Friday, February 29, 2008

Yale and Jail: An American Travesty

Jesse Jackson's an old guy now, a little crotchety, and often these days a step or two behind the times. He's made a few mistakes in his life, some personal and some rhetorical, and his style has always been a bit too intense for the cool medium of television. The mass media rarely pay attention to him anymore until some racial controversy flares, after which they invariably allow some ignorant young pundit to decry Jackson's obsession with black-white issues and to dismiss him as another Al Sharpton. (Don’t believe me? Google "Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson" and then "Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton" and you will be rewarded with over 75,000 hits.)

I mean no disrespect to Reverend Sharpton, whose own resumé goes well beyond the regrettable Tawana Brawley case, but Jackson is in an entirely different league. The man served on the front lines of the battle for civil rights when that sort of activity could get you killed. Indeed, he was in Memphis with Dr. King on that awful day in April, 1968. He returned to Chicago and lectured young African Americans on the critical importance of education and personal responsibility at a time when Bill Cosby was still voicing Fat Albert and pushing Jell-o Pudding Pops. As Bill Clinton so unhelpfully reminded us last month, Jesse Jackson in 1988 became the first black man to win presidential primaries and caucuses both inside and outside the south.

I saw Reverend Jackson speak during the 1988 campaign in a union hall in the Midwest. He started slowly and any television audience would certainly have tuned out after the first ten minutes or so (except that no cameras actually showed up). Jackson was clearly more preacher than politician.

And then, almost before anyone realized what was happening, the room was transformed by the raw eloquence and charisma of the man, and by the time he was done we would have overturned all the cars in the parking lot if he had asked us to. But of course he didn't. Instead, he urged us to be good citizens, care about others, and, obviously, vote for him on primary day.

This is a long introduction to an entirely different point, but I have always wanted to say a word or two about Jackson and never found an opportunity. Today the opportunity came, sadly enough, in a news story reporting that just over one out of every hundred Americans is now incarcerated somewhere in the United States. Jesse warned us about this, back in that cold union hall twenty years ago, he told us that our obsession with imprisonment would exact a great toll on our country. And then, in that rhyming style that has been caricatured but rarely equaled, he reminded us that it costs more to send a young man to jail than it does to send him to Yale.

More than a few of Jesse Jackson's punch lines have proven prophetic, and this, unfortunately, was one of them. Along with the news about our shamefully large prison population, we also learned that six states (all "Blue", by the way) now spend more on prisons than on colleges. In 1987, just a year before I heard Jackson speak, only three states spent even half as much jailing people as they did educating them; now a majority have passed that threshold with more likely to follow.

Tyranny does not always arrive to the beat of drums and the sound of jackboots pounding pavement. Sometimes it creeps in unnoticed, oozing through the small tears in our social fabric. Still worse, tyranny is often not recognized as such, indeed does not even recognize itself in those terms. George W. Bush, after all, probably still believes that Guantánamo helps protect Americans from terrorism.

We think of political prisoners as those who are jailed for acts of protest and civil disobedience. But politics often touches and destroys the lives of people who have never voted, let alone opposed the policies of a given administration. And the explosion in America's prison population is, at base, a phenomenon of politics more than law enforcement.

We have always imprisoned violent offenders, so the idea that we need to build additional facilities to incarcerate murderers and rapists and armed robbers is nonsense. Rather, the war on drugs, fueled by some legitimate fear and a great deal of paranoia, remains the single greatest culprit in sending young men and women to prison unnecessarily. Reefer madness took hold in the corridors of power during the 1960s and never lost its grip.

First, we allowed ourselves to draw some outsized distinction between pushers and users, as though the two categories didn't overlap significantly. Then we decided that the former, although mostly nonviolent, should be regarded as the moral equivalent of bank robbers. Finally, we sat back while the actual sale of drugs was redefined as "possession for sale", treating junkies with a large enough stash as narcotics kingpins, even without evidence that an economic transaction ever took place.

As the war on drugs continued to destroy as many lives as it saved (and as it persisted in stupidly emphasizing punishment over treatment), another, equally terrible phenomenon occurred. Grandstanding politicians, trolling for votes at whatever cost to the nation, began to pass mandatory sentencing laws, including "three strikes" provisions and "truth in sentencing" guidelines, that replaced the imperfect wisdom of judges and parole boards with the thuggish uniformity of punishment without regard to common sense. Old men, no longer a danger to anyone, languish behind prison walls because nobody has the courage to point out the absurdity of these vicious policies. To their everlasting disgrace, liberals and Democrats, in Congress and state legislatures, allowed these laws to pass rather than face opponents' "Willie Horton" commercials during their next campaign.

And now, of course, the monster enjoys a life of its own. The penal system has spawned a burgeoning industry, with fortunes made and sought through prison construction, prisoner transport, and even, increasingly, the privatization of entire facilities. Corrections officers constitute a powerful and influential voting bloc in many states and their endorsements are widely sought. They, too, have a vested interest in the expansion of the prison population.

The cynical reach of partisan politics has, not surprisingly, also extended to this issue. In most states, felons lose their right to vote, at least temporarily, meaning that millions of voices, disproportionately black and Latino, are silenced on Election Day. Republicans know this and actively purge the voter rolls of as many offenders and ex-offenders as possible. In addition, towns and counties that house prisons are often allowed to count their incarcerated residents as citizens for the purpose of assigning legislative seats, thus expanding the political power of rural conservative districts and diminishing the representation of poor and minority precincts.

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods that most of us avoid, the social cost of this prison epidemic is staggering. Boys grow up without fathers. Unemployable men return home and attempt to find a way to survive. An overworked and underfunded parole and probation system offers little hope of rehabilitation, having only enough time and personnel to enforce violations and begin the cycle of incarceration anew.

Jesse Jackson warned us that this day was coming. But I doubt that he suspected in his worst nightmares that it would arrive this quickly and with this impact. Still, even the worst news is fleeting in this era of CNN and MSNBC. By this time next week, another young Caucasian woman will probably go missing somewhere in America and the conversation will move on, never to return to the subject of incarceration until we hit the next terrible milestone.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shattered Idealism

I believe I was once idealistic, though it's hard to remember for certain. My earliest political memory, and just a faint one, imprinted itself on November 22, 1963, and resulted in a childhood of speculation about whether presidents typically die at the hands of lone nuts or whether they are rubbed out by organized criminals, government agencies, or the two acting in concert. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated before I reached the age of ten. War, daily battle deaths, and sometimes gruesome film coverage of combat in Asia filled my family's living room each evening, narrated by deep-voiced newsmen who presented each story without betraying their own opinion of the slaughter.

In 1972, I worked in my first political campaign, George McGovern's hopeless quest for the presidency. By then, we knew that our previous president had been a liar, and we were fairly certain that the incumbent was a crook. Nevertheless, even as I leafleted my home town, usually to the accompaniment of cold stares or hostile comments, it never occurred to me that McGovern would actually win. Rather, my efforts felt more like a civic duty, a responsibility to bear witness to a population that needed, but did not want, to hear my message. (I have ever since that experience felt great sympathy for the young Mormon missionaries who ride their bikes from house to house in a generally futile effort to spread the gospel according to Moroni.)

When Richard Nixon overwhelmingly won re-election, my disappointment was minimal and largely directed at the fact that McGovern had been held to victory in a single state. Some of my friends, on the other hand, seemed positively shattered, astounded that good, as they defined it, had somehow failed to triumph over evil like it was supposed to. By the time Nixon bit the dust two years later, we were all a great deal more cynical, though relieved that the country could, at least, finally acknowledge the error of its ways.

The hard-core idealists, of course, came primarily from the half-generation before mine, those first-stage Baby Boomers born during the 1940s and very early 1950s. Their first memories were of a world in which wars ended and presidents acted, however reluctantly, to support the cause of equality here at home. They saw Truman integrate the Army and Eisenhower dispatch troops to Little Rock to enforce integration. And then, in 1960, these young voters gravitated toward a presidential candidate who summoned them to noble sacrifice, promised a freer America, and assured them that their generation would conquer the frontiers of space.

My initial political memory, JFK's murder, was the early Boomers' first lesson in how real life inevitably responds to idealism. Within a decade, the dreams of a generation would be exploded in Memphis, Los Angeles, Da Nang, and Kent, Ohio. Idealism wilted into disappointment, and disappointment flowered into rage.

When promises are broken, cynics mutter; idealists lash out. People asked for years after the 1960s ended, why students no longer responded to the various political and international outrages that marked the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the answer, of course, involved self-interest: we were no longer at risk of being drafted and sent involuntarily into war. But another part was far more damning. We did not take to the streets because we were not disillusioned. We expected government failure and malfeasance, and knew better than to care too much about it.

I was already prepared to write this essay today, when my eye was caught by a short entry in a website called The first sentence reads:

"Some student life experts are worried that campus excitement and idealism over Barack Obama’s campaign has reached such high levels that students are sure to be let down by either an Obama presidency or an Obama loss."

And it's true. Those of us who teach college students will readily report that Senator Obama has effectively tapped previously unrealized reservoirs of idealism and hope among undergraduates who had heretofore regarded political science as nothing more than a general ed requirement. They believe…they really do. Many are truly convinced that our nation will be transformed by a bright, charismatic leader who is committed to leaving behind the divisive, negative politics of the past. They are rarely dissuaded by even the most basic accounting of James Madison's Federalist #51, in which the author of the Constitution explains how his government is uniquely structured to diminish agents of change.

By the time his limousine made its fateful turn onto Elm Street in Dallas, John F. Kennedy had already begun to lose some of the confidence of his young supporters. His civil rights efforts were tentative and inadequate. His personal charisma did not, indeed could not, overcome Madison's carefully crafted blueprint for disappointing activists. The angrier side of the Baby Boomers, the SDS and the Black Panthers, were already gestating during the Kennedy years. Things would explode, of course, after the president's death, but it is likely that a second Kennedy administration would have unleashed at least some of the same furies, particularly if JFK had continued to pursue war in Vietnam.

Barack Obama's supporters do not constitute a cult, as the current slanderous right-wing talking points would have it. But they do represent an army of idealists who seem, at least for now, unprepared for the disappointments that they will inevitably endure, either after Obama loses the presidential election or once his actions in office fail, as they must, to live up to his soaring rhetoric. Let's see, for example, what happens when President Obama breaks his first promise, most likely the one about getting combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

In the meantime, flashes of anger and overreaction can already be seen from those who respond to Hillary Clinton's rather tepid negative campaign with disproportionate fury. Over at Daily Kos, a diarist called Delaware Dem, who doesn't even appear to be all that young, pronounces Bill and Hillary "[t]he worst narcissists our country has ever seen", primarily because they won't stand aside and hand over the nomination to its rightful owner, Senator Obama. After recounting a few of Clinton's tougher jabs against her opponent, the diarist concludes:

"I am ashamed of Hillary Clinton. I find her now to be an utterly contemptible person, who would do anything and have her campaign say anything to get elected. Her actions, and her husband's actions, define narcissism. It has always been about what they want, and their ambition is the only principle that they defend."

Only a wounded idealist could summon that level of invective against someone whose transgressions have been, in a political sense, so limited and pedestrian. These are not the words of a political activist so much as those of a jilted lover. They betray little ability to come to grips with the untidy realities of politics and the fact that all campaigns get ugly from time to time. And this overreaction is coming at a moment when Obama is the odds on favorite to win the Democratic nomination and, for that matter, the presidency. Imagine what the response might be if he actually loses or fails to deliver in office.

Clearly, one doesn’t wish to generalize too much from a single entry on a single Obama-besotted website. But it is worth pointing out that this particular diary was "recommended", meaning that other members of the community regarded it as more worthy of attention than the dozens of other contributions made by Daily Kos participants. If the Democratic party is not yet worried, it should be.

Idealism is a fine and wonderful thing, until it is shattered. And it always gets shattered.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In the Tank for Obama?

I haven't watched Saturday Night Live in years. Don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those middle-aged snobs who insist the program hasn't been funny since John Belushi was thin enough—and alive enough—to fit into his bumble bee costume. I kept up well into the early 1990s. After that, though, the popular culture begins to pass you by, the guest stars are often people you've never heard of, and the bands make you lunge for the mute button. I'm sure it's still funnier than, say, Mad TV (the producers of which must have had naked pictures of some TV executive cavorting with a zebra, that's all I'm going to say), but it's someone else's funny now.

The past couple of days, however, have brought snippets of SNL back into my living room, courtesy of the 24 hour cable news channels. The overlap between the audiences of Saturday Night Live and Hardball with Chris Matthews is approximately zero (think: Clearasil vs. Viagra), but the newscasters and pundits, who have never experienced cool in their lives, seem to get a real kick out of being ridiculed by hipsters. So two news-oriented SNL segments received significant airtime on Sunday and Monday.

The first featured Mike Huckabee, bringing his theocratic campaign right into Lucifer's hometown of New York City. His hopeless campaign no longer drawing much attention from the authentic news shows, Huckabee appeared with fake anchor Tina Fey to poke fun at himself for carrying on a hopeless quest for the presidency. I think the point was to show what a great sense of humor the former Arkansas governor has, especially for a man who aims to reduce non-fundamentalists to second-class citizenship. Ha ha ha!

The other SNL skit caricatured a Democratic presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The gag was very simple: every time Obama would provide an answer, the panel of reporters would register their strong approval, the woman swooning and the men offering up verbal high-fives. Hillary, on the other hand, was treated as a third wheel, ignored and cut off in mid-sentence. The point was, of course, unmistakable: the American political media had, as one journalist put it, gone into the tank for Senator Obama.

This conclusion was, to nobody's surprise, vigorously disputed by the navel-gazers on the news networks. If Bill and Hillary think the media have played favorites this time around, well, that's just another example of an inept campaign attempting to kill the messenger. Anyway, both the left and right think we're biased, they said, so obviously we're doing something right! (And that, by the way, has to be the dumbest self-defense ever concocted. Can you imagine any other business where the proprietors would consider it a virtue that both halves of their customer base hold them in contempt?)

Nevertheless, it sometimes takes comedians to deliver truths that cannot be spoken by anyone else. The debate skit simply wouldn't have been funny unless viewers sympathized, at least a little, with the underlying message. Judging from the laughter of the studio audience (as well as the unforced guffaws from some of the reporters watching the rebroadcast), SNL had hit paydirt.

The evidence of media bias, of course, is elusive and easy to cherry pick. The right wing has become expert at this, railing against liberal bias whenever some reporter deigns to point out an inconsistency—or worse—in media coverage of the current pathologically dishonest administration. Just as truth is a defense against libel, so, too, is it an effective rebuttal to allegations of unfairness. There were, after all, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Osama bin Laden is, in fact, still alive. The housing market would still be collapsing today even if nobody chose to ruffle Mr. Bush's feathers by announcing it.

The burden, therefore, is always on those who want to claim media bias rather than simple aggressive reporting. On that basis, I am unwilling to conclude that the media, as a whole, favor Obama over Clinton in their reporting. I am not even certain that most of them would make that choice in casting their own ballots. Regardless, there are certainly vignettes and other factors that may be considered evidence in support of the claim that the Democratic race has not featured an even playing field.

We may begin, appropriately enough, the day before Halloween, four months ago, when Senator Clinton's campaign was first beset by the goblins and ghoulies. At the time, Clinton, far ahead in the polls, mishandled a tricky question about whether or not she supported a plan by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses. She was caught unprepared, danced around the issue, and got called on it by several of her rivals. It was a minor mistake, the sort Ronald Reagan used to make with alarming frequency.

But the news media treated this second-rate gaffe as though Clinton had recommended legalizing heroin. Even today, if you enter the following into Google: "Hillary Clinton" "drivers licenses" "illegal" "November", you are rewarded with over 52,000 hits. It was through that narrow opening that Barack Obama finally began to gain ground on Clinton. If, as seems increasingly likely, Senator Clinton's campaign goes down in flames, much of her failure can be traced to her comments on the Spitzer plan (which wasn't even a presidential matter) and the media's decision to pounce on her response like a fumbled football.

There is more, of course. In particular, journalists' unending and often unfavorable fascination with Bill Clinton has worked manifestly to his wife's disadvantage. For many of the more sexist commentators, this successful attorney, adviser, and United States Senator has been reduced, in her own run for the White House, as simply one of "the Clintons", and the understudy at that. No reporter would have made the sort of comments about race that Hillary Clinton has faced because of her gender. Nobody accused Mitt Romney of "pimping out" his five sons. And let's not forget Chris Matthews' immortal words, for which he apologized but was otherwise excused:

"[T]he reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That's how she got to be senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn't win there on her merit."

Nobody is suggesting that Barack Obama should be subject to the same sort of innuendo and prejudice at the hands of the working press. But if the argument is that Hillary received special scrutiny because she was the frontrunner, where are the media now? Obama has led the Democratic pack for at least a couple of weeks now, if not longer, and he continues to enjoy the kid glove treatment. We know it; the candidates know it; and the comics at Saturday Night Live know it.

Whether guided by their antipathy toward "the Clintons", their fears of being blamed for derailing the first viable African American candidacy, or something else, it is hard to argue that the press has been even-handed in 2008. The New York Times, perhaps for legitimate reasons, sat on its explosive John McCain story until after his nomination was a done deal. Let's hope the media don't decide to do their due diligence on Barack Obama only after it's too late for the Democrats to give Hillary Clinton a second look.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come for You?

Nothing short of a rigidly enforced federal law could make me watch the Academy Awards show. Jon Stewart has his days, but very few of those days have been as a stand-up comic. Sort of like Jerry Seinfeld. Mostly, though, I can't stand the self-congratulatory orgy of people who imagine themselves artists because they occasionally create a film more substantial than Porky's Revenge. The emptiness of celebrity is the great American curse, and if Brad and Angelina (or Brangelina, or Angrad) want to fly off and save Africa this week, I'm all for it. I just don't want to hear about it.

So anyway, unwilling to listen to a bunch of speeches thanking agents and cleaning ladies, and repelled by even the shortest musical number, I had no choice but to channel surf my way to amusement Sunday evening. The problem, of course, is that nobody counter-programs the Oscars and ESPN seems to have devoted the week to small time college basketball teams bidding to lose in the first round of the NCAAs (Bracket Busters, they call this, for reasons that don't interest me). That left me either with the Cooking Channel's "Tribute to Margarine" (I made that up), NASCAR's Auto Club 500 from Fontana, California (that one's real, unfortunately), or 60 Minutes on CBS.

I used to watch 60 Minutes back in the days of the giants: Rather, Reasoner, Bradley, Safer. Nobody could walk into an auto repair shop like Mike Wallace and confront the man who had just sold Wallace's producer an unneeded new carburetor, driving Bubba either to despair or to that awkward money scene where he charges toward the film crew with grease on his overalls and murder in is heart. It was almost enough to compensate for a few wasted minutes with Andy Rooney in which the house curmudgeon bitched about the intrusiveness of voice mail or tried to spell dirty words using the serial numbers on dollar bills (no, I didn't really pay close attention). Talk about no country for old men.

I'm going on a bit here, which you can blame on my over-the-counter cold medicine, but my point is that I was driven by my aversion to gold statuettes into watching 60 Minutes for the first time in many years. It was, evidently, an all-new episode (though as NBC reminded us some years ago, plugging their summer re-runs, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you). My first reaction was "Who is Scott Pelley"? My second was a bit more profound.

Don Siegelman, once governor of Alabama, now resides in a federal prison in Louisiana, convicted of bribery. He is not the first politician to head from the State House to the Big House, but his story has taken some unusual twists along the way. A Republican operative claims that Siegelman, a successful Democrat in a GOP-leaning state, was set up by Karl Rove, who used the U.S. Justice Department and its local prosecutors to take the former governor down before he could win back his old seat.

The problem with 60 Minutes, of course, is that it does not report news so much as it tells stories. The other side may be given a chance to respond, but once the producers decide that an injustice has been committed, there can be little doubt how the segment will progress. Karl Rove is an immoral weasel who may well deserve several prison sentences. Nevertheless, he was wise not to sit down with Pelley and answer a bunch of "Have you beaten your wife?" questions.

My purpose, then, is not to comment on the specifics of the Siegelman case. To hear Pelley tell it, it looks pretty bad. The program never used the term "political prisoner", but it sent a strong message that the former governor is locked up not for what he did (trading campaign contributions for favors) but for who he is. The former Republican Attorney General of Arizona, who has no apparent axe to grind, provides some devastating commentary about the disproportionate attention the case received as well as the bizarrely punitive actions taken by the trial judge, a Bush appointee who once served the Alabama GOP (and may still be doing so).

One thing, however, is clear: an administration that politicizes the Justice Department deserves precisely this kind of scrutiny. Bush and company forfeited the benefit of the doubt when they chose to retain and release U.S. Attorneys on the basis of their loyalty to the Republican cause and their willingness to draw the cloud of indictment over the heads of local Democrats who threatened Rove's drive toward a new Republican century. One gets the impression that the real point in the Siegelman case was to offer up an indictment during the primary election season that would cause the formidable ex-governor to lose his party's nomination to a lesser opponent (which is precisely what happened). The conviction, on what appears to be shaky evidence, was just gravy.

Janet Reno made a horrible, deadly blunder in her years as Attorney General under Bill Clinton, signing off on an unnecessary and deadly attack on David Koresh's cult compound in Waco, Texas. But while Reno's overreaction may have betrayed incompetence on her part, it did not involve the wholesale corruption of justice itself. By contrast, the Bush administration's U.S. Attorney scandal suggests a willingness to deputize federal prosecutors to use the criminal justice system to carry out partisan ends. This is, we can say without exaggeration, the stuff of dictatorship. Because the White House refuses to release information or make top officials available for questioning, we may never know how close we have come to the boundary which separates the rule of law and the tyranny of the state.

For its part, the Alabama Republican Party took the opportunity to respond to the 60 Minutes broadcast, and the result does not impress. As well as the expected denial, the state GOP added a bunch of gratuitous and irrelevant nonsense about the liberal media. They likely have little experience in the national spotlight, but this is not, needless to say, the way innocent people are expected to respond.

All in all, it was another depressing evening in what has become a depressing seven years. The show went on to feature the story of a Black Muslim bakery in Northern California which may be a front for a dangerous criminal outfit and may have had a hand in the murder of an investigative journalist. The Oakland Police Department came off as inept and even a bit intimidated.

If true, the story should generate outrage. But even with a death involved, it was not, in one sense, as scary as the Siegelman saga. Thugs and criminals are everywhere and they regularly shock the conscience. But even if the local police fail in their duty, one can always appeal up the ladder to state and federal authorities.

But what if the bad guys are the feds? What do you do then? Until we learn the full truth about what happened down in Alabama, that is the frightening thought that will continue to play in our minds.

Unless, of course, we tuned in to the Bread and Circuses extravaganza over on ABC.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Appealing to the Hypothalamus

Because some of us compose symphonies and write novels, it is sometimes easy to forget that human beings are, first and foremost, animals. We share the genetic heritage of our species, including both the complex and the primitive. On the one hand, we are the lottery winners of the evolutionary process, developing over time into creatures that explore space, build skyscrapers, and cure diseases. On the other hand, we share the territoriality of our fellow mammals and we often choose up sides with cruel and devastating results. No pack of dogs could ever paint the Sistine Chapel; nor could they devise and administer the Nazi Holocaust.

Timothy McVeigh was no less twisted and vicious than Osama bin Laden. That his terrorist attack did less damage than al Qaeda's assault on 9/11 speaks only to deficiencies in McVeigh's intellect and vision. And yet most Americans reacted very differently to these two atrocities. Despite clear evidence that McVeigh was part of a larger movement, the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was, and is still, generally regarded as the work of a couple of sociopaths, both of whom have now been neutralized. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, on the other hand, have been attributed by many to an entire faith, or at least to its most devout adherents.

Ethnicity is obviously not the only difference between the crimes of McVeigh and those of bin Laden, but it does dominate the issue in the minds of many of our fellow citizens. A young white male with a military-style haircut does not get a second look by passengers waiting to board a commercial aircraft. Muslims, however, have been viewed with suspicion by transportation authorities and, especially, members of the traveling public, who have, in several well-publicized cases, created incidents by misinterpreting the relatively mundane actions of bearded men in robes. The wild animal instinctively distinguishes between insider and outsider; the human animal often does the same.

I bring this up because I recently learned that someone I know and otherwise respect was expressing concern about the possibility that Barack Obama might secretly be a Muslim bent on corrupting or even destroying our nation from within. The notion is preposterous, of course, but it has begun to take root in the minds of people who had heretofore appeared fully rational. Unfortunately, this is merely the opening salvo in what promises to be a much bigger war.

The Republicans have very little to recommend themselves this year. Their incumbent president recently saw his approval number slip to 19% in one poll, and even on his best days over two-thirds of his countrymen regard him as a failure. He has mismanaged both the economy and foreign policy, presiding over a ruinous war and a fundamental corruption that startles even by contemporary standards. Along with his contemptible vice president, George W. Bush has dishonored his country, weakened its military, and diminished many of the bedrock freedoms for which soldiers have died for over two centuries. The question is no longer whether or not Bush is the worst president in American history; the question is whether and how his successor can restore the national greatness that he squandered.

Given that unhappy premise, the GOP produced its worst presidential field in decades, a collection of has beens, unbalanced ideologues, and soulless technocrats. Out of that shallow pool has emerged John McCain, a man whose only notable distinction involves his behavior as a prisoner of war forty years ago. The Arizona senator is widely disliked by his party's political base and his performance in the campaign to date has been lackluster and uncharismatic, though perhaps a bit less so than the lugs he defeated on the way to his default triumph. The McCain of 2008 may, perhaps, inspire lady lobbyists, but he has less star power than any Republican nominee since at least Bob Dole.

My guess is that the GOP is secretly delighted that Hillary Clinton will probably not be the Democratic nominee for president. They would certainly have had a chance to beat Senator Clinton, of course, given her high negatives, but they also know that a surrogate race between our last two presidential administrations would almost certainly favor the Clinton side. It would be particularly hard for McCain and company to move the football against a woman who has been so thoroughly vetted that there might not be anything additional that we could learn about her other than her favorite color.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, presents tantalizing possibilities to the nasty shut-ins who populate the Republicans' opposition research facility. They are experts at taking relatively unknown Democrats and defining them in the most slanderous way possible. Michael Dukakis cared more about black male prisoners than the white women they raped. Bill Clinton was a libertine draft dodger. John Kerry's service in Vietnam was marked by lying and cowardice. They even managed to soil Al Gore, the quintessential Boy Scout, as a compulsive liar.

With Obama, the strategy is already beginning to emerge. Right now, the senator enjoys a popularity that is broad but shallow. He has not yet been fully defined in the public's mind. Expect the Republican hit machine to attempt to contribute to that definition by making Obama seem as exotic and different as possible. They will find the symbols that help voters distinguish between us and them, and then carefully move the Illinoisan into the latter category. If the GOP can make this election less about the cerebrum and more about the primitive hypothalamus, they might just have a shot at derailing Obamamania.

This effort started last year when some no-name Republican hack got on television to announce to the world that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein, just like Saddam. The whispering campaign about Obama the Manchurian (or, perhaps, Arabian) Candidate, the stealth Muslim, is another piece of the puzzle. Expect a lot of offhand references in the coming months to the years that Obama spent overseas and to his father's Kenyan background and family.

The current controversy about Senator Obama's patriotism is yet one more prong in this multi-faceted attack. Why doesn't Obama wear an American flag lapel pin? Why didn't he put his hand over his heart when the national anthem played? How come his wife isn't proud to be an American? Some will insist that these questions are simply the same kind that were leveled at Dukakis, Clinton, and Kerry in earlier elections. But they are not: they are part of a larger campaign to brand Obama as not fully American, by background and by personal philosophy.

The most subtle manifestation of this attack comes with the recent use of the word "cult" to describe Barack Obama's fervent supporters. You see, not only is Obama an outsider and a secret Muslim, he is also employing his preternatural charisma and eloquence to control the minds of idealistic, impressionable young Americans. He is the Pied Piper of Jakarta, and he is leading our children unwittingly down the path of jihad.

Assuming Obama wraps up the Democratic nomination a week from tomorrow, his advisers had better begin work on the process of defining their candidate. Right now, he is all bright colors and broad strokes, a stand-in for our fondest hopes and dreams. By the time the Republican attack machine is done, he will be, in the minds of many, something else entirely. First and foremost, the Obama camp has to understand that they could, despite their manifest advantages, very well lose to John McCain in November if this election gets sidetracked into a discussion of what it means to be an American.

To avoid this fate, Obama and his handlers must find some way to deal with the hypothalamus and the merciless partisans who will appeal to that primitive organ without regard to the damage they might do to the country.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Hillary Clinton Can Learn from Ronald Reagan

The greatest comeback in presidential primary election history fell just short of success. Ronald Reagan, doing his party no favors, decided to challenge the unelected incumbent president, Gerald Ford, for the 1976 GOP nomination. Reagan, who would later be known, ironically, for his 11th Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican"), attacked Ford as a feckless moderate, unable to stand up to a Democratic Congress and too weak and compromised to pursue an aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. The president, who had pardoned his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, and had overseen the country's humiliating final defeat in Vietnam, was understood to be in deep trouble.

Ford, however, began the primary season with a string of victories, including a narrow win in New Hampshire, then a rock-ribbed conservative state that was assumed by many to be Reagan country. His campaign faltering and in danger of extinction, the Gipper rebounded in North Carolina and Texas, defeated Ford in the winner-take-all primary in his home state of California, and entered the Republican convention that summer in a virtual dead heat with the President of the United States. Nobody before or since has engineered such an improbable comeback so deep into the primary election calendar.

Nevertheless, Reagan ultimately lost the nomination to his rival. Ford barely maintained his slight lead in the delegate count and won just enough of the uncommitted participants to secure a date with Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter in November. Oddly enough, the fall campaign would see its own unlikely, but ultimately unsuccessful, comeback, as Ford closed a double-digit gap in the polls to come within an eyelash of passing Carter on Election Day and securing the presidency in his own right.

Hillary Clinton now stands where Ronald Reagan did at roughly this time 32 years ago. There are differences, of course. Senator Clinton is not charged with the Herculean task of upending an incumbent president. On the other hand, she does not enjoy perhaps the most important weapon Reagan possessed in his battle against Ford: the winner-take-all primary. Without his ability to acquire all the delegates from such vote-rich states as California and Texas, the Gipper would have come to the GOP convention in Kansas City with almost no chance of success.

Still, for all the noise about Barack Obama's newfound inevitability and his uninterrupted string of victories since Super Tuesday, Clinton remains only 142 elected delegates behind her opponent. If Super Delegate commitments are factored in, Obama's lead shrinks to just 69. While the Democrats' proportional system of assigning delegates will likely prevent Clinton from overtaking Obama with victories in the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, she can still narrow the gap in a meaningful way.

But even with wins in the remaining Big Three states (Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania), it is unlikely that Hillary Clinton can grab a lead in the delegate count prior to the August Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mississippi and North Carolina still loom on the schedule, and Obama will almost certainly continue his mastery of open southern primaries. Caucuses in Wyoming and Puerto Rico also play to Obama's strength.

So how does Hillary Clinton come to Denver with anything approaching a plausible argument for her nomination? Clearly, at this point her success will depend on beating Obama among the Super Delegates, a risky strategy. The media, with generous assistance from the Obama camp, has convinced most Americans that there is something inappropriate and unfair about Super Delegates voting their preferences without regard to the results of the primaries and caucuses. Should these party officials and Democratic officeholders make Clinton the nominee, despite a pre-convention delegate lead by Obama, expect an outcry from the anti-Hillary zealots in the punditocracy and from such influential liberal websites as Daily Kos, which has all but transformed into an unofficial wing of the Barack Obama for President campaign.

Clearly, then, Senator Clinton can either quit the race today or she can begin to craft a persuasive argument in her favor. This argument must break through the unsophisticated, but seductive, notion that only elected delegates should decide the outcome of the Democratic nomination process. Even if she plays by the rules, many media types and most Obamaphiles in the blogosphere will insist that the nomination was stolen from "the people", as though primary voters, much less caucus-goers, are representative of the overall Democratic electorate. Nevertheless, even specious arguments must be answered.

Thus, for Hillary Clinton to achieve at least a relatively untainted victory in a brokered convention, there are two pre-conditions that must be met:

1. She must win nearly all the primaries remaining on the calendar. At the very least, she must take, in addition to the Big Three, six of the ten non-caucuses held between now and June 7. In reality, she probably has to capture all but Mississippi, North Carolina, and Vermont. This is tough, but doable. To some extent, we'll know just how possible it is ten days from now. Without victories in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, Hillary is finished.

2. Senator Clinton must win a plurality of the overall, nationwide vote cast for the Democratic nomination in 2008, including caucuses. If she can come to the convention as the candidate who has been chosen by the largest number of her fellow citizens (including those in Florida and Michigan), she can argue that she, rather than her opponent, is the true people's choice. At that point, Barack Obama would find himself in the uncomfortable position of insisting that states won and delegates secured should count for more than the expressed will of the electorate. An easy comparison could be drawn to George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore in 2000, in which the arcane technicalities of the Electoral College trumped the one person-one vote logic of popular democracy.

Even if she meets these preconditions, she will still need to craft an argument that will persuade the majority of Super Delegates to support her on the convention floor. The key, obviously, is to convince these party professionals that she is the more electable of the two remaining candidates. She must first insist that her primary wins are more indicative of electoral viability than Obama's more numerous victories in the highly unrepresentative party caucuses. Second, she must argue that a substantial part of her rival's support comes from states in the South and Great Plains that Democrats have no hope of winning in November. Finally, she must find a way to explain how Senator Obama's victories in the Connecticut, Missouri, and Wisconsin primaries don't undermine the first two points.

Let's face it: we're talking about a longshot here. Hillary Clinton knows this better than anyone. It may all be a moot point by St. Patrick's Day. But it is not impossible, as Ronald Reagan taught us back in the early days of disco. In a year marked by so many surprises, maybe there's one more in store for us.

Or maybe not.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

John McCain and Courage

Years ago, somebody (John F. Kennedy? Ted Sorenson?) wrote a book called Profiles in Courage. For years afterward, nearly every boy and girl with an interest in politics found the volume waiting under the Christmas tree around their twelfth birthday. After Dallas, of course, the book became increasingly poignant as readers reflected on the courageous risk implicitly taken by all those who enter the public arena.

The book itself defined courage not as the post-War generation had come to see it, i.e. the heroic actions of soldiers and sailors, but rather in terms of moral and intellectual steadfastness. Profiles in Courage told the stories of politicians who risked, to borrow the revolutionary cliché, their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to stand up for the principles in which they believed. Some forfeited their careers and others their public respect, but all resisted the siren song of ambition to do what they thought was right and necessary.

The truth was often more complicated than Kennedy (and his coauthor?) suggested, and some of the book's subjects risked more than others, but the overall effect was actually quite inspiring, or at least it was to me during my middle school years. Eventually, I came to realize that Profiles, published in the early 1950s, existed primarily because an ambitious young senator from Massachusetts yearned to be taken seriously on the national stage. If these were the men JFK admired, perhaps one could hope that a Kennedy presidency would be marked by the same standards of selfless integrity.

In the years since our 35th president was lost either to senseless or coordinated violence—I'll take no stand here—I have often reflected on what it means to be courageous. Even before the appearance of Profiles in Courage, Kennedy had shown great bravery in battle, risking his own life to rescue men from the sinking P.T. boat that he commanded during World War II. To be sure, every war produces dozens of stories like this, but each one nevertheless reveals something about the people involved. Not everyone reacts with the same valor during combat and it is fitting to recognize those who do, however many they might be.

Still, the physical courage that the future president showed in the South Pacific was of a different type from the courage displayed by the men whose stories were published under Kennedy's byline. Once he reached the White House, JFK seemed incapable of overcoming his own elephantine ambition and desire for a second term in office. Against his better judgment, and reluctant to be seen as weak, he signed off on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Despite his clear understanding of the moral imperatives of the civil rights movement, Kennedy refused to jeopardize his presidency by throwing himself fully behind the truly courageous men and women who were fighting and dying to bring an end to American apartheid. It was, ironically, Lyndon Johnson, a man of otherwise undetectable integrity, who put his political career on the line to slay Jim Crow once and for all.

As I reflect on the Kennedy years, so full of unrealized promise, it occurs to me that perhaps we carelessly use a single word to mean two very different things. The courage we demand from our warriors is not the same as the courage we seek in our politicians. Physical and moral bravery are very different things, and one is not necessarily associated with the other. They can certainly coexist, of course: George McGovern was a highly decorated Navy flyer in World War II who stubbornly adhered to his principles even though it cost him the presidency and, ultimately, his own senate seat. But there remain plenty of men and women whose battlefield heroism does not extend to their civilian conduct. And there exist at least some physical cowards who will risk everything they have worked for in defense of their moral convictions.

By now, the reader no doubt knows where I am going with this. Michael Kinsley, writing, appropriately enough, for the February 14 edition of Time magazine, pens a valentine to John McCain in which Kinsley refers to the Arizona senator as "honest, courageous, likable and intelligent." Few doubt McCain's intelligence, though his likeability is challenged by at least a couple of legislative colleagues and his honesty must be balanced against his performance as a member of the Keating Five back in his pre-reformist days (indeed, recent revelations suggest that McCain's turnaround on campaign financing and coziness with lobbyists may not have spanned the entire 180 degrees after all).

McCain's courage, however, is uncontested. He did not, assuming the stories are honestly told, simply survive torture and brutality at the hands of his Vietnamese captors. Rather, he endured this horrible mistreatment without breaking, and even refused an offer of early release because he knew it was intended to embarrass his admiral father and thus the United States Navy. I don't know if I could have done what John McCain did, and neither do you. It is remarkable and heroic and he deserves all the credit he has received since.

Nevertheless, the bravery that McCain displayed during those dark times was physical. It was a great deal more impressive even than John F. Kennedy's actions aboard P.T. 109, but it was of a similar variety. Like Kennedy, McCain's handlers want us to believe that the courage their man showed at the Hanoi Hilton will carry over to his maverick presidential administration.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in McCain's political curriculum vitae to suggest that the senator's name belongs alongside the men whose sacrificed careers were so eloquently celebrated by Kennedy/Sorenson in their Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Nearly every difference between McCain's two presidential campaigns speaks to the selection of ambition over principle.

He has, just in the past eight years, flip-flopped on the dangers of the religious right, the legality of abortion, and the wisdom of tax cuts for the rich. His current dance around the question of public financing of his own campaign squares poorly with his ringing message of reform. And amazingly, just last week, McCain even opposed a bill by California's Dianne Feinstein to rule out explicitly the egregious acts of torture, including waterboarding, indulged in by the current administration.

His weasely ways do not make John McCain any worse than most of the other men and women who run for president (though the torture vote is hard to forgive). But the senator's performance in his last-chance bid for the White House makes clear that those who sacrifice valiantly in the physical arena do not necessarily have the stomach to risk their own political ambitions in the service of a higher moral cause. John McCain is, in that sense, no profile in courage.

When his manifest corruptions finally saw the light of day, Duke Cunningham, the loathsome San Diego representative, still had one defender. Duncan Hunter, his ideological and geographical neighbor in Congress said of the Vietnam-era flyer, "He's an American hero and should be given the benefit of the doubt." Hunter, too, wanted us to believe that courage in wartime spoke to a man's integrity and character. He was, as it turned out, embarrassingly wrong.

On his worst day, John McCain is no Duke Cunningham. But neither is he George Norris. What, you've never heard of Norris? Go buy the book.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Greatest Injustice in Human History

If I were developing a list of the people who most need to go away and leave the rest of us alone, it would not begin with Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. Nor would I start off with Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. Pat Robertson wouldn't earn the top spot and neither would actor-turned-ubiquitous-pitchman Dennis Hopper. Instead, entry number one on my list of people who need to go away would be the 2006 Duke University lacrosse team.

I assume everyone knows the back story. A group of athletes, nearly all white and well heeled, hired two African American exotic dancers for an evening of political symbolism…er, I mean boys-will-be-boys hijinks. Precisely what happened from there is a matter of dispute, but by the time the night ended, racial epithets were allegedly tossed about and one of the dancers persuaded the district attorney to charge three of the players with sexual assault.

The national media, of course, found the spectacle irresistible. There was the racial angle. There was the social class disparity. And of course there was both sex and, allegedly, violence. Suddenly, a purely local crime story morphed into the sort of national morality tale that has been the unique curse of this era of the insatiable 24-hour news channel.

The University, embarrassed by the spectacle, suspended the indicted and offered public assurances that racism and violence against women would not be tolerated. A group of 88 faculty members paid for a "listening statement" in the school paper that, while never making any formal accusation, seemed to presuppose the guilt of the accused. A couple of professors were even further. Student protestors acted out of rage and exhibitionism, picketing the lacrosse players' residence and carrying various sorts of banners, some of which were sophomoric and offensive.

And then it got weird.

Right-wing pundits, obsessed bloggers, and various other flotsam and jetsam of the conservative culture wars saw an opening for their unceasing battle against the phantom demons of campus radicalism and political correctness. They enthusiastically embraced the cause of the indicted players. By this time, it had become increasingly clear that the Durham County prosecutor, Michael Nifong, was pursuing the case a bit too zealously, cutting corners and quite possibly railroading the defendants. But the culture warriors, though they hardly spared Nifong, often seemed more interested in blaming the Duke administration and faculty—and especially the "Gang of 88" professors who published the newspaper ad—for perpetrating the greatest injustice since Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. (Or something like that. I exaggerate, but not by much.)

The case ultimately took care of itself. The indicted players, able to afford first-rate legal counsel, were exonerated after it became clear that Nifong had overstepped all boundaries of prosecutorial propriety. The D.A. himself was ultimately ruined, suffering disbarment and even a very brief jail sentence. The university did what wealthy institutions generally do and paid the accused a settlement to put the whole affair behind them.

All's well that ends well, I suppose, except for a couple of matters. First, a fairly pedestrian case—overreaching prosecutor violates defendants' rights—has now become a permanent rallying crying for the cultural right. Even Roger Clemens' attorney, fending off accusations of steroid use against his superstar client, made reference to Duke, as if the two cases had anything in common other than a tie to competitive athletics.

Second, the 88 professors who signed onto the "listening statement" continue to be smeared by the punditocracy and its minor league affiliates in the blogosphere. Sure, like most Americans, the "Gang of 88" probably assumed that the indicted players were guilty. But their newspaper ad, an attempt to reach out to angry and frightened women and African Americans on and off campus, simply did not approach even the suburbs of slander. It was a poorly-written, jargon-filled, self-righteous screed. But it was measured in the conclusions it drew and clearly allowed for the possibility of exoneration.

But worst of all, the cacophony generated by the right-wing noise machine obscured—perhaps intentionally—the single most important lesson to be learned from the Duke debacle. This was not a story of political correctness run amok. Rather, it was an all-too-typical tale of an overzealous prosecutor, blinded by ambition, who refused to back down even in the face of exculpatory evidence. When this happens to poor, and often African American, defendants, we sometimes learn the truth only after someone innocent is cleared by his DNA after a decade or so of incarceration. Or, absent genetic evidence, that secret may simply reside in the tortured soul of a man languishing behind prison walls for a crime he knows he did not commit. Unfortunately, the real story—the story of rampant prosecutorial misconduct and the need for judicial and public vigilance—was buried beneath layers of hackneyed culture warrior talking points about tenured radicals and their hatred of privileged white males.

As for the players themselves, their names are now entered into the hallowed book of right-wing martyrs, along with Dick Nixon and Joe McCarthy. But they are innocent only in the sense that they broke no laws other than, perhaps, regulations governing the distribution of alcoholic beverages. A bunch of rowdies got in over their heads and almost paid a terrible—and certainly unfair—price for their actions. There is no heroism here and much cause for embarrassment.

Yesterday, the 38 former players who were not indicted decided to reach back into the money pot to see if there was anything left over for them. They filed suit against the city and the university for emotional distress. "They were," said their attorney, "harassed in class by teachers and their fellow students. They were the target of protest marches and threats; they were called rapists and racists; they were surrounded in their own homes by screaming protesters." Evidently, the legal theory is that Duke University should have suspended the First Amendment so as not to hurt anyone's feelings.

I'm sure the lawsuit has pumped a fresh shot of adrenaline into the veins of the culture warriors. The Greatest Injustice in Human History, after all, will not be avenged until every professor who even thought—but never said—that the players were guilty is drawn, quartered, and run out of town. The warriors will not rest until 88 careers are destroyed.

My dog is less tenacious than this—and far less hypocritical. The Duke case was all about people who used bad judgment being punished far out of proportion to the actual offenses they committed. Now the culture warriors, irony-challenged as ever, will not back off until the university and its faculty experience an identical form of injustice.

As for the 38 unindicted athletes, it's time to call off the meretricious money grab. The 2006 Duke lacrosse team dishonored their university and now they need to suck it up and move on. Let the right-wing windbags find some new toys to play with.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Man Who Stayed Too Long

He was, by the time of his resignation, an anachronism, a relic of the Cold War who had improbably survived his Soviet patrons by nearly two decades. He led a brutal regime, and his final legacy may be his resistance to the democratic surge that swept his hemisphere during the past twenty years. Successive American presidents, alternately paranoid and pandering, had enhanced his stature on the world stage, but once his moment had passed, he appeared increasingly insignificant and, in some ways, almost pathetic.

After nearly fifty years in power, Fidel Castro had outlived his legend.

The triumphant American Cold War narrative is both incomplete and misleading. The Soviet empire, however, had few redeeming features. In its adolescence, under Stalin, it rivaled Hitler's Germany in its monstrosity. Even after Uncle Joe left the scene, the USSR remained a totalitarian state treating its dissidents to the horrors of the Gulag. After the Second World War, Russia acquired its European and Asian satellites and cracked down mercilessly on attempts at freedom and liberation in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Soviet money and troops helped to fund misery throughout the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America.

Unfortunately, in cooking freedom's omelet, as it were, the United States unnecessarily broke a lot of eggs of its own. The all-consuming drive to defeat Communism, as well as a good measure of economic self-interest, caused the American government to prop up any number of merciless strongmen over the years who visited untold terror on generally innocent populations. The dogged pursuit of victory in Vietnam caused needless death and destruction, and helped to destabilize the Kingdom of Cambodia, with genocidal consequences. In 1973, the Nixon Administration conspired with Chilean generals to topple South America's most successful democracy and inaugurate Augusto Pinochet's nightmare dictatorship. And Ronald Reagan, hero of the Cold War, made common cause with Salvadoran death squads and Nicaraguan thugs even as the worldwide Soviet threat receded.

My point is not to argue moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union, because there was none. History properly records that the good guys won the half century battle for world supremacy. Whether the USSR was, in fact, evil may be properly left to the theologians, but it represented a nearly uninterrupted force for repression and inhumanity. It was right to stop them, and it was obviously impossible to do so entirely by peaceful or even gentlemanly means. Still, it is important for the full historical record to be on review if we are to judge our fellow countrymen during an era that now seems impossibly distant.

You see, part of the conservative party line, even today, involves a slander against liberals and leftists in America, that they were once soft on Communism and, thus, even today remain too naïve to be entrusted with power. To be sure, some of the most extreme Marxist and revolutionary dilettantes found room in their hearts for Joe Stalin; indeed, some do today. But almost no American liberals labored under the impression that Soviet Russia was a worker's paradise or that totalitarianism was superior to freedom.

They simply recoiled against the excesses of the era and demanded that their own country observe the principles of liberty and self-determination in its foreign policy. They insisted that the cause of anti-Communism, however noble, could not be furthered by funneling money to men wearing jackboots. And no matter how many airports and schools are named after Ronald Reagan, that claim remains unrefuted.

Which brings us back to Fidel Castro. It is undeniable that Castro's early years generated something of an infatuation among many leftists. Some probably hoped in vain that he would eventually embrace democracy, but most simply judged him in the context of the 1960s and 1970s. Few democratic regimes flourished in the soil of Latin America in the initial years of the Cuban revolution. And once Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA extinguished freedom's Chilean flame, it became hard to hope for anything better than, to borrow a modern coinage, a dictator with benefits.

In that sense, of course, Castro stood out in Latin America. Where other strongmen pocketed their countries' treasuries or sold their citizens' birthright to multinational corporations, Castro aspired to educate his people and to bring them a level of health care unrivaled in its region. That dissidents and other opponents of the regime paid a terrible price for this progress was often swept under the rug by Fidel's American apologists, and this was wrong. Further, the price of progress in Cuba was a dangerous and sometimes embarrassingly obsequious dance with the Soviet devil. Nevertheless, Castro appeared to many patriotic Americans to be the lesser of a couple dozen evils. Better repression with literacy than repression with yawning, soul-crushing poverty.

Fidel Castro was never as good as his supporters wanted to believe, nor as uniquely evil as he was painted by politicians trolling for electoral votes in Florida. But whatever appeal he might have had in the dark days of Somoza and Pinochet evaporated during the 1990s and early 21st Century as democracy finally took hold in Latin America. As elections and then civil liberties swept the region from Tijuana to Santiago, Castro refused to participate. Eventually, health care and education standards in many of the old Spanish-speaking dictatorships began to match and then surpass standards those Fidel had set back in the Cold War era.

In the end, he had failed his own people and his own revolution.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sliming the Obamas

Barack Obama, as expected, took care of business yesterday in Wisconsin and Hawai'i, assuring Hillary Clinton two more weeks of negative publicity and a potential date with political oblivion on March 4. Without victories in Ohio and Texas, it becomes hard to imagine a calculus by which she wins the Democratic nomination. A blowout in one state (perhaps Ohio) combined with a narrow loss in the other might be enough to keep her going, but she'd probably still need to run the table, or come close, for the rest of the primary season.

Meanwhile, the country began to receive an unpleasant taste of what the Republicans have in store for a November campaign against the current frontrunner. It began when Michelle Obama, who is not running for anything, tried to convey to a friendly audience just how much her husband's success meant to the country. Here's what she said: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback…"

Suddenly, the Republican noise machine and its enablers buzzed with the sort of excitement they haven't felt since the day charismatic movie star Fred Thompson finally announced his candidacy for president back in September (ah, precious memories). By the time the GOP pundits were done with their "Barack's Wife Hates America" message and janitors were dispatched to the Fox News studios to clean the drool off the floor, the causal viewer might have assumed that Mrs. Obama has torched an American flag and shredded a couple of original copies of the Constitution. Over at MSNBC, Pat Buchanan looked so happy you would have thought Nelson Mandela had just been reincarcerated.

For good measure, a couple of the more creative right-wing blabbermouths calculated the exact year of Michelle Obama's adulthood—she turned 18 in 1982—and proceeded to pepper the airwaves with a series of increasingly hysterical rhetorical questions. Does this mean she felt no pride when the United States won the Cold War? When the first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court? When the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed? When we won the first Gulf War? When MTV aired the first episode of Beavis and Butt-head? Is there nothing that can fill this traitorous woman's heart with pride for the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Next up to bat was Cindy McCain, second wife of the presumptive Republican nominee, who was evidently so moved by this bald-faced expression of anti-American treachery that she spoke publicly for what may have been the first time. Mrs. McCain, who was 13 years old when her husband was taken prisoner in North Vietnam, used the opportunity yesterday to inform a crowd that she has always been proud of her country. It was, for the macho boys of the media, the greatest catfight since Alexis and Krystal wrestled in the mud on Dynasty in the 1980s, sending many of today's male media stars into premature puberty. (My God, can't Michelle even be proud of Dynasty!?!)

As always, cooler heads attempted to prevail, with little success. One pundit pointed out that even experienced public speakers occasionally suffer from a slip of the tongue. Someone else noticed that Mrs. Obama had talked about being "really" proud of her country, suggesting that we might be speaking about variations in the degree of her patriotic fervor, rather than her general love of country. To my knowledge, nobody—and this would have been the proper response—threw his or her microphone to the floor and bolted for the nearest shower, the better to wash away any association with the ongoing sliming.

And there was an unmistakable subtext here, too. The cable TV commentators, nearly all white and mostly male, didn't actually use the word "ingrate", but it wasn't far from the surface. You could almost sense what they really wanted to scream out: "But she's a black woman who went to a prestigious university and became a highly successful attorney, something that would have been unthinkable the year she was born! Look at the progress we've made! How can she not be humble and thankful and red, white, and blue all over? She owes us, man!" Nobody that I saw specifically mentioned race, but the message was clear. (The Civil Rights Act of 1991? Uh, why should Michelle Obama be especially proud of that particular law?)

Well, of course, there's racializing and then there's racializing. When conservatives appear on TV they know they are talking to others. Gotta watch out for the PC police, don't you know. When they write for the National Review, however, they are speaking in the privacy of their own clubhouse, where they can really let it fly. Someone named Lisa Schiffren, contributing to the magazine's blog, has decided that now is the right time to take up the issue of Barack Obama's mixed-race heritage:

"And yet, all of my mixed race, black/white classmates throughout my youth, some of whom I am still in contact with, were the product of very culturally specific unions. They were always the offspring of a white mother, (in my circles, she was usually Jewish, but elsewhere not necessarily) and usually a highly educated black father."

Now you might think that Ms. Schiffren wrote this little piece to remind racists, both the overt and the latent, that sexual relationships take place between African American men and white women and that Senator Obama is the product of such a relationship. But you would be so wrong. Her real point is, if such a thing is possible, even more repellant. What she really wants us to understand is that these relationships generally had less to do with love than with politics—Commie politics!:

"And how had [black men and white women] come together at a time when it was neither natural nor easy for such relationships to flourish? Always through politics. No, not the young Republicans. Usually the Communist Youth League. Or maybe a different arm of the CPUSA. But, for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics."

After worrying that "readers [might] level cheap accusations of racism" (can't imagine why), Schiffren concludes that it may be "[t]ime for some investigative journalism about the Obama family's background." To his credit, someone named Andrew Stuttaford, contributing to the same blog, took his colleague to task for ordering up a new round of racist muckraking. It might, however, have been a little better if his reason had more to do with basic human decency, rather than the fact that such an effort would be "counterproductive".

Anyway, this is the sort of thing we can expect for the next nine months. Hillary, of course, would get the same treatment should she receive the nomination (if that occurs, brace yourself for another round of lesbian rumors). So my point is not that an Obama candidacy is especially risky. The hatemongers of the right would have done this to John Edwards, too. But anyone who thinks that Barack Obama will continue to enjoy anything close to the positive, upbeat run to the White House he has experienced so far is sorely mistaken. Hillary Clinton has been gentle and downright chummy compared to what's ahead.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why Obama Must Win Tonight

Barack Obama is clearly the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. He could, if things line up right, essentially eliminate his only remaining rival, Hillary Clinton, in exactly two weeks, when the voters of Ohio and Texas go to the polls. He maintains a strong lead in committed delegates, while Senator Clinton's hold on the party's Super Delegates becomes more tenuous by the minute.

Nevertheless, I am going to go out on a limb this morning: Wisconsin, which holds its primary election today, represents a must-win state for the Obama campaign.

How can that be? Surely, all the pressure is now on Clinton as she fights back from her late February slump and tries to salvage some measure of credibility before staring down a potential March 4 Waterloo. All Senator Obama has to do, according to the conventional wisdom, is win either Ohio, Texas, or (in April) Pennsylvania and his May-December battle with John McCain will officially be on.

I dispute none of this. Clinton's back is, at least for now, pressed firmly against the wall. Only a fool would take an even money bet on her emerging victorious from the Democrats' Denver convention. The nomination is, as they say, Obama's to lose.

All of that, however, changes nothing: Barack Obama must win Wisconsin.

For the most part, the Illinois senator's strengths have been in caucus states and in southern Democratic primaries or their border state equivalents (Maryland, Missouri). Aside from Illinois, which he represents in the Senate, Obama's only major non-southern/border state primary victory has come in Connecticut. Primary elections serve as a far better barometer of electoral prospects than do caucuses, and Obama has not fared especially well in Blue State or swing state primaries. This fact will eventually bubble to the surface as the media analyze the candidates and the Super Delegates arrive at their final decisions.

A victory in northern, Deep Blue Wisconsin would obviously go a long way toward answering these concerns. A defeat, on the other hand, would place the problem in very stark relief. That the Wednesday morning papers would be hailing Hillary Clinton as the new Comeback Kid would only represent the beginning of Obama's troubles.

Here's the problem: Wisconsin should, by all rights, be an Obama stronghold. The state has an open primary, meaning that independents, who have long favored the Illinois senator, can participate in the balloting. Further, given that the Republican race is all but over, Obama will no longer have to share the affections of unaffiliated voters with John McCain. They will, instead, almost certainly choose to participate in the competitive Democratic primary rather than a GOP contest which no longer matters.

In addition, the makeup of the state's Democratic electorate would also seem to advantage Senator Obama. Most Wisconsin Dems are located in the south central and southeast corners of the state and their dominant cities, Madison and Milwaukee. Madison, of course, is a famously liberal college town, the Berkeley of the Heartland. Obama may pile up the sort of majorities in Dane County that Clinton will be unable to offset elsewhere.

Milwaukee presents more of a mixed picture. On the one hand, over one-third of the city's residents are African American, which assures Obama a significant base of support. On the other hand, the city also plays host to a large group of aging, largely Catholic Democrats of the type that have, at least so far, backed Clinton.

On balance, though, the demographic factors in play (race, income, age, ethnicity) decisively favor the Obama campaign. Wisconsin Democrats have a long history of supporting liberal and insurgent candidacies, including JFK in 1960, Gene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Barack Obama, then, clearly fits the mold of a Badger State champion.

But what if he loses? First, his frontrunner status would come into immediate question. The recent challenges raised by the Clinton campaign would be judged effective and would suddenly receive a much more respectful hearing in the press. Obama would thus find himself haunted once more by concerns over substance and preparedness.

Democratic professionals would also begin to see Obama's 2008 history in a far different light. Instead of being the electrifying newcomer with a message that crosses national divides, he might instead be viewed as a man without broad appeal, unable to win the states the Democrats most need to capture in November.

Finally, a Wisconsin victory would give Hillary Clinton huge momentum going into races in Texas and Ohio where she already holds a healthy lead in the polls. Couple a Badger State victory with a sweep on March 4 and the 2008 Democratic nomination race changes dramatically. A loss today could begin a tailspin from which Obama might never emerge.

Wisconsinites will begin voting shortly and it remains likely that they will provide Barack Obama with the victory he needs to complete his post-Super Tuesday February sweep. At that point, his frontrunner status will be undisputed and it will be Senator Clinton facing her own must-win battles a fortnight from now. But if Wisconsin surprises the country this evening, we may learn once again never, ever to eulogize a Clinton until the very last ballot is cast.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Super Delegates and Fairness

All this discussion of Democratic Super Delegates begins to approach absurdity. Most annoying is the question of fairness. Is it fair, ask about a million journalists per hour, that after all the voting and caucusing, the Super Delegates may decide who wins the nomination?

First, that is an unbelievably stupid question. Of course it’s fair. The rules were written well in advance, all the candidates understood those rules, and nothing has changed in the interim. Is it fair that one basketball team can make fewer shots than another and still win the game because more of their baskets came from beyond the three-point line? Yes, obviously it is since that’s what the rule book prescribes.

There are three problems here that all intersect to create the current controversy. First, the news media have done a characteristically poor job of explaining how the Democratic nomination system works. By neglecting to discuss the role of Super Delegates until the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama neared the two-month mark essentially in a dead heat, the appearance is left that someone is trying to reverse the will of the voters rather than just following the pre-arranged playbook.

Second, the pundit class, which has never much cared for Senator Clinton, is framing this issue in the most explosive manner possible. Ah, those sleazy Clintons, once again trying to steal something they haven’t earned, always ready to bend the rules to win on a technicality. And if that’s not good enough, the cable TV yakkers can always whisper that the nomination of an African American presidential candidate might be denied by a small army of mostly white politicians and party officials. In a smoke filled room! Under cover of night! With the lights off!

Finally, there seems to be little doubt that the Obama campaign itself has begun, in mostly subtle ways, to push the story line that the Super Delegates represent a potentially unfair advantage for their opponent. Their goal, of course, is to try to goad as many of the Supermen and Women as possible into reneging on their previous endorsements of Hillary Clinton. This is smart politics in the short term, though the potential long term wisdom of challenging the integrity of the nomination process is rather less obvious.

If the candidate of Change finds himself ultimately undone by a few hundred agents of the status quo, the system will, in fact, be working exactly as it was intended to. The Democrats faced another self-described agent of change 36 years ago in the person of George McGovern, whose victories in the primaries thwarted the will of party leaders who preferred a safer candidate to battle incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern’s disastrous 49-state defeat led the Dems to create the role Super Delegates to add ballast to the party’s nomination process. These delegates were, therefore, precisely empowered to be skeptics of change, protectors against popular uprisings that might result in ruinous November consequences.

Thus, if the Super Delegates determine that Barack Obama will not hold up to the full Republican assault planned for the fall campaign, they are, in fact, doing their job as originally mandated. If they decide that Hillary Clinton would make a stronger nominee, then they should, based on their assigned role in the process, support Clinton regardless of the outcome of the primaries and caucuses. If Super Delegates existed simply to rubber stamp the people’s choice (and by “people” here, we mean the relatively small and unrepresentative portion of the electorate that participates in primaries and caucuses), they would have no purpose. They are supposed to be the protectors of the party’s—rather than any single candidate’s—interests.

As a practical matter, however, the entire discussion of Super Delegates is both overblown and weeks premature. These are people, after all, who care about their own positions, either elected or appointed, and will do what is both in their party’s best interests and in their own. Should Barack Obama emerge from the final primary election with any kind of significant lead in the delegate count over Hillary Clinton, the Super Delegates, or at least enough of them, will almost certainly ratify the choice of the people. At that point, Obama would obviously have been tested in a way that McGovern never was. He would thus be a strong and viable presidential candidate.

Indeed, at this point, the only way the delegate count will be close this summer is if Clinton stages a strong comeback, winning at least Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania. If she can do this, it will mean she has won nearly every large, vote rich state except Obama’s own Illinois. At that point, even if she barely trails in the race for delegates, it might indeed be wise for the Super Delegates to decide that she is the stronger of the two contenders and vote accordingly. Senator Obama’s caucus wins have been impressive, as have his victories in a series of Red States, but caucuses mean very little in terms of electability and the battle for the White House is not going to hinge on the outcome of balloting in Alabama and Idaho.

The worst part about this debate, of course, is the fact that it puts the legitimacy of the entire Democratic nominating process in question. This, more than any single result, could be enormously destructive to the party and its chances of victory. The media will obviously not stand down on this issue. But the candidates and their handlers should do so immediately.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pistol Packin' Profs

You’ve probably heard the civil libertarian’s motto that the best response to bad speech is more speech. Now, thanks to the efforts of several state legislators, this First Amendment mantra has a Second Amendment equivalent. According to lawmakers in several jurisdictions, the best response to bad guns is more guns.

As soon as the terrible news emerged about the killings at Northern Illinois University, you knew it would only be a matter of time before someone suggested arming students and professors as a means of protection. Enter Stacey Campfield of the Tennessee House of Representatives, who recommends that anyone licensed to carry a concealed weapon should be allowed to bring it to class. “You're just advertising to the crazies where they can go for the easy pickings," said the Knoxville Republican, "where they are going to face no resistance, where it's going to be taking sheep and leading them to the slaughter."

It is unclear how that makes college campuses any different from shopping malls, supermarkets, or doctor’s offices, other than the fact that school shootings of all kinds generate enormous publicity and heart-rending film footage. Colleges are also—and this may be another factor in the public’s reaction—largely populated by the sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes, for whom this sort of violence seems unthinkable. Campfield would presumably argue that the other major difference is that when campuses are officially deemed gun-free zones, potential killers can feel assured that their attacks will not meet with a deadly response. (Wouldn’t the same argument, then, apply also to bars, where firearms are generally prohibited? Best not to give Rep. Campfield any ideas, I suppose.)

Campfield appears stunningly unaware that his own argument contradicts itself. Campus killers are, as the lawmaker so delicately puts it, “crazies”. Now it has been several years since I’ve seen the inside of a psychology classroom, but I’m still fairly certain that one of the key definitions of “crazy” has something to do with a disassociation from reality. These are not people who calculate their likelihood of dying in the process of carrying out their twisted acts. Indeed, you’ll notice that most of these attacks end in suicide. The individuals who commit mass murder in a dorm or lecture hall are people who have snapped for some reason. Given that their perceived grievance is usually with the college itself, it seems pretty unlikely that Campfield’s bill would cause them to find a different target for their murderous rage.

Let’s for the moment assume that this Tennessee politician cares deeply about public safety and truly believes that his law would keep kids safe from attack. I mean, he probably does. Still, there is a disturbing pattern here of Second Amendment absolutists taking advantage of every highly publicized tragedy to find a way to make pistol-packing a more routine and normal part of American life. (And yes, I know gun control supporters often do the same thing.) I generally oppose gun control laws, but people like Campfield do his side no favors.

No right is so absolute that it is never subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. You have the right to free speech, but you cannot stand up during a professor’s lecture and interrupt her with some political diatribe. Your free exercise of religion does not allow you lead your public kindergarten class in prayer. Freedom to assemble ends when incitement to riot begins.

We do not permit guns on university campuses for good reason. First, college life is full of emotionally charged moments. If I were a department chair or dean, I would not want to worry about a concealed weapon when I informed an assistant professor that he has just been denied tenure and may have spent thousands of dollars and hours in graduate school for nothing. Anyone who has seen or read about the deeply angry and personal disputes that take place between faculty members should understand that adding guns to the equation would be unwise. Students aren’t the only people who snap.

Moreover, even the minimal training necessary to receive a concealed weapons permit cannot guarantee a cool head or a steady hand in crisis. After hearing so much about the horrors at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech, all of us in the professor biz pay significantly greater attention these days to seemingly unhinged students. What if we misperceived the wrong move by some weird kid and opened up on him? And why does anyone assume an armed historian in mid-lecture would get the drop on a gunman who, as he did in Illinois, emerges suddenly from behind a curtain? (Indeed, under Campfield’s law, wouldn’t it simply make sense to shoot the prof first? Thanks, buddy.)

Look, we live in a dangerous society, though not nearly as dangerous as the media makes us think. The easy availability of guns unquestionably increases the probability of these incidents occurring. Both the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois killers came by their weapons in a legal, Second Amendment-certified manner. But we aren’t going to stop “crazies” by turning our college faculty and staff into mini-militias. More likely, we would simply create a new class of victims.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You're No JFK (We Hope)

Yesterday, I argued that Barack Obama's candidacy remninded me of Jimmy Carter's run for the White House in 1976. I realize, of course, that this is not a flattering comparison, at least in retrospect. Carter's presidency did not go well, and his re-election bid was doomed almost from the start. Indeed, only fears about Ronald Reagan's trigger-happiness kept the race close until the final week.

The preferred analogy in Obama-land is to 1960 and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was an attractive, young, charismatic senator who challenged one of the great prejudices of his day. Nearly half a century later, it is hard to understand the impact of Catholicism on that year's presidential election. I was too young to remember the election itself, but I do recall my next door neighbor, on the weekend after the president's assassination, finding my sister and me playing in the backyard on a Saturday morning--no cartoons were broadcast that day--and saying, almost gleefully, "Ain't you kids sorry that your funnies aren't on TV today?"

The world is, in many ways, more complicated now than it was in 1960, and bigotry generally hides under more carefully crafted levels of denial. Still, part of the appeal of an Obama presidency is the possibility that America can, at long last, overcome its most enduring and destructive racial divide. The reality is, obviously, much more complicated, but JFK's victory made us feel better about ourselves and an Obama win would certainly do the same.

Nevertheless, 1960 was a long time ago. Back then, nearly twice as many Americans identified themselves as Democrats than Republicans. Even after discounting for prejudice, Kennedy could count on a solid majority of voters who were nearly reflexively incapable of choosing the GOP. Blessed with that advantage, he still came within a whisker of losing to Richard Nixon.

My sense is that we have come a long way in 48 years and that an Obama victory would be far less improbable than JFK's triumph in 1960. But the comparison does not reassure. Kennedy, with advantages the Democratic party may never enjoy again, nearly lost.

It is not, however, his electoral fate that renders the comparison unflattering. John Kennedy was, in point of fact, a fairly ineffective president. His inexperience led him, against his better judgment, to sign on to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He lacked the skills of a long-time political pro, and Congress generally rejected his cautiously liberal stand on civil rights. After Lyndon Johnson, he is the president most responsible for burying America in the muck of Vietnam.

Barack Obama may prove to be a brilliant and successful president. Certainly, his chances of breaking down an important barrier greatly exceed John F. Kennedy's. Nevertheless, rather than surrounding himself with JFK's family, he needs to tell us why he will succeed in the White House where Kennedy, for all practical purposes, failed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Bicentennial Obama

There have been, in my memory, three "change" candidates in American politics, at least on the Democratic side. Barack Obama is the fourth. In each case, the politician in question emerged from obscurity virtually overnight, promised new ideas and a fresh perspective, and became suddenly popular even before he was particularly well known. Bill Clinton, a young and charismatic governor, offered an escape from twelve years of the divisive politics of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Eight years before that, Gary Hart electrified the political world with his startling takedown of veteran pol Walter Mondale in the 1984 New Hampshire primary. Hart was, like Obama today, the sudden darling of the young, educated, upper-middle-class voters we used to call yuppies. Hollywood adored him, too.

Neither Clinton nor Hart, however, proves a particularly good match for Senator Obama. Clinton had enjoyed a certain level of buzz for a number of years before capturing the Democratic nomination and his 1992 campaign was less an inspiring coronation than a whirlwind, marked by personal scandal and dogged perseverance. Gary Hart, of course, had his own zipper issues, but they would come later, in his second bid for the White House; he was still fresh and untainted in 1984. Still, Hart, unlike Obama, was little more than a flash in the pan superstar, fading almost as quickly as he rose, and eventually losing the nomination to Mondale by a wide margin.

Instead, the closest analog to the 2008 Barack Obama phenomenon predates both Clinton and Hart, reaching all the way back to America's bicentennial year. In 1976, a depressed nation had just moved beyond a disgraced presidency and a pointless, unsuccessful war. After several years of economic turbulence, many citizens wondered if our best days were behind us. The anger that had filled the streets during the 1960s had found its way to the halls of government, with Vietnam and then Watergate fraying bonds of trust and collegiality in Washington. On the liner notes to Bob Dylan's mid-career masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, Pete Hamill, writing in the year of Nixon's resignation, put it this way:

"We live in the smoky landscape now, as the exhausted troops seek the roads home. The signposts have been smashed; the maps are blurred. There is no politician anywhere who can move anyone to hope; the plague recedes, but it is not dead, and the statesmen are as irrelevant as the tarnished statues in the public parks. We live with a callous on the heart."

Hamill was introducing a new, less political Dylan, but his words perfectly encapsulate the mood leading into 1976. Cynicism reigned and politicians were held in general contempt. It was in this discouraged atmosphere, a time not unlike our own, that an obscure former Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter demanded the country's attention.

Those of you who only know the unhappy story of President Carter, or think of him as an earnest old man tilting at the windmills of global war and poverty, may find it hard to believe what he represented in the early months of 1976. Carter seemed, at the time, confident and charismatic, not as much as Obama to be sure, but still an attractive, reassuring figure with a John Edwards smile that became his calling card. In a decade of deep division and distrust, he promised honesty and openness. Just as important, as the first son of the Deep South to run a viable presidential campaign since Reconstruction, Carter's candidacy represented a chance to heal some of the country's most persistent and destructive divides.

The 1976 election was overshadowed by the legacy of a supremely unpopular president. Richard Nixon's name did not appear on the ballot that year. Indeed, he had fled to California two years earlier, thoroughly discredited. Instead, Carter's opponent, interim President Gerald Ford, enjoyed a reputation for decency and integrity. Or at least he did until the second month of his accidental administration, when he opted to grant Nixon a broad and absolute pardon that placed his predecessor finally and irrevocably above the law. (Don't believe the revisionists who dominated the coverage of Ford's 2006 funeral; the pardon was regarded at the time as an act of unthinkable political cowardice and expedience.) From that moment forward, Ford, who had only reached the Vice Presidency because of the resignation of Spiro Agnew, a crooked Marylander, found himself permanently branded as Nixon's surrogate.

Jimmy Carter wisely chose to run against both Ford and Nixon, but his campaign was designed mostly as a rebuke of the latter. "I will never lie to you," he vowed, suggesting also that he would never disappoint the nation by allowing crooks to get away with their misdeeds. His government, Carter said, would be as open as Nixon's was closed, as accountable as Nixon's was venal, and as competent as Ford's was feckless. Going into the fall campaign that year, the Democratic challenger led the incumbent in the polls by anywhere between 15 and 20 percentage points. Nobody expected a close election.

Like Barack Obama, Carter's positions on the issues of the day received relatively little attention early in his campaign. Instead, he was, also like Obama, a receptacle for the hopes and dreams of a damaged America. As a fresh face, unsullied by the noxious politics of the previous decade, voters initially defined Carter as a sort of non-partisan, or even post-partisan, figure and fell in love, as it were, after only a couple of dates.

The rest of Jimmy Carter's story, however, provides a cautionary tale for Democrats and a source of hope for the GOP in 2008. As the Georgian's campaign moved past the primary election season, Republicans took to defining Carter, painting him as a hopeless liberal, George McGovern with a southern accent. They hammered away at his relative inexperience in public office and the shallowness of some of his policy positions. Carter did not always help his own cause, committing a series of rookie mistakes as he negotiated the transition between airbrushed media darling and partisan standard bearer. Even after clearly defeating Ford over a series of three presidential debates, Carter squandered nearly his entire lead, coming within a whisker of falling to the man who had let the hated Nixon walk. In the end, his victory relied on the electoral votes of conservative southern states like Alabama and Mississippi who backed a fellow son of Dixie out of nothing more than regional pride.

No analogy is perfect, of course, and we cannot predict how Barack Obama will fare this fall against John McCain, should both capture their respective nominations. On the one hand, Obama's eloquence and polish greatly exceed that of the soft-spoken Carter, and the Illinois senator seems resistant to embarrassing misstatements. On the other hand, John McCain, with his heroic back story and fawning press coverage, represents a much stronger adversary than Gerald Ford. McCain's largely undeserved reputation as an anti-partisan maverick will serve him far better with a cynical public than Ford's record of loyal party service and presidential pardon.

Nevertheless, the comparisons between Obama and Carter should not be ignored. Voters who fall in love in haste do not repent in leisure; often, they simply leave the groom at the altar. Even the most talented rookies face moments of crisis. Like Carter, Obama still faces the difficulty of somehow maintaining a universal appeal once the nasty general election political season begins. Unlike Carter, he cannot count on help from any of the deep Red States that were so critical to the Democrats in 1976.

Voters have so far met Barack Obama the candidate and Barack Obama the eloquent and inspiring speaker. The Republicans will soon introduce them to Barack Obama the Democratic officeholder, a flesh and blood politician who takes controversial stands on hot-button political issues. They will attempt to redefine Obama just as they redefined Jimmy Carter three decades ago.

Those that consider the 1960 election (another razor-thin victory, by the way) to be Obama's roadmap to victory had better to take another look at 1976 and act accordingly.