Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review - Citizens of the Green Room

In the wake of This Town, his dishy, behind-the-curtain expose of the venality of "official" Washington, Mark Leibovich has published a follow-up of sorts. Citizens of the Green Room is sub-titled "profiles in courage and self-delusion" but the quippy title does little to mask the book's utter lack of charm or cohesion.

Citizens is a collection of Mr. Leibovich's writing over the years and offers readers the same sort of "access" to politicians, pundits, and hangers-on that his prior work did. There are vignettes about candidates for President waiting in line to use the men's room (then-candidate John Kerry comes up with a clever work around - using the women's room while a staffer stands a post outside), road trips in campaign vehicles (John McCain gets Phoenix Coyotes hockey updates while bantering with the author, Rick Santorum fires down food-on-the-go) and Chris Matthews holding court during the wee hours after a Presidential debate (his decorum is as you'd expect from a blowhard who keeps a running tally of the number of honorary degrees bestowed upon him).

But the book's failure is in its editing. Instead of sorting his prior work temporally or by subject matter, the reader is left hopscotching across the last ten or so years of politics, encountering names long forgotten (Scott McClellan or Jim Traficant anyone?) juxtaposed stories of the moment that are now so much water under the bridge (remember when Glenn Beck was a thing? or Teddy Kennedy Jr. was considered a serious candidate for his father's Senate seat?)

The narrative does not line up with the book's cover either, which shows a faceless man with his hand over his heart, money where a pocket square should be, an American flag lapel pin and a clip mic - which would suggest some nexus of money and access that This Town plumbed in depth but Citizens only lightly grazes. And while some of Leibovich's earlier work may take on importance (his mid 2000s profile of Jeb Bush includes references to insensitive comments Bush made about women and African-Americans during his 1994 race for Governor), much of it is political flotsam that is no longer relevant (does anyone really care what kind of memory device former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card relied on as opposed to his memorable observation that the "marketing" of the Iraq War would commence after Labor Day 2002 because summer "marketing" campaigns are ineffective). 

There is no question Leibovich is a talented writer whose punchy and descriptive prose paints a nice picture; however, little of what is included in Citizens has aged well or is worth revisiting. 

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Village

Today’s Politico Playbook neatly summarized the Beltway media’s disdain for the electoral process while neatly encapsulating the conventional wisdom of DC elites. You see, there is no need to hold Presidential primaries next year, because Mike Allen has advised us, in something he dubbed his “facts of life:

What should be the presidential race of a lifetime (open nomination in both parties) is starting to look like a slog and maybe even a snore. Barring a major disruption in the force field, it's looking like Hillary vs. Jeb, and the same might still be true a year from now. The new dynamic of the GOP race, once totally up for grabs, is that someone has to knock out Jeb. It could be Walker, it could be Rubio, it could be Rand - but it'll be hard. The D.C. chatter is that for all Bush's advantages in the invisible primary, he has yet to encounter random voters, or perform strongly in an unscripted (or even scripted!) setting. Bush skeptics wonder over drinks if he's Phil Gramm from '96 - huge war chest, but a paper tiger.

But here's the rub: There's no post-Reagan instance of a Republican candidate who locks up the center right slot, plus big donors and the clear establishment blessing, then loses the nomination - Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, Romney. Obviously, this trend could break. But based on what we know about modern campaigns, Bush 45 looks very strong for the nomination at this point.

Why is Jeb Bush looking “very strong” for the GOP nomination in 2016? Because the Village said so. Because the people who cover Presidential politics genuflected before Jeb Bush at his first batted eyelash toward running for President. Because DC elites fawn over things like lists of former high-ranking government officials who will be advising the former Florida Governor, never mind the fact that some of these nefarious characters were responsible for the calamity that was the Iraq War. Because it is easy to dismiss polls showing that Bush is trailing his competition in Iowa and New Hampshire because his last name is “Bush,” ergo, he is presumptive even if he has already stepped on his dick with the hiring of a social media guru who quit because of racist tweets and during his one foreign policy speech, he confused Iraq and Iran and misstated, by an order of magnitude, the number of fighters in ISIS. Because the Village gave his brother a similar pass in 2000, never calling him out on his “fuzzy math” or vague policy ideas because he seemed like a decent guy to hang out with. Because the Village hasn’t questioned Jeb’s role in the 2000 election, Terry Schiavo, stand your ground laws, or his business dealings (much less some intemperate remarks he made about women and African-Americans during his 1994 run for Florida Governor).

In other words, the Village has spoken. The American people be damned.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There's Something About Hillary

For a politician who has not even announced whether she is running for President, Hillary Clinton is already suffering the slings and arrows of unfavorable media coverage. There does not seem to be any particular reason for this and much of it is nonsensical, but as Al Gore can remind the former First Lady, when it come to the press corps, perception can quickly solidify into reality. Consider:

·        Hillary Isn’t Liberal Enough: Journalists itching for a big, splashy primary fight use this trope to suggest that Hillary is too closely tied to Wall Street or that the base of the party actually wants Elizabeth Warren as its nominee. But the idea that a woman who cut her teeth politically for George McGovern, spent decades advocating for women and children’s rights (go read her Beijing 1995 speech), greater access to health care, even a two-state solution that formally used the word “Palestine” (which she was predictably criticized for) is in Wall Street’s pocket is laughable. Further, the idea that the base craves a full-throated liberal did not result in Tom Harkin being nominated in 1992 or Bill Bradley getting the nod in 2000 or Howard Dean prevailing in 2004. Indeed, polling shows the “liberal base” is perfectly content with Hillary, even if the Washington Post found 13 Iowa Democrats who are not;

·        If Hillary Doesn’t Have A Competitive Primary, She Won’t Be “Battle Tested”: I guess this would make sense if the person in question had not spent the last 22 years in the national spotlight, most of them on the business end of some of the slimiest, dirtiest, and coordinated political attacks in recent memory. Long before the Tea Party was doing the bone-in-the-nose-Obama-is-not-American routine, the vast right wing conspiracy was claiming the Clintons allowed drug running in Arkansas and murdered Vince Foster.

People forget Hillary Clinton was called before a federal grand jury when she was First Lady and her husband was impeached. The chattering class in DC, from Maureen Dowd (whose perma-hate boner for the Clintons is well-known) to the “dean” of Washington reporters, David Broder, who said the Clintons “broke” Washington, have gone to lunch writing hit pieces about Bill and Hillary Clinton since the new generation of reporters were still drinking out of sippy cups. One thing I do not think we have to worry about is whether Hillary Clinton can handle personal or political attacks against her;

·        The American People Don’t Want A Bush Or Clinton Dynasty: Jeb Bush represents the third generation of Bush family members seeking national office that stretches back to Senator Prescott Bush in 1952. Indeed, a fourth generation Bush family member, George P., was just elected Texas Land Commissioner. That is a dynasty. Bill and Hillary Clinton are self-made people who came from lower and middle class (respectively) backgrounds, earned their way into college and law school, and then made their political bones. There were no Clinton or Rodham pères to grease the wheels for them.  

·        Hillary Doesn’t Stand For Anything: Aside from the fact that she is not, you know, a candidate for President yet, and therefore is not under any obligation, no matter what the media thinks, to stake out positions, there are few politicians with a lengthier public profile than Hillary Clinton. Her core positions on domestic and foreign policy are available to anyone with a computer and link to the Internet.

·        Hillary Needs To Learn From 2008: People forget that Hillary received more votes during the 2008 primaries than Barack Obama, but his campaign’s strategy of focusing on caucuses and the party’s proportional allocation of delegates in larger states accrued to his benefit. In large states like New Jersey, New York, California, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Hillary swamped Obama (though both went for him in the general election) but did not reap the benefit of large delegate hauls because of the party’s primary rules.

So while Jeb Bush is getting a free pass for being his “own man” even as he relies on more than twenty of his brother’s appointees and advisors, most notably failed Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA Directors Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and former Secretaries of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, Hillary is saddled with media types like Chuck Todd openly admitting to “Hillary Fatigue” and a general distaste for her, not her policies, but her. Make of that what you will.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Rizzo We Trust?

As the Washington Nationals prepare for their 10th spring training, expectations for this year could not be higher. Unlike 2013, when the team was undone by then-manager Davey Johnson's "World Series or Bust" mentality, this year's squad has no choice but to embrace that expectation after spending more than $200 million to sign former AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer; adding him to what is already the deepest starting rotation in baseball and a team that won 96 games last year. Many returning players, like Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper are all in, or nearing, their prime playing years and the team has the taste of last October's bitter defeat to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS in their collective mouths. 

But here is the thing, having the best regular season record in baseball, as the Nationals did in 2012 and in the National League in 2014, is no guarantee of post-season success. Moreover, the intangible chemistry that exists in a clubhouse is a fragile and tenuous thing, and there, the Nationals have tinkered with things in ways that may affect this year's squad. Consider the trading of Tyler Clippard, a stalwart 8th inning set-up man and beloved figure for his "fear the goggles" mentality and quirky delivery. That he also doubled as a closer (when needed) is no small thing considering Drew Storen's post-season performance (about which more in a moment). Or look at the looming free agency of Desmond, a player who started with the Expos organization before it moved to Washington and Zimmermann, a homegrown product drafted out of obscure Wisconsin-Stevens Point who has turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. Neither player has been re-signed and most observers assume one or both will not be returning after this year because it will be cost prohibitive. 

These decisions might be defensible if the team was a "small market" club like Kansas City or Oakland or if these players were past their prime, but neither is the case. Clippard was owed a mere $9 million for 2015 (a bargain by today's standards) and Zimmermann is two years younger than Scherzer. Desmond is a unique talent at shortstop who hits for power and average but also possesses a strong throwing arm (though he does make a lot of errors) and is also only 29 years old. Signing Scherzer for $210 million when the starting rotation was already among the best in the business while failing to use that money to take care of home grown talent does not speak well of the organization and sends a message to players who are drafted and come up through the system that they can (and will) be jettisoned for a high profile free agent. And oh yeah, the Lerners are the wealthiest owners in the league, so money really should not be a problem.

Clippard was essentially flipped for a mediocre shortstop (Yunel Escobar) and replaced by Casey Janssen, a former Blue Jays closer coming off an injury-plagued season. Meanwhile, the team has a question mark at first base because they let Adam LaRoche leave via free agency, there is no guarantee Escobar will work at second (the team could have re-signed mid-season pick-up Asdrubal Cabrera but opted not to) and there is still a huge question mark in the bullpen. Drew Storen has now blown two critical saves in the post-season and no matter how many regular season wins the team piles up, none of it will matter if the guy they call on to finish games is incapable of doing so. Last year, Storen was put in a tough spot by manager Matt Williams who, in my view, made an awful decision to lift Zimmermann in the bottom of the ninth inning of game two of the NLDS, but it happened, and Storen blew the game. 

No GM bats 1.000 and Rizzo's long-term record speaks for itself; however, in the quest for winning that elusive World Series, the team may be setting itself up for failure. In addition to Zimmermann, Doug Fister, who Rizzo swiped from the Detroit Tigers and was arguably the team's most consistent starter last year, is also unsigned after this year and Strasburg can walk in 2016. The team can't simultaneously discuss a long-term window that requires fiscal prudence while spending lavishly on a shiny toy like Scherzer, who is signed until age 37, well past when he is expected to pitch at a high level. 

Instead of making some small changes and focusing on locking down players who have contributed to that success, I fear the team is following a path of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, all of whom lost sight of building their farm systems and adding strategic parts in favor of splashy free agent signings. And while the Red Sox won it all two years ago, neither New York or Philadelphia has won a title in more than five years and each is now mediocre at best. Meanwhile, the Giants have won three of the last five World Series without getting drawn into the types of bidding wars that result in contracts that can cripple teams in the long run.  Of course, if the Nationals do win it all this year, this will all be moot, but if they do not, the window on future contention may slam shut. 

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brian Williams and the Future of News Broadcasting

Now that NBC has dropped a six-month suspension on NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams for fabricating a story about his experiences in Iraq, the Monday-morning quarterbacking has begun both about Williams’s apparent penchant for embellishment (which was supposedly well known, but never discussed) and whether he will ever be able to regain the trust of his viewers.

While these are natural questions to ask, they are small bore compared to the far more serious ones the media should be asking itself about its role in contemporary society. You see, while Williams’s offense was largely one of self-aggrandizement, the bigger, and more troubling issue is about how “the media” has largely sacrificed its role as neutral arbiter of fact-based reporting and become a small step removed from gossip and tabloid journalism.

In today’s culture, the coin of the realm is sniffing out hypocrisy and double standards. It did not take long for the Twitterverse to observe that Brian Williams’s suspension was a more severe punishment for anything having to do with the Iraq War than any suffered by a member of the Bush Administration that bent the truth over and over to convince America of the correctness of that war. Of course, the lies and cherry-picked intelligence spewed by the Bush Administration would have been blunted by a more skeptical media horde, but instead, a compliant press corps largely acted as stenographers for these falsehoods without questioning the veracity of their claims, to devastating results.

That no one was held to account for these lies is a far more egregious crime than any tall tale woven by a hairdo who sits behind a desk and reads off a TelePrompTer. And not only are people not held to account, but they appear on our TV screens over and over again. The ones who claimed Iraqis would great us as liberators or that WMD existed, that the fundamentals of our economy were strong (even as we were melting down), that Obamacare would destroy the economy, or that bailing out GM and Chrysler was a bad idea. There is literally no end to the willingness of “news” outlets to continue having people on TV who have been so wrong about so many things.

As for the politicians, they no longer need fear that anyone will seriously question them. Not when the moderator of Meet the Press concedes that he does not push his guests for fear they will no longer appear on his show or that guests can simply regurgitate pre-fabricated talking points without fear they will be fact checked by their hosts. Instead, they risk being turned into cable news fodder to fill out a news cycle if an aide’s odious tweets are exposed or they make an ill-advised comment about vaccinating your children.

On the other hand, crises of the day are elevated into the latest “-gate” while the solution is rarely reported with anywhere near the same level of attention or focus. The glitches that attended the roll-out of dominated the news for a week or more and then disappeared. That the website has been used by millions to get health coverage barely merits a mention, whereas the initial “rocky roll-out” caused Chuck Todd to demand an apology from the President of the United States. The list goes on and on, from Ebola to the Veterans Administration, relations between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD, children crossing the border from Mexico and many other stories in between hoover up precious airtime right up until the moment that the problem is solved or a new scandal erupts, at which point, you never hear about it again.  

This is not to say that a website should be glitchy or that relations between the Mayor of the country’s largest city and his police force do not matter, but the proportionality of the reporting is completely out of whack. Whether it’s a failure to acknowledge the numerous reports on how the Affordable Care Act is changing the delivery of health care in our country or how the economy has rebounded in a meaningful way, by giving “good news” such short shrift, the populace is harmed because they are left with an incomplete and inaccurate view of the world around them. On the other hand, taking 13 Iowa Democrats who do not like Hillary Clinton and turning that into a news story about her failure to connect with the base was actually a thing that was reported in The Washington Post.

So instead of hoisting Brian Williams on his own petard for being a smug prick who thought he could get away with making himself the hero in his very own war story, the media should spend a little more time looking at itself in the mirror and asking whether it is doing its job.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Voice of A Generation, 4

A voice of a generation died on Sunday night in Iowa City, Iowa. The voice, which began as a clarion call about the pitfalls and life lessons learned by a very specific slice of upper-middle class, white Brooklynites finally collapsed under its own weight when Hannah Horvath quit the Iowa Writer’s Workshop because her classmates Mean-Girl’d her and thought her work unserious or worthy of their accolades.

Of course, she did little to ingratiate herself with her fellow graduate students, but having taken the next step in a series of random steps (to paraphrase Adam) and failed spectacularly, to pull up stakes is just the sort of who-gives-a-shit kind of decision that I guess you can make when it does not appear that you need to earn money to live or be concerned about consequences other than the fact your boyfriend got himself a new girlfriend while you were away, which should not surprise you since you randomly told him you were going to Iowa the night of his Broadway premiere. But hey, <shrug>  

For all its acclaim and the avalanche of thought pieces, show recaps, and Internet buzz it generated, Hannah’s return to Brooklyn, only to discover that Adam has shacked up (in her apartment no less!) with a new lover is the jump-the-shark moment when Girls has officially run out of things to say. It is not just that Jessa continues to have a cosmic get-out-of-jail free card (even when she pees on the sidewalk) or that Marnie can make from-behind-ass-eating oddly untittilating, or that Shosh seems to be a Tourette’s robot incapable of speaking in anything other than an odd staccato that one can only hope does not actually exist in real life, it is that one can only roll one’s eyes so many times at this crew before finally saying, WHO CARES.

When it began, Girls seemed revelatory and fresh, its protagonist famously advising her parents that she thought she could be “a voice of a generation.” But that wobbly combination of self-confidence and insecurity that is stereotypically millennial wears thin after a while when the people start looking like hamsters on a wheel and no progress is made. While it is true that the Seinfeld gang went to lunch on the “no lessons learned” mantra for nine seasons, it took itself far less seriously and was elevated by the vox populi to its exalted state from meager ratings to be a show that tens of millions watched each week. On the other hand, and as others have observed, shows like Broad City have cropped up to show a more realistic (and bawdy) version of life in New York City for random 20somethings.

My own feelings about Girls are well-documented and there is something to be said about the idea that anything in culture only loses its relevance if people stop paying attention to it. Clearly, Girls still matters to some in the media, just not in the way it once did. Recaps and analysis seem perfunctory and the show is no longer appointment television, which highlights the difficulty any show has in sustaining the sweet spot of cultural zeitgeist and critical accolades and underscores the difference between the very good and truly great.

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Season 2:

Season 1:

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Obamacare Is Working (In Case You Were Wondering)

Since the media spent the last week exhaustively covering deflated footballs and blown weather forecasts, you will be excused if you missed yet more good news regarding the Affordable Care Act. You remember "Obamacare," right? The policy that was hatched in the left wing corridors of The Heritage Foundation, implemented in Massachusetts by a Republican who would be his party's standard bearer for President in 2012 and has been a massive financial windfall to the health insurance industry. Yeah, that.

In just the past few weeks, the following has happened:

  • Governors in deep red states like Wyoming, Tennessee, and Indiana have all accepted that dirty, filthy guv'mint money to expand Medicaid in their states;
  • More than 9.5 million people have signed up for private health insurance through the various state and federal health exchanges during this enrollment season;
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, the so-called "invisibles," those young people who were perceived to be the hardest to convince to buy more comprehensive coverage and most likely to opt for cheap catastrophic plans, have not done so. Only 1% of these young people are opting for the bare bones option, confirming that if affordable health coverage (and nearly 90% of Americans purchasing insurance under the ACA are eligible for subsidies) is available, people will purchase it;
  • The Congressional Budget Office's 10-year estimate for the cost of the ACA has gone down 20% since its initial analysis in 2010;
  • The cost of insurance is rising at the lowest level since that information started to be tracked in the early 1960s; and
  • In states with governors who were lockstep against the ACA, the people are voting with their wallets - in Florida, more than 1.2 million people have signed up for private coverage and a county in Florida holds the distinction as having signed up the most people in the United States; North Carolina is 6% above the national average for number of eligible adults who have gained coverage under the ACA; and both Georgia and Kentucky have seen above average enrollment numbers. 

Of course, the New York Times thought this news significant enough to bury on page A17 on Thursday and you would search long and hard to find any discussion of these facts on your nightly news or one of the myriad cable TV political chat fests. And I can almost guarantee that Chuck Todd will not dedicate a segment of this Sunday's Meet the Press to these facts, even though he had the gall to demand an apology from the President because got off to a bumpy start. But just because the good news is obscured and the bad news is magnified does not take away from what Vice President Biden aptly described as a "big fucking deal." 

For more information on this topic check out:

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Monday, January 19, 2015

State of the Union - 2015

It has been said that you can judge a government's priorities based on where it spends its money and with two recent announcements by President Obama, it is clear he is interested in prioritizing educational opportunity for all Americans. Last year, the President called for the creation of universal pre-kindergarten ("pre-k") and, earlier this month, for two years of free tuition at community college provided students maintain a certain grade point average.

While the cost of these programs is modest in the big scheme of the federal budget, their combined impact would be massive and long-lasting. For universal pre-k, it has been estimated that the 10 year cost would be $75 billion; for community college, $60 billion, for a grand total of $135 billion, or $13.5 billion per year. In a federal budget of more than $3.6 trillion, this amounts to .00375% or less than four one-thousandths of one percent. Put another way, each year of funding both of these programs would be slightly more than what was spent each month in Iraq ($10 billion).

The funny thing is, when it came time to pay the tab for Iraq, no one in Congress demanded a cost saving "offset" or tax increase, they simply borrowed the money - saddling us with precisely the type of debt Republicans claim to hate. Now that the President has put forward potentially game changing educational proposals, Republicans are suddenly crying poor. Putting aside the long-term return on investment we would get by better preparing young children for school and making college less expensive, why is it that when bombs are flying, we can pull out Uncle Sam's credit card, but when it comes to nation building at home, we cannot seem to find the money? 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mitt 3.0

Mitt Romney’s announcement last week that he is considering a third run for the White House has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the media and DC’s chattering class. Pundits are feverishly offering tic-tocks of behind the scenes phone calls to donors, the assembling of a campaign-in-waiting and even dusting off some of Mitt’s prior protestations that he was done with politics after his landslide defeat in 2012.

But the bigger question is why anyone takes this guy seriously. Romney spent a single term as Governor of Massachusetts, declined to run for re-election, and left office in 2006 to begin running for President - something he has now done for twice as long as he was Governor. His one major policy achievement, the passage of “Romneycare,” is anathema to large swaths of his party and he has shifted his position on every major foreign and domestic policy so many times, you need a chart to keep track of where he currently stands. He barely eked out a win in the 2012 Republican primary against what was universally recognized as the weakest field in decades and then proceeded to get his clock cleaned in the general election by a President who had an avalanche of negative press dropped on him from the day he put his hand on the Bible and an economy that was still finding its footing. And oh yeah, he produced the single most embarrassing piece of campaign video since Mike Dukakis was caught in that tank in 1988.

There is no clear rationale for a Romney candidacy, much less a Romney presidency. His purported managerial genius was exposed by the Obama team as a farce. The Romney campaign famously had more than twenty people review tweets before they were posted and major news organizations constantly griped about not just the candidate’s inaccessibility, but the inability to get the simplest parts of campaign logistics right – billing, wifi in press areas, etc – so how is it that we would entrust Mitt Romney with the levers of government? The other legs of his platform like lower unemployment and reduced deficits have happened without his stewardship and sops to corporations are as unpopular now as they were in 2012. Obama skewered Romney in their one foreign policy debate and Mitt’s after-the-fact gloating about Russia’s threat to the West has been mitigated substantially by the free fall in the ruble and financial crunch Russia is currently experiencing because of the plunge in the price of oil.

The rose colored glasses of those associated with Romney suggesting that he came close to winning is as delusional now as their ignoring polls leading up to Election Day 2012 that all strongly indicated a big Obama win. Indeed, Romney did not do much better than John McCain – winning two states, Indiana and North Carolina (the latter by a razor thin margin) – that McCain lost, but the former voted for a Democrat in 2008 for the first time since 1964 and the latter, for the first time since 1976. Romney did not come within spitting distance of Obama in critical states like Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio and lost “purple” states like Colorado and Virginia that Republicans once carried easily. Romney was outclassed in two of the three debates and was rightly pilloried as an out-of-touch rich guy who had very little sense or appreciation of the needs and struggles of everyday Americans unless you owned a NASCAR team or were attempting to bully the local planning board into allowing you to construct a car elevator in your beachfront mansion.

Perhaps this Romney boomlet is simply a product of the past falling down the memory hole, but on everything from his gaffe-filled foreign trip to England, Israel, and Poland when he offended the hosts in all of the countries he visited, to his bald lies in the waning days of the 2012 campaign about auto companies moving jobs to China, he was a disaster as a candidate who had one good night (the first Presidential debate) in an otherwise moribund, uncreative, and disorganized run for the most important job in the world. That he is even looked at as a plausible candidate for that position may say more about the latitude offered by the media because the American people have clearly made up their mind about him.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review - The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

Round about the time I got to entry number 14, Pasquale Frunzio, in The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, I started to wonder whether this slim tome was a high-minded version of the TV show Punk’d. We are told that Frunzio, a frustrated writer living in Turin, is preparing to kill himself a la Sylvia Plath (head in the oven) when a courier comes to his door. Frunzio aborts his suicide attempt to see who is there and is handed a telegram from a prominent publisher expressing interest in releasing Frunzio’s work. According to the BDLF, Frunzio, still groggy from his inhalation of natural gas, sits down at his desk to re-read the telegram. When he turns on his desk light, the spark ignites the cloud of gas that had formed in the apartment, killing Frunzio and destroying the one copy of his manuscript.

Seriously? Of course, because almost all the writers featured in the BDLF are “never wases,” verifying their backstories is almost impossible. Editor C.D. Rose, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book essentially tells us to trust him – that “lack of space and certain legal niceties prevent us from divulging the whole history of the genesis of the BDLF” but that through a variety of methods and sources – junk shops, flea markets, literary agents and others – he has pieced together the stories of people whose work was never recognized in their lifetimes, much less for posterity.

Rose does an admirable job of providing condensed biographies of Frunzio and fifty-one others who strove to leave their mark on the literary world but fell far short of having any impact. If these stories are presumed to be true, many of the authors featured have a “truth is stranger than fiction” vibe to them – the writer who came up with more than 1,900 opening lines to stories but could never churn out a single follow-up sentence [1], the New Yorker whose first “novel” consisted of a single page and a single letter (“I”) and whose follow-up (ongoing) is a manuscript several hundred pages long made up of the same word typed over and over [2], or the genius-level cryptographer who worked for the British spy service during World War II but whose books were written in a cipher nobody can decode. [3]

Dedicated readers will make short work of the BDLF, which clocks in at a modest 168 pages, but will be left to ponder whether the literary canon has been denied valuable additions to its corpus or if history’s judgment has been validated by their absence.


1. Chad Sheehan, Entry Number 36. 
2. Virgil Haack, Entry Number 16. It is also worth noting that Rose does not disclose what word Haack is typing over and over again.
3. Veronica Vass, Entry Number 44.  

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