Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Getting Religion

Howard Dean’s Theological Critics
Miss the Mark (and Matthew)

And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites:

they love to say their prayers standing up in the

synagogues and at the street corners for people to

see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their

reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and,

when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who

is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that

is done in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6*

In their relentless compiling of reasons why Howard Dean is unelectable,
members of the Stop Dean movement seem to think they have found their strongest one yet: the Democratic frontrunner’s apparent lack of religiosity.

Advanced by Very Smart People with a conventionally wise bent, these critiques have so far tended to be based on a frightfully simplistic view of American religious belief or, in one notable case, logical inconsistency. They depend on a misreading of what the word "secular" actually means, whether through ignorance
or guile. And all smack of a quiet contempt for the mind of the American public, a view of those who toil outside the citadels of power as pathetic primatives.

This current torrent of doubt seems to have begun with a well-written, informative and even thoughtful piece ("Beyond Belief") by Frankin Foer in The New Republic that simply takes one leap too many. (You can get the piece online by signing up for a four-week free trial of TNR.)

There’s secular, then there’s secular

Foer is right to note that Dean’s spiritual path lacks the evangelical fervor that has come to tinge the official biographies of many successful politicians of the last two decades. And it is true that this may pose something of a challenge for Dean, who has so far, in this campaign, never met a challenge he wouldn’t take on.

However, in his interpretation of a 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Foer rules Dean out of the category of "a person of faith" to which 70 percent of the American people want their president to belong. Foer’s conclusion is apparently based on a troublingly narrow reading of just who qualifies as a "person of faith"; regular church-going seems to be his number-one qualifier, no matter how often a man gets down on his knees and talks to his Maker.

The same seems to go for the word "secular"; anyone who is not in church every Sunday is deemed to be "secular" regardless of personal belief or devotion. Yet this is surely a misuse of a word that, according to my Webster’s Unabridged, implies not only an absence of religion, but of spirituality, as well. By Foer’s reckoning, no less a light than Thomas Jefferson would be a purely secular politician, since he rarely attended church and declared himself a "sect unto myself."

Morality and religiosity

A far more troubling piece appeared on the New York Times op-ed
page last Sunday, penned by the liberal religious activist, Jim Wallis ("Putting God
Back In Politics
"). While Wallis does commendable work fighting poverty, his
piece is so intellectually unsound that he endangers the point he hopes to make,
and insults every believer who attends church less than twice a week. Wallis
rightly expresses concern that Republicans define the terms of debate
on the role of religion in our civic life, but his essay evinces his own acceptance of
those terms.  There he confuses morality with religiosity, and church attendance
with religious and spiritual belief.

Wallis demands that Democrats lay bare their personal creeds, even if those
creeds forbid such displays. "God is always personal, but never private," he
asserts. Has he then stricken Jesus’s admonition to the contrary (see Matthew
6:5-6, above) from his personal Bible?

Any politician not thumping personal religious themes in the envangelical style,
Wallis essentially says, fails the cause of the liberal believer. It comes across as
a bit of a conceit to this Northeastern believer of immigrant stock that Wallis sees
his own evangelical tradition as the only one valid for producing political

I do concede, however, that he has a point on general rhetoric. For years, I have
myself urged liberal activists to speak more in passionate, and even spiritual,
terms. But one needn’t directly accuse the other side of being bad Christians in
order to make one’s point. State your own position with the help of unattributed
biblical phrases, and people get the point. They feel the words. People are more
sophisticated than Wallis would care to think.

Still, even though Wallis names "neglect of the environment" as a religious
concern, he scoffs at Dean for leaving his church when it took the part of wealthy
landowners fighting Dean’s local environmental project (a bike path).  In fact, the
bike path caper seems to be the jumping-off point for all those piling on.

Can a spiritual path accommodate bicycles?

Let’s say your church is opposing something you passionately believe is to the
public good, and doing so because, you believe, it is protecting powerful interests.
Would you be wrong to leave your church, and even your denomination, to take up
with one more democratically organized?

As Dean tells it, that’s how the bike path project in Burlington, Vermont, became
his road out of the Episcopal church and into the historic home of New England’s
iconoclasts, the United Church of Christ, or Congregationalists.

Whether you like Dean or not, find him earnest or opportunistic, it’s hard to find
fault with this narrative. Yet Foer chalks Dean’s conversion up to a mere matter
of "local politics", and Wallis implies the conflict was over something
inconsequential in the cosmic scheme of things.

To be fair though, I must admit to
being flummoxed, like Wallis, by Dean’s statement that his faith does not inform
his politics. True faith informs the thought process of the faithful. I can only
surmise a knee-jerk reaction, channelling, perhaps, John F. Kennedy as the latter
sought to deflect questions about his religion.

But Kennedy’s Catholicism demanded fealty to an ultimate mortal religious
authority, the pope, a figure suspect at best in Protestant America. Dean’s
denomination descends directly from the church of the New England Puritans who
landed on Plymouth Rock. If he is to address the topic of his religion at all, he
might do well to both remember that, and note it publicly.

Talkin’ about Jesus

So lately the frontrunner has been uttering the Savior’s name. On Christmas,
Sarah Schweitzer of the Boston Globe reported Dean’s first comments
on Jesus, which focused on the earthly ministry, on Jesus as inspirational leader
of people. This sounds authentic; one hopes Dean doesn’t try too hard to give his
critics what they claim he needs to speak in terms of his faith, because such a
tack from Dean promises nothing but disaster. The American people are not as
stupid as the politicians tend to treat them. They know when they’re being
pandered to. (Comments reported by Schweitzer on Sunday gave me a bit more
pause--not because they seem inauthentic, but because Dean went into the
biblical territory of dissing the Pharisees, whose depiction in the New Testament
has been used in the past as one rationale for anti-semitism.)

What Dean should absolutely not do is tell the world the particulars of his
beliefs. Let him invoke Benjamin Franklin, who also declined a public exegesis of his
belief, remarking that he wanted to "leave this world at peace with the sects," according to theologian Martin Marty.

He should appeal to the sense of justice and individualism of the American people,
simply by telling his audiences that he knows how just and respectful they are,
whether as a result of their faith in God, or in the values upon which this nation
was founded.

When the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), with its
Southern strategy and vital center, reigned supreme, liberal evangelism became
the means of talking about values. We’re now in a new time. Moderates do not
make for an energized base, which is what the party direly needs right now.
Writing in the American Prospect Online, Michael Tomasky makes urges the DLC
to work with Dean, asking, "Is It Time to Believe?"

By discussing values in terms of America’s founding, and invoking Jefferson on the
subject of faith, Dean could knock down some walls between the churched and
unchurched within the party. But he must remain true to himself, to his own
tradition, and stop fibbing here and there about what he said last year or last

Jonathan Edwards or Ralph Waldo Emerson? DLC or

In essence, the flap over Dean’s religion (or alleged lack thereof) is yet another
incarnation of the fight for control of the Democratic Party between Dean’s
insurgents and the Democratic Leadership Council that produced Bill Clinton’s
presidential bid. (Indeed, the crusade against Dean as infidel began at the hands
of another DLC disciple, foundering presidential canidate Senator Joe Lieberman.)
In bringing the party toward the center, the DLC saw the value of evangelical
religious expression. Evangelicals, after all, represented a growing demographic.
Today, the disenfranchised represent an even faster-growing demographic, one that cuts across class, racial and religious lines.

It would be wrong, however, to define this contretemps in such small
terms, for the controversy, such as it is, represents a tension that has existed in
American culture since before the founding of the Republic, as represented by the
cool, Enlightment philosophy of Jefferson, and the fire and brimstone of the Great
Awakenings. Dean’s private sense of religion, his likely ideosyncratic belief system
and his ecumenical journey evoke not only Jefferson, but one of New England’s
later lights, Ralph Waldo Emerson of Concord, Massachusetts.

Yet the evangelical tradition stems, as pointed out in an important piece by Jay
Tolson in U.S. News & World Report, from the first Great Awakening,
the revival fomented by Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts.

Like Dean’s edgy centrism and the DLC’s moderate conservatism, Edwards’
austere ecstaticism and Emerson’s exuberant stoicism stem from the same root.
In the case of Edwards and Emerson, that root was the Congregationalist

Too much at stake

One more thing--before lobbing around terms like "secular" and "religious", the
Very Smart People who do so should show more care. Far too much is at stake
this time to go on making sport of what is written on the human heart.


For more on religion and the presidential candidates, see David Brooks today in the New York Times.

For a sober explanation of anti-Bush anger, see E.J. Dionne in today's Washington Post.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 08, 2003

I Feel Good (Who Knew That I Would?)

Weekend Politics - Sunday Show Wrap-Up

Who knew the Reverend Al Sharpton, our favorite gadfly presidential candidate
and general thorn in the Democratic side, could sing? Sharpton’s turn before the
band on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend wins him the prize in the weekly
Sunday show sweepstakes. (Yes, the show starts on Saturday, but ends on
Sunday, so that’s how we’re working it in.)

In a very funny bit--with Tracy Morgan playing the younger Sharpton, arrayed in
the rev’s once trademark track suit and medallions (not to mention the James
Brown hairdo)--the candidate covered the Godfather of Soul’s theme song with
aplomb, including the footwork
. (Unfortunately, the rest of the show failed to live
up to the standard set in this opening piece.)

Most Dems I know roll their eyes when Sharpton’s name comes up, but I must
confess, I’m glad he’s in the race. A good friend--a civil rights activist who is
African American (I am not)--says, “Addie, Al Sharpton doesn’t stand for anything
but Al Sharpton.”

Well, even if that’s true, I’m still glad he’s in it, because he’s keeping the party’s
feet to the fire--and if there ever was an election year in which that’s needed, it’s
this one. For if the base stays home, as much of it did in the midterm
congressional elections, Bush gets to coast right back into Term 2.

In the 1990s, presidential elections turned on the suburban swing vote, hence the
success of the triangulation strategies employed by Bill Clinton. But in the dark
times since the millennial meltdown of our election system, it’s the disenfranchised
who will make the difference. After all, it’s a growing demographic.

So the formula for Democratic success will rest on turnout of the traditionally
disenfranchised (ethnic and racial minorities, women and the urban poor), plus the
Southern whites (“Nascar dads”) of whom Dean so famously spoke (pick-up
trucks and Conferderate flags), and all those suburban folks struggling to pay for
health care, day care and minivans. Listing to the right won’t help the Dems win
those folks.

Dean is right when he says that, in order to win, the Dems need to override the
agenda set by the Republicans--“God, gays and guns” as he told Chris Wallace
on “Fox News Sunday”. But the economic and foreign policy agenda intended to
supplant it must be famously liberal, in the FDR sense of things. The Republican
call to remove Roosevelt’s image from the dime (to be replaced, of course, with
that of Ronald Reagan), is a perfect jumping off point for a national discussion on
America’s economic values. Turn the conversation to this topic, and the Dems
clearly have the upper hand--so long as they’re not pulling punches with it.

New kid in town

Speaking of “Fox News Sunday”, Chris Wallace’s debut in the host’s chair made
for some arresting television. As Wallace’s first guest, I suspect that White
House Chief of Staff Andrew Card may have felt a bit sucker-punched.

Although Wallace’s challenges to Card--especially on the economy--were
questions that any journalist of any stripe should be asking, he pursued his subject
with such tenacity that I’m sure producers may have been thinking to replace the
coffee with decaf next time.

With Tony Snow in the host’s chair, for denizens of the White House the show
had always been a sort of cozy visit with a sweet maiden aunt. (In fairness, I
should say that Snow never went terribly hard on anybody.) With Snow gone, and
a real newsman at the helm, there’s nary a place of comfort left for the
administration on Sunday morning.

Wallace’s pacing was a bit more relaxed with is next guest, Democratic
presidential front-runner Howard Dean--though not exactly a walk in the park for
the candidate.

The topic du jour for Dean remains the 10-year seal on his gubernatorial papers
he managed to win, despite Vermont’s tradition of a six-year seal. Like the rest of
the media, Wallace gave the topic star treatment, and Dean remained
unconvincing when he stated his reason for the seal being the protection of those
who had revealed personal information when seeking his counsel and intervention
when he served as governor.

When the document question first arose a couple of weeks ago, Dean’s instinct
was right, but his facts were, alas, lacking. He asserted that he would release his
papers when George W. Bush released his papers from his days as the chief
executive of the great state of Texas. Unfortunately for Dean, it seems Bush had
already released those papers. Where Dean should have gone with his artful
deflection was the Reagan-era papers whose release has been delayed by
Bush’s executive order. Speculation there runs high that the papers would not
reflect well on Bush père.

Wallace also took Dean to task for an off-handed comment the good doctor had
made on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” the week before: that “the Saudis may have
tipped us off” about the 9-11 attacks before they happened. Dean didn’t exactly
espouse this view--he called it an “interesting theory”--but, nonetheless, it’s a bit
provocative, wouldn’t you say? (It was actually Dean’s way of illustrating why the
administration needs to be more forthcoming with its records from the days that
led up to the attacks.)

Speaking of the good doctor’s turn before Diane Rehm’s mike, a most fascinating
assertion has failed to receive pick-up in the broader media. You’ll recall that the
frontrunner took some guff from Republicans (and Leon Panetta) for calling for
“re-regulation” of some industries. When pressed by Rehm as to what industry
he’d begin with, the candidate unhestatingly said, “I’d start with the media.” He
then did a whole riff on media consolidation, and recent ruling by Michael
Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), regarding ownership of broadcast outlets. Does the lack of attention to
this little Molotov cocktail of a comment illustrate Dean’s point?

Just wondering.

Hill gets her day

While Al Sharpton clearly won the weekend for style, Senator Hillary Clinton was
the big winner on substance.

You’ll recall that the junior senator from New York visited Afghanistan and Iraq last
week, only to be pushed off the front pages by President Bush’s strategic strike in
Baghdad. But for Hill, it wasn’t over. A strategic response kept her trip alive in
the news, when she suggested that the current push to turn governance of Iraq
over to Iraqis was pegged to the U.S. election schedule.

That won her long interviews on both “Meet the Press” and “This Week with
Geoge Stephanopoulos”. It was especially fun to see her sit across from
Stephanopoulis, given the Sturm und Drang that has characterized the
Clinton-Stephanopoulos relationship over the last decade.

As is her wont, Sen. Clinton was tightly focused and on point in both interviews
when it came to Iraq--and, thank goodness, Afghanistan. (Remember that
place?) And, in both interviews, she laughed most appealingly at the suggestion
that she might run for president. (She gave the classic politician’s answer: I’m the
senator from blah-blah, and I’m happy doing the work for the people of blah-blah.
Theoretical scenarios that might draw her into the presidential race were met with:
“That’s not going to happen.”)

With Stephanopoulos, however, she was more relaxed. When the former Clinton
aide addressed her famous assertion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”, she
refused to back away from it. Her only regret, she said, was that she called it a
“conspiracy”, since it’s all happening very much in the open.

You go, girl!

Ire of Newt

Our Sunday wrap-up would not be complete without noting the appearance of
Newt Gingrich on “Meet the Press”. Apparently, Hill and Newt had a meeting of
the minds in the green room, and like her, he came out swinging against the
administration’s Iraq timetable. He lauded the president’s speeches on freedom
and democracy in the middle east, but said that “within the bureaucracy” there
were forces at work that were getting in the way of the president’s vision. When
pressed by Tim Russert as to whom he might be talking about, the former
speaker demurred. His antipathy to Colin Powell is well-known, but I somehow
doubt that Powell is driving the hand-over agenda.

Could the man who drove a revolution in Congress be taking shots at Karl Rove,
the president’s Rasputin?

It’s going to be an interesting election season.

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Stranger Bedfellows There Never Were

Transafrica and the Free Congress Foundation Hold Hands

When Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute teamed up for a pair of televised debates, there may have been a little head-scratching, but it was an easy uneasy alliance; one done of expedience with a wink and a nod to the audience. And everybody smirked together, singing "Who'da Thunk It?" in unison.

But when I opened the New York Times today to find an op-ed by the team of Randall Robinson and Paul Weyrich; well, my reaction was neither easy nor uneasy; it was downright queasy. The subject--who should run the presidential debates--is surely worthy of concern across the political spectrum.

But for anyone who knows what Weyrich, one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation, really believes, it's a bit frightening to see Randall Robinson teaming up with him. (Shades of Andrea Dworkin and Ed Meese on pornography.)

For those who don't know who Weyrich is or what he thinks, lucky for you, you may do so now via my mammoth 1995 piece for Mother Jones on the religious right, which has been restored to its oversized berth in the MoJo archives. To those who may have requested its restoration, I give my thanks. And to the editors at Mother Jones, I say many, many thanks.

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Office Despots: A Popularity Contest

A friend doing the ex-pat thing in the far reaches of Asia writes:

"While here in D__________, I have had [the] opportunity to talk with many internationals... I have learned that not only is George W. Bush without respect by the international crowd, but he is considered an international threat. I would venture to say that if there was a world-wide election, George W. Bush would lose to Putin, Castro, Berlusconi, Mbeki, Howard, almost everyone--maybe even Blair. Although I bet he could beat Mugabe. "

Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Winning One for the Gipper
The Tiffany Network Folds

So, let me get this straight: CBS has cancelled the centerpiece of its sweeps
--a $9 million, two-part, made-for-TV-movie about former President Ronald Reagan
and his lovely wife, Nancy--at the muscular request of the Republican National

Now, it's one thing to go around naming every public works project imaginable after
the patron saint of voodoo economics (Poppy Bush's phrase; not mine), but to
mess with sweeps? To get in the way of that orgy of over-the-top first-run
programming that comes our way a mere three times a year? How dare they!

But seriously, folks; am I the only one who finds this episode a little bit scary?
CBS's sin seems to have been its portrayal of the former president as befuddled
and the first lady as controlling--hardly the stuff of scandal. And certainly not new
information. (Remember Kitty Kelley?)* Yet because the movie was the least bit
derogatory, the RNC got it yanked. And it's those last five words that should have
you quaking in your boots.

To think I've spent the last two years worrying if John Ashcroft was going to
kneecap my librarian into revealing my borrowing habits, when I should have been
worrying about RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie deciding for all of America what we
can and cannot view in our living rooms.

The beatification of Ronnie

The veneration of Ronald Reagan by the soldiers of the right has come to know no
bounds. A byproduct of that veneration seems to be an unbridled lust for smiting
one's enemies
. Whom, you may ask, constitutes the enemy? Why, anyone
who does not share in the veneration of Ronald Reagan.

Former Rep. Bob Barr, of let's-take-down-Bill-Clinton fame, threatened to withhold
funding from the District of Columbia
in retribution for the leisurely pace at which
municipal officials approached replacing the sign at the National Airport subway
stop after the Republicans tacked Reagan's name in front of "National".

Gillespie apparently threatened CBS with sponsor boycotts if the movie ran. The
common elements in these two situations? Worship of Reagan and hatred of all
things Democrat. Washington, DC, is a Democratic city. And the leading man in
CBS's biopic is worse than that; he's married to the doyenne of the Dems'
Hollywood left. To Republicans in Reagan rapture, therein lies the scandal--the
specter of James Brolin, spouse of Clinton-Gore champion Barbra Streisand,
portraying the befuddled savior of the free world.

It just gets curiouser and curiouser. There was a time when I had thought it
couldn't get no more curious than the scene I stumbled across in San Diego on a
blazing summer day some seven years ago.

If I were a rich man

For the regular journalist, the quadrennial political conventions are exhausting
marathons of the predictable mixed with the surreal. For the irregular journalist,
such as yours truly, the adventure is generally spent entirely in the surreal

This was particularly true in 1996, after having spent the primary season covering
the religious right for several liberal publications, including Mother Jones. (Were I
able to, right here I would provide a link to my 1995 magnum opus of a cover
story on the religious right for MJ, but for some reason they have taken it down
from their Web site. Feel free to e-mail them, webmaster@motherjones.com, to ask them to restore all 7,000 words of it. It's a primer that's going to come in handy soon.)

I found my way to the 1996 Republican National Convention courtesy of Ms.magazine, where I had begun my idiosyncratic career in journalism.

Throughout the convention, I remained focused, for the most part, on the religion
angle, since the place was awash in the righties who were threatening to walk
with Pat Buchanan should he decide to run as an independent.

A counter-protest had been planned by a coalition of liberal religious groups and,
together with my then-husband, Barry, I set out in search of them in that gorgeous
park that sits in the middle of San Diego. We walked and walked, yet heard no
strains of "Kumbaya". We were parched, exhausted, schlepping notebooks, a
tape recorder and Barry's full photog rig when we came across an oasis of sorts.
It was a park pavilion, and we were certain that within they would have some

Alas, it was closed. For a private party. We inquired of the young ladies staffing
the guest list table, please, miss, a ladle of water?

"Are you members of the press?" one asked.

We nodded our weary heads in assent.

"Then go right in," she said.

We walked through the pavillion and into a courtyard where we were greeted by
Steve Forbes and his lovely family. Five daughters, I believe, and his wife.
Several hundred of Steve's closest friends were there to help him celebrate the
founding of his "grass-roots" political action group, Americans for Hope, Growth
and Opportunity
. (Barry quickly dubbed it "Americans Hopin' for a Gropin'

Well, damned if we hadn't fallen through that rabbit hole again. Men at carving
stations served delectable meats. Acres of hand-made European chocolates were
laid out in neat rows on white-clothed tables. Champagne made the rounds in the
toweled hands of waiters.

And at the center of it all was an enormous, truly fabulous ice sculpture of Mount
--with the addition of Ronald Reagan between Jefferson and

Some yards in front of the table, a lone violinist stroked her instrument. She was
an older lady, dressed in a long summer dress and a smirk. She kept playing the
same song over and over:
"If I Were a Rich Man".

# # #

* Where's Addie? Could she be somewhere in the three pages of
acknowlegements in Kelley's tome, Nancy Reagan? And for what?

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, September 15, 2003

A Mixed-up, Tumbled-up, Shook-up World

"K Street" Premieres

photo of George Clooney © 2003 Adele M. Stan

It’s hard to imagine what a normal person--someone not caught up in the minutiae of national politics--would have made of last night’s premiere of HBO’s “K Street”. Truth be told, as an abnormal person--one obsessed with the minutiae of national politics--I’m not so sure what to make of it myself.

Oh, I was riveted all right--even when the relentless jerkiness of the hand-held camera (using only available light, of course) made me queasy. And I would have been almost as captivated had I not attended the event that landed at the center of “K Street”, Episode One: last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Baltimore (co-sponsored, in good old odd-bedfellow fashion, by Fox NewsChannel and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute).

Paging Ionesco

Even without a sideshow of the scale wrought by the “K Street” crew, major events in presidential campaigns generally possess a sort of surreal, circus-like quality when you get to see them up close.

This one came packaged with a built-in component extraodinaire simply by the fact of it being the first presidential debate ever to bear the imprimatur of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), hence, the first nationally televised debate at which the candidates--a collection of, with the exception of two, middle-aged white guys--were made to address the one topic we never discuss before mixed-race audiences in America: race. And this they were to do before a television audience whose viewership comprises primarily young, white, conservative men. All this before it got really strange.

The debate itself was quite good on both substance and entertainment value. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who cut his teeth in New York’s political street theater, clearly won the night, especially when he warned the Democratic Party not to forget the most faithful portion of its base: African-American voters.

“I think we need to take the Democratic Party home to our daddies and discuss marriage or a break-up...,” Sharpton declared. “You know, the only thing I never got over in life is, I took a young lady to a dance when I was in high school, and she left with somebody else. And that’s what the Democrats--some--have done to the black community. We helped take you to the dance, and you leave with right-wingers, you leave with people that you say are swing voters, you leave with people that are antithetical to our history and antithetical to our interests.”

Sharpton also scored points in his sudden, unexpected turn as pater familius: when the LaRouchies began their heckling, he chided them for trying to wreck an historic moment for the black community. And as they continued, he stayed on his message, steady, stern and authoritative.

In fact, the LaRouche moments may have been among the debate’s most telling. Each heckled candidate responded differently. Senator Bob Graham (Florida) just stopped mid-sentence and appeared to have been paused in mid-gesture by remote as he stared down a heckler. After Sharpton issued his condemnation and the heckler was removed, Graham just picked up exactly where he left off.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) bore the greatest brunt of the LaRouchies’ anti-Semitic rage, but he bore it badly, rolling his eyes, shaking his head, and gesturing in sanctimonious fashion.

When they went after Senator John Kerry (Mass.), the tanned patrician suddenly became the caricaturist’s version of himself, flashing a forced, toothy grin of pearlies that were blindingly white.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean came through somehow unscathed by Lyndon’s legions (they never interrupted him), and won the prize for best one-liner of the night.

When asked by Ed Gordon of Savoy magazine whether the racial make-up of Vermont (nearly all white) has a negative impact on his ability to understand the concerns of minorities, Dean replied, “Well, if the percent of minorities that’s in your state has anything to do with how you can connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.”

Which brings us back to “K Street”.

Dog bites dog

The premise of “K Street”, if I understand this correctly, is to follow the drama that takes place within a fictional lobbying firm at which fictional versions of political consultants and mutual spouses James Carville and Mary Matalin (played by their non-fictional selves) are mutually employed.

In Episode One, Mary and James are instructed by an unseen big boss, a la John Forsythe in “Charlie’s Angels”, to hire a mysterious fellow named Francisco, who is not, to my knowledge, played by an actor named Francisco. He seems to be the hook, the thing that will have you coming back next week. At that, he's pretty effective.

Meanwhile, Mary and James are on the outs because, to the detriment of their bipartisan, equal-opportunity, greasy-palm employer, James has signed on to prepare Howard Dean for the Fox News/CBC debate. This he did without consulting his other half.

We get to see a fictional associate of Mary’s working to smooth over the news of this development with a couple of high-profile, real-life Republican senators: Don Nickles (Okla.) and Rick Santorum (Penn.) of “man on dog” fame. (If this reference is obscure to you, I invite you to do a Google search of the words--together--“Santorum” and “man on dog”.)

But that’s not all in this Alice-in-Wonderland universe. We also get to see Carville and Paul Begala prepping Dean for the debate. The scene opens with Dean mocking, in a loose approximation of a Southern accent, the admonitions of a (fictional?) right-wing preacher about the dangers of Vermont, the land of the civil union.

Next we see him at a podium before an empty meeting room in the St. Regis, responding to questions put to him by Carville and Begala.

He’s grappling with the question about the racial make-up of Vermont. Then Carville pipes up with something like: “If the Vermont question comes up, how ‘bout you say, ‘If the number of minorities in your state has anything to do with how well you connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.’”

Chicken or egg

The scene shifts to debate night, with one camera following Mary and company watching in her living room, while James and his fictional sidekick, Tommy Flanagan (played by John Slattery), watch the real debate--as it’s actually taking place in real life--from the media overflow room at the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

I happened to be in the overflow room that night, when Carville and Slattery made their entrance. While the debate took place in the main auditorium, and deadline-pressed printies and Webbies toiled at laptops parked on rows of tables in a windowless room, those of us on more leisurely timelines got to watch the thing on television in the lecture hall that would serve as the spin room immediately following the debate.

First George Clooney, who co-produces “K Street” with Steven Soderbergh, entered with his hand-held video camera, stationing himself at the row in which Carville and Slattery would sit. He shot them as they entered, then zeroed in on them as they reacted to the debate.

So, as you watch “K Street”, you see them laugh with delight as Dean delivers his “Trent Lott” line. Now I don’t know whether Carville fed Dean the line, or Joe Trippi (Dean’s winning campaign manager), or if the good doctor thought it up himself. I do suspect, however, that the St. Regis scene was shot after the debate.

(In the scenes “K Street” used from the debate, we never see Sharpton, whose night it truly was. And Fox’s Brit Hume, who did quite a good job in his thankless role as moderator, doesn’t really show up, either. In fairness, however, we don’t see much of the other candidates, either, except for Lieberman.)

Will the real James Carville please stand up?

At an event such as this, the spin room is really where the fun begins. The sport of pack reporting--the physical aggression, the competition for the candidates’ attention to your question, the proximity to figures far more luminous than yourself--it’s all pretty sexy, to be honest. (Shhh!)

I was there to do my usual schtick--ask a few off-the-beaten-track sort of
questions whose answers would be filed away for later, most likely for use in a long-form piece somewhere down the road. Questions that other reporters find annoying, because their answers eat up valuable spin time, and are pretty worthless to their stories.

The spin line was positioned on the back wall of the stage in the lecture hall. While the reporters awaited the candidates, the stage filled up with milling journalists and consultants and hangers-on.

Clooney was walking around with his video camera glued to his eye. I took a picture of him.

I wanted to get a word with him, but before I could, Howard Kurtz of the
Washington Post had nailed him.

I kept moving, trying to adjust my jacket in the most decorous way possible as I walked. Having just moved to a new apartment, I had no idea where most of my clothes were, so consequently wound up at this event with my jacket thrown over a tank top. Every now and then, I'd look down to find my decollatage saying, "Hello, world!"

While walking, adjusting and staring into my cleavage, I nearly walked into Carville, who had just secured himself a beer from the party that had begun in the lobby. He was dressed all natty in his television clothes--a beautifully tailored forest-green suit with a dark-blue shirt.

Blissfully unaware that I was talking to the fictional James Carville, I asked him to explain how, with all of the issues that George Bush has given these Democrats--the war, the economy, job losses, so-called homeland security, the Bill of Rights (and they’re talking about all of them)--do you boil the mess down into a coherent message?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I would say that this whole administration’s domestic policy has been about the
few...it’s not all of the people, stupid. And when you
talk about foreign policy, I’d say there’s virtue in being a good neighbor. And we
all know that we’ve not been a good neighbor and, y’know, now that our house is
on fire, people are not runnin’ to help us.

“And, I mean," he continued, "I would just speak more metaphorically and more to people in
ways that they can understand, you know? You’re right, we have a lot of fire
going out there--a lot of it justified and good--but I think we’ve gotta learn, and I
think we will as we get closer, further down the process, how to narrow that fire
and hit it hard.”

3.2 seconds of fame

So, last night, I'm watching "K Street", thinking, how good is it for Howard Dean to be looking this good at doing something fake? Lots of exposure, yes. Acknowledgement of his status, yes.
But authenticity--isn't that the watchword of the day? At one point in the debate prep segment, Carville and Begala are even telling him how and when to employ his anger--his heretofore everyman asset.

The scene shifts from the debate prep to the spin room. The fictional Carville and his fictional sidekick have just finished laughing at the line they're playing like they wrote for Dean. (Trippi--are you really okay with this?)

Then Clooney's camera takes us to the spin room floor. It's wandering toward the Dean spot on the back wall. Wait--that's me! Hey, Ma!

The camera swings back for another quick look before settling on Dean. (Could it be the cleavage?)

Guess it's a pretty good show, after all.

Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Independence Day

Washington Blade

On Independence Day in Merrimack, New Hampshire, the floats and convertibles and flatbed trucks festooned in red, white and blue are lining up in the parking lot of Zyla’s, a sort of garden shop/hardware store on the Daniel Webster Highway.

There’s another half hour to go before the official start, an excercise the people of Merrimack perform annually, but one I view only every four years. For on the quadrennial, the candidates contending for primacy in the New Hampshire
primary invariably show up, taking their places amid the marching bands, Girl Scout troops, Cub Scout packs and Rotarian floats, hoping to win the hearts of those who populate New Hampshire’s largest single voter precinct.

It isn’t even noon yet, and the temperature has far surpassed the 90-degree mark. “Global wahr-ming,” says my friend Chuck, goofing on a flat-lander’s idea of a New Hampshire accent. A vociferouslly literate institution of civic
activism in that giant precinct, I first met Chuck in ‘95, when the religious right had taken over Merrimack’s school board in order to set the stage for the primary that Patrick J. Buchanan went on to win. I was there to cover the right for a progressive magazine.

During the course of the primary campaign, gay issues took center stage when the Merrimack school board introduced an anti-gay measure that would have prohibited the teaching of any gay-friendly material or, for that matter,
material created by gay and lesbian people. No Tchaikowsky, no Walt Whitman and certainly no “Heather Has Two Mommies”. Under this measure, the high school band would have been prohibited from performing half the songs made famous by the Duke Ellington orchestra, seeing as how Billy Strayhorn, an out gay man, wrote some of the Duke’s best stuff.

Eventually, after the primary ended, Chuck and his wife, Beth, as part of a coalition that included a bunch of pissed-off moderate hetero Republicans, a gay male couple, and the ousted progressive school board president, took back the
school board, ending all talk of creationism replacing the science curriculum, making the world safe for the teaching of “Leaves of Grass”.

Back in ‘95, the onus on the major primary candidates, Republicans all, was to prove their street cred as culture-war righties. Today, I wondered, as Kerry’s flatbed moved into place and the Dean people stood fretting over whether their
guy would make it on time (having marched, like many of the others, in another town’s morning parade) whether the 2004 field of Democratic candidates would feel the need to out-queer each other. After all, only last week, the Senate
majority leader lent his support to a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, a knee-jerk reaction to the Supreme Court’s flabbergasting decision to not only strike down the Texas anti-sodomy law,
but to do so on sweeping constitutional grounds.

Now, alas, dear reader, your intrepid but heat-stricken reporter is simply physically unfit to harass all of the candidates on this tantalizing subject (this would have involved jogging back and forth several miles in temperatures that
reached 101 degrees), delicate flower that she is. So I stick to the top dogs, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and Senator John Kerry. (Also gracing Merrimack’s parade route are Senators Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham.)

As he strides up the shady lane where the parade begins, it is clear that Dean is having a good charisma day. Fit and compact, he moves at a bracing pace, chatty and miraculously sweatless in his long-sleeved blue shirt and grey
dress slacks. Behind him, a brigade of supporters chants their support of their favorite physician, passing out tongue depressors proclaiming “Rx for America: Howard Dean”.

Did he think that the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision would make this election be about gay rights? “This election was going to be about gay rights, anyway, as long as I was in it,” he replies. Points for snappy comeback.

Could this be a problem for the Democrats? “Not a bit. Hey, look, I’m a veteran of these battles, and I know we can win ‘em.,” he says. “And I’m the one who has won them. So, I think we can win again at the national level.”

He goes onto tell a story of man who, after a speaking engagement in Washington, DC, stepped up to thank him for signing Vermont’s civil unions law. The man was 80, says Dean, so he was surprised. “And I asked him, ‘Do you
have a son or a daughter who’s gay or lesbian?’ And he said, ‘No, Governor, I’m a veteran. I was on the beach at D-Day, and a lot of my friends were killed onD-Day. And I’m gay.’ And I thought to myself,” Dean continues, “you know,
here’s a guy who was willing to die for all of the things the Republicans in the White House always talk about--defense of your country, freedom, freedom of the whole Western world...He deserves exactly the same rights as everybody
else does when he gets home. Now, that is a very powerful reason that people should understand that this is about equal rights for all.”

He concludes the interview, cutting loose into the handshaking slalom that defines these events.

Kerry’s parade berth is a few behind Dean’s, so I’m able to catch him--sort of--as he begins to march. He’s tall, handsome and tanned, prepped out in pressed khakis and an oxford cloth shirt. He’s affable and accessibly inaccessible,
allowing me to walk with him, but directing his attention elsewhere every time I ask a question. Finally, I get my moment, asking if the Supreme Court’s decision on sodomy laws throws a monkey wrench into the works for the Democrats, given the hay some Republicans may make of gay issues during the campaign.

“It doesn’t change anything as far as I’m concerned...,” he says. “You know, the Republicans have always been into driving wedges and exploiting people.”

Yeah, but that seems to work, doesn’t it?

“Well, I think it’s time for people to stand up define what’s really important in America, and I intend to do that...,” he replies. “But if they want to try to sideline people into those issues that are not fundamentally affecting people’s
day-to-day lives in terms of jobs, health care, education, we’ll have a good debate.”

That was it.

So, if John Kerry has his way, this election will certainly not be about equal rights for gay people--at all.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, February 24, 2003

Z-Dust and Orange Snow

Odds of dying in a terrorism attack on a mall, if malls are being attacked at a rate of one per month: one in 6 million. Odds of dying in an anthrax attack: one in 70 million. Ratio of general US population to die last year from smoking-related illness: eight in 5,500. Odds of dying in an automobile accident: one in 6,700. Odds of being mowed down by an automobile while standing at a bus stop: better than you'd think.

A week ago Saturday, we sat in a cafe, Katie and me, ruminating on the absurdities of the week just behind us. We had been on heightened alert status for more than a week, and the first precip of a promised blizzard had begun to fall.

It’s all been kind of touch-and-go here in our nation’s capital. Code Orange, mounds of snow, the constant, dull roar of fighter jets overhead--and love’s special day.

With a rueful laugh, Katie relayed a snippet of a piece she had seen on a local newscast. The reporter was interviewing people in a grocery store check-out line. “So she asks the first person, ‘Are you here shopping for the snow, terrorism or Valentine’s Day?’ And the person says, ‘All three, really.’”

Soft targets

The weekend before had begun with the attorney general’s Friday announcement of a serious threat of a terrorist incident. It could take any form, he said, and target American interests both here and abroad. We were advised to stock up on canned goods, and to put together a disaster preparedness kit that would include, among other things, the now-infamous duct tape and plastic sheeting that would protect us, presumably, from a chemical, radiological or bioterrorism attack.

On the following day, I put the warning in my pocket, so to speak, and spent the day at a potential “soft target”--a political conference at a Washington hotel. A quiet uneasiness permeated the rooms; a rumor, later proved to be untrue, circulated that the orange alert had been moved up to red, which would indicate near certainty of imminent danger.

By Monday, the ambient tension in town seemed to be approaching sniper level--the degree of nervousness we slogged through last fall, when two nutballs in possession of a high-powered rifle spent several weeks picking off Washington-area residents at random.

A plague of Caterpillars

Word of the deployment of surface-to-air missiles around the Capitol grounds came on Tuesday. En route to a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building (where the offices of many members of Congress are located), I couldn’t help but notice that, just in front of the building, half of C Street had been cut away, leaving a neatly walled trench some 50 feet long and 8 feet deep. Curious.

In truth, Capitol Hill has been gripped by a plague of Caterpillars--backhoes and bulldozers, that is--for months now. Yes, a new visitors center is being built. But that hardly accounts for the maze of Jersey walls and fencing and heavy machinery that the Hill has become.

I live in Northeast Washington, in a neighborhood that only real estate agents count as part of Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, my morning walk to work takes me past the Capitol, and to get to my workplace, I cut through a sizeable patch of greenery, crisscrossed by concrete pathways, that lies between Union Station and the halls of Congress.

On Wednesday, I found my usual route through this commons, at D Street, blocked by several police cars parked sideways, and a cop in full riot gear standing against a backdrop of hulking orange and yellow dinosaurs. I immediately assumed that he was just blocking traffic due to the ongoing construction but, as it turned out, he was there to turn away pedestrians, as well. The machines were actually idle. I arrived at work edgy and late.

Come Thursday, after having been jolted awake by the sound of a low-swooping helicopter, I was sufficiently wound up to reconsider the disaster kit thing, which I had pretty much dismissed from the outset as a futile exercise. If disaster struck, I was hoping to be taken in the first flash. I continue to believe that that’s the best one can hope for. (Drape plastic sheeting over head and fasten securely
around neck with duct tape.) Still, if the reaper came not for me, I figured, it’s probably best to be prepared.

I left work at 6:00, and headed straight for the Rite-Aid, where I bought one of every canned good they had in stock, along with a plastic drop cloth, a smoke detector, a pack of Marlboro Mediums, and a Chunky bar for to take the edge off with.

On the menu for the apocalypse: Hormel Chili, Chef Boyardee ravioli and Triscuits.

Watch out for flying Zs

Friday, sweet Friday! I’d made it to the end of the week, and to the festival of love. I had no romantic plans, alas, but I was looking forward to dinner with friends. I bolted from my desk at five, hopped a bus, and just minutes later was ditching my work gear in my apartment. I bounded back down the stairs and to the bus stop in time to catch the 5:29 back to Union Station. It was all going like clockwork. The days were getting longer, I noticed, as I glanced through a magazine illuminated by the twilight.

The bus stop sits in front of a sorry little park on Maryland Avenue, a broad boulevard divided into east- and westbound lanes by a low median. The park’s most notable feature is a circle of four benches, only one functional, the other three in varying states of bust-uppedness. Behind the benches, the park takes a steep decline into a pit, lined along the sides with pressure-treated two-by-fours, that in the summer embraces a spread of playground equipment.

I stood at the stop, my back to the benches and my head in Nick Lemann’s piece on how the sequel to the upcoming war in Iraq might go. The sudden roar of a good-sized engine jolted me out of the mag. A Datsun 280-Z was hung up on the median in a perpendicular fashion, its ass end pointing right at me. A u-turn had apparently been attempted by a driver oblivious to the median. Within seconds the car came shooting toward me; the driver had the pedal to the metal with the transmission in reverse.

The Z tore through the park at alarming speed, hit the ridge and sailed into the pit, landing hard. I saw it sail but never saw it hit, only heard it. It was then I noticed that I now stood some 20 feet away from where I had been when I first heard the rumble and the roar. In my peripheral vision, I spied an arc of litter around my feet. I looked down to find that the “litter” was every last thing I had had in my coat pockets--a handkerchief, a Rolodex card, some Carmex, my bus fare.

Some people came over to see if I was all right, while others tended to the car in the ditch. “Sista can move!” someone said of me. “Sista can roll!”

Out of my handbag, miraculously still on my arm, I pulled my cell and, with hands
shaking, dialled 911. “All operators are currently busy,” a recording said.
“Please stay on the line.” I lit a smoke and gave one to a man who had
apparently been standing nearby when the whole thing happened.

An off-duty Capitol Policeman, terribly young and cute, came running over and
began making order of the scene, even though it was a bit out of his jurisdiction. Thankfully, an ambulance just happened to be ambling by, so it pulled up. Two paramedics, both women, got out; one rushed to the car and the other came to me.

The car door was opened, and the paramedic helped out a young woman, apparently unharmed, but certainly unsteady on her booted, spike-heeled feet. She was all tarted up for her Friday night out, her shiny, black hair plaited into an elaborate ‘do, her fair skin awash in paint-pot color. Like her boots, her coat was a tawny suede, but embroidered as well, and adorned with a row of curly fur down the front. I wanted to kill her. Kinda.

My killer instinct was curiously muted. A couple of years ago, you’da had to
pull me off of her, but now it seemed to be mitigated by...pity, perhaps?

Duck and cover

The paramedic tending me was both sweet and stern. A brown-skinned African-American in her 30s, she wore her dark hair straight and to the shoulder, and spoke with the straightforward precision of one who may have once been in the military.

My blood pressure, which rarely gets out of the double-digits in either number, was 170 over 120. I felt like my head was going to explode. It was suggested that I allow an ambulance to be called for me, but I was damned if I was going to let some little trollop rob me of the whole evening. “I’ll be fine,” I told her. She agreed that I probably would. “You’re just very excited right now,” she replied.

Two uniformed cops finally arrived on the scene. I demanded that they take my
statement. I walked one of the cops out onto the median, where the thing
began. A neighborhood man who had witnessed the events followed us. “She
went to make a u-turn...,” he said. “How ‘bout you let me finish my statement?” I
said, with great irritation. (Hey, I’m the one who almost got killed. I’m the one whose head almost exploded. I’m the one who instinctively knew to duck and cover before a combustion engine on wheels, rendered an air-to-surface projectile, hit its erstwhile target. Sista can roll!)

The cop, a white guy in his late 20s, I’d say, finished up with me and gave me his card. At the other end of the park, beyond the ditch, Missy was being put through her paces: first the finger-in-front-of-the-nose test, then the walk-in-a-straight-line test. They turned her toward the rear end of the squad car and snapped the cuffs on her.

I checked my voice-mail. A message from a friend I was on my way to meet--Eric, who works in the TV news biz. “I’m running late,” he said. “I’m just getting out of work now. I’ve been in a war meeting for the last four hours.”

They walked her up the hill toward a second squad car, and she began to wail--a piercing, high-pitched sound. It went through my stomach and traveled up to my heart. I flashed, ever so briefly, on a telephone pole in the middle of the grill of my Pinto that I had placed there after too much frascati on a Friday night some 25 years ago, back when my hair was long, and I wore high-heeled boots and cinnamon lipstick. Not nearly as spectacular as an airborne Z, of course, but I could relate a bit. Her muffled wails grew fainter as they put her in the back seat, then drove her away.

Have a blessed day

I boarded the 6:00 bus. “I almost just got killed!” I told the driver, a handsome,
young Washingtonian fellow. I pointed out the car in the ditch, and became annoyed when an old-timer chimed in about the rough night he had had shopping in the Safeway, on account of the long lines.

It’s about a four-minute ride to Union Station, and we got there just fine. As I stepped off the bus, the driver caught my eye, saying softly and earnestly, “Allah be with you.” I smiled a bit sheepishly in the realization that I had been blessed.

Sphere: Related Content