Turn and face the strange ...


When I clicked on Today's Papers this morning, I found this:

Everyone notes that Barack Obama shifted positions yesterday and said he would favor tapping the strategic petroleum reserve to lower gasoline prices. The WP is the most harsh on Obama by stating in its lead sentence that it amounted to "the second time in less than a week that he has modified a position on energy issues." Obama had said last week that he would support expanding offshore drilling as part of a compromise package with Republicans. Yesterday, Obama's campaign tried to argue the announcement didn't really amount to a reversal because he would replace the light crude currently in the reserves with less expensive heavy crude, which would be more appropriate to the country's energy needs anyway. Regardless, everyone notes that the shifts in policy illustrate how both candidates are under a lot of pressure to come up with specific proposals to lower energy costs quickly even if "there are few ways to dramatically reduce gas prices," as the Post helpfully summarizes.

Excuse me, but isn't there a salient issue that's going undiscussed here? Is Obama right or wrong? Is less expensive heavy crude really both less expensive and "more appropriate to the country's energy needs anyway"?

Because if it is, then it's pretty go**am ridiculous to focus more on an alleged "shift" in policy than on a good idea. Isn't the problem -- well, one of the many, many problems -- with our awful president the fact that he never changes his mind about anything no matter how strong the evidence? Isn't one of the problems with the new John McCain the fact that he keeps changing his mind over and over without explaining the reason or even admitting the change? Obama is changing and offering his reasoning. That means it can be judged on the quality of his judgment. Well? Or is substance so irrelevant to our MSM's coverage that they can't even be bothered to notice when a candidate makes an actual argument about solving what is, for many Americans, the single biggest problem they face?

Oh, and I see Keith Olbermann would not allow Dana Milbank on his show until he addressed the issue of his dishonest and smarmy attack on Barack Obama. Milbank refused and he's gone. Good for Keith. Good for journalism. (Time for another blogger panel.)

Speaking of such things as they relate to Washington Post columnists, we at Altercation are not fans of Robert Novak. The fact that he is retiring immediately because of a brain tumor does not change that. Still, I am interested in the question of how bad a person needs to be before it is OK to be nasty about them when they die or are likely to die soon. Clearly, when we killed those four Al Qaeda guys the other day, nobody talked or wrote about not speaking ill of the dead or how sad it was for their families. Ditto when we got the sons of Saddam Hussein. So clearly there is a line, the question is where? When Jesse Helms died a few weeks ago, polite society appeared divided. George and I wrote a column about how the MSM whitewashed that evil racist's destructive career here, but it's not as if we were the only ones willing to go out on that limb. There were others. I can't remember what happened when that evil, hypocritical racist Strom Thurmond died, but I think it was similar.

Novak, however, is different. He is beloved by the Beltway Establishment and remained in good standing with The Washington Post and CNN even after he purposely outed a CIA agent against the explicit request of the agency, thereby endangering the lives of brave, patriotic individuals and costing his country untold millions of dollars. He kept his column at the Post, had to say "bullshit" on the air to lose his job at CNN and was quickly embraced by Fox. As far back as 1992, when I published Sound & Fury, I employed Novak's position as a symbol of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of that aspect of the Establishment that made his malevolent influence possible. Even so, I am not going to go after Novak here. (The above refers merely to widely known facts; it does not go into any detail as to why Novak might have earned the ire of honest people and, particularly, honest journalists.) Even though Novak has slandered me and falsely accused my late friend I.F. Stone of being a Soviet agent shortly after Izzy died and thus could not either defend himself or sue Novak, I will refrain from volunteering to correct what I see to be a false record of him currently being painted. Let his friends and family say what they wish without my playing the skunk at this garden party. But if I'm asked, both as a historian of the media and a professor of journalism, I'll tell the truth. Given Novak's central role inside the bosom of the journalistic establishment for the past 40 years, the historical record in this case takes precedence over the feelings of those people -- as I hope it would in the case of my sickness or death someday.

And finally, I'd like to call your attention to this thread at Daily Kos. Look how polite and thoughtful (by and large) it is, about a man who is pretty much hated by everyone at Kos. Ask yourself if the Freepers and the rest of the wingnut world have been known to show such class.

Did you read David Brooks' column on Obama this morning? It's brilliant. No really, no caveats necessary. Read it. (On the other hand, when Tom Tomorrow is brilliant, it's hardly worth mentioning.)

George Zornick writes:

Late yesterday afternoon, as the political day was winding down and the cable gab-fests kicked into high gear, several blogs simultaneously started asking: What the hell just happened on Hardball?

We'll have a look, but first, recall our recent Nation piece, "Loving John McCain," in which we attempted to demonstrate that "no candidate since John F. Kennedy, and perhaps none since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has enjoyed such cozy relations with the press." Prominent was a discussion of the "never mind syndrome," in which members of the press ignore or explicitly excuse John McCain's actions, in order to maintain their self-created portrait of McCain as a straight shooter with a distaste for hardball politics or dirty tricks.

So on Hardball yesterday, guest-hosted by Mike Barnicle, the gang, including Andrea Mitchell and Politico's Roger Simon, were discussing the recent advertisements put out by McCain -- ads that were either demonstrably false or deliberately inflammatory. Here's a sampling of how they assessed McCain's role in his own campaign's ads:

ANDREA MITCHELL: By the way, I have maybe a counterintuitive view that John McCain also doesn't like this kind of politics, went along with his new, tougher political advisers.


ROGER SIMON: For a guy who's supposed to have such a famous temper, McCain really doesn't like attacking. I think Andrea is exactly right about that. Which is why I think he is often uncomfortable with his own campaign.


MIKE BARNICLE: Well, it also -- it also, I would think, gets to his -- something that he's very proud of, has been very proud of, and it's clear in talking to him over the years -- his sense of honor. And I think an ad like that offended -- or would offend, if he paid attention to it -- his sense of honor. Do you agree with that, Andrea?

MITCHELL: I do, but I think that he may have been misled about what Obama did or did not say, about how he may have been mischaracterized from the House caucus meeting that he attended. You know, there's a lot of anecdotal stuff out there, and in this Internet age and with the blogosphere, things are just ricocheting around. And I think he just -- as a candidate, there's no way that he could be tracking all of this himself.


MITCHELL: But I was one of those reporters who was there and reported affirmatively that there was no plan to take the press. But I can tell you, knowing John McCain, he would be very offended, and justifiably so, if his advisers said to him, you know, he was going to take the press and then he canceled it because he couldn't take this entourage. He would have been offended by that, but it didn't happen ... and he was misled, if that's what he was told.

Some obvious questions: Why on earth would one assume McCain didn't approve these ads? I mean, there's video of him approving it at the end of the advertisement. Why would serious journalists posit that "there's no way [McCain] could be tracking" all of the statements and actions taking place during the campaign -- especially if he's putting out ads about said statements and actions? If that's even true, what does that say about McCain's ability to be president? The United States government is considerably more complicated than a presidential campaign.

The fatal journalistic flaws and insupportable statements of that segment don't need any more belaboring. But this is the media environment enjoyed by Sen. McCain this summer. Even Andrea Mitchell -- who earned justified applause for being one of the few MSM types to call out McCain's troop-visit ad as plainly false -- turns around and says without any evidence whatsoever that McCain could have been "misled" about the false claims his own ads were making -- and that, trust me, he'd be really, really offended if that's true. Those head-sized wall holes are getting bigger ...

From TomDispatch:

Thomas Frank, a Kansas boy who once followed conservatism deep into his home state in his bestselling book What's the Matter with Kansas? and now writes op-eds that probably drive the readers of The Wall Street Journal crazy, has had a front seat at the Washington spectacle these last years as the Bush administration applied its "enhanced interrogation techniques" to the Federal government. At TomDispatch today, in an adapted chapter from his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Frank offers nothing short of a how-to history of the conservative era -- specifically how to destroy a government, leave Americans in the lurch, and enrich yourselves all at the same time. It wasn't just, as he argues, that this administration left "smoking guns" littered around the landscape, but that it itself was the smoking gun. If you want to know just what we face as a nation in terms of rebuilding America, this post is a good place to start.

Frank offers an account of scandal in Washington that makes the Teapot Dome scandal of ancient U.S. history look like a tea party and yet, he argues, this deluge of disaster wasn't just a matter of a bushel of "bad apples," or even simply a "culture of corruption" as the Democrats labeled it. He writes:

Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we've come to expect from Washington.

A vivid writer and splendid reporter, Frank catches the essence of Washington's last eight years. He concludes: "As we make our rounds of conservative Washington, we glimpse something much greater than single acts of incompetence or obstruction. We see a vast machinery built for our protection reengineered into a device for our exploitation. We behold the majestic workings of the free market itself, boring ever deeper into the tissues of the state. Ultimately, we gaze upon one of the true marvels of history: democracy buried beneath an avalanche of money."

Alter-reviews: Philip Roth, William Maxwell, and the Rolling Stones

The fifth volume of The Library of America's definitive edition of Philip Roth's collected works, here, contains four books. They are: The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception, and Patrimony.

The Counterlife may be my favorite modern novel ever -- not including those by my close friends -- and by a good margin, my favorite of Roth's. I've read them all. If you have not read it, put down whatever you are doing right now and do so. Most people also love Patrimony, which is not actually a novel, but an appreciation of Roth's father.

When I first met Roth, he read from this book, and I sat next to Claire Bloom and she cried the whole time. I was moved by the fact of this, since she must have heard it a million times already, but it turns out that Roth was about to have a nervous breakdown, and they were about to have an extremely messy divorce. Bloom later wrote an angry book about their marriage, which was excerpted in New York magazine, which is why Roth hates New York magazine and would not cooperate with their profile of him, which is why he suggested to the painter of the mural at Le Cirque that its critic be removed from it, which he was. And he was replaced by, you guessed it, Philip Roth.

This is all true. I wrote a "Talk of the Town" about the mural long, long ago that Lillian Ross, whom I love, told me was to be included in the collection of the Best of Talk of the Town. Alas, it wasn't. Yet another aside to the aside, however: That New York profile was trying to figure out why Roth had all of a sudden gotten so great again. Its argument was that he made up his mind he'd like to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Is that not the silliest conclusion to an article of all time? Wouldn't every writer in the world like to win a Nobel Prize for literature? What the hell kind of an explanation is that? Anyway, there was a story that he was driven off the edge by the fact of getting a negative review of Operation Shylock from John Updike in The New Yorker, who mentioned that Roth must have gotten a crink in his neck from giving himself so many pats on the back, and from losing the cover of Time when the book was not so well received. I happen to be listening to it again now, and brilliant is too mild a word for it. I once asked Updike what he thought when he heard this story and he said had vowed not to review any of Roth's books again. That doesn't make the story true, though, so take it with a grain of salt. Anyway, that'll be in the next collection and none of the above will matter, as the work lives on forever, thanks to the Library of America. Deception and The Facts are not so popular with people, but they are both worth a re-reading, at least. (I'm still curious as to why the spines of the Roth books are different from every other author in the entire series. It looks strange in the bookcase.)

The other new volume from LOA is William Maxwell's Later Novels and Stories, which includes The Château, So Long, See You Tomorrow, and Stories and Improvisations 1957-1999. I've read a bunch of Maxwell's short stories and am looking forward to his novels. I hear So Long is a minor masterpiece. These books are not cheap but are of tremendous value. LOA has posted an exclusive interview with volume editor Christopher Carduff about William Maxwell. And you can read more about this book here.

So we have the Scorsese Stones movie Shine a Light out on DVD now. I've now seen this show three times: First live at the Beacon; second in the enormous IMAX theater on 68th (where it was not in 3D like the great U2 movie), and now at home, in Blu-ray. It's pretty amazing anyway you look at it. I mean these guys have gotten plenty of satisfaction over the years -- far too much if you ask me, and probably Keith and Ronnie as well. But they're still amazingly great in any format. I think one of the keys is not taking themselves too seriously, except when it comes to making records and performing -- at least as they would interpret it. Anyway, just to remind you, the movie has a few archival interviews with the boys as well as guest tracks with Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy Guy. The DVD has four songs not in the movie. They are: "Paint It Black," "Little T and A," "I'm Free," and "Undercover of the Night (HD)." All great.

In honor of the release, we reprint Keith's comments from this interview last spring in Uncut:

Q: It seemed that there was a definite hierarchy in place, though. It was the difference between Jack White and Christina Aguilera being beside themselves that they were onstage with The Rolling Stones, and The Rolling Stones being beside themselves that they were onstage with Buddy Guy.

Keith Richards: I guess you're right. Buddy Guy comes from our generation. We were listening to Buddy before we had two pennies. He has a little seniority on us, but not that much. Buddy Guy is ... Buddy Guy. You're talking about one of the greats here. The others, Jack White ... hey, cool. Probably be all right. The other one I can't even remember.

Q: Christina Aguilera. I thought she was great.

KR: Yeah, very nice. Very nice chick. Nice bum. But if you only have one song, you don't have much time for interaction, and usually we blow their wigs off.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Rob
Hometown: Denver


Meet the Press is an even more reliable outlet for right wing talking points under the helm of Tom Brokaw.

"Obama's an empty suit, presumptuous, why can't you admit the surge is a huge success......."

Watching Brokaw lap up Holy Joe's fraudulent nonsense with nary a challenge, and then in turn ripping John Kerry and interrupting his every remark, was textbook Faux News style treatment. I kept expecting Brokaw to pull off his rubber face mask (Scooby Doo style) and reveal himself to be Neil Cavuto.

Name: Max Maxwell
Hometown: Chicago

What I want to know is: Where were the major news organizations (NYT, WP, any network) in terms of investigating the Monica Goodling fiasco at Justice?? The inspector general's report is getting some good coverage of a major breach of law and ethical conduct in a place where they ought to know better. But any of the job candidates who were interviewed by the inspector general could have been interviewed by a decent reporter (or two) if anyone cared about justice at Justice.

But the genius of the Cheney regency is that all expectations for Mr. Bush are so low that this plain-as-can-be political discrimination in civil service jobs was seen as just another ho-hum affair by our major media outlets. What does it take to get these people to investigate anything these days? It is really despairing to know that discrimination, corruption and torture are all topics that draw no interest from the media types who --in the past at least -- took it upon themselves to work on behalf of the public interest. It is all really too sad.

Name: David Shaffer
Hometown: Harleysville, PA

In thinking about all the nonsensical criticism going on lately about Obama (he's too young, he's too 'exotic', he's too thin, ad nauseam), I have finally figured out the fundamental difference between the campaigns.

The McCain campaign is counting on our fear; the Obama campaign is counting on our courage.

Let's hope America finds its backbone in November.

Name: Mike
Hometown: Englewood Cliffs


I caught the Return to Forever show at the House of Blues in Orlando this past weekend. The musicianship is other-worldly, I was floored by the sound and vibe of these incredible artists. If you go to see them, I suggest you have a good seat 'cause the compositions are long and complex but I can guarantee you this; there will be many moments when you are left muttering: "How do they do that?" On to see Bad Company in Hollywood this weekend for a one off show with the original members and one of the greatest voices in rock - Paul Rodgers! On this one I take the wife ...

Eric replies: Hey, be careful that Paul Rodgers doesn't take your wife. He takes whatever he wants ...

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