Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reform This!

Three filibusters and out.

That was fast. The "New York Times," reported that the Republicans had "relented" in the face of considerable pressure the likes Goldman Sacks be brought to heel. This means the party is very NOT relentless and Mr. Peebles, otherwise knows as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, just the opposite.

You can't judge a nerd by his glasses.

The Republicans' was a great performance in legislative self-gratification and another example of the neutered Republicans' over-reliance on the filibuster.

As "Times" reporters David Herszenhorn and Edward Wyatt, or one of them anyway, pointed out, "While the Republicans can still filibuster, they are at a disadvantage during the floor debate given the Democrats' 59 to 41 majority. And the decision to allow floor debate appeared to be a significant retreat by the minority, reflecting a calculation that further delay was politically untenable."

You can say that again!

"And the decision to allow floor debate appeared to be a significant retreat by the minority, reflecting a calculation that further delay was politically untenable."

Hurts so good.

The Republicans don't want President Obama to succeed at anything regardless of what that thing means to the country. It's a clumsy posture forcing the GOP into uncomfortable, pretzel-like political positions:

"Among the challenges for Republicans, "The Times" writers write, "was explaining how they could participate in an oversight hearing on Tuesday criticizing Goldman Sachs executives and proclaiming the need to tighten regulation of Wall Street, but then go to the Senate chamber and vote to block debate of the financial regulatory bill."

"Salon" has a problem with some of the ensuing coverage, which grants the President's party a victory without being sure of what has been won. But it's "Salon's" self-appointed to be whine about Democrats in between election seasons and support them when the line outside the polling place starts taking shape.

Speaking of polling, that same outlet's Joe Conason parses an upturn in Democratic support out of a new sampling of voters from the "Washington Post."

It's a question of whether you believe in polls or not. highwayscribery does, like all of us, when they confirm his beliefs.

Conason quotes the survey which concluded, "The public trusts Democrats more than Republicans to handle the major problems facing the country by a double-digit margin, giving Democrats a bigger lead than they held two months ago when Congress was engaged in the long endgame over divisive health legislation."

There's more. President Obama's numbers are up and, despite all the "anti-incumbent" sentiment we are told is out there, the Republicans come off much worse in the poll.

Proof of highwayscribery's hard-earned lesson that you must be more than AGAINST something to win an election.

we told you so four months ago, and four days (or so) ago as well.

Same goes for our prediction that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist would leave the Republican Party and run as an independent, thereby increasing the Democrats' chances of taking that Senate seat.

Tea anyone?

Naturally you are wondering, "How can highwayscribery be getting it so right?" But we must confess that has not always been thus. In fact, back when the scribe's belief in the minimum wage left him "outside the mainstream of American politics," he confused his anger with that of everybody else's in the country, much the way Tea Party people do now.

But the presidential election of 2004 fixed THAT.

Now, the scribe is a piece of particulate matter in the same political class around which the President has built his core support, demographically, many measurements.

So much so, that he was offered to apply for a job with Organizing for America, the Obama crowd's grassroots storm-troop group.

the highway scribe declined.

Our support is contingent upon specific policies we are, for the most part, getting from Barack Obama. Plus, we don't do propaganda. If the Obama administration wants to subpoena a reporter over his resources, for example, we observe how the policy runs counter to the First Amendment and our hallowed free press traditions.

And besides, the job requires relocating to D.C., where there are no waves for surfing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Report: "A Magnificent Catastrophe," by Edward Larson

Ambitious people don't always come off too well in literature, and "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign" shows that our hallowed founding fathers were no exception.

The "Founding Fathers" are usually presented as an archetype of monolithic cohesion; high-minded patriots, with a nascent American polity's well-being the driving force behind their every action.

There is a wistful, almost universal, sentiment that says, “they just don’t make them like that anymore.”

But this book establishes that they were monolithic only in their desire for independence from England, and thereafter took radically different positions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Larson's portrayal of names as revered as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the not-so-revered, Aaron Burr or Thomas Cotesworth Pinckney, leaves hardly a hair of difference between the high- and low-minded amongst them.

These gentlemen were, in the end, politicians. And like all specimens of that species, they craved power and stepped on people to get it.

Alexander Hamilton comes off particularly bad, or good, depending on your politics.

As a member of the "high Federalist" faction, which ruled before the presidential election covered here, Larson marks him for a pro-British, almost monarchical, presence on the American political scene. A guy who managed to finagle his own standing army out of the Federalist majority and was known as “General Hamilton.”

And he wasn’t the only founder with aristocratic tendencies.

Larson writes that the aforementioned Pinckney, “fought the Revolution to preserve what he, as a South Carolina patrician, viewed as the traditional rights of Englishmen, which for him included the God-given right to enslave Africans -- a right that prewar legal developments in Britain appeared to threaten.”

"Liberty or Death!" indeed.

It comes as quite a shock, in fact, that beacons such as Hamilton, John Adams, and other Federalists in power at the time had a strong aversion to, well, democracy.

They didn't like it, feared it, figured it for a precursor to the mobs, massacres, and guillotines that were all the rage in France at the time.

In fact, they made it a practice to tar Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party (not THAT Republican Party) as "Jacobins," after the unruliest faction of the tumultuous French political scene. Much the way today's Republicans go on about the Democrats being "socialists."

There is, perhaps, something calming in all of this. A vote of confidence for those who shrug at today's Washington shenanigans, confident that our Republic shall survive this, too.

The debate so marvelously detailed here traces the pedigrees of our current political divide.

It may come as a surprise, for those who went into paroxysms over the Bush administration’s scant deference to the rule of law, that such behavior has roots in the guy gracing our ten dollar bill.

Concerned that changes in Maryland’s election law would deliver the presidency to Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton wrote a fellow Federalist, “I am aware of strong objections to the measure, but if it be true, as I suppose, that our opponents aim at revolution and employ all means to secure success, the contest must be unequal if we not only refrain from unconstitutional and criminal measures, but even from such as may offend against the routine of strict decorum.”

In blog-ese, Hamilton is saying, “If we don’t act unconstitutionally or criminally, and risk offending everyone’s sensibilities, we’ll lose the election.”

Al Hamilton, meet Karl Rove.

This book makes clear that today’s rabid partisanship is hardly a new phenomenon.

As the complex election of 18000 is being resolved, things in Washington are at fever pitch. Members of the warring parties no longer socialize as they did up in Philadelphia and Massachusetts Federalist Harrison Gray Otis writes his wife to say, “I have concluded to go to no more balls. I do not enjoy myself with these people.”

Seeking to forge some kind of bipartisan sentiment, the victorious Jefferson is obligated to point out that, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Sound familiar?

Well, the founders reacted in much the same way their legislative offspring do today, and they didn’t need Fox News or the Internet to slime far and wide.

Messenger on horseback was sufficient to spreading a rumor that the mostly forgotten Pinckney, a frequent and viable presidential candidate in those days, had gone to England in search of four mistresses for sharing with John Adams, who quipped in response: “If this be true, General Pinckney has kept all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”

There isn’t enough of such stuff in “Magnificent Catastrophe.” It's a dense, if worthwhile read.

That’s not Larson’s fault. The people he’s researching did what they did and said what they said, and the business of resolving the dangerous partisan rift was indeed a grim one.

In fact, “Magnificent Catastrophe,” suffers from its almost exclusive focus on the inside ball associated with the party politics that followed the death of George Washington who preferred that grand and national coalitions conduct the country’s business.

Readers may yearn for a wider portrait of America, such as that rendered in the account of John Adams’ time on the hustings, when an agrarian, English-styled nation filled with country villages surfaces, if only too briefly.

“Magnificent Catastrophe” doesn't quite live up to its grandiose title. The founding fathers’ low-brow dealings are anything but magnificent, and the catastrophe was ultimately averted.

But it is a revelatory document detailing the way presidents were chosen in the nation’s early days, and dissecting the numbers, myriad votes, and concomitant conniving employed to affect them, in a tense political season that might have doomed the country.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ahead of the Curve

You read it here first. Or at least before you read it on "Politico."

In his April 21 post, "Democrats Banking on Reform," the highway scribe called the Tea Party movement, "the biggest white elephant in American politics."

The post noted that you might be distracted from the divining the true tenor of our country's politics by "an endless barrage of mentions" about that particular group. This was followed-up there by a few details about how damaging the Tea Party might actually be to the efforts of those hoping to topple President Obama.

Well, the next day, while highwayscribery's entry was traversing the global system of flows, an infinitely more potent outfit, "Politico," published, "The Tea Party's Exaggerated Importance."

The online powerhouse concluded that nothing succeeds like excess and the media has succumbed to this formula in its Tea Party coverage, noting that, "In fact, there is a word for what poll after poll depicts as a group of largely white, middle-class, middle-aged voters who are aggrieved: 'Republicans'."

highwayscribery's riposte said: "Essentially Republican voters, the only thing that would make this 18 percent segment of the population newsworthy is if they actually turned on the GOP and helped consolidate Democratic control."

The point?

highwayscribery is special!

"Politico" noted that the Tea Party has "failed to make a dent so far in Republican primaries."

In "The WikiLeaks Massacre," this blogger observed that in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, he marched with "crowds much larger than anything the Tea Party ever cooked up. Unlike that self-centered bunch of hysterics, we were confronted by police sent out to bash heads, because of our opposition to exactly this kind of horror."

Or as "Politico" authors Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith put it: "And just a few years ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned out to rally against the Iraq war. Now, veterans of those protests -- covered largely as spot news and spectacle -- wonder why they didn't get the weighty, anthropological treatment assigned to the tea parties."

(They forgot the part about police knocking the snot out of the anti-war crowd).

The "Politico" piece notes that the group's Tax Day crowds [promoted by Fox News as they were] "were not representative of a force that is purportedly shaping the country's politics. About a thousand people showed up in state capitals like Des Moines, Montgomery, and Baton Rouge, and even fewer in large cities like Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee."

Their reward? The article enumerates a blogger "The Washington Post" hired to cover the "movement," CNN crews that joined the Tea Party Express bus tours, polls in the "New York Times," addressing their importance, and "CNN" (again), and their own outfit.

Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism noted that the Tea Party competed for attention with the Iceland volcano and beat out health care in terms of coverage garnered.

The upshot, the reporters say, is that, like Sarah Palin, who couldn't wait to glom onto the Tea Party poopers, they are symbols "that outweigh their actual impact."

Exactly our point (again).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Democrats Banking on Reform

Even as its business model is shredded to smithereens by the Internet, our mainstream media persists in propagating a wisdom utterly conventional.

Why the information industry's foot soldiers insist the Democratic Party is headed for doom in this year's elections, and bury an article headlined "Democrats Top GOP in Fund-Raising for Midterms" is anybody's guess.

Hee Haw!

Back on January 10, in "Dem Dead Dems," the highway scribe said the Democrats' problems were relative and the Republicans were in no position to take advantage of them.

Although highwayscribery hates repeating itself, the popes of American news do not, and so we are obligated in our gadfly's mission to follow suit, repeat, and refute this widespread fallacy.

We are not going to serve up a bunch of stuff you are supping on daily, just a few recent examples of the aforementioned popular pap.

The "San Francisco Chronicle," which ought to know better, put a California spin on things.

The state's Democrats just adjourned their convention and the reporter wonders how they're going to rev things up to 2008 levels of excitement, which, of course they can't.

This begs the question of whether a governing party needs to generate the energy of historic, watershed elections every time voters are convened to settle the polity's direction.

We would suggest there is margin for error and that, in the wake of the health care debate, the Democratic Party is holding its own, hardly imploding as the present-day narrative strains to assert.

At the national level, "Salon" throws in the towel on the mid-terms, too. Then it sugar-coats things for its liberal audience with some high-falutin', demographically based hoo-hah about how 2012 will be better for Democrats.

The article only affirms the highway scribe's hypothesis that journalists think way too much before arriving at like conclusions.

Our editorial board's take, honed over years in opposition, is that Republicans will not fare well just because folks are unhappy with the other guys.

It's a cyclical analysis of American politics that sees parties rise to power, expend themselves of ideas, crash on the shoals of a popular clamor for change, engage in internecine policy purges, and then start hatching ideas anew.

In today's speedy world, this takes less time than before, but it's still a process that requires some years unfold.

highwayscribery's prediction is that, as the premier and dominant figure on the American political landscape, Barack Obama remains the focus of our national narrative by holding serve in 2010, slowly wearing down the opposition, and imposing those programs he was elected to affect.

We predict he gets reelected in 2012 for lack of fresh Republican talent, coupled with a bruising 24-hour cable-news-ified primary season on the right, before getting his hat handed to him in 2014.

If that comes as cold dousing given what you've been reading and watching, witness the flailing Republicans push each other to the right, waffle over keeping or dumping their ineffectual party chairman Michael Steel, while slowly losing their ability to gum-up the legislative works.

Here, an article in the "New York Times," about the Democrats effectively moving on nominations held-up by the GOP for nine months.

It notes that, "Under the threat of late-night sessions, Republicans have agreed to allow votes on two federal judicial nominees, and Democrats hope to force votes on two others this week."

From which we can only surmise that Republican legislators are willing to surrender their ideological bona fides for an early ride home.

Here's another "Times" piece about follow-up health care legislation regulating insurance premium increases.

No GOPers are predicting the end of freedom as we know it this round. So either they've accepted socialist enslavement or don't think that line of reasoning worked too well for them.

The Republicans bet everything on the health care debate. It was a careless wager against something a lot of people have been clamoring decades for.

There was never a clear policy from the opposition.

We never knew if they were against the drug companies, who backed the measure, the insurance companies whom Obama had wisely co-opted early on in the process, the medical community, or the American people themselves.

What they were clearly against, was President Obama's achieving anything.

As Tom Friedman noted in "Everybody Loves a Winner," one needn't be Machiavelli "to believe that the leaders of Iran and Venezuela shared the barely disguised Republican hope that health care would fail and, therefore, Obama's whole political agenda would be stalled and, therefore, his presidency enfeebled."

Now, the highway scribe and countless leftists wanted and worked for much the same in the case of George W. Bush. But he stole an election.

As Frank Rich recently noted, the problem for Tea Partiers, who are otherwise "doing fine," is that Obama is black.

That is less an offense than rigging an election in your big brother's state. Except in the south, the regional rock to which Republicans cling for a modicum of relevance.

As Democrats continue their efforts to keep us healthy at a cheaper price, we'll see how the world did not come to an end and that their positive labors in this area will match their good deeds in the credit card business.

Have you seen your statement lately? It tells what you've forked over in fees and interest for the year to date, maps out your future expenses at current rates of payment, and details alternative sums that wipe out your debt sooner.

The changes are due to new laws, not some new predisposition on the part of big banks who want to be your friend.

They really don't.

And as the "New York Times," noted on April 19, the Democrats have seized a great combination of populist ire at banks and fancy pants investment houses, and their opponents' predilection for all things financial, to make hay at the GOP's expense.

You have to hand it to the Republicans. They know what they stand for and they don't back down when the political climate is searing their values on the grill.

They like banks. The lunch with banks. They want to help banks. They tell bankers not to worry about congressional staffer "punks" harassing them.

Obama was out here in Los Angeles raising money for Sen. Barbara Boxer; someone who is supposedly vulnerable in November, which is not likely.

The President informed his audience about where his opposite number, politically speaking, has been of late. That would be Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader whom, the president noted, recently convened a little confab including Wall Street Brahmin, himself, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

"Now, the Senate Republican leader, he paid a visit to Wall Street a week or two ago," the president narrated for his partisans. "He took along the chairman of their campaign committee [that's Cornyn]. He met with some of the movers and shakers up there. I don't know exactly what was discussed, all I can tell you is that, when he came back, he promptly announced he would oppose the financial regulatory reform. He would oppose it. Shocking. And once again he's threatening to tie up the Senate with a filibuster to block progress."

The health care debate turned McConnell's once obscure tools of obstruction into household words so that now "filibuster" is officially a dirty one, unless you're the kind who ties teabags to your NASCAR baseball cap.

The Senate minority leader explained that he was on Wall Street, "gathering information" regarding peoples' views on the proposed reform.

Which is fine, but highwayscribery is still waiting to talk with McConnell so he can air some views, too. He hasn't heard from Mitch yet.

Have you?

While the Obama crowd and their suddenly cohesive cohorts in Congress were working to get financial reform on the Senate floor within a week (the House has already passed a bill), the federal government sued Goldman Sachs for fraud.

The firm just posted another $zillion quarterly profit and word has it the government's case is a tough sell, but the timing's right, isn't it?

If you think it's a mistake an Obama Department of Justice filed the lawsuit around the same time the administration would like the Senate to take up financial regulatory reform, than you're one of those people who thinks the president is stupid.

You are invited by a supporter of the administration to keep doing that.

McConnell is backtracking, because his threat to kill legislation reining in predatory financial institutions, while railing against predatory financial institutions, is fooling nobody and he can't get the 41 votes he needs.

The strategy of gridlock is being affected by a law of diminishing returns and financial reform represents the second big loss in a month's time for Republicans.

And this time it wasn't even close.

By now you should see where things are heading, but might be distracted by flack from an endless barrage of mentions about the Tea Party. The biggest white elephant in American politics since Ross Perot.

Essentially Republican voters, the only thing that would make this 18 percent segment of the population newsworthy is if they actually turned on the GOP and helped consolidate Democratic control.

And it is happening.

They've made Florida's Marco Rubio a poster-boy for the new conservatism, and a dumping ground of Sunshine State Gov. Charlie Crist's political career.

The feckless Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), in a dog-fight with a newly, self-identified Tea Partier, J.D. Hayworth, just "distanced" himself from Crist.

Ham-handed and craven, the Republican establishment has treated one of its proven and successful moderates so roughly that Crist is threatening to run as an independent.

Can you say "split ticket?"

Michael Gerson, a right-leaning columnist with the "Washington Post," thinks McCain's in trouble. The operative phrase to his piece is, "in an environment where anything can happen to an incumbent."

Which is one of our points here. If the electorate is still in a foul mood seven months from now -- something that is open to dispute -- it won't be the President's party alone that pays the price.

With the pain equitably distributed, the Democrats can be expected to hold onto power.

Bank on it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The WikiLeaks Massacre

The guys marked for momentary death documented in the now famous "WikiLeaks" video don't appear to be engaged in any kind of military activity so much as milling about.

But we're going to give the "fog of war" crowd their due. We are going to stay away from (for the most part) whether the killings of a journalist, his driver, and the wounding of two children were justified.

highwayscribery is going to talk about what this miserable episode says about the United States as a country.

And what it says, first, and most obviously, is that we are at war. And that such events leave us vulnerable to revenge attacks like that in Russia last week and to the spiritual perversions protracted, factory-style killing produces.

Exactly what invading Iraq had to do with terrorism in the United States has always been a matter of debate. But the next time we're hit, the reason why will be much clearer and the WikiLeaks video will stand as solid evidence.

Again, the need for engagement is not our issue here. But the aftermath is the aftermath, like it or not. And the aftermath would suggest a bunch of innocent people hanging out in the street were unsuspectingly mowed down, including two guys who worked for Reuters news service.

the highway scribe as been a journalist for 27 years now, and incidents of reporters being hacked to bits in the Philippines, tortured to death in Mexico, and obliterated in Iraq really get his goat, because his goat's really close.

It makes complete sense to him that the wife, or brother, or lover to one of these anonymous men we care not a wit about, will make their presence felt in your random subway station.

You have to expect it.

Secondly, as you mail your tax return off to the Internal Revenue Service, the WikiLeaks video should assure you the money is going toward the purchase of very fine weaponry.

A picture can be worth a thousand words, but this video caused the scribe to cough up just two:

"Holy shit!"

The Apache helicopter's firepower is shocking for the devastation it leaves behind. The bullet spray kicks up a full-on dust storm and we can only be grateful not to see the butcher's mess underneath it.

Keep watching -- if you can -- and witness what happens to the van picking up the unfortunate Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, who is crawling around, drawing his final breaths. It literally gets bounced upside down...

...with two children on board.


Third, for better or worse, we've got some tough hombres riding in those multi-million dollar helicopters. If the soldiers in Allah's Armies of Death seem particularly heartless, don't worry. This particular bunch need not envy their clinical, reaper-like mien.

It's clear the pilots are very pleased with the pile of bodies their finger-pushing exertions have gathered. There's humor in them thar massacres, children or not.

"Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle," says one, forgetting whose neighborhood it is in the first place.

And it is hard to understand why the van's occupants, clearly unarmed, backs dangerously exposed to an aircraft that has just scattered corpses near and far, had to be sacrificed.

Really hard.

Fourth, and thankfully, the unfortunate occurrence says hopeful things about our country, too. For example, in the wake of this slaughter, Reuters wanted a copy of the video the military possessed so they could see what happened to their guys.

The agency filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law signed by a Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, which it is nice to have. However shopworn, abused, and ignored, the measure works on a lot of occasions.

And we need a Freedom of Information Act, because of stuff like the statement from Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Blechwehl, spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, who said, and we quote:

"There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force."

As promised, we're not going to say the pilots were bloodthirsty animals with no regard for civilian life, but we will say there is certainly "a question" of whether the whole thing was necessary.

It's not clear whether Reuters got what they wanted with the FOIA filing, but WikiLeaks did, from somebody inside the military with a conscience. Good for WikiLeaks, the whisteblowers, and the United States of America.

In his "New York Times Sunday Book Review," assessment of Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War" author Sebastian Junger:

"For a reporter who has covered the military in its current incarnation, the events recounted in this book are so brutal and costly that they seem to belong not just to another time, but to another country. Soldiers openly contemplate killing their commanders. They die by the dozen on useless missions designed primarily to help the careers of those above them. The wounded are unhooked from IV bags and left to die because others, required for battle, are growing woozy from dehydration and have been ordered to drink the precious fluid. Almost every page contains some example of military callousness or incompetence that would be virtually inconceivable today, and I found myself wondering whether the book was intended as an indictment of war in general or a demonstration of just how far this nation has come in the last 40 years."

Well that's a relief, sort of.

Whatever the guys in the Apache copters thought and did, which was plenty no matter how you want to spin it, you have to be heartened by the soldiers on the ground grabbing the wounded children in their arms en route to getting them help.

The "Collateral Murder" crew which edited the raw video for your consumption assert that dumping the kids in an Iraqi hospital was less desirable than taking them to a superior, U.S. military facility.

And that may be true, but at least they didn't leave them bleeding to death in the street.

It's kind of remarkable, watching the video, how many rules and procedures there are to the business of combat. These guys are getting clearance and asking permission yet, for all that, still shoot up a bunch of people, two of whom we can be sure were innocent men doing their day job.

Which brings us to the rant part of this post:

The video is shocking. Mostly because we are protected from the real horrors our bellicose actions, however justified, generate.

The footage is authentic and few things are more unnerving than watching live, threatened humans fleeing for their lives and not making it. The movies are no match. The gap between staged death and the real deal underscores the tragedy of all human slaughter.

Already six years ago, highwayscribery marched in crowds much larger than anything the Tea Party ever cooked up. Unlike that self-centered bunch of hysterics, we were confronted by police sent out to bash heads, because of our opposition to exactly this kind of horror.

"Saddam Hussein was a bad man"

In that idiotic phrase was all the misery and murder on every side - still going on mind you - finally justified once there were no chemical weapons or mushroom clouds to buttress the rolling charnel house that is Iraq.

The WikiLeaks video recalls so many senseless deaths of innocent children, aid workers, United Nations workers, and others. And it stirs up memories of the arrogant smirk owned by the ignoramus who governed us for eight long years.

It conjures all the lies men still running about in our land influencing policy committed in order to launch this little shop of horrors.

It recalls that dark time when the Bush administration had the whole country cowed and, on the eve of the war, walked our listless mainstream press through a color-by-numbers press conference at which they raised their hands and answered pre-approved questions.

The footage brings to mind the last presidential election during which a bunch of white guys battling for the Republican nomination wagged their fat fingers and promised to be "tough," much more so, than the last guy who had just promised the same thing.

This video is what's tough. Tough to watch and tough to live with. It stands, on its own, as marvelous portraiture of what the flag-waving and finger-wagging jerks who don't have to wage war are ultimately responsible for.

They may sleep well, but others don't.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Book Report: "Just Kids," by Patti Smith

"Just Kids" is just another Jersey-factory-girl-runs-to-New York-and-hooks-up-with-bisexual-art-pornographer-on-her-way-to-rock 'n roll-stardom story.

It details Patti Smith's evolution from tentative neophyte to rock-and-roll poetess, woven through with her unique relationship to Robert Mapplethorpe, a triumphant artist whose own untimely ending, alas, makes for engaging literature.

The place is lower Manhattan. The time-period is the mid-1960s and 1970s when Mapplethorpe and Smith are, age-wise, a "beat behind" the reigning princes and princesses of rock's golden age.

As such, she is influenced artistically by the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Janice Joplin for whom she pens poetic cycles while absorbing political pointers from Jean-Luc Goddard's "One-Plus-One."

The life-as-artist anecdotes have a familiar ring: hunger, rejection, perseverance, and a healthy amount of name dropping.

Smith has affairs with Jim Carroll, Sam Sheppard and a guy from Blue Oyster Cult. Allen Ginsberg mistakes her for a pretty boy in the Automat, and Gregory Corso imparts stern advice to the budding scribe inside her.

They are revealing tales that highlight Smith's achievement as survivor of an era peopled with fascinating characters demolished by addictions and carelessness.

"Just Kids" is the portrait of a New York City not completely subsumed into the grid of overpriced realty, before the Internet, where artistic ambition had a geographic component and required settling into some dump on the mighty Isle.

Here is "art" before its subsequent elevation to bourgeois respectability. To an artist of today's saturated market, the idea that you could install yourself at the Chelsea Hotel and initiate apprenticeships with living legends seems, with the benefit of hindsight, a no-brainer.

One can only assume that, in those days, choosing art meant the painful burden of rejection from loved ones and dangerous uncertainty on the path ahead.

So, as time capsule, "Just Kids" is just great.

But autobiographies should tell us something we don't know about somebody. They can be intriguing when it comes to artists; usually reinvented characters very mindful of their own brands, of what they show and don't show the world.

And who does Patti Smith tell us who she is/was?

For starters, because it's really how she got it going, Patti Smith is/was American as apple pie; thrifty, industrious, entrepreneurial, and self-involved, her Rimbaud-inspired disdain and punk rock posture notwithstanding.

Here Smith describes her efforts in the opening stanza's of the couple's bohemian idyll:

"I scoured secondhand stores for books to sell. I had a good eye, scouting rare children's books and signed first editions for a few dollars and reselling them for much more. The turnover on a pristine copy of 'Love and Mr. Lewisham' inscribed by H.G. Wells covered rent and subway fares for a week."

And she is a fashionista of the first rank.

Long before Patti Smith was confident enough to confront an imposing poetry world, she parsed a personal vocabulary in clothing ensembles that, 30 years on, she remembers down to the last accessory.

In this passage she describes a successful attempt at sartorially seducing Television guitar-star Tom Verlaine to work with her band:

"I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand: black ballet flaps, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat, and a violet parasol, and entered Cinemabilia where he worked part time."

And she is materialistic. Not flat-screen TV materialistic, for sure, but tightly tied to, and moved by, objects tactile and tangible.

Before joining Mapplethorpe for a photography shoot she, "laid a cloth on the floor, placing the fragile white dress Robert had given me, my white ballet shoes, Indian ankle bells, silk ribbons, and the family Bible, and tied it all in a bundle."

During the shoot she is stricken with anxiety that is eased by Mapplethorpe's knowing voice and a change into dungarees, boots, an old black sweatshirt.

Smith interprets this evolution as an expression of certain ideas she and the photographer have discussed prior. Ideas about the artist seeking contact with the gods, but returning to the world for the purpose of making things.

Her conclusion to the section does not surprise: "I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our hand-made world, saying, 'I choose Earth.'"

As for Mapplethorpe, especially if you're a foot soldier in the art world, he seems a rather common phenomenon: ambitious and single-minded in his craving for fame. Patti's lazy percolation into what she would ultimately become makes for an infinitely more interesting yarn.

One gets the feeling he might agree. In one of the most charming parts of the book he tells her through a cloud of cigarette smoke, "Patti, you got famous before me."

She dubs Mapplethorpe her "knight," but this reader cared thanks to the love she invested in him.

Mapplethorpe, of course, was an artist and all the writing about art in the world cannot replace the actual experience of it. Perhaps he is shortchanged by the autobiographical form; try as his muse does to honor him.

Although we rarely accuse anybody of being too old to rock 'n roll anymore, writing remains a mature person's game. So it was Smith's good fortune to be a writer first, a musician later, and a writer now, because she brings lit-passion and a high level of skill to "Just Kids."

This is especially true towards the end of the book. In earlier stanzas she is more a chronicler of the famous and idiosyncratic characters surrounding. When the poetess describes the artistic vision, purpose, and goals upon which she ultimately settles, the narrative assumes the force of that direction:

"We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it was losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms or our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone."

Pretty grandiose stuff.

But she is, in "Just Kids," nothing if not a dramatist scripting the play of her own life, decorating it with universal symbols, inserting Patti Smith into art history's larger arc.

There are persons and outlets, many in the very cultural current Smith helped generate, who find such self-positioning both cloying and pretentious.

Not highwayscribery.

Worms squirm in the mud and we are all welcome to join them. Walking with the deities is the tougher task and should be worthy of our admiration.