The Trash Pile

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I know it’s my duty to conduct a thorough review of language used in the 2016 presidential campaign, to assess the major features of this language, and to make appropriate recommendations for improvement. If I accepted that duty, I could answer all requests for information by saying, “I can’t comment; the review is ongoing” — until everybody forgot the whole thing. But I’m sorry: I can’t do it; I can’t conduct that review. The subject is too disgusting. Besides, it would take a book the size of Ulysses, and even more tedious, to sort this trash out.

As with most collections of garbage, however, one sees a few particularly large and unpleasant objects jutting out of the pile, and one feels one ought to notice them. A prominent feature of the current collection is that typical Donald Trump locution: “I gotta tell ya, it was definitely a catastrophe — definitely. Definitely a catastrophe, folks, one hundred percent — an unbelievable catastrophe. And we’re gonna fix it. Definitely. It will be fixed. This incredible catastrophe.” And who could fail to notice and abhor Hillary Clinton’s habitual tone (a grating noise, followed by shrieks) and facial language (the apotheosis of smug)? I was often sickened by Trump’s unbelievable ability to ignore the obvious arguments on his behalf, and Clinton’s chronic use of concept creep; e.g.: Trump makes fun of an idiot female TV personality; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as anti-woman; Trump responds to gross abuse directed at him by a Muslim father whose son was killed in the American armed services; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as opposed to all Muslims and gold-star families. It must have taken an army of Googlers just to resurrect that phrase.

Without such revelations, the Clinton machine would still be gliding across the landscape, covered both with filthy lucre and with the aura of progressive saintliness.

As with all reeking piles of trash, one tries to pass these things with averted gaze. But one knows that either Clinton or Trump will be everywhere during the next four years, emitting even more noxious fumes.

One also knows that, occasionally, something useful gets thrown in the trash. I hope that certain ways-with-words can be rescued from the catastrophe of this year’s campaign. One is Ben Carson’s warm but precise mode of speech, which is always that of a real person talking to other real persons. Another is Carly Fiorina’s way of getting rapidly to the point, and to the actual evidence, with a minimum amount of rhetorical nonsense. Yet another is Donald Trump’s (yes, Donald Trump’s) willingness to say openly what almost everybody understands privately.

My other hope is that detailed revelations of what has really been said or written in the caverns of power will continue to be made, as the result either of lawsuits or of direct action, as the communists used to call it. (By direct action I mean Wikileaks.) People now see this modern version of Laputa more or less for what it is, even if they plan to vote for it. That’s a big improvement, despite the votes. Almost no one thinks that any power Mrs. Clinton gets will be legitimate.

But shouldn’t I regret the thefts of information by which the secrets of this machine have been made known? Shouldn’t I discuss the great moral issue of prying into other people’s secrets?

I don’t think so. I suspect that few people come to this column expecting advice about morality. If they do, they had better go someplace else. I simply want to suggest that there is a difference between (A) publishing secret information that may, when exposed, subvert legitimate government or get innocent people killed, (B) publishing private information that is nobody’s business to learn, and (C) publishing the dark and immoral sayings that pass within such things as National Committees, Departments of State, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, and the armies of hacks that such grotesque entities as those employ to bamboozle the public. Revealing the dirty communications of Mrs. Clinton’s toadies (C) is very different from publishing the codes to atomic missiles (A), or hacking into the life of somebody who works the counter at the DMV (B). I don’t like the DMV. In fact, whenever I think of Hillary Clinton I think of the DMV, because that is her ideal of government. But I believe I can see a moral difference.

I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence.

I’m talking about the struggle for information between the people and the Establishment. The term “Establishment” became prominent in America during the agitation of the 1960s. It was in that agitation that the modern Democratic Party and its current standard-bearer acquired their remarkable hunger for power. The self-righteous, rich-kid, elitist “liberalism” of the 1960s and 1970s eventually solidified into the stone-faced statism of the 2010s. It solidified in the form not only of the Democratic Party leadership but of the immense crowd of government employees, crony capitalists, know-nothing academics, politicized “faith leaders,” do-gooders on the take, officials of teachers’ unions, college activists, professional ethnics, gender mongers, grand old men of journalism, persons interviewed on NPR, and all the other tools who get money and prestige from the modern liberal state and in return surrender their identity to its rulers. A prominent feature of our political era is the paucity of public dissent, the rarity of defection from the vast Establishment. Nobody gets fired, and nobody departs in protest. This is something very unusual, and very ominous in American history. And no one who still has a brain will deny that 90% of the media, the people whose careers are supposedly dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth, are violent advocates of the Establishment.

I grew up in the days of three government-licensed television networks and a full constellation of newspapers whose major moral purpose was to keep the populace anesthetized. I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence. Despite the credit he took (much later) for having somehow, in some subtle way, criticized the Vietnam War, I remember my childish revulsion when I turned on the family TV and heard the perfectly bloodless way in which Cronkite reported every move of the Johnson administration to “beef up our forces in Vietnam.”

Beef up. Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented. Even I was bright enough to notice that the Establishment media, which were the media of the time, were interested in absolutely no criticism of, or even discussion about, the rightness of such minor matters as conscription, the confiscatory income tax, government schools, labor unions, Social Security, “urban renewal” (i.e., tearing the heart from cities in order to “improve” them), the war on recreational drugs, the imprisonment of gays . . . Need I go on?

President Kennedy womanized on a vast scale, and invited members of the press to participate (which they did), and no word leaked out. Quite the contrary; the media fawned on him as the greatest living embodiment of family values. His family was continuously presented as an Example to Us All. Only its absolutely inescapable sins were reported. When one of his brothers left a young woman to drown after a drunken auto accident, doing nothing except trying to cover up his own involvement, the matter was reported, but the approved assessment was that the poor kid (a member of the US Senate, aged 37) had already suffered enough.

Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented.

I’m saying these things because I don’t want to lapse into the common illusion that there was once a golden age of American journalism. People who think there was are ordinarily so mired in the cultural Establishment that they confuse journalistic objectivity with journalists’ occasional crusades against an enemy of the Establishment (e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy). But despite my firsthand knowledge of this history, I am still disgusted by the violent affection of the media for Hillary Clinton. I can see, very well, why people might not like Donald Trump, but it’s literally unimaginable to me that Mrs. Clinton should be liked by anyone, much less by journalists, whose ostensible mission is to discover truth and expose lies. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident, and that she has surrounded herself with hundreds of people whose function is to mislead the public on every possible occasion. This has apparently escaped the attention of the classy media, but it has not escaped mine, and I know it has not escaped yours either.

What fascinates me is how anyone can distort the news with such singleminded absorption as we have seen in the current campaign — while still imagining that nobody can perceive what’s going on. I’m sure you’ve collected as many examples as I have. Perhaps you’ve found some of them in the media’s coverage of Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson. At the beginning of his campaign, the LP appeared in the modern-liberal media, if it ever did appear, as a sad collection of weirdos. Then magically, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it became a respected protest against the vileness of the Right. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about the complete lack of concern among the media, which are religiously anti-war, about Clinton’s long record of going on the warpath — against Iraq, against Syria, against Libya, against Egypt, and now against Russia — and the ecstasy she has found in killing her enemies.

Maybe you’re thinking about a lot, and so am I. But at this moment, I’m reflecting on something comparatively minor. On the morning of October 8, the day after embarrassing revelations were made about both Trump and Clinton (the revelation of Trump’s remarks about propositioning women, and the first verbatim reports of Clinton’s secret Wall Street speeches), I looked at the six Top Stories on Google News. Four of the six — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 — were anti-Trump. Magically, as if there were some kind of conspiracy or coordinated action or obedience to Clinton’s daily talking points, they were all advertising the Establishment or Country Club Republicans who were trying to get Trump to leave the race. No. 4 was about Hurricane Matthew, then traveling up the East Coast — a matter of actual moment for ordinary people. No. 6 returned to Trump. That one was about the dog-bites-man topic of foreign financial bigwigs not liking restrictive trade policies, such as those advocated by him. Other anti-Trump stories appeared beneath the “Top” — plenty of them. You had to go down to No. 21 before finding a story about Clinton’s latest scandal.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident.

But here’s a pivot, as the media like to say. Let’s consider a campaign speech that President Obama made on October 14. Trying to make fun of anti-Establishment media, Obama said, “Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me.”

This is one of the few really funny things that Obama, a man with a microscopic sense of humor, has ever said. But try it this way: “Look, if I read the New York Times, Iwould certainly vote for me.” It isn’t funny, is it? But why not?

Comedy requires surprise. It isn’t a surprise that people who read the NYT support Obama, and people who follow Fox do not. The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it. He stipulated that he has “more diverse sources of information” (ranging, I believe, from Rolling Stone to Golf Digest), which prevent him from succumbing to the charms of Fox and similar media. But this is really a joke about Obama’s own gullibility, his willingness to be influenced — and the secondary surprise is that he appears to be too dumb to realize how his own joke works. What he thought he was joking about, as suggested by the rest of his speech, is the large proportion of the American people who are stupid enough to listen to Fox and other alternative media, instead of to himself. But if that’s his intended message, why does he think it’s funny?

As many people have noted, the Left, once rich in humor, often of an earthy kind, is now as dour and humorless as the pitchfork in “American Gothic.” Hence “political correctness” — the Left’s crusade for conformity, the crusade that everyone else has been laughing at for decades. The Establishment still can’t see the joke. That’s how stupid, how blankly stupid, it is. If you look at Google News or listen to “All Things Considered,” you know that alleged microaggressions, almost always committed against people with lawyers, will be the subject of constant and grave meditation, while the desperate condition of poor people’s lives and property in cities operated as monopolies of the modern-liberal party will rarely be mentioned — and when it is, responsibility will immediately be assigned to everyone except the modern-liberal party. For me, it’s hard to think of a contemporary rhetoric that is more inhuman — less motivated by actual human problems.

The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it.

If the present campaign showed nothing else, it showed the true size and shape of the Establishment, from such geniuses of the GOP as John McCain, James Comey, and Mitt Romney to such guardians of one-speak as the NYT and the Washington Post. Even Geraldo Rivera, who blustered for a while about having tapes of Donald Trump saying worse things than he said to Billy Bush, finally showed that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw. On October 14, Geraldo commented: “I have never — and I’ve been around a long time — ever, ever seen the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times or the Washington Post — be so partisan in terms of their involvement.”

Ainsley Earhardt, Rivera’s collocutor on that morning’s Fox News conversation, added that “on Thursday night, ABC, NBC, and CBS all devoted a significant amount of time to the allegations [of Trump’s sexual misconduct] — up to nine minutes on ABC and NBC and five minutes on CBS, while only devoting seconds — 30 on ABC, 26 on CBS and none on NBC — to Wikileaks’ leaked Clinton emails.” Rivera continued: “Did you see the New York Times this morning? There was no mention of Wikileaks that I could find in the whole first, in the whole A section.”

When it comes to words, this is the big news: no mention. But I have a feeling that, no matter which bizarre presidential candidate wins this election, no mention will not be a permanently viable option during the next four years.




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The Great Debate

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Only my devotion to journalism made me watch the Clinton-Trump debate. It’s not my idea of fun to observe the collision of two giant gasbags somewhere above Long Island. And, as many people have pointed out, the meaning of such events, if any, ordinarily emerges not from what actually happened but from what was spun out of it, later.

So color me bored and irritated, before the thing even started.

The following is what your bored and irritated correspondent thought he observed. I’ll make it snappy, since you probably observed the damn debate yourself and have just as much right to an opinion as I have.

  1. In response to the introductory question about creation of jobs, Clinton revealed her conviction that you can do it by funding daycare, paying students’ way through college, and “making the rich pay their fair share.” Trump asserted that foreign countries are “stealing our jobs,” but Clinton returned to the idea of taxing the rich. She accused Trump of having “started [in business] with $14 million he received from his father.” She claimed that the economic collapse of 2008 had been created by a low-tax policy. She then began a long rant about government-sponsored “clean energy” creating millions of jobs.
     
  2. Responding to Trump’s verbal jabs about her failure to do anything good about the economy during her long career, Clinton smirked in a way I have often seen from schoolteachers who aren’t very bright. She then uncorked one of the most superior laughs I have ever seen, thus confirming one’s worst impressions of her character. She kept this up throughout the debate. She also continued her chronic habit of nodding her head while hearing things she disagrees with but cannot figure out how to respond to — for instance, Trump’s accusation that she had invented, or popularized, the term “’super-predator,” as applied to “black youths.”
     
  3. Trump frequently interrupted Clinton with little sarcastic remarks, to which the sworn-to-silence audience frequently made a favorable response. But I was wondering how, when Clinton brought up Trump’s failure to reveal his tax returns, he didn’t ask her why she hasn’t revealed the texts of the speeches she gave to Wall Street crony capitalists in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Didn’t he listen to Bernie Sanders’ successful attacks on her about that? Accused of initially supporting the Iraq war, Trump failed to mention the fact that Hillary voted for the war. He failed to mention, a propos the job-creation issue, that she bragged about her intention of putting coal miners out of their jobs. At other times, however, he provided facts (mainly about his own economic proposals) that were much more specific than hers.
     
  4. Clinton tried to popularize a catchphrase for Trump’s economic plan. The phrase seems to have been her idea of the one thing the audience should take home with them. The phrase was “Trumped-up trickle-down.” I rate that a failure.
     
  5. “Moderator” Lester Holt’s questions were filled with attempted zingers against Trump — such as a reiterated question about his birtherism — but none that I perceived against Clinton. In the second half of the event, Holt began to do “no, you’re wrong” “fact checking” against Trump, as advocated by the Clinton forces. I did not perceive him doing that against Clinton. To use a Trumpian word, Holt was a disaster. At many junctures, he seemed to be channeling Clinton.
     
  6. Trump made a clever transition from a question about internet security to a reminder that the hacking of the DNC revealed Clinton’s mistreatment of Sanders. Why, I wondered, didn’t he ask her why she, of all people, had been commenting with assurance about the security of electronic communications?
     
  7. Trump cleverly obscured his lack of thoughtfulness about nuclear war by discussing it in terms that no one could interpret.
     
  8. Hillary not so cleverly asserted — almost at the end, as if she thought that nothing else had worked — that Trump regards women as “pigs and dogs.”

The Summing Up:

Trump used the words disaster and unbelievable a lot, but most of his favorite verbal tics were absent, showing a degree of self-control that must have been heroic. He didn’t make a fool of himself, although he came close when he went off on a tangent about his “winning temperament,” as opposed to Clinton’s bad temperament, as witnessed in her remarkable “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” speech. He didn’t clearly identify the speech, so the uninformed were left to wonder, “What the hell is he talking about?” Hillary didn’t shriek like a maniac, which makes me wonder who on her staff had the unenviable job of telling her that she usually shrieks like a maniac.

I’ll agree with Charles Krauthammer’s instant analysis and call the thing a draw, although I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. Neither of them did demonstrably better than the other, although the media immediately started chattering about Clinton being on the offensive and Trump on the defensive. Each showed the ability to confirm the preexisting opinions of supporters. Since Trump was the underdog, he probably got a marginal advantage from his almost patient endurance of Clinton’s enormous sense of superiority. For me, the most memorable part of the debate was his comment, “She’s got experience, but it’s bad experience.” That doesn’t go far to compensate me for an hour and a half lost from what otherwise would have been a richer and fuller life.




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The Debates: An Autopsy

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In the last version of this column, promises were made that the presidential debates would be noticed at some time in the future. These promises will be fulfilled.

Indeed, the fulfillment is already on its way: the debates were noticed in my very last sentence. So there. If I were running for public office, I could now inform you that the issue has been addressed, and it is time to move on. The American people are no longer interested in debates. They are interested in jobs.

So that is what I came to talk to you about today. Word Watch has a ten-point program to grow the economy.

Point One: Reduce the size of government.
Point Two: Reduce the size of government.
Point Three: Reduce the size of government.
Point Four . . . .

How’s that? If Word Watch were running for public office, that is what Word Watch would say.

But Word Watch is not running for office, so it will take the politically unprecedented step of fulfilling its promise. It will dissect the presidential and vice presidential debates.

The debates were chiefly significant for showing that Obama wasn’t the great speaker that people had always been told he was, and that maybe they had thought he was — while hitting the channel changer as soon as he reached the third sentence on his teleprompter. The debates also showed that Romney wasn’t a particularly bad speaker or a particularly bad person. As Michael Barone commented on October 27, they even demonstrated that Romney was more articulate than Obama.

To borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

I’m not putting Romney’s skills too high; as you know, this column has never considered it hard to beat Obama at the word game. After all, even Joe the Plumber did it. Compared to old-time politicians, Obama is basically nothing. He doesn’t know any more words than they did, and his grammar isn’t any better. His range of allusions is much more limited than theirs (they could quote Shakespeare and the Bible, while he appears to live in a world without any books at all); and he doesn’t know any good stories. He is as stiff as a high school principal who has attended Toastmasters on two separate and distinct Thursday evenings, and his self-importance is untiring. It doesn’t take much to overtake Obama in the oratory department.

Nevertheless, Romney did it. Don’t ask me to cite examples of his verbal brilliance; there weren’t any. But given the competition, they weren’t needed. When, in the second and third presidential debates, Obama “revived,” “woke up,” or “agreed to participate” — however you want to put it — he did even more to show what he is: snarky, snippy, evasive, demagogic, unwarrantably superior, bored or angry with everyone except his slavish adorers.

Both candidates spoke in ways that reveal their refusal to think about words in any except the most brutally instrumental manner — by which I mean considering words only as tools for turning out the vote. Beyond that goal, there was no attempt to enlighten or even to entertain, no attempt to show who one is or what, exactly, one thinks. In that sense, to borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

For instance, neither of them had any suspicion that “we need to grow the economy” or “I have a plan to grow the economy” might be an empty substitute for some real meaning. They swathed their vast, vague plans in a grossly inappropriate image of the economy as a natural object like a radish or a squash, some little object that you can grow. No reflective person uses language like that; only lazy minds choose the default setting, assuming that other lazy minds will relate to whatever clichés happen to waft their way.

Obama, of course, prides himself on his ability to communicate with the rubes. So he mentioned folks and workin’ people as often as he could, and he recited such phrases as “educating our workers” and “retraining our workers.” “Goodness,” said Jed Leland, responding to Citizen Kane’s campaign speeches about the downtrodden working people, “you talk as if you owned them.” If Obama knew the impression his words really create, he wouldn’t use them. But he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t even know that. And his self-knowledge is even feebler than his knowledge of the world. Again, it is the hollow man who lusts for power.

Of course, the candidates’ words were hardly news. They were so familiar that Charles Krauthammer characterized the last debate as the “national soporific,” the national “Ambien.” He’s a doctor, and he ought to know. I would say the same thing about the other debates, too, including the vice presidential one. That was interesting if you enjoy sitting in a bar and listening while an ancient blowhard recycles all his familiar comments about himself, the workin’ people, and the greatness of Harry S. Truman. The only thing that interested me about Biden’s uncouth performance was his pretended embodiment of the “blue-collar America” I grew up with. Some working man — the guy was a senator for 36years! But he does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line. This was a type that was never very popular among real working people, and its popularity with the Democratic Party elite, none of whom ever worked a day in their lives, shows you something bad about American political culture.

So much for the nauseating debates. Their salient feature was the cynicism they manifested, and aroused. Everyone who talked about them focused solely on their (for want of a lower word) rhetorical effects, having completely discounted the idea that anything of substance might actually emerge. The talk was always about how Obama will deflect criticism or how favorably Romney will be perceived, never for so much as ten seconds about any thoughts that either candidate might convey. After the last debate, all the conservatives who had insisted that Romney could succeed only if he went for Obama’s throat, especially about Libya, went on television to praise his statesmanlike restraint. They thought it had a positive impact on the audience.

Maybe they were right. But they magnified the already overwhelming cynicism that surrounded these events. The commentators all (rightly) assumed that the debates were a publicity stunt, and were apparently content with that. Dick Morris, holding forth on the “O’Reilly Show,” admitted to squirming as he watched one of the affairs, but his conclusion was: “The important thing in this debate was that women did not think he [Romney] was a warmonger. . . . It was a skillful debate on Romney’s part.” That may be true — but only because neither candidate was expected to provide as much real instruction as you get from your senile uncle, discussing his adventures as a young man, delivering auto parts in and around Cincinnati.

Biden does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line.

There’s a certain comfort in discovering that it wasn’t just the politicos who refused to take the debates seriously. As far as I could tell, nobody did. Since the debates weren’t serious, that’s a good thing. What I regret, even more than the lack of intellectual seriousness, is the lack of words — real words, interesting words, memorable words, words that could actually engage a normal person’s mind, rather than prompting that person to speculate about the impression they would make on someone of abnormally low intelligence.

It was not always thus. I’ve been reading Robert Douthat Meade’s old biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate statesman. Meade was a competent writer, and Benjamin was a colorful character, so the book is always fun. But in the present context, what’s remarkable is how interesting words used to be, even when they emerged without a hint of preparation or intention to wow the mentally deficient. I’ll share one sample with you.

When Benjamin was a US senator from Louisiana, he got into an angry debate with Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi, over the details of a military appropriation. It was an impromptu quarrel that began when Davis, in a bad mood, answered an inquiry from Benjamin in a flippant way. This exchange followed:

Benjamin: It is very easy for the Senator from Mississippi to give a sneering reply to what was certainly a very respectful inquiry.

Davis: I consider it is an attempt to misrepresent a very plain remark.

Benjamin: The Senator is mistaken, and has no right to state any such thing. His manner is not agreeable at all.

Davis: If the Senator happens to find it disagreeable, I hope he will keep it to himself.

Benjamin: When directed to me, I will not keep it to myself; I will repel it instanter.

Davis: You have got it, sir.

Benjamin: That is enough, sir.

If you’re like me, you care nothing about the subject of this dispute, but you enjoy the language. You even want to know what happened next.

So here it is: Benjamin sent Davis a letter challenging him to a duel — a gesture at once more serious and more interesting than any of the silly grimaces, chats with friendly folks, and public visits to fast-food joints that we got from this year’s political antagonists. And Davis responded in an interesting way: he tore up Benjamin’s challenge, telling the messenger, “I will make this all right at once. I have been wholly wrong.” He publicly apologized, and Benjamin handsomely accepted his apology. Three years later, Davis appointed Benjamin to his cabinet, and he became the second most important personality in the Confederate government.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a revival of the Confederacy. I am advocating a revival of the English language.




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Dear Leader

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I’m sure that the president's choice last night to rein in his brilliance and heart and allow Romney to “win” the debate is part of a brilliant strategy. I’ve understood Barack Obama’s brilliance from the very beginning — I bought a copy of The Audacity of Hope and Change in, like, early 2008. Before everybody else did. Some regular people are intimidated by his brilliance. And his heart. But I’m not. I understand it.

I mean, some people are saying that the president will have to lower himself to that liar Romey’s level and lie to get votes. But Barack Obama can’t lie. I mean, he just can’t — he’s too brilliant and has too much heart. Some people don’t understand that, but I do. I have an original Obama sticker on my Prius — not the Obama/Biden sticker and not a 2012 sticker, but the original “O” sticker that only charter supporters could get.

I know that some people are saying that Obama should have “hit back” at Romney in the debate. But those people aren’t true Obama supporters. They’re just pretenders who only care about the horse-race qualities of an election and don’t understand Obama’s brilliance. And heart. The man has so much heart that he can’t help being so much bigger than people like Romney. Romney and his mean-spirited dismissal of the 47%. What an elitist snob. I can’t believe he got the Republican nomination!

I realize that, at times like last night’s debate, Obama’s brilliance is a cross he has to bear. And his heart. I know that feeling — it’s something people like me and the president have in common. I mean, I’m not going to say I’m as brilliant as Barack Obama. Or have as much heart. But we do share a few similar traits.

I was on Facebook this morning, reading what Michelle had to say about how rude Romney was last night, just ignoring the rules and talking right over that weak moderator. I’m part of Michelle’s true friends circle on FB — not the one that’s open to the public, but the one where you had to have been a charter supporter to get invited. So I get to read what she really thinks. Michelle is so brilliant. Anyway, while I was reading what Michelle really thinks about the debate, I realized something: politics is beneath Barack Obama. His heart is so much bigger. And he’s so much more brilliant.

I understand something now that regular people probably don’t. You have to have been with Barack and Michelle from the beginning to get this — I mean, Michelle gets it. And Sasha and Malia probably get it, but regular people don’t understand. Barack needs a platform worthy of his brilliance and heart. If he chooses not to demean himself and pander in a vulgar popularity contest, it will prove that his brilliance and heart are just too brilliant for the common American voter.

I’ve kind of known that all along, before all the regular people started figuring it out.




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Round One: Romney

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The first of three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was held last night. New Jersey governor Chris Christie had boldly predicted that the event would be a “game-changer” for the Romney campaign. As it turned out, Christie was probably overstating things. Nevertheless, Romney’s energetic performance put new life into his quest for the White House, while Obama let slip an opportunity to finish off his Republican opponent.

The immediate post-debate analysis seemed to stress style over substance. Romney, pundits agreed, looked happy to be on the University of Denver stage, while Obama appeared to endure the 90-minute debate. Romney smiled; Obama scowled. Romney was aggressive and weighed in on issues with gusto; Obama was rather detached and professorial. Romney ran roughshod over moderator Jim Lehrer; Obama was more diffident in dealing with the aging and rather incompetent PBS journalist. The performances left MSNBC’s coterie of lefties in a state of near-apoplexy, while at Fox there was smug satisfaction.

This observer thought Romney started and finished strong, while Obama scored some important points in between. The debate was to be divided into six segments. The first three concerned aspects of the economy (jobs, the deficit and debt, and entitlements) followed by healthcare, the role of government, and “governing.” The first segment ran over time — no surprise, given the flabby moderator — and time pressure caused the segment on governing to be dropped. Romney scored substantive points on Obama’s persistent deficits, his energy policy (billions thrown away on green energy boondoggles, lack of oil and gas drilling on federal land), and feeble job growth. Indeed, during the first half of the debate he dominated the stage, despite the fact that some of his arguments and assertions didn’t quite pass the smell test.

About halfway through the debate the subject of Medicare was introduced, and here Obama fought back by eviscerating the Paul Ryan voucher scheme. The president helped himself with seniors, a critical constituency that had already begun moving his way after the selection of Ryan to be Romney’s running mate. Obama also touched a populist chord with some well-chosen words regarding the regulation of Wall Street, and without having to explain or justify the absurd aspects of his main regulatory tool, the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in 2010.

That said, Obama muffed the chance to finish off Romney and end the race a month before Election Day. Obama never mentioned the notorious 47% recording, giving Romney free rein to express (which he did over and over) his love and compassion for everyone in America. He failed to mention the Republican-led House of Representatives, despite the fact that Congress is the most unpopular institution in America. He said nothing about Romney’s tax returns or overseas accounts — juicy populist targets that could have energized not just the Democratic base, but many white working-class voters who lean Republican. For Obama, this debate was definitely an opportunity lost.

Romney, down for the count coming in, picked himself up off the mat and is now back in the fight. For true conservatives — not to mention libertarians — his performance had to grate, for he tried (as usual) to be all things to all people. He was once again short on details about his major policy proposals. And he refused (understandably, since it would be political suicide) to make clear the stark choices America faces, particularly on the fiscal front. His success last night was not, with apologies to Governor Christie, a game-changer, but it does give him hope and the opportunity to make the race competitive again.

Was Obama rusty, as some pundits postulated last night, or did he hold back for fear of appearing to be an “angry black man,” something that he and his handlers have been concerned about since he first declared his candidacy for the highest office? We’ll probably never know, but the betting here is that he will be much more aggressive in the remaining two debates. That and the tendency of Mitt Romney to place his own foot firmly in his mouth will, this observer believes, lead to a second term for Barack Obama.




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Pulling Punches

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Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!

Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.

Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.

So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.

After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.

What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.

The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”

What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.

As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.

Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.

Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.

He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.

In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”

On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.

Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.

The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.



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