What's All This Then?

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

As visitors to this blog have noticed, the author is on a quasi blog sabbatical - sometimes writing only two or three times a month. Other tasks are taking up too much of my time to write on a more regular basis - but occasionally issues arise that can’t be ignored by a serious observer of the passing parade - no matter how busy one may be with other matters - and torture and the specter of a "Democratic" Specter are such compelling issues. For today, the subject is Specter the "Democrat."

President Obama has disappointed me a few times since he assumed office and his open arms embrace of Arlen Specter’s political conversion is one of them. He knows as well as anyone that the Specter Switch has nothing to do with a new found political philosophy. To his credit, Specter didn’t try to hide his reasons. He admitted that he’s switching because he wants to hold on to his seat - and that he has a better chance of doing so as a Democrat than as a Republican. Provided of course that someone doesn’t challenge and defeat him in a Democratic primary race - an outcome which I sincerely hope will come to pass. I am no fan of Arlen Specter the Republican or Arlen Specter the Democrat.

It was bad enough when the president welcomed Joe Lieberman back to the Democratic fold with open arms after that worthy did everything he could to deny him a presidential win - at times in what to me was an unforgivably disparaging manner - but at least Lieberman had served most of his Senate career as a Democrat - even if it was in name only. But to promise to campaign for Specter? What if, as I have indicated, there is a primary challenge by a popular Democrat? Would Obama be committed to supporting Specter up to and including actively campaigning for him? Knowing why Specter switched - wouldn’t it have made more sense to have confined his pleased reaction to one of general welcome and not make a commitment that might be difficult to fulfill two years from now?

From what Specter has been saying , his supportive vote on some of the president’s key issues is far from assured. In fact, he has already said that he cannot be counted on to deliver a 60th vote for cloture - if indeed he becomes the sixtieth vote for the "good" side. What the president may have with a "Democratic" Specter is another Lieberman - someone with the ability to support or kill key legislation and who could hold the administration hostage with his one vote.

Republicans in the Senate can usually be counted on to vote in unison on most issues. Obama can’t count on the same kind of support from the Democratic side - so one has to wonder if the addition of the new junior Democratic senator from Pennsylvania is really something to celebrate. He is "junior" isn’t he - being the newly self selected Democratic Senator from his state? Or does his senatorial service as a Republican count toward seniority status in his new role? It was a question I raised when Lieberman got re-elected as the Party of One Senator from Connecticut. Did his seniority begin all over again or did his past service as a Democratic Senator count toward his overall seniority? And in Specter’s case, he’ll be joining Bob Casey who has been the one and only, legitimately elected Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania since January, 2007. That’s 28 months longer than Specter’s Democratic service. Wouldn’t that make him subservient to Casey in seniority - at least in Democratic party membership?

Specter is supposed to be - or supposed to have been a "moderate" Republican and so, the conventional wisdom goes - wouldn’t have too much trouble going along with a Democratic agenda. I suppose compared to someone like John Kyl or Jim Inhofe you could call Specter a moderate - but then compared to those two, you could call almost anyone a moderate. What I would call Specter is unreliable - someone who might talk a good game and sound reasonable but who can’t be counted on to put his actions where his mouth is. I penned my opinion of the man and his qualities once before - on January 31, 2007 under the title of The Spectre of Specter - hence the title of these comments. And in my view, the Specter I wrote about more than two years ago is the same Specter I’m writing about today - except for one thing.

Although there are eleven Senators of Jewish ancestry - as am I - Specter was the sole Republican Jewish Senator after Norm Coleman was defeated. And now - if you can believe his conversion - there are none. But in giving up membership in the Republican party, he automatically became a member of a different group of Senators who happen to be of Jewish descent - those who value preservation of their Senate seats above all else Above party loyalty. Above principle. Other members of this group are Joe Lieberman - who lost a Democratic party primary and then ran and won as an "Independent Democrat" - and Norm Coleman - the Jewish Senator from Minnesota who plans to appeal to the Galactic Supreme Court to prevent Jewish Comedian Al Franken from taking the seat he won from him by some 300 odd votes.

What is it about these Jewish Senators who won’t give up their seats until hell freezes over? Maybe not even then. And no. I’m not being anti-Semitic. Just observational. As one Jew about three others - none of whom would ever get my vote for unpaid, volunteer, deputy assistant dog catcher.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I hadn’t planned to write anything today - I’m trying to recover from Wednesday’s unforgivable misuse of the royal drink of kings and other worthy nobles to insult and attack President Obama under the guise of protesting taxes and Wall Street bailouts. There’s nothing wrong with protesting the way we’re taxed and how the government spends our tax money. There’s a lot wrong with using such protests to yell epithets and carry banners accusing the President of being a Communist, a Socialist, a Fascist or a Hitler clone. The people doing that aren’t protesters. They’re sick hatemongers. So I’m not going to waste time and effort writing about them.

But I just took several minutes to view and listen to Susan Boyle performing on YouTube - a longer version than the one we’ve all seen and heard countless times on newscasts and other television shows -and there was one aspect of that performance that annoyed me and that I think is worth writing about - because I’m sure that no one else will.

As the whole world now knows - Susan is the 48 year old, dowdy looking spinster from Scotland who appeared on "Britain’s Got Talent" and wowed the judges and the audience with her version of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserable. The musical is a favorite of mine and on my CD of the show, the song is performed beautifully by Randy Graff who played Fantine in the original Broadway production. I also have an interesting version of the song by Neil Diamond on his 1987 reprise of his first "Hot August Night" album.

Ms Boyle’s performance has been reported on our national news telecasts as though it was a major news story - and I would assume has been and is being reported with the same vigor in other countries. And it’s been reported that the YouTube viewership has run into the millions. I turned my radio on this morning - and there it was again - still being reported as a major news story. And I’m getting e-mails from friends and relatives with links to YouTube as if I might have missed the onslaught of news reports. It’s always nice when a new musical talent bursts upon the scene - but the coverage of this new talent reached the overkill point a couple of days ago - and I have no idea how I might describe the coverage if I see and hear more reports tomorrow and the next day - as I fully expect to.

Susan Boyle has a strong , clear voice that doesn’t match her appearance - and I guess that was of some significance to the "Britain’s Got Talent" judges and to the studio audience. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" doesn’t match that of a Randy Graff or of Leah Salonga who also played Fantine on stage - but for an amateur, it was an admirable performance. I wish I could say the same for the audience reaction - which is a part of the story that I thought was worth writing about.

It seemed just fine to the likes of Charlie Gibson and other TV news anchors who called attention to the obvious - that the audience reaction to her appearance quickly changed from skepticism to enthusiastic approval. The on the air news clips that I’ve seen showed only enough of her performance to demonstrate her surprising vocal ability and the reaction it engendered. But I have now listened to the entire performance - and to me, the audience reaction was as much disrespectful as it was approving - with their incessant applause and other noisy expressions - almost from Ms Boyle’s first note to her last. Not being a rock star used to such behavior from arrested juveniles, it’s a wonder she managed to get through the song at all. I know I sat and listened to the entire performance shaking my head in disbelief and saying "shut up already" to an unresponsive screen.

What happened at that taping of "Britain’s Got Talent" is something that has happened many many times in the life of musical theater. Some little known performer steps to the footlights to sing and - in showbizz jargon - "stops the show." And when that happens in the theater, the audience reaction is always the same. It is one of stunned silence . Of hushed awe. Not a single extraneous sound to interfere with the unexpected, show stopping performance. And at the end of such a performance in the theater - enthusiastic applause. Sustained applause. Often a standing ovation. But always at the end - not during the show stopping performance - and sometimes even after a measurable pause as the audience takes a moment to let what they’ve just seen and heard "sink in."

One has to wonder what kind of people make up the audience at "Britain’s Got Talent" tapinngs. .Certainly not theater goers. They strike me as more like the Jerry Springer kind of studio audience - expected and presumably encouraged to yell, scream, hiss and hoot while the show’s guests "perform." Maybe the producers of "Britain’s Got Talent" recruit these kinds of audiences and encourage them to react to the amateur performers while they are performing. Just like the Jerry Springer Show.

But unless the studio was packed with European and American tourists , the presumption is that Ms Boyle was performing in front of an English audience. English! An appellation that at one time was synonymous with breeding - with good manners. But apparently now a memory of the distant past. An English studio audience for Simon Cowell’s productions is interchangeable with an American audience for a Simon Cowell production. Both guaranteed to act like yahoos on cue.

I realize that part of the attraction of the amateur shows run by Simon Cowell - over here it’s American Idol - is to feature a sprinkling of hopelessly untalented amateurs so that he and other judges can insult and ridicule them - and the audiences, either voluntarily or with encouragement, join in the derision with jeers and laughter. It’s all part of the show. It’s an aspect of the show that attracts a segment of the television audience - perhaps a large segment - those who think it’s "entertaining" to watch people make fools of themselves and to be ridiculed for their efforts. To have their feeble attempts at "performing" drowned out by derisive laughter and other assorted noises. But when that kind of behavior carries over to the kind of talent displayed by Susan Boyle - hooting, hollering and applauding while she tried to sing - for me it came close to spoiling the performance because I was almost as much disgusted with the obviously well intentioned but nonetheless offensive cacophony as I was impressed with her singing.

I hope Ms Boyle has the kind of career that she’s dreamed of all her life. I just hope that if she reaches the London stage or Broadway - none of the people who accompanied her television debut with their cacophonous idea of "approval" - will be in the audience.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It’s hard being a pioneer. That’s something I wrote decades ago when I launched a company newspaper for WBKB TV in Chicago, having chosen "Pioneer" as the paper’s name. It was damned hard because I was the editor, wrote most of the copy, did the press run on a mimeograph machine and hand carried copies from floor to floor and department to department. And I didn’t get a paid a dime over my regular pay for all the effort.

A few days ago I launched another pioneering effort - calling for a new national holiday - Pundit Free Day. I tried to set an example by refraining from punditry myself for days on end, hoping that others would notice and send words of encouragement and agreement. I even sent the Pundit Free Day comments to two of my favorite Chicago Tribune columnists and asked for their support - but I never heard a word from either of them - not even an automated "out of office" response. It’s damned hard being a pioneer.

But despite the lack of encouragement, I was determined to hold forth - if necessary alone - until someone noticed and applauded my bravery and seconded my pronouncement. But that was until the other night - when I heard Rachel Maddow talk about an organized right wing plan to engage in "tea bag protests" - and I was no longer able to maintain my personal pundit free odyssey. I’d heard some vague talk about such an event before but I’d put it out of my mind as the usual foolishness of the fringe right. The fact that Rachel thought it worthy of mention persuaded me to break my silence of the pundit vow and step into the fray.

There is an aspect of tea bag protest that I understand full well. As readers of this blog know, I was born and spent many of my formative years in England - and of course was nurtured on the British national drink, which, contrary to misguided belief, is not warm draft beer - but of course tea. Tea sold in varying amounts but never in anything called a "tea bag." It was loose tea, spooned into a tea pot over which was poured boiling water. You had the option of using a hand held strainer to pour your tea from pot to cup, but most people didn’t bother. A true tea drinker isn’t bothered by the occasional leaf that settles to the bottom of the cup.

It wasn’t until I settled permanently in the United States as a young a adult that I was introduced to the tea oddity known as the tea bag - which I instinctively rejected - protested if you well - as an unacceptable aberration. But after a while I came to the realization that if I was to live my life as a true American, I would have to learn to accept this strange product as something born of Yankee ingenuity rather than a deliberate assault on revered tradition - and soon I was popping an appropriate number of tea bags into my tea pot and happily drowning them with the appropriate quantity of boiling water. And it didn’t take too many years before I abandoned the tea pot altogether and began drinking my tea one bag at a time. Bag in cup, boiling water poured over and milk and sugar added. The civilized way to drink tea.The age old argument over whether milk should be added to the tea or vice versa is a question for ultra sophisticated tea drinkers only and will not be discussed here. Perhaps someone will create a milk first or last blog and I will submit a contribution there

I sometimes think I was punished for my almost casual break from tea preparation tradition when, years later, on a visit to the old country, I sat down in a country tea shop for cup of tea and some munchies - only to be told "we don’t do tea!!" The influence of being overrun by coffee drinking tourists. Of course American restaurants have never "done tea." They have tea available but they have no idea how to serve it. It doesn’t matter if the establishment’s average charge for an entrée is five bucks or fifty five bucks - a cup of tea order still brings forth a small pot filled with hot but never boiling water - and a tea bag on the side. Tea of course should never be "dunked" into water - boiling or not. The boiling water should always be poured on top of the tea - whether loose leaves or in a tea bag. And of course if one is a natural tea drinker from birth, one adds milk and sugar. And always over dark tea - Orange Pekoe or similar.

I don’t know any of the people who are involving tea bags in their protests, but I would be willing to give odds that they are not "tea people." Ask of the significance of 4 p.m. , you’d likely be answered with a blank stare. These are people who wouldn’t know the difference between Typhoo and Typhoon. It is an insult to this noble nectar of civilized people to have it hijacked by such people for their silly little "protests." After suffering through eight years of lies, incompetency and lawbreaking by the president that I presume most of them supported wholeheartedly - they have now been blessed with a president who respects the rule of law and is respected by the nations of the world. And is leading us out of the worst recession in decades with bold plans. A change of immeasurable magnitude. And how do they respond? By using the drink of my forefathers to express their unhappiness.

It is of course their right to protest - and this president would support that right with his dying breath. But not having sworn any oath to protect and defend any constitution , I don’t have to agree with that right as long as it involves tea. Coffee is another thing entirely. If they want to protest, let them protest with coffee. From the Atlantic to the Pacific - let them pour coffee down the drains of America while screaming protests at the top of their lungs. And preferably, let it be Starbucks coffee. My wife can’t stand the horrible brew and people who have been conned into buying it are likely the same people waiting for their pet rocks to wake up and say their first words.

So let them protest with Starbucks coffee. Maybe pour it over pet rocks and turn them into Chia Rocks. Just leave my tea alone.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Now that every current affairs blogger - and radio, television and newspaper pundits have analyzed, interpreted, praised or condemned last week’s presidential press conference, I feel that I’m ready to add a few thoughts that may not have been expressed by the political pundits of the world and to suggest a new idea for them.

In brief - Obama displayed knowledge and confidence - but, as many critics have observed, as if it was important - it was boring. Not him. IT. A couple of people tried to be confrontational - but Obama is unflappable and no real excitement was engendered. Big deal!!

Those who wanted to be up to date on the economic recovery progress and other issues on the president’s plate, tuned in to the press conference or read a summary in the following day’s papers or read the word for word transcript on line as soon as it was available.

Despite all of the ways in which members of the public could have been exposed to what was said and by whom at the press conference, the pundits of the world - as I have just observed above, felt a compulsion to report their version and their analysis of what we all could have seen, heard and read about for ourselves. Alan Sherman capsulized the phenomenon in his Al ‘n Yetta" parody more than four decades ago.
"Al ‘n Yeta watched an operetta. Leonard Bernstein told them what they saw."
It wasn’t enough for the fictional couple to enjoy an operetta. The great conductor and composer had to explain it all to them later. In case what they thought they saw wasn’t what they saw at all.

The post press conference pundits performed more or less like we would expect them to perform. The conservatives - from the sane all the way out to the nut cases- explained what was wrong or bad about Obama’s performance. The moderate to far left pundits "saw" more or less the opposite. But there was one thread of commonality throughout all the punditry. There was too much of it. Far too many pundits. Far too many opinions. Far too many ego trips. And if you’re anything close to a news junky, it was impossible to avoid. Turn on your favorite evening cable show and there it was . Hours of programming talking about the president’s news conference . What he did right. What he did wrong. How the pundit you’re watching knows more or better than Obama. How the pundit you’re watching/listening to - would make a far better president.

And if you are anything like me, you cried out "enough already." Not just last March 24th or 25th - but following many a similar occasion when you were bombarded with an excess of punditry. So in the spirit of "enough already" I would like to propose a new national holiday to add to New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I propose March 25 as Pundit Free Day. It will be a national holiday - meaning that schools will be closed, no stocks or commodities will be traded and no mail will be delivered. But beyond those familiar trappings of national holidays, Pundit Free Day will include what the name implies.

On Pundit Free Day. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk will be off the air. As will Ed Schultz and his ilk. Those tuning in their radios to the stations that normally carry Limbaugh and Hannity and Savage and other assorted nuts of the extreme right, will be greeted with continuous military music. Those tuning in the few stations carrying Schultz and Stephanie Miller and Ron Reagan and their "progressive" colleagues, will hear nothing but show tunes. Similarly - the cable talk shows of O’Reilly and Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Glen Beck will - in years when March 25 falls on a weekday, be replaced by continuous showings of Patton and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. You can guess which movie will replace which pundit.

On Pundit Free Day, all electronic news programs and all newspapers will be required to report the totality of news events including recordings or transcripts of all that was said by "newsmakers." Thus, on Pundit Free Day, no "sound bites" or "news clips" will be allowed. And definitely no opinions. If there is too much material to present in a newscast or in a newspaper, viewers and readers will be directed to Internet sites where videos and transcripts will be available. At least until March 26..

The exception to the rules governing Pundit Free Day will be this and similar sites. That is, commentary by people doing it for their own amusement for a limited audience and without any remuneration other than the pleasure of being a blogging pundit and having that phrase sound like swear words without them being so.

Since it will be a school holiday, activities will be devised for kids that will in no time become beloved traditions - as will Pundit Free Day Family Dinners at which time family members will totally ignore the ancient admonition that all the things one really likes are either illegal, immoral or fattening. The theme of the dinner will be - "bring it on." ALL of it!!

Finally, there will be penalties imposed on those who violate the rules of Pundit Free Day. There is no doubt that the likes of Limbaugh and Savage and Hannity will find it impossible to refrain from spewing forth their usual vicious and/or nonsensical garbage for a full 24 hours - and that there will be one or more radio station owners who will defy the punditry ban and allow them on the air. Violations from left leaning pundits would be less likely. Most of them actually believe in the rule of law - and none that I know agree with George W Bush that the constitution is " just a goddamned piece of paper."

The rules of Pundit Free Day are still in the formative stage, so penalties for violations have yet to be finalized - but under serious consideration for right wing violators is confinement for 24 hours to a locked room, in which the ceiling and all four walls are completely covered with giant sized television screens displaying an endless loop of Obama campaign rallies with a continuous chorus of "Yes We Can" at a volume level that cannot be changed. Other penalty suggestions would be welcome and will be given serious consideration.

March 25th can’t come soon enough for me. Maybe we shouldn’t be made to wait. Maybe we should pick another date. Suggestions anybody? April 2nd or 3rd ???