Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review - All The Truth Is Out

Matt Bai has written an indispensable meditation on modern political journalism that directs far more of its bite and vitriol at his own journalistic brethren than the book's ostensible focus, Gary Hart, the one-time Colorado Senator and two-time candidate for President who was brought low by a sex scandal during his second run for that office in 1987. All The Truth Is Out neatly captures a moment in our modern political history when journalists reporting on national leaders began what has become an inexorable shift from substance to flash, policy to personality, while largely abdicating its role as fact checker and explainer in favor of an obsessive drive for some odd combination of Woodward and Bernstein notoriety and minor cable television news celebrity. 

As Bai shows, that Hart became the poster child for this phenomenon was not all that surprising. Hart's fondness for women was well-known all the way back to his role as George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972, but as Bai discusses, that era, when reporters and those they reported on had a tacit agreement that in exchange for candidate access there was a "code of the road" that kept such dalliances out of the paper was waning as the 1980s dawned. Younger reporters weened on the cinematic drama of Nixon's downfall coming at the hands of a couple of Washington Post Metro reporters re-imagined the role of "reporter" in our political life. 

Of course, Hart is hardly blameless. Had he not chased women, there would not have been anything for reporters to cover. A man who was the front runner for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and who led then-Vice President George H.W. Bush unquestionably engaged in dicey behavior; however, as the tale is unspooled, the seaminess of the entire affair becomes clear and the media's role becomes less valorous. Reporters from the Miami Herald tipped by one of Donna Rice's friends about her liaisons with Hart staked out his D.C. townhouse, observing his comings and goings before confronting him in an alley over the woman they saw enter his home. In an era before crisis communications, Hart's stumbling replies and the subsequent media horde that descended on his family home in Colorado was sui generis and much of what was done during those few days was ad-libbed and unplanned. The coup d'grace is applied by the Washington Post's Paul Taylor, burned in missing the initial scoop, asks Hart directly at a press conference if he has committed adultery. In Bai's telling, the hush in the room suggests a rubicon being crossed, but Hart's answer was ultimately beside the point. Had he not dropped out of the race, the Post was prepared to expose another affair he had with a D.C. socialite. 

The whole episode may seem pedestrian by today's media standards, but the questions Bai raises are important ones. Is it fair for a public official's entire career and reputation to be re-defined by a single incident? Does that conduct disqualify him or her from ever entering the public arena ever again? And what is the media's responsibility in all of this? Obviously, we have had many chances to ponder these (and other) questions in the intervening years, but the results are rather arbitrary. David Vitter's name was found in a madam's black book, yet he remains in office. Eliot Spitzer paid for sex, and he was forced from office. Anthony Weiner did not even technically engage in sexual conduct but became a laughingstock, while Scott DesJarlais cheated on his wife and encouraged his paramour to have an abortion, yet he is still a member of Congress. 

The dive toward a lowest common denominator reached its nadir (or apex, depending on your point of view) 11 years after Hart's campaign imploded when President Clinton was impeached. And while reporters gorged like hogs on the salacious details of Clinton's affair, the American people were well ahead of the curve in terms of putting the President's admittedly reprehensible behavior in its proper place. While Clinton's personal popularity plummeted, his performance as President was viewed favorably and his party won seats in the 1998 off-year election - a rarity for Presidents in their sixth year in office. 

But the memory hole is an odd one. As recently as this past week's Time magazine, in discussing U.S. relations with Iran, noted "several American Presidents have been burned by trusting Iranian 'moderates.' Ronald Reagan wound up with the Iran-Contra scandal." (emphasis mine) Note the passive voice about a scandal that was breaking at the same time as Gary Hart's. As if an affirmative decision from within the White House to violate federal law and, but for some selective "memory lapses" by Reagan, would have legitimately opened the door for impeachment, was somehow foisted on an unsuspecting President. And that is the problem that Bai so acutely diagnoses. If anything from the violation of federal law to an advance staffer's hiring of a prostitute are all equivalent "-Gate" level scandals, it is impossible to provide the context or sense of proportionality that is woefully missing in today's political discourse. 

And Bai's observation about context is particularly acute. The half-life of a candidate's qualification for office has gone from whether he lied about cheating on his wife (Gary Hart - 1987) to having the host of Meet the Press question whether a candidate for Senate is disqualified from that office because she would not share who she voted for for President in 2012 (Chuck Todd speaking about Alison Lundergran Grimes - 2014). This reductio ad absurdum is not demanded by the populace, it's an affirmative decision on the part of the media to turn national politics into precisely the tabloid clown car that erased the distinction between the National Enquirer on the one hand, and the Miami Herald and Washington Post on the other, yet all of whom got their hands dirty ferreting out the hidden sex lives of Presidential candidates. And while the media crowned itself the moral arbiters of our time, as Bai points out, even as Hart was walking away from the campaign, he did so in front of many reporters who he (Hart) knew had engaged in precisely the same type of conduct he was forced out of the race for.

But the media has created a fail safe way of handling these issues that absolves them of any responsibility or accountability. The trap the media set with Hart is one they would use over and over again - arguing that the indiscretion was not the disqualifying fact, it was the lying about the indiscretion that was the true crime. Of course, this convenient tautology puts a candidate in an impossible situation - honesty would be condemned, but lying would sic the hounds until the truth emerged. In the balance, an entire career, in Hart's case, was reduced to a photo of a twenty-something sitting on his lap in front of a boat called the Monkey Business while ignoring the more than decade's worth of service Hart had provided as a campaign manager to George McGovern and a widely respected U.S. Senator. Bai argues persuasively that the nation was a poorer place for this trade off. While Hart's conduct may have precluded him from becoming President, he was shunned from polite D.C. society and thus, from valuable contributions he may have made to our nation's discourse. 

Indeed, the portrayal of Gary Hart is largely sympathetic - that of a man with a preternatural sense of the big issues that have animated our world but ostracized because he happened to come along at a time when the tabloid and political streams crossed. As Bai notes, the upshot of the Hart "scandal" was a pack mentality that turned every political reporter into "amateur private investigators and psychotherapists" constantly digging for dirt on people whose hypocrisy was presumed, the only question being how it would be exposed. Lost in this monomaniacal desire to expose politicians as inherently fraudulent was both the context and nuance that would separate a high crime from a misdemeanor. 

When the media dismisses all of this by saying we elect the people we deserve, they are engaging in a convenient trope that is too cute by half. The record low approval rating of Congress and the general malaise (to borrow from Jimmy Carter) in our nation suggests that we are not a people who thinks our political leaders reflect our views. While majorities support things like background checks for gun purchases or taxing the wealthy to pay down the debt and deficit, heavily gerrymandered Congressional districts ensure these things never come to pass. The impact of the media's interest in turning every Presidential contest into a horse race that ignores policy was seen to devastating effect in 2000 - Al Gore rightly predicted that the massive tax cuts George W. Bush wanted to enact would blow a hole in our budget (and it did), but Gore was mocked because of the type of clothes he wore and the vaunted "lock box" he wanted to put all that surplus money into (imagine where our budget and debt levels would be had we listened to the then-Vice President). But because Bush was deemed a "regular guy" (never mind his blue blood roots and Ivy League education), all that "fuzzy math" was subsumed in the media grinder that conflated authenticity with competence. 

And things have only gotten worse. As the media searches for any whiff of scandal, politicians create an ever more impermeable bubble around themselves to avoid "gaffes" or moments of honesty the media claim will humanize, not destroy, them. In the balance, these two groups have talked past one another. Reporters on the 2012 campaign trail amused themselves with pithy tweets about poorly stocked filing centers and delayed departures while the candidates utilized their own YouTube channels to get their messages past the media "filter." The loser in all of this is the public, because at a time when we have access to more information than at any time in history, the media's default to wall-to-wall scandal coverage when, say, is "glitchy," evaporates when the problem is solved and more than 8 million people use it to get health insurance. 

As Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN Worldwide recently said, "Chaos is good for CNN." But that is a maxim that all the media has absorbed. But in its endless chase for ratings, the media has confused the corporate bottom line with the public service it is supposed to serve. Suggesting that their reporting is simply giving people what they want is also true of everything from junk food to alcohol, but we all know those things are not good for you either. What All The Truth Is Out identifies is the point in time when things changed, and unquestionably for the worse. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Grounds For Sculpture - October 7

I visited the Grounds For Sculpture this week and cannot recommend it highly enough for those interested in a deeply immersive, pop culture experience that can transport you everywhere from Impressionist-era France to V-J Day and up Marilyn Monroe's dress. The Grounds For Sculpture is mainly the vision of the artist Seward Johnson, whose work is best described as a mash-up of Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein. Johnson's main conceit is taking iconic images ("American Gothic," for example) and creating larger-than-life sculptures placed in the natural environment. While some might call it derivative or trite, as has been noted about Warhol's Campbell Soup cans, if it was so obvious to everyone, why didn't anyone else think to do it? 

The area near Rat's Restaurant is a transformed 1890s Parisian joy. The Monet bridge crosses over onto the patio, and you will walk by these two characters sitting by the water: 

The patio abuts a pond and garden. The former has brightly colored fish and the latter, a rainbow assortment of flowers:

Walking the grounds, you will find iconic images like the aforementioned Ms. Monroe, the couple from Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and a man who appears to be James Dean from the movie "Giant": 

Right behind the visitor's center you will be transported to the V-J day celebration:

While on the bluffs overlooking the visitor's center is this stunning odalisque, a possible homage to Manet:

The seating area by the Peacock Cafe also has a Parisian vibe:

As you head toward the meadow, you will see everything from a sculpture that has a "True Detective" kind of vibe to it: 

to a life-like representation of Matisse's Dance:

In the Meadow, you'll find The Awakening, a stunning sculpture of a giant attempting to elevate himself out of the ground: 

Men in a Great Depression-era soup line: 

and the Three Fates: 

Of course, there are many other things to see, but a few provisos. First, admission is $15 per person. For me, I would have paid twice as much for the experience. Second, be prepared for crowds, especially on the weekend and in nice weather. I went on a weekday at 10 AM when the Grounds opened, and there were still dozens of people there. For photography purposes, it makes things tricky, so plan accordingly. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Blame Matt Williams

Playoff baseball is often tense, littered with small decisions that start with who managers write into the line-up card to when to insert late inning defensive replacements. In the second game of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants, Nats manager Matt Williams was blessed with having to do nothing for eight-and-two-thirds innings. His starter, Jordan Zimmermann, had mowed through the Giants line-up, showing the kind of stuff that earned him a no-hitter during his last regular season start and had done so on exactly 100 pitches. 

The importance of getting a win on Saturday night could hardly be overstated. The Giants, with two World Series wins in the last 4 years, had come to town and taken Game 1, and with the next two games of this best-of-five series on the West Coast, and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner waiting to start Game 3, a loss in Game 2 could have dealt a fatal blow to the Nats' season. 

So with two outs in the top of the ninth and Zimmermann having issued a walk (on several borderline pitches that were not called strikes by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza), Williams strode to the mound and took the ball out of his ace's hand and gave it to a guy whose last post-season appearance was so painful that the team went out in the following off-season and spent $28 million over two years to bring in a replacement. And it wasn't as if Williams even asked Zimmermann if he could get that final out, didn't give him a chance to finish a game where he had retired 20 straight batters and only given up three hits. Nope. Just took that ball and handed to to Drew Storen, who faced two batters, both of whom got hits off him and but for a wonky slide at home plate, would have coughed up the lead, instead of leaving the game knotted at one. 

Williams would not be forced to sit through what turned out to be another full game. When Asdrubal Cabrera was called out on strikes in the 10th inning and got thrown out for arguing the call, Williams came out of the dugout and was quickly sent to the showers too. By the time midnight struck, the Nats had fallen into an 0-2 series hole with a long flight west to ponder "what if." 

Of course, you could look at the fact that the Nats only got one run off a 39-year-old pitcher with a 9-13 record and an ERA just south of four, or the 15 innings of shutout pitching the Giants got from starter Tim Hudson and their bullpen, or the fact that Zimmermann might have given up a hit to Buster Posey in the 9th inning and then people would have questioned why Williams did not pull Zimmermann for Storen. But the fact is, Zimmerman was not gassed. He was at 100 pitches and had retired the first two batters in the ninth with ease. The walk to Joe Panik was due to a couple of pitches that were called balls but at least one easily could have been called a strike. 

Zimmermann had cruised through the game and, if "playing the game right" means letting your starter try to finish a game he has dominated, Zimmermann should have been given the chance to face Posey. If he got Posey out, the entire momentum of the series would have changed - a huge win by the staff ace, a fully rested bullpen, and a 1-1 series tie going to San Francisco. If he didn't, short of a home run, Posey could have only tied the game, at which point Williams could have come in with the hook. Instead, Williams showed he lacked confidence in the ace of his staff, damaged the psyche of his closer, burned every arm in his bullpen (all of whom will be "on call" tomorrow night in a do-or-die game three) and got tossed for arguing balls and strikes. 

Sometimes baseball comes down to one small decision. On Saturday night, Matt Williams made the wrong one and severely harmed the team's chances of advancing to the National League Championship Series. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Last Days of Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter's final season in Yankee pinstripes is coming to an ignominious close. Jeter, a five-time World Series champion who sits sixth on baseball's all-time hits list and is an all-but-guaranteed first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, is playing out the string with a combination of iffy prospects, overpaid free agents, and past-their-prime position players. For a player who has famously played in only one regular season game in his entire career when the Yankees had no chance of making the post-season, Jeter's whimper-not-a-bang final season won't even end in Yankee Stadium. The team closes on the road in Boston.

Of course, anyone who follows baseball knows the Yankees have been flirting with a redux of their slide to the basement in the late 1960s for some time now. While the team scratched out a World Series win 5 years ago after dropping nearly half-a-billion dollars the previous offseason, things have been going downhill ever since. This season exposed all the team's long-term failings. A fallow minor league system that has produced only one all-star since Jeter's arrival (Robinson Cano, who is no longer with the team), the suspension of Alex Rodriguez, the wear and tear of thousands of innings finally catching up with CC Sabathia, underperforming recruits like Brian McCann and of course, Masahiro Tanaka's balky ulnar collateral ligament, which, when it gave out just after the all-star break, sealed the team's fate. 

Surely, someone who has probably meant more to the Yankees than anyone since Mickey Mantle - "the captain," "the face of baseball" - deserves better than a nostalgic farewell tour larded with tacky gifts and a recent 0-for-28 slide that dropped his average close to .250. But the sports gods have a quirky sense of humor. Offered the opportunity to bow out gracefully, few athletes ever do. Indeed, John Elway's retirement after winning his second Super Bowl is more the exception than the rule. Tim Duncan could have called it a career after San Antonio secured its fifth NBA title in June, but he's coming back for another season. Peyton Manning set several NFL passing records last year and led his team to the Super Bowl, but even after four neck surgeries and one of the most prolific careers by a quarterback, he's back under center in Denver. Even the great Michael Jordan could not leave well enough alone. Having secured a sixth title with an iconic jump shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998, MJ made an ill-fated comeback in a Wizards jersey that while doing nothing to taint his place as one of the sport's all-time greats, was an odd coda to an otherwise exceptional career. 

While this is not Willie Mays stumbling in center field for the Mets in 1973, or Johnny U closing out his career looking lost and old with the San Diego Chargers, Jeter's decision to continue playing after that last World Series title shows that while his career may have been charmed, even he will be denied a storybook ending. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Project Delay The Game

While public outrage (rightly) continues unabated regarding the NFL's handling of the domestic abuse by its players of wives, girlfriends, and children, ratings for the actual football games remain at record highs. A populace that expresses its distaste for the actions of players like Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson still dutifully tune in on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night to watch their favorite teams.

So here's a modest proposal. Since the only thing the NFL seems to respond to is the bottom line (Radisson's decision to temporarily cut ties with the Vikings and a "sternly worded letter" from league sponsor Anheuser-Busch were both notable), do not watch the first 30 minutes of any NFL game, or the first quarter, or maybe even the first half. Let the NFL know that you can untether yourself from your TV screen and that their response to date has not been acceptable. Diminish the value of advertising dollars and let the sponsors apply their own form of pressure for change that may include:

  • Roger Goodell's resignation.
  • A clear "zero tolerance" policy for any form of domestic or child abuse. One strike and you're out. 
  • A fine of at least $1 million and the loss of draft picks levied against any team when one of its players is convicted (or pleads, a la Ray Rice) of any form of domestic or child abuse. 
  • Expanded access to treatment and counseling options for NFL personnel.
  • A public service campaign related to domestic and child abuse. 

I know many people, (including me), may not be able to turn away from football entirely, but absent a pinch in the bottom line, do not expect the NFL to react. Rather, it will wait for the outrage to cool and move on. 

Those are my ideas, how about you?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The New Meet The Press, Same As The Old Meet The Press

Chuck Todd's maiden voyage as moderator of Meet the Press was indistinguishable from the tired, Inside-the-Beltway circle jerk that resulted in historically low ratings and the firing of sometime Karl Rove "rap" partner, David Gregory. 

Todd is a fan (and active user) of Twitter, so perhaps he was simply trolling the Internet by kicking off his show with a roundtable that was no different from any that Gregory produced. The foursome included long-time correspondent Andrea Mitchell (you know her, she's married to some guy named Alan Greenspan, but of course, none of his failings as head of the Federal Reserve ever seem to make it to air), MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, some guy named Michael Leiter, who was a counter-terrorism guru mostly under George W. Bush, and Nia-Maliki Henderson, a reporter for the Washington Post

The panel discussed a segment of Todd's interview with President Obama, itself a bit of a joke, as Todd attempted to goad the President into acknowledging that we would need to invade Syria, as if that was accepted wisdom that had permeated the bloodstream of official Washington. The President, sober and expansive in his explanations, seemed a poor match for Todd's desire for simple solutions, but part of the reason "don't do stupid shit" is a smart, albeit pithy, encapsulation of Obama's foreign policy is that the types of decisions the President is wrestling with and people like Todd think have simple answers, do not. 

Regardless, the panel discussion unfolded as one might expect. Mitchell tsk tsked the President for making Saudi Arabia "mad" at us for not toppling Assad last year (never mind the fact that the Saudis fund madrasses that teach precisely the type of radical Islamic ideology that we are fighting or that most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia) and Henderson helpfully observed that when Congress returns on Monday (after a 38 day vacation, a whole other topic that might have merited discussion … alas) they will be looking to do "the bare minimum." 

That this is accepted as fact and allowed to pass without comment speaks volumes about the cynicism Todd claims to deplore in D.C. yet accurately reflects the media's long-ago acceptance that lockstep opposition to Obama is a symptom of dysfunction in Washington, not in one political party. When the conversation turned to immigration, the dialogue was no more useful. Todd brought in Buzz Feed editor John Stanton, but his only contribution (other than flashing his ubiquitous tattoo "sleeves") was to state a crumb of Beltway conventional wisdom that shows like Meet the Press should be calling politicians to account for, not blindly accepting - that "this election does not matter."

The rest of the hour recycled a segment of Gregory's creation, going "outside" Washington to see how things are "getting done" in the country and looking at competitive Senate races. The resulting discussion with mayors from places like Tacoma (WA) and Oklahoma City was informative, but comparing politics in any city to the national discourse has limited value at best. The dynamics are simply too different. As for the discussion of Senate races, this could have been done on Todd's old show, The Daily Rundown on autopilot. 

As for the big "get" of this first hour - Todd's interview with the President, Todd whiffed on a serious discussion in favor of convenient tropes - decisions on immigration were based on politics, war with Syria was inevitable, and on and on, nothing that some poor research assistant could not cherry pick from the litany of cable talk shows that have been espousing these facile notions. Of course, the subtext to Todd's interrogation was to lay the blame and responsibility entirely at the President's door. Do not get me wrong, it is appropriate to call elected officials to account for their ownership of problems, but in failing to note things like the House's failure to take up the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill or Congress's failure to provide Obama the military authority to act in Syria last summer, Todd and the panelists of Meet the Press simply committed the same factual crimes of omission David Gregory became famous for. 

Todd did live up to one promise - the show was overly interested in politics and far less interested in policy. Which is fine so far as it goes, but the show's legacy is not as a glorified water cooler discussion about "optics," it was about delving into the issues of the day so the electorate could be better informed. Paradoxically, that charge is more important today than ever, for while there is more information than ever at a person's fingertips, much of it has a "bias" that a show like Meet the Press once trafficked in correcting. Now, it just regurgitates it. 

It was said when Todd was announced as Gregory's successor that the former's "passion" for politics was one of the things that would make the show more successful; but if all you do is recycle the same tired political pablum in a shiny new wrapper because the host has more enthusiasm for the subject than his predecessor, does it really matter?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Please Dither, Mr. President

There's blood in the water in Washington, D.C. Not only did the President violate some unspoken sartorial rule by <gasp> holding a press conference while wearing a TAN SUIT, but during said press conference, acknowledged that he and his team are still working on a strategy to confront our newest bogeyman, ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, whatever term is your pleasure).

The peanut gallery (aka Republicans in Congress) who are finishing up week four of a five week vacation (not a typo) roused themselves from their torpor to castigate the President for what, it's not exactly clear. Not bombing enough shit? Not sending troops into the middle of a religious squabble among multiple bad actors? Leading the charge (unsurprisingly) are Grumpy Old Man John McCain and his Sancho Panza, Lindsey Graham - accusing the President of the dreaded "d" word - "dithering" - when he could totally be starting another war. 

But here's the thing. Our track record in the Middle East is pretty shitty, and that is particularly true over oh, the last 10 years or so. Sectarian forces who are more than happy to manipulate and have us serve as their proxies to settle religious or political scores are far more prevalent than any nascent Thomas Jeffersons or George Washingtons. When we've pushed for democratic elections, Hamas ended up running the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood won in Egypt. How did that work out? 

Of course, our most glaring fuck up was Iraq, a country that posed no strategic threat to us and had been cowed by more than a decade of sanctions and no-fly zone restrictions. But Cowboy W had to scratch his Oedipal fix and that whole if-you-broke-it-you-bought-it idiom resulted in creating a new Iraq that was more closely aligned with supposed "axis of evil" member Iran than it was with the West. As W's successor in Texas might say, "oops."

In Syria, had we toppled Bashar Assad, we may have done ISIS's work for them. Instead, Syria handed over all its chemical weapons, which have now been destroyed (imagine if they were still available for any random, rogue "terrorist" group to pilfer). Of course, the President asked Congress to grant him the authority (as he is required to do under some document called "the Constitution" that Republicans conveniently ignore when it suits their talking points) to attack Syria last summer and they punted. Not that you'd know that to listen to the media. Regardless, the situation is no better in that country in many ways, but at least random gas attacks are no longer a concern. So there's that. 

But more importantly, what the President articulated in that press conference, and consistently does, is the belief that you do not shoot first and ask questions later. We tried that in Iraq (and to some degree Afghanistan) and we have a two trillion dollar bill, thousands dead, and neither country being close to stability to show for it. Once upon a time, it was a bedrock article of faith among Republicans that you do not start a military engagement without an exit strategy (colloquially known as "the Powell Doctrine") but today's GOP prefers to hurl our military power about like a four year-old without any concern for the consequences of this action. 

Ultimately, it is not our responsibility to solve the problems that roil the countries in the Middle East. Indeed, foisting solutions on actors uninterested in our opinion (or interference) is largely why the region is such a fucking mess right now. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can, because we are THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, dictate resolutions to conflicts that date back, in some cases, for centuries. We have armed every side of most of these conflicts and prop up their governments through our purchase of their oil, but again, in a not-too-distant past, we worked diplomatic channels to get this rogue's gallery on the same page to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and kick start Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. 

If military action is needed to weed out ISIS, by all means, the Saudis, Jordanians, Iraqis, and others have billions in good old American made war machinery to do so. If they need help, please, ask the British, French, Italians, and our other NATO allies to chip in. Once done, can we talk about the need for moderation in that region? For madrasses to stop spewing anti-Western rhetoric? To grant women equal rights? To educate a population that is ill-equipped for the 21st century? To modernize economies that are based solely on fossil fuels?

In other words, please take your time and come up with a thoughtful strategy, Mr. President. Do not allow the critics in Congress or the press, who are going to kick the shit out of you regardless, dictate what you do. Getting it right is much more important than getting it done fast. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Community Policing

In the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, several ideas have been floated to mitigate the chances that more young black men will end up dead as a result of interactions with police. Among those ideas are two that bear some additional explanation because they seem, on the surface, to make good sense, but need to be understood in broader context.

One idea that is gaining popularity is the idea that the police force should reflect the diversity of the community it serves. The theory being that people who are either from that community or reflect its ethnic or racial make-up will be more humane and less confrontational, unlike Ferguson, which quickly devolved after Brown's murder into something resembling a combat zone. I do not disagree with this objective, but would qualify it in several ways. First, there is nothing precluding officers, regardless of race, from becoming better versed in the needs of the community. In impoverished areas, the law abiding folks are every bit as invested in keeping their neighborhoods safe as the cops are. In many areas, if only the cops would take a little more time to walk their beats and get to know those residents, they would be amazed to find out about this convergence of interests. Doing that is not predicated on your skin color or your station in life, but rather, a legitimate interest in understanding the needs of the people you serve. 

Second, and this is an uncomfortable truth, but some areas are simply not going to have enough qualified candidates to fill officer openings (assuming any exist, more on that below). For example, in Camden, New Jersey, less than 7% of residents in that city over the age of 25 have a college degree, a level of education more and more police departments prefer (if not require). In situations such as these, the laudable goal of diversity may not be best served by simply filling spots based on that objective. 

Third, officer training to limit the use of "quality of life" and other nominal offenses that are too often used as a pretext to arrest someone and get them into the "system" is long overdue. Not only does this type of policing exacerbate negative relations between communities and police, it clogs jails and courts, punishes those arrested with fines and levies that are often difficult to pay (and lead to additional penalties, bench warrants, and the rest). 

Finally, and as others have mentioned, better police training in deescalation tactics, improving reporting transparency, and community relations would also go a long way toward improving relationships. Meeting with neighborhood groups, faith-based organizations, visiting schools, and participating in events like the recent "National Night Out" are all ways that bridges can be built between law enforcement and the community. Indeed, the idea of "community policing" is not a novel one; however, at least here in New Jersey, where some of our largest cities, including Newark, Camden, and Trenton (all of whom also have sky high crime rates) laid off hundreds of police officers when the bottom dropped out of the economy, leadership must be exercised to rethink how resources are allocated, improve officer training, and consider how communities view those who wear the uniform. 
The other idea you hear a lot about is the need for officers to be equipped with cameras, either in their cars or on their person. Again, a perfectly sensible idea that has been shown, at least with regard to officer "body cams" to reduce citizen complaints in one city that started using them. That said, no one talks about the cost of these devices. Not to be all green eyeshade, but in many places where one assumes talking heads think this equipment should be used, the coffers are dry. Again, here in New Jersey, many cities can't afford to maintain staffing levels, how do you expect them (really, their city councils and mayors) to pay for this equipment when they can't keep officers employed? If the federal government is willing to pay the upfront costs of these devices and leave the maintenance to local departments, that might be one solution, but to expect a city like Irvington, New Jersey, which is desperately poor, to come up with the money for cameras is not realistic. 

Don't get me wrong, I do think, when possible, a city's police force should look like it and that officers should don cameras or have cameras mounted in their vehicles, but that isn't always possible (and is not a panacea regardless). Getting officers invested in the betterment of the community, knowing the people they protect and serve, and extending a hand in partnership are all things that can be done without cost, just an investment of time and caring. 

It is also important to note that improving community/police interactions needs to go hand-in-hand with longer-term efforts in places that are struggling - that includes in education, after-school programs, job training, and a range of other programs that can gradually help improve the quality of life for people in impoverished areas. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In Rizzo We Trust

When the vagabond Montreal Expos landed in Washington, D.C. by way of a part-time "home" in Puerto Rico, with a barren farm system and the indifference of Major League Baseball, which would have happily contracted the Expos, but instead, pocketed $450 million for their sale, fans in the nation's capital who had waited more than three decades for baseball's return could look past the thin roster and celebrate a surprising 81-81 record in the team's inaugural season.

That first season began propitiously, with the team riding a hot start to a surprising division lead, but faded badly down the stretch. Ownership was learning on the fly, entrusting veteran GM Jim Bowden to stock the team on a threadbare budget while a new stadium arose along the DC waterfront. The results were predictable - a string of sub-.500 seasons with instantly forgettable players rotating through the lineup and diminishing crowds. 

One acquisition Bowden made, however, would never lead Sports Center or make the front page of the Washington Post sports page, but it probably did more to change the fortunes of the franchise than any other - he hired a well-regarded scout from the Arizona Diamondbacks named Mike Rizzo. When Bowden slinked out of town in advance of a federal investigation into the team's Latin American operation, Rizzo was promoted to General Manager (first on an interim basis, but ultimately, on a permanent basis) and set about rebuilding the team into the steady contender it has become. 

It is hard to overstate Rizzo's profound influence on the team and its success. Whether it was through strategic trades that brought key pieces like Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Tanner Roark, or Doug Fister, draft picks like Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, or Bryce Harper, or others, like Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and Derek Norris, who got packaged in a deal for Gio Gonzalez, Rizzo and his scouts have found gems throughout the draft that have created a steady stream of home grown talent to stock the major league squad but also act as trade bait when a player like Fister or Span comes available. To this combination Rizzo has made strategic free agent signings, the most notable being Jayson Werth, who, some initial stumbles aside, has not only performed at a level justifying the $126 million contract he signed, but has become the glue that holds the team together. Slick fielding Adam LaRoche has manned first base admirably for three years and provided solid run production. 

The team announced its arrival as a contender in 2012, a year, or maybe even two ahead of what many thought was possible, but the 98 win season ended on a sour note, as the team coughed up a six run lead in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS. A bumpy 2013 still resulted in an 86-76 record, but fell well short of expectations, with the team missing the playoffs. This year, after a slow start, the team is firing on all cylinders, even with the loss of third baseman cum left fielder Ryan Zimmerman spending much of the season on the disabled list. At the trade deadline, Rizzo again showed his acumen, poaching Asdrubal Cabrera from the Indians for prospect Zach Walters (another Rizzo find, coming over to the Nats in a deal for veteran pitcher Jason Marquis) and claiming veteran lefty Matt Thornton off waivers from the Yankees. Both men have helped stabilize two needs - Cabrera, a sure handed second baseman can also play shortstop and Thornton provides veteran experience out of the bullpen.  

Of course, none of this means the Nats will ever win a World Series. The fickleness of the playoffs is such that the team entering the post-season with the best regular season record has only won the World Series about 20% of the time since 1995. The Red Sox, who finished last in the AL East two years ago, won it all last year, before falling right back to the bottom of the standings this year.  But what Rizzo has done is mold a team that has a four to five year window where it will be very good and have a chance to win it all every year. That is no small thing. The farm system, which has been shorn of some of its talent in service of the major league club is again flush with everyday and pitching talent. And that talent is what will be needed to sustain the team through the end of this decade as young veterans like Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond are in line for nine-figure contract extensions in DC (or elsewhere) before a conversation even starts about Strasburg or Harper, both of whom could command close to $200 million when they hit the free agent market. 

For now, enjoy your bounty, Washington. We have a perennial playoff contender being built "the right way," a GM who pilfers talent from other teams so often he should be arrested for robbery, and a bunch of guys it is very easy to root for (unlike the football team and its execrable owner). 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Review - Bloody Spring

For most Americans, the military aspects of the Civil War are known in broad strokes – the firing on Fort Sumter, the epic battle at Gettysburg, and Lee’s grudging surrender to Grant at Appomatox. While Ken Burns’s wildly successful documentary introduced millions to other conflicts, at Antietem, Chickamauga, and Vicksburg, unless you are a “buff” with granular knowledge of one side’s regiments or some obscure dust-up that occurred in a remote corner of Georgia, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Spring 1864 Overland campaign is often overlooked, but in Joseph Wheelan’s new book Bloody Spring, Forty Days That Sealed The Fate of the Confederacy, we learn that this six week period of relentless fighting was as important to the Union victory as repelling Pickett’s Charge.

1864 was a perilous time in our nation’s history. Lincoln’s re-election was far from assured, Robert E. Lee had spirited his defeated troops back to Virginia after his loss at Gettysburg, and from the western theater came Ulysses S. Grant, a hard charging (and some said too hard drinking) general who had choked off half the South by defeating rebel troops at Vicksburg. Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General and overall commander of all Union forces spoke to Lincoln’s frustration at the Army’s failure to leverage its superior manpower and personnel to beat Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the President’s desire to hand authority to a commander who would stand and fight. On the other hand, the South was relying on war fatigue to either oust President Lincoln (whose opponent in 1864 was his former commandeering officer, George McClellan, who was running on a negotiated peace platform) or result in its recognition by other nations like Great Britain to reach the same result. In the alternative, the South hoped for a decisive battlefield victory based on Lee’s strategic and tactical skill; however, Sherman’s march through Georgia, the Army of the Potomac’s vastly superior (in soldiers and material) numbers, and the crippling blockade that starved the South of basic necessities, made this scenario highly improbable. Indeed, the North’s advantages suggested that the right man, with the right temperament, could snuff the rebellion and secure Lee’s surrender.

Grant’s elevation was far from ordained. His military career was choppy and he was not even in the army at the time fighting began; but through dogged determination, a killer’s instinct, and an utter lack of remorse for the casualties his troops inflicted and suffered, Grant’s reputation as a fighter par excellence was cemented when Vicksburg fell. When handed the reins of the entire Union force, he developed a multi-pronged strategy that relied on Sherman’s continued penetration of the deep South and the Army of the James’s menacing of areas below Richmond to squeeze Lee and his forces like an anaconda choking out its victim. When Union troops crossed the Rapidan River to begin the Overland campaign, Grant signaled a point of no return – he would not retreat even in the face of battlefield setbacks.

And with this backdrop in mind, Wheelan sets a furious pace through brisk storytelling and evocative language that places the reader in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Wilderness, the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, and the war councils of Grant and Lee. Wheelan’s treatment of his main protagonists is judicious. While Lee is certainly portrayed as the better strategist, deftly moving his troops around and battling heroically against a greater force, Wheelan is not afraid to point out his mistakes. Similarly, Grant is not shown to be a mindless warrior piling bodies into the maw; his nimble removal of the entire Army of the Potomac from the stalemate at Cold Harbor was a masterful feat involving the laying of a 2,100 foot pontoon bridge that ferried 100,000 troops across the Pamunkey River without Lee even knowing about it. Had Grant’s underlings moved aggressively after this daring river crossing, it would have reached Petersburg ahead of Lee’s troops, effectively bottling up the Army of Northern Virginia and bringing the war to a close. Indeed, Wheelan suggests that Grant’s shortcomings as a general were less about his tactical or strategic acumen, but rather, someone saddled with an overly cautious staff whose postponements and reluctance to engage the enemy left their commander frustrated, his objectives unmet, and victory just out of reach.

Wheelan admirably captures the scope of carnage wrought in this short time. The six weeks of fighting resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and even more injured and mangled. It is not a pleasant story, but one well told. To sit back in 2014 and attempt to imagine casualty numbers that surpassed, in a single day, all those killed in the Iraq War is sobering to say the least. That Grant continued his grinding progress even as the body count mounted earned him the sobriquet of “butcher,” but Lee’s casualties, while less in sheer numbers, were greater as a percentage of his overall force. Unlike Grant, who could rely on a fresh supply of soldiers, the Confederacy was tapped out and incapable of sustaining the battle over the long haul.

Wheelan also takes care to flesh out the biographies and personalities of those around these two larger than life figures. In this way, the leadership challenges of each is brought into sharper relief. For Grant, it is commanders reluctant to charge and a direct report (Meade) who teeters between paranoia and self-pity as his authority is steadily eroded. Lee, on the other hand, is in many ways a team of one, as he loses his cavalry leader Jeb Stuart during the campaign, while his de facto number two, James Longstreet, is seriously wounded. It is clear from Wheelan’s storytelling that Lee is the linchpin of his entire force, with his men furiously demanding his return to the rear any time he nears the battlefield, while Grant’s men are generally respectful, he does not engender the same blind loyalty.

On one level, this is understandable. As Grant’s troops ram into Lee’s fortified barricades, the body count skyrockets, and the Confederates offer grudging respect for the one Union general they have met who will stand and fight; but the futility of these charges is captured by the line grunts, whose diaries show a poignant fatalism, particularly as the lethality of attempting to breach the breastwork defenses Lee’s troops mastered becomes more and more apparent. Meanwhile, the Union generals’ complicity in undue slaughter is clear – be it through their inability to press advantages or stubbornness in futile attacks at impregnable defensive positions. Indeed, as a military side note, the rapid evolution of trench warfare even within this short season of combat is startling and an ominous foretelling of World War I. The Overland campaign was among the first to take place behind fortified lines and across empty spaces that quickly turned into killing fields.

Ultimately, Grant’s aggression and Lee’s dwindling forces allowed the former to steadily make his way toward Petersburg, where a months-long siege that stretched into 1865 finally choked off the Army of Northern Virginia, who attempted a break out in early April, only to be cornered near Appomatox Court House. While the Petersburg siege could fill its own book, Wheelan’s superficial accounting of those long months is one of his few missteps – an afterthought that barely covers two pages, but could have, in a slightly longer epilogue, provided a more fitting cap to his story. That said, Bloody Spring is a worthy addition to the voluminous Civil War record.