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 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.