Sick with disappointment that I missed the Tin-Tin movie showing in Eureka, I had to settle for Obama’s State of the Union and Thursday’s Republican debate in Jacksonville.
Await a presidential State of the Union address with keen anticipation? It’s like saying one looks forward to taking a niece to the Nutcracker. The last time I truly enjoyed one – the speech, not the ballet – was Bill Clinton’s in 1998, and it wasn’t because of anything he said. It was his terrific aplomb, despite the fact that the Lewinsky scandal was breaking over his head. He was rewarded with a bounce of ten points, from 59 to 69 per cent popular approval. The message was clear. We, the people, couldn’t care less about Monica. In fact, we the people thoroughly approve. The following year, the U.S. Senate was trying him for impeachment, after months of steady servings in the press of Monica’s semen-stained dress, and here was Bill as bouncy as ever, rock solid at 69 per cent.
Normally, the American people don’t set much stock by State of the Union addresses. Half the times Ronald Reagan – the Great Communicator – gave the annual State of the Union address across his two terms in office, he promptly sank in the polls by 3 or 4 points. People turned on the tv set, gasped and said, “He’s the president?”
By all rights, Obama should be a natural at the job. The desired mix is inspirational – his forte – and notionally programmatic, though the history books are knee deep in empty pledges made on such occasions. But somehow the methodical rhythms of Obama’s high-minded eloquence has a narcotic effect on me.
Last year Obama said the American people did “big things,” omitting to qualify this with the fact that mostly they’re big stupid things. This year the menu seemed to be a potpourri of things big and small, of the sort Clinton could gabble about by the hour: retraining schemes, public/corporate partnerships.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a ringing pledge to prosecute those responsible for the mortgage crisis. Next day, Glenn Ford gave a useful summary in Black Agenda Report.
“President Obama had hoped to put on a big show – a huge con, really – at his State of the Union address, by announcing a monetary ‘settlement’ of massive banker criminality in housing foreclosures. Obama’s operatives have doggedly pressed for a settlement that would effectively give banks immunity from prosecution. But he was thwarted by a small group of state attorneys general that wanted a real investigation into the crime of the century. So the president was finally forced to set up a federal unit of his own. Since Obama’s own law enforcers have failed to send a single banker to jail, Wall Street immunity is likely to remain the real State of the Union.”
Obama’s announcement was no doubt also a defensive reaction to a recent Reuters expose which suggested that the failure of the Department of Justice to launch any foreclosure fraud prosecutions during Obama’s first term might have something to do with the fact that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were partners for years at a huge Washington law firm, Covington and Burling, that represented big banks at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud.
Then Obama herded us back into “green energy,” though not the vast program for “green jobs” pledged last year; then an abrupt switch to the bad business of teenagers dropping out of high school, a swipe at the oil companies and then, finally, a paean to the core national achievement of 2011 – the killing of bin Laden, which the Presidents rather tastelessly used as his finale on the theme of American unity. It’s no surprise that Presidents laud the American fighting man in such addresses, but Obama really does go over the top.
The whole 65-minute speech will be forgotten in a week. It would have been far better if Obama had simply read out selected portions of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, perhaps with an aside on one number that jumped from the page. Though they have three large homes in Massachusetts, Boston and California the Romneys took a deduction of just above $20,000 in 2010 for domestic help. So who keeps those mansions up and running? Mormon volunteers?
Watching Obama proposing economic programs that will never come to pass, one’s prime thought was It’s all far, far too late, by three years. Obama’s one opening for doing anything substantial about the crashed economy and the banks was the honeymoon period, which last about 48 seconds after taking office.
Thursday’s Jacksonville debate was fun. There have been 19 such debates so far, and this was maybe my fourth, so the engagement had the freshness of relative novelty. By its end, Romney was glowing with the knowledge that at last he’d put in a robust performance and given Newt Gingrich three sound wallops in the solar plexus. The commentators kept referring to Romney’s “new debate coach,” who turns out to be the person who honed Michele Bachmann’s modest skills in this department.
There was a turning point which possibly assured Romney’s victory in Florida next Tuesday, maybe the nomination itself, perhaps the White House, conceivably even, as his ultimate reward in the Mormon hereafter, a really nice big planet with lots of beautiful wives awaiting his beck and call. The turning point came early on.
BLITZER (to Gingrich): “Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this. And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?”
Gingrich saw an opening for the sort of grandstanding against CNN’s John King in the South Carolina debate that won him the evening there.
GINGRICH: “Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way. I’m with him. This is a nonsense question. (APPLAUSE) … Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we’ll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?”
Blitzer could have taken it on the chin, as King did – but it looks as though he had already decided to take a stand.
BLITZER: “But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, ‘He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.’ I didn’t say that. You did.”
GINGRICH: “I did. And I’m perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.”
BLITZER: “But if you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that.”
At this point Romney jumped in:
ROMNEY: “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”
He had the better of the subsequent to-and-fro. Then he came out ahead on points in a lengthy spat about immigration, beginning with the stern admonition to Gingrich that “The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don’t use a term like that.” I wouldn’t have expected “repulsive” to be part of Romney’s verbal arsenal. It had shock value, like a pistol shot. Then he whacked Newt in a go-round on personal investments in Fanny Mae. By the end of it Romney was swelling up like Popeye after a mouthful of spinach and Gingrich stayed decidedly subdued for the rest of the night.
Ron Paul played the role of avuncular, anti-imperial libertarian very well, even though the everybody’s-uncle image was dented a few hours later by the declaration in the Washington Post of a former secretary that Paul had closely supervised the editorial production of those racist newsletters of yesteryear. On Thursday night he certainly did well against Rick Santorum’s ringing call for counter-revolutionary war across Latin America.
Thursday night, assuming it’s cashed with a Romney victory in Florida next Tuesday, must have come as a huge relief to the Republican establishment which had become so desperate after Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina and initial surge in Florida that it was contemplating a draft of Mitch Daniels at the convention next summer. But they’d have to revive Daniels first. In his response to Obama in Tuesday on behalf of the Republicans he gave every appearance of having been dead for at least a week.
It didn’t take long for Bill Clinton to figure out how to deal with Gingrich after the latter became Speaker of the House in ’95. Clinton would constantly invite Gingrich over to the White House, saying that he craved the Speaker’s depth and vision. So Newt would hasten over and blather on about moon colonies and the future. Then he’d return to the Hill where his colleagues in the Republican leadership would discover that in the midst of the palavering about space Bill had outwitted him in some crucial negotiation about highway funding. In the end they insisted that in any trip to the White House Gingrich had to take along Dick Armey as chaperone.
Gingrich’s affair with the woman who later became his third wife, Callista Bisek became public in 1998. But it was certainly no secret in the House Agriculture Committee where Callista worked from 1995. According to one witness her phone rang frequently. If she was away from her desk one of her colleagues would pick it up, and call across the room, “The speaker.”
Joke: Q. How did Newt get Sheldon Adelson to give him $18 million?
A. He promised his next wife would be Jewish.
A tumbril (n.) a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
Last week revolutionary Prosecutor Fouqier-Tinville announced the capture and imminent trial of “grow”, long sought in its counter-revolutionary mutation as a transitive verb governing an abstraction, as in “grow the economy,” a formulation popular among the Girondin faction. “Grow,” said the Prosecutor, was being held in the Conciergerie, under constant surveillance.
I’ve no doubt that the Tribunal will not long delay in sending “grow” in this usage to a well-deserved rendez-vous with the fatal blade. I associate the usage with the 1992 Clinton campaign, where talk about “growing the economy” was at gale force. My friends and neighbors here in Petrolia, Karen and Joe Paff, tell me that when they were starting up their coffee business, Goldrush, at the start of the 1980s, the local bank officials were already hard at it, talking about “growing the business.” I hate the usage, with its smarmy implication of virtuous horticultural effort. As CounterPuncher Michael Greenberg writes, “It sounds phony, aggressive, and even grammatically incorrect, not the nurturing ‘grow’ that one associates with living things.
Joining “grow” in the tumbril will, I trust, be “blood and treasure”, used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America’s wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson, but that’s no excuse. The catch-phrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure.
Shackled to “blood and treasure” should be its co-conspirator, “in harm’s way”. Jack Flannigan writes from Kerala, “Mr. Cockburn, Somebody might have beat me to it but my candidate for the squeaky old tumbril is ‘in harm’s way’. It has, especially in the last ten years, acquired a treacly red, white and blue patina about it that is overwhelmingly connected to the military and police.
“Someone sailing on a Gaza flotilla or staring down a line of sneering, rabid cops is not very likely to be be referred by our political/media elites as ‘in harm’s way’.”
Last week, dispatching the phrase to the tumbrils, I said the G. H.W Bush campaign of 1979 for the Republican nomination hefted “It’s not over till the fat lady sings” to national prominence. Jeremy Pikser writes to say the phrase “was actually first popularized by the coach (or owner?) of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team in 1978. As usual G H Bush was only capable of feeble imitation when he used it, hoping to sound like a ‘real guy.’”] Further research discloses its use in sports journalism has been attributed to writer/broadcaster Dan Cook around the same time, and in the mid-70s by a Texas Tech sports official.
Back to “narrative”, en-tumbrilled recently. Here’s a good example of its baneful penetration into the language, in a Reuter’s news story: “Rubio initially cast himself as the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. That narrative ran aground when records surfaced showing that his parents actually had left Cuba years earlier.”
Rubio is caught telling a big lie, and it gets demurely tricked out as a “narrative”.
I also passed sentence on the hiccupping “well” construction. Here it is in the first paragraph of Paul Krugman’s column for January 27. “Mitch Daniels, the former Bush budget director who is now Indiana’s governor, made the Republicans’ reply to President Obama’s State of the Union address. His performance was, well, boring.”
What’s coy little “well” doing in that sentence?
“Dear Alex, My nomination for tumbril baggage is “It is what it is”. Way overused, and vacuous in any case.Thanks, Kathy.”
From: “Kevin Rath” <firstname.lastname@example.org
“Mr. Cockburn, Recently I have been accosted with the phrase “reaching out to you” by sales people. While it may be inappropriate since your focus is the news, this stupid phrase people from marketing use in their email subject titles and language is really annoying.
“Reaching out to your Tumbril cart,
Kevin Rath, A CP member.”
Thank you, Kevin.
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Listen to a powerful voice from the grave, Robert Fitch. An excellent journalist and all-around left troublemaker, he died in March last year at the age of 72. Fitch wrote a great deal on the role of Wall Street and the real estate elite in planning New York City, and laid out the full criminal saga in The Assassination of New York, published by Verso in 1996. As Doug Henwood wrote of a central theme of the book, “So many of the things that were attributed to anonymous global forces, like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into the prototype of the globally oriented post-industrial metropolis, were consciously guided by bankers, developers, and their hired hands. They used all the instruments of state power – subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain – to get their way.”
True of New York; true of Chicago where Barack Obama began his journey to the Chicago state legislature, to the U.S. Senate and finally to the White House.
On November 14, 2008, right after Obama had been elected, Fitch gave a speech to the Harlem Tenants Association. The warm glow ignited in countless progressive and left hearts by the “Change we can believe in” candidate had not yet been extinguished by the chill embrace of reality. Fitch had no illusions about Obama, and expressed none that day to the Harlem tenants. Better still, with a wealth of detail, he set the rise of Obama in the context of a city – Chicago – in the throes of the racket known as “urban renewal.” We are printing that little-known speech now. Who, really, is Obama? Here’s an important part of the answer.
Also in this spectacular new issue: the truth about the liberals’ favorite economist – Rob Urie on Paul Krugman PLUS Does Putin face real trouble? Israel Shamir reports from Moscow PLUS Serge Halimi on presidents without power.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com