Tilting at Windmills

Guilty Party

“G.O.P. Edge As Dynamics Shift in House Races,” read a frightening headline in the New York Times this summer. How can this be happening after a record of ceaseless obstructionism by congressional Republicans?

Much of the explanation, of course, rests on the media’s far too frequent reliance on blaming Congress rather than Republicans in Congress. On this matter, the new HBO series The Newsroom‘s preaching is on the right track when it challenges the media to tell the truth about the Tea Partiers and the
harm they have caused.

As for the Senate, Michael Grunwald, in The New New Deal, confirms a point
I raised in my most recent column about the claim that Obama could have gotten a bigger stimulus bill—maddeningly, the assertion continues to be made, most recently in a front-page story in the Washington Post‘s Outlook section.

What really happened was summed up for Grunwald by Joe Biden: “I spoke to seven different Republican Senators, who said, ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything.’ … The way it was characterized to me was: ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.’ ” And one Obama aide told Grunwald that “he received a similar warning from a Republican Senate staffer he was seeing at the time. He remembers asking her one morning in bed: How do we get a stimulus deal? She replied: Baby, there’s no deal.”

Okay, Biden and the staffer may not strike you as the most objective of sources, but two men who were Republican senators at the time of the stimulus, Bob Bennett and Arlen Specter, have confirmed to Grunwald that Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, “demanded unified resistance” to the stimulus bill.

I also mentioned in the last issue that the political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann identify the Republicans as the guilty party in congressional failure, but I failed to note that they join in The Newsroom‘s challenge to the media to make clear to the public that congressional Republicans and Democrats are “no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit and run driver and a victim.”

They were for it before they were against it

Speaking of Republicans’ “unified opposition” to Obama’s initiatives, I had known that the individual mandate to buy health insurance had originally been proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and was at the heart of Romneycare in Massachusetts.

I had forgotten, however, until recently reminded by Ezra Klein in the ,New Yorker, that the Republican alternative to Hillary Clinton’s bill in 1993, introduced by Senator John Chafee and cosponsored by eighteen Republican senators, including minority leader and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole, also featured a mandate.

Don’t forget 2010

When I read that there is an “enthusiasm gap” in the 2012 campaign that favors the Republicans by a considerable margin, I thought: If ever there was a time when the Democrats needed enthusiasm, this is it. The Republicans not only have a lot more money to spend on the campaign, but they have been making a massive effort to suppress Democratic votes. I remind readers of 2010, when liberals were devoting most of their attention to criticizing Obama instead of working for a Democratic congressional victory, thereby allowing the Tea Partiers to take over the House and produce one of the worst Congresses of all time.

For me, the most maddening example of what was going wrong with liberalism was the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I’m a fan of both men, devoutly so in Colbert’s case, but they missed a great opportunity that day. They attracted a huge crowd of some of the brightest people around, people who ordinarily would be very active in a crucial political contest. But instead of using their humor to make clear to their audience that the coming election would be crucial, they devoted almost the entire event to showing how clever and above partisanship they were and how awesome their guests were. Only the eighty-four-year-old Tony Bennett urged the crowd to vote. And he just got out that one word, “vote,” over his shoulder as he was being hustled offstage to make room for the next act.

Where’s the beef?

One of the main problems of Obama’s health care bill has been the lack of public understanding of its provisions. Why doesn’t the public know? One answer comes from the Pew Research Center, which studied media coverage of the bill and found that only 23 percent was of substance, while 49 percent was about “politics and strategy.” Of course, the same is true every day on every issue as the media continues to focus on politics, not substance.

The me-first era

Both the very conservative Charles Murray and the moderate conservative David Brooks agree about what Murray calls the “segregation of capitalism from virtue.” I can remember that in the 1950s Wall Streeters like Chase Manhattan Bank’s David Rockefeller and businessmen like Scott Paper’s Thomas McCabe still liked to be called responsible, meaning that they made their money with at least some regard for the morality and the effect on the rest of us of how they made it.

Murray traces this sense of responsibility to the McGuffey Readers, explaining that

the books on which generations of American children were raised have plenty of stories treating initiative, hard work and entrepreneurialism as virtues, but just as many stories praising the virtues of self-restraint, personal integrity and concern for those who depend on you. The freedom to act and a stern moral obligation to act in certain ways were seen as two sides of the same American coin. Little of that has survived

Split by snobbery

The snobbery for which we criticized Spy was another development we did not like about the late 1960s. It was expressed most notably by the largely college-educated antiwar protesters who called blue-collar policemen pigs and justified their avoidance of the draft with words like the title of a Monthly article, “let those hillbillies go get shot.” The result was the separation between blue-collar workers and liberal Democrats that Republicans have since exploited. Remember how Spiro Agnew said, “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”?

Pill Payola

Television’s Dr. Drew—his last name is Pinsky—has been caught taking payoffs from the drug company GlaxoSmithKline for endorsing its antidepression drug Wellbutrin. Of course, Dr. Pinsky is just the tip of a giant iceberg of medical malpractice. If you have missed the movie Love and Other Drugs, be sure to see it. Part of the film is a totally delicious satire of the corrupt relationship between pharmaceutical salesmen and physicians.

Feed the beast

One reason why I fear we will never get real campaign finance reform is that the media industry is reaping such vast profits from the sale of time for all those commercials that are deluging the airwaves. Both the broadcast and the cable networks feast on this income, which also enriches local stations, especially those in swing states. According to the Wall Street Journal‘s “Heard on the Street,” political advertisers will spend $42 per U.S. adult this year.

Two scandals that weren’t

Two recent articles in the New York Times have made me wonder which Timeseditors were asleep the day they were published. One, by Motoko Rich, ran as the lead article on the front page with the headline “‘No Child’ Law Whittled Down by the White House—Waivers for 26 States.” The headline suggests, as does a considerable part of the article, that there may be something scandalous going on. It’s not until the eleventh paragraph, which doesn’t appear until the jump page, that the reader is given any idea that the administration is granting the waivers to provide flexibility and persuade states to adopt its Race to the Top program—though the words “Race to the Top” never appear in the article, and the program is only briefly explained in two of its twenty-nine paragraphs. Ironically, a subsequent lead editorial in the Times, instead of questioning Race to the Top, praised it for providing incentives for reform that are “long overdue.

The other piece was headlined “Obama Biography Brings New Scrutiny to President’s Own Memoir.” Its author, Michael Shear, explains that “there are new questions about how closely the president’s telling of his life hews to reality.” But we don’t encounter the first example of this departure from reality until the sixteenth paragraph of the article, and what a shocker it is: Obama said his step-grandfather was killed “while fighting Dutch troops in Indonesia,” when in fact he “died trying to hang drapes.” Obama has talked a lot about his real grandparents, but he has never made a big thing out of the story of his step-grandfather, which easily could have been family myth handed down to him. The other illustrations offered by Shear struck me as equally trivial: Obama combined the stories of two early romances, and he smoked more pot in high school than his own book had implied.

A problem with Obama books

What is most gratifying about Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal is that it
gives full attention to explaining the good about Obama’s stimulus program while also acknowledging the not so good. Most of the books about Obama, even excellent ones like Jodi Kantor’s and Noam Scheiber’s, devote considerably more attention to exploring Obama’s psyche or what is wrong with his approach to governing. Kantor’s book The Obamas, for instance, while calling the president’s legislative accomplishments “extraordinary,” devotes less than one page—it’s 192 if you want to check—to listing them.

Clinton’s catch-22

As the Clintons were entering the White House in January 1993, I wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine advising them about what to do and what not to do. Among my suggestions was not to repeat the mistake I thought Hillary had made with the Clinton education program in Arkansas.

Before introducing the Clinton bill in the legislature, she had toured the state, holding meetings to discuss the bill’s possible contents. By the end of her tour she had stirred up so much opposition to the possible reforms that the teachers held a near riot outside the governor’s mansion and the Clintons had to abandon the cause of education reform. So my advice was that when she had a major reform in mind, she should get her own bill together in private and send it to Congress.

That is exactly what she did with the Clinton health bill, and she was pilloried for it. As the criticism mounted, I was hoping no one would remember how wrong I had been. Or at least I thought I had been wrong, until Obama got savaged for not sending Congress a finished bill but instead allowing Congress and White House staff to shape it along the way. If there was ever a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, this was it.

Remembering Raspberry

William Raspberry was one of Washington’s genuinely wise men. As a black man he had the courage to criticize his fellow blacks: “civil rights leadership, for all its emphasis on desegregating schools, has done very little to improve them.” This was written in 1982. It is lamentably true today. Just last year, Adrian Fenty, the first mayor to have the courage to take on the issue of teacher quality, was turned out in favor of Vincent Gray—whose administration has been characterized by one scandal after another—because of Gray’s support by the largely black D.C. teacher’s union.

Fun with complex geometric shapes

Not only have Republican legislatures sought to suppress Democratic votes by passing voter ID laws, they are removing Democratic voters from close congressional districts by redistricting. In Pennsylvania, for example, Naftali Bendavid of the Wall Street Journalfound that as a result of redistricting, Republican Representative Lou Barletta had gone from “vulnerable to iron clad.” A map of his district showed that it had been radically reshaped. What would have fit into a circle now requires an irregular elongated rectangle. This made sure not only that many Democratic voters were now excluded, but also that the most likely Democratic opponent was placed just outside the district line.

Making the same mistakes again

Read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s and weep. In Afghanistan, Foreign Service and USAID employees are largely sealed off from Afghans, rarely fluent in the local language, frequently serving tours too short for them to understand the people or the country, and throwing too much money at problems that are usually far more complicated than we understand. It is the same story that we found in the Green Zone of Baghdad, which in turn repeated the sad story of all our mistakes in Saigon in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Chandrasekaran tells how the late Richard Holbrooke at a 2009 strategy session on Afghan policy “implored USAID and state department officials to increase the size of their initiatives.” Holbrooke, who as a young man had been a Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and should have known better, then said, “If you used to ask for 22 million and are now asking for 24 million, that’s not truly bold.”

You know?

Have you ever caught yourself abusing “you know”? Then you will sympathize with Barack Obama, who managed to use “you know” fifty-two times in just one interview, the one with ABC News correspondent Robin Roberts in which he endorsed gay marriage.

More Ginsberg memories

Now, to more memories of Allen Ginsberg. In some ways, Allen was a bad influence during that first year I knew him, in 1946-47. In teaching me how to be hip, he made me look down on those who weren’t. (You mean you haven’t read Rimbaud or Baudelaire!) But we also often just had fun. He liked jazz, and so did I. I can remember one morning I skipped class so that we could get the bargain rate—it was either 55 or 95 cents if you got there before 11:30 a.m.—at the Strand Theater, where the great tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet was performing with Lionel Hampton’s band. We also frequented the Three Deuces, one of the many jazz clubs that lined Fifty-second Street. It featured another tenor saxophone player, Flip Phillips. Late one night, we went to Carnegie Hall to attend a concert in the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series that featured both Jacquet and Phillips. I was still so un-hip that Allen had to explain to me that the strong aroma in the hall was from marijuana.

Herbert Huncke was the only friend of Allen’s I met that first year (by the way, Herbert later wrote a very accurately titled autobiography, Guilty of Everything). Allen was away most of the next, serving in the Merchant Marine, but during the 1948-49 school year he introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lucien Carr, Vicki Russell, and Allen’s father, Louis. Carr seemed guarded and hard to know, but Kerouac and Cassady not only were open and affable, they could be downright exuberant. I would never have guessed the undercurrent of torment that was part of both men. Vicki was a hooker who wanted to use my apartment as a pad where she could entertain her johns, for which I would be rewarded with a commission. Thank goodness I wasn’t quite hip enough to accept that proposal.

Allen made a special effort for me to meet his father, and I think the reason was that Allen saw me as a “respectable” friend and there was part of him that, until at least 1954, had wanted to keep one foot in the respectable world. He often talked about how T. S. Eliot, as a bank official, Wallace Stevens, as an insurance company executive, and William Carlos Williams, as a family doctor, had combined lives in poetry with regular careers. The last time I saw him before I left New York to go to law school, he was wearing a suit and told me he was working for a market research firm.

Allen got arrested in 1949. I was on the subway one Saturday morning in March when, looking over another rider’s shoulder, I saw a photograph in either the Daily Mirror or the Daily News of Allen, Herbert, Vicki, and a new friend of theirs, “Little Jack” Melody, peering out of a paddy wagon. Little Jack, it turned out, was in the same line of work as Herbert, namely larceny, and was understandably apprehensive about contact with officers of the law. When a policeman
attempted to stop the gang as they drove around Queens, Little Jack immediately stepped on the gas. The result was that, in the subsequent chase, his car turned over. Though the occupants fled, some of Allen’s papers were left behind. They contained Allen’s address on York Avenue, which ultimately led to the arrest of Allen and his friends, and the discovery of either stolen goods or illegal substances at his apartment.The next day I got a call from Allen, who saidhe was in a Manhattan jail and wanted meto ask Mark Van Doren, a Columbia professorwe both admired, to help get him out.

I went to Van Doren, who did not immediately respond—I think his attitude was that Allen needed to be taught a lesson. But after I received several more desperate calls from Allen and paid more visits to Van Doren, the professor finally agreed to ask his friend, the civil rights attorney Morris Ernst, to help. But by the time I was able to tell Allen the good news, he was out of jail; his brother Eugene, who was a lawyer, had made a deal for Allen’s freedom in return for his committing himself to the Payne-Whitney psychiatric clinic at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

Years later at a Washington party Allen and I were attending, I started to tell this story, but Allen quickly interrupted. I later realized he preferred a version of the story in which the Columbia faculty had actually come to his rescue. This wasn’t really that far from the truth—but it wasn’t the truth. I came to understand that Allen was an active participant in creating his own myth and the myth of the Beats. From the time I first met him, he wove wonderful tapestries of the group that made me eager to meet them in spite of some of the outrageous things they had done. But I don’t think this in any way diminishes works like either Howl or On the Road. Most of the famous people I have known have not been above gilding their own image.

A shifting wind

A high-end costume jewelry store serving Washington’s wealthiest neighborhood ran a poll in 2008 based on how many McCain or Obama pins it sold. Obama won by a comfortable margin. This year, Romney is ahead by a 4-to-3 margin, which curiously enough happens to be the Republican fund-raising advantage as we go to press.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.