In “Washington Versus America” The Pasty Little Putz says the capital has gotten rich, but it has come at rest of the country’s expense. The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Hard Lines, Red Lines and Green Lines,” says Aung San Suu Kyi hit the nail on the head last week when she said it is the fear of losing power that corrupts. It’s everywhere these days. MoDo says “The Son Also Sets,” and has a question: For whom the bell tolls? Mitt, if his Hemingway wannabe strategist doesn’t stop the moveable feast of mistakes. In “Exploiting the Prophet” Mr. Kristof says Christians didn’t riot after seeing a photograph of Jesus steeped in urine, so why are Muslims up in arms about insults to the Prophet Muhammad? Mr. Bruni, in “A New Inning, Late in the Game,” says Kevin McClatchy, who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, comes out and speaks out about the tightly shut closet door in the four major sports leagues. Here’s the Putz:
When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2002, you could sense that the nation’s capital had turned a corner after decades of decline. But the Washington of 10 years ago still looked basically like the city that had been scarred by riots in the 1960s and then emptied by white flight, with a prosperous northwest divided from a blighted south and east, and frontiers of gentrification that weren’t that many blocks from the Capitol itself.
No doubt there were boomtowns in the 19th-century Wild West that changed faster than D.C. did over the ensuing decade. But the changes to Washington have been staggering to watch. High-rises have leaped up, office buildings have risen, neighborhoods have been transformed. Streets once deserted after dusk are now crowded with restaurants and bars. A luxurious waterfront area is taking shape around the stadium that the playoff-bound Nationals call home. Million-dollar listings abound in neighborhoods that 10 years ago were transitional at best.
And that’s just inside the District proper. Cross the bridges into Virginia or shoot north into Maryland, and you’ll find concentrations of wealth greater than in the richest counties around New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Last week, new census data revealed that 7 of the 10 richest American counties in 2011 were in the Washington, D.C., region. Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington Counties, all in Northern Virginia, have higher median incomes than every other county in the United States.
Whence comes this wealth? Mostly from Washington’s one major industry: the federal government. Not from direct federal employment, which has risen only modestly of late, but from the growing armies of lobbyists and lawyers, contractors and consultants, who make their living advising and influencing and facilitating the public sector’s work.
This growth is a bipartisan affair. It’s been driven by the contracting-out of government services under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (as Andrew Ferguson put it in a wonderful Time magazine essay on the new Washington, “government hasn’t shrunk; it’s just changed clothes”); by the Bush-era security buildup, whose ripples are spreading to this day (witness the new Department of Homeland Security facility intended for still-impoverished Anacostia); and by the bright young college graduates who flooded the city at the dawn of Barack Obama’s presidency and the lobbyists who followed to claim a piece of his attempt at a new New Deal.
If you don’t mind congested roads and insanely competitive child rearing, all this growth is good news for those of us inside the Beltway bubble. But is it good for America? After all, like the ruthless Capital in “The Hunger Games,” the wealth of Washington is ultimately extracted from taxpayers more than it is earned. And over the last five years especially, D.C.’s gains have coincided with the country’s losses.
There aren’t tributes from Michigan and New Mexico fighting to the death in Dupont Circle just yet. But it doesn’t seem like a sign of national health that America’s political capital is suddenly richer than our capitals of manufacturing and technology and finance, or that our leaders are more insulated than ever from the trends buffeting the people they’re supposed to serve.
For Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, what’s happened in Washington these last 10 years should be a natural part of the case against Obamanomics. Our gilded District is a case study in how federal spending often finds its way to the well connected rather than the people it’s supposed to help, how every new program spawns an array of influence peddlers, and how easily corporations and government become corrupt allies rather than opponents.
The state of life inside the Beltway also points to the broader story of our spending problem, which has less to do with how much we spend on the poor than how much we lavish on subsidies for highly inefficient economic sectors, from health care to higher education, and on entitlements for people who aren’t supposed to need a safety net — affluent retirees, well-heeled homeowners, agribusiness owners, and so on.
There’s a case that this president’s policies have made these problems worse, sluicing more borrowed dollars into programs that need structural reform, and privileging favored industries and constituencies over the common good.
But this story is one that Romney and his party seem incapable of telling. Instead, many conservatives prefer to refight the welfare battles of the 1990s, and insist that our spending problem is all about an excess of “dependency” among the non-income-tax-paying 47 percent.
In reality, our government isn’t running trillion-dollar deficits because we’re letting the working class get away with not paying its fair share. We’re running those deficits because too many powerful interest groups have a stake in making sure the party doesn’t stop.
When you look around the richest precincts of today’s Washington, you don’t see a city running on paternalism or dependency. You see a city running on exploitation.
He has an absolute gift for starting out on a reasonable premise and turning it upside down and choking the life out of it. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
On Wednesday, Myanmar’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, came here and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the Capitol. I was not there, but I read the transcript and was deeply impressed by the emotional tribute delivered by Senator John McCain, who thanked “ ‘The Lady,’ for teaching me at my age a thing or two about courage.” In closing, McCain quoted Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous dictum that “it is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
I love that line: it’s not power but the fear of losing power that corrupts. It is deeply true and relevant today, when so few leaders now dare to throw caution and polls to the wind and tell people the truth about anything hard or controversial. Aung San Suu Kyi gave up 20 years of her life for her country. Many leaders today won’t even give up a news cycle.
You see it everywhere: Muslims go on a rampage against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo because of a despicable and juvenile anti-Muslim video on YouTube — and the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, at first refuses to condemn them or even properly protect America’s diplomatic mission. Only a blistering phone call from President Obama, who no doubt hinted that Egypt wouldn’t get another penny of foreign aid if Morsi didn’t act, prompted the Egyptian leader to condemn the attack. Muslim Brotherhood officials “explained” that Morsi was torn between the demands of diplomacy and not wanting to alienate his base or be outflanked by even more hard-line Salafist Muslims. Sorry, to lead is to choose. Not a good sign.
But you know what they say about people in glass houses. … In July, Representative Michele Bachmann started a bogus campaign against Muslims in the U.S. government, including a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bachmann wrote to the leaders of America’s national security agencies questioning whether the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the federal government. Both Senator McCain and the House speaker, John Boehner, chastised Bachmann for her politically inspired witch hunt — but not Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. The ambitious Cantor saw a chance to get a little political edge with the Republican base, against his rival Boehner, and told Charlie Rose of CBS News that we should understand Bachmann: “I think that her concern was about the security of the country.” Yes, right, Mr. Cantor, and I suppose that was all Senator Joe McCarthy was concerned about, too.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel has been loudly demanding that America publicly draw a “red line” in respect to Iran’s nuclear program that would delineate exactly when the U.S. would launch a strike against Tehran. Bibi is Winston Churchill when it comes to demanding that the U.S. draw red lines, but he is a local party boss when America asks him to draw a “green line” delineating where Jewish settlements in the West Bank will stop and a Palestinian state might start. Oh, no! Can’t do that, Bibi tells American officials. “I would lose my coalition.” So America is supposed to risk a war with Iran, but Bibi won’t risk anything to advance a deal with the Palestinians that might create a little more global legitimacy and sympathy for Israel, and America, in the event of a war with Iran. Thanks a lot.
Obama made every mistake in the book in trying to negotiate a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending last year with Mr. Boehner. But I’ve always had one question: Boehner said that he walked away after Obama, at the 11th hour, asked for $400 billion more in taxes to bring along more Democrats. Why did Boehner just walk away and not call Obama back and say, “Here is my deal — no $400 billion more — take the original bargain or leave it.” He didn’t do that because he was afraid Obama might take it — and Boehner knew he could not deliver his Tea Party base or would lose his speakership trying. So he didn’t try.
As for Obama, he’s been at his best when he has dared to lead without fearing the politics: taking out Osama bin Laden, securing health care without a public option, racing to the top in education and saving the banks rather than throwing all the bankers in jail, which they deserved. And he has been at his worst when he’s put politics first: spurning Simpson-Bowles, doubling down on Afghanistan for fear of being called a wimp and dropping “climate change” from his speeches.
My gut tells me that this deficit of global leadership can’t last. For one thing, the world is getting so interdependent that weak leadership in one country now deeply impacts so many others. Think euro crisis, Israel-Iran or Chinese pollution. And, for another, I don’t believe the two most powerful disciplining forces on the planet — the market and Mother Nature — will sit idle for another decade and let us keep building these huge financial deficits and carbon surpluses without one day delivering some punishing blows that will require herculean leadership to deal with.
So let’s honor The Lady from Myanmar, not just with a medal, but in a way that really matters — with emulation.
Next up is MoDo:
Sometimes in the course of human events, we must ask, as Hemingway did in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” what is that leopard doing at thisaltitude?
As a candidate, Mitt Romney is awkward, off-putting and hollow, so bad that if he were a Bain company, he would shut himself down.
The billion-dollar Republican campaign should be sweeping the floor with the deflated President Obama after four years of 8 percent-plus unemployment. Yet it is curdling. The little donations have dried up; how long before the big money follows?
We must also ask the Hemingway question about Stuart Stevens, the Hemingway manqué running Mitt’s campaign. “The Square and the Flair,” The New Republic dubbed the synthetic candidate and his sentient adviser, who started as Eudora Welty’s paperboy and lived by the Oscar Wilde maxim: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
The 58-year-old Mississippi native has written a sexy political novel, scripts for “Northern Exposure” and Evelyn Waugh-style travel odysseys. He was a consultant for George Clooney on “The Ides of March” and has even written an HBO docudrama about W.’s warrantless domestic spying program, centering on The Times’s decision to publish the article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that exposed it.
It’s hard to believe that the self-styled Renaissance Man who wrote this in “Feeding Frenzy” — “But next there was the Fricassee De Homard Breton Au Jus De Viande aux chicons confits au gingembre et citron vert. It was fabulous, contradictory but not conflicting, every taste a surprise” — works for the Tin Man, whose favorite meal is chocolate milk and peanut butter.
Stevens skied 100 miles to the North Pole and biked 450 miles through the Pyrenees. He wrote a piece for Outside magazine about taking steroids for a French bike race. After Oxford and U.C.L.A. film school, he fell into politics as an escapade, and he likes to maintain that larky affect.
In 2000, when he worked for W., as New Hampshire Republicans headed to the polls on Primary Day to deliver a near-fatal 19-point drubbing of his candidate, Stevens headed out from his hotel carrying skis. Asked by a reporter about his insouciance, he replied that there was nothing he could do at that point.
But his “devil-may-care routine,” as The New Republic calls it, may be wearing thin. This isn’t merely a plotline for some future script.
This is the real deal.
You get the sense that the strategist considers himself cooler than the candidate, that he’s too hip to walk through fire for Mitt and that he lacks confidence that Romney could be a better campaigner. He treats Mitt like a cardboard cutout, never asking him to risk anything or pushing him to be big, bold and inspirational.
Ann Romney is clearly feeling the strain. On Radio Iowa, she ordered whining Republicans: “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring.” She said Americans should realize “how lucky” they were to have Mitt. She sounded entitled, even as her husband dismissed half the country as entitlement junkies.
An Obama adviser calls the Romney campaign “a study in mismanagement,” while the conservative columnist Peggy Noonan deems it “a rolling calamity.” Yet after Tampa, Romney gave promised bonuses totaling $192,440 to at least nine senior campaign staff members working under Stevens.
Even if voters are inclined to fire the incumbent, they need reassurance about what the replacement would do. Romney has failed to give details where needed, and when he does give details, they contradict his own past stands.
He finally released a tax return from 2011, showing he paid a higher tax rate than required. The press immediately unearthed a Romney quote from July: “If I had paid more than are legally due, I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president.” Case closed.
Aside from Mitt’s penchant for being a piñata, the campaign is a moveable feast of missteps: spending money at the wrong time; putting on biographical ads too late; letting the Obama camp define Romney before he defined himself; staging a disastrous foreign trip; fumbling the convention; and somehow neglecting to tell the candidate that there is no longer any such thing as off the record, if there ever was.
Some Republican strategists, watching it slip away, privately complain that Stevens is a poseur and political atheist who is so busy being a dilettante that he forgets the need to actually have faith.
Was the Hollywood dabbler so swept up in the idea of Clint Eastwood’s benediction that he didn’t vet the 82-year-old actor’s script, or wonder about that empty chair?
He doesn’t realize that having Romney stand for nothing and everything is not as good as having Romney say: Follow me, we’re going to go over here.
“If you don’t believe your guy can lead you to a better place,” said one G.O.P. strategist, “it’s hard to get anybody else to believe it.”
Romney said he liked to fire people. But his downfall may be that he does not.
Now it’s Mr. Kristof’s turn at bat:
“Piss Christ,” a famous photograph partly financed by taxpayers, depicted a crucifix immersed in what the artist said was his own urine. But conservative Christians did not riot on the Washington Mall.
“The Book of Mormon,” a huge hit on Broadway, mocks the church’s beliefs as hocus-pocus. But Mormons haven’t burned down any theaters.
So why do parts of the Islamic world erupt in violence over insults to the Prophet Muhammad?
Let me try to address that indelicate question, and a related one: Should we curb the freedom to insult religions that are twitchy?
First, a few caveats. For starters, television images can magnify (and empower) crazies. In Libya, the few jihadis who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens were vastly outnumbered by the throngs of Libyan mourners who apologized afterward.
Remember also that it’s not just Muslims who periodically go berserk, but everybody — particularly in societies with large numbers of poorly educated young men. Upheavals are often more about demography than about religion: the best predictor of civil conflict is the share of a population that is aged 15 to 24. In the 19th century, when the United States brimmed with poorly educated young men, Protestants rioted against Catholics.
For much of the postwar period, it was the secular nationalists in the Middle East who were seen as the extremists, while Islam was seen as a calming influence. That’s why Israel helped nurture Hamas in Gaza.
That said, for a self-described “religion of peace,” Islam does claim a lot of lives.
In conservative Muslim countries, sensitivities sometimes seem ludicrous. I once covered a Pakistani college teacher who was imprisoned and threatened with execution for speculating that the Prophet Muhammad’s parents weren’t Muslims. (They couldn’t have been, since Islam began with him.)
I think a few things are going on. The first is that many Muslim countries lack a tradition of free speech, and see ridicule of the prophet as part of a larger narrative of the West’s invading or humiliating the Islamic world. People in these countries sometimes also have an addled view of how the United States handles blasphemy.
A Pakistani imam, Abdul Wahid Qasmi, once told me that President Bill Clinton burned to death scores of Americans for criticizing Jesus. If America can execute blasphemers, he said, why can’t Pakistan?
I challenged him, and he plucked an Urdu-language book off his shelf, thumbed through it, and began reading triumphantly about the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s cult in Waco, Tex.
More broadly, this is less about offensive videos than about a political war unfolding in the Muslim world. Extremist Muslims like Salafis see themselves as unfairly marginalized, and they hope to exploit this issue to embarrass their governments and win public support. This is a political struggle, not just a religious battle — and we’re pawns.
But it would be a mistake to back off and censor our kooks. The freedom to be an imbecile is one of our core values.
In any case, there will always be other insults. As some leading Muslims have noted, Islam has to learn to shrug them off.
“Why should we feel danger from anything?” Nasr Hamid Abu Zyad, one of the Islamic world’s greatest theologians, said before his death in 2010. “Thousands of books are written against Muhammad. Thousands of books are written against Jesus. O.K., all these thousands of books did not destroy the faith.”
A group called Muslims for Progressive Values noted a story in Islamic tradition in which Muhammad was tormented by a woman who put thorns in his path and went so far as to hurl manure at his head as he prayed. Yet Muhammad responded patiently and tolerantly. When she fell sick, he visited her home to wish her well.
For his time, Muhammad was socially progressive, and that’s a thread that reformers want to recapture. Mahmoud Salem, the Egyptian blogger better known as Sandmonkey, wrote that violent protests were “more damaging to Islam’s reputation than a thousand so-called ‘Islam-attacking films.’ ”
He suggested that Egyptians forthrightly condemn Islamic fundamentalists as “a bunch of shrill, patriarchal, misogynistic, violent extremists who are using Islam as a cover for their behavior.”
Are extremists hijacking the Arab Spring? They’re trying to, but this is just the opening chapter in a long drama. Some Eastern European countries, like Romania and Hungary, are still wobbly more than two decades after their democratic revolutions. Maybe the closest parallel to the Arab Spring is the 1998 revolution in Indonesia, where it took years for Islamic extremism to subside.
My bet is that we’ll see more turbulence in the Arab world, but that countries like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya won’t fall over a cliff. A revolution isn’t an event, but a process.
No, Nick, conservative Christians didn’t riot in the streets over “Piss Christ,” they just worked like beavers to defund and destroy the NEA. Last but not least, Mr. Bruni who is in Ligonier, Pennsylvania:
The way Kevin McClatchy figured it, he had to choose. He could indulge his dream of presiding over a big-time professional sports team, or he could be open about his sexuality. The two paths didn’t dovetail.
He went with sports, and in February 1996, at the age of 33, became the youngest owner in major league baseball when he led a group of investors who bought the Pittsburgh Pirates. For the next 11 years, he was the team’s managing general partner and chief executive officer, not to mention its public face. And for all of that time, he took pains not to let his players, the owners of other teams or anyone beyond a tiny circle of family and close friends learn that he was gay.
He stepped away from the Pirates in 2007, but it took five years for him to reach the point where he felt even remotely comfortable sitting down with a journalist, as he did with me recently at his home here, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, to talk about his private life. Secrecy is a hard habit to break. And the world of professional sports, to which he is still connected, isn’t exactly crowded with proud, out gay men and women.
He once did some arithmetic. Over the last four decades, he said: “Tens of thousands of people have played either professional minor league baseball or major league baseball. Not one has come out and said that they’re gay while they’re playing.” Nor has any active player in the principal leagues of football, basketball or hockey, America’s three other major professional sports. That silence is a sobering, crucial reminder that for all the recent progress toward same-sex marriage and all the gay and lesbian characters popping up on television, there remains, in some quarters, a powerful stigma attached to homosexuality.
Coaches, managers and corporate chieftains in those four big sports are almost as unlikely to come out as players are. Rick Welts rated the front page of The Times last year when, as the president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, he revealed that he’s gay.
McClatchy, whose interview with The Times was his first public acknowledgment of his sexual orientation, could do considerable good. He remains well known in baseball — he’s been informally advising the mayor of Sacramento on the city’s interest in having a major league team — and is the chairman of the board of the McClatchy Company, which publishes more than two dozen newspapers, including The Sacramento Bee and The Miami Herald.
And pro sports offers a frontier on which there’s considerable good to be done. One reason there has been so much attention lately to statements about homosexuality, supportive and derogatory, from prominent male athletes is that they inhabit a stubborn bastion of reductively defined masculinity, and many impressionable kids take their cues from it. If its heroes make clear that being gay is O.K., the impact could be profound: fewer adolescents and teenagers bullied, fewer young and not-so-young adults leading stressful, painful double lives.
McClatchy, 49, said that his took a toll. “I think I was more paranoid, for sure, about people,” he said. “And suspicious, definitely. And angry.” His serious romantic relationships with men were few and strained until he left sports, and his partner of the last four years, Jack Basilone, who shares his home here, told me that McClatchy remains guarded, wary.
“He’s like when you go to Pottery Barn and get the floor model — they have some nicks and scrapes,” joked Basilone, 31. For their contentment they have Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, to thank. They were fixed up by someone who worked for Santorum and whom McClatchy first got to know through his professional interactions, when he owned the Pirates, with Santorum’s Senate office.
A small number of retired athletes from the four major pro leagues have come out, as have prominent players in women’s professional sports. (On my blog there’s a timeline of important milestones, along with excerpts from my interview with McClatchy and a discussion of why athletes stay in the closet.)
And more and more straight players in major sports have said that they wouldn’t have any problem with an openly gay teammate.
I asked one of them, the Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, about the notion that such a teammate would make the locker room a less comfortable place.
“That assumes that a gay person in the locker room is going to find you attractive, which I think is pretty narcissistic,” Kluwe said in a phone interview. “Isn’t that the shallowest kind of thinking: that all of a sudden if a gay guy comes out, he’s going be staring at you?”
Kluwe and the Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo made news earlier this month with their advocacy for same-sex marriage, but the headlines more recently were about the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, who wore eyeblack tape on which an anti-gay slur was written.
McClatchy said that he frequently heard homophobic language during his days in baseball. It convinced him that keeping his sexual orientation hidden was best.
HE first began to accept that he was gay in his mid-20s. But he didn’t tell anyone in his immediate family until just before his purchase of the Pirates, and did so then, he said, only because someone displeased with the deal threatened to go public with a rumor of McClatchy’s sexual orientation unless he backed out. He correctly gambled that the threat was a bluff, but alerted his sister in case it wasn’t.
He has never figured out where the rumor came from. It made him triply cautious. “In the back of my mind,” he said, “was: ‘What are you doing? You’re going into the most public arena possible with a secret.’ I made a choice to follow what my passion was.”
That passion is evident in his home, where one room is devoted entirely to baseball memorabilia and the main area for watching television has three large screens, lined up in a row, so that he can follow multiple games at once.
That passion is also evident in his voice when he talks about baseball. He noted, proudly, that the sport’s caretakers ended racial segregation before some other segments of society did.
But, he added, “I don’t think they equate breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson to, ‘Hey, by the way, we’ve never had one player announce they’re gay while playing baseball.’ ”
“You’re not going to solve any problem until you start a dialogue,” he said. “And there’s no dialogue right now.” He hopes that his candor helps foster one, he said, though he doesn’t have any planned agenda of extensive public speaking. He can’t turn himself into an extrovert overnight.
In fact six months went by between our initial discussion about an interview and the publication of this column. “This has been challenging to me,” he said. “I probably didn’t sleep as well as I could have last night.”
There could be some wounding blowback.
“I think this is a big test,” said Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder of Outsports.com, the leading site for news about gay athletes. Zeigler noted that McClatchy never had a winning season with the Pirates, a beleaguered team both before — and since — his ownership of it.
“So I’m curious to see how the public, particularly in Pittsburgh, responds,” Zeigler said, wondering aloud if they’ll blame McClatchy’s private burdens for his team’s performance.
McClatchy said, “I’m sure people will criticize me because I came out later, and I should have come out while I was in baseball and in the thick of it.”
But, he added, “I could find excuses for why not to do this article until I’m blue in the face.”
“I’ve got a birthday coming up where I’m turning old,” he said, referring to his 50th, in January. “I’ve spent 30 years — or whatever the number is specifically — not talking about my personal life, lying about my personal life.”
He shook his head. “There’s no way I want to go into the rest of my existence and ever have to hide my personal life again,” he said.