A Letter From New York January 2008
© 2008 Joel

Happy New Year , dear friends, and welcome to something new in my world, the first Letter From written on my first ever computer. New also, once we're settled in L.A., will be the appearance of a letter monthly instead of every six weeks. That way I can offer you a more current and streamlined read. Please forgive this letter's length; it's been a while and I've got a lot to say.

I will begin each letter with a series of Quickies, shorter items in the spirit of a less benign Dorothy Killgallen or Walter Winchell, followed by more developed essays on a favored topic or two.

I hate the heck out of reducing important issues to sound bites. My model for writing has been The New Republic. The scope and depth of that skinny journal is nothing less than remarkable, and I recommend you give it a try. Its writers analyze competing points of view, express nuances and cover their topics more thoroughly than most other news sources. Although the coverage is primarily political, with knives out for knaves on both sides of the aisle, the book reviews, visual arts coverage and Stanley Kaufmann's movie criticisms are why I call The New Republic my bi-weekly college education.

I'll say it again. I'm not out to change minds or convert you to my point of view. My reward comes when you exclaim, "I didnt know that" or "I’ve never looked at it that way before." And I'm happiest when you laugh almost as much as I do at what I have to say.

Pick of the Letter

Brilliance from Bill Moyers (A Do Not Miss!)
Carol Burnett Disappoints
Pit Bulls
The Political Season: An Overture; What Democrats must do to win; Mike Huckabee, and, most famously, Got Change?

And now, some QUICKIES, maestro, please.

Bless You, Sandra Day O'Connor. In his new book about the Supreme Court titled The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin attributes to retired Justice O'Connor the sentiment that our current president is "arrogant, lawless, incompetent and extreme." Though I fault O'Connor for understatement, I have to wonder with Toobin why she sided with such a man in Bush v. Gore, 2000.

Welcome to Euphemism Alley, where instead of dying, people "pass away" or are "lost." If you’ve just lost Grandma are we to believe you've misplaced her? Could you have been that careless? And, as Greg Easterbrook has written, we call mass murderers ‘killers’ and say they've been out on sprees, just like we all were over the holidays. We'll meet again in Euphemism Alley in letters to come.

Thank heaven Gernalow Wilson has been freed. Wilson was imprisoned at age seventeen for having oral sex with a fifteen and half year old girl. Not very smart, but imminently forgivable. The Attorney General of Georgia disobeyed that State's Supreme Court's order to free Wilson until plenty of pressure was applied.

Perhaps that Attorney General, an African American himself, could be tapped for a new t.v. show I'm proposing entitled Let's Ruin a Young Life. His first guest can be former N.C. District Attorney, and currently disbarred lawyer, mike nifong.

Recently, Carol Burnett was the subject of a PBS American Masters tribute. I've come to regard Burnett, an uncommonly gifted comic who went from an auspicious beginning in New York clubs and on Gary Moore's television show to brilliance in Broadway's Once Upon A Mattress as a major contributor to the kind of comedic and general style of popular t.v. that I cannot abide. Her reliance on audience participation, "cracking up," and the just folks persona pioneered by the likes of Dinah Shore and Milton Berle, though perhaps suited to mass audiences and the nature of the medium itself, turned me and my television off long, long ago. I want my performers to remain in character onstage or screen and to keep their persona, genuine or fake, out of the act. I do not need or want them to become my imaginary friends. Years ago, Burnett responded to a New York audience member's asking what she missed about the city with "the four seasons." To the follow up, “The climate or the restaurant?" Burnett gushed," I wish I could afford to eat at the Four Seasons." Oh, come on, Carol. You can afford to buy and sell the place.

Actually, Carol Burnett's demeanor in "real life" is quite professional and serious indeed.

No Bull

The Michael Vick matter brings the issue of the Pit Bull breed of dog to our attention once more. The Vick matter aside, I regard the owners of domestic animals who injure or kill humans as responsible for the crime and not fit to live among us.

A family we know with young children live next door to a vicious pit bull. Their local government authorities, with whom they are very well connected, are unable to act unless one of the children happens to get torn apart. Once again the bad guys are protected by law. If the kids were mine I know what I would do regardless of the consequences, and that failing, I would move away.

I urge governments to bring in the legal team and muster popular support for my position, which is to prohibit the use of pit bulls as pets until or unless their fearsome physical equipment is bred out. A pissed off Maltese, for example, couldn't tear a person apart if it tried. Fairness dictates that current pets be exempt, and decency requires that pit bulls be well cared for in an enclosed environment, much as we keep our lions and tigers in zoos.

Brilliance From Bill (Movers), on the Level

At the conclusion of Bill Moyers Journal, PBS on December 21, Moyers had these words for the baseball steroids disgrace.

“Ours Is a Society On Steroids. We cheer winners in the game of wealth, the millionaires who benefit from a skewed financial system; the losers we kick down the stairs. We open the fire hoses of cash into the political system in the name of free speech, t,v, stations refuse to cover government and make fortunes selling political bromides over the airwaves, and pornography passes as advertising, corrupting our young and polluting our society. Partisan propaganda gets pumped up as news. We feed on the flamboyance of celebrities and we actually take seriously the Elmer Gantrys who use the Christian Gospel as a guidebook for an Iowa caucus or a battle plan for the Middle East.”

You don’t get a level playing field with performance enhancing drugs any more than you get an honest government with political action committees and bundled contributions, a fair economy with some derivative and hedge fund managers taxed at the same rate as their janitors. You get a level playing field only when the fans demand it.

Suppose people stopped attending games.... If we can’t organize to stop a brutal, bloody war in Iraq or rectify an economic system that divides us further every day, we can hardly expect collective action of baseball fans.

There was a lesson in George Mitchell's Report..The day Americas don’t feel strongly enough about the need for level playing fields to fight for them, the day when cutting corners and seeking an edge become the national pastime, is the day democracy will be lucky even to find a seat in the bleachers.

Bless You, General Bullmoose and a Funny, Funny Thing

No good theatrical performance, and make no mistake about political campaigns not being a lot about acting, begins without an overture, and for this occasion I chose lyrics from a Broadway musical entitled Li'I Abner, based on Al Capp's comic strip of that name, from exactly fifty years ago.

The antagonist, an utterly corrupt businessman known as General Bullmoose, runs on "What's good for Gen. Bullmoose is good for the USA," and sings:

I'm told that I could run for any office I seek,
But first I have to brush up on my t.v. technique,
I plan to get in touch with Bob Montgomery next week...."

Robert Montgomery was a distinguished film actor who coached President Eisenhower on how to behave on that new mass medium, t.v. Does anything really ever change?

And, from the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:

Goodness and badness,
Man in his madness....

Election 2008, here we come! Wheeeee (the people)!!!!

Base Players: Campaign 2008

Pssstttt, Democrats, Come a Little Closer. What would you say to another four to eight years of complaining and moaning how terrible things are and what an awful country we live in, what an idiot the president is and how evil his vice president, about how much corporate executives are being paid and how Big Oil, K Street lobbyists and the pharmaceutical industry are calling all the shots, about torturing prisoners and compromising our personal privacy, and about how you and your ideals have been marginalized and ignored? Now, think of all the movies Michael Moore would be happy not to make if the Democrats actually won (or if, as Victor Borge would quip, they "two.").

And winning begins with a change right inside our heads. Insist on ideological purity, demonize the opposition as they have demonized us, maintain that it's all rotten anyway, and, this is critical, never give an inch, and you'll come face to face with the inner loser you never wanted to meet.

I value idealism too, but I recognize that LBJ and Bambi are long dead. Liberal Democrats are going to have to get into bed with their more centrist siblings and recognize that Americans are not as divided as those who have profited from divisive issues would have us believe, that learning to split the difference is a time tested method of getting your own way, and that we are going to have to play hard nosed politics if we are going to survive. Look to the Republican's example.

As I write, Barack Obama has won in Iowa and Hillary Clinton is in for the fight of her career. I favor Clinton, but I have said repeatedly that I would vote for Harry the Horse if he were the Democrat with the best chance of winning in the fall. Mine is a pragmatic idealism. I think Clinton has the potential to be an excellent president, but if her candidacy ignites and unites the Republican base she may be unable to win, or. upon winning, to govern, and if you think Republicans hated Bill.....

By the early I990's, the Republicans imagined we had become a single party nation and that a Democratic victory was against some law, and for eight years they waged war on the president and his wife, who made some of their own troubles and were no babes in the woods themselves You have to give the bastards credit; with a little help from President Clinton himself they got the man impeached. In the same spirit, in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote and lost Florida because of improprieties at the polls, the Republicans and their Supreme Court made certain that their man got in.

Repeat aloud, then, the three rules of electoral politics: WIN! WIN! WIN! Louder! This fire needs to be fought with fire.

Democrats have got to brush up on Winning One- Oh- One. First, they need to kiss inflexibility "goodbye" and offer as wide a swarth of Americans as possible an acceptable political home. Dyed in the wool liberals and radicals, environmentalists, Hispanics, pro-choice champions, war protestors, death penalty opponents, gun control proponents, African Americans, lesbians and gays need to recognize that the Tightness of their cause and their numbers are simply not enough. One more Republican presidency, Jeffrey Toobin warns, and we can kiss Roe v. Wade "goodbye."

And should we wake up next November to the prospect of, say, a President elect Romney, McCain or Giuliani or, say, a Vice President Mike Huckabee, don't even imagine that self pity and righteous indignation will deter a reckless foreign policy, a widening gap between the rich and the inferior social classes, the interests of giant corporations trumping those of yours and mine, and electoral victories gained by accommodating the requirements of the religious right in battleground states.

I do not know what it would take to persuade the Democratic base that there is no glory whatever in losing on principle and dragging the country and the world down en route. Right wing Republicans learned the hard way, too. Democrats, look for allies among all reasonable people, be they blue of collar or of strong of faith. Cynically manipulate your base, if you must, to keep them on board. The broader the spectrum within each party, the greater our chance of mitigating the disabling effects of political polarization and working our country's way back to political health.

What we need is a candidate who can win, then govern in a way that abjures a winner take all attitude toward the opposition party, thereby reestablishing the momentum for a truly competitive two party system, and who, of course, effectively promotes our best instincts and interests at home and abroad.

Committed liberal Democrats need not fret. A more centrist appeal will enable the party to win and grow strong. We cannot predict historical circumstances that may pull the American voting public leftward, if only in certain ways. Could anyone, for example, have anticipated the Great Society and civil rights, or the Great Depression and the New Deal back in their days?

By the time you read this the New Hampshire results will be known. You can expect plenty more on the twists and turns of this nail biter of a campaign in letters to come.

Got Change?

Exactly what we need! Change.
Change from what?
Change to what?
How are we gonna get there?
Change, by Gum!
Can we reasonably expect to get there? (And again, to where?)
You're not listening. I've been programmed to...I mean, I said, "Change!." And... and Hope! The Hope to Change. The Change to Hope. That's what they tell us on the Tee Vee.

All right, I hear you, down to the last eye and ear catching chant. And you're damn right we need change, deep systematic change that can begin with eliminating the electoral college and the undue influence of individuals and organizations who reap economic gain and political clout through their financial contributions to elected officials, ameliorating partisan hatred in legislatures, executive branches and people's hearts throughout the land, and campaign finance reform decoupled from the abridgment of free speech and based on a shared sense of ethics instead. The reliance on slogans like Hope, Change, Moving Forward and A New Direction is hollow and deeply unfair if they are being used solely as a cynical ploy to win votes, though not without precedent.

Consider (Saint) John F. Kennedy, who squeaked through to victory in I960 by looking young, telling a whopper about a missile gap and spewing some of the same slogans that have been borrowed by his Wannabe of today. This strategy, sadly, brought him an unexpected and vastly more valuable prize.

Although his was a flawed though not undistinguished and tragically truncated presidency, some historians credit Kennedy with the potential for becoming great, which may or may not be so. Still, the Kennedy mystique is such, even in his absence, that Americans born after his day regard him as our greatest president since Abe and George.

All (We Need to Know) About Mike

About Mike Huckabee of the sparkling wit and the cow's brown eyes, from Zev Chafets' piece on the presidential candidate, The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007.

"Huckabee's affability and populist economic and social views have sometimes been misinterpreted as a moderate brand of evangelical Christianity. In fact, as he wrote in his book Character Makes a Difference, he considers liberalism to be a cancer on Christianity. Huckabee is an admirer of the late Jerry Falwell; he interprets the Bible literally.

"He famously asks, 'Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?' For him Darwin was wrong.”

Most important to understand is that “the Republican presidential contest was expected to focus on foreign policy, national security and executive competence. Huckabee has moved it to issues of character, religion and personality. Regardless of what happens, he is now a real player in the Republican party, a man to take seriously."

We are relieved to learn that evangelical Christians, though loyal to their core beliefs, are coming to understand that engagement with issues like the environment, human rights and the Iraq war are within the purview of their religious faith, and that for the price of their votes they and we have been taken on a long, long ride.

As for Huckabee, he of the funny name, media appeal and cow's brown eyes, I commend to you that holiday favorite which begins, "You'd better watch out," the "you" a Republican party which may be headed for the electoral abyss.

Joel's Political Mantra

For the Republicans to win in 2008, all the Democrats have to do is lose.

Next Month

You won't want to miss author and law professor Sanford Levinson's recommendations on reforming Our Undemocratic Constitution, the title of his recent book, in February's Letter from L.A.!

Archive 2008