Monday, August 31, 2015

In Memory Of Oliver Sachs (1933-2015): Musings on Music of the Mind


Regular readers of this blog (the cats and that sweet woman from England who keeps seeing flying saucers when she sits in her loo) know that I adore music.

Music is pretty much a fulltime companion. It wakes me up in the morning and relaxes my mind in the evening. It helps me celebrate good times and weather bad times. It makes me move my body in fun and interesting ways when the DF&C and I are at a live concert or roll back the living room rug and boogie. And I can say without equivocation that it does strange and wonderous things to my mind.

Yet for all of the music that I have absorbed since I first heard "Pop Goes the Weasel" played on a jack in the box, I don't have a clue as to how and why it does those things to my mind.

Enter a really smart guy by the name of Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who has done some groundbreaking explorations on music and the mind, including how certain songs get stuck in one's mind (for me most recently Robert Hazzard's "Escalator of Life").

Sacks shares what he has learned in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, a terrific new book that includes a case study about an orthopedic surgeon who discovered he had a newfound passion for concert piano after literally having his mind blown when he was struck by lightning.

Here are excerpts from a chapter on the incredible story of Tony Cicoria, who was at a lakeside pavilion for a family gathering on a fall afternoon as storm clouds gathered in the distance:
He went to a pay phone outside the pavilion to make a quick call to his mother (this was in 1994, before the age of cell phones). He still remembers every single second of what happened next: "I was talking to my mother on the phone. There was a little bit of rain, thunder in the distance. My mother hung up. The phone was a foot away from where I was standing when I got struck. I remember a flash of light coming out of the phone. It hit me in the face. Next thing I remember, I was flying backwards."
Then — he seemed to hesitate before telling me this — "I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay.
* * * * *
Dr. Cicoria knew he was back in his own body because he had pain — pain from the burns on his face and his left foot, where the electrical charge had entered and exited his body — and, he realized, "only bodies have pain." He wanted to go back, he wanted to tell the woman to stop giving him CPR, to let him go; but it was too late — he was firmly back among the living. After a minute or two, when he could speak, he said, "It's okay — I'm a doctor!" The woman (she turned out to be an intensive-care-unit nurse) replied, "A few minutes ago, you weren't."

* * * * *
A couple of weeks later, when his energy returned, Dr. Cicoria went back to work. There were still some lingering memory problems — he occasionally forgot the names of rare diseases or surgical procedures — but all his surgical skills were unimpaired. In another two weeks, his memory problems disappeared, and that, he thought, was the end of the matter.
What then happened still fills Cicoria with amazement, even now, a dozen years later. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when "suddenly, over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music." This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He had had a few piano lessons as a boy, he said, "but no real interest." He did not have a piano in his house. What music he did listen to tended to be rock music.
With this sudden onset of craving for piano music, he began to buy recordings and became especially enamored of a Vladimir Ashkenazy recording of Chopin favorites — the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind Étude, the Black Key Étude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. "I loved them all," Tony said. "I had the desire to play them. I ordered all the sheet music. At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house — so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright. It suited me fine. I could hardly read the music, could barely play, but I started to teach myself." It had been more than thirty years since the few piano lessons of his boyhood, and his fingers seemed stiff and awkward.
And then, on the heels of this sudden desire for piano music, Cicoria started to hear music in his head. "The first time," he said, "it was in a dream. I was in a tux, onstage; I was playing something I had written. I woke up, startled, and the music was still in my head. I jumped out of bed, started trying to write down as much of it as I could remember. But I hardly knew how to notate what I heard." This was not too successful — he had never tried to write or notate music before. But whenever he sat down at the piano to work on the Chopin, his own music "would come and take me over. It had a very powerful presence."
I was not quite sure what to make of this peremptory music, which would intrude almost irresistibly and overwhelm him. Was he having musical hallucinations? No, Dr. Cicoria said, they were not hallucinations — "inspiration" was a more apt word. The music was there, deep inside him — or somewhere — and all he had to do was let it come to him. "It's like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, 'It comes from heaven,' as Mozart said."
* * * * *
In the third month after being struck by lightning, then, Cicoria — once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music — was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else. It began to dawn on him that perhaps he had been "saved" for a special reason. "I came to think," he said, "that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music." I asked him whether he had been a religious man before the lightning. He had been raised Catholic, he said, but had never been particularly observant; he had some "unorthodox" beliefs, too, such as in reincarnation.
He himself, he grew to think, had had a sort of reincarnation, had been transformed and given a special gift, a mission, to "tune in" to the music that he called, half metaphorically, "the music from heaven." This came, often, in "an absolute torrent" of notes with no breaks, no rests, between them, and he would have to give it shape and form. (As he said this, I thought of Caedmon, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon poet, an illiterate goatherd who, it was said, had received the "art of song" in a dream one night, and spent the rest of his life praising God and creation in hymns and poems.)
* * * * *
Some years passed, and Cicoria's new life, his inspiration, never deserted him for a moment. He continued to work full-time as a surgeon, but his heart and mind now centered on music. He got divorced in 2004, and the same year had a fearful motorcycle accident. He had no memory of this, but his Harley was struck by another vehicle, and he was found in a ditch, unconscious and badly injured, with broken bones, a ruptured spleen, a perforated lung, cardiac contusions, and, despite his helmet, head injuries. In spite of all this, he made a complete recovery and was back at work in two months.
Neither the accident nor his head injury nor his divorce seemed to have made any difference to his passion for playing and composing music.

Doing The Right Thing: Mount McKinley Will Become Denali Once Again


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Politix Update: The Virulent Cancer That's Eating Away At The Body Politic

Scientists discover a new form of cancer.  After further research, they conclude that it attacks a wide cross section of adult Americans.  The cancer is highly virulent and threatens the body politic as it metasticizes.  It is dubbed acute trumpoma carcinoma, or Trumposis for short.
Scientists are unsure as to why Trumposis seems to be so contagious, but they have reached some tentative conclusions as they struggle to understand it: 
* Suffers are overwhelmingly white.
* They vote Republican when they vote, which is not particularly frequently and sometimes not at all.
* People who hate complexity and want simple solutions to difficult problems seem especially vulnerable. 
* If they see something on television, they believe it must be true, and many sufferers worship celebrities. 
* Even though sufferers think they hate the super rich, they secretly worship their extravagant lifestyles. 
* They are racist and nativist in outsized numbers and believe America was made for whites and should remain white.
* They are prone to hysteria and Nobody Understands Us convulsions.
* Although women would be seemingly more resistent to the disease's misogynistic strain, a surprising number of them swoon Gidget-like in its presence.
* Snake oil and red meat are important parts of sufferers' diets. 
* Colonel Sanders and Sarah Palin are typical of their role models. 
* The Wizard of Oz is their favorite movie.
* They believe that the Fourth Estate is a billionaire's mansion in Palm Springs.  
* There is no known antidote, but sufferers often have short attention spans and eventually forget they are stricken.  
There is some evidence that the prevalence of Trumposis is overstated, while some scientists say it is the cancer version of a summer fling.  Others say that just because Trumpiosis doesn't fit the model of cancers in general, it shouldn't be underestimated. 
Still others report finding fewer cases of Trumposis than are reported in the news media, while some scientists take solace in their view that the methodology being used to track the disease is flawed and misleading.  They say descriptions of Trumposis as being a Frankenstein monster are so much hyperbole. 
Besides which, as with other cancers, most people won't get Trumposis, and of those who do, some will recover.
Politix Update has argued that Joe Biden should be planning for his retirement and not a presidential run.  We love the guy, and kind of know him as fellow Delawareans, but he would not be an improvement over Hillary Clinton and it's laurels-resting time for Joe after a long and distinguished public service career, not playing the underdog role anew. 
The news media and and folks not enamored of Clinton want the vice president to run, and his every hiccup -- whether meeting with Elizabeth Warren or inviting political aides to yet another closed-door session -- has been closely watched as Bidenistas in favor of a run manipulate a willing media.  But all indications are that Biden will not run, mostly likely because wife Jill is against it. 
"The more you look at the Biden bandwagon, it looks more like a ghost ship being pulled through the mist by a combination of hungry political reporters, Hillary haters (including most of the conservative media), and Delaware-based Friends of Joe who, of course, would love to see him run," writes Ed Kilgore at Political Animal. 
The late Richard Ben Cramer, a former colleague and Biden biographer, wrote that when all was said and done, Biden relied on his instincts when it came to decision making, and if he didn't feel the time was right to make a big move, he'd tell his aides, "I can't feel the tingle." 
Joe Biden doesn't feel the tingle.
China bashing is, of course, de rigueur for Republican candidates in the wake of its stock market crash.  But you have to hand it to Scott Walker, whose presidential campaign is looking ghost shipish itself these days, to come up with a brilliantly simple solution to the deeply complex problems wracking China and global financial markets. 
Cancel the forthcoming visit to America by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
It's pretty much impossible to nail down who the craziest Republican is these days with so much competition, but Maine Governor Paul LePage is making a strong case that it's him. 
The beyond angry Tea Partier and all-around crackpot has already lost a major legal fight over his incompetence after he failed to veto 70 new laws he opposed and then declared he wouldn't enforce them, but now he's reached a new low in high comedy by demanding that a charter school withdraw a job offer to a leading Democratic political opponent or else lose its $530,000 state subsidy.
And so the impeachment clock ticks a little louder.
Presidential wannabe Ted Cruz is making a big stink over the Supreme Court being "one justice away" from ordering that crosses on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery be removed.
Problem is, no one is asking the court to do any such a thing, although it did recently rule 5-4 to support the removal of a cross from formerly federal land in the Mojave Desert.  Crosses at Arlington and federal cemeteries are allowed because of the First Amendmen's guarantee of the free exercise of religion supports them and any other religious symbol requested by the deceased.
When Rick Santorum is worried, then we're worried, too. 
"I'm just really worried about all this focus on Mexicans and Mexico," he said during a press conference held at a Chik-Fil-A takeout joint in New Hampshire.  "How much room for hating the gays will Republican voters have if they're exhausted from hating Mexicans and other immigrants?"

Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Politix Update: Everybody Knows That Emperor Christie Has No Clothes

Occasionally in politics, ego-driven windbags who have created auras of inevitability around themselves fall to earth.  Their balloons burst, the wheels come off their wagon, the wind goes out of their sails.  But they are the last people in the room to get the joke, so evidentually fraudulent that they think they're wearing a custom-tailored twill suit with a snappy designer necktie when they step to the podium at a rally but people in the audience see an overbearing jerk wearing boxer shorts and a sweat-stained t-shirt several sizes too small with an all-day sucker and not a microphone in their hand.  And so it is with Chris Christie.
Politix Update has paid especial attention to Christie.  We love the Garden State, as wild, crazy and idiosyncratic as it can be, not to mention being kind of schizophrenic as it is sandwiched between Philadelphia and New York. 
And New Jersey is hands down the most corrupt state in the union, with politicians seldom out of the news for all the wrong reasons.  (Move over Louisiana, you're bush league by comparison.)  So when Christie vaulted from being a tough-on-crime-and-corruption U.S. attorney in Newark to the Statehouse in Trenton, we knew that it would be only a matter of time before the newly-minted Republican governor became mired in a Superfund site-sized cesspool of politics and the attendant intrigue, and his squeaky-clean image would become tarnished.
How wrong we were.  This is because Christie brought to the job a predilection for playing dirty that was awesome by even New Jersey standards, and in one and a half terms he has proven to be the most corrupt and ethically challenged denizen of the Garden State since Richard "Iceman" Kuklinski.  (You can look it up.)
Christie, however, was adept at that aura of inevitability thing, and early in his first term began talking up what a swell alternative he would be to the off-the-rack conservatives who were driving the Republican Party even deeper into the national electoral wilderness.  He graciously refused to run for president in 2012 and said he would bide his time.  (Actually, he knew he didn't have a woodchuck's chance in a Pine Barrens wildfire to be nominated, let alone elected.) 
But 2016 would be different, and so Christie waddled onto the national stage this past spring and set about burnishing his tough-guy image with statements like "If you’re ready to start offending people in order to achieve a greater goal, you’ve found the right guy.  I'm here to help offend people with you," and threatening to punch out school teachers because their union endorsed Hillary Clinton, perhaps because of his harsh and disdainful treatment of public employees back home, including cops and firefighters, and his repeatedly broken promises to fully fund their pension fund.
Prospective voters on the stump have been underwhelmed by Christie, his seamy past (and present) keeps catching up to him, and he got blindsided by Donald the Trump.  And so the biggest news about the Christie for President campaign these days is that it may be over by Labor Day.
While Christie fit right into the culture of corruption in New Jersey, he was a tough fit for the GOP as a presidential contender from the start.  New Jersey is perhaps the most liberal state of all, and while Christie has tried to squeeze into conservative mufti as he sells himself in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, it isn't working and his past policy positions opposing the gun lobby and supporting gay rights don't pass the Republican litmus test, he believed in human-made climate change before he didn't, while he had the temerity to appoint a Muslim, for cryin' out loud, to a state court judgeship.
Better for Christie to be getting out when he is.  It's just that he doesn't know it yet. 

In 2010, Christie singlehandedly killed a planned $8.7 billion commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River that virtually everyone else believed would ensure the future health of the New York region's economy.  Christie argued that it was just too damned expensive for the frugal times in which he governed, an argument that held little water then and sprang a ginormous leak when it turned out that he planned all along to use New Jersey's share of tunnel construction dough to bail out the state's highway and bridge system, which under his "leadership" had been driven deeply into debt.
That desperately needed third tunnel would be a couple of years away from opening had Christie not taken the money and run.  In 2012, the existing rail tunnels were badly damaged by salt water during Superstorm Sandy.  The region's frail commuter infrastructure would collapse -- and the economies of New Jersey and New York  would suffer grievous body blows -- if either or (heaven forbid) both tunnels had to be closed.
This catastrophe in the making is the fault of one man and one man only, and makes Christie's infamous George Washington Bridge lane closing shenanigans so much child's play.

Christie, a bully without peer, knows only one way to get things done.  No, make that two: By lying and being underhanded.   While he may not have directly engineered the closing of several lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge approach at Fort Lee, New Jersey -- one of the nation's busiest bridges and the key car-and-truck link between New Jersey and New York City -- into four days of gridlock as a payback for the Democratic mayor of the burg refusing to endorse him when he ran for a second term of governor in 2013, key staffers did with his full knowledge and approval, and two are now under federal indictment.
In New Jersey street parlance, Christie got a slide on what is dubbed Bridgegate despite his unconvincing efforts to portray himself as the victim (his variation on Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" defense was a real howler), but the incident did lead to a flurry of revelations about his other forays into retributive justice, including dolling out Superstorm Sandy relief money to political allies while screwing his enemies.
Finally, Christie's attempts to paint himself as an able custodian of New Jersey economy are laughable.  He has, in a word, trashed the economy of the nation's once most affluent state by cooking the books and a co-mingling of official businesses and GOP favoritism extraordinary even in a state where the official motto might as well be "Pay to Play."
Not only can Christie not point to economic success back home as did then-Texas Governor George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000, but New Jersey's credit rating has been downgraded eight times on Christie's watch -- more than under any governor in the state's history. In the eighth downgrading, Standard & Poors belabored the obvious in stating that "New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance . . . New Jersey will face increased long-term pressures in managing its long-term liabilities, and that the revenue and expenditure misalignment will grow based on reduced funding of the state's unfunded actuarial accrued liability."
Christie has become such an also-ran that The Associated Press and New York Times have reassigned the reporters who were covering him fulltime to other beats.  And it's not that plain-talking governors are struggling to stay afloat in the 17-candidate field because John Kasich of Ohio, who is probably closest to Christie policy wise, continues to surge.
Christie sat with the grown-ups at the first Republican debate, but he's probably headed for the kiddie table at the second debate on September 16 if he's still in the race.  And if he is, he's just delaying the inevitable.
With Donald the Trump tossing Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos from a press conference in Iowa this week -- and then relenting in a piece of theater on the part of both men that almost seemed scripted -- immigration remained firmly atop the I Wish We Were Talking About Something Else list for most of the candidates in the overstuffed Republican presidential field, but no more so than for Scott Walker.  Jeb Bush is a close second.
The Wisconsin governor seems incapable of checking his slide in the polls, or coming up with coherent, let alone consistent answers.  On the issue of birthright citizenship, which Trump wants to abolish, Walker has come up with three distinctly different answers in recent days: He's for it, he's against it, and he has no opinion on it. 
Meanwhile, immigration should be a winner for Jeb! among the half dozen or so Republicans not supporting Trump.  He has long advocated a path to citizenship for hard-working illegals, supported birthright citizenship, is fluent in Spanish and is married to a Mexican.  But there he was at an event at a border town in Texas trying to distance himself from himself while ingratiating himself, and in the end insulted Asian-Americans over the comparatively minor issue of Asians who enter the U.S. on tourist visas through organized rackets and give birth babies who are by birthright Americans.
Bush quickly backpedaled, which has become an oft-used gear, as quick-on-his feet Trump tweeted, "In a clumsy move to get out of his 'anchor babies' dilemma, where he signed that he would not use the term and now uses it, he blamed ASIANS."
Following the 2012 Romney-Ryan debacle, the Republican National Committee spent a bunch of dough to do some research into why the GOP was fading as a national political entity.  The result was the Growth and Opportunity Project, a soul-searching examination of what the party could do to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
The most far-reaching conclusion was that:
"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.
"Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a Party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us. We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel. Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism."
While it is widely acknowledged that virtually everyone associated with the GOP nodded thoughtfully when the paper was published and then promptly ignored it, one convert to the cause did not: The GOP-created monster called Donald the Trump, who has fulfilled the objectives of the Growth and Opportunity Project and then some.  
Republican pollster Frank Luntz is saying as much after he conducted a recent focus group that found Trump's support to be . . . well, monstrous. 
"You guys understand how significant this is?" Luntz asked breathlessly. "This is real. I'm having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking." 
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Politix Update: Scott Walker Is Against Big Government. Unless He's For It.

“It is a time when one is filled with vague longings. When one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, ‘What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying anymore? Let us give it all up.' " ~ MARK TWAIN
One of the abiding ironies of the conservative Republican politicians who regularly rail against Big Government is that when Big Government furthers their own agendas, they're all for it no matter how much taxpayers will be soaked. 
Scott Walker is merely the latest in a long line of such hypocrites, in his case because of the big-league issue of the state of Wisconsin subsidizing construction of a new basketball arena to the tune of $250 million to keep the Milwaukee Bucks from leaving town.  Walker, of course, merrily bought into what is in every respect an awful deal for everyone but the team's billionaire owners, but in no respect more than the fact $250 million is exactly the amount of money Walker stripped from the budget of the prestigious University of Wisconsin system in the service of . . . you guessed it, scaling back Big Government.
Let's be clear from the jump that the presidential wannabe and Tea Party darling was not a reluctant signatory to the deal.  No one held a loaded round of cheese to his head.  He was the deal's architect despite his frequent and pious declarations of fiscal conservatism.  Let's also be clear that government-funded sports stadium deals, while making local chambers of commerce and sports fans warm and fuzzy, always are bad for the people who matter most -- taxpayers, especially those who are poor and struggling and can ill afford paying for rich peoples' playthings. 
The shakedown began after two New York City hedge fund owners purchased the Bucks, a National Basketball League team that has pretty much sucked since the early 1990s.  Following a now well-worn script in which local governments are rolled and taxpayers fleeced, the new owners threatened to move the Bucks to Las Vegas or Seattle or Kathmandu.  Someplace.  Anyplace. Because the place didn't really matter.  Scaring the bejesus out of city fathers did matter, and the threat worked like a charm.
It also didn't particularly matter that Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, the hedge fund bigs, have been Democratic donors and Lasry's hedge fund once employed Bill and Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea.  In an era of deeply divided partisan sympathies, party affiliation isn't of concern when it comes to professional sports teams and the cities that support them, witness the willingness of prominent Wisconsin Republicans to pony up for minority shares of the Bucks, including developer Jon Hammes, who is national finance co-chairman for Walker's presidential campaign.
The price of the blackmail, after much bobbing and weaving between owners and government types, was set at $250 million, or half of the estimated cost of a new arena.  
"Nowhere has the scam worked so brilliantly as it has in Milwaukee," wrote Charles P. Pierce at Grantland"Having largely succeeded in rolling back more than a century of progressive government in a state where progressive government was long an institution, and having been elected three times in five years, Walker was gearing up for his presidential run."
It's not that the 19,000-seat Bradley Center, where the Bucks now play, is a shambles.  It was considered a premier venue when it opened in 1988, but just isn't up-to-the-minute state-of-the-art, you know, with all the bells and whistles and amenities for the private box with concierge service crowd.  Besides which, the NBA says that a new arena is necessary if the Bucks, as a small market team, are to remain competitive. Or else.
And so plans are underway for a new 17,000-seat arena (although the Bucks are currently 27th in the 30-team NBA in attendance) that will be built in Milwaukee's downtown entertainment district.  Backers say they expect the arena will spur another $500 million in development by creating a bigger and better entertainment district that draws people to "live, work and play," transforming "what once was a 'dark concrete barrier' [into] a destination."
Adds the head of the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce, "It gives the city an identity and gives us something different than Des Moines."
All this hyperventilating does not stand up to scrutiny.
The Milwaukee market is ranked 35th by Nielsen in the already over-saturated U.S. sports market, yet it's getting a larger arena than Nielsen No. 2 Los Angeles.  The Bucks also have to compete with the NFL's Green Bay Packers, MLB's Milwaukee Brewers, the University of Wisconsin’s hugely successful football and basketball teams, and Marquette basketball, which plays in its own arena.  All tend to win more frequently and bring home more championships than the Bucks.
Beyond the size disconnect, in city after city where public funds have underwritten substantial portions of new arenas and stadiums, the predicted economic bonanza that will supposedly accrue to neighboring businesses -- existing and new -- has proven to be illusory, something that Milwaukee's own Legislative Reference Bureau concluded in a widely ignored report.  Visitors just don't spend enough money because tickets, concession purchases and such come out of family budgets and not thin air.  Besides which, economic impact is not the same as tax revenue, and the public portion of the arena is to be paid for by . . . get this, taxes on pro athletes, which Walker said "will fill local coffers" when he signed the bill to subsidize the arena. 
(There are rare exceptions to when politicians don't roll over for billionaires like Walker so readily has.  In Boston, public pressure saved venerable Fenway Park from the wrecking ball, forced the owner of the New England Patriots to build a new stadium with pretty much his own money, and recently prompted the city to tell the U.S. Olympic Committee and influential local backers to stick their bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics where the sun don't shine.)
To add insult to injury, Milwaukee city officials, who took a back seat to Walker from the outset, asked the billionaire owners to sign an ironclad agreement not to move the team for the 30-year life of the lease on the new arena.  The owners said no.  And a proposal that the bond issue for the new arena include money to fix Milwaukee's decrepit public playing fields was turned down as impractical.
"In this new Gilded Age, nothing should surprise us anymore," concludes Pierce.  "In Wisconsin, where Walker is moving heaven and earth to get a couple of Democratic sugar daddies a new playpen, his campaign named one Michael Grebe to be its chairman. Grebe's day job is as chairman and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, founded with the same money that once built the Bradley Center, which is obsolete because other money says so. Mark Twain was right. Those peaceful islands look very good right now." 
While it has nothing directly to do with the Milwaukee arena deal, Scott Walker's standing in the presidential race is falling faster than a Kobe Bryant jump shot.  There is an indirect connection: As the deal showed, Walker is a phony of the first water, and he's getting drowned by the wake from the boat skippered by the biggest phony of all -- Donald the Trump.
Walker once had a comfortable lead in Iowa, and he must win the first-in-the-nation Republican caucus there if he is going to stay afloat, because if he can't win in the Midwest then he can't win, period.  So he is dealing with his crisis not by doubling down on emphasizing his strengths, because he doesn't have any, but by trying to out trump Trump, which makes one wonder whether Walker may be even dumber than Sarah Palin. 
The Wisconsin governator also has promised his supporters to be more unscripted.  In other words, to try to stop acting like the Tea Party robot he is.  That will take some doing, because as empty suits go, Walker is as hollow as a rotted out tree trunk.
Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat are freshman members of the Michigan House of Representatives and Tea Partiers.  Both are married, but not to each other, so when it was discovered they were engaging in hanky-panky, they did what any self-respecting Republican would do.  They first denied it and then used their political offices to try to cover it up.
When that didn't work, Courser took to Facebook, where he called upon the Scripture to claim that he's the victim and we should all feel sorry for him. 
When that didn't work either, he directed his staff to "send a fake and salacious email about himself to Republican operatives, alleging that the lawmaker had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub," as a leaked memo revealed, because then no one would believe he and Gamrat were having an affair.
And how did the Michigan Tea Party react?
"We normally open our meetings with a prayer anyways," explained Tea Party organizer Gene Clem, "So we’ll make sure that we remember them and their families in our prayers."

Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.


Friday, August 21, 2015

Politix Update: Donald The Trump Puts Last Nail In Republicans' Coffin

Donald Trump's new immigration plan is so extreme, so cruel and so unfair that you would think that other Republican presidential wannabes would be whacking it like a piñata filled with rattlesnakes.  Well, you'd be wrong, because the plan is proving to be a big hit with Trump's rivals, as well as the party's reliably nativist base, which is desperate "to take back their country."  Oh, and that sound you hear is the last nail going into the coffin of the Republican fantasy of taking back the White House in 2016. 
The punitive nature of the deeply racist plan Trump introduced earlier this week is extraordinary.  It does not call for deporting unauthorized immigrants en masse, but instead is geared to make the lives of these 11 million or so people miserable, so miserable that they will "self deport," a strategy that Mitt Romney advocated in his train wreck of a 2012 presidential campaign that as built upon by Trump horrifyingly brings to mind the initial, comparatively benign phases of the Nazis' pogrom to rid Germany of Jews by making them so unwelcome that they would flee the Third Reich.  
Under Trump's plan, the number of immigration enforcement officers would be tripled and they would be given greater authority to track down on and deport unauthorized immigrants. A 2,000-mile border wall would be built.  So-called "sanctuary cities" such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix where local law enforcement officials decline to cooperate in federal deportations would lose federal funding, immigrants who overstay their visas would face criminal prosecution, and in the cruelest stroke of all, birthright citizenship would be ended if not severely curtailed, for an estimated 4.5 million children. 
Birthright citizenship is a crown jewel of our Constitution and a beacon of openness as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.  A provision of the 14th Amendment dating from the Civil War, it grants citizenship to children who happen to be born to illegals in the U.S. or its territories.  Trump is vague about what will happen to the children made stateless by his plan, which is par for the course for someone who makes up his policy positions as he goes along.
How to pay for Trump's plan?  By punishing Mexico, the source of the by-now famous declaration by Trump about the hordes of brown ones who are taking away the jobs we don't want while selling crack cocaine to our sons and raping our daughters that jump-started his campaign back in June.  All remittance payments to Mexico from both legal and unauthorized immigrants would be seized, fees on temporary visas, border crossing cards, and NAFTA worker's visas would be increased, visas to refugees, asylum seekers and even highly-skilled workers would be limited, and tariffs raised on Mexican goods.  Oh, and Mexico would pay for the border wall, too.
With a new CNN poll showing that 44 percent of self-described Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agree with Trump, rivals Ted Cruz and Scott Walker have given his plan big man hugs, Bobby Jindal (himself a birthright citizen) praised the sanctuary city provision, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul and Ben Carson heart the anti-birthright provision, and even Chris Christie and John Kasich are going out of their way to not criticize it. 
Meanwhile, Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee have been quietly toughening their own stands on immigration.  Even Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican, and Marco Rubio, who is a Cuban-American, have been muted in speaking out against the demagogue despite their past advocacy of an earned path to U.S. citizenship. Bush, in questioning Trump's conservative credentials in a speech yesterday in Iowa, alluded indirectly to Trump's plan, but circled around to Ted Cruz and in a backhanded reference defended his right to be a candidate for president although birthers have raised questions about whether he was eligible because he was born in Canada and his father was Cuban (although his mother was American). 
But leave it to the reliably execrable Steve King to have the last word.
"They often say anytime you don't pander to Hispanics, you cost Republican votes," the Iowan congressman declared. "I think Trump gets stronger with this position that says enforce our immigration laws."
At the end of the day, Trump's plan has something for practically everyone: Nativists will have that tingly feeling between their lily white legs and Hitler apologists can crack a smile, the right-wing media can boast that the Republican Party is following its lead, realists who understand that the party cannot survive as a viable national entity by punishing the kin of Latino voters can say, "I told you so," and Democrats can smirk as the GOP's chances to win next year wash away like so much sagebrush in a floodwater-filled border arroyo.
With Donald the Trump so thoroughly dominating the news, it's easy to forget that there are . . . um, 16 other candidates in the race, mere mortals though they may be.  The post-Fox News presidential debate shakeout is the big story beyond the celebrity gadzillionaire's continuing dominance in the polls, and the big story within that story is that Jeb Bush is dead in the water.
Carly Fiorina has surged the most in the polls following the August 6 debate, with Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz making gains, as well, while Jeb! has been losing ground, most notably in Iowa to All of the Above and in New Hampshire to John Kasich.  (Scott Walker ain't doing too hot in Iowa either and is trying to make up ground by out trumping Donald, but that's another story.)
The reason that Bush, the once presumptive nominee and money-raising champion, has struggled has been thoroughly discussed here and elsewhere.  While the Republican elite was behind him from the jump, support from the party's fractured base was lukewarm even without Trump.  Bush has virtually no endorsements, even from moderates, and as I've noted, I'll be damned if I know what his message is even as someone who is paying close attention.  He's anything but an outsider in this season of outsiders like Trump, Fiorina and Carson, then there is that problem with his last name.  And he just doesn't act like he wants to be president.
"I'm the tortoise in the race," Bush told a group of voters recently. "But I’m a joyful tortoise."  Which prompted Jay Leno to crack wise, It's "the race between the tortoise and the bad hair."
No, that was not George W. Bush you saw buying a Slurpee and nachos with melted cheese at the 7-Eleven out on the dual highway late the other night.  In fact, Dubya has all but disappeared.
Under "normal" circumstances, Bush would have taken his place along with other ex-presidents as a revered figurehead, especially with his brother running.  At the 2012 Republican Convention, he was relegated to a five-minute video that was greeted with tepid applause, and it's a cinch he won't even be given that paltry courtesy at the 2016 convention.  Nor will he be stumping for Jeb! or appearing in TV commercials. 
I almost feel sorry for the guy as he sits at home painting or watching the boob tube, or whatever, secure in the knowledge that he was so disastrous a president -- even if the GOP's woes nearly eight years on can no longer be laid at his feet -- that he has gone down the Republican memory hole.

Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Politix Update: I Adore You, Joe Biden, But Please Don't Run For President

Playing beach volleyball on summer vacations as a teenager with a guy who ended up a heartbeat away from the presidency does not qualify me to comment on Joe Biden, while being a native Delawarean who has closely watched and cheered on his four-decade ascendancy from county councilman to Vice President of the United States, with an occasional handshake and exchange of pleasantries at a football game or other event at our alma mater, gives what I have to say only a little gravitas.  But as someone who happens to have covered presidential politics since not too long after Joe and I had to get serious about the business of growing up, I have three little words for him: Please don't do it

Okay, that's four words, and what I don't want him to do is, of course, run for president.
When Barack Hussein Obama gives his last State of the Union speech next January, at his side will be Joseph Robinette Biden, without question the most influential vice president for good in American history.  This by way of differentiating him, as if one needs to, from Richard Bruce Cheney, without question the most influential vice president for evil in American history.
One reason Joe's star has risen so high is because he succeeded Cheney, who acted as a de facto president when it suited his imperial self, usurped the roles of national security adviser and secretary of state, was a tireless cheerleader for the use of torture and fear mongering, a scold in accusing anyone who didn't agree with him as being unpatriotic, and was a key player in going to war against Iraq, which has inexorably led to the rise of ISIS. 
By contrast, Joe's chops as a conciliator, honed through 36 years in the Senate, has thrust him into the spotlight at key junctures in the seven years since Obama was first elected.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly as history will show, Joe has played a vital role as Obama's devil's advocate with the encouragement of a president nearly two decades his junior. 
There are those who will tell you that Joe was destined for greatness, but I would not be one of them.
I met Joe when I was 12 and on my way to junior high school, and he was 17 and entering his senior year at a Roman Catholic boy's school outside of Wilmington. He was a gangly kid with no apparent social skills and had a stutter. We played beach volleyball together at the Delaware shore over several summers, and his folks and my folks became friends. Delaware, you see, is even smaller than it looks on a map.  
Joe went on to the University of Delaware, where he excelled at political science in a department later chaired by the late Jim Soles, who was to attract the future managers of both the 2008 Obama and McCain campaigns to Delaware as undergrads. I followed him to Delaware, where I excelled at nothing except repeatedly getting in trouble with the university administration as editor of the student newspaper. 
Although I sort of kept up with Joe through our parents' friendship, our paths didn't cross again until 1972, my second election as a voter, when I pulled the lever for a man who had long left behind the traits of awkward adolescence. 
Joe upset a longtime Republican U.S. senator, but within days of the election suffered the tragic deaths of his wife and baby daughter in a traffic accident.  His sons Beau and Hunter survived, and Joe -- determined to quit before even being sworn in -- stayed at their hospital bedsides day and night for weeks until Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who made repeated trips to Wilmington, convinced Joe otherwise.  Joe began the first of six terms in Washington -- at 29 the youngest senator in modern history -- and a tenure in the upper chamber that was to be characterized by hard work, growing foreign relations expertise, a willingness to compromise, and a successful hair weave, as well as a dismaying tendency to shoot from the lip. 
Like vice presidents in general, Joe has been subjected to ridicule.
Beyond his verbal blunders, there was a hilarious series of articles and images in The Onion like the one atop this post to which Joe reacted to with good humor and then some.  A consequence is that these send-ups have burnished his image as a Joe Sixpack and further endeared him to reporters, who truth be known care less about a politician's world view than whether he's fun to cover.

* * * * *
On May 30, Joe's beloved elder son, Joseph Robinette "Beau" Biden III, died.
Beau had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010, although that was not made public at the time. The cancer had been in remission during his two terms as Delaware attorney general.  In early 2014, he announced his intention to run for governor in 2016, but the cancer returned with a vengeance.
Joe's grief over the loss of Beau some 42 years after he had sat at the three-year-old's hospital bedside was absolute and extraordinarily public.  In an era of deep rancor between Democrats and Republicans, there was a bipartisan consensus that the vice president is a fine man, father and friend, and the grief emanating from the corridors of power was genuine.
Then, about a month later, in a carefully orchestrated series of leaks said to emanate from Joe's inner circle, it was reported -- first by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and then by a widening circle of news media heavyweights -- that when Beau Biden realized that he would not survive his cancer, he sat down with his father and urged him to wage one more campaign for the White House, asserting that America would be better served by Joe's values.
Joe has done nothing to halt the leaks or knock down speculation, and it is said that some of his advisers are now counseling him on pursuing a four-state initial strategy -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- that would be a gauge as to whether he could knock Hillary Clinton from her front-runner status.  He would be 77 at the end of a first term, and there is some chatter that he would promise to serve only one term, which would still make him the oldest of any president in history.
There is no delicate way to put this, so I'll come right out and say it: Joe's prolonged grief has been heart rending, but it may be that some of those advisers are using his grief to advance their own agendas.  I haven't a clue as to where Beau's stepmother, Joe's second wife Jill (whom I knew pretty well in the years before she and Joe remarried) stands on the matter.  But she may be key to what the final decision will be, as presumably would be his friend in the Oval Office.
As I have agonized over whether Joe should run and what I would tell him if I had an oportunity to do so, I was reminded of a 2010 essay on him by my friend Mark Bowden in The Atlantic, and one thing Joe said in particular:
"Look, I ran for president [in 2008] because I honest-to-God believed that for the moment, given the cast of characters and the problems of the country, I thought I was clearly the best-equipped to lead the country . . . But here's what I underestimated: I had two elements that I focused on, which made me decide to run. One was American foreign policy, and the other was the middle class and what's happening to them economically. If Hillary were elected or I were elected, and assume I did as good a job as I could possibly get done, it would have taken me four years to do what [Obama] did in four weeks, in terms of changing the perception of the world about the United States of America. Literally. It was overnight. It wasn't about him. It was about the American people . . . It said, these guys really do mean what they say. All that stuff about the Constitution, and all about equality, I guess it's right."
There are many reasons, some consequential and others less so, why I don't believe my beach volleyball buddy of yore should run for president. 
Among them are that Clinton would be a far stronger Democratic nominee and be able to summon a coalition of supporters, including the party's deep-pocketed liberal elite, far larger than Joe would.  She would be something approximating a shoo-in to win the election, while Joe would not, and will be a worthy successor to Obama.  And their values, which was of such concern to Beau, are not dissimilar.  It really would be no contest, while Joe seemed to keep tripping over his own message when he ran in 1988 and 2008.  Would a third run be appreciably different?  Possibly, but perhaps only because the press corps digs him so much, and that affection eventually would fade.
But the most important reason is this: Joe always has made his own political fortunes secondary and those of country he serves first and foremost.  There is no reason to stop that now.

Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.