October 31st, 2007

VDB Suggests a Little Light Reading for George Clooney and Leonardo Dicaprio

by Philip Baruth

We here at VDB remain a bit skeptical of the rumors suggesting that George Clooney and Leonardo Dicaprio plan to make a major motion picture depicting Howard Dean’s seminal 2004 White House bid.


True, Dean’s campaign paved the way for bold new political use of the Internet, but in our experience films wound around computer technology tend to fall notoriously flat on the big screen.

Every ’90s techno-thriller had a scene where a hero waited tensely for a secret file to download; every one had a chase scene immediately following, in which guys in black running behind the hero shouted “Get the disc!” into their wrist microphones.

Those crude plot devices did little to cover up the essential unsexiness of computer technology, and the good-hearted geeks who enable it.

We can’t help but imagine the climactic scene in the Dean movie: aides clustered around a computer screen, watching fundraising numbers exceed expectations.

TALL AIDE (gasping): “That’s a shitload of money, dudes.”
LOVE INTEREST: “This will show Time magazine!”
SHORT AIDE: “What’s that smashing noise at the door?”
AGENTS IN BLACK (shouting into wrist mics): “Get the disc! Get the disc!”

But God forbid we be the wet blanket at the party.

And so, we’d like to offer Clooney and Dicaprio some reading material, as they’re hammering out a script: Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics, edited by Zephyr Teachout and Tom Streeter.

mousepadsFor anyone with a taste for Dean-era lore, Mousepads is essential reading. Editor Tom Streeter very wisely directed all the contributors to lean heavily on narrative, on stories, and that focus helps the volume remain compelling throughout. The collection opens, in fact, with a short interview with Dean himself, drawing together in very usable form his own memories of that moment.

And honest to God, some of Dean’s stories do sound like the stuff of a feature-length film: the Essex Lounge meet-up in NYC, for instance, where nearly six hundred people showed up and took over the block outside the bar.

Dean doesn’t disappoint when it comes to straight talk, either: he credits Republicans for leading the way back to grassroots populism, even as he makes it clear that he holds the nature and the tone of their message in contempt.

Still, Jerome Armstrong’s essay, while great fun for those involved in politics and blogging and the social networking debates, makes clear the challenge for Clooney and his crew.

“How a Blogger and the Dean Campaign Discovered Each Other” retells Armstrong’s contacts with the Dean campaign, how Armstrong moved from the outside, to the fringe, to the real action.

And for us it was completely involving.

But the account moves ahead almost entirely by quoting from email, blog posts, and comment strings; it’s the stuff of links, IP addresses, and emoticons. Required reading for anyone with an interest in blogging, or the new hopes of the Democratic Party, but with little to offer, we’d think, for Saturday afternoon matinee goers.

But the book wasn’t written for them, anyway.


Teachout and Streeter have put together something more like a cross between a tool-kit and a New Testament for progressive web activists and Dean aficionados, and damned if we didn’t enjoy it twice as much as Crashing the Gates.

Okay, that’s not saying so much. But you see what we mean.

October 31st, 2007

George Herbert Walker Bush, And How He Became a BFOB (Best Friend of Bill)

by Philip Baruth

Convention has always had it that when a modern American President leaves office, he remains more or less above the political fray. And in exchange, his poll numbers generally rise slowly but surely into the 60’s or 70’s. The ex-President functions the same way an aging King functions in a constitutional monarchy, then: not very often, not very politically, and not very well.

the two ex-presidents

But those conventions were built for older ex-Presidents, those who left office well into retirement age. What do you do when you’re comparatively young and comparatively politically obsessed, even by the standards of US Presidents?

You get your wife elected President.

As many have noted, Bill Clinton’s hands-on approach to his wife’s campaign is unprecedented, but in no way was it unpredictable. Hillary certainly had the drive, and Bill clearly has the fire in the belly even when it comes to a vicarious campaign. Giving up the ballot box as a measure of personal validation is never easy for a politician, but for Clinton it has been a tragic sort of exile.

But no more. Bill Clinton clearly views Hillary’s election as a de facto referendum on himself and his legacy, and in a very realistic sense it is. And in that narrow sense, Clinton is now back in the saddle, a man with something to prove on Election Day.

And here we come to the point of this speculation.

the two ex-presidents

Bill Clinton has known for at least the last handful of years, conservatively speaking, that his wife would be running for President in 2008, or 2012 if circumstances dictated. He’s known all along that her largest hurdle would be making a case to the 55% of Americans who consistently tell pollsters that they would prefer gall bladder surgery to voting for Hillary Clinton.

Consider his now famously fabulous relationship with George Herbert Walker Bush in this context: outreach to moderate Republicans. Sure, Bill Clinton has always gravitated to father figures; sure, he’s always made outreach to the other side of the aisle the measure of his personal charisma.

But ex-Presidents, to begin where we started, are extraordinarily savvy about where and when they risk their accumulated good will with the American people. Where they have their picture taken, to put it another way.

Now consider the veritable river of images that has been allowed to flow over the last five or six years, images of Bill and Poppy Bush, just two loveable ex-Commanders in Chief, out saving the world, picking up after tsunamis, making the visible case for bipartisan support in the wake of Katrina.

Golfing together, traveling together, working the commencement circuit in tandem.

the two ex-presidents

How many pictures have you seen of Bill and Jimmy Carter since Clinton left the White House?

But wait, you say, with W’s poll numbers so depressed, wouldn’t Clinton risk a lot by being seen with a Bush, any Bush? Not at all. Think about how the relationship is usually portrayed by the media: as a thorn in W’s side, somehow a repudiation of a son who’s strayed from the father’s will.

Does VDB think the entire friendship is staged? Not at all. Clinton has always needed validation from the other side of the aisle even more than from his own, and palling around with a Republican old enough to be his father is psychologically spot on.

But with Hillary’s election looming only a handful of years away, do you really believe the friendship would have been allowed to flower so very, very publicly if it didn’t actually help, in some way, shape or form?

Clinton is no Bob Dole, who commenced a public service campaign about erectile dysfunction just as his wife was launching a White House bid.

No, Bill knows what helps. That’s his magic.

the two ex-presidents

And given that successive Presidencies have overlapping needs — like delimiting access to Presidential papers, to take just one example — that friendship could be more useful going forward.

Lots more useful.

October 30th, 2007

Baby Needs A New Pair of Shoes

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: Commentator Philip Baruth’s daughter loves pizza arcades, but over the last five years Philip has seen quite a few of them go through a slow tranformation — and not for the better.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #206: Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes

skee ball

Back when my daughter was two, my wife and I used to stop at pizza joints, lots of pizza joints. Pizza joints are the only places that will take you in when you have a two-year-old, really, the only ones who will tolerate the screaming and the desecration of the sugar packets.

On one of these early outings, as Annika and Gwendolyn toured the perimeter, they stumbled onto something ground-breaking: a full-scale children’s play area, with a huge play structure, and almost every sort of kid’s arcade game you could imagine — Skee-ball, basket-ball, Whack-a-Mole, everything.

And all of the games dispensed a red ticket, or two, and you could cash your red tickets in for candy and badly made toys.

Gwendolyn was enchanted. This arcade immediately became her favorite place in the world. And pretty soon our friends turned us on to others almost indistinguishable from it. Some places were bigger, or louder — and we tried them all — but none of them ever took the place of that first arcade in my daughter’s heart.

As she grew, Gwendolyn’s taste in games changed. Whack-a-Mole was out, and she began to favor a game that seemed fairly boring to me: you drop a token in the slot, and the token lands on a revolving wooden circle — if it lands on a green area that says “bonus,” you win.

Now, these green areas are small, and so Gwendolyn rarely won this new game, but when she did, she won really big: a bonus sometimes meant 100 or even 200 tickets at a pop. And the sight of a big winner standing by a machine as 200 crimson tickets spooled out onto the gum-stained carpet was more than my 6-year-old could stand.

Within a year or two, I noticed that the owners of several of our local arcades had replaced lots of older machines with new games that operated on the same basic principles: passive games involving random chance and occasional big ticket pay-offs.

That’s when it hit me: our favorite arcades had slowly transformed into gambling casinos, with different sorts of slot machines, but casinos all the same.

Gwendolyn went through her money much more quickly now, because there was no real game being played, not like skee-ball. What passed for the game was over in as little time as it took the quarter to drop. When she’d gone through her last token, she’d come back to me with the anxious, worried look that marks big losers in the casinos.

The candy and toys the tickets buy now seem somehow beside the point as well. Gwendolyn still cashes in, but it’s clear that it’s the jackpot rush she really craves.

I’ve tried to phase out the visits to the arcades, but you don’t kick a habit that easily. And besides, I’m never going to be able to keep her away from this sort of thing altogether, not in twenty-first century America.

After all, nearly $23 million dollars of Vermont’s general education fund came from lottery tickets in 2006. Part of that money finds its way into Gwendolyn’s school, every year.

We’re all hooked, in that sense.

Still, it makes pizza arcade expeditions stranger than ever, these days. Because I feel all the time as though there’s something bold and interventive that I should be doing. But what do you do when baby needs a new pair of shoes — and she insists on gambling for them herself?

[This piece aired originally on Vermont Public Radio. You’ll find audio of the commentary archived here.]

October 30th, 2007

It Takes Both Welch and Waxman, But Rice’s Animatronic Facade Finally Cracks

by Philip Baruth

Peter Welch isn’t a physically large man, and he’s still a freshman Congressman, with very few of the visible trappings of incumbency. He hasn’t got one of those fear-me voices. By all rights, the heavies his committee grills should have no trouble tossing and goring him.

fear condi

But the guy is very aggressive in a hearing, an aggression filtered through the professional niceties and his own substantial courtroom experience. Welch has a signature way of fencing off the area a witness has to roam; more or less every other question he ends with a directional phrase: “Can I get a yes or no on that?”

And suffice it to say that Welch’s manner of interrogation doesn’t sit well with your standard-issue Bush appointee. Least of all Condoleeza Rice, who is used to being allowed lots of rhetorical running room. Lots and lots and lots.

Check out this Youtube footage of Welch working Condi over and you’ll see what we mean. Welch sees Condi beginning to filibuster, and he cuts her off abruptly. Then he and Waxman run a nice impromptu tag-team.

And you can just about see the smoke begin to trail from beneath that single strand of pearls.

They don’t make androids like they used to, apparently.

October 27th, 2007

Danziger Brings Your Friday Funnies

by Philip Baruth


Don't do it

October 26th, 2007

In Which VDB Begs Forgiveness of the Children of Rick Santorum, and Warns of Rick’s Devastating New Keystone Caper

by Philip Baruth

Some weeks ago, we posted the picture below, and made a series of harsh comments about Senator Rick Santorum, his family, and everything for which he stands. Some of you wrote in to take VDB to task on behalf of the children: the girls, clearly not in control of their own destiny, and the poor youngest boy, whom we mocked in a moment of weakness and bile as the “Manchurian son.”

santorum and brood

You have shamed us, and rightly so. Our vendetta is against the father, not the innocents. And we would like to apologize.

Additionally, we would like to express the hope that all of Santorum’s children grow up and throw off the shackles of his eerie Fundamentalism, and pursue careers that wedge in the old man’s heart like jagged shards of glass: Planned Parenthood Director, ACLU Attorney, Personal Assistant to Michael Moore or, in a best-case scenario, pool-boy to George Soros.

Fly, baby Santorums!

Fly while your father’s power is at low ebb!

But our purpose here today is a little less grand, actually: to alert VDB readers that Santorum has signed with the Philadelphia Inquirer, to write a political column to be titled, “The Elephant in the Room.”

Santorum will be multi-tasking, of course: he’ll continue as a fellow at the far-right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center, heading up a program called “America’s Enemies.”

(And lest you blue-staters think that “America’s Enemies” is merely a high-buck way to fear-monger, VDB should point out that Santorum also puts out a fun and light-hearted little e-newsletter each week called the “Weekly Threat Round-Up.”)

The Santorum op-ed column begins in early November, and runs alternating Thursdays.

We here at The Vermont Daily Briefing will be following developments in the situation room, and will update you as necessary. If Rick plans to be the elephant in the room, consider us the mahout.

And we don’t plan to spare the spurs, believe you VDB.

October 24th, 2007

Romney Latest GOP Candidate to Play Updated 2008 Version of “Jack Mehoff”

by Philip Baruth

Not overwhelmingly proud of it, but when I was in eighth grade, I took regular part in a strange, white-knuckle game called “Jack Mehoff.” The rules were deceptively simple: you had to slip the name “Jack Mehoff” into actual classroom discussion, as unobtrusively as possible.

Mitt plays Jack Mihoff

For example, when discussing World War II in Social Studies, you might ask, “Mr. McCarty, I heard that there was a secret squad set up to assassinate Hitler at one point, led by one of the early Marines named Zack Myrnoff or Jack Mehoff or something like that. Do you know anything about that at all, that Mehoff guy?”

And then you kept your face absolutely straight, not even a ghost of a smile. No matter what the other guys let loose with in the back row.

Having managed it, you were in the clear. But those who waited until near the end of the game were trying to slip the name “Jack Mehoff” by teachers who had already heard it 4 or 5 times in the previous week. And they were generally busted, and made to explain the whole rotten enterprise in the Principal’s office, one at a time.

If you need to understand why eighth grade boys were interested in foregrounding the name “Jack Mehoff” in the first place, then you really need to be reading another blog at this point.

But teenage onanism isn’t really the point.

The point is that more or less the same game has been run on the mainstream media for the last year, except that instead of “Jack Mehoff” the new version is called “Barack Osama,” and it’s played exclusively by GOP candidates, against Democratic hopeful Barack Obama.

obama, on the picket line

It works like this: GOP candidate X “stumbles” or “commits a gaffe” by confusing Obama for Osama, and the media tut-tuts for a day or so. Mitt Romney is only the most recent player.

The MSM then “helps” Obama, the injured party, by broadcasting the “gaffe” complete with apologies and denials and histories of other times that various officials and candidates have made the same mistake.

And this has two predictable effects: 1) willy-nilly, Obama’s name is further linked in the public mind with America’s Public Enemy #1, and 2) the GOP candidate responsible for the “gaffe” shows the base (or the cool kids, think of them how you will) that he is willing to keep this Fox News gag running, even at the risk of a tongue-lashing in the Principal’s office.

It all boils down to the same thing Republicans have been doing to Democrats for years: oddly overt, bullying tactics that seem straight out of middle-school to you and me, but that nonetheless put Democrats in the position of the kid being bullied. Bush and his “Democrat Congress” taunts, to take another example.

And at that point, generally clueless voters only ever pick up on the aftermath: one kid looking innocent and indignant, while the other kid whines and cries.

Jack Mehoff, indeed.

Mitt rebuffed

October 24th, 2007

If All This News Is Fit to Print, Why Do We Feel Like Ralphing, Then Ralphing Again?

by Philip Baruth

Funny, but different sorts of sick-making stories have slightly or even dramatically different sorts of ways of making you sick. Take today’s absolutely crippling ABC News report on Giuliani’s connection to accused serial-molestor Monsignor Alan Placa.

the mayor, the wife, the accused
Giuliani, third wife Judith Nathan, and the man who sanctified the second marriage they busted up, right.

The charges themselves made VDB want to hurl: months after Placa was asked to cease priesting, and in the direct wake of the molestation charges, Giuliani found a cushy berth for the Monsignor over at his own consulting firm, Giuliani Partners.

Why in God’s name, you ask? Well, Placa was Giuliani’s best man at his first wedding, and he apparently presided at Giuliani’s second trip to the altar. You know how second weddings form bonds stronger than the wood around them.

And bad-boy Bernie Kerik, also one of the Giuliani Partners team, needed spiritual guidance, so it looked like a win-win to America’s Mayor, all things considered.

Look for this story to do the damage the actual Kerik story never seemed to do. We wrote a long piece last week, arguing that Giuliani was a lock for one of the two spots on the GOP ticket next year, and we stand by it.

But if ever a story had the potential to relegate a guy to the VP slot, this would appear to be it. Happy Birthday, Mitt.

But back to the infinite ways the news can make you ill. Now that Hillary Clinton has moved aggressively into general-election mode, we’re in for a spate of doe-eyed accounts of how romantic the Clinton marriage has always felt from the inside.

Hillary, dishing to Essence magazine:

“Oh he’s so romantic. He’s always bringing me back things from his trips. He brought me a giant wooden giraffe from Africa. Oh, he bought me this watch,” she said, holding out her left wrist to show off a Chanel watch, its bracelet made of white cubes shaped like elegant dentures, if you can picture it. “I had dental surgery, and he said it reminded him of teeth.”

A wooden giraffe. And a watch that looks like, well, teeth. This is not just romantic, but so romantic?


Sure, the mention of the giant wooden giraffe is no doubt supposed to remind Essence readers of Clinton’s much-ballyhooed trip to Africa, but it reminds us of something else as well: Clinton drumming late into the African night, quite literally, when the Paula Jones lawsuit was dismissed.

And correct VDB if VDB is wrong, but isn’t a wooden giraffe the sort of generic gift you buy now and assign a recipient when you get stateside?

The Teeth Watch, though — that seems specifically purchased with Hillary and only Hillary in mind.

And all of it, really, is just too much information for those of us who watched this faux romance peddled for eight years running during the ’90s.

Not enough to make us want to hurl massive chunks, Giuliani/predator-style, but just that least little bit, at several points during the afternoon, like accidentally running across pictures of a prematurely wizened Tommy Lee french-kissing a freshly botoxed Pamela Anderson.

October 22nd, 2007

Norm Coleman Only Latest Beneficiary of Left-on-Left Violence Sweeping the Nation

by Philip Baruth

Vermont is a so deep blue as to be almost black, and so very few places in America replicate Vermont’s self-inflicted Left-on-Left wounds. But Minnesota is one of them.

Going back to last year, one of VDB’s fondest dreams was an Al Franken candidacy out in Minnesota. We had all sorts of visions: Harold Ramis running a series of “Groundhog Day”-style attack ads against Norm Coleman, The Daily Show shooting live from the dumpster into which Coleman famously fell, or the pizza joint outside which Coleman’s father was caught getting some extra toppings on his ‘za.

But there’s trouble in Frankenland: Al’s primary opponent Mike Ciresi is now arguing to Minnesotan DFLers that Franken — one of the country’s most outspoken and influential anti-Iraq voices — is a Johnny-come-lately on this anti-War stuff, and can’t be trusted.

In short, Ciresi maintains that Franken is not Left enough, and basically indistinguishable from Coleman.

Honest, that’s the guy’s pitch.

Jesus, that gives VDB an odd case of deja vu.

October 20th, 2007

VDB’s Man Feingold Weighs In On Welch

by Philip Baruth

Always nice to have a few touchstones outside your own standard orbit, in order to recalibrate yourself occasionally. Opposition to Bush and to the war in Iraq run so deep and so pure in Vermont that VDB can go weeks on end without encountering a single individual who supports either one.


It is only in that purified environment that questions about Peter Welch’s opposition to the War can arise, and linger. Which makes an anti-War touchstone like Russ Feingold even more crucial.

And last week Feingold’s Progressive Patriots Fund raised $20,000 to help re-elect twenty freshman members of Congress, “twenty freshman members of Congress who stood with me in my efforts to redeploy our troops out of Iraq, specifically voting for HR 2237, the McGovern Amendment.”

Feingold went on to tell Welch, “We need to re-elect you so you can continue to fight for issues about which we both care deeply.”

Understand, we’re not proposing some sort of absolute anti-War commutative principle: Feingold kicks ass on the War, Feingold contributes to Candidate X, therefore Candidate X kicks ass on the War.

But no one understands mere anti-War posturing better than Russ Feingold, and that’s the real point behind these Progressive Patriots contributions: not to pass on $1000, a drop in the direct-mail bucket, but to help authenticate the anti-War work being done by a small, effective group of first-term types.

More than cash, it’s Feingold’s seal of approval, on his signature issue.

Not a conversation-ending factoid or the final word on Welch’s anti-War work this session, but certainly no small potatoes neither.

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