December 30th, 2008

VDB Boosts Al Franken To 50-Vote Margin

by Philip Baruth

The Minnesota Canvassing Board makes it official: Franken finishes the formal recount up by 50 votes. Still on the table? Challenges and lawsuits over 1,300 to 1,400 wrongly rejected absentee ballots. But at this point, Franken has the stronger hand, and looks likely to be seated temporarily when the Senate convenes in January. Did VDB’s whispered advice to the funnyman at the Democratic National Convention, to play Coleman more like a “patsy,” have anything to do with that slim 50-vote margin? Could be, grasshopper. Could well be. Let’s ask Senator Franken.

December 24th, 2008

Cut It Yourself: The Holiday Commentary

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: Once upon a time, Commentator Philip Baruth drove out to a place where you can cut your own Christmas Tree. He will never do it again, even if you offer him a great deal of money. Here’s Philip.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #224: Cut It Yourself

I usually get my Christmas Tree in the parking lot of the bagel store near my house. The Boy Scouts set up shop there every year, and for $30 I get a lovely tree, and they’re always willing to put a fresh cut on the trunk, no questions asked. Then I transport the tree to my house, about four minutes away. My children go insane.

It’s always a satisfying experience. Brief but satisfying.

Still, Christmas is one of those times when Americans compulsively chase the dream, and so a few years back I found myself questioning my satisfaction.

Was I really as happy with my tree as I thought I was? Did Vermont, or New England as a whole, offer something intangibly better? All of this I finally reduced to the mental shorthand I use to solve knotty New England questions: WWWD — What Would Willem Do?

In this case, I had to think that Willem Lange would drive out alone into the woods with his dog and a bunch of tools, tramp through the snow and drag his own tree back to his house in East Montpelier.

Of course, that was out of the question for me. I mean, if you don’t own woods, how do you know which woods are usable woods? Even Robert Frost didn’t know for sure, which was why he wrote, “Whose woods these are I think I know.”

And Frost beat it out of those woods after only 16 lines, and he wasn’t dragging a tree when he left.

But of course there was an answer: a cut-it-yourself tree farm. Now, I should have realized that the phrase “Cut It Yourself” has more than a little bit of attitude to it, but I didn’t.

So I drove some thirty minutes on the highway, and then down a long dirt road, where an older woman in a lime-green parka standing by a little shack gave me a hand saw and pointed me out into the snow and up over a big ridge.

Tramping through the snow, I passed hundreds of Christmas tree stumps, but it never dawned on me that of course these trees were taken first because they were nearest the shack.

No, I was having such a brilliant time watching my own breath and carrying my trusty saw that I walked and walked, long after the stumps turned to actual living trees.

When I finally found the one I wanted, I started sawing, but the first few pulls told me all I needed to know: the saw was dull as dishwater. But it was a long walk back to the shed, so I pulled extra hard, for twice as long as Willem would have needed to pull.

When the tree finally fell, I had to lay down in the snow for a few minutes, but it was Christmas time, so I eventually got back up, only to realize that if the shed was too far to walk for a sharper saw, it was way too far to drag a tree through two feet of snow.

But again, I like to think of myself as a good father, so I went on. And when I finally manhandled the thing up to the side of my car, the woman in the lime-green parka nodded at the size of it. “Thirty dollars,” she said.

Now, it struck me as unfair that I’d pay the same for cutting my own as I would for a pre-cut tree at the bagel store, but I smiled and handed over the cash. “Where’s your twine,” I asked.

“Twine?” she asked.

“Twine,” I repeated.

“Ran out yesterday,” the woman said, a little defensively.

“But I’m not going to be able to buy it without twine. I’m not going to be able to get it home. Everybody gives you twine.”

“Well, this is self-serve, you know,” she said, turning grimly back to the shed, “and there’s no refunds after you cut.”

And that was that.

So I did the only thing I could: I used my belt and the shoe laces from a pair of sneakers in the trunk, and I fastened the thing to the roof as best I could. But just as I was about to pull out, the woman darted over to my window and handed me back a five-dollar bill. “For the twine,” she said.

And then I did what I like to think Willem would have done: I told her Merry Christmas.

And when the tree blew off on the Interstate somewhere just below Hinesburg, I did what I would have done: I never even slowed down, until I got to the bagel store, where they know me, and no questions are ever asked.

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

December 23rd, 2008

Now Why Didn’t VDB Think Of That (Now With Semaphoric Inaugural Update)

by Philip Baruth

Clear-headed reader Jill suggests a delicious layering of the Rick Warren dispute. “It occurs to me,” writes Jill, “that Obama could mix up the pot even further by asking the gay Episcopal Bishop [Gene Robinson] to share the stage with Warren.” A brilliant idea: after all his spin about inclusivity and offering donuts to the gays, Warren would have no choice but to grin and bear it. So to speak.

Late Update, Monday, December 29, 12:44 pm:

An anonymous reader writes in with another choice response to the high-profile role of the good Reverend Warren: Inaugural semaphore.

“My response to the unfortunate presence of Rick Warren will be to proudly flash my rainbow scarf (ordered today online) as I stand up and turn my back to bigotry during the invocation. I ordered a few extra in case any other Vermont attendees who consider themselves allies and supporters of marriage equality might want one.

“The idea of having Rev. Gene Robinson play a role as well, is pretty good — if the idea is inclusiveness. But, personally, I’d rather there was no religion in this state ceremony at all. Talk about establishment.”

December 22nd, 2008

Vermont View Sets Evolutionary Pace

by Philip Baruth

Look, the Vermont blogosphere is still in its infancy, and generally speaking it does the best it can with what it has. And what it has is considerable. But over the weekend, it took a bold baby-step forward: Vermont View, the blogging arm of the Rutland Herald and Times-Argus, added a local blogroll to its sideboard.

We know, we know: stop the presses.

hands, clasped

But it’s a bigger deal than may first appear. To now, the blogs operated by the state’s major dailies have linked only internally, holding themselves out of the general conversation, and holding the rest of us at arm’s length from the conversations happening on their own sites.

This intra-corporate linking tends to produce a sub-set of blog I’ve come to think of as a “clog” over the last few years: a digital cul-de-sac designed to inhibit readers’ movement beyond the corporation’s borders, and into the larger world of ideas beyond.

Not good for anyone.

With its new linking policy, Vermont View has made several things clear at once: 1) the failure to link outside these sites has never been a technical issue; 2) far from fostering competition between new and traditional media, a larger, more active blogosphere helps grow everyone’s readership; and 3) whatever else may happen, Vermont View will not wind up in the La Brea Tar Pits of the early twenty-first century, because clearly they are open to change.

And more than anything else, VDB loves the smell of evolution in the morning. Kudos.

December 22nd, 2008

Dick Cheney Still Determined To Exit Remembered As More Dick Than Cheney

by Philip Baruth

In a new Fox News interview, Dick Cheney passes up a chance to retract his now-infamous Leahy-directed F-Bomb. Pat Leahy, says Cheney, “merited it, at the time.” Okay, let’s enter the mindset briefly, and suppose that Leahy had merited it at the time. Still, this is the way you exit office, smiling and underlining your previous profanities? And owning the waterboarding policy? What an absolute maroon. A maroon with unrepentant bully sauce on top.

dick and rummy

December 19th, 2008

Rick Warren: One VDB Reader Responds

by Philip Baruth

Plenty of mail about the Rick Warren/Guess Who’s Coming To The Inaugural affair, and none of it ambiguous. The following comes from longtime reader Ann, who passed on a letter she wrote directly to the Obama team in protest:


I feel like ranting to someone, so please forgive this email. You don’t even have to read it — I just need to get it off my chest before I can actually get any work done!

I just sent the following email to the Obama/Biden transition team:

“I am writing to express my deep disappointment at the choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation. As a supporter of full civil rights for women and members of the gay and lesbian communities, I believe this choice demonstrates a desire to marginalize groups that were among the President-Elect’s strongest supporters. I made several small donations to the campaign, which I now regret.

“It never occurred to me that among all the religious leaders in the United States, the President-Elect would choose an anti-choice pastor who espouses homophobic views and has actually advocated the assassination of the head of a foreign government.

“Mr. Warren has equated people of faith who support social justice with being Marxists and supporters of abortion rights with the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I am deeply saddened at Mr. Obama’s decision to validate these views by asking Mr. Warren to deliver the invocation.

“I can only speculate what this choice says about the President-Elect’s priorities for his administration. Certainly, it makes me much less sanguine about Mr. Obama’s commitment to social justice and civil rights for all Americans.”

Part of what pisses me off about this choice is that I don’t even think it can be supported on the basis of political pragmatism. Assisting Rick Warren’s goal of having his views accepted as reflective of mainstream social values will make it much more difficult for the democrats to distinguish themselves as anything other than Republican lite.

This arguably will make it easier to sink liberal supreme court nominees, in that Obama’s choice to represent people of faith mainstreams the views of the right.

I’m already disappointed at Leahy’s decision to delay confirmation hearings for Holder. If the democrats don’t think they have a mandate that lets them control the agenda, then they never will. Just let Obama try and win a second term without pro-choice women and the gay community.

cheney's got a gunI suppose he’s counting on our support, under the assumption that the Republican choice will be worse.

Meanwhile, Cheney has publicly admitted to war crimes, and there’s not a hint that he or anyone else in the administration will be investigated, much less prosecuted.



December 18th, 2008

Rick Santorum Is A Wee Winsome Thing

by Philip Baruth

Don’t know about you, but when we have a particularly knotty problem to unravel, we always look to disgraced former Senator Rick Santorum. People think Santorum’s wisdom is limited to variations on the “man on dog” theme, and the occasional religious homily, but it’s so much wider and more varied than that narrow band of opinion would suggest. Like Socrates, Rick is often misunderstood.

santorum and brood

Of course, since losing to Bob Casey by 18% in 2006, Rick has become a regular columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing for the effective santorumization of much of the greater Philly metro region. Which has helped matters.

But this morning Santorum has put together something special, a breathtakingly sagacious column designed to advise the national Republican Party on the selection of their next Chair.

Sure, he rehearses the dead cliches of the moment: that America, despite the fairly indisputable outcome of the last election, remains a “center-right country,” and that most of the trouble in 2008 stemmed from poor communication and thumb-fingered use of technology, rather than a broad-based rejection of Conservative ideology.

But then Santorum gets to the beauty part.

Grimly warning that Republicans face “another Great Communicator,” he offers his own deft summation of what the GOP needs to counter newly emboldened Democrats:

” The Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign once ran circles around the Democrats. We tried to build on what worked, but the Democrats grasped the scale of change in technology and vaulted past us. And technology alone won’t be enough. The new chairman has to winsomely communicate our vision and build a nationwide team to deliver our message.”


Here stands revealed the bold, naked genius that is Rick Santorum’s political mind: the GOP must be winsome to win again.

We know, we know: the glare of the intellectual concept is bright, and it hurts to view it directly. But no one said that deep political theorizing would be easy, or painless. To our work, then.

Clearly, the standard modern definition of “winsome” won’t do here: “Charming, often in a childlike or naive way.” Because Rick is many things (best-selling author, paragon of moral values, recent and epic Senatorial fail) but childlike? Naive? Never.

Perhaps, then, Rick meant to take us to another place entirely, etymologically speaking. “Winsome” is a good Old English word, and maybe the intent was a good, solid bit of straight talk. Okay, the Oxford English Dictionary renders the modern sense of the word, entering the language around 1787, like so: “Cheerful, joyous, gay.”

Um, that can’t be right.

Let’s be clear, no one stands more reliably for the sober and ungay than Rick Santorum. So sober and ungay is he, in fact, that former Senator Bob Kerrey once famously joked that Santorum was “Latin for asshole.” So that’s out.

One option left. Santorum must have been using another possible modern sense of the word, to wit: “Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners.”

The OED offers this helpful illustration from 1792, a few lines from Robert Burns:

My wife’s a winsome wee thing,
She is a handsome wee thing,
She is a bonnie wee thing.

Burns goes on to note that his wife is also a “wanton wee thing,” but that’s beside the point. All of this makes sense, if we just look at it with Santorum eyes: if the Republican Party is to revenge its losses, restore its former glory, and generally find its way out of the dark electoral wilderness in which it now aimlessly wanders, it must do its best to look and act as much like Bobbie Burns’s wife as possible.

Couldn’t hurt.

December 18th, 2008

Barry Asks The 64K Question: What If This Whole Planet, You Know, Is Just Like One Single Atom In The Thumb Of Some, Like, Giant Unknown Being Or Something?

by Philip Baruth

December 18th, 2008

Big Joe Facing Villagers With Torches (Now With Ineffectual State Committee Update!)

by Philip Baruth

So sure, laugh it up, Big Joe. You’ll keep your coveted Chair over at Homeland Security. And Democrats won’t spank you publicly. And Fox News will continue to refer to you as “Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman,” rather than “Connecticut-For-Lieberman Senator Joe Lieberman.” But the folks back home are not amused. From The Hill:

54 percent of Connecticut voters said they disapproved of the way Lieberman is handling his job, while 38 percent said they approved. The numbers are the lowest approval ratings Lieberman has faced since the poll started tracking his popularity.

“This is the highest disapproval rating in any Quinnipiac University poll in any state for a sitting U.S. senator – except for New Jersey’s Robert Torricelli, just before he resigned in 2002,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. And of course, this makes it all the more likely that Big Joe will feel constrained to support the bulk of the coming Democratic legislative agenda. Very publicly support. If VDB had to bet, this is what we’d bet:

1) Obama comes out with either his first or second signature bill, either the massive public works bill Pelosi has promised on Inauguration Day, or the health-care revamp scheduled for later in the year.

2) The national press begins the vote whipping, and they realize that this one is a nail-biter in the Senate. It’s beginning to look like Clinton’s first budget package, but this time it’s Big Joe, rather than Bob Kerrey, who begins the highly public shilly-shallying. Lieberman mugs for the press for weeks, looking like he’s going through extreme cramping, lamenting the high price tag, fiscal discipline, yada yada.

3) Kerrey reportedly went out to the movies in order to make his decision, with “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” on the bill. For his turn in the spotlight, Big Joe opts for “Austin Powers IV,” which will apparently be written almost entirely from Dr. Evil’s point of view.

4) Lieberman strides into the Senate Chamber, votes “aye” and commences a period of strained but public friendship with Obama.

5) Lieberman’s numbers soar back in Connecticut, reaching the low to mid-40’s. [Hat-tip to Seeds of Doubt for the creepy but arguably accurate image above]

Late Update, 3:21 pm:

Oh, and don’t miss tonight’s big vote on “censure” at the Connecticut Democratic Party’s statewide confab (apparently the two forms of the resolution being circulated have had the actual word “censure” removed, while retaining the facts of the matter, that Lieberman induces hair loss and nausea in most rank-and-file Democrats). News as details warrant.

Later Update, Thursday, 10:33 am:

Okay, so details now warrant. You guessed it: the CT State committee decided to issue a stern letter, with no other punishment. Oh, and they threw in some Cadbury chocolates for Big Joe, to make it clear that there were no hard feelings.

Now, that’s amore.

December 16th, 2008

O Brother Where Art Thou: Mark Johnson Has Had Enough Of This Dickensian Crap

by Philip Baruth

So apparently this Mark Johnson guy isn’t content to see Vermonters cast out into the snow this winter. He’s raffling off a Mac Book to benefit JUMP, one of those outreach places that, you know, reach out in a recession. We’re talking $10 a ticket. Imagine when you open your email, broke and hungover on January 23rd, facing a Dickensian year, only to discover that Happy Days Are Here Again. Get entered, brothers and sisters, while the entering’s good.

mark johnson/rudy

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