Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bush 2016

It is poor form among the chattering class to speculate about the election AFTER this election, but if history is any guide (and it usually is), do not at all be surprised if the Presidential nominee selected at the 2016 GOP Convention is John Ellis "Jeb" Bush.  A third Bush carrying the presidential banner fits neatly into the manner in which the Republicans select their nominees and will represent the greatest likelihood of taking back the White House if President Obama is re-elected in 2012.

While there are no certainties in politics, modern presidential elections are actually far more predictable than the vagaries of the primary season suggest.  For example, one party holding the White House for three consecutive terms is rare.  Since 1952, the White House changed hands every eight years with the exception of the 1980 and 1988 elections, the former being an outlier itself (the first time a sitting incumbent running for re-election had been beaten since 1932) and the latter perhaps explicable for reasons including the poor choice of challenger (Gov. Michael Dukakis).  While two recent presidents seeking second terms have been denied that honor (Ford is not counted here as he was not elected president in 1972), that too is uncommon, having occurred just two times other times in the 20th century - in 1912, President Taft ran a weak third to the winner, Woodrow Wilson, and the "Bull Moose" candidate, former President Theodore Roosevelt and, as noted above, 1932, when President Hoover, impotent in the face of the Great Depression, was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt.

While it is true that President Obama is faced with a limp economy, nagging unemployment and the ever present risk of an unforeseen event completely scrambling the race, he has two things going for him that are strongly predictive of success - incumbency and money.  Incumbency is discussed above, but his ability to raise enormous sums of money for his re-election cannot be understated.  The President raised nearly $750 million in 2008 and had so much money that toward the end of the campaign, granular level ads were being placed in video games and high level spending was done on a 30 minute commercial in prime time in the days before the election.  That money also paid for a sophisticated get out the vote campaign, detailed targeting of voters and of course, more TV, Internet and radio ads, messaging and outreach than was ever done by any other candidate in American history.  

There is no reason to think that the same will not happen again in 2012.  The President may do a mediocre job of defending his record behind the podium in the White House briefing room, but out on the stump, he's a very effective campaigner, has a substantial record of accomplishment to run on, an intransigent foe to run against (Congress) and a likely opponent easily defined as both a venal corporate raider and finger in the wind flip-flopper who has taken radically different positions on a number of issues in the service of his political career.  While Willard Romney's Republican foes have been more interested in defining themselves as his conservative alternative in lieu of tackling him directly, the President will have no such limitation or restriction.  Indeed, what conservatives and "tea party" voters will find out, thanks to those hundreds of millions of dollars the President will have to spend, is that Governor Romney's political slipperiness is transparently easy to define and his shifting positions on issues like abortion, union rights, health care and his tenure as a buyout specialist at Bain Capital will not play well the longer the campaign goes and the more advertising time is piled against him.  The President may not win an easy election in 2012, but he is likely to win.

Which brings us to Jeb Bush.  Conservatives, if nothing else, understand the long view of politics.  While Romney may end up being sacrificed at that altar, there is some logic behind such a decision.  If conservatives are unhappy with the prospect of an Obama second term, they also know that their success in stonewalling him during his first term, combined with the likelihood of a divided Congress, (even if the Democrats take the House, Senate Republicans have created clear precedent that they can and will filibuster anything/everything to death in the Senate, so even if the Democrats retain control (itself a questionable supposition) absent a change in the chamber's rules, more gridlock will occur) is likely to make any achievements by President Obama modest.  

Using this political calculus, 2016 will be a far more hospitable environment for Republicans.  Like 2000, when deep antagonism toward President Clinton was a factor in mobilizing Republicans, the vitriol with which many on the right view President Obama will drive turnout, but what will be needed is a "brand name" that can unite the disparate parts of the Republican coalition and appeal to enough independents to bring the GOP back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  While there is a "deep bench" of Republicans who wake up every day looking in the mirror humming "Hail to the Chief" thinking they can inhabit that role, the reality is that like a slew of blue chip prospects, many, if not all, won't pan out.  Today's flavor of the month may be completely forgotten (or voted out of office) in the time between 2012 and 2016.  Further, the nominating process of the Republican party disfavors first time candidates with one glaring exception - "name brand recognition."  Since 1952, Republicans invariably go for one of three candidates - (1) the prior loser making a second (or third) attempt at the nomination - Nixon (1968), Reagan (1980), McCain (2008) (and likely Romney in 2012); (2) the incumbent Eisenhower (1956), Nixon (1960 as sitting VP and 1972), Ford (sort of in 1976), Reagan (1984), George H.W. Bush (as sitting VP in 1988 and for re-election in 1992) and George W. Bush (2004); or (3) the "name brand" - Eisenhower (1952) or George W. Bush (2000).  Indeed, in the 15 presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, only Barry Goldwater was able to get the nomination of the GOP as a first-time candidate without being either the General who won World War II or the well-funded son of a former President.  

Bush has several clear assets.  First, while the Bush family name may not be held in high regard generally, within the Republican party, it is still the gold standard.  That means fundraising, staff and the infrastructure that Jeb Bush will need to run for President will be there for him.  While the country at-large may not miss Jeb's brother, the reality is that their dad received just 37.5% of the vote in 1992, the lowest for a major party candidate since 1972 and the lowest for an incumbent since 1912; however, the country sorta, kinda elected his son eight years later.  Republicans hungry to take back the White House, as they were in 2000, will be more inclined to support a person they perceive to be a "sure thing," like the conservative, but thoughtful former two-term Governor of a major swing state, than anyone else.

Moreover, one of Bush's other benefits is that his term as Florida Governor ended in 2007, before all the economic calamities that befell the country and will, in its way, be the "record" he defines himself  by but with the ancillary benefit of not being able to be tarred with anemic growth or incendiary social issue policies that some Republican governors have instituted recently.  When you put these two ideas together, what you have is a known commodity in politics that Republicans tend to like.  Someone who can articulate a message, has a record that moderates its profile (Jeb, like his brother George, did work on issues like immigration and education that appeal to middle class voters) and can raise a lot of money to run for President.  Up and coming politicians like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence might be attractive in the abstract, but they have present-day policies and politics that either will not play with the broad middle of the country or simply do not have the gravitas or experience that the GOP favors in its nominees.

While there are many things that might happen between now and November 2016 (not the least of which might be an Obama loss), all other things being equal, the GOP should be prepared for the third coming of the Bush clan (and maybe even a second Clinton/Bush battle, but that's another story ...)  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Music Never Stops, But The Playlist Sure Sucks

I am a Deadhead, have been since July 13, 1989 when I saw the band play at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.  I got 'on the bus' to borrow from Tom Wolfe's book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and have been on ever since.  I toured with the group until Garcia's passing in 1995, seeing them in venues all the way up and down the East Coast and deep into the heartland.  My appreciation of the group has withstood the passing of Brent Mydland, Jerry Garcia and Vince Welnick, a marriage (and divorce), life changes both great and small and the passage of more than 22 years.  In fact, I've been a Deadhead for more than half my life, which is why I feel sufficiently qualified to tell the people who program the Grateful Dead channel on Sirius that it sucks - big time.  

In theory, a channel devoted to nothing but the music of the Grateful Dead makes eminent sense.  The band, which played more than 2,000 concerts over 30 years, has a dedicated and loyal fan base that collects its music with passionate obsession, each member had various side projects during the group's existence that generated further material, a number of studio albums were released and even after the passing of Garcia, the surviving band members have participated in various "reunion" tours and shows that keep the Dead's flame burning brightly.  Pulling away from the Dead itself, its influence on modern music has been seen everywhere from MTV's "Unplugged" to drum circles at the Occupy Wall Street protest.  Moreover, the band was very forward thinking in the way it marketed itself by encouraging the recording of its shows from its early days and circulating soundboard recordings to favored tapers over the years.  Indeed, so ubiquitous was the circulation of quality SBD recordings, that by 2004, a website called had essentially posted the so-called "vault" of the band's entire recorded history (the site, at the request of the surviving members, changed its policy in 2005 to limit access to SBD recordings - (

This is all to say that when Sirius announced it was launching a Grateful Dead channel, I for one was quite excited.  Imagine, all Dead, all the time.  No need to drag CDs into the car or spend hours searching the web for shows now verboten - just turn on the radio and listen.  Unfortunately, the Grateful Dead channel makes no sense from a programming perspective.  Essentially, the channel is an iTunes library on shuffle - regular programming, which comprises the majority of the day, jumps between the bands eras at random - a version of "Around and Around" from 1977 is followed by a "Touch of Grey" show opener from 1990 that bleeds into a studio version of "Easy Wind" from 1970 and may end with an Indigo Girls cover version of "Uncle John's Band."  The channel does air full concerts at 12 noon and 9 P.M. but they make no connection between the two.  The noon concert might be a late-era show from 1993 and the 9 P.M. concert an obscure gig from 1968.  Sometimes a "head set" is played featuring a fan's favorite songs, but even those don't create a logical "set" of music in the way the band ever created music.  There is very little original programming, a once a week "Tales from the Golden Road" where two hosts take calls from fans and incessantly plug upcoming concerts is the closest thing to interactive radio the channel produces. 

If this were not bad enough, the true failure of the channel is in its inability to incorporate the "vault" of music in the band's library.  There's no reason one should stumble across the same version of the same song in the course of a day or even a week, yet that happens with alarming frequency.  It seems as though the access to the vault is limited because much of the "shuffle" in the library comes from officially released material, not tracks from commercially unreleased shows.  This results in almost no music being played from the mid-1980s, when the recording equipment and method of equipment were notoriously troublesome and did not produce nearly the number of full SBD recordings that other eras have.  Indeed, the band has never commercially released a full show from 1984 or 1986 and has released fewer than 5 total from 1982, 1983 and 1985.  This omission is glaring in light of the fact that while *full* SBDs from that era may not be prevalent, enough material exists to incorporate into the rotation of music the channel plays.  Similarly, late era Dead (from the passing of Brent Mydland to the passing of Jerry Garcia) is underrepresented not because of a lack of material (if anything, 1990-95 probably has the most music available) but a seeming bias against recognizing that period as a fertile one in the band's history (which is arguable, but not an unreasonable assertion).  

The channel needs to be overhauled entirely by doing the following:

First, ditch the "shuffle" feature.  This accounts for at least two-thirds of the programming day and is awful.  It not only creates sonic dissonance for those who understand the difference between band periods like "Jazz is Dead"(1973-74) and "Primal Dead" (1968-70), but is inconsistent with the way *the band* played its music.  Bloc programming should be instituted that focuses on eras, as opposed to the random playing of music so that the songs flows more organically. More broadly, use the full library of music contained in the vault instead of relying so much on commercially released live material.  There is no reason an afternoon of programming can't be done around the music of, for example, 1992-95.  

Second, utilize interviews and historical context to pinpoint important shows or experiences in the band's history.  Instead of merely playing say, the first Branford Marsalis show (March 29, 1990) as a full-live concert, why not turn it into a special, weaving in interviews with band members, road crew, even fans who were at the show, into the airing of the concert to discuss that night's experience.  This could also be done in the context of studio albums, much like the VH1 Special that focused on the making of American Beauty and Workingman's Dead.  This could be a once a week, or even once a month event.

Third, air live concerts that connect to one another and air only one concert per day.  For example, why not focus a week of live concerts on a a particular run of shows from one venue (i.e., Omni 1991, Capital Center 1989, Greek Theater 1985, etc.) or tours (Spring 1990, Spring 1977, etc.) so that the band's playing can be appreciated holistically from a particular period of time.  

Fourth, incorporate, as separate and discrete programming, non-Grateful Dead material, including performances and music from spin off bands like Further, The Dead, Phil and Friends, Rat Dog, the Jerry Garcia Band, Legion of Mary, Bobby and the Midnights, etc. and non-Dead artists that have covered Grateful Dead songs, been influenced by the music or are artists whose music the Dead plays (i.e., Bob Dylan). Present this music at scheduled times or within a bloc discussed above instead of randomly sprinkling it in during ordinary programming.  

Fifth, utilize the band's surviving members and organization more often.  Record interviews with Bob Weir or Phil Lesh about the band's history, where the inspiration from songs came from, what the show experience was like in 1971 or 1984 or 1995.  Talk to Mickey Hart or Bill Kruetzmann about "the beam," their Drums segment and what influences them musically.  Highlight the work of David Lemeiux and how he maintains the band's official archive, what goes in to mixing, producing and releasing shows commercially (and how they are selected).  Talk to roadies and ticket sellers, concert promoters and fans about their experiences with the band and what it meant to them.  In short, make the experience more interactive and collective, two things the band worked really hard over the years to do.  

Lastly, consider scaling back the 24 hour-a-day programming to 12 or 18 hours if it results in better programming.  I know, some will kick and scream that content should be new and fresh all the time, but if Howard Stern has proven anything, it's that true fans will accept recycled programming if done well.  Or, run 24 hour-a-day programming Monday-Friday but do "best of" programming on the weekend that condenses the 5 days of original programming into 2 days of music.

The Grateful Dead channel is in desperate need of a makeover.  It fails to take full advantage of the band's rich history of recordings, diverse musical eras and access to members, crew and fans.  By modifying the way in which music is presented to the audience, focusing on eras of the band's career instead of everything at the same time and making the channel more interactive, the Grateful Dead channel would be immeasurably improved.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dan LeBatard Is Highly Entertaining

About six weeks ago, ESPN2 began airing "Dan LeBatard Is Highly Questionable," yet another sports-related gabfest in the mold of the long-running (and Emmy-award winning) "Pardon the Interruption" and the less enjoyable (yet oddly still airing) "Around the Horn."  LeBatard had been a frequent guest host on PTI and his opinions, which veered toward the contrarian, and his attitude which careened toward train wreck TV, seemed tailor-made for a show of his own.  

As it turns out, while some of Dan's opinions might be highly questionable, his show is not.  The producers of "DLHQ" (the show's Twitter handle, plugged at the end of every show) knew what they were doing in pairing Dan with his father, Gonzalo "Papi" LeBatard, a Cuban immigrant and sports fan whose banter with his son comes across as natural and genuine and, as the show (and its stars) has started to find its groove, become an entertaining personality in his own right, discussing everything from his amorous feelings to his discolored toe nails and, to date, spot on game predictions.  Papi's cluelessness about more contemporary pop cultural references and stumbling over tricky sports names (several swings and misses at Ndamukong Suh almost brought a segment to a halt) give the show a comfortable and familiar feeling, like you are discussing sports around the dinner table or while the game is on TV. 

Dan too has shown that he is more than just a guy who goes on PTI and screams BAM at the camera when he's introduced.  If anything, LeBatard has dialed down his rambunctiousness without losing any of his edge.  Perhaps the presence of his father helps, but LeBatard does provide interesting opinions about sports and has shown his interviewing chops by diverging from focusing his questions on topics of the day in favor of using the few minutes he gets with his subjects to ask them about their backgrounds, childhoods, and other topics that are not typically covered in short interview segments.  In doing so, LeBatard generally succeeds in making his interview subjects relatable, something particularly true in his interview with Joe Namath, who shared personal reflections on his relationship with his father, a topic that seemed to move Papi in a meaningful way.  Other stand out interviews LeBatard has conducted include segments with Bernard Hopkins, Ozzie Guillen and Robert Smith.  

The format of the show itself is familiar to viewers of PTI, a rapid-fire run through the day's sports topics with an interview segment wedged in between.  But the format of the show is immaterial.  The chemistry between Dan and Papi is what makes the show shine.  While the producers did put in some small twists, for example, the closing segment, "si o no," where the disembodied "producer" asks Dan and Papi if they are interested in watching particular sporting events that night, usually weave in a non-sports related, and often ridiculous reality show like "Rat Pig," the banter between Dan and his dad, the latter of whom is often unfamiliar with the premise of reality shows, is what makes the show so amusing.  Of late, further wrinkles have been added, like Kimbo Slice randomly appearing at the top of one recent episode, a zookeeper appearing with a vulture and some sort of large rodent on another, and the occasional call to Dan's mom (and Papi's wife) to discuss Papi's quirks, be it hiding cookies in the house or the aforementioned toenail discoloration.

Having worked out some of the bugs early on, like explaining why the show has quick edits and figuring out where/how to insert the "producer" to probe for further explanation, DLHQ is coming into its own as an integral part of the ESPN lineup.  It also shows that likability and chemistry between the hosts is far more critical to a program's entertainment value than how its formatted or what subjects are discussed. When it comes to DLHQ I am intrigued, I am very intrigued (two arm pumps).  

Monday, October 24, 2011


AMC's hit TV show Mad Men entered its fourth season having pulled a massive storyline "game changer" to close Season 3 - the break-up of advertising agency Sterling Cooper and the divorce of its main character, Don Draper, from his wife Betty.  If this was not America and entertainment was not a consumer product that corporations monetize, the show would have ended on the ambiguous final shot of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" - Don, having hung up the phone by wishing his soon-to-be ex-wife well in her life, opens the door to the makeshift office of the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce - an open room in The Pierre Hotel.  This parting view offers hope and optimism tinged with uncertainty, much like our own lives and experiences.  The first three seasons of Mad Men formed a perfect narrative arc that slowly but inexorably destroyed the unblemished (albeit phony) facade of Donald Francis Draper, Creative Director, Sterling Cooper, married father of three, down low philanderer and cipher to all around him until, broken, he is forced to pick up the pieces of his life and start anew.

Of course, TV *is* a consumer product and Mad Men is one of the most critically acclaimed television programs of the last 30 years, so no matter how elegant the 39 episodes that made up Seasons 1-3 were in telling the story of Don Draper and the other characters in the program, ending the Draper marriage and launching Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was a logical plot device to extend the series, continue exploring shifting social, political and gender mores and deepen the development of the show regulars.  Beginning 10 months after the close of Season 3, the fourth season of Mad Men delivers a giant wink to its viewers with the very first line of the first episode, when a reporter interviewing Don asks him - "Who is Don Draper?"- a question, writ large, at the core of the show.  As a framing device, the early scenes of "Public Relations" do one of the many things the writers of this show excel at, allowing the action and dialogue to fill in the temporal gaps while paying due attention to the window dressing of shifting style, attire and culture. The agency has moved from its modest hotel room to prime real estate in the Time Warner Building, the partners hustle new clients and the hierarchy that once separated Bert and Roger (and to a lesser extent Don) from the rest of the staff has been removed. 

Unlike seasons past, where Don and his life were the clear and dominant center of the narrative, one of the most compelling parts of Season 4 is how the writers widen the show's lens to focus on the other main characters and how the 1960s, now halfway over, but in many ways just starting, begin to affect their lives. These changes are shown most clearly in the story lines of the main female characters, Peggy, Joan and Betty, but also in the smaller female roles of Sally, Dr. Faye Miller (a street wise but formally educated psychologist who conducts market research for the agency), and the secretaries in the office pool.   Indeed, whereas prior seasons sometimes fell back on a cliché of grab ass, casual sexual harassment in the workplace, Stepford wife suburban ennui and mistress as sexual object, Season 4 is a rich tapestry for exploring the challenges that women faced in the mid-1960s in balancing work and home, the expectation of marriage and children and sexual liberation. 

Nowhere are these competing tensions seen more clearly than in the person of Peggy Olsen.  Having been tapped as Don's number two in the new agency, Peggy is clearly feeling her creative oats and desires professional advancement; however, she also wrestles with the societal expectation of marriage and children.  Peggy takes responsibility for firing an obnoxious underling, blows off a fancy birthday dinner with her boyfriend and family in favor of pitching ideas with Don ("I know what I'm supposed to want, but nothing is as important as this office"), and, in the season's final episode, when the agency is teetering, lands a new client through ingenuity and pluck.  Peggy battles for respect and advancement in the workplace throughout the season and shows, by its conclusion, that she is beginning to master the finer points of advertising and client development and has grown immeasurably as a copywriter. 

By the same token she wants marriage and children, just on her terms.  This nuance is the seed of what will become in decades to come one of the defining issues for women - how to balance the desire for a rewarding career and family, but because this idea is relatively unknown in 1965, it weighs heavily on Peggy. When she runs into Peter's wife Trudy in the bathroom on her 26th birthday, Trudy reassures Peggy that "26 is still very young." During a focus group, Don spies Peggy trying on Dr. Miller's wedding ring and Peggy has a big blow out argument with Freddie Rumson over the meaning of Pond's Cold Cream as a product to help women attract men for marriage.  Even so, Peggy is removed from the secretarial pool, who commiserate over the bad behavior of ex-boyfriends, beauty tips, and define themselves entirely by their ability to attract men.  When Allison, Don's secretary, dissolves into tears at the thought of a drunken romp that Don tried to forget but meant the world to her, she expects Peggy to sympathize with her (wrongly assuming Don had slept with Peggy too), but instead, Peggy snaps "your problem is not my problem, get over it."

At the same time, Peggy is very much a young woman who wants to experience and enjoy life as a liberated 20-something in New York City.  Peggy's liberal bent, which was shown in prior seasons through her smoking marijuana, befriending Kurt, a homosexual, and healthy sexual appetite, continues here.  Her stodgy boyfriend is jettisoned for Abe, a socialist rabble rouser, she is non-plussed by an advance made by new friend Joyce ("your boyfriend does not own your vagina" ... "yes, but he's renting it") at an art house party and she becomes more socially aware by challenging the policies of a client, Fillmore Automotive Parts, in not hiring blacks (to which Don retorts, "our job is to make men like Fillmore, not make Fillmore like negroes [sic].").  This open-mindedness notwithstanding, Peggy is savvy enough to understand the commercial (monetary) value of the art she sees at the house party and seems surprised when the artist who produced it does not see it too. 

While Peggy hovers near the ground that is slowly becoming the women's liberation movement, a few paces removed from her is Joan Harris, whose competing desires for stability and family on the one hand and a successful career on the other, show how even a few years age difference can color how one views the world.  While Joan and Peggy are separated by less than 10 years, they inhabit different professional and cultural spaces.  Joan's view is backward looking and she clings to the middle class ideal even as its pulled out from under her at every turn.  Her doctor husband enlists in the Army so he can be a surgeon and is sent to Vietnam.  Her curvaceousness, which garnered the attention of powerful older men when she was younger, is now mocked and ridiculed by a younger generation who see her as a combination of shrew and harlot to be objectified on the one hand and disobeyed on the other. Although her abilities as an office manager are unmatched, when she receives a promotion to Director of Agency Operations, it is without a raise.  She can turn a low-rent Christmas party into a bacchanalian festival in no time, but what she senses is that the life she wanted for herself, with a husband who provided for her and children to take care of, is slipping away. When a heat of the moment sexual encounter with Roger results in her getting pregnant, instead of undergoing a third abortion, she grasps for a final chance at motherhood, as fraught with risk as that decision is.

If Joan sought a cautionary tale on the peril of suburban domesticity, she would need look no further than Don’s ex-wife Betty. Having run off with divorcee Henry Francis, Betty finds herself locked in the same trap of her own creation.  Same house, same kids, same car, just a different man sleeping next to her.  She adamantly refuses to move out of the home she and Don shared even though she and Henry end up paying Don rent to live there, is belittled as a "silly woman" by Henry's mother and gets drunk at an important dinner meeting Henry is having with a political connection after seeing Don dining with a younger woman.  Betty's childishness comes into sharp relief over the course of the season in her bonding with Sally's child psychologist Dr. Edna, her jealousy toward Sally over Glenn, the neighborhood boy Betty befriended back in Season 1, petty jealousy toward Don ("he does not get to have this family and that"), firing of long-time maid Carla (even refusing to write a letter of recommendation for her) and immaturity any time she does not get her way.  Indeed, after an argument with Henry during the final episode, there is a clear implication that she sets up a "chance" meeting with Don at their former home in Ossining in the hope of mending fences with him and maybe even trying to seduce him.  Betty's immersion in the suburban, stay-at-home mother model makes her the least equipped of the main female characters to adapt in the rapidly changing 1960s.   

The fast pace of cultural and personal change is being felt under Betty's roof by her precocious pre-teen daughter Sally.  Sally's character development is pronounced during this season and the impact of her parents divorce is clear.  Her cries for attention pinball between petulance, as seen when she acts out at the Francis family Thanksgiving dinner and when she lashes out at her father when he returns her to Betty after Sally runs away to the city ("I'm not going.  I hate it there."), and self-expression, by cutting her own hair to get attention and masturbating during a sleepover party. For her behavior, she is sent to therapy with matronly Dr. Edna, who, quickly sizing up Betty (and Betty's maternal limitations), steers Sally toward a course of conflict avoidance and passivity.  While this strategy works for a little while, the final straw between Sally and Betty occurs when Sally befriends Glenn, Betty discovers the friendship and forbids it.  This becomes the tipping point that finally pushes Betty to leave Ossining but not before firing Carla after finding out she allowed Glenn into the house to say goodbye to Sally.

The writers utilize a subtle touch with the female characters and go to great lengths to show the nuance and complexity of how women (and girls) had to navigate a society that was moving quickly into a modern age that would uproot long-held gender stereotypes. In this way, we are shown that greater choice was not an entirely positive thing for women at that time.  Five years before, housewife or secretary appeared to be the two basic life options, but as the workplace opened in different ways, new challenges were created.  Dr. Miller wears a wedding ring even though she is not married to ward off men, but takes the ring off when she’s conducting a focus group. She is put in the position of defending her life choices but feels diminished by them. Betty’s role of mother and housewife, prized just a few years ago, now appears marginal and limited. Peggy and Joan, both of whom are veterans of the workforce, still struggle against stereotypes and fight for recognition.  In the wake of Don’s announcement of his engagement to Megan, they have the following exchange:

Peggy:  You know, I just saved this company.  I signed the first new business since Lucky Strike left.  But it’s not as important as getting married.  Again.
Joan: Well, I was just made Director of Agency Operations.  A title, no money of course. And if they poured champagne, it must have been while I was pushing the mail cart.
Peggy: A pretty face comes along and everything goes out the window.
Joan:  Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job.
Peggy: That’s bullshit.
<Both Laugh>

Peggy and Joan, who at times circled each other warily, share a moment of solidarity crafted out of a mutual feeling of disrespect and lack of appreciation. They foreshadow similar challenges women would face as more of them entered the job market and had to struggle for validation and acceptance. 

From the other side of the spectrum, the male characters are also experiencing a certain amount of dislocation.  Long accustomed to complete hegemony in the workplace, a wink and nod attitude toward marital infidelity and generally treating women more as objects than equal partners, as 1965 dawns, the men of Mad Men begin to see a world that looks less familiar to them.  Nowhere do we see this disorientation more intensely than in the person of Roger Sterling, who, although to the manner born, now finds his place at work marginalized.  Having never worked hard to corral accounts because of the long-term (and highly lucrative) American Tobacco (Lucky Strike) portfolio, Roger's skills as an account manager have eroded and he spends much of his time on a self-indulgent memoir filled with insider gossip and slurred memories of a life of little effort or struggle. A man locked in his past, Roger retains deep bitterness about World War II, which he shows in his antipathy toward the Japanese businessmen of Honda Motor Company, who are interviewing agencies to market its motorcycle and is wistful for a life he never had with Joan ("all the good stuff was with you.").  When the opportunity arises to write a different future, Roger is ambivalent.  The loss of Lucky Strike and Joan's accidental pregnancy offers Roger a second (third?) chance, but his behavior belies his cowardice.  With Lucky Strike, he buries the bad news, fakes a trip to North Carolina to try and “reclaim” the lost account and, when he admits the rouse to Joan and she snaps at him, whines "don't yell at me."  Similarly, instead of fully supporting the idea of her keeping the baby, he visits a doctor with her to get an abortion referral (though gentleman he is, he does offer to pay for the procedure). 

Roger's polar opposite is Peter Campbell, whose professional development and personal growth turn him into the stable core of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Having shed his entitled attitude and gotten his hands dirty in the business, Peter rises in Season 4 as an account manager just coming into the prime of his career.  His care and attention to North American Aviation has turned it from a small account into a nearly $4 million a year billing.  When Trudy gets pregnant, he's ruthless enough to leverage his father-in-law's pride into expanding the Vick's Chemical portfolio, dumping Clearasil on a smaller agency and receiving back a larger set of consumer products in return.  Finally, when his former rival from Sterling Cooper, Ken Cosgrove, is recruited to work at SCDP, Peter quickly establishes the pecking order, disabusing Ken of any idea that they are still peers and further cements his standing when Ken refuses to use *his* father-in-law to cultivate new business after Lucky Strike leaves.  Pete's maturity is also shown in his refusal to consider leaving SCDP when Ted Chough offers him a name partnership in his firm and even when he debates tapping into his child's savings to help keep SCDP afloat when money becomes an issue at the end of the season.  Trudy ultimately delivers a baby girl and Peter's home life is far more normal than in seasons past, there is no philandering, no tantrums resulting in dinner being tossed off the balcony, and much less alcohol.  In short, Peter is a man growing into the responsibilities and obligations of an executive who is earning his stripes, has ceased taking shortcuts to the top and is growing as a husband and father. 

Although Season 4 offers a more expansive exploration of these supporting characters, the heart of the season and the show remains its fascination with the tortured psyche of Don Draper.  Having filled in the final pieces of Dick Whitman's backstory in Season 3, which tellingly opened with a flashback to Archie Whitman's visit to a prostitute after his wife delivers a stillborn child and ended with the senior Whitman dying in front of young Dick from a horse's frightened kick to the head, and stripping away both the personal and professional foundation upon which Don Draper functioned, Season 4 explores what happens to a man suddenly unmoored.  The early results are not promising.  Don's personal life is a shambles of bottomless glasses of Canadian Club, aggressive advances towards a rotating cast of women including his next door neighbor, secretary, 18-year old niece of Anna Draper, diner waitress, female advertising executive and Dr. Faye Miller, and a venality at work that serves to underscore the insecurity of his ego and need for validation (Peggy: “We are all here because of you.  All we want to do is please you.”).  If Season 3 closed the loop of Dick Whitman's entrance into the world and shoddy upbringing, the death of Anna Draper in Season 4 takes away the one person who Don Draper opened up to completely and forces him to confront his future without a true loved one. 

Anna's death is a central plot point of Season 4 and is handled in two parts.  In "The Good News," Don pays what he expects to be a brief visit to Anna on his way to Acapulco for New Year's.  The visit begins with Anna's niece Stephanie tagging along with Don and Anna to a local bar where Don and Anna engage in a post-mortem analysis of Don's failed marriage.  In discussing Betty's discovery of his true past, he says, "Once she knew who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again.  Which is why I never told her in the first place."  Even with all his professional success, material wealth and plaudits, not only did Don not see himself as good enough for a woman of Betty's background (Main Line upbringing and Seven Sisters college education) but knew from the get go that the woman he wanted to marry would not accept a "whore child" who rose from hardscrabble roots to earn everything he achieved.  Anna greets this intimacy compassionately, saying "I am sorry she broke your heart," to which Don, in a wonderfully self-aware moment, responds "I had it coming."  The catharsis which we expect from this admission is instead subverted later that evening when Don drives Stephanie home and she tells him that not only does Anna have terminal cancer and is unlikely to survive long, but that the prognosis is being withheld from her.  The following morning, Don wants to stay and help, to retain the best doctors and get second or third opinions, but he is reminded by Anna's sister that he is merely "a man, in a room, with a checkbook."  With that, Don chokes out a goodbye, knowing he will never see Anna again. 

The second part of this storyline occurs several episodes (and in "show time" months later) in "The Suitcase."  Don receives an urgent message to call Stephanie but refrains from doing so, knowing the call will only confirm what he already knows. Instead, he skips out on a client dinner and the Ali-Liston II fight to work on a pitch for Samsonite, tormenting Peggy into staying to help him even though it is her birthday and she has dinner plans with her boyfriend.  The evening is eventful for reasons unrelated to Anna's passing, but when Don finally musters the courage to make the call in the wee hours of the following morning, he is still crestfallen.  As it happens, Peggy is in the office when he makes the call (the two had passed out on the couch during the early morning hours) and watches his reaction. When she asks him what happened, he says that the "only person in the world who really knew me died."  At that, he bursts into tears, pulling himself into Peggy in a moment of deep vulnerability and pain.  Anna's passing pulls the last piece of Don's old foundation away but Peggy’s presence assures viewers that a new figure is there to take Anna’s place. A tight shot of Don's hand in Peggy's serves as visual confirmation of their cemented bond. 

Anna’s death serves as the emotional climax of “The Suitcase,” however, the night and early morning Peggy and Don spend together is equally telling for reasons unrelated to Anna.  First, we get to the core of Peggy’s unhappiness over the CLIO-award winning Glo-Coat commercial.  She thinks Don has taken all the credit for its creation without properly recognizing her contribution.  A huge fight ensues, with Peggy claiming the idea as her own, Don disagreeing and reminding her that all of her ideas are ultimately his ideas and that her “thank you” is the money she receives as salary.  He also chastises her eagerness for career advancement, essentially telling her that she would be nothing without him. 

While Peggy stews in her office, Don stumbles across dictated recordings Roger made of his memoir, discovering embarrassing details about Ms. Blankenship (a sexual hellcat) and Bert (a eunuch).  Don shares the tapes with Peggy and they head out to a bar to listen to the Ali-Liston fight.  There, Peggy's abandoned baby comes up when Don asks if she ever thinks about her child and she responds " … sometimes, playgrounds ..." and Peggy reveals a nagging insecurity by asking Don why he never made a pass at her.  He begs off (calling her “cute as hell”) but the audience understands that Don is paternalistic toward Peggy and does not view her sexually, but rather as someone he shares a deep emotional bond with, which, for Don, is far more powerful than a sexually desirable woman.  The night continues in a seedy diner, where they discover each saw their father die and lands back in the office, where Don throws up from overindulging before squaring off with an equally drunken Duck Phillips, who snuck into the building to defecate in Don's office.

The events revealed in “The Suitcase” are the last pieces in a puzzle of connection between Don and Peggy that began when Don saw a not-as-naive-as-she-looked Peggy come up with the "basket of kisses" tag for Belle Jolie lipstick, carried through Don's visiting Peggy in the hospital, encouraging her to move on with her life, Peggy's discreet handling of Don's car accident, and his recruitment of Peggy to join him at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  What the evening confirmed was that Don and Peggy are kindred spirits, people who came from limited means, who value work over personal relationships (which they struggle with) and share an intense privacy about themselves that they reveal to very few people. 

As the episode ends, Don has turned over a new leaf - his vomit stained shirt is gone, replaced with a crisp and clean one, his hair is back in its slicked back place and his door, frequently closed, is now open. When the season shifts to its second act, summer is in the air, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is introducing sights, sounds and smells that laid dormant during the colder months and Don is ruminative, writing in a journal, swimming at the local YMCA (advice Anna had given him to help clear his head) and monitoring his drinking. The remaining time we spend with Don focuses on two related beliefs Don holds about human behavior.  The first, that "people don't change" and the second, that "people tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be." Don does try to change, at least for a time. 

Change is something Don deeply desires but struggles with.  Any sign of stress is met with a knee jerk move for his trusty Canadian Club, but to his credit, he directs his new secretary Megan to keep track of how many drinks he has (daily limit: three), he starts dating Dr. Miller and shows up to baby Gene's birthday party without incident.  These small building blocks are easily relatable to anyone who has experienced deep trauma and longs for a new beginning.  Changing patterns of behavior is hard, Don’s tentative entrance to the Francis home for Gene’s birthday is poignant, but he quickly makes himself comfortable, scooping Gene up and tossing him in the air. 

We root for Don to change, to better himself as a man, but the ultimate conceit behind the Draper persona, of someone who is not who he says he is, cannot be so easily altered.  Even though he is comfortable enough with Faye to divulge his “secret” desertion from the Army, instead of doing the hard thing, of coming clean and seeking forgiveness for his actions, he puts the firm in jeopardy by directing Peter to terminate the agency’s contract with North American Aviation when he learns the Department of Defense has “red flagged” his security application. This decision is doubly damaging because Roger is secretly holding back the fact that Lucky Strike has also parted company with SCDP. 

In his personal life, Don is offered a similar choice between what is hard (but potentially rewarding) and what is familiar (and easy).  Faye Miller is close to an equal – a smart, insightful and no bullshit professional who encourages Don to come to grips with his checkered past but also offers him the potential for a fully-formed, adult relationship.  Then there is Megan.  She is in no way Don’s equal and does not ask him to consider his conduct or behavior, she validates it. 

Don and Faye first interactions are choppy – he blows off a test she gives to the agency’s main characters and she later observes that although he’s recently divorced, he will re-marry within a year.  When he objects to that comment, she casually reminds herself that “no one likes to be told they are a type.”  Don pursues Faye but she has enough awareness to reject his advances while he is drinking and waits until there’s a time where he appears more stable.  Their first date is chaste, she encourages him to attend his son Gene’s birthday party, they have an easy rapport and pleasant time, but, in a sign of his attempt to change, Don ends the date in the cab instead of following her into her apartment building. 

Although the relationship seems promising, Don quickly reverts to type.  Imposing on Faye to babysit Sally at his apartment when Sally runs away from Ossining and then asking Faye to talk to Sally when Sally refuses to leave the office at the end of her unplanned visit.  Faye is “not good with children” and she gets angry with Don for placing her in that position and also is reminded of her own decisions about career and motherhood. 

Things head further south when SCDP must scramble for new business in the wake of the loss of Lucky Strike.  First, Don leverages his relationship with Faye to get a meeting with one of her other clients who is dissatisfied with their current ad agency.  Don makes this request without shame or concern for Faye's ethics, missing entirely her discomfort with mixing the professional and personal.  In his life, work *is* everything and everything is done in service of getting ahead.  In her world, there is the office and there is her personal life.  Next, when Don takes out a full page ad in the New York Times explaining that SCDP will no longer accept tobacco accounts, it results in the separation of Faye's company from SCDP, something he did not even stop to consider.  Don's tunnel vision about his career and job blinds him to the people around him and how what he does impacts them. 

During this time of turmoil, Don mostly succeeds in keeping his drinking under control thanks in part to his new secretary Megan.  Megan begins the season on the periphery, one of a number of secretaries at the firm who assist in arranging meetings and parties.  But she ascends to Don’s desk after the death of Ms. Blankenship and quickly shows her resourcefulness when Sally falls in the office and Megan consoles her.  When Don stays at the office late one night, they have sex, but Megan is confident enough in herself to essentially tell Don that she is not Allison, a former secretary Don also had sex with, and their liaison will not impact her work. 

When Betty fires Carla, who Don had expected would accompany him on his trip to California to handle the sale of Anna’s house, Don asks Megan to join him.  There, she is a veritable Mary Poppins, teaching Sally and Bobby a French lullaby and calmly tidying up a spilt milkshake instead of making a scene. Laying in bed together one night, Don and Megan have the following exchange:

Don:  You don’t know anything about me.
Megan:  I know you have a good heart and are trying to be better.
Don:  We all try, we do not always make it.  I have done a lot of things.
Megan: I know who you are now.

This conversation is telling for several reasons.  First, it shows that Don has a high level of self-awareness about himself, his past and the less than good odds he will successfully change.  Second, it appears that he wants to engage her in a conversation about those “things” he has done, which would also suggest personal growth on his part.  Third, she gives him a pass both for his anticipated failure in changing (he’s “trying” after all) and in sharing his past shortcomings, because she “knows” who he is.  A changed man would not take that pass, he would say “No. You really do *not* know who I am and this ‘change’ you’re seeing is predicated entirely on my survival instinct and need to avoid losing my agency and career.”  Instead, Don puts a ring on her finger and asks Megan to marry him.

This scene is a perfect bookend to a much different conversation Don has with Faye at the beginning of this same episode.  Don has already revealed to Faye that he was a war deserter and this breakthrough encourages her to push him to come to grips with his past:

Faye:  If you resolved some of your personal issues maybe that sick feeling will go away. You don’t have to be alone.
Don: And then what happens?
Faye:  Then you are stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.

A future stuck “trying to be a person” holds no appeal to Don.  Instead of confronting the issues that have haunted him for so long, Don chooses a woman who will let him continue his charade.  Further, all of the introspection and self-examination Don did in writing is literally torn to pieces when he pens his “open letter” to the New York Times.  While the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, destroying the evidence of his inner thoughts in favor of burnishing his public reputation allows Don to reclaim his image as an implacable executive in total control of his life. 

When offered the choice between a mature, open and challenging relationship with Faye Miller and a familiar, caretaker for his children who does not push him to confront his past or go into therapy, Don confirms his own belief - people do not change. He exchanges Betty for a newer Betty with (what appear to be) better parenting skills instead of staying with Faye, who is awkward around children and forces Don to face uncomfortable truths. When Don informs Faye of his engagement, she insightfully responds that his intended should know “you only like the beginnings of things.” 

This incident is one of several that illustrate Don's general view toward women - they are in his world to be bent to his will and needs - they clean his apartment, watch his children, are offered money and "thank you" when one of his kids aimlessly wanders the subway, monitor his drinking, act as sexual supplicants and when his business is in danger, violate their own ethics to please him.  The two most common phrases Don utters to women are “Thank You” (typically for doing something to clean up one of his messes or avoiding the creation of one) and “I’m Sorry” (usually for acting in a callous, unthinking or selfish way). Don has told us who he is, over and over again, yet the women who orbit him fail to see it because they want him to be someone else.  While Don’s change is ultimately within the power of the show’s writers, consistency in his character would suggest that his relationship with Megan will be ill-fated and brief.

Lastly, Season 4 offers small insights and images that provide a richer mosaic of how the relationships between the main characters have evolved and changed.  One particularly poignant moment occurs at the end of “The Rejected,” where Peter, having expanded the Vick’s Chemical portfolio, is in the lobby with the other partners from SCDP and executives from Vick’s.  The group is homogenous, all white, middle-aged (except Peter) and male.  Through the glass doors, Peggy emerges to meet Joyce and her friends for lunch.  They are multi-cultural, young men and women and more casually attired.  Peggy and Peter catch one another’s eye as she heads for the elevator and the camera lingers on that moment, so pregnant with meaning – of what could have been and what is. 

Other winks and nods occur when Don, in a moment of drunken hubris, perverts his own classic “Wheel” pitch from Season 1 in a meeting with Life Cereal and winds up repeating a slogan that was told to him earlier that day by a failed job applicant (who he ends up hiring to avoid embarrassment).  Another tidbit is shared in the lone flashback episode, “Waldorf Stories,” where we learn that Don essentially tricked Roger into giving him a job many years ago by getting Roger drunk and then just showing up to work the next day claiming Roger had hired him.  We learn that Betty has taken over Don’s study, that place of such dark meaning during their marriage.  When Stephanie calls Don “Dick” in “Tomorrowland” Bobby asks his father “Who’s Dick.”  The question itself is the mirror opposite of “Who’s Don Draper” and Don’s complicated relationship to and feelings for his own children are wrapped up in that simple question.  His answer, “It’s me. It’s my nickname sometimes” is sufficient to placate Bobby but means so much more. 

Ultimately, Mad Men provided its fans with yet another great season of writing, acting and character development.  As with all things related to the upcoming 5th season, little has been revealed.  We know that the show will run, at most for 7 seasons, but true fans hope that temporally, the writers have the discretion to avoid the sight of Don and the gang in loud polyester leisure suits and awful sideburns.  No one wants to contemplate the sight of wife swapping at a suburban key party in 1973.  What will make Mad Men continue to resonate with its fans is its realistic portrayal of the human condition.  People may not change, at least except around the margins, but if life is not about trying to be better, of sometimes failing but pushing forward, than we are all resigned to Don’s fate, of continually raising a mask and hiding from the world. 

Henry Francis perfectly summed up this worldview.  In “Tomorrowland” he and Betty have a fight when he learns she has fired Carla.

Betty:  I wanted a fresh start.  I’m entitled to that (emphasis added).
Henry: There is no fresh start, life just carries on.

A lot of Mad Men is about what people think they are entitled to or deserve.  Henry, wizened from years in politics, life and a failed marriage, is realistic enough to know that no slate is ever wiped clean, but rather, it is what we do with our time that counts. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Show Notes - "Up With Chris Hayes"

I like Chris Hayes.  I like his manic energy, which if it was bottled and refined would drop our dependency on foreign oil by 50 percent.  He is an articulate defender of progressive causes and insightfully analyzes, deconstructs and sometimes debunks conventional political wisdom in a wonky way that people who drop words like "trope" and "herpetic" into casual conversation appreciate.  When it was announced Hayes was being given his own two-hour show on Saturday and Sunday mornings on MSNBC, I for one was quite pleased with the news.  

That is why it is so disappointing to report that the show, while better than the standard weekend fare on MSNBC, in my opinion, needs to be re-tooled.  The two-hour format is awkward and multi-segment conversations with the same panelists and topics sometimes feel like extended Algonquin Round Table discussions and book plug bonanzas.  More often than not, a token conservative is thrown into the mix to afford the panel "balance," but with 3, and more often 4, guests in addition to Hayes all vying for air time, most debates peter out, shift off topic or have to be cut off for commercial break, all of which limit the show's flow.  

While "UP" takes advantage of its extended format to delve more deeply into issues than occurs on the Sunday or weekday political shows, stretching discussion of, for example, Martin Luther King's legacy, was laudable, but became repetitive, particularly when the panel for that discussion was unchanging over a two hour period.  That is not to say Dr. King's legacy is not worthy of a two-hour show, indeed, it's probably worthy of a twenty-hour show, but it's to say that there was nothing particularly original or "must see" about watching the same 5 people pick over the same issues for two hours.  

Lastly, the show is oddly devoid of Hayes's essence.  The roundtable format turns him into little more than a moderator for discussion and emcee to tee up the topic.  While there are some brief intro segments that afford Hayes the opportunity to provide editorial comment, what made him such a strong guest on shows like Rachel Maddow and The Last Word is his incisiveness and intellect, which his own show strangely fails to highlight or emphasize.  

So Chris Hayes (or your producer), if you're reading, here is one humble fan's suggestions on how to improve your show:

1.  Ditch the pastries.  No one eats them, they were novel on the first episode, but are distracting and silly unless you are going to start having chafing dishes and omelet stations.  Seriously. 

2.  Think of your show as two one-hour shows, not one two-hour show.  Instead of noodling  a single issue to death over 4 or 5 segments, tighten up the subject matter for each show, rotate the panels and do more interviews and policy segments.  By doing so, the show will feel fresher while covering more informational ground. For example, there is no shortage of campaigns to cover/discuss right now - why not highlight, in a segment or two, the leading Republican campaigns and dissect their policy positions.  NBC has "embeds" with all the major Republican campaigns, there is no shortage of "analysts" employed by NBC who could discuss same and doing some research into the consistency (or lack thereof) of each candidate's policy positions would actually be ..gasp .. informative and helpful (imagine a political talk show doing that?). Similarly, you could highlight down ballot races and issues, either federal or state (i.e., Warren v. Brown in MA, Kaine v. Allen in VA, OH referendum on union stripping, etc .) that are of national interest.  By the same token, you could devote 2-3 segments to in-depth (think more Charlie Rose than Meet the Press) with not just politicians, but thought leaders, entrepreneurs and other public figures who drive what happens in our world.  Instead of stretching to fill 2 hours, which is what the show often feels like, why not embrace the fact that you have that 2d hour and the luxury it affords you to do deep dives into several different subjects in one show.

3.  Weekly Wrap-Ups/Weekly Look-Ahead.  I know you do a little of both of these things, but the Saturday/Sunday format lends itself to spending some time during the former summarizing the week that was and the latter teeing up the week ahead, which could include things like campaign schedules and major speeches, votes in Congress and economic news/announcements (e.g., unemployment rate, quarterly GDP, etc .)  On Sunday at least, this would be a natural extension of your segment that asks panelists to come up with a question for the guests on other Sunday morning talk shows.  This would also give you an opportunity to either highlight stories that might not have received a lot of attention during the past week but deserved it (which itself could be a segment) or to direct your viewers to be on the look out for stories in the coming week that might be flying under the Beltway radar screen.

4.  More Chris Hayes.  I follow you on twitter - you have a lot of interests (sports, particularly) that have not, for some reason, bled into the show.  It's *your* show, why not incorporate more of what you find interesting and absorbing into it?  You may want NBA players to come on your show to highlight collective bargaining or interview an author who may not be widely read because you think he or she has written something of importance.  I would also encourage you to do more solo segments that allow for your editorial voice to come through more clearly.  

5.  Improve show production.  Clips should be teed up and ready, not "can we check and see if we have this ..." The same for graphics and other add ons (quotes on screen) that do not always appear as (or when) they should.

No show is perfect from the moment the red light goes on and "Up with Chris Hayes" is certainly an improvement over the usual programming on MSNBC on any given weekend morning.  As the show evolves, incorporating the changes I suggest will improve on "Up's" promising beginning.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Death of Hope, Pt. 2

On a seasonably warm night in early November, a raucous crowd awaited the first public appearance of the country's new President-Elect.  This able politician, who had campaigned on a message of change, connected with people on a personal level, seeming to consume their energy and hope, projecting it back to them with the idea that years of Republican neglect were finally coming to an end.  When Bill Clinton walked on stage at the Old Courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas on that mild evening nearly 20 years ago, many in the crowd, myself included, were filled with the belief that things were finally going to change, that this man, who had fought against bitter personal attacks and slurs, been written off as the failed governor of a small southern state, had successfully closed the books on 12 years of Republican rule that had left all but the very wealthy worse off than when they started.  

I thought a lot about that night during the waning days of the 2008 campaign.  The crowd that turned out to see President-Elect Barack Obama in Grant Park dwarfed those of us who had been in Little Rock in 1992 and the inspiration and energy in the crowd that night was palpable, even just watching it on TV.  What I knew, and indeed, had experienced the first time the "hope and change"wagon had been ridden to the White House, was that campaigns, while hard and demanding,  pale in comparison to the hard job of enacting policies that actually make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans.

What President Obama has experienced literally from the moment he put his hand on the Bible to swear his oath of office is a rear guard action by conservatives, right-wing talk show hosts and an organized, lock step opposition in Congress to essentially anything he has attempted to implement.  Not only has the "vast right wing conspiracy" grown since the days of Bill Clinton, it has become far better organized, disciplined and funded and the President, his best intentions notwithstanding, was woefully unprepared for the onslaught.  

Consider that the historic moment of the first African-American person being sworn in as President will forever be sullied by the most pedestrian of reasons - a Chief Justice who decided to "wing it" when it came to giving the oath of office - and can never be shown in full without that embarrassing gaffe ruining what was a public event attended by more than 2 million people.  Indeed, the error was considered significant enough that a separate ceremony took place the following evening to avoid any question as to the President's legitimacy.  One wonders whether then-Senator Obama's vote against Chief Justice Roberts's appointment to that office had anything to do with the latter's decision to try and administer the oath of office to the President-Elect by memory when his predecessor, William Rehnquist, who swore in no less than 5 Presidents, always read off a small card.  Nevertheless, the first image of our newly minted President was tainted by this episode.

The President's first major legislative achievement, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act or Stimulus Bill) is a perfect example of Republican demonizing and his failure to properly message the contents and benefits of the law.  Republicans have turned the word "stimulus" into a dirty word by arguing that the Recovery Act was a $787 billion waste of money that created no jobs and did nothing to boost the economy.  It's a simple and superficially appealing argument - unemployment did rise after the Recovery Act was passed, the economy, although improving, has not bounced back as robustly as was hoped - another sign, they argue, that stimulus failed. 

The party of never having seen a tax cut they don't like seem to not like the fact that the Recovery Act contained nearly $300 billion, or roughly 40 percent of the bill's total cost, in tax cuts for individuals and corporations and one-time payments to Social Security recipients.  It also included a large contribution to Medicaid ($86 billion) to offset costs incurred by states.  The bill also made significant investments in research and technology, in alternative energy and in direct aid to states.  In addition, roughly $100 billion was made available for infrastructure and other projects with a clearer nexus to job creation.  As has been well documented, Republicans who publicly belittled the Recovery Act were actively writing letters to Administration officials who controlled the grant making purse strings to seek money (and job opportunities) for their constituents and happily showed up to ribbon cutting ceremonies when local projects funded by ARRA launched.  

While the Recovery Act fight was a minor skirmish (the law was signed less than a month after Obama was sworn in) Senate Republicans quickly picked up the mantle of the filibuster, grinding much of the work of the Senate to a slow crawl if not outright halt.  Non-controversial appointments to executive agencies were slow walked, held up and otherwise delayed, which in turn slowed the other work of the Senate (House Republicans were largely powerless to stop legislation from passing).  By the time the 111th Congress ended, the House had passed hundreds of bills, many representing key policy initiatives of the President, only to see them die in the Senate.  What Senate Republicans understood was that the American public writ large does not get into the weeds of Washington dysfunction, they just decry it without distinguishing why it is occurring.  

When the President turned to health care, the Republicans attacked from both sides.  From one flank, well funded "astro turf" groups ginned up hysterical claims about thousands of new IRS agents being hired to implement the law, of death panels that would make life and death decisions and most memorably that government should "keep its hands off my Medicare."  These organized protests, which disrupted town hall meetings, toured the country in slick buses and had their message amplified on right-wing talk radio and Fox News, decimated support for universal health care.  From the other flank, a purported group of moderate Republicans entered into negotiations in the Senate to salvage a bi-partisan solution only to pull out at the last minute and echo the same falsehoods about the bill, which, went without frequent mention, was based on two *Republican* proposals, one put forth by Senator Chafee in the early 1990s and the other, more famously, by then-Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 2006.  No mind, what the so-called "Gang of Six" had successfully done is drag out the health care discussion for months longer than it otherwise should have.  

By the time the bill finally passed in early 2010, the victory was pyrrhic.  In an attempt to gain Republican support (which was not forthcoming - not one Republican in the House or Senate voted for the bill) what ultimately became the Affordable Care Act essentially handed the health insurance companies more than 30 million new customers who would now be required to carry some form of health insurance by 2014.  Re-importation of drugs and a public option, two pillars of what most experts believed would actually "bend the cost curve" never got within sniffing distance of being included because of deals cut with the pharmaceutical industry as to the former and demonization of "socialized medicine" as to the latter.  The failure of the Administration to point out that seniors, veterans and the disabled all survive quite nicely (and generally support) "government run health care" was nowhere mentioned.

The toxicity of the health care debate and the rise of the "Tea Party" further weakened Obama's hand.  The Administration and its allies were forced to argue from a position of weakness, of jobs "saved" by the Recovery Act versus ones actually created (even though there were a lot of those too).  The positive aspects of the ACA, many of which had formed the failed "Patient's Bill of Rights" under President Clinton, were not promoted and the bill itself was crafted in a way that opened it to potential legal attack, which many Republican state Attorneys General did after its passage.  

It is unsurprising that the mid-term election of 2010 did not go well for the Democrats.  A combination of retirements, well funded candidates and the naturally lower voter turn out all conspired to help roll a Republican tide that swept in a new House majority and reduced the Democrats majority in the Senate to just 3 votes.  While Republicans are not very good at governing, they do know how to effectively wield power and they did just that even before the new Congress was sworn in on January 3, 2011.  

The showdown was over the extension of the so-called "Bush Tax Cuts" from 2001 and 2003 that had lowered marginal rates, helped explode the deficit (and debt) and disproportionately benefited the wealthy.  Back in 2001 when the original tax cuts were passed, a sunset provision was inserted (with the support and "aye" votes of many of the same Republicans decrying their lapsing in 2010), in part to make the long-term cost of the legislation seem more reasonable (without the sunset provision, scoring would have been done not just until 2011, but permanently, which would have added trillions to its cost).  Republicans were willing to allow all of the tax cuts to sunset (which would have negatively impacted the fragile economy and middle class) if extensions were not given to the wealthy as well.  As a sweetener, the President also tweaked the estate tax, which was scheduled to return to the Clinton-era level of 55 percent after the first $1 million in a person's estate (a total that hits less than 2 percent of all estates), to permit a two year extension at 35 percent starting at $5 million (reducing the number of estates impacted to less than 1 percent).  Nevermind that the same Republicans who stomped their feet about extending these tax cuts (which just add to the overall debt) were also the same people decrying .... debt and deficit spending.  

Added together, the Republicans have placed Obama in a domestic policy box largely of his own creation. Stimulus is now a dirty word when most economists agree that job creation can be greatly aided by government spending, never mind the fact that the private sector has been adding jobs for nearly two years while states and localities, starved of additional federal assistance, have been trimming their workforces.  Further, the President took money out of the Social Security surplus by lowering the payroll tax that employees pay, which will just add fuel to the argument in the future that Social Security will need to be reformed in ways that reduce benefits when in fact a fairly simple fix that continues to apply the payroll tax at up to a higher income level than it does currently ($106,800) would ensure Social Security's solvency for decades to come (as it is, full payments can be made for another 27 years).  Finally, Republicans can simply block legislation they don't like.  With a majority in the House and filibuster power in the Senate, Republicans are free to stymie any attempt by the President to promote job growth which will have the salutary effect (from the Republicans' perspective) of lessening Obama's re-election chances.

But the death of hope is not the Republicans fault.  Opposition parties exist on some level to oppose - but the ferocity and discipline of the opposition appeared to catch the Obama Administration off guard, which is surprising considering how thick it was with veterans from the Clinton Administration starting with Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.  While many "points" were put up on the board, the Obama messaging machine often seems to have a tin ear for how to communicate with the American people.  Popular enactments, like credit card and student loan reform were largely unmentioned, the ARRA was rarely defended as several large policy pieces in one (tax cuts, infrastructure, state aid), allowing it to be slammed as a huge government boondoggle.  Tough decisions that were made creatively (and with no Republican support) like the GM and Chrysler bailouts (which arguably saved the auto industry in this country) were touted long after their impact had taken place and even then, were done tepidly and with little enthusiasm.  Where the President could have led, by aggressively working to modify home mortgages, lowering the Medicare eligibility age or pushing for a more direct government role in public works projects, he failed to do so or put forth ideas that were so convoluted, difficult to understand and ineffective as to be more trouble than they were worth.  

In the meantime, his unwillingness to marshal forces on important, but under the radar matters, like judicial and executive branch appointments, will likely diminish his legacy, regardless of whether he serves a second term.  The appointment power is one of the ways a President can leave his stamp and Obama has seemed disinterested in fighting to get his people put in place.  This has been seen powerfully on the federal bench, where while Republicans retreated from high profile battles over Supreme Court justices, have successfully slowed or blocked dozens of district and appellate court judges from even getting a vote, much less being seated on the bench.  Similarly, while Cabinet-level appointments went through without too much trouble, second tier appointments were the subject of anonymous holds that disappeared and resulted in near unanimous support weeks if not months later.  Part of the problem was also the fact the the Obama Administration was slow to name people to important positions within such agencies as Treasury and Justice for weeks, if not months on end.  The cumulative effect of this is less efficiency in the day-to-day operation of government, which just feeds into the Republican narrative that government does not work.  

There is no question that President Obama took office at what was likely the most challenging time in our nation's history since the Great Depression.  In the span of less than three years, he has achieved a great deal but at great political cost.  While the President may, by nature, not want to mix it up with political opponents or pound his chest about the accomplishments of his term, his failure to do either one of these things has allowed his opponents to effectively define him as a genial but failed President who can offer little more than flowery rhetoric and a government solution to every problem, his record notwithstanding.  If the President is to be re-elected, he not only needs to keep taking the fight to Republicans over job creation and tax policy, but he must *LEAD* in word and deed for the majority of Americans who have been left behind, fear they will never get ahead and are losing hope in the system.