Posted by Marty Kaplan
The e-mail came when I was in Mexico, at a fitness resort that—in pursuit of wellness—confines BlackBerry use to guests’ rooms.
“Need to chat briefly with you regarding John Edwards and the effects of this scandal on his future political career.” It was from a reporter I know at People. I had no idea what he was talking about. Though I’d cut way back on my news intake, not to mention my beloved carbs, while at the ranch, I figured that my furtive Web browsing during the week was keeping me reasonably well informed on the big stuff.
His follow-up message, in response to my away-from-my-e-mail auto-reply, vibrated in my pocket during dinner, where no one else at my table had a clue what scandal had erupted. I stole a look at the screen, my transgression, I hoped, concealed by the tablecloth.
“What do you think are going to be the effects on John’s political future, most notably his chances for a vice presidential nod from Obama? From your perspective, where does this scandal, if you will, rank in the history of American politics? Why do you think so many people are appalled by these developments? His wife’s illness?”
It would be 24 hours later that I fully re-introduced media toxins into my system. Ingesting the National Enquirer account of Edwards’ purported Beverly Hills Hotel visit to the purported mother of his purported love child turned out to be as shocking to my system as the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Light that I unthinkingly shmeared on the ranch bread, won at bingo, that I’d brought home with me.
But the e-mail alone—“appalled,” “his wife’s illness”—was enough to get me to contemplate the awful, unsubstantiated conclusion the moment I got it. I know enough to mistrust rumors. But I couldn’t help hypothetically feeling the same nausea, the same kicked-in-the-stomach wallop that hit me when Bill Clinton fessed up to his sexual infidelity and to lying about it. Appalled? No, more like heartsick.
I had spent the weekend before the Iowa caucuses—still undecided, even after the torture of watching what seemed like a gazillion pre-primary debates—taking in every minute of every Democrat’s stump speech that I could find on C-SPAN. Some online issues poll I’d taken told me that Dennis Kucinich was the candidate closest to my views, but I was in no mood to be romantic or sentimental about my choice.
What surprised me was that Edwards turned out to be my candidate. I wanted a fighter, someone as furious about what had happened to America and to the Constitution as I was, and Edwards—unlike Barack Obama, who struck me as having been snookered by high-minded editorial writers’ jonesing for bipartisanship—seemed ready to kick butt and take names. And much as I respect Hillary Clinton’s smarts, I was world-weary of the pols and hacks who surrounded and spoke for her, and her stump speech sounded uncannily like what I had written for Walter Mondale; much as I respect him, 2008 isn’t 1984.
Edwards’ populism rang my bell. He had some political problems—the haircut, the house, the lackluster performance in the Cheney debate—but watching him ignite crowd after crowd that snowy weekend, I experienced him as sublimely authentic. Plus, of course, there was Elizabeth.
It wasn’t just her bravery in the face of cancer that made people love her. It wasn’t just the young children. It was also how authentic she was, and how smart, and the sacrifice she was prepared to make, the trade of precious family time for a higher purpose.
John Edwards couldn’t recover politically from his loss in Iowa. As I write this, his camp is dismissing the Enquirer story as typical tabloid trash. That may be entirely true, just as other political scandals, from John McCain’s love child to John Kerry’s swift-boating, have also turned out to be smears spread by political enemies. Is mentioning the Enquirer story lashon hara, the evil tongue? If you can’t talk about contemporary political discourse—all of it, even the vile—you can’t talk about contemporary politics.
Even if the Enquirer’s story turns out to be no more than a hit job, I won’t soon forget the feeling that those e-mails from People churned up in me.
As potentially appalled as I was for Elizabeth Edwards, as potentially amazed as I was by what would have to be John Edwards’ colossal arrogance, what disturbed me most was the possibility that I may have been played for a chump, that I had been as politically naïve as any greenhorn who’d just fallen off the turnip truck, that my belief in Edwards—not just in the message, but in the message-bearer—demonstrated that, for all my years of accumulating a justifiable cynicism, I was still susceptible to the stagecraft of political authenticity.
The night that Obama won the Iowa caucuses, I found myself, like many Americans, thrilled by his rhetoric and moved by his story. The Edwards “scandal” has made me mindful of how inclined I have become to believe in Obama. His recent positional shifts, while disconcerting, I have chalked up to a misguided effort to chase voters who will never be for him anyway. But the emotional whiplash engendered by the Enquirer allegations has reminded me that Kool-Aid, like in-room cable news, was also absent at the wellness ranch.
I believed in “I still believe in a place called Hope” until the blue dress. Do I still believe in the “audacity of hope”?
New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, “There’s no point in being Irish unless you realize that sooner or later the world will break your heart.”
He may just as well have said Jewish.
12.8.08 at 6:09 pm | To Sam Zell, however, running The Times, as well. . .
8.12.08 at 10:09 pm | Sen. Lieberman should know better.
8.4.08 at 9:10 pm | The Jewish Clarence Thomas?
8.1.08 at 6:11 pm | About
7.31.08 at 1:19 am | His follow-up message, in response to my. . .
7.24.08 at 1:16 am | The Bush/Cheney doctrine, of course, was never. . .
12.8.08 at 6:09 pm | To Sam Zell, however, running The Times, as well. . . (1)
July 24, 2008 | 1:16 am
Posted by Marty Kaplan
“The world is waiting to love America again” ran the title of a recent London Observer editorial anticipating Barack Obama’s visit to Europe.
Love may be too strong a word to describe the world’s feelings for America when George W. Bush was first sworn in as president, but not by much. It’s surprising, but irrefutable, to look back at the numbers he inherited. Polls taken in 1999 and 2000 show impressive majorities of people in nations all around the world holding favorable views of the U.S. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, when headlines declared “We Are All Americans” in many languages, those numbers went even higher.
But today, love is not much in the air. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project put it, “Since 2002 ... the image of the United States has declined in most parts of the world. Favorable ratings of America are lower in 26 of 33 countries for which trends are available.”
Some examples: In Germany, our favorability has fallen from 78 percent, when Bush was inaugurated, to 30 percent in 2007; in Britain, from 83 to 51; in Slovakia, from 74 to 41; in Argentina, from 50 to 16; in Turkey, from 52 to 9; in Indonesia, from 75 to 29.
The Bush/Cheney doctrine, of course, was never about being loved. Instead, they said they wanted America to be respected, which turned out to be code for being feared. No one disputes that national security depends on strength, which includes military and economic strength. But it also depends on ideals, and it’s in that department—the values implicit in our actions—where the White House has lost the world’s respect and actually undermined America’s power.
Everyone knows the list of horribles: Unilateralism. Name-calling. Cowboy diplomacy. Pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. Declaring the Geneva Conventions irrelevant. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Branding negotiation as “appeasement.” Preaching a “freedom agenda” while undermining domestic civil liberties. Supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of spreading democracy.
It goes on. And it has had an effect diametrically opposite to its intention. “Ironically,” the Pew project says, “the belief that the United States does not take into account the interests of other countries in formulating its foreign policy is extensive among the publics of several close U.S. allies. No fewer than 89 percent of the French, 83 percent of Canadians and 74 percent of the British express this opinion.”
For years, the Bush State Department has pursued numerous misbegotten and unsuccessful efforts at “public diplomacy,” based on the premise that what America has is a communications problem, that we need a more effective marketing campaign for our national brand. In fact, what we have actually had is a problem problem—a policy problem, an actions problem, a contempt for differing points of view, an arrogance about human rights, a penchant for demonization.
Yes, there are evil people and bad states in the world, and they want to do grievous harm to us and our allies. But there is scant evidence that the approach of the past seven years has effectively contained or defanged them. In fact, the Bush State Department seems finally to have recognized this. In its dealings with Syria and Iran, there is a belated, twilight recognition that talk is not the same thing as capitulation. The agreement at the G-8 summit in Japan to halve greenhouse gases by 2050—2050!—may be pathetic, but at least it is less pathetic than denying their human causes and their lethal consequences.
There is a good reason that entertainment is America’s No. 1 export, even at this nadir of our international reputation. The stories that Hollywood’s products tell, the values they embody, are hopeful, idealistic, celebratory of human potential and achievement. Yes, some nihilistic stuff is American-made and globally consumed, too. But by and large, people around the world like our entertainment for the same reason that we do: It comes down on the side of dignity, freedom and good triumphing over evil. That’s what America can mean to the world, and in some quarters—despite the bullying and blundering of the Bush years—still does mean.
When John F. Kennedy in 1963 told the world from the Brandenburg Gate, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he was explicitly identifying with all people whose freedom was threatened. But there was an implicit message in his words as well: Here is what it means to be an American. Here is what the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution look like.
As The Observer observed, the world is waiting to love America again. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have a tremendous opportunity to change the face, and to change the meaning, of what “I am an American” has come to signify around the world. For the sake of our national security, and that of our allies, it can’t come a moment too soon.
July 17, 2008 | 1:13 am
Posted by Marty Kaplan
Because this was happening a short taxi ride from the White House, I half expected someone from Dick Cheney’s office to burst in at any moment, grab the microphone and proclaim the conference kaput, dissolved like an inconvenient parliament.
“I think this may be the best day of my life,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at the opening of the 2008 Leaders-to-Leaders Conference she convened last week, along with the country’s state and county public health officials. The agenda: To build a bottom-up coalition to change how America deals with health, to shift our focus from health care to healthiness and to the bigger social factors that determine our national healthiness.
Over two days, I heard so many encouraging ideas from the conference stage that didn’t reflexively demonize public policy-making as nanny-statism that, well, as I said, the whole thing left me looking nervously over my shoulder for political-correctness enforcers from The Cato Institute or The Heritage Foundation.
As one speaker after another pointed out, America today ranks first among industrial nations in terms of how much we spend on health care, but last in terms of how healthy we are as a country. Pick any national metric of healthiness—life expectancy, infant mortality, birth weight, chronic diseases incidence—and America’s comparative performance is in the cellar. It’s true even when you adjust for European populations’ relative homogeneity: if you only count white Americans, we are still the low man on the healthiness totem pole.
We Americans spend more than 90 percent of our health dollars on health care (on doctors, hospitals, insurance, machines, pharmaceuticals and the like), but it turns out that only 10 percent of how healthy we are as a nation is determined by what those health care dollars buy.
How can that be? What could possibly determine whether America is among the industrial world’s healthiest nations, if not the thing we’re all clamoring for: universal heath insurance? The answer—and this isn’t a political opinion, it’s an epidemiological finding—lies in the social determinants of our physical condition. Determinants like income, class, education, racism, the availability of public transportation, land-use policy, environmental policy, participation in the political process and a host of other factors that don’t depend on our genetic makeup or our propensity to take personal responsibility for diet and exercise. Determinants that flow not from luck or individual choices, but from laws, regulations and priorities set at all levels of government and in the private sector as well. (If you want an alarming eyeful about this, check out the new California Newsreel documentary “Unnatural Causes.”)
The way we currently think about health in America—about health care, that is—is completely understandable. We all want access to the best possible health care for our parents, our kids and ourselves, and we want it to be affordable, and we want plenty of choices. What’s astonishing is that even if we covered all the uninsured’s health care, we would still likely rank at the bottom of industrial countries for healthiness. The major causes of our country’s healthiness or unhealthiness are all upstream of the things that send us to doctors and hospitals and pharmacies. The causes are poverty, and stress, and the amount of control and autonomy we have at our jobs, and whether there are showers there, and what they put in the vending machines. The causes are access to early childhood education, and to day care, and whether schools are built near asthma-breeding freeways. They are whether your neighborhood offers public libraries and public transportation and walking trails, or public dumps and liquor stores and fast food franchises.
“I had a colonoscopy the other week,” the CDC’s Dr. Gerberding told the 400 public health officials, business leaders and nonprofits she was hoping would sign on to a “healthiest nation alliance.” “Actually,” she added, “I was billed for two colonoscopies, though I’m sure I only had one.”
Clearly she’s not unaware of the madness of our present health care system. No one facing a family medical crisis wants anything but the best possible treatment at that moment. No one should lack access to quality health care. But prevention is even more important to the country as a whole than treatment is, and the free market alone hasn’t and won’t deliver the level of prevention we need.
To me, the underlying reason America has fallen so far behind in the healthiest nation race is the exhausted dogmas that have dominated public discourse for something like 30 years—Horatio Algerism, social Darwinism, the magic of the marketplace, deregulation is good, government is bad, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and devil take the hindmost.
We now know what America looks like when those kinds of ideas rule, and not only in the health sector. I’m glad that, at long last, public officials are finding their voice to express politically transgressive thoughts, like the idea that income inequity and racism are bad for America’s healthiness.
I just hope that the Ayn Rand Society doesn’t get on their case.
July 4, 2008 | 1:34 am
Posted by Marty Kaplan
It’s surprising that 40 years passed between the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, which won the largest viewing audience in television history until then, and the airing of the first season of “Survivor,” a monster hit that launched the “reality” boom that’s dominated television ever since.
Those presidential debates were arguably the first reality show. What took so long for television executives to figure out that there’s gold in them thar unscripted hills?
Maybe it’s because “debate” is such a high-minded term. Maybe we’re too embarrassed to admit that the history of presidential debates is actually a branch of the history of show business.
We speak with reverence about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, as though judging their outcome by whose 5 o’clock shadow looked worse on TV doesn’t amount to Exhibit A of our susceptibility to stagecraft. We love recalling Ronald Reagan’s putting away the age issue with a gag (“I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”), as though his getting off a good joke were enough to undo our complicity in his subsequent cluelessness about Iran-Contra. We delight in noting how Al Gore’s sighing, George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch and Michael Dukakis’ unwillingness to bite Bernie Shaw’s head off because of a hypothetical about his wife Kitty being raped, could well have lost them the White House, as though deciding presidential elections on “American Idol” criteria weren’t an indictment of the shallowness of the media-political complex.
Yet, we keep on insisting that how a candidate does in a presidential debate is a useful surrogate for how he would do as president. What was there about George W. Bush’s opposition to nation building in the 2000 debates that could have enabled us to anticipate his aggrandizing freedom-on-the-march agenda? What was it in Dick Cheney’s performance during the debates that could have prefigured the most arrogant flouting of the Constitution in the history of the Republic? For that matter, what was it that Bill Clinton said to Bob Dole in 1996 that might have forewarned us of the indiscipline and heartache to follow? Only hindsight makes any of those encounters illuminating.
As an inveterate goo-goo, I know I should be encouraged by the new proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates: To junk the 30-second timers and to give the candidates eight 10-minute segments to discuss single topics that are lobbed in by a moderator who then withdraws to the sidelines. But this strikes me as tinkering at the margins.
Candidates have an innate horror of going off message. That’s why debate prep is a quadrennial growth industry in campaignland. Thick binders, with tabbed Qs & As on every conceivable topic, are already being assembled. Key phrases are being polled and focus-grouped. The most wounding attacks are being imagined and countered. Potentially embarrassing votes and quotes are being catalogued and repudiated. Jokes and one-liners are being contributed by advisers and gag-writers. Stand-ins for the opposition are being coached for rehearsal. Gimmicks and stunts are being compiled and considered: issuing a challenge to sign a no-new-taxes pledge, say, or to have your gums examined by a panel of independent periodontists.
Presidential debates are solemnly portrayed by the media as great learning opportunities for the public. But unless something goes very wrong, there is nothing substantive a candidate will say in a debate that he has never said before. We are conditioned by the press to expect spontaneity, candor, a bombshell, a Perry Mason ending. “Did you hear that? He’s for the Arabs! He admitted it!” Or: “See? He’s a just another Republican, in maverick’s clothing.” But what we actually get is political kabuki—scripted and choreographed down to the last gesture and gerund.
The early press reaction to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ proposed format is a microcosm of what now counts for political analysis. At two of the three debates, candidates will sit together at a table. This, we are told in various media accounts, will have the effect of neutralizing the height advantage that Obama, at 6 foot 1, has over McCain, who is 5 foot 9.
I don’t doubt that for some American voters, a candidate’s height is a worthy proxy for his presidentiality. Nor do I doubt that for other Americans, race or age or rumors will determine whom they choose. I am also aware—though it depresses me deeply—that the outcome of the election will likely depend on those voters who reach Election Day still undecided. Apparently a two-year campaign will have offered these swing voters in swing states insufficient information on which to base a decision.
That the result of a presidential race may depend on the limbic systems of a million or so Americans is a feature, not a bug, of universal suffrage. What Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed as countervailing measures to combat the potential dangers of self-government were a thriving public education system, an ingenious mechanism of checks and balances and a robust Fourth Estate. Unfortunately, none of these systems for safeguarding democracy from ignorance and subversion is in notably healthy shape today, which leaves us at the mercy of sound bites, canned quips and body language.
Instead of applauding genteel format tweaking, why don’t we junk the Commission on Presidential Debates entirely? It was an outrage when, in 1986, the two political parties seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters. Ever since, the candidates have signed Memoranda of Understanding under party auspices that virtually guarantee the twin hazards of civic piety and packaged zingers.
Rather than holding the debates in college auditoriums full of “soft supporters,” why not broadcast one of them, say, from a crowded classroom in Dorsey High during lockdown and see which candidate can best connect with the future American workforce? Rather than pretending that questions like, “How can you do everything you promise and still balance the budget?” will get honest answers, why not ask the viewing audience to text in after each response whether they believed what they heard?
My first question for the candidates? “If you don’t do something in your first 100 days that pisses off half the public, you’ll be a lousy president who’ll break the country’s heart again. Energy, education, immigration, Iraq: nothing’s got easy answers. Which of you has the balls to tell us some hard ones?” Well, maybe not “pisses off” and “balls.” But you get the idea. And so should they.