Friday, October 31, 2008

Quick Thoughts

I'm on a business trip so not much time to blog lately. However, I've got a bit of a break now so thought I'd throw some quick nuggets out there.

According to some reports, 1 in 7 people are still undecided with regard to the President election. What are these people waiting for? One of the candidates to come to their house and provide sexual favors? Maybe we'll get lucky and they won't be able to decide if they should vote at all next Tuesday.

I watched the Obama-mercial on Wednesday night and actually thought it was pretty good. Light on the details and designed to tug at the Norman Rockwell heartstrings by way of The Grapes of Wrath but certainly watchable.

Apparently 33+ million people watched that ad. I heard that afterward an NBC executive joked that they were going to ask Obama to become part of their regular Wednesday night lineup thanks to the ratings.

Have you heard about Elizabeth Dole's "Godless" ads that she is now running against Kay Hagan, the challenger to Dole's Senate seat? The first one was quite vile and yet apparently warranted a sequel. Yes, children, it's don't have to believe in God to be the target of religious bigotry. So if anyone asks, Jesse Helms apparently isn't dead. His spirit at least is alive and well in Liddy Dole.

On the flip side, apparently Dole has fallen farther behind Hagan since airing the ads so maybe there is a God after all.

Gary Trudeau, creator of "Doonesbury", is assuming Obama wins and has already written next week's sequence of comic strips focusing on the reaction to that event. There are apparently no alternative strips illustrating a McCain victory.

Please let California voters show enough sense to ban the proposed amendment to California's Constitution banning gay marriage.

I'm in Ft. Lauderdale for the International Boat Show and it's cloudy, windy, and cool. Ah, Florida...respite from autumn in New England. OK, not really.

Once again, I'm missing Halloween at home. While entertaining, waitresses dressed up as Supergirl and Elvira don't quite live up to the "little kids in costumes" standard for a wholesome Halloween (that's the legally mandated "married guy traveling on Halloween" disclaimer).

And finally...only 14 days until Quantum of Solace hits the theatres! Buy your tickets now and start standing in line. Woo hoo!!!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Punditry Part II

OK, I'll admit to being somewhat surprised this morning when I logged in and discovered that J. Peter Freire, a focus of Sunday's New York Times article on punditry, had posted a comment in response to my entry last evening. When that alert popped up in my e-mail, my first thought was "hmmm...did he write because I thoroughly pissed him off?" I was pleased to find that wasn't the case at all so first off, thanks very much for reading yesterday's entry, Peter. I hope you found it worth your time and I appreciate the fact that you took a few minutes to post your thoughts.

I understand and agree with a number of the points he makes. However, from the perspective of an outsider (albeit one who has dealt with producers, reporters, and bookers as a company spokesperson and PR guy), I think that some of the distinctions he makes are lost, or worse, obscured by the shows and the networks. For many watchers, those distinctions might not exist at all anymore.

"I'm a journalist, though I do engage in opinionmaking while also reporting. I'm frequently put on television alongside a party operative who can go on straight talking points. I cannot endorse a candidate, nor would I want to because I'm not interested in partisanship. But the other guy, he has no problem doing it.

"So I'm already stuck. If I raise points against him, he'll go back to talking points. Worse, they'll call him a news analyst, when he's done work for the party."

I think he strikes at the crux of it – the party flack is often given a comparable billing to a journalist or an expert witness, unless the flack is clearly ID'd as a representative for a campaign a la David Plouffe or the delightfully painful-to-watch Tucker Bounds and Nancy Pfotenhauer. The result is that the same weight is applied to the person paid to relate those talking points and spin as to someone whose focus is on providing feedback on the news through a (hopefully) informed opinion.

The lack of transparency with regard to who these people are, their expertise and qualifications, and their connections to the issue at hand all lead to a sense of cynicism and a sometimes not-so-vague unease that we're not hearing the truth. For example, in April, the New York Times exposed the close connections between the Pentagon, the White House, and many military experts who served as on-screen commentators presenting positive stories of the war in Iraq. Would viewers of these shows have been less likely to buy into this spin if they knew that the pundits were in bed with the Pentagon and the Bush Administration? You'd certainly think so!

The result is a blurring of the lines as to what's news, what's legitimate commentary, and what is spin, manipulation, or party rhetoric. It's a state exacerbated by the increasingly partisan evening news blocks, headlined by Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann where the reporting of "news" is in fact a heavily biased presentation of select details designed to provoke ire, angst, or pleasure, depending on where you fall on the ideological spectrum. It gets more confusing and more blurred when the pundits on these shows are viewed as doing much the same thing.

It's an unfortunate situation, especially for guests who do truly seek to educate and illuminate through informed opinion.
Both the flack and the voice of experience are painted with the sweeping brush of "pundit" by the viewing public. When one is seen as presenting nothing but speaking points and spin, then a cynical viewing public will tend to discount all pundits that have not built up a reservoir of goodwill or the gravitas that NYT's Ashley Parker described in her article this past Sunday.

On the other hand, building up that goodwill overcomes what some might see as youth and inexperience.
Christopher Beam of is a good example - I enjoy reading his commentary on Slate. Do I care that he's only 23 or 24 or will I discount his appearance on a TV news program due to his age? Nope, because I've learned that he's a reliable resource who clearly gives thought to what he writes.

On the other hand, some guests on news programs are so partisan that it is very difficult for me to listen to them anymore (James Carville, for example). That partisanship and the strong feelings for and against that they engender are, of course, why these people get booked on TV news programs. It helps a show's ratings when there are fireworks to be seen (see: Novak, Robert). I'm not naive.

Cable TV news and its need for pundits are the journalistic equivalent of Major League Baseball and the lack of good pitching. While there may be the same number of outstanding pitchers now as there were 15, 20, or 30 years ago, they are far more thinly spread following the expansion of MLB to 30 teams. In response, teams have no choice but to fill starting and bullpen roles with mid-level pitchers who wouldn't have made the major league cut 15 or 20 years ago. In the same fashion, news programs are now relying on a broader, thinner, more compromised, and occasionally less capable stable of pundits to fill the ravenous hunger for 24 hour news coverage.

"As for the gravitas argument, that'll probably get fixed as soon as networks don't need to have a new guest every 5 minutes. And as soon as there are fewer networks. And as soon as the bookers are older."

Sorry, Peter, but I don't think these networks and their expanding rosters of news and opinion shows are going anywhere. As a result, I think you'll get your money's worth from that training program. The market continues to look rosy for the TV pundit growth industry. Invest now and make sure your suit doesn't blend into the green screen.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's growth industry – Punditry on Demand

One political article in particular caught my eye in today's Sunday New York Times though it was not to be found in the front section or Week in Review. Nope, it was in the Fashion & Style Section and no, it had nothing to do with Sarah Palin's wardrobe. Titled "At Pundit School, Learning to Smile and Interrupt", it opens:

J. Peter Freire is at school, learning to be a better pundit.

He is being trained to carve his conservative philosophy into bite-size nuggets — preferably ones that end with a zinger — and to avoid questions he doesn’t like. He is discovering the right way to attack opponents (with a smile) and to steer a conversation in his direction (by interrupting).

Journalists once had to achieve a certain gravitas before appearing on television as a political expert, but not anymore. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, a riveting presidential election and the proliferation of cable channels, people like Mr. Freire, who is 26 and has been managing editor of The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, since January, are finding themselves in hot demand.

While the lack of experience on the part of many of these pundits calls into question just what they're doing on my TV set, what I found most fascinating in this article is the apparent acceptance of the concept of pundits as extensions of the campaign and a movement. It's the latest step in the continued transition of news from a theoretically objective venue to one with a veneer of objectivity and an overflow of rhetoric (except for FOX News, which crossed over into full propaganda mode years ago). Sadly, for those of us who follow all of the political coverage, it also means that we suffer through an unending, overwhelming cascade of pundits who generally add very little to the mix (see: "The Decabox" and "Who the F@*k is That Guy?" on The Daily Show if you need an example).

It all brings to mind another article, "Top Yeller", in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, that profiles Billy Mays, ubiquitous TV pitchman, and defines his appeal as "a celebrity endorser whose celebrity is based entirely on having endorsed things." Is it such a stretch to believe that many of the pundits spawning on our TV sets are nothing but the political equivalent, hawking political positioning instead of the WashMatik, the Ultimate Chopper, and OxiClean to bored TV watchers around the country?

However, in these tough economic times, it is nice to know that if you're out of a job because your advice led to your candidate getting crushed in the polls, you can always pony up $75 for a basic lecture on how to be an effective pundit. If you do, God knows someone will pay you to be on TV.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

If Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss teamed up to make a campaign commercial, it might look something like this:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Republican I could vote for (and did)

I grew up in a Democratic, liberal household. Living in Providence, RI, in the '70s and early '80s as a kid, I participated with my parents and their friends in repeated efforts to get a Democrat elected Mayor (my first experiences going do to door on behalf of a candidate). Of course, these efforts consistently met with failure again and again at the hands of the well-connected Prince of Providence until he was undone by something right out of a game of Clue (Hmmm...I'll say it was Buddy Cianci in the living room with a cigarette, an ashtray, and a fireplace log).

The first election I was ever able to vote in was the '88 race between Dukakis and Bush the Elder. Needless to say, my support for Snoopy in the Tank wasn't a rousing success. So basically, my electioneering and voting efforts were miserable failures until 1990 when I voted for a winner for the first time.

And he was a Republican. And it was OK.

Arne Carlson, the man I helped elect Governor, was a moderate Republican. On a statewide, rather than national stage, he was Minnesota's answer to John Chaffee, another Republican I could and did vote for, back when the concept of bipartisanship actually meant something and wasn't just a campaign slogan about "reaching across the aisle". I remember thinking that Carlson was a decent man, one who we could trust and who I could vote for because his beliefs, goals, and platforms seemed reasonable to me. It didn't hurt that I along with most of the students on campus loathed the incumbent Arne sought to unseat.

Anyhow, I hadn't really thought much about Arne for many years (your first winning vote doesn't necessarily hold much resonance as the years go by) until today, when news broke that the former Governor was splitting with the Republican establishment and endorsing Brack Obama. In doing so, he declared:

"Sen. Barack Obama arrived on the political scene as a wind of freshness, unity and idealism. He saw America as it could be if we reached across all divides. This long, grueling campaign has revealed a remarkably disciplined and focused leader who has the potential to become a truly great president."

Way to go, Arne. You've got my vote again.

The Daily F-Bomb

While I turn to The Daily Show for a bit of humor and perspective, it seems that Mr. Stewart and his merry band are dropping a growing number of bleeped out f-bombs every evening. I suppose after two years of election coverage, the writers have got to be getting a bit burnt out (not that candidates aren't gift wrapping new material every day) so perhaps those bleeps are simply a sign of comedic exhaustion. It's an easy laugh because that's one of those words that still isn't allowed to appear on basic cable or broadcast TV after 11 PM.

On Tuesday, it was Stewart going off on the "pro-America/anti-America" statements from Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Nancy Pfotenhauer, leading to a rousing "What the phuck?" Tonight it was a segment called "Who the f*@k is that guy?", a look at the growing ranks of interchangeable political pundits and strategists for hire on the news programs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm as much a fan of a well-timed and well-placed f-bomb as the next person and I've been known to let one fly when appropriate. It's an extraordinarily versatile word (listen to this brief language lesson if you want proof). However, its value comes from the shock of its appearance.

I remember seeing Beverly Hills Cop as a kid and thinking it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen because you never knew when Eddie Murphy was going to hit you with another bomb or other swear in some totally inappropriate situation. The second time I saw it...not funny at all. The shock value was gone. I knew when the bombs were going to explode, and it just didn't work anymore.

And so it's going with The Daily Show. So to the writers at The Daily Show, I beg, "Don't get lazy, folks! We depend on you to puncture the inflated, to expose the absurd, and to help keep us somewhat sane as this interminable election season slowly, painfully grinds to a weary end."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Now that sounds like a fun association

There’s a National Chimney Sweeps Guild. I just found this out today as I was driving behind a chimney sweep’s van. For some reason, I find this absolutely delightful. I’m picturing Guild meetings where everyone breaks into a refrain of “Step in Time” and leaves a trail of ash wherever they go.

Deny deny deny deny...umm...yeah, I did it...but I didn't mean it

The latest winner of the Michelle Bachmann Memorial "Political Jackass" award is...the distinguished gentleman from North Carolina, Representative Robin Hayes!

In the spirit of comity, brotherhood, and bipartisanship, this charmer warmed up a campaign rally crowd prior to John McCain's arrival first by repeating McCain's claim that Obama is conducting "class warfare" followed by his own heartwarming declaration: "Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God."

Almost instantly (and in the world of social media like Twitter, that's not much of an exaggeration), reporters filed stories about it. And instantly thereafter, the denials flew fast and heavy followed by the requisite attack on the media ("irresponsible journalism" said a Hayes spokesperson). And of course, a short time later, the audio of Representative Hayes inserting both of his size 11 Florsheims into his mouth hit the Internet, followed not too much later by this perennial favorite from Mr. Hayes: "There is no doubt that it came out completely the wrong way. I actually was trying to work to keep the crowd as respectful as possible, so this is definitely not what I intended."

When are politicians and celebrities going to remember that a) they should always assume there's a camera or microphone near them when they're in public and b) that they're always going to look even more idiotic following repeated denials when the tape proving they said or did something inevitably makes it appearance?

Read The Politico's series of updates as the denials flew and listen to the audio here.

And read about the "oops, I guess I did say it" moment here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sure they lost but...

As he almost always does, Sports Guy Bill Simmons nailed it when he wrote about the stunning comeback by the Red Sox last Thursday. Sure, we know how the story ends but Simmon's stuff is always worth reading.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

9 = 2

At the start of season, Joe Maddon taught the Tampa Bay Rays players some new math: 9 = 8. His message? If 9 men play hard for all 9 innings in each game, they'll be one of 8 teams in the playoffs.

I guess Maddon's math was off. It turns out that 9 = 2.

Yes, the Red Sox turned it into a series, pushing it to Game 7 but in the end, their bats went cold as they dearly missed Mike Lowell, and they were unable to get that one hit that would have turned the game their way, those critical hits that they always managed to get in 2004 and 2007. This time? It was the Rays who ended up celebrating in a pig pile between the pitcher's mound and home plate.

9 = 2

Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Rays and good luck in the World Series.

Season's end for the Red Sox.


Credit where credit is due -- at least the moose costume was entertaining

Check out Sarah Palin's appearance on Saturday Night Live. I'll give her credit -- she won some good laughs, poked fun at her own image (Caribou Barbie), and smiled through it, even as she took some shots, especially from Alec Baldwin who was delightfully clueless (though he had so few lines, you'd think he would have been able to memorize them instead of looking at the cue cards all the time).

Plus, watching an extremely pregnant Amy Poehler doing the "Sarah Palin Rap" with two Eskimos, a Todd Palin impersonator, and a moose while Palin chair danced was bizarre in the extreme.

I guess this was a good thing for the McCain/Palin campaign as it might have buffed out a bit of that "fanatical" image that she's been building among the Republican true believers. Did it defuse the brilliance of Tina Fey's impersonation? No, it actually highlighted it as the two women passed each other in the opening segment but that was still funny. And the rap? Neither McCain nor Palin really came out of it smelling like a rose yet again, it was so over the top, it too was amusing and Governor Palin clearly was playing along. While she looks well suited to be on TV, I don't think this appearance did anything to prove that she has the chops to be President, though.

On the other hand, maybe they thought that this was a suitable replacement for an actual press conference...

Game 7, here we come

Just once, I'd like the Red Sox to win the American League Championship Series easily. They do know that they don't get extra points for a higher degree of difficulty, right? Of course, I'm willing to accept the stress now as long as they're able to win Game 7 and then win the World Series easily like in 2004 and 2007.

You just have to wonder how the players on the Tampa Bay Rays are feeling at the moment as Boston stunned them in Game 5 and completely controlled Game 6. Lester vs. Garza should be an exciting matchup yet again but you have to wonder if momentum in this type of a series actually does counts for something. If so, the Red Sox are looking pretty good.

An Eloquent Endorsement of a "Transformational Figure"

Colin Powell just endorsed Barack Obama. While respectful of Senator John McCain and his service, Powell's critique of McCain's campaign, Governor Palin, and the Republican Party's direction is devastating. At the same time, his endorsement is not simply based on concerns about John McCain but also a very positive assessment of Senator Obama and his approach to the campaign and the crises the country is facing as well as an eloquent argument against the divisiveness and "us vs. them" message that has so permeated the Republican campaign.

It is still so disappointing that, in the run up to the war in Iraq, a principled man like Powell was willing to carry more water than Gunga Din for the Bush Administration in spite of his misgivings. However, for many people, Powell still carries a great deal of weight while adding to the ranks of moderate Republicans and even some conservatives who are supporting Obama and raising concerns about McCain and his campaign.

The video is 7 minutes long and I encourage you to watch it and tell people about it.

Why can't these be the guys be on the campaign trail?

After reading about it on a few sites, I checked out the video of the recent Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner in New York City. Traditionally, the two major party presidential candidates are guests of honor at this event every 4 years and their speeches, well, let's just say you won't usually hear these speeches on the stump. Not only because they are funny but because these guys aren't acting like they do on the stump - funny, respectful, self-deprecating, and engaging.

McCain is loose, entertaining, gracious, and nails his jokes and skewers Obama with a good natured laugh (watch here and here). Watching him feels more like watching the John McCain of 2000, the presidential candidate John McCain who I actually liked. If that was the McCain who was running this year, it might be a very different race.

As for Obama, while he does look a bit tired, he is still smooth and funny, willing to be self-mocking while also firing some entertaining barbs at McCain, Palin, Bill Clinton, and others (see here and here).

However, I have to say, that in this particular debate, McCain wins hands down.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Mystique and Aura get new hats

Harvey Araton of the New York Times offers a great look at what last night meant to the Red Sox:

"In the house for the late-night miracle of Fenway Thursday into Friday morning were Mystique and Aura on a traitorous visit from the Bronx, along with a longtime Yankees fan in a Red Sox cap, in cahoots with a delirious Nation as the home team staged baseball’s greatest post-season comeback in a mere 79 years..."

Spark of Life

The first 6 innings of tonight's game absolutely sucked if you were a Red Sox fan. The last 3 innings reminded you why baseball is the greatest game around and you can never, ever count the new Red Sox out.

Down 7-0.

Every move being made by Maddon working like a charm.

The Red Sox starter imploding for the third night in a row.

The Red Sox bats as lifeless as Gwen Ifil in the VP debate.

And then Pedroia, Big Papi, Papelbon, and Drew took it all on their shoulders (with a little bit of luck in the 9th) with a Pedey RBI single, Papi's 3-run homer, Papelbon coming out of the bullpen early to stop the bleeding and shut the Rays down cold (awesome out-of-the-box call, Tito), Drew's 2-run homer, more hits to tie it up, and then another Drew single to send the series back to Tampa.

Can they actually come back again in another ALCS? Down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004 and 3-1 to the Indians in there room in Red Sox lore for yet another comeback?

Who knows? There's still a lot of baseball to be played. But at least for one more night, Fenway was rocking, the Red Sox were doing their group hop at home plate, and all was right for Red Sox fans everywhere. Play ball!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

For the "health" of the mother

Well, if there were any pro-choice women in America who were still considering voting for McCain, he probably lost virtually every one of their votes with his startlingly insensitive, demeaning, and sarcastic dismissal of the need to take into account the health of the mother when considering abortion restrictions.

Am I mistaken or did McCain openly mock women's health and their competency to make these types of decisions as simply a manipulative tool of the pro-choice movement rather than as a legitimate concern for women for whom a pregnancy could be life-threatening?

Sarah Palin must be so proud right now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Line of the Night (having nothing to do with the debate)

The stock market was up 900 on Monday and down 700 today. It's like a roller coaster, only you vomit your money.

- Stephen Colbert

Other assorted thoughts post-debate

Some other thoughts that I jotted down over the 90 minutes of the debate...

Did McCain somehow or other just manage to sound like the aggrieved party when it came to negative advertising and seemingly skirt the reprehensible things that have been said on behalf of and by the McCain/Palin ticket? That's pretty ballsy.

The $3 million overhead projector makes a return visit! Does Mac realize this isn't something you use to show PowerPoint presentations?

Obama's explanation of Ayers and ACORN seemed to clarify things, not that it will stop them from being a rallying cry for Governor Palin.

Obama declined to criticize Palin when given a chance, saying that when it comes to her qualifications, that he'd "leave it up to the American people." My initial reaction was "aaarrghhh! why didn't he say something?". However, with a bit more distance, it was a wise call on his part. Why run the risk of headlines tomorrow saying he'd attacked her? Still, I'd love to hear his private conversations with Michelle about how he really feels!

OK, I get that "Joe the Plumber" is supposed to be the regular guy, McCain's version of Palin's Joe Six-pack/Hockey Mom but seriously, Bob Schieffer should have arranged for the guy to have a seat at the table, they spent so much time talking about him!

Speaking of Bob Schieffer, did it appear to anyone else that he allowed McCain to have the last word in the majority of the volleys?

Someone needs to remind the Big O to stop using the royal "we" and avoid starting all of his answers with, "Look...".

Case in point on the defense/offense thing -- Obama gets first crack at the health care answer and spends his time explaining his plan (so far so good) and then just stops. I'm sitting here knowing that the McCain plan to tax benefits is going to have to come up and that McCain will certainly raise the Obama plan's "fine." All I ask is that Obama end his response with "and that's why my plan is better for the people of America than John McCain's, which will tax your health benefits for the first time in history." Doing so would force McCain to start off from a position of weakness, trying to rebut Obama and any claim about fines would be seen as a "oh yeah, well he's not so cool, either" response. And here it!!! Obama declined to preemptively mention the tax cut, letting McCain start off with his nice heartwarming pitch then make the claim about Obama's fines (which we all knew was coming), leaving Obama no choice but to spend his rebuttal correcting McCain. I guess this is why I wasn't on the debate team in high school.

McCain's facial responses to Obama finally became laughable. His eyebrows were ready to leap off his face sometimes and his bug-eyed exclamation of "None?!" definitely scored high on the unintentional comedy meter.

Getting to the end of the debate, I realize why a lot of people are saying Obama won. McCain just seemed pissed. In his first debate, he didn't look at Obama. In his second, he wandered around. In this one, he stared at him like he wanted to reach across the table and throttle the Senator from Illinois for having the audacity to run for president when it was Johnny Mac's turn. I think I liked it better when he didn't look at Obama.

I think it's safe to say that none of the debate moderators did themselves proud recently.

Thank you, god. No more presidential debates for the next 4 years!

Taking the ego out of it

The Hofstra Hoedown concluded a short time ago and parts of it left me shaking my head.

I checked out a bunch of the post-debate snap polls that have Obama winning and I am somewhat mystified. My wife came into the room toward the end and asked how it was going and I replied, "I think Obama's losing."

I know Obama is ahead in the polls so he didn't need to go out on a limb or try anything crazy. Conventional wisdom says play it safe with a prevent defense -- no gaffes, no explosions, etc. But honestly, I watched the whole thing wondering why I kept feeling like McCain repeatedly put Obama on the defensive over and over again. That doesn't mean that I think Obama was rattled -- I don't think he really ever was -- but so often throughout the debate, I felt like Obama was forced to spend his time in the weeds explaining himself. He also let some fat pitches go by and never lifted his bat off his shoulders. Was this part of the be calm, cool, collected, absorbing shot after shot, and seemingly above the fray while McCain flailed about? From the post-debate responses, it apparently worked.

I suppose I was just hoping that Obama would conveniently slide a shiv in between McCain's ribs every now and then because I find this new John McCain, his running mate, and his campaign appalling. On the other hand, that's the emotional response, the response driven by ego and pride. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'm not the front runner for President and Barack Obama is.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Creatively cleaning up for the election

This weekend, we received what I think might be the most creative and, dare I say, useful items to ever be stuck, hung, or stuffed in our door by a candidate for public office. Oh, don't get me wrong...the little pot holder with a candidate's name on it was an interesting idea but in truth, it was too damn thin. As a result, all I remember of that particular candidate was that I burned my hand taking a pan out of the toaster oven, rather than his name, what he was running for, etc.

However, this Sunday, we returned to the house after a quick, late breakfast at the Sunset Cafe (mmm...good) to find a nicely wrapped stack of 5 lawn and leaf bags sitting on our front stoop. Of course, with several huge trees looming overhead and the threat of huge numbers of leaves burying our lawn soon, brown paper lawn and leaf bags are a necessity. So wasn't it convenient for us that the incumbent in the 68th district of the state house of representatives not only is using "Cleaning Up Rhode Island" as his slogan but he also decided to help his constituents get into the swing of things.

Each of the 5 bags is emblazoned with his name, party affiliation, and the slogan in vibrant sky blue and magenta (OK, that part's a bit garish) and then packages of them were delivered to everyone in his district. Actually, I'm not sure about that. He's a Democrat and we're registered Independents who lean (ok, topple) Democrat. Maybe he was just going for the Dems and Independents. I don't know anyone nearby who is a registered Republican so I haven't been able to confirm if he withheld his lawn and leaf largesse from the supporters of the GOP.

Of course it's a memorable way for him to get attention, both from home owners faced with an autumn avalanche as well as from anyone driving down the street when the bags are filled up. So if I fill up the bags with leaves and thereby turn my curb into an advertisement for him for 3-4 days until the compost truck drives by, will I feel sullied and used? Hell no. I'm staring at a few hundred thousand leaves that will need to be bagged up and if I can give give him some free advertising and pay $5 less to Ace Hardware to for lawn and leaf bags, I'll do it with a smile and call it my own little fiscal rescue package.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Not a good weekend if you're a Boston sports fan

Ugh...the Patriots got crushed in San Diego. Then the Red Sox were thumped at Fenway with Jon Lester on the mound. Not a good 48 hours if you're a New England sports fan. I'm having flashbacks to the Boston sports scene of the late 80s and early 90s...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

One ugly, one not

Brief musings after Game 2 of the American League Championship Series:

The Tampa Bay Rays looked like they were nervous, tight, and pressing in Game 1. In Game 2? Like they were loaded for bear and not prepared to roll over at any point.

Game 1 was excellent -- not perfect or one of those "wow, I can't believe I saw this happen" games -- but very entertaining with some great plays and pitching on both sides.

Game 2? Not so much. Sure, home runs are fun to watch but 7 of them in one game? That's not evidence of superior hitting but of pitchers who aren't on their game.

I think "Daisuke Matsusaka" must be Japanese for "Harry Houdini". He walked the bases loaded in the first inning of Game 1 and then got 3 straight outs. That's the 15th time he's wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam without giving up a run. Opponents are now batting .000 against him with the bases loaded! How on earth do you get into that jam so often and still manage to escape?

Mighty mite Dustin Pedroia is one of the most entertaining players to watch in all of baseball.

Where has Big Papi gone? He's looking positively mortal. Is his wrist still causing that much discomfort?

Is Josh Beckett done for the ALCS? If the Sox make it to the World Series, will he be available? Can they win it all without Beckett or Lowell, or without Papi firing on all cylinders?

5 hours and 27 minutes to play Game 2? Yikes!

I think Terry Francona is certainly the best Red Sox manager in my lifetime and as such has earned some leeway with regard to his in-game choices but I do question his decisions to bring Dice-K back in at the star of the eighth inning in Game 1 and going to Mike Timlin instead of Paul Byrd in the eleventh inning in Game 2. The Dice-K call? No harm no foul as Okajima and Masterson bailed him out. The Timlin call? Oops.

You've got to love Joe Maddon who remarked "In a straight-up race, I've got him over Seabiscuit. I'm dating myself a bit. I'm sorry, but that's the first horse that came to my mind," after Fernando Perez scampered home ahead of J.D. Drew's throw to score the winning run in Game 2.

Jason Bay may not be a masher like "Manny being Manny" Ramirez but he's batting .440 in the post-season with 3 home runs, 3 doubles, 11 total hits, 9 RBI, and 4 walks. He's getting on base better than 50% of the time and is a solid left fielder. The Red Sox have Jason Bay under contract for next year. I hope they're willing to lock him up for a few more years, after that.

Game 3 - Monday at 4:30 PM in Fenway. Let's hope Jon Lester spins another gem.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Book Review: A dark and brilliant Road

Slowly, I'm catching up on some long-delayed reading, including Cormac McCarthy's The Road, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

The premise is simple -- the world as we know it has come to an end, brought about by an unnamed catastrophic event that has left cities burned, the oceans grey, the sky filled with ash, and the survivors scrabbling for survival with little food and no semblance of civilization. Through this post-apocalyptic world pass a father and his young son, both unnamed, following a road as they attempt to make their way toward the sea the hope of surviving the winter cold. It is a harrowing journey as they face starvation, illness, marauders, and cannibals. In other hands, it might have come across as a Saturday matinee thriller or an excuse for action set pieces but when presented by McCarthy, the prose and images are chilling and breathtaking with not a word wasted.

While the burnt world provides the backdrop, the focus at all times is on the relationship between father and son. The mother, seen only in brief snatches of memory, is nothing more than a memory herself, having committed suicide in the days or weeks after the world came to an end and her son was born. Now, the father seeks to protect his son from the dangers and images around them, all the while knowing that his own time may be cut short. The son, guarded and understanding of the dangers, is nevertheless a sign of hope and compassion in a world bereft of such things.

It is the bond between father and son, their spare, unpunctuated dialogue, and their unwavering devotion to the other that save us as readers within this savage wreck of a land. We follow them, hope for them, worry for them as they progress on a journey that is equal parts physical, emotional, and spiritual. Like our companions on this march to the sea, at no time are we able to truly relax. Yes, we breathe a sigh of relief at their small victories -- the son tasting Coca-Cola for the first time, staving off starvation by finding a field of wrinkled apples, playing checkers in an abandoned bomb shelter, taking a hot bath for the first time in months -- but always with the understanding that such triumphs are transitory and that they must rejoin the road and forge on.

When I started writing this entry, I was going to say that The Road is not a book you should pick up if you're feeling profoundly depressed or suicidal. However, I think I was wrong in this somewhat flip assessment. In fact, the journey -- physical and metaphysical -- taken by Father and Son is one that I realize in retrospect might resonate especially for readers who are in their own state of despair. In the end, the story is bittersweet, filled with hope and sacrifice and aching loss. It's not easy and the light doesn't always dispel the dark. But at its end, The Road does leave room for hope and a glimmer of light, even in an ash-filled world, and sometimes that's enough to help us find our way.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Finding a message in a bottle

Still getting caught up on some things I'd been thinking about prior to my bout with the plague...

During my recent 3-day seminar in Chicago, we were asked to relate a defining moment in our careers, something that set us on our path, taught us something important, opened a new opportunity. I'll admit, I was stumped as we all sat there thinking about it.

I've worked a lot of different jobs since college – I ran afterschool and evening education programs for kids and adults in St. Paul and worked as a telemarketer for a day and a half selling faux Indian blankets and triple-bladed windshield wipers (quitting on the spot when an elderly woman in Mississipi burst into tears on the other end of the line, begging me and telemarketers in general to leave her alone because her husband had died and she was recently released from the hospital after falling ill). I had the opportunity to work with kids in the juvenile criminal justice system as part of an Outward Bound-style program. I wrote as a stringer for local papers and magazines, and finally moved into the corporate world of communications and marketing where I've had my share of successes and failures.

For the life of me, I couldn't pick out a single incident that fit the bill. Learning experiences, sure. Miserable experiences? Plenty of those. Memorable moments? Absolutely. But a truly defining experience, one that I knew had a profound influence on me? Nothing. Zip. Drawing a blank. How frustrating to look back on 18 years of post-college work and fail to pick something like that out right away.

So I just sat there thinking about events that had changed or shaped me. My parent's divorce? Yes, certainly. My time as a Boy Scout and earning the rank of Eagle? Yes. Falling in love and getting married? Absolutely. (Did you really think I'd forget to include that?) Losing loved ones. Of course. But again, something that helped define me and profoundly change my life? It wasn't there.

And then it was.

Going to sea for the first time.

Technically, it was outside the bounds of a "career event" but the seminar facilitator did leave a loophole when she mentioned that some other educational event might be OK too. I was out of time but knew I'd found the right thing.

My grandfather taught me to sail when I was little boy on Cape Cod. I spent summers sailing at camp. My father gave me his copies of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books when I was 12 and I read them all over and over (and still do...those same copies sit on the shelves in our living room though I did buy newer copies to use when I want to read them again). I'd wanted to go to sea on a real sailing vessel ever since.

As a student in Minnesota, I acted in the theater for fun, took some psych courses, but I threw myself first into biology and then into history, each focusing on the water. St. Paul's an odd place to find a marine biologist I guess but Dr. Jim Smail was a very good one and I loved his courses. And in the history department, my professors let me pursue maritime connections whenever I could.

Everything changed when I saw a poster on the bulletin board outside one of my bio classrooms early in the fall of my sophomore year. It wasn't big but showed a sailing vessel with a packet of tear-off postcards stuck to the bottom promoting something called the Sea Education Association and the Sea Semester program.

This was before the Internet as we now rely on it so all I could do was fill out the card and request information. I did try to look up SEA in the library and found out about "Semester at Sea" but it was nothing but a semester-long trip on a cruise ship. Blech.

But Sea Semester...this was something completely different and exactly what I wanted to do: 6 weeks of classes in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in a program affiliated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Then 6-7 weeks at sea carrying out research, celestial navigation, and more aboard one of SEA's two staysail schooners.

I received the information from SEA and it was perfect. Then came the first challenge – no one from Macalester had ever participated in this program. There was no arrangement in place for SEA credits (granted through Boston University) to be accepted back at Mac. There was no process or program in place for my student aid to be applied to SEA's tuition. In short, there was no way to do the program and have it count towards graduation and certainly no way that my family and I could afford it without aid.

So I applied anyway.

In the essays, I think I spilled my guts about growing up spending summers on the water and salt flats and marshes of Cape Cod, about how the only books I brought from home to school were my precious C.S. Forester copies, how I dreamed of going to sea.

But I had to surmount the first challenge and spent the next two semesters arguing, cajoling, and pleading my case. I was accepted for the spring semester at SEA and given a small scholarship but still couldn't attend because the administrators at Mac still hadn't accepted my proposal for why I needed to do this and why I needed their support. So I kept going. SEA agreed to delay my admittance for a semester and I kept up my lobbying of the Macalester administrators. I'm not sure I'd ever been so dogged in pursuit of a goal. But in the end, perhaps because they felt sorry for me, perhaps because I finally won them over, the Powers That Be at Mac accepted my plan. My time at SEA would be a valid extension of my time at Macalester with full credit and full carryover of my student aid. I was going to sea. I'd made my case and won the opportunity. I would attend Sea Semester the fall of my junior year.

And so I did. In doing so, I missed a number of things. Everyone in the family gathered for my uncle's wedding in California the weekend I arrived at the SEA campus where I would be sharing one of five houses with nine other students. While we were at sea, San Francisco suffered an earthquake that brought a halt to the World Series, not learning about it until well after the fact when we landed in Antigua after 3 weeks at sea. Then, as we sailed south, the Berlin Wall fell and we saw none of it.

But it was worth it. And that was the second challenge. My time on shore was only moderately overwhelming – classes were tough as we spent 6 intense weeks cramming on piloting, celestial navigation, diesel engineering, shiphandling, marine biology, marine geology, maritime history, literature, law, art, and more. Time spent at the SEA and WHOI libraries until all hours of the night, working with our advisors to plan the scientific experiment that we would carry out and report on during our time at sea, and still finding time to take the ferry and our bikes to Martha's Vineyard or play volleyball, or cook fun meals in the house, and play practical jokes on each other.

Studying in our house on the SEA campus (that's me standing)

But when we joined our ships (I was assigned to the R/V Westward), that's when it became thrilling.

Joining the Westward at the pier in Woods Hole, October 1989

We were the crew, the navigators, the scientists, the assistant engineers, the assistant steward. When not on deck watch, we were on lab watch, carrying out our shipmates' experiments if they were off watch or preparing our own. We set the sails. We scrubbed the decks. We cooked the meals. We worked up in the rigging. We hove to and with some volunteers up in the rigging on "shark watch" we leapt over the side into the middle of the Atlantic to swim and soap up.

Time in the rigging made for a great view, even when in the middle of the ocean

We stood out in the rain, washing off the salt and wringing out our shirts. And when not on watch, we enjoyed the respite but often just collapsed in our bunks only to be wakened by the shout of "all hands on deck" or a man overboard drill. Most students were sick for the first day or two, despite the pills or scopalomine patches. I managed to avoid it but the steward didn't do us any favors by planning a breakfast with fresh bacon as we crossed the Gulf Stream. We spent time racing eastward, skirting a major storm that was coming up the coast, and still having to sail through wind and rain and 12 ft seas.

Fun seas in the Atlantic

For the first few days, we had birds with us in the rigging but as we passed out of sight of land and headed farther east, the poor little things faded and we would find them dead in the scuppers the next morning. We rarely saw other ships, sometimes just as lights in the distance, but we were off the main shipping lanes, eventually turning south toward the Sargasso Sea and then the Caribbean. We spent Halloween at sea, scrounging around the boat for anything we could turn into a costume to celebrate.

Yours truly dressed a Halloween physalia physalis (or Portuguese man-of-war) next to a lovely colony of deep sea tube worms

One evening, at dusk, we sailed close to what we thought was a pod of sperm whales that stayed near us for a brief time as the light fell and the stars came out. When you're out that far and there are no lights and no clouds, the sheer volume of stars is breathtaking. I'm not a particularly religious man but on that night, with the whales nearby and the stars overhead, I think that might be as close to God or the Divine Mystery or whatever you want to call that I think I might get. I'd never felt anything so profound. I was at sea. I was on a sailing vessel. I was in this extraordinary place and time. How could you not come away from this changed?

The research vessel Westward under sail (photo courtesy of SEA)

It was perhaps the most physically and mentally challenging thing I'd ever done to that point and I loved it. Of course, things changed a bit after making our first landfall on Antigua (we could smell the island before we ever saw it...I know what the color "green" smells like now) and then heading south toward Venezuela and then back toward the U.S. Virgin Islands. With the islands nearby, the cruise ships in the area, and the occasional landfalls, life aboard the Westward changed a bit. Where our watches had been our most immediate "family" for the first three weeks, when in harbor, little cliques reappeared as groups went their separate ways to get food or windsurf or scuba dive. But it was OK because we always left port and for a time, life went back to the way it was before.

The Westward and smaller boats, seen from the hills of Bequia

And when we ended our journey, spending one of the final nights in a sheltered cove on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we had one last swim call followed by a party, or swizzle as it was known on board.

Swinging from the rigging during the final swim call

The members of my Watch gather for our final swizzle

It was bittersweet. Yes, we wanted to go home and see our families. My little brother would be born in just a few short weeks and I wanted to be there. But also I didn't want to leave. I felt like an entirely different person while on the Westward than I had been the last time I'd been at Macalester. However, different wasn't bad. I'd had the defining moment -- setting a goal, pursuing it, attaining it, and then participating in a powerful, life-changing experience that was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, before emerging as what I hope was a better, more mature, more confident person.

I stayed up late that night, penning a letter to no one in particular. I placed it in a champagne bottle I'd saved from the festivities, corked it up, and melted wax across the top. Then, on the outgoing tide, I hurled it as far out to sea as I could.

Departing St. Thomas a day or two later, as the plane banked over the harbor, I could see the Westward at the pier, preparing for the next round of students who would be joining the ship. I envied them for the next 6 weeks of their lives but also felt sorry for them. Their time would be spent island hopping and while that was fun, they wouldn't know the wonder of being out at sea, away from the cruise ships and the bars and the scent of the islands. But the good-natured envy, along with the regret of leaving, were far more palpable.

Outside the small airstrip, preparing to depart St. Thomas along with 3 good friends

I returned home just in time for Thanksgiving, found work at a local store selling stereos and laser disk players to pass the time and raise some cash, and was there, awake in our living room when my stepfather came home at 4:00 in the morning a few days after Christmas to tell me that my little brother had been born. In time, I returned to Macalester for spring semester and it felt so different. I'd grown up more in the semester at SEA than in the preceding two years at Mac.

I think the rift between my former roommate and I began at that time. I was a different person than the person he'd hung out with and lived with for three semesters. We didn't connect as we did once – it was the time and the space between us, from my trip, and how I'd been changed that led to this. It was no fault of his and no fault of mine. My view of the world and how I wanted to move through it had simply been altered. It happens. And unlike some people who don't recognize how they've changed over time, I was lucky in a way to know it, to feel it happening, to recognize that things wouldn't be the same. Compressed into those 13 weeks was an intense, exquisite, awe-inspiring series of events I plunged into and reveled in. I wasn't necessarily a better person on the other side but I was different in that I had a better idea of what I was capable of and what it felt like to achieve a long-cherished dream.


Three years after my time on the Westward, I received a message from my father. I had returned from St. Paul and was teaching on Cape Cod. A package had arrived for me from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. When I returned home and picked it up, I was stunned. My letter, the one I'd thrown into the sea, had been found, washed ashore, by students on a school trip.

Dear Mr. Watson,

It was such a thrill for us to find your lovely letter washed up on the shore of St. John. The kids were so taken with the mystery of a real person writing a letter in a bottle. We have speculated long and hard about you and the details of your life. I have been so pleased to have the opportunity to convey to the children an unknown person's desire to communicate with someone, or no one, or the universe or whatever! In these learning years they are new to the idea of creating communication for the sheer pleasure of it. Thank you for setting such a fine example.

The kids wanted to respond to your letter individually. I hope you can hear their enthusiasm in their words.

And with teacher Marty Holladay's letter came a copy of my own letter, which I never expected to see again, along with letters from the students. From them I learned that my letter had been read to the entire school and was framed in the library. And there were questions – Had I been shipwrecked? Where was I sailing now? Would I write back?

It had been a long time since I'd really thought about my time at SEA. There are a few small photos taken while on the Westward in our guest room and a large signed print of the Westward at Rocky Neck Pier in Massachusetts hangs in our kitchen. But taking the time to really reflect on the time I spent and what it meant? No, that hadn't happened in some time, not until I sat there in that seminar room in Chicago, trying to come up with a defining event to relate to 13 strangers in 2 minutes (thanks for enduring something a bit longer here). I'm not sure how I managed to forget it like that. I'm grateful that this seminar spurred me on to think about it.

It's too valuable to me to have left behind. It's good to have it back.

Dawn breaking as I hang in the netting along the bowsprit

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

McCain bails at the end & people noticed

A follow-up to last evening's entry – it looks like I'm not the only one who noticed that McCain and Cindy took off immediately after the debate:

Both women, as well as the third audience member, were especially emphatic about their feelings on the two men’s performance after the debate. All three said that Mr. McCain shook hands with several audience members and then left fairly quickly. Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, stuck around to shake far more hands, pose for pictures, sign autographs, and answer more questions, including from people who had been on stage but did not get a chance to ask their questions. Only when Secret Service agents told them it was time to go did the couple leave (upon which they headed for a post-debate fundraiser at Al and Tipper Gore’s house nearby).

“McCain leaving right afterward was pretty shocking to me – even some of the big McCain fans among us were really surprised he did that,” Ms. Jackson said. “I thought the Obamas came off like real people much more in the end.”

Ms. Trella added: for, “I was very impressed that the Obamas stayed til the very end, shook everyone’s hand, and just seemed very accessible. I think they won some people over by just sticking around and seeming happy to talk more.”

An excerpt from "Debate Audience Members Talk About Candidates"
- NY Times Caucus Blog, 10/8/08

John Dickerson from Slate also noticed this and points to it as a big reason Obama won in the end:

After their second debate, both Barack Obama and John McCain shook hands with the Nashville audience of 80 uncommitted voters. Both were well-received. But Obama stayed longer, and with McCain out of the room, the affection from the swing voters increased. He was mobbed, patted, beamed at, embraced. One woman wiggled up next to him. At one point, about 15 voters posed for a group picture like it was the last day of camp. The "Nashville '08 Debate" T-shirts are in the mail.

These uncommitted voters wanted to be next to Barack Obama, and the adulation from the audience helps explain why he won the debate. In the post-debate polls on CNN and CBS, he was the clear winner, and he also won Fox's focus group.

I wonder how much not taking an extra 10 minutes to hang out might have cost McCain...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Win, lose, or draw

Well, I didn't think I'd be awake at this point but the new medication I'm on for this lingering #$%^& cough (can anyone say "bronchial spasms" and "inflamed bronchial passages"? I can't because saying it makes me cough too much) knocked me out and then woke me up so I ended up watching tonight's debate through a prednisone buzz and can't fall asleep now. Woo hoo. I guess I should write up my notes and then take my cough medicine with codeine to knock me out again. Better living through chemistry. And I disavow any responsibility for anything wacky I say's the medication talking (unless it's legitimately amusing and then I take full credit).

So here are some thoughts jotted down during tonight's debate between Barack Obama and John McCain...

Is Obama serious about AIG's execs going on a luxury retreat after the bailout? How dumb can these numbnuts be?

McCain's proposal to buy back bad home loans and renegotiate mortgages to new, lower value of homes. Is this another "Hail Mary" pass? I don't remember hearing this before. How does this fit in with McCain's avowed desire to limit government intervention in our lives? Should we have held off on refinancing our house? Probably not.

Wow, he's hit this mortgage renegotiation message on 3 straight answers. Still doesn't sound terribly plausible to me even after the third time but what do I know? Personally, I think having the Secretary of the Treasury become my mortage broker makes sense. And Fed Chair Ben Bernanke will shortly be available for personalized retirement planning.

Good question – what in the bailout will actually help me and other people I know?

Better answer – Obama steps in after McCain's discourse on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and attacks on Obama, and actually answers the audience member's question, riffing on the credit freeze and the ripple effect it has through companies, payrolls, and potential layoffs. I've got a friend or two with their own business and the credit freeze terrifies them - they depend on their line of credit to meet payroll when clients take their time paying the bill. Obama nailed this one. It actually made sense to me but I think it helped that I listened to a similar, excellent explanation this weekend on NPR's "This American Life".

Interesting question – how can we trust either of you with our money after both parties got us into this mess. As you might expect, the answer from both candidates is..."you can't trust the other guy!" Ouch, Obama started his response with "Look...", which makes it sound like its a mild scolding or he's exasperated.

OK, I'm getting tired of McCain's constant use of "my friends." I'm not the only one who has noticed this. Slate's Paul Collins actually examined this at the time of the Republican Convention.

Brokaw is riding them about taking too long on answers. It's amusing when he points out the timing lights, etc., but after two warnings, hasn't really reined them in.

Does anyone else think that the combination of that bright red floor and blue walls makes you feel like you're in a circus? Or is the red carpet so the bloodstains from shots McCain and Obama are taking don't stand out too much?

"Nailing down Obama's tax proposals is like nailing jello to the wall." What the hell does that mean? Is this the prednisone buzz talking or did McCain just say that? (Coming back to this after the debate - MSNBC just showed their live audience response tracking for when McCain said this and the Democrat and Independent viewer lines just plummeted like the value of my 401K over the last 2 weeks while the Republicans didn't even like that line very much.)

Obama doesn't seem to be willing to take any crap from McCain who keeps misrepresenting his tax policies and plans. McCain keeps trying to correct the record too but doesn't seem to have a defense or correction as often, instead relying on repeating claims about Obama, occasionally the one that O just shot down.

Oops, Obama missed an opportunity to skewer McCain on Mac's plan to tax your employer-paid tax benefits.

Ah, the solution to the Social Security issue is "easy" but no details from McCain. And the solution for Medicare...a new commission! Obama touches on some concrete steps to at least rein in Medicare costs and abuse. No details on Social Security either.

I wonder how are they playing with the home audience? Obama is very serious, not severe, and managing to avoid the professorial tone most of the time. McCain, as advertised, seems to like this venue – he's smiling more, walking over and leaning on railings, patting a veteran on the back when thanking him for his service. However, he's not smooth in his movements, sometimes appearing to lurch a bit. Did someone forget to lube his joints? However, I don't get the sense that he's winning over or connecting with the audience at the event. I see more people nodding thoughtfully as Obama speaks than as McCain does. I think this goes to the level of detail Obama is providing – not overwhelming but clear and usually concise.

Hmmmm...signals from the crowd? McCain just went wandering across the stage behind Obama as O is speaking. Mac is gesturing and making facial expressions like Cindy is on the other side of the supermarket and Mac can't tell if she wants him to pick up a cantelope or a honeydew.

Bang! Obama just nailed McCain on his plan to tax your employer-paid health care. McCain tries to come back with a claim that you'll get fined for not buying health care under Obama's plan but does not deny or even touch the tax claim, leaving it out there unrebutted. Is that a word?

I think McCain just made a joke about hair implants, health care and his receding hairline. I can't be sure...his delivery on jokes is awful but I think he was also going after Biden on that one. Oooo, going after a man's hair...low blow!

So does anyone care that McCain isn't wearing an American flag pin and Obama is? Or is McCain innoculated due to his military service and by association with that massive Christmas tree ornament Governor Palin was wearing at her debate?

Health care - right, privilege, or responsibility? McCain? It's a responsibility. Obama nails it by declaring forcefully that it's a right of all Americans, candidly describing his mother's travails with the insurance companies as she was dying of cancer in her mid-50s, and talking about child health care as critical. Ouch...just skewered McCain again, this time for Mac's vote against S-CHIP and children's health insurance.

I'm flagging a bit during foreign affairs. McCain is clearly more at ease now than he was during the economic questions though his answers are wandering a bit (do we really need the Teddy Roosevelt story again?) and he seems to be getting even testier. Obama is cool, calm, and presidential. He's direct and showing more fire when it comes to going after Osama and defending Israel than he was in his primary debates, I think.

OK, I can't take the "my friends" thing anymore. I want to jab a pencil in my ear.

I'm curious...McCain always says that when it comes to wars, he knows how to win them. When, exactly, did he get this experience and how has he ever actually demonstrated this? Same thing with his "I know how to get Osama bin Laden" and "I know how to fix Social Security." He must be keeping it a secret until he becomes president and can reveal his superpowers.

I think John McCain has a bit of a man crush on General Petraeus.

Closing question - what don't you know and how will you learn it? Obama hit some humor with Michelle in the audience (she can give you a longer list; I usually go to her when I need to find it out) and then talked about his upbringing, American dream, and the need to offer everyone that opportunity to learn and succeed. I wish he'd mentioned Joe Biden here and his experience as a resource, thereby making the contrast with Palin.

With the exception of the insipid "I don't know the future" comments, McCain's response to this question is forceful, patriotic, and personal ("I know what it's like when your comrades extend a hand and help you back up; I know what it's like when people around you don't give up hope."). It didn't really answer the question but it was a solid end to a final 30 minutes that McCain handled a bit better than the first 60.

Debate is over and Obama and Michelle are working the room, chatting with audience members, posing for photos. McCain and Cindy are nowhere to be found.

Hey, I just realized that I didn't hear "maverick" at any point? What's up with that? I expected McCain to have it written on his forehead with indelible marker. He also dropped that dumb "Miss Congeniality" line.

And how did it turn out? The "town hall" concept was weak. I was expecting more interaction with the audience, not this "Joe in seat C12, please read your index card, sit down, and be quiet" program. As for the debate itself, it was not a game changer – no blockbuster punches, no major screwups. McCain certainly presented himself more effectively than in the first debate though he seemed a bit desperate at times to scare people about Obama.

Obama came across, again, as very presidential, ducking some of McCain's punches and slapping back with a rebuttal when needed. Still, he could have connected a bit more with the audience. However, whether you agreed with their answers (or avoidance of) or not, they each seemed to handle it well. The 2008 general election debates now seemed to have hit upon a new strategy for debating: ignore the moderator and answer the questions you wish had been asked, not the one that actually was asked.

Overall, I think Obama won on substance and presentation. While it wasn't a knockout, he came across as informed, respectful, and in command. McCain certainly improved but still came across as a bit desperate and peevish at time. I think Obama took this one again. And realistically, even if you want to call it a draw, that doesn't help McCain reverse the trends in the polling. He needed to knock Obama off his game and really present a difference. I don't think it happened and Obama came out of it looking more presidential.

Oh, and I figured it out. The "my friends" thing must be a drinking game. Across America, overworked livers are crying out for universal health care.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Charting the Unknown

Take a look at the "Sarah Palin Debate Flow Chart." I might have to get a t-shirt with this on it. I think my mother-in-law would definitely appreciate it!

New York State of Mind

It wasn't terribly unexpected – The New Yorker has endorsed Barack Obama in his run for President. It's long (4,000+ words) but oh so very worth reading.

Conservative standards

In the last few weeks, I've been dumbfounded by conservative commentators who defend John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as well as Palin's own qualifications to be VP or even president. Did they really believe what they were saying when they tried to justify the "Alaska is next to Russia" standard for foreign policy experience several weeks ago? Were they serious over the last day or so when claiming that Governor Palin won the debate on any other level than being more telegenic and attractive than Senator Biden?

These are smart people, I assume. If that's the case, do they really believe what they're saying? If so, then my assumptions were way off. However, if they don't believe it and are shoveling these rationalizations because they're so blinded by a desire to win that they'll say anything, I just have to wonder how deep they had to bury their standards to willingly go along with this.

There are a lot of things I don't agree with about the view of political, fiscal, or social conservatives. However, I've known a few and with only a few exceptions, have been able to respect their beliefs because they were honestly held and they respected mine. Sometimes, we simply made the decision that there were certain topics about which we shouldn't speak because we knew we'd butt heads and that was fine. There were plenty of other things to discuss – the Red Sox, movies, new books, TV shows, etc. I also know that Independents, Democrats, and those of a liberal ilk don't always have the best ideas.

But the willingness of conservative pundits, commentators, and writers to throw aside their standards of competence and qualifications in the name of the ideological imperative to make sure a Republican, any Republican, is in the White House and (god forbid) one heartbeat away, is baffling to me. I guess I'm too naive in this way, too trusting, or too hopeful that people make choices based on rational, grounded, and firmly held beliefs, upon ethical standards, or by drawing on a well-grounded moral code. I just don't see how conservative commentators can honestly claim to be doing that here.

Joe Conason's new essay in Salon, "The Dumbing Down of the GOP", asks some great questions, including: Why aren't more conservatives disgusted that their party nominated a person devoid of qualifications for the vice presidency (again)?

Conason writes:

There was a time when conservatives lamented the dumbing down of American culture. Preservation of basic standards in schools and workplaces compelled them -- or so they said -- to resist affirmative action for women and minorities. Qualifications mattered; merit mattered; and demagogic appeals for leveling were to be left to the Democrats.

Not anymore.


Palin's phony populism is as insulting to working- and middle-class Americans as it is to American women. Why are basic diction and intellectual coherence presumed to be out of reach for "real people"?

And why don't we expect more from American conservatives? Indeed, why don't they demand more from their own movement?

And the conservatives who do raise questions and concerns? They're vilified as traitors.

The most prominent example so far has been Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post. Her September 28th column, "The Palin Problem," took a candid look at the Palin Phenomenom and its appeal. After supporting Govenor Palin at the outset, Ms. Parker took the time to reassess Palin's capabilities as well as the potential for a McCain/Palin ticket to succeed on November 4th. Her conclusion?

If Palin were a man, we'd all be guffawing, just as we do every time Joe Biden tickles the back of his throat with his toes. But because she's a woman -- and the first ever on a Republican presidential ticket -- we are reluctant to say what is painfully true.

What to do?

McCain can't repudiate his choice of running mate. He not only risks the wrath of the GOP's unforgiving base, but he invites others to second-guess his executive decision-making ability. Barack Obama faces the same problem with Biden.

Only Palin can save McCain, her party and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first.

Do it for your country.

Clearly, Parker is not morphing into a Democrat. Calling for Palin to remove herself from the ticket isn't "Sarah-bashing", it's a belief that competency is something that Republican Party shouldn't simply cast aside. She's taking a stand on what's best for her party. Her goal is to make sure that the Republicans hold the White House because she believes its the right way for the country to move forward. I can respect that.

Some of her readers apparently can't, as she discussed in "The Omen in My Mail", her October 1 follow-up column.

The fierce reaction to my column has been both bracing and enlightening. After 20 years of column writing, I'm familiar with angry mail. But the past few days have produced responses of a different order. Not just angry, but vicious and threatening.

Some of my usual readers feel betrayed because I previously have written favorably of Palin. By changing my mind and saying so, I am viewed as a traitor to the Republican Party -- not a "true" conservative.

Partisanship is the operating principle in our political system now. Jon Stewart had it right when he mocked Senate leaders who congratulated themselves on actually accomplishing something that required a modicum of cooperation...also known as what they're supposed to be doing all the time! In our political discourse now, dissenters are faced with death threats simply for having a different opinion.

Believe me...I'm not so unsophisticated, gullible, or innocent not to realize that people across the political spectrum aren't like this. Democrats can be just as fanatical and vicious in their response to attacks. They can be just as willing to overlook flaws when necessary to advance their agenda.

Still, the sheer audacity of Conservatives' willingness to raise Governor Palin up while allowing their standards for leadership to drop so precipitously is truly remarkable. I can only hope that the American voters are willing to look beyond the pundits. The challenges facing the United States right now are too grave, too broad, to risk on a presidential candidate who is willing to choose a running mate so stunningly ill-equipped for the role.


It occurred to me after writing this that a conservative reader might wonder if the Democrats were ignoring the same lack of qualifications in Barack Obama. I don't believe so. An excerpt from The New Yorker's recent endorsement of Obama spells it out far better than I could:

It is perfectly legitimate to call attention, as McCain has done, to Obama’s lack of conventional national and international policymaking experience. We, too, wish he had more of it. But office-holding is not the only kind of experience relevant to the task of leading a wildly variegated nation. Obama’s immersion in diverse human environments (Hawaii’s racial rainbow, Chicago’s racial cauldron, countercultural New York, middle-class Kansas, predominantly Muslim Indonesia), his years of organizing among the poor, his taste of corporate law and his grounding in public-interest and constitutional law—these, too, are experiences. And his books show that he has wrung from them every drop of insight and breadth of perspective they contained.

The exhaustingly, sometimes infuriatingly long campaign of 2008 (and 2007) has had at least one virtue: it has demonstrated that Obama’s intelligence and steady temperament are not just figments of the writer’s craft.

Drew, baby, Drew!

J.D. Drew is many things - a $14 million man of mystery, an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum and supported by a bad back, a ballplayer apparently so even keeled he shows almost no emotion at the plate. Most notably this season, he's been an invisible man during the second half. He can be absolutely infuriating to watch - striking out and then turning back to the dugout like an automaton. Fans aren't asking for every player to be a volcanic competitor like Kevin Youkilis (really, one per team is enough) but at least show something, that you care, anything. His record of injuries has also worked against him from the perspective of the fans, who want to see their players grit through pain and set a higher standard for performance. Drew? Not so much in the eyes of the fans.

That seemed to be changing in 2008. After crushing a grand slam in Game 6 of last year's ALCS, he began to gain more support. After carrying the Red Sox and winning Player of the Month honors in June (12 HR, 27 RBI, .337 BA) while Big Papi was injured, it looked like he was on track for a monster season, one that might justify the $14 million a year that the Sox are paying him. Fans were going nuts for him. He was settling in and really becoming a part of the Red Sox. Early comments from sportscasters talked of a potential MVP season.

Then he vanished, sidelined by stiffness in his back and a herniated disk, back on the disabled list where he has spent much of his career, and leaving him doubtful for the post-season. All of the old questions resurfaced.

Now, Red Sox fans around the country woke up this morning grateful that he did make it back. In Game 1 against the Angels, his timing at the plate seemed off but that's to be expected after only playing 3 games since early August. Thankfully, he managed to shake off a bit of the rust in time for Game 2, hitting what turned out to be the game-winning home run off of the Halo's all-world closer Francisco Rodriguez in the top of the 9th. That anyone hit that home run of off K-Rod (62 saves and giving up only 4 home runs all season) is mind-boggling enough. That it was the rusty Drew, even more surprising.

The Red Sox are now up 2-0 against the Angels and headed home. J.D. Drew is with them. I'm not sure if that give me more confidence or not but he does seem to have a flair for the dramatic in the post-season. Speaking as a Red Sox fan who has been on the rollercoaster more times than I care to remember, I'd like to see the Sox keep the drama to a minimum, however, and wrap this up quickly and easily on Sunday night. Hopefully Drew can help make it happen.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Best post-debate comment yet

"I always wondered what a wolverine would sound like chewing through plywood. Now I know: like Sarah Palin “debating” Joe Biden." - Howard Fineman, Newsweek's Politics Blog

I have no idea why anyone would wonder about that but I love it!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Affecting the Impacts

"I don’t want to argue about the causes. What I want to argue about is how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts." - Gov. Sarah Palin during the October 2, 2008, vice presidential debate

You know, the sad thing is that a lot of people are going to make the case that Sarah Palin exceeded expectations and reassured the American people that she is a worthy candidate for vice president during tonight's debate. In truth, she cleared a bar set so low it was a chalk outline on the sidewalk.

The only way she could have failed to meet the ridiculously low expectations set for her in this debate would have been if she stood drooling by the podium saying "wow, thems a lot of cameras" before admitting that she thinks Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a hottie and that the McCain campaign is really just an extended version of "Weekend at Bernie's" with her new boss as the titular character.

On second thought, I would have been much more interested in watching THAT debate.

As it was, she was able to speak in moderately complete sentences that presented a series of programmed messages and damn it, she was going to get through them all, even if it meant ignoring the questions being asked of her. Well, not really ignoring so much as "knowing better what the American people really want to hear." That'll teach the elitist mainstream media!

Sadly, moderator Gwen Ifil came across as spineless and entirely lacking control over the procedings tonight, either as a result of the rules negotiated by the two camps or because she backed off in the face of of the ridiculous pre-debate "concerns" by the McCain camp that Ifil was biased (clearly a case of "working the ref"). It didn't help that the debate format let Palin get away with it. There was no pressure to actually answer what she was asked, few if any follow-ups, and no coming back to her after she finished spouting inanities or sweeping generalities to press her for specifics (where's Katie Couric when we need her!).

It made me long for the 2000 VP debate when it was Cheney, Leiberman, and their moderator sitting at a table having at it. (I'm talking about the debate format, not the actual meeting between the Crown Prince of Darkness and Droopy Dog...I think that might have been one of the signs that the End Times are coming but we'd need to ask Governor Palin for confirmation on that one).

However, the Dems didn't want that format this year because they didn't think their candidates had been able to go after Darth Vader effectively enough the last two times. Personally, I think that was the fault of the Dem's VP candidates in '00 and '04, not a flaw in the format. That table discussion debate style would have prevented the speechifying that we saw this evening (and yes, Biden did some of his own) and would have instead created more opportunities to press for details through a true conversation.

At least we weren't treated to another round of "Thanks but No Thanks" bridge building and "Buy My Jet on eBay" mythmaking. On the other hand, we did witness Governor Palin state her wish to have even more expansive powers as VP than Dick Cheney, a horrifying thought when you consider exactly how much damage Vlad the Impaler has wrought during the last 8 years while pulling W's strings in Washington.

Joe Biden, to give him his due, was very solid, especially once the tranquilizer wore off following the first 30 minutes. As expected, he had facts at his command. He avoided the verbal diarrhea that has always been a weakness of his. The Senator managed to slip a few traps that Palin sent his way ("so can I call you Joe?"; "the white flag of surrender") and took advantage of some clever openings (stressing the value and importance of an Obama presidency when asked what a Biden presidency would look like if her were to ascend to that post).

On the attack, he made strong statements denying McCain's claims to maverick status, effectively tied McCain to Bush, and sought to define how an Obama/Biden administration would differ from Bush (and McCain by association). In fact, if the camera didn't keep cutting away to her, you might have assumed he was debating McCain, not Palin. This was a solid if not flashy strategy. Ignore her, don't attack her, and focus on the real target - the top of the opposing ticket. In essence, exactly what a vice presidential candidate is supposed to do in this situation.

His most powerful moment came when he wrested away the "I know what it's like to be a regular person" mantle from Palin as he emotionally touched on his heartwrenching experience losing his wife, daughter, and praying for the lives of his sons shortly after winning election to the Senate. He choked up and while it was only a brief interruption, I'm willing to set aside my cynicism about politicians and believe that he wasn't, couldn't have been faking that. It was honest, it was heartfelt, and it disarmed Palin, who was left flat with a frozen smile and with her rote maverick line. As the dust settles over the next few days, I think we'll see that most viewers will agree that Senator Biden won this debate.

That won't stop the talking heads and pundits from crowing over Governor Palin's "performance". That's exactly what it was, of course, spearheaded by her "I may not answer the questions the way the moderator or you might like 'cuz I'm going to talk straight to the American people" strategy. No polished diction here because she's just a normal, regular working stiff from Alaska with message points that may or may not have any relevance, doncha know?

It didn't hurt her standing with conservatives that she channelled a bit of Ronald Reagan tonight...yes, she actually dusted off that 1980 crowd pleaser "there you go again"., wait, I think it was actually "There ya go agin." Ah, Reagan by way of Marge Gunderson.

In case you're interested, her actual quote was:

"Say it ain’t so, Joe! There you go pointing backwards again ... Now, doggone it, let’s look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education, and I’m glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?”

Time was running out on the debate and I think she'd forgotten to get her canned "Say it ain't so" and "There you go" into play so she mashed them together in this bunch of blather.

Throughout the rest of the debate, she dropped names of foreign leaders, avoided the deer in the headlights reactions seen in 2 out of 3 of her national interviews so far, and came out swinging. Once again though, she never went beyond platitudes and generalities, generic claims, and at times, some largely incoherent (see quote above) or totally off-topic statements. Basically, she was substance-free tonight and, if you really listened to what she said, illustrated again that she still knows little about foreign policy or the economic system that is failing so spectacularly.

I think that is what we have to expect from Governor Palin over the next five weeks. She can cram for the test, memorize the superficial facts, but when it comes down to it, she's a folksy pitchman for a campaign with no ideas. Nevertheless, she may have stopped the bleeding and there might be fewer conservatives calling for her to step down from the ticket. Please Lord, let her hang around so we can hear her gritting her teeth and congratulating Obama and Biden when they win this thing (oh please, oh please, oh please...I hope I didn't just jinx it).

And last but not least, what's with the winking? Did she think it made her look sassy? Was she trying to lock up the votes of the coveted post-adolescent "I want to have sex with a cougar" demographic? When she winked at the camera again and again, I felt...well...kinda dirty, like a good friend's mom just tried to hit on me. Ewwwww!