Friday, October 24, 2008

friday morning lights

I had the honor of attending, or more exactly, being told in no uncertain terms to attend the Cedarbrook Middle School presidential debate in Cheltenham Township, PA, this morning, at which my son Daniel (13) was one of the McCain representatives. (My older son, Ben, attends a Quaker private school and has pronounced McCain's candidacy "incoherent.") Immediately upon commencement of the exercise, several differences between the children's debating style and that of the candidates themselves became apparent, all of which reflected well on the students and poorly on the candidates themselves. A few examples:

1. The student debaters were uniformly well prepared, respectful, and stuck to the issues, with no (or virtually no) insults and absolutely no references to William Ayers, Joe the Plumber, or other real or imaginary people with no conceivable bearing on the outcome. One of the students appeared to know how McCain and Obama voted on each alternative energy bill, while my son named an Iraqi province that had been turned over to local forces yesterday afternoon. No one smiled, smirked, or interrupted another speaker for the entire two hours.

2. The students were charming, earnest, and funny, intentionally or unintentionally recreating the good parts of their respective heroes without the accumulated baggage. The first Obama speaker, a short and rather cherubic African-American male, was a dead ringer for Obama at the equivalent age. The first McCain speaker was a tall and feisty girl (woman) who looked and talked like a blonde version of Sarah Palin. If the candidates themselves had debated in 1976, it would probably have looked something like this.

3. The moderator, who I was told was Mayor Nutter's brother in law, was unfailingly competent and kept the candidates squarely within the rules.

This is not to say that there were no gaffes. One McCain speaker said Obama was a "socialist" and that he would "throw away" Israel, or words to that effect. An Obama speaker said a vote for McCain was a vote for the past, an unimaginably vicious allegation in a room full of 13-year olds. But at least these mistakes were unscripted as opposed to deliberate misstatements, and did little to detract from the atmosphere.

For Daniel it was an iconic moment. Chosen as the closing speaker, he bolted off the stage, waded into the audience, and proceeded to make an infinitely better case for McCain than McCain has ever made for himself, calling him the candidate of "reform, prosperity, and peace" and asking how Obama could lead the country when he voted 95 percent-plus of the time with his own party. He even managed to work in that Obama had received more Wall Street contributions than McCain, although he offered no empirical support for this proposition. Were Daniel the candidate, he would surely not be trailing in states having 350 to 400 electoral votes. He would, however, need somebody to drive him to his inauguration.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

happy simchat torah

Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), which marks the end of the long Jewish Holiday Season, is being celebrated tonight and tomorrow. Our synagogue's celebration marked the latest chapter in an ongoing cultural war, with several members--myself included--taking exception with the Rabbi's decision to dress himself and other synagogue leaders in Phillies hats and jerseys for the Holiday service. (The Phillies, if you missed, it, start the World Series in Tampa tomorrow night). Our feeling, no doubt outdated, was that the Holiday should mark the rejoicing of the law and not the rejoicing of the World Series--which, in any case, the Phillies haven't won yet. Perhaps this, like changing rules for intermarriage, gay unions, etc., is simply another example of democracy and majority rule. One is tempted to ask how far this will go: what would happen, for example, if the majority of the synagogue came out in favor of adultery, or stealing . . . or, for that matter, conversion to Protestantism, which the Reform movement (out of which Conservative Judaism grew) attempted to forestall. Perhaps it is better simply to relax and enjoy the Holiday.

One interesting aspect of synagogue life is how egalitarianism tends to enhance rather than diminish gender differences. I noticed this watching men and women dance with the Torah, a traditional part of Simchat Torah observances. Men, not surprisingly, tend to carry the Torah something like a rifle, slung over the shoulder in a rather stiff position. Women, by contrast, tend to carry it like a baby, rocking it in their arms in a kind of slow swaying motion. Part of this may be accounted by upper body strength which tends to be stronger in men than women (egalatarianism having come recently to Judaism, Torahs are typically male- rather than female-sized.) But is there perhaps something else going on?

Monday, October 20, 2008

republicans and obama

The endorsement of Barack Obama by Colin Powell--a rather less momentous event, I think, than some have pretended--provides occasion nonetheless for evaluation of a possible (probable) Obama presidency and the Republican reaction to it. How successful would a President Obama be, and would he manage to reach out beyond his supporters providing the kind of change, political and otherwise, that he claims to seek?

Perhaps the best thing an Obama Presidency would have going for it is his immediate predecessors. Since Clinton was impeached, and Bush has the lowest ratings in history, a leader who simply appeared dignified, competent, and in control would muster an awful lot of good will, from Republicans as well as Democrats. Something like this happened to Reagan: there had been so many failed presidents in a row than the country almost demanded a successful one, and came to forgive errors that might have proved fatal in another era.

The atmosphere of crisis, in financial markets but also regarding the country's general direction, also suggests that Obama (like Franklin Roosevelt) might make headway simply by appearing to be calm and in charge of matters, even without substantive changes.

But there is another, less inspiring parallel named Jimmy Carter. Like Obama, Carter came in with a rather vague, trust me spiel; a strong sense of rectitude; and a promise to get beyond the corruption and incompetence of the Nixon-Ford era. Like Obama, he appeared to be a lot of different things to different people: a liberal, a moderate, a technocrat, even (at first) a kind of religious conservative. Like Obama, Carter had swept aside more established candidates in the Democratic primary, although he nearly blew a 20-point lead in the fall contest (Obama has had a more steady lead).

Which, if either, would Obama resemble? It's hard to say, but my bet--although not necessarily my wish--is that he would face very tough sledding. I based this on three considerations.

First, the country is infinitely more polarized than in the Reagan or Roosevelt eras. Obama would start out with perhaps a third or forty percent of people pretty strongly distrustful of him, so his margin of error--with the public if not the Congress--would be pretty small.

Second, Obama would have the apparent advantage--but also the concomitant danger--of majorities, and probably large ones, in both houses of Congress. The last two times that the Democrats controlled all three branches of Government were 1976, under Carter, and 1992, under Clinton. In both cases they suffered serious reversals within the next two to four years.

Finally, Obama has simply been promising a lot of things that are inconsistent with one another. This is most obviously true with respect to fiscal policy, where he supports the Wall Street bailout plan, has hinted at expanding it to help middle income voters, and wants a tax cut, too. He has also sent mixed signals with respect to foreign policy, where he appears isolationist to some but has also suggested a more vigorous policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other areas. The left is likely to push him very hard on these issues, pointing to the party's recent success, in ways that make a more centrist policy very difficult.

Which brings us back to the Republicans. Given past history, and the likely liberalism of an Obama Administration, the GOP would be strongly tempted to take an oppositional posture that avoided responsibility and sought to blame the Democrats for all possible failures. A version of this approach was indeed used in the Clinton years and brought short-term electoral successes. But the party's base is shrinking, and a purely negative approach could wind up looking more like 1936, when the Democrats carried all but two states, than 1978 or 1994. History is as always an uncertain guide.

the home stretch

There is an interesting divergence in the Presidential race during the past week. While most commentators have effectively crowned Obama, the polls themselves have been tightening, with an average margin of about 5 points but a range of roughly 3 to 7 in the most reliable polls. Should McCain knock even a point or two off this margin in the remaining 15 days--hardly an unprecedented performance--he might head into the election within the famed margin of error. Of course, no one knows what will happen, and I personally believe that the "Obama effect", i.e., the new registrations and enthusiasms generated by Obama's candidacy, while overwhelm the so-called "Bradley effect," the supposed unwillingness of white voters to choose a black candidate. But is it possible, just barely, that the experts have called things too soon?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

phillies win the pennant

Well the Phillies are in the World Series for the first time since 1993, which basically means the first time for my kids and their generation. They did it in style too, winning a fourth game that I had all but given up on (the Dodgers then self-destructed in Game Five). The improvement in their pitching, a long-time sore spot, was particularly satisfying.

The juxtaposition of the debate and baseball game provided an interesting choice for my family. Ben (17) watched the Phillies, while Daniel (13), as always, went for the politics. I was reminded of Amos Oz's remark at the lecture I attended opposite the Biden-Palin debate. You know in advance what they'll say, he explained: with me, there's at least the possibility that I'll surprise you.

the third debate

I thought it was plainly the best debate, much more substantive and more follow-up questions, and also that McCain was more effective than in his previous outings. But the polls showed that Obama came out ahead again, presumably by remaining unflappable when under attack, McCain's go-for-the-jugular approach--if the trend lines are to be believed--being especially unpopular with female voters. I guess there's something to being a law professor after all.

We'll see what happens in the remaining weeks. The debates and the economic news put McCain in a very difficult position. But four weeks are still a long time, and the gap has closed a bit in the recent polling: we'll see.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

the second debate

I thought McCain was better than the first debate, clearly more in his element, but I wasn't sure it would help him much. The proposal for relief to homeowners was intriguing but not pursued nearly enough. Obama was supercilious at times but retained his cool, counterpunched well, he probably won't lose much which at this point is winning.

Overall I found the debate and especially the format disappointing. The idea of town halls is to address voters directly and get back to democratic roots. But I thought both McCain and Obama condescended to the questioners, frequently beginning their answers with verbal tropes like "Look" (Obama) or "My friends" McCain and then switching to more or less canned answers. This was especially apparent with the gentleman, a youngish black male, who asked the entirely reasonable question what in the world will the bailout do for me? Neither candidate really answered him, instead reiterating we had to help Wall Street first and ordinary people second, which was probably pretty much the guy's point.

My son, who is much more technically savvy than I am, noted an interesting feature regarding the audience "trend lines" displayed by CNN under the screen. In many cases, he noted, the lines began to move immediately when the candidates began speaking, i.e., before they had said anything of substance (or nonsubstance) that viewers could possibly respond to. In other words, the viewers were responding to the fact of their preferred candidate speaking, rather than anything that they said. That being the case, what exactly was the point of the trend lines, or the "audience reaction" polls that were presumably based upon them?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

what future for the mccain campaign?

The McCain campaign has apparently decided to pull out of Michigan and adopt an aggressive attack tone in its future advertising, abandoning any serious hope of "selling" McCain and Palin in favor of frightening people regarding the likely course of an Obama Administration. The polls suggest it is headed for losses in states having 350 or more electoral votes, including Virginia, North Carolina, and other Republican bastions. My guess is this is somewhat overstated--I think the race will be rather closer than this, especially in the Midwest and South--but for the moment it looks grim.

Most of the commentary attributes McCain's problems to the economic meltdown, which is probably true, or to Sarah Palin, which is probably not true (she still adds much more to the ticket than Biden and has performed well before the biggest audiences). But I think the biggest problem remains McCain himself and the way he has run his campaign. Following Palin's speech at the Republican Convention, McCain--as I suggested here--had a tremendous opening to launch a genuine reform campaign, with specific proposals that distanced himself from Bush and presented the GOP as a genuine change alternative. Instead he opted for an essentially "resume'" campaign that hailed his military record, Palin's folksiness, and similar themes rather than a serious attempt to deal with the country's problems. The response to the bailout, which emphasized "leadership" over specific proposals, only aggravated this problem.

McCain's problems are, I think, less a crisis of conservatism than a comment on the limitations of military people in political positions. I am reminded of Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister who said that peace negotiations were similar to military operations: you identified a problem, took decisive action, and the problem was resolved. No, they're not, I remember thinking: in a military campaign, you can simply destroy the obstacles that you can't reason with, in politics it is rather more complicated. By adopting an approach that is all tactics with little if any long-term strategy--by turning his campaign into an effective issue-free zone--McCain has violated even the basic principles of military thinking, condemning himself to a likely loss and, if he somehow should win, a likely directionless presidency. If the campaign is to turn around, it had better be fast, and very different from the direction it is now taking.

Addendum: I'm fascinated by the Bill Ayers terrorist association thing for a number of reasons. It is, of course, true that Ayers was involved with a terrorist organization and is not especially repentant about it. It's also true that one of Obama's first fundraisers was at Ayers' home. But all of this was well after Ayers' Weather Underground period, when he was--rightly or wrongly--treated as a respected member of the Hyde Park Community. Indeed, in a curious twist, Ayers' wife, Bernardine Dohrn, who was also involved with the group, is or was for yours employed at the Northwestern University School of Law which has one of the most conservative faculties of any major law school (I believe it was the only prominent law school, in a recent survey, to have more McCain than Obama contributors.) I raised the Dohrn issue with David Van Zandt, the then dean of Northwestern, a few years ago and was told--accurately, I'm sure--that neither the Northwestern faculty or alumni had any particular problems with the association. My point is not that it is somehow illegitimate to raise the Ayers connection or that it reflects particularly well on Obama's judgment: but if the most Republican law faculty in the country doesn't care, why would the McCain campaign assume that anyone else well?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

an evening with amos oz

Reading a book--especially a memoir--always makes one feel they know the author, so it was a rare pressure to actually meet Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, at Columbia University last week. "Meet" is perhaps overstating it: I actually got closer to Sarah Palin than I did to Oz, who attracted a sellout crowd many of whom, curiously, spoke the same European-accented Hebrew that his parents spoke in the book ("A Tale of Love and Darkness") about which he was speaking. The lecture was short (45 minutes), the questions (what is your writing routine? which of your books do you like best?) predictably idiotic, and Oz--whom I always thought a sort of enfant terrible--looked every bit of his 69 years. Yet the evening was spellbinding, for reasons that I will develop below.

"A Tale of Love and Darkness" [Sipur al ahava ve'khosekh] is the story of Oz's parents and, implicitly, the birth of the State of Israel as reflected in their experiences. As the title suggests, the story is not a happy one. Oz's mother, Fania Mussman Klausner, killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills in her sister's Tel Aviv apartment in 1952, at the age of 38. His father, Arieh Klausner, was a well-meaning but clumsy intellectual who never quite managed to find an academic job, working instead in the national library and, Oz suggests, seeking the company of other women while his wife wasted away and eventually imploded when their only son was the ripe age of 12 1/2. Oz himself left home, changed his name [Oz means strength in Hebrew] and joined Kibbutz Hulda in the middle 1950s, where he became a famous if controversial writer and one of the leading voices of the Israeli peace movement (he now lives in the desert town of Arad, where your correspondent spent a year in the 1970s, but that's another story).

As Oz put it in his lecture, "Love and Darkness" is a sort of tragicomedy, with the twist that--rather than alternating tragic and comic aspects--it tends to describe the same events as sad and funny at the same time. Perhaps the most famous involves a speech by Menachem Begin, then a right-wing leader and later Prime Minister, that Oz's father took him to about 1950 and which, he says, marked his final break with the Israeli nationalist right. In his speech Begin asserted that the Ben Gurion Government was weak, encouraging the world powers to arm the Arabs; if he were leader, by contrast, "the whole world would be arming us." Unfortunately the classical Hebrew "to arm" [lezayen] is the modern word "to f---" or, more literally, "to penisize" someone, so that Begin appeared to be promising that Israel would either screw or be screwed by the entire world if he ever came to power: a prediction which to a certain extent, came true in the 1970s and 1980s, but which at the time sent the 12-year-old Oz into fits of laughter an ignominious exit, and eventually the Peace Now movement. In a somewhat less jocular vein Oz describes the excitement in Jerusalem on November 29, 1947, when the UN approved the partition plan and thus the existence of Israel, the only time he heard (or felt) his father cry: but even this event is leavened by related passages, as when his father tries futilely to load a rifle, or when Israeli boys use condoms left by British soldiers as inflatable balloons.

The tension between comedy and tragedy, and the interplay between private and public events, give "Love and Darkness" extraordinary power, reminding one of the famous assertion that all unhappy families (and perhaps countries) are unhappy in their own particular way. Neither tension entirely departs, even in the book's bleakest moments. In the final pages Oz confronts the death of his mother, which he has hinted at throughout the book but never fully dealt with. The description is intensely private and bitterly, almost unbearably sad. But even here there is an element of humor, or at least absurdity: her relatives suggest that she wander the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday night to be cheered up by the good looking men there, and the description of her imagined walk (right on Dizengoff, left on Frishman) doubles as a guide, one presumes intentional, of the city and country's growth in this period. Nor is this story devoid of literary allusions, as Oz surely realizes: like the title character in Shosha or Micol in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Fania does not so much die as simply disappear, once the European past to which she was attached no longer exists. It is as if Oz, who became famous as a chronicler of contemporary Israel, is admitting that the country is part of a larger Jewish world, that the themes and tragedies of Europe could not wholly be avoided by changing locales.

In his talk Oz tended to emphasize comedy more than the tragedy, although he did speak of Jews' "unrequited love" for Europe as a theme of the book. A good part of the time was devoted to his Grandma Shlomit who, he said, is the only person in history to die of cleanliness (she believed the Middle East to be full of germs and eventually collapsed in the bathtub). In a similar vein he spoke of the postman in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kerem Avraham, who would attach unrequested notes (take in your laundry, can't you see you are spoiling your children) to the letters he delivered on his route. He suggested that the author's role--recounting stories but embellishing or reinventing them on the way--was similar to the postman's, or as Oz put it, that "[unadorned] facts are sometimes the enemy of the truth."

Had there been more time, or had I been more important, I would have liked to ask Oz some more challenging questions, regarding the impact of Zionism on his writing (he takes a universalist stance but his father, like Gabriel in A.B. Yehoshua's "The Lover," seems an exaggerated stereotype of the Galut [Disaspora] Jew); his attitude toward women (he proclaims their superiority, sexually and otherwise, to men, but in a way that reduces them to an oddly passive role); and the broader question of national literatures in the modern world. (Oz was heavily influenced by Sherwood Anderson and Yehoshua by William Faulkner: in what sense, then, are they "Israeli" or "Jewish" writers, and is it even meaningful to speak in these terms?) For now it was privilege enough to be in the same room with one of the "g'dolei ha'am", the great ones of his people or generation: a term his parents would have understood all too well, even if they did not live to see it.