Look for ... the liberal label


I saw this headline. It began well: "In the shadow of the state capitol that provided the United States with one of the most conservative presidents in recent history, Obama last night railed against the charge that being 'liberal' was a bad thing." But then it continues:

"Oh, he's liberal," he said. "He's liberal. Let me tell you something. There's nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics that is common sense. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home."

Continuing on his riff: "There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has healthcare, but we are spending more on healthcare in this country than any other advanced country. We got more uninsured. There's nothing liberal about saying that doesn't make sense, and we should so something smarter with our health care system. Don't let them run that okie doke on you!"

First of all, just what the heck does it mean to "run that okie doke" on someone? But second of all, how is that rallying "against the charge that being 'liberal' was a bad thing"? To me, he's making it sound as if it's a really bad thing, and certainly something that's not "okie doke," at least as I understand the term. In fact, it is "liberal" to want to do all of those things, Barack.

Compare to John Kennedy:

Speaking to New York's Liberal Party in September 1960, Kennedy proclaimed, "What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label 'liberal'? If by 'liberal' they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then...we are not that kind of 'liberal.' But if by a 'liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people--their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties--someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'liberal' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'liberal.' "

This piece, called "Transforming the Liberal Checklist," by the excellent New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman, is really smart and worth your time. Here's a bit:

Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What's the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year's legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It's all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.

Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year -- or five years, or twenty years -- will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better. Transformational politics has been a critical element of American political life since Lincoln was advocating his "oft expressed belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion."

The need for a renewed focus on transformational politics is obvious when we compare the success of the conservative movement over the past thirty years with the collapse of the American progressive coalition. The important thing about contemporary conservatives is not just that they won elections--it's how they won. They didn't win by changing their positions or rhetoric to move toward the voters--or where polls told them the voters were. They won by moving the voters closer to them, paving the way for the last decade of conservative hegemony.

I've been asked to comment in a few places about Ralph Nader's 2008 candidacy. I don't know which is sillier, that Nader thinks he's running for president or that Meet the Press thought this fringe candidate, who will be lucky if he polls half of a percent, was worth the time of an interview with the mighty Tim Russert, famous son of Buffalo. Of course, if Ralph couldn't get himself booked on shows like that, he would have no reason to run for president.

One thing I'm really sick of: CNN journalists pimping for the surge during Democratic debates. John King did it in the last one; Wolf Blitzer did it (I think it was Wolf, though my memory might be faulty -- it might have been King twice). Look, the surge is a failure based on the administration's own criteria. Kinsley has returned to his senses, here.

George Zornick adds: 60 Minutes aired an important story last night on the case of Don Siegelman, a former governor of Alabama currently serving a prison term for bribery. The segment shows, at the least, that Siegelman was likely the target of selective prosecution by the Bush administration; at worst, he may be serving a seven-year sentence for bribery that never happened.

You can see the whole sad tale right here -- allegations of curiously timed indictments, potentially coerced testimony, and obvious conflicts of interest. There is already a congressional investigation into the Siegelman case, but it's been slowed by the refusal of Karl Rove and other White House principals to answer subpoenas, along with the Justice Department's refusal to turn over hundreds of documents related to the case.

If it's true that Siegelman was repeatedly prosecuted and eventually put in jail simply because he belonged to the wrong political party, it represents how deeply the Bush administration has degraded the basic functions of government - when essential actions, like criminal prosecution, are conducted with purely political motives, we move towards a pretty scary place.

McCain Suck-up Watch: We see from Media Matters, here and here, that some outlets are passing off Bob Bennett as an apparently "objective" defender of John McCain. Note: Bennett is McCain's attorney, and has been tasked specifically to deal with the Times story.

The Washington Post quoted a letter from the McCain campaign claiming that "objective observers" viewed the Times story as "a sleazy smear." The Post did not note, however, that Bennett was one of the observers. (Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough were the other two.) Also, Bill O'Reilly aired a clip of Bennett defending McCain without explaining Bennett's day job.

Were I, say, Roger Clemens' agent, I'd be dialing the Post right now, offering my new "objective" observer, Debbie C. She'll totally set the record straight ...

SiCKO, a film on which I (George) had the privilege to work as a researcher, didn't win last night in the Best Documentary category at the Oscars. Speaking for myself, it was great simply that the movie got a nod, and the press coverage that came with it. Even if it wasn't up on the stage last night, SiCKO put the issue of health care on the national stage this summer, and Michael Moore continues to constructively needle Democrats on their donations from the health care industry and failure to cut private insurers out of the health care system. It was good to hear the film being discussed again last night; to see footage of the Oregon man who accidentally cut off two fingers and could only afford to have one re-attached played to millions of viewers.

One can never really say that a single film creates a direct, visible path to a specific policy change, but it can be one part of a popular shift in opinion that eventually demands the government do things differently. Sadly but not unexpectedly, hospitals are still dumping patients who can't afford to pay and the 9-11 volunteers featured in the film are forced to march on Washington tomorrow because President Bush cut their health care fund by 77 percent in his latest budget -- and so of course the conversation must continue. I'm proud for how strongly SiCKO pushed that conversation forward, and plus, it's just a great piece of cinema. As, of course, is Taxi to the Dark Side, the winner last night, which you should also check out.

Speaking of the sick 9-11 workers marching on Washington, how badly has Bush dealt with the event on which his entire presidency is predicated? The terrorists attacks have been used as a catalyst for so many disastrous policies -- the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretapping, ad nauseam - but the workers who left their jobs and families to help rescue and clean up are dying from the side effects, without help from the government. There's been little federal leadership to get something built in the gaping hole at Ground Zero, and Bush has repeatedly reduced anti-terrorism funding for New York City. How has the 9-11 president gotten away with failing to actually deal with the fallout from 9/11 and those it affected? How many press outlets will cover the workers' march tomorrow?


I saw my old friend Lari White sing a lovely set at the Oak Room at the Algonquin last week. When I met Lari a few years ago, she was a country singer in a pretty straightforward fashion. Then she made an interesting, albeit somewhat schizophrenic record called Green-Eyed Soul and focused on her acting. Now she's reinventing herself once again as a chanteuse. The current set at the Oak Room focuses on a set of extremely eloquent love letters and Lari working her way through a set of songs that alternate between standards and songs with which few are familiar. She was charming and sexy and sang wonderfully throughout the 90-minute set. Once again, we were back in the days of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and 'twas wonderful.

I also caught Mike Leigh's play Two Thousand Years, about a Jewish family in London. I actually hate Leigh's movies and this has gotten mixed reviews, so I almost bagged out at the last minute. But I loved it. There sure is a lot of yelling. But the acting is quite compelling and the show is written with a knowing tone that works against, but also with, its over-the-top characterizations that give it both a purpose and sense of empathy that can only be found in the best of theater. It's at the Acorn/Theatre Row, here.

Ben Webster -- Dig Ben

This eight-disc compilation of the famed tenor saxophonist Ben Webster's work is largely made of his European recordings, made from 1964-1973, mostly in Scandinavia. Webster went to Europe when he was 55 - a fear of flying prevented an earlier trip, but once there, Webster never returned to the United States. The compilation, released by Storyville Records, feature Webster at Copenhagen's famous Montmartre club as well as sessions from London, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and several tracks recorded before he left New York. It's a real treasure. Nobody sounds like Ben and here you can just wallow in the stuff; thoughtful, intelligent and you know, warm. For an eight-CD box set, with excellent bibliographical material, though not much in the way of fancy packaging, it's pretty well priced too. You can read all about it here.

Stax/Volt Revue Live In Norway 1967

On the 50th anniversary of Stax Records and the 40th anniversary of the Stax/Volt Revue, the aforementioned record label is putting out a DVD compilation of the famous show in Norway, 1967. There's plenty of Motown footage all over the place but until this DVD, Stax was not so easy to find, save perhaps Otis at Monterey. Here we finally get high-quality video of 75 minutes -- 18 full-length songs performed by Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, and the Mar-Keys. Stax historian Rob Bowman contributed a long essay to a 24-page booklet that comes with the compilation, along with some rare photographs and concert memorabilia. Plus it's cheap. If you like "good music -- sweet soul music ..." I don't see how you can live without it. More here.

Horace Silver -- Live at Newport '58

After Horace Silver and Art Blakey dissolved their band, Jazz Messengers, Silver went on to pursue an active career of his own (as did Blakey). In 1958, Silver's new quintet headlined the Newport Jazz Festival, performing the final set of the Sunday show. Blue Note Records is now putting out the previously unreleased concert as Live at Newport '58. It features extended renditions of "Senor Blues" and "Cool Eyes," and is a rare official document of Silver in a live setting. Take a look here.

Cannon Re-Loaded: An All-Star Celebration of Cannonball Adderley (Various Artists)

This is a tribute to jazz musician Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, who was a brilliant saxophonist that Miles Davis added to his sextet in 1957. Jazz musicians Tom Scott, Terence Blanchard, George Duke, Marcus Miller, and many others pay tribute to "Cannonball" on this collection, which is being put out by Concord Music Group. The disc features eight instrumental interpretations of Adderley's work, and two vocal tracks by Nancy Wilson. I try to keep up with contemporary jazz but I really can't do it. This kind of thing is a really a help, as these guys are both respectful and inventive simultaneously. For more info, please go here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Rich Siegel
Hometown: Northbrook IL

Senator McCain makes a great show of being against legislative earmarks, and of refusing to take advantage of the process to provide extra financial benefits, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, on behalf of the people who provide him with votes. At the same time, he willingly makes efforts (worth tens of billions) on behalf of lobbyists who provide him with campaign contributions. By any objective measure, the latter is far more corrupt, and far less transparent, than the former. And it strongly suggests which group he views to be his true constituency.

Name: Paul Goode
Hometown: Redmond, WA

Liberal politicians should approach the treatment of the military rank-and-file as a labor issue: Thousands of people are put to work in dangerous conditions with inadequate pay or protection. In essence, John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers fought the same fight 75 years ago.

Name: Steve Nelson
Hometown: Marlborough, MA

Eric, when he died, I believe you said that you would have some commentary on Gerald Ford, but would wait for a period of mourning after his death. I believe that a sufficient period has passed, but maybe I missed it? Thanks.

Name: Brian Donohue
Hometown: http://dailyrevolution.net

This time, Nader should be no threat to the Dems (and if he is, so much the worse for them and this nation). What's offensive about it is how the mud of ridicule that such a spinning tire generates spatters those of us who attempt to expose the degeneracy of corporate America.

I see no difference between Nader running for prez and McCaingate. The latter is an issue of the manipulation of the public mind by corporations, yet it has been turned into a sleazy feast of voyeurism. In the case of Nader, the effect is the same: anyone who has an anti-corporate message is instantly labeled among the "I'll piss in your sandbox so you can't play" crowd. A forceful, positive message of change is dragged through a fecal pit, its meaning befouled.

Aside from that, it's a great idea, Ralph.

Name: Mark Richard
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio

To Altercation,

I was reading B.L. Webb's letter and was about to dash off a note entitled "Sweethearts of the Rodeo" until I saw your response.

However, I listen to the Byrds album of uncommonly well-chosen and performed songs, I can't help thinking they were imitating non-Alt-country rather than reinterpreting it. Just a thought toward a tight definition of the form.

Name: Steve
Hometown: Los Angeles

Hi Eric,

We've talked about this before, and you've very kindly printed some of my correspondence on this topic, thanks.

While the dividing line between alt.country and country rock may be slightly blurred, the first country rock song, IMO, was "Go And Say Goodbye" on the eponymously titled first Buffalo Springfield album. The twangy Buck/Don Rich-esque lead guitar riff was stolen from the bluegrass chestnut Salt Creek, but the rest of the song is original. This album hit the streets in October, '66, thereby predating "Sweetheart..." and the Burrito Bros. and Neil Young's later solo recordings.

There were plenty of other country influences on the album, including the signature use of a guitar riff used several times, where the lower note of the abbreviated chord is hammered up to a higher one, emulating a pedal steel bent note.

In re: my cred regarding the melding of country and rock here in Southern California, I started playing guitar in bands in '63, when I just started high school. And I was watching Cal's Corral, Town Hall Party, and Spade Cooley growing up in the '50 & '60s. I played in my first country band in '66. And my pop/rock band, in '67, covered almost the entire first BS album, and even opened for them once here in So-Cal. And the first actual record I played on was a country album, in '69.

Eric adds: In the meantime, the closing of No Depression is a real bummer. "Unfortunately, the ad community that shares (No Depression's) interest doesn't have any money, and doesn't look like its going to have any money in the foreseeable future."

Name: Roger Stone
Hometown: Miami Beach Florida

It is always disappointing when a generally fair journalist so egregiously takes a quote so completely out of context to purposely create a false impression.

My reference on MSNBC to Senator Barack Obama and assassination was within the context of his naive pledge to meet with the heads of terrorist groups to resolve our differences. I question how as President he could avoid that risk in such a meeting. We are not dealing with civilized states with any regard for laws or diplomatic niceties.

As for Hillary Clinton the charge of misogyny is false. I would oppose her it she was a man.

Funny how liberals love free speech as long as they agree with it.

George Zornick replies: I don't think I need to spend much time rebutting Stone's assertion that "the charge of misogyny is false." He leads a group that group called Citizens United Not Timid, which emphasizes its acronym by bolding the first letter in each word of its name in order to "educate the American public about what Hillary Clinton really is." I think I can rest my case.

As to Stone's claim that he was simply talking about assassination in the context of Obama visiting unfriendly heads of state, I suppose you can read it that way. Here is the relevant transcript:

STONE: Ford pounded away on his lack of specifics, his lack of being pinned down. On election day you had a photo finish. Now Ford lost by a handful of votes. This election I think will be very similar, in that once you strip away the rhetoric and you strip away [Obama's] effectiveness on TV, people do want to know where the candidates stand. When they see the tax increases that he's proposed and the way that it will slow this economy even further. And when they see the naivete of his foreign policy views -- I'll sit down with terrorists. By the way, I'm not sure how you avoid assassination in those instances. When they see how naive he is, I think the American people will make a correct judgment.

A little awkwardly stated, but it's live television, so perhaps Stone deserves the benefit of the doubt here.

One postscript I'll add to the assassination debate: comments such as Stone's, along with recent stories such as this one in The New York Times raising the question of Sen. Obama being assassinated, probably do a lot more to increase the chances of that happening than any of the supposed social, racial, or political motivations being analyzed. Matt Yglesias, in noting the Times story, admits in passing that "it's something that I have to say never occurred to me until I started hearing other people talk about it." But that's the point - it's occurring to a lot of people simply because of these stories, which seems in itself a very dangerous thing. Recent American assassins -- think Hinckley or Chapman -- weren't acting rationally with specific social or political goals in mind, but were, in short, just nuts. They delusionally believed that their act would bring grandeur, and these stories would appear to feed that assumption just on their own. For example, there is virtually no chance, nor any good reason, that the Zamboni driver for the Buffalo Sabres will be assassinated. But if cable stations and newspapers across the country were to start asking "Will the Zamboni driver be killed?" well, he could be forgiven for double-checking his locks at night.

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