Archives for December, 2006

Ford’s Funeral

Jerry Ford was ok by me–top two for presidents in my lifetime. But isn’t this a little much? No mail delivery, closing the stock market, government shutdown (not that I mind that), security out the wazoo, shutting down major thoroughfares throughout the city so the ex-president’s body can make its rounds–and “six days of formal mourning”?

Mr. Bush yesterday declared Tuesday as a national day of mourning for Mr. Ford. “I call on the American people to assemble on that day in their respective places of worship, there to pay homage to the memory of President Ford,” he said in a proclamation he issued from Crawford, Texas. “I invite the people of the world who share our grief to join us in this solemn observance.”

Look, Ford was 93, he lived a full life, and he’s best known, at any rate, for Chevy Chase’s impersonation, which had the president stapling his ear, stabbing himself with a letter opener, and pratfalling all over the set of Saturday Night Live every week. He doesn’t need a “national day of mourning,” let alone a pharaonic state funeral. Nor do any of these guys. And the thing is, by modern standards, this is actually light on pomp and circumstance.

Here’s the part that creeped me out a bit, and made me feel like we’re looking at some sort of half-assed civil religion:

Capitol officials said yesterday they have brought from storage the famed pine board catafalque on which Abraham Lincoln’s body lay and prepared it to receive Ford’s closed coffin later today. Most people who lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda do so on the Lincoln catafalque.

Umm, why? Is it, like, a holy relic or something?

Posted on Dec 30, 2006 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Man in the Bubble

I’d seen a lot of media reports about how profoundly isolated President Bush was from the outside world. Surrounded by an impenetrable security cordon, provided information only by his aides, declining even to read newspapers. But it wasn’t until I picked up this morning’s Washington Post that I realized how bad the problem was over there at 1600 Pennsylvania. Apparently, they don’t even get Instapundit.

Posted on Dec 20, 2006 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

We’ve Got a Visual

You know, I’ve often thought that the problem with the blogging medium is that it’s too impersonal. Sure, you can engage with your favorite bloggers’ writing, get to know their minds, even learn a little about their lives. But there it stops. What about those of us who want more, who really want to jump through the screen, and get down there in the room with the dirty socks and the piles of Heavy Metal magazine? Pine away no longer, blogfans: our prayers have been answered.

Posted on Dec 19, 2006 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


But Johnson found it difficult to sustain his rationality in dealing with war critics. During a private conversation [in late '67] with some reporters who pressed him to explain why we were in Vietnam, Johnson lost his patience. According to Arthur Goldberg, “LBJ unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ, and declared, “This is why!”

Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1967-73, p. 491.

I love that story so much–find it so hilarious and horrifying, so evocative of the idea of the President as Great Ape atop the world’s most important primate hierarchy, so revealing of how the office drives men mad so you end up governed by a Narcissist with Nukes–that I gave up on trying to Beavisize the title, except for the unavoidable double entendre.

Posted on Dec 12, 2006 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Wire, Cont.

You know, Ezra Klein has a point about how the show subverts Horatio Alger stories. As he says, Duquan, Michael, and Randy are the kids who show bourgeois aptitude, and they end up at the end of Season Four either on the corner or in a group home. Namond is the least “deserving” in a bourgeois/meritocratic sense, but gets saved. But he gets saved outside of the system proper, not directly through a public institution. (Granted, Bunny’s only where he is due to the public institution, but it’s still independent action–a privately arranged adoption–it’s not a case of a program working). The schools and the cops fail the first three kids despite teachers and cops (Prez, Sgt. Carver) who are trying to save them from within the system. Private paternalism doesn’t necessarily work either. Bubbles fails to save Sherrod, and screws that up drastically. And Cutty gets shot in the leg trying to take Michael off the corner. And after four seasons, it seems that getting yourself out through individual initiative doesn’t work all that well either. Stringer Bell–a reprehensible character who nonetheless tries to go legit–doesn’t make it through his own initiative.

Helping somebody independently can work: Bunny and Namond–but fails more often than not. Helping yourself can on rare occasions work: Cutty’s new life outside of the game. What doesn’t work–ever, so far as I can remember over four seasons, is helping someone within the system, as a teacher or a cop. Public institutions fail everyone they’re supposed to help. The Wire isn’t sanguine about nonstate solutions–they’re not really solutions. But it’s positively bleak as far as actually existing governmental solutions go.

In that sense, I kind of appreciated McNulty’s season-long retreat into private life/domestic bliss. He was never a crusader–always more motivated by what Ed Burns describes somewhere as the good cop’s sense that “I’m smarter than these pricks.” At the end of Season Four, he rejoins the Major Crimes Unit with what’s at least ostensibly a more public-spirited purpose: to make things right after his inadvertent role in Boadie’s death. But you know that even if he helps bring down Marlow, he’s just going to have cleared the road for somebody equally if not more vicious, and nothing will have changed. From the corner to the state house, the Game will go on.

Posted on Dec 12, 2006 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

The System, Man

Radley Balko and Ezra Klein argue about the politics of the Wire. I think Ezra happens to be correct that David Simon considers himself a man of the Left. But I think Radley’s right to see libertarian themes in the show.

Despite occasionally giving in to the temptation myself, I usually hate it when libertarians strain to find libertarian themes in movies, pop songs, or TV shows, a tendency ably satired by the now defunct site Liberteaser, where Greg Newburn once had a hilarious, deadpan “libertarian” analysis of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.” When done earnestly, the enterprise usually includes a definition of “libertarian” so broad that anything short of Jet Li’s Hero makes the grade.

Also, if the work of art in question actually is consciously libertarian, it’s usually didactically so, which really puts me off my popcorn. I’m part of a minority of libertarians who can’t bear Ayn Rand novels. Show, don’t tell. And don’t tell me and tell me and tell me and follow me home and scream the A is A speech into my friggin ear. In fact, when the Wire has occasionally drifted toward telling not showing–even when I agree with the political solutions it proposes wholeheartedly, as with drug decriminalization–it’s made me nervous. I don’t want an op-ed. What I love about the show is its realism, and most people aren’t given to making broad policy critiques of the social reality they’re immersed in. Nor do I want the characters to serve as archetypes or stand-ins for urban policy prescriptions.

Anyway, the Wire. Like all great political art–or all that I consider great, anyway, it’s not easily categorized. It’s libertarian. It’s also leftist. It’s both of those things in a weird, decentralist, Tom Hayden-Karl Hess sort of way. It’s raw and angry about the lives that people are born into through no fault of their own–in a way that I don’t think a doctrinaire libertarian could easily achieve, sad to say.

At the same time, it’s relentlessly skeptical about the institutions of government–institutions whose ostensible purpose is helping people like Randy and Duquan and Namond and Michael–in a way that no doctrinaire liberal could ever carry off. It’s public choice dramatized. It says bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves, not to save kids or fight crime. In those bureaucracies, there are a lot of morons collecting paychecks. But the show is not a vulgar-libertarian caricature of public institutions. In the schools, on the police force, there are also well-intentioned people who are damned good at what they do.

It doesn’t often matter. Fresh off wrecking his career while lowering crime through de facto decriminalization, Bunny Colvin gets involved with an education program that seems, in a limited way, to work. No dice there either. Lester Freamon is BPD’s Nero Wolfe. By figuring out where Marlow’s stashed the bodies (“this is a tomb“) he’s done yet another brilliant piece of police work. Yet Sgt. Landsman comes close to punching him for proposing to screw up their clearance rate with God knows how many unsolved homicides: “there’s no goddamned murder until somebody calls us,” or words to that effect. Freamon gets to open the vacants–not because anyone much gave a damn about the murders–any more than they did about 13 dead hookers on the docks in Season Two–but because the bodies can be put down to the Royce Administration. The right thing can get done, but it doesn’t get done because it’s the right thing. And it usually doesn’t get done. Again and again we’re taught that the public purpose of the institution is a rationalization, a cover story shielding what really matters: that the dumb beast gets fed.

I know that Simon wants to end the drug war. I don’t know what his education or housing policy is–how he proposes to solve the problems the show chronicles. Maybe he thinks we should revive the War on Poverty and give Cutty an OEO grant or that microcredit’s the solution and Randy should get a Grameen loan. Or maybe, New Left style, Simon thinks that by changing hearts we can change institutions: “Hey, if we think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain.” Simon may think any or all of this, but there’s no more evidence for it in the show than there is that he thinks the Western needs Jack Kemp on steroids, enterprise zones and vouchers. I don’t care one way or the other: the show speaks for itself.

I wouldn’t want the Wire to be a self-consciously libertarian show. And it’s not that. It’s a show about how institutions have a merciless logic of their own, the state as the coldest of cold monsters. It’s certainly not a show about faith in markets. But God knows it’s not a show about faith in government.

Posted on Dec 11, 2006 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

For the Children

Radley Balko. He’s not antiwar, he’s on the other side.

Posted on Dec 11, 2006 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Seeing Calvin Coolidge as a Dream

I have an op-ed on the virtues of presidential inaction–and how the presidential scholars who participate in presidential rankings surveys tend to greatly overvalue imperial presidents–running in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Dallas Morning News today.

As a result, I received the greatest angry email of all time. I bet none of you people have ever been called “Warren Harding’s fluffer”.

Posted on Dec 10, 2006 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Dangers of Sobriety

Line of the day:

It may be that the last really serious call for a midcourse correction heeded by George W. Bush was the hangover he experienced at Colorado’s Broadmoor Hotel one morning in the summer of 1986, when he decided to quit drinking–a decision that put him on the path to the presidency.

Which in turn has given so many of us good reason to keep drinking. “Goodbye, Jesus, Hello Jack Daniels.”

Posted on Dec 8, 2006 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Let’s Talk about Me

Right out of the gate this morning on Snuffleupagus, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the first Dem to officially announce for president in ’08, says, more or less, that he’s running for president because he’s adopted: “I started out life in the hands of a stranger.” Which I think is true for most of us. He goes on to explain–not that you asked–that his adopted family was “troubled,” with an alcoholic, prescription-drug addicted mom, and periodically separated parents. All of this, it seems, is a reason to vote Vilsack: “change is part of my culture… change is something I’m very comfortable with.”

I don’t get it. I wouldn’t vote for or against the guy because of his upbringing. His life story isn’t all that unusual, or even remotely interesting. It’s no more interesting than the “man from Hope” (actually Hot Springs) nonsense from ’92 or the Bush campaign bio from 2000, which amounted to far-less-capable son of a famous father decides to quit drinking when he’s 40, because hangovers suck. But neither Clinton nor Bush led with their dull life stories as emphatically as Vilsack appears to be leading with his.

If you’re running for president and your bio is actually interesting–like say you’ve been a prisoner of war, killed a man in a duel, and fought both the Redcoats and the Indians–then, by all means, tell me about yourself. Otherwise, just stick to what you’d do.

Posted on Dec 3, 2006 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mixed Metaphor Alert

You know, none of this crap would work, but what really worries me is what happens if the Iraqis really do try to “step up” and “pull up their socks” after we “take our hand off [their] bicycle seat.”

Posted on Dec 3, 2006 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments