Archive for the ‘Coates’ Category

Coates, Cohen and Krugman

July 19, 2013

Bobo is off today, and we have Ta-Nehisi Coates as a guest columnist.  Mr. Coates has a question:  “Could Obama choose a man whose police tactics are determined by skin color?  Mr. Cohen is in Sarajevo.  In “Enough of the Daytonians,” he says in Bosnia, the time has come to move past division and denial.  In “Hitting China’s Wall” Prof. Krugman says all the signs coming from the economic data show that China is in big trouble.  Here’s Mr. Coates:

In 2003, State Senator Barack Obama spearheaded a bill through the Illinois legislature that sought to put the clamps on racial profiling. Obama called racial profiling “morally objectionable,” “bad police practice” and a method that mainly served to “humiliate individuals and foster contempt in communities of color.”

Obama was not simply speaking abstractly. In his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” the future president wrote that he could “recite the usual litany of petty slights” directed at him because of his skin color, including being profiled by the police. “I know what it’s like to have people tell me I can’t do something because of my color,” he wrote. “And I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger.” That same bitterness probably compelled Obama, as president, to speak out after Prof. Henry Louis Gates of Harvard was arrested, and to famously note last year, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

That is why it is hard to comprehend the thinking that compelled the president, in a week like this, to flirt with the possibility of inviting the New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, the proprietor of the largest local racial profiling operation in the country, into his cabinet.

Kelly’s name has been floated by New York politicians of both parties as the ideal replacement for Janet Napolitano, who resigned last week. The president responded by calling Kelly “well-qualified” and an “outstanding leader in New York.” He sounded a pitch for bringing the commissioner into the White House’s fold.

“Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is,” said the president. “But if he’s not, I’d want to know about it.”

There are some other things that the president should want to know about. Chief among them would be how his laudatory words for Kelly square with the commissioner’s practices and with the president’s deepest commitments.

The N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk program has been well-covered in this newspaper and elsewhere. It is now public knowledge that the police department, each year, stops hundreds of thousands of citizens, largely black and Latino men, for reasons as thin and subjective as “furtive movements.” Very few of those stops lead to actual charges, much less arrests, and according to the commissioner that’s fine.

“If you don’t run the risk of being stopped, you start carrying your gun, and you do things that people do with guns,” Kelly recently told The Wall Street Journal.

It’s certainly true that some number of people who are looking to carry guns will be less likely to if they know they are going to be searched. But Kelly’s formulation leaves out the hundreds of thousands of people who have no such intent and are simply unlucky enough to be caught in the wrong skin. Those unfortunates must simply pay the tax of societal skepticism.

The dragnet tactics don’t taper at the borders of black and brown communities. If anything, they expand. Last year, The Associated Press reported that the N.Y.P.D. has organized a network of agents and informants strictly for the purpose of spying on Muslim communities. The appropriately dubbed “Demographics Unit” has extended its reach along the Northeastern seaboard, sending informants to spy on Muslim rafting trips, mosques in Newark and Muslim organizations at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. The Demographics Unit did not discriminate, at least among Muslims: second- and third-generation American citizens were subject to profiling. Despite this sprawling fishing expedition extending up the Atlantic coast, N.Y.P.D. officials admitted in a subsequent court case that the unit’s work had not yielded a single lead, much less the opening of an actual case.

It is often said that Obama’s left-wing critics fail to judge him by his actual words from his candidacy. But, in this case, the challenge before Obama is not in adhering to the principles of a radical Left, but of adhering to his own. It is President Obama’s attorney general who just this week painfully described the stain of being profiled. It was President Obama who so poignantly drew the direct line between himself and Trayvon Martin.

It was candidate Obama who in 2008 pledged to “ban racial profiling” on a federal level and work to have it prohibited on the state level. It was candidate Obama who told black people that if they voted they would get a new kind of politics. And it was State Senator Obama who understood that profiling was the antithesis of such politics. Those of us raising our boys in the wake of Trayvon, or beneath the eye of the Demographics Unit, cannot fathom how the president could forget this.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Once upon a time there was an American-forged Balkan nation comprised of two entities, 10 cantons, a district and an overarching state where several hundred ministers presided over close to four million people but did little for them because preserving their privileges was a full-time job.

These ministers at the cantonal, entity, district and state levels were known as “Daytonians,” after an agreement reached in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II. The accord stopped the killing but instituted an unworkable, many-layered political system whose chief beneficiaries were these fat-cat Daytonians and their hangers-on.

Every now and again somebody might ask if a small country needed 14 education ministers. The Daytonians responded in unison: “Of course it does!”

Somebody else might ask why the national anti-corruption agency was a complete joke, and would be told: “The European Union insisted on one, but, hey, why would we police our own perks?”

Daytonians came in various stripes: Bosnian Muslim (or Bosniak), Serb and Croat. They disagreed about many things and nursed bitter memories of a war that killed at least 100,000 people. But they agreed on the necessity of their self-perpetuation. They agreed that investigating the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars would be silly. They agreed on the need for political parties drawn on ethnic lines. They agreed on the efficacy of pre-election nationalist outbursts.

And so a failed system endured.

In the capital of Daytonland, on an avenue known during the war as “Sniper Alley,” the United States built a vast embassy resembling a high-security prison whose message to passers-by seemed to be: “America is under siege.”

One day in 2011 a radical Islamist opened fire on the embassy. He strolled around for 40 minutes shooting because nobody could decide if state or entity police or security forces should stop him.

Decision making in a land of entities — the very term was a reflection of disagreement on what to call the country’s component parts — is hard.

Inside the embassy, U.S. diplomats grew frustrated. Dayton was not supposed to be set in stone. It froze things at the worst moment of interethnic relations. It reflected the reality of 1995 but was no long-term basis to run a country. In fact it was designed to block a country. Still, it kept the peace.

Bosnians — facing high unemployment, rampant corruption, a venal judiciary and the need to join sectarian political parties to get a job in the state-run industries accounting for 60 percent of the economy — voted with their feet. They left for Düsseldorf. They headed for Detroit or St. Louis, where they could be plain “Bosnians,” not some ethnic subgroup.

Nobody was sure how many people remained in the country. A census was planned. It was unclear if it would happen. Numbers are political dynamite in a country where Daytonians depend on their ethnic majorities to dominate minorities.

The shadow of the war endured. Unidentified human remains were scattered through the valleys of the land. Serbs massacred many tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the first six months of 1992 and another 8,000 at Srebrenica in 1995. Every week trucks passed the presidency loaded with coffins headed for burial. Just this month, 409 newly identified victims were buried near Srebrenica, 18 years after the killing.

Terrible crimes had happened here, not confined to one side, but perpetrated overwhelmingly by one side, the Serbs.

Still in the Serb entity, crucible of imagined victimhood, denial persisted. They funded efforts to deny the Srebrenica slaughter. They made a dumb effort to institute new identification numbers that would distinguish Serb babies from others — and thousands of people took to the streets to protest.

They dreamed of statehood, or union with Serbia, not noticing that in Serbia, a leading politician had talked of going down on his knees in shame at Srebrenica; not noticing that Serbia had negotiated an agreement with Kosovo; not understanding Serbia’s turn toward the European Union and away from the folly of Bosnia.

Young people grew impatient. They wanted to be Bosnians — not Bosniaks, or Serbs or Croats. They wanted to be citizens of their nation rather than ethnic pawns in Dayton’s blocked labyrinth.

At Srebrenica, in the Serb entity, a campaign began to register Muslims driven away from their homes, so they could vote. They did — and Camil Durakovic is now the young mayor of Srebrenica, working with a Serb deputy. Why stop there? The best answer to the Daytonians is to undercut the sectarian divide on which they thrive. Now the campaign has extended to registering all Muslims who fled the Serb entity and so change its warped politics.

In Bosnia the time has come to move beyond Dayton — not its peace (the great achievement of Richard Holbrooke) but the division and denial it has perpetuated.

And last but not least here’s Prof. Krugman:

All economic data are best viewed as a peculiarly boring genre of science fiction, but Chinese data are even more fictional than most. Add a secretive government, a controlled press, and the sheer size of the country, and it’s harder to figure out what’s really happening in China than it is in any other major economy.

Yet the signs are now unmistakable: China is in big trouble. We’re not talking about some minor setback along the way, but something more fundamental. The country’s whole way of doing business, the economic system that has driven three decades of incredible growth, has reached its limits. You could say that the Chinese model is about to hit its Great Wall, and the only question now is just how bad the crash will be.

Start with the data, unreliable as they may be. What immediately jumps out at you when you compare China with almost any other economy, aside from its rapid growth, is the lopsided balance between consumption and investment. All successful economies devote part of their current income to investment rather than consumption, so as to expand their future ability to consume. China, however, seems to invest only to expand its future ability to invest even more. America, admittedly on the high side, devotes 70 percent of its gross domestic product to consumption; for China, the number is only half that high, while almost half of G.D.P. is invested.

How is that even possible? What keeps consumption so low, and how have the Chinese been able to invest so much without (until now) running into sharply diminishing returns? The answers are the subject of intense controversy. The story that makes the most sense to me, however, rests on an old insight by the economist W. Arthur Lewis, who argued that countries in the early stages of economic development typically have a small modern sector alongside a large traditional sector containing huge amounts of “surplus labor” — underemployed peasants making at best a marginal contribution to overall economic output.

The existence of this surplus labor, in turn, has two effects. First, for a while such countries can invest heavily in new factories, construction, and so on without running into diminishing returns, because they can keep drawing in new labor from the countryside. Second, competition from this reserve army of surplus labor keeps wages low even as the economy grows richer. Indeed, the main thing holding down Chinese consumption seems to be that Chinese families never see much of the income being generated by the country’s economic growth. Some of that income flows to a politically connected elite; but much of it simply stays bottled up in businesses, many of them state-owned enterprises.

It’s all very peculiar by our standards, but it worked for several decades. Now, however, China has hit the “Lewis point” — to put it crudely, it’s running out of surplus peasants.

That should be a good thing. Wages are rising; finally, ordinary Chinese are starting to share in the fruits of growth. But it also means that the Chinese economy is suddenly faced with the need for drastic “rebalancing” — the jargon phrase of the moment. Investment is now running into sharply diminishing returns and is going to drop drastically no matter what the government does; consumer spending must rise dramatically to take its place. The question is whether this can happen fast enough to avoid a nasty slump.

And the answer, increasingly, seems to be no. The need for rebalancing has been obvious for years, but China just kept putting off the necessary changes, instead boosting the economy by keeping the currency undervalued and flooding it with cheap credit. (Since someone is going to raise this issue: no, this bears very little resemblance to the Federal Reserve’s policies here.) These measures postponed the day of reckoning, but also ensured that this day would be even harder when it finally came. And now it has arrived.

How big a deal is this for the rest of us? At market values — which is what matters for the global outlook — China’s economy is still only modestly bigger than Japan’s; it’s around half the size of either the U.S. or the European Union. So it’s big but not huge, and, in ordinary times, the world could probably take China’s troubles in stride.

Unfortunately, these aren’t ordinary times: China is hitting its Lewis point at the same time that Western economies are going through their “Minsky moment,” the point when overextended private borrowers all try to pull back at the same time, and in so doing provoke a general slump. China’s new woes are the last thing the rest of us needed.

No doubt many readers are feeling some intellectual whiplash. Just the other day we were afraid of the Chinese. Now we’re afraid for them. But our situation has not improved.


Coates, Dowd and Bruni

August 19, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz, The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Kristof are off today.  Mr. Coates looks at “Obama’s (Perceived) Transformation” and says in Republican eyes, Barack Obama has gone from a weak, effete liberal to a down-and-dirty campaigner.  MoDo, in “Beware a Beautiful Calm,” says Paul Ryan turns out to be more Sammy Glick than John Galt.  In “Teachers on the Defensive” Mr. Bruni says a Hollywood swipe at teachers’ unions reflects their tough times.  Here’s Mr. Coates:

Earlier this month, Ann Coulter took to the airwaves of the Fox News network to denounce the dastardly machinations, large mendacity and mad villainy currently employed by the American president. Barack Obama was “a liar,” Coulter said, a “despicable campaigner” who once claimed the banner of “hope and change” but was now giving the American people “the ugliest campaign we’ve ever had.”

The wordsmith who gave us such nuanced disquisitions as “Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America” holding forth on civility must always be greeted with raucous laughter. But Coulter was actually variegating on a theme. On the same network, Senator John McCain accused the president of promising “hope and change” but actually running “the most negative, most unpleasant, most disgraceful campaign that I have ever observed.”

Obama is “the most divisive, nasty, negative campaigner that this country’s ever seen,” the head of the Republican National Committee claimed, and the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, assured his followers that Obama was “going to do everything in his power to make this the lowest, meanest negative campaign in history.”

For those of us who remember the attacks on Obama in 2008, this is a notable shift. Four years ago the book on Obama was not that he would fight dirty but that he would not fight at all. Before Obama became the Great Deceiver of Men, he was a pinot-noir-sipping weakling who was a horrible bowler, marveled at arugula and otherwise failed at manhood. The gospel among Republicans, and even many Democrats, held that Obama was yet another espouser of effete liberalism, a tradition allegedly pioneered by Adlai Stevenson, elevated by Jimmy Carter, apotheosized by Michael Dukakis, and admirably upheld by a windsurfing John Kerry.

“There is in Obama something of the Democratic candidate for president in the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson,” wrote Dick Morris in 2008. Lest you miss what that “something” was, Morris’s column was titled “Obama’s Weakness Is Weakness.” National Review asserted that “Real Men Vote for McCain” and claimed that Obama “projects weakness” of the sort that was “an enticement to bad guys around the world.” In 2008 McCain asserted: “Senator Obama says that I’m running for Bush’s third term. It seems to me he’s running for Jimmy Carter’s second.” Early in Obama’s presidency, Coulter described Obama’s approach to Iran as “weak-kneed” and denounced him as a “scaredy-cat.” Surely such a man would see your all-American daughter sold to Ayman al-Zawahri and the Constitution replaced by Shariah law.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 2012. As it turns out, the ingesting of arugula in no way interferes with one’s ability to have Osama bin Laden shot. Mitt Romney may attack Obama for “apologizing for America” overseas. But the audience for that charge is thin. In polls, Obama consistently beats Romney on national security. A recent Ipsos/Reuters poll found Obama leading Romney on the issue 47 to 38 percent and the campaign against terrorism 50 to 35 percent.

Among the ranks of bullies, the only fair fight is the one that ends with them laughing and kicking sand. And so, no longer able to portray Obama as weak, the authors of Willie Horton, swift-boating and modern day poll-taxing have been reduced to other tactics — among them wildly yelping, “Please, Mr. President, nothing to the face.”

Arugula partisan that I am, I must admit to some glee here. Watching Obama campaign is like watching an irradiated Peter Parker spar with Flash Thompson. It is deceptively easy, for instance, to see Harry Reid’s smearing of Romney not as the unsubstantiated, unevidenced ambush that it is, but as revenge.

That way lies the abyss. I am not simply thinking of Senator Reid’s shadow war, but of the president’s. Obama’s tough guy bona fides were largely built on the expansive bombing campaign he launched against Al Qaeda, a campaign that regards due process and the avoidance of civilian casualties as indulgences.

Let us grant that the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, said to be the mastermind behind the foiled underwear bomb plot, should not much trouble us. But surely the killing of his 16-year-old American-born son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and the secrecy around both acts, should.

I like to think that the junior Awlaki’s (reportedly accidental) death weighs heavy on the president’s conscience. In fact that weight does nothing to change the net result — from this point forward the presidency means the right to unilaterally declare American citizens to be American enemies, and then kill them.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama earned the G.O.P.’s mockery. Now he has earned their fear. It is an ambiguous feat, accomplished by going to the dark side, by walking the G.O.P.’s talk, by becoming the man Dick Cheney fashioned himself to be.

Here’s MoDo, who really seems to loathe ZEGS:

What happens when you realize you are the machine you’re raging against?

Tom Morello, the Grammy-winning, Harvard-educated guitarist for the metal rap band Rage Against the Machine, punctured Paul Ryan’s pretensions to cool in a Rolling Stone essay rejecting R&R (Romney ’n’ Ryan) as R&R (rock ’n’ roll).

“He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades,” Morello writes, adding: “I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta ‘rage’ in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically, the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.”

In my experience, when a presidential candidate needs some outside force to animate him — Michael Dukakis needed Kitty, Bob Dole needed C-Span, Willard needs Paul — it spells doom.

The fresh Gen X vice-presidential contender — like Sarah Palin, he favors the exclamation “awesome” — has had mixed reviews in his debutante cotillion.

Howard Fineman wrote in The Huffington Post that “Ryan turns out, upon closer inspection, not to be a purifying ideologue, but rather a young, power-hungry, ladder-climbing trimmer.” The self-styled deficit cutter backed W.’s deficit-exploding agenda, and the tut-tutting critic of the Obama stimulus grabbed for the president’s stimulus money.

Neocons and Tea Partyers, however, continued to rhapsodize. Grover Norquist told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt that Ryan would be the Dick Cheney of economic and tax policy. And that’s a compliment.

The comparison is apt. Ryan looks like a bonus Romney son, as Dan Quayle did with Bush senior. Republicans find the tableau of two rich white guys — same shirts, different generations — comforting. With W. and Cheney, the usual order switched and the vice-presidential candidate played the role of surrogate dad.

Where Ryan is like Cheney is in tone: at first blush, the Wisconsin congressman emanates a thoughtful, reassuring reasonableness, talking to reporters and sometimes Democratic lawmakers. Cheney’s deep voice, like the headmaster of a boys’ prep school, seemed moderate and measured, too, at first. But it is deceptive. Both men are way, way out there.

It is, to use a phrase coined by French doctors, la belle indifférence, or “the beautiful calm” of hysterical people. But the closer you look, the uglier it gets.

Just as Cheney, hunter of small birds and old friends, once defended cop-killer bullets and plastic guns that could slip through airport metal detectors, so Ryan, deer hunter, championed concealed guns and curtailing the background check waiting period from three days to one.

Just as Cheney was always willing to cough up money to guerrillas in Nicaragua and Angola but not to poor women whose lives were endangered by their pregnancies, so Ryan helped pay for W.’s endless wars while pushing endless anti-abortion bills, like one undercutting an exemption from the ban on using federal money for abortions in cases of rape or incest, and narrowing the definition of rape to “forcible rape.”

What on earth is nonforcible rape? It’s like saying nonlethal murder. Why redefine acts of aggression against women as non-acts of aggression?

Even Catholic bishops, who had to be dragged toward compassion in the pedophilia scandal, were dismayed at how uncompassionate Ryan’s budget was.

Mitt Romney expects his running mate to help deliver the Catholic vote and smooth over any discomfort among Catholics about Mormonism. (This is the first major-party ticket to go Protestant-less.) Yet after Ryan claimed his budget was shaped by his faith, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops deemed it immoral.

“A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons,” the bishops wrote in a letter to Congress.

The Jesuits were even more tart, with one group writing to Ryan that “Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The nuns-on-the-bus also rapped the knuckles of the former altar boy who now takes his three kids to Mass. As Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice group Network, told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, it’s sad that a Catholic doesn’t understand that “we need to have each other’s backs. Only wealthy people can ever begin to pretend that they can live in a gated community all by themselves.”

Even Ryan’s former parish priest in Janesville weighed in. Father Stephen Umhoefer told the Center for Media and Democracy, “You can’t tell somebody that in 10 years your economic situation is going to be just wonderful because meanwhile your kids may starve to death.”

Beyond the even-keeled Ryan mien lurks full-tilt virulence. A moderate demeanor is not a sign of a moderate view of the world.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Randi Weingarten, the powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers, took a rare vacation last week, but tweeting knows no holidays, nor does frustration with what can sometimes seem like constant assaults on the men and women at the nation’s blackboards. So her Twitter account remained active, and on Wednesday it took on a soon-to-open Hollywood movie, “Won’t Back Down.”

In one tweet she expressed her wish that it “didn’t vilify teachers as so uncaring.” In another she noted that the main financing for the movie came from a school-privatization advocate who is no fan of teachers’ unions.

“Won’t Back Down” tells the David-versus-Goliath story of a single mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who leads a rebellion to wrest control of her daughter’s persistently abysmal public elementary school from local officials. It’s scheduled for release next month, although it was shown to Weingarten a few weeks ago. I saw it on Wednesday.

And it actually takes pains to portray many teachers as impassioned do-gooders who are as exasperated as parents are by the education system’s failures — and by uncaring colleagues in their midst. But I understand Weingarten’s upset. The union that represents one of those do-gooders (Viola Davis) has lost its way, resisting change, resorting to smear tactics and alienating the idealists in its ranks. What’s more, some of the people who are assertively promoting “Won’t Back Down” are those who cast teachers’ unions as a titanic impediment to the improvement of public education. So “Won’t Back Down” is emerging as the latest front in the continuing war between those unions and their legions of critics, and it has become yet another example of how negatively those unions are viewed.

“When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?” asks a union leader (Holly Hunter) in the movie. I don’t know, but that’s indeed the state of play when it comes to teachers’ unions, and it’s a dangerous one.

Nothing — nothing — is more important than the education of our children, and while various interests will make competing claims about whether it’s improving or slipping and how best to measure that, education certainly isn’t at the level we want or need it to be. Public education, that is.

All around me I see parents of means going the private route and dipping as far into their bank accounts as necessary to purchase every last advantage a kid can have. But most families don’t have that option, and some 90 percent of children go to public schools, which remain our best engine for social mobility, our best bet for global competitiveness and the key to our country’s future. And lately, they’ve been a dispirited and dispiriting battleground.

Perhaps most striking are the rifts that have opened between teachers’ unions and Democrats, who had long been their allies. President Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary and the administration’s subsequent Race to the Top initiative weren’t exactly music to the unions’ ears.

In Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities, Democratic mayors have feuded bitterly with teachers’ unions and at times come to see them as enemies. And at a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in June, Democratic mayors joined Republican ones in a unanimous endorsement of so-called parent trigger legislation, about which unions have serious reservations. These laws, recently passed in only a few states but being considered in more, abet parent takeovers of underperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools run by private entities. Parent trigger hasn’t yet led to a new school, so no one can really know the sense or efficacy of the scenario. But it informs “Won’t Back Down,” which envisions Gyllenhaal’s trigger-pulling parent as an Erin Brockovich of education.

“It gives parents an opportunity to weigh in,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor, who supports it, in an interview here on Thursday. He believes that new approaches are vital and that teachers’ unions are “the most powerful defenders of a broken system.” That’s coming from a politician who, in his early career, worked as a labor organizer for teachers.

He said he revered the profession of teaching, considered most teachers heroes and believed in unions, but, “The notion that seniority drives every decision — assignments, promotions, layoffs — is unsustainable.” He explained that it took performance out of the equation and was discordant with the experience of most other professionals. “Imagine if I ran for a third term and said, ‘Vote for me, I’ve been here the longest.’ ”

Over the years, the teachers’ unions have indeed guarded tenure protections and last-in-first-out layoff practices to a zealous degree that could at times seem indifferent to the welfare of schoolchildren. “We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” Weingarten told me in a phone interview on Friday. “We were focused — as unions are — on fairness and not as much on quality.” And they’ve sometimes shown a spectacular blindness to public sensitivities in their apparent protection of certain embattled teachers in given instances.

The unions have also run afoul of the grim economic times. “In the private sector, nobody’s got any security about anything,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. So the unions’ fights over pay raises and pensions, he said, made previously routine negotiations “look like pigs at the trough.”

Kerchner was being sympathetic and said that teachers were hardly overpaid. But they have unwittingly assisted efforts by Republicans in particular to turn them into caricatures of entitlement in an era when there are many Americans poised to see them that way.

And when public money is severely limited. “You increasingly have Democratic executives who have gotten into office and said, ‘I’ve devoted all the resources I can, why can’t I get better results with the resources I have?’” noted Micah C. Lasher, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, a bipartisan group concerned in part with what it considers contradictions between union practices and teacher quality.

Better teachers, better teachers, better teachers. That’s the mantra of the moment, and implicit in it is the notion that the ones we’ve got aren’t nearly good enough. “It’s a historic high point for demoralization,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University.

We have to find a way out of this. Weingarten noted that most public school children are taught by teachers with a union affiliation, if not necessarily a union contract. That won’t change anytime soon. So a constructive dialogue with those unions is essential.

But so is real flexibility from unions, along with their genuine, full-throated awareness that parents are too frustrated, kids too important and public resources too finite for any reflexive, defensive attachments to the old ways of doing things.

“Our very best teachers ought to be treated much, much better than they are today,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “But in order to get there, we need to be able to say out loud that some teachers are better than others.”

That’s precisely what “Won’t Back Down” says. Although the movie is bound, in this politically charged climate, to be analyzed solely in terms of the position it seems to take on parent trigger or its qualms with union behavior, it’s ultimately about the impact of superior teaching, the need to foster more of it and the importance of school accountability. Who could quibble with any of that?


Cohen and Coates

August 10, 2012

We have Mr. Cohen and Mr. Coates today, since Bobo and Prof. Krugman are off.  In “Britain’s Olympic Whiplash” Mr. Cohen says they’ve gone from the land of gloom to the land of glee — with Bolt-like speed.  Mr. Coates looks at “Romney’s Side Course of Culture” and says Mitt Romney acts as if culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

We all know those days that begin in virtue with a banana for breakfast, a long session at the gym, a succession of ticks on the to-do list and a world-is-my-oyster feeling but end slouched on the couch plowing a steady course through a family-sized pack of peanut M&M’s, drinking bad white wine, watching “The Real Housewives of New York City” and thinking life is not all it is cracked up to be.

The passage from hope to despair can have a Usain-Bolt quality to it, much quicker than seems possible.

Now reverse that process, project it from the personal to the national, and you will begin to acquire some notion of the startling shift in Britain over the past couple of Olympic weeks from despondency to delight, as if the 541 members of “Team GB” had injected a depression-dispelling elixir into the bloodstream of the Brits. The mood swing has been whiplash-inducing.

Herd pessimism is an interesting modern phenomenon. It is more prevalent than irrational exuberance. I suppose predicting disaster is a relief from ennui as you fiddle with the remote.

J.K. Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” was written in 1958 and Harold Macmillan told Brits the year before they had “never had it so good.” Since about then the average human being has come to consume one third more calories and live one third longer. But counting blessings is duller than imagining cataclysm.

The gloom gluttons were in overdrive in the weeks before the Olympics. Security personnel were rubbish. Strikes would paralyze the city. Olympic lanes would produce bottlenecks stretching to Brighton. Terrorists would wreak havoc. Dark clouds over a wintry London presaged a fiasco. The Guardian’s front page screamed: “What could go wrong?”

Nothing has. It has all been so perfect. Of course it has.

The sun has shone. Never has it been easier to get to work. The streets of central London are empty while up at the Olympic Park happy crowds throng. One of them was Brian Duffy, a 34-year-old investment banker (even bankers are being spared their daily dose of vitriol), who told me: “Everyone is taking a break, a break from their worries, from recession, from negativity, and just getting behind this.”

Lucy Kellaway, writing in The Financial Times, had the admirable (and little emulated) honesty to say a disaster-auguring column penned before the Olympics “was the biggest pile of hogwash I’ve ever written.” She wanted to “retract every whiny, ill-judged scaremongering word of it.” The misjudged column “was based on that very British idea that everything we do is a cock-up.”

So what went right?

Winning helps. With 22 gold medals and 48 medals in all as I write, Britain has recorded its finest performance since 1908. “Best for a century” is now the national watchword — in fact best for 104 years.

The gold medals have come in 10 sports, one more than the United States at nine, prompting articles on how Britain is “ahead of U.S.A.” O.K., the U.S. leads Britain on overall gold medals and British golds have included one in BMX (bike motocross) and one in taekwondo, but hey. At this point it’s all good.

Jessica Ennis, triumphant in the heptathlon, and Mohammed “Mo” Farah, victorious in the 10,000 meters, and Nick Skelton, a 54-year-old with a hip replacement and a gold medal in showjumping, and Christine Ohuruogu, winning a silver medal in the 400 meters to follow her gold four years ago, have come to symbolize a Britain free (momentarily at least) of sexism, racism, ageism and Islamophobia, one buoyant island offering its ample overcoat to all.

Ennis’s father Vinnie is from Jamaica. Mo is a Somalian immigrant who arrived in Britain as a child. Ohuruogo is of Nigerian descent. Mohammed Sbihi, a bronze medalist in rowing, was born in Britain to a Moroccan family.

Sbihi, by the way, prefers “Moe” to “Mo.”

There is as much truth to these immigrant success stories as there is to the endless tales of immigrant — and particularly Muslim immigrant — alienation in Britain and Europe. Balance is hard to maintain when herd pessimism is a reflex mode and fear a useful political tool.

The euphoria won’t last, of course. Taf Pilgrim, strolling with his pregnant wife, said, “Hopefully the good feelings will endure a bit.” If the slogan of these Olympics — “inspire a generation” — is to mean anything, they will have to. But I wonder.

I can already see the stories on the white elephant of a stadium, the cost of it all, the terrible Olympics hangover, the suffering shopkeepers of central London denied regular summer tourism, the cynical politicians posturing to claim credit — a great autumnal binge of renewed British despondency.

Until then, enjoy this. As the Olympics mood whiplash demonstrates, there are many reasons for optimism. In truth the lesson of Britain’s bout of bipolarity is that we are lonely. That is the problem with modernity. When we come together, rediscover community, the feeling is as good as an adrenalin rush.

And, after the binge on the couch, you can always get up and head for the gym.

Now here’s Mr. Coates:

When Mitt Romney asserted last week that “culture does matter,” he settled into a pose that was more triumphalist than anthropologist. Romney had begun by asserting that culture explained the difference in G.D.P. between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but soon he was claiming that culture also made the United States “the greatest economic power in the history of the earth.”  His attempt to define American culture settled in on vague attributes like “patriotism,” “family orientation,” “honor and oath” and “freedom,” a list that seemed cribbed from Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness.

Is it worth noting that America, itself, was secured from its aboriginal tribes through centuries of oath-breaking, through a malleable regard for freedom, and through the auctioning of families?

Probably not. When people invoke culture in the Romney manner, what they are really invoking is a scale by which humanity may be ranked from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome. The idea is that culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job. If you want to create a nation with a dominant entertainment media, perhaps American culture is the way to go. If you’re uninterested in presiding over a nation with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5 percent of its population, perhaps not.

Whenever this particular incarnation of the culture wars erupts, I think back to my earliest experiences with my august employer, The Atlantic. On the scale of ashy to classy, I was more the former than the latter. But my relationship with the magazine often put me in the dining company of men and women who were not unused to nice things. These were the days when I powerfully believed Breyers and Entenmann’s to be pioneers in the field of antidepressants. My new companions had other beliefs, a fact evidenced by our divergent waistlines.

They organized dinners featuring several small courses, most of which were only partially eaten. The general dining practice consisted of buttering half a dinner roll, dallying with the salad, nibbling at the fish and taking a spoonful of desert. The only seconds they requested were coffee and wine.

I left the first of these dinners in bemused dudgeon. “Crazy rich white people,”  I would scoff. “Who goes to a nice dinner and leaves hungry?” In fact, they were not hungry at all. I discovered this a few dinners later, when I found myself embroiled in this ritual of half-dining. It was as though some invisible force was slowing my fork, forcing me into pauses, until I found myself nibbling and sampling my way through the meal. And when I rose both caffeinated and buzzed, I was, to my shock, completely satiated.

Like many Americans, I was from a world where “finish your plate” was gospel. The older people there held hunger in their recent memory. For generations they had worked with their arms, backs and hands. With scarcity a constant, and manual labor the norm, “finish your plate” fit the screws of their lives. I did not worry for food. I sat at my desk staring at a computer screen for much of the day. But still I ate like a stevedore. In the old world, this culture of eating kept my forebears alive. In this new one it was slowly killing me.

It was like trying to drive a nail with a monkey wrench. And it could work in reverse. I could easily see how the same social pressures that urged dietary moderation could drive someone to an eating disorder.

Using the wrong tool for the job is a problem that extends beyond the dining room. The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel. The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. It is to teach him a new one.

There are obvious limits to this sort of relativism, and its invocation is not a moral pass for wife-beating, mass murder or slavery. Comprehension and censure are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the most effective condemnations proceed from comprehension. What stands out about Romney’s culture comments is how much he relies on bromides and banalities. It is almost as if he doesn’t know anything about the workings of culture at all.

But here we should be understanding. Romney hails from the party of birthers and creationists. He is the appointed representative of those who would see the strictures against same-sex marriage rendered constitutional. Ignorance is no stranger there. It is part of the culture.

It’s a feature, not a bug.

Dowd and Coates

July 18, 2012

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is guest columnist.  MoDo has a question:  “Who’s on America’s Side?”  She says Mitt Romney’s banking on harsh attacks to help him in his White House bid, but, unfortunately, it’s a Swiss account.  Mr. Coates, in “Leave the Statue, to Remember,” says we shouldn’t let Penn State ignore its complicity in the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse.  Here’s MoDo:

Usually, at this stage of a presidential campaign, Republicans are doing a much better job of sullying the Democratic candidate as un-American.

Michael Dukakis was accused of having a funny last name and failing to say the Pledge of Allegiance 10 times a day. John Kerry was faulted for acting French and eating Philly cheese steaks with Swiss cheese. Al Gore was into the earth and earth tones — need we say more?

And the G.O.P. has had so much practice over the last four years at skewering Barack Obama as an existentialist socialist apologist for America with a secret foreign birth certificate that it should be like shooting mahi-mahi in a barrel.

The dude used to wear a sarong to do The Sunday Times crossword puzzle, for Pete’s sake — a look more exotic than Ralph Lauren’s Chinese French berets. Yet this week’s Republican attacks have been so shriekingly shrill, they make Poppy Bush campaigning at a New Jersey flag factory back in 1988 look like a masterpiece of subtlety.

“I wish this president would learn how to be an American,” said John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor, on Tuesday during a Romney campaign media conference call. (He later apologized.)

He also went on Fox News to assert that the president “has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia, and frankly, when he came to the U.S., he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure.”

On Monday, the ever-delightful Rush Limbaugh weighed in: “I think it can now be said, without equivocation — without equivocation — that this man hates this country. He is trying — Barack Obama is trying — to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.”

He continued: “He was indoctrinated as a child. His father was a communist. His mother was a leftist. He was sent to prep and Ivy League schools where his contempt for the country was reinforced.” As it was for the Bushes and Mitt Romney?

But that nonsense sounds reasonable compared with Michele Bachmann’s McCarthyesque charges that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the U.S. government. She ludicrously cited Hillary Clinton’s trusted aide, Huma Abedin, the Muslim daughter of professors of Indian and Pakistani descent and the wife of former Representative Anthony Weiner, as someone who shouldn’t have a security clearance.

It’s hard for the haters to get traction when the president and his wife are looking so all-American, smooching for the “kiss cam” at the U.S. vs. Brazil basketball game here Monday night, as the lovely Malia excitedly looked on.

Campaigning Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Romney called Obama’s course as president “extraordinarily foreign.” But it is the Mitt-bot who keeps getting caught doing things that seem strangely outside the norm to most Americans.

Americans have been trained to be wary of Swiss bank accounts and tax shelters in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Guys who have those in the movies are always shady and greedy.

As Nicholas Shaxson writes in Vanity Fair, though Romney left Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded, in 1999, he “has continued to receive large payments from it — in early June he revealed more than $2 million in new Bain income. The firm today has at least 138 funds organized in the Cayman Islands, and Romney himself has personal interests in at least 12, worth as much as $30 million, hidden behind controversial confidentiality disclaimers.”

Jack Blum, a Washington lawyer and offshore expert, told Shaxson: “What Romney doesn’t get is that this stuff is weird.”

George Romney set the gold standard by releasing 12 years’ worth of tax returns. But his son’s refusal to release a decent sampling is so suspicious that even some top Republicans have balked.

Why would the scion of a political family who always wanted to be president tangle himself in a cat’s cradle of tax trickery in the first place?

Romney contended that he had “no role” at Bain after 1999 when some of its companies went bankrupt, shipped jobs overseas and fired workers. He remained the firm’s chairman of the board, C.E.O., president and only stockholder until 2002. Other than that, he had nothing to do with the place.

Aside from his time running the Salt Lake City Olympics, which he’s happy to publicize, Romney’s whole life, from his $250 million fortune to his tenure at the cultish Bain to his Mormonism, seems as though it’s secreted in a hidden shelter.

Like W., he’s coming across as the privileged kid who grew up at the country club and got special deals because of his dad, but then runs around claiming to be a self-made businessman. That lack of self-awareness, and Romney’s refusal to take responsibility for his own company, are disturbing traits in a leader.

No shit, Modo, really?  Here’s Mr. Coates:

Happy Valley is a nation, nestled in the rolling green of Pennsylvania, currently wrestling with its martial tradition and the disgrace roiling its core. Once Happy Valley’s venerable hero, Joe Paterno, led his knights in defense of the nation’s honor. Paterno’s champions were known for a making a show of their particular brand of scholar-athleticism and bragging of doing things “the right way.”

They were drilled on the importance of developing the body as well as the mind and outfitted for the quiet civilian life that awaited them after the sounds of battle had faded. The ethos of team sports, personal sacrifice for the greater glory of all, was embodied in the great warrior cry, “We are Penn State.”

On the night Joe Paterno was fired, the wizened warlord led his nation in that great chant one last time. He was standing outside his house, arm around his longtime wife. He was 84 years old and soon to be given a diagnosis of lung cancer. His eyes flashed behind the great windows of his ever-unwieldy frames. He was, for the first time in many decades, unemployed. But much worse, his name was tied to the heinous crimes of a child predator, Jerry Sandusky.

He urged the crowd to get a good night’s sleep and study. He urged prayer for Sandusky’s victims. Then he turned to the crowd and shouted, “We are Penn State!” The chant is supposed to summon up notions of honor, strength and sacrifice. But after Paterno disappeared into his house to wrestle with his own private demons, the assembled citizenry of Happy Valley took to the streets and vented theirs.

It is a truth of history that good people do sometimes do heinous things, but that makes it no easier for the human mind to accept. Acceptance got a little easier last week when Louis Freeh, a former director of the F.B.I. who led a special investigation into the Penn State matter, produced damning evidence that Paterno, when confronted with a most horrific crime, the rape of a child, laid down his arms and ran for cover. This is not the kind of man to whom we dedicate memorials, and following the Freeh report there has been a movement afoot to take down the statue of Paterno that stands outside Beaver Stadium.

The need to clean history so that the record might reflect our current values, and not our sordid past, is broad. In Columbia, S.C., there stands a statue of Ben Tillman, the populist South Carolina senator who helped found Clemson University and, in his spare time, defended lynching from his august national offices. For years there have been calls to remove Tillman’s statue, emanating from those who think it a shame to continue to honor him. But in a democracy, memorial statues are not simply comments on their subjects, but comments on their makers. That Americans once saw fit to honor a man who defended terrorism from the Senate floor is a powerful statement about our identity and history.

Whereas Tillman’s most spectacular sins were known at the time of his lionization, Paterno’s only later came to light. And yet the central sin that now haunts Happy Valley has long been in evidence — a tragic myopia. The Freeh report noted that a janitor who’d witnessed one of Sandusky’s rapes declined to report it, fearing that Penn State would close ranks to protect the football program. It is easy to talk about what we would do were we in the janitor’s place. Much harder is to conclude that we might be susceptible to the same fear, that living in a culture where football is a creed, we too might tremble before the nation’s wrath.

The problem here is not that Paterno shamed Happy Valley, but that Happy Valley, through its broad blindness, has shamed itself. Last week an artist who’d once painted Paterno with a halo altered his mural by removing it. This effort has less to do with the better rendering of Paterno and more to do with escaping the shame of hasty canonization.

Arguing for the statue’s removal, the legendary coach Bobby Bowden said he wouldn’t want Sandusky’s crimes “brought up every time I walked out on the field.” That’s the point. Sandusky’s crimes should never be forgotten, nor should the crimes of the broader community. It is shameful to deify men who put nationalist ritual before children. But it is more shameful to pretend that this elevation was achieved by Joe Paterno’s singular hand.

Removing the Paterno statue allows Happy Valley to forget its own compliance in a national crime, to expunge its own culpability in its ruthless pursuit of glory. The statue should remain, and beneath it there should be a full explanation of Sandusky’s crimes, Paterno’s role and some warning to all of us who would turn a pastime into a god and elect a mortal man as its avatar.


Coates and Bruni

July 28, 2011

Mr. Kristof is off, and Ms. Collins is still on book leave.  Mr. Coates, in “Obama and His Discontents,” says a look at the politics that surrounded the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation seems more relevant today than ever.  He’s just a tad put out…  Mr. Bruni, in “The Path From Poetry to Drudgery,” says President Obama is having to govern under limits, but he surely yearns to move past them.  Here’s Mr. Coates:

The administration of President Obama has never held much regard for its left flank. Admonished by the vice president to “stop whining,” inveighed against by the president himself for “griping and groaning,” the liberal critics have been generally viewed by the White House as petulant children. “The Professional Left,” former press secretary Robert Gibbs dubbed them, a gang of nettlesome romantics who “ought to be drug-tested,” and would not be happy until “we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.”

Keeping up the theme, the administration recently released a video of Mr. Obama waxing scornfully at the expense of his softheaded allies. The audience was an ideological cross-section of college students, no doubt picked to emphasize Mr. Obama’s ever open mind. The president invoked Abraham Lincoln, noting that the Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise that freed only the slaves in rebel territory. “Can you imagine how The Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ ”

Rendering the hallowed Proclamation as a seminal act of hippy-punching is understandably attractive to the Very Serious People of Washington. But, in Mr. Obama’s case, it also evinces a narrow politicocentric view of democracy that holds that the first duty of a loyal opposition is to stay on message and fall in line.

In fact, many of Lincoln’s most vociferous critics welcomed the Proclamation. Wendell Phillips, who once derided Lincoln as “the slave-hound of Illinois,” claimed the Proclamation as “the people’s triumph.” Frederick Douglass, who helped wage a primary campaign against the president in 1864 and once charged that Lincoln was “a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred,” hailed the Proclamation as “the greatest event of our nation’s history.”

Douglass was not delusional. With a wave of his pen, Lincoln freed tens of thousands of slaves and opened the Army to blacks, an act that Lincoln himself once derided. “Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free,” writes historian Eric Foner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “The Fiery Trial.”

“The proclamation altered the nature of the Civil War, the relationship of the federal government to slavery, and the course of American history. It liquidated the largest concentration of property in the United States. … Henceforth, freedom would follow the American flag.”

In sum, it’s true that the Proclamation was a compromise. But hailing it merely as such is akin to hailing “Moby-Dick” for being a book — technically correct, if painfully thickwitted.

Likewise, a pedantic focus on the document itself conveniently omits the work of abolitionists and radicals whose tactics, encompassing jailbreaks, treason and shootouts, far outstripped anything ever concocted by But Lincoln understood their relationship to the larger cause. “They are nearer to me than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile personally,” he once said of the Radicals. “They are utterly lawless — the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with — but after all their faces are set Zionward.”

Obama, too, stands atop the work of a coalition of unhandy devils. In the fall of 2002, Chicago’s own professional left organized a rally to oppose the Iraq War and invited Mr. Obama to join them. He accepted, and the first unwitting steps to the White House were taken. It is considerably harder to imagine Mr. Obama’s path through the Democratic primary had he been just another pro-war Democrat insisting that the base activists stop whining.

Mr. Obama, of course, is not an activist but a politician held accountable by a broad national electorate. He is thus charged with the admittedly difficult task of nudging the country forward, even as he reflects it. That mission necessitates appreciating the art of compromise, but not fetishizing it. Mr. Obama need only look to his hero for an object lesson. Parcel to emancipation, Abraham Lincoln, against the howls of radicals and black leaders, pushed for the colonization of blacks in Africa or the Caribbean, as middle ground between full equality and slavery. The scheme ended in embarrassment; Lincoln’s point man was exposed as a con artist who attempted to effectively re-enslave the blacks he was charged with leading. A Congressional investigation soon followed. It was a fiasco — and it was a compromise.

Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” seriously. In that business, Obama would do well to understand that while democracy depends on intelligent compromise, it also depends on the ill-tempered gripers and groaners out in the street.

The Party of Lincoln, whatever its present designs, has not forgotten this.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Just three months ago, for at least a little while, everything felt so different. You were triumphant, the audaciously hopeful gambler who had rolled the dice and vanquished Bin Laden, even though some of the experts advising you had put the odds well below 50-50. For showing extraordinary nerve, you were repaid with exceptional luck.

Even three weeks ago, you were in a better place. Unbeknownst to most of the partisan warriors and nearly all of the cynical scribes around town, you and John Boehner had been huddling in the White House, talking trillions, tracing the heady contours of a grand bargain. It was another big bet, but with odds no worse than the last one, or so you calculated. And in Boehner, you believed, you’d found a similarly motivated accomplice with a similarly long-range view. Despite your customary reserve, you experienced the stirrings of a real fondness for him.

Then . . . breakdowns. Standoffs. Near chaos on Capitol Hill. And, now, a piteous basket of pathetic final-hour fixes that could yield a downgrade of the country’s credit rating and aren’t durable solutions: Band-Aids where a tourniquet was once discussed. Even if default is averted, the nation’s mountainous debt will likely remain a source of anguish and acrimony through and even past the 2012 election. Will there ever be any money or oxygen for actually getting stuff done?

That was part of what a grand bargain was supposed to accomplish: not just badly needed fiscal discipline but badly wanted Obama liberation; one emphatic, enduring push past this constipated juncture; a changed discussion before Election Day; enough cutbacks and revenue to permit some spending again down the line. Republicans sensed all of that. It gave them added incentive to stop you, not that they needed much more. They don’t trust you. No matter how reasonable a face you show them, they’re convinced that a raging liberal lies beneath, biding his time.

What a crew they are, tarring you as the Spendthrift-in-Chief, though the fiscal crater in which Washington languishes was dug in enormous measure by an economic slowdown that preceded you and by the tax cuts and military campaigns of their president. You got stuck with the mess. That’s your cinching, suffocating, unjust reality. Your campaign had all the romance of history in the making; your presidency has all the drudgery of a toxic cleanup. You orated your way into janitorial work.

Into a ceaseless, tedious blame game, too. That’s Washington’s default pastime, and it’s a blood sport, which you and Boehner were playing during your rival addresses Monday night, when the battle wasn’t just about the debt ceiling but about images and reputations in the aftermath. On Tuesday and Wednesday, it was the Republicans who looked more incompetent and immature, as Boehner fought to subdue the obstructionists in his ranks, purists who won’t brook even the most picayune compromise, let alone the tiniest tax increase. Some of them don’t fear default. They somehow regard it as a fleeting, instructive purgative.

But if the country winds up there, and even if it doesn’t, it’s hard to see how this embarrassing mess doesn’t taint you. There will be questions about whether you put your marker down at the right time, with enough specificity and force. There will be assertions that you didn’t make a persuasive and coherent enough case to voters.

At least a majority of them still blame your predecessor for the gasping economy. But that can last only so long, and it’s not a refrain you can tote onto the campaign trail, swapping “Yes We Can” for “Not My Fault.” Your fortunes may well be manacled to an unemployment rate that, to your thinking, is more reflective of dynamics beyond your control than of any tinkering you can do. So you watch. You wait. The aloofness observers ascribe to you could just as accurately be described as fatalism.

It has been a challenging few years, and not just politically. Michelle wasn’t as prepared for the airlessness and isolation of “the bubble” as some of the first ladies before her. It’s one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets that she has known happier times. The coming campaign won’t thrill her.

But you’re still catching breaks. Your field of Republican challengers is weak. None have your personal narrative, your symbolic power. Even Americans unsure of you remain invested in you. A second term could be yours.

Would it be much better and freer than the first? With the $4 trillion package that you and Boehner once discussed long gone, will you ever be able to govern during a chapter free of limits, ceilings, boxes, constraints? You got health care reform, and then you got heartache. What you must worry that you’ll never get is a sustained, true chance.

As Mr. Coates pointed out above getting that second term might be very difficult as long as the base keeps getting shat on.  I know that I’ve closed my wallet, small though it may be.

Dowd, Coates, Bruni and Kristof

July 10, 2011

The Moustache of Wisdom is off.  MoDo, in “Erotic Vagrancy, Anyone?”, says don’t be afraid of Virginia Woolf; be afraid of today’s stars mimicking yesterday’s.  Mr. Coates says with “Instant Music Gratification” that song fragment is no longer mysterious, fleeting and agonizingly out of reach.  Mr. Bruni addresses “A Sordid Cast Around Casey Anthony,” a creepy lawyer, a greedy juror, a crazed observer. What a show.  Lastly, Mr. Kristof, in “Action! Romance! Social Justice!”, has a question:  Who said important books couldn’t be fun? Here’s the best beach reading ever.  Here’s MoDo:

Whether to wuther?

I’m never in doubt.

I’m obsessed with obsessions.

Give me a book or a movie about lovers in the depths of a “Wuthering Heights” passion or a Proustian fixation, and I’m off to the moors with a box of madeleines.

So my interest was aroused when I read that one of our most celebrated obsessive filmmakers was going to make a movie about one of our most celebrated obsessive couples. Martin, Liz and Dick — what a threesome.

News reports say that Martin Scorsese plans to make a film of Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s 2010 book “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.” Actually, that would be two marriages of the century. Taylor and Burton were so obsessed with each other that once was not enough.

“I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out,” he wrote in one of his many love letters and poems to her. “The fire, of course, is you.”

As Scorsese moves from “Mean Streets” to mean sheets, the book offers possibilities for many juicy scenes.

With Liz and Dick, two drinking divas equaled many stormy nights. In a perfect metaphor for the relationship to come, they ignited on the set of “Cleopatra,” one of the most turbulent and extravagant movie productions ever. It cost $44 million in 1963, the equivalent of $300 million today.

“In their prime, all Taylor and Burton had to do was walk on a set and budgets would start hemorrhaging,” Peter Bart wrote in Variety.

The Welsh rogue wrote his violet-eyed beauty soulful love letters. She kept the last one on her bedside table until her death.

No doubt a galaxy of today’s stars are angling to play yesterday’s. But there’s the rub. What makes superstars blaze is how inimitable they are. You can’t replicate what’s unique or measure up to what’s immeasurable.

“Actors now don’t have the same kind of mystery that they had then,” said Jerry Rafshoon, the producer and former Jimmy Carter media wizard, who supervised the 20th Century Fox advertising campaign for “Cleopatra.”

“Liz and Dick were famous, but they weren’t easily accessible,” he said. “They defined charisma before politicians and political consultants cheapened the term.”

Nick Pileggi, the screenwriter and producer, once thought about doing the Dean Martin story with Tom Hanks. But he agrees that such efforts are tough, noting, “The old stars are so indelibly etched in our minds.”

From Scorsese’s work on “The Aviator,” about Howard Hughes, he should know the pitfalls. Kate Beckinsale presented a slender echo of luscious Ava Gardner. No doubt, Gwen Stefani did injustice to Jean Harlow. And even though she won an Oscar, Cate Blanchett’s Kate Hepburn missed the regal fire of the real thing.

Jill Clayburgh made a fine modern heroine in ’70s movies, but couldn’t fill Carole Lombard’s high heels in the 1976 biopic “Gable and Lombard.” And frankly, James Brolin, you owe Clark Gable an apology.

In 2000, ABC broadcast the “The Audrey Hepburn Story” with Jennifer Love Hewitt. Enough said.

In countless shows about our biggest political movie stars, the Kennedys, the performances never match the myth.

As USA Today’s Robert Bianco wrote of “The Kennedys,” with Katie Holmes as Jackie and Greg Kinnear as Jack: “The sad truth is, if either had the charisma or star wattage needed to capture JFK and Jackie, neither would be available for a miniseries that started on History and ended up on Reelz.”

The many actresses who have resurrected Marilyn Monroe can’t hold a candle in the wind to Hollywood’s most luminescent, evanescent siren.

Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino played two sides of her in the 1996 HBO film “Norma Jean and Marilyn,” which amounted to double trouble. Catherine Hicks tried in the 1980 ABC movie “Marilyn: The Untold Story,” which should have remained untold.

Still we must suffer through a new raft of impertinent impersonators. Michelle Williams stars in “My Week With Marilyn,” about her friction with Laurence Olivier during the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl” in 1957. Then comes Naomi Watts in “Blonde,” based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel.

And for Liz? Angelina Jolie, already on board for the Columbia remake of “Cleopatra,” has been mentioned.

Jolie and Brad Pitt sell tabloids. But they’re no Liz and Dick, the furiously loving couple who provoked the Catholic Church by cheating on their spouses when in Rome shooting “Cleopatra.” “Erotic vagrancy,” the church called it.

As Liz Smith once observed, “Whenever somebody says, ‘So and so is a big star,’ I say, ‘Have they been condemned by the Vatican?’ ”

Now here’s Mr. Coates:

I saw Gil Scott-Heron perform, for the first time, in the fall of 1994. Like any scion of radical parentage, I was well acquainted with Heron’s sprawling catalogue. Still, even for me, a young man who reveled in the track listings of limited releases, the rangy Heron had packed a few surprises. In the midst of old favorites, he uncorked a haunting and somber ode to the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. If he gave the title I missed it, which is possible given that I was mesmerized by the song’s elegiac simplicity. I tried to commit every note to memory, but ultimately, I was left with shards of lyrics, pieces of melody and a deep intense longing for a song I couldn’t name.

Afterward, I prevailed upon family and friends, humming what I could recall, in a vain attempt to piece together the most memorable portion of that evening. I was haunted by my futility, and whenever someone mentioned Heron, I saw him in dream-time, presiding, gray and gaunt, over a keyboard, and hollering that lost anthem into the abyss. It was agony, but it was also familiar. A state of imposed ignorance was as native to pop culture nerds of the 20th century as it is foreign to those of the on-demand 21st.

We live in the time of Google the Great, whose all-seeing eye has ushered in a golden age of musical democracy. Out at your local bar, and faced with an enchanting, but obscure, slice of music, you can call up an app, hold your mobile device aloft like a scepter, and all the vitals — song, artist, album — are swiftly known to you. Failing that, an Internet search of quoted lyrics will have you, in mere seconds, faced with the tune in spades — live, acoustic, remixed by the artist, mashed up by fans, covered by random Kansans hoping for discovery.

The march toward universal music extends back to the days of Edison. But I recall, with a perverse fondness, the latter days of the 20th century, when the franchise was still the exclusive property of record pools and radio. Only the Fates could compel your local station to deliver “Fresh Is the Word” or “Sucker DJs.” This was before the lords of FM took to bragging “All hip-hop, all the time,” when, outside of the five boroughs, rap was midnight music for the urban avant-garde.

Kids with substantive allowances could purchase actual records, but the rest of us, trapped in prudent homes, had only Memorex tapes to save our favorite jams from the yawning void beyond the memory of playlists. Who knew how long it would be before we again beheld the splendor of “Cold Gettin’ Dumb”? Even the artists were ethereal. There was no Vibe or XXL to confirm the death of the Human Beat Box or Scott La Rock, or explain why UTFO faded away. Overrun by mystery, you had only divination and hours upon hours of deciphering cover art, hoping to confirm that the great Humpty Hump really was Shock G.

The mystery of music was the calling card of that pop age. Comic books were equally esoteric, alluding to back issues that would take months to procure, or that simply couldn’t be procured at all. Favorite cartoons would come and go — mid-continuity, plotlines dangling — without explanation. The star receiver of your favorite football team would vanish, leaving you in wonder, until years later when an announcer’s off-hand mention of a tragic car crash brought you up to speed. But the distance between what you knew and what you didn’t was magic, was a shared realm of legitimate fact and fan fictions. It demanded interpretation, completion, creation.

Now everything is at the ready and all the stars of that mysterious era have taken to reality television, where every sliver of privacy is auctioned off. This is the part where I mourn for the benighted children born into a world of “Ice Loves Coco” and “Basketball Wives,” of recaps and Internet campaigns.

No. This pop landscape, where every fan’s smallest itch is immediately scratched, is the world I so desperately wanted. Whatever the deeper gifts imparted by a world of longing, I was always looking for a way out.

Some weeks ago, when Gil Scott-Heron died, I knew exactly what I wanted to hear. Google the Great had long ago solved my old conundrum — the song was “95 South.” And with a few keystrokes there it was — the old raspy baritone, the mournful piano riffs. And there I was, circa 1994, the puzzle of memory now complete.

And next up here’s Mr. Bruni and the Anthony circus:

As a reflection of the criminal justice system, the not guilty verdict for Casey Anthony — who in all likelihood bore responsibility for her 2-year-old daughter’s death, but will never pay for that particular crime — was reassuring. Juries are supposed to presume the innocence of even the vilest defendants. Evidence must outweigh emotion. And in the end there simply wasn’t enough lucid, specific proof that Anthony had murdered her little girl.

But as a mirror of people’s opportunism, avarice, hypocrisy and hysterics, the case was galling. In the Anthony trial a system that worked almost too well met a cast of characters almost too bad to be believed, and that’s true not merely, or even mainly, of the Anthonys. It applies just as much to the rogues’ gallery around them.

Take Cheney Mason, the avuncular defense lawyer with the Southern drawl and Santa beard. After the verdict, he decided to express his displeasure with reporters and spectators by giving them the finger.

He also berated reporters for their character assassination of Anthony, a harangue that disregarded her conclusively proved absence of character and ignored a distinction that he, as a lawyer, surely recognizes: not guilty doesn’t equal innocent. The verdict spoke to the quality of the forensics, not the culpability of the defendant, and certainly didn’t transform her into a blameless, persecuted saint. She was not randomly singled out by the news media — not even by Nancy Grace, HLN’s virago of vengeance.

To top it all off, Mason lashed out at lawyers who go on TV to prattle authoritatively about cases they are merely observing from afar. This was especially rich, because as ABC News illustrated in a delicious little montage, he had done precisely that, in regard to the Anthony trial, before he joined her defense team.

That team was led by Jose Baez, an even less savory character. Although he may have a lucrative legal future, he does not have a lucrative legal past.

After graduating from law school in 1997, he couldn’t practice law for eight years because, as The Orlando Sentinel detailed in several articles about him, the Florida bar deemed him unfit. He was a deadbeat dad who, by 2004, owed $12,000 in child support. He also defaulted on a student loan and declared bankruptcy at one point.

Justices of the Florida Supreme Court, in a ruling backing the bar’s refusal to admit him, noted that he had exhibited “a total lack of respect for the rights of others and a total lack of respect for the legal system.” Expensive dating services using elaborate algorithms haven’t produced pairings as apt as his with Anthony.

But he was enterprising. Give him that. In an effort to make ends meet while barred from the bar, he turned to swimsuit sales, starting two businesses, Bon Bon Bikinis and Brazilian Bikinis. Both failed.

He was admitted to the bar in 2005, but continued to run afoul of it, The Sentinel reported. The bar received a complaint about a claim on his Web site that, at the Miami-Dade public defender’s office, he had won 32 of 34 jury trials. This boast failed to mention that when those cases were tried, he was not yet a practicing lawyer, but a helper instead. It has since been expunged from the site.

Rather than answer any of The Sentinel’s questions about that, Baez played the race card, issuing a statement that accused the newspaper of “discrimination against a young, hard-working Hispanic lawyer.” Diversion is his métier. In his opening remarks at Anthony’s trial, he said she had been sexually abused by her father and brother. In his closing remarks, he had to leave that out, because he never did get around to substantiating it.

No wonder he so thoroughly riled Nancy Grace, who doesn’t need any riling. While other commentators, responding fairly enough to what they were seeing and hearing, put their chips on Anthony’s guilt, Grace bet the whole house on it. Crusaded for it. Brooked no alternate outcome. Ever certain, ever merciless, she’d give 25-to-life to an alleged jaywalker based on the testimony of a 99-year-old with cataracts.

After the Anthony verdict, her wrath was biblical: “The devil is dancing.”

She doesn’t serve the cause of victims with such histrionics. She serves the cause of Nancy Grace. And she succeeds only in trivializing everything — and getting ratings. A record 5.2 million viewers turned to HLN on the judgment day. Apparently many of us share her appetite for gross caricatures of good and evil, and come out of this as graceless as she.

And the jurors? How do they come out of it? On the one hand, they commendably wrestled with the distinction between a miserable person and a solid case, according to an interview one of them gave to ABC News. On the other, that juror accepted, as a thanks from the network, a trip to Disney World. Another juror hired an agent of sorts to canvass the networks for the most lucrative dish-for-dough arrangement.

Enough has been said about the sordid dynamics of the Anthonys. They’re pathetic. No verdict changes that or alters the probability that Casey Anthony will have a wretched future.

Beyond July 17 she may not be stuck in jail, but she’ll be stuck with herself, and will serve a kind of life sentence, just as O. J. Simpson has. Although he beat the one big rap, a host of other reckonings — civil litigation, social censure — were still to come. He was as deranged coming out of his trial as he was going in, and that caught up with him. He is currently in a Nevada prison, doing time for armed robbery and kidnapping.

Will it be much different for Anthony, who partied while her daughter was missing, didn’t report the disappearance for a month and then concocted a crazy fiction about an imagined nanny’s abduction of the little girl?

Anthony is already being sued by a woman who happens to share that invented nanny’s name. Already being drawn and quartered on Facebook and Twitter. Already contemplating bodyguards. And already back to vamping. For a court appearance after the verdict, her long hair was once again undone, and she petted it.

I suspect she’ll be tripped up anew by her narcissism, dishonesty and icy heart. They’ll doom her. They just don’t happen to be grounds for a murder conviction.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Kristof:

Summer reading often consists of mindless page-turners, equally riveting and vacuous. So as a public service I’m delighted to offer a list of mindful page-turners — so full of chase scenes, romance and cliffhangers that you don’t mind the redeeming social value.

These are 10 triumphs of fiction, both fun to read and significant for literary or historical reasons. I guarantee pleasure and also bragging rights at your next cocktail party. And if your kids read these, I bet they’ll ace the SAT.

I did lard my list with great novels relating to social justice: at a time when inequality in America has soared to historic levels, it seems useful to exercise the conscience as well as the imagination. So here’s my quirky list: Best Beach Reading Ever.

“Germinal,” Émile Zola’s masterpiece, describes coal miners in France during a strike in the 1860s. Its description of the idealist Étienne and his love interest, Catherine, and of their struggles and dreams of a better life, makes this an enchanting read. You’re transported back into one of the battlegrounds of the Industrial Revolution, and come to understand the labor movement’s origins in a way that no history book could teach.

“Pale Fire” isn’t as well-known as the wickedly funny “Lolita,” also by Vladimir Nabokov, but it should be. “Pale Fire” is a dazzling feat of imagination and literature, unlike any other novel I know of. It’s an epic poem, an adventure about the mysterious land of Zembla, and most of all a puzzle: Is a key figure insane?

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born 200 years ago this year, is the novel that made slavery impossible for America to tolerate any longer. It’s a profoundly moving read, a tear-jerker, and a shattering window into one of this country’s original sins. Some schools today ban it because of its use of the N-word, but it remains a powerful and illuminating exploration of the human dimensions of slavery in America.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is John Steinbeck’s legendary account of an Oklahoma family’s struggles during the Great Depression. Tom Joad and his family abandon all that they have and make their way to California in hopes of a better life — but find the playing field always tilted against them. With the nation still recovering from the Great Recession, this is the perfect time to read about Tom’s travails.

“Wuthering Heights,” by Emily Brontë, may be literature’s greatest love story. Catherine must choose between her soul mate, Heathcliff, who lacks status and education, and the far more respectable Edgar. The characters are achingly luminous: they are shaped by 19th-century presumptions about class and male dominance, but are subject to irrepressible human emotions.

“Our Man in Havana,” by Graham Greene, is a comedy and spy thriller that might seem a bit low-brow for this list. But two of the lessons we never quite learn in foreign policy are that nothing goes as planned, and that intelligence scoops are always suspect. Greene’s story of a hapless spy in Cuba makes those points in an unforgettable way. The spy has nothing real to report, so he begins to make things up, and then the drama becomes deadly.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque, may be the most renowned war novel ever. It tells the story of a young man and his school friends who join the German Army in World War I, and their discovery that war isn’t glorious, it’s a tedious nightmare.

“Les Misérables,” by Victor Hugo, tells of Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison for attempting to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. He is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert in a nail-biting yarn, with better chase scenes than anything in a James Bond movie. This is also a beautifully crafted exploration of social class, justice, redemption and mercy.

“The Mysterious Stranger” isn’t Mark Twain’s most famous work, and it doesn’t make you laugh out loud like “The Prince and the Pauper” or “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” But it is a short story that wrestles with questions of God and evil. It tells of a callous angel who drops in on a village and wreaks havoc. The angel makes tiny clay people come alive and then, for amusement, destroys them with a storm, a fire and an earthquake. Like all Twain, it’s immensely readable — and more than most short stories, it makes you think.

“Scoop,” by Evelyn Waugh, is a hilarious dissection of the tabloid news business, centered on a nature writer who is mistakenly dispatched to cover a war in Africa. I wish I could say that “Scoop” is simply an absurd comic satire. But anyone who has covered Iraq or Afghanistan knows that it is still resonant — and relevant. And if you read it, you’ll get a sense of the uncertain and often unreliable path by which news coverage reaches you.


Coates and Kristof

June 23, 2011

The Times has hired Ta-Nehsi Coates as a guest columnist, I guess while they’re looking for a permanent replacement for Bob Herbert.  The only thing I know about him is that he’s a senior editor at The Atlantic, which fills me with dread since The Atlantic has creatures like The Pasty Little Putz and McMegan McCurdle.  But I’ll withhold final judgment until I know more…  This morning, in “The Haunting of Rick Perry,” he says should Gov. Rick Perry of Texas enter the 2012 presidential race, he would enjoy a strange and remarkable escort — the irrepressible ghost of Cameron Todd Willingham.  Mr. Kristof is in Dogon Doutchi, Niger and, in “The Breast Milk Cure,” he says a miracle cure for childhood malnutrition is free and easily accessible, even in remote towns in Africa. Why is it rarely used?  Here’s Mr. Coates:

Should Gov. Rick Perry of Texas enter the 2012 presidential race, he would enjoy a strange and remarkable escort — the irrepressible ghost of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Charged with the horrific crime of intentionally torching his home and leaving his three daughters to the blaze, Willingham’s 1991 conviction and 2004 execution were secured by two great bugbears of America’s criminal justice system: pseudoscientific forensics and the compromised testimony of a jailhouse snitch.

The fire investigators who fingered Willingham relied on the kind of sorcery that fire scientists have tried for the past 20 years to chase from the field. The informant, for his part, claimed that Willingham had inexplicably blurted out a confession, then recanted his tale. Then, in the words of New Yorker reporter David Grann, he “recanted his recantation.” When Grann tracked him down in 2009, he told him that “it’s very possible I misunderstood” what Willingham said, pausing to add “the statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”

Perry was unswayed by pleas from Willingham’s lawyers and rejected their request for a 30-day reprieve. This registers as a rather mild atrocity in Texas, a state that does not so much tinker with the machinery of death as it gleefully fumbles at the controls.

In 2000, an investigation by The Chicago Tribune found that almost one-third of court-appointed defense lawyers in capital cases in Texas had, at some point, been publicly sanctioned by the state’s trial board. The Tribune uncovered cases of lawyers falling asleep at trials, engaging in extortion and assaulting teenage girls. Prosecutors and police were found concealing evidence or worse. In 1980, Cesar Fierro received the death penalty on the strength of a confession secured after an El Paso sheriff colluded with police across the border in Juárez, Mexico, who arrested Fierro’s parents and threatened to attach an electric generator to his stepfather’s genitals. Fierro is still on death row.

Texas regularly executes more criminals than any other state, and does so in such haphazard fashion that it could be comic. Except people are dying.

In 2005, Texas created a state commission to investigate the use of forensic science in criminal trials. The Willingham case was one of the first on the docket.

But, in 2009, Perry, anticipating a primary fight, subverted the commission by replacing its chair in the midst of the Willingham investigation. The new panel chair promptly canceled the hearing and declined to hold more for the rest of the year. The Willingham case did not appear in the commission minutes until April, a month after Perry had won the Republican primary.

The employment of lethal force is perhaps the greatest power afforded a state by its citizens. Thus the death penalty debate is ill-suited for those who would shrink from the implications of either its deployment or abrogation.

I am opposed to the death penalty. But my opposition is tempered by the belief that Americans support capital punishment for real and substantial reasons. The unfortunate fact of humanity is that it tends to regularly birth butchers who think nothing of concealing their work beneath a seductive mask of victimhood.

Thirty years ago, Roger Keith Coleman raped and stabbed to death his sister-in-law Wanda McCoy in the mining town of Grundy, Va. Sentenced to die, Coleman spent the rest of his life seducing activists and enrolling them to the cause of his innocence. On the eve of his death, Coleman was awarded a platform by the likes of “Good Morning America,” “Today,” “Larry King Live” and Time magazine. Meanwhile, McCoy’s family, and the small town of Grundy, endured the scornful eye of the nation and the implicit inference that hicks from Appalachia were set upon enacting frontier justice. So convinced were Coleman’s advocates, that after his execution in 1992, they pressed for postmortem DNA tests. Those tests confirmed Coleman’s guilt.

Whenever tempted by moral dudgeon, it should be remembered that abolishing the death penalty would mean asking decent people to tolerate the lives of criminals who revel in the abuse of that tolerance. Opposing the death penalty is not rooted simply in the pursuit of justice, but, perhaps more firmly, in understanding the world’s fundamental injustice, and the ease with which an attempt to permanently balance the scales ultimately imbalances them further. For want of this lesson, Texas may well have executed an innocent man.

Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, the accounts of those who would seek to conceal the results of their theory should be closely checked. If only for that reason, the prospect of Governor Perry as commander in chief induces a chilling nostalgia. Indeed, choosing a leader of the free world from the ranks of those who sport a self-serving incuriosity is a habit, like crash landings and cock-fights, best cultivated in strict moderation.

Once a century should suffice.

Of course, if Gov. Goodhair does run not a word will ever be heard about Cameron Todd Willingham becauase, as we all know, IOKIYAR and Al Gore is fat and wore earth tones.  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

What if nutritionists came up with a miracle cure for childhood malnutrition? A protein-rich substance that doesn’t require refrigeration? One that is free and is available even in remote towns like this one in Niger where babies routinely die of hunger-related causes?

Impossible, you say? Actually, this miracle cure already exists. It’s breast milk.

When we think of global poverty, we sometimes assume that the challenges are so vast that any solutions must be extraordinarily complex and expensive. Well, some are. But almost nothing would do as much to fight starvation around the world as the ultimate low-tech solution: exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life. That’s the strong recommendation of the World Health Organization.

The paradox is that while this seems so cheap and obvious — virtually instinctive — it’s also rare. Here in Niger, only 9 percent of babies get nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life, according to a 2007 national nutrition survey. At least that’s up from just 1 percent in 1998.

(In the United States, about 13 percent of babies are exclusively breast-fed for six months, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then again, most of the rest get formula, which is pretty safe in America.)

Next door to Niger in Burkina Faso, fewer than 7 percent of children get breast milk exclusively for six months. In Senegal it’s 14 percent; in Mauritania, 3 percent.

These are some of the countries we’re passing through on my annual win-a-trip journey, this year with a medical student from Atlanta, Saumya Dave, and a teacher from Newark, Noreen Connolly. It’s heartbreaking to see severely malnourished children and to meet mother after mother who has buried children when such a simple life-saving solution is not applied.

The biggest problem is that many mothers believe that breast milk isn’t enough, and that, on a hot day, a child needs water as well.

On a rural road near the remote town of Dogon Doutchi, in southern Niger, we ran into a family of Tuareg nomads traveling north.

“On a hot day, babies need water,” Gayshita Abdullah, the mother, told me. She said she tries to get water from a well, but if there is no well nearby she gets it from a mud puddle.

In fact, most nutritionists are adamant that babies are best off with nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life (they used to recommend four months, but now say six months). And water in poor countries is often contaminated and dangerous for a baby.

Even when the mother is herself malnourished, her body will normally provide enough milk for a baby, nutritionists say.

A 2008 report in The Lancet, the British medical journal, found that a baby that is partially breast-fed is 2.8 times as likely to die as a baby that is exclusively breast-fed for at least five months. A child that is not breast-fed at all is 14.4 times as likely to die.

Over all, The Lancet said, 1.4 million child deaths could be averted each year if babies were breast-fed properly. That’s one child dying unnecessarily every 22 seconds.

“As far as nutritional interventions that have been studied, we have crushing evidence of breast-feeding’s efficacy in reducing child mortality,” said Shawn Baker, a nutrition specialist with Helen Keller International, an aid organization that works on these issues.

“It’s the oldest nutritional intervention known to our species, and it’s available to everybody,” Baker added. “But for a development community too focused on technological fixes, it hasn’t gained the traction it should.”

The challenges with breast-feeding in poor countries are not the kinds that Western women face, and many women in the developing world continue nursing their babies for two years. The biggest problem is giving water or animal milk to babies, especially on hot days. Another is that mothers often doubt the value of colostrum, the first milk after childbirth (which is thick and yellowish and doesn’t look much like milk), and delay nursing for a day or two.

One mother near the town of Dosso, Fati Halidou, who has lost four of her seven children, told me that after childbirth, it is best to give a baby sugar water or Koranic water. This is water made by writing a verse of the Koran on a board and then washing it off; the inky water is thought to protect the child.

It’s not clear why a human instinct to nurse went awry. Does it have something to do with the sexualization of breasts? Or with infant formula manufacturers, who irresponsibly peddled their products in the past but are more restrained now? Or is it just that moms worry that their babies need water on hot days? Nobody really knows.

But what is clear is that there’s a marvelous low-tech solution to infant malnutrition all around us.