In “Winning the News Cycle, Losing the Race” The Pasty Little Putz gurgles that the Obama White House has worked to change the subject to social issues. But in a pocketbook election, it helps to focus on pocketbook anxieties. He also managed to call Bill Clinton a draft dodger. Apparently W, Cheney and Mittens are all decorated veterans… MoDo, in “Seeking Original Bliss,” says oops, he did it again. Joe Biden speaks truth to power (the president) on gay marriage. The Moustache of Wisdom assures us “This Column Is Not Sponsored by Anyone,” and says politics may have America divided, but markets do, too, especially in a society where everything is up for sale. Mr. Kristof addresses “Saving the Lives of Moms,” and says on Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate a fistula hospital that you readers helped build, and the many African women whose lives it will surely save. Mr. Bruni is “Muddling Through Mother’s Day,” and looks at hen mom is gone, navigating an annual ritual of innocent reminders and well-intentioned assumptions. Here’s the Putz:
For a generation or more, liberals have complained that the Republican Party uses social and cultural debates to distract voters from pocketbook issues. From Howard Dean’s 2003 lament about Southerners voting on “race, guns, God and gays” to Thomas Frank’s musings on what’s supposedly the matter with Kansas, the Republican focus on social issues has been regularly portrayed as a bait-and-switch, designed to bamboozle Americans into voting against their economic interests.
In 2012, though, liberals have learned to stop worrying and love the social issues. Ever since Rick Santorum’s campaign provided an opportunity to paint Republicans as nostalgists for the Comstock laws (if not the Inquisition), the Obama White House has consistently sought to change the subject from the unemployment rate to contraception, or immigration, or now even gay marriage.
For the president, talking about social issues is a way to activate key constituencies (young people, Hispanics, unmarried women) and woo crucial donor bases (he raised $15 million at a Hollywood fund-raiser after giving his support to same-sex wedlock). Above all, though, it’s a way to talk about something — anything! — besides his economic record.
It must be said that the White House has executed this strategy effectively. Twice in the last few months, a cultural controversy has threatened President Obama with embarrassment or worse: first in January, when the health care mandate requiring most religious employers to pay for sterilization, contraception and the morning-after pill prompted a chorus of opposition, and then again a week ago when it became clear that the media would no longer give the president cover for his “evolving” position on gay marriage.
In both cases, though, Obama quickly regained the initiative. In the case of the mandate, he combined a hasty compromise proposal with a “war on women” counterattack — and received a crucial gift from Rush Limbaugh, whose “slut” monologue seemed to vindicate the White House’s portrayal of its opponents as troglodytes and bigots.
In the case of gay marriage, meanwhile, Obama benefited from the press’s eagerness to cover capital-H History, earning a wave of glowing publicity for what amounted to a tacit admission that he had been deceiving voters about his convictions all along. And again, the White House benefited from an unexpected political gift, this time from a Washington Post story on Mitt Romney’s teenage bullying of a (possibly gay) prep school classmate.
The question, though, is what this successful maneuvering is actually gaining the White House. The weaknesses it’s trying to exploit are real enough: the country is moving leftward on many social issues, and Romney’s mix of squareness and weirdness — the moneyed background, the Mormonism, the 1950s persona — makes it relatively easy to portray him as culturally out of touch.
But this would be a bigger problem for Republicans if the 2012 campaign were taking place amid prosperity and plenty. At times, the Obama White House seems to be attempting to run a liberal version of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which used cultural arguments to delegitimize Michael Dukakis. But today’s economic landscape looks more like 1992, when Bush the elder discovered that the same arguments availed him little with a recession-weary electorate — even in a race against a slick, womanizing draft-dodger.
Making Americans feel uncomfortable with Romney, in other words, won’t be enough if the economy keeps sputtering along. What Obama needs, instead, is to make voters fear a Romney presidency, even more than they fear four more years of high deficits and slow growth. And a re-election campaign that focuses on gay marriage, or the Dream Act, or birth control, or how Romney treated his dog and high school classmates is unlikely to stoke that kind of fear.
What might? Well, in a pocketbook election it helps to focus on pocketbook anxieties. It’s true that every day the White House spends talking about social issues is a day it isn’t stuck talking about the economy. But it’s also a day when it hasn’t talked about how Mitt Romney wants to take away your retirement security to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
This is a predictable Democratic argument, and a demagogic one. But it’s an argument that might actually make economically stressed Americans afraid of what a Romney presidency would bring.
Instead, Obama is currently running for re-election as an opponent of sexism, homophobia and social reaction in all its forms. This is a decent strategy for winning news cycles, which the administration clearly did last week — playing the media brilliantly and watching as Romney was thrown on the defensive yet again.
But Obama has won news cycle after news cycle this spring, and yet the president and his unloved, out-of-step-with-the-times challenger are almost dead even in the polls. That’s a sign that something isn’t working — and that this White House, not for the first time, has mistaken a clever strategy for a winning one.
I’ll say it again — he actually gets paid. Here’s MoDo:
In 1983, Genevieve Cook brought a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream to a Christmas party in the East Village. She left with 22-year-old Barack Obama’s phone number.
The lithe Australian assistant teacher at a Brooklyn grade school was soon in a romance with the lithe future president.
In the diary entries she shared with David Maraniss, whose new biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” is excerpted in the June Vanity Fair, Cook presages Obama’s relationship with bedazzled American voters: passion cooling as he engages in a cerebral seminar and a delight in doubt.
Sunday, Jan. 22, 1984: “A sadness, in a way, that we are both so questioning that original bliss is dissipated.”
Thursday, Jan. 26: “Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.”
Saturday, Feb. 25: “His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness — and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.”
When she told him she loved him, he replied, “Thank you.”
President Obama is still a cool customer. He has a rare gift: Even when he does the right thing, by the time he does it and in the way he does it, he drains away excitement and robs himself of the admiration he would otherwise be due.
Why doesn’t he just do the exhilarating thing immediately? Why does he always have to be dragged kicking and screaming to principle? Not everything is a calculation.
His embrace of gay marriage was not a profile in courage. It was good, better than continued “evolving,” but not particularly brave. He has been in office three and a half years and he is running for re-election, trying to bring back the thrill with a lot of constituencies and donors who felt let down by his temporizing. Who knows how long he might have kept evolving, while his advisers gamed it out, if Joe Biden, Arne Duncan and Shaun Donovan hadn’t forced his hand by speaking out in such an unabashed way in support of same-sex marriage.
Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts that Biden “got out a little over his skis.”
The controlling Obama team did not like the fact that the uncontrollable Biden’s forthright statement to David Gregory about being “comfortable” with gay marriage left the president looking like an equivocator, once more lagging in the leadership department.
So Obama aides began anonymously trashing the vice president, not a pretty spectacle given how loyal Biden is to the president.
They told Politico that Biden’s getting the jump on Obama was particularly annoying given that Biden had backed the Defense of Marriage Act as a senator in the 1990s while Obama “has actually taken steps to repeal the Clinton-era law that defined marriage as something that could only take place between a man and a woman.”
“And it chafed Obama’s team,” Politico said, “that Biden had, at times, privately argued for the president to hold off on his support of marriage equality to avoid a backlash among Catholic voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.”
Biden felt compelled to apologize to the president for inadvertently nudging him to do the right thing.
David Plouffe, the senior adviser, Jim Messina, the campaign manager, and others in the petty Obama sewing circle might want to remember that the opponent is Mitt Romney, not Joe Biden.
The vice president was his usual sentimental self on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, praising the influence of “Will & Grace.” He recounted the story of meeting the two children of a gay couple at a political powwow three weeks ago in Los Angeles, and saying about the two dads, “I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys, and they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.”
The men told me that Biden had bonded with the kids, bringing them stuffed dogs and showing them pictures of his family on his phone.
President Spock, on the other hand, spoke at the George Clooney fund-raiser and called gay marriage “a logical extension of what America is supposed to be.”
In the end, Obama had to rip off the Band-Aid and take a stand, because if his campaign depends on painting Romney as a bundle of ambiguous beliefs, the first black president can’t be ambiguous himself on a civil rights issue. Not to mention that big bucks from gay backers will be needed to replace the lost bucks from alienated Wall Street donors.
The gay community, forgiving all prevarication, was electrified. As the “Will & Grace” co-creator Max Mutchnick put it on the CBS morning show, there are now little boys who can dream of both being a president and marrying a president.
As Obama is reminded of what it feels like to generate excitement, what it feels like to lift the spirits of a demoralized country by using the bully pulpit, maybe he can start occasionally blurting out something he feels strongly about.
Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Poring through Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” I found myself over and over again turning pages and saying, “I had no idea.”
I had no idea that in the year 2000, as Sandel notes, “a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space,” or that in 2001, the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote a book commissioned by the jewelry company Bulgari and that, in exchange for payment, “the author agreed to mention Bulgari jewelry in the novel at least a dozen times.” I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.’ ”
And while I knew that retired baseball players sell their autographs for $15 a pop, I had no idea that Pete Rose, who was banished from baseball for life for betting, has a Web site that, Sandel writes, “sells memorabilia related to his banishment. For $299, plus shipping and handling, you can buy a baseball autographed by Rose and inscribed with an apology: ‘I’m sorry I bet on baseball.’ For $500, Rose will send you an autographed copy of the document banishing him from the game.”
I had no idea that in 2001 an elementary school in New Jersey became America’s first public school “to sell naming rights to a corporate sponsor,” Sandel writes. “In exchange for a $100,000 donation from a local supermarket, it renamed its gym ‘ShopRite of Brooklawn Center.’ … A high school in Newburyport, Mass., offered naming rights to the principal’s office for $10,000. … By 2011, seven states had approved advertising on the sides of school buses.”
Seen in isolation, these commercial encroachments seem innocuous enough. But Sandel sees them as signs of a bad trend: “Over the last three decades,” he states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.”
Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.
This reach of markets into every aspect of life was partly a result of the end of the cold war, he argues, when America’s victory was interpreted as a victory for unfettered markets, thus propelling the notion that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. It was also the result of Americans wanting more public services than they were willing to pay taxes for, thus inviting corporations to fill in the gap with school gyms brought to you by ShopRite.
Sandel is now a renowned professor at Harvard, but we first became friends when we grew up together in Minneapolis in the 1960s. Both our fathers took us to the 1965 World Series, when the Dodgers beat the Twins in seven games. In 1965, the best tickets in Metropolitan Stadium cost $3; bleachers were $1.50. Sandel’s third-deck seat to the World Series cost $8. Today, alas, not only are most stadiums named for companies, but the wealthy now sit in skyboxes — even at college games — that cost tens of thousands of dollars a season, and hoi polloi sit out in the rain.
Throughout our society, we are losing the places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life. Sandel calls this the “skyboxification of American life,” and it is troubling. Unless the rich and poor encounter one another in everyday life, it is hard to think of ourselves as engaged in a common project. At a time when to fix our society we need to do big, hard things together, the marketization of public life becomes one more thing pulling us apart. “The great missing debate in contemporary politics,” Sandel writes, “is about the role and reach of markets.” We should be asking where markets serve the public good, and where they don’t belong, he argues. And we should be asking how to rebuild class-mixing institutions.
“Democracy does not require perfect equality,” he concludes, “but it does require that citizens share in a common life. … For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”
Next up is Mr. Kristof:
This is a Mother’s Day tribute to a mighty woman and to the doctor who gave her back her life — and also a celebration of a grand new women’s hospital that you as readers helped to build.
The woman is Mahabouba Mohammed, an Ethiopian who was raped at about age 13. She gave birth alone: after many days of labor, the baby was stillborn and she suffered an obstetric fistula.
A fistula is just about the worst fate that can happen to a woman or girl. It’s a childbirth injury that causes her to leak urine or feces continuously through her vagina. In Mahabouba’s case, she also suffered nerve damage in both legs so that she couldn’t walk.
More than two million women and girls have fistulas worldwide. They are the lepers of the 21st century, among the most voiceless and shunned people on earth. Fistulas were once also common in America (a fistula hospital was once located in Manhattan where the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel is now), but today they normally afflict only people in poor countries of Africa and Asia.
Mahabouba smelled foul, and villagers thought she had been cursed by God. They put her in a hut at the edge of the village and took off the door — so the hyenas would get her that night.
When the hyenas came, Mahabouba used a stick to fend them off. The next morning she set off crawling to get to an American missionary who lived more than 30 miles away. The missionary took her to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, where she met Steven Arrowsmith, an American urologist from Grand Rapids, Mich.
Arrowsmith, now 54, has devoted his life to helping women and girls with fistulas, and he has almost certainly repaired more fistulas than any other American doctor. But Mahabouba’s case was unusually complicated — much of her tissue had rotted away — and she was in a deep depression.
“It was painful to be within three feet of her, because she was so miserable,” Arrowsmith recalled. She was also illiterate and did not understand the main Ethiopian language or the ways of cities.
He laughs now as he recalls the time his wife, Jan, a family physician, took Mahabouba to a prosthesis shop to get a leg brace so she could try walking again. Everybody else in the store had lost a leg or two from land mines, and Mahabouba grew panicky. Fearing that she was about to have her legs sawed off, she tried to flee.
In the end Arrowsmith performed a $450 surgery on Mahabouba to repair her fistula. While she recovered, she began to help out in the ward. Smart and capable, she was given more responsibilities, and by the time I met her in 2003, she was on the hospital’s nursing staff. She’s a wonderful example of how such women can be turned from squandered assets into productive resources.
Mahabouba has become very close to the Arrowsmiths, calling them Mommy and Daddy. When she won an apartment in a lottery in the Ethiopian capital, she was thrilled because, as she told the Arrowsmiths, “Now that I have a place, I can take care of you when you’re old.”
Then there was the Liberian woman who, after her fistula was repaired, named a grandchild “Doctor Steve.” In Niger, the women have affectionately named Dr. Arrowsmith “Chief of Urine” — and all this makes him think that he has the world’s best job.
“People in America can’t believe I left urology to do this, but this is about changing lives,” which is better than “listening to men tell me about the quality of their erections,” he said. “I’ve had my family held at gunpoint, I’ve had malaria, I’ve had a serious exposure to H.I.V., I’ve been separated from family, and I’ve spent about a million hours crammed into coach class on airlines, but it’s worth it. I’d much rather live a meaningful life than a comfortable one.”
Left untreated, women and girls with fistulas become pariahs. Their husbands divorce them, and they are moved to a hut at the edge of the village. They lie there in pools of their waste, feeling deeply ashamed, trying to avoid food and water because of the shame of incontinence, and eventually they die of an infection or simple starvation.
But there’s renewed hope for these women. The Fistula Foundation has been underwriting corrective surgery in many countries, and the United States Agency for International Development is helping as well. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, says she will introduce a bill on Tuesday that would create a program to eradicate fistulas worldwide.
For years, Dr. Arrowsmith has been dreaming — along with Dr. Lewis Wall, a fistula expert at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis — of establishing a fistula hospital in West Africa. After I wrote about their organization, the Worldwide Fistula Fund, a couple of years ago, Times readers responded with an outpouring of support — some $500,000.
This is what your contributions achieved: The hospital recently opened in Danja, Niger. More than 60 women with fistulas were waiting at the ribbon-cutting, and a surgeon from the nearby country of Burkina Faso is working through the backlog.
The hospital has also started an outreach program to provide prenatal care, family planning and other help for maternal and child health. The aim is to save lives as well as prevent fistulas.
NOW Dr. Arrowsmith and Dr. Wall are trying to raise $500,000 in annual operating costs so that the hospital can perform up to 1,000 fistula repairs a year.
“It’s a very small amount of money for the difference it can make in somebody’s life,” Dr. Wall said. “The problem is that an amount like that, less than the cost of an iPad in the States, is too much for the average African who suffers from the problem.”
This Mother’s Day, we’ll spend $18 billion on flowers, dinners and spa treatments — all of which is merited. But it is also an occasion to celebrate much more modest gifts that have created a hospital with transformational power.
You see the power of such a gift when you watch Mahabouba attend to frightened, ashamed teenage girls with fistulas. And Mahabouba will soon spread her wings further: the new fistula hospital plans to bring her to Niger so that she can help train the nursing staff, paying forward the gift that she received.
Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:
I’m pretty certain it was six years ago. I know I was in a restaurant. I know, too, that I was a little tipsy — that’s the only way the impulse could have come to me, the only way I would have acted on it.
I went through the names programmed into my cellphone, looking for moms. Tina. She was one, so she got a text message: Happy Mother’s Day. Barbara. She was one, so she got a message as well.
So did Adelle, Lisa, Sylvia. Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Mother’s Day. Saying it to all those other mothers, as if that would make up for not being able to say it to my own.
For anyone who has lost a parent long before he or she expected to, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are unsettling occasions, prompts to show appreciation that become prods to revisit grief.
They’re also proof that the world is full of accidental actuaries. I don’t know how else to explain it: the number of people who look at you and seem to calculate, correctly, that when you’re 33 years old, your mother should not yet be gone, and that there’s a good chance, according to median life expectancies, that she’s still around when you’re 37 and even when you’re 40, unless she had you late.
“Did you send flowers to Mom?” some acquaintance or stranger will ask — a meaningless conversation filler, a verbal tic — and you won’t give the right or full answer, because no offense was intended, and none was taken. You’ll smile, vaguely. Or nod, misleadingly. Or lie, politely, saying “yes,” then changing the topic.
Someone else will tell you to be sure you “don’t forget Mom today.”
To that, at least, your response will be honest:
“I never do.”
My mother did not have me late, not by today’s yardsticks. She was 29. And she did not leave me all that early, not by the standards of tragedy or even the bathetic TV melodramas that she’d half-watch on nights when the cancer or the chemo left her feeling weak, her eyelids fluttering closed as some comforting indignity was visited upon Meredith Baxter or Veronica Hamel or Jaclyn Smith.
She was 61. That’s a lot of good years. But a lot fewer than some people get.
She died on Dec. 2, 1996, having held on just long enough for one last boisterous family Thanksgiving and, two days before, her second grandchild’s birth. She missed out on the births of seven more, who know her only from the stories my two brothers and my sister and I tell them and only because we make sure of it.
Soon after she was gone, I became acquainted with one of the oddities of not having two living parents at an age when you’re statistically likely to. People assume.
“Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” snapped a bouncer with whom I had an ineloquent dispute.
I did, back when I could, just often enough that it wasn’t among my many regrets.
“Your mother must be proud of you,” said a letter from a reader who liked something I’d written.
If I permitted myself a certain religious faith or degree of mysticism, I could persuade myself that she indeed was.
Mother’s Day, I quickly learned, was the feast of the assumptions. I say that without any rancor, but with some bafflement: in a world of so many broken and untraditional families and of so much heartache, why should there be a bouquet-primed mother in the picture? There’s no point to guessing as much.
IF I never knew exactly what to say to the people who guessed, I was even less sure how to mark the day, when I’d always had a meal with Mom if logistically possible, talked with her if not. Usually I just moped. And it’s wrong, the notion that feeling sorry for yourself is counterproductive. Sometimes it’s just the ticket.
But on this Mother’s Day, I’ll trade moping for a testimonial: I was — I am — one of the four luckiest children I know, my siblings being the other three. We had a mother who held us in esteem and held us to account; told us we were magnificent and told us we were miserable; exhorted us to please her but found ways to forgive us when, all too frequently, we didn’t; and made certain that we knew she was there for us until, unimaginably, she wasn’t.
I’m 47 now, and I’ve noticed that in the last few years, the actuaries out there are less prone to reminding me of her absence by wondering idly and aloud about the gift that I did or didn’t remember to purchase, the call that I will or won’t remember to make. At this age and this point, there’s a much diminished probability that I’d have both parents. (I’m grateful for one.) That certainly makes Mother’s Day easier to navigate.
But not easy. I’m still hoping and trying for that. If you’re a mom and you get a text message from me, you’ll know that the effort endures. And that this testimonial didn’t quite do the trick. And that I’ve probably opened a bottle of wine.
My own mother always appreciated a glass or two.