Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No time to go wobbly, John

Maybe John McCain is being totally altruistic in his decision to suspend his presidential campaign so he can concentrate on fast-tracking the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Maybe he really thinks the bailout will save us from a depression, and that it won't get passed if he and his opponent are not in Washington scrambling for mike time. I am a simple man, with little understanding of high finance or Beltway politics, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. I mean, it's not going to break my heart to miss out on a few days worth of cheesy political ads.

But trying to pull out of this debate with Obama -- that's a little harder sell. McCain's people have tried to cast the debate as a frivolous campaign event in a time of national crisis. Right. We've got better things to do than judge the qualifications of the two men would be commander in chief for the next four years. These men belong in Washington, damn it, so they can help throw cash at those who, in a less enlightened country, would be getting stoned instead.

I'm glad Obama's people are having none of it. Far from it: They're delighted at the opening. It's only the need to project presidential decorum that keeps them from tucking their thumbs in their armpits and walking around clucking like chickens. Best sound bite of the day goes to Obama himself: "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once.''

So it is. I'm no fan of the heavily managed debates we've seen so far, but having both men restate their goals and resumes on the same stage seems like a better use of their time than towing camera crews around the halls of Congress. If the Wall Street crisis has come at a bad time for McCain, tough. Nothing could be less presidential right now than ducking a showdown when he finds himself at a serious disadvantage.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Beauty isn't everything. Right?

American political campaigns are all about celebrity. The essential objective is to become more famous than one's opponent in a short amount of time. You do this with sly commercials, and pithy put-downs, and three-word mantras chanted by supporters, and, if you're lucky, by sheer personal attractiveness.

That's why I first thought the not-so-attractive John McCain had made a shrewd choice by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate: She's a great-looking woman with a wonderful smile. And if there's a single tenet upon which all Americans can agree, it's that great-looking people rule, particularly if they smile wonderfully.

But there's another tenet: Smart-sounding people also rule. Sometimes they rule even more -- say, after eight years of a president who has trouble putting a sentence together. Barack Obama's defining advantage has always been that he sounds very smart, even when his oratory soars into ephemeral realms and does not quite cohere. Hey, at least he's trying. Joe Biden always talks like he shouldn't have had that last martini, but his sentences hold up even when they're not strictly on message.

It's been a few weeks now, and I'm finally ready to conclude that Sarah Palin, good-looking as she is, doesn't sound very smart. She might have the brain of Steven Hawking behind those designer specs, but I have my doubts. Every speech is nearly identical to the one she gave at the convention; if I hear that "thanks but no thanks" line one more time, regarding the storied Bridge to Nowhere, I'm going to vomit. She doesn't give many interviews, and after the Charlie Gibson debacle, you can see why. It's as though memorizing that convention address didn't leave a lot of room upstairs for more facts. That's not a good sign. It wasn't that long a speech.

Now the McCain campaign is shuttling Mrs. Palin around to meet with various international figures, evidently deciding that if she's a little fuzzy about NATO or the Bush Doctrine, these guys can fill in some background. There she is with Henry Kissinger, of all people, whose mind seems to be elsewhere. Perhaps Paris in 1973. I don't know, perhaps his prostate.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can't hurt. If something sidelines McCain and she gets that phone call at 3 a.m., no doubt the chats she had with Hamid Karzai or the president of Colombia will be a source of inspiration. But there's something a little childish about it, too. It's as though she's cramming for finals, trying to get up to speed on the Magna Carta before being called upon by grumpy professor Biden. That debate is coming right up (Oct. 2), and he'll eat her alive if she once again shows up without her homework.

If I were going on national TV, I'd be cramming too. But then most of us wouldn't accept a vice presidential nomination if we really had no clue and no curiosity about U.S. foreign policy. This is what troubles me about Sarah Palin: I think she knows what she knows, and she doesn't deem it necessary to know more. Basing every decision on personal moral conviction may sound admirable, but as we've seen, it's no way to run a democracy. And it's no way to win an argument with Joe Biden.

It will be an interesting debate. I expect to cringe a fair amount. I'll go out on a limb and say it could be the defining point of the election.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Wall Street and Willa Cather

I've been reading My Antonia, Willa Cather's 1918 novel about growing up on the Nebraska prairie. It's a beautiful book, poignant and uplifting, full of characters who reflect the truth of life in all its joy and pain. It's also an instructive portrait of the time in America when explicit toil was required for mere survival, never mind success.

I've been reading it against the background noise of Wall Street's collapse, men and women on CNN droning gravely about the consequences of greed, and the need to ensure that the greediest of all do not, in the end, go broke. It's a complex issue. It takes someone like Yale business student David Bledin, writing an op-ed for the Washington Post, to put a human face on the unfolding tragedy. You think you have it tough; think what it's like for Masters of the Universe-in-training who now rue the rigors involved in chasing a seven-figure salary:

"... once I could afford to splurge on a Zagat-rated "$$$$" dinner, I didn't have any time for it. I frequently spent 90 hours a week shackled to my computer. ... What bothered me most, though, was the way I couldn't plan anything. When I was foolish enough to try and sneak in a Sunday matinee, my BlackBerry would inevitably vibrate before the movie's climax, forcing me to scamper back to the office to tweak a pitchbook that had to go out to the client within the hour ..."

Oh. The humanity.

I know, there were venal snots running around in Cather's time too, most of them in New York. And it's foolish to romanticize a time so fraught with hardship. But the clarity of prose in My Antonia, and the importance of the landscape on which it's set, invite reflection about the stark contrast between the America that is and the one that was:

"If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."

This is the country we've made. No starlight at all, just streaming video and freeway exits and BlackBerries buzzing during matinee showings of Righteous Kill. It's a country where we pay guys a lot of money to tweak pitchbooks on a Sunday afternoon. Or used to. Maybe that'll seem poignant 90 years from now, the way My Antonia seems now.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another classic from the Coens

Well, the Coen Brothers are back. Burn After Reading returns to the sardonic and sophisticated dark comedy I missed in last year's No Country for Old Men. I'd say it ranks close to my personal Coen favorites, The Big Lebowski and Fargo.

In fact, it borrows quite a bit from Fargo, generally in a couple of graphic deaths, and specifically in a scene involving a hatchet. The plot borrows from Lebowski, with its use of a highly dubious MacGuffin -- some CIA files -- to send a cast of highly self-absorbed characters careening into each other in unexpected ways. You've seen the TV ads, so I don't need to mention how good the cast is. Personally, I think Brad Pitt's role as a bumbling gym trainer is drawn a bit too broadly, but I won't quibble. You've got to hand it to him for taking that sort of a role. John Malkovich has a character he was born to play. The writing elsewhere is absolutely precise, and absolutely funny.

Dave Bob says four stars, even as he acknowledges that the movie's black wit and occasional violence might not be everyone's cup of tea. It's the Coen Brothers, after all. As Walter so aptly observed in The Big Lebowski: "These men are nihilists."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ahh: British fiction in a British voice

A few more thoughts about audio books: When listening to books set in Britain, a narrator with a British accent is just the thing. I recently checked out Ngaio Marsh's Last Ditch from the State Library of Kansas, and the last couple of nights I've been listening to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I've read all the Sherlock Holmes stories many times, of course, but hearing them narrated in the stage-trained British voice of Edward Hartwicke added a certain dimension of drama and humor. Same with Last Ditch. Narrator Nadia May is not just reading the book; she's performing it. So it's quite true what an earlier commenter noted: When selecting audio books, the narrator is just as important as the author. Let's just say you wouldn't want Joan Rivers reading Anna Karenina.

I still have problems with audiobooks: I still tend to fall asleep before making the conscious decision to shut off the player. And with my non-iPod player, there's still no way to fast-forward or fast reverse in small increments, to review paragraphs I might have missed while my attention wandered elsewhere. On the whole, though, I prefer them to reading the actual book when I'm on an exercise machine or walking the dog. They'll never replace printed books, but they're a nice complement. I have spoken.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The age of Camels and Cadillacs

I've been slow to embrace Mad Men, AMC's drama about ad executives in the early 60s, but I think I'm ready now. I loved the scene in last night's episode where anti-protagonist Don Draper drains his beer and casually hurls the non-recyclable can across the park. And seconds later, when his wife Betty cleans up the family picnic by simply lifting the blanket and letting the litter tumble to the grass. In a couple of minutes, that scene captured the spirit of the age better than 40 pages of dialogue: it was the American way to use it up and move on, preferably in a '62 Coupe De Ville.

For me, the charm of this series is not the stories so much as the period detail. I was around 10 years old when people were driving cars the size of PT boats and tossing their trash out the window, but I vividly remember it was a time when that sort of thing was acceptable. I remember when every adult worthy of the title smoked a pack a day, when those Maidenform bra commercials were so titillating and when Rubenesque women like Joan Holloway were the feminine ideal. I don't know if they still make Vitalis or Brylcreem anymore, but checking out the gleaming men's hairstyles on the show, you can see why it was the stock to own in 1962.

The writing is good too, although I don't a get sense these are stories that are heading anywhere in particular. Mostly this show is a series of sharp character studies, placing timeless archetypes in a setting that is both much more and much less forgiving than the world we know today. I laugh at the rampant sexism on the show, even while I cringe.

The Sopranos and The Wire have moved on to that big DVR in the sky, but for me, Mad Men looks like a worthy successor. Anybody else love this show, or hate it? Let's discuss.