Friday, May 30, 2008

Five Facts and One Question

First, the facts:

Book advance paid to Ari Fleischer: $500,000.

Book advance paid to Karen Hughes: $1,000,000.

Book advance paid to Karl Rove: $1,500,000.

Book advance paid to George Tenet: $4,000,000.

Book advance paid to Scott McClellan: $75,000.

Now the question: Which of these books has critics on the right frothing at the mouth about an author "cashing in" on his White House service? Three guesses . . .

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Knee-Capping Scott McClellan

Watching the flood of coverage of Scott McClellan's book has been fascinating. It's amazing to see how many thousands of columnists, reporters, pundits, politicos, bloggers, and commenters have been willing to opine authoritatively about the contents of the book, Scott's motivations, how he wrote the book, etc. etc. without having read the book itself. (It is still not on sale, and just a few advance copies have been circulating among members of the media and some insiders.)

One day I may write something extensive about this experience and the truths it illustrates about how opinions get shaped and spread in today's idea marketplace. For now, I just want to offer brief responses to some of the most common fallacious criticisms Scott has been receiving from diverse sources in the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

1. Criticism #1: "This is not the Scott McClellan we know and love. Why didn't he express his doubts to us, his friends in the White House?"

This is the party line being parroted by everyone in and around the administration, from Ari Fleischer and Dana Perino to Dan Bartlett and Karl Rove. It might make sense if you believe that the Bush administration is made up of people who are genuinely interested in sincere self-criticism and self-examination. What do you suppose would have actually happened if Scott had ventured to talk about his misgivings about the Iraq war and the way it was being sold. I can just hear Rove's reaction now: "Gee, Scott, I never thought of that before! Forthrightness and honesty, eh? What a great idea! Let's go for it!" And Dick Cheney: "I guess you're right, Scott--this war really isn't necessary. Call off the invasion!"

2. Criticism #2: "Why didn't McClellan go public with his accusations earlier, when it might have made a difference?"

Here the idea is that, if Scott had resigned in protest (in 2003, say), and disclosed his incipient doubts about the administration, it would have shifted public opinion against the Bush team and changed history for the better. Sounds nice--except that testimony from disgruntled former insiders like Richard Clarke, John Dilulio, Paul O'Neill, and the retired generals who criticized the Iraq policy didn't have any such effect. Why on earth would McClellan's testimony have tipped the balance?

3. Criticism #3: "Isn't McClellan just taking the easy route to riches by trashing an unpopular president?"

I already debunked the notion that Scott could expect to get rich from his book. (I'm happy to see Jonathan Alter on MSNBC this evening emphasizing the point that Public Affairs, in particular, is well known for its modest advance payments.) But now I see blogger Ezra Klein (whose work I generally like a lot) implying that Scott is somehow being cowardly in criticizing Bush now, when most of the public has already turned against him:
George W. Bush is now the most unpopular president since the advent of modern polling. His disapproval rating passed 70 percent last week, higher than any leader before him. It has been 40 months since a majority of the country supported his presidency. And now, now Scott McClellan tells of us of his dedication to the truth, and his disgust with the propaganda used to sell the war. . . This doesn't come close to clearing his name.
Okay, but this ignores the reality of Scott's social, professional, and political milieu. For someone like Scott McClellan--a lifelong Republican, a Texas loyalist and friend of Bush, a man whose career and livelihood were derived from Bush and who spent seven years of his life at the very center of the Bush circle, surrounded by people who admired Bush and regarded dissent or disagreement as suspect, if not downright evil--for someone like this to write a book like What Happened is absolutely not an act of cowardice.

Ezra may not think the book "clears Scott's name." That's fine. Scott might even agree. (He devotes a fair amount of time in the book to describing his own mistakes and his complicity in the misdeeds of the administration.) But Scott doesn't deserve to be excoriated for writing the book. (Ezra: "Just the tinny bleatings of a man who abetted a lying, disastrous presidency because it seemed like a good gig, but doesn't want his name maligned by the historians.")

Judging by some of the anger against Scott being vented by critics on the left, you'd think his book was intended to somehow justify or excuse the sins of the Bush team. Of course it doesn't--as the defensive reaction of the Bushies themselves makes clear.

There's plenty of room for fair criticism of Scott and his book. But let's not get distracted by arguments that are illogical, irrelevant, or unrealistic.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Write A Book, Get Rich--In Your Dreams

Well, the floodgates on Scott McClellan's book What Happened really have opened. Six days before the official publication, Google is already linking to no fewer than 364 news stories about it--testimony, I guess, to the remarkable power of The Politico to set the agenda for the rest of the media.

As everyone connected with the book expected, the reactions are all over the map, and some are harsh. As is true of any author, Scott and his book are fair game, of course (though it would be nice for people to actually read what he wrote before they start attacking him). But one idea that seems to surface any time someone writes a book really deserves to be debunked. This is the notion that book authorship is a road to wealth, which leads to accusations of people "cashing in" or "getting rich" off their tell-all memoirs.

Of course it's true that a handful of book authors make millions (as for example Obama and Hillary Clinton have done). But just a handful. The vast majority of authors, even of relatively successful books, earn royalties that total in the four or five digits--after spending hundreds or even thousands of hours in writing. Figure it out on an hourly basis, and you find that the typical book author earns less than the minimum wage. It's sad but true.

I'm not asserting that this will be Scott's fate--it's much too soon to tell how well the book will fare in the marketplace--but I would point out that his publisher, Public Affairs, is well known in the industry for the relatively modest advances they pay. Authors who sign with them do so because they value the high-quality editorial and marketing guidance they receive, not because of the lucre they expect to reap.

Go ahead and criticize Scott's book; impugn his motives if you like. But don't accuse him of getting rich off the misdeeds of the Bush administration. That's not really how book publishing works.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Floodgates Open

Scott McClellan's memoirs (which I wrote about here) won't be officially published till next week, but The Politico website got ahold of a copy and is spilling some of the choicer beans.

For what it's worth, I think "scathing," "explosive," and "brutal" is a bit of an over-statement, but this write-up will generate buzz and should sell books. It'll be interesting to watch how this story gets played in the days to come. I'm afraid Scott will be subject to some mean counter-attacks from his erstwhile friends in Republican circles.

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Geez, GOP, Is This The Best You Got?

The urban legends monitors at have already put together an impressive (and appalling) collection of slanderous emails about Barack Obama being circulated by the rightwing lie machine. Here is the latest, a collection of supposedly horrifying, outrageous quotes from Obama's books.

As Snopes documents, all of the quotes are either misleadingly distorted, rewritten, or badly wrenched out of context. But what I find most surprising is how non-shocking most of them are.

I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites. In comparison to some of the goofy stunts I pulled when I was 13 years old in an effort to discover my identity, this strikes me as awfully benign.

It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, Dubois and Mandela. Okay, I know some conservatives will be perturbed to see Malcolm X referred to here. But since when are Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela bogeymen? (And how many people even know who Dubois was?)

I find it hard to believe that voters are supposed to get whipped up into a frenzy of anti-Obama hatred by this stuff, and I'm surprised that someone scouring Obama's writings and speeches in search of statements that could be twisted into appearing anti-American couldn't come up with anything much, much worse.

It reinforces, for me, the impression I share with a lot of observers that the hand the Republicans are holding this year is their weakest in many, many years. By October, they are going to have to scrape the bottom of the barrel--and then dig a little deeper--in search of ammunition to use against the Democrats.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Scorn Of Some People Is A Badge Of Honor

Not having looked at James Fallows's blog in a while, I missed his commentary on the passing of Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's White House chief of staff. Fallows was a speech writer in the same administration. In Fallows's post, he quotes from a review he wrote years ago about one of Jordan's books, No Such Thing as a Bad Day:
An unstated operating assumption of the permanent D.C. establishment is that outsiders like Jordan are essentially brought into town on sufferance, for tryouts. They can adapt, "make it," and survive when their time with the administration has ended--or they can be drummed out of town and dismissed as losers. In D.C. terms, Jordan was in the latter category; he worked for a losing administration, and he didn't cut it in society. Yet this book suggests that he has become a more substantial person than most who dismissed him--and even before he went through this transformation, he was a more complicated person than the "Hannibal Jerkin" caricatured in the press. This has made me think of the damage done to other people hooted out of town. (Gary Hart?) If you're thinking of a midsummer gift for a favorite columnist or Style section writer, consider this book.
The sad thing is that you can say pretty much the same thing about Jimmy Carter himself--a president who, whatever his flaws, has done a lot of good for America and the world, yet will always be treated with thinly-veiled contempt by the same Washington insiders who idolized Reagan, regarded Cheney and Rumsfeld as "adults" who would bring wisdom and integrity back to the White House, and will be delighted to foist McCain on us if they can get away with it.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Us Versus Them, You Versus Me

In this article in The New York Review of Books (subscription required), David Cole points out a curious fact about public reaction in the U.S. to the "war on terror":
One of the striking features of the American politics of security since September 11 is that invasions of privacy have prompted more public resistance than intrusions on liberty. The Patriot Act provisions that aroused the most public concern were search provisions--such as those authorizing roving wiretaps, "sneak-and-peek" searches, national security letters, and demands for records from third parties, including libraries--demands that librarians and other employees are not allowed to reveal to others. Other Patriot Act provisions were far more egregious, but received little attention, including one that permitted preventive detention of foreign nationals without charges, and another that authorized the Treasury Department to freeze an organization's assets and effectively shut it down on the basis of secret evidence without finding any violation of law.
This anomaly goes beyond the Patriot Act. Revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and word about "secret renditions" of terror suspects to countries where they will almost certainly be tortured produce initial outrage that soon peters out; but when public officials float privacy-challenging ideas like a national ID card, websites by the thousand light up with denunciations of Big Brotherism and creeping totalitarianism. WTF?

As Cole goes on to say, the most likely explanation for this weird discrepancy is that most Americans assume that the wholesale, often violent deprivations of human rights now being committed by the government against terror suspects will never affect them or their families or their friends, but only anonymous dark-skinned "others"--whereas having the whereabouts of their car or their library card traced by the feds could cause them some personal inconvenience.

In short, the attitude most of us fall into all too easily is one of "To hell with them--I'm just worried about me and mine."

It's a distressing side-effect of the readiness of Americans to let themselves be divided into mutually antagonistic groups along ethnic, social, politicial, religious, geographic, class, gender, and racial lines. It's a problem that causes huge damage to our country not only when it comes to the "war on terror" and other issues of crime and security, but also in relation to health care, taxes, education, labor rights, immigration, and practically every other issue you can name. Rather than pulling together to support, defend, and uplift one another, we allow ourselves to be sliced into demographic tribes who then battle for access to money, power, and even human rights--while those in control laugh and count their profits.

One of the most important resolutions all of us should make is to absolutely withhold our votes and support from any politician who plays up our social divisions as a means of enhancing his own power. This syndrome is so pernicious and so far-reaching in its effects that catering to it should be considered the equivalent, in political terms, of the "sin against the Holy Ghost"--the nearest thing we have to an unforgiveable offense.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Enough About Me--How Do Like My Blog?

Okay, so blogger Emily Gould, profiled in tomorrow morning's Times Magazine, seems to be self-centered, even narcissistic (at least based on what she writes about online). Evidently the emerging consensus is that this reveals something about the nature of blogging. On Megan McArdle's blog, guest blogger Peter Suderman defends Gould, saying:

Bloggers write about their lives, their interests, their cities, their friends. On many blogs, the author's life becomes part of the story--you read these bloggers as much for who they are as for what they have to say. This is what accounts for the sense one sometimes gets that one "knows" the blogger. Blogs serve as running commentary on the world at large (or some part of it), yes, but also as extensions of the lives of their authors. To become a regular reader is to share and take part in that life, and that's a large part of the blogosphere's appeal. It's also a function of both the frantic pace and pressure of the professional blogosphere: The easiest content to produce is that which is inspired by what's nearest to you.
All true enough. But here is a point no one else seems to be raising: Since when is writing about oneself restricted to the blogosphere? Any regular reader of a writer like Calvin Trillin gets to know a heck of a lot about him--his life, his family, his personal quirks, even the foods he likes (spaghetti carbonara). And Trillin writes in the tradition of many journalists, columnists, and New Yorker writers, about whom something similar could be said.

For that matter, the sainted Orwell's journalism is full of stories about his personal life (his horrid experiences at boarding school, his adventures as a sous-chef in a Paris restaurant). And going back still further in time, what did Thoreau and Montaigne write about other than themselves--their foibles and eccentricities--using these as levers with which to pry open the secrets of life?

As far as I can see, the only thing truly new about the autobiographical writing in the blogosphere is that it's unfiltered by an editor or publisher. Are bloggers people who are unduly fascinated with ourselves? Sure we are--and so are most human beings, truth be told.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

South Pacific And The Mythical American Innocence

On Thursday night, Mary-Jo and I saw the wonderful revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center starring Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot. This was an event we've been looking forward to for decades. Like many people of our generation, we grew up listening to our parents' LPs of the original Broadway cast of this show (Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, of course), and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with every fresh revival of Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma or A Chorus Line, Mary-Jo and I would ask one another, "When is someone finally going to do South Pacific?" Now someone has, and it is great--a marvelous cast, crisp staging, a full orchestra, even a restored script with a song and a number of lines of dialogue trimmed from the original production.

As it happens, today's Times contains an article about Kelli O'Hara, which (of course) praises her talent, voice, and fresh-faced appeal. It also discusses the whole concept of "the ingenue," which has been gradually disappearing from the stage in recent years:
The guile-free young woman in search of love--and almost always finding it--was once a staple of musical theater, when the standard plot of a Broadway show involved at least one happy ending for a boy and girl, and possibly several. But she has virtually become an absent archetype at the theater in recent years, preserved only in pastiche period musicals in which the character is usually dressed in a new frock fringed with irony. (In the currently running "Grease" and "Cry-Baby," for instance, the good girl seduces the audience's affections by going happily over to the dark side.) . . .

It's not hard to see why [the ingenue has disappeared]. Ingenuousness is almost as disreputable as its opposite today, possibly more so. The new-model female archetype in popular culture is a sexual and financial calculator almost before she has graduated from junior high school. Think of the lusty, upper-crusty schoolgirls in "Gossip Girl," or the preening soap-operators of "The Hills." Elle Woods, the ambitious overachiever in "Legally Blonde," could not really be described as wholesome. Nor could either the green or the blond witch in "Wicked," the hugely popular musical that starred Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel as revisionist versions of the good and bad witches of the Oz books. (Tellingly, the ingenuesque role in that story, little Dorothy from Kansas, is tossed out entirely.)
(Last weekend, Mary-Jo and I watched the movie version of Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as singing-and-dancing murderers and cannibals. Now there's a contrast with the sunny mood of the traditional American musical.)

Here is the place where one would normally insert a lament about America's "lost innocence" and a reference to whatever historical events one might like to blame: the sixties, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, 9/11. But the truth is that "innocence" is always fragile and under siege, in every time and place. Even in South Pacific itself, nurse Nellie Forbush (O'Hara's character) describes her own innocence in terms that are half-apologetic, half-defiant. Her exuberant anthem, "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy," begins:

I expect every one of my crowd to make fun of my proud protestations of faith in romance . . .

And having fallen in love, she describes herself as "No more a smart little girl with no heart." The implication is clear--in Nellie's crowd, cynicism, not innocence, is the norm.

It's not all that surprising, really. Watching the young choristers in their Navy fatigues and crisp nurses' uniforms dancing and singing around the tropical island setting of the show, it's easy to wax nostalgic about the youthful innocence of America in the flush of its post-war triumph. But let's think about the actual social context of South Pacific.

It's a show about men and women fighting in World War Two--people who have seen and in some cases participated in unspeakable brutality and mayhem. The show was based on the wartime writings of James Michener, then an unknown 40-year-old ex-teacher who'd served in the South Pacific himself, and Broadway audiences when the show debuted in 1949 were filled with people who'd fought the war themselves--and knew plenty of friends who'd never made it back.

The play opened as the Cold War was beginning, and its cultural backdrop included not only the the liberation of the death camps in Europe, the Nuremburg trials, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And during the summer of '48, as Rodgers and Hammerstein were working on their score--including the bitter satire of racism, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught"--the Dixiecrats were walking out of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, outraged over the party's adoption of a plank supporting civil rights for "negroes."

So while it is easy to think of 1949 as a time of carefree American innocence--a time before Americans had become acquainted with evil, either in others or in themselves--there never was such a time, of course.

But that doesn't mean the idea of the ingenue--"the guile-free young woman in search of love"--is meaningless. It just sets her in her true context, which is a world of violence, corruption, hatred, and sin. In other words, the real world.

If the ingenue is truly young, inexperienced, and naive, she may be unaware of these sad truths, as when, in The Tempest, Miranda catches her first glimpse of a handsome young man and, wide-eyed, proclaims, "O brave new world / That hath such people in it!" (To which her father quietly comments, "Tis new to thee.")

But Nellie Forbush is in a different category. She knows she doesn't live in a "brave new world." She is six thousand miles from home because she is serving in a global war, and she knows that the "wonderful guy" she loves has killed a man and fathered two mixed-race children (and as a nice girl from Little Rock it's not clear which of these two past exploits she finds more distressing). The story of South Pacific is about how she decides to make a life with Emile de Becque (and his children) despite it all.

That, if anything, is the real meaning of "innocence"--the decision to love in the face of all the evidence of love's futility, failure, and heartbreak. The quiet recognition of this reality is one of the things that makes South Pacific a grown-up work of art and the greatest American musical.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Back In The Blogosphere, And What Happened

Over a month since I last posted! It's a disgrace, for which I offer my abject apologies. As an explanation, not an excuse, I'll mention that I've been dedicating most of my blogging time in recent weeks to my work at The Triple Bottom Line, the blog I write with Andy Savitz about sustainable business--how some companies are actually trying to do the right thing by the environment and society as well as by their stockholders. (You might find a few of our posts there interesting. If you're curious, check out this one, this one, and this one, for starters.)

I've also been rather swamped at my day job, including (to the shock of some of my family members) an intensive period of work with none other than Scott McClellan, the former Bush administration press secretary, who has written this book about his experiences in the White House.

Don't worry, I haven't gone over to the dark side. If anything, Scott has worked himself halfway over to our side. What Happened mainly deals with his sense of dismay as he gradually realized that an administration he thought was dedicated to openness, honesty, and civility was actually just as political, deceptive, and manipulative as "the bad guys" they campaigned against--if not more so.

I've been sworn to secrecy about the details by Scott's publishers, my friends at Public Affairs. To learn more, you'll have to wait until the official publication date, June 2nd. I'm curious about the reaction the book will receive, especially from conservative commentators and critics. (And I know Scott is also very curious, if not anxious; it requires some cojones to take a principled stand in opposition to your former friends and colleagues, especially in today's ultra-politicized Washington.)

I promise to do a better job of keeping in touch with you all in the days ahead.

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What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

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