Archive for the ‘Let’s play Attack a Democrat!’ Category

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

February 1, 2015

Putzy has a question in “Our Loud, Proud Left:”  What is fueling the cultural activism of the later Obama years?  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has part of the answer:  “Where certain pundits see an excess of left-wing political correctness, others may see a reaction to Republican efforts to roll back every progressive initiative that has been enacted over the last half-century. I can see why the left has lost its taste for debate when one side wants to deny basic human rights to gay people using bogus religious-freedom objections, or to kill food stamps, or to increase the unconscionable income disparity. I don’t need to weigh the merits of both sides to know that one side sickens me.”  In “Mitt’s White Horse Pulls Up Lame” MoDo tells us how real Mitt fell in love with reel Mitt.  I’m sure that the Koch brothers had NOTHING to do with him leaving the race…  Mr. Kristof, in “Heroes and Bystanders,” says the best way to honor past victims of genocide is to fight it everywhere that it exists today.  Mr. Bruni looks at “The Vaccine Lunacy” and says for the sake of children’s health, let’s face facts and repudiate fiction.  Here’s The Putz:

For the last week, liberal journalists have been furiously debating whether a new political correctness has swept over the American left. The instigator of this argument was New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, normally a scourge of Republicans, whose essay on what he dubbed “the new P.C.” critiqued left-wing activists for their zeal to play language cop, shout down arguments and shut down debate outright.

It will surprise absolutely nobody that I think the phenomenon that Chait describes is real. But I come not to judge but to explain — because whether you like or loathe the “P.C.” label, the rise of a more assertive cultural left is clearly one of the defining features of the later Obama years. This assertiveness is palpable among younger activists, on campus and online; it’s visible in controversy after controversy, from Ferguson to campus rape. And it’s interesting to think about exactly where it’s coming from.

The first source, probably, is disappointment with other forms of left-wing politics. A decade ago, the left’s energy was focused on Iraq; in President Obama’s first term, it was divided between his quest for a new New Deal and Occupy Wall Street’s free-form radicalism. But now the antiwar movement is moribund, Occupy has gone the way of the Yippies and it’s been years since the White House proposed a new tax or spending plan that wasn’t D.O.A.

What’s more, despite all the books sold by Thomas Piketty, the paths forward for progressive economic policy are mostly blocked — and not only by a well-entrenched Republican Party, but by liberalism’s ongoing inability to raise the taxes required to pay for the welfare state we already have. Since a long, slow, grinding battle over how to pay for those commitments is unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination, it’s not surprising that cultural causes — race, sex, identity — suddenly seem vastly more appealing.

The second wellspring is a more specific sort of disillusionment. Call it post-post-racialism: a hangover after the heady experience of electing America’s first black president; a frustration with the persistence of racial divides, even in an age of elite African-American achievement; and a sense of outrage over particular tragedies (Trayvon Martin, Ferguson) that seem to lay injustice bare.

Post-post-racial sentiment is connected to economic disappointments, because minorities have fared particularly poorly in the Great Recession’s aftermath. And this sentiment’s rejection of respectability politics — that is, the idea that the fate of black Americans rests mostly in their own hands — seems to point naturally toward a kind of redistributionism. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent Atlantic essay “The Case For Reparations” made this argument explicitly.)

But again, because the paths to economic redistribution are mostly blocked, the more plausible way to put post-post-racialism into practice is social activism: a renewed protest politics of the kind we’ve seen since Ferguson, and a wider effort to police the culture for hidden forms of racism, which don’t require tax increases to root out.

Finally, the late-Obama left is shaped by the success of the same-sex marriage movement, a rare example of a progressive cause that seems to be carrying all before it. To activists, its progress offers a model for winning even when electoral obstacles loom large: It shows that the left can gain ground at the elite level and then watch the results trickle down, that victories on college campuses can presage wider cultural success and that pathologizing critics as bigoted and phobic can be an effective way to finish up debates.

I suspect that a lot of the ambition (or aggression, depending on your point of view) from the campus left right now reflects the experience of watching the same-sex marriage debate play out. Whether on issues, like transgender rights, that extend from gay rights, or on older debates over rape and chauvinism, there’s a renewed sense that what happens in relatively cloistered environments can have wide ripples, and that taking firm control of a cultural narrative can matter much more than anything that goes on in Washington.

What’s interesting about this ambition is that it’s about to intersect with a political campaign in which the champion of liberalism will be a Clinton — when the original Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind.

Precisely because this left’s energy is cultural rather than economic, this tension is unlikely to spur the kind of populist, Elizabeth Warrenesque challenge to Hillary that pundits keep expecting.

But it does promise an interesting subtheme for the campaign. Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

Those of us watching from the right — with, perhaps, a little popcorn — will be interested to find out.

Be careful, Putzy, you may very well choke on your popcorn.  Here’s MoDo, writing from Salt Lake City:

When the Mitt Romney documentary premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival last year, one member of the audience was especially charmed by the candidate up on the screen.

That guy is great, Mitt Romney thought to himself. That guy should be running for president.

It was an “Aha” moment that came to him belatedly at age 66, after two failed presidential runs that cost more than $1 billion.

Mitt had a revelation that he should have run his races as Mitt — with all the goofiness, Mormonism, self-doubt and self-mockery thrown into the crazy salad.

Some of his strategists had argued against the movie. But wasn’t it endearing, when the tuxedo-clad Romney ironed his own French cuffs while they were on his wrists? When he listened to “This American Life” on NPR with his family? When he wryly called himself a “flippin’ Mormon”? When he and Ann prayed on their knees just before the New Hampshire primary? When he went sledding with his grandkids?

He was himself as a moderate Massachusetts governor. But when he ran for president in 2008, he was “severely conservative,” as he would later awkwardly brag, and that wasn’t him.

In 2012, he was closer but still not truly himself, putting his faith and centrist record off to the side. He had surrounded himself with Stuart Stevens and other advisers who did not have faith that the unplugged Mitt could win, and the candidate did not have enough faith in himself to push back against them.

“It’s a sad story of discovery,” said a Republican who is friends with him. “He kept going through campaigns and evolving closer to himself. Then he saw the documentary and it was liberating, showing 100 percent of himself instead of 80. But it was too late. You don’t really get three shots.”

Romney got bollixed up by dueling fears that the unkind arena would rage at him if he put up his guard and rage at him if he dropped it. He was haunted by the collapse of his father’s 1968 campaign for president after his father dropped his guard, telling a Detroit TV broadcaster that he thought he had been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War by American commanders and diplomats there.

But after Romney saw the documentary “Mitt” — by Mormon filmmaker Greg Whiteley — and felt that he could be Mitt “all the way,” as one friend put it, he was ready to run “a hell of a race.”

Mormons learn firsthand that rejection — as the young Mitt learned in Paris on his mission when he got less than 20 converts in two-and-a-half years — doesn’t mean you should stop trying.

Recent polls had Romney ahead of Jeb Bush and other Republican contenders. He was more in demand on the trail than President Obama during the 2014 campaign. He had shied away in 2012 from explaining the role of faith in his life, worried that Mormonism might still sound strange to voters if he had to explain lore like the white horse prophecy, that a Mormon white knight would ride in to save the U.S. as the Constitution was hanging by a thread.

But, in the last few weeks, Romney had seemed eager to take a Mormon mulligan. Less sensitive about his great-grandparents fleeing to Mexico to preserve their right to polygamy, Romney began joking to audiences that when he learned about the church at Brigham Young University, “Emma was Joseph Smith’s only wife.”

It was foolish to ever think he could take his religion — which is baked into every part of his life — and cordon it off.

In Park City Wednesday, I talked to Jon Krakauer, the author of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a history of Mormonism, and executive producer of “Prophet’s Prey,” a Showtime documentary, which was premiering at Sundance, about the most infamous Mormon polygamous cult.

“I don’t think he has a choice,” Krakauer said. “I don’t know how people will react, but he has nothing to be ashamed with, with his faith. And by not talking about it, it looks like he does.”

It was the same mistake Al Gore made in 2000 when he listened to advisers who told him he would seem too tree-huggy if he talked about the environment. When that was off-limits, Gore lost the issue he was least likely to be wooden on; it was the one topic that made him passionate — not to mention prescient.

If Mitt was 100 percent himself, he began to think this time, he could move past the debacles of his 47 percent comment caught on tape and his cringe-worthy 13 percent tax rate — both of which had made him seem like the pitiless plutocrat conjured by Democrats.

Two weeks ago, at a Republican meeting in San Diego, Romney talked about his decade as a Mormon bishop and stake president, working “with people who are very poor to get them help and subsistence,” finding them jobs and tending to the sick and elderly.

He changed his residency to Utah and started building a house in a wealthy suburb of Salt Lake City. He got a broker for the luxe La Jolla oceanfront home with the four-car elevator.

It was reported that a 2016 Romney campaign could be based here. Romney had been burning up the phone lines with donors and past operatives and was reassembling his old campaign team. But Jeb Bush popped Mitt’s trial balloon by peeling off the money and the talent.

“He thought there was more interest than there was,” one strategist close to Romney said. “There wasn’t a big groundswell. The donor-activist-warlord bubble had moved on. It’s a tough world. Mitt didn’t want to claw and slug.”

 Or as his 2008 presidential campaign adviser Alex Castellanos put it, “Mitt Romney found he had walked out on stage without his pants.”

At an appearance Wednesday in Mississippi, where he seemed to be honing talking points and attack lines for a possible run, he said Hillary Clinton had “cluelessly” pushed the reset button with Russia.

He blamed the news media and voters for concentrating on the wrong things. “It would be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience, what they’ve accomplished in life, would be a bigger part of what people are focused on, but it’s not,” he said. “Mostly it’s what you say — and what you do is a lot more important than just what you say.”

But both in what he said and did, Romney came across as clueless in 2012. He was hawking himself as a great manager, but he couldn’t even manage his campaign. His own advisers did not trust him to be himself. They did not adapt what the Obama team had taught everyone in 2008 about technologically revolutionizing campaigns. His own campaign was in need of a Bain-style turnaround and he was oblivious.

The reel Mitt could have told the real Mitt, as Romney said in the documentary, that the nominee who loses the general election is “a loser for life.”

He seemed shocked, the night of the election, to learn that his White Horse was lame. But how could he have won? The wrong Mitt was running.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

One of the great heroes of the 20th century was Auschwitz prisoner No. 4859, who volunteered to be there.

Witold Pilecki, an officer in the Polish resistance to the Nazi regime, deliberately let himself be captured by the Germans in 1940 so that he could gather information about Hitler’s concentration camps. Inside Auschwitz, he set up resistance cells — even as he almost died of starvation, torture and disease.

Then Pilecki helped build a radio transmitter, and, in 1942, he broadcast to the outside world accounts of atrocities inside Auschwitz — as the Nazis frantically searched the camp looking for the transmitter. He worked to expose the Nazi gas chambers, brutal sexual experiments and savage camp punishments, in hopes that the world would act.

Finally, in April 1943, he escaped from Auschwitz, bullets flying after him, and wrote an eyewitness report laying out the horror of the extermination camps. He then campaigned unsuccessfully for an attack on Auschwitz.

Eventually, he was brutally tortured and executed — not by the Nazis, but after the war, in 1947, by the Communists. They then suppressed the story of Pilecki’s heroism for decades (a book about his work, “The Auschwitz Volunteer,” was published in 2012).

I was thinking of Pilecki last week on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. I had relatives killed in Auschwitz (they were Poles spying on the Nazis for the resistance), and these camps are emblems of the Holocaust and symbols of the human capacity for evil.

In the coming months, the world will also commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide — which, despite the outrage of Turkish officials at the term, was, of course, a genocide. There, too, I feel a connection because my ancestors were Armenian.

Then, in the summer, we’ll observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — an occasion for recalling Japanese atrocities in China, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere. All this is likely to fuel more debates focused on the past. Should we honor Armenian genocide victims with a special day? Should Japan apologize for enslaving “comfort women”?

But, to me, the lesson of history is that the best way to honor past victims of atrocities is to stand up to slaughter today. The most respectful way to honor Jewish, Armenian or Rwandan victims of genocide is not with a ceremony or a day, but with efforts to reduce mass atrocities currently underway.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is a shining example of that approach, channeling outrage at past horrors to mitigate today’s — from Syria to Central African Republic. But, in general, the world is typically less galvanized by mass atrocities than paralyzed by them.

Even during the Holocaust, despite the heroism of Pilecki and others like Jan Karski, who tried desperately to shake sense into world leaders, no one was very interested in industrial slaughter. Over and over since then, world leaders have excelled at giving eloquent “never again” speeches but rarely offered much beyond lip service.

This year, I’m afraid something similar will happen. We’ll hear flowery rhetoric about Auschwitz, Armenia and World War II, and then we’ll go on shrugging at crimes against humanity in Syria, Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Darfur symbolizes our fickleness. It has disappeared from headlines, and Sudan makes it almost impossible for journalists to get there, but Human Rights Watch reported a few days ago that the human rights situation in Sudan actually deteriorated in 2014.

Indeed, the Sudanese regime is now engaging in mass atrocities not only in Darfur but also in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions. Sudan bombed an aid hospital in January in the Nuba Mountains, and the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders has just announced the closure of operations in Sudan because of government obstructionism.

A decade ago, one of the most outspoken politicians on Darfur — harshly scolding President George W. Bush for not doing more — was an Illinois senator, Barack Obama. Today, as president of the United States, he is quiet. The United Nations force in Darfur has been impotent.

Granted, humanitarian crises rarely offer good policy choices, but there’s no need to embrace the worse option, which is paralysis. We’ve seen in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Kurdistan and, lately, Yazidi areas of Iraq and eastern Congo that outside efforts sometimes can make a difference.

So, sure, let’s commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, the horror of the Holocaust and the brutality of the Armenian genocide by trying to mitigate mass atrocities today. The basic lesson of these episodes is not just that humans are capable of astonishing evil, or that some individuals like Witold Pilecki respond with mesmerizing heroism — but that, sadly, it’s just too easy to acquiesce.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

A few years back, an acerbic friend of mine who was a recent transplant to Los Angeles told me that she itched to write a satirical novel with the following narrative:

A group of wealthy, educated people in Santa Monica who deliberately didn’t vaccinate their children subsequently take them on a “poor-ism” trip to a developing country. The goal is to make them wiser and more sensitive to suffering in the world. While being sensitized, the kids catch diseases that they could have been inoculated against. Some of them die.

As a plot, it lacks subtlety (and compassion). But as a parable, it’s crystal-clear. You can be so privileged that you’re underprivileged, so blessed with choices that you choose to be a fool, so “informed” that you’re misinformed.

Which brings us to Disneyland, measles and the astonishing fact that a scourge once essentially eliminated in this country is back.

You’ve probably heard or read about the recent outbreak traced to the theme park. But there’s a chance that you’re unaware, because it hasn’t received nearly the coverage that, say, Ebola did, even though some of the dynamics at work here are scarier.

It started in mid-December and is now believed to be responsible for more than 70 cases in seven states and Mexico; 58 of those are in California, which of course is where the park is — in Orange County, to be more specific.

As it happens, there are affluent pockets of that county where the fraction of schoolchildren whose parents have cited a “personal belief” to exempt them from vaccinations is higher than the statewide average of 2.5 percent. That’s also true of some affluent pockets of the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.

It used to be that unvaccinated children in America were clustered in impoverished neighborhoods; now they’re often clustered among sophisticates in gilded ZIP codes where a certain strain of health faddishness reigns. According to a story in The Hollywood Reporter last year, the parents of 57 percent of the children at a Beverly Hills preschool and of 68 percent at one in Santa Monica had filed personal-belief exemptions from having their kids vaccinated.

Why? Many of them buy into a discredited theory that there’s a link between the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine and autism. They’re encouraged by a cadre of brash alarmists who have gained attention by pushing that thinking. Anti-vaccine panic was the path that the actress Jenny McCarthy traveled to innumerable appearances on prominent news and talk shows; she later demonstrated her singular version of concern for good health by working as a pitchwoman for e-cigarettes.

Other parents have separate or additional worries about vaccines, which can indeed have side effects. But they’re weighing that downside against what they deem to be a virtually nonexistent risk of exposure to the diseases in question. And that degree of risk depends entirely on a vast majority of children getting vaccines. If too many forgo them, we surrender what’s known as “herd immunity,” and the risk rises. That’s precisely what health officials see happening now.

In 2004, there were just 37 reported cases of measles in the United States. In 2014, there were 644. And while none of those patients died, measles can kill. Before vaccines for it became widespread in 1963, millions of Americans were infected annually, and 400 to 500 died each year.

“I don’t think its fatality rate has decreased,” said Daniel Salmon, a vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We just haven’t had enough cases for someone to die.”

An estimated 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to the measles virus become infected, and they themselves can be infectious four days before they develop a telltale rash.

But what’s in play is more than one affliction’s resurgence. The size and sway of the anti-vaccine movement reflect a chilling disregard for science — or at least a pick-and-choose, cafeteria approach to it — that’s also evident, for example, in many Americans’ refusal to recognize climate change. We’re a curious species, and sometimes a sad one, chasing knowledge only to deny it, making progress only to turn away from its benefits.

The movement underscores the robust market for pure conjecture — not just about vaccines, but about all sorts of ostensible threats and putative remedies — and the number of merchants willing to traffic in it. Look at Dr. Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon now drawing millions of viewers daily as a television host peddling weight-loss tricks. The British Medical Journal recently analyzed dozens of his shows and determined that more than half of the suggestions he doled out didn’t have sound scientific backing.

The Internet makes it easier for people to do their own “research” and can lead them to trustworthy and untrustworthy sites in equal measure.

“It can be difficult to know what to believe,” said Kristen Feemster, a infectious diseases specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “So many people can be an expert, because there are platforms for so many voices.”

Salmon noted that the sheer variety and saturation of media today amplify crackpot hypotheses to a point where they seem misleadingly worthy of consideration. “People say things enough times, there must be some truth to it,” he said. “Look at the proportion of people who question where our president was born or his religion.”

And we in the traditional media don’t always help, covering the news in an on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand fashion that sometimes gives nearly equal time to people citing facts and people weaving fiction.

I’m not entirely baffled by the fear of vaccines, which arises in part from a mistrust of drug companies and a medical establishment that have made past mistakes.

But this subject has been studied and studied and studied, and it’s abundantly clear that we’re best served by vaccinating all of those children who can be, so that the ones who can’t be — for medical reasons such as a compromised immune system — are protected.

Right now, Salmon said, only two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, limit vaccine exemptions to such children. If the anti-vaccination crowd grows, other states may have to move in that direction.

There’s a balance to be struck between personal freedom and public safety, and I’m not at all sure that our current one is correct.

We rightly govern what people can and can’t do with guns, seatbelts, drugs and so much more, all in the interest not just of their welfare but of everybody’s. Are we being dangerously remiss when it comes to making them wear the necessary armor against illnesses that belong in history books?


The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Bruni

November 23, 2014

MoDo is off today.  In “The Making of an Imperial President” The Putz thinks he can explain to us how Barack Obama ended up embracing the executive overreach he once campaigned against.  In the comments “Look Ahead” from WA had this to say:  “Maybe the assertion of executive authority has something to do with the headless horseman called Congress since it was TP’d in 2010. Dashing from pointless investigations to useless repeal votes to shutdowns, the Congress has abandoned responsibility and role, leaving the President to act on climate change and other pressing global issues.”  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Sydney, Australia.  He has a question in “Stampeding Black Elephants:”  What happens when some 6,000 park rangers, scientists, environmentalists and others gather to brainstorm how to guard and expand the earth’s protected areas?  Mr. Bruni looks at “Promiscuous College Come-Ons” and says the hucksterism of schools makes it harder for students to navigate the admissions process with any sanity and real success.  Here’s The Putz:

Let me be clear, as he likes to say: I believe that President Obama was entirely sincere when he ran for president as a fierce critic of the imperial executive. I believe that he was in earnest when he told supporters in 2008 that America’s “biggest problems” involved “George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” I believe he meant it when he cast himself as a principled civil libertarian, when he pledged to defer to Congress on war powers, when he promised to abjure privileges Bush had claimed.

I also believe he was sincere when he told audiences, again and again across his presidency, that a sweeping unilateral move like the one just made on immigration would betray the norms of constitutional government.

So how did we get from there to here? How did the man who was supposed to tame the imperial presidency become, in certain ways, more imperial than his predecessor?

The scope of Obama’s moves can be debated, but that basic imperial reality is clear. Even as he has maintained much of the Bush-era national security architecture, this president has been more willing to launch military operations without congressional approval; more willing to trade in assassination and deal death even to American citizens; and more aggressive in his war on leakers, whistle-blowers and journalists.

At the same time, he has been much more aggressive than Bush in his use of executive power to pursue major domestic policy goals — on education, climate change, health care and now most sweepingly on immigration.

Three forces — two external, one internal — might help explain how this transformation happened.

First, public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured. And so the modern president, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has written, is increasingly seen as “a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise.”

And pressure on this talisman to act, even in violation of laws or norms or Burkean traditions, is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.

Second, congressional abdication. This is the point that liberals raise, and plausibly, in President Obama’s defense: It isn’t just that he’s been dealing with an opposition party that’s swung to the right; it’s that this opposition doesn’t know its own mind, collectively or sometimes even individually, and so has trouble bargaining or legislating effectively.

This reality has made it harder to cut major bipartisan deals; it’s made it harder to solve problems that crop up within existing law; it’s made it harder for the president to count votes on foreign policy. All of which creates more incentives for presidential unilateralism: In some cases, it seems required to keep the wheels turning; in others, it can be justified as the only way to get the Big Things done.

Which bring us to the third factor in the president’s transformation: his own ambitions. While running for president, Obama famously praised Ronald Reagan for changing “the trajectory of America” in a way that Bill Clinton’s triangulation did not. And it’s his self-image as the liberal Reagan, I suspect, that’s made it psychologically impossible for this president to accept the limits that his two predecessors eventually accepted on their own policy-making ability.

That transformative self-image has shaped his presidency from the beginning: Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted — as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)

But the liberal Reagan idea has shaped his choices more as it’s become clear that certain major liberal priorities — a big climate-change bill, a comprehensive amnesty — are as out of legislative reach as health care reform proved for Clinton and Social Security reform for Bush. Confronted with those realities, Clinton pivoted and Bush basically gave up. But Obama can’t accept either option, because both seem like betrayals of his promise, his destiny, his image of himself.

And so he has chosen to betray himself in a different way, by becoming the very thing that he once campaigned against: an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound.

Yeah, Putzy.  I’m just waiting for the massive torch-lit rallies.  I guess they’ll start any day now…  Schmuck.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I participated in the World Parks Congress in Sydney last week and learned a new phrase: “a black elephant.” A black elephant, explained the London-based investor and environmentalist Adam Sweidan, is a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.

“Currently,” said Sweidan, “there are a herd of environmental black elephants gathering out there” — global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, mass extinction and massive fresh water pollution. “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now.” We’re just not dealing with them at the scale necessary. If they all stampede at once, watch out.

No, this is not an eco-doom column. This one has a happy ending — sort of. The International Union for Conservation of Nature holds the parks congress roughly every 10 years to draw attention to the 209,000 protected areas, which cover 15.4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water areas and 3.4 percent of the oceans, according to the I.U.C.N.

I could have gone to the Brisbane G-20 summit meeting, but I thought this was more important — and interesting. A hall full of park exhibits and park rangers from America, Africa and Russia, along with a rainbow of indigenous peoples, scientists and environmentalists from across the globe — some 6,000 — focused on one goal: guarding and expanding protected areas, which are the most powerful tools we have to restrain the environmental black elephants. How so?

It starts with a simple fact: Protected forests, marine sanctuaries and national parks are not zoos, not just places to see nature. “They are the basic life support systems” that provide the clean air and water, food, fisheries, recreation, stable temperatures and natural coastal protections “that sustain us humans,” said Russ Mittermeier, one of the world’s leading primatologists who was here.

That’s why “conservation is self-preservation,” says Adrian Steirn, the South Africa-based photographer who spoke here. Every dollar we invest in protecting natural systems earns or saves multiple dollars back. Ask the people of São Paulo, Brazil. They deforested hillsides, destroyed their watersheds, and now that they’re in prolonged drought, they’re running out of water, losing thousands of jobs a month. Watch that story.

Walking around the exhibit halls here, I was hit with the reality that what we call “parks” are really the heart, lungs, and circulatory systems of the world — and they’re all endangered.

Onodelgerekh Batkhuu, the director of the Mongol Ecology Center, stops me to explain that Lake Hovsgol National Park in Mongolia, which holds 70 percent of the surface freshwater of Mongolia — 2 percent of the world’s freshwater — and is the headwaters for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater that is in Lake Baikal in Siberia, is now under huge pressure from hoteliers. “How do we get them to understand that the value of that lake staying pristine is more valuable than any hotels?” she asks.

John Gross, an ecologist with the U.S. National Park Service, who has worked in Yellowstone for 20 years, uses a NASA simulation to show me how the average temperature in Yellowstone has been rising and the impact this is having on the snowpack, which is now melting earlier each spring, meaning more water loss through evaporation and rapid runoff, lengthening the fire season. But, hey, it’s just a park, right?

People forget: Yellowstone National Park is “the major source of water for both the Yellowstone and the Snake Rivers,” said Gross. “Millions of people” — farmers, ranchers and communities — “need those two rivers.” Yellowstone’s snowpack is their water tower, and its forest their water filters. Its integrity really matters. What happens in Yellowstone, doesn’t stay in Yellowstone.

Via Skype, I got to interview the heroic Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of his rangers were killed last week — bringing the total to 140 rangers killed since the park was founded — protecting the park from antiregime rebels, marauding bands poaching wildlife or fronting for oil prospectors. “No park in Africa has this diversity of species,” said de Merode, who has been shot several times.

But, again, this isn’t just an outdoor zoo. With just a little investment, explains de Merode, the park’s rivers could provide 100 megawatts of electricity from hydropower, as well as fisheries, eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture that would create thousands of jobs for the poor communities on its border. Indeed, if the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo is ever to be stabilized, it will likely start from Virunga. “You have a core of Congolese [park] rangers who have maintained their work when every other institution [in the country] has broken down,” he said. Virunga has “become an island of stability.” This is a park holding up a country, not the other way around.

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rica’s former minister of environment and energy and now a vice president of Conservation International, explains to me the politics of parks — and the difference between countries that have their forest service under the minister of agriculture and those where the forest service is under the minister of environment or independent. Agriculture ministers see natural forests and parks “as timber that should be chopped down for something ‘productive,’ like soybeans, cattle or oil palm,” said Rodríguez. Forest services and environment ministers “see their forests as carbon stocks, biodiversity reservoirs, water factories, food production plants, climate adaptation machines and tourism sites,” and protect them.

Guess who’s in the first group? Honduras and Guatemala, where many people live on degraded hillsides. Some 50,000 children have been sent from Central America to the U.S. this year — unaccompanied. Where did they come from? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Central America’s most deforested states. They cut their forests; we got their kids.

I promised you good news — sort of. It’s how many people are now focusing on the economic and national security value of their ecosystems. But the power that financiers and corrupt politicians still hold in setting the limits on what we can and cannot destroy in nature — as opposed to the scientists and biologists — remains the bad news. As Adam Sweidan put it, in too many places we’ve still got “the vampires in charge of the blood banks.” It has to stop, not so we “save the planet.” The planet will always be here. This is about us.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Between the last application season and the current one, Swarthmore College, a school nationally renowned for its academic rigor, changed the requirements for students vying to be admitted into its next freshman class.

It made filling out the proper forms easier.

A year ago, applicants were asked to write two 500-word essays as supplements to the standard one that’s part of the Common Application, an electronic form that Swarthmore and hundreds of small colleges and big universities accept. This was slightly more material than Swarthmore had previously requested, and it was more than many other highly selective schools demanded.

Not coincidentally, the number of applicants to the college dropped, and its acceptance rate in turn climbed, to 17 from 14 percent, making Swarthmore seem less selective.

This year, it’s asking for just one supplemental essay, of only 250 words.

Swarthmore is hardly alone in its desire to eliminate impediments to a bounty of applicants. Over the last decade, many elite colleges have adjusted their applications in ways that remove disincentives and maximize the odds that the number of students jockeying to get in remains robust — or, even better, grows larger.

In one sense, that’s a commendably egalitarian approach and a sensible attempt to be sure that no sterling candidate is missed.

But there’s often a less pure motive in play. In our increasingly status-oriented society, a school’s reputation is bolstered by its glimmer of exclusivity and by a low acceptance rate, which can even influence how U.S. News & World Report ranks it. And unless a school is shrinking the size of its student body, the only way to bring its acceptance rate down is to get its number of applicants up. So, many colleges methodically generate interest only to frustrate it. They woo supplicants for the purpose of turning them down.

It’s a cynical numbers game that further darkens the whole admissions process, a life juncture that should be exhilarating but is governed these days by dread.

It depersonalizes the process, too. Ideally, colleges should want students whose interest in them is genuine, and students should be figuring out which colleges suit them best, not applying indiscriminately to schools that have encouraged that by making it as painless (and heedless) as possible.

“Colleges are actively saddling themselves with a whole group of applicants about whom they know little and who, in turn, know little about them,” Lauren Gersick, the associate director of college counseling at the Urban School of San Francisco, told me. “You have a whole bunch of people fumbling along and freaking out.”

In a story in The Times last weekend, Ariel Kaminer observed that it’s not uncommon these days for an anxious, ambitious student to submit applications to 15 or more schools. Kaminer rightly cast this as a consequence of the overheated competition for admission to the most elite ones. Students spread their nets wider in the hopes of a good catch, and the Common Application abets this.

But so do the schools, which hawk themselves more assertively than ever. They fly in counselors like Gersick and give them elaborate sales pitches. They send their own emissaries out into the world, armed with glossy pamphlets. They buy data to identify persuadable applicants and then approach them with come-ons as breathless as any telemarketer’s pitch.

A recent email that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sent unbidden to one high school senior invited him “to apply with Candidate’s Choice status!” (The boldface letters and the exclamation point are Rensselaer’s, not mine.)

“Exclusively for select students, the Candidate’s Choice Application is unique to Rensselaer, and is available online now,” the email said, after telling its recipient that “a talented student like you deserves a college experience that is committed to developing the great minds of tomorrow.”

“The marketing is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” said Kay Rothman, director of college counseling at the NYC Lab School, in Manhattan. “There are places like Tulane that will send everyone a ‘V.I.P.’ application.” She told me that she routinely had to disabuse impressionable students of the notion that they’d won some prized lottery or been given some inside track.

A certain amount of outreach and promotion is necessary, even commendable.

“I don’t think colleges are guilty for marketing their product,” Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, said when I spoke with her last week. “Colleges need to explain to students what their product is about.”

And there can be other rationales for what looks like a loosening of application demands. Smith and several other similarly prominent colleges no longer require the SAT or ACT, and McCartney said that that’s not a bid for more applicants. It’s a recognition that top scores on those tests correlate with high family income and may say more about an applicant’s economic advantages — including, say, private SAT tutoring — than about academic potential.

Jim Bock, Swarthmore’s dean of admissions, said that by lightening the essay load for its current applicants, the college was less concerned about boosting its overall number of applicants than about making sure candidates of great merit didn’t miss out on Swarthmore and vice versa. He mentioned the hypothetical example of a high school student from a low-income family who works 10 or more hours a week and doesn’t have ample time to do different essays for different schools.

“Sometimes asking too much is asking too much,” he said in an interview on Friday.

But will Swarthmore’s applicants this year give quite as much thought to its suitability for them, to whether it’s the right home? I’m betting not.

When it’s a snap for a student to apply to yet one more college and each school is simply another desirable cereal on a top shelf that he or she is determined to reach, there’s inadequate thought to a tailored match, which is what the admissions process should strive for. It’s what the measure of success should be.

That was the feeling expressed by a group of counselors and consultants in a thread of Facebook comments last July about colleges doing away with supplemental essays.

One of them, Laird Durley, wrote that students insufficiently motivated to write something extra for a school “probably shouldn’t go to those schools anyway,” and he rued the extent to which simply gaining admission to a school with a fancy name — any school with a fancy name — ruled the day.

“It is harder than ever to sell ‘fit’ as opposed to ‘logo affixing,’ ” he wrote, adding that “what you will learn there” has taken a back seat to a different consideration: “Look at my brand!”

Blow and Krugman

November 10, 2014

We’re starting off the week with Blow and Krugman reporting on the people who play “Let’s Attack a Democrat.”  In “The Obama Opposition” Mr. Blow says Republicans would erase the accomplishments and the man, and Prof. Krugman, in “Death by Typo,” says politics, not legal reasoning, is behind the assault on Obamacare that is now headed to the Supreme Court.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The president came to Washington thinking he could change Washington, make it better, unite it and the nation. He was wrong. As he ascended, the tone of political discourse descended, as much because of who he was as what he did.

When Obama introduced Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate in Springfield, Ill., he expressed his confidence that Biden could “help me turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington, so we can bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda that works for the American people.”

In his first Inaugural Address, Obama said:

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

He underestimated the degree to which his very presence for some would feel more like a thorn than a salve. The president seemed to think that winning was the thing. It wasn’t. Stamina was the thing. The ability to nurse a grievance was the thing.

The president’s first “I won” moment came shortly after his inauguration. It was in an hourlong, bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders about the stimulus package. ABC News reported an exchange the president had with Eric Cantor this way:

“Obama told Cantor this morning that ‘on some of these issues we’re just going to have ideological differences.’ The president added, ‘I won. So I think on that one, I trump you.’ ”

Then, in a 2010 meeting with members of Congress about the Affordable Care Act, a visibly agitated president quipped to John McCain (who was raising concerns about the bill): “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over.”

And in 2013, appearing even more agitated following the government shutdown, the president chastised his opponents across the aisle: “You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election.”

This idea that Republicans would honor the fact that he was elected — twice — almost seems quaint. It angered; it didn’t assuage.

And in addition to some people being ideologically opposed to Democratic principles in general, others are endlessly irritated by a personal attitude and persona that seem impervious to chastisement or humbling.

Even the president himself has come around to giving voice to this in public. Last year he told The New York Times: “There’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”

Gall here is an interesting word, and a purposeful one I think. It is in line with all the other adjectives used to describe this president’s not kowtowing and supplicating himself before traditional power structures.

Arrogant is another word that gets regular usage by his opponents, like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie. Some even connect Obama and supposed arrogance to anything and everything he does.

Ted Cruz has said that the Affordable Care Act and the problems in Syria are “tied together by an arrogance of this administration.” Newt Gingrich has even said that the president golfs arrogantly.

And let us not forget elitist and radical.

Occasionally someone lower on the pecking order and with a little less discipline will utter the unutterable, the racially charged word that hangs like a cloud over the others: uppity.

To demonstrate their disapproval, the more conservative, more homogeneous midterm electorates have dealt the Democrats — and specifically, the president — painful blows in the last two elections. This will render a stalled agenda even more so.

His term must be tarnished; his accomplishments erased.

Some people blame the president for not cultivating more congressional relationships, across the aisle and even in the Democratic caucus. There may be some truth to that, but not much, I believe. No amount of glad-handing and ego-stroking would compensate for the depths of the opposition. Nor would messaging.

This is a president who was elected by an increasingly diverse national electorate that some find frightening, a president who is pushing a somewhat liberal agenda that some have found intrinsically objectionable, and a president who is battling some historical personality tropes that many cannot abandon.

To his opponents, this president’s greatest sins are his success and his self.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

My parents used to own a small house with a large backyard, in which my mother cultivated a beautiful garden. At some point, however — I don’t remember why — my father looked at the official deed defining their property, and received a shock. According to the text, the Krugman lot wasn’t a rough rectangle; it was a triangle more than a hundred feet long but only around a yard wide at the base.

On examination, it was clear what had happened: Whoever wrote down the lot’s description had somehow skipped a clause. And of course the town clerk fixed the language. After all, it would have been ludicrous and cruel to take away most of my parents’ property on the basis of sloppy drafting, when the drafters’ intention was perfectly clear.

But it now appears possible that the Supreme Court may be willing to deprive millions of Americans of health care on the basis of an equally obvious typo. And if you think this possibility has anything to do with serious legal reasoning, as opposed to rabid partisanship, I have a long, skinny, unbuildable piece of land you might want to buy.

Last week the court shocked many observers by saying that it was willing to hear a case claiming that the wording of one clause in the Affordable Care Act sets drastic limits on subsidies to Americans who buy health insurance. It’s a ridiculous claim; not only is it clear from everything else in the act that there was no intention to set such limits, you can ask the people who drafted the law what they intended, and it wasn’t what the plaintiffs claim. But the fact that the suit is ridiculous is no guarantee that it won’t succeed — not in an environment in which all too many Republican judges have made it clear that partisan loyalty trumps respect for the rule of law.

To understand the issue, you need to understand the structure of health reform. The Affordable Care Act tries to establish more-or-less universal coverage through a “three-legged stool” of policies, all of which are needed to make the system work. First, insurance companies are no longer allowed to discriminate against Americans based on their medical history, so that they can’t deny coverage or impose exorbitant premiums on people with pre-existing conditions. Second, everyone is required to buy insurance, to ensure that the healthy don’t wait until they get sick to join up. Finally, there are subsidies to lower-income Americans to make the insurance they’re required to buy affordable.

Just as an aside, so far this system seems to be working very well. Enrollment is running above expectations, premiums well below, and more insurance companies are flocking to the market.

So what’s the problem? To receive subsidies, Americans must buy insurance through so-called exchanges, government-run marketplaces. These exchanges, in turn, take two forms. Many states have chosen to run their own exchanges, like Covered California or Kentucky’s Kynect. Other states, however — mainly those under G.O.P. control — have refused to take an active role in insuring the uninsured, and defaulted to exchanges run by the federal government (which are working well now that the original software problems have been resolved).

But if you look at the specific language authorizing those subsidies, it could be taken — by an incredibly hostile reader — to say that they’re available only to Americans using state-run exchanges, not to those using the federal exchanges.

As I said, everything else in the act makes it clear that this was not the drafters’ intention, and in any case you can ask them directly, and they’ll tell you that this was nothing but sloppy language. Furthermore, the consequences if the suit were to prevail would be grotesque. States like California that run their own exchanges would be unaffected. But in places like New Jersey, where G.O.P. politicians refused to take a role, premiums would soar, healthy individuals would drop out, and health reform would go into a death spiral. (And since many people would lose crucial, lifesaving coverage, the deaths wouldn’t be just a metaphor.)

Now, states could avoid this death spiral by establishing exchanges — which might involve nothing more than setting up links to the federal exchange. But how did we get to this point?

Once upon a time, this lawsuit would have been literally laughed out of court. Instead, however, it has actually been upheld in some lower courts, on straight party-line votes — and the willingness of the Supremes to hear it is a bad omen.

So let’s be clear about what’s happening here. Judges who support this cruel absurdity aren’t stupid; they know what they’re doing. What they are, instead, is corrupt, willing to pervert the law to serve political masters. And what we’ll find out in the months ahead is how deep the corruption goes.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

November 10, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz is all excited, and he took pixels to screen to write a letter to The Jersey Whale.  In “Dear Governor Christie” he offers up a don’t-do list for a possible presidential run in 2016.  Of course he left off “don’t go ballistic and scream at people,” so the debates should be fun…  MoDo is sharpening her claws on Hillary again [yawn], and in “Funny Girl” she hisses that as Hillary takes Hollywood, Sarah Silverman offers a piece of advice. (And it’s not even funny.)  Since she’s obviously completely in awe of Hollywood maybe the Times should switch her to TV and movie reviews.  In “Why I (Still) Support Obamacare” The Moustache of Wisdom says in a world where middle-class work is in transition, we need a strong health care safety net.  Mr. Kristof is in Tulsa, and sends in “Oklahoma! Where the Kids Learn Early.”  He says if America wants a national model for early education, it should look to what is being achieved in Oklahoma.  Mr. Bruni considers “Violence, Greed and the Gridiron” and says with its savage culture and wrecked bodies and minds, America’s most popular sport may also be its least conscionable.  Here’s The Putz:

I know, governor, I know: It’s still too early for presidential speculation, you’re just focused on the job at hand and any talk of 2016, while flattering, is purely hypothetical.

But just in case you do have some faint, slight, extremely modest interest in parlaying your landslide re-election into a presidential bid, here are four 2016 “don’ts” to keep in mind:

Don’t be Jon Huntsman. This sounds easy enough, but obvious pitfalls are still worth pointing out. For the next two years, you’re going to be hailed up and down the Acela Corridor as the Great Moderate Hope, the anti-Tea Party candidate, the Man Who Is Not Ted Cruz. But you can’t actively embrace that part, or give off the impression — as Huntsman did, obviously and fatally — that you agree with the media that your party’s full of rubes and cranks.

As a would-be nominee, you have to woo base voters, not run against them, and make them feel respected even when they disagree with you. This doesn’t mean muzzling yourself, or pandering to every right-wing interest group. But it means persuading conservatives that you like them, that you understand them and that as president you’re going to be (mostly) on their side.

Don’t be Rudy Giuliani. You probably think you wouldn’t have Rudy’s problems in a Republican primary. Yes, you’re both combative Northeasterners from the party’s moderate flank, but unlike the former mayor you aren’t a social liberal with a public history of adultery (and a few drag performances thrown in).

But what felled Giuliani in 2008 wasn’t just “values” issues. It was the former mayor’s apparent belief that being a national hero was a sufficient qualification to be president — that he could just show up, be “Rudy,” and the rest would take care of itself.

As another charismatic politician defined by your handling of a catastrophe, you’re vulnerable to the same temptation: the belief that you, personally, are the solution to the Republican Party’s many problems, and that you can just run on your own awesomeness without specifying where you would take the country if you won. That act wears thin in a long campaign, and it’s likely to wear especially thin in a party that needs a new agenda as badly as Republicans do today. Which brings us to …

Don’t assume that what worked in Jersey will work nationally. In state-of-the-party arguments, you and your fellow Republican governors love to contrast your successes with the national party’s struggles. But those successes have been made possible by crucial differences between state-level issues and national ones.

In New Jersey, for instance, you’ve been able to successfully isolate public-sector unions, portraying them as drains on middle-class tax dollars and enemies of the common good. But in national budget debates, the biggest issues are popular entitlement programs, not teacher salaries or bureaucrats’ health benefits. And you probably aren’t going to win the presidency wagging your finger at Social Security recipients, or painting the poor and elderly as dangerous special-interest groups. You need a different way to convince voters that you’re on the middle class’s side, and you won’t find it unless you …

Don’t always listen to your donors. As a standard-bearer for pragmatic, non-apocalyptic Republicanism who also hails from a state where lots of rich Wall Streeters sleep at night, you’re going to be awash in money, and with it will come lots of unsolicited advice. Some will be good: the Republican donor class has a better handle on certain political realities than the Tea Party. But some will be terrible, because the right’s donors are loath to acknowledge that their party’s biggest problem isn’t gay marriage or immigration or even the disastrous government shutdown. It’s a brand identity, cemented by Mitt Romney’s persona and “47 percent” remark, as the handmaiden of Big Business and the rich.

To alter that identity, you’ll need substance as well as regular-guy style: a tax plan that doesn’t play just as a giveaway to the 1 percent, a health care plan that isn’t just a defense of the pre-Obamacare status quo, an approach to spending that targets corporate welfare as well as food stamps.

The good news is that you already have populist politicians like Utah’s Senator Mike Lee leading the charge into this territory, so you can follow without worrying too much about being attacked as a RINO sellout squish. The bad news is that you’ll have a lot of big bundlers cornering you to explain that actually it’s much more important to cut capital-gains taxes or preserve the carried-interest loophole for hedge funds, and why can’t you move to the center on social issues and stick with upper-bracket tax cuts, because after all they worked in the Reagan era …

Which they did — in a completely different economic and political landscape. So if you want to have an era of your own, you’ll need to nod politely, crush your well-heeled advice-giver with a handshake, and then take a different path.

And now here’s MoDo, God help us:

As Hollywood bowed down to Hillary Clinton, who swept through on a state visit with Chelsea on Friday, there seemed to be only one person here with any reservations.

“I want her to take a voice class,” Sarah Silverman said, as she curled and uncurled like a cat on the gray couch of her modest West Hollywood apartment decorated with taped-up pictures of her family.

“She’s so smart and has so much to say and can change the world but she’s” — here Silverman goes fortissimo — “TALKING LIKE SHE’S YELLING AT YOU. She sounds like a mom who’s yelling at you. And it triggers a response.”

What response does Ted Cruz trigger?

“Terrifying,” she says. “He’s disgusting, and one day I Wikipedia-ed him and I’m like four days older than him and it made me so depressed.”

She does credit conservatives with being deviously effective at naming things. “Citizens United,” she says. “What sounds more beautiful than that?”

The comedian says she’s “not smart enough” about politics, and in an HBO special, airing Nov. 23, she sticks to her usual sweet depravity with jokes about rape, porn, Jews and her family. But she became a hilarious viral force in the last two elections.

In 2008, she did the “Great Schlep” video urging Jews with grandparents in Florida to withhold visits to “bubbie” and “zadie” unless they agreed to vote for Barack Obama.

In 2012, she offered Sheldon Adelson “an indecent proposal” involving a bikini bottom and a lesbian sexual treat if he would give $100 million to Obama instead of Mitt Romney.

She teased Mitt on Twitter, asking about his sexual proclivities. And she quickly got a million views for her video slamming voter ID laws.

When a rabbi wrote to to criticize Silverman’s “Let My People Vote” campaign, suggesting that she should “channel” her passion into marriage and children, her dad defended her with a few of the off-color words he taught Sarah when she was a toddler.

But Silverman, whose persona has always been that of the adorable, pigtailed child-woman, defended herself recently after some younger male comics mocked her as a crone, in Hollywood terms. She admitted to W. Kamau Bell on his TV show, “Totally Biased,” that it took a couple of days to recover her self-esteem.

At a Comedy Central roast of James Franco, Jonah Hill said, “Sarah is a role model for every little girl out there. I mean, every little girl dreams of being a 58-year-old single stand-up comedian with no romantic prospects on the horizon. They all dream of it, but Sarah did it.” (Silverman is 42 and dates comedian Kyle Dunnigan.)

Hill also offered this shot: “People say it’s too late for Sarah to become successful in movies at her age. I again do not agree. It’s not impossible. I mean, it’s not like they’re asking you to bear children or anything like that.”

Roast Master Seth Rogen introduced her as “No. 29 on Maxim’s Hot 100 — in the year 2007.”

Silverman told Bell that “as soon as a woman gets to an age where she has opinions and she’s vital and she’s strong, she’s systematically shamed into hiding under a rock. And this is by progressive pop-culture people!”

Looking like a lithe college girl in a blue and white striped T-shirt, sweatpants, sneakers and no makeup, she stressed to me that “everything goes” at a roast and that she brutally dishes it out — she leveled fat jokes at Hill at the roast — so she has to take it.

And her philosophy is that women should not get special favors but just be the best at what they do. “That’s what makes strides for women,” she says. “Be undeniable.”

Still, the taunts hit a chord. You can be the toughest girl on the block and still be vulnerable, as Hillary learned in New Hampshire in 2008, when she got emotional.

Silverman said she was up for a role recently, and “it was between me and a 25-year-old to play the love interest of the 50-year-old man and I lost it.” She laughs ruefully.

“These issues always come up when an actress hits a certain age and has a voice she can use,” she says. “It’s not any kind of new notion. It’s just new for me, you know what I mean? I love all those guys. Still, I think it was O.K. to admit that it cut me. We’re just made of feelings.”

She adds that jokes about appearance play differently: “Look, Jonah Hill can be fat, guys can be fat and still deserve love in this society. You know? In white America, overweight women don’t deserve love.”

The gender divide comes up again when I ask her about having kids, given her riff in the HBO special about how much she loves them.

“Maybe I would have had kids if I had a wife,” she says. “I have a lot of guy comic friends who have families because they have wives and they raise the kids. And I’m on the road all the time, and I date other people who are on the road. But I guess I really just was never ready. I still don’t feel like I’m ready. My plan is to adopt and be like young Grandma age.”

Really.  She’d be a great TV reviewer, and the perfect balance to all those accusations about “liberal” Hollywood…  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

At the recent New York Times forum in Singapore, Eleonora Sharef, a co-founder of HireArt, was explaining what new skills employers were seeking from job applicants, but she really got the audience’s attention when she mentioned that her search firm was recently told by one employer that it wouldn’t look at any applicant for a marketing job who didn’t have at least 2,000 Twitter followers — and the more the better. She didn’t disclose the name of the firm, but she told me that it wasn’t Twitter.

At a meeting with students at Fudan University in Shanghai a few days earlier, I was struck by how anxious some of the Chinese students were about the question: “Am I going to have a job?” If you’re a software engineer in China, you’ll do fine, also a factory worker — but a plain-old college grad? The Times reported earlier this year that in China today “among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education.”

Stories like these explain why I really hope that Obamacare succeeds. Say what?

Here’s the logic: The Cold War era I grew up in was a world of insulated walls, both geopolitical and economic, so the pace of change was slower — you could work for the same company for 30 years — and because bosses had fewer alternatives, unions had greater leverage. The result was a middle class built on something called a high-wage or a decent-wage medium-skilled job, and the benefits that went with it.

The proliferation of such jobs meant that many people could lead a middle-class lifestyle — with less education and more security — because they didn’t have to compete so directly with either a computer or a machine that could do their jobs faster and better (by far the biggest source of job churn) or against an Indian or Chinese who would do their jobs cheaper. And by a middle-class lifestyle, I don’t mean just scraping by. I mean having status: enough money to buy a house, enjoy some leisure and offer your kids the opportunity to do better than you.

But thanks to the merger of globalization and the I.T. revolution that has unfolded over the last two decades — which is rapidly and radically transforming how knowledge and information are generated, disseminated and collaborated on to create value — “the high-wage, medium-skilled job is over,” says Stefanie Sanford, the chief of global policy and advocacy for the College Board. The only high-wage jobs that will support the kind of middle-class lifestyle of old will be high-skilled ones, requiring a commitment to rigorous education, adaptability and innovation, she added.

But will even this prescription for creating enough jobs with decent middle-class incomes suffice, asks James Manyika, who leads research on economic and technology trends at the McKinsey Global Institute. While these prescriptions are certainly “correct,” notes Manyika, they “may not be enough to solve for the scale and nature of the problem.” The pace of technologically driven productivity growth, he said, suggests that we may not need as many workers to drive equivalent levels of output and G.D.P.

As the M.I.T. economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee show in their book “Race Against the Machine,” for the last two centuries productivity, median income and employment all rose together. No longer. Now we have record productivity, wealth and innovation, yet median incomes are falling, inequality is rising and high unemployment remains persistent.

To be sure, notes Manyika, a similar thing happened when we introduced technology to agriculture. We did not need as many people to produce food, so everybody shifted to manufacturing. As the same thing happened there, many people shifted to services.

But now, adds Manyika, “a growing share of high-paying services and knowledge work is also falling prey to technology.” And while new companies like Twitter are exciting, they do not employ people with high-paying jobs in large numbers. The economy and the service sector will still offer large numbers of jobs, but many simply may not sustain a true middle-class lifestyle.

As a result, argues Manyika, how we think about “employment” to sustain a middle-class lifestyle may need to expand “to include a broader set of possibilities for generating income” compared with the traditional job, with benefits and a well-grooved career path. To be in the middle class, you may need to consider not only high-skilled jobs, “but also more nontraditional forms of work,” explained Manyika. Work itself may have to be thought of as “a form of entrepreneurship” where you draw on all kinds of assets and skills to generate income.

This could mean leveraging your skills through Task Rabbit, or your car through Uber, or your spare bedroom through AirBnB to add up to a middle-class income.

In the end, this transition we’re going through could prove more exciting than people think, but right now asking large numbers of people to go from being an “employee” to a “work entrepreneur” feels scary and uncertain. Having a national health care safety net under the vast majority of Americans — to ease and enable people to make this transition — is both morally right and in the interest of everyone who wants a stable society.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Liberals don’t expect Oklahoma to serve as a model of social policy. But, astonishingly, we can see in this reddest of red states a terrific example of what the United States can achieve in early education.

Every 4-year-old in Oklahoma gets free access to a year of high-quality prekindergarten. Even younger children from disadvantaged homes often get access to full-day, year-round nursery school, and some families get home visits to coach parents on reading and talking more to their children.

The aim is to break the cycle of poverty, which is about so much more than a lack of money. Take two girls, ages 3 and 4, I met here in one Tulsa school. Their great-grandmother had her first child at 13. The grandmother had her first at 15. The mom had her first by 13, born with drugs in his system, and she now has four children by three fathers.

But these two girls, thriving in a preschool, may break that cycle. Their stepgreat-grandmother, Patricia Ann Gaines, is raising them and getting coaching from the school on how to read to them frequently, and she is determined to see them reach the middle class.

“I want them to go to college, be trouble-free, have no problem with incarceration,” she said.

Research suggests that high-poverty parents, some of them stressed-out kids themselves, don’t always “attach” to their children or read or speak to them frequently. One well-known study found that a child of professionals hears 30 million more words by the age of 4 than a child on welfare.

So the idea is that even the poorest child in Oklahoma should have access to the kind of nurturing that is routine in middle-class homes. That way, impoverished children don’t begin elementary school far behind the starting line — and then give up.

President Obama called in his State of the Union address this year for a nationwide early education program like this, for mountains of research suggests that early childhood initiatives are the best way to chip away at inequality and reduce the toll of crime, drugs and educational failure. Repeated studies suggest that these programs pay for themselves: build preschools now, or prisons later.

Because Obama proposed this initiative, Republicans in Washington are leery. They don’t want some fuzzy new social program, nor are they inclined to build a legacy for Obama. Yet national polling suggests that a majority of Republicans favor early-education initiatives, so I’d suggest that Obama call for nationwide adoption of “The Oklahoma Project” and that Republicans seize ownership of this issue as well.

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”

Teachers, administrators and outside evaluators agree that students who go through the preschool program end up about half a year ahead of where they would be otherwise.

“We’ve seen a huge change in terms of not only academically the preparation they have walking into kindergarten, but also socially,” said Kirt Hartzler, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa. “It’s a huge jump-start for kids.”

Oklahoma began a pilot prekindergarten program in 1980, and, in 1998, it passed a law providing for free access to prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Families don’t have to send their children, but three-quarters of them attend.

In addition, Oklahoma provides more limited support for needy children 3 and under. Oklahoma has more preschools known as Educare schools, which focus on poor children beginning in their first year, than any other state.

Oklahoma also supports home visits so that social workers can coach stressed-out single moms (or occasionally dads) on the importance of reading to children and chatting with them constantly. The social workers also drop off books; otherwise, there may not be a single children’s book in the house.

The Oklahoma initiative is partly a reflection of the influence of George B. Kaiser, a Tulsa billionaire who searched for charitable causes with the same rigor as if he were looking at financial investments. He decided on early education as having the highest return, partly because neuroscience shows the impact of early interventions on the developing brain and partly because careful studies have documented enormous gains from early education.

So Kaiser began investing in early interventions in Oklahoma and advocating for them, and, because of his prominence and business credentials, people listened to the evidence he cited. He also argues, as a moral issue, that all children should gain fairer access to the starting line.

“Maybe the reason that rich, smart parents had rich, smart children wasn’t genetics,” Kaiser told me, “but that those rich, smart parents also held their kids, read to them, spent a lot of time with them.”

I tagged along as a social worker from Educare visited Whitney Pingleton, 27, a single mom raising three small children. They read to the youngest and talked about how to integrate literacy into daily life. When you see a stop sign, the social worker suggested, point to the letters, sound them out and show how they spell “stop.”

Some of the most careful analysis of the Oklahoma results comes from a team at Georgetown University led by William T. Gormley Jr. and published in peer-reviewed journals. The researchers find sharp gains in prereading, prewriting and prearithmetic skills, as well as improvements in social skills. Some experts think that gains in the ability to self-regulate and work with others are even more important than the educational gains — and certainly make for less disruptive classes. Gormley estimates that the benefits of Oklahoma’s program will outweigh the costs by at least a ratio of 3 to 1.

So how about it, America?

Can we embrace “The Oklahoma Project” — not because it’s liberal or conservative, but because it’s what is best for our kids and our country?

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

While Tony Dorsett described the collision, CNN played the footage, from 1984.

There’s Dorsett, the great former running back for the Dallas Cowboys, carrying the ball fast downfield. And there, suddenly, is a Philadelphia Eagles defender, shooting toward him like a burly rocket. The defender’s helmet lands in the crook of Dorsett’s neck; Dorsett’s head snaps back so far that you’d swear it’s connected to the rest of him by nothing more than taffy.

“A freight train hitting a Volkswagen,” Dorsett said, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in the interview last week what the moment of impact must have been like. He can’t specifically recall it.

There’s so much he forgets these days. On a flight recently to the Los Angeles medical center where they studied his brain, he grew confused about his destination, about the reason for the trip. His memory, his emotions: They’re jumbles, pieces of a puzzle in disarray. The doctors at the center confirmed why. Dorsett, 59, has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease that has now been found in dozens of former pro football players. It’s most likely caused by big hits like the one in 1984 and little hits that happen on every play, a constant thwack-thwack-thwack of a player’s head against his helmet. This is the reliable, unremarkable percussion of the sport. This is its very rhythm.

“Would I do it all over again?” Dorsett said to Blitzer, beating his questioner to the punch. “Yes.” The damage, in other words, is worth the thrills, and not just to Dorsett, who can’t alter the terms of the trade-off at this befogged point. Team owners and coaches have made the same calculation. So have the money-mad executives in the National Football League, and so, too, have we fans. All of us have entered into a compact, a conspiracy. For the pleasure the sport gives us, we’ll tuck away our reservations about its culture of violence. We’ll turn a blind eye to the wreckage.

That wreckage isn’t just physical, as news last week about the vicious, racist hazing of a young Miami Dolphins lineman showed. The lineman was so shaken that he fled the team. And when his departure came to light, what did other Dolphins and players around the N.F.L. have to say about it? Nothing terribly empathetic. Most of the comments I saw questioned his machismo and defended the taunts and threats as jocks being jocks — or, even worse, as a sanctioned strategy to toughen up a wimpy newbie.

“The coaches know who’s getting picked on and in many cases call for that player to be singled out,” wrote Lydon Murtha, a former Dolphin, in a post on the Sports Illustrated website. “This is a game of high testosterone, with men hammering their bodies on a daily basis. You are taught to be an aggressive person.” Aggression is central to the brutal ballet that we fans have grown accustomed to. It’s also the path to victory, and thus the road to riches. It’s recruited. Rewarded.

To have our football and our fun, we delete what we learned about the New Orleans Saints: that the squad had put bounties on rivals, promising thousands in cash to any defensive player who knocked an opposing team’s quarterback out of the game. We look past how many quarterbacks — and cornerbacks and linebackers and wide receivers — wind up prostrate on the gridiron, a circle of trainers and doctors hovering over them, one of the sport’s most familiar tableaus. In last Monday night’s contest between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, the Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, fractured his collarbone; he’ll be out for several weeks, just as the Bears’ star quarterback, Jay Cutler, has been. In this era of bigger bodies, blunter force and rampant casualties, championships don’t necessarily go to the best teams, but to the ones with the most men standing.

We brush that aside, as we do the substance abuse and each bulletin about the latest arrest. Aaron Hernandez isn’t playing tight end for the New England Patriots this year because he’s on trial for murder. If it’s not one alleged felony, it’s another, the on-field aggression traveling off-field to dogfights, fistfights, sexual assault: the high jinks of American idols in their idle time.

We minimize the relentlessness with which the sport is pursued and its message that nothing — nothing — matters more than winning. Is it coincidence that two head coaches were hospitalized this month, or is it the wages of a workaholic ethos? John Fox, of the Denver Broncos, had emergency heart surgery. Gary Kubiak, of the Houston Texans, had what’s sometimes called “a warning stroke.” The commentators wished them well and the game went on. It always does.

We minimize the tyranny of money, money, money. Money is surely why Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, won’t change the team’s name: What if too many fans were irked and too many of their dollars withheld? Money is certainly why there’s now a prime-time game every Thursday night, though the teams playing it get just four days of recovery from their Sunday matches, an abbreviation of down time that’s a potential force multiplier of injuries. Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, won’t be thrown off his financial goal, sketched out in a chilling profile of him by Don Van Natta Jr. in ESPN’s magazine last March. Within 15 years, Goodell wants to boost annual revenues to $25 billion from $10 billion.

THAT would be jeopardized if the N.F.L. took responsibility for the prevalence of brain disease like Dorsett’s and like that of several former players, including the San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, whose suffering drove them to suicide. (The recent $765 million settlement of a lawsuit by more than 4,500 players and their families was paltry in the context of all the lives ruined.) The league’s sustained refusal to confront this situation seriously and honestly is documented in “League of Denial,” a book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru that was published last month.

Such a reckoning would pose “an existential problem,” Steve Fainaru told me last week, saying that if there’s a definitive determination that “the game itself can cause this devastating disease in a huge number of players, it can’t help but cause you to think: What exactly am I rooting for?”

He and I were talking as two people struggling with our love of the sport. He said: “Who wants to believe that all the joy that Junior Seau gave us led him to become completely unrecognizable to his family? How do we reconcile that as football fans? Some people have suggested, jokingly, that the book should have been called ‘Nation of Denial.’ ”

He mentioned a visit that he’d made to the Colosseum in Rome, where gladiators once fought. At least in pro football, he observed, “They’re not sacrificing people at the end of the game.”

I thought of Seau and of Dorsett, and said: “No, not at the end of the game. They’re just delaying it.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

January 13, 2013

In “The Obama Synthesis” The Pasty Little Putz says the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, two men with Bush-era perspectives, tells us something about the president’s foreign policy.  MoDo says “We Offer More Thank Ankles, Gentlemen,” and that all the president’s men can’t figure out why all the president has is men.  The Moustache of Wisdom has consulted his dictionary.  In “Collaborate vs. Collaborate” he says that one word seems to have two different meanings on the two coasts.  He is to be somewhat congratulated, however, because in this column he doesn’t seem to use his usual “but both sides do it” argument.  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?”  He says India’s horrific rape case is symptomatic of a global problem, and Americans who view it with condescension should also look in the mirror.  Mr. Bruni has decided to be a scold.  All he sees are “Democrats Behaving Badly.”  He whines that between Harry Reid’s inflations and President Obama’s nominations, Democrats are playing a game of arrogance and needless errors.  In his third from the last paragraph he grudgingly notes that Republicans haven’t been perfect…  Here’s The Putz:

As both his critics and admirers argue, the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense last week tells us something important about Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy. But so does the man who was nominated alongside Hagel, to far less controversy and attention: John Brennan, now head of the White House’s counterterrorism efforts, and soon to be the director of the C.I.A.

Both men were intimately involved in foreign policy debates during George W. Bush’s administration, but had very different public profiles. As a C.I.A. official, Brennan publicly defended some of Bush’s most controversial counterterrorism policies, including the “rendition” of terror suspects for interrogation in foreign countries. As a senator, Hagel was one of the few prominent Republicans to (eventually) turn against the war in Iraq. Now it’s fitting that Obama has nominated them together, because his foreign policy has basically synthesized their respective Bush-era perspectives.

Like the once-hawkish Hagel, Obama has largely rejected Bush’s strategic vision of America as the agent of a sweeping transformation of the Middle East, and retreated from the military commitments that this revolutionary vision required. And with this retreat has come a willingness to make substantial cuts in the Pentagon’s budget — cuts that Hagel will be expected to oversee.

But the Brennan nomination crystallizes the ways in which Obama has also cemented and expanded the Bush approach to counterterrorism. Yes, waterboarding is no longer with us, but in its place we have a far-flung drone campaign — overseen and defended by Brennan — that deals death, even to American citizens, on the say-so of the president and a secret administration “nominations” process.

Meanwhile, the imprimatur of a liberal president means that other controversial Bush-era counterterror policies are more secure than ever. Just last month, for instance, while Congress was embroiled in furious partisan arguments over the fiscal cliff, the practice of warrantless wiretapping was reaffirmed with broad bipartisan support.

To the extent that it’s possible to define an “Obama Doctrine,” then, it’s basically the Hagel-Brennan two-step. Fewer boots on the ground, but lots of drones in the air. Assassination, yes; nation-building, no. An imperial presidency with a less-imperial global footprint.

This is a popular combination in a country that’s tired of war but still remembers 9/11 vividly. Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy has been an immense political success: he’s co-opted foreign policy realists, neutralized antiwar Democrats and isolated Republican hawks.

This success, in turn, has given him a freer hand to choose appointees who embody his worldview. The left objected, successfully, when Brennan was floated as a possibility for C.I.A. director after Obama’s 2008 victory, but the opposition is likely to be weaker this time around. Hagel’s hawkish opponents have a slightly better chance, mostly because his views on Iran and Israel are more dovish than the White House’s own stated positions. But the campaign against his nomination has often been more desperate than effective, offering tissue-thin charges of anti-Semitism and embarrassingly opportunistic criticisms of Hagel’s record on gay rights.

If Hagel does get through, it will be the clearest sign yet that Obama enjoys more trust — and with it, more latitude — on foreign policy than any Democrat since Harry Truman. And in many ways he’s earned it: his mix of caution and aggression has thus far avoided major military disasters (an underrated virtue in presidents), prevented major terror attacks and put an end to America’s most infamous foe.

But that’s a provisional judgment, contingent on events to come. The Obama way of statecraft has offered a plausible course correction after the debacles of the Bush era, but the ripples from many of his biggest choices — to leave Iraq outright, to surge and then withdraw in Afghanistan, to intervene more forcefully in Libya than in Syria — are still spreading, and the ultimate success of those policies is still very much in doubt. Likewise with his looming defense cuts, whose wisdom depends entirely on what actually is trimmed.

Foreign policy is always a balancing act, in which no ideological system can guarantee success, and no effective action is without cost. The recent careers of the two nominees illustrate this point. Hagel was absolutely right to decide that the Iraq war was a blunder, but he was dead wrong (as was Obama) to then assume that the 2007 surge — a salvage job, but a brave and necessary one — would only make the situation worse. The drone campaign that Brennan has overseen has undoubtedly weakened Al Qaeda. But it’s also killed innocents, fed anti-American sentiment and eroded the constraints on executive power in troubling ways.

These are not reasons to deny them the chance to serve this president in his second term. But they are reasons to ask them hard questions, and to look carefully for places where Obama’s post-Bush course correction may need to be corrected in its turn.

It does need to be corrected, Putzy.  Gitmo needs to be closed, drone strikes need to stop…  Now here’s MoDo:

President Obama ran promoting women’s issues.

But how about promoting some women?

With the old white boys’ club rearing its hoary head in the White House of the first black president, the historian Michael Beschloss recalled the days when the distaff was deemed biologically unsuited for the manly discourse of politics. He tweeted: “1/12/1915, U.S. House refused women voting rights. One Congressman: ‘Their ankles are beautiful … but they are not interested in the state.’ ”

Now comes a parade of women to plead the case for the value of female perspective in high office: Women reach across the aisle, seek consensus, verbalize and empathize more, manage and listen better. Women are more pragmatic, risk-averse and, unburdened by testosterone, less bellicose.

Unfortunately, these “truisms” haven’t held true with many of the top women I’ve covered in Washington.

Janet Reno was trigger-happy on Waco, and a tragic conflagration ensued. Hillary Clinton’s my-way-or-the-highway obduracy doomed her heath care initiative; she also voted to authorize the Iraq invasion without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate, and badly mismanaged her 2008 campaign. Condi Rice avidly sold W.’s bogus war in Iraq. One of Susan Rice’s most memorable moments was when she flipped the finger at Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting.

Maybe these women in the first wave to the top had to be more-macho-than-thou to succeed. And maybe women don’t always bring a completely different or superior skill set to the table. And maybe none of that matters.

We’re equal partners in life and governance now, and we merit equal representation, good traits and bad, warts and all.

It’s passing strange that Obama, carried to a second term by women, blacks and Latinos, chooses to give away the plummiest Cabinet and White House jobs to white dudes.

If there’s one thing white men have never had a problem with in this clubby, white marble enclave of Washington, it’s getting pulled up the ladder by other men. (New York magazine claims that of late, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama does.)

Last week, The New York Times ran a startling photo, released by the White House, of the president in the Oval Office surrounded by 10 male advisers (nine white and one black). Valerie Jarrett was there, but was obscured by a white guy (though a bit of leg and “beautiful ankle” did show).

Obama has brought in a lot of women, including two he appointed to the Supreme Court, but it is more than an “optics” problem, to use the irritating cliché of the moment. Word from the White House is that the president himself is irritated, and demanding answers about the faces his staff is pushing forward. Unfortunately, he has only a bunch of white guys to offer an explanation of why the picture looks like a bunch of white guys.

Right from the start, the president who pledged “Change We Can Believe In” has been so cautious about change that there have been periodic eruptions from women and minorities.

Maybe Obama thinks he’s such a huge change for the nation to digest that everything else must look like the Eisenhower administration, with Michelle obligingly playing Laura Petrie. But it’s Barry tripping over the ottoman.

In more “He’s Like Ike” moments, the president spends his free time golfing with white male junior aides. The mood got sour early in the first term when senior female aides had a dinner to gripe directly to Obama about lack of access and getting elbowed out of big policy debates.

Some women around Obama who say that he never empowers women to take charge of anything are privately gratified at the latest kerfuffle, hoping it will shut down the West Wing man cave. It’s particularly galling because the president won re-election — and a record number of women ascended to Congress — on the strength of high-toned denunciations of the oldfangled Mitt Romney and the Republican kamikaze raid on women.

“We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women” to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for “our daughters.”

It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he himself lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female — his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.

But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world — not to mention to his own daughters.

Obama is an insular man who is not as dependent on his staff as some other presidents. With no particular vision for his staff, he surrounds himself with guys who then hire their guy friends.

Most people who work in the top tier of campaigns are men; most people who work for Obama now were on his campaigns; ergo, most people in his inner circle are men. Pretty soon, nobody’s thinking it through and going out of the way to reflect a world where daughters have the same opportunities as sons.

And then the avatars of modernity hit the front page of The Times, looking just as backward as the pasty, patriarchal Republicans they mocked.

Again with the “insular” slap at Obama.  As if she has an earthly clue about what he’s really like…  Now we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

col-lab-o-rate [k uh-lab- uh-reyt]

verb (used without object), col-lab-o-rat-ed, col-lab-o-rat-ing.

1. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work: They collaborated on a novel.

2. to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially with an enemy occupying one’s country: He collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

IT is often said that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language. That is also true of Washington and Silicon Valley. The other day, I was interviewing Alan S. Cohen, an expert on networks who has been involved in several successful start-ups. At one point, Cohen began talking about the importance of “collaboration” both within and between firms in Silicon Valley. Then he stopped and said it’s interesting that in Silicon Valley “collaboration” is defined as something you do with another colleague or company to achieve greatness — something to be praised — as in: “They collaborated on that beautiful piece of software.” But in Congress “collaboration” means something very different today. It’s the second definition — collaboration is an act of treason — something you do when you cross over and vote with the other party. In Silicon Valley, great “collaborators” are prized; in Washington, they are hanged. Said Cohen, who was vice president at Nicira, a networking start-up that recently sold for $1.26 billion: “In Washington, when they say ‘collaborator’ they mean ‘traitor’; here they mean ‘colleague.’

It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big reason that Silicon Valley is thriving more than ever, finding more ways to solve bigger and bigger problems faster, and that Washington is only capable of producing 11th-hour, patched-together, Rube Goldberg compromises, with no due diligence, that produce only suboptimal outcomes to our biggest problems. In Washington today collaboration happens only to avert crises or to give out pork, not to build anything great. That is why if Congress were a start-up, the early-stage investors would have long ago been wiped out and the firm shuttered. Cause of death: an inability of the partners to collaborate. “People in Washington,” said Cohen, “forgot that they are developers: ‘I am on this committee. I have to fix this problem and write some software to do it,’ and that requires collaboration. They have forgotten their job and the customer.”

Don’t get me wrong, Silicon Valley is not some knitting circle where everyone happily shares their best ideas. It is the most competitive, dog-eat-dog, I-will-sue-you-if-you-even-think-about-infringing-my-patents innovation hub in the world. In that sense, it is, as politics is and should always be, a clash of ideas. What Silicon Valley is not, though, is only a clash of ideas.

Despite the heated competition, lots of collaboration still happens here for one main reason: to serve the customer the best product or service. One way is through new open-source innovation platforms like GitHub — a kind of “Wikipedia for programmers” — where hobbyists, start-ups and big firms share ideas in order to enlist more people (either within a firm in restricted ways or from the outside in a wide open manner) to help improve their software or Web sites.

Another way is through “co-opetition.” There are many examples here of companies trying to kill each other in one market but working together in another — to better serve customers. Microsoft Windows runs on Apple Macs because customers wanted it. When Apple Maps failed, Apple asked its users to download Google Maps. Finally, within firms, it is understood that to thrive in today’s market, solve the biggest problems and serve customers, you need to assemble the best minds from anywhere in the world.

“When you obsess about the customer, you end up defeating your competition as a byproduct,” said K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, a fuel-cell company. “When you are just obsessed about the competition, you end up killing yourself” as a byproduct — “because you are not focused on the customer.”

The far-right lurch of the G.O.P.’s base has made this problem worse. When President Obama built his health care plan on Mitt Romney’s operating system in Massachusetts, Romney was so focused on coddling his base to beat Obama — rather than trying to improve Obama’s iteration of Romney’s own design to best serve all the customers — that Romney disowned his own software. What company would do that?

“Sure competition here is sharp-elbowed,” said Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn. “But no one can succeed by themselves. Apple today is totally focused on how it can better work with its [applications] developer community.” It cannot thrive without them. “The only way you can achieve something magnificent is by working with other people,” said Hoffman. “There is lots of co-opetition.” LinkedIn competes with headhunters and is used by headhunters.

With collaboration, one plus one can often turn out to be four, says Jeff Weiner, the C.E.O. of LinkedIn, adding: “I will always work with you — if I know we’ll get to four. You can’t build great products alone. And if everyone understood that you can’t build great government alone our country would be in a different place.”

Tommy, sweetie, the Teatards will not now, nor will they ever, “collaborate” with The Kenyan Usurper for the good of the country.  Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

In India, a 23-year-old student takes a bus home from a movie and is gang-raped and assaulted so viciously that she dies two weeks later.

In Liberia, in West Africa, an aid group called More Than Me rescues a 10-year-old orphan who has been trading oral sex for clean water to survive.

In Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players are accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl who was either drunk or rendered helpless by a date-rape drug and was apparently lugged like a sack of potatoes from party to party.

And in Washington, our members of Congress show their concern for sexual violence by failing to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law first passed in 1994 that has now expired.

Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. The World Health Organization has found that domestic and sexual violence affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries.

In some places, rape is endemic: in South Africa, a survey found that 37 percent of men reported that they had raped a woman. In others, rape is institutionalized as sex trafficking. Everywhere, rape often puts the victim on trial: in one poll, 68 percent of Indian judges said that “provocative attire” amounts to “an invitation to rape.”

Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.

One obstacle is that violence against women tends to be invisible and thus not a priority. In Delhi, of 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of last year, only one ended in conviction. That creates an incentive for rapists to continue to rape, but in any case that reported number of rapes is delusional. They don’t include the systematized rape of sex trafficking. India has, by my reckoning, more women and girls trafficked into modern slavery than any country in the world. (China has more prostitutes, but they are more likely to sell sex by choice.)

On my last trip to India, I tagged along on a raid on a brothel in Kolkata, organized by the International Justice Mission. In my column at the time, I focused on a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old imprisoned in the brothel, and mentioned a 17-year-old only in passing because I didn’t know her story.

My assistant at The Times, Natalie Kitroeff, recently visited India and tracked down that young woman. It turns out that she had been trafficked as well — she was apparently drugged at a teahouse and woke up in the brothel. She said she was then forced to have sex with customers and beaten when she protested. She was never allowed outside and was never paid. What do you call what happened to those girls but slavery?

Yet prosecutors and the police often shrug — or worse. Dr. Shershah Syed, a former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan, once told me: “When I treat a rape victim, I always advise her not to go to the police. Because if she does, the police might just rape her again.”

In the United States, the case in Steubenville has become controversial partly because of the brutishness that the young men have been accused of, but also because of concerns that the authorities protected the football team. Some people in both Delhi and Steubenville rushed to blame the victim, suggesting that she was at fault for taking a bus or going to a party. They need to think: What if that were me?

The United States could help change the way the world confronts these issues. On a remote crossing of the Nepal-India border, I once met an Indian police officer who said, a bit forlornly, that he was stationed there to look for terrorists and pirated movies. He wasn’t finding any, but India posted him there to show that it was serious about American concerns regarding terrorism and intellectual property. Meanwhile, that officer ignored the steady flow of teenage Nepali girls crossing in front of him on their way to Indian brothels, because modern slavery was not perceived as an American priority.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.

Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?

(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)

Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.

Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said it was always wrong.

But the progress worldwide is far too slow. Let’s hope that India makes such violence a national priority. And maybe the rest of the world, especially our backward Congress, will appreciate that the problem isn’t just India’s but also our own.

Good luck getting Congress to do anything when it’s rife with people who think that there is a term like “legitimate rape.”  Now here’s Mr. Bruni, who haz a huge sad about bad manners:

For the textbook definition of not knowing enough to quit while you’re ahead, please turn your attention to Harry Reid, he of the scabrous tongue and rotten temper, a boxer in his youth and a pugilist to this day, throwing mud along with punches and invariably soiling himself.

Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, couldn’t just stand back and relish the recent spectacle of House Republicans making callous fools of themselves by stalling aid to communities walloped by Hurricane Sandy. He wasn’t satisfied that these Republicans were vilified not only in the news media but also by some members of their own tribe, like Peter King and Chris Christie. No, he had to get into the ring himself, and his genius strategy once there was to pit one storm’s victims against another’s, to stage a bout between Atlantic City’s splintered boardwalks and Louisiana’s failed levees. What a titan of meteorological tact.

Noting that Congress had provided help after Hurricane Katrina more quickly and generously than after Sandy, Reid said: “The people of New Orleans and that area, they were hurt, but nothing in comparison to what happened to the people in New York and New Jersey. Almost one million people have lost their homes. One million people lost their homes. That is homes, that is not people in those homes.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, his fleeting difficulty distinguishing a biped with a weak spot for reality TV from a wood, brick or maybe stucco structure in which several bipeds watch TV. Let’s focus instead on his math. The one million figure is easily more than twice the combined tally of domiciles not only destroyed but also damaged in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It’s an invention. And if comparisons are to be made, consider this one: as a result of Katrina, 1,833 people died — more than nine times as many as died in connection with Sandy. Using the word “nothing” anywhere in the vicinity of Katrina defies both belief and decency, and Reid was indeed forced last week to apologize, his effort to shame his Republican foes having brought a full measure of shame to his own doorstep, yet again.

Why did he make the effort in the first place? Democrats came out of the 2012 elections looking good, and the country’s changing demographics suggest that they could come out of 2016 and beyond looking even better, especially if Republicans don’t accomplish a pretty thorough image overhaul. And that overhaul isn’t exactly proceeding at a breakneck pace. The perseverance of far-right obstructionists in the House stands in the way, leaving the party in grave trouble. If its foes were smart and humble, they’d do what a sports team with a big lead does. They’d play error-free ball.

Not Reid. And not President Obama, whose recent actions have been careless at best and cavalier at worst. There was the gratuitously provocative nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, followed by the gratuitously insulting invitation of Louie Giglio, a Georgia pastor, to give the inaugural benediction. That plan was abandoned after the revelation of Giglio’s past remarks that homosexuality offends God, that homosexuals yearn to take over society and that a conversion to heterosexuality is the only answer for them. Giglio would have been the second florid homophobe in a row to stand with Obama and a Bible in front of the Capitol — Rick Warren, in January 2009, was the first — and while it appears that this double bigotry whammy wasn’t the administration’s intent, it’s an example of vetting so epically sloppy that it gives an observer serious pause about the delicacy with which Obama and his allies, no longer worried about his re-election, are operating.

The pick of Hagel underscores that indelicacy. There’s a potent case to be made for his installation as secretary of defense, but there are potent cases for others, and it’s hard to believe that Obama couldn’t have found someone who shared his values and would further his agenda but wouldn’t be such a guaranteed lightning rod for his Jewish, LGBT and female supporters, all of whom played crucial roles in his November victory.

Regarding women, Hagel’s record on reproductive freedom is as conservative as his record on gay rights, and it included his support for a ban on abortions in military hospitals, even for servicewomen prepared to pay for the procedures themselves. What’s more, Obama rolled Hagel out in a cluster of other high-profile nominees (John Brennan, Jack Lew, John Kerry) sure to be noted for their gender uniformity and to rekindle questions about the predominantly male club of advisers and golf and basketball partners who have the president’s ear. The upset was predictable and avoidable.

It has been noted, rightly, that the president put two additional women on the Supreme Court and that his percentage of female appointees is as good as President Bill Clinton’s was. But given the march of time since then, and given the questions raised during his first term about how valued women in the administration felt, and given his drumbeat that he was a champion for women in a way Mitt Romney could never be, shouldn’t he be surpassing Clinton? Going out of his way? There’s a perverse streak of defiance in him, and as donors and even Democratic lawmakers have long complained, gratitude isn’t his strong suit.

While Hagel lurched toward his confirmation hearings and Giglio skittered away, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it was sending each of the 35 Republican freshmen in the House a “tea party membership card,” which spelled out their rights to put “ideology over solutions,” to be horrid to women, to coddle Big Oil and “to create and/or ignore any national crisis.” Thus did the Dems turn legitimate gripes into schoolyard taunts that were more likely to inflame G.O.P. freshmen than to bully them into bipartisanship. What, beyond the theater of the gesture, was the point of it?

Granted, Republicans had done their own adolescent taunting, calling Democrats lap dogs in the Nancy Pelosi obedience school. But Democrats pride and market themselves as the reasonable adults in the equation, and that’s part of their currency with many voters. Why fritter it away?

And why abide the overwrought antics of Reid? He once compared opponents of Obama’s health care reform to enemies of emancipation. He took valid questions about Romney’s low tax bill and spun them into the unsubstantiated claim that Romney hadn’t paid any taxes for an entire 10-year period. Then he said the burden was on Romney to prove the charge untrue. Good thing our criminal courts don’t work that way.

Just before and after the 2012 election, it looked as if Republicans might be successfully burying themselves. All Democrats had to do was hammer the nail in the coffin. But the way they’re behaving, they’ll raise the dead.

Dowd and Friedman

October 10, 2012

MoDo has produced a thing called “Barry Trails Off…”  She informs us all about the lesson she says Barack Obama never learned: leadership and salesmanship are intertwined.  The Moustache of Wisdom says “It’s Not Just About Us,” and has a question:  How can the U.S. impact the Middle East and all its complexities?  Here’s MoDo:

President Obama likes to be alone.

When he speaks at rallies, he doesn’t want the stage cluttered with other officeholders. When he rides in his limo, he isn’t prone to give local pols a lift. He wants to feel that he doesn’t owe his ascension to anyone else — not a rich daddy, not a spouse or father who was president, not even those who helped at pivotal moments. He believes he could do any job in his White House or campaign, from speechwriter to policy director, better than those holding the jobs.

So Obama knows that he alone is responsible for his unfathomable retreat into his own head while 70 million people watched. He hadn’t been nailing it in debate prep either, taking a break to visit the Hoover Dam, and worried aides knew his head wasn’t in it. When the president realized what a dud he was, he apologized to flummoxed and irritated advisers.

Once during the 2008 campaign, reading about all the cataclysms jolting the economy and the world, Obama joked to an adviser: “Maybe I should throw the game.” This time, he actually threw the game. And shaved points right off his poll ratings. The president is good at analyzing the psychology of other world leaders, and he wrote an acclaimed memoir about his long, lonely odyssey of self-discovery. But he doesn’t always do a good job at analyzing his own psychology to avoid self-destructive patterns.

David Maraniss, who wrote biographies of Bill Clinton and Obama, said that both men had recurring themes. Clinton would plant “the seeds of his own undoing” and then “find a way to recover.” Obama’s personality, Maraniss said, was shaped by his desire to avoid traps created by his unusual family and geographical backgrounds, and the trap of race in America.

“It helped explain his caution, his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard, looking for where he might get checkmated,” Maraniss wrote in “Barack Obama: The Story,” adding that it also made Obama seek to transcend confrontation.

While Mitt Romney did a great job of conjuring a less off-putting and hard-right Romney, Obama walked into a trap of his own devising.

It was a perfect psychological storm for the president. He performs better when his back is against the wall; he has some subconscious need to put himself in challenging positions. That makes it hard for him to surf success and intensity; he just suddenly runs out of gas and stops fighting, leaving revved up supporters confused and deflated. “That’s just his rhythm,” said one adviser.

Because Obama doesn’t relish confrontation, he often fails to pin his opponents on the mat the first time he gets the chance; instead, perversely, he pulls back and allows foes to gain oxygen. It happened with Hillary in New Hampshire and Texas and with Republicans in the health care and debt-ceiling debates. Just as Obama let the Tea Party inflate in the summer of 2009, spreading a phony narrative about “death panels,” now he has let Romney inflate and spread a phony narrative about moderation and tax math.

Even though Obama was urged not to show his pompous side, he arrived at the podium cloaked in layers of disdain; a disdain for debates, which he regards as shams, a venue, as the Carter White House adviser Gerry Rafshoon puts it, where “people prefer a good liar to a bad performer.”

Obama feels: Seriously? After all he did mopping up Republican chaos, does he really have to spend weeks practicing a canned zinger? Should the man who killed Osama bin Laden and personally reviews drone strikes have to put on a show of macho swagger?

Plus, he’s filled with disdain for Romney, seeing him as the ultimate slick boardroom guy born on third base trying to peddle money-making deals. Surely everyone sees through this con man?

Just as Poppy Bush didn’t try as hard as he should have because he assumed voters would reject Slick Willie, Obama lapsed into not trying because he assumed voters would reject Cayman Mitt.

The president averted his eyes as glittering opportunities passed, even when Romney sent a lob his way with a reference to his accountant.

Obama has been coddled by Valerie Jarrett, the adviser who sat next to Michelle at the debate, instead of the more politically strategic choice of local pols and their spouses. Jarrett believes that everyone must woo the prodigy who deigns to guide us, not the other way around.

At a fund-raising concert in San Francisco Monday night, the president mocked Romney’s star turn, saying “what was being presented wasn’t leadership; that’s salesmanship.”

It is that distaste for salesmanship that caused Obama not to sell or even explain health care and economic policies; and it is that distaste that caused him not to sell himself and his policies at the debate. His latest fund-raising plea is marked “URGENT.” But in refusing to muster his will and energy, and urgently sell his vision, he underscores his own lapses in leadership and undermines arguments for four more years.

Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Mitt Romney gave a foreign policy speech on Monday that could be boiled down to one argument: everything wrong with the Middle East today can be traced to a lack of leadership by President Obama. If this speech is any indication of the quality of Romney’s thinking on foreign policy, then we should worry. It was not sophisticated in describing the complex aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It was not accurate in describing what Obama has done or honest about the prior positions Romney has articulated. And it was not compelling or imaginative in terms of the strategic alternatives it offered. The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us — and them.

Ever since the onset of the Arab awakening, the U.S. has been looking for ways to connect with the Arab youths who spearheaded the revolutions; 60 percent of the Arab world is under age 25. If it were up to me, I’d put Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, in charge of American policy in the Arab-Muslim world. Because we need to phase out of the cold war business of selling arms there to keep “strongmen” on our side and in power, and we need to get into the business of sponsoring a “Race to the Top” in the Arab-Muslim world that, instead, can help empower institutions and strong people, who would voluntarily want to be on our side.

Look at the real trends in the region. In Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly, autocracy has not been replaced with democracy, but with “elective kleptocracy.” Elective kleptocracy is what you get when you replace an autocracy with an elected government before there are accountable institutions and transparency, while huge piles of money beckon — in Iraq thanks to oil exports, and in Afghanistan thanks to foreign aid.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, we have also seen the collapse of the “Mukhabarat states” — Mukhabarat is Arabic for internal security services — but not yet the rise of effective democracies, with their own security organs governed by the rule of law. As we saw in Libya, this gap is creating openings for jihadists. As the former C.I.A. analyst Bruce Riedel put it in a recent essay in The Daily Beast, “The old police states, called mukhabarat states in Arabic, were authoritarian dictatorships that ruled their people arbitrarily and poorly. But they were good at fighting terror. … These new governments are trying to do something the Arab world has never done before — create structures where the rule of law applies and the secret police are held accountable to elected officials. That is a tall order, especially when terrorists are trying to create chaos.”

At the same time, the civil war between Sunni Muslims, led by the Saudis, and Shiite Muslims, led by Iran, is blazing as hot as ever and lies at the heart of the civil war in Syria. In addition, we also have a struggle within Sunni Islam between puritanical Salafists and more traditional Muslim Brotherhood activists. And then there is the struggle between all of these Islamist parties — who argue that “Islam is the answer” for development — and the more secular mainstream forces, who may constitute the majority in most Mideast societies but are disorganized and divided.

How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)

But when we’re talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the new government in Libya, we cannot let them come to us and say: “We need money, but right now our politics is not right for us to do certain things. Give us a pass.” We bought that line for 50 years from their dictators. It didn’t end well. We need to stick to our principles.

This is going to be a long struggle on many fronts. And it requires a big shift in thinking in the Arab-Muslim world, argues Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., from “us versus them to us versus our own problems.” And from “we are weak and poor because we were colonized” to “we were colonized because we were weak and poor.” Voices can be heard now making those points, says Haqqani, and I think we best encourage them by being very clear about what we stand for. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them, not us. Only then is it self-sustaining, and only then can our help truly amplify it.


Dowd and Friedman

October 3, 2012

In “Complicity in Duplicity?” MoDo has a question:  Who’s cherry-picking now? Two different Rices, in two different administrations, spinning two different national security stories.  Talk about false equivalencies…  The Moustache of Wisdom says “China Needs Its Own Dream,” and that the so-called American Dream won’t work for China.  How will its new leaders handle the dramatic growth of its emerging middle class?  Here’s MoDo:

A woman named Rice in a top administration job, ambitious to move up to secretary of state, hitting the Sunday talk shows to aggressively promote a Middle East narrative that’s good for the president but destined to crumble under scrutiny.

Accusations that intelligence on Al Qaeda links in the Middle East was cherry-picked by American officials to create a convenient reality.

A national security apparatus that becomes enmeshed with the political image-making machine.

Sound familiar?

Last time it was Condoleezza Rice helping her war-obsessed bosses spin their deceptive web, as they recklessly tried to re-engineer the Middle East. This time it was Susan Rice offering a noncredible yarn as the Obama team desperately tries to figure out the Middle East.

W.’s administration played up Al Qaeda ties, exploiting 9/11 to invade Iraq, which the neocons had wanted to do all along. The Obama administration sidestepped Al Qaeda ties in the case of the Libyan attack to perpetuate the narrative that the president had decimated Al Qaeda when Osama bin Laden was killed, and to preclude allegations that they were asleep at the switch on the anniversary of 9/11. Better to blame it all on a spontaneous protest to an anti-Islam video on YouTube.

It’s remarkable that President Obama, who came to power abhorring the manipulative and duplicitous tactics of the Bush crowd, should now be vulnerable to similar charges.

You know you’re in trouble when Donald Rumsfeld is the voice of reason. “The idea of sending a United Nations ambassador for the United States out to market and peddle and spin a story that has, within a matter of hours, demonstrated to be not accurate, I think is inexcusable,” the former defense secretary told Fox News on Tuesday. “I can’t imagine.”

His imagination fails him even though he, his pal Dick Cheney and his ward W. sent then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N. to market a story that fell apart one invasion later. Rumsfeld said that if the Obama administration’s critics are right, that perhaps officials were “bureaucratic and unwilling to respond promptly to a threat report.” Like when W. was unwilling to respond promptly to that threat report screaming “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”?

There was something off-kilter about the tragic saga of Christopher Stevens from the beginning. Even for a highly regarded ambassador with a dash of Lawrence of Arabia’s empathy and mistaken sense of invulnerability, Stevens was obviously too lightly guarded in a region roiling with threats and hatred; he was in a susceptible complex without enough armed security and basic emergency equipment. Even afterward, the place was so unprotected that a CNN staffer could walk in and pick up Stevens’s private diary, which reflected the ambassador’s fear about never-ending attacks and being on an Al Qaeda hit list.

There were, after all, Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebels who overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi with American help.

House Republicans will hold a hearing next week and have asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to explain why the consulate was not better defended given, as Representative Darrell Issa noted in a letter, the “long line of attacks on Western diplomats and officials in Libya in the months leading up to September 11, 2012.”

Susan Rice’s tumble is part of a disturbing pattern of rushing to pump up the president on national security, which seems particularly stupid because it’s so unnecessary.

Last year, the White House had to backtrack from the overwrought initial contentions of John Brennan, a deputy national security adviser, who said Bin Laden died after resisting in a firefight and that he was “hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield.”

Now that one of the members of the Navy SEAL team, Matt Bissonette, has written a book, there are contradictory accounts, one by a Democratic White House dying to sound tough, and one by an eyewitness. Bissonette wrote that the lead commando shot an unarmed Bin Laden in the head when he peered out of his bedroom door and they shot his convulsing body again inside the bedroom. In the administration’s version, the shot in the stairwell missed.

Just so, in an overzealous effort to burnish a president who did not need burnishing — especially against foreign policy bumbler Mitt Romney and foreign policy novice Paul Ryan — they have gotten tangled in contradictory accounts about Benghazi. The administration had benefited from the impression that it had diminished Al Qaeda, even though the public no doubt appreciates that it was never going to be so simple. But, as Romney learned when he prematurely rushed to the microphone to take advantage of the crisis and mangled his facts, there is a cost to letting the political spin cycle dictate how you discuss national security.

The U.S. military is preparing to retaliate for the Libyan attack. But, even if Stevens is avenged, will the president get the credit he deserves if his acolytes have left the impression that they’re willing to rewrite the story for political advantage?

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

On Nov. 8, China is set to hold the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party. We already know who will be the next party leader: Vice President Xi Jinping. What we don’t know is what matters: Does Xi have a “Chinese Dream” that is different from the “American Dream?” Because if Xi’s dream for China’s emerging middle class — 300 million people expected to grow to 800 million by 2025  — is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all) then we need another planet.

Spend a week in China and you’ll see why. Here’s a Shanghai Daily headline from Sept. 7: “City Warned of Water Resource Shortage.” The article said: “Shanghai may face a shortage of water resources if the population continues to soar. … The current capacity of the city’s water supply was about 16 million tons per day, which is able to cover the demand of 26 million people. However, once the population reaches 30 million, the demand would rise to 18 million tons per day, exceeding the current capacity.” Shanghai will hit 30 million in about seven years!

“Success in the ‘American Dream,’ ” notes Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, or Juccce, “used to just mean a house, a family of four, and two cars, but now it’s escalated to conspicuous consumption as epitomized by Kim Kardashian. China simply cannot follow that path — or the planet will be stripped bare of natural resources to make all that the Chinese consumers want to consume.”

Liu, an M.I.T. graduate and former McKinsey consultant, argues that Chinese today are yearning to create a new national identity, one that merges traditional Chinese values, like balance, respect and flow, with its modern urban reality. She believes that the creation of a sustainable “Chinese Dream” that breaks the historic link between income growth and rising resource consumption could be a part of that new identity, one that could resonate around the world.

So Juccce has been working with Chinese mayors and social networks, sustainability experts and Western advertising agencies to catalyze sustainable habits in the emergent consuming class by redefining personal prosperity — which so many more Chinese are gaining access to for the first time — as “more access to better products and services, not necessarily by owning them, but also by sharing — so everyone gets a piece of a better pie.”

That means, among other things, better public transportation, better public spaces and better housing that encourages dense vertical buildings, which are more energy efficient and make shared services easier to deliver, and more e-learning and e-commerce opportunities that reduce commuting. Emphasizing access versus ownership isn’t just more sustainable, it helps ease friction from the differences between rich and poor. Indeed, Juccce translates Chinese Dream as “Harmonious and Happy Dream” in Mandarin. (“Green” doesn’t sell in China.)

Chinese are more open to this than ever. A decade ago, the prevailing attitude was, “Hey, you Americans got to grow dirty for 150 years. Now it is our turn.” A couple of weeks ago, though, I took part in the opening day of Tongji University’s Urban Planning and Design Institute in Shanghai and asked students whether they still felt that way. I got a very different answer. Zhou Lin, a graduate student studying energy systems, stood up and declared, with classmates nodding, “You can politicize this issue as much as you want, but, in the end, it doesn’t do us any good.” It is not about fairness anymore, he said. It is in China’s best interest to find a “cleaner” growth path.

To say China needs its own dream in no way excuses Americans or Europeans from redefining theirs. We all need to be rethinking how we sustain rising middle classes with rising incomes in a warming world, otherwise the convergence of warming, consuming and crowding will mean we grow ourselves to death.

China’s latest five-year plan —  2011-15 — has set impressive sustainability goals for cutting energy and water intensity per unit of G.D.P. All of these goals are critical to the greening of China, but they are not sufficient, argues Liu. With retail sales growing 17 percent a year since 2005 and urban incomes up 150 percent in the last decade, “the government must also have a plan to steer consumer behavior toward a sustainable path,” adds Liu. “But it doesn’t yet.”

So Xi Jinping has two very different challenges from his predecessor. He needs to ensure that the Communist Party continues to rule — despite awakened citizen pressure for reform — and that requires more high growth to keep the population satisfied with party control. But he also needs to manage all the downsides of that growth — from widening income gaps to massive rural-urban migration to choking pollution and environmental destruction. The only way to square all that is with a new Chinese Dream that marries people’s expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China. Does Xi know that, and, if he does, can he move the system fast enough? So much is riding on the answers to those questions.


Dowd and Friedman

August 8, 2012

MoDo has her panties all up in a bunch.  In “The Ungrateful President” she hisses that presidents who don’t need people are the loneliest presidents in the world, especially come election time.  To quote the comment that is currently the first one showing, from Rajiv in Palo Alto:  “This article is such crap. I don’t need my President to kiss some billionaire’s butt. I need him to care enough to make things better for all of us.”  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Average is Over: Part II:”  What’s preventing Americans from taking our education challenge seriously?  Here’s MoDo’s POS:

At a fund-raiser for the president at his Westport, Conn., estate Monday night, Harvey Weinstein spoke in a softly lit room shimmering with pink dahlias, gold Oscars, silvery celebrities and black American Express cards.

“You can make the case,” Weinstein said of Barack Obama, “that he’s the Paul Newman of American presidents.”

I interviewed Paul Newman. I knew Paul Newman. Paul Newman was an acquaintance of mine. Mr. President, except for the eyes, you are sort of like Paul Newman.

“I’ve been accused of being aloof,” Newman told me. “I’m not. I’m just wary.”

The star scorned the hoops he was expected to jump through in his profession and did not like feeling beholden. He said he dealt with fame by developing “selective insensitivities.”

“With film critics and fans, you have to be selectively insensitive to their insensitivities,” he told me. “If people start treating you like a piece of meat or a long-lost friend or feel they can become cuddly for the price of a $5 movie ticket, then you shut them out.”

Just so, the president does not think people should expect too much in return for paying $35,800 for an hour of his time, as they did at the Weinstein affair, or in return for other favors.

Obama smashed through all the barriers and dysfunction in his life to become a self-made, self-narrating president. His brash 2008 campaign invented a new blueprint to upend the Democratic establishment. So it’s understandable if Obama, with his Shaker aesthetic, is not inclined to play by the rococo rules of politics. Yet, as the president struggles to stay ahead of Moneybags Romney, his selective insensitivities may be hurting him.

Stories abound of big donors who stopped giving as much or working as hard because Obama never reached out, either with a Clinton-esque warm bath of attention or Romney-esque weekend love fests and Israeli-style jaunts; of celebrities who gave concerts for his campaigns and never received thank-you notes or even his full attention during the performance; of public servants upset because they knocked themselves out at the president’s request and never got a pat on the back; of V.I.P.’s disappointed to get pictures of themselves with the president with the customary signature withheld; of politicians disaffected by the president’s penchant for not letting members of Congress or local pols stand on stage with him when he’s speaking in their state (they often watch from the audience and sometimes have to lobby just to get a shout-out); of power brokers, local and national, who felt that the president insulted them by never seeking their advice or asking them to come to the White House or ride along in the limo for a schmooze.

Care and feeding has been outsourced to Joe Biden, who loves it, but it doesn’t build the same kind of loyalty as when the president does it.

“He comes from the neediest profession of all, except for acting, but he is not needy and he doesn’t fully understand the neediness of others; it’s an abstraction to him,” says Jonathan Alter, who wrote “The Promise” about Obama’s first year in office and is working on a sequel. “He’s not an ungracious person, but he can be guilty of ingratitude. It’s not a politically smart way for him to operate.”

Newman wanted to be an actor, not a movie star. Obama wants to be a policy maker, not a glad-handing pol. Sometimes after political events, even small meetings, he requires decompression time. Unlike Harry Truman or George Bush senior, he prefers not to mix relaxing with networking. He sticks mostly to golf with his male aides.

“Needy politicians, like Bill Clinton, recharge at political events,” says Alter. “But, for Obama, they deplete rather than create energy.”

Richard Wolffe, the author of Obama portraits, “Renegade” and “Revival,” agreed: “The very source of his strength as an individual, that he willed himself into being, that he’s a solitary figure who doesn’t need many people, is also clearly a weakness. There are people who’ve worked with him for years who don’t understand why he gives so little back.”

From the first time Obama made a splash with an anti-apartheid speech at Occidental College, says David Maraniss, author of “Barack Obama: The Story,” he has been ambivalent, even perverse.

“He realized that he could stir crowds while also thinking to himself that it was all a game and posturing,” the biographer said. “He is always removed and participating at the same time, self-conscious and without the visceral need or love of transactional politics that would characterize Bill Clinton or L.B.J. or even W., in a way.”

What will save him, Maraniss believes, is his fierce competitive will. “His is cool and Clinton’s is hot, but they burn at the same temperature inside,” he said. “So he does some of what he finds distasteful, but not all of it, and not all of it very well.”

One thing, though: Paul Newman sent thank-you notes.

I wonder if Mittens sends thank-you notes, or whether he has one of his staff take care of such mundane matters…  What crap.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

A big mismatch exists today between how U.S. C.E.O.’s look at the world and how many American politicians and parents look at the world — and it may be preventing us from taking our education challenge as seriously as we must.

For many politicians, “outsourcing” is a four-letter word because it involves jobs leaving “here” and going “there.” But for many C.E.O.’s, outsourcing is over. In today’s seamlessly connected world, there is no “out” and no “in” anymore. There is only the “good,” “better” and “best” places to get work done, and if they don’t tap into the best, most cost-efficient venue wherever that is, their competition will.

For politicians, it’s all about “made in America,” but, for C.E.O.’s, it is increasingly about “made in the world” — a world where more and more products are now imagined everywhere, designed everywhere, manufactured everywhere in global supply chains and sold everywhere. American politicians are still citizens of our states and cities, while C.E.O.’s are increasingly citizens of the world, with mixed loyalties. For politicians, all their customers are here; for C.E.O.’s, 90 percent of their new customers are abroad. The credo of the politician today is: “Why are you not hiring more people here?” The credo of the C.E.O. today is: “You only hire someone — anywhere — if you absolutely have to,” if a smarter machine, robot or computer program is not available.

Yes, this is a simplification, but the trend is accurate. The trend is that for more and more jobs, average is over. Thanks to the merger of, and advances in, globalization and the information technology revolution, every boss now has cheaper, easier access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. So just doing a job in an average way will not return an average lifestyle any longer. Yes, I know, that’s what they said about the Japanese “threat” in the 1980s. But Japan, alas, challenged just two American industries — cars and consumer electronics — and just one American town, Detroit. Globalization and the Internet/telecom/computing revolution together challenge every town, worker and job. There is no good job today that does not require more and better education to get it, hold it or advance in it.

Which is why it is disturbing when more studies show that American K-12 schools continue to lag behind other major industrialized countries on the international education tests. Like politicians, too many parents think if their kid’s school is doing better than the one next door, they’re fine.

Well, a dose of reality is on the way thanks to Andreas Schleicher and his team at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates the Program for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA test. Every three years, the O.E.C.D. has been giving the PISA test to a sample of 15-year-olds, now in 70 countries, to evaluate reading, math and science skills. The U.S. does not stand out. It’s just average, but many parents are sure their kid is above average. With help from several foundations in the U.S., Schleicher has just finished a pilot study of 100 American schools to enable principals, teachers and parents to see not just how America stacks up against China, but how their own school stacks up against similar schools in the best-educated countries, like Finland and Singapore.

“The entry ticket to the middle class today is a postsecondary education of some kind,” but too many kids are not coming out of K-12 prepared for that, and too many parents don’t get it, says Jon Schnur, the chairman of America Achieves, which is partnering with the O.E.C.D. on this project as part of an effort to help every American understand the connection between educational attainment at their school — for all age groups — and what will be required to perform the jobs of the future.

“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”

Schleicher’s team is assessing all their test results — and socioeconomic profiles of each school — to make sure they have a proper data set for making global comparisons. They hope to have the comparison platform available early next year.

Says Schleicher: “If parents do not know, they will not demand, as consumers, a high quality of educational service. They will just say the school my kids are going to is as good as the school I went to.” If this comparison platform can be built at this micro scale, he says, it could “lead to empowerment at the really decisive level” of parents, principals and teachers demanding something better.

“This is not about threatening schools,” he adds. It is about giving each of them “the levers to effect change” and a window into the pace of change that is possible when every stakeholder in a school has the data and can say: Look at those who have made dramatic improvements around the world. Why can’t we?

Well, Tommy, schools require funding.  Public schools get that funding through TAXES.  Do you think you can begin to figure out how to connect those two dots?

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

August 5, 2012

Mr. Kristof is off today.  Oh, sweet baby Jesus on a surfboard…  In “Mr. Negative vs. Mr. Complacent” he babbles that the Obama campaign slashes and burns, while the Romney campaign stays generic.  He’s trying to convince us that President Obama is an amalgam of George McGovern and Richard Nixon.  He should be stuffed in a sack with angry ferrets.  MoDo is off on another tangent about movie stars.  In “The Love Goddess Who Keeps on Seducing” she squeals that some like it hot, lush and vulnerable, and ‘splains to us why the luminous Marilyn continues to glow.  The Moustache of Wisdom says we need to “Get it Right on Gas,” and that we can have a natural gas revolution that transforms our whole country or one that just transforms the electric grid. What’s it going to be?  Of course, there’s not a single word about solar or wind or geothermal power in the thing…  Mr. Bruni is in a snit.  He disapproves of “unseemly” behavior.  In “Truculence Before Truth” he huffs that Harry Reid’s unsubstantiated charge that Mitt Romney paid no taxes for an entire decade was par for the 2012 election’s unseemly course.  So when do you think he’s going to produce an op-ed about birtherism, death panels, birth certificate lunacy, etc., etc., etc., etc.?  Probably about the time I’m elected Pope.  Here’s The Putz:

During the dog days of last summer’s debt ceiling negotiations, with Washington gridlocked and the president’s approval ratings slumping, a narrative coalesced among disappointed liberals. President Obama was failing, they decided, because he was too moderate, too reasonable and too conciliatory. He didn’t have the ideological confidence required to actually fight for liberalism, or the brazenness required to really tear the Republicans apart.

Apparently somebody at the White House bought into this narrative, because so far Obama’s re-election campaign has delivered just about everything that liberal partisans were begging for a year ago.

Since the campaign kicked off, the president’s domestic policy rhetoric has become much more stridently left-wing than it was during the debt-ceiling debate. He’s dropped all but a pro forma acknowledgment of the tough choices looming in our future, and doubled down on the comforting progressive fantasy that we can close the deficit and keep the existing safety net by soaking America’s millionaires and billionaires.

On hot-button cultural issues, meanwhile — immigration and gay marriage, reproductive issues and religious liberty, even welfare reform — he’s moved away from Clintonian triangulation, offering a succession of explicit panders to Democratic voting blocs and interest groups instead.

To this bordering-on-McGovernite substance, he’s added Richard Nixon’s style, with a pitch to swing voters that started out negative and has escalated to frank character assassination. In Obama’s campaign ads, and in the rhetoric of his aides and allies, Mitt Romney isn’t just wrong on specific policies or too right-wing in general. He’s part Scrooge, part Gordon Gekko; an un-American, Asia-loving outsourcer; a tax avoider and possibly a white-collar felon.

If you’re an undecided, stuck-in-the-middle kind of voter, the president isn’t meeting you halfway on the issues, or pledging to revive the dream of postpartisanship that he campaigned on last time. He’s just saying that you’ve got no choice but to stick with him, because Romney is too malignant to be trusted.

By taking this line, Obama is testing the conceit — beloved of MSNBC hosts and left-wing bloggers — that a harder-edged, more ideological liberalism would be a more politically successful liberalism as well. And at the moment, the president’s continued lead in swing-state polls provides modest but real evidence that his strategy is working. If the election were held today, I’d bet gingerly on the president eking out the necessary 51 percent.

But Obama’s current edge may have more to do with the Romney campaign’s complacency than with the genius of his McGovern-meets-Nixon approach.

In Romneyland, it seems to be an article of faith that 2012 will be a pure up-or-down vote on the president’s performance, and that the most generic sort of Republican campaign — hooray for free enterprise and low taxes, with the details To Be Determined Later — is therefore the only kind of campaign they need to run.

But as The New Republic’s William Galston has pointed out, even a referendum election tends to involve a two-step process, in which voters first decide whether they’re willing to eject the incumbent, and then decide whether they’re willing to roll the dice with his opponent.

In this case, that roll of the dice involves handing the White House back to the Republican Party just four years after the Bush administration failed (and then some) to deliver on its promises. And by running a generic campaign in the aftermath of those failures, Romney isn’t giving voters any reason to think that he won’t just deliver the same disappointing results.

The Romney campaign is clearly afraid of talking too much about its candidate’s biography (all that money, all that Mormonism …) or offering anything save bullet points and platitudes on policy (because details can be used against you …). But a Republican candidate who won’t define himself is a candidate who’s easily defined as just another George W. Bush.

A Romney campaign that loosened up and actually took some chances, on the other hand, might find that the Obama White House’s slash-and-burn liberalism had opened up some unexpected opportunities.

Because Obama has moved left on fiscal and social issues, there’s more space in the center — assuming, that is, that Romney can get over his fear of offending his own party’s interest groups.

Because Obama has gone so negative, there’s room to accentuate the positive, and run as the candidate of (right-of-center) hope and change.

Because Obama’s message depends so heavily on voters’ unhappy memories of the Bush era, Romney can do himself an enormous amount of good just by exploding the premise that he’ll govern as “Dubya, Part II.”

Or he can keep doing what he’s been doing, in which case he stands a very good chance of losing oh-so-narrowly, and joining Thomas Dewey in the ranks of Republican presidential nominees who mistakenly believed that they could win the White House by default.

What a waste of perfectly good oxygen.  Here’s MoDo, squealing about Marilyn:

Mike Nichols claims he called Marilyn Monroe to work on a scene.

“Are you sure you weren’t hitting on her?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t have dared dream of it,” he replied.

It was the mid-1950s, and they were both taking an acting class in New York with Lee Strasberg. Nichols recounted his conversation with the woman with the familiar breathy voice:

“The phone rang and somebody said, ‘Hello,’ and I said, ‘Hi, is Marilyn there?’ and she said, ‘No, she’s not,’ and I said, ‘Well, this is Mike. I’m in class with her. Could you take a message?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s a holiday,’ because it was the Fourth of July weekend, and that, to her, was an excuse for not taking a message for herself.”

No one ever said Marilyn wasn’t complicated.

Nichols directed the Tony Award-winning revival of her third husband’s play, “Death of a Salesman.” I interviewed him for a BBC radio show based on a column I wrote for The Times about how we have devolved from Marilyn’s aspirational attitude toward knowledge, in which she wanted to collect great books and meet authors and intellectuals — even marrying one — to Sarah Palin’s anti-elitist scorn about reading and intellectuals.

Nichols surprised me when he said he was present at what he dryly calls the “historic moment” in May 1962 when Marilyn sang “Happy Birthday” to Jack Kennedy, who was turning 45. Marilyn was wearing that shrink-wrap, sheer Jean Louis gown ablaze with rhinestones — “skin and beads,” she called it. Nichols and Elaine May were also performing that night in Madison Square Garden, not that anyone remembers.

“I was standing right behind Marilyn, completely invisible, when she sang ‘Happy birthday, Mr. President,’ ” Nichols said. “And indeed, the corny thing happened: Her dress split for my benefit, and there was Marilyn, and yes, indeed, she didn’t wear any underwear.”

At a party afterward, “Elaine and I were dancing, and Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn danced by us, and I swear to God the conversation was as follows — ”

Here Nichols put on, first, a feathery voice and then a nasal one:

“ ‘I like you, Bobby.’

“ ‘I like you too, Marilyn.’ ”

The famous director has worked with many famous beauties. So I asked him, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death, if he could explain her astonishing staying power.

“I think that the easy answer might be that she had the greatest need,” he said. “She wasn’t particularly a great beauty, that is to say, Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner would knock the hell out of her in a contest, but she was almost superhumanly sexual.”

Feminism has come and gone, and women now routinely puff their lips, inflate their chests, dye their hair and dress with sultry abandon. But Nichols said Marilyn’s heat went deeper, with a walk, a look and movements that were an “out-and-out open seduction right in front of everyone.”

Arthur Gelb, the former Times managing editor, likes to tell how he won a $10 bet as a slightly inebriated rewrite man in the ’50s when he reached out and, much to her annoyance, touched Marilyn’s flawless porcelain back as she dined with friends at Sardi’s.

“When she walked, it was as though she had a hundred body parts that moved separately in different directions,” Gelb told me on the BBC show. “I mean, you didn’t know what body part to follow.”

Wherever I travel in the world, I run across the luminous image of the heartbreaking and breathtaking sex symbol who was smart enough to become the most famous “dumb blonde” of the 20th century. Marilyn, her white pleated halter dress flying up over the New York subway grate, is as deeply etched in the global imagination as Audrey Hepburn in a black Givenchy dress at Tiffany’s.

Starting as the 1948 Castroville, Calif., artichoke queen, Marilyn was a genius at self-creation, high gloss over deep wounds. “Marilyn’s like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane,” she said.

Lois Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, hails the star in her new book, “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” as a proto-feminist who had to swim upstream past a mentally ill mother, 12 foster homes, a stutter, sexual abuse as a child, sexism as a star, manic-depressive cycles, addiction, Joe DiMaggio’s abuse and Arthur Miller’s condescension. “She is the child in all of us,” Banner writes, “the child we want to forget but can’t dismiss.”

Half a century after Marilyn was found on Aug. 5, 1962, in her Brentwood bedroom, nude, holding her phone, soaked in drugs, she continues to bewitch: her death at 36 and the sketchy cover-up; her tempestuous marriages to a famous baseball player and famous playwright; her role, with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, in the most intriguing film noir triangle of all time.

She gazes wistfully from the latest People, beside Rob and Kristen, with the headline, “Was Marilyn Murdered?”

“Could the iconic bombshell,” USA Today asked, “be any more alive?”

She made $27 million last year, gobs more than she ever earned in life. She was the poster girl at Cannes, a festival she never attended. And her time in England making “The Prince and the Showgirl” was the subject of a movie that got two Oscar nominations, even though the golden girl never won a gold statuette herself.

There’s a fresh cascade of books, photos, Twitter messages, Blu-ray box sets, Marilyn Monroe Cafes, Marilyn nail salons, and a MAC makeup collection.

NBC’s “Smash” is set behind the scenes of a Broadway show based on Marilyn’s life; Nicki Minaj has a song called “Marilyn Monroe,” and the documentary “Love, Marilyn” will have its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month. There had even been talk about revivifying the sex kitten for a hologram show.

While making her last movie, “Something’s Got to Give,” Marilyn posed nude for a young photographer, Larry Schiller, hoping to ratchet up her $100,000 salary to Elizabeth Taylor’s million-dollar territory for “Cleopatra.”

Schiller wrote in Vanity Fair that he saw the confidence that spurred Marilyn to become one of the first stars to create her own production company. “There isn’t anybody that looks like me without clothes on,” she laughed.

He also saw her dark companion, insecurity. “Is that all I’m good for?” she keened about nudity.

Yet Schiller told The Associated Press that “it’s women that have kept Marilyn alive, not men.” He says teenage girls flock to see gallery shows, and that the photos selling now accentuate her humanity, not her anatomy.

“I think,” he said, “people want to see her now as a real person.”

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

We are in the midst of a natural gas revolution in America that is a potential game changer for the economy, environment and our national security — if we do it right.

The enormous stores of natural gas that have been locked away in shale deposits across America that we’ve now been able to tap into, thanks to breakthroughs in seismic imaging, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” are enabling us to replace much dirtier coal with cleaner gas as the largest source of electricity generation in America. And natural gas may soon be powering cars, trucks and ships as well. This is helping to lower our carbon emissions faster than expected and make us more energy secure. And, if prices stay low, it may enable America to bring back manufacturing that migrated overseas. But, as the energy and climate expert Hal Harvey puts it, there is just one big, hugely important question to be asked about this natural gas bounty: “Will it be a transition to a clean energy future, or does it defer a clean energy future?”

That is the question — because natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The good news: It emits only half as much greenhouse gas as coal when combusted and, therefore, contributes only half as much to global warming. The better news: The recent glut has made it inexpensive to deploy. But there is a hidden, long-term, cost: A sustained gas glut could undermine new investments in wind, solar, nuclear and energy efficiency systems — which have zero emissions — and thus keep us addicted to fossil fuels for decades.

That would be reckless. This year’s global extremes of droughts and floods are totally consistent with models of disruptive, nonlinear climate change. After record warm temperatures in the first half of this year, it was no surprise to find last week that the Department of Agriculture has now designated more than half of all U.S. counties — 1,584 in 32 states — as primary disaster areas where crops and grazing areas have been ravaged by drought.

That is why on May 29 the British newspaper The Guardian quoted Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, as saying that “a golden age for gas is not necessarily a golden age for the climate” — if natural gas ends up sinking renewables. Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the I.E.A., urged governments to keep in place subsidies and regulations to encourage investments in wind, solar and other renewables “for years to come” so they remain competitive.

Moreover, while natural gas is cleaner than coal, extracting it can be very dirty. We have to do this right. For instance, the carbon advantage can be undermined by leakage of uncombusted natural gas from wellheads and pipelines because methane — the primary component of natural gas — is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, more powerful than carbon dioxide. The big oil companies can easily maintain high drilling standards, but a lot of fracking is done by mom-and-pop drillers that do not. The standards that can make fracking environmentally O.K. are not expensive, but the big drillers want to make sure that the little guys have to apply them, too, so everyone has the same cost basis.

On July 19, Forbes interviewed George Phydias Mitchell, who, in the 1990s, pioneered the use of fracking to break natural gas free from impermeable shale. According to Forbes, Mitchell argued that fracking needs to be regulated by the Department of Energy, not just states: “Because if they don’t do it right, there could be trouble,” he says. There’s no excuse not to get it right. “There are good techniques to make it safe that should be followed properly,” he says. But, the smaller, independent drillers, “are wild.” “It’s tough to control these independents. If they do something wrong and dangerous, they should punish them.”

Adds Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund who has been working with the government and companies on drilling standards: “The economic and national security advantages of natural gas are obvious, but if you tour some of these areas of intensive development the environmental impacts are equally obvious.” We need nationally accepted standards for controlling methane leakage, for controlling water used in fracking — where you get it, how you treat the polluted water that comes out from the fracking process and how you protect aquifers — and for ensuring that communities have the right to say no to drilling. “The key message,” said Krupp, “is you gotta get the rules right. States need real inspector capacity and compliance schemes where companies certify they have done it right and there are severe penalties if they perjure.”

Energy companies who want to keep regulations lax need to understand that a series of mishaps around natural gas will — justifiably — trigger an environmental backlash to stop it.

But we also need to get the economics right. We’ll need more tax revenue to reach a budget deal in January. Why not a carbon tax that raises enough money to help pay down the deficit and lower both personal income taxes and corporate taxes — and ensures that renewables remain competitive with natural gas? That would ensure this gas revolution transforms America, not just our electric grid.

Frack you, Tommy.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni’s tantrum:

For the dwindling few out there who still believe that big accusations require a little foundation and that truth — as opposed to conjecture — matters, here’s an update:

As last week drew to a close, Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, had backed up his claim that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for a 10-year period with absolutely nothing more than some vague reference to some unnamed guy who said something of the sort to Reid during some phone conversation some time ago.

That’s it. That’s all. But for Reid, it was enough not only to level his charge but also, as the days pressed on, to double and triple down on it, his language and manner growing more righteous even as his evidence grew no more detailed or persuasive.

The claim appeared first in an interview with The Huffington Post that went online Tuesday.

“Now, do I know that that’s true?” Reid said in the interview, which also included his mention of the phone call, supposedly from an investor in Bain Capital. “Well, I’m not certain.”

No biggie! Full steam ahead! He proceeded to assert that Romney’s net worth is probably greater than published estimates of $250 million because, he explained, “You do pretty well if you don’t pay taxes for 10 years.” And so a wild supposition was magically transformed into the given from which yet another bit of speculation blossomed, and any concern with provable information was long gone, a casualty of the craven rules of political engagement these days. It’s beginning to seem as if everyone’s at the prow of a Swift Boat, pants on fire and conscience on ice.

Spew first and sweat the details later, or never. Speak loosely and carry a stick-thin collection of backup materials, or none at all. That’s the M.O. of the moment, familiar from the past but in particularly galling and profuse flower of late.

It has spread beyond the practiced rabble-rousers of the far right, and Democrats are exuberantly getting in on this unbecoming, corrosive game. For many years they bemoaned an unfair fight: Republicans were by and large willing to play faster, looser and flat-out nastier than they were. Is there as much credibility to that lament today?

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was forced last week to issue a public apology to the international casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is giving tens of millions to Republicans this year, for having asserted on its Web site that he was knowingly profiting from “a Chinese prostitution strategy” at his casino in Macau. It has no proof of that.

Its defenders will say that Adelson is so brazenly exploiting lax campaign-finance regulations to hijack the political process that he must be discredited and neutralized by whatever means necessary. Details, schmetails.

And Reid’s defenders will say that Romney’s reluctance to release more than one complete year of tax returns (at least so far) makes clear that he’s hiding something, which must be flushed out one way or another. Plus, to them, Reid’s claim has the feel of near-truth. It passes muster as a metaphor if not as a matter of demonstrable fact. It’s a genuinely felt worry of sorts and valid as such.

But if you’re going to subscribe to that sort of reasoning, “You might as well put a dead cocker spaniel on your head and start yelling about birth certificates,” said Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” flashing a photograph of the quizzically coiffed Donald Trump, who to my eyes was wearing either an Irish setter or maybe a Pomeranian. Stewart’s point — an excellent one — is that the crazies who insist that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States are Reid’s philosophical and strategic kinfolk.

DO one tribe’s antics justify the other’s? Is this a road we really want to continue barreling down? We’re already on it, thanks in part to a presidential contest in which each candidate’s main pitch — I’m not half as awful as the other guy — points everything in a negative direction.

The new shape of the news-media universe doesn’t help. Balkanized into micro-niches where partisans can have their passions stoked and prejudices reinforced, it gives reckless allegations many places to land and even stick before they get a sober look. Those allegations are intended and tailored to rally the troops, who are believed to care more about truculence than truthfulness. The ends justify the Reid.

After the Senate leader made his accusation, the writer Alex Seitz-Wald consulted several tax attorneys about its theoretical plausibility and determined that it was “nothing short of ludicrous.” Meanwhile, the Romney campaign — and, later, Romney himself — denied the charge.

Reid was unbowed. Inconsistent, too. At one point he told reporters from his home state of Nevada that “a number of people” had whispered to him of Romney’s alleged tax evasion, while at a subsequent point he issued a statement citing only “an extremely credible source,” singular. In neither instance did he hang any flesh on these bones.

“I don’t think the burden should be on me,” said Reid, whose history of intemperate, borderline adolescent remarks was detailed in The Times by Michael D. Shear and Richard A. Oppel Jr. “The burden should be on him. He’s the one I’ve alleged has not paid any taxes.”

So if I just decide to allege that Reid levied that accusation under detailed and persistent instructions from the Obama campaign, the burden would be on him to provide all of his office’s e-mail and phone correspondence in order to contradict that?

Reid took a wholly legitimate source of concern — that Romney owes voters more candor and transparency than he has been willing to furnish — and undermined it by going too far and too farcical.

But then there’s plenty of overreaching tragicomedy to go around.

“Sometimes I have to catch my breath and slow down because the rhetoric in this campaign is just over the top,” observed John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, on the Fox News Radio show “Kilmeade and Friends” on Thursday. In regard to Reid’s casual slander of Romney, Boehner said, “It’s one of the problems that occurs here in Washington. People run out there without any facts and just make noise.”

And in that very same interview, when Boehner turned his attention to President Obama and called him inept at creating jobs, he also said: “He’s never even had a real job, for God’s sake.” Thus he made his own journey over the top, facts falling by the wayside, his pants getting toasty, the noise grinding on and on.

So we can expect a column detailing the lies of Mittens’ supporters next week?  I thought not…

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

December 4, 2011

Ah, The Pasty Little Putz.  This morning the little shit has seen fit to lecture us about “The Decadent Left.”  He squeaks better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than one that just represents Democratic interest groups.  The schmuck can’t tell the difference between phoney-baloney astroturf crap like the Tea Party and a grass-roots international movement like OWS.  He’s an embarrasment.  MoDo, in “Out of Africa and Into Iowa,” says for Newt Gingrich, the founding fathers were anticolonial patriots. The president, on the other hand, is an anticolonial socialist.  The Moustache of Wisdom says “This Is a Big Deal,” and that a legacy deal for Obama on gas mileage will make a significant contribution to America’s energy, environmental, health and national security agendas.  Mr. Kristof suggests “Gifts That Say You Care.”  Happy Holidays, humanitarians! Here’s a giving guide with some under-the-radar organizations doing interesting and noble things to make a difference.  In “And Now … Professor Gingruch” Mr. Bruni has a question:  Is brain of Newt the potion for an anti-intellectual party?  There’s that waste of perfectly good oxygen the Putz:

In the days when Tea Party activists were crowding town hall meetings and Glenn Beck’s fans were thronging the Washington Mall, a kind of existential despair settled over the American left. The country was mired in an economic crisis that most left-wingers believed was caused by the excesses of free-market capitalism, yet the only major protest movement belonged to the political right. What was the left good for, if it couldn’t even persuade people to take to the streets? Why didn’t American liberalism have a Tea Party of its own?

Now it has one. Or rather, it has several: the union-organized rallies across the Midwest earlier this year, which attacked budget cuts and defended public-sector pay; the environmentalist protests, complete with arrests outside the White House, against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the United States; and of course the tent cities of Occupy Wall Street, now entering winter hibernation but probably destined to return in force next year. Indeed, since the 2010 midterms, left-wing street theater has arguably eclipsed Tea Party activism as our politics’ defining form of protest.

Of these movements, Occupy Wall Street earned by far the most attention, while achieving the least in terms of actual policy. The union protests against Wisconsin’s curbs on collective bargaining helped set the stage for the recent repudiation, via referendum, of similar legislation in Ohio. The environmental protesters haven’t stopped the Keystone pipeline outright, but they induced President Obama to delay its consideration until 2013.

The O.W.S. protesters, on the other hand, haven’t even settled on concrete political objectives. As two of the movement’s more perceptive conservative critics — Matt Continetti in The Weekly Standard and James Panero in The New Criterion — have said, many protesters seemed more interested in founding a kind of Paris Commune or Oneida Community in Zuccotti Park than in actually participating in public-policy debates.

This has led some liberals to argue that the Occupy protesters should find a way to imitate the more pragmatic efforts of unions and environmentalists. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer highlighted “the difference between the focused, agenda-driven campaign” fought by critics of the Keystone pipeline “and the free-form, leaderless one waged by the Occupiers.” Given that anti-Keystone activists succeeded (at least temporarily), she wrote, “the Occupy movement could do worse than to learn from the pipeline protest.”

But there’s a sense in which the pipeline protesters and Midwestern unions are exactly the people that the O.W.S. crowd should not learn from, if they aspire to appeal to a wider audience than left-wing activists usually reach.

Yes, Occupy Wall Street was dreamed up in part by flakes and populated in part by fantasists. But to the extent that the movement briefly captured the public’s imagination, it was because it seemed to be doing what a decent left would exist to do: criticizing entrenched power, championing the common good and speaking for the many rather than the few.

The union rallies and the Keystone demonstrations, by contrast, represented what you might call the decadent left, which fights for narrow interest groups rather than for the public as a whole.

The Wisconsin protests didn’t defend American workers’ right to bargain for their fair share of company profits, as traditional union protests have. They defended government employees’ right to negotiate with elected officials over the division of taxpayer dollars — a recipe for profligacy that even liberal icons like Franklin Roosevelt and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s George Meany once opposed.

Likewise, the Keystone protesters haven’t been defending “the interests of wage-earning Americans,” to borrow the historian Michael Kazin’s description of the historic purpose of the American left. They’ve been harnessing the power of the Democratic Party’s wealthy environmentalist donors to actively kill off American jobs.

Stopping the pipeline won’t drive down demand for fossil fuels, or prevent Canada’s oil from being extracted and shipped around the world. But for a small group of activists and donors, keeping the pipeline out of their national backyard is all that counts, even if American workers pay the price.

Whatever your politics, there’s arguably more to admire in the ragtag theatricality of Occupy Wall Street than in that sort of self-righteous defense of the status quo. Even if it has failed to embrace plausible solutions, O.W.S. at least picked a deserving target — what National Review’s Reihan Salam describes as the “moral rupture” created by Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.

Asshole.  Now here’s MoDo:

Newt Gingrich’s mind is in love with itself.

It has persuaded itself that it is brilliant when it is merely promiscuous. This is not a serious mind. Gingrich is not, to put it mildly, a systematic thinker.

His mind is a jumble, an amateurish mess lacking impulse control. He plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas. He ejaculates concepts, notions and theories that are as inconsistent as his behavior.

He didn’t get whiplash being a serial adulterer while impeaching another serial adulterer, a lobbyist for Freddie Mac while attacking Freddie Mac, a self-professed fiscal conservative with a whopping Tiffany’s credit line, and an anti-Communist Army brat who supported the Vietnam War but dodged it.

“Part of the question I had to ask myself,” he said in a 1985 Wall Street Journal piece about war wimps, “was what difference I would have made.”

Newt swims easily in a sea of duality and byzantine ideas that don’t add up. As The Washington Post reported on Friday, an America under President Gingrich would have two Social Security systems — “one old, one new, running side by side” — two tax systems and two versions of Medicare.

Consider his confusion of views on colonialism. In the 1971 Ph.D. dissertation he wrote at Tulane University, titled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960,” he is anti-anticolonialism.

“If the Congolese are to confront the future with realism they will need a solid understanding of their own past and an awareness of the good as well as the bad aspects of colonialism,” he argued. “It would be just as misleading to speak in generalities of ‘white exploitation’ as it once was to talk about ‘native backwardness.’ ”

He warned against political pressures encouraging “Black xenophobia.” What’s xenophobic about Africans wanting their oppressors to go away? It’s like saying abused wives who want their husbands to leave are anti-men.

He sees colonialism as a complicated thing with good and bad effects rather than a terrible thing with collateral benefits.

Laura Seay, an assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and an expert on Africa, blogged that Gingrich’s thesis was “kind of a glorified white man’s burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970s. Gingrich wrote this as the Black Consciousness and Black Power movements were approaching their pinnacles. It was most decidedly not the time to be arguing that white European masters did a swell job ruling black Africans through a system that ensured that most Congolese would never get a real education.”

When it comes to America’s British overlords, Gingrich is not so sympathetic. The bludgeon of American exceptionalism that he uses on President Obama was forged at Valley Forge.

In the introduction to his novel about George Washington and the Revolutionary War, “To Try Men’s Souls,” written with William R. Forstchen, Gingrich writes: “The British elites believed this was a conflict about money and about minor irritations. They simply could not believe the colonists were serious about their rights as free men and women.”

Gingrich, a radical precursor to the modern Tea Party when he staged what conservatives considered the second American Revolution in the House in the ’90s, wrote with delight of London’s shock when Samuel Adams started the original Tea Party.

But while an anticolonial disposition is good if you’re Adams, Washington and Jefferson, it’s bad if you’re Barack Obama’s Kenyan father living under British rule two centuries later.

Gingrich made one of his classic outrageous overreaches last year when he praised a Dinesh D’Souza article in Forbes, saying you could only understand how “fundamentally out of touch” and “outside our comprehension” President Obama is “if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”

D’Souza’s absurd ad hominem theory tying Obama to his father goes like this: “This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”

This was a typical Newt mental six-car pileup. The man who espouses Christian values being un-Christian in visiting the alleged sins of the father upon the son; the man who reveres the anticolonialism of the founding fathers ranting against the anticolonialism of the father of America’s first African-American president. How do you rail against the Evil Empire and urge overthrowing Saddam and not celebrate liberation in Africa?

Newt is like the Great White Hunter out on campaign safari, trying to bag a Mitt, an animal with ever-changing stripes. Certainly, the 68-year-old’s haughty suggestions on child labor last week in Iowa smacked of harsh paternalism and exploitation.

He expanded on Dickensian remarks he’d made recently at Harvard, where he said “it is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in child laws which are truly stupid,” adding that 9-year-olds could work as school janitors.

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works,” he asserted in an ignorant barrage of stereotypes in Des Moines. “So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday.”

Has he not heard of the working poor? The problem isn’t that these kids aren’t working; it’s that they don’t have time with their parents, who often toil day and night, at more than one job, and earn next to nothing.

Newt’s the kind of person whom child labor laws were created to curb. He sounds like a benign despot with a colonial subtext: Until I bring you the benefits of civilization, we will regard you as savages.

He’s Belgium. The poor are Congo.

But he’s not Mittens…  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

In many ways, President Obama has been a disappointment on energy and the environment. He has been completely missing in action on the climate debate. His decision to block his own Environmental Protection Agency from setting new rules to cut smog levels was disappointing. And, while I believe in using the balance sheet of the U.S. government to spur clean-tech research and start-ups, Solyndra was a case of embarrassing excess — precisely what happens when you rely too much on government push not consumer pull, spurred by price and regulatory signals.

But, for me, all is forgiven — because Obama came through big-time last month.

He backed his great E.P.A. administrator, Lisa Jackson, and Department of Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, in producing a deal with all the top U.S.-based automakers that will go into effect in 2017 and require annual mileage improvements of 5 percent for cars, and a little less for light trucks and S.U.V.’s, until 2025 — when U.S. automakers will have to reach a total fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon. The current average is 27.5 m.p.g.

This deal will help America’s cars and trucks approach the mileage levels of Europe and Japan and spur innovation in power trains, aerodynamics, batteries, electric cars and steel and aluminum that will make cars lighter and safer.

The E.P.A. and the Transportation Department estimate that these new innovations will gradually add about $2,000 to the cost of an average vehicle by 2025 and will save more than $6,000 in gasoline purchases over the life of that car — savings that will go into the rest of the economy. And all that assumes that gasoline prices will only moderately increase and there are no innovation breakthroughs beyond what we anticipate. If gasoline prices soar higher and innovation goes faster — both highly likely — the savings would be even more.

The new vehicles sold over the life of the program — including its first phase between 2012 and 2016 — are expected to save a total of four billion barrels of oil and prevent two billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution.

This is a big deal — a legacy deal for Obama that will make a significant, long-term contribution to America’s energy, environmental, health and national security agendas.

The compromise was worked out between the E.P.A. and the Transportation Department with General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW and six other major car companies. It was announced Nov. 16 and came about largely because once the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was a pollutant — and once California made clear that it and several other states were going to impose their own improved auto emissions standards, if the federal government didn’t — the major auto companies saw the handwriting on the wall and entered into talks with the Obama administration on a deal that will transform the industry.

The Global Automakers trade association — which endorsed the deal because it gives the industry long-term regulatory certainty to do research and invest — called the Obama plan a “comprehensive and harmonized national approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel economy … while providing manufacturers the needed flexibility and lead time to design and build advanced technology vehicles.”

Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign of the Center for Auto Safety, said the mileage deal “is the biggest single step that any nation has taken to cut global warming pollution,” but he cautioned that, like any Washington compromise, it does contain loopholes that “give the auto companies opportunities to behave irresponsibly — if they choose.” If the companies’ total fleet mix of cars and trucks stays roughly as projected, they would hit the 54.5 m.p.g. target by 2025. But, because the deal allows for a weaker mileage standard for trucks than cars, Becker added, “if the industry as a whole decides to make many more trucks than now projected, we will not achieve the 54.5 m.p.g. target, although average mileage would still improve significantly from today’s levels.”

Naturally, the E.P.A.-haters hate the deal. They focus on the increase in vehicle costs that will phase in over 13 years — and ignore the net savings to consumers, plus the national security, innovation, jobs, climate and health benefits. These critics are the same “conservatives for OPEC”  who, after Congress agreed in 1975 on a 10-year program to raise the fleet average mileage of American cars from 15 m.p.g. to 27.5 m.p.g., got together not only to halt mileage improvements in American vehicles during the Reagan administration, but to roll them back. This helped to drastically slow U.S. auto mileage innovation and ultimately helped to bankrupt the American auto industry and make sure the United States remained addicted to oil.

Of course, today’s G.O.P., whose energy policy was best described by Lisa Jackson as “too dirty to fail” — i.e., we can’t close any polluting power plants or impose cleaner air rules because it might cost jobs — is fighting a last-ditch effort to scuttle the deal. Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House oversight committee, is leading the charge to kill it. What a thing to be proud of.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof and his gift giving suggestions:

Give Grandma a bit of credit! These holidays, would she rather receive a silly reindeer sweater or help a schoolchild acquire glasses to see the blackboard clearly for the first time?

Choosing the perfect holiday gift is one of life’s greater challenges, modestly more difficult than earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics. So it is time for my annual gift guide.

For starters, the Web sites of the major humanitarian organizations offer alluring holiday gifts. Through the International Rescue Committee, $30 buys a flock of chickens for a needy family. At CARE, $29 gets a girl a school uniform. Through Heifer International, you can stock a fish pond for $300. With Mercy Corps, $69 can start a female entrepreneur in the sewing business.

Beyond those organizations, here are some lesser-known charities that may help put a grin on Grandma — and on someone else.

Helen Keller International fights blindness and malnutrition around the world with simple and cost-effective programs. One of the best ways to improve children’s health is to focus on micronutrients, like iodine, vitamin A and zinc — and in some cases to fortify foods with nutrients at a negligible cost. Helen Keller International, at, is a leader in that effort, and gets more bang for the buck than almost any group I can think of.

And those glasses I mentioned for a schoolchild? That’s a Helen Keller International program, ChildSight, which operates in the United States as well as in Indonesia and Vietnam. Schoolchildren are screened for vision problems, and those who need glasses get them. Providing glasses costs just $25 per child — which is a much better value than a sweater that will sit in a drawer for eternity.

Against Malaria has a simple model: $5 will buy a bed net that protects several people from mosquitoes that carry malaria. All the money that is donated goes to buy nets, and Against Malaria, at, gets a No. 1 rating and a rave review from GiveWell, which rates charities.

In a malarial area in Cambodia many years ago, I met a grandmother who was looking after several small children after their mother died of malaria. The family had one bed net, and every night the grandmother had to decide which children would sleep under it — and which one she would leave outside.

For the price of a stocking stuffer, you can spare a mother or grandmother that wrenching choice — and potentially save a life.

Reading Is Fundamental is an American program that promotes literacy in high-poverty communities in America. Its government financing has been slashed in the tight budget environment, so it needs support.

The group is a public-private partnership with 400,000 volunteers, bringing huge efficiencies. It provides new, free books to four million children across the United States, and encourages the kids to read. Information is at

The Citizens Foundation was started by Pakistani businessmen concerned about their country, and it builds terrific schools for needy children there. We’re seeing American-Pakistani relations spiral downward, and billions of dollars in American military aid to Pakistan haven’t accomplished much. The best way I can see to moderate Pakistan and defeat extremists is to bolster secular education.

When I travel in Pakistan, I see radical madrasas built by Wahhabi Muslim fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and other countries, offering free meals to entice students. Fundamentalists donate because they understand the power of education to change a country. And we don’t even compete. Information is at

GEMS is a New York-based organization supporting American girls who have been trafficked, prostituted or otherwise sexually abused. It provides shelter and education for those rescued from pimps and provides some of the first nurturing many have received.

GEMS stands for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. It was founded by Rachel Lloyd, herself a survivor of the streets who went on to earn degrees from Marymount Manhattan College and City College of New York and wrote a searing memoir, “Girls Like Us.”

Prostitution of children should be a stain on the national conscience, and GEMS helps survivors while using peer counseling to prevent the trafficking in the first place. It is at

And here’s a special holiday message you can pass on to university students: tell them that I’m announcing my annual win-a-trip contest. In 2012, for the sixth time, I will take a student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world to try to shine a light on neglected issues. These trips have been life-changing for past winners. Information about how to apply is on my blog,, and thanks in advance to the Center for Global Development for again helping narrow the applicant pool down to finalists.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Of all the please-God-not-Mitt surges in the Republican contest, Newt Gingrich’s is the strangest.

And that’s not because of his marital mishaps. Or his lobbying that’s somehow magically something other than lobbying. Or his peevishness, comparable to that of an 18-month-old separated from the lollipop he snatched when Mommy’s back was turned.

It’s Gingrich’s braininess — or at least his preening assertion of such — that doesn’t quite fit, breaking the Republican pattern of late. How does an ostentatious know-it-all fare so well in a party supposedly hostile to intellectuals and intellectualism?

The candidates who surged before him are to varying degrees yahoos. They proved it anew last week. Michele Bachmann seemed to be under the impression that we had an embassy in Iran, and Rick Perry was definitely under the delusion that the voting age in this country is 21 instead of 18.

Herman Cain, on his Web site, unveiled the foreign-policy analogue to his 9-9-9 tax jingle, a world map that merely labeled countries “ally,” “adversary” and the like. Had it instead presented little thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols, along with palm trees for hot countries and snowflakes for cold ones, it wouldn’t have been any more simplistic.

The three of them follow in the dubiously informed footsteps of such darlings from recent election cycles as the inimitable Sarah Palin. And they exemplify the party’s fondness for exalting homespun common sense over hard-earned erudition or even baseline historical grounding. Paul Revere can warn whomever however he likes. He rode a Harley, right?

Less ridiculous Republican candidates with more learning gloss over it. During his 2000 presidential bid, George W. Bush tended not to mention his B.A. from Yale and his M.B.A. from Harvard. Romney has a Harvard M.B.A. and J.D. both, but when’s the last time you heard him trumpet either? The way Jews play hide-the-matzo at Passover, Republicans play hide-the-degree during elections.

But then there’s Gingrich, the former college professor, who regularly brandishes his Ph.D. in history from Tulane. He does it directly, as in a 1995 interview when he bragged, “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.”

He does it obliquely, by constantly invoking centuries past. Ask him about the price of milk, and he’ll likely work in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Couple that showy scholarship with his grandiose streak and you get pomposity on a scale that would make a French monarch blanch. Last week, in an electronic book published by Politico and Random House, it was revealed that he had compared the attempts to retool his initially beleaguered campaign with the founding of Wal-Mart by Sam Walton and of McDonald’s by Ray Kroc.

In a Fox News interview he one-upped any of Al Gore’s long-ago claims about “Love Story,” Love Canal or the invention of the Internet.

“I helped Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp develop supply-side economics,” he boasted.

“I helped lead the effort to defeat Communism in the Congress,” he added. Put aside the tortured locution — were there reds among the House’s Blue Dogs, along with Bolshevik backbenchers? — and you’re left with an audacious credit grab.

And in Bluffton, S.C., he told voters that he didn’t need to lobby because after he left Congress, “I was charging $60,000 a speech, and the number of speeches was going up, not down. Normally, celebrities leave and they gradually sell fewer speeches every year. We were selling more.”

Maybe his flamboyant knowledge-flaunting and ceaseless crowing are indeed liabilities, but ones that Republican voters forgive him as they stand at the 2012 salad bar, famished for a protein other than Mitt Romney and forced to choose from what’s there. The baby shrimp absent, the chicken strips missing, they settle for legumes. Gingrich is their bloviating garbanzo bean. Onto the romaine he goes.

But I think it’s more complicated than that.

If you consider how ardently Republicans courted Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie, you’re forced to conclude that they do value, and crave, an intellectually muscular candidate who can square off against President Obama. The 2012 election has a fundamentally different temperature from the 2010 one. There’s arguably worse economic uncertainty this time around, greater stakes and a seemingly waning thirst for Tea.

And Republicans appreciate that a presidential race, and the presidency itself, have a higher altitude than a Congressional showdown. Some palpable gray matter really does come in handy. Its presence in Romney, who’s probably brighter than Gingrich in the end, is a principal reason he’s owned, shared or been near the lead since the start.

And while the excessively cerebral posture Gingrich strikes may not be the party ideal, the black-and-white, wrong-and-right conclusions he reaches work just fine.

“I don’t think there’s a de facto anti-intellectualism among Republicans,” said Matthew Dowd, a political strategist who advised, then broke with, George W. Bush. “They just don’t like intellectuals who seem weak and indecisive. They don’t like nuance.” And Gingrich will dumb himself down on demand. He once believed in climate change, and now — abracadabra! — questions it.

OF course it’s possible that the Gingrich surge holds no particular meaning or lessons — that it will turn out to be as transitory as all the others. But things don’t look that way now.

His ascent benefits from the best timing of them all, and he’s the first ascender with an air of authority, no matter how repugnant, that rivals or surpasses Romney’s.

And Romney seems newly shaken, Newt-ly spooked. It must be wearing on him to stand as long as he has with his chest thrust out, waiting for his corsage while the electorate casts around for some better date to the prom. No wonder his knees, to judge by his own Fox News appearance last week, have gone a little weak.

Romney’s wobble gives Gingrich a window. Just watch him squeeze through it, pontificating all the while about the nature of portals and the history of glass. That Republicans don’t mind a lecture is reassuring. That they’re so open to this particular lecturer isn’t.

But he’s still not Mittens…