This is like the weirdest dinner party ever. Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, and Mos Def hosted by Bill Maher (the clip is annotated by a Hitchens fan):
It's already clear that the biggest obstacles to Obama's agenda are being laid in its path by his own party. In a passionate and closely argued piece, Jonathan Chait explains why, when it comes to governing, the Democrats are their own worst enemy:
Democrats have locked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When their party controls all of Washington, things tend to go south quickly. The president's popularity plunges, and soon his copartisans in Congress find themselves scrambling to keep from losing their own seats in the political undertow. It happened to Carter in 1978 and 1980, and again to Clinton in 1994.
And, so, they hedge their bets by carving out an independent identity...
...But, of course, the more Democrats defect, the more the president is defined as an extreme liberal, and the more ineffectual he seems as his agenda crashes upon the shoals.
Just as a certain TV series starts its run on the BBC, along comes a piece extolling the virtues of Baltimore that - inexplicably - makes little mention of its most famous fictional representation. Apparently B'more is full of loveable eccentrics, and a great place for "people-watching". Yes, I heard that if you stand on a street corner you see all sorts of colourful characters!
Here's the strangest bit:
People curse very creatively – my favourite line of all time is: “I have such a god-damn fetish for fried chicken”.
This is the author's favourite curse of all time? It's barely even a curse. It's a banality. I suggest that Laura Lippman gets out more. Or stays in and watches The Wire.
Toby Harnden has details of the briefing pack on Britain and all things British put together by the US State department for American journalists:
The United Kingdom, we are told, is "slightly smaller than Oregon". As for the the British climate, it is "generally mild and temperate" and "subject to frequent changes but few extremes of temperature". A "group of islands close to continental Europe", Britain has been "subject to many invasions and migrations".
Winning New Hampshire, of course, didn't lead to the presidency, but led instead to a job in which there are daily, even hourly opportunities to make embarrassing faux-pas in the presence of foreign dignitaries.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted by Mary on the tilma, or cloak, of St. Juan Diego in 1531. The image has numerous unexplainable phenomena, such as the appearance on Mary’s eyes of those present in the room when the tilma was opened and the image’s lack of decay.
Mrs. Clinton was received on Thursday at 8:15 a.m. by the rector of the Basilica, Msgr. Diego Monroy.
Msgr. Monroy took Mrs. Clinton to the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
After observing it for a while, Mrs. Clinton asked “Who painted it?” to which Msgr. Monroy responded “God!”
At least she didn't say, "Wait a minute... isn't that Oprah?"
(Via Ben Smith, who has some even more cringeworthy details).
UPDATE: it is highly possible that this story is complete fiction (see comments). Oh well.
SHOCK NEWS: Hillary Clinton wins New Hampshire!
My God, when was that? Five years ago, ten, twenty?
Just over one year ago? Surely not.
Where were you when you found out? I remember waking up (here in Blighty) to read the news on my laptop, blinking bleary eyes and shaking my head in wonder. I remember thinking, this really is the greatest election race ever held. I remember whispering God bless America or something similar. And fuck me, how did she do that?
Clinton's victory there turned the Obama-Clinton battle, already intensely exciting, into an epic. It was a reminder, if one was needed, that voters can be stubborn bastards who don't always vote the way the media expects or wants them to - and that you should never, ever, underestimate a Clinton. It was the end of Obama, airy phenomenon, and the beginning of Obama, battle-proved candidate.*
It was also, of course, a painful and embarrassing shock to the people who are supposed to abolish shocks, to iron out surprises: the pollsters. The polling industry, plunged into introspection, has put together a massive report to understand and explain how they got it so badly wrong. Mark Blumenthal has read it:
In other words, what happened in New Hampshire wasn't one thing, it was a likely lot of small things, all introducing errors in the same direction. Various methodological challenges or shortcomings that might ordinarily produce offsetting variation in polls instead combined to throw them all off in the same direction. Polling's "perfect storm" did not materialize this past fall, but that label seems more apt for the New Hampshire polling debacle.
(*Those of you who want to relive the moment should buy my book).
The Financial Times joins the Blackberry on the list of president-approved brands:
Dressed in a dark suit and a tie in the ruby-red he often favours, Mr Obama discloses that he reads global newspapers – an option not available to FDR: “I read the Financial Times before other people read the Financial Times [in Chicago in the 1980s],” the president says. “Now it’s trendy and everybody carries around a Financial Times.”
As I've said in the past, the NYT occupies a space in American media which is, in some ways, analogous to the BBC's here: a behemoth frequently derided for its cumbersome nature and various perceived biases. But, again like the BBC, it would be hugely missed if it wasn't around, because so much of what it does is outstanding. This profile of Peter Orszag, the White House budget director, is the kind of thing the Times does regularly and brilliantly.
It points up a couple of things I hadn't really understood before. First the scope and scale of Orszag's ambition. His high-achieving father has been driving him on ever since was a boy; Orszag is now the youngest member of the cabinet, clearly doesn't intend this job to be his last in politics, and seeks to exert far more influence over the administration than that of a bean-counter. Second (and connected to this) his uneasy relationship with alpha-dog Larry Summers:
Asked about his relationship with Mr. Summers, Mr. Orszag answered
politely but stiffened visibly. The two have managed to work together
congenially, several officials said, and Mr. Summers, known for his
sometimes scathing assessment of people, takes Mr. Orszag seriously.
But Mr. Orszag seems to chafe a bit at the situation: Mr. Summers holds a job in which Mr. Orszag was initially interested, and as early as the transition period, Mr. Summers tried to control the budget process as well, by seeking to run meetings related to it.Mr. Orszag won that battle, and he and others say he is enthused about his role. But as the administration tackles one policy challenge after another, the real test of his power may be the extent to which he can hold his own with Mr. Summers.
This is just one of several key relationships between heavyweights within the Obama relationship that are held in a fine balance. The tensions might be enormously creative; or they might prove fissile. A key part of Obama's job is making sure these competitive energies are channeled productively.
(Photo: Todd Heisler, NYT)
Dick Cheney knows his colleagues would rather he stay quiet. Ambinder - in a good post on the state of the opposition - explains why he's working so hard to defend his record and attack the new administration:
He is worried, not about criminal prosecution; rather, if the Obama mindset over next four-to-eight years sets in, Dick Cheney, a guy who most Americans don't like, will be the Dick Cheney that Andrew Sullivan knows: truly infamous and even wretched; someone who sanctioned torture; someone who abused executive power with relish. Obama's Justice Department may soon renounce the legal foundations upon which Cheney's policies were constructed and may even cite the former administration's lawyers for misconduct. If they do this -- once they do this -- the edifice will be nothing but dust.
Adams regretted Lincoln's utterances on two counts. First, they instilled doubt as to the president-elect's capacities; it was possible that Lincoln might yet prove true and energetic, but his speeches had "put flight to all notions of greatness." "They betray a person," Adams wrote in his diary, "unconscious of his own position as well as of the nature of the contest around him. Good-natured, kindly, honest, but frivolous and uncertain."
He turned out OK in the end, I believe.
The Independent's Steve Richards on how Gordon Brown hoped (and rather bet the political farm) on the G20 being a rallying point for global leaders to agree a massive coordinated stimulus:
It has not worked out like that. Instead, a coalition of figures – from Mervyn King to Angela Merkel –
caution against a further fiscal stimulus. Now Mr Brown does so too. In
Washington this week he declared that "what we are suggesting is that
we have to look at what we have done so far". He embarked on a crusade
and ends apparently with the global equivalent of Newsnight Review, in
which leaders look back on recent events.
It looks like most European leaders are quite happy to take a free ride on the American stimulus plan rather than spending their own cash.
I wasn't intending to do any more posts on this (non-) story, but Michael Gerson (former Bush speechwriter) has an excellent column on it today, which he exposes the underlying assumption of those who disdain the teleprompter - that the extemporaneous voice is somehow more 'real' than the written word:
...it is a mistake to argue that the uncrafted is somehow more authentic. Those writers and commentators who prefer the unscripted, who use "rhetoric" as an epithet, who see the teleprompter as a linguistic push-up bra, do not understand the nature of presidential leadership or the importance of writing to the process of thought. Governing is a craft, not merely a talent. It involves the careful sorting of ideas and priorities. And the discipline of writing -- expressing ideas clearly and putting them in proper order -- is essential to governing.
Those of you who studied Jacques Derrida at university and lived to tell the tale will recall that the assumption that the spontaneous voice is somehow more authentic and more truthful than the written word is thousands of years old.
...and returns with his scepticism about America's project in Afghanistan considerably leavened:
In the first place, the Afghan people want what we want. They are, as Lord Byron put it, one of the few people in the region without an inferiority complex. They think they did us a big favor by destroying the Soviet Union and we repaid them with abandonment. They think we owe them all this. That makes relations between Afghans and foreigners relatively straightforward. Most military leaders here prefer working with the Afghans to the Iraqis. The Afghans are warm and welcoming. They detest the insurgents and root for American success. “The Afghans have treated you as friends, allies and liberators from the very beginning,” says Afghanistan’s defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak.
As ever, it's a fascinating read. I found Brooks's conclusion slightly puzzling though. He applauds Obama for not giving up on the idea that America's military and civil power can be used to promote democracy. This is hard to square with the explicitly limited war aims of the new policy. On the face of it Obama has given up on promoting Afghan democracy, and settled for the objective of destroying or at least nullifying the forces of terrorism in that country.
Clintonite spinmaster James Carville makes a simple but crucial point somehow overlooked by critics of Obama's communication skills: in the financial crisis, the president faces a far bigger communications challenge than any modern predecessor.
Recent US presidents have had an easier time honing their message to
soundbites and images. President Ronald Reagan spoke about beefing up
defence spending, conveniently flanked by soldiers in uniform. When
President Bill Clinton was pushing for passage of the Deficit Reduction
Act in 1993, deficit reduction, inflation and interest rates were
something people understood. It was tangible and could be felt by
consumers. President George W. Bush effectively used the September 11
attacks to frame the push for war as a moral choice between the evil of
the terrorists and the inherent goodness of the American people...
... The same cannot be said, however, about the banking crisis that has handcuffed the US and world economies. It is impossible to break the explanation of the crisis into a sound bite or image.
(HT Clive Davis)