain. Hamas's recognition that Israel, as a nation, cares about the lives of innocent civilians and has an innate moral code, while Hamas does not, is the center of Hamas's war strategy. Hamas not only directs its population to sites of potential bombings, but it uses traditionally civilian locations, like mosques, schools and hospitals, as sites at which it can store and launch weapons and hide its leaders. For that strategy to work, it involves two basic assumptions by Hamas:

1) The Israelis think it's wrong to bomb traditional civilian areas. If the Israelis were just bloodthirsty war-mongers who didn't care who was harmed in their quests of aggression, it wouldn't matter to them who or what they were bombing. If this was the Israeli mindset, what good would it do to go to the roof of a building to try and prevent an attack? But because Hamas knows that Israel does care about civilian lives, the terrorist group uses the Israeli sense of right and wrong as a weapon, hiding its violent activities behind its civilians.

2) Hamas doesn't have any moral code or respect for civilian lives. After all, to use civilians as human shields, and to conduct military operations from traditionally civilian locations, you have to not care if your citizens are injured or killed. Because if you did care, you would never endanger them by using them as shields or by conducting military operations in their pressence.

If Hamas truly believed that Israel didn't care about harming civilians, or if Hamas actually cared about the safety of its own people, it could not maintain its current war strategy. It would make no sense.

The video also reminded me of some basic differences between Israel and Hamas that show that Israel has a sense of morality that Hamas lacks.

- The goals driving the Israeli action (all Israeli military actions, really) are the safety of its citizens and the preservation of the existence of a sovereign nation. Hamas, on the other hand, has its goal the destruction of Israel, not the safety of its citizens. To paraphrase something New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during his recent trip to Israel, Hamas should be more concerned with building a Palestinian nation than destroying a neighboring one.

- Hamas's rockets target Israeli civilians (4,500 attacks since 2005), while Israel's intention is to hit Hamas military targets, while going to great lengths to avoid collateral civilian casualties. For crying out loud, what other country makes warning phone calls before an attack? There is no strategic reason to do so. It is only to save lives. Despite Hamas's use of civilians as shields, Israel has managed to carry out its military goals with only a vast minority of the deaths being civilians.

- While Israel was building shelters to protect its civilians, Hamas was building a network of tunnels, many connected to mosques and homes, from which to conduct war, but no shelters for its citizens.

- When Israel detects an incoming Hamas rocket, it urges its citizens to seek cover in shelters. When Israel lets the Palestinians in Gaza know a bomb is coming, Hamas urges its citizens into the line of fire. Hamas is not opposed to using its citizens as propaganda props, getting them killed so that the images can be rushed to the international media in a bid to gain support. When was the last time you saw footage of the Israeli casualties of Hamas's terrorism? You probably haven't, because Israel doesn't rush the images to the media like Hamas does.

Since I don't know if I'll be coming back to the Israel-Hamas issue again in the near future, I wanted to address one tangential issue that demonstrates the moral gap between Israel and Hamas. Hamas represses its own people, especially its women. Human rights groups vigorously fight for the rights of women in places like Afghanistan (and I agree with these protests 100 percent), but nobody seems to care that the same type of subjugation occurs in Gaza. When Hamas leader Nazar Rayyan was killed last week by the Israelis in Gaza, press reports noted that some or all of his four wives were also killed, but there were no comment about this fact. It was treated as if it was not an issue at all. (Of course, Al Jazeera tried to hide that Rayyan had four wives, only saying he died with "14 members of his family.")

If Israel treated women the way Hamas does, and if Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak had four wives, the international community would be in constant uproar, decrying the violations of the rights of Israeli women (and they would be correct to do so). But Hamas represses Palestinians, especially the women, and what is the international reaction? Dead silence.

I am absolutely amazed that so many people are so quick to defend and support Hamas and rail against Israel, when Hamas shows absolutely no respect for basic moral tenets by which any civilized society should live. How do Hamas supporters sleep at night knowing that the terrorist group has built its entire operation on the premise that Israel respects civilian lives but Hamas does not? I sleep very well as a defender of Israel knowing that a terrorist organization is relying on Israel's sense of basic morals as the underpinning of its violent campaign.

Watch the video again. It may give you nightmares, but it reveals the true nature of Hamas.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

It's Time for the Senate to Hold Its Nose and Seat Burris

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

Sometimes you just have to make chicken salad. Well, I don't, because I'm a vegetarian, but you know what I mean. Sometimes life throws you a curve at a bad time, and you just have to make the best of it. Yes, I'm talking to the Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Look, I get it. Nobody was happier than I was on November 4 when Americans elected Barack Obama to be president, and vastly expanded Democratic control of the House and Senate. It was a triumphant moment, and I had a sense that after eight years of incompetence and disgrace, the "good guys" were finally going to be in charge.

My post-election high lasted through Obama's appointments, before crashing to a halt on December 9, when Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, announced at a press conference that the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, had been busted for, among other things, trying to sell Obama's vacant senate seat.

So I completely understand how much it both sucks and blows (as Bart Simpson would say) that Obama, who had run a flawless and honorable campaign, and was engaging in a successful transition, was now tossed into the middle of a scandal, even though he had done absolutely nothing wrong. And worse, how the reverberations and stink of Blagojevich's alleged corruption have continued to haunt the Democrats in Washington to this day.

To be clear, I fully supported the letter, signed by all of the Democratic senators, that majority leader Harry Reid sent to Blagojevich, informing him that any appointment he made would be tainted, and, as a result, anyone chosen by him would not be seated by the Senate. Reid, an old trial lawyer, knows how to put up a good front to try and intimidate someone into doing what he wants.

But two things jumped up to bite Reid on the butt. First, Blagojevich is such a full-on delusional egomaniac, that, if anything, the letter probably egged him on to actually make an appointment. I'll bet assuming that a politician would act rationally is a mistake Reid won't make again. Second, and more importantly, Blagojevich (or someone close to him, if such a person still exists) apparently had access to a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

As a result, Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris, a 71-year-old former Illinois attorney general and comptroller, to fill the vacant senate seat.

Essentially, Blagojevich called Reid's bluff. You see, the first two paragraphs of Article 3, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution state:

"Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member."

The first key words are "Elections, Returns and Qualifications." There is no Illinois election in question, and Burris fulfills the qualifications to be appointed, since he was tapped by the sitting governor of his state (who is empowered under 17th Amendment to make the appointment) and, as Article 3 requires, is at least 30 years of age, has been a U.S. citizen for more than nine years, and is an inhabitant of Illinois. So, it would seem, the Senate has no authority under this clause to keep Burris from serving.

The second paragraph allows the Senate to expel a member, but the problem is that there is no evidence that Burris has done anything wrong. He wasn't one of the potential candidates swept up in the federal investigation of Blagojevich, and I'm quite sure you can't deny a seat to a senator just because he makes odd, grandiose statements like that his appointment was "what the Lord has ordained" (although it feels like you should be able to, no?).

Put another way, the Democrats in Washington have been backed into a corner by a soon-to-be-indicted governor with a fetish for his hairbrush. Reid made his stand, Blagojevich called him on it, and Burris showed up to the Senate, proclaiming, "Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the State of Illinois." Reid is now stuck. He made a big stink about Burris, but now he is left with not much of a case for excluding him and no strategic reason to fight. He is left depending on an issue as rickety as a missing secretary of state signature to keep Burris from serving.

That is the chicken, er, feces situation. Blagojevich has stuck the senate with an appointment that is tainted because it came from a seemingly epically corrupt governor. But Burris appears to be clean, and Blagojevich has the Constitution on his side. So what is the chicken salad? To paraphrase the comically inept Mark McGwire, whose worst moment in the public spotlight happened on Capitol Hill, I'm not here to talk about the past, I'm here to talk about the present. And the future. So seat Roland Burris and move on.

I say to Harry Reid, What is there worth fighting for here? Let Burris take the seat, and let's start trying to fix the Everest-sized pile of problems George W. Bush is leaving on Barack Obama's desk. There is no important principal to uphold. Is this the story you want dragging out over the next few weeks? What is the worst case scenario? Burris runs for re-election in 2010 and loses? If a Democrat loses a U.S. Senate race in Illinois, it will mean that things have gone horribly wrong in the next two years, and Roland Burris will be the least of the Democrats' problems.

Even Obama decided it would be best to let Burris serve. The guy has shown he has a pretty good sense of how to handle things. Now would be a good time to listen to him.

(As an aside, I am, on principal, refusing to address the claims, most prominently made by Rep. Bobby Rush, that there is any racial element to the Democrats' opposition to Burris's appointment. It is such a specious claim, and so unsupported by any facts, that it doesn't deserve to be addressed. I only make this note to make clear that I didn't forget about the issue, and I am not avoiding the issue, I just reject its relevance. To me, it's no different than not addressing that Burris was being opposed because his initials are R.B.)

Yes, thanks to Blagojevich, the Democrats in the Senate have been presented with a chicken feces situation. The best thing to do now is to make chicken salad, and that means swearing in Burris and moving on. Save the fight for something worthy, like if the courts overturn Al Franken's win in Minnesota.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Hamas Is Responsible for the Civilian Casualties in Gaza

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

Israel cares more about the Palestinian people in Gaza than Hamas does. Yes, I know this statement will get jeered and mocked by those who support the Palestinians, but, in my view, the facts bear out my assertion.

Hamas made the decision to fire rockets at Israeli civilians on a daily basis, even after Israel completely pulled out of Gaza (and violently uprooted some of its own citizens in doing so). It is ludicrous to believe that Israel would sit back and accept the daily attacks on its civilians without reacting. It seems clear that Hamas's rocket fire was intended to bring upon an Israeli offensive, a strategic decision to draw the Israelis into Gaza so that the Israelis could suffer casualties and, more importantly, to push international opinion and pressure against Israel. Further, Hamas has used mosques, schools, private residences and even hospitals as locations to manufacture, store and launch weapons at Israel and hide its leaders. By placing what are obvious military targets in civilian areas, Hamas put its own people at risk. By choosing tactical advantages over the safety of its citizens, the terrorist organization chose its military goals over the safety of its fellow Palestinians in Gaza.

Hamas is clearly far more interested in self-preservation and doing the bidding of its sponsor, Iran, than it is in actually making the lives of its people any better. Surely a peaceful settlement to the conflict with Israel and the creation of two side-by-side states would be the quickest path for Palestinians to improve their day-to-day lives. The post-Oslo period represented a high point for Palestinian civilians, both in their economic development and their aspirations for their own independent state. But Hamas isn't interested in such a result. Rather, Hamas is single-mindedly focused on destroying Israel, no matter the effect on Palestinian civilians.

Don't believe me? On Meet the Press yesterday, David Gregory read an excerpt from a book by panelist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, who wrote about Nizar Rayyan, the Hamas leader who was killed by Israel during the current offensive (along with at least two of his four wives, but notice how Al Jazeera described him as dying with "14 members of his family," failing to note the fact that he had four wives). Goldberg, who had interviewed Rayyan, wrote:

"The question I wrestle with constantly is whether Hamas is truly, theologically implacable. That is to say, whether the organization can remain true to its understanding of Islamic law and God's word and yet enter into a long-term nonaggression treaty with Israel. I tend to think not, though I've noticed over the years a certain plasticity of belief among some Hamas ideologues. ... There was no flexibility with Rayyan. This is what he said when I asked him if he could envision a 50-year hudna (or cease-fire) with Israel: `The only reason to have a hudna is to prepare yourself for the final battle. We don't need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel.' There is no chance, he said, that true Islam would ever allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East. `Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God.' ... What are our crimes? I asked Rayyan. `You are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah,' he said. `Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.' Can Israel achieve deterrence with someone like that?"

The world is now clamoring for a cease fire, but as Shimon Peres pointed out on This Week yesterday, a cease fire and opening the crossings into Gaza would only serve to give Hamas the opportunity to rearm and prepare for the next conflict with Israel, just as Rayyan described to Goldberg. Why should Israel do that?

I am amazed sometimes at the demands made on Israel. The country is a democratic nation (the only one in the immediate region) that has, since the second of its inception, had to repel attacks from its neighbors who seek its destruction. Israel has not had a day of peace in which it didn't have to prepare to defend its very existence. Every action Israel takes is in this context. It seized the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 not out of imperialistic aggression, but as a means of defending itself from its neighbors. And the current Gaza offensive is about ensuring its survival, nothing more.

Hamas's stated intention is to destroy Israel. If you believe Rayyan (and there is no reason not to, since he was one of the leaders of the terrorist group in Gaza), there is no way Hamas would agree to the existence of a Jewish state. And the Palestinian people, given a free choice in elections, voted Hamas into power.

And yet the calls come for Israel to show restraint with Hamas, and that Israel's defense against daily rocket attacks lacks proportionality. My response to such statements is, what ratios or proportions are you talking about? Israel is defending itself from the attacks of a terrorist organization that has been elected by its people to take the very actions that threaten Israeli civilians. How should Israel respond? What is "proportional" to terrorists trying to destroy you? If Hamas puts its attack apparatus in the middle of civilian populations, how can you defend yourself without harming civilians? What would these critics have Israel do? Ignore the daily rocket attacks aimed at its population? What country would do that? Israel actually called in warnings to targeted locations to warn civilians about upcoming attacks. The only reason to do such a thing is to try and minimize civilian casualties.

To me, Israel has showed remarkable restraint and proportionality, evidenced by the fact that an overwhelming majority of the Palestinian casualties have not been civilians. The world should be lauding Israel for its efforts to minimize civilian casualties. If Israel truly didn't care about the Palestinian people, its military would have indiscriminately bombed any and all possible Hamas targets, without the warnings it used, regardless of risks to the civilian population. Such a strategy would have been quicker and more efficient, and would have entailed far less threat to members of the Israeli Defense Force. But that's not the strategy Israel employed. Instead, Israel used every technological tool in its arsenal to attempt to limit targets to Hamas strongholds. It is clear extensive efforts were made to limit civilian casualties.

It is Hamas, by using civilians to act as human shields for its military operations, that has put the Palestinian civilians in jeopardy, and the blood of the injured and dead civilians is on Hamas's hands.

The long-term answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two side-by-side states, each respecting the other and its right to exist. For that to happen, the Palestinian people have to embrace a peaceful approach to settling the difficult differences that exist between the two sides. But as long as the Palestinian people embrace violence -- and make no mistake, by putting Hamas into power, they have spoken loudly and clearly that they prefer violence to negotiations -- there cannot be peace. And in that context, any call on Israel for a cease fire is really just asking Israel to grant Hamas a time-out so it can regain strength for its next assault on Israel.

In my view, anyone who supports Hamas in the current conflict with Israel does not believe that Israel has a right to exist. I make that admittedly strong and sweeping claim because anything that Israel cedes to Hamas will only be used by the terrorist organization in its efforts to destroy Israel. If Israel were to unilaterally pull back to the 1967 borders, and if Hamas were to take control of the Palestinian state, it would have the ability to reach Tel Aviv or any other city in Israel with its rockets. With no restrictions, Hamas would be able to import any weapons it wanted from Iran, even nuclear arms if/when Iran reaches that capability. If a "right of return" were granted, Israel would immediately cease to be as a Jewish, secular democratic state. In short, to give in to Hamas is to risk the existence of Israel. For Israel to survive, Hamas has to be defeated, both by the Israeli military and, more importantly, by the Palestinian people. Until that happens, there can be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

So in the framework of Hamas's rejection of a peaceful two-state solution to the larger Israeli-Palestinian problem, Hamas's use of civilian locations for its military operations, and Israel's efforts to limit civilian casualties despite Hamas's actions, yes, I do believe that Israel cares more about the lives of the Palestinian people than Hamas does. The terrorist organization has demonstrated that its primary goals are to try and destroy Israel, to protect its power base, and to serve Iran, no matter the damage to its people. Of course, since the Palestinian people elected Hamas to power, they have themselves to blame for the damage done to them by their leaders. It will ultimately be up to the Palestinian people to reject Hamas and their methods.

Maybe the latest Israeli offensive will help turn public opinion, and the Palestinian people will realize that their Hamas leadership has failed them. In a sea of media stories highlighting the Palestinian civilian casualties and the failure of Israel to negotiate a cease-fire agreement, I was heartened to see on the front page of the New York Times today an article quoting a grieving Palestinian woman in Gaza shouting, "May God exterminate Hamas!" This woman understands who has inflicted death and destruction on her family. As soon as a majority of Palestinians agree with her, peace will again be possible between Israel and the Palestinians. But as long as Hamas is in power and firing rockets at Israeli civilians, there can be no peace. Hamas's obsession with the destruction of Israel has only brought poverty, injury and death to its people in Gaza.