April 22nd, 2009

Dateline DC: Liveblogging Team Welch

by Philip Baruth

We’ll be heading down to DC next week, to liveblog Peter Welch’s crack legislative operation there for a couple of days. Any messages you’d like hand-carried to the Congressman? Any particular areas of praise or concern? Any particularly shocking candid photos you’d like snapped? Andrew Savage sharing a late-afternoon Powerbar with Michele Bachmann? Or, for those of you in the southern end of the state, Paul Heintz caught in a quid pro quo at the nearest Starbucks (cold cash paid for hot coffee rendered)? Drop a line of inquiry, and we’ll do our absolute level best to make it so.

April 20th, 2009

Why Are These Men Smiling? Why Not?

by Philip Baruth

Let’s say — parallel universe here — that you’re President John McCain’s Chief of Staff, and you’re prepping the trip to the 2009 Summit of the Americas, which assumes first that you’ve made the decision to attend the Summit of the Americas at all. What are the first two things you try to drill into McCain’s thick skull during the trip on Air Force One?

One, answer any question about Cuba with some variation on “Castro is a bloody dictator, and we’ll talk when Hell freezes over.” Two, run like a schoolgirl if that bastard Chavez unexpectedly veers in for a photo op. The rest will take care of itself, you figure.

But clearly (back in the real world now), Obama’s people approached the summit with the intention of upending as much of the conventional Conservative wisdom as possible. Signal a desire to engage Cuba. Treat Chavez like the elected leader of a crucial oil-producing region. Admit mistakes.

You know there was a meeting, maybe short, maybe long, on precisely the question of Chavez. Options were discussed, and the photo above was hammered out in theory: handshake, yes or no, smile, yes or no, location, ideal headline, etc. You’re crazy if you think such an image entered the global media unscripted, unconstructed.

When Obama was a candidate, and when Hillary Clinton was still the frontrunner, there was a moment during which the Obama campaign sought to distinguish itself on foreign policy. Their central tenet? Engage our enemies.

Reconsider, in fact, the notion of “enemies” itself.

Clinton pounced back then, as did Dodd, and Richardson, and Biden. But when the dust settled, the voting public stood with Obama on the issue, and you could argue that the “talk with our enemies” meme was the moment when Obama began to close the deal, began to seem Presidential in direct proportion to the confidence he displayed with regard to meeting adversaries face to face.

By contrast, those who argued against such meetings began to seem timid, not prudent and Presidential.

Now Hillary Clinton is an integral part of the Obama Administration’s outreach to Cuba, and may well lead direct talks herself.

After a successful trip to Europe, and an overwhelmingly positive reception at the Summit of the Americas, you can see how this dovetails precisely with Obama’s strengths as a person, as a President: he is perhaps uniquely suited to sell America’s ideals abroad, but only in the context of a tempered American ego.

Let’s suppose that North Korea, or Iran, watches glumly as Cuba inches back into a comprehensive working relation with the United States. How does that international narrative of reconciliation affect their own calculations?

Deeply, VDB would argue.

In any event, look at the photo at the top of the post again. It’s a beautiful thing, and not alone because it shows how quickly and easily a smile can begin to thaw cold diplomatic relations. It’s beautiful because it shows how unconcerned Obama is, really, with the prospect of predictable GOP sniping.

Bill Clinton would have avoided Chavez, not because he trusted less in his own charisma, but because he feared more the inevitable 30-second attack ad featuring the photo.

But Obama is shooting for international change deep and pervasive enough to make the inevitable 30-second attack ad irrelevant. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Late Update, Monday 2:12 pm:

Hot, fresh polling numbers showing that (yawn) two-thirds of Americans back Obama’s approach to Cuba, as with his approach to the economy and almost every other issue with which he disagrees significantly with the teabaggers/dead-enders.

April 17th, 2009

And They Did So Without Pre-Conditions

by Philip Baruth

The Hill features a long article today titled “Dean, Emanuel Bury The Hatchet,” the substance of which appears to be, unless VDB missed some key nuance, that Dean and Rahm Emanuel ate lunch together. That’s it. Seriously. That’s it.


April 17th, 2009

Edward R. Murrow Rolls In Grave

by Philip Baruth

Found out that one of my commentaries, having some fun with Vermont’s low fertility statistics, shared a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award in the Overall Excellence category. The other work that VPR submitted was all hard news and audio documentary, all choice cuts, and it’s all available at VPR’s site, listed on the sidebar. — PB

Announcer: In its most recent study, the US Census Bureau reported that Vermont had the nation’s second lowest rate of fertility. Predictably enough, this has sent Commentator Philip Baruth into a tailspin of depression.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #219: I Thought Vermont Was For Lovers

Man, I don’t know about you, but last week’s Census Bureau report hit me like a sucker punch, right in the gut.

I was in a bar after work, feeling pretty good, you know, and this big guy sitting next to me from Nebraska starts telling me all about it: that Vermont has the nation’s second lowest fertility rate, just 42.2 births for every 1,000 women.

And of course it turns out that Nebraska has the nation’s second highest rate, something like 70 births for every thousand Nebraskan women.

So after he’s finished crowing about it, this Nebraska guy pats me on the shoulder, struts out to his pick-up and thunders on down the Interstate, like he’s got places to go, if you know what I mean. And I’m left sitting there on the barstool, thinking: second to last place, in the nation?

Maybe it’s all the Olympics coverage from Beijing, but that statistic was really depressing somehow. I thought Vermont was for lovers.

So the next day at work I looked up the report, and sure enough, we were second to last. The experts gave two reasons: our homogenous population, and our high rate of education.

I guess, when you strip it all away, that means that A) we’re can’t get all that excited about ourselves because somehow we remind us too much of, you know, ourselves, and B) we’re educated enough to realize that if we do have kids, we’ll have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to drive them to hockey.

So for the rest of the afternoon, I tried concentrating on our high rate of education, and it helped a little. But just before I left work, I got a call from an old friend out in Utah, which, by the way, has the nation’s highest fertility rate by a longshot. As we talked I could swear there was just a little teeny bit of smug self-satisfaction in his voice.

And that left me more deflated than ever.

Then, in the middle of the night, I woke up and sat bolt upright in bed. Because I realized that I had never checked which state was the only state with a lower birth rate than ours. So I got up and powered up the computer, went to Google, and bingo bango, there it was: New Hampshire. Vermont has a .02 % edge.

Ah! What a relief! I went back to bed, and I’m here to tell you, I slept like a baby, and not just any baby but a baby born in a state with a higher fertility rate than its next-door neighbor. After we were forced to watch New Hampshire get all the attention and hoopla last year during Presidential primary season, suddenly we were on top.

So the next day after work, I figured — for a change of pace — I’d stop by a bar in New Hampshire on my way home. It was only a couple hours out of my way, and I’d heard good things about New Hampshire bars.

So I eventually find one in Laconia, and I sit down next to this guy, and one thing leads to another, and I happen to mention our slightly higher birth rate.

And this New Hampshire guys looks at me, with a totally straight face, and he says, “Yeah, that’s because we have a slightly higher rate of education.”

And you know something? That made sense.

Then the guy got up, patted me on the shoulder, strutted out to his pickup, and thundered on down the road. Which left me sitting there, in a strange bar in New Hampshire, feeling like an eight-time gold medalist in the Olympic sport of losing.

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

April 17th, 2009

Behold, The Naked Incumbent Mentality

by Philip Baruth

Odum has been providing excellent coverage of the growing pressure to move up the Democratic Primary, to August or July or June. Most revealing nugget so far? Former Auditor Randy Brock’s not too subtle attempt to throw cold water on the whole idea:

“‘I just frankly am not at all in favor of lengthening the time, the pain, the cost,’ Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said of the election season.”

Deeply revealing, as quick off-the-cuff snippets go.

Let VDB suggest the following, Senator Brock: when getting out to mingle with and listen to your constituents becomes painful, it’s time for a little self-term-limiting.

April 16th, 2009

The State of the 2010 Race: April, 2009

by Philip Baruth

Doug Racine scored with an early entrance; has yet to land a glove since. Markowitz seems more than willing to take this fight to twelve rounds, and she has looked strong in all early workouts. How strong? One metric, though there will be others of varying import: ActBlue, the now-ubiquitous online fundraising environment. Take a glance at the Secretary vs. the Senator here. Subject to momentary change, of course. But that’s what’s happening right now.

April 15th, 2009

The Woods Are Burning: Vermont Yankee Says It Will Sue State to Avoid Clean-Up

by Philip Baruth

I remember very clearly a day back in August of 2007, sitting on the Vermont This Week panel, klieg lights hot. It was only the third or fourth time I’d done the show, and I was still a little nervous, as are most people with faces made for radio. The subject was Vermont Yankee, and given that a cooling tower had collapsed just the previous week, I said that relicensing the plant was now a legitimate question, rather than a done deal. There was a pronounced on-camera pause.

vermont yankee

It was one of the very few moments when all of the mainstream journalists on the panel gave visible expression to their lingering doubts about bloggers. There was a polite general laugh, and it was gently pointed out to me that, first, the state really had no choice but to relicense, and second, that the issue was the continuing safety of the plant, rather than the existence of the plant.

As it turned out, though, relicensing exploded as a legitimate political issue, to the extent that Entergy was forced to greenlight a vastly expensive and ongoing marketing campaign, the now well-known “As One Vermonter to Another” campaign.

In short, most mainstream journalists were then doing excellent reporting, on a daily basis. They were uncovering the key facts. But by and large they were unwilling to report the conclusions stemming logically from their own work.

And today we have another case in point: WPTZ is reporting that if the decommissioning fund measure now moving through the Legislature is eventually allowed to become law, Entergy will take the state to court to have it overturned.

Let’s be clear about the matters at hand.

This decommissioning fund bill, like its predecessor, simply requires the company to demonstrate the financial ability to clean up the Vernon site if circumstances dictate its closure. Entergy does not have to come up with the (minimum of) $800 million in cash; it merely needs to sign on to a set of financial instruments that would provide the cash in that eventuality.

But what Entergy is really balking at is obvious: accepting that clean-up is their responsibility in the first place.

Anyone who has followed the issue with even a sidelong glance over the past several years can see the pattern: company claims that decades of SafeStor has always been a key part of any decommissioning plan; Entergy’s attempts to establish one or two limited liability corporations to assume its risk, as well as the costs of eventual clean-up; company claims that it never assumed the responsibility for clean-up at the time of purchase, in spite of what its “press releases” might have said at the time.

Add to that the most recent fact, that Entergy intends to sue the State of Vermont if it acts to reaffirm the company’s most basic obligations.

It could not be any clearer that Entergy has declared its intentions, rogue intentions. In turn, the legislature must declare its own. And if Jim Douglas continues to shield a Louisiana-based company giving every possible sign that it intends to saddle the state with what might amount to over a billion dollars in clean-up costs, then he should be publicly and roundly shamed.

bernie stares down lunch

Forget ongoing safety concerns at the plant, as pressing as they are. This is worse: a company openly daring the state to protect its environmental interests, and threatening legal warfare if it does so.

As Willy Loman once noted, the woods are on fire. Of course, Loman was dead, by his own hand, before he could get anyone to notice. So there’s that.

April 14th, 2009

MN Appeals Panel: Coleman “Absurd”

by Philip Baruth

So the Special Panel of Three in Minnesota has finally ruled, and they produced a result that has the Coleman camp cheering: Al Franken “received the highest number of votes legally cast.” Which means? You got it: the door is wide open for Coleman to score the most votes illegally cast! Or shit, no, that won’t work, because these three Minnesota graybeards have been watching Coleman’s team and know precisely how low he’s willing to go. So they’ve pre-emptively condemned the “illegal landslide” strategy too.

Said the panel, Coleman’s position would “lead to an absurd result. Following [Coleman’s] argument to its conclusion, the court would be compelled to conclude that if one county mistakenly allowed felons to vote, then all counties would have to count the votes of felons.”

The Star Tribune refers to this as a “blunt” rebuke, as in Coleman’s lawyers have apparently been smoking “the blunts” while preparing their briefs. Will that prevent Coleman from appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court?

Never in hell.

But remember: the longer it goes on, the more resounding Franken’s ultimate victory. And given the differential between their various postures vis a vis the recount (Franken sober and gracious to state officials, upbeat about the process itself; Coleman lashing out at each board or panel in turn), you could easily argue that this recount will do more to recast Franken’s funnyman image than he himself could ever have accomplished during the same period in the Senate.

So rave on, Norm Coleman. This one is now unstealable, and every motion you file is not merely wasted, but in effect an in-kind donation to the 2014 re-elect Senator Al Franken fund. Just the way VDB likes it.

April 10th, 2009

Commentary: In the Kingdom of Facebook

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: The social networking software Facebook hit its peak of popularity about two years ago. Which means that Commentator Philip Baruth just found out about it a few weeks ago. Here’s Philip.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #229: In The Kingdom of Facebook

When I decided to sign up for Facebook, I sort of knew that Facebook calls itself a social networking software, but my actual knowledge was limited to the component words in the phrase. “Social” sounded positive, and “working” I usually prefer to the alternatives, but looking back, I can see that I bought into it all before I’d really considered the implications of the word “net.”

I guess I thought Facebook would be something like a digital social secretary, searching out friends and tending to them, while I remained free to do whatever productive things I like to think I do. You know, the sort of suave social planner you imagine Counts and Dukes employing back in the Renaissance.

And I was partially right. Facebook is like a social secretary — if you imagine a half-witted and utterly corrupt social secretary who’s openly taking bribes to unlock the door for people you don’t know or trust.

It works like this: you answer a few basic questions about yourself, and then Facebook immediately offers you a menu of potential friends, people it suspects you might know or want to know. And you then sniff over this menu and dismiss those that you don’t fancy, and “friend” the ones you do. Perfect so far: the thing works just like the medieval underling you’ve always wanted.

The process gets increasingly rocky, though, because Facebook is everywhere in space and time, marketing you the way supermarkets push steaks about to reach their expiration date.

And in addition to suggesting friends privately, the system lets these people apply to you directly for friendship, which lots of people do because they’re secretly selling time shares or steroids. Still, once these people have emailed you directly, as individuals, normal rules of politeness kick in — you have to friend them back, or you feel finicky and stuck-up.

But let’s face it: you hire a social secretary so normal rules of politeness won’t kick in, and you won’t be continually forced into awkward social situations, these made more awkward by the fact that people are suddenly saying and doing things to you that you’re not at all sure you want done.

For example, and excuse my French, people can “poke” you on Facebook. They poke you, you receive an email informing you that they’ve poked you, and then Facebook gives you the option of poking them back.

So what you now have in your employ is the sort of social secretary who reaches out globally, twenty-four hours a day, to Minsk and Copenhagen and Shang-hai, and suggests to strange people there that they might want to poke you.

And for my money, that’s anti-social.

But you friend them all, because who needs the guilt? And once they’re all able to access your Facebook page, your wall, they begin posting to it all the time, day and night, videos and political come-ons and risque jokes, and they’re never quiet.

Suddenly, you seem to matter very little. Your secretary has created a global cocktail party, and no matter how much you yawn and glance at the clock no one ever gets the hint. So the best thing you can do is switch off your computer altogether, which is the equivalent of just going upstairs and locking your bedroom door.

But it’s no good, finally: you can’t sleep because you know they’re down there, or in there, or wherever they are, all of them, these strange, lovely people who would do anything for you, except take their things and go home.

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

April 8th, 2009


by Philip Baruth

Sure, same-sex marriage became the law of the land in Vermont yesterday, and that was a huge blow for civil rights, and against the sort of timid, defensive politics Jim Douglas practiced all through the Bush years. And yes, that will add weight to the decisions taken recently in Iowa and Sweden and D.C. and all of that together may produce a tipping point on the issue nationally, even globally. All to the good.

But what about the crippling and immediate consequences for VDB’s own heterosexual marriage? It is to weep, friends.

As much as we hate to admit it, Rick Santorum and Mark Shepard were right all along, and so precisely right as to be frightening: by 9 pm last night, VDB’s heterosexual marriage was in tatters, and we’d moved in with a male Boxer/Chow mix we met at the dog park last spring.

And of course, because same-sex marriage destroyed our respect for the very principle of monogamy itself, the Boxer, whose name is Sugar Ray, is now pushing us to include other dogs in our impending marriage, a poodle from Milton and a Sharpei from the Old North End with whom he has a pre-existing relationship.

Which means that by this time next year, we’ll be raising 30 or 40 puppies, and since we can’t afford nearly that many — you got it — we’ll be first in line at the Welfare office down on Pearl Street.

So we’d like to take this moment to publicly apologize to both Santorum and Shepard. You saw the slope; you knew it to be slippery — wicked slippery. But we wouldn’t listen. We were so locked into our little ironic blogs, our lattes and evolution, our blind ideological push for equality.

But you two knew all along. And we didn’t listen.

And so now, belatedly, we’ll do what we can to honor your foresight, your warnings that went unheeded: we will name every scrawny cross-bred puppy we ever have after one or the other of you. Either Rick or Mark, Santorum or Shepard. Those are the only names we’ll use, except for variations on the theme: Marky, Shep, Little Ricky, Latin for Asshole, etc. You have our word.

And one day every single mutt in this town will be named for the last two major defenders of the Old Way, which will only be right and fitting.

Then, and only then, will Vermont be for Lovers again.

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