The Pasty Little Putz has decided to ruminate on “The Greatness of Ike.” He gurgles that the new Frank Gehry design for a memorial makes it clear that he, and America, sell this president short. Of course, if Ike were alive today he’d be ridden out of the party on a rail. Putzy also neglects to mention Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex… MoDo has a question in “Ghastly Outdated Party:” Do we need another “Lysistrata” until Republicans stop campaigning against sex? The Moustache of Wisdom, in “A Good Question,” says something in the inbox recently reopened the debate over who is responsible for higher oil prices. Funny, he doesn’t mention speculators at all. Color me completely unsurprised. Mr. Kristof is still in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. In “Battling Sudan’s Bombs With Videos” he says an American in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan is risking everything to document violence there. He’s a reminder that there are steps the West could take to help. Mr. Bruni, in “The Oscars as Looking Glass,” says it’s too bad Mitt Romney doesn’t have the Weinstein Company as his super PAC. He might be closer to the nomination. Here’s The Putz:
This year, two decisions will be made with long-term implications for how we think about the presidency. In November, voters will decide whether to give Barack Obama a second term in office. And sometime before then, the National Capital Planning Commission will decide whether to go forward with Frank Gehry’s plan for a Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.
The Gehry design is, well, Gehry-esque: it reimagines the traditional monumental form, using huge metal screens to depict the landscape of Eisenhower’s Kansan childhood while devoting far less space to his accomplishments in World War II and the White House. (The only significant statue will portray Eisenhower as a barefoot boy, rather than a war leader or president.)
The design has been widely criticized — by the Eisenhower family, by architectural traditionalists and by right-of-center columnists like George Will and David Frum. Some of the critiques are purely aesthetic, but the most important ones are substantive: as planned, the critics argue, the memorial sells the supreme allied commander’s greatness short.
What’s interesting, though, is that by emphasizing Eisenhower’s ordinariness rather than his heroism, Gehry is arguably being conventional rather than radical. As conceived, his memorial would ratify Eisenhower’s current place in our national memory, not revise it.
Gehry’s vision, as The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott writes, implies that while “Eisenhower was a great man … there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did.” Far from being a bold reimagining, this is a near-perfect summary of the way many Americans already regard their 34th president.
It’s not that Americans don’t like Eisenhower or think fondly of his service to their country. (Jean Edward Smith’s new “Eisenhower in War and Peace” is the latest in a line of briskly selling Ike biographies.) But he is not nearly as beloved as many of his midcentury contemporaries. He’s overshadowed as a war leader both by F.D.R. and by his many colorful subordinates, and his two-term presidency has attracted little of the posthumous enthusiasm that made his “give ’em hell” predecessor a folk hero and his martyred successor an icon.
In a 2011 Gallup poll on the greatest president, Eisenhower came in a lame 12th, in a tie with Jimmy Carter. He performs solidly in scholarly surveys, but he’s frequently ranked behind his prominent 20th-century rivals.
In part, this underestimation is a result of the political persona Eisenhower cultivated — an amiable, grandfatherly facade that concealed a ruthless master politician. In part, it reflects the fact that his presidency has always lacked an ideological cheering section. Liberals (who preferred Adlai Stevenson) generally remember the Eisenhower administration as a parenthesis between heroic Democratic epochs, while conservatives (who favored Robert Taft) recall a holding pattern before their Goldwater-to-Reagan ascent.
But ultimately Eisenhower is underrated because his White House leadership didn’t fit the template of “greatness” that too many Americans pine for from their presidents. He was not a man for grand projects, bold crusades or world-historical gambles. There was no “Ike revolution” in American politics, no Eisen-mania among activists and intellectuals, no Eisenhower realignment.
Instead, his greatness was manifested in the crises he defused and the mistakes he did not make. He did not create unaffordable entitlement programs, embrace implausible economic theories, or hand on unsustainable deficits to his successors. He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that his feckless successor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw American into an Iraq-style intervention. He did not risk his presidency with third-rate burglaries or sexual adventurism. He was decisive when necessary, but his successes — prosperity, peace, steady progress on civil rights — were just as often the fruit of strategic caution and masterly inaction.
Perhaps “other men” could have achieved this combination of steadiness, competence and successful crisis management, as the Eisenhower memorial’s impersonal design seems to suggest. But few of them have occupied the Oval Office these last 50 years. Instead, from the 1960s down through the eras of George W. Bush and Barack Obama — from “pay any price, bear any burden” to “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” — the defining vices of the modern presidency have been hubris, recklessness and overreach.
This is why the memorial controversy really matters. Eisenhower deserves a monument that puts him where he belongs — in the very first rank of American leaders — because the nation needs to be reminded of where true presidential greatness lies. Plenty of politicians combine inspiring rhetoric with grand ambitions. Far fewer have the gifts required to steer the ship of state away from every rock and reef, and bring it, eight long years later, undamaged into port.
Don’t bother clicking on that link about JFK — he’s just linking to himself. What an asshole. Here’s MoDo:
It’s finally sinking in.
Republicans are getting queasy at the gruesome sight of their party eating itself alive, savaging the brand in ways that will long resonate.
“Republicans being against sex is not good,” the G.O.P. strategist Alex Castellanos told me mournfully. “Sex is popular.”
He said his party is “coming to grips with a weaker field than we’d all want” and going through the five stages of grief. “We’re at No. 4,” he said. (Depression.) “We’ve still got one to go.” (Acceptance.)
The contenders in the Hester Prynne primaries are tripping over one another trying to be the most radical, unreasonable and insane candidate they can be. They pounce on any traces of sanity in the other candidates — be it humanity toward women, compassion toward immigrants or the willingness to make the rich pay a nickel more in taxes — and try to destroy them with it.
President Obama has deranged conservatives just as W. deranged liberals. The right’s image of Obama, though, is more a figment of its imagination than the left’s image of W. was.
Newt Gingrich, a war wimp in Vietnam who supported W.’s trumped-up invasion of Iraq, had the gall to tell a crowd at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., that defeating Obama — “the most dangerous president in modern American history” — was “a duty of national security” because “he is incapable of defending the United States” and because he “wants to unilaterally weaken the United States.” Who killed Osama again?
How can the warm, nurturing Catholic Church of my youth now be represented in the public arena by uncharitable nasties like Gingrich and Rick Santorum?
“It makes the party look like it isn’t a modern party,” Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Erin Burnett, fretting about the candidates’ Cotton Mather attitude about women and gays. “It doesn’t understand the modern world that we live in.”
After a speech in Dallas on Thursday, Jeb Bush also recoiled: “I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective.”
Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, recently called Santorum “rigid and homophobic.” Arlen Specter, who quit the Republicans to become a Democrat three years ago before Pennsylvania voters sent him home from the Senate, told MSNBC: “Where you have Senator Santorum’s views, so far to the right, with his attitude on women in the workplace and gays and the bestiality comments and birth control, I do not think it is realistic for Rick Santorum to represent America.” That from the man who accused Anita Hill of perjury.
Republicans have a growing panic at the thought of going down the drain with a loser, missing their chance at capturing the Senate and giving back all those House seats won in 2010. More and more, they openly yearn for a fresh candidate, including Jeb Bush, who does, after all, have experience at shoplifting presidential victories at the last minute.
Their jitters increased exponentially as they watched Mitt belly-flop in his hometown on Friday, giving a dreadful rehash of his economic ideas in a virtually empty Ford Field in Detroit, babbling again about the “right height” of Michigan trees and blurting out that Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
Romney’s Richie Rich slips underscore what Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist, told the Ripon Forum: “If we are only the party of Wall Street and country clubbers, we will quickly become irrelevant.”
Santorum, whose name aptly comes from the same Latin root as sanctimonious, went on Glenn Beck’s Web-based show with his family and offered this lunacy: “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college,” because colleges are “indoctrination mills” that “harm” the country. He evidently wants home university schooling, which will cut down on keggers.
His wife, Karen, suggested that her husband’s success is “God’s will” and that he wants “to make the culture a better culture, more pleasing to God.”
The barking-mad Republicans of Virginia are helping to make the party look foolish and creepy. A video went viral on Friday in which Delegate Dave Albo comically regaled his fellow lawmakers on the floor of the Statehouse with his own Old Dominion version of “Lysistrata”: he suggested that he was denied sex with his wife because of a Republican-sponsored bill that would have made ultrasounds, often with a vaginal probe, mandatory for women seeking abortions.
With music, red wine and a big-screen TV, he made a move on his wife, Rita, while she was watching a news report about the bill. “And she looks at me and goes, ‘I’ve got to go to bed,’ ” Albo said as his colleagues guffawed.
The Republicans, with their crazed Reagan fixation, are a last-gasp party, living posthumously, fighting battles on sex, race, immigration and public education long ago won by the other side.
They’re trying to roll back the clock, but time is passing them by.
Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
An e-mail came in the other day with a subject line that I couldn’t ignore. It was from the oil economist Phil Verleger, and it read: “Should the United States join OPEC?” That I had to open.
Verleger’s basic message was that the knee-jerk debate we’re again having over who is responsible for higher oil prices fundamentally misses huge changes that have taken place in America’s energy output, making us again a major oil and gas producer — and potential exporter — with an interest in reasonably high but stable oil prices.
From one direction, he says, we’re seeing the impact of the ethanol mandate put in place by President George W. Bush, which established fixed quantities of biofuels to be used in gasoline. When this is combined with improved vehicle fuel economy — in July, the auto industry agreed to achieve fleet averages of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 — it will inevitably drive down demand for gasoline and create more surplus crude to export. Add to that, says Verleger, “the increase in oil production from offshore fields and unconventional sources in America,” and that exportable U.S. surplus could grow even bigger.
Then, add the recent discoveries of natural gas deposits all over America, which will allow us to substitute gas for coal at power plants and become a natural gas exporter as well. Put it all together, says Verleger, and you can see why America “will want to consider joining with other energy-exporting countries, like those in OPEC, to sustain high oil prices. Such an effort would support domestic oil and gas production and give the U.S. a real competitive advantage over countries forced to pay high prices for imported energy — nations such as China, European Union members, and Japan.”
Indeed, Bloomberg News reported last week that “the U.S. is the closest it has been in almost 20 years to achieving energy self-sufficiency. … Domestic oil output is the highest in eight years. The U.S. is producing so much natural gas that, where the government warned four years ago of a critical need to boost imports, it now may approve an export terminal.” As a result, “the U.S. has reversed a two-decade-long decline in energy independence, increasing the proportion of demand met from domestic sources over the last six years to an estimated 81 percent through the first 10 months of 2011.” This transformation could make the U.S. the world’s top energy producer by 2020, raise more tax revenue, free us from worrying about the Middle East, and, if we’re smart, build a bridge to a much cleaner energy future.
All of this is good news, but it will come true at scale only if these oil and gas resources can be extracted in an environmentally sustainable manner. This can be done right, but we need a deal between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry to lock it in — now.
Says Hal Harvey, an independent energy expert: “The oil and gas companies need to decide: Do they want to fight a bloody and painful war of attrition with local communities or take the lead in setting high environmental standards — particularly for “fracking,” the process used to extract all these new natural gas deposits — “and then live up to them.”
Higher environmental standards may cost more, but only incrementally, if at all, and they’ll make the industry and the environment safer.
In the case of natural gas, we need the highest standards for cleanup of land that is despoiled by gas extraction and to prevent leakage of gas either into aquifers or the atmosphere. Yes, “generating a kilowatt-hour’s worth of electricity with a natural gas turbine emits only about half as much CO2 as from a coal plant,” says Harvey, and that’s great. “But one molecule of leaked gas contributes as much to global warming as 25 molecules of burned gas. That means that if the system for the exploration, extraction, compression, piping and burning of natural gas leaks by even 2.5 percent, it is as bad as coal.”
Hence, Harvey’s five rules for natural gas are: Don’t allow leaky systems; use gas to phase out coal; have sound well drilling and casing standards; don’t pollute the landscape with brackish or toxic water brought up by fracking; and drill only where it is sensible.
I’d add a sixth rule for crude oil. No one likes higher oil prices. But — perversely — the high price benefits America as we rapidly become a bigger oil producer and it ensures that investments will continue to flow into energy efficient cars and trucks. If we were smart, we would establish today a floor price for any barrel of crude oil or gallon of gasoline sold or imported into America — and tax anything below it. A stable, sufficiently high floor price serves the environment, our technology investments and our energy productivity. As our producers succeed, we would become increasingly energy self-sufficient, keep a lot more dollars at home for our Treasury, stimulate innovation on renewables and drive down the global oil price that is the sole source sustaining Iran and other petro-dictators.
But all of this depends on an understanding between the oil industry and the environmentalists. If President Obama could pull that off, it would be a huge contribution to America’s security, economy and environment.
Now here’s Mr. Kristof:
As Sudan tries to bomb and starve the Nuba people into submission, it faces an unlikely antagonist: an American man from Florida who married a Nuban woman, gets by on local foods like locusts, and is fighting mortars with video cameras.
Ryan Boyette, 30, is trying to get President Obama to do more to intervene to stop the bombing and avert a famine. He is risking his life to collect video of atrocities that the world frankly doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in.
It was Boyette who smuggled me into the Nuba Mountains, driving his Toyota Land Cruiser on a rutted dirt track from South Sudan, at one point just a couple of miles from Sudanese military lines. He has set up a network of local citizen journalists who use small cameras to document atrocities and starvation in hopes of making the world care enough to intervene.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan has presided over the killings of perhaps 300 times as many people as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Bashir hasn’t drawn as much scrutiny as Assad, in part, because many of his killings are in remote areas with no cameras — and Boyette is trying to change that.
I met Boyette here in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan in 2008, and even then he was a remarkable figure who had ritual scarring on his back and lived in a grass-and-mud hut. He had moved to the Nuba Mountains in 2003 to work for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid group, putting on hold his plans to follow his father into police work.
Boyette fell in love with the Nuba Mountains and its people. Then he fell in love with Jazira, 26, a Nuban woman whose high school education in Kenya he had helped to finance. Some 6,000 Nubans attended their wedding a year ago.
Their world shattered last June, when the Sudanese government mounted a vicious offensive to destroy an insurgency by going after the Nuba people who supported it. Aid groups evacuated, and Samaritan’s Purse ordered Boyette to board a plane to safety. Jazira, fearing that his white skin would make him a target, pleaded with him to flee.
Instead, Boyette — after much prayer — resigned his job and stayed behind. “To get on a plane and say goodbye to my friends and family, to say, ‘I hope you survive this’ — I couldn’t do that,” he explained.
The region has no electricity or cellphone service, so Boyette charges his laptop and satellite phone with a solar charger. So far The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News and Al Jazeera have used his videos or photographs, and he plans to post more on a Web site, EyesAndEarsNuba.org.
To pay for operations, Boyette is hoping for foundation grants, or public donations on an account he will be setting up on Kickstarter.com.
One challenge is his safety, for he believes that Sudanese intelligence learns from spies and intercepts almost everything he does and targets him. He hears bombs fall almost daily and has had some close calls. The night before he met with me, he said, a government spy was shot while snooping outside the building where he was sleeping.
Another challenge is that food is running out in the Nuba Mountains. The government has blocked food shipments into rebel-held areas, and I interviewed some families that were already starving. “Within three months you’ll start seeing people dying of starvation en masse,” Boyette told me.
To its credit, the Obama administration is intensively working diplomatic channels to try to end the food blockade in the Nuba Mountains. On a visit to Washington in October, Boyette spent an hour briefing White House officials on the situation. But he’s skeptical — as am I — that the measures under consideration will be enough to avert starvation.
An immediate priority must be to call on Sudan to stop indiscriminate bombings and allow food aid, while seeking peace between the government and rebels. The United Nations Security Council could also seek a ban on offensive military flights in the area. If that doesn’t work, more robust approaches include airdrops of food or forcing open a humanitarian corridor from South Sudan. Boyette also argues for destroying a few Antonov bombers or the military airstrips that they use for takeoffs, so that the Nuba would again be able to plant crops and feed themselves.
Any humanitarian intervention, even the provision of food, could be seen as an act of war with uncertain consequences, and right now there’s no appetite in the United States or abroad for such a use of force. There are reasonable arguments against such steps. But the alternative may be the starvation of tens of thousands of people. If Boyette has anything to do with it, images of suffering will make it into American living rooms to soften hearts and build political will for action if famine arrives.
I’m hoping that Boyette stays safe and deluges us with images to prod our consciences.
Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:
Mitt Romney’s real problem? He’s a candidate for president instead of best picture — and his super PAC isn’t the Weinstein Company, which knows how to drag an imperfect contender toward, and possibly across, the finish line.
For the past several months the company has been dragging “The Artist,” and the movie’s experience as a front-runner has been less herky-jerky than Romney’s, despite certain shared handicaps. “The Artist,” like Romney, doesn’t speak with noteworthy grace, inasmuch as it’s almost entirely silent. “The Artist,” like Romney, has a retrograde aura, its black-and-whiteness harking back to a simpler time. Aspects of its provenance, like Romney’s, are a touch exotic. He’s Mormon; it’s more or less French.
Yet it barrels toward Oscar night as the favorite, on the strength of more than its virtues. It’s propelled by the strategizing, needling and spending of the Weinstein Company and its irascible agitator, Harvey Weinstein. He represents a celluloid analogue of sorts to the likes of Sheldon Adelson (Newt Gingrich’s benefactor) or Foster Friess (Rick Santorum’s). With the Oscars as with elections, it helps to have a willful, well-funded partisan behind you.
Perhaps because the 84th Academy Awards fall smack in the middle of an unusually dizzying stretch of the presidential campaign, the parallels between our cinematic and political sweepstakes have come into bold relief. And though Hollywood often sees itself — and is regarded — as a bastion of liberalism, the kinship of the Oscars with the Republican primaries is particularly striking.
Both pointlessly bloated, the two contests showcase a slew of options without a single one that inspires outsize passion or commands any real consensus. There are nine best picture nominees, and if you put away all reference materials, closed your eyes and tried to name them, you’d probably come up with no more than four, overlooking, for example, “The Tree of Life,” whose box-office haul isn’t much bigger than Callista Gingrich’s monthly budget for hairspray.
“The Tree of Life” had the distinction of actually repelling viewers, many of whom stormed out of theaters midmovie, baffled by dinosaur cameos in a family drama set in the Texas of the 1950s. Although the Academy’s goal when it upped the number of best picture nominees from five a few years back was to assure that television viewers would have multiple movies on the slate that they could relate to, only one of this year’s aspirants, “The Help,” qualifies as a bona fide hit that a sizable fraction of Americans actually saw.
The Republican field also began with a bevy of possibilities. Remember Rick Perry? Herman Cain? Such a sprawling buffet, so many empty calories.
Academy officials and Republican leaders are both grappling with a pronounced enthusiasm deficit, and you have to wonder if both groups’ demographic profiles are partly responsible for their failure to connect. Like the G.O.P., the Academy isn’t as heterogeneous as it could be. The Los Angeles Times published a widely discussed story last weekend that estimated that the Academy’s 5,765 voting members are nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with a median age of 62. This easily explains the triumph of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” last year, along with this year’s invitation to Billy Crystal to return — yet again — to host. By the yardstick of Academy membership, he’s wickedly au courant, verging on edgy.
What we have here are two hoary institutions flailing for relevance, failing to find it and responding in ways that merely exhaust the audience. Although viewership for the Oscars telecast plummeted from about 55 million in 1998, when “Titanic” cleaned up, to 37.6 million last year, the movie industry’s curious response has been to make the Oscars feel more redundant and anticlimactic than ever. Yes, the ceremony in recent years has occurred on an earlier date than in the past, when it was often in late March. But the industry has conversely teased out and tarted up the buildup to the big night by quadrupling the amount of publicity that each nominee does, larding the calendar with luncheons and parties and trumpeting all the mini- and demi-Oscars like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, now treated as must-see TV in their own right. Whole sections of greater Los Angeles are carpeted in red, so that gowns can be donned and poses struck at a moment’s notice.
Last year I saw so much of Natalie Portman from December through February that I essentially lived her pregnancy with her, was braced for her to deliver on the stage of the Kodak Theater on Oscar night, and wondered if I was on the hook for a baby gift — and what it should be. Itty-bitty ballet slippers? Stuffed swan?
This year the overexposure honors go equally to Octavia Spencer, a best supporting actress nominee for her work in “The Help,” and Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from “The Artist.” A few Hollywood insiders I talked to griped about the way the pooch was popping up everywhere, Weinstein’s wire-haired bid for awards favor. One told me that the principals involved in “The Artist” rehearsed Uggie’s trot with them up to the Golden Globes stage in case the movie won best comedy or musical honors at the event, which of course it did. Uggie obediently trotted.
“The joke around Hollywood is that the only way to stop ‘The Artist’ is to have that dog admitted to the hospital for exhaustion,” the insider said, then mentioned another best picture nominee and the name of the epically anthropomorphized beast at its center. “The rest of the joke is that if Uggie’s in the hospital and the ‘War Horse’ people are smart, they’ll have Joey go and visit him.”
The Republicans, likewise, have just about wrung our interest and patience dry. Watching the 20th debate on Wednesday night, I realized that these forums had begun long enough ago, and been sufficiently frequent and taxing, that the surviving participants were looking or acting appreciably older; Gingrich with more jowl, Romney with more crease, Ron Paul with more stammer. Only Santorum appeared unchanged, and I’d be tempted to say he cut a deal with the devil were it not so clear where he stands on matters satanic.
The debate foursome’s catchphrases and cadences were so familiar that I found my mind drifting to a game of mix-and-match between the whole of the Republican primary field, including the dearly departed, and the titles of best picture hopefuls.
“EXTREMELY Loud and Incredibly Close” is pretty much how I imagine Michele Bachmann at a cocktail party, drink or no drink. “The Descendants” calls to mind Romney and Jon Huntsman, scions of a privileged stripe. Then again it’s hard not to link Romney with “Moneyball,” a good term for the sport that he and Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting him, are playing. Tens of millions may not buy you love, but they sure do buy you scads of ads that denounce Gingrich as an ethical abomination with a crush on Nancy Pelosi and slam Santorum (a “War Horse” for sure, though no thoroughbred) as the sweater-vested emperor of earmarks.
The Oscars are often a political mirror and sometimes even a prognosticator. In 2008, the year of the last presidential election, the top prize went to “No Country for Old Men.” Nine months later, Barack Obama trounced John McCain, who had a quarter century on him.
This year, the movie and political spheres are in peculiarly felicitous alignment. Whether evaluating Oscar contenders or presidential ones, many of us are asking the same plaintive question — is this really the best we have? — and gripped by the same sense that the selection process somehow winnows out or wards off many better alternatives.
Marketing plays a greater role than merit, as one set of ads bludgeons Academy voters into submission and another set does the same with the electorate. Stagecraft is crucial. Did you know that for a special academy screening of “The Artist,” Weinstein recruited and paraded two of Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters? Progeny as campaign props: how very political. How very Romney.