The Pasty Little Putz is trying to convince us that he’s really enjoying his shit sandwich. In “Not-So-Crazy Republicans” he gurgles that facing a disappointing field, primary voters have acted like adults. In “Manlashes, Manscara and Mantyhose” MoDo says that in a world where Vladimir Putin can cry on Russian national television, is it any wonder that men’s tights are coming into fashion? The Moustache of Wisdom says “Pass the Books. Hold the Oil.” and that education is a better economic driver than a country’s natural resources. In “Odysseus Lies Here?” Mr. Kristof says as the mystery of the exact location of Ithaca in Homer’s Greek epic endures, there might some inspiration here for America today. Mr. Bruni addresses “Mitt’s Rich Predicament” and says for Mitt Romney, wealth has gone from tactical blessing to optical curse. Here’s The Putz:
With Super Tuesday in the books, the time has come to praise that most mocked, maligned and misunderstood of Americans: the Republican primary voter.
The longer the primary campaign drags on, the more its noise and nastiness are being cited as proof that Republican America has gone crazy. “Political parties aren’t supposed to act suicidal,” Ryan Lizza wrote in last week’s New Yorker, but “conservative forces have pushed the presidential candidates to extremes.” New York magazine’s John Heilemann called this “the most volatile, unpredictable, and just plain wackadoodle Republican-nomination contest ever,” qualities he attributed to “the raging id of the party’s ascendant populist wing.”
Let’s stipulate that this has not been the most edifying of primary seasons. The policy debates have often been vacuous, the rhetoric shrill, the attack ads pervasive and wearying. Almost four years after the Bush presidency, the Republican Party is obviously still rife with dysfunction, and struggling to define itself for a new era and a changing country.
But against this backdrop, the party’s voters have behaved remarkably responsibly. Confronted with a flip-flopping, gaffe-prone front-runner whom almost nobody — conservative or liberal — finds very appealing, they have methodically sifted through the alternatives, considering and then discarding each in turn.
From early 2011 onward, the media have overinterpreted this sifting process, treating every polling surge for a not-Romney candidate almost as seriously as an actual primary result. They might nominate Herman Cain! They might nominate Michele Bachmann! Why — they might nominate Donald Trump!
Not so much. Instead, despite an understandable desire to vote for a candidate other than Mitt Romney, Republicans have been slowly but surely delivering him the nomination — consistently, if reluctantly, choosing the safe option over the bomb-throwers and ideologues.
A crazy party might have chosen Cain or Bachmann as its standard-bearer. The Republican electorate dismissed them long before the first ballots were even cast.
A crazy party wouldn’t have cared how Rick Perry debated so long as he promised to visit Texas justice on the Democratic Party. The Republican electorate did care, and delivered him less than one vote for every $1,000 dollars his campaign spent.
A crazy party would have either elevated Ron Paul to the nomination or damned him as a heretic. The Republican electorate has given him almost exactly the level of support and celebrity that a generally crankish, occasionally prophetic politician deserves.
A crazy party would have nominated the candidate who offered the most implausible policy pledges — Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, or Tim Pawlenty’s justly ridiculed promise of 5 percent growth a year, or Perry’s flat tax. The Republican electorate is poised to nominate a candidate whose domestic agenda is often light on details and imagination, but a long way from crazy.
Yes, Republican voters probably should have given Jon Huntsman more consideration, and South Carolina voters in particular shouldn’t have rewarded Newt Gingrich’s snarling, preening, media-bashing debate performances with an upset victory. But that irruption of folly came and went, and then the pattern of Iowa and New Hampshire reasserted itself: not a mad elopement with a right-wing Mr. Wrong, but a slow trudge toward the altar with Mr. Good-Enough.
Even the elevation of Rick Santorum as the last not-Romney standing testifies to the Republican electorate’s relative sobriety. For all his follies and failings, Santorum is a more plausible presidential candidate than most of this season’s alternatives — more experienced than Cain and Bachmann, more substantive and eloquent than Perry, more principled than Gingrich. As a two-term senator from a swing state with a record of legislative accomplishments, he’s far closer to a right-wing Howard Dean than a right-wing Jesse Jackson.
What we’re really seeing from the Republican campaign, over all, is less a party gone mad than a party caught between generations. The disasters of the George W. Bush era depleted the party’s bench of officeholders and tarnished the (last) name of its most successful big-state governor. The elections of 2009-10 delivered a promising crop of future stars, but the current presidential campaign arrived too soon for them to be entirely seasoned.
If the current race pitted Jeb Bush against, say, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, nobody would be talking about how the party has gone off the rails. But those three men all found reasons not to run. If it were being held two years hence, and featured Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, the excitement on the Republican side would rival what the Democrats enjoyed in 2008. But those four, and others like them, decided they weren’t ready yet.
So the primary electorate was left to choose from a roster of retreads, mediocrities and cable-news candidates. And given their options, Republican voters have acquitted themselves about as sensibly, responsibly and even patriotically as anyone could reasonably expect.
Lemme tell you something, Putzy. Your farm team in the state legislatures is even crazier than the folks in this year’s Clown Car. Here’s MoDo:
Usually I’m the one musing about the end of men.
But this time it was my friend John, who sent me an alarmed e-mail: “Crying Putin, manscara and now mantyhose. We are over.”
Not to mention the new romantic comedy, “Friends With Kids,” starring Jennifer Westfeldt (who also wrote and directed), along with her boyfriend, Jon Hamm, and other “Bridesmaids” stars. The movie, as the Times reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis noted, depicts a New York world “where men now knowledgeably discuss Kegel exercises and uterine droop.”
Russia was stunned by the tears in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, the rugged and steely former K.G.B. chief, on the night he grabbed a third term as president. His critics mocked him for crying in gratitude over an election they charged was stolen.
“That wasn’t tears,” said Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess champion who is now a liberal politician. “That was Botox flowing out.” (No wonder Pootie-Poot, as W. called him, doesn’t wince when he’s accused of voter fraud.)
Putin claimed the tears were caused by the icy Moscow wind. But his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, demurred on state television: “Well, at least that was his explanation for what happened.”
Manskirts, manscara, guyliner and guylashes have all had their spurts, especially in Britain. (Yes, that’s you, Russell Brand and Capt. Jack Sparrow.) A British brand called Eylure started selling false eyelashes for men last fall, promising to create a “Hollywood gaze.” Next up: eyelash extensions, already a trend for Japanese men, who tend to have short lashes.
On a recent episode of “The Office,” Jim (played by Jon Krasinski) had to sub for Ryan, the small-town temp who thinks he’s an Apple-worthy tech marketer, at the launch of an Internet gadget called the Pyramid. Jim did the presentation in the dark wearing a Nehru jacket and guyliner.
“Time, space, gender,” Jim intoned. “There are no rules anymore. All boundaries are breaking down in the wake of the infinite future.”
During New York’s Fashion Week last month, Alexandre Plokhov, the Russian-born menswear designer, sent out male models walking awkwardly in long skirts and hair extensions; they were greeted with gasps from the audience. Paul Marlow, the designer for Loden Dager, put eyeliner on his male models.
“They hated it at first and were joking with each other how pretty everyone was,” Marlow recalled. “Then they went out for a smoke, came back and were totally into it.”
Franceso Cavallini, the vice president of the Florence-based upscale legwear company Emilio Cavallini, told Women’s Wear Daily last week that there is “a cult following for mantyhose,” also known as “brosiery” and “guylons.”
The company introduced a unisex tights collection in 2009, a knitted blend of cotton and nylon that has more “breathability” for men, who perspire more. Purchases by men now make up 2 to 3 percent of the company’s annual production of one million tights.
Cavallini told Women’s Wear Daily that men in Europe wear tights with shorts and “for warmth under pants during cold weather months and also at home to lounge around in.” Prints for the tights include skulls, stars, stripes and a checkerboard pattern.
“The unisex tights are mainly black and white,” said Lisa Cavallini, a company executive and Francesco’s sister, “but I believe the men buying these tights want to make a fashion statement.” Their mantyhose are most popular with customers from Germany, France, Scandinavia, Canada and the United States.
Can tights be manly? As the “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” song goes, “We’re men, we’re men in tights; we roam around the forest looking for fights.”
A Web site dedicated entirely to men’s hosiery, e-MANcipate.net, offers an illustrated guide on how to put on pantyhose, starting with Step 1: “Take a seat. Be sure that the nails on your hands are at least in fine condition.”
I asked pretty 41-year-old Sara Blakely, who started Spanx with her $5,000 savings and just made the Forbes billionaires list as the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world, whether mantyhose were on her agenda.
“I never say never,” she said. “Men are starting to become more and more vocal about what they need. We’ve been getting calls from stylists who tell us that A-list actors and top musicians are squeezing into our Spanx bodysuits for women for movies and music videos. And women are telling us to please do something for their husbands and boyfriends, who are squeezing into large and extra-large women’s sizes.”
She already sells men’s undershirts, made of cotton and spandex, and underpants for men featuring “a better designed pouch.”
Perhaps men are emboldened now that the Y chromosome, which has been shedding genes willy-nilly and shrinking for millions of years, has steadied itself. The Y has reached, as the Times science writer Nicholas Wade put it, “a plateau of miniaturized perfection.”
Miniaturized perfection in skull tights. What could be better?
Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:
Every so often someone asks me: “What’s your favorite country, other than your own?”
I’ve always had the same answer: Taiwan. “Taiwan? Why Taiwan?” people ask.
Very simple: Because Taiwan is a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off of — it even has to import sand and gravel from China for construction — yet it has the fourth-largest financial reserves in the world. Because rather than digging in the ground and mining whatever comes up, Taiwan has mined its 23 million people, their talent, energy and intelligence — men and women. I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests, no diamonds, no gold, just a few small deposits of coal and natural gas — and because of that you developed the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills, which turns out to be the most valuable and only truly renewable resource in the world today. How did you get so lucky?”
That, at least, was my gut instinct. But now we have proof.
A team from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., has just come out with a fascinating little study mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam — which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries — and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country. In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?
The results indicated that there was a “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population,” said Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA exams for the O.E.C.D. “This is a global pattern that holds across 65 countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment.” Oil and PISA don’t mix. (See the data map at: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/43/9/49881940.pdf.)
As the Bible notes, added Schleicher, “Moses arduously led the Jews for 40 years through the desert — just to bring them to the only country in the Middle East that had no oil. But Moses may have gotten it right, after all. Today, Israel has one of the most innovative economies, and its population enjoys a standard of living most of the oil-rich countries in the region are not able to offer.”
So hold the oil, and pass the books. According to Schleicher, in the latest PISA results, students in Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan stand out as having high PISA scores and few natural resources, while Qatar and Kazakhstan stand out as having the highest oil rents and the lowest PISA scores. (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria stood out the same way in a similar 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss, test, while, interestingly, students from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — also Middle East states with few natural resources — scored better.) Also lagging in recent PISA scores, though, were students in many of the resource-rich countries of Latin America, like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Africa was not tested. Canada, Australia and Norway, also countries with high levels of natural resources, still score well on PISA, in large part, argues Schleicher, because all three countries have established deliberate policies of saving and investing these resource rents, and not just consuming them.
Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students. “Today’s learning outcomes at school,” says Schleicher, “are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.”
Economists have long known about “Dutch disease,” which happens when a country becomes so dependent on exporting natural resources that its currency soars in value and, as a result, its domestic manufacturing gets crushed as cheap imports flood in and exports become too expensive. What the PISA team is revealing is a related disease: societies that get addicted to their natural resources seem to develop parents and young people who lose some of the instincts, habits and incentives for doing homework and honing skills.
By, contrast, says Schleicher, “in countries with little in the way of natural resources — Finland, Singapore or Japan — education has strong outcomes and a high status, at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills and that these depend on the quality of education. … Every parent and child in these countries knows that skills will decide the life chances of the child and nothing else is going to rescue them, so they build a whole culture and education system around it.”
Or as my Indian-American friend K. R. Sridhar, the founder of the Silicon Valley fuel-cell company Bloom Energy, likes to say, “When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful.”
That’s why the foreign countries with the most companies listed on the Nasdaq are Israel, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, South Korea and Singapore — none of which can live off natural resources.
But there is an important message for the industrialized world in this study, too. In these difficult economic times, it is tempting to buttress our own standards of living today by incurring even greater financial liabilities for the future. To be sure, there is a role for stimulus in a prolonged recession, but “the only sustainable way is to grow our way out by giving more people the knowledge and skills to compete, collaborate and connect in a way that drives our countries forward,” argues Schleicher.
In sum, says Schleicher, “knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print.” Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning. “The thing that will keep you moving forward,” says Schleicher, is always “what you bring to the table yourself.”
Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Cephalonia, Greece:
For a nation like ours that is seeking its way home from 10 years of war, maybe there’s a dash of inspiration in the oldest tale of homecoming ever — “The Odyssey” — and in new findings that shed stunning light on it.
Homer recounts Odysseus’s troubled journey back from a military entanglement abroad, the decade-long Trojan War. “The Odyssey” is a singular tale of longing for homeland, but it comes with a mystery: Where exactly is Odysseus’s beloved land of Ithaca?
Homer describes Odysseus’s Ithaca as low-lying and the westernmost island of four. That doesn’t fit modern Ithaca, which is mountainous and the easternmost of the cluster of islands in the Ionian Sea.
A British businessman, Robert Bittlestone, working in his spare time, thinks he has solved this mystery — and his solution is so ingenious, and fits the geography so well, that it has been embraced by many of the world’s top experts. Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge University both told me that they largely buy into Bittlestone’s theory. Peter Green, an eminent British scholar, wrote in The New York Review of Books that Bittlestone is “almost certainly correct.”
Bittlestone, who loves the classics but has no special qualifications, noted that the westernmost area in this cluster of islands is Paliki, a peninsula that sticks out from the major island of Cephalonia. He wondered: What if in ancient times the isthmus connecting Paliki to the rest of Cephalonia were submerged? In that case, Paliki would be an island fitting Homer’s description.
With that insight, Bittlestone found a 2,000-year-old account by a geographer, Strabo, who described the isthmus as so low that it periodically was under water. Moreover, the collision of two tectonic plates is forcing the land mass up. A single earthquake in 1953 raised Paliki another 2 feet above sea level.
“Everybody tends to look at a landscape and assume that it’s always been like that, but in this part of the world that’s not true,” Bittlestone told me as he gave me a tour of Paliki.
John R. Underhill, a British geoscientist who is president of the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers, has overseen a geological examination of Paliki. Underhill says that his core samples and other research, so far, support the idea of an ancient channel separating Paliki, although the study is continuing.
There are still plenty of skeptics. Some experts still are partial to modern Ithaca as the homeland of Odysseus. Others favor the main part of Cephalonia, where an excavation has turned up the ancient tomb of a major king. For that matter, it’s not even clear that there really was an Odysseus; maybe he and Ithaca were imaginary.
Then again, the descriptions of Homer’s Ithaca are detailed and offer terrific matches with Paliki. Bittlestone led me to a beach on the north end of Paliki where he believes Odysseus landed on his return from his long journey home from Troy. Odysseus’s last stop before home was probably Corfu, and anyone sailing from Corfu to Paliki would likely land on this beach. It also matches Homer’s description of “precipitous promontories” that jut into the sea.
Yes, I know this is a flight of fancy. But it was magical to stroll the beach and imagine Odysseus landing here.
One shortcoming of this beach is that Homer describes a great cave nearby with two entrances, and there is none now. “Is there a silver bullet test as to whether this is where Odysseus landed?” Bittlestone mused. “Yes, a silver bullet would be to find the cave.”
Geologists are investigating a nearby limestone hill, a kind that is home to caverns elsewhere. The surface of the hill has been covered with more than 200 feet of rubble from landslides, but they are hoping to find the cavern buried underneath.
“You often find things in caves,” Bittlestone said, adding with a twinkle that his dream is to find the cave sheltering an early manuscript of Homer’s epics.
From the beach, he led me to an area that matches the description of the ancient pig farm (now a goat ranch) where Odysseus rested. A bit beyond is Kastelli, which Bittlestone describes as “a candidate hill for the palace of Odysseus.”
Professor Snodgrass examined the hill, finding ancient fortifications and shards of pottery, and he confirms that it is a prehistoric site.
There’s more that I don’t have space for. Bittlestone has written a 598-page book, “Odysseus Unbound,” published by Cambridge University Press, that explores the evidence for Paliki as Homer’s Ithaca.
“The Odyssey” is particularly relevant to us today as we recover from our own decade of war. How sweet it would be to discover, after three millenniums, that Odysseus was not imaginary but a product of these rocky hills, olive trees and beaches on an obscure Greek peninsula — an example of how the ordinary can inspire the extraordinary.
Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:
Mitt Romney may be as close to a walking, talking dollar sign as presidential politics has ever witnessed. If money were made flesh, it would apparently have fair skin, flawless hair and an off-key tropism toward patriotic anthems.
I say that only partly because of all of those awkward asides of his, the ones that keep reminding voters, who need no further reminding, that he’s loaded. And I’m not really focused on just how loaded he is. With a personal net worth in the vicinity of $225 million, Romney is no Warren Buffett, no Bill Gates. There have been more affluent candidates for the presidency. For lesser offices, too. Michael Bloomberg could buy and sell Romney several times over and still have enough left for a couple of Cadillacs.
But every discussion of Romney’s campaign, no matter the angle, winds up referring to riches. It’s uncanny. Wealth is the Go on the Monopoly board of Mitt: you’re either starting there, heading there or circling past it. If only you collected $200 each time.
His detractors, citing his personal awkwardness and policy flip-flops, believe that money is the only reason he’s doing as well as he is, which isn’t as well as he’d hoped. His campaign’s fund-raising total of nearly $75 million by the end of February dwarfs those of his Republican rivals, and that’s not counting the coffers of the super PAC supporting him. The two treasuries combined fuel a spending juggernaut.
But they also hammer home the image of him as the designated frontman of the moneyed establishment: Mammon’s missionary. At a time of populist rancor and class resentment, that’s no asset, and some of his supporters believe it’s holding him back.
The truth lies in between. Romney’s presidential bid, a fascinating commentary on wealth in politics, suggests various ways in which a financial advantage can curdle into something more complicated, a tactical blessing turned optical curse.
Last week provided fresh examples of just how thoroughly money defines him. On Friday morning, the banner headline atop the Politico Web site was this: “Romney calls in cash cavalry.” The story below it pegged him as someone who could marshal greenbacks at will and noted that his campaign and super PAC together deployed $32.7 million in January alone.
To secure his squeaker of a victory in Ohio last week, he outspent Rick Santorum, who took second, by about four to one. That sort of disparity repeatedly diminishes the sense of accomplishment surrounding each Romney win. It’s the cloud within the sterling silver lining.
Recent analyses of individual contributions to his campaign underscore just how affluent his backers are. Citing numbers through the end of January, The Times’s Nicholas Confessore and Ashley Parker reported that about 40 percent of his donors had given the primary-season maximum of $2,500. In comparison, just 9 percent of Santorum’s donors, 8 percent of Newt Gingrich’s and 4 percent of Ron Paul’s had hit the limit.
Individual donations of less than $200 accounted for only 10 percent of Romney’s total haul, while they represented 48 percent of Gingrich’s, 49 percent of Santorum’s and 46 percent of Paul’s.
Exit polls in Ohio confirmed that Romney’s support among primary voters rises steeply in higher income brackets. And there was yet more evidence last week that for Romney holdouts, his riches are a barrier. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked Republican primary voters which of six concerns about Romney was their greatest. That he’s “too wealthy and does not relate to the average person” ranked second, behind only “he waffles on the issues.” Dead last was that “his Mormon religious beliefs will be out of the mainstream.”
Money typically helps a candidate, at least at the outset. The rich man or woman more quickly gets an initial hearing, more easily connects with donors of means, more readily finds time to stump and can often frame a fortune as a measure of mettle, a sign of know-how.
But during the 2010 election cycle, one rich candidate after another — including would-be senators Carly Fiorina in California, Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Jeff Greene in Florida — failed, despite their efforts to turn affluence into a kind of populism by stressing the time they’d spent outside government, in a private-sector realm of results and common sense. Meg Whitman burned through more than $140 million of her own money in the course of losing the California governor’s race to Jerry Brown by almost 13 points.
Unlike Romney, those four were politicos-come-lately, with no prior experience in office. Like him, they had savvy opponents who raised pointed questions about how the candidates accrued their fortunes. They failed to cast their wealth in a positive light.
Which is indeed doable, said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked to defeat Whitman. He mentioned Bloomberg’s emphasis on philanthropy and on the independence that can come with not being economically beholden to anybody.
But while Romney, too, has been notably generous, the primary beneficiary has been the Mormon Church. Perhaps because of that, he’s not as vocal about his giving as he might be.
As for independence, “The Republican primary is a sprint to the right,” Lehane noted. “You can’t establish independence.”
Romney’s own clumsiness has worsened matters. Instead of smartly releasing his tax returns in the dead of night during a summer lull, he hemmed, hawed and ensured a protracted debate about tax equity in America.
That debate rages still, drowning out realities that potentially flatter him. His support from the highest-earning voters, for example, can be described instead as support from the best-educated ones: the groups overlap. While his tax plan is indeed indulgent of the wealthy, it’s no more so than Santorum’s or Gingrich’s.
If he makes it to the general election, it’s not at all certain that he’d do financial laps around President Obama. Obama’s campaign has raised nearly twice what his has, and the president has invited super PAC help as well.
Romney’s no profligate hedonist. He plays golf with clubs from Kmart, as Parker and Michael Barbaro reported in The Times. One Republican who knows him well told me: “He almost never flies first class. Thinks it’s a waste of money. Loves JetBlue. Loves JetBlue.”
His political fate depends largely on whether he can persuade voters of that. On Monday Ann Romney tried to help, telling Fox News, “How I measure riches is by the friends I have and the loved ones I have.”
Three days later, in Mississippi, her husband told voters, “I’m learning to say y’all and I like grits.”
He added, “Strange things are happening to me.”
Yeah. Southerners just love being patronized, as Mr. Blow pointed out the other day.