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Takes on a new meaning now…

A lot of people yesterday (you know, Halperin, Fournier, et al) declared Chris Christie’s presser a huge success almost immediately, but my first response was that it was a disaster disguised as a triumph because the narrative and many of the details were either already known to be untrue or are so unlikely that it makes the lotto look like a great investment. Christie struck the right tone but it’s quite clear that he’s spinning his wheels, pressing a narrative that does not pass muster. The cracks are already growing, like the notion that he’d only heard about the whole thing Monday morning:

Mr. Christie, a Republican, complained in a private phone call to Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, that Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was pressing too hard to get to the bottom of why the number of toll lanes onto the bridge from Fort Lee, N.J. was cut from three to one in early September, according to this person. The lane closures occurred without notice to local authorities, officials have said, and snarled traffic for a week in the small borough on the Hudson River bluffs.

Circumstantial, for sure. As is this:

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) in a statement drew particular attention to a document showing an apparent meeting between Christie and the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, just days before his deputy chief of staff wrote an email to a top Port Authority appointee saying it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

You couldn’t convict with this evidence. In fact, while the narrative of Christie’s direct involvement is definitely supported by this information, other narratives are in fact possible. I say this to be fair. But it’s definitely enough to raise reasonable doubt about his story of complete noninvolvement, which seems more untenable by the second.

My analysis? I don’t know for sure if Chris Christie was directly involved. But his reaction to the scandal is, indeed, what guilty politicians tend to do when caught at doing something untoward and damaging. In fact, it’s very, very similar to Richard Nixon’s playbook on Watergate: first treat the thing as no big deal, then blame it on a couple of staff members, who then take a fall. But every step Nixon took backfired, and it does appear that yesterday’s press conference was merely the end of the beginning.

The question I ask myself is, why do this? Why take pages from one of the worst damage control efforts in history? In Nixon’s case, the answer was simple: the man was completely, fully delusional and just as self-righteous. Garry Wills, in Nixon Agonistes, pegged this to the influence of his mother, who insisted young Dick was an angel and ignored any and all shortcomings. Given that the older Nixon was easily able to bomb countries we weren’t at war with, build an entire web of extragovernmental goons and a stream of money to support them, and tell people to cover up crimes on tape without ever seeming to question his own goodness seems like strong proof of this theory: just so long as mom (or the American people) don’t find out about it, it doesn’t count. Nixon, of course, is not known to have directly ordered the Watergate break-in, and who knows, maybe if he’d come clean and said that he had panicked and was just trying to help close friends and colleagues, perhaps reaction would have been different. But ultimately his self-righteousness proved to be his undoing. Nixon couldn’t allow people to see him in that way, so he presented one story after another to the public about Watergate, each painting him as entirely blameless, and upon each one falling apart, the public became more convinced that he was guilty to an even greater extent than he actually was. Christie, of course, is no slouch in the self-righteousness department. How else do you justify yelling at working stiffs to yourself? Insulting people to shut down conversations? Only works if you believe very deeply in your own moral authority. Deeply enough to try to shut down more powerful political opponents? Maybe. But the need to present one’s self to the public as unimpeachable is one Christie shares with Nixon, and the results to date are surprisingly similar.

Obviously, we’ll learn much more in the days and weeks to come. But the simple fact is that Christie’s response suggests culpability more than his actions.

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I just love how folks in the ever-so-exceptionally educated and enlightened branch of Christianity are so quick to dismiss atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins because he thinks Christianity is what the silly ignorant Christian rubes (who believe stuff like Jesus rode dinosaurs) think it is, rather than the ever-so-exceptionally enlightened true essence of what Christianity is REALLY about:

One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety. If Christianity actually entailed the beliefs that the earth was created 6,000 years ago and homosexuality is evil and there really was a Noah who built a gigantic boat, I wouldn’t want anything to do with it, either. I imagine Richard Dawkins never held a third-grader in a trailer and forced him to confess that the theory of punctuated equilibria is false.  But Christianity does not entail such beliefs, I make bold enough to say.

As you’re reading this, I’m probably still laughing at that last bit.  No true Scotsman.  Indeed.

I can understand why a centrist of a certain bent would look at the popularity and gravitas of the Queen of the United Kingdom and wish that the US had a public figure like her, a nonpolitical national personality associated with the state. However, the concept simply doesn’t transfer to an American context, and Michael Auslin’s stupid article (via, no direct links to POLITICO here) mostly proves why it doesn’t. Basically, the UK is still formally a monarchy because, unlike France, Italy, Greece, Germany and Russia, no British Monarch led their country into a devastating modern war. England went from “divine right of kings” to “supremacy of the masses” without actually shutting down the institution of the Monarchy, and eventually found an ancillary use for it as a living repository for continuity with the British past. That is the primary use of having a powerless monarch, and it’s not a bad use! Societies are clearly interested in continuity, hence why publishers never stop flooding us with dull books about the Founding Fathers, why political figures keep yammering about the Founding Fathers, why brewers name beverages after the Founding Fathers, even though today’s political context bears little resemblance to a new country 240 years ago and our society and government would be similarly unrecognizable to them. Continuity with the entirety of your nation’s history embodied within an institution is the main thing the Monarchy provides, and obviously, despite the Queen’s popularity if England had remained a republic after Cromwell and if the contemporary Cameron Government were to propose a bill giving a random family a rent-free place of living in a historic castle right in the middle of London (and another in Scotland), as well as covering the costs of travel, education, food, utilities and all the rest in exchange for having no real duties or power outside of setting election dates, it is highly unlikely that this would be a popular move.

But that is essentially Auslin’s big idea. The gist of it is that a “First Citizen” who is legally prohibited from voicing political opinions, exercising power, or doing anything other than taking over the ceremonial duties of the president and rallying the people with necessarily generic paeans to patriotism seems like a gigantic waste of time. After the novelty wears off, the press would stop covering this person in favor of the people who actually have an impact on peoples’ lives. Not to mention the bizarre grab bag of requirements like never holding political office (like Roman Tribunes I guess?). The notion that this pseudo-Monarch would immediately upend the political spectrum and end partisan division is silly, as is the notion that any individual would be able to meet the ridiculous confirmation criteria (which includes a blatantly un-Constitutional breach of the separation of powers by giving the Supreme Court confirmation duties, and requires the Court to unanimously confirm the nominee (?)). The Monarchy has assumed the place it does in British life because of the extreme length of time it’s been around, and because of glory and glamour and the history of the institution accumulated during that time. But the “First Citizenship” would be a useless, ceremonial office with no history or even an organic reason for existence to begin with, thus eliminating its utility as a fix for the short-term problem of political polarization.

The real way to read this is as the cry of a political establishment that has become jaded and despondent during the Obama years. After all, Barack Obama promised them he’d try to work with Republicans and he has, indeed, tried to work with Republicans. He negotiated with them when it was obvious it would not work. He made substantial concessions just to get them on board with his plans, even when that was not necessary (and pissed off his base). He wined and dined them, he flattered some of them, he declined to attack senior Republicans like John Boehner and Paul Ryan in hopes that he would make budget deals more likely, leaving potential political leverage on the table. In short, he did everything they wanted him to do, and none of it worked. Rather than merely just accept that Republicans do not want to compromise with Obama for their own reasons (which is their right, though their recklessness is a whole other matter), it’s been common for Beltway types to simply shoot the messenger and blame Obama for it all. At this point, Ron Fournier and Bob Woodward have all but issued their respective fatwas. This “First Citizen” notion is more indirect, but the basic idea is that all we need is an elite with the right kind of personality to unite us all (and that Obama is not that person). One of the things the Obama years have taught me is that this line of reasoning is fatuous. No such personality exists. The basic reason we have polarization is that Republicans prefer it to cooperation. No need to make a phony king that wouldn’t fix it.

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Such as this one…

I appreciate Ed Kilgore’s sentiment here, but I think it’s safe to say that Christie is indeed finished, if he wasn’t before. This is in large part because having the image of a squeaky-clean performer is imperative to his efforts to advance his career. Christie might indeed be able to weather such a scandal if he were governor of, say, Minnesota, which does not have a reputation for dirty politics (quite the opposite in fact). However, he represents a state that is to a large extent defined by corruption in the public mind, and his national image depends completely on his being “the last honest man fighting that stuff” rather than being of it. The voters will indeed elevate people from suspect jurisdictions if they believe that the person in question had integrity and fought against corruption, but they will not if the person is embedded in that corruption. There’s a reason why Chicago ward heelers and New Orleans parish politicians rarely find themselves elevated to become viable presidential candidates. The example of President Barack Obama is instructive, as in his career Obama scrupulously avoided any sort of political dealings that would have allowed him to be labeled as “Chicago” in the public’s mind (obviously, the right has labeled him so anyway, though the accusations have remained contained to people who need to believe this whether it’s true or not). The only reason that Bobby Jindal finds himself taken seriously at all is because the collapse of his power in Louisiana was due to ideological factors, not personal corruption (though he cuts a different figure from, say, Edwin Edwards). To the extent that Christie can be dismissed as being emblematic of a culture of corruption–and he hails from a state that is believed to be an especially strong example of it, fairly or not–he simply will not be taken seriously. And at this point I’d say that’s where we’re at.

Of course, if even half the sleaze that’s been rumored about Christie is true, then he never had a prayer anyway. Also, I will pass along this list of corrupt states, which does not include Jersey, and which is accented by some excellent photographs that make me want to visit all of these states regardless of the state of their governments.

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A couple of short thoughts:

  • The question isn’t why Bill Clinton, who probably does not lack for money, would endorse a for-profit education company. We know the answer to this: he sometimes just doesn’t think through all the implications of what he’s doing. The question is: will Bill Clinton again be a distraction for a Hillary Clinton campaign, chewing up news cycles as his business and personal dealings are pulled apart? And obviously the answer to that is yes, of course, the press will be looking for it anyway, and it’s right neighborly of Mr. Clinton to make their lives easier. God, this is going to be another exhausting presidential campaign.
  • I’m conflicted on the question of Brian Schweitzer’s possible presidential candidacy after reading this interview with Weigel. On the one hand, his conduct regarding the Montana Senate race was irritating, prima-donna stuff that might well cost our side a seat. And his appeal to key parts of the Obama Coalition is unknown, not to mention some real iffy positions on energy and guns. This said, I think it would be great if he ran against Clinton because it would put an articulate opponent of NSA spying and military-industrial excesses on the stage with Clinton, which would at least mean she’d have to stand up for her (presumably opposing) stances, and even sharpen them up a bit.
  • Additionally, the most important part of the 2016 Dem nomination is that it be an adversarial contest rather than a coronation. I’d be much happier with Clinton as a nominee if progressives and civil libertarians were able to flex some muscle and demand consideration. Presidents mostly just mediate among interests anyway, so it’s critically important that a president believe that certain interests need to be listened to and respected. Like the Coens wrote in Miller’s Crossing: “You run this town because people think you run it. They stop thinking it, you stop running it.” Only the inverse.

Also, this isn’t precisely 2016 related, but the notion that Steven Seagal will be elected to any office is deeply silly. His career is a testament to the man’s fundamental lack of discipline and lack of interest in doing what is necessary to maintain his one-time success, neither of which screams “successful politician” at all. Also, he’s a Buddhist of a rather, ahem, unorthodox persuasion:

I can see it now: VOTE FOR GOD 2014!

Also, he makes crappy blues music:

Just because it sounds like a novelty song and is made by someone whose fame is more compelling than the art doesn’t make it a novelty…oh wait, yes it does.

Some movies I’ve seen recently:

  • Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: It tries so hard–too hard, in fact–but given that Will Ferrell’s personal style from the outset was trying too hard, it’s not the main problem with the film, which I partly enjoyed. Really, the first hour or so struck a fine balance between witty, clever gags and jokes, and the over the top raunch that one would expect from this crew. But the movie is just too much on every level: too many acts (four distinct ones) that subvert the usual comedic rhythms and really make you feel the entire two hours of it. Too many cameos and ideas in the anchorman brawl parte deux, too much emphasis on the notion that if Burgundy doesn’t get to his son’s recital on time, there’ll be huge consequences, even though he already decided to give up the big job and lavish lifestyle anyway, so it’s a foregone conclusion, and the tension is forced. Someone once told me that, if I wanted to get into Dexter, I should just end at season four and imagine what I thought would happen. I would offer more or less the same advice: just stop at around the one hour mark and imagine the best wrap-up to the story to that point. Why does it try so hard? I suspect (a) to justify a decade-late sequel to a movie with an ending that seemed to deliberately close off the possibility–it had a full-on Animal House ending that definitively said where everyone went from there–until Will Ferrell’s box office record had piled up one too many flops that a retreat to safer ground was necessary, and (b) because they apparently went through hell to get it made and then made us go through it with the aggressive marketing. But repaying hype with spectacle is the oldest bait-and-switch in the book. I would have just settled for one less act (tabling the whole brawl rehash would have sufficed) and a more joke-full third act.
  • Lost In Translation: Finally got around to seeing it. My basic conclusion is this: Sofia Coppola is no nepotism hire, she knows how to direct actors, gets nuance, can put together a movie visually, has some style and can set a mood. A very good technical filmmaker. But as an artist I have less than no interest in what interests her, which is wealthy ennui that one assumes she knows quite well. She’s good at portraying it, but my empathy is maxed out between the poor, the working and middle class people all legitimately straining to get by that I just don’t have the empathy for the most abstract of rich people problems. At the least, Bill Murray is funny. All the same, while Coppola holds little interest to me, I can see why she remains a darling of Hollywood and of critics, who can relate to/feel empathy for fellow wealthy people to a greater extent than I can.
  • The World’s End: This film, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are hardly a trilogy in terms of narrative, though they are all linked in that they’re all fundamentally movies about friendship. This one focuses on a deeply damaged friendship, has a classic burnout as its protagonist, and as it unwinds we learn that all of the characters have suffered personal or career failures and the movie winds up becoming a defense of failure in some ways, as a signal that one’s life is misaligned, a part of our humanity. This is a mildly subversive message in the current success-obsessed society. Probably the richest of the three in terms of its observations about life and friendship, and of course there’s a genre dimension to it as one would expect from the Pegg/Frost/Wright pairing, but paired with real heart as with the other films the principals have made together. The rare trilogy where the third film equals the prior two, and I do hope that we’ll see more from this crew in the future.

This song (and in particular this version) might well be the worst Christmas song ever recorded:

To explain:

I don’t have any particular problem with Michael Buble, who is a perfectly fine singer. His act of singing well-covered standards with traditional/respectful arrangements is not something that has any particularly compelling reason for existing in a universe where the recordings of Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, et al, continue to be available, but whatever. In this case, though, he’s covering what is essentially a kitschy novelty song, the prostitution yin to the date-rape yang of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. “Santa Baby” as a song is a single joke escalated continuously, in which the breathy singer implies that if Santa brings her lots of valuable things, then there might be something in it for him (wink). Never much cared for the song because I’m uncomfortable envisioning Santa Claus as a sexual being, and you probably are too.

However, at least that’s a concept. Buble doesn’t seem to want to take the risk of cutting a song full of gay flirting or even the risk of singing from a woman’s point of view (one can only imagine future FOX News freakouts about Santa being gay). So, essentially, it’s minute after minute of Mr. Buble not being in on the joke, which is about as painful as you can get for holiday music. Perhaps camp is something he ought to stay away from in the future is all I’m saying…

Which brings me to a larger point about holiday music. Every December we hear numerous, pervasive interpretations of about two dozen old standards. Some of them are indeed well-constructed songs. But can any idea or means of expressing an idea survive decade after decade of faithful covers, reinterpretations, and outright rehashings? I do not believe so, and this is why Christmas songs are the real chore of the season. I’m not sure anybody really likes them, so much as the nostalgic emotions they release. But so long as we have a music industry amenable to some Holiday cash grabs, no doubt those reinterpretations and rehashings will continue to appear.

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