In a wide-ranging piece in the NYT Magazine, Peter Baker checks in on the post-presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. Among the topics discussed: Election 2008 fallout — Obama is forgiven, Kennedy and Richardson are not — and Clinton’s retrospective view of his own administration’s economic policy in light of the “Great Recession.” “He added: ‘If you ask me to write the indictment, I’d say: “I wish Bill Clinton had said more about derivatives. The Republicans probably would have stopped him from doing it, but at least he should have sounded the alarm bell.”‘”
James Whitmore, 1921-2009. “Although not always politically active, in 2007, Whitmore generated some publicity with his endorsement of Barack Obama for U.S. President. In January 2008, Whitmore appeared in television commercials for the First Freedom First campaign, which advocates preserving ‘the separation of church and state’ and protecting religious liberty.“
I missed this when it first went down, but the NYT just apprised me of it: On the verge of electoral oblivion — the retirements of Sens. Martinez, Brownback, Bond and Voinovich don’t help — the Republicans have filed two lawsuits aimed at overturning McCain-Feingold, apparently in the hope that they could then feasibly prostitute themselves back into power. (Feingold’s response.)
“In 2003, in McConnell v. F.E.C., the justices upheld the precise provisions the Republicans are now challenging…The McConnell decision should end the matter. But the R.N.C. seems to be hoping that because of changes in the court — in particular, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s replacement by Samuel Alito — it can persuade the court to undo this recent and important precedent.” Hmm. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
With the recount winding down and enraged Republicans frothing up — where was this outrage in Dade County eight years ago? — it seems that Democrat Al Franken is up by 225 votes, and is likely slated to be the next Senator from Minnesota. Several potential legal challenges remain in the arsenal of Republican Norm Coleman (who also happens to be trying to fend off an FBI bribery investigation at the moment), but apparently it’s hard to see any outcome from these proceedings that will avail him the needed margin of victory.
So, Franken it is, then. Great, another Dem in the Senate is always excellent news. That being said, perhaps we should view recent events in Minnesota as the umpteenth wake-up call for this country to get its voting infrastructure in order? If I go take out a hundred bucks from an ATM at the local 7-11, I never have to wait in line for hours. The record of my transaction never goes missing, get displaced, or ends up being double-counted. I’ve got a paper trail of the withdrawal, and my bank and/or creditors in their faraway lands know the score immediately — there’s no waiting two months to tally up my recent expenditures. Truly, this is an Age of Wonders.
While taking into account some system of anonymity that will maintain the secret ballot, perhaps we can find a way to apply this magical 21st-century technology to the voting process? Heck, at this point I’ll settle for applying 20th century tech to the problem.
It took awhile to get here, but Gus Van Sant’s timely and vibrant biopic Milk, which I caught on Christmas day, is well worth the wait. In a year that witnessed a former community organizer take his message of hope all the way to the White House, and saw a majority of Californians vote for legislating and invalidating their neighbors’ marriages (my favorite pin: “Can we vote on your marriage now?“), Milk couldn’t feel any more of the moment. (If anything, I wish Milk had come out before the Prop 8 vote, when it might’ve done some good.) Arguably the best film about the realities of politics since Charlie Wilson’s War, Milk is blessed with excellent performances across the board — most notably Sean Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin, but also supporting turns by Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and others. And as a chronicle of a key moment in an ongoing civil rights struggle, Milk also feels like a watershed film of its own in its approach to its gay and lesbian characters. In short, it’s one of the best films of 2008.
“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” So began the oft-repeated speel of the San Francisco city supervisor and “Mayor of Castro Street,” who, in 1977 and after several attempts, became the first openly gay official elected to office in the US. But, seven years before those heady days, Milk (Sean Penn) was just a 40-year-old insurance man (and Republican, even), living a closeted life of quiet desperation in NYC. After a chance encounter and illicit proposition becomes an impromptu birthday party, Milk and new beau Scott Smith (James Franco) fall in love, talk about starting over, and decide to go West. Life is peaceful there…or is it? Even as Milk’s camera shop in the gay-friendly Castro district becomes a salon of artists, thinkers, and free spirits, bigotry is rampant even in the streets of San Francisco, and the cops at best turn a blind eye to — and at worst actively participate in — antigay violence. No more, says Milk. Taking a page from the ethnic political machines of an earlier century, he organizes Castro’s gays and lesbians into first a protest movement and then an organized voting and boycotting bloc. And when a redistricting plan emphasizing community self-rule in San Francisco is put into effect, Milk becomes an actual, legitimate political wheeler-and-dealer, with all the benefits and aggravations attending. (For more on the man and the movement, see the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, now on Hulu for free.)
But, even as Harvey Milk rises to power in San Fran, a parallel movement stirs amid the churches and suburbs of Orange County. Led by former beauty queen, singer, and orange juice shiller Anita Bryant, the ever-so-Christian “Save Our Children” campaign gathers steam across the nation in its quest to roll back what meager protections gays and lesbians have managed to establish over the years. And when conservative state senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare, seemingly forever destined to play assholes) brings the fight west in the form of Proposition 6, an initiative that would ban gays and lesbians from public schools, the battle for California is on. And even as Milk becomes the poster boy against Prop 6 and for recognizing gays and lesbians as full citizens and fellow human beings, he has to contend with trouble on the homefront — not only in his personal life (his new boyfriend Jack (Diego Luna) is more than a little erratic) but in his political backyard, where supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), from the Catholic, working-class district next door, is starting to act increasingly unstable. (But, I guess this is what happens when society is so permissive as to let a man get all hopped up on twinkies.)
Which reminds me: A word of appreciation for Josh Brolin’s work here. Sean Penn is garnering kudos across the board, and a likely Oscar nod, for his portrayal of Milk, and they’re very well-deserved. It’s really an astonishing transformation Penn accomplishes here — not so much because he’s playing someone who’s gay (homosexual), but because he’s playing someone who’s gay (happy).This is the same guy who sulked through Mystic River?) And, while Brolin will likely — and, imho, justifiably in the end — get edged out for Best Supporting Actor by Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, his work here suggests he’s got some serious chops. At first it seems as if Brolin will just be coasting on his recent Dubya impression — another good-natured, hard-hearted conservative fratboy for the resume. Then, just as you think Brolin’s endangering himself in terms of typecasting, it’s suggested Dan White might also be a deeply repressed closet case. (I tend to find the argument that all frothing-at-the-mouth homophobes are in reality trapped in the closet to be too simplistic by half, but apparently there’s some grounding for it in White’s story. In any case, Brolin underplays it beautifully ) As Milk progresses, we begin to sense other reasons why White is such a strange and ultimately homicidal bird — he’s envious of Harvey, he feels personally screwed over by him, he’s something of a friendless wonder, he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree anyway, he feels trapped by, and powerless before, the authority figures in his life (his wife, his cop buddies, his church). Brolin lets all of this play out without tipping his hand in any one direction. It’s a subtle, complex, and very worthwhile performance, and it’s a testament to the film’s heart that it extends such empathy even to its ostensible antagonist.
Speaking of empathy, this isn’t at all a surprise coming from Gus Van Sant, always a very humanistic director, but it should be noted regardless: When it comes to full recognition of gays and lesbians, Milk laudably practices what it preaches. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was good for its time, but nowadays (it’s on heavy rotation on AMC) it gives off a distinctly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? vibe. And, as I said when it came out, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain often seemed “as somber, restrained, and delicate as Kabuki theater.” By contrast, the couples of Milk are passionate — both physically and emotionally — messy, flawed, and alive. Of course, there have been other well-rounded depictions of gays and lesbians in film in the past — in Van Sant’s earlier work, in the films of other gay directors like Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, and Kimberly Peirce, and in countless others. Still, Milk feels like an event of sorts. Unlike many of its forebears, it’s a mainstream Oscar-caliber movie that just takes its characters’ sexuality at face value and without apology. In that sense, it feels like a film whose time has come.
I said earlier that Dan White was ostensibly the villain of Milk, but that’s not entirely true. Rather, to its credit, the film is pretty bold about pointing the finger where the trouble really lies: at the conservative-minded legions of organized Christendom — or at the very least its right-wing, for-profit flank — who’ve decided that arbitrarily upholding one proscription mentioned in passing in the Old Testament (shellfish, anyone?), and then ruthlessly enforcing it on the backs of their neighbors and co-workers, is more important than upholding the central tenet of the actual teachings of Jesus: “Love one another.” (Along those lines, expect a good bit of “godless liberal Hollywood” bluster from the usual corners if this film gets any Oscar buzz.)
Which brings us to that Wal-Mart of spirituality, Rick Warren, who as you all know will be delivering the invocation at Obama’s inauguration this month, and who has said all manner of intemperate things about gays and lesbians (as well as jews, pro-choice voters, and others) in the past, even going so far as to campaign for Prop 8 in California two months ago.
Now, when the Rick Warren pick first came out, I didn’t say anything here for two reasons. One was deeply selfish: That was the week I was finishing up my speechwriting app, and it didn’t seem like the most opportune time to be too critical of the administration around here at GitM. (In the end, it didn’t matter anyway, of course.) More importantly, though, I am — and still partly remain — of the mind that the bigger picture needs to be kept in mind here. If it keeps the right-wing fundies relatively happy and docile, and helps them to buy into the notion of a post-partisan Obama presidency, then Rick Warren can give all the one minute ceremonial speeches he wants, so long as Obama ultimately shows himself a friend to gay and lesbian rights in his presidential actions.
But, there’s a sequence in Milk that brought me around a bit. When Dan White mentions the “issue” of gay rights in one crucial scene, Harvey replies: “These are not issues, Dan. These are our lives we’re fighting for.” And, put that way, the calculus changes. To straight progressive folk such as myself, one can easily — too easily — get to thinking of gay rights as an “issue” among many. But, for gays and lesbians all around the country, this is their lives. And, when considered thusly, the president of these United States — least of all a president who ran and won on a campaign of hope — should not be legitimizing bigotry, such as that continuously expressed by Warren without apology, in any kind of forum, let alone the most portentous and culturally significant inauguration in at least fifty years, perhaps ever.
In an eloquent column last week, the NYT‘s Frank Rich articulated basically where I stand on Obama’s decision at this point: His choice of Warren is “no Bay of Pigs. But it does add an asterisk to the joyous inaugural of our first black president. It’s bizarre that Obama, of all people, would allow himself to be on the wrong side of this history.” Let’s hope that Obama doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the last Democratic president, who very quickly started backpedaling on gay rights once in office, vis a vis “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And, while I’m sure he’s pretty busy these days, the president-elect (apparently a movie buff of sorts) could do worse than spend a few hours to reflect on the story of another community-organizer who believed in the transformative power of hope, who carried the hopes of his constitutents into higher office…and who faced unflinching and unwavering contempt from an irreconcilable opposition once he got there.
So, can you guess who TIME’s Person of the Year for 2008 turned out to be?
Not a huge surprise of course. Regardless, in honor of the occasion, and since now seems as good a time as any to fire up the 2008-in-retrospect train, below are some of the longer GitM essays on President-elect Obama over the past year and change. (And if you’re really a glutton for punishment, and want to relive all the debate coverage or somesuch, there’s always the election 2008 archives.)
Thus was the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s happy reaction to Obama’s election Tuesday night. (As you may remember, he publicly backed the senator in June.) For many others, including yours truly, the feeling of the evening might best be summed up by one of Dylan’s esteemed contemporaries, Leonard Cohen: “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Halleloooooojah!“
For the first time since 1994, we have a Democratic president and a safely Democratic Congress. For the first time since 1964, we have a Democratic president entering office with a commanding mandate from the people. For the first time since…well, ever, we’ve reaffirmed our founding principles by choosing an African-American to lead us into the future.
I don’t want to overplay the “first black president” thing, because that’s not at all why we chose Sen. Obama. Still it must be said: With this election, we have shown the world — and ourselves — anew that the American ideal isn’t just a convenient myth, but a vision of the good that many of us still aspire to create every day. In the words of Cornel West, “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.” And so we have, in a way the founders of our American experiment 221 years ago could barely have imagined.
Meanwhile, even with crooks like Ted Stevens and Norm Coleman still floating for the moment, our old friends the Republicans are now not only in full rout, but appear to be set to tear each other’s throats out in assigning blame for their repudiation at the polls. (Expect several further symposia of conservative hand-wringing, and a lot more intraparty shivving, along the lines of “Palin thinks Africa is a country,” in the weeks to come.) This gang will regroup — they always do — but for now the GOP has enough problems of their own to keep them busy. And, whatever ever they manage to accomplish as the loyal(?) opposition, it seems a safe bet that the Conservative Era that began with the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 has now officially coughed up its last in 2008, with the defeat of fellow Arizonan John McCain.
By the way, also joining the Republicans on the road to oblivion Tuesday night, alas, was my old laptop, a victim of post-return celebratory spillage. (Jamesons: Good for Jimmy McNulty and jubliant Dems, Bad for computer hardware in and around the television area.) Normally, inadvertently frying my growing-ancient-but-generally-reliable PC would’ve completely ruined my day. As it was, I took the news about like Baxter eating the whole wheel of cheese: “How’d you do that? Heck, I’m not even mad; that’s amazing.” (And, fortunately, the hard drive, and the dissertoral files therein, were salvageable regardless.)
One much more depressing skeleton at the feast Tuesday night, about which Ted at Gideonse Bible, Chris at DYFL, and others have written eloquently: the passage of the idiotic Proposition 8 in California, which seemingly won with quite a bit of help from first-time Obama voters. It’s irredeemably sad not only that a day that saw so much progress was marred by Prop 8 and its like around the country, but that so many of the voters who helped strike a fatal blow against enduring racial prejudice at the national level seemingly had no qualms about encoding anti-gay bigotry into the California constitution.
Perhaps I’m dense, but I fail to understand how the institution of marriage could somehow be threatened by the state recognizing the unions of same-sex couples, particularly in a day and age when so many straight folk (myself included) have already had marriages that failed. (As my old boss used to say of the thrice-married Bob Barr back when he supported the Defense of Marriage Act: “Which marriage is he defending?”) By the way, particularly galling on the Prop 8 front, I think, is the strong imposition of the Mormon church into the battle on the side of the anti-gay zealots. One would think, of all people, the Mormons might have some sense of the damage that can be wrought by the state involving itself in stringent definitions of marriage. But, no, apparently what was good for two ganders in the eyes of the Mormons isn’t good for the goose. For shame.
Still, the Prop 8 debacle notwithstanding (I have every faith that within a decade, that law will seem as knee-jerk, narrow-minded, and embarrassing as it in fact is), Tuesday was otherwise a great night for America. What it now befalls us to remember is that, while we should savor them while we can, the path of progress before us will likely offer few such moments of jubilation in the months and years ahead. When it comes to change, it really is “uphill all the way.”
Given the economic and diplomatic travails already before President-elect Obama, he’ll have his work cut out for him from jump street. And those out there old enough to remember President Clinton’s first days in office, and how quickly things seemed to go south then (the sanity-restoring ’93 budget bill notwithstanding) will know that a Dem president and Dem Congress is no guarantee of progressive legislation in the offing. We won’t see the change we want — and voted for — without maintaining steady and unyielding pressure on all the machinery of government in the months and years to come. Now is not the time to sit back and let our new president try to do all the heavy lifting, but to stay involved as citizens and keep the progressive ball moving forward. (And, hey, keeping one’s head in the game may help to mitigate those postpartum existential crises The Onion warned us about.)
In an election held eighty years ago (i.e. in the living memory of one Ann Nixon Cooper), Herbert Hoover, the longstanding Secretary of Commerce widely revered as “the Great Engineer” and “the Great Humanitarian,” decisively defeated Al Smith, the Catholic Governor of New York. “Given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years,” Hoover had promised in his nomination speech, “we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” And, while he obviously had his detractors, many across the country viewed Hoover as a miracle-worker who could singlehandedly steer the country to these new great heights. “We were in a mood for magic,” journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote of the Hoover inauguration. “We summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved.“
For his part, Hoover was less sanguine about his prospects. “They have a conviction that I am some sort of superman, he fretted. “If some unprecedented calamity should come upon the nation…I would be sacrificed to the unreasoning disappointment of a people who expected too much.“
Who among us think Hoover a superman now? History doesn’t stop with a war or an election or the collapse of a governing ideology, be it Communism or Conservatism. It grinds inexorably on, always uncertain, always equal parts danger and opportunity, and all too often deeply laced with irony — Time and time again in our American story, nothing succeeds like abject failure, and nothing fails like a great success. So let’s not rest on our laurels by any means: The election of 2008 was a campaign hard-fought and hard-won, but the battle continues, and in many ways the real work before us is only now just beginning.
Let us look to navigate the turbulent waters ahead with a deep and abiding faith in our new captain, but also with our own eyes to the sea.
More soon. For now, woot! Goodbye to all that, and welcome to the new. 🙂
So, here we are at last. After the interminable Democratic primary, the mile-high heights of Denver, the RNC’s sputtering lows, all the ignominious Palin follies, and the ugly throes of conservative crack-up we’ve witnessed over the past month or so, it’s at long last decision time.
Not that it’s going to be any big surprise to you, but I myself will be voting for Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, for the reasons I listed back in January and for many others, and I strongly encourage you to do the same.
Of course, voting for Obama tomorrow is a much easier call than choosing among the Democratic field a year ago. If any undecided voters actually swing by GitM (a proposition I highly doubt), well, all you really need to know right now is this:
That’s it. End of story. If you think Dubya was right 90% of the time, that everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown to national embarrassments such as Gitmo and Abu Ghraib were handled smoothly — heck, even competently — by this administration, then John McCain is your man. If you don’t, then you should vote Obama.
Similarly, if you think Congress should spend more time pursuing the interests of immensely wealthy corporations and K-street lobbyists rather than representing the American people, that criminals like Duke Cunningham, Boss DeLay, and “Casino Jack” Abramoff should be allowed to plunder the nation’s coffers for personal gain, and that the House and Senate should really be devoting their time to such all-consuming issues as flag burning and the fate of poor Terri Schiavo, then you should vote Republican. If, on the other hand, you want to finally move past all that, and help see real change enacted in this country under a President Obama, then you should vote for your Democratic House and Senate candidates, as I plan to.
Now, of course, I myself would take it farther than that. Y’see, I personally don’t believe that conservatism works as a governing philosophy — it never has, and it never will. You wouldn’t ask a vegetarian to prepare you a steak, and you don’t hire someone who despises government and/or sees it only as his personal bankroll to run a country for you. Unlike the faith-based arguments of all too many Republicans out there, I’d submit that we’ve got almost two decades of data now to back this assertion up. But, you don’t have to take it that far, if you don’t want to — Just look at the record of the last eight years, and that should help clarify who to vote for tomorrow.
As for McCain himself, well, I confess, I’m disappointed in the man. If we’d seen the candidate who ran in 2000, the one who deplored all the right-wing pettiness, racism, and wingnuttery he’s now wallowing in, we might’ve had the first win-win choice for president since…I dunno, Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes in 1916? (Update: Upon more reflection, I’ll say since Ike and Adlai in ’56.) But, the Saruman analogy holds here too. In pursuit of power, McCain turned from that path a long time ago — he enabled the Dubya administration in its idiocies, he began to coddle the hardcore right-wing fundies rather than stand up to them, he sold out his own campaign finance reform stance, and he even started to traffick in the same lowest-common-denominator, Rovian filth that was used to bring him low in South Carolina eight years ago. His choice of Sarah Palin for veep, so pathetically craven in its attempt to appease the stark raving fundies and grab disgruntled Clinton voters, was merely the cherry on top.
In short, when the worst impulses of right-wing gutter politics came a-knockin’ at his door, John McCain — for whatever reason — blinked, and completely caved to their onslaught. In this election campaign, he has put His Own Ambition First, and in so doing, he has sold his soul. For the choices he’s made during this election season alone, John McCain has lost any credibility he might’ve had to serve as our nation’s commander-in-chief.
Fortunately, I firmly believe that, after tomorrow, John McCain and the sad, tired remnants of his cause will be old news. We have an exemplary, once-in-a-generation-type candidate in Barack Obama, and I refuse to believe I live in a country that would squander the amazing opportunity before us to elect him our president.
But, you never know… So, yes, the polls look great, but they looked good in 2004 as well (even the exit polls did, in fact), and we all know how that story turned out. So, let’s handle our business tomorrow, get out to vote, and get to work on rebuilding this country. We have so much work to do.
Vote Obama, 2008.