Friday, April 27, 2007

Chart boy

Several years ago, in a corridor of the Russell Senate Office Building , a fellow drone in a suit hustled by, lugging a 3-foot by 5-foot cardboard chart with a graph entitled “Foreign Sources of U.S. Oil Consumption, by Region.” Staring at the guy, sweat pouring off his face, tie askew, hair matted, I thought,`Man, that chart boy could be me someday.'
Since I’m an historian by nature because it was the easiest major in college, I pride myself on spotting major transforming historical trends, and hence I’ve always thought the dividing line between Old Washington and New Washington is not the ferocious lobbyist culture, extreme partisanship, slicked back hair or pastel ties. It’s more sublime.
My view of Old Washington is elegantly crafted speeches, written with fountain pens, copied on a dinosaur mimeograph machine, given by stately men in grey flannel suits, white shirts and muted ties. In their hands they grasped rolled up papers and flailed around a podium while a shock of grey hair fell over their foreheads. Think Clarence Darrow railing on about monkeys.
Across time and space we had the Agriculture and Industrial Revolutions and now today we have the Presentation Revolution. The subtle shift began with the reign of King Newt in 1994 who was poised to rule the world. Presentations, not speeches, became the rage. With presentations came The Chart.
Politicians, decision makers, and academic windbags now eschewed elegant speeches and instead stood up and pointed to these marvelously colorful charts that would explain everything — from the production of steel paperclips in Wishtokee County to the rise of non-defense non-discretionary spending during the McKinley era. Charts seemed to encapsulate everything about this town and about politics. Who can argue with a chart? Everywhere, overnight, you’d see legions of hacks following in the wakes of politicians who were going to make a presentation about paperclips, or the federal budget, or oil or chart production. Grab an easel, put up a gaudy chart and the argument was half won.
A Luddite, I was also a fortunate son as I avoided carrying these bulky charts. Sure, there were folders and manila envelopes to cart around for superiors. I once carried a dozen hard hats, like the ones on construction sites, looking like a carnival hawker in my outstretched arms at a highway event. As a State Department flunky, I carried bouquets of flowers, cheesy Uncle Sam paperweights and goat carvings throughout Whereverstan.
As time passed, I was entrusted with cell phones when my bosses were going on TV or about to speak to a huge group. Today, I am even entrusted to hold Blackberrys.
But the Day of the Chart was looming. It had to arrive. This week, it did. I was in my customary functionary mode, going to the Treasury Department for a news conference on the looming fiscal catastrophe. My office put together a chart displaying something, I don’t know what. “Is this showing future expenditures for the third floor coffee club if we switch to decaf and real cream?” I joked to the chart’s designer, who had an abacus and slide rule stapled to his belt. He adjusted his glasses and stared at me.
So we go into Treasury and I’m not holding the chart — a more senior guy is because he actually understands what’s on it. I’m just holding a manila folder entitled “Important Stuff.”
Yet I feel the chart is stalking me. The guy in charge of it is obviously uneasy holding it. As I said, more senior than me, to his credit he has a sense of chart responsibility. He’s got the dang thing practically pasted to his side as we walk a half-mile of corridors, following our escorts to a holding room before the event. Then he leans it up against a wall — I sit as far away from it as possible, like it’s a voodoo doll. People come and go and try to chat with me but I’m numb with apprehension.
We do the event. Some functionary with the department takes the chart and puts it on an easel in the briefing room and then takes it down after the event and puts it back in the room. The senior guy dutifully picks it up and we leave. But wait, he’s gotta follow my boss into a special meeting and everyone knows you can’t take a chart into a special meeting. So he hands it to me and scurries off.
There I finally am, standing in an ornate, marble floored hallway, underneath a monster portrait of Albert Gallatin, third Treasury Secretary of the United States , holding the chart. Standing beneath Old Washington, I now carried the baggage of New Washington. The bio next to the painting says Albert was from Scotland and a successful grain merchant before Jefferson picked him to lead the fledgling department. “Don't even say a word about this chart, Big Al,"” I say to his gaunt face staring at me.
We soon leave the building and go out into the sun and breeze on Pennsylvania Avenue and I have that accursed chart. Walking down the steps of Treasury, the White House visible next door, I reflect on my public policy career as the chart bangs against my leg. A gust of wind catches it and my wrist twirls as the chart flips all the way up and around and over my shoulder. My hair tangled, tie flapping, my face contorted and now a chart bouncing lightly on my head. It was inevitable. I had finally become what I always feared — Chart Boy.

Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times
Copyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.

Good ole Mom

Los Angeles – Not to be dramatic, but any visit to the City of Angels always brings me before my personal demons and my greatest adversary. With my teeth clenched tight enough to break and my mind racing, I am forced to confront the person who has dogged me at every turn in my professional life, wielding a strange power over my psyche and crushing my ideological beliefs into so much dust. That person would be my mother.

Despite what I've accomplished in my happy-go-lucky amble through life, good ole Mom views me as a narrow-minded, proto-fascist sprung from the womb of enlightenment. That’s right; she’s a radical, militant, liberal feminist. Educated at U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, she’s a longtime political activist, she’s a recognized expert in the arcane but critical mechanics of the statewide initiative process, voter registration, and ballot procedures (recall Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 in considering the significance of these issues). That’s why this faithful liberal workhorse remains appalled at the trajectory of her eldest and no doubt dearest son.

It all started when I left U.C. Berkeley to transfer to Williams College, from the hotbed of activism to a stodgy, elite eastern school. "Well, we'll just see how that words out for you," she sniffed.

Soon thereafter I began my descent into career oblivion, as she sees it, she actually answered the phone one day at house, when William F. Buckley Jr. was on the other line to offer me a job at National Review magazine in New York. Improbably, at the time, I was also interviewing with the CIA, which sparked her to call me a "traitor." When I accepted the magazine job, she sat in the living room, head bowed in hand, and said, "So this is what your father and I get after all we've done for you."

It continued down hill from there. Stints on the editorial pages of two conservative newspapers were met with muffled groans and gnashing of teeth.

Soon I was off to Washington D.C. to work for Congressman Bill Thomas, a California Republican cut from the Reagan mold. "Just get used to being in the minority, son,” was all she had to say.

Then it was to a speechwriting position in the administration of President George HW Bush -- you know, pushing the triumphalist line while gloating over the fall of those awful commies. "You’ve made a pact with the devil," she duly noted. Then I joined the Army reserves. "Have you no shame?" was her response.

There was no stopping the lengths at which I would go to disappoint and infuriate her. I got a job with a House committee position in the now resurgent GOP-led 104th Congress. We Gingrich-led political shock troops were going to change the world and all she said was, "Don't get used to being in the majority, son."

Now this tangled trail of professional failure and missteps has led me to a political appointment in the administration of President George W. Bush. When notified of my post, she exclaimed to no one in particular "I have now seen the face of evil." Oh that Mommer, what a card.

And it's not only in the grand sweep of politics and ideas that our battle takes place. It's the everyday things. We are having dinner and she asks me how I'd like my steak cooked. "Medium," I reply warily. "Well, I wonder what Ann Coulter would say about that," she shoots back.

Yes, she's my mother, but of course, sheer pride allows me not give an inch. Sitting on the patio of our home in Los Angeles, attempts at reason are made. I observe, "I'm quite fond of you, Mom, but your distorted world view continues to make me question your sanity." She signs condescendingly and says, "When my kind takes over, you'll be swept from the face of the earth." "Thank you,” I reply.

When I was recently quoted on the front page of the New York Times on a Medicaid issue, she called and said, "Congratulations. I see you're beating up on poor people again."

Mother will always have the last word. When I mentioned that I'd served as a reference for two longtime Democrat friends looking for jobs in town, she smiled and said, "That’s nice. It's good to have people who owe you." I evinced surprise at this hardball style from dearest mom. She smiled and then added, "Because my poor, misguided son, you're day is coming and you're going to need all the help you can get."

Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times
Copyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.

They were from Missouri---and they showed me

Washington, D.C. – Unless you are prepared to lose a lot of money on real estate, the lottery, football bets, or elections, don’t ever go with the Coastmaster on a hunch. My political myopia has been exposed for the psychotic madness that it is. As a ballot box prognosticator, I have been revealed as naked and bereft. As a seer of elections, I have been humbled. Everything came up Democrat and there’s nowhere for this hack to run.
But I’m not done yet. I’m wounded, I’m cursed. This past Tuesday has taught everyone to ignore everything about politics that the Coastmaster utters. Yes, folks, my pride and mind, not to mention my job, are reeling like a mad clown on a calliope, as I sit in the fading ashes of what were the GOP hopes off in the 2006 elections.
I’m still not done yet. Stray confetti blows over from Senator-elect Jim Webb's celebration party, and as Speaker Pelosi heads back to the Hill after having lunch with President Bush, and Majority Leader Reid heads down there today for a coffee klatch and some gibble-gabble, I ponder the ruins, howling at the moon as the ole political saying comes back to batter my shrinking ego and haunted mind: They were from Missouri -- and they showed me.
What a Tuesday it was. If you were a Democrat, then you are laughing madly, dancing a jig, your fingers itching to control the levers of power, flushed with excitement after 12 years in the wilderness. You’re ready to change the world and while you're at it, change the locks on your new offices. If you're a Republican, you’re going through your desk drawers, stocking up on leftover paperclips and pens, and trying to blow up your computer hard drive. Boxes of files will soon be outside all the House and Senate committee rooms and even now, the thunder of movers echoes down the halls of the Capitol. Give Speaker Pelosi the best suite – because she’s no longer knocking on the door, she’s inside and picking out curtains.
If you're in the executive branch you better think about legal advice because the big bad days have arrived. You are out of power and it it’s about as nice as getting whacked on the funny bone by a big gavel rapping to order a Democrat Congress.
First off, it’s hats off to the Democrats. I certainly wouldn’t have believed last year, last summer, (or even last week, I say sadly as Mr. Out-of-Touch Master) that they’d win. Perhaps it’s the echo chamber that is Washington – us zombies think victory lies in the districts are so sophisticatedly gerrymandered, that the Republican incumbents could count on local good works, that a torrent of cash at the end could save them. I’m hardly the first person to say it (though unlike most pundits, I have worked in Congress and the Executive Branch and thus should know dang better) that I thought the GOP would, for God’s sake, hang on.
I’ll fill in more later after I crawl out from my hiding place. But for now, just a few thoughts -- this election will be a windfall for Democrat lobbyists and firms that have been sucking wind for a decade. Lawyers, too, will get on the gravy train, because there will be investigations like you've never even believed. The whole executive branch will be tied up answering requests from new chairmen like John Dingell, and Henry Waxman, and Charles Rangel, and John Conyers. Vengeance time, baby. That's the way life and politics can work, and don't expect anything less than dynamite. I’ve heard the “hands across the aisle,” “working together,” “common ground,” “bipartisan spirit” mantra so many times I think I’ll put it on my tombstone when I pass away in into that great political hack cemetery in the sky. St. Peter will meet me at the gate and I’ll simply say, “Cream or sugar, sir?”
For now, there is a huge wind blowing, and the symbolism here is as solid as the reality of the majorities in Congress. Who would have thought? I sure didn’t – and now it’s back to ole Mizzou for me.

Carteret County News-Times Online EditionCopyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc., Morehead City , North Carolina
All rights reserved.


Washington, D.C. – I’d just left a political event featuring members of the Evil Party at the National Press Club, for once not part of the service staff or carrying a clipboard and a box of thank-you trinkets. It being a mellow October evening, I took a circuitous walk around the downtown and the Mall in the evening breeze, ruminating on what had come to pass in the last couple weeks; events so wacky and tortured that my feeble mind could scarcely comprehend them.

The Washington Post and New York Times had all but announced Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, this after the degenerate Mark Foley had exploded the GOP’s fall momentum with his sicko notes to young House pages. And speaking of explosions, Kim Donkey Kong Jong Il, the puffy-hair nutbag, blew up part of a mountain in his country, even as 2 million people died from starvation (I thought that only happened to people who couldn’t reach the breakfast buffet at the Pyongyang Ponderosa). Sunni and Shiites are busy beheading each other in the name of Allah. And don’t look now, but that leisure-suit garbed Muslin preacher, Ahamianabad is also closing on nuclear capabilities, while saying Israel should be wiped off the face of the And oh, in my ramblings, I look down and suddenly see several stains on my shirtfront are from dinner. Yikes, the world is going to you-know-where in a hand basket and the Coastmaster looks like a hobo. Stop the globe, baby, its time for me to get off.

There’s an old saying (and no, it’s not I’m from Missouri on that, har har), that a week in politics can be a lifetime. Make that two weeks and you’re talking about eternity. It’s a tired cliché to point to the rapidity of the news cycle and the electronic revolution. Thus, creepy Foley was caught sending email, the messages were stolen off a site on the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle spins like a dryer in heat, and now the House ethics committee is plodding through hearings, all in 18 days while the guys in the stodgy old big media are still blow drying their hair for tonight’s telecast.

To reiterate, I think psycho Foley utterly blunted the momentum the GOP had surging in September. Instead of talking about why the 13 terror “suspects” (jeez, who doesn’t think all 13 are guilty of something awful and should be sent to meet their 82 virgins), it’s Foley. Instead of the steep gas price decreases, the strong economy, unemployment at 4.5 percent, the stock market setting records, its Foley. Indeed, even Kim Wrong Il’s big blast was not quite big enough – here we go to the United Nations again – that paragon of vice and glacial movement. (The one good thing there is the departure of Kofi Anana, the first sub-Saharan African to lead the body, and who did so much good in places like Rwanda -- where he was the senior official for peacekeeping-- and Darfur. Whew, Kofi, take a break from the thievery and those free suits and shirts you’ve been getting. And trim that silly beard.)

Nor is there any peace is the stream of books that have been taking some heavy shots at the Iraq war. The titles alone say it: “Fiasco,” “State of Denial,” “Imperial Lives in the Emerald City, “or “Big Bad Mistakes in Baghdad.” Woodward’s “Denial” is especially neat and ABC’s Jonathan Karl recently wrote an outstanding piece in the Wall Street Journal on Woodward’s special style of reporting – you know, remembering six-year old conversations verbatim – that is conversations he wasn’t even a part of. Climbing inside people’s heads and knowing what they are thinking, even when their asleep. Using dozens of unidentified sources so you don’t know who the heck is saying what about whom (i.e. is that Andy Card or Captain Kangaroo on Slam Dunk George Tenant?). But you do know why they refuse to be identified. Because in Washington, how you rewrite history is anonymously, while stabbing everyone you know in the back. On a personal note, one of the things I’ve always despise in town is the unidentified source. This plagued me on the Hill, particularly when it was some junior knucklehead staffer whom a sympathetic reporter gave the standing of a Chairman.

Taken all together, right now, the GOP is one frightened bunch. And having been through more a several of these elections – in which my job and livelihood were at stake -- I kind of pay attention to these things.

So, being the heretic – and myopic man -- I am, I am here to declare that the GOP hangs on to the House and Senate. Wiser minds than the Coastmaster can frame it empirically. The GOP has loads of cash to pour into those seven critical days before an election. The GOP has a masterful get-out-the-vote effort, which is old shoe leather in the day and age of the computer chip. Its mechanics, yes, to be one of those poor unfortunates to walk precincts, motivating people to motivate even more people to get to the polling place. But it is magnified in an age of e-mail and computer lists and micro polling.

The Democrats smell blood, as they should. I sure know the smell – from 1994. But there’s something intangible out there. And so with 2 ½ weeks out to the election, I’m crazy enough to venture a guess. [Warning: I guessed a 14-seat GOP House pickup in 1998 and they lost five]. Here goes: 220-215 in the House, 51-47 and 2 (independents Bernie Sanders and Joe Liebermann) in the Senate.

That’s my guess two weeks out and I’m sticking to it. Just as, musing in the fall breeze near the Capitol Building, I note my dinner is doing same to my shirt and tie.

Carteret County News-Times Online EditionCopyright 2007 Carteret Publishing Co., Inc., Morehead City , North Carolina
All rights reserved.