Obama's NC Strategy

Friday  October 31, 2008

Obama's NC Strategy

Talk about the audacity of hope. In recent weeks, Obama, his wife Michelle, and surrogate General Wesley Clark have all visited the military base town of Fayetteville, North Carolina. That’s right into the teeth of McCain Country. Fayetteville has a sizable black population which the Obama campaign hopes to animate. But the events I’m referring to are geared to military audiences.

I’m not sure I understand the logic of such a concentrated effort. Then again, I’m equally bewildered by the McCain campaign’s decision to send 150 “captains” into Wisconsin for their 72-hour drive this weekend. My guess is that in both cases, the respective campaigns see value in transmitting a meta-message about not conceding turf without a fight. But do the resource allocations suggest that the McCain campaign feels it doesn’t need all hands on deck in PA, or that the Obama campaign is confident they’ve got a better chance in NC than in OH?

North Carolina (where I lived for four years) is one of those states that would make any otherwise stable pollster want to open a vein. Right now the early voting totals are almost laughably in Obama’s favor. But Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt was feeling similarly confident in his 1990 Senate race against Jesse Helms, ‘til the infamous “Hands” ad awakened the sleeping bubba and crumpled Gantt’s chances. Obama’s top people in North Carolina tell me things are different now. They say the Republican bastion of Wake County (which includes Raleigh) has undergone demographic shifts in a manner similar to northern Virginia—meaning, it no longer qualifies as Real North Carolina—and is imminently gettable. They say they’re making gains among whites in the western county of Buncombe, and not just in granola-flecked Asheville. They say they’re not especially worried about a Bradley/Gantt effect undermining their efforts.

But their tactics suggest otherwise. Why else would you send Michelle Obama to Rocky Mount, NC, six days before the election? Rocky Mount has not seen a presidential candidate, or family member, since Bill Clinton’s bus blew through town without stopping in 1992. Its population barely tops fifty thousand. But 56% of those are African American. It’s a mother lode of first-time and sporadic black voters. So you deploy the candidate’s spouse to speak before a predominantly black audience of 1,500 at Rocky Mount Senior High, as the campaign did day before yesterday. The results are a spike in early voting and Get Out The Vote volunteers. Rocky Mount is energized, and the Bradley/Gantt effect is thereby countered. That’s the idea, anyway. And though no one will come out and say it, there’s a reason why the Obama campaign isn’t chest-thumping about what they refer to as their “Af-Am GOTV.” A half-century ago, white Southerners spoke openly of the dreaded “Negro bloc” that agitators from the northeast were trying to galvanize so as to dismantle the region’s cultural order. Well, that Negro bloc is here, in places like Rocky Mount. But so are the diehard exponents of that old cultural order. This the tightrope that Barack Obama has walked—thus far, with Wallenda-like proficiency.

By the way: I’m aware that I write long sentences in long paragraphs. I know that’s not the way bloggers do things. Sorry, but I’m just as God made me. Love ya. Not gonna change for ya. Let’s hug it out.

In John Edwards Country

Friday  October 31, 2008

In John Edwards Country

So I’m driving along Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, whizzing past the array of yard signs, and I’m thinking about John Edwards, whose name of course is nowhere in sight.

Exactly six years ago, I spent my days tooling around with Edwards, having signed on as a hired gunslinger to write his memoir. The 2002 midterm campaign was nearing its end, and Edwards’s party was about to get its butt kicked. The North Carolina senator dutifully campaigned for Erskine Bowles and other doomed candidates, and I remember him calling several of them the night before election day to say, “Just wanted you to know I’m thinking about you.” (“That’s a trick I learned from Ted Kennedy,” he told me after hanging up from a call. “Everybody calls you when you’ve won. What they’ll remember is the ones who call you beforehand.”)

Mostly, though, Edwards was looking ahead, and with good reason. No Southern politician seemed to have a more glorious future. Myself, I never had any emotional investment in John Edwards as America’s impending savior. He had an agile mind and a charming disposition, along with a lawyer’s gift for storytelling. But he was not big on policy briefings, and during the six months I was in his orbit, I am absolutely certain that I never once heard him utter a syllable about what by 2008 he would term “the cause of my life”—namely, erasing poverty in America. Edwards did have a lifelong cause: to not be stuck in a textile mill the way his dad and neighbors had been. One could sympathize. But a champion of the proletariat he was not.

Things didn’t end too well with our little book project. I turned in the manuscript, Elizabeth Edwards declared it substandard (“My John deserves a memoir at least as stirring as Mark Salter’s John,” is the quote I’ll always remember, to which the obvious reply—“YOUR John spent his life making millions as a personal injury attorney, not in the Hanoi Hilton”—went unarticulated), I did a second draft for which I was paid in full, the Edwardses brought in a pal to write a final draft, I saw the additional co-author’s name on the galleys and demanded that my name be removed from the final product, and Four Trials ended up selling about four copies. Still, the experience of watching a nascent candidacy up close was a net-plus for me, and I was glad to see Cate Edwards show up to a GQ party in 2004 at my invitation. In other words, bygones were bygones, or so I thought.

In early 2007, GQ asked me to do a Q&A with Edwards. His campaign arranged for it to happen in a Manhattan hotel on a particular spring morning. I was just checking into this hotel the night before the interview when one of his handlers called me. The senator would have to postpone—no reason given. Two days later, the magazine got the explanation: the Edwardses had just learned that yours truly would be the GQ writer doing the Q&A, and they weren’t “comfortable” with that. The Edwards handler then inquired whether GQ was intending to put Edwards on the cover. (Esquire and Men's Vogue were obliging Edwards thus; apparently they were going for the hat trick.) A few months later, I ran into one of the Edwardses’ closest supporters, who was fully aware of what had transpired. “Don’t you know by now?” this individual laughed. “Those two are INSANE!”

All of this by way of fully disclosing the back story for my current opinion of John Edwards, which is not high. But I’m leaving something out. When I spent my time six years ago reading all of Edwards’s legal files for book research—though in the process also receiving a crash course in how personal injury lawsuits are litigated (Karl Rove, we agree on something)—I spent my nights at the Raleigh home of two very fine people, Andrew and Cheri Young. Andrew at the time was John Edwards’s right-hand man. He raised funds, organized events, procured their Christmas trees, and fretted over every detail of the senator’s comings and goings. Above the bed where I slept in the Young residence, there was a gigantic poster of John F. Kennedy. Andrew told me that he had grown up idolizing JFK, and that in JRE, he heard a distinct echo of Camelot. One night over bottles of wine, I remember—and I’ll never forget—Andrew Young telling me, “I’d take a bullet for John.”

I don’t even have to say it, do I?

Flash forward to May 14, 2008, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Obama’s reeling from the Jeremiah Wright blowback. Hillary has marched through Appalachia with a stunning set of victories, culminating in a bloodbath in West Virginia. Now comes the great white hope, John Edwards, to stop the bleeding—and, in the process, set himself up for a plum appointment in an Obama administration. His speech that evening in Grand Rapids can only be termed an endorsement in the sense that Obama’s name is mentioned a couple of times—in a halfhearted, your-candidate’s-name-here manner that makes the Clintons look like the Obama Girl by comparison. Obama’s so grateful he doesn’t seem to care. The kingmaker basks and the future gleams brightly as before. Meanwhile, somewhere in Santa Barbara is a ten week-old baby named Frances Quinn Hunter. Andrew Young, through an attorney, has stepped forward to say that he is the father. But the birth certificate lists no progenitor.

Five months later, a friend of mine, North Carolina columnist Hal Crowther, has just written in The Independent that “Edwards’s career is over, and all his virtues obliterated.” Crowther makes this pronouncement in sorrow rather than in anger. But in the coffee shop in Hillsborough, NC, where I'm finishing this post, I’m overhearing a couple as they pore over my friend’s column. One of them snarls, “Edwards—what a disappointment. He betrayed so many people.” The other, more wistful, replies, “And he was from right around here! He was going to be great.”

In the neighborhood of John Edwards’s old Raleigh law office, the yard signs literally alternate: McCain/Palin, then Obama/Biden, then McCain/Palin, on and on. The state is, in all ways demonstrable, a toss-up. And John Edwards, who so many thought would make a difference, is just another guy with a ballot.

A Tale of Two HQs

Thursday  October 30, 2008

A Tale of Two HQs

The difference does not hit you all at once. At Obama headquarters on 233 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the first person you see (at least when I've been there) is a nice young white woman. At McCain headquarters on 1235 South Clark Street in Arlington, VA, it's a nice middle-aged black woman. The main floor of each campaign consists largely of a sprawling newsroom-style bullpen of low- and mid-level staffers laboring quietly while monitoring the CNN direct feeds. The enclosed offices in both are reserved for the top brass. The offices of Plouffe, Pfeiffer, Rouse, etc. are airy and sleek, while the corresponding workspaces of Schmidt, Davis, Salter, etc. are small and windowless. (THAT's why they're so negative!) But neither would qualify for a corporate design award. With iconic candidate photos covering the walls and young, red-eyed drones everywhere, both recall Maoist sweatshops more than laboratories of presidential leadership.

The difference reveals itself only after you ask, "Could you take me to the New Media division, please?" In Arlington, you're led to a small tangle of desks which, when I visited, were inhabited by one individual. In Chicago, I stood before a sweeping panorama of at least one hundred shoeless, Ramen-noodle-eating post-adolescents sitting in front of their computers, casually earning Barack Obama ten kajillion dollars a minute. This is the grungy battalion that has turned a broken campaign pledge (vowing to join McCain in using public funds for the general election) into an insurmountable financial advantage that only the Democrats and George Will can find to be virtuous.

Anyway, Obama's New Media kids had their bare feet under their desks, so I couldn't tell if they were cloven.

Tomorrow: Obama's ground game in North Carolina and the fall of John Edwards.

Related: The Brains of the Campaigns: David Axelrod and Steve Schmidt

Michelle's Image Maker

Thursday  October 30, 2008

Michelle's Image Maker

All the way up until the Democratic convention, Michelle Obama was viewed by election handicappers as a mixed bag at best. Since the convention—and particularly in recent weeks—she’s received adoring press and hasn’t committed a single misstep.

Two words to explain the turnabout: Stephanie Cutter.

Four years ago, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff was John Kerry’s communications director and herself in serious need of an image makeover. Reporters complained that Cutter was out of her depth; Newsweek’s post-election book was especially brutal to her. Cutter’s future as a high-level Democratic operative appeared to be over.

Who laughs now? Cutter has overseen an exquisitely calibrated reintroduction of the candidate’s wife to voters, while serving double duty as one of the campaign’s more effective female surrogates. Just as importantly, the Chicago operation has absorbed her—along with campaign chief of staff Jim Messina (who had held the same job under Senator Max Baucus) and Biden’s chief of staff Patti Solis Doyle (the former Hillary adviser)—without any attendant drama. That’s the dog that didn’t bark, and after 2004's recriminations, silence is a pretty sweet sound.

Obama Has What It Takes (and It's Not What You Think It Is)

Thursday  October 30, 2008

Obama Has What It Takes (and It's Not What You Think It Is)

To me at least, Barack Obama doesn’t do that convincing an impression of Major General Siad Barre the scientific socialist, or any other kind of socialist—or, as Obama’s enjoying saying lately, a Communist who shared his toys in kindergarten. He’s much more convincing as Machiavelli.

Which, if you’re a Democrat, you like about him. You like that he’s ruthless and cunning. You like that he can answer the rhetorical question floated by Richard Ben Cramer’s campaign classic, What It Takes: It takes amorality. If you’re an Obama supporter, you’ve been saying to yourself, “It’s about time we had a Democrat who can beat the Republicans at their own game. Who’ll grin like Reagan while brawling like Nixon.” Niccolo Machiavelli—he was all about the happy warrior, and that’s Obama, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

About eight months ago, I attempted to reach a certain icon of the civil rights movement. She sent me a pleasant email with all of her contact information, indicating that though she didn’t know what my journalistic angle was, she’d probably be willing to talk to me. I then wrote back and explained that I was eager to discuss Barack Obama, because I knew that she had attended events marking the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination and wanted her sense of what Obama represented in that historical continuum. The icon didn’t write back. So I emailed her again. And then again. And then left phone messages. And finally by her silence I took that as a message of its own.

Ryan Lizza penned an excellent story in The New Yorker several months ago about Obama’s path to power in Chicago and the bruised feelings he left there. Political ascents are usually unpretty. But the asymmetry in journalistic coverage of Obama’s climb and that of, say, Sarah Palin’s, is pretty striking—and to the McCain camp, infuriating. And really, can you blame them? Can you blame Salter and Schmidt for insisting that their guy’s the one who crosses party lines (and has the scars to prove it, my friends!) while Obama has never paid any political price for the handful of times he’s bucked the Democratic leadership? The Illinois senator’s decision to go back on his word and refuse public financing may have been politically canny in that it’s allowed him to flood the zone with ads in the final weeks. But you could make a case that it’s also the single most egregious moral lapse of this presidential campaign—and very much of a piece with Obama rope-a-doping McCain on doing a succession of town hall meetings.

A friend of mine, and one of the smartest guys I know—and a journalist, so I won’t mention him by name—wrote me this email after having read my NYTM piece on the McCain campaign: “I empathize with McCain about his grievance that the media is practically a propaganda wing of the Obama campaign, and also with McCain's incredulity that Obama is viewed as the consensus-builder in this race when it was he, McCain, who has built his career on crossing the aisle while Obama, since coming to the U.S. Senate, has worked on, well, primarily getting elected president… In case you're wondering, yes, I think Obama will make the better president. But he ain't the saint so many of his supporters would have him be. Just as that cranky old coot, McCain, ain't without his valid umbrage.”

My Own Favorite Islamic Socialist

Wednesday  October 29, 2008

My Own Favorite Islamic Socialist

I learned about the Biden pick while watching Al-Jazeera. “Biden considered foreign policy heavyweight,” read the English scrolling at the bottom of the screen in what I took to be an Al-Jazeera endorsement. (You’re welcome, Schmidt.) I would rather have been watching another news outlet that day, but the reception in Merka, Somalia, wasn’t good enough to access Barbara West of Orlando’s WFTV. A National Geographic photographer and I were stranded in Merka, hiding out from Islamic kidnappers who had just apprehended the only other Western journalists in Somalia. (Two months later, freelancers Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan remain held, their captors demanding $2.5 million and warning that they will otherwise be killed. Pray for their safe return.) A week later, I found myself out of Somalia and on the floor of the GOP convention, wearing a New York Times press badge and surrounded by hollering Republicans. Thinking: You’re never really safe.

I digress, but not altogether. Because thanks to mounting story deadlines, Somalia and Barack Obama are simultaneously on my mind.

Perhaps you’ve heard Obama’s a socialist. You’ve heard he’s a Muslim, too. You wonder if there’s such a thing as a socialist Muslim. There is! I give you Mohamed Siad Barre, the somewhat-lamented former dictator of Somalia, whose unceremonious departure from Mogadishu in 1991 marks the last time that country has had a free-standing government. Major General Barre conceived something called Scientific Socialism, a political principle meant to address the country’s economic decline. ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION NOW??? Barre discouraged tribalism, embarked on an ambitious literacy program among the nomadic population (a.k.a. Real Somalia) and sat down with Soviets and Americans alike, without preconditions. As the great scholar I.M. Lewis points out, the dictator also maintained that socialism “expressed the essential communal spirit of Islam.”

Take a look at our future, America.

(My editors worry—how they worry!—that you might think I'm being serious here in peddling some new Red-crypto-terrorist talking point. But you know I'm winkin' as I'm writin', don't cha?)

Free Joe Biden!

Wednesday  October 29, 2008

Free Joe Biden!

Reading Dana Milbank’s hilarious column “The Muzzling of Joe Biden” in The Washington Post this morning, I was reminded of a conversation I had with the senator three years ago. Or really, a question I asked him that turned into a conversation—or rather, a hyperextended monologue. Sometimes as a reporter, a question falls out of your mouth like a gumball tumbling out of a machine and there is nothing you would not give in this world for the opportunity to take that question back. In this case, the question was something like, “Senator, what informed your decision to support the congressional resolution giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq?” Which, in its inadvisability, was akin to a question I believe I asked George W. Bush in 1998: “Governor, what exactly is wrong with our educational system in Texas? And be sure and include everything you know about phonics in your answer.”

I popped this Iraq question to Biden just as we were boarding a train in Union Station. By the time we disembarked in Wilmington seventy-five minutes later, he was still answering it. He continued his explanation in the car, then in a restaurant, and I believe he would still be nearing his peroration had his wife Jill finally not arrived on the scene. So I’m with the Washington Post columnist: Watching the leonine Biden confined to the teleprompter, you want to bust out into a mournful “Boooorn Free…as free as the wind blows…”

(Meanwhile, somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue, a press shop is snickering darkly: “Finally, the Democrats get to have that asshole Milbank for the next four years.”)

Don't Mess with Tyra

Wednesday  October 29, 2008

Don't Mess with Tyra

My girlfriend said to me the other day, after reading about Obama’s thirty-minute infomercial set to air at 8pm—America’s Next Top Model time—tonight: “Well, I have to agree with Senator McCain. There’s something very wrong with Obama’s judgment. He’s counterprogramming against Tyra.”

A Preamble

Tuesday  October 28, 2008

A Preamble

Before I turn to the Democrats tomorrow, I'd just like to swaddle everyone in a big wet blanket and thereby lower the heat on this fascination with a McCain-Palin bifurcation. Is there really anything novel about what we're seeing? Kerry v. Edwards, hello? Jack Kemp, doin' any nostalgia trips with Bob Dole these days? Though I'm still among the sixteen people in the Beltway who can envision a clear path to defeat for Obama-Biden (see earlier post), the Republican ticket has been behind for weeks, and adversity of that sort breeds a certain degree of Darwinian sniping. But c'mon. The selectivity that the left in particular has applied to examining this matter ill serves their cause, much less the truth. Anyone who really thinks that Sarah Palin is more focused on 2012 than 2008, or who thinks that McCain is paralyzed by dark nights of the soul over his selection, has no idea what it's like to be caught up in the unswerving locomotion of a presidential campaign's final week… and may well rue the schadenfreude.

Salter Talks Back

Tuesday  October 28, 2008

Salter Talks Back

Mark Salter responds via BlackBerry to question the sourcing on my post regarding McCain snubbing Palin on the Straight Talk Express:

"100% BS. McCain likes her. He is as convivial as he can be every time she's with us. I've been there every occasion. Every single one. There hasn't been a second of tension btwn them. So, on the bus or not, they're lying to u."

How the Campaign Reined in Free-Wheelin' McCain

Tuesday  October 28, 2008

How the Campaign Reined in Free-Wheelin' McCain

The two top advisers to John McCain represent the two crucial elements to any campaign. You have chief strategist Steve Schmidt, whose fiduciary obligation is to get McCain elected by any means necessary. It is not Schmidt’s responsibility to think one minute beyond November 4. Then you have Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime scribe and consigliere. Salter’s bond to McCain is intensely emotional, and vice versa. He does in fact care about what happens to the candidate’s reputation after the election—which is why it’s been interesting to watch Salter as he gamely justifies campaign actions that appear to run counter to the McCain persona that Salter has created and guarded as co-author to the senator’s books.

I’m speaking once again of the Palin pick. In mid-September, I was having a drink with Salter and asked him about how the senator and the Alaska governor got along. “Well, they’re kindred spirits,” he replied. He then segued into McCain’s fascination with Todd Palin’s snowmobiling feats—though allowing that the First Dude was a somewhat “laconic” storyteller. I asked Salter if he had a sense of Governor Palin’s grasp of national security issues. He brought up the Russia talking point, amplifying it thusly: “They border Russia. People mock that. But they have, like, fishing disputes.”

Fishing disputes?

Salter spent much of our chat lambasting the press, in a way similar to Atlantic Monthly writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s engaging Q&A with the McCain adviser a few days back. I’ve been hearing such denunciations from Salter since January ’07 (when backlash against McCain’s Liberty University commencement speech and his support of the surge began to crest), and it was the one subject that Schmidt would discuss for the record without the slightest inhibition during my recent interviews with him for my NYTM piece. In that story, I observed that these two McCain advisers believed that “today’s reporters were largely young, snarky, blog-obsessed, and liberal.”

I’ve since been asked if I agree with that assessment. My answer: Yes, I do. But I don’t find those qualities to be tantamount to some crippling disease. The much romanticized “boys on the bus” immortalized by the Timothy Crouse book of the same title were not exactly Spiro Agnew-worshippers. If anything, they were more insular and status-obsessed that the young but extremely intelligent and hard-working reporters like Liz Holmes (Wall Street Journal), Scott Conroy (CBS), Shushannah Walshe (Fox), Adam Aigner (NBC), and Katie Connolly (Newsweek), among others with whom I shared space on the buses of Mitt Romney and John McCain. That most of them were required to post blogs at every campaign stop didn’t seem to me to be hampering their ability to see the big picture.

Yes, the 24-hour news cycle tends to melodramatize every utterance. The reporters don’t like it, either. Complaining about it, however, is like yelling at the rain.

This morning, Maeve Reston of the L.A. Times wrote an interesting take on McCain’s deteriorating relationship with the press, in which she acknowledges having unwittingly played a small role. Maeve doesn’t know how right she is. On July 9, she was rotated into the small press pool that followed the candidate and managed to get a moment with him. She asked McCain to comment on his economic adviser Carly Fiorina’s observation earlier that morning that some health care plans covered Viagra but not birth control. In seemingly a millisecond, the senator’s stammering reply became a YouTube moment. Though Reston’s question hardly seemed unfair, Schmidt later held it up to McCain as Exhibit A of why the candidate had to be shielded from journalistic gratuitousness—unless you really want to spend the rest of the campaign talking to reporters about Viagra.

But the admonition didn’t take. Eight days later, a reporter on the bus asked the senator about press secretary Jill Hazelbaker’s characterization of Obama’s imminent trip to the Mideast and Europe as a “first-of-its-kind campaign rally overseas.” McCain allowed that Hazelbaker’s remark was maybe a little harsh and said, “I will talk to her.” A number of staffers were infuriated that the candidate didn’t back up his spokesperson. “If we don’t want to win this campaign,” livid campaign adviser Matt McDonald told Schmidt, “somebody tell me, because I have other things I can be doing.”

After a weekend’s worth of conference calls, Schmidt formally put an end to the nonstop press conference that had typified John McCain’s campaigns. In its place, McCain for the first time began delivering a prepared stump speech to multiple venues. The irresistible force of Straight Talk had given way to the immovable object of Message Discipline.

Palin, Alone Aboard the Bus

Tuesday  October 28, 2008

Ed. note: From now until Election Day and beyond, GQ correspondent Robert Draper will be blogging on the '08 race's final twists and turns. Check back for more up-to-the-minute campaign reporting and insight.

Palin, Alone Aboard the Bus

Almost from the very beginning, the Palin pick created tension.

An armada of handlers descended on McCain’s running mate like the flying monkeys in The Wizard Of Oz. The day after the ticket made its debut, it was August 30 and the campaign staged a rally outside of Pittsburgh, on the field of a minor league baseball team called the Washington Wild Things. I remember seeing Tucker Eskew—an old Bush hand out of South Carolina who had never spent a day in McCain World until Nicolle Wallace recruited him to be Palin’s counselor—wandering around the premises, looking somewhat lost. He and Wallace took charge of schooling the Alaska governor on message discipline. Two days later at the GOP convention, an adviser watched them coach Palin on how to answer routine press questions and warned Steve Schmidt that she was being overly managed. Three weeks later, Wallace arranged for the interview with her former CBS colleague Katie Couric, which proved to be a disaster. Meanwhile, Palin’s debate prep was going miserably, to the point where Schmidt had to peel off from McCain (who was having his own challenges responding to the financial crisis) and join Nicolle’s husband Mark Wallace in simplifying Palin’s prep so as to avert catastrophe. The latter efforts resulted in what one senior adviser would describe to me with palpable relief as “a campaign-saving performance.”

I’m sympathetic to Eskew and Wallace, and not just because they’re decent people. They’ve held their tongue from leaking what a couple of McCain higher-ups have told me—namely, that Palin simply knew nothing about national and international issues. Which meant, as one such adviser said to me: “Letting Sarah be Sarah may not be such a good thing.” It’s a grim binary choice, but apparently it came down to whether to make Palin look like a scripted robot or an unscripted ignoramus. I was told that Palin chafed at being defined by her discomfiting performances in the Couric, Charlie Gibson, and Sean Hannity interviews. She wanted to get back out there and do more. Well, if you’re Eskew and Wallace, what do you say to that? Your responsibility isn’t the care and feeding of Sarah Palin’s ego; it’s the furtherance of John McCain’s quest for the presidency.

On the other hand, it had to be hard for Sarah Palin—who has achieved all she’s achieved with a highly personal touch—to take all this ridicule under an enforced gag order. After being introduced to the world as one of the “Team of Mavericks,” she’s admonished not to be one. She’s being called out by some McCainites for not cleaving to all of the senator’s positions. The Republicans who fawned over her superstar looks are now shocked—shocked!—to learn that her much-admired wardrobe has been purchased with RNC funds. I’ve heard from one well-placed source that McCain has snubbed her on one long bus ride aboard the Straight Talk Express, to the embarrassment of those sitting nearby. It has surely been implied to the governor that she should be eternally grateful to have been plucked from obscurity. And yet the high water mark of John McCain’s campaign for the presidency unquestionably began on September 3, when Palin gave her nomination speech—and ended precisely twelve days later, when McCain went off-script—I have that on the authority of the person who participated in the writing of said script—and told an audience that he still believed the fundamentals of the economy were strong.

More on all of this later. I have just informed my girlfriend Lara that I’m now a blogger. She stared at me for a long moment before saying quietly, “I don’t know you anymore.”

McCain's Road to Victory?

Monday  October 27, 2008

Ed. note: From now 'til Election Day and beyond, GQ correspondent Robert Draper will be blogging on the '08 race's final twists and turns. Check back for more up-to-the-minute campaign reporting and insight.

McCain's Road to Victory?

So do I think McCain still has a chance? Yes I do—though I also think President Bush stands a chance of being acquitted by history (as Truman did after departing office with similarly dismal approval ratings), so feel free to cackle derisively. All I ask is that you remember that I went on Chris Matthews's show in mid-September of 2007 and said McCain still had an excellent chance of securing the nomination. You cackled then, too, didn't you?

Consider these X-factors that could break McCain's way with 8 days to go:

RACE. You’re sick of this angle, I know. There’s the Bradley effect (whites not confessing to pollsters their aversion to black candidates), but also the Reverse Bradley (whites not admitting that in fact they could look past their prejudices at the ballot box)—and the basic feeling, as Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has articulated, that when the public’s drowning in an economic maelstrom, they really aren’t focused on the pigment of the person who’s tossing them a lifeline. This morning, George Stephanopoulus pointed to recent stats indicating that more people are comfortable with Obama’s race than with McCain’s age. And yet… Every reporter I’ve talked with who’s been on the campaign trail this year has numerous and vivid anecdotes of voters freely admitting they can’t possibly vote for a black candidate. These stories crop up in the deep South, in Appalachia, in the Midwest—all over. No one in the McCain campaign will talk about the race factor. They would certainly prefer to believe that McCain will win on different merits. But their “Who is Barack Obama?” ads give voters permission to feel queasy about this exotic new biracial character on the political landscape.

JOE BIDEN CAN NOT SHUT UP. That was the title of a lengthy GQ profile I wrote about Obama’s running mate in 2006, and the Delaware senator is doing everything in his power to prove its thesis. It’s not simply that Biden made an ill-advised prediction that a President Obama would be tested with a foreign policy crisis—it’s that he INSTRUCTED us to pay attention: “Remember I said it standing here, if you don’t remember anything else…” Biden’s a smart and decent man, but his need to appear prescient, to be remembered as right (“I’m the guy who…” is his continual refrain), can take on pathological dimensions. If he uncorks another one of these beauties, then McCain’s people will collar Obama with showing poor judgment in selecting a veep whose bloviations could touch off the very foreign policy crisis Biden’s forecasting.

BOMB BOMB IRAN. McCain’s favorite “little jerk,” Senator Lindsey Graham, said yesterday that “some political problems have military solutions.” I don’t think he was referring to McCain’s political problems, but work with me here. Would the 11th-hour capture of bin Laden redound to McCain’s advantage? I don’t think so. But what if Iran launches a nuclear test or performs some other rogueish act? Then McCain gets to say, “And these are the guys Senator Obama will sit down with, without preconditions, and hope to woo with his dazzling rhetoric? Get real. This is a serious world.” For that matter, a spectacularly violent incident in Iraq could underscore McCain’s contention that our gains there remain fragile and could all go south if Obama heedlessly yanks our troops. As long as the subject’s the economy, McCain’s in trouble. But if the scene shifts to overseas, Obama’s inexperience will return to the fore. (Though yes, the Palin choice cuts hard against the grain of this narrative.)

THE RETURN OF JEREMIAH WRIGHT. Who knows what island they’ve got him on right now, but if he were to resurface, the slightest utterance of his would give the McCain campaign permission (and trust me, they’re just looking for one syllable) to unleash a blizzard of God Damn America imagery. The potency of the Wright visuals—a black man in unfamiliar garb waving his arms around—parries what I think has been the unsung weapon against McCain, namely the snapshots of him yucking it up with Bush. Bill Ayers means nothing to independent voters. But Obama’s primary fight can be neatly divided into pre-Wright and post-Wright, and his numbers took a hard turn south from the time Wright appeared on our screens to the time he disappeared. You may think Wright’s a non-issue in late October, and I’m not suggesting that his return would mark a decisive turnabout. But it would make a dent—how big is unknowable.

A FRIGGING MIRACLE. “I’m the luckiest guy you have ever interviewed and will ever interview,” McCain told Chris Wallace a couple of weeks ago, and this wasn’t just a show of modesty. Both as a Navy flyboy and as a politician, John McCain has weathered more shrapnel than a Bradley tank in Fallujah. His capacity to remain standing until luck turns his way is without parallel. So consider some combination of these unseen developments: Obama commits another gaffe on par with “cling to their guns and religion” or “spread the wealth.” Palin, freshly liberated from her handlers, is seen increasingly as a sympathetic figure who’s suffered more ridicule than any politician in America. Obama’s ground game (about which more later) discovers too late that all of its early voters were going to vote on Election Day anyway—while the McCain operation is getting first-time or occasional voters to the polls early. (Ken Mehlman explained to me how the Kerry operation cannibalized its Election Day voting bloc in similar fashion.) Bin Laden endorses Obama. Bush reverses field and endorses Obama, too. Michelle Obama is caught in the act of actually measuring drapes.

As a character in the Coen brothers’ minor classic Miller’s Crossing said, “I’m just speculatin’ ‘bout a proposition is all…”

The Blame Game

Monday  October 27, 2008

Ed. note: From now 'til Election Day and beyond, GQ correspondent Robert Draper will be blogging on the '08 race's final twists and turns. Check back for more up-to-the-minute campaign reporting and insight.

The Blame Game

So here we are, eight days before it's over. Call "it" a marathon, a sonic rush of history, a long night's journey into the day, a reality TV series gone off the rails—this election cycle has been seriously riveting. As my girlfriend said to me the other night, "After November 4, you know, we'll have nothing to talk about."

I don’t intend to spend these last days inflicting some kind of galloping rant on your wearied spirits. I’m a reporter, and what I’ve got to offer are impressions based on what I’ve seen and heard first-hand. After three years reporting on the Bush White House (Dead Certain: The Presidency Of George W. Bush, Free Press, 2007), I’ve spent significant time on the campaign trail. The fruits of my pursuits have been primarily in the pages of GQ: a profile of Republican candidate Mitt Romney and two lengthy stories relating to John McCain (here and here). More recently, I wrote a feature article on the challenges bedeviling the McCain campaign for The New York Times Magazine. During the final six days, I’ll be in North Carolina and Virginia watching the Obama ground game assert itself.

Of late, my NYTM story has contributed to a merciless round of recriminations, primarily at the expense of McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt. I’m reminded of a comment one of the networks’ top pundits made to me a few minutes before the final debate at Hofstra University. This pundit said to me, “Every one of these McCain guys is working one level higher than they’re qualified for.” It struck me as an acutely cruel observation—until I realized later that it wasn’t really acute at all. Without Ross Perot’s divine intervention in 1992, James Carville might have receded into history as a political
vaudevillian. Karl Rove was one Supreme Court Justice vote away from losing his license as an architect of victory. Schmidt has made his mistakes, as my Times story has detailed. Having said that, if the financial markets hadn’t imploded, McCain might still be ahead in the polls and the party faithful I saw at the GOP convention lining up to kiss Steve Schmidt’s ass might not be calling for his ritual disembowelment.

Just before the October 15 debate, I also ran into a prominent former Bushie. This individual placed the blame higher than Schmidt: “It starts at the top. McCain’s got great instincts. But his execution is terrible.” The matter of John McCain’s supposed “erratic” behavior is to my mind overblown, in that it implies a seething instability that, we might imagine, is a legacy of his years of torment in the Hanoi Hilton. What’s unassailable—and this goes to the question of "execution"—is that McCain can be terribly undisciplined. He prefers, as his speechwriter and confidant Mark Salter once said to me, “a more organic kind of management.” Salter once described to me how the senator spent his day. If you had a three o’clock appointment, you’d walk into his Senate office with a staffer—only to see that McCain’s two o’clock appointment was still hanging out. Along with a staffer or two. And maybe one of McCain’s Vietnam buddies who’d dropped by. And some other stragglers who’d just waltzed in unannounced, like Gary Busey.

This kind of free-wheeling ethos is a gas for its participants. But it’s a lousy way to run a campaign.

And though campaign manager Rick Davis has tried to impose structure on the candidate, the ongoing melodramas of the McCain operation—wholly absent from the Obama camp—are, to my mind, directly traceable to John McCain’s "organic" proclivities, for which Steve Schmidt is not responsible.

Here’s an example of how McCain’s aversion to organization bleeds into the day-to-day affairs of campaigning. It’s well known that the 2007 iteration of his operation was overloaded with strategists of ambiguous responsibilities. When people got fired, they tended not to stay fired—as was the case with Carla Eudy, McCain’s longtime fundraising director, who was replaced in ’07 but remained in the picture. Rick Davis’s formal assumption of power as campaign manager last summer was supposed to clarify the hierarchy. But it didn’t. One person I didn’t mention in my Times piece was Charlie Black, who remains at the table, so to speak, but who has been marginalized after his comment this past summer that another 9/11 would benefit McCain. Also marginalized is Brett O’Donnell, who was brought on two years ago to oversee debate prep. That’s what O’Donnell was—he’s the debate coach of Liberty University. But O’Donnell had no role in Palin’s debate prep, and even in McCain’s debate prep his role was minimized. Supposedly McCain doesn’t like the guy.

So why keep him around if you’re not going to use him at the one thing he’s trained to do? Why keep Charlie Black in the loop if you’re not going to listen to him?

I guess it’s an organic thing.

The Guys Behind the Guys: The Brains of the Campaigns

Sunday  October 26, 2008

Gqeditorshed_3

The Guys Behind the Guys: The Brains of the Campaigns

by laurence lowe; photographs by jeff riedel

Axelrod

Chief Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod (above) has an unfussy mustache and the quietly consistent temperament of an algebra teacher; Steve Schmidt (below), who heads McCain's day-to-day operations, has a military bearing and a shaven head that inspired his old boss Karl Rove to nickname him "the Bullet." The campaigns they run could not be more different.

Schmidt

Axelrod never strayed from the overall plan he devised in 2007—a strategy built on grassroots organizing and online social networking, on winning the Iowa caucus at all costs and turning the remainder of the primary season into a slow, steady race for delegates, and most importantly, on pegging Obama's message to the twin tropes of change and hope. Axelrod's a specialist in deploying his candidate's biography to make emotional appeals to voters, but he cut his teeth in Chicago politics (he also worked for Obama opponents Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and John Edwards) and has learned the art of the attack. He has kept the Obama camp leakproof, unified, and drama-free.

Steve Schmidt didn't have the luxury of a long-term plan; although he had been advising McCain since 2006, it wasn't until last June that the war-room veteran was handed the reins of a campaign that appeared to have run aground for the second time. The message was diffuse, the stagecraft was shoddy, and their candidate was lagging in the polls. Schmidt, who rose into the top ranks of Republican political strategists by leading Governor Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection bid, immediately went to work, framing a tighter message that spoke to McCain's experience and national-security cred while employing Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to highlight Obama's lack of gravitas and overweening ambition. Within six weeks, McCain had closed the gap, and by the time of the Republican convention, Schmidt had finally settled on a new, even more persuasive message: Country First.

Table_web_2

America's Most Wanted

Friday  October 24, 2008

Gqeditorshed_3

America's Most Wanted

83371152_2

This week, a protestor tried to pin a citizens’ arrest on Karl Rove, the guy who used to be known as “Bush’s Brain.” Here, an exclusive testament from the man who should have been holding the cuffs—former Alabama governor Don Siegelman

Ap070628030192_2

as told to brett martin

In 1998, Don Siegelman, newly elected governor of Alabama, was a man to watch on the national political scene—a charismatic Democrat able to win elections in the heart of the South. His misfortune was to be a winner in the adopted home state of Karl Rove. Starting as soon as he was elected, Siegelman says, Rove used his power, and the United States Justice Department, to engineer a series of investigations designed to ruin the governor’s career.

In this, according to the former governor, Rove and his alleged cronies in Alabama were highly successful: In 2002, Siegelman’s reelection effort faltered as a result of the investigations. Three years later, as Siegelman readied another run for governor, the stakes were upped dramatically. A U.S. attorney named Leura Canary, the wife of Rove partner Bill Canary, charged Siegelman with multiple counts of bribery, mail fraud, and other crimes related to Siegelman’s signature initiative: the institution of a state education lottery. The ex-governor and his codefendant, businessman Richard Scrushy, were found guilty and received surprisingly harsh sentences; Siegelman was sent to prison for seven and a half years.

Earlier this year, fifty-four former attorneys general, from both parties, filed a brief with the Eleventh Circuit Court citing outlandish irregularities in Siegelman’s prosecution and demanding his release. A 60 Minutes segment revealed that the government’s chief witness had been extensively coached. Most damning, a Republican attorney from Rainsville, Alabama, named Jill Simpson came forward and testified that she had been told by Bill Canary that his wife was going to “take care” of Siegelman, and that “Karl” had already made arrangements with the Justice Department. (Rove has denied any wrongdoing.) This March, in an unusual move, the court released the former governor on bond after spending nine months in prison. Now he awaits his appeal while Scrushy remains in prison. Rove has ignored subpoenas to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

Here, Siegelman gives GQ an exclusive account of his ordeal.

***

I never thought for a minute that I was going to be convicted. We knew where this prosecution was coming from. We knew the political motivation. I was confident that the truth would come out—so confident, in fact, that we didn’t put any witnesses on the stand because we didn’t think there was any evidence.

What had happened was that I wanted to raise money for an education lottery that would guarantee that every child in Alabama that graduated from high school would be guaranteed a college education. So I was raising money for the lottery campaign, and when I had a chance to ask people for contributions, I asked them. I asked Richard Scrushy—a very prominent Republican donor, who had given several hundred thousand dollars to my opponent—and he agreed. Later I called him up and asked him to serve on an oversight board that he’d served on for the past three governors, Republicans and Democrats. I had to talk him into it.

There wasn’t a crime here. According to the attorney general, the U.S. Supreme Court, and even the Justice Department, there had to be a quid pro quo deal in order to prove bribery. Not one penny of that money went into my pocket; it all went to the lottery campaign. So I was shocked: one, that a jury could come back after a two-week deliberation with a guilty verdict; and two, that the Department of Justice could be manipulated by one powerful person, that person being Karl Rove.

Now, there had been a governor convicted of taking money before me. That governor, a Republican, actually did put $200,000 into his own pocket, and he was sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service. So when it came to the sentencing hearing, I wasn’t too worried about prison time. And even if I were to be sentenced to prison, my probation officer assured me that I’d have time to get things in order before reporting to jail. He said, “Don’t even think about it. You should be thinking community service.”

But the judge sentenced me to eighty-eight months in prison, and I was handcuffed, shackled, and dragged out of the courtroom in front of my family. I was taken to a maximum-security prison in Atlanta. No daylight. Food served through a little slot in the door. No exercise. I stayed there for three weeks, and then I was flown to a facility in New York, then Michigan, then Oklahoma City before ending up in Oakdale, Louisiana. During this time, my wife and family were not notified where I was.

Time is viewed totally differently in prison. When you’re free, you want the day to last as long as possible. You want to savor every moment. In prison, it’s just the opposite; you want to get rid of days as fast as you can. I couldn’t help but think about the people whose execution dates I had set when I was attorney general and that I’d upheld as governor. I said a quiet prayer that I had made the right decisions, because I knew then that the justice system was not infallible.

We don’t know how many other cases like mine there are out there. The only reason that my case is different, that I’ve gotten any attention, is because of a lifelong Republican named Dana Jill Simpson, who couldn’t sleep at night and came forward to place Rove at the scene of the crime. When I got out of prison, I happened to be at a public meeting that she was also at. I just shook her hand and thanked her. I told her that she was an American hero.

Do I believe in evil? Do I believe that Karl Rove is evil? I do. I don’t mean that he was necessarily raised to be evil. But I think that, like Caligula, he turned himself into an evil ruler. He has subverted democracy and, by the way, done a great disservice to the Republican Party. I hear that more and more—like the former head of the Alabama Republican Party, whom I ran into at the airport in Washington lately. He told me, “I told them they should have stopped at [defeating you in] the election.” Yes, I think there are evil people in the world, and I think Karl Rove is one of them.

That’s why we need to get him in front of the Judiciary Committee. First he said he would testify. Then he said he would only come if he received the questions in advance and nobody was there to take down what he said. So the committee recommended to the full House that he be held in contempt of Congress. If he’s not held in contempt, it will send a clear signal that there are two systems of justice in this country: one for the rich and powerful, those connected to the White House, and one for the rest of us. When we get subpoenaed, we have to show up.

That’s the only way we’re ever going to reinstate people’s belief in our government, in our democracy: clearing the air about what happened at the Department of Justice. We’re not guessing that this stuff happened; we’re not speculating that it might have happened. We know it happened. And if Rove doesn’t pay, what are all those followers of his, the young people who want to be like him, going to think? If he’s held in contempt, it sends the message that their time might be next. It may not stop ’em, but maybe it will slow them down.

See John Read, See Barack Learn From a Book

Monday  October 20, 2008

Books_compose2_5

The two contenders for president are avid readers. But they don't know everything. Presenting the presidential reading list: five books each should read to round out his intellect, cover his weakness, and learn more about the country he might take over

With_the_old_breed McCain: Book 1
With the Old Breed
by E. B. Sledge
(1981)

It’s common to think of McCain as the Great American Über-Veteran, a man whose experience in Vietnam made him an authority on war. In reality, the opposite may be true. As his colleague in the Senate, Chuck Hagel, has pointed out, the young McCain spent almost none of his Vietnam years on the battlefield, suffering the private hell of a prison camp instead—honorable, to be sure, but a long way from the front line. It may not be a coincidence that so many men who did see combat, like Hagel, Colin Powell, and Jim Webb, men who killed and watched their friends die each day, are less eager to send in troops now.

To remind McCain of what those men can’t forget, nothing evokes the horror of war like Sledge’s World War II memoir. A college dropout who enlisted at 19, Sledge found himself in 1944 on the far side of the world, fighting 13,000 Japanese soldiers on the forgotten island of Peleliu. For ten weeks, the U.S. invasion force lived and died in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater. Two thousand died, more than 6,000 were injured, and some simply lost their minds. “Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore, and suffering,” Sledge writes after watching a crazed Marine hack apart a Japanese soldier, “this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war.” Thanks to Sledge, McCain can witness it—even if he wasn’t there.

Nickel_and_dimed Obama: Book 1
Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich
(2001)

It may be true that poor white Americans are frustrated and bitter and cling to guns and religion. It may also be true that many of them are not going to vote for a black man no matter what. It may even be true that Barack Obama will win anyway, forging a new coalition of the urban black, the Prius Collective, hippie college brats, and that skanky ho from YouTube. Even so, if Obama truly wants to be transformative, he’s gotta reach out to the folks who didn’t vote for him, all those hardworking, patriotic…aw hell, rednecks.

A good place to begin is Ehrenreich’s studio incognito. A decade ago, Ehrenreich—not content to be just another guilty liberal—decided to go a step further. She stashed her money, packed her bags, and set out to do what every liberal dreams of: serious slumming. In the course of a couple years, working crappy jobs and missing rent payments, suffering the depths of faux poverty and simulated distress, she had an epiphany: Being poor sucks. Lucky for her, it was all a sham, and she went back to her normal life. The same experience could only help Obama, who never saw a bespoke shirt he didn’t need. Since it’s unlikely he’ll actually do any slumming—unless you count breakfast with Senator Robert C. Byrd—reading Ehrenreich may be his last, best hope to crack the NASCAR set. Or at least, like Ehrenreich, fake it.

The_case_against_congress McCain: Book 2
The Case Against Congress
by Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson
(1968)

If McCain wins, he will be the third sitting senator ever elected. Of course, the same could be said of Obama, but Obama isn’t really a senator—having spent fewer than four minutes in the Capitol since his election five minutes ago. McCain, by contrast, is the Senate, a fixture since roughly the Pleistocene epoch. But after so many years of wheeling and dealing across party lines, it may be difficult for the senator to reposition himself as a strong, singular Republican president—reining in the Democratic Congress and standing in the way of real progress.

To inspire that transition and remind him of all he has to leave behind, there is no better resource than the great forgotten American classic The Case Against Congress. In the 1950s and ’60s, Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson were the consummate Beltway insiders, as deeply ingrained in the culture of Capitol Hill as the elected members of Congress they covered. Then, in 1968, they lifted the curtain, exposing the simmering, simpering, venal beast around them—all the padding of expense accounts, the raking in of favors, and the construction of a vast egolopolis in the Capitol basement, with a free post office and complimentary barbershop. If there’s anything that could encourage McCain to walk away from his Congressional cronies, it’s a good, long look at them.

Faith_of_my_fathers Obama: Book 2
Faith of My Fathers
by John McCain
(1999)

As everyone knows, John McCain and George W. Bush have a lot in common: disastrous ideas about foreign policy, disastrous ideas about the economy, a crush on Sarah Palin. But what most people don’t realize is that they also had the same childhood: deadbeat kids of distinguished families who drank their way through school, failed at everything they ever tried, and still managed to succeed on the basis of the family name. (There’s hope yet for Paris Hilton.)

What makes McCain’s autobiography worth reading is not that story, or the writing, or for that matter the ideas—though it does help that McCain didn’t write any of those things and left the task to longtime aide Mark Salter, who is fluent in English. The real value of FOMF is the glimpse it provides into a certain type of American—old, white, moored in tradition, and resistant to “change”—who is not only Obama’s opponent but also his most sought-after voter. Especially in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, where he got mopped up by a boring old white woman.

The_wastrels_of_defense McCain: Book 3
The Wastrels of Defense
by Winslow T. Wheeler
(2004)

For thirty years, Winslow Wheeler was a cog in the Pork-Industrial Complex, inserting wasteful “earmarks” into bill after bill, watching the national debt balloon, and feeling guiltier by the day. Finally, in 2004, he blew the whistle—on himself, his boss (Republican senator Pete Domenici), and most intriguingly the man he believed was enabling it all: Senator John McCain.

In Wheeler’s telling, the famously anti-earmark McCain was actually just a grandstanding phony, a “press-release paper tiger” who enjoyed delivering righteous speeches against earmarks while doing nothing whatsoever to stop them. “Senator McCain has unilaterally disarmed himself,” Wheeler writes. “From the large menu of tactics available to him...[he] has selected to sit on his hands.”

With an almost endless list of examples, anecdotes, and recollections, Wheeler makes a compelling case that the Pork-Buster-in-Chief is actually nothing of the sort (putting him comfortably in step with his running mate, who was stridently in favor of the Bridge to Nowhere earmark before she was stridently against the bridge). It’s difficult to know whether McCain is really as disingenuous as Wheeler claims, or if he’s merely trying and failing to stop earmarks. Either way, if he hopes to do better in the White House, there’s no better place to start than with Wheeler’s book, hearing from a reformed porker about the opportunities missed and the ones he may face in the future.

Triumph_of_politics_2 Obama: Book 3
The Triumph of Politics
by David A. Stockman
(1986)

Had George Orwell lived through the Reagan years—had he actually experienced 1984—he might have written The Triumph of Politics instead.

Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington with a mandate for reform, promising economic responsibility and budgetary restraint. Within a year, all that was forgotten and he was knee-deep in reelection gimmickry: slashing taxes, jacking up military spending, and watching the national deficit blossom. By the fall of 1984, the deficit was at a record high, but taxes were at record lows; he would win 49 states in the fall and leave the country with a debt that is still unpaid today. The only price would come from his budget director, David Stockman, who resigned in horror and wrote a 500-page exposé on the reasons.

“Only one conclusion is possible,” Stockman wrote. “The American economy and government have literally been taken hostage by the awesomestubbornness of the nation’s fortieth president.”
If Obama wants to avoid the same pitfalls—turning his first term into a campaign for the second—he’ll need to strike a more meaningful balance between policy and politicking. To remind him of what’s at stake, there is no better cautionary tale than Stockman’s memoir, a story of pigs and cutlery.

The_rise_and_fall_of_great_powers McCain: Book 4
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

by Paul Kennedy
(1987)

There are five stages of grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—and for Americans today, there’s good reason for all five: astronomical unemployment, evaporating home prices, perma-deployment for long-suffering servicemen, Sarah Palin’s résumé. But many of us have hit speed bumps on the grief superhighway. There’s McCain adviser Phil Gramm, convinced the economy is wonderful and we’re just “a nation of whiners.” (That’s Denial.) There’s deposed presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, outraged at “Red China” for having the audacity to rise from poverty.

But here at GQ, we’re still hoping to Bargain our way out. After all, there must be a way to rebuild the dollar, regain global prestige, and keep the cheap shit at Wal-Mart cheap. All it takes is a clear idea of where we went wrong. That’s where Kennedy’s book comes in. Published in ’87, it preceded many of the biggest geopolitical developments of our time (including the Soviet collapse, the rise of China, the war on terror), yet it predicts nearly all of them. What’s more, looking at these developments and studying America alongside other Great Powers, like Ming China, and Imperial Britain, Kennedy sees an underlying pattern: the relationship between deficit spending, military adventurism, and political collapse.

Sound familiar?

For_whom_the_bell_tolls Obama: Book 4
For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway
(1940)

The war in Iraq may dominate the campaign, but if Obama wins, his biggest military challenge might not be the withdrawal from Baghdad but the impossibility of sending troops anywhere else.

After so many years of lies and deception by an administration hell-bent on war, many of Obama’s supporters—and indeed a huge swath of the left in general—have drifted squarely into the trendy vogue of pacifism. If, by some awful chance, the United States were attacked again (if a skyscraper came down, or a suitcase bomb detonated, or Kim Jong Il desperately needed to have his 1970s pimp ass kicked), it is difficult to imagine the MoveOn crowd doing anything other than an impromptu chant of “War is not the answer.”

Even if, for a change, war really is.

Luckily for liberal warmongers everywhere, we’ll always have Hemingway—a reminder of a time when Democrats fought, and fought some more, and when they were done fighting shot guns into the wee hours of the night just for the damned pleasure of the noise. As a champion for the idea that some things really are worth dying for, there is no better model than Papa himself, who traveled to Spain in 1937 and supported the guerrillas, then wrote his most lyrical, heartbreaking novel about the tragedy of war—and the necessity of it.


The_audacity_of_hope McCain: Book 5
The Audacity of Hope
by Barack Obama
(2006)

What John “Juan” McCain wants is for every Mexican citizen to come streaming across the border tonight, receive welfare checks on the way in, take every job from every American, and never be deported, no matter what. This, anyway, is how Lou Dobbs explained it to us. Still, if there’s one thing that even Dobbs must enjoy about McCain, it’s his oratory. Politics aside, there is nobody in America who makes a stronger case for English as the national language—simply by opening his mouth. As anyone who has ever listened to McCain knows, if there was a fluency requirement for the White House, the senator from Arizona (who was actually born in Panama—gasp!) would almost certainly be deported. To help McCain master the mother tongue, nobody sets a better example than his opponent, Barack Obama, who despite being a devout Muslim raised by Al Qaeda terrorists in the mountains of Waziristan (probably what Dobbs thinks) has nevertheless picked up English surprisingly well. It’s time for McCain to do the same, and a good place to start is by soaking up the post-racial candidate’s pre-race memoir.


The_age_of_reason Obama: Book 5
The Age of Reason
by Thomas Paine
(1794)

The lesson of the Jeremiah Wright scandal wasn’t that Obama’s pastor is scary—it’s that all of them are. Sure, Wright thinks the government invented AIDS to kill black people, but every other pastor believes that an invisible dude named Yahweh did it. Which is more ridiculous?

Regardless of the political implications, the Wright scandal also gives Obama a priceless opportunity: to leave behind the faith of the masses and return to the faith of his fathers—atheism. After all, this is a man whose biological father was avowedly antireligious, whose mother was at least agnostic, and who was himself (until the lure of politics) a lifelong skeptic, calling religion “just a comfort to the weary.”

Even the most devout believer should take no offense at the prospect of an atheist in the White House. As clergy of all denominations have pointed out, the wall of separation between church and state was designed to protect both. What’s more, the tradition of secular politicians in this country is as old as the founding—indeed, it was Thomas Paine who wrote the manifesto: “My own mind is my church.” Somewhere in heaven (if Paine was wrong and there is one) the Voice of the Revolution is watching the Wright clips on an iPhone, hoping Obama will see the light.


wil s. hylton is a gq correspondent.


Holier-Than-Thou Foods

Monday  October 20, 2008

Menmoney

I like the locally grown ($4) heirloom tomato as much as the next guy. My family, we drink organic milk ($7) by the gallon. Just last weekend, I dropped a ($28) biodynamic grass-fed rib-eye steak into my reusable market bag. These things are all delicious. But despite what I—and lots of people like me—want to believe, I'm not a better or more righteous person for having bought them

this might not go over so well. It might seem a bit misguided to some and self-righteous to others, not to mention irritatingly navel-gazing, and also kind of Communist. (Note to the Ayn Rand freak who keeps sending me mocking e-mails: You might want to quit here and go outdoors and bad-mouth some poor people.) In any case, let me say right up front that the problem is me, not you. Or maybe it’s me and you, if you are one of the hundreds of people I see every week at the Greenmarket in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Or if you frequently find yourself bellied up to the salad bar at Whole Foods. Or if you’re not the type of person who reflexively does a giant yugga-da-yugga-da-yug when told that the grass-fed steak you’re about to buy is $28 per pound. Maybe instead—like me—you plaster on a dopey smile and lay down the money for that steak, then put it in your reusable satchel, along with your heirloom tomatoes and your locally grown baby beets and your various leafy greens. Maybe you stop to return your empty bottles and pick up two more gallons of organic milk, and then you hang around for a while with the rest of the Greenmarket crowd, listening to bluegrass and trading recipes for fig tarts. And maybe you feel good about yourself. Why shouldn’t you? It’s a beautiful fall Saturday; the leaves and the produce and the very air around you seem to exist courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic; and here you are among like-minded souls, each and every one of you doing your part to oppose the sinister corporatization of the world’s food chain. Bite me, Archer Daniels Midland, it’s pattypan-squash season!

And yet, something feels off. There’s an uncomfortable self-awareness creeping in, a nagging bell going off inside me as I gaze around at the Greenmarket crowd and think, Huh, look at that, we’re mostly white and mostly rich. We have a lot of money to spend on Jerusalem artichokes. And while this is great news for us and good news, too, for the farmers supplying this stuff, isn’t it a little weird that we tell ourselves that buying expensive food qualifies as a meaningful social act, that we’re creating a better world through shopping?

I know, right? Save it for the coffeehouse poetry slam, César Chávez. This is a money column. Give me some advice on how to allocate my 401(k). All I’m trying to point out, though, is that there’s a growing class chasm everywhere you look these days, and it’s especially stark when you think about something as basic as food. And all those purple potatoes people like me buy at $10 a pound—in addition to putting a little money in a farmer’s pocket (which is an undeniably good thing), they also represent consumerism at its most rarefied. And while we buy this food for excellent reasons—because it tastes better than what we’d find in a supermarket; because the range of choices is infinitely greater than it is in the produce section at Safeway; because the experience of going to the Greenmarket and milling around with your neighbors and chatting up the misanthropic beef guy or the lesbian cheesemakers is a much more pleasant experience than being shuttled through a human maze where every turn leads to corn syrup—it also seems, at least for me, that one of the biggest reasons I’m willing to pay ludicrous prices for this food is that it confirms my sense of myself as a do-gooder.

So why do I feel like what I really am is less a do-gooder than a charter member of the virtue-buying class? I suppose part of it is because people tend to define themselves through their purchases, and in grim economic times, as flagrant consumption becomes morally suspect (seriously, when you see some guy in a massive SUV now it’s like looking into the eyes of a serial killer, is it not?), we invest certain purchases with exaggerated moral value. I’m not just some lucky duck who can afford to choose between all these delicious foods, I’m part of a movement! I’m a locavore! I’m helping farmers and I’m reducing carbon emissions and I’m ensuring that my kids will never be touched by pesticides! Except I’ve also grown elitist and judgmental, and/or occasionally ashamed, when it comes to regular supermarket food (I’ve actually apologized to someone for feeding his kid Dannon yogurt), and for my monthly tab at the Greenmarket, I could lease a BMW. I imagine there’s a better way to use my money.

as in all areas of life, though, guilt isn’t really the most useful emotion. I recently called the writer and activist Raj Patel, who this spring published a great, lively, challenging book called Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to have some harsh things to say about, as he put it, “the paid-up members of the chattering class,” though he was anything but a left-wing puritan scold. “Americans have a way of thinking that shopping can change the world,” he said, “as if when we feel guilty it’s all a matter of going to Whole Foods and buying the right labels.”

“Um, yeah. That’s me.”

“But we should stop feeling guilty and instead feel angry,” he went on. “We need to do more than merely shop. Because good food is a right that everyone should enjoy. Our snobbery makes us think that low-income people can’t possibly enjoy food the way we do, as if their taste buds have been ruined by McDonald’s. But that’s pure elitism. Pleasure should be the birthright of everyone, not just limited to the bourgeois circle jerk over heirloom tomatoes. The radical moment is when you take this idea and do something about it.” The bourgeois circle jerk. That left a mark. And yet, much as I’d like to be a part of something more than that, I know enough about myself to realize that I’m about as likely to become radicalized around food as I am to start weaving my own hemp underpants.

Shortly after I spoke with Patel, I e-mailed Michael Pollan, guru of the local-food movement (The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.), to try to get a sense of whether he, too, was irked by the fetishization and misplaced sense of righteousness that’s taken over the organic crowd. “Sure, there’s some self-satisfaction,” he wrote back. “But in some small way, these people are doing good, and if their self-satisfaction is annoying, that seems like a small price to pay.” When I asked him if he had any suggestions for what to do to take the edge off the class guilt, he said, “Buying at a farmers’ market is a little like a gateway drug to more hard-core actions. There’s a lot of information exchanged when city people meet farmers and learn about their challenges (ridiculous regulations, land prices, etc.). There is in other words a subtle process of politicization going on, amid all the self-congratulation and warm feelings.”

Patel, too, had mentioned the “low-hanging fruits” of activism—signing the petitions to help farm workers that are always circulating around Greenmarkets; making the five-minute call to local reps to say that you’re interested in everyone eating well, not just those who can afford to, and asking what they’re doing about it; giving a little time or money toward community gardens that produce food for people in low-income areas. “But it’s also important,” he added, “to recognize that the good feelings you get from eating these foods are just that, good, and not to deny that. So much of the way we eat is joyless, but joy is what sustains us—joy is a serious business. That’s what this movement is about.”

All right, then, bring on the Humboldt Fog cheese! I’m ready to spread some joy! I’m also going to keep in mind, though, that buying biodynamic greens doesn’t automatically place me in the EZ-Pass lane to heaven. And I’m not actually better than my fellow man because I know my pluots from my plumcots. And if I can afford to feed myself and my family this well, then I can afford to give a little something to help someone whose luck isn’t as good as mine, but whose taste certainly is.

Thus ends the sermon. My apologies for the righteousness and the lefty flimflam. For what it’s worth, the column on how to allocate your 401(k) will indeed be coming soon, probably right after the one in which I urge you to join hands in front of the Fed and not leave until Ben Bernanke agrees to make hugs our official currency.

joel lovell is GQ’s story editor/correspondent.

Golden Boy Gets Clipped

Monday  October 20, 2008

Baron

Baron Davis returns to L.A. Too bad the only celebrity who cares is Frankie Muniz

interview by alex french

Last summer, Baron Davis—the 29-year-old South Central–born point guard—opted out of his contract with the Golden State Warriors- and signed a five-year, $65 million deal with the Clippers. The Bay Area mourned. Clippers fans (both of them!) rejoiced. Davis speaks.

Let’s talk about your decision to leave the Warriors. Chris Broussard on ESPN said it was about the money. True?
If it was about money, I would have played the last year of my contract and taken the $18 million due me. This year I’m gonna make twelve, so I took a $6 million pay cut. As a “star player,” or a go-to guy on the team, you want to feel that you’re wanted. The Warriors never put an offer on the table. Which sucks, because they offered everybody else the world.

Was it hard to leave the Bay?
It still hurts. It’s sorta like being with a girl and the parents break you up.

You signed with the Clippers thinking that you’d be playing with Elton Brand. But then he signed with Philly.
That was definitely disappointing. But I’m gonna bring a new generation, the new movement. For a long time, you never really saw the Clippers enjoy each other. With me leading, it’s gonna be fun basketball—play hard and play to win.

Okay... But playing for the Clippers has, historically speaking, had some drawbacks. The Lakers have Jack Nicholson. The Clippers have Frankie Muniz.
We all know this is Kobe’s city and the Lakers are kings in this town. I’ve always been considered an underdog in this league, so what better team to go to than one that’s always been an underdog?

You went to Crossroads, a progressive private school, with Kate Hudson and Zooey Deschanel. Couldn’t you look them up?
They’re Lakers fans! They’re all Lakers fans.

Any truth to the rumor that you’re making a movie with James Gandolfini?
Yes. It’s Sonny Vaccaro’s life story—about the ABCD Camp. 

Tony Soprano as Sonny Vaccaro? Really?
Watch, watch. He’s gonna kill it.

Sir Elton John's Weird Third Act

Monday  October 13, 2008

Elton_2

Saturday night's all right for fighting. And for Broadway's 'Billy Elliot'!

interview by chris heath

After drawing sellout crowds in London, Elton John's musical take on Billy Elliot comes to Broadway. The first surprise: He hates musicals as much as you do. The Q&A:

I believe you cried when you first saw the movie?
I think it was the scene where he graduates to be a dancer at the Royal Ballet, and he comes on and dances in Covent Garden, and his father’s there. That really hit home with me, because at the beginning of my career, when it all happened for me in the early ’70s, my father wasn’t there, and I always wanted to prove to my father that he was wrong about what I wanted to do. He never wanted me to do anything to do with rock ’n’ roll or anything like that. I never really had that relationship with my father, although towards the end of his life we certainly kind of patched things up, as it were. But every son wants their father’s approval, and that hit home. It would have been really great for my father to have been at Madison Square Garden or Dodger Stadium or something like that.

He always wanted you to have a sensible job…
Yeah. He wanted me to be in the air force, or join a bank, or work as an accountant. It was the ’50s. Rock ’n’ roll was the devil in some people’s eyes. He thought it was a very dangerous career for some boy to have. He might have been right…but you know, I proved him wrong. We weren’t on the same wavelength, really, ever.

Whereas Billy Elliot is all about a father who doesn’t get it but then does.
Yes, finally gets it. In extraordinary circumstances, when his future is coming to an end because of the miners’ strike. Like in The Lives of Others, when he’s putting on the headphones and suddenly hears the beautiful words being spoken, and then the music, and this art completely transforms the way he thinks. Billy’s dad, when he sees his son dance, it transforms the way he thinks, even though he doesn’t understand it and comes from a completely different world. The thing that chokes me up in the show is that when Billy’s going down to London, the miners have to go back down in the pit. Their life’s fucked, and Billy’s is starting. It’s a very sad moment. The reality sets in. But out of all that horror and just awful things that happened in that community, one beautiful thing happens out of it. The show is much more political than the film ever was, and that’s the way we wanted it to be. When the dance teacher says, “Fuck off. Never come back. There’s nothing for you here,” it’s very, very strong words, ’cause you just have to sometimes leave the mess and do something you really want to do. That’s kind of what I did.

Though these days you’ve become the person to come to for musicals, historically you’ve not really liked them, have you?
Not really. I like some of the classic ones. West Side Story, for me, is the greatest musical ever written. But I don’t like forced fun. I’m more drawn to tragedy than “Let’s all have a great time.” And I’m not keen on the music in musicals sometimes. I’m quite fussy about it. I don’t really like them unless I’m involved in them, for some reason.

You’ve always remained incredibly competitive when it comes to your pop career. Is it hard to keep that going as a pop star in your sixties?
I don’t really try it anymore. I make my albums; they do what they do—some of them not very well sometimes. And then I do other things—the Scissor Sisters thing, the Tupac record. I had the first track on the Kanye West CD, and I had a track on the Timbaland record, and I’ve got a track on the Streets album. I’m going to hopefully write the Killers’ Christmas song with them. So I just like doing little side projects like that. I just know where the land lies now. It’s impossible for me to keep up. My live performances sustain me, and I really enjoy that. I still may write something with Eminem, when I see him.

I was going to ask what happened to your hip-hop album.
I was going to write with him, but then Proof was shot dead. That was the day I was going. That wasn’t a very happy situation. He’s in a much better frame of mind right now, so I’m going to pop down and see him when I’m playing in Canada for a few days. Just hang out with him for a day or so. But I plan to record next year. After Captain & the Kid came out, I thought, I can’t do a better album as an Elton John record. And maybe the world isn’t screaming for another Elton John record—I mean, there’s forty-two of them out there to choose from—unless I do something completely and utterly different. I’m hopefully going to do something with Mark Ronson next year. I really love his feel for arrangements and the feel for the song. I’m going to do something where he’s totally in charge and see what happens.

You found your way into the papers in September. You presented at the British GQ awards with singer Lily Allen, and the media widely conveyed you as appalled at both her at-lectern drinking and general drunken demeanor.
That was just such nonsense. We had such a great time. She told me to fuck off, because I’m forty years older than she is. I love her. She was feeling no pain, I was feeling no pain. I was sober, she wasn’t, but it doesn’t matter. I think they’re being very unfair to her. We certainly didn’t have a fallout onstage on all.

Nonetheless, that was quite a majestic been-there-done-it put-down you came out with: “I could still snort you under the table.”
Yeah. [laughs] You have to put these people in their place sometimes.

Though you wouldn’t, would you?
Not after eighteen years, absolutely not. No, thank you.

But you still have the bravado, if not the desire.
Yes, I have the bravado, but not the desire. Not to do that, anyway.

Are you never going to succumb to the urge to try and put your own deepest mature thoughts down in song?
You mean write my own lyrics? I get hit over the head by lots of people about this.

I can’t believe you can resist the urge just to try and do it.
I want to have a career left. I mean, if I wrote some of the things I wanted to say in the songs, I wouldn’t have a career! I’ve got to keep away from things like that.

So it’s not like there’s nothing there, it’s that there’s a cork, and if it was uncorked…
Maybe if I suddenly got a terminal illness, I could rush an album out. Like when Dennis Potter, when he had months to live, called his cancer “Rupert” after Rupert Murdoch and said if he had the energy he would fucking kill him. If I had a terminal illness, I’d definitely go into the studio, because I wouldn’t give a flying fuck at that point.

So what would the songs be about?
About certain people, certain things I believe in, certain things I don’t believe in. But you know me—I don’t hold back. I just think I’ve got such a quiet and nice life at the moment, I’m just going to take things a little bit easier on that front. However, there might be a book coming up soon that I might write. But again, I’d like to have a career.…

Why do you carry on touring so manically?
I love going out and playing. I’ve never loved playing so much as I do now. I’m just going back to do some dates with my band, then I go off and do six dates completely on my own, and then I go back to Vegas to do a show which is completely different to anything we’ve done before, and then I’m going on the road again with Billy Joel again next year—so that’s the fourth different thing—and then I may go on the road with Ray Cooper again—so that’s the fifth different thing—and then I’ve got an orchestral thing up my sleeve. So that’s six different kinds of shows I can do. And I just really, really, really enjoy it. I suppose it’s because I’m totally happy with my personal life, totally happy travelling. Everything in my life is pretty much the most balanced it’s ever been. I’ve been going to places I’ve never played before—Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi. This year I played my fiftieth state. I’ve got so much energy and so many things on the go. I want to do another Vegas show. I’ve got a full-length animation musical. I’ve got to try and write a film musical for Ben Stiller.

What’s that about?
It’s about a guy on Broadway who is gay, has HIV and AIDS, and has to go back and face his wife and his kids that he left. It’s very funny.

It wasn’t sounding funny, so far.…
No, it’s very funny. The premise doesn’t sound funny, but it is. All right?

One last question: You played your fiftieth state, Vermont, this year. I wanted to ask you about the new ice cream Ben & Jerry’s created in commemoration, with sales to profit your AIDS foundation—the chocolate/peanut butter/cookie dough/butter brickle/white chocolate chunk confection christened Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road.
We were trying to find someone who came from Vermont that was famous, and Ben and Jerry came top of the list. They were so helpful and so great, and it was a delicious ice cream. I wanted to call it Fudge Packer.…