April 30th, 2008

CNN Pushes Envelope of Self-Blindness

by Philip Baruth

CNN currently running this breathless and breathtakingly circular come-on: “How Obama Can Get Beyond Reverend Wright.” What, in other words, can Barack Obama possibly do to make our newsdesk here at CNN cease covering Jeremiah Wright as a desperate way of boosting our flagging ratings? Tune us in and find out.

obama,  post jj dinner3

Late Update, Thursday, 10:34 am:

In case you thought we were being overly pessimistic or dismissive of CNN’s journalistic integrity, the network makes its circular stance doubly clear today: “Can Obama Close the Door on Wright?”

At CNN? Never in a million freaking years, apparently.

April 29th, 2008

In Stunning Corporate Tour de Force, Entergy Rebrands Incompetence as Equity

by Philip Baruth

Back in the day, Philip Morris really had it working: they produced the world’s most profitable brands of tobacco, the nicotine levels of which they were secretly manipulating, and they owned half the US Congress, which made it difficult for anyone to complain. But after decades of anti-smoking activism, the words “Philip Morris” became synonymous with death and wasting disease. Ouch.

Their support in Congress collapsed not long thereafter. Activists beat the brand, in other words.

And so the two words “Philip Morris,” like a blackened pair of lungs, were exchanged for something new and minty-fresh: Philip Morris became Altria.

Suddenly no one cared a whit that the maker of Marlboro cigarettes also marketed Jell-O and Kool-Aid.

Those of you in marketing (a staggeringly high percentage of the VDB demographic, actually) know this move well: bring in a neutral created term, built from partial syllables with vaguely positive connotations.

Which brings us to Entergy, owner/operator of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, the safety record of which has become something of a running joke over the last year.

As we’ve reported at various points over that same year, Entergy is involved in a multi-stage attempt to transfer corporate responsibility away from the parent company, and in so doing, to rebrand the entire effort, moving away from the whiff of incompetence and mendacity that now drifts in when the name “Entergy” surfaces in conversation.

That effort is now seriously upon us.

In a press release last week, Entergy announced the creation of not one, but two new companies: “Enexus Energy Corporation,” which will eventually own Entergy’s six unregulated nuclear reactors, including Yankee, and “EquaGen LLC,” a joint venture between Entergy and Enexus which will operate those same plants.

Confused yet? That is, of course, the point.

Under the new dispensation, Entergy will be removed not once, but twice from the activities and liabilities of Vermont Yankee. Activists will need, perforce, to concentrate on EquaGen to influence daily practice, and Enexus to press long-term issues like transparency and decommissioning.

Corporate spokesman Rob Williams, according to industry scuttlebut, will be known henceforth as “Equabob.”

To take EquaGen as a case in point, we should offer the industry explanation of the created term first:

“The goal for the joint venture naming was to capture an identity that would stress the company’s track record of safe nuclear operations and its expertise in leading the industry in a new direction. EquaGen (ekwa-jen) gets its origins from the words ‘equity’ and ‘generation.’ EquaGen stands for a company focused on providing world-class safety, operations, security and productivity.”

not so cool
The stunning 2007 cooling tower collapse

It’s worth noting that this mass of gibberish comes from the very high-priced shop of an “international brand architect” based in California, the RiechesBaird Company.

We don’t know about you, but if we were looking for someone to rebrand our rapidly aging nuclear operation, we might select a catchier bidder than “RiechesBaird.”

But be that as it may, the new brand names would seem to fit Entergy’s pressing linguistic needs: they are vague, they are built of positive partial syllables, and best of all, neither of them is “Entergy.”

It’s interesting, though, to consider the lengths to which RiechesBaird has gone to control the pronunciation of Equagen, which might well be pronounced “EEK-wa-gen,” if the corporate press release hadn’t specifically instructed otherwise. This fixed pronunciation, of course, is designed to enshrine the word “equity” in the minds of those who find themselves using the new word.

And “equity,” for a progressive state like Vermont, is all good.

But you have to wonder how it figures, in any way, shape or form, into the corporate planning of any of the three E-themed shells now encompassing Vermont Yankee. Yes, everyone has an equal right to purchase the power produced by the plant. But equity exhausts its usefulness as a concept at that point.

bernie stares down lunch

But that’s the genius of RiechesBaird. A wave of their cologne-scented hands, and suddenly “equity” is all we talk about when we talk about Yankee.

April 29th, 2008

VDB Deluged With Non-Political Matters; Fortunately, Danziger Rides to Rescue

by Philip Baruth

April 24th, 2008

Gundersenized VT House Clips Entergy Good

by Philip Baruth

Back in November we broke a story that was initially dismissed, and then covered with some alacrity by the rest of the Vermont media: Maggie and Arnie Gundersen, two very articulate critics of Entergy and Vermont Yankee, released a white paper with some very striking conclusions, chief among them that Entergy’s Decommissioning Fund was woefully lacking. Back then, we slugged our post, “The Gundersen Report Cometh.” It was some hot stuff.

vermont yankee

Today, we’d like to update that headline to something a little more current: “The Gundersen Report Cometh, and Kicketh More Than a Bit of Entergy Ass.”

Gorty and Arnie
Arnie, in yellow, left, discusses corporate mendacity with Gorty Baldwin at last year’s Hamburger Summit

What changed? Yesterday, the Vermont House acted (81-58) on the Gundersen’s warnings, and voted to require Entergy to put up either enough cash or a sufficient line of credit to decommission the plant and return it to “greenfield” status.

Not “Safestor,” mind you, but “greenfield.” Which is to say that Vermonters should be able to use the site once it’s decommissioned, rather than drive in a huge circle around it for 75 years or so.

“The legislation, which has passed the Senate, would direct the Public Service Board, if it approves the corporate restructuring, to make sure the new owners guarantee there will be enough money in the fund ‘for complete and immediate decommissioning.’”

Terri Hallenbeck has a nice write-up, with more details. But one thing to note: the margin in the House was far from veto-proof. And they don’t call Jim Douglas the Man From Entergy for nothing.

But what a tasty electoral issue that veto would provide. Or would, if Democrats had a candidate. Want to know why VDB is constantly pushing for candidates to declare early? Look no further.

Maggie Gundersen, Hamburger Summit, 2007

It’s not just that declaring early leaves time to unsettle and out-organize an entrenched incumbent, although that’s the primary reason. It’s also that a declared candidate allows you to manage that entrenched incumbent in the year leading up to the election, to help move him or her to your policy positions.

Will Pollina’s Progressive candidacy be enough of a curb to make Jim Douglas do the right thing in this case? Only time will tell.

But for now one thing is absolutely certain: Maggie and Arnie Gundersen came to play.

April 23rd, 2008

NYT Takes Issue With Own Endorsement

by Philip Baruth

The New York Times, which endorsed Hillary Clinton in the run-up to her home-state primary, is apparently having second thoughts this morning. Or maybe, having read the piece again, we should say third thoughts. In any event, they’ve really got their pin-striped panties in a bunch.

And frankly we couldn’t agree more.

April 23rd, 2008

In Which VDB Confronts the Olympic Torch

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: Commentator Philip Baruth’s Vermont, whatever else might be said about it, is a very strange place. Today he imagines confronting the Olympic torch, and all of the political contradictions now implicit within it.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #214:
My Vermont Contains Multitudes (And a Torch)

Funny the things you remember. For instance, one night last week I was walking down Church Street, and I remember wishing I hadn’t ordered that second dozen chicken wings, or that I’d opted for the quote-unquote “medium-hot” wings instead of the quote-unquote “Georgia Asphalt” wings.

Because even though it was a beautiful false-spring night, all I could think about was finding the nearest car-wash, and hosing myself down completely.

There’s a certain sense of shame that accompanies a serious buffalo wing binge, and I was really feeling it — not just on my hands, but in my soul. I was nursing a big 72-ounce cup of ice water but it seemed only to be making the swelling in my lips worse.

Then I noticed a commotion on the block ahead of me, but whether it was screaming or cheering was hard to make out. Coming up Church Street, at a good solid dogtrot, was a guy in neon shorts carrying what looked like the Olympic Torch, surrounded by a hulking Chinese security team in light blue track suits.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on. Protestors have been ambushing the torch on its way to China, to protest China’s record on human rights, and in France they were able to actually extinguish it, twice. So when the torch reached San Francisco, organizers tried something different: they switched the torch’s route at the last possible moment.

Now the bait-and-switch had obviously been taken to the next level: instead of being flown to India, as reported, the torch was here, in Vermont, on Church Street, headed straight for me.

And suddenly I knew what I had to do. Just as the torch passed me, I would reach between the bodyguards and douse the flame with my Big Gulp. Because in my Vermont it’s not okay to work innocent people for pennies an hour, or to attack them with tanks, or to try and create your own Dalai Lami, in order to confuse believers.

But just as the bodyguards dog-trotted into range, I remembered something else, a piece by VPR commentator John Morton that ran years ago, called “The Torch.”

In it, Morton talked about seeing the torch run in Canada to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, and being allowed himself to pass it hand to hand in a little mountain village called Canmore. The thing I remember most about the piece was Morton’s deep pride in that flame, the pride of a man who’d been an Olympic athlete, a trainer and a team leader. He saw it as a way to unite the world, and everyone in it, no matter who, no matter what.

And I realized then that I also sided with Morton: in my Vermont, people don’t snuff out the Olympic flame, no matter who, no matter what.

But that meant my Vermont was a mass of political contradictions. Which is fine: like Walt Whitman, it’s large, it can contain multitudes.

But what to do about the torch?

I’m not going to lie; I did the only thing I could. As the massive Chinese security team jogged by, I shook every one of their hands real good, covering them with some strange red American substance that burned with the heat of a thousand suns.

[This commentary ran first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the piece is available here.]

April 22nd, 2008

Heads Up: New Fiction Workshop Forming

by Philip Baruth

That’s Carson McCullers below. An astounding writer: she published The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23 years old. Fat chance the rest of us match that feat. But it’s worth asking: if you write fiction, how ambitious are you? I’ll be teaching a summer workshop starting May 19, through UVM’s Continuing Education. It meets three days a week. And CE has reduced tuition this year. All skill levels welcome, from beginner to those looking to place stories or novels professionally. Now’s not a bad time to get serious.

April 22nd, 2008

A Sobering Field Report From Denver, And An Update on VDB’s Sacred Delegate Vow

by Philip Baruth

Even as we speak, planning for the Democratic National Convention is underway in Denver. That planning is taking place right now, as you read, in the old Denver Post building downtown, that imposing brown structure right in the center. Looks all but impregnable, right? Right.

Photos by Bill Stetson

But let’s take a quick peek inside, which is a little less imposing. See all of that cavernous, empty space? DNCC organizers thought there’d be a nominee by now, whose team would be helping to fill those endless soundproofed cubicles. But no. Not this time out.

It’s an eerie sight, all of that nothingness, because it brings to mind all of the coordinated somethingness going on, even as we speak, between the McCain campaign and the RNC.

Anyone who tells you that the continued back-and-forth between the Obama and Clinton campaigns is strengthening our hand in November is a sad, deluded fool.

Yet seeing these pictures only strengthens our iron resolve to become one of the Obama delegates to represent Vermont in Denver, come August. Because they make clear that this nomination process remains entirely unpredictable, and potentially chaotic.

Among other things, the Clinton campaign has made it clear that they will attempt to make inroads even into Obama’s pledged delegates. Hard to imagine, but after last week’s debate perhaps not.

And that’s where VDB comes in.

Of two things you can rest assured: first, if we do make it to Denver as a pledged delegate, then pledged means pledged, period; and second, we will transmit every detail of the ongoing donnybrook, no matter how small, directly to your desktop, with just enough humor to make it worth the read.

To get to Denver, though, we still need your help at the State Convention in Barre, the 24th of May, just a few weeks from now. A good number of you have written in with help of all sorts, and it couldn’t be any more greatly appreciated.

But we’re still shy the votes we need. That’s the brutal truth.

So if you plan to be there, or know someone in your town’s delegation who might help a brother out, please get in touch. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere: the shocking connectivity, the force in numbers that rise up out of nowhere, accomplish what they will, and return to invisibility.

It boils down to this: if just one guy with one cellphone on the ground in Colorado can be our eyes, then only God knows what all of us can do together. And He isn’t saying.

April 21st, 2008

Uncle Jim’s Phantom Stimulus Plan

by Philip Baruth

When Peter Clavelle went up against Uncle Jim in 2004, he built his entire campaign around fixing health care. Douglas, for his part, built his entire campaign around fixing Peter Clavelle, and fixing him but good. Mostly this was accomplished with an attack ad showing nothing but Clavelle fumbling the roll-out of his own long-touted health care initiative. Just raw footage of the trainwreck. Now, in a nice bit of karma, someone’s done the same for Douglas, and the roll-out of his phantom stimulus plan. Sweet.

April 20th, 2008

Review: Kunin’s Pearls, Politics & Power

by Philip Baruth

Pearls, Politics & Power: A Brilliant Manifesto
(And A Questionable Case in Point)

I happened, once, to find myself at a cocktail party standing next to Madeleine Kunin, a woman I’d never met but knew a good deal about: Kunin became Vermont’s first (and thus far only) woman Governor in 1984, and went on to serve three terms before becoming Ambassador to Switzerland during the Clinton Administration.

I’d been watching Kunin chat with other people for a while, and she seemed very open and gracious, if a bit tired.

Still, there was a question I’d always wanted to ask her, and so I walked over finally and asked it: What was it about your gubernatorial candidacy, specifically, that actually broke the glass ceiling?

And then suddenly the fatigue was gone.

Kunin’s eyes lit up, and she dropped immediately back into the small yet crucial details of that historic campaign — how she’d taken on the ski industry and insisted that they obey environmental regulations, for instance, and how that had allowed her to project herself as an executive who would keep Vermonters safe.

She remembered very precise poll numbers from 1983, and how those numbers had crept up through the tough campaign of 1984. And she talked about how she’d continually presented her credentials to voters — effectively pre-empting any criticism that as a woman she wasn’t qualified, that she had either too much ambition, or not enough.

It was a fascinating thirty minutes of seemingly idle party talk, but with the publication of Pearls, Politics & Power, it’s now clear that it wasn’t idle at all: even then, Madeleine Kunin had been thinking long and hard about how to translate her own experience into a coherent, workable manifesto for the women destined to follow in her footsteps.

With Pearls, that manifesto has arrived (Chelsea Green, April 2008, $14.95).

“It is time for a call to action,” Kunin writes in her introduction, “for new political leadership to emerge from the women of America. The stories of the women in this book and thousands of others like them who hold elective and appointive offices all over America are making a difference . . . . The problem is that they are too few.”

The tone is unabashedly activist, and stirring for that reason alone.

Equal parts memoir, strategy guide, and feminist primer, Pearls finds more than a few high moments in all three categories. Kunin’s recollections of her own races are detailed and involving, but it is when she recounts her work on behalf of Holocaust survivors — fighting for their right to information and restitution from Swiss banks who still held billions deposited by Holocaust victims — that Kunin truly dazzles.

In spite of her doggedness and undeniable success in confronting the issue, Kunin wrestled her own ghosts during the negotiating process:

“As I started to tell her about my conversation with Herr Krayer, tears spilled down my cheeks. Why couldn’t I have been a better advocate for those Holocaust victims? Why could I make him understand that this debate over bank accounts was not only about money, it was about a form of atonement — the only form of atonement now available?”

It is entirely consistent with what Vermonters know about her that Madeleine Kunin did not stop until she had helped to secure not only a $1.3 billion payout to the Jewish plaintiffs in the case, but admissions by the banks’ representatives that they “regretted the banks’ behavior. They had made mistakes.”

The last of which, clearly, was underestimating the charming ambassador to Switzerland.

Less dramatic but equally impressive are the volume’s countless mini-interviews with political women of all sorts, a sample of which cannot convey the whole: well-known national icons like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Mary Landrieu, and Loretta Sanchez, as well as rising Vermont stars like Gaye Symington, Deb Markowitz, Jeanette White, and Cheryl Hanna.

All offer, as does Kunin, sensible, down-to-earth practical advice for women seeking elective office — occasionally down-to-earth enough to advise getting right into the mud itself.

Kunin, for instance, tells the story of her first heady days as Chair of the Appropriations Committee in Montpelier. As Chair, she was entitled to sit on the powerful Joint Fiscal Committee that decides financial issues when the Legislature is not in session.

But when she got to the first meeting, where officers were to be elected, Kunin quickly discovered that there had been a “meeting before the meeting” — and all of the officers agreed upon in private. She never fell prey to the tactic again, and developed a fool-proof two-part strategy: “Find out where the ‘meeting before the meeting’ is held and barge in. If that is not appropriate, find a spy.”

Although Kunin argues throughout that women bring with them vastly different management styles — based more fundamentally around collaboration and power-sharing — she is no political pacifist: she argues that women must be prepared to wield power, both in public and in the now smoke-free back rooms. Of that, the volume is unashamed, and far more useful and convincing as a result.

The book’s timing — coming, as it does, in the midst of Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House — is clearly no accident: Kunin invokes Clinton throughout as a contemporary touchstone, devoting most of the chapter titled “A Woman President of the United States” to Clinton’s ongoing 2008 bid. (“And yes, dear reader,” Kunin notes, “I endorsed her for president.”)

While this does provide a single current narrative against which to position discussions of barriers to women looking to break glass ceilings large and small, the Clinton story also functions in a way Kunin might not have expected as the book came together: her arguments in support of Clinton often fall into a now vastly complex back-and forth between the Obama and Clinton campaigns, rendering those defenses less universally palatable than they might otherwise have seemed.

When Kunin was writing the bulk of Pearls, Clinton was the acknowledged, even the prohibitive, favorite for the Democratic nomination; today, she is struggling, with Obama seemingly poised to lead the Democratic ticket in November. The tricky part is that Kunin refuses throughout to assign any of the responsibility for Clinton’s 2008 missteps to Clinton herself.

At each critical moment, when no other defense will do, she portrays the former First Lady as the victim of deeply ingrained sexism within the culture at large.

To take one crucial instance, Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War — and her subsequent unwillingness to apologize for it — Kunin would have the reader see as the only options open to her: as a woman, Clinton had to strike a tough stance on the War, and as a woman, she fears that apologizing would fill out the stereotype of the flighty female.

And of course, there is something to be said for Kunin’s reading. No doubt critics would pounce on an apology, every bit as much as they currently attack her failure to offer one.

Yet Kunin’s logic would seem to leave Clinton with far more room to run than many voters are willing to offer a President in the post-Bush era. And frankly, it undercuts much of what makes Pearls so valuable, because it suggests that women should not only be allowed to make drastic mistakes in office, but also be allowed to gloss over them after the fact, because doing right and acknowledging wrong would imperil their chances for higher office.

And that stance seems untenable — it’s all but indistinguishable, finally, from sheer political expediency.

In staunchly defending Clinton from the majority of Democrats who have thus far expressed doubts as to her candidacy, Kunin is occasionally forced into some of the book’s weaker, and least convincing, arguments.

To take just one final example, Kunin notes that Clinton typically fares very poorly in on-line polls of the activist netroots. But again, for her this says far less about Hillary than about the casual sexism of bloggers in general:

“Half of the 96 million bloggers are women, but of the 1,200 political bloggers who came to the YearlyKos convention in Chicago in 2007, the majority were men. Is it any surprise that Hillary got only 9 percent in most online-activist polls while garnering more than 40 percent in traditional polls?”

To hear Kunin explain it, there is only one factor that accounts for Hillary’s typically abysmal showings in netroots polling, and that is gender. Yet female candidates all across the country have been propelled into office by the people-powered campaigns headed by DailyKos, OpenLeft and the Swing State Project.

Generally speaking, the blogosphere tends to sift for ideology, rather than gender, or race, or class.

In short, it isn’t Clinton’s pearls but her politics that have made her unpalatable to the netroots: her vote for the Iraq war, and subsequent inability to come clean about it to Democrats; her stance on lobbyists, and money from them; her close identification with the Democratic Leadership Council, and the politics of triangulation; her saber-rattling in the Senate, etc. and so on ad infinitum.

Obama Effect
Obama’s first visit to Vermont, February 2006

I don’t wish to make too much of this aspect of Kunin’s otherwise well-written and insightful book. She is the perfect messenger for a message America desperately needs sent. And her text as a whole is altogether convincing.

Yet it is hard to avoid the difference in that text when Clinton becomes the focus. Suddenly Kunin finds herself defending Hillary not only against the men who have gravitated throughout the primaries to Edwards or Richardson or Obama, but the women, and a good chunk of the “Woman President of the United States” chapter is devoted to beating back various strong hesitations commonly cited by female voters.

At that moment in particular, the book seems momentarily taken over by something a little more grim, and a little less hopeful.

Having written a book on Bill Clinton myself, it is a dynamic I recognize, one that asserted itself over and over and over throughout the 1990’s: a good-hearted, savvy person steps into a controversy as a defender of the Clintons — either one or both — and all too quickly finds him or herself doing very little else.

[This review appeared first in the Burlington Free Press.]

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