In one way, life after the White House is a lot like life in the penitentiary: you spend a lot of down-time sharpening your shiv. Of course, ordinarily custom dictates that you refrain from gutting the current President and Vice-President, no matter how inviting the target.
But the Bush Presidency has been so far over the line that more or less every living President has piled on by this point.
And Walter Mondale took his own gentlemanly swipe just this past Sunday, in the Post. Not the most memorable indictment of the Bush administration, but the last paragraph is haunting in its simplicity:
“Since the Carter administration left office, we have been criticized for many things. Yet I remain enormously proud of what we did in those four years, especially that we told the truth, obeyed the law and kept the peace.”
In case you missed it, on Friday we bypassed the current Obama/Clinton dust-up, in order to focus on another stray attack on the Illinois Senator we found much more unsettling. Much more.
At issue was an article published over at AlterNet by a guy named Scott Thill. Although Thill’s piece focused on the instability of hedge funds, it managed to twist around unexpectedly and disparage Obama.
And not just disparage the man: the last few paragraphs of Thill’s piece displayed an oddly casual sort of racism, and we said so.
In no uncertain terms.
Within a few hours, we had mail from Scott Thill, and we braced ourselves for explanations, counter-arguments, indignation, rhetorical tap-dancing, the usual get-back.
But Scott Thill’s email is in a class all its own. To wit:
Thanks for spotlighting my hedge piece, and the analysis on my Barack crack. Good stuff, and fun. If you want to talk more about it someday, hit me at this email addy. Thanks again!
For such a short response, it raised a host of questions for us here at VDB.
In what sense might being labeled an (unwitting) racist be considered not only “Good stuff” but “fun”? Had Thill even read the post, or was he simply cutting and pasting the same inane response into any blog that happened to link to the AlterNet article?
By referring to the Obama material in his own piece as “my Barack crack,” was Thill copping to a certain inappropriateness, or was he arguing implicitly that the section in question was light-hearted in nature and not to be taken too seriously?
And most crucially, was the phrase “hit me at this email addy” embarrassingly sophomoric or blindingly hip, the sort of thing that people at AlterNet remark to one another on the way out the door for sashimi?
All good questions, none of which will ever be answered.
Unless, of course, Thill peaces back in, and hits us again at our email addy. Which would be good stuff, and fun.
Yes, the Obama/Hillary spat this week has been fascinating to watch. And yes, it merits a long post. But no, we will not be writing that post.
Why? Because it boils down to this: the Clinton camp’s central argument is that Obama is inexperienced, and they have been waiting to make it explicitly. Obama’s people have been waiting to call Hillary on her version of Clintonian triangulation, her tendency to move Right of center on key issues, especially military matters.
Both saw their openings; both took them. Hillary dubbed Obama “naive and inexperienced,” and Obama summed up Hillary’s views on diplomacy as “Bush-Cheney Lite.”
Who came off better? Only time will tell.
But let’s take today to talk about another commentary on Obama, one that made far less sense to us, and one we’re far less inclined to let pass.
The Obama campaign has been consistent in its attempts to swat away this or that racist remark, and they’ve been smart to do so: those making the racist comments seek to limit Obama’s candidacy to issues of race, thereby stunting his appeal to the broader electorate.
And we haven’t had much to say about it here in the pages of VDB either, for much the same reason.
But an article by Scott Thill from AlterNet caught our eye yesterday, after a tip from a long-time reader. Now, AlterNet is not some kool-aid-dispensing Conservative outlet; Amy Goodman writes there, among others.
The piece itself is titled, “The Crash of 1929: Are We On the Verge of a Repeat?” And for the first three and a half pages, it makes the argument that hedge funds and the sub-prime implosion stand poised to do catastrophic damage to the American economy. Not the world’s most original argument, but interesting reading.
And then, on the last of four pages, Thill veers suddenly into a strange attack on Barack Obama. He points out that Obama’s campaign has received a good deal of money that originated in these investment pools:
“Barack Obama received more donations from employees of investment banks and hedge funds than from any other sector, with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase among his biggest sources of support.”
And Thill is right about that.
But he doesn’t mention that both Edwards and Hillary Clinton are at least equally beholden to hedge funds and investment bankers. Both Hillary and Bill Clinton have had and continue to have very strong ties to Goldman Sachs and other investment firms; in fact Robert Rubin left GS to become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury.
And Edwards received very strong scrutiny a few months back not simply for accepting campaign donations from hedge funds, but for acting as a high-paid consultant at a hedge fund between campaigns, which critics thought tarnished his “Two Americas” message.
Given those facts, it’s odd that Thill would concentrate exclusively on Obama. But that’s when the article gets odder still:
“While Obama has already promised to increase regulation on hedge funds and the tax burden on private equity groups (or today’s “pools,” as Byrne explained them), if he becomes president, one can imagine he’ll be singing quite a different tune if he becomes the first black man in history to run the White House.”
Now, maybe it’s VDB, but that is an astonishing sentence. You don’t have to, but we suggest reading it again.
It begins by admitting that Obama has publicly promised to increase regulation — the very thing that Thill has called for throughout his lengthy piece — but then casually assumes that Obama will “be singing quite a different tune if he becomes the first black man in history to run the White House.”
If Thill’s point is that any candidate who’s taken large sums of money from the industry cannot regulate it, whether that candidate is Edwards or Hillary or Obama, that any President will be by definition unable to pull the switch on new restrictions, he might have said so.
As it is, he ties this sense of inevitable collusion to Obama’s blackness in a way that borders on the offensive.
Now, if you’re thinking that we’re making too much of the sentence, twisting it somehow, look at it again because there’s an odd, built-in redundancy: Thill first says, “if he becomes President,” but then circles back to say more or less the same thing, phrased this time as “if he becomes the first black man in history to run the White House.”
For whatever reason, Thill seems to have wanted to stress race at that final juncture, as well as the fact that the position of President involves actual management of the White House. That’s why the sentence has a sort of linguistic stutter, a redundancy that Thill did not and could not recognize as a redundancy.
Because for him, it wasn’t. The final clause about race was part of what he was trying to say, for reasons only Thill knows. It’s a very bizarre bit of unwitting revelation.
And that’s without even getting into the whole “singing quite a different tune” nonsense. Let’s not even go there.
Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice put it. And we’re not even close to the first primary. Tighten your belts, folks.
Maybe it’s VDB. But Peter Shumlin is one very tough customer to follow. You can injure your neck permanently trying to keep your eye on his every ideological move, because he favors big, odd, brassy, sweeping, untelegraphed pivots — pivots that must be nearly impossible even for Shumlin to execute, and he knows they’re coming.
Impeachment. School funding caps. The Yankee tax. And now same-sex marriage. [Photo: Rutland Herald]
Back at the start of last session, Shumlin took some early heat for immediately shutting down discussion of same-sex marriage. And so I asked him about it in my long sit-down with him in early December.
After a modest attempt to avoid the question by talking at great length about global warming, Shumlin reluctantly returned to same-sex marriage, only to lay most of the responsibility for his then-current position with others.
But for good or for ill, I thought I knew where Shumlin stood. Which was why it was interesting to discover today that Shumlin no longer stands there, not by a long shot.
Here is that sequence of the interview in full. Interesting to read it again in light of yesterday’s Burlington press conference.
* * *
VDB: So, you championed the global warming issue very early, and it seemed to me that you caught the imagination of the state with that push. And it helped that it was December, and people were wondering why it was 55 degrees outside.
Shumlin: January even.
VDB: Right. So on that you came in with what would be a traditional Democratic/Progressive issue. Then on same-sex marriage you moved, equally quickly, to squelch the debate. And I’m wondering, is there any connection there? You talked about Democrats during the last four years, and what they had and hadn’t accomplished. How does your approach to those two issues begin to describe your tenure here?
Shumlin: I can’t emphasize enough how strongly I feel about global warming. I came to this — you know, if you’d asked people about my past political history here for 13 years, and asked, “Is Pete Shumlin a strong environmentalist?,” they would have said, “He’s not bad. He’s got a good voting record, but it’s not his top issue.”
And what happened to me was — I had the distinction at age 50, and I don’t think there’s very many people left who were raised and go to work every day on the same piece of land where they were born. And that’s my story. The reason is that my business is in a cow barn next to the house where I was born.
So I go to work every day there. And then the land, we farm, it’s connected to a Jersey dairy farm. And so when I’m not working in that barn, I’m out doing everything from picking rocks and cutting wood and hunting — I know Democrats aren’t supposed to hunt, but I do — and fishing and running and cross-country skiing on that land. And I started to look at the changes that are taking place in that valley in the last 50 years, and it started to blow my mind.
Couple of examples. I was sitting there looking out the window, and I was watching the airplanes come over, spraying the sugar bush for the third time here in a row, to try to kill the caterpillars that were destroying the maple trees, because of climate change. I was watching my nearest neighbor tap out in January and February, last year. He made syrup. My next neighbor up, who waited for traditional Town Meeting Day, he found the season too short, and too warm.
VDB: To go back to the other part, the marriage issue —
Shumlin: On the marriage issue, my feeling was, in speaking to the Speaker, and she agreed with me, that we — now this is a direct quote from the Speaker, she said to me, “Listen, from our perspective, we just did civil unions. Because we lost the House over civil unions, and we just got it back four years ago. And we’re not ready to take it on again.” I listened to that advice and I said, you know, that makes sense.
Let’s get out in Vermont, let’s start talking to Vermonters about it, let’s educate people about the fact that we frankly already have gay marriage, we just don’t call it that, and let’s prepare them for the change. It will come.
But I didn’t think, with everything else on our plate, that we could realistically accomplish that. And by the way, neither did anyone else, almost nobody else in the building. And look, I tend to tell you what I think, and it’s not always political.
VDB: Let me just draw together some of the strands you’ve laid out here. You said that over the last four years, Democrats had been giving up their principles a little too quickly, to be seen working with the Governor. You said that Democrats don’t hunt, or aren’t supposed to hunt, but you do. You championed global warming, and moved away quickly — for fairly strategic reasons — from the same-sex marriage debate. An outside observer would begin to see a sort of centrist pattern to this, for lack of a better term —
Shumlin: [Laughing] Good luck.
* * *
Good luck, indeed.
Look, I favor same-sex marriage, and I did last December. Most of the people I know favor it. So for me, at least, the point here has nothing to do with this particular policy push. Push away, for all of me.
But the larger problem is that President Pro-Tem Shumlin makes it all but impossible for Democrats and Progressives to pull behind him. I argued again and again, for instance, that H520 was good policy on climate change, and ultimately a good message to send to Entergy and its supporters.
Many people I know got behind Shumlin last spring because they want Yankee shuttered. And they were gearing up to pull with all their might.
And then the announcement went out that the windfall-profits tax was being stripped out of the bill. Eventually that proved unfounded, but the damage was done. Nearly every activist I know threw up their hands in disgust.
On this last pivot, on same-sex marriage, it may make more sense to do it now than last December. It may be that with climate change and campaign finance crippled, Shumlin and Symington want to change the subject. Maybe they want to reinforce their relationship with the base.
Many possibilities, but only one certainty: this leadership team has begun to look like a pair of bobble-head dogs perched in the rear window of Jim Douglas’s Buick Skylark, heads spinning this way and that with no apparent logic, no apparent force of will. No sense that they stand at the head of a very potent majority.
And finally, Shumlin and Symington have no one to blame but themselves.
Various and sundry political outlets have begun systematic efforts to capture the market for quick video summaries of key events. Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo has produced and starred in some of the best of these.
But today’s highlight reel of Alberto Gonzalez being slowly deboned by the Judiciary Committee in yesterday’s hearings is in a class by itself.
If you haven’t seen it, it is the naked face of Bush Administration incompetency and mendacity. The gallery and most of the Senators openly laugh at Gonzalez’s responses, and not just once. As a matter of course.
It doesn’t get any worse. Which is to say that political video doesn’t get any better.
Full props to Terri Hallenbeck for yesterday’s run-down on the inert state of the 2008 race for Governor. The piece evidenced a lot of leg work, finally pulling negatives from a lot of public figures who might have liked to let speculation percolate for a while longer.
In 2004, for reasons that remain unclear, Jim Douglas ultimately refused to let go of this man’s award.
It was also satisfying, frankly, because it bore out the math we’ve been working on for quite a while now: that in the absence of someone highly compelling and currently completely off the radar, the nominations for Governor and Lieutenant Governor would seem to be Bill Sorrell’s and Matt Dunne’s for the taking, respectively.
The key graf:
“Only Attorney General William Sorrell and former state Sen. Matt Dunne hedged their comments. Dunne said he won’t make any such decisions until fall, though many expect he’ll run for lieutenant governor as he did in 2006. Sorrell didn’t directly say he wouldn’t run, but he did say, ‘It’s something I think about, but it’s not something that is a driving force in my life day in and day out.’”
Why not Dunne for Governor?
Because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to lose a statewide race and trade up in the next go-round. Voters tend not to like it, whether in Vermont or Virginia.
And a hasty run for Governor would validate the only persistent criticism of Dunne we heard voiced last cycle: that he was over-ambitious somehow, too hungry too soon.
A second run for Lieutenant Governor, on the other hand, would bear out the counter-argument Dunne himself began making to Vermonters two years ago: that if he has advanced quickly in state politics, it is because he works hard, bets smart, and never quits.
All of which is to say that the ball is in Sorrell’s court.
Much has been made about the folly of taking on Jim Douglas this time out, because Vermonters never throw out an incumbent, because Douglas makes few mistakes, because this, that or the other risk-averse thing.
To which VDB has a one-word answer: bollocks.
This will be a Presidential year, 2008, and Democrats will be hungry for the White House. They will be as inclined as they have been in eight long years of Bush-rule to come home to the Party.
And the last we checked, Douglas only remains in office because Democrats haven’t seen much urgency in disposing matters otherwise.
But they very well may now.
Jim Douglas has been shockingly ineffective on a wide array of issues this past term, stumbling badly in the Bennington sick-building crisis, for instance. And that was before the highly-publicized vetoes regarding campaign finance and climate change.
It needs saying again: Jim Douglas is no ball of fire, no Clintonian shaman on the stump. He retains his job because Democrats have not offered a candidate and a campaign to match the powers of incumbency.
His is a negative gubernatorial legacy in more ways than one.
But all of this becomes moot if Democrats do not field a firm slate well before Christmas. If the new year comes and goes without a serious publicly declared challenge, the opportunity will be gone.
In 1991, the smart Democratic talent, people like Mario Cuomo, took a pass on challenging George Bush Senior. They cited the President’s towering poll numbers, his triumph in the Gulf War.
Bill Clinton looked at Bush and saw a man whose political skills were not nearly as strong as his reputation. Clinton saw a guy without much of an agenda to call his own.
A guy he could open up like a soft peanut.
And that, as Frost liked to say, has made all the difference.
The beautiful thing about VDB’s photojournalists is that they offer high-quality, heartbreakingly true depictions of the political landscape, without expecting a dime in return.
Last week we brought you the impressive lensings of Yusef, who captured, among other dramatic moments, Selene Hofer-Shall’s end-run around an overzealous campground monitor.
Today we dip into the work of two other hard-working photographers: Don Shall, owner of the storied Emerald Gypsy, and Elida Gundersen, the talented offspring of activist super-couple Maggie and Arnie Gundersen.
Directly below: a shot of Don, taken by Elida, and a shot of Elida, as seen by Yusef. Everyone straight on that?
Then let’s go Back to the BBQ, shall we?
Anyone coming up on the scene could only have imagined themselves in a wild cross between Robert Redford’s The Candidate and Disney’s The Swiss Family Robinson: John and Neil and I came out in the drizzling rain at 8 a.m. to claim this magnificent tree, which of course symbolizes the intense interconnectedness of all the various politically inter-related, um, internets . . . or something like that.
You know what we’re trying to say.
It was a fairly incredible scene, everyone talking and scavenging food, to provide the energy to talk even more.
People who weren’t eating or talking just stood around smiling, for no good reason, because it felt good to do so.
But sometimes, even in a scene of general plenty, one commodity will become scarce, for reasons that are never clear. And suddenly a tribe is challenged.
How will it respond to the shortage? Who will get enough, or more than enough? And who will get little or nothing?
In this case, that commodity was sunblock.
For some reason, Peter Welch seemed to be the only one who came packing sunblock, and he layered it onto his face pretty good. Pretty liberally, in fact.
Which would have been fine, except for one thing.
Elsewhere on the beach, Will Wiquist had realized three things: he had no sunblock, his skin contained no melanin whatsoever, and he was going to crisp like an Ore-Ida Tater Tot unless he could lay his hands on some sunblock — stat.
Things could have gotten out of hand, of course. We’ve seen it happen before, always over the small things: a bagel, a match, tongs.
But in the end, Peter Welch quickly shared his sunblock, defusing the situation immediately. And it turned out we were that sort of tribe, where the sunblock is not hoarded.
Which nearly brought tears to our jaded political eyes.
And then there was nothing left but to talk more, and eat more, and imagine a world in which no one crisps like a Tater Tot. No one.
In which everyone has health care, in fact, and politics is not a partisan death-struggle, but a game that people play simply because it’s fun.
Simply because they haven’t got a damn thing better to do, when you get right down to it.
Simply because they look pretty damn cool holding a bat.
Sure you call it a pipe-dream. VDB calls it something else altogether.
We call it America.
[Cue John Mellencamp, “Small Town.” Or Bono, “Beautiful Day.” Pretty much anything, really, besides Celine Dion. And a final hat-tip to our three photographers. You came, you saw, you conquered.]
Gaming Out the Weather:
The Unsettling Accuracy of the Eye On The Sky
When Odum and I fixed the date for this year’s Hamburger Summit, we did so blindly, weather-wise: no known technology can predict a day’s weather a month or more in the future.
But as we slowly moved into the 10-day window, I began checking my computer’s built-in weather widget, which serves up forecasts from Weather.com.
And the 10-day forecast got worse and worse.
It started with “Sunny and seasonably warm” about ten days out; with eight days and counting, the widget said, “Occasional rain.” But I told myself not to worry, because only the three-day forecast could claim any real accuracy.
Which turned out to be an even more intense bummer, because the three-day forecast eventually called for “Isolated Thunder-storms” and, in parts of Vermont, “nickel-sized hail.”
With one day to go, all of the national forecasting services agreed that the day would be a total loss as far as outdoor activities.
But in-state there was one lone voice of dissent: Steve Maleski and Mark Breen.
The Eye-On-The-Sky boys saw things fundamentally differently. In their world, rain would effectively blot out the morning, yes, but then — just around the time we’d be lighting the coals down on North Beach — the clouds over Northwestern Vermont and Burlington in particular would roll eastward.
And the sun would sit fat in a clear blue sky.
Needless to say, I went with the Maleski/Breen version of reality, because in any other we were all substantially screwed.
In fact, the day before the BBQ, I went so far as to throw up a last-minute post, assuring everyone who’d be traveling to the event that the sun would be strong and undeniable by the time they hit the sand.
I didn’t bother to mention in that last post that ten other forecasts were calling for rain, and lots of it.
And to be honest, there was a part of me that felt, you know, like John McCain.
But then, right around the time that Neil Jensen and John Odum and I got the meat packed down in ice and the coals ready to light — right around 11 am, right on schedule, right down to the minute — the clouds rolled eastward.
The sun began to glitter on the water. And the light wind off the lake kept the temperature just where you want it: high 70’s.
And it stayed like that until sundown.
Now, I’ve written a lot of playful things about Steve Maleski over the years — hinting at his thirst for world domination, his use of secret weather-making satellites, etc. — but even with all of that humorous background, there was something about the clockwork nature of the weather yesterday that gave me a first-class case of the willies.
Because it turned out to be one of the best days of the summer thus far.
And that finally just freaked me the hell out.
Don’t Harrass the Hamburger Summit:
We’re Not Your Average Junkies, Mr. John Q. Law
People often mistakenly believe that the Political BBQ will be populated almost entirely by bloggers.
Au contraire: the beautiful thing about the crowd is that it’s a wild, variegated yet complementary mix of people. A good cross section of bloggers, of course: Haik Bedrosian, Steve Benen, Neil Jensen, Jack McCullough, Nanuq, John Odum, Cathy Resmer, J.D. Ryan, Bill Simmon, Charity Tensel, Michael Wood-Lewis, and VDB photojournalist Yusef.
But a goodly number of political operatives as well. These are the people who give a good campaign that seamless, speedbump-free quality. People like Will Wiquist here.
And it turns out something strange happens if you invite these sort of people to a picnic: if the picnic runs into trouble, they make it go away. Because that’s their thing.
Case in point: about an hour into the event, with the grill smoking and conversation well underway, I look up to see everyone on the other side of the picnic table has their hackles up.
Someone or something is really killing the vibe.
So I walk over to investigate. And it turns out that one of the beach hall monitors — the sort of older gentleman who carries an odd grasping-tool as a symbol of authority — has discovered a few bottles of beer scattered among the majority of cans.
Which is, of course, Against the Rules.
And because he’s that sort of beach monitor, by the time I reach that end of the picnic the guy is talking about “getting my supervisor [snaps grasping-tool open and shut ominously] and shutting this whole thing right down!”
But this is no defenseless clam bake: we’ve got campaign staffers. And so before anyone can move, Selene Hofer-Shall is on Barney Fife like white on rice.
Selene and former City Council member Carmen Geoge effectively tag team the guy, until he’s mollified enough to throw the golf cart back into DRIVE and creep out of the picture.
A win-win situation, finally: the portly beach monitor goes home feeling like Clint Eastwood, we continue to pour the bottled beer out into plastic cups for the rest of the day, and the whole incident is history within 8 minutes.
Which points up the difference between serious candidates and amateurs: all serious candidates have at least one Selene Hofer-Shall on staff.
Two if they can afford it.
Where All Summits Should Take Place
It has always seemed to me that you could fix a lot of what’s wrong in the world by negotiating at the beach. It’s hard to get worked up about differences in ideology with sand between your toes.
Or differences in hair style either. Peter Welch and J.D. Ryan had some great back-and-forth, and that, as Cyrus said in The Warriors, is the way things out to be.
At the beach, it’s all good. So you get conservatives like Charity Tensel smooching up to rock-ribbed liberals like Christian Avard.
You get die-hard Progressives, like Burlington’s David Zuckerman.
You get people being good to their kids.
People being good to the planet.
People being generous with their skills at the grill, like the incomparable Maggie and Arnie Gundersen, who made it possible for me to talk this year, as well as cook.
People with no worries, suddenly, except whether or not they have mustard on their face.
Or whether they’re getting enough to tide them over on the long drive back to Colchester.
And I was watching all of this yesterday, and all of the sudden I begin to get this nagging suspicion that maybe all of this living and letting live has something — some fragmentary particle — to do with the odd behavior of the weather itself.
Maybe there is a higher power that wanted to see bloggers and politically minded types connect in a beautiful corner of the earth.
A power higher than Steve Maleski, I mean.
And maybe this power liked some of the things we had to say, and the way that we planned to say them: quietly, at a pitch not much higher than the breeze off the lake.
Or maybe it was just a bunch of people with an afternoon to kill, standing around a table of congealing salads, hoping their burgers don’t wind up killing them.
But either way, it was one of the best days of the summer. One of the best days yet of the year 2007. In fact, it was one of the top ten days of the century, as far as I’m concerned.
And that was before I walked up the hill to where Don Shall had parked the Emerald Gypsy. What a dream machine.
We sat in this interior here, and Don and Selene Hofer-Shall and Will Wiquist and Haik and I kicked around the world’s problems a bit more.
But by that time, who could remember?
[Many heartfelt thanks to all who helped yesterday: John, Neil, Maggie, Arnie. And the intrepid photographers: the inscrutable Yusef, Don Shall and Christian Avard. The bulk of the photos you see here are Yusef’s, who went far out of his way to have them in my hand before the Summit had even finished; Christian has more posted over at Ibrattleboro. And Don’s treasure trove will be available in Part II of our story, next week. See you next year.]
We’re tracking the weather here with every technology at our command, and the upshot for tomorrow is this: clouds and rain through the morning hours, clearing and brightening as clouds move eastward around noon.
Sun thereafter. Amen.
In short, don’t panic if you wake up and hear rain plashing in the gutters. The sunshine is on the way. Keep your head. Pack up the car as planned, make a bee-line for North Beach.
And when you hit the sand, look north, and ride to the sound of the guns.