Monday, May 28, 2012

Mad Men Season Five - Every Woman For Herself

Simply put, The Other Woman may end up being one of the three or four most consequential episodes in the history of Mad Men.  In one hour, Matt Weiner completely shuffled the deck and at the end of those 60 minutes, Peggy Olson, loyal right hand, alit for Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Joan Harris had leveraged an "indecent proposal" into a 5% stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the firm had landed its first car client - Jaguar.  What could have read as a ham handed effort to show how one woman (Joan) compromises herself in service of some greater good (her own financial independence) or how one man (Pete) lowers himself in service of some greater goal (landing an account), because Weiner opted to create a parallel storyline that resulted in Peggy's departure from SCDP, he neatly tied together two recent show themes - Roger's observation to Peggy that it's "every man for himself" and Paul Kinsey's yearning for meaning in a world of charlatans and users.  

It is said that if you agree to have sex with a stranger for money, you have defined what you are, now you are just negotiating over the price. When presented with a 1966 version of Indecent Proposal, where one of the decision makers at Jaguar was prepared to give SCDP his vote in exchange for a night with her (and conversely, torpedoing the firm's chances if she did not), Joan's reaction was revulsion, but having taken Lane's counsel and considered her own situation, she was savvy enough to leverage her position not into a one-shot pay off ($50,000), but instead, into an equity stake in the company - a steady revenue stream that will offer her the ability to live free and clear of her absentee husband and nagging mother. 

Of course, Joan's sexuality has always been a double edge - it both defines and debases her.  She was more than happy to accept the affection of Roger Sterling years ago when he was gift wrapping mink coats and indulging her in afternoon getaways at swanky hotels, but the allure of middle class existence - of marriage, children and a home - was too seductive for her to turn down, even when it meant marrying a man who sexually assaulted her.  In a more modern era, she was caricatured by free lancer Joey last season as both a harlot and a shrew, but when offered one last chance at motherhood, even though the father was not her husband, she leapt at it, consequences be damned.  But now, her hopes and dreams have crumbled - she has been served divorce papers by her husband and she does not see Roger as a fit parent for her child.  Left with the option between co-raising little Kevin with her mother or grabbing onto a lottery ticket that will allow her to survive on her own, she takes the latter course.  Every man (and woman) for him/herself, after all.

Meanwhile, Peggy has been meekly accepting the slings and arrows of Don's absentee management, taking on more and more responsibility while watching wunderkind Michael Ginsberg run circles around her with his brashness and creativity.  Peggy has hit what will be known as the "glass ceiling," but all she feels is limitation.  She can't strong arm clients like Heinz to accept her ideas, she can't even work on certain accounts like Jaguar because she's a woman and she doesn't have the casual connection with Don to sell hokey dialogue with Cool-Whip. It may simply be a matter of, when push comes to shove, clients still feeling awkward with women working on accounts, or it may be Peggy's refusal to be treated like a second class employee, but some part of her feels that she's still viewed as the woman who was once a mere secretary and whose ideas, even when good, are somehow diminished because they came from the mind of a woman and not a man. 

Peggy's breaking point happens when she swoops in to clean up Chevalier Blanc with an on the fly idea as she, Ken and Harry sit on a conference call with the client.  While Peggy's work has largely been eclipsed this season by young Mr. Ginsberg, her ability to think quickly on her feet saves the firm from losing the business.  Instead of gratitude from Don, she gets demeaned, as he literally throws money in her face as she again seeks a small sliver of recognition. Later, when she has lunch with Freddy Rumsen, she shows a remarkable amount of insight - she knows she has more responsibility than ever, but she is stagnant. Freddy observes that he can't tell if she's ambitious or just likes to complain, to which she replies, "why can't it be both?" But that's not satisfactory for Freddy, who has been in the business long enough to distinguish between "work" and "feelings," and knowing when it is time to lay a clear marker down, take the meetings and fly the coop. 

I love the scene between Freddy and Peggy because her relationship with him contrasts so sharply with the one she has with Don.  Freddy may occasionally piss her off (as he did during the Pond's Cold Cream research last season), but his avuncular nature and willingness, all the way back in Season 1, to put his faith in her skills, has made for a tender relationship. His counsel, at such a critical point in her career, is right on point - the only way for Peggy to gain Don's respect is to stop acting like the secretary from Brooklyn grateful for her job and own her talent by seeing whether she can succeed outside Don's orbit. 

Indeed, Freddy's advice is an echo of what Bobbi Barrett told Peggy all the way back in Season 2 as she was departing Peggy's tiny apartment after convalescing there, which was basically to demand respect. Ever since then, Peggy has struggled with that advice because Don constantly pulls her emotional strings at critical points - when he and Bobbi had their car accident during Season 2; when the partners were leaving Sterling Cooper at the end of Season 3; and when Anna died in Season 4 - all while short changing her effort and contribution to campaigns like Glo-Coat, Popsicle, and Topaz Pantyhose.  Each time she attempted to stand up for herself, she backed down, largely because Don operates in a world where he can do whatever he pleases and cleans up the mess with a furrow browed "I'm sorry" or "thank you." But this time is different. Freddy arranges a meeting for her with Ted Chaough, who has been gunning for Don since last season.  When Ted tries casual chit chat about why she wants to "work for the other team," her answer is remarkably insightful, she says "it's not a game, it's my career." And in that, she gets Ted to do something Don never has (and maybe because she never could gin up the moxie to do it) - she gets treated seriously. What Chaough does to get Peggy to flip is not adding $1,000 to her salary request, but something far more meaningful, approving her title request of "copy chief" - showing her respect. 

The denouement between Peggy and Don is every bit as painful and intimate as the pivotal scene in The Suitcase, in fact, it takes place in the same location - Don's office.  Happening on the heels of securing Jaguar, Peggy almost chickens out from talking to Don, but unbeknownst to Peggy, he's in no mood to celebrate, having learned it was Joan's complicity, and not his pitch, that carried the day. Peggy attempts to be gracious, speaking of Don as a mentor, of her privilege in working at his side, but that she needs to move on.  Don misreads her entirely (something not uncommon for him), assuming her big windup is just an attempt to get more money.  When he realizes she is serious, he attempts to belittle her, and when that doesn't work, (possibly?) seducing her, his mouth lingering uncomfortably on her outstretched hand, but she does not take the bait, quietly packing her things and walking out even as the firm is celebrating its biggest success. It has taken her six years, but she is finally able to say "no" to Don Draper.

What is most interesting about Season Five is how un-present (not a word, but a good description) Don has been throughout these episodes. There has not been a season that is less about Don than this one and yet, as he has receded into the background, the lives of others have evolved and changed while Don has been mostly oblivious to what is happening around him. Peggy was cut adrift, tasked with doing everything from training Megan as a junior copywriter to interviewing new hires while Don lingered uncertainly. What little humanity Pete may have gained has been stripped away - he has humiliated Roger, slept with hookers and housewives, pimps out Joan for the sake of gaining an account, refers to his adopted home town of Cos Cob as a "cemetery," and is no longer "trying to make a baby" (a/k/a fucking) his wife.  His not so subtle trail balloon of an apartment in Manhattan is a weak echo of frenemy Howard Dawes's cushy arrangement with his mistress in the city. Meanwhile, the older partners - Bert, Lane and Roger - all sign off on elevating Joan's status in exchange for selling her body.  

What little emotional range Don has shown has been largely poured into the ups and downs of his marriage to Megan, which has been at times stable and supportive and others fraught with insecurity and fear. In this way, Peggy's departure feels less surprising when you consider the distance she has traveled with Don since the iconic Suitcase episode.  At the time, Don was at a nadir, hopelessly drowning himself in Canadian Club, his emotional anchor, Anna, recently deceased, and his personal life a blur of cheap one night stands. When Don locked his hand in Peggy's at the end of that episode, they were in "this" together - the bond Don desperately needed to feel, to know there was someone in his life who he could fully trust, who completely knew him. Fast forward 18 months and the narrative of Don's life has changed.  His new bride knows the "big secret" of his Dick Whitman past, he's hired a plucky and ambitious copywriter who spits out creative ideas like a Tourette's patient and Don's own personal journey has led him to a mellower place where work is not all consuming.  Megan's tenure at SCDP even qualifies her as a sounding board for the drama that Don experiences at work.  In short, the dual roles Peggy played - of creative right arm and emotional support, are no longer needed, so Don has done what he always does - he takes Peggy for granted, ignores her, and when she stands up to him, turns his back on her. 

Of course, this being Mad Men, one has to assume that Ted Chaough's encomium to Peggy's work may just be the silver tongued antics of another man who will disappoint her, but that's to be determined. Peggy's decision to go to CGC shows that she, like Kinsey, is seeking someone who she can believe in even though we suspect Ted is just another poseur. There was pathos in Peggy's leaving - as the firm is celebrating the Jaguar account, she is walking in the opposite direction (Don's final big foot maneuver was to accept her resignation effective immediately instead of allowing her to work her final 2 weeks) and she is also processing the fact that Joan has been named a firm partner.  There too, a relationship that has been complicated and at times competitive, is blurred. Peggy has no way of knowing what Joan had to do for that partnership, but it is that information that girds her to tell Don she is leaving. They catch each other's eye as Peggy is leaving and we are left to wonder what each is thinking about the other, whether Joan feels she has "won," at great personal cost, some battle versus Peggy, whose transition from secretary to copywriter she always resented, by attaining her partnership, or whether she feels sympathy that Peggy thinks leaving will make a meaningful difference in her career, as Joan is too jaded and experienced at this point to think women will ever be treated equally in the workplace.  For Peggy, she may rightly feel as though she is taking ownership of her career or that Joan was unjustly rewarded while she languished. Regardless, what viewers know is that each has made enormous sacrifices that neither feels comfortable with but has accepted.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Geronimo EKIA" - A Review of Peter Bergen's "Manhunt"

Peter Bergen is well known for being one of the last journalists to interview Osama Bin Laden.  Bergen has been a dogged reporter on all things Al-Qaeda for more than a decade and has just released his latest book, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden - from 9/11 to Abbottabad. The book is two stories in one - the first one has to do with the lead up to 9/11 and the failed effort by the Bush Administration to catch Bin Laden; the second, about how the Obama Administration finally tracked him down and took him out. 

The Bush years will sound familiar to anyone who follows politics and policy. Bush largely ignored Bin Laden in the nine months he was President before 9/11 and afterwards, under-resourced the military's attempt to capture him at Tora Bora after we invaded Afghanistan.  Once the Iraq War started, assets that could have been devoted to finding Bin Laden were diverted to Iraq and the trail largely went cold.  No actionable intelligence was produced before Bush left office that gave intelligence agents or the military any sense of Bin Laden's whereabouts and, as Bergen notes, the trail had "gone cold" by the time Obama took office. 

Bergen's story shifts to the Obama Administration and a renewed effort, directed by Obama himself, to invigorate the CIA's efforts to produce leads that might lead to the terrorist mastermind.  This commitment paid off in mid-2010, when the CIA intercepted a conversation from a courier known as "the Kuwaiti" who was believed to be affiliated with bin Laden.  Through that call, the CIA tracked the Kuwaiti to the Abbottabad compound, leading to months of intelligence gathering and analysis of the suspicious facility - its high walls, practically nonexistent use of heat or electricity, lack of Internet connectivity, and a layout that included a suspicious third floor that itself had a wall surrounding it, as if to keep out any view of a person who was seen walking along the balcony and was dubbed "the pacer."  

Maintaining an extraordinary amount of secrecy, this information was shared with the President in November 2010, but even then, the briefing reflected dissent among the intelligence gatherers, with opinions on the likelihood of bin Laden being in the compound ranging from 80 percent down to 60 percent. Because the third floor balcony was obscured by the high retaining wall, there was no way to get a positive identification on "the pacer," and even attempts at triangulating his measurements against shadows and the wall's height led to wildly divergent estimates of his height (bin Laden was 6 foot 4 inches). What the CIA knew was that a bin Laden courier and a large extended family that referred to an "uncle" who never left the home, lived there. The composition of the larger family matched that of bin Laden's polygamous group of wives and children, but the entire brief on whether bin Laden himself was there was entirely circumstantial. 

As the months progressed, Obama directed staff to come up with options for attacking the compound and what he received in return were four choices: (1) a raid by special forces; (2) an aerial bombardment from B-2s; (3) a surgical strike by drone aircraft; and (4) doing nothing, awaiting a higher level of probability of bin Laden's presence.  Of course, complicating any decision was the fact that the site was more than 100 miles inside Pakistan and any attack on the compound would by definition require an invasion of Pakistan's air space, and with it, all of the attendant risks of military reaction and/or diplomatic fall out.  While the former concern weighed on the decision making, that is, a special forces raid that was detected by Pakistani military and resulted in a firefight would be a catastrophe, Pakistan was ostensibly an American ally, and violating its airspace to kill the most wanted terrorist in the world would land us in uncharted political and diplomatic waters.  After all, the main supply roads into and out of Afghanistan ran through Pakistan, the country has nuclear weapons and had assisted (to a degree) in allowing special forces and drone strikes at suspected terrorists on its soil. 

Bergen underscores the intensive level of planning and discussion that Obama led - more than two dozen "principals only" meetings, carried out off the official schedules of the President, the Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense, National Security Advisor, CIA Director and a few others, to hash out the myriad issues involved in making this decision.  Obama is portrayed as highly engaged, asking difficult questions, seeking counsel and shaping the planning in meaningful ways. For example, when a more specific plan for sending Navy SEALs was advanced, Obama demanded what would end up being a key fail safe - the inclusion of a stand by team of SEALs to protect against the potential for the loss of helicopters or the Pakistanis discovering the mission in progress. Bergen quotes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, "Obama is the one that put in the Chinook-47s. He is the one that said, 'There is not enough backup.'"  Further complicating the discussions were opposing views by highly esteemed members of Obama's foreign policy team. General James Cartwright, who Bergen describes as Obama's "favorite" general, advocated the B-2 strike, not the SEAL team assault and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, like Mullen, a holdover from the Bush Administration, was skeptical of the SEAL team raid, constantly asking contrarian questions about its likelihood of success and raising the spectre of the failed "Desert One" assault in Iran under Jimmy Carter.  Lurking in the background of all of these discussions was the fact that a failed raid would likely torpedo Obama's presidency and have a deleterious effect on his chances of re-election.

The intensive scrutiny that Obama and his team placed on the intelligence was in stark contrast to the cherry picking done by the Bush team in the lead up to the Iraq War and the behind the scenes reporting that Bergen does further disabuses any reader of the idea that this decision was a "slam dunk."  Even as Obama moved closer to signing off on an attack in Abbottabad, his advisors remained stubbornly at odds. Vice President Biden recommended against striking at all; Secretary Gates thought the raid option was too fraught with peril and supported the B-2 option; General Cartwright advocated the use of a drone, while others supported the SEAL raid.  While it is easy to Monday morning quarterback Obama's decision based on what we now know, every option presented to Obama had significant risks. For example, the B-2 raid would eliminate almost any risk to American lives, but would preclude confirmation of bin Laden's death (and analysts were concerned the amount of tonnage dropped on the compound might trigger an earthquake).  Moreover, bombing is imprecise and there was no guarantee bombs wouldn't take out innocent civilians (or hit the intended target!).  On the other hand, the drone attack would not risk any American lives (or a bomb induced earthquake) but the missile it would fire was untested and there was no guarantee it would be potent enough to level the compound.  

Even as Obama was turning over his options, he was also double checking his work. As Bergen explains, a "red team" is a group of analysts brought in from outside the intelligence gathering to offer a fresh set of eyes and view the information skeptically, look for alternative explanations and holes in conventional thinking.  For the Abbottabad raid, Obama had not one, but two red teams to screen the intelligence.  The second team, made up of representatives from the National Counter Terrorism Center, put the likelihood of bin Laden being in the compound at anywhere from as low as 40 percent to as high as 60 percent.  As Obama is quoted as saying, "it was basically a 50/50 proposition." Anyone familiar with the manner in which the WMD case was made by Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell and others will immediately see how thorough and thoughtful the Obama team was in comparison. Instead of "fixing the intelligence and facts around the policy" as the Downing Street Memo famously noted regarding Bush's pre-Iraq War planning, Obama and his team did the exact opposite.  

As Bergen reports, Obama was ultimately convinced the SEAL raid was his best option for several reasons: (1) it would confirm bin Laden's death; (2) it would likely result in a treasure trove of intelligence; and (3) his unshakable faith in his special forces.  Bergen spends some time providing background on the evolution of the SEALs during this past decade of war into a lethal fighting force capable of carrying out dangerous raids under complex circumstances.  The head of Special Forces, Vice Admiral William McRaven, is portrayed as a dispassionate and detail oriented leader whose firm commitment to his SEALs' ability to carry out the Abbottabad mission was dispositive, not only in reassuring Obama  (McRaven didn't think the military component was among the more complex operations his team was capable of carrying out, but that the political and diplomatic layers turned it into a much different calculation) but in his meticulous planning, which included fail safe upon fail safe to ensure every eventuality could be planned for while recognizing that certain things happen in the field that planners have no control over. 

Bergen recounts the raid and reports consistently with other accounts - of a President that performs a deft comedy routine at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, travels to Alabama to comfort those affected by a tornado, and who kept such a level of secrecy about the attack that he did not even tell his wife ahead of time.  McRaven's exhaustive planning, and Obama's demand that additional troops be held on stand by ends up being critical as the mission unfolds.  As Bergen discusses, the first helicopter failed to land safely within the compound, and while the pilot made a split second decision that probably saved the lives of all on board, those SEALs were now, as Bergen puts it "without a ride home." Thankfully, the Chinooks Obama directed be part of the mission were idling about 50 miles away, and were immediately dispatched to help support the SEALs on the ground.  

Other nuances to the mission bubble to the surface.  A translator keeps the couple of stragglers who approached the compound at bay, advising them to return to their homes.  The second helicopter pilot, upon seeing the crash of the first chopper, shifts to his 'Plan B' landing spot just outside the compound and quick thinking SEALs within the perimeter unlock a gate to let their comrades in. Bin Laden himself ends up making a fatal mistake - failing to secure the door to his 3d floor suite, allowing SEALs to quickly break through and kill him. Pathetically, his "escape plan" was comprised of having several thousand Euros sown into his clothing and a couple of cell phone numbers.  In the end, once Bin Laden has been killed and evacuated, McRaven and Obama are able to share a moment of levity.  Once forensics had confirmed, with 95% certainty, that it was Bin Laden, McRaven drolly apologized for the helicopter that crashed and was left behind, telling Obama that he (McRaven) owed the President $60 million.  Obama retorted that he was more upset that McRaven hadn't spent $1.99 on a tape measure (Special Forces wanted to measure Bin Laden, but did not have a tape measure, so a SEAL of approximately the same height laid down next to the corpse).  When McRaven went to the White House a few weeks later, Obama presented him with a gold-plated tape measure on a plaque.  Pre-planning had already landed on what would be done with Bin Laden's body - he was quickly washed, wrapped in a shroud and buried at sea in order to avoid any memorial being erected to him. The whole mission lasted a little more than 3 hours and by the time word began leaking, spontaneous celebrations happened outside the White House gates and in cities throughout the country.  

Bergen ends on a sanguine note.  Because Obama opted for the SEAL raid, an enormous cache of intelligence was collected and that information confirmed that Obama's strategy of ramped up drone strikes, electronic eavesdropping and secession of the term "war on terror" had all negatively impacted Al-Qaeda - degrading their leadership, limiting their ability to communicate (Bin Laden was completely "off the grid" and corresponded by written letter carried by couriers, resulting in a 2-3 month lag time in communication exchanges) and softening views in the Muslim world about America's role in it.  Al-Qaeda's off shoots did not help.  Their use of suicide bombings against fellow Muslims and absence from the "Arab Spring" both served to further undermine Bin Laden's influence.  His successor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is portrayed as pedantic and unpopular and the few terrorist attempts that have been attempted in the West since 2005 have been foiled.  Bergen posits that Bin Laden's strategy of attacking the U.S. has largely been destroyed, but his ideas may have a longer shelf life.  

There can be no question that win or lose in November, the bin Laden raid is a signature Obama achievement and while the book does not delve into the politics of the decision, it fairly pushes back against Republican tropes about either the simplicity of the decision to attack the compound or how the intelligence that got us there was generated.  For example, Mitt Romney recently claimed that "any" President would have made the same call Obama did to raid Bin Laden's home.  As Bergen points out, however, when candidate Obama stated that he would violate Pakistani sovereignty if he possessed actionable intelligence on Al-Qaeda leaders and Pakistani leaders were  unwilling to go after them, he was ridiculed by Romney (as well as McCain and Clinton).  Further, Bergen's book shows that the reason Obama was even in position to make a call on the raid was because he recommitted resources to finding Bin Laden, with CIA Director Panetta pushing his analysts to provide reports to him three times a week on their efforts to find him.  

Once intelligence indicated that Bin Laden may have been found, the rigorous scrutiny the information went through, the two red teams, the more than two dozen principals meetings and the endless hours of gaming out potential outcomes depending on what attack option was chosen still failed to yield consensus.  Indeed, Romney's claim that this was somehow an easy call is undermined not only by his own statements in 2007-8 (he was quoted as saying it was not worth moving heaven and earth to find "one man"), but by the fact that two separate incursions into Pakistan, in 2002 and 2005, to take out high value Al-Qaeda targets, were called off by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers and Secretary Rumsfeld, respectively, in part out of concern over what Pakistan's reaction would be to that type of assault by U.S. troops. Further, Republicans often like to fall back on the idea that they defer to decisions of the generals on the ground, yet in this case, the "generals" were not of one mind as to what should be done.  The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs disagreed about which option Obama should choose (Gates wanted a bombing raid; Mullen supported the SEAL strike) and his own Vice President counseled against any attack.  The SEAL team raid also had the greatest downside military risk, including, some or all of the following - that Bin Laden was not even in the compound, that the attack went south, resulting in a "Black Hawk Down" situation or a firefight with troops from a purported ally, the loss of life, military secrets and international opprobrium. Finally, Obama took an incredibly political risk by opting for the SEAL raid.  If it failed, he would take the blame and the fall out would have been devastating. For Romney to blithely claim that he would have made the same call is laughable on its face and is his attempt to attach himself to what Secretary Gates, who worked for six Presidents, "one of the most courageous calls" he had witnessed a President make.  

Moreover, Obama's intimate involvement and shaping of the mission led to the insertion of additional troops, something that we can never know a hypothetical President Romney would have done.  In addition, because Obama was following the mission in real time, he showed great restraint in allowing the SEAL team to continue its mission even after the first helicopter crashed within the walls of the Bin Laden compound.  Again, there's no way of knowing how such a scenario would have played out under another President, but the book persuasively shows that under this President a deeply analyzed and considered decision was made with an understanding of options and choices and once made, was allowed to be executed.  For that, all Americans should be proud. 

The one kernel of support Bush supporters may try to draw from the book is the fact that torture of Al-Qaeda terrorists in 2005 produced "the Kuwaiti" as a lead that ultimately led to Bin Laden.  But even here, the evidence is at best equivocal.  Through CIA torture, the Kuwaiti was identified; however, his role was unclear and his actual name was not known until years later.  One captured Al-Qaeda operative indicated that the Kuwaiti was a courier for Bin Laden, but he was contradicted by Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who claimed the Kuwaiti was "retired." Further, another Al-Qaeda operative, Abu Faraj al-Libi, told the CIA that the Kuwaiti was not an important "player" in Al-Qaeda and was not a courier for Bin Laden.  As Bergen notes, "there were other steps along the way to finding bin Laden that had little to do with the information derived from Al-Qaeda detainees."  Regardless, Bush's people were unable to connect the dots between the Kuwaiti and bin Laden, and the Kuwaiti fell off the grid for five years, until the CIA pinged him through a cell phone and from there, followed him to the Abbottabad compound. 

Manhunt is an important book for those interested in understanding the years between 9/11 and Bin Laden's death in 2011.  It shows an increasingly isolated and impotent terrorist leader living a squalid life while hiding in plain sight and the indefatigable efforts of many hard working and brave Americans to bring him to justice.  It is impossible to finish this book and not feel great pride in the mission that killed him or the work that went into getting him.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mad Men Season Five - The Return of Paul Kinsey

If there has been one constant throughout Mad Men's tenure, it is the late season pivot - in Season 1, Pete discovered Don's secret life; in Season 2, Duck Phillips attempted a power play and brokered the deal that sold Sterling Cooper to PPL; in Season 3, Betty discovered Don's secret life (and PPL was selling itself, and SC, to McCann); in Season 4, Lucky Strike left the agency, threatening its viability and Don began his romance with Megan.  Now? Who knows.  On the one hand, Christmas Waltz felt like so much house cleaning - Joan was officially served with divorce papers, a random character from seasons past re-appeared, and Don seems to have re-engaged with work.  On the other hand, Lane embezzled $50,000 from the agency to cover an unpaid tax bill to the Queen (forging a check using Don's signature to boot) and Don provided more affirmation that he has gained insight (dare I say consciousness?) about his life.  

The main storyline re-introduced us to Paul Kinsey, who, after falling down the advertising ladder, finds himself a member of the Hare Krishnas, but yearning for acceptance, recognition, an answer.  Although he is clad in robes, his desires are mainstream.  He wants a life with a woman he loves, a house to call his home and a career, not as a chanting devotee, but a script writer for Star Trek. His cult leaves him wanting, his "girlfriend," a former runaway and prostitute named Lakshmi, wants him to stay not for love, but for his recruiting prowess, and his poverty stops him from listening to Star Trek, because he can only view the show through a window of a pizza parlor. As a charitable gesture, Harry gives Kinsey $500 and encourages him to go to California, where he can start fresh and get a clean start.  Moved by the magnanimous and selfless gesture, Kinsey leaves the Krishnas to pursue his future. 

Meanwhile, the Queen has been after Lane Pryce for a steep tax penalty he has neglected to pay.  Without the resources to cover the assessment, Lane takes out a $50,000 line of credit with the agency's bank and plans to launder it through the distribution of Christmas bonuses to the partners and staff.  While he's able to successfully duplicate Don's signature as a co-sign on his check, the other partners put the kibosh on handing out the bulk of the money when it is discovered Mohawk Airlines has pulled its advertising.  Whether this storyline ends up being a red herring (because future business covers the bank loan) or a defining experience (resulting in the "Pryce" being dropped from the masthead because he's arrested or the agency goes under) remains to be seen, but it's precisely the type of out of left field plot twist that Weiner injects into the show to keep us off balance.

If Lane's legal troubles are mounting, Joan's are just beginning.  She is served with divorce papers by Greg and falls to pieces, lashing out at the front desk receptionist before Don scoops her up for a getaway day of test driving Jaguar and highballs at the bar.  Joan's lone interaction with Roger is tempestuous. He's drunk (and wearing a Hawaiian shirt over his vest and button down) and she's in no mood for his antics.  It's a disappointing tableau. Their interactions, which were so poignant and tender in Season 4 have been choppy and dismissive this season - as if they just can't seem to get their timing right.  Perhaps they never will, but Joan is a soon to be divorcee in 1966, a prospect she clearly does not relish.  

But give Don credit.  He smartly distracts Joan from her personal drama by giving her a day away from it all, and also gives her an opportunity to process the fact that Greg is divorcing her, not the other way around (as if it matters).  Their bar talk is instructive in confirming Don's growth - he dismisses his affair with Bobbi Barrett (referenced elliptically through her line that she "likes to be bad and then go home and be good") as a "disaster" and notes that people have no idea how awful one's marriage has to get before divorce becomes an option (this is 1966 after all).  He acknowledges his happiness with Megan and even pushes back against Joan's assertion that a married man's wandering eye is his fault alone. 

This level of self-awareness is unusual for Don and his willingness to see that time in his life as what it was - self-destructive - is a theme that has been woven throughout this season.  On the other hand, Joan seems resigned to her fate as they speculate on the backstory of a single man across the room who has shown interest in her.  Joan assumes he's married and that his wife's only sin is to have become "familiar."  Don pushes back, questioning why it's assumed the man is entirely at fault.  While this disagreement may simply be a matter of each character's perspective (and history), even in a boozy haze, each shows a remarkable acuity to their own worldview. 

Don gets a chance to put his words into action as soon as he gets home.  Megan, fuming that he has not called and is drunk, demands that they sit and eat dinner together.  She not only forces normalcy onto Don (and into their marriage) at every turn, but builds Don up when he laments his disinterest in work since she quit.  At pivotal times this season, when a weaker woman would have been unable to stand up to Don, Megan has.  She is relentless in her desire to keep him on a righteous path - when he left her at Howard Johnson's, she explained that action like that erodes their marriage; when he wants to scream at Betty for disclosing his marriage to Anna to Sally, she calmly tells him why doing that will give Betty just what she wants.  She even intuits his discomfort with a play they attend for its anti-consumerism message and flips his distaste to show it is unwarranted.  

The result is a rejuvenated Don, who speaks to the staff at the Christmas party with passion and verve about the challenge ahead of them - of becoming a "made" agency by securing the elusive car client.  His rousing speech is met with applause as he calls the creative team into his office to begin brainstorming ideas and we are left to wonder, as the calendar turns to 1967, where these final three episodes will lead us. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Spending Sunday With The New York Times

There is no greater guilty pleasure on a lazy Sunday than treating yourself to The New York Times.  While not as dense as it once was, to spend a few hours (and yes, to truly appreciate all that this paper has to offer, you will need to set aside meaningful time) combing through its sections is to understand both cultural literacy and why it is so important to have an actual newspaper in front of you.  In the same way a trip to the grocery store where one walks up and down every aisle is guaranteed to unveil discoveries merely shopping with a list will not, physically paging through the entire Sunday Times exposes you to things browsing the Times on the Web never will.  It is an immersive experience that, as it did today, can take you from the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital as the TV show House, M.D. ends to a $50 million condo on Park Avenue and many places in between.  

Each section offers its own narrative and rhythm. Personally, I tend to start with the Book Review and in particular, the Letters to the Editor, which serve as an often hilarious form of high brow "Your Mama" disses, with writers criticizing reviewers, reviewers criticizing letter writers and the authors whose works have been reviewed sometimes chiming in to express dissatisfaction with the review done of their book. It's all a form of literary masturbation and liberal arts one-ups-manship, but the sheer fact that people who write in are that passionate about books is a telltale sign of your average Times reader.  The reviews are another story altogether.  Writing a concise summary of a several hundred page book is not an easy thing, but a well written review, like the one Bill Clinton did for Robert Caro's most recent book on LBJ, are an opportunity for the writer to flash his or her own literary chops as much as it is a chance to learn more about the book being reviewed.  That the Book Review serves as an excellent source for people like me who do a lot of reading goes without saying. 

Of course, long reads are a signature of the Sunday Times, and a favored place for them is the Metropolitan section, which somehow manages to offer the best of long and short form writing.  Today's edition was particularly robust.  A lengthy profile of Amanda Burden, the long serving Director of City Planning jumped from the front page to the inside fold and made a compelling argument for the indelible mark she has left in her 11 years as head of that agency, which has included overseeing the instantly iconic High Line Park, expansive redevelopment along the Brooklyn waterfront and the rezoning of more than 10,000 city blocks.  But the real treat is a small column penned by Marielle Anzelone, a botanist and urban ecologist who writes with a lyricism and whimsy about nature that is enchanting. Ms. Anzelone packs much into her modest column, identifying and describing animals, plant, flora and fauna, while giving a depth and richness to the nature she is observing that only great writing can do.  Her latest dispatch from Staten Island touched on the migratory habits of red admiral butterflies, the discovery of a raccoon skull, "dull, purple rhizomorphs of honey mushrooms" that curled around logs and a "tiny teepee" of twigs constructed by a caterpillar constructed on the underside of a leaf. More recent modifications to this section now include Sunday Routines, a snapshot of a typical Sunday for a well known New Yorker (today's was Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott), the @Trending NYC column that brings the week in Twitter (at least as it pertains to NY) home ,as well as smaller stories, often about the opening and closing of stores, restaurants and shops. 

I like to think of the Sunday Times as Anzelone's column writ large, a forest within which there is much to be discovered.  If you jump over to Automobiles, your eco-heart will go pitter patter with a review of the latest Prius and an article about vo-techs that train students to work more intimately with hybrid engines.  Pop over to Travel and you will not only get great road trip ideas, but a Question & Answer column with NPR icon Garrison Keiller.  While Sports is deeply invested in the hockey and basketball playoffs (the former particularly so with both the hometown Rangers and across the river rivals Devils in a Best of Seven slugfest), small gems, like the one found on today's back page, about the women's golfer Mickey Wright, winner of 82 professional titles and the first woman to be honored with a gallery at the USGA Museum in New Jersey, are equally enjoyable. 

But the tall trees in the Sunday Times cultural forest are found in its entertainment, real estate and business sections.  While they may seem disparate, they are all of a piece and tell a story of New York at its fairy-tale best - a place that is at the cutting edge of finance, fashion and fine arts. No section of the paper exemplifies this narrative more than Sunday Styles, a shameless paean to class, specifically, not yours, unless you rub elbows at the charity events, gallery openings or museum dinners that are memorialized in photographs each week or have the good fortune of having your wedding announced in the "Vows" section.  To read about the pending (or recent) betrothals is to appreciate how the other half (or more specifically, the 1%) live.  Blogs dissect the educational pedigree and status of bride and groom and family members alike, kibbutz over the prominence of the law firms, medical residencies and political masters these young (and sometimes not so young) masters of the universe are employed at and allow hokum and treacly love stories to be penned in the service of matrimony.  That Sunday Styles unabashedly drops in advertising from companies like Bvlgari, Polo and Tiffany only serves to reinforce the unabashed narrative of cultural and societal elitism. 

Of course, the distilled essence of New York's elite is the Real Estate section, where today's edition featured a singer whose only credit is an off Broadway play buying an apartment for $1.175 million and a 500 square foot place in Chelsea that sold for a cool $460,000.  The full page On the Market is house porn featuring residences that go for well into the seven figures with maintenance and property tax assessments greater than the Gross Domestic Product of Berkino Faso.  A feature highlighting the biggest sale of the week gives you 750 words on a $52.5 million condo on Park Avenue and the front page story on recently constructed high rises quotes monthly rental rates at a 53 story building on Fifth Avenue at upwards of $10,000 a month. This orgy of consumption is only leavened by the must read Streetscapes, a beautifully written history lesson in capsule that takes buildings from long ago eras and provides their backstories.  Many are still standing and the photographs that accompany this column add great value to the reporting.  

As a companion section, Business connects the people buying those expensive pieces of property to the financial institutions they lead.  Essential reading includes Gretchen Morgenson's column and the Corner Office interview, which  offers insight into how CEOs and other leaders mold employees, hire and how (and where) they learned the life lessons that made them successful.  While Business also provides guest columns, I tend to find them disappointing, too analytical on the one hand and often allowing those whose hands are dirty from failing policy (I'm looking at you Greg Mankiw) a platform to dissemble and engage in revisionist history.  The section has also shrunk in recent years and no longer does, as a matter of course, meaningful stock analysis, something that would be useful to the average investor. 

Providing ballast at the other end of the "forest" is the "A" section and Week in Review.  Most newspapers would be glad to pack into an entire week the information the Sunday Times offers in its front section, and its national and international reporting have no peer. Indeed, if there's one section to read, it is this one.  The Times will clue you in to everything from Chinese investments in rare earth minerals in Africa to the lost generation of Spaniards being crushed under the weight of unemployment and austerity.  Of course, feature articles that cover important issues like our drawdown from Afghanistan come with high-level sourcing that competitors far and wide would kill for and drive conversation in the national news for days.  Smaller pieces, like well crafted obituaries of people like Levon Helm and reporting from little corners of America offer added value and pleasure to this essential reading.  Sadly, the Week in Review is not as "must read" as it once was.  I have not found favor in a recent "reboot" and the loss of Frank Rich from the opinion page was an enormous loss.  While the new format offers more in the way of reporting and an expanded "letters" section uses an interesting premise of thesis, comment and rebuttal, this is one part of the paper I hope the Sulzberger family considers re-vamping once again, either with new/different/better opinion writers or a tighter focus on subject matter to provide greater narrative coherence.  

The Sunday Times is essential reading for anyone who wishes to be conversant and informed on an entire spectrum of issues and is curious about the world around them.  It is, in its way, a tactile Google, leading the inquisitive to explore and learn more about a wide range of subjects, many of which you first learn about in the pages of the newspaper. In my part of New Jersey, a Sunday Times will set you back $5, which would be a bargain at twice the price. 

Twitter: @scarylawyerguy

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Let’s Take 'Em Both – The Tao of Kenny Cosgrove

As the central characters in Mad Men fall down the rabbit hole that is the 1960s, let us pause and reflect on the Zen milquetoast that is Ken Cosgrove.  You know, Ken.  He’s from Vermont and writes short stories under a nom de plume.  He caught Sal Romano’s eye but was too clueless to realize he was being hit on. While Pete attends to a client’s every need, Ken makes them feel as if they have none, at least according to Lane Pryce.  He smokes “tea” and has an unwritten pact with Peggy Olson to drag her to every pitch meeting and client meal (except when he’s meeting with a book publisher).  Yeah, that guy.

To call his style effortless would be inaccurate, I think of it more as nonchalant.  Sure, he gets high, writes weird stories about robots and you could not imagine him having anything other than missionary position sex, but Ken has remained religiously (and relentlessly) bland through five difficult seasons of Mad Men.  Take the competing reactions he and Pete had when PPL promoted them to “co-heads” of Account Management.  Pete had a temper tantrum and poured himself a drink.  Ken?  His response was basically “neat-o” and away he went.  He brought a Deere riding mower into the office but shouldered no blame when poor Guy MacKendrick ended up losing a foot because dimwitted Lois ran over it.  Somehow, like those quiet types who fly under the radar while the loud mouths get voted off the Island on Survivor, Ken knows how to avoid danger.

Ken is also a realist.  Having been passed over by the big feet who alit from PPL-owned Sterling Cooper, when he was brought back underneath Pete in Season Four, he took his place without objection.  He views his job as just that, a job, not as the thing that defines him as a man. While Pete, Don and Roger all lean on Ken to leverage his soon-to-be father-in-law for contacts when Lucky Strike leaves the agency, Ken refuses, resolutely distinguishing between his work and personal lives.  Instead, he finds a comrade in Peggy and they get a new, albeit, small account, Topaz Pantyhose. His lack of competitiveness appeared to be a strike against him when the firm was suffering, but by avoiding the high pressure stakes of leadership, Ken has also carved out what is now called “work/life balance” that does not result in the bad behavior and feelings of emptiness that seem to consume his superiors.

Even as SCDP has begun to rebound from the loss of Lucky Strike, Ken is blasé.  When Pete complains about Roger’s imperiousness, Ken shoots back with a droll observation of the way advertising works –building a book of clients, eventually leading to the big fish that will allow SCDP to “go public” with Elvis playing at Tammy Campbell’s Sweet 16 in Buenos Aires.  I told you he wrote science fiction!  Ken is disinterested in making waves.  Consider his reaction to the dueling proposals of wunderkind copywriter Michael Ginsberg and Don for the Sno-Ball account.  Instead of choosing between offending his boss and going with the lesser of the two concepts, he says, “let’s pitch both.” This inoffensiveness is precisely what makes Ken so successful.  He knows how to avoid office land mines and politics.  He may have made an internal calculation that either pitch would win the account, so there was no reason to choose sides, or, he may have suspected that there was no value in choosing one or the other, but he certainly avoided getting a dress down from Don like Michael did in the elevator the next day. 

The more mendacious version of Ken is the corporate suck up, the sycophant who rides mediocre talent and the lack of a gag reflex to the corporate corner office, but Ken is not that deceitful.  He’s very aware of where his lines are drawn.  That probably means that he will never ascend to the top of the corporate ladder, but it also ensures he won’t have a heart attack while riding a 20 year old around like a pony after hours, becoming a miserable, alcoholic divorcee or an unhappily married suburbanite who lusts after his commuter friend’s wife. Not a bad trade off, if you ask me.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mad Men Season Five - The Green-Eyed Monster

The episode might have been called Dark Shadows, but the plot reminded me of an old joke:

Two bulls, an older bull and a younger bull, are grazing at the top of a hill, when they spot a cluster of cows down in the meadow.  The younger bull says "Let's run down there and fuck us a cow." The older bull chuckles, and says, "Let's walk down and fuck 'em all." 

The storyline was less "dark shadows" and more spite and envy, of people unable to let go of their virility, their vanity, or their pride, of one generation telling the next, "not so fast," and of people who feel their grasp on control slipping away and clinging to it at all costs.  The episode laid bare a lot of emotional ugliness, most prominently with Betty, whose struggle with weight and jealousy toward Don and Megan's new life led her to reveal to Sally that she (Betty) was Don's second wife, and that another woman, Anna, had been his first spouse.  When Sally lashes out at Megan for failing to mention Anna, Betty seems to have scored a petty point, but Megan is more sophisticated than Betty, and quickly turns the tables on her, resulting in Sally sending several veiled barbs at her mother in return.  

As Henry, Betty and the kids sit down for a traditional Thanksgiving, Betty repeats her mantra that she "has everything."  It's a line I first remember hearing during last season's episode The Summer Man, when Betty's old neighbor Francine was helping her prepare for baby Gene's first birthday party.  In a Pleasantville world that is now brimming with psychedelic color, Betty is zealously black and white.  Superficially, she is bland and anodyne, but her impotence in a world that no longer solely values the "stay at home" mother causes her to act out - either through binge eating, demeaning her children, or stirring shit with her ex-husband and his new wife.  She defined herself in earlier seasons by her looks and figure, her ability to attract men and to be seen (to the outside world at least) as a dutiful wife and mother, but those ships have sailed, and, absent anything to define herself through (or with), she is left with an aerosol can of Reddi-wip and chewing her food 21 times before swallowing.  

Even the new, mellower Don Draper is not immune to having his manhood threatened.  As he reviews recent work to update his "book," he realizes he has contributed little, relying instead on new kid on the block Ginsberg to do most of the heavy lifting.  Perhaps it is Don seeing a younger version of himself in the eager Mr. Ginsberg, but he struggles to come up with an alternative pitch for Sno-Ball, eventually settling on one that his creative team tepidly endorses and Ken suggests they offer to the client along with one of Ginsberg's ideas.  When it comes time to pitch, however, Don leaves Ginzo's idea in the cab and wins the client over with his idea.  When Ginsberg confronts Don about the snub, Don quickly puts Ginsberg in his place, first reminding Michael that he works for Don and then, when Ginsberg says he pities Don, Don retorts that he doesn't even think about Ginsberg.  An invigorated Don then strides purposefully to his office.

Of course, the ultimate adult as adolescent is Roger, who, along with Bert, hatches a plan to nab wine maker Manischewitz without notifying Don or Pete of the scheme.  Roger's problems though are two-fold: first, he cannot write copy, and thus, engages Ginsberg in "side work" (think Peggy and Mohawk Airlines) and second, he needs the assistance of his soon-to-be ex-wife Jane, who is Jewish, to help seal the deal.  Ginsberg costs Roger $200, but Jane extracts a new apartment to attend the dinner. While the meal goes well, and Ginsberg's pitch (largely uncredited) is accepted, Roger is put off by the overt flirting the owner's son does with Jane.  When Roger invites himself up to Jane's new apartment after the dinner, he has sex with her, thereby tainting, in her mind, her new home.  If he were a dog, Roger could have lifted his leg and peed on the doorstep. He wants what he wants, and he rarely assesses the consequences.  Perhaps he needs to take another tab of LSD.  

A rung lower on the totem pole, Peggy expresses anger toward Roger for cutting her out of the Manischewitz side project and Harry Crane complains about promises that have been unkept.  All Pete can do is have a saucy dream about Beth and lash out at her philandering husband when he crows about spending time with his mistress before settling in with his family for Thanksgiving.  Each is at a pivot point in their lives, where they will either ascend the professional ladder or become ever moving lateral employees, never quite getting the corner office.  In their personal lives too, families beckon, and decisions about life insurance, home mortgages and children now dominate their thinking. They are each, in their way, necessary for the proper functioning of the agency, but exist in the background and must squelch their feelings of envy and desire. 

This push and pull is a constant theme in Mad Men, of yearning unrequited, of dreams dashed or roads not taken. A season ago, Peggy lashed out at Don for not properly giving her credit for Glo-Coat, his response was that her salary was her reward and he interpreted her ambitiousness as impolitic, questioning whether she had paid her dues. But in a world that is rapidly changing, of, as Roger says, "every man for himself," the idea of a hierarchy is fading.  Pete brazenly challenges Roger's position with the firm and Ginsberg flouts custom by openly questioning his boss's decision making.  In seasons past, this type of intemperance would not happen and if it did, direction to gather one's things would be the end result.  But workplace insolence is nothing compared to the rebellion that what will grow into the "Baby Boomer" generation is starting to express at home. Sally's attitude toward her parents (and Megan) is confrontational, sarcastic, and without deference to authority. What Dark Shadows most clearly expressed is the cleaving of a society that, in 1966, is beginning to split apart along gender and generational lines, with everyone struggling to adapt to the shifting landscape. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The State of the Race For President

In just under six months, about half of all voting age eligible adults will select our next President.  While the election has been running full blast on the cable news networks and the "blogosphere," most Americans know little more than who the two competitors are and that one is Democrat and the other a Republican.  So where do we stand?

The National Media Is In Wall-To-Wall Campaign Mode.  I'm a political junkie, but the granularity of national media obsession with this race is dizzying.  Turn on MSNBC, FOX or CNN, not to mention the lead stories (most nights) on CBS, NBC and ABC, and you are certain to hear about stories involving either President Obama or Governor Romney. The ubiquity of Twitter, online blogging and the 24/7 news cycle demands a never ending stream of "news" to report, comment and opine on.  To that end, the media have lost all perspective on what "news" is, and instead, has elevated the serious and the stupid to equal levels of discourse.  Important topics like the War in Afghanistan share the stage with jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner and how Mitt Romney snubbed someone's cookies at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. A war on women is declared, and then the right-wing declares a "war" on people using the term "war." When in doubt, just TiVo/DVR The Daily Show, no other program does as good a job eviscerating the idiocy that passes for mainstream news coverage in 2012. 

National Polling Means Nothing (Right Now).  The breathless reporting (see above) often centers on the poll de jour. Ignore all of them.  First, we don't elect our President based on the popular vote, just ask Al Gore (or Sam Tilden - but he's dead), so national polling is essentially meaningless.  Even if you do credit national polls, consider that two of the last three elections were near 50/50 splits between the two parties and even in 2008, as the economy was cratering and the outgoing President had the lowest approval ratings since Herbert Hoover, Obama "only" won 53-46 (1% "other"). So any national poll that shows a big lead for Obama or Romney, take with a huge grain of salt.

The Election Will Be Won or Lost in Less Than 10 States.  When you hear some Republican operative claiming Romney is going to compete in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Michigan, immediately change the channel.  Ditto when a Democratic talking head claims the President has a shot in Georgia or Texas.  Campaigns do a lot of head fakes, especially when they, or their surrogates, have money to spend.  So Romney might just spend an afternoon in Mendham come September, and he may get some press coverage along the lines of "Romney competing in New Jersey?" but ignore it.  The race will be won or lost in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Virginia and North Carolina. These states will experience a minor economic stimulus as campaigns, the press and tens of millions in advertising flow into these "purple" states.  If you want to follow polls, follow these states. 

The Ground War, Not Independents, Will Win The Race.  TV will be saturated with commercials, by both campaigns, outside groups and party committees trying to sway mythical independent voters; however, the race will be won on the ground by the party that does a better job getting its voters to the polls.  But what of those mythic independent voters, you ask?  You know the ones - Tom Friedman fetishizes them as craving some magical "third way" candidate who will bring the proper balance of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism to the White House (ignoring the present tenant, naturally).  They have the Simpson/Bowles Executive Summary hanging on their refrigerators, have kids studying Mandarin in charter schools and know at least one gay couple.  Yeah, them.  Only problem, they don't exist.  I don't mean literally, but figuratively.  Most pollsters will tell you that while a fair percentage of the electorate "self-identifies" as independent, when quizzed a little further, most show strong party identification (based on prior voting patterns) for one party or the other.  These voters interpret "independent" as "free thinking," not "party switching."  Truth be told, the number of true "independent" voters is probably between 5% and 10%, and while not insignificant, not the be all/end all of political science either.  If you don't think get out the vote matters, consider off years like 2010, where the electorate that turned out was whiter, older and wealthier, and thus, more sympathetic to Republicans, resulting in massive gains for the GOP. 

The October Jobs Report Will Be Meaningless.  A favorite bigfoot reporter trope is that the vaunted October jobs report, which will come out the Friday before the election, will be meaningful.  This is nonsense.  What will matter are the next 3-4 months of jobs reports, whether they show a slow but continuing drop in the unemployment rate through modest, yet steady job growth, or begin to tick up because job growth slows and/or retracts. These reports will provide a far more accurate picture of our economic situation than ONE report that happens to come out four days before the election.  The chances that the October report will be gangbusters big or depth of the Great Recession bad are small.  If the report is either one, the likelihood is that prior months would have teased that trend, making October reinforcing, not altering, and in that way, more predictive of where the election is heading.

The Power of Republican Super PACs Will Be Both Enormous & Marginal.  Any true lawyer can parse ideas or hold two inconsistent ones in their head simultaneously.  Behold! The miracle of the Super PAC.  On the one hand, the RNC and Romney campaign will outsource the sliming of Obama to Restore Our Future, Crossroads GPS, and whatever fringe, unnamed, donors not revealed, hit job Super PACs pop up to carry Romney's mud.  This strategy was used to powerful effect in the Republican primaries, where Restore Our Future carpet bombed any and every opponent that popped up to challenge Romney and buried them under an avalanche of negative ads.  The theory goes that by allowing outside groups to do the dirty work, Romney will be able to run mostly positive ads, while Obama, without the benefit of hundreds of millions in outside dollars flowing to his Super PAC, will have to go negative directly through his campaign, thereby sullying his "hope and change" image.  

I disagree with this theory because I do not think most voters think there is a distinction between Super PACs and the candidates they support.  Moreover, my guess is that the media will more closely scrutinize the shadowy way Super PACs operate and the idea that they are largely funded by a small group of obscenely wealthy people (at least on the Republican side) will mitigate their impact.  Further, and as noted above, the number of "persuadable" voters is not that big.  At a point, saturation occurs and all these ads will result in diminishing returns.  The "free" advertising of the Presidential debates will drive discussion and campaign narrative for more than attack ads.

Speaking Of Debates …  Wow.  Not that the debates have not been important in prior cycles, but the rise of social media would suggest this year's debates will be particularly impactful. If you go back and watch The War Room, there's a great scene where, after a debate, George Stephanopoulos is seen running behind the scenes barking out "messaging" in the immediate aftermath of a debate (something about Bush being on the defensive).  Now, messaging is in real time, as it is happening, online and open to anyone with a computer and Internet connection.  How much, and to what extent, the campaigns are able to leverage that fact will shape perception after each debate.  That's a huge deal, because those (presumed) three debates will be political Super Bowl moments where tens of millions of Americans tune in and read about the day after.  

The Election Will Be Close. John McCain scraped the bottom of the electoral barrel for modern-day Republicans, collecting 173 electoral votes (EVs) by winning most of the old Confederacy, Texas and some states in the Plains and Rocky Mountains.  The 2008 map turned blue in North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana, which had not gone Democratic since 1976 (NC) and 1964 (VA & IN) respectively.  In addition, because Nebraska apportions some of its electoral college delegates by Congressional district, Obama collected one EV in the Cornhusker State. Even if the election in November was the same as it was in 2008, Romney would pick up a net 6 EVs based on population growth from the 2010 census.  Of course, while it is true that the Republicans have only won the popular vote in one of the last five Presidential elections, deep seated animus toward the President, combined with the difficulty he will have in again winning at least two of those "once in a generation" three red-to-blue (IN and NC), and assuming Romney holds all the states McCain won in 2008, would bump his electoral total to 205. 

Obama, meanwhile, will be defending himself from all out assaults in Florida and Ohio, which, if he lost, would move Governor Romney close to the "magic" 270 EV needed to claim the Presidency.  Further, Obama does not have a lot of room for growth. Perhaps Arizona based on Romney's strident anti-immigration rhetoric during the campaign and maybe Montana, but otherwise, absent an enormous economic recovery where 300,000 to 400,000 jobs are created each month and the unemployment rate plummets below 6%, that 2008 map squeezed every last EV out of the country a Democrat could hope to get. If nothing else, a 6 point national win for Obama, even if he wins 300-325 EVs (which is my guess), is highly unlikely. 

Follow me on Twitter: @scarylawyerguy

Friday, May 11, 2012

Peter Dyckman Campbell, 32

Peter Dyckman Campbell of Cos Cob, was killed in a one car accident on January 1, 1967.  Campbell was a partner with the advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce where he served as Head of Account Management. Born in New York City's Presbyterian Hospital in 1934, Campbell attended The Buckley School and Deerfield Academy before matriculating at Dartmouth College, from which he was graduated with an A.B. in Business Administration and was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and known affectionately as "Humps." 

Following college, Mr. Campbell began his career as an account manager at Sterling Cooper and, in 1963, became a founding partner of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Among the companies Mr. Campbell served include North American Aviation, Sea-Cor Laxatives, Sugar Berry Ham, Mohawk Airlines and, most recently, Head Ski Company.  Pete, as he was known by family, friends and co-workers alike, enjoyed summering on Fisher's Island and had recently taken up hunting as a hobby. 

Mr. Campbell is survived by his loving wife Trudy Campbell ( Vogel) and daughter Tammy  as well as his mother, Dorothy Dyckman-Campbell, and brother Bud.  A memorial service will be held at The Presbyterian Church of Old Greenwich on Tuesday, January 3rd.  Mr. Campbell will be laid to rest in Trinity Church Cemetery, Upper Manhattan, where his great-grandfather, Silas Dyckman, first settled and the family resided for several generations.

*Note:  This is a speculative post based on the heavy death theme from this season's Mad Men, and in particular, as it relates to Pete.   

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Grumpy Old People

A movement does not have its moment until it becomes the subject of scholarly work.  Bookshelves now sag with dated works on Baby Boomers, the "Me" generation, Generation X, and of course, any and every political movement that has cropped up from the agrarian revolution of the 1890s to Occupy Wall Street.  Onto this list two new books, The FOX Effect, by David Brock, Ari Raven-Havt and their colleagues at Media Matters and The Tea Party & The Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol and Ph.D. candidate Vanessa Williamson have arrived to examine right wing political activism in the United States and how FOX News in particular acts as a "house organ" for the modern Republican party. 

Of course, the existence of a "vast right wing conspiracy" is not a new idea, but what both books argue persuasively is that the media, and most particularly, FOX News, has erased the line between journalism and political activism and, under the imprimatur of "news," created a propaganda machine that serves as a message machine for the GOP.  The FOX Effect focuses primarily on Roger Ailes, who heads the FOX News channel and has deep roots in the Republican Party.  Ailes's name will be familiar to political junkies dating to the 1960s, when, as a young man, he helped mold Richard Nixon's 1968 Presidential campaign, spearheading ideas like the "town hall" event, but with the twist of packing the audience with sympathetic voters not necessarily representative of the electorate that supported his candidate.  Ailes went on to serve subsequent Republican Presidents and refined his techniques for media manipulation as the medium changed, seemingly staying one step ahead of his competition while being circumspect in his profile. 

As Brock and Rabin-Havt show, Ailes was able to fully realize his vision when Rupert Murdoch handed him the reins to FOX News. The rest, for anyone who has followed politics and the media for the last 15 years, is history.  The authors tread ground that will look familiar to those who follow this sort of thing - the Orwellian use of the "fair and balanced" tag line, the hiring and promotion of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and others, and the steady conservative influence of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, all marching in tight solidarity toward the objective of demeaning anything and everything vaguely smelling of big "D" Democratic policy and little "d" democracy.  Along the way, Brock and Rabin-Havt also illustrate the two-step FOX utilizes to pump up controversy that originates in the bowel of the "vast right wing conspiracy," elevating it into the national discourse, and, if others do not pick up on it, claiming "liberal" bias.  Of course, in many cases, like that of the "new" Black Panthers or USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, the facts end up being far less nefarious than FOX reports them to be, but that is of no consequence to Ailes and company.  Their objective is a steady stream of distortion to a viewership that studies have shown is the most misinformed of any that watches news programming. 

But FOX has gone a step further from merely cherry picking information to provide it a Republican slant.  In recent years, their advocacy has become more affirmative, erasing the line that traditionally stood between journalism and political activism.  FOX personalities have appeared at "Tea Party" rallies, assisted in fundraising (and contributed) to Republican candidates for political office and provided a friendly platform for the endless promotion of Tea Party events, particularly in 2009 and 2010.   In response, FOX falls back on the idea of a separation between its "news" personalities and "opinion" personalities, arguing that the latter do not present themselves as neutral arbiters, but the reality, as Brock and Rabin-Havt show, is a distinction without a difference.  "News" programs on FOX recite, almost word for word, the talking points generated by Republican operatives as gospel, so to suggest they are not part of the overall machinery that amplifies the conservative point of view is a chimera. 

Skocpol and Williamson look at the opposite end of the telescope by logging endless hours researching, interviewing and spending time with "the Tea Party," a phenomenon they rightly point out is not a monolith, but rather, a complex political organism not always in harmony with itself, but sharing a simple demographic - older, white people who generally have a dim view of immigrants, minorities and young people.  While the mainstream media mocks Tea Partiers as being ignorant (a sign reading "Keep Your Government Hands off My Medicare" is often cited to show Tea Partiers don't even know Medicare IS a government program), the authors point out that the Tea Party argument is a bit more nuanced (if idiotic).  That is, yes, they KNOW Medicare is a government "entitlement," but Tea Party supporters see it as THEIR entitlement - that is, they have worked, paid into, and "earned" the right to have Medicare and Social Security while the groups they disfavor (see above) are seen as being unworthy, either because they have not worked for it, or are crossing the border in hordes to access government services illegally.  

Along the way, the authors dovetail nicely with the impact FOX News has on political discourse discussed by Brock/Rabin-Havt.  For example, they cite reporting that was done suggesting the Tea Party was a movement of "moderates" and not conservative Republicans.  The "moderate" meme was launched off a poll that, when disaggregated based on its questions and other polls done at the time, shown to be unsupported, but that did not matter at the critical time that the reporting was done.  While the authors attribute fault across the media (as it should be), the cheerleaders on FOX and others within the right wing media were more than happy to fan the flames with the idea that "ordinary" Americans from across the political spectrum supported the Tea Party when in fact they did not. 

The book also discusses the fissure between grass roots Tea Party folks (yes, some do exist) and the corporate funders at the national level - the Koch Brothers, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity and others - who cleverly leveraged what legitimate local anger there might have been over the election of President Obama, the passage of health care reform and national debt and repackaged it into a "brand" called the Tea Party.  The authors point out that while some local groups accepted funds from national organizations and in return give the imprimatur of their support to those national groups, not every local Tea Party has fallen into the orbit of larger, nationally run groups.  

Indeed, what is interesting about The Tea Party & The Remaking of Republican Conservatism is the fact that the Tea Party is not so much a new phenomenon as a mutation of a small group of ultra-conservative Republicans whose philosophy found its moment, in, of all places, the rant of a CNBC journalist on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, not against the greed of bankers, but the purportedly "lazy" Americans looking to be bailed out of their underwater mortgages.  The general diffidence these folks feel toward the federal government became subsumed within larger societal forces that the financial crisis unleashed.  That this all took place when an urban, articulate, African-American with a "foreign" sounding name took office was the accelerant that fueled the fire.  

To me at least, the Tea Party is really just a 2.0 version of the right wing anger directed at Bill Clinton when he was President.  Ironically, it was David Brock, who, in the 1990s was an agitator for conservative causes, kept the Paula Jones story alive, which, through a daisy chain of events, resulted in Bill Clinton's impeachment.  Today, Brock has recanted his past and now trains his fire on his former masters, so it is a little surprising that there is not much in his book that makes a more affirmative link between generic "outrage" and a Democrat being in the White House.  Of course, some of the militant edge was taken off the Clinton rage as the economy boomed in the 1990s, and my guess is that were we to experience stronger job and economic growth if Obama is re-elected, some of the reflexive dislike Republicans have for him would also dissipate. 

As for the Tea Party, Skocpol and Williamson make a strong case that it will be a force in politics, though more likely at the local level, for some time to come because the demographics of this country will, in some way, reinforce it.  We, as a nation, are growing more ethnically diverse, but also have limited financial resources, which will only flow more substantially to the elderly as the country ages and Social Security and Medicare consume more of our budget.  It's not a coincidence that the "Ryan Budget" does not end Medicare as we know it until 2022.  The retired and near retirement are a powerful bloc who think they are entitled to the social safety net - if the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, it is of no moment to them. At the national level, Republicans are pruning moderates from the Senate and their House caucus, thanks to gerrymandering, excuse me, redistricting, has never been more conservative.  Whether they are merely paying lip service to Tea Party causes in the drive for power and control or will actually implement radical change if ever given the ability to do it will have significant ramifications for our country.