Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 16

"They were discussing the international situation, which was desperate, as usual."

- Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

These are fast and heady times, and keeping up with the McCain meltdown, the spasms of the stock market, and the annual collapse of the New York Mets leaves little room for reflective dispatches. I am, after all, just one man in search of a story- like the time I met President Bush in 2006 and gave him a presentation on the dangers of toxic black mold in the Gulf Coast. That story wowed the crowd at Comix a few weeks ago, though it still left me short of the Moth Storytelling GrandSlam. But after a whirlwind spell away from the keyboard, it is, as Joe Biden would say, "literally great to be here."

If 2008 was the year of change, September was definitely the month. The stock market proved, once and for all, that no one can understand it, except perhaps Mad Money Jim Kramer, who on Friday practically grabbed me through the television to buy, buy, buy on Monday. "These are great times," my friend Will noted, "for those who still have any money left to invest." It is out of lack of knowledge, rather than interest, that Roving Storm has been silent during the last few turbulent weeks. The extent of my usefulness on the bailout and its aftermath was limited to explaining the irrational votes of Congressmen to bewildered Wall Street friends who couldn't believe that the Republican leadership was willing to play politics with the entire international finance system. "Break out the vodka," Will added. "And look at the bright side. Things are going to get much, much worse." The wheels have completely come off, and no one really seems sure what's going on anymore.

At least not in the economic world. The political world makes a lot more sense. The message-disciplined, well-funded, enthusiastic campaign for change seems to be slowly pulling away from an erratic, feuding campaign based on appealing to Americans' lowest common denominator through lies and fear. At another time, perhaps even a month ago, the tactics of the McCain campaign would have induced me to rage (see my Joe Lieberman rant). But at this late stage of the game, Obama has revealed himself the consummate cool hand at the tiller that McCain said we should be looking for in a president. He showed in the debate that he understood America's problems, and he was already hard at work trying to come up with solutions requiring shared sacrifice for a shared purpose. At this point the worst thing Obama could do is get dragged down to the mud, especially since his campaign has lasted 20 months without needing to. It is unrealistic to expect all of his supporters to remain as calm while Sarah Palin incites rabid conservatives to mob violence against him, but I'll try my best. Starting November 5th, after all, the serious business of unifying a broken country begins.

"So don't call me part of the Washington elite, because I come from the absolute worst place on earth."

If nothing else, the wild last few weeks have brought out the best in our nation's bards. Jon Stewart, particularly his coverage of McCain (who he once publicly admired) and Congress during the bail-out crisis, is doing his finest work in years, albeit with a darker hue than usual. He is a man badly in need of a vacation. Saturday Night Live, which somehow mis-lampooned the entire Bush years, has hit its groove again. These two clips are the must-sees:

First, the Vice-Presidential Debate. Tina Fey has deservingly won tremendous props for her Sarah Palin, but the fellow playing, Joe Biden, Jason Sudeikis, is similarly hilarious. Maybe the best SNL skit of this century.


Second, watch the incredible Darrell Hammond (of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson fame) as John McCain, challenging Obama (Fred Armisen) to suspend his campaign and engage in a series of pie-eating contests across America.


Rolling Stone's vicious unveiling of the real John McCain showed that the magazine can still be politically relevant, outside, of course, the continually brilliant work of Matt Taibbi. Taibbi's transparent power grab to assume the New Hunter S. Thompson mantle led to an uneven debut, Spanking the Donkey, but he has come into his own considerably with his 2006 work, Smells Like Dead Elephants, and his new book, The Great Derangement. He certainly has the Gonzo sense of tortured desperation down pat; observe the following passage from his recent article on Ms. Palin:

Sarah Palin is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States. As a representative of our political system, she's a new low in reptilian villainy, the ultimate cynical masterwork of puppeteers like Karl Rove. But more than that, she is a horrifying symbol of how little we ask for in return for the total surrender of our political power. Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she's the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV – and this country is going to eat her up, cheering every step of the way. All because most Americans no longer have the energy to do anything but lie back and allow ourselves to be jacked off by the calculating thieves who run this grasping consumer paradise we call a nation.

I thought it would be interest to dig up some vintage Hunter, god knows he would have something to say right now. In the interest of parallelism, I found this passage about Nixon's VP, Spiro Agnew, taken from Hunter's not so kind eulogy for Richard Nixon:

Not even Spiro Agnew was that dumb. He was a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed. But he was Nixon's vice president for five years, and he only resigned when he was caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the White House.

Unlike Nixon, Agnew didn't argue. He quit his job and fled in the night to Baltimore, where he appeared the next morning in U.S. District Court, which allowed him to stay out of prison for bribery and extortion in exchange for a guilty (no contest) plea on income-tax evasion. After that he became a major celebrity and played golf and tried to get a Coors distributorship. He never spoke to Nixon again and was an unwelcome guest at the funeral. They called him Rude, but he went anyway. It was one of those Biological Imperatives, like salmon swimming up waterfalls to spawn before they die. He knew he was scum, but it didn't bother him.

Agnew was the Joey Buttafuoco of the Nixon administration, and Hoover was its Caligula. They were brutal, brain-damaged degenerates worse than any hit man out of The Godfather, yet they were the men Richard Nixon trusted most. Together they defined his Presidency.

It would be easy to forget and forgive Henry Kissinger of his crimes, just as he forgave Nixon. Yes, we could do that--but it would be wrong. Kissinger is a slippery little devil, a world-class hustler with a thick German accent and a very keen eye for weak spots at the top of the power structure, Nixon was one of these, and Super K exploited him mercilessly, all the way to the end.

Kissinger made the Gang of Four complete: Agnew, Hoover, Kissinger and Nixon. A group photo of these perverts would say all we need to know about the Age of Nixon.

There are two key differences between Taibbi and Thompson. First, Taibbi may be as skilled a writer as Thompson was, or at least has the potential to be, but whereas Hunter could effortlessly inject himself into a story as a thrilling main character madman, Taibbi the Person comes off as plain and cold, his boring fa├žade perhaps the reason he was able to blend into John Hagee's congregation, a truly terrifying chapter of his most recent book. The second point is related- whereas Thompson also used titled like "Songs of the Doomed" and "Fear and Loathing", his despair was never permanent. For all his despondency about Nixon, he saw a ray of light in Jimmy Carter, who he helped launched to the national spotlight in "Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith." Taibbi, in contrast, considers Obama a less destructive empty suit. Thompson could get depressed as hell about the political state of affairs in America, but he would still get amped for the Sunday football game, and his constant adventures in alcohol and drugs were rooted in his prankish upbringing in the Ken Kesey-era counter culture. Taibbi, to cite a phrase, hardly seems like the kind of person you'd like to have a beer with. Hopefully he'll lighten up a little when the Age of Change begins.

A Farewell to William Shea Stadium…

This was not a Mets team that deserved to make the playoffs. Their bullpen was the laughing stock of the league, and there were no tears in Mudville when Scott Schoenweiss gave up the season-ending home-run (except from Schoenweiss, later found weeping by his locker), only an avalanche of boos from the stadium faithful that did not end until the game had long ended, and the Shea Stadium farewell ceremony was well underway. To be clear, to make the playoffs the Mets only needed to win two out of three games at home against a dismal Florida team that my roommate ran into wasted and in costume on the subway late before the last game of the series. The only thing that could stop the booing was a tribute to the 1986 World Series-winning team, the only Mets champions in the last 39 years. Hopefully the impressive young core of the team- Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, John Maine and Johan Santana- can leave the ghosts of Shea behind as they head to their new taxpayer funded stadium.

Though I shed no tears for the hapless 2008 Mets, my heart does grieve a little for the loss of Shea, the stadium that anchored my baseball fandom for so long. Few know that the stadium was named for the lawyer who brokered the deal bringing National League baseball to New York. Romantic a story it is not, but it's better than "Citi Field." My dad took me to my first Shea game sixteen years ago. He knew nothing about baseball, and groaned with exasperation every time the scoreboard flashed "Let's Make Some Noise!!" "You can't get any peace here," he'd mutter. He was a dignified-looking man, and when we accidentally wandered into the field-level seating area behind home plate, the security people didn't even ask to see our tickets. It was from that vantage point that I watched the Mets beat the St. Louis Cardinals 1-0 in 13 innings, when pinch-hitter Daryl Boston was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, forcing in the winning run. It remains to this day the oddest conclusion to a baseball game I've ever seen.

King Bloomberg Seeks Third Term to Speculate About Future Run for Higher Office…

Much has already been written about Mayor Mike's quest for a third term as mayor. For a well-written and even-handed coverage by someone who understands New York City politics to the core, check out the articles from Parks Commissioner Henry Stern at NYCivic.org, specifically, "Let the Voters Decide" and "Keep Us Employed."

I share Starquest's disdain for Bloomberg's tactic to use a pliant City Council, full of term-limited members themselves, including 8 members only in office because their own relatives were term-limited. It's bad for democracy to have one-party towns, but it's far worse to have one-family districts and counties. Bloomberg's desire for a third term has been driven largely by vanity and a growing appetite for the power he now realizes comes with politics. Many business-types frown upon politics as provincial, even irrelevant in the face the power of the markets. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was shunned by his family after he forwent his lucrative options to enter into the dirty world of local New York politics.

Bloomberg likely felt this way until 2001. He now recognizes that having yourself identified as "Hizzoner" in newspaper headlines on a daily basis is way cooler than an occasional byline on how much money your company is worth. This obsession with glamour has been distracting the mayor for some time now. His flirtations with running for president loomed over local news, as well as flirtations with running for governor now, or in 2010. Which is not to say he has been a bad mayor; I'd probably rate him a B plus, noting that any mayor who can prevent New York from descending into madness and chaos deserves at least a B. His administration has been capable on bread and butter issues like crime and education. The impending budget doom is not his fault, though frankly my question is this:

If Bloomberg is so brilliant that we need to rewrite the law to let him serve again, overturning a referendum passed only 12 years ago, why wasn't he brilliant enough to see this crisis coming, or do anything about it now, or be able to do something about it in the remaining 15 months he has in office?

Doing anything constructive in the wake of an international fiscal crisis is a tall order, I know, but what I don't understand is how someone with past, present and immediate future control of a disastrous situation has earned the right to keep being in charge of that disastrous situation. Additionally, why is he the only person who can lead us in these times? Despite the talk of a weak 2009 mayoral field, upon inspection the field looks about average- the leading contenders are the City Council Speaker, a Borough President, a Congressman, and the Comptroller.

Though the Comptroller position has not traditionally been a successful electoral stepping stone, this might be the year for two reasons. First, Bill Thompson, who has earned good marks through his two terms, has a job primarily focused on fiscal oversight. Given that the next Mayor will sadly have a job mostly consisting of making a series of incisive budget cuts, we need someone who can do this carefully, without seriously lowering the quality of life for middle class or poor New Yorkers. Second, Thompson is an African-American, and in New York's tribal political scene, that will at the very least give him a shot at winning, depending on how charismatic he is in expanding his base.

Incidentally, if Bill Thompson is elected Mayor, come November of 2009, citizens of New York City will proudly be under the leadership of a black Mayor, Governor and President. Crazy how things move in the Age of Change.

Notes on the State of Virginia…

Our crew has road-tripped to Virginia for two out of the last three weekends. Virginia is the ideal destination, going on offense in Republican country, but within striking distance of the D.C nightlife and friends.

The Democrats have not won an open or Republican-held Senate in a former Confederate state since John Edwards won his North Carolina seat in 1998. The solidity of the Southern voting bloc, which empowered the Democratic party for decades, has now done the same for Republicans. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and voti, he famously sighed, "We have lost the South for a generation." It's been a little longer, but those days are finally over. Virginia has not voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since LBJ, and Loudon County, the swing county where we were out knocking on doors, hasn't voted Democratic since then either. But change is on the way.

When LBJ pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress in 1965, enfranchising black voters and giving teeth to the 15th amendment, passed nearly a century earlier, Mississippi Senator John Stennis balled like a baby on the floor of the Senate. In southern Mississippi they have a space center named after the last Democrat to ever hold the position of Senator in Mississippi. Now, change is on the way. Former governor Ronnie Musgrove is running neck and neck with incumbent Roger Wicker, who was appointed by Governor Haley "Now, Guillermo, we're not gonna talk to the President about microcosms" Barbour to replace Trent Lott, who retired a year after re-election to take a lucrative lobbying position. If you are looking to donate your last $25, forget the Obama campaign, give it to Musgrove, and his band of brothers, Rick Noriega and Jim Martin.

Lt. Col. Noriega, a decorated soldier in Vietnam, commander in Afghanistan, and director of Houston's post-Katrina operation, is becoming a tough opponent for the Texas Senate seat held by top Bush cheerleader John Cornyn. In Georgia, Republican Saxby Chambliss, who six years ago won his seat with ads comparing Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, to Saddam and Osama, is only up a few points against a progressive Democrat named Jim Martin. Add Kay Hagan's dismantling of Liddy Dole in North Carolina and Obama's numbers in Florida and North Carolina, and suddenly great reign of the southern strategy, founded by Goldwater, secured by Nixon, and used to create a Republican safe zone for decades, is completely unraveling.

But back to Virginia. For the second time, we canvassed Loudon County. Even after six years of steady canvassing, I've always treated the undecided voter as something of a mythical creature. But this weekend I sensed the reality of the undecideds of Loudon County- these were people who had always voted Republican. Now they knew in their hearts that they should vote for Obama- they wanted to, their neighbors and family were going to, and the Republicans just flat didn't deserve their votes or share their values anymore. But change is not easy. And I will grant them time to think it over. I can't dream of the day I'd vote a Republican for president, and I have to respect the leap of faith they are making right now, even in just spending time in the undecided camp. And when they do pull that lever for the Democratic Party, the man we'll have to thank most of all is Mark Warner, who single-handedly rebranded Democrats in the state of Virginia. He is now up 23 in his Senate race, and we will welcome him to that hallowed hall come January.

We knocked on hundreds of houses this weekend, and returned to New York exhausted and satisfied. Driving by the lights of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, I turned to the backseat and wondered aloud, "How great this will it be when you know the Obama family is behind those gates." Peace, hope and justice will be home in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68KLZCVFDQI

Later I read Time Magazine's Karen Tumulty recount her trip to the Republican headquarters, which included a volunteer prep session led by state GOP Chairman Jeffrey Frederick explaining the talking point linking Obama and Osama bin Laden: "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon," he said. "That is scary." Indeed. I think he's just terrified to be the state GOP Chairman during the three years that the Virginia GOP lost a governor's race, both their Republican senators, and their ability to keep Virginia red in a presidential election.

"No more cigarettes, no more having sex, no more drinking till you fall on the floor…"

I returned from Virginia weary, but the show raged on. Last night it took us across the river to Hoboken. As we walked block after block away from the Path Train, it felt like a weird death march into Jersey, but it was worth it to see one of the great new bands of the Age of Change, Titus Andronicus, a band with a Shakespearian name that rocks like the Clash and other heroes of late 70s garage punk. You can check out their myspace site here:


They play fast and hard and loud and with the angst of a bleak future, with song titles like "No Future", and repeating choruses of "your life is over!" What makes them not trite is that this dark vision of the road ahead seems to actually bother them, torture them, even make them furious. Plus they scored points with me for calling the first track on their album, "Fear and Loathing in Mahweh." "Fear and Loathing" is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, but if it's a reference to growing up in Jersey, I can see it.

Being good New Jersey boys (and infallibly polite with family members in the audience), they covered the Boss, going with a bruising rendition of "Badlands." You can tell a lot about a band by who they cover, and the choice was fitting for the band whose "Airing of Grievances" is the most exciting debut rock album to come out of New Jersey since "Greetings from Ashbury Park." New Yorkers can next see them in New York on November 9th, at Santos Party House, and others can check their touring schedule off their myspace page.


Man, that is all for now. This week will feature a canvassing trip to New Hampshire, where the motto is "Live Free or Die," the leaves are in full autumn plume, and the great Senator's lead is too close for comfort. It will be my last canvassing trip of the 2008 Election Season. On Monday, October 20th, I will undergo reconstructive knee surgery for the ACL I tore at the end of this summer. It will keep me in bed for a week at least, but my goal is to be back for Election Day for some voter protection

As our friends at Defiance Ohio would say, "This time, this year, is bigger than us, it goes on and on after this town has taken it all out of us…"

Have a good night, and keep living the dream. Ask not for whom the bell curves, it curves for thee...