Friday, May 31, 2013

Malaise On The Left

They say in politics, “if you’re explaining you’re losing,” and this week’s loser appears to be “the left,” specifically, MSNBC, who saw its ratings plummet in the first few months of 2013.[1] Some are connecting MSNBC’s decline to a more general (to borrow from President Carter, who never actually uttered the word) malaise of progressives in the wake of President Obama’s victory last November.[2] Others suggest the impact of the manufactured “scandals” supposedly embroiling the President have something to do with the lack of engagement by people who, less than 7 months ago, handed an electoral landslide to the President.

I cannot speak for others, but my own reasons for stepping away from the political fight have everything to do with the “been there, done that” vibe that seems to have encapsulated what happens in Washington. To take a few examples:

Continued GOP Obstruction: Remember when the President said he thought his re-election would cause the GOP’s “fever” to break, resulting in their return to some semblance of rationality?[3] How did that work out? Well … Senate Republicans engaged in the first modern day filibuster of a Cabinet appointment,[4] followed swiftly by the filibustering of a second Cabinet appointment.[5] GOP threats to do the same to a third (Labor Secretary-Designate Tom Perez) and fourth (EPA-Administrator Designate Gina McCarthy) nominee have led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make a threat of his own – the so-called “nuclear option” of filibuster reform.[6] Of course, Reid had the chance to make these changes at the beginning of the session and demurred, instead opting for a “handshake” deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of what Republicans have done since the President was inaugurated in January 2009 knew was a total waste of time. Indeed, no sooner were the two men’s hands dry that the GOP again blocked a well-qualified nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals[7] and noted user of prostitutes David Vitter asked Ms. McCarthy to answer nearly 1,100 questions as part of the “vetting” of her appointment as EPA Administrator.[8]

On budget matters, the GOP stamped its feet that the Democratic-led Senate had not passed a budget during “regular order” for 4 years and then, when the Senate passed a budget, turned around and refused to name conferees to the joint House-Senate Committee that is organized to reconcile the differences between the two houses of Congress.[9] Meanwhile, sequester cuts were allowed to take effect, resulting in tens of billions being cut from critical programs that, among other things, aid the poor, impact food inspection, and, until members of Congress were going to be affected by it, result in longer lines at the airport.[10] In short, a disciplined minority in the Senate and a House majority that is deemed to have “caved” when once rudimentary re-authorizations like VAWA take place, have controlled the agenda just as powerfully as they did during Obama’s first term.

Bush Lite: I’ve argued in prior pieces[11] that the President Obama most reminds me of is not FDR or LBJ (as some on the right would have you believe) but rather, George H.W. Bush. Now, I fear he is starting to resemble not “Poppy” Bush, but his dimwitted son, George W. The early part of the President’s second term agenda has been disheartening precisely because he seems unwilling to leverage the political capital he was handed last November for aims we all hoped he would. The permanent extension of tax rates at George W. Bush-era levels was bad enough, but insult was added to injury when those in the $250,000-$450,000 range were spared an increase, estate taxes were set at levels BELOW what they were under GW Bush and the payroll tax “holiday” was allowed to expire, resulting in what is considered a “tax hike” by some, to middle class wage earners.[12]

Meanwhile, the President appointed a Republican to run the Defense Department, meaning that, but for Leon Panetta’s two years in that job, no Democrat has led the Pentagon since 1996, is about to nominate George W. Bush’s Deputy Attorney General James Comey to lead the FBI and the one judge the Senate did confirm for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was an associate counsel in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under, yup, George W. Bush.[13] As if this extension of his hand across the aisle were not enough, the President has aggressively moved to tamp down criticism of him by the media, holding dinners and golf outings with Republicans in an effort to lock in that shiniest of DC objects, the “grand bargain” that will result in the elderly receiving less in Social Security, the Medicare eligibility age (possibly) raised (if not having benefits cut) in exchange for some loophole closing in the tax code that will re-open before the ink on the President’s signature is dry.

Scandal Witch Hunt:  The three-in-one “scandal burrito” of Benghazi, the IRS and DOJ subpoenas of media outlets has been, in their way, the most disheartening episodes to watch from outside the Beltway. Perhaps it is because the media has an almost Pavlovian response to even the vaguest whiff of “scandal” that the reporting on these topics has been so poor, but the conflation of these three things, which are (1) unrelated; (2) not scandals; and (3) require some level of investigation/explication to understand belies reason.  Benghazi has become the Vince-Foster-Did-Not-Commit-Suicide meme of the right even as it turns out there is no smoke, much less fire. Of course, this did not stop the GOP from falsely ginning up hysteria by editing, and then leaking to a reporter (Jon Karl), a supposed “smoking gun” that turned out to be complete bullshit.[14] That Karl unquestioningly reported something he did not personally read is an egregious violation of journalistic ethics, but the fact that Republican operatives shamelessly fed him this story speaks to the desperation in their ranks to make something out of nothing.

On the IRS beat, it took weeks before reporters drilled down[15] into the subject matter to find out that the IRS was beset with hundreds of requests from new groups seeking tax-exempt status at a time immediately following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and that the supposed “targeting” of right-wing groups resulted in precisely zero groups who submitted proper applications being denied this lofty federal benefit.[16] No matter. In the shoot-first-ask-questions-later D.C. mentality, high level IRS officials (including the Commissioner, ironically, a Bush appointee) were tossed overboard as the President raced to throw people under the bus.[17]

Finally, while people of good faith may quibble with the Department of Justice’s issuance of subpoenas in two cases involving the media, both of which, it is worth noting, had to do with high level national security issues, no one, not even the media types whose hands flew up in collective outrage over this episode, claim that what the DOJ did was illegal. What the media complained about was the heavy handed attitude and potential chilling effect such actions would have – all of which is an entirely fair point to make, but hardly a “scandal.” Naturally, when the Attorney General offered to meet with the media to discuss their concerns, many balked, unless Mr. Holder held the meeting “on the record.”[18]

That none of these incidents is even a scandal, much less ones that the White House had any direct role in, is of no moment to the media. They merely toss it all in a blender, mix it up and talk about “second-term” curses.[19]  The real affront is the fact that while all of this attention is lavished on faux scandals and trumped up allegations, the President’s agenda is quietly withering on the vine. Months after 20 innocent children were killed in an elementary school in Connecticut, no gun safety laws have been passed. An economic recovery that is steady, but could be much stronger, is impacted by Congress’s unwillingness to pass a jobs bill (and the media’s silence about it). Obama’s basic Constitutional prerogatives, like appointing members of his Cabinet and judges to the federal bench are stymied with little media attention and a months-long fixation on debt and deficit has receded as our budget and long-term financial picture improves but no one pays it much mind as the media gets led around by the nose by an emboldened GOP and a knee-jerk desire for equivalency and political analysis that corrodes the public’s faith in the Fourth Estate.

Obama himself is not blameless. In the wake of a no-doubt-about-it electoral landslide and a Democratic party that won seats in the Senate and a million more votes in House races, he has, as is his wont, been more than willing to make compromises from a position of strength that were unnecessary. Be it tax rates or the fiscal cliff, Cabinet appointments or the elusive “grand bargain,” the President earnestly wants to make deals no matter how many times Republicans insult and demean him. That Senator Reid refused to change the rules of the Senate to limit the obstructionist tactics of the GOP has only served to further slow what was already an agenda that moved at glacial speed.

So if you’re wondering why people, or at least THIS person “on the left” is tuning out MSNBC or not posting as frequently on his blog, that is why. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to post this, link to it from Twitter and then scream at my television all weekend.  
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy





[16]  As Joan Walsh noted, the one group the IRS did deny was liberal:
[17]  Obama’s reaction was eerily reminiscent of his attitude in the wake of another faux scandal that resulted in a civil servant losing her job – Shirley Sherrod.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - A Family Affair

"If your home life is crap, your racing life is crap." - Richard Petty

Don's home life is invariably crap, but his combination of incredible eloquence [1] and casual infidelity has sustained him for years on end. While his paramours rarely get the chance to engage in after action reporting on his behavior, the one person who can, his ex-wife Betty, is given the opportunity to do so in this week's episode, The Better Half, an hour that considered intimate relations - between Don and Betty, Abe and Peggy, Pete and well, the world, and the odd ménage of Roger, Bob and Joan. 

Betty, resembling her former self, is back to being a woman who men desire, and a chance encounter as she and Don separately travel to Bobby's sleep away camp results in a boozy night of flirtation and frolic with her ex-husband. Of course, the last time Betty and Don had "desperation sex" they created little Gene [2] but their one off is more interesting for the pillow talk they engage in afterwards than their coitus. Don admits his ambivalence about the act of sex while desiring an emotional connection. His meditation is an interesting window into his psyche - he asks why intimacy and closeness have to be equated with sex, lamenting that the closeness he experiences just holding Betty in his arms is what is meaningful, while "the rest of it" (i.e., the act of sex) is not that important to him. 

But Betty is too aware of Don's wandering eye to let him off the hook for being unable (or unwilling) to connect with women intimately - she pinpoints his shortcomings in ways only a spouse can do - that his gaze, penetrating and consuming, ebbs quickly (another way of observing that he only likes "the beginnings of things" [3]) and that his distance from Megan stems from her committing the offense of attempting to love him. That Betty is able to diagnose Don's dysfunction so crisply is a testament to the fact that although Don bends over backwards to lead dual (and sometimes multiple) lives, all of that misdirection does not fool the people who are purportedly closest to him. The following morning, Betty, satisfied simply with being the target of Don's passion for just one night, happily banters with Henry like the prior evening never happened. 

And while Don is getting into hanky panky with Betty, Megan is pouring her heart out to Arlene, her co-star on To Have and To Hold about the emptiness of her marriage. Megan's lonely, having gone from shiny object of Don's affection to just another ship passing him in the night. Like Betty, Megan is attuned to Don's alienation and distance, but is at sixes and sevens as to how to solve that particular problem. Arlene misinterprets Megan's vulnerability as an opportunity to make a move on her, but Megan refuses. Megan, having taken Don's assistance in getting her career started, wants what we now call "work/life" balance in her marriage. When Don returns from his time at Bobby's camp, and having seen Betty and Henry chatting amiably in the camp cafeteria, he admits that he has been absent from their marriage, promising that he will attempt to reconnect with her. 

Meanwhile, Duck Phillips has reappeared, not as a competitor, but as a head hunter providing sage advice to one-time protege Pete Campbell. [4] Duck, now sober, counsels Pete to spend less time in his gloomy pied à tierre and more time at home; that confidence does not stem from alcohol but from the love of his family. But Pete is non-plussed, calling his family an irritation, not a source of confidence. Here, Duck demurs, advising Pete that failing to manage those relations will stop him from managing anything else. [5] But Pete is across the rubicon with Trudy, having "pushed the button" about his father-in-law's whoring, resulting in a final "we're through" declaration from Trudy. [6] And his mother, never a source of support, is now in a dementia haze, just another problem that belies a solution for Pete, who can never seem to figure things out. Perhaps, in an effort to start over, Pete makes a ham-handed pass at Joan, but, as we will learn later, Joan is otherwise engaged. 

Duck's advice contains a hint of irony. After all, he was once Peggy Olson's lover [7] but now Peggy is in over her head as the owner of a brownstone in a not-yet-gentrified part of New York City. After Abe is attacked near their home and rocks are thrown through their bedroom window, she is on guard for burglars and wielding a makeshift spear, which she buries in Abe's gut by accident when she mistakes him for a robber. Not since Lois ran over Guy Mackendrick's foot with a ride-on lawn mower [8] has such an unintentionally hilarious scene unfold, as Abe, a knife buried in his chest, castigates Peggy over her job in advertising and breaks up with her - IN AN AMBULANCE. But when Peggy tells secret crush Ted that she is now a single lady, he coldly rebuffs her. 

Finally, the familial heart strings tug at Roger - who feels so comfortable being Pop Pop to his grandson Ellery, but fails miserably when the lad is haunted by nightmares after Roger takes him to see Planet of the Apes. And while his daughter Margaret bemoans "a four year old taking care of a four year old," Roger re-directs his attention to his son Kevin, but discovers, upon popping in on Joan unannounced, that she is now dating Bob Benson. [9] Roger's lame attempt at trying to shoe horn his way into Joan's (and Kevin's) life falls flat, and Joan dismisses him as unreliable and an unwise person for Kevin to think of as his father. 

That sour note notwithstanding, The Better Half was an oddly optimistic hour of television. Family, marriage and children are almost always used as devices on the show to express limitation, claustrophobia and unhappiness, but here, they were utilized to suggest stability, comfort and support. In this way, Weiner tipped his hand at the little "c" conservative undercurrent of Mad Men, that even as times change, lapels widen and drugs become more ubiquitous, love, faith and affection are still the bedrock emotional needs we seek, even if do not always get them. 

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1.  Man With A Plan, Season 6, Episode 7. 
2.  The Inheritance, Season 2, Episode 10. 
3.  Noted by Dr. Faye Miller. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 
4.  When Duck was putting together the deal that would result in PPL buying Sterling Cooper, he was going to make Pete Head of Accounts. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. 
5.  And Duck should know. His ex-wife re-married and dumped the family dog on him. Duck couldn't stomach being poor Chauncey's master and abandons him outside the Sterling Cooper building. Maidenform, Season 2, Episode 8. From there, things went south quickly - Duck fell off the wagon, got muscled out of the PPL/SC merger (Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13), was dragged out of the CLIO awards drunk (Waldorf Stories, Season 4, Episode 6) and was caught trying to defecate in Roger's office before getting into a fight with Don (The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7).
6.  For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6.  
7.  Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7. 
8.  Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency, Season 3, Episode 6. 
9.  Roger's "who are you" to Bob was laugh out loud funny. He's only your employee, Roger. No big deal!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

In Defense of Don Draper

The serious people who deconstruct Mad Men have decided that Don Draper has become a bit of a bore (he has always been a bit of a boor, but that's beside the point). What with all the flashbacks this season to Phase II of The Worst Childhood Ever [1], the sometimes cloying, sometimes sadistic (and pathological) affair he's carried on with Sylvia Rosen and the utter indifference to (fill in the blank) his children, his wife or the well being of his employees, Don has, according to conventional wisdom, become a bit of a dick. 

Even worse, so this theory goes, is he has become uninteresting. After all, we have known for a long time he had a "difficult" childhood [2] and his philandering is certainly no secret [3] but what the flaggelators demand from Don is some emotional growth, some insight into his behavior and a pivot to a better version of himself (or, in lieu of that, to die from lung cancer, hypertension or cirrhosis). 

This is a curious opinion considering the people who follow the show the closest should know better than anyone that Don's core philosophy has long been known and it does not account for personal growth or introspection. The twin pillars of the Draperian world view are that (1) "people don't change" [4] and (2) that "people tell us who they are but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be." [5]

Don has been telling us who he is from the word go, but the only person who figured him out was Dr. Faye Miller, who was astute enough to know that Don only likes "the beginnings of things." [6] And why wouldn't Don like the beginnings of things? In the beginning he is all those things that we want him to be - observant and attentive, charming and rakish, and the smartest guy in the room. It's only when the pesky details of relationships, be they of the professional or personal variety [7], begin to take root that Don's wanderlust kicks in. 

To unpack Don's personal life, one need only look to the end of Season 4 for all the answers you need. After yet another close shave regarding his stolen past, Don opens up to Faye about stealing Lt. Don Draper's identity. They have the following conversation: 

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.

After having this pearl of wisdom dropped on him, Don quickly asked a woman he knew almost nothing about to marry him. Way to go, Faye!! If springing a surprise proposal on Megan wasn't enough, Don also tipped his hand to the audience when he and Ms. Calvet had 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.

Um, you SO didn't know who Don was, Megan, but thanks for playing! Because, see above (people don't change, people tell us who they are ….). Anyway, that Don turned out to be just as big a louse in his second marriage as he was in his first is no surprise, so why do we really care whether he gets into weird S&M scenarios with Sylvia [8] or lingers outside her apartment? [9] Don is a philanderer who is incapable of intimacy with anyone he engages with sexually. The only two women he has bonded with emotionally are Anna and Peggy who, coincidentally, he hasn't fucked. That this season's flashbacks have picked up the story of his childhood after Archie's death just fills in the final blanks of why Don is unable to be anything other than a handsome cipher. 

But for as egregious and odious as his conduct is in his personal life, the bum rap Don gets for being DONALD FUCKING DRAPER in the office baffles me. The reality is that when it comes to being the alpha male in whatever agency he works, Megan has it right, Don *is* Superman [10]. Consider what Don's prodigious talent has secured for his co-workers:

- When Sterling Cooper is acquired by PPL, but for Don's lack of a contract, which he leverages to get the folks from PPL to toss Duck overboard, the team would be working for a wobbly alcoholic incapable of running an advertising agency. [11]

-  When PPL flips itself (and Sterling Cooper) to McCann, Don hatches the plan to have Lane fire the partners. [12]

-  When Lucky Strike pulls its account, it is Don who pens "The Letter," which starts the ball rolling with the American Cancer Society (and eventually Dow Chemical). [13] 

-  Speaking of Dow, Don's the one who gives one of his most lethal pitches to secure their business - an enormous account that helps ensure the solvency of the agency. [14] 

-  Oh, and if having Dow as one of your clients was not sweet enough, Don locked up General Motors too when he went outside the box and pitched a merger to Ted Chaough over drinks in a hotel bar. [15]

In other words, if Don Draper was a stock, investing in him back in 1960 would have resulted in a rather tidy return on your investment. He is now the creative director at one of the 25 biggest advertising agencies in the world with two of the bluest of blue chip corporations under contract. 

And what of those co-workers who have profited so handsomely from the talented Mr. Draper? Peggy owes her career to Don's willingness to pull her out of the steno pool and promote her to  junior copywriter. [16] Don could have shitcanned Pete years ago [17] or let him twist in the wind when the partners went rogue to form SCDP, [18] but instead, Don kept Pete close, he even put up $50,000 on Pete's behalf when the firm was in jeopardy [19]. As for Roger and Bert, their fates would have been sealed had Sterling Cooper gone to McCann with PPL [20] and without Don's caches and genius, the partners could not have formed their own agency, meaning Joan would still be working (though no doubt quite competently) at the retail store Bonwit Teller. [21] So instead of lambasting Don, as Joan did after Don quit the Jaguar account [22], a thank you would be nice.


1.  The deep dive into Don's upbringing occurred during the show's 3rd season, which was bookended nicely with Don's conception and birth in the season's first episode, Out of Town and his father Archie's death in the season's finale, Shut the Door, Have A Seat. This flash backing occurred well after the seminal Season 1 episode, The Hobo Code (Season 1, Episode 8). 
2. His words. The Flood, Season 6, Episode 5. 
3. Don's been sneaking around literally since the show started and, a brief period of fidelity in the wake of Betty's discovery of his affair with Bobbi Barrett and the first few months of his marriage to Megan, Don's been laying pipe with any and every brunette mother figure/whore in the greater New York City/Ossining area since on or about 1960.
4.  The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12.
5.  The Summer Man, Season 4, Episode 8. 
6.  Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 
7.  As Roger noted, Don's problem is that he doesn't value relationships. Shut the Door, Have A Seat. Season 3, Episode 13. 
8.   Man With A Plan, Season 6, Episode 7. Don also engaged in some mild BDSM at the beginning of Season 4 with a prostitute, who he repeatedly asked to slap him. Public Relations, Season 4, Episode 1. 
9.   The Crash, Season 6, Episode 8.
10.  Man With A Plan, supra. 
11.  Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. 
12.  Shut the Door, Have A Seat, supra. 
13.  Blowing Smoke, Season 4, Episode 12.
14.  Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12. Although it should be noted that we are not told that SCDP is now the agency of record with Dow until the Season 6 premiere, The Doorway.
15.  Man With A Plan, supra.
16.  The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. 
17.  Nixon v. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12. 
18.  Shut the Door, Have A Seat, supra.
19.  Blowing Smoke, supra.
20.  Roger did not even appear as a box on the organizational chart of the PPL-led Sterling Cooper (Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency, Season 3, Episode 6) and the partners described Bert's post-PPL future as being "put on an iceberg." (Shut The Door, Have A Seat). 
21.  Souvenir, Season 3, Episode 8. 
22.  Man With A Plan, supra.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - Dr. Feelgood

Cocaine may be a helluva drug [1], but when you inject an office full of advertising executives and workers with a special cocktail that felt a lot like speed, you wind up face planted on your white shag carpet. In an episode that felt accelerated and off kilter, frenetic and disjointed, The Crash was uncomfortable to watch, from another flashback to the worst childhood ever (a/k/a "let's raise little Dick Whitman in a whorehouse and see what could possibly go wrong") to the desperate hours spent inside the walls of SCDP/CGC, where otherwise sensible human beings were reduced to some combination of Lord of the Flies and Caligula

The broad strokes were simple enough, another tight deadline by the ever demanding overlords at General Motors coincided with the death of Frank Gleason, leaving Don and the crew to pull an all-weekender trying to come up with new ideas for the GM executives to shoot down. For inspiration, Jim Cutler calls in his own personal Dr. Feelgood, who doses the crowd with enough amphetamines to keep them running for 48 hours strong. And while Peggy, Stan, Ginzo and the new kids from CGC scramble, babbling incoherently in the euphoria of their high, Don is grappling with his very own advertising pitch to Sylvia, who he simply cannot let go of. In his mania, Don is incapable of coherence. His kids are visiting for the weekend but he cannot be bothered to see them; his wife is going out without him, but his focus in solely on coming up with the perfect "pitch" that will convince Sylvia to take him back. 

When Frank Gleason's daughter appears in the full bloom of hippiedom, I Ching in hand, clad in batik print flowing dress, she tells Don that he asked her "does someone love me" but that does not make Don exceptional - according to her, everyone asks that question. But in Don's case, we know that is a question for which he fears the answer - "no." Indeed, the only person who ever truly knew him is long dead. [2] Instead, the window is pulled back a little more to Don's wretched childhood where Aimee, one of the prostitutes he co-habitates with, deflowers him after nursing him back to health after he takes a high fever. She is quickly dismissed by "rooster" Uncle Mac [3] and Don takes a beating from Abigail for cavorting with the young blonde woman. That Don connects this episode to what he is experiencing with Sylvia is curious, particularly in light of the old oatmeal campaign that used the tag line "because you know what he needs" he ends up focusing on as the way to get Sylvia back. 

Don's speed high causes him to sweat and become ever more disjointed in his thinking. Meanwhile, drugs cannot mask Stan Rizzo's pain - his cousin, who we met briefly at the beginning of Season 5, [4] is killed in Vietnam and when he tries to turn his sorrow into a grope session with Peggy, she demurs, advising him that masking his pain with drugs and sex will do him no good. Over on Park Avenue, Sally, who was introduced to the numbing effect of Seconal by Grandma Pauline, [5] stumbles on a kindly old woman who introduces herself as Grandma Ida but turns out to be a thief who has entered the Draper's penthouse apartment from an unlocked door. Although Sally has the presence of mind to call the police, "Ida" intercepts the call and makes a hasty retreat, presumably with all four of Don's watches in her satchel. When Don returns home, utterly wired and exhausted by his weekend bender, his family, both old and new, are there to greet him with the news of the burglary, with Betty twisting several knives into Don's back for his poor parenting. 

Indeed, this "B" story had the most ominous overtones and was the episode at its most claustrophobic. Its insularity was amplified by the rest of the storyline, which seemed to speed up and careen under the influence of drugs and desperation, but Ida's superficial pleasantry toward Sally was tissue thin and the hint of foreboding and violence that was communicated through her words and deeds gave these scenes a menacing aspect that only reinforced the hour's ominous vibration. 

Drugs have played a role on Mad Men since Season 3 [6] but while their use (particularly marijuana) has grown since then, The Crash exposed the less salutary effects of mind altering substances. Instead of using LSD to commune with a loved one [7] or marijuana to get involved in some anonymous movie theater hanky panky [8], the Dr. Feelgood shot exposed raw nerves, anxiety and hyperactivity that is not sustainable, much less preferable even in small doses. The collective fugue produced a lot of gibberish masquerading as good ideas, but only served to allow those who were under the drug's spell a brief respite from the pain they felt in their own lives. Last night, recreational drug use went from being portrayed as ethereal and escapist to edgy and ugly. 

But like so many of the narrative constructs that have been used this season that nodded to seasons past [9], just when Don hits rock bottom, in this case, coming home wired and ranting to a room of his first and second families and a police officer before fainting from exhaustion, the next morning, it is as if nothing has happened. He sees Sylvia in the elevator, barely exchanges pleasantries, and doesn't even pay her the courtesy of allowing her to exit first when the doors open - he simply powers past her. At the office, he makes up with Sally over the phone by taking responsibility for leaving the side door to the apartment open and then tells his partners, both new and old, that he's out of the business of being led around by the nose by the client, even one as exalted as General Motors

To me, the end of The Crash carries on this season's echoing theme. The closest parallels are Season 4, where Don hits a nadir upon learning of Anna's death, causing Peggy to look at him with despair and ask him "how much longer are you going to do this" (referring to his excessive drinking). There, once Don experiences the catharsis of learning of Anna's passing and affirmation of Peggy's place beside him as emotional ballast, he appears the next morning in a freshly pressed suit and tie, new idea in hand for Samsonite and a request that his door be left open. [10] Last season, Don was drifting aimlessly and in no particular creative direction until he realized he was punching below his weight in fighting pitch skirmishes with Ginsberg and instead turned his sights on mega-accounts, landing, as we now know, Dow Chemical and Jaguar. [11] 

Indeed, if you dig deeper into the show's history, Don is always <this close> to having things fall apart for him entirely before transmogrifying into the next iteration of himself. Back in Season 1, he was ready to flee New York in the face of Pete's blackmail threat before confronting him head on. [12] The following season, after his affair with Bobbi Barrett is exposed, Don does flee to California, fully accepting he has ruined his (and his family's life) but returns home after cleansing himself in the Pacific Ocean. [13] In Season 3, he learns of Betty's connection with Henry Francis and, in a drunken rage, attacks her. The next day, he's opening his life to the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce firm and acceding to Betty's request that he allow her to divorce him. [14]

The experiences that brought Don his swag back last night were consistent with this leitmotif, and were of a piece with what one might call Don's "Falling Man Syndrome." Matt Weiner makes this obvious literally from the moment the show's credits begin running - as everything collapses around an animated version of Don, and he descends, inexorably toward a crash; but when the curtain rises, he's perfectly coiffed, cigarette in hand, firmly on top of his game. Last night, Don Draper shed yet another skin, revealing nothing but the same impeccable surface that guides him through life. 


2.  The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7. 
3.  Mac's actions make one question why Don once referred to Mac as one of the few people who was nice to him while he was growing up. The Gypsy and The Hobo, Season 3, Episode 11. 
4.  A Little Kiss Part II, Season 5, Episode 2. 
5.  Mystery Date, Season 5, Episode 4. 
6.  My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3, Episode 3. 
7.  Far Away Places, Season 5, Episode 6.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Don's attempted assertion of dominance over Ted echoed a similar stunt he pulled on Roger in Season 1. Man With A Plan, Season 6, Episode 7; Red In The Face, Season 1, Episode 5. The agency losing two large clients simultaneously (Jaguar and Vick's Chemical) mimicked a similar story line from Season 4 (North American Aviation and Lucky Strike). For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10. 
10.  The Suitcase, supra. 
11.  Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12, The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. And yes, it is a fair point to say that it was Joan, not Don that truly carried the day with Jaguar. 
12.  Nixon vs. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12. It is also worth noting that Bert gave Don his blessing to fire Pete and Don did not do so. A decision that began bonding the two in ways that would impact them both (and the firm) for years to come. 
13.  The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. 
14.  Shut the Door, Have A Seat. Season 3, Episode 13. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Real D.C. Scandal

The Washington media is in full "scandal" mode, pitchforks sharpened and marching inexorably toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue fully prepared with a canned narrative that the dreaded "second term curse" [1] is coming home to roost against one Barack Hussein Obama. The most disappointing aspect of the last week's reporting, where three disparate stories were conflated into a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts framing of an Administration in crisis was the shoot first, ask questions later mentality that overrode the most basic aspects of reporting that media big foots should have learned in their first year of J school.  Let's look at these non-scandals one at a time:

The AP "scandal": Arguably, this is the "worst" of the three stories. The Department of Justice issued a subpoena for phone records from various AP phone lines and reporters for an approximately two month period of time. Based on the subpoena's time frame and the reporters involved, it was widely reported the DOJ's request related to a story written by AP reporters that exposed the presence of a mole deep within Al Qaeda. The media was in high dudgeon over this entirely legal action by the DOJ. Breast beating from the left and right over these alleged Nixonian tactics were uttered, calls for a media "shield law" were resurrected and even the President's staunchest defenders in the media lambasted this decision. 

While it is convenient for the media to protect its own prerogatives, by conflating what it viewed as immoral with what is illegal, the media did itself a disservice. Comparing the Obama Administration's lawful exercise of its right to investigate national security leaks with, for example, reporting done during the George W. Bush Administration over its warrantless wiretapping program is false equivalency at its worst. The Bush Administration was engaged in illegal conduct (violating both FISA and the Geneva Conventions) that was rightly ferreted out. [2] The Obama Administration may be engaging in action that the media thinks is heavy handed or chilling, but it is not illegal. 

Moreover, in attempting to tie the actions of the DOJ to the White House, the media refused to acknowledge that the exact reason the White House was "out of the loop" was because the independence afforded to the Justice Department, indeed, the pathological independence afforded to the DOJ, is a direct outgrowth of .. wait for it .. the Nixon Administration's use of that agency to go after its political enemies. In other words, it is impossible to connect the DOJ to the White House in this way because the Obama team is devoted to the separation of the Justice Department's investigative powers from White House interference. 

The IRS "scandal": Did you hear about the IRS? Those jack-booted thugs were "targeting" right wing advocacy groups and imposing overly burdensome requests on them for no apparently good reason other than because they were the President's political enemies. At least that's what the media would have you believe in what was probably the worst case of letting the hyperbole trump the facts. 

The problem with DC reporting these days is that nuance is the anti-sizzle and the IRS story required a level of granularity that a Politico-ized journalistic corps incessantly efforting to get click thrus and cable TV appearances simply does not do anymore. While I wrote at some length about the IRS earlier this week [3], some basic facts the media ignored are worth noting. First, the IRS's "investigation" of right wing groups stemmed from two related incidents - the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for (literally) hundreds of millions of dollars in non-publicly disclosed "dark" money in politics and the 2010 rise of the "tea party" movement. The former encouraged the formation of advocacy groups interested in influencing elections and the latter resulted in a lot of new political energy directed into creating those groups. Second, the 501c(4) designation conveys several critical benefits upon groups who secure it - protection from most federal taxation, first and foremost; but also, the ability to shield the names of donors and the amounts given from public view. 

That the IRS subjected groups it had never heard of to additional scrutiny and that arose in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that the IRS had to comply with to ensure these groups met the standard for receiving generous government benefits does not strike me as problematic. No matter, the burden placed on these groups (answering some additional questions) was emphasized while the fact that not a single right wing group was denied 501c4 status was an afterthought. And even if you bought into the idea that the IRS acted inappropriately, recommendations submitted by its Inspector General were immediately adopted and resignations of top leaders occurred before the week was out. [4] Further, there was never any suggestion that the White House was involved at all in the IRS's decision. Next …. 

Benghazi 3.0: It's like the vampire that no matter how hard you drive a stake through its heart, refuses to die. To be honest, this is not only the most specious of the three "scandals," but is beginning to have the feel of other nothing burgers of the Clinton Era (see, e.g., "Whitewater," "Travelgate") that people on the conservative fringe pour all their weird black helicopter cum One World Government conspiracies into. Again, a thorough investigation of this situation was performed months ago by two high-level former Republican leaders (former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen) and nearly 30 recommendations made by them have been adopted or agreed to be adopted by the State Department. 

The media wrapped itself in a layer of ignominy this week when it came to Benghazi. ABC reporter Jon Karl passed off as authentic email that he (1) had not seen himself; (2) quoted verbatim and (3) had been selectively edited by his GOP "sources." [5] This was not discovered for a few days, so his inaccurate reporting was put through the media echo chamber, particularly on FOX and in other dark corners of the right-wing spin machine, before the truth came out. Moreover, it was also learned (after the fact) that Republican leaders on the Hill had this purported "smoking gun" since March and did nothing about it. [6] What we learned was that in the aftermath of an attack, some facts were known and others not, some internal deliberations took place about how to frame what was known and some turf battles occurred between agencies of government over how to communicate that message. 

In other words, something that happens all the time in government but that is being ginned up to slime everyone from the President down to the woman many of us hope will replace him in 2017. To add to the transparency of the GOP's attempt to make this tempest in a teapot into something more meaningful is the fact that Ambassador Pickering has been asked to testify before the Committee "investigating" this matter, but is doing so behind closed doors even though he specifically asked (along with Admiral Mullen) to testify in public. Meanwhile, Karl has said little about his utterly manufactured story, and his network bosses have not removed him from the air - something that follows in the sad footsteps of CNN's awful coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, where one of its "ace" reporters, John King, falsely reported about arrests that never took place. 

This may all seem like so much Inside the Beltway mumbo-jumbo, but this matters deeply, not just because the media does have an important role to play in scrutinizing government, but because the loose standards they now seem to apply are actually harmful to them institutionally and to us as Americans. More bad reporting that gets critical facts wrong and fewer journalists who question their sources before making their stories public is damaging to the reporters who do take the time to follow journalistic standards, risking getting scooped to ensure they get it right. It also does violence to what one might call the "public record." Months from now, all of this shoddy reporting will be muddied into some ill-defined memory hole that feels scandalous but was nothing of the sort. Objective truth will be sublimated to the political lens of those who choose to ignore inconvenient facts and/or ape discredited ones. 

That the media continues to fall into a trap that the Bush Administration so deftly set for them is also discouraging to say the least. In the lead up to the Iraq War, the Bush Administration gave cherry picked information to people like Judith Miller at the New York Times and then cited the very work she wrote based on the information they gave her to buttress their bogus case for war. Now, GOP operatives fed Jon Karl a bad story that echoed for days even though it was totally false. With the IRS, the GOP is tarring it as engaging in Nixonian tactics while a complicit media acts as a Greek chorus without doing the type of "gum shoe" investigating that would provide needed context to this story. [7] Instead of acting skeptically, people like Chuck Todd (ostensibly a reporter) go on TV and opine about what the White House should do about this "scandal," which provides the added bonus to the GOP of being able to use these editorial comments as amplifiers for their own view of what punishment should be doled out. 

Taken as a whole, these stories are smoke with very little fire. To compare any one (or all three collectively) to Watergate, which was a criminal conspiracy run by the President of the United States where he personally directed the DOJ to go after his political enemies, or Iran-Contra, where the President of the United States ordered the sale of weapons to Iran, is laughable on its face but dangerous when expressed to a general public that, frankly, is not that up on the specifics of what happens in their government day-to-day. Further, when the media allows Republicans to lump these "scandals" into a larger narrative, it does a disservice to what the term, not to mention the repercussions of these incidents. The GOP is already leveraging public anger toward the IRS to discredit an agency that already has little public credibility. For example, the GOP could use this "scandal" to water down the IRS's future efforts to vet right wing "advocacy" groups - making it that much easier for mysterious fat cats to fund electioneering in ways that pervert our democracy. Republicans are already trying to take advantage of this "scandal" to try and limit (or eliminate) the IRS's ability to investigate and fine people who do not purchase health insurance beginning next year - something wholly unrelated to the "targeting" of right wing groups who sought a 501c(4) tax exemption. 

The media obsession with these stories has two other harmful effects - first, it takes other stories off the front page that merit serious discussion - everything from continued GOP efforts to reduce aid to the poor [8] to our plunging federal deficit [9] and the GOP's unprecedented obstruction of two critical Cabinet nominees, Gina McCarthy and Tom Perez [10]; second, it lets Republicans off the hook for their continued intransigence on matters both great and small.  The clock on a President's term is always running, and every day that the national news is focused on these "shiny objects" is a day no one notices that the House GOP voted to repeal Obamacare (for the 37th time) or that for all their talk about "jobs, jobs, jobs" they have not introduced a single bill in Congress on that subject since John Boehner was handed the Speaker's gavel. [11]

The one thing these "scandals" have in common is that none can be laid at the President's door, yet the media are attempting to shoe horn them into their narrative of a President losing control of his second term. The AP subpoenas were issued by the Department of Justice, with no input or foreknowledge by the White House; the IRS investigations of groups seeking tax-exempt status were decisions made within that agency and with no White House involvement and there is simply no Benghazi "scandal" except for the media's utter failure to stop aiding and abetting Darrell Issa's delusional rantings about it. Yet somehow the "villagers" that make up the Inside the Beltway chattering class have sunk their teeth into these stories with the tenacity of a dog to a bone and simply will not let go. The only sanguine note I can strike is that informed members of the public can push back against them in ways we could not in years past - no longer are we limited to letters to the editor, we have our own voice (the Internet) and a hive (crowd sourced fact checking) that more quickly pushes back against bogus media narratives. 


1. See, e.g.,

2.  That what the Bush Administration was doing was illegal was proven, ipso facto by the passage of a law that provided retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies for actions that would have subjected those companies to both criminal and civil liability. 


4.  The comparison to what happened under George W. Bush when it was discovered that the whole case for the Iraq War was a sheer and utter fabrication is almost too easy to make. Condi Rice was promoted to Secretary of State and Donald Rumsfeld did not step down until 2006. Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, "Scooter" Libby, convicted to perjury based on his leak of information to the New York Times had his sentence commuted by President Bush. 

5. Rachel Maddow did a particularly nice job of calling out Karl's sloppy reporting:

6.  Which makes sense. Having seen the full, unedited versions of email that were clipped by (still unknown) GOP operatives, there was no "there, there" to tar the White House with. 

7.  One reporter, Nick Confessore, from The New York Times is an exception.


9.  The CBO's projection of a $642 billion for Fiscal Year 2013 is $200 billion less than their estimate of earlier this year. Odd that the media obsessed over the deficit and debt when Republicans were banging the drum on the "fiscal cliff" about the need for fiscal restraint. Now, neither journalists nor Republicans have much to say on the subject.

10.  The McCarthy saga is particularly rich viz a viz the IRS non-scandal. Some tea party groups were asked to answer 100 question and none were denied 501c(4) status; McCarthy was asked to answer nearly 1,100 questions and Republicans still claim she has not been "transparent" enough.