Monday, November 29, 2004

The Race for Rather's Seat

Ohio, once called the "cradle of Presidents," is no longer producing many serious presidential candidates, to say nothing of presidents. These days, the two biggest states, California and Texas, mostly handle that department (five of the last seven presidents elected to the job were from one state or the other--and remember, don't count Ford, cause he was never elected). But if Newsweek is right, maybe the state's universities will at least produce the next closest thing in postmodern fame: an anchorman to replace Dan Rather. The mag's online edition is reporting today that NBC's Matt Lauer and Tim Russert top a short wish list of possible outside candidates for the job. As it happens, Lauer is an Ohio University graduate and Russert earned his undergraduate degree at John Carroll before adding a law degree at CSU's John Marshall School of Law. Then again, the job doesn't seem so very special anymore, does it? Slate likens the major broadcast networks' half-hour evening news shows to the TV equivalent of World War II battleships, which were rendered obsolete by modern air warfare tactics, as these dinosaur appointment-viewing shows have been left in the dust by cable news and the web. So what should they do with these shows? The Newhouse newspaper chain's web content czar and hyperblogger Jeff Jarvis serves up some interesting ideas here on how these half hour video battleships might best be reconstituted. And if they don't make these or some other fundamental changes, we've got a suggestion for the audience: will the last person watching please turn off the denture commercial?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Warning, Will Robinson!

That was of course the Robot's routine warning to his human master of approaching danger on the TV show Lost in Space, an icon of my youth. And this piece, even though it appears in a lightly regarded conservative rag, the Boston Herald, is receiving plenty of notice on the Internet today, since it taps into larger concerns about the radical nature of the Bush crew. After all, even the staunchest Republican has to have been unnerved a bit at how severely the U.S. dollar immediately started to fall after the election. Those who vote with their wallets around the world know this crowd, freed from ever again having to face the voters, is likely to continue to cut the country's tax base even further, leaving structural deficits in place for generations. That could potentially do to the entire country what the ill-advised Proposition 87 began doing to California when it was first passed in 1978--undercut the very underpinnings of the economy by making it impossible to raise enough taxes to cover reasonable public needs. You don't have to be an tweed-jacketed economist to understand how dangerous this all is. (And "Old Europe," as Rumsfeld the Ignorant so contemptuously labeled our historic Western European allies, is no doubt having a good laugh watching the dollar plunge against their Euro, as if people all around the world were delivering a vote of confidence for the cautious European approach over the rash, know-nothing Ugly Americans). Unfortunately, Bush has no one steady like Clinton's sidekick, Bob Rubin, to help calm Wall Street jitters. Instead, his Treasury Secretary is a bumbling former CEO of a railroad(!), who seems to have little clue that trillions of dollars can electronically slosh around the world, prompted by no less than a single ill-advised remark from his mouth. Last week, PBS' great Frontline program on Wal-Mart was an eye-opener even for those who know much of this story about the ultimate Darwinian capitalist company. That's because host Hedrick Smith, a former NYT correspondent, is especially adept at freshly reporting the human element, laying out a sprawling story in simple but powerful detail. For me, the key aha moment came when he interviewed a woman who oversees the West Coast port of Long Beach, the busiest in the U.S., about the massive imbalance between what the U.S. exports through her facility and what it imports from China. "Like a Third World country," he says, referring to the U.S. "Like a Third World country," she repeats in agreement.

Congressional Pork for the Rock Hall. But even as taxes are cut, federal spending won't be, for two major reasons. For one thing, too much of the federal budget is devoted to non-discretionary items (those things, such as Social Security benefits, which Congress is obligated by statute to pay). For another, members of Congress, emboldened by the lame duck prez, are ignoring the White House. Just today, we learn the new spending bill contains the traditional "earmark" items (those things inserted into the bill through cynical, lobbying-intensive, last-minute end runs by influential power brokers rather than through the deliberative legislative process you've read about in your myth-laden civics textbooks). One of the more outrageous bits of pork this time: $350,000 for "music education programs" at the Rock Hall, courtesy of local reps Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Steve LaTourette. That's a wise and brilliant use of scarce federal funds in the nation's poorest city, isn't it? So the spending beat goes on, even as the gush of tax money continues to wane. Wave that dollar goodbye on its way down the drain...

Hitting the Moviehouse or Visiting Blockbuster This Holiday Weekend? Okay, so with looming problems such as these, who could fault you for seeking hours of pure escapism over the holiday weekend? If that's your plan, check out these two priceless (both freebies) resources for reviews: The New Yorker has just placed online a film file, containing about 2,000 small movie reviews it has printed since 1990. An older classic film-buff site, Rotten Tomatoes, compiles reviews from around the country. I'd recommend them both.

A Thankful Couple. My brother Paul and his wife Jen are rare birds. The (kind of still) newlyweds, residents of Ohio City, are expected to travel east a bit for the holiday. Anyway, this piece speaks better about their generous instincts than I ever could. The ever-capable Jay Miller nicely refers to the piece in this week's Crain's (in that back-page "Reporter's Notebook" feature I recently mentioned as a nice injection of personality into the pub). J&P, take a Thanksgiving bow...

Bill Maher & George W. Equally Clueless About the Web. In an especially telling moment for which he will forever be (rightly) ridiculed, George W. added an "s" to the end of the word Internet during one of the recent presidential debates. It's since become one of the hallmark examples of George W.'s perceived intellectual dimness, a depressing reminder that in America we may have decided to install one of the most intellectually challenged presidents ever right after electing one of our brightest (Clinton). So much for our vaunted meritocracy. But I was reminded of that "Internets" gaffe while watching comedian Bill Maher's otherwise compelling appearance on CNN's Larry King last night. Toward the end of their chat, a caller asked if Maher had a website where she might find his email address and write to him. His face went blank, as he tried to remember where to send her. After a moment, he tried to give her the address, but couldn't recall whether it was at HBO or at some site bearing his name (a producer quickly checked and piped it into King's earpiece, where he relayed it to the audience). The guy didn't know anything about his own website! Sorry to be biased toward the web, but with this possibly unprecedented bit of ignorance, Maher took a quick nosedive in my book as a serious observer of the culture. C'mon, Bill, hire a 10-year-old to occasionally tutor you in your dressing room, if you must. But do spend a little time investigating the present world (to say nothing of the future) every now and again. That goes double if you're going to have any credibility at all in commenting on the backwardness of the right wing. By the way, his site is indeed found at And it's a pretty good guess that his so-called blog is ghostwritten.

Finally, this bit of brilliantly observed and beautifully rendered prose poetry masquerading as election reportage explains why the hyperliterate British historian Simon Schama was always one of Tina Brown's favorites when she ran the roost at the New Yorker. Here, from a recent piece in Guardian Weekly, an American version of which you'll newly find on some newstands, he riffs on the "Divided States of America," comprised of "Worldly America" (blue) and Godly America (red):

'By the lights of the psephology manuals, Ohio ought to have been a natural for the Democrats: aging industrial cities such as Dayton and Akron, with big concentrations of minorities, suffering prolonged economic pain from outsourced industries. Cleveland and Cincinnati are classic cites of the Worldly plain: half-decayed, incompletely revived; great art museums, a rock 'n roll hall of fame, a terrific symphony orchestra. But drive a bit and you're in deep Zion, where the Holsteins graze by billboards urging the sinful to return to the bosom of the Almighty, the church of Friday Night high school football shouts its hosannas at the touchdowns, and Support Our Troops signs grow as thick as rutabaga.'

Anyway, do please have yourself a pleasant Thanksgiving holiday, gentle reader.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The War Over Words

Writers, philosophers and especially politicians know one thing all too well: he who succeeds in framing the language about an event or situation inevitably ends up controlling how it is perceived. Which is why the Bush crew has begun to do away with the word "privatization." As the NYTimes' Robert Pear pointed out last week, Republicans have found that the word doesn't poll well, and thus you'll hear words like Social Security "reform" and the "ownership society" to describe what they used to straightforwardly call privatization. But it doesn't stop there: others have taken the same cues. Even the giant old-folks lobby, AARP, which one would think might oppose such a plan, has internally banished the word.
Email messages circulating within AARP in recent weeks indicated that the group would avoid the word whenever possible. One message, by an editor of an AARP magazine, says, 'there is a new forbidden word at AARP: Social Security privatization. Another email message, by a manager of its Web site, says, 'The term privatization is stricken from our vocabulary forever.'"

In similar fashion, this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review nicely makes an important point about the ever-more-important phrasing governments attach to wars like so much soap advertising:
Three years after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, it is extremely difficult fo rthe press to gauge where the United States stands in the war on terror because the term itself obscures distinction. Even a presidential campaign that turned largely on the war on terror failed to bring clarity. So now, two questions: How seriously did the press err in adopting the shorthand of the political establishment to describe America's response to 9/11? And, what should it do now that the terminology has been naturalized into the vernacular?

Two Big-Foot U.S. Presidents Have Back-to-Back Library Openings. Amid all the attention over the opening of the Clinton presidential library this month, an even more interesting presidential library opening was lost in the shuffle in October. In Abe Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, a $150-million project, including a library, was opened so as to fittingly honor our greatest prez. If you've never made the obligatory journey to Springfield, you should. And soon. In all the plethora of coverage of the two events, I most enjoyed this factoid: Clinton had the second-largest feet of any president, topped only guessed it, Honest Abe.

Digital Studs. Someone once asked me which well-known writer I thought had the best, most comprehensive online presence. That stumped me at first--not because I couldn't think of any, but because I thought of so many, and no one writer seemed to rise above the pack. There is something to be said for the incomparable contrarian New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, who characteristically found an ingenious way around the fact that his magazine was one of the last major journalistic outfits to have any real web presence. As early as 1996, Malc simply began collecting PDF files of his stories and putting those on his site (a classic of minimalist design), years before the New Yorker also began doing so for him. But after some more thinking, and a little browsing, here's my nomination (at least till I find a half-dozen better ones) for the best writerly site: Chicago's timeless Studs Terkel, the working-man's hero, has a hell of a nice site, which you'll find here. Of course, he cheated: he seems to have had significant help from the Chicago Historical Society and funding from no less than the National Science Foundation! But then, Stud has never thought small. He only writes about the little guy...

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Personnel Office Needs Fixing

In his election-eve appearance at a Cleveland Kerry rally, where my wife and I joined an estimated 50,000 people in what is believed to have been the largest crowd ever assembled for a political event in Ohio, Bruce Springsteen recounted an earlier conversation he had with Ohio Senator John Glenn. In a line so resonant that I'm surprised no one seems to have since picked up on it, the Boss said that Glenn told him that "politics is supposed to be the personnel department for the Constitution." I've since thought about that marvelous line several times as I watch GWB staff up for his second term. As you may have noticed, he's steadily placed into various slots several people who, however talented they may be, mostly owe their success to him. If they're the best and the brightest our nation has to offer, it's only by wild happenstance.

But what really hit me on this theme was the news this week that a woman named Margaret Spellings would soon be taking over as Education Secretary. You know her, of course: she was the White House's chief adviser on domestic issues during the first term. What's that? You'd never even heard the name before? Well hell, neither had I, and I follow this stuff pretty closely. This position is typically a high-profile job. Everyone who followed politics during the Jimmy Carter presidency was quite familiar with the name Stuart Eizenstat, who held the job then and was a name regularly in the news. As was Bill Clinton's domestic policy czar Bruce Reed (though he may have been better known among the media and insiders for his ability to keep damaging secrets going back to Arkansas and to quietly clean up more contemporary Slick Willy messes than for any work he performed on policy formation). But they're Dems, you say. Well, Reagan's guy was Martin Anderson--again, a well-known name, even in an administration not known for its over-attention to substantive domestic policy.

So why don't we know about poor Margaret? That's easy: the real domestic policy chief of the first term, who will remain the main architect in the second, is none other than the political advisor, her mentor the "porcine-faced" (as one savage wit recently put it) Karl Rove (whom protege Margaret is said to have once turned down as a suitor). As the point man in the White House's Faith-Based Initiatives, John DiIulio, observed after he left the staff, in the Bush 43 White House, there simply is no real attention to policy, to the details of how the nation's problems can be addressed through various regulatory or legislative initiatives. It's all simply an offshoot of how it will play out politically. Which explains why this presidency will one day be remembered as an eight-year pause button, in which we failed to address any of the ticking time bomb problems that will one day come back to haunt us.

Fewer Russian Babies. The other day, I mentioned the crucial importance of understanding demography, because it drives so many other phenomena in politics, economics and culture. I should have included in that list of demography-driven events the sad case of Russia, which has all but collapsed as a world power in a period so brief (relatively speaking) as to be perhaps unprecedented in world history. The underlying reason: a sharply declining population (it will soon be half that of the U.S, and still dropping). Much of that is caused by some of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but more of it is from a 50-year-old echo of World War II and Stalin's bloody purges, which killed tens of millions at the time, and accounted for even larger losses in the populations of succeeding generations. Against that backdrop, it's good to see that some in that country are waking up to one small but important way in which the population continues to leak out: the healthy market in adopted Russian babies (my old friend John, a business writer for the Akron Beacon Journal, was a recipient of one). As this piece in the excellent English-language Moscow Times notes, Russians are now belatedly trying to patch that leak.

Cleveland Edition Alums Continue to Climb Mountains. My astoundingly talented collection of colleagues from the late, lamented Cleveland Edition, the town's first and best alternative weekly, continue to amaze and delight with their fine work. Which is no surprise, really, since they represent the best journalistic talent ever assembled in this town (okay, Cleveland Mag during its glory years of the '70s and early '80s was pretty awesome, too). The two most senior vets of the paper, Fred McGunagle and Roldo Bartimole, were inducted into the Cleveland Press Club Hall of Fame late last month, where I had the special honor of formally introducing Roldo (which I'll tell you about in some detail at a later date). I hope and expect that Doug Clarke, the thinking person's sportswriter, will follow them in before long. The paper's lyrical poet, former John Carroll prof Mark Winegardner, is riding a wave of national publicity these days with his newly issued sequel of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Wino, now directing the writing program at Florida State University, emerged from hundreds of applicants for the gig. For his efforts, he was roughed up a bit last week by lead NYT book reviewer and ice queen Michiko Kukatani (a rite of passage in American book publishing). But he'll have the last laugh, since the first printing was 250,000 copies, and the book's debut is winning rivers of media coverage even before he hits the book tour. And the reviews will turn. Former Times book review editor Charles McGrath had a far more friendly and interesting take on Winegardner and the book in the Arts section this week. Closer to home, Amy Sparks has just wrapped up her second year of Angle Magazine, the phenomenal arts pub she co-founded, all as a nonprofit venture. It may just be the most handsomely designed, best-written print publication in this region (though she has in mind far wider distribution eventually). And Kathy Ewing continues to review books for the Plain Dealer with her same signature intelligence.

In addition to Winegardner's, some great books have come out of the group, as well. You probably know about Kristin Ohlson and her marvelous Stalking the Divine, a hauntingly poetic tale about finding one's faith. Her pal and fellow Ohio Writer co-founder Mary Grimm leveraged her raft of New Yorker short stories and later book collections into a spot on the Case writing faculty, where she now serves as the unofficial dean and diva of the too-small group of serious writing educators in this region. And I learned through the new issue of Angle that her sister, Cleveland State English faculty member Susan Grimm, also has a new collection of poetry out, nicely titled Lake Erie Blue. Humor columnist and longtime managing editor Eric Broder has a new lease on life, working for the nationally known Funny Times. Still HQ'ed on Lee Road, the little pub was once called one of the best magazines in America by Washington Post magazine reviewer Peter Carlson (which I wrote about here last year, but which I'm too lazy to find and link to). But Eric's humor is also collected in this book, a spoof of management tracts, and in an earlier Gray & Company collection (The Great Indoors) of his Edition columns. This summer, Cleveland's Pilgrim Press published Eleanor Mallet's meditation on her Jewish heritage, Tevye's Grandchildren. I only recently learned that she also had an earlier book, The Notion of Family, published in '99. At last count, John Backderf's unique "grueling urban humor" cartoons ran in about 60 papers, and have made their way into a handful of book collections. Derf got his start in 1990 in the Edition. His cartooning counterpart, Jeff Darcy, is now the PD's main guy.

But my sentimental favorite is the Edition's savage wordsmith of a movie reviewer, Rick Montanari (who did the best Bobby DeNiro wise guy imitation ever), who will soon publish his fourth thriller, the Rosary Girls. His writing, dripping in violence, suspense, and references to Catholocism and Cleveland, now has an international following. But he continues to work out of his Cleveland Heights house, where he remains hermetically sealed against disturbances (the sign on his door aggressively demands that no one even consider leaving any form of paper behind. If you know his work, you take that threat seriously, lest you risk sleeping with the fishes). I take a special satisfaction in his work, because I first met him about 15 years ago, when he took an evening writing class I then taught through the Cleveland Heights schools. Harvard-educated David Beach, meanwhile, has seen his modest little weekly environmental column, Lake Effects, sprout into a full blown environmental empire, Eco City, which has been lavishly supported by the Gund Foundation for all the right reasons. He is now probably the most prominent (and easily the most passionate, well-informed) activist for smart growth in the entire state of Ohio. I know the original convener of much of this energy, Edition founder Bill Gunlocke (now a Manhattanite), is proud of this legacy, even as he now seeks funding for his latest idea, a publication about books. (His email of this morning beamed with pride of a different sort--he noted that all of the presidential family members at yesterday's Clinton Library opening were sitting in Gunlocke chairs, made by the family company once owned by his late dad).

All of that speaks for itself, of course. But what I perhaps love most about these people, though, is that their achievements aren't confined just to writing. Beach has been perhaps best in showing that serious journalism and community activism are merely two sides of the same coin. But others have also converted their word passion into action beyond the page: Jeff Hagan, who wrote dazzling cover stories (and anonymously wrote the popular gossip column Hambone) has been installed for a number of years as a key pen on the staff at Case's Poverty Center. His good friend, the photojournalist Piet Van Lier (here and here) has been a stalwart writer at Catalyst for Cleveland Schools, which covers the troubled Cleveland schools like no other pub. Fred McGunagle has recently been a leader in the local chapter of Voices of the Faithful, a grassroots lay Catholic organization which has pressured the church's bishops to come clean about the original sin of clerical sexual abuse. I hope you'll join me in saluting these incredible people in their work. And also join me in taking a moment of silence to honor one of the best of our band of brothers (and sisters), Michael, who tragically took his own life earlier this year. May you rest in peace, gentle one.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Breaking News

Who says blogs don't do any reporting? Today we have two juicy little tiplets for you, bits of Cleveland news that you'll one day (in one case probably many weeks or even months from now) be reading about in mainstream pubs. But you'll read it here first.

Shula Neuman leaving WCPN. We hear that the Cleveland public radio brain drain continues, with Ms. Neuman having just given her notice to the station, headed for a p.r. job at Washington University in her native St. Louis. That follows After Nine host April Baer's decision earlier this year to move on to an NPR station in Portland, Oregon. Shula's beat was potentially one of the more interesting ones, economic development and the region's renaissance. But in addition to a nice little piece she did on my pals George and Valdis, I think she'll be best remembered for those annoying little "Making Change--Reinventing Our Economy" commercials for the Weatherhead School which cloyingly tried to masquerade as news updates, or the audio equivalents of USA Today quickie info boxes. Then again, that wasn't her fault. Anyway, we wish her well in her new venture. And memo to (WCPN news director) David P: let's try to give some serious thought to filling that vital slot with the right person...

Hundreds of CWRU Staffers to Relocate Downtown Next Summer. As I reported in a long Free Times feature earlier this year, CWRU (rebranded as Case) is racing to respond to Peter B. Lewis's devastating critique (once humiliatingly printed on the front page of the Sunday NYTimes) that this is a sick, diseased university taking an entire town down with it. Many millions are being spent (and perhaps too much of it wasted) on trying to erase that image. The imperious one (whose goals, if not his methods, we approve of) is not happy though: just this week, he delivered another tongue lashing whose theme, as always, is "you will collaborate, damn it!" Anyway, now comes word (confirmed unoffically from an inside source) that more than 300 CWRU fundraisers, communications people and related staff members are due to be relocated next summer. Like upperclassmen escaping the dorms for their own apartments, they're going off-campus to the Forest City-owned Halle Building on Euclid Avenue. That's not sitting well with many of them. But some are taking heart at one possible precedent: Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, to which CWRU is inevitably compared as an economic/technological engine, tried the same thing, only to later send the staffers back to campus. No word yet on whether Case plans to follow CMU in another westward migration as it chases the holy grail of being America's most powerful learning community: building a satellite campus in Silicon Valley.

Web Developers Designing from the Same Play Book? We've recently noticed something here at Working With Words, where dozens of lowly paid but highly motivated interns labor in our extensive Internet labs, studying various web trends. Web developers are increasingly designing their own sites--which after all function as their capabilities brochure--by either copying each other or working from the same tired design 101 playbooks (we'll try to find out for you which it is). When the business was younger and more wide open, there was an impossibly wide range of designs. More recently, though, as the business has tightened up and they compete more ferociously with each other over a smaller total amount of work (lots of larger clients have brought much of that talent in-house), they all seem to have gotten into some kind of weird modular mode at about the same time. If you doubt that, try this little exercise: quickly type into your browser window the following URLs, for what are arguably the six most prominent web shops in the Cleveland area. Don't look at any of them individually, but after you have them all entered in succession, quickly hit the forward (or backward) button on your browser, and notice how they all use a horizontal block to draw the eye in. It's even positioned at almost precisely the same coordinates. And blue seems to be the color of choice. Here are those URLs:

We think Bush political operative Karl Rove may just be behind this trend. What do you think? Send your theories, conspiracy-based or otherwise, to

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Quick Stuff

No time to dawdle today. So off to the races we go...

Amid the mind-numbing volume of post-election analysis, I thought an editorial in The Nation may have said it best: 'The fight is over. Let the fight begin...' And columnist William Greider, about whom I've enthused before, gets the nod for best George W. coinage: he calls him "Little Caesar" on his weblog. Now why didn't we think of that?? As long as you're reading radical, underground stuff (like the century-and-a-half old Nation, whose subscriber base has exploded to nearly 200,000 during the Bush years), why not give some of these Utne best of the progressive press award nominees a try sometime as well (though not on company time)? And don't feel too bad if it takes you a few more years to remember that it's no longer the Utne Reader, but now Utne Magazine...

Most Nauseating Spectacle of the Week: Watching faux-Democrat Joe "I'll Grab at Any Straw to Finally Break Out of the Senate" Lieberman grovel on the sickening Shawn Hannity Fox show last night, agreeing about how dumb the Dems were for veering from his winning centrism. The underlying drama: slippery Joe--who's actually a thoughtful man in the tradition of the old non-partisan Senate lions who are mostly gone now, a victim of reductive TV coverage and a sickening attack culture in politics--is said to be hopeful of a Bush Cabinet seat, where the neo-cons can use him as a show poodle. But let's be clear on one thing: if Dems want to vote for a Republican, they can do so by pulling the lever for a real one. There's a good reason why Joe sank like a stone in the primary season earlier this year: many Democrats sense in him a guy who's trying to revive Clinton's vaunted triangulation strategy, only without the polish or a recognition that the world has changed considerably since then. Meanwhile, we have the melancholy spectacle of John Kerry returning to the Senate yesterday, where he resumes being just one of 100 large egos. If we had a smarter governmental system--say, a quasi-parliamentary form--he would remain leader of the party, where he could continue to fight for the ideas he's honed to a fine edge in the last two years. Instead, we get a low-wattage, possibly weak Senate minority leader from Nevada, who's on a friendly basis with Little Caesar! I don't think Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are causing Karl Rove much lost sleep. Anyway, today's Times piece nicely captures a Kerry theme that arose in the media some months ago, but which hasn't been heard much lately: the inescapable fact that he's a loner. Which of course is a kiss of death in politics, and for Kerry it can't help but raise contrasts with Clinton, who couldn't stand to be alone for more than 13 seconds. As for Rove, meanwhile, the annual guessing game over who will be Time Magazine's Person of the Year have begun, and early leaks say Rove is on a short list. As well he should be. He's as big an architect of this mess as anyone.

We Regret to Inform You that Your Demographic is Being Folded. Amid all the disaster and catastrophe, the news that American Demographic Mag is being bought by Crain Communication and will be folded into its Ad Age hardly qualifies as an earthquake. Still, I find it sad, given how wonderfully the magazine covered its unique niche, which is vital to understanding so many other subjects (differing trends in birth rates, for instance, explain why Europe is steadily losing global influence and why Islam is on the rise; it's also behind much of Israel's aggressively defensive posture with its Palestian population, which won't stay a minority for long. And of course it explains much about red and blue states). That is, the magazine did a good job until it was bought by a soulless giant of a walking junk bond-media holding company, Primedia, pretending to be a magazine publisher. At least Crain pubs have a high degree of journalistic integrity, however dull and humorless they can sometimes be (though in its recent overhaul, our own Crain's Cleveland Business has injected some much-needed personality with its back-page Reporter's Notebook section. Good for them).

Lampooning Bubble-Headed Mag Editors. And speaking of soulless media, this wickedly brilliant essay in the writerly community site Mediabistro nicely explains why so many veteran writers contribute only to a handful of the best magazines these days. Mostly, having lost the motivation of seeing their names in print (and realizing there are far easier ways to make a dollar) they refuse to put up with the antics of weakling editors increasingly under the thumb of the advertising department, who edit not with readers in mind but out of slavish obediance to drearily reductive formulas. The piece may read like a campy spoof if you haven't had any recent experience with these numbskulls, but I'm here to tell you that it's not far off (some of the details, though, may well be a tad embroidered for dramatic effect). Anyway, all of this only makes me that much more thankful for my cherished connections with a handful of sublimely gifted, writer-friendly (because they are reader-focused) editors. And none takes a back seat to Northern Ohio Live's Kathy Delong, who works impossible hours in cramped conditions (space and budget) trying to keep a small journalistic pilot light on in this area amid the collapse of most serious print journalism. Only in this magazine could a piece like this be published (sorry, only part of it's online). It's an idea that follows no formula, and would be unrecognizable to a focus group participant. Still, when I verbally outlined it over lunch one day (at a writer's conference where we were both speaking, in fact), Kathy's ears pricked up and we quickly agreed to proceed, on nothing but mutual trust. It's the way journalism should work, but seldom does anymore. So a special hats off for those remaining pockets of serious craftspeople devoted to the word and to unimpeded-by-the-market storytelling. Which of course is what Working With Words is all about. Thank you Bartimole, Gunlocke, McGunagle, Roberts and the double Z's (Zinsser and Zuiker), and a host of lesser mentors and models in the language arts. Your example provides daily nourishment.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Thoughts for the Day

'A good merchant hides his goods and appears to have nothing; a skilled craftsman leaves no traces.'
--Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu

'Lord, make me so uncomfortable that I will do the very thing I fear.'
--Ruby Dee (with thanks for the pointer to my friend, Cleveland's most street-wise teacher, Mary Beth Matthews)

Monday, November 15, 2004

Safire's Mixed Legacy

It's difficult today to really describe the depth of outrage incited among the nation's chattering intellectual classes when the New York Times decided to give William Safire his own column on the editorial pages way back in 1973. These lifetime appointments to journalism's choicest real estate are often likened to spots on the Supreme Court, and for good reason: there are only a handful available, they can be taken away only for gross malfeasance, and they bring with them tremendous power and influence over national affairs.

And here one of these precious sinecures was being handed over to a Nixon speechwriter, a contemptuous little flak with an outer-borough accent, no less! You'd have thought the Sulzberger family that owned the paper had committed journalistic treason, opening its pages to the enemy (one Timesman back then famously observed that it represented the worst decision since Roman emperor Caligula appointed his favorite horse proconsul of Rome). But the times at the Times then seemed to demand such a move: the paper's very viability was in serious doubt in the early '70s, and it was thought that millions of potential readers, conservatives, needed their own voice on the paper if they were to become regular readers. And so the reign of Safire began, a key part of conservative editor A.M. Rosenthal's larger overhaul of the paper.

That 31-year-old experiment, which had decidedly mixed results, is finally coming to a close. Word comes this morning that Safire will write his last column soon after the new year (though he'll continue to write for the NYT magazine and continue his On Language column). Of course, the conservative slot remains: his place has been taken by a younger replacement, David Brooks, a far better reporter and a man who has rightly been called the liberals' favorite conservative writer, for his moderate, invective-free manner of imparting his equally conservative philosophy.

Over the years, Safire won over plenty of former enemies with his language column (which many considered witty and literate, but which always struck me as a tad pedantic) and especially with his ringing defense of civil liberties. But Safire has more recently been an embarrassment to the paper in other ways: for his silly habit of clinging to hoary conservative chestnuts even after they've been demolished in the paper's news columns. Chief among these was the report about 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta's meeting in Prague with a top Sadaam aide, which served as the supposed smoking gun of Iraq's Al Queda ties until it was disproved. Safire's stubborn insistence on clinging to this version even after many in the White House had dropped it has revived an old debate about whether opinion columns should be fact-checked when even elemental factual rules seem to be breached.

Slate's brilliant media critic Jack Shafer may have hastened the columnist's demise. Widely read in the media and respected by just about everyone for his wit, erudition and fairness, Shafer has been a frequent Safire's hound dog. He drew blood again earlier this month with this devastating critique of Safire's latest imagined jihad, in which he posits a silly election-eve conspiracy among the media. With some simple reporting, he undercuts Safire's premise, making the old goat seem even more ridiculous than usual. That may have been the last straw for the proud family-owned paper, which since the Jayson Blair debacle is finally beginning to respond to criticism in measured, intelligent ways that are steadily restoring its luster.

Anyway, I obviously won't miss the old Nixon hand's loonier reporting-challenged columns--roughly half of them, I'd say--where he seems to relish playing the part of the skulking investigative reporter, clad in trench coat, listening in on his dense network of sources. But I will terribly miss his unstintingly aggressive defense of privacy, where his own libertarian views and his time spent watching Nixon's scheming up close combined to make him a forceful advocate for keeping the government's nose out of citizens' private lives to the maximum extent possible. Let me be the first to note here that the official announcement of the end of his column comes precisely three years to the day after what was perhaps his proudest, most important column ever: a November 15th, 2001 piece in which he called the outrageously ill-advised Patriot Act a piece of legislation which "amounts to dictatorial power," helping to launch a powerful backlash against this codification of overreaction to post-9/11 hysteria.

His is a mixed legacy, for sure. But on the whole, I think the country would have been far poorer without his steady voice in support of our civil liberties. It's as if your elderly, loony tunes uncle periodically interupted his incoherent babbling to deliver an eloquent, perfectly pitched defense of American democracy. You'd be amazed, and suprised. And also delighted.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Post-Election Tidbits

John Judis and Ray Teixeira are a couple of smart, interesting political thinkers and writers. Two years ago, they argued in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority that a structural realignment of the American electorate is now taking place that would essentially rebuild the old New Deal coalition, though in very different ways. The key take-away: Dems could once again regularly begin winning presidential races.

After the election, of course, they've had a little explaining to do. They took a first crack at it in a short, quickie piece in The New Republic. Since the article is stuck behind a subscriber-only curtain, I'll reprint a key portion here:

'Bush recreated the Reagan-era coalition by combining Brooks Brothers and Wal-Mart, the upper class and the lower middle class. He won wealthy voters, those making over $200K, by 63-35%. But he also won voters who had not completed college by 53-47%...The Democrats need to find a candidate that can talk to both Ph.D's and tractor-trailer drivers.'

Teixeira lays out his arguments in greater detail in his blog, Donkey Rising. Among his earliest reactions to the Bush victory were these: we now know the limits of both Democratic voter mobilization and anti-Bush rhetoric. And we need to garner far better support among the white working class. "The fact of the matter is that Democrats cannot win when they do so badly among this very large constituency," he writes.

As I considered all the talk about a Bush mandate, I've gone back and forth about whether this election really was close. Yes, as the Wall Street Journal's stalwart Al Hunt was the first to point out, Bush received the slimmest winning margin of any incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson. But in the end, I think this map of how the counties voted helped the Dems, at least those who are honest with themselves, understand what a solid thumping this really represented for them. Red and blue counties were far more imbalanced even than the state electoral map, which looks pretty bad itself.

At the same time, there are indeed some promising trends amid the rubble for the Dems. Among the most important, I think, is the emerging power of web fundraising, first touched off by the Dean campaign. When the final numbers came in, it showed that the Kerry campaign raised $82 million on the Internet alone, or $32 million more than Gore raised four years earlier from all individuals through any channel. The Bush forces raised just $14 million that way. A single well-connected and widely read blogger, also a Democratic consultant, raised $750,000 for Dem candidates from 6,500 contributors. These numbers are simply incredible, and they should be heartening to the Democrats. I think they've received far too little attention amid post-election wallowing. But as Judis and Teixeira go on to note in their TNR piece, all that money won't help much if the Dems can't find a candidate next time who can connect with average people at least nearly as well as Clinton did. In this department, it's clear, the stiff and chilly Kerry wasn't really any better than Gore. Sorry to break this to you folks, but most Americans vote with their heart and their gut, not merely with their brain. And that fact probably isn't subject to realignment anytime soon.

Novak Gunning for Seinfeld's Job. Conservative columnist Bob Novak, long ago dubbed the "Prince of Darkness" for his glowering temperment and dour bully-boy politics, seemed to be trying his hand at comedy a day after the election. In what might have been the most idiotic thing said on any of the post-election cable chat shows, he told his CNN Crossfire colleagues that of course the Dems won, since Kerry was a lousy candidate. They should have instead nominated Dick Gephart, he said. Can you just imagine what a ball the Republican attack machine would have had mangling the labor movement's annointed candidate, a man who also served as the Democratic party's point man in handing Bush Congressional authority to invade Iraq? Gephart's the son of a milkman, but by the time the sleaze machine was done with him, he wouldn't have been recognizable as a major party candidate. Nice try, though, Novak. But maybe you should save your revisionist histories for the federal grand jury looking into which Bush operative used you as a willing pawn in leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent. Just be careful, Bob: In that forum, you'll be under oath.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

That's Clear, Isn't It?

'Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.'
--Matthew Arnold

By now, most readers of WWW probably know they've come to a place that's generally admiring of one Christopher Hitchens. Of course, we're not alone. His ferocious intelligence, married to a vast knowledge of history, literature and politics and a uniquely lucid style have made him into one of the most closely read and best-enjoyed writers now wielding a pen in the English language (for a comprehensive archive of his writing, click here).

At the same time, of course, his increasingly bizarre turn to the right since 9/11 has left him tied up in rhetorical knots. Like his fellow Brit ex-pat Andrew Sullivan, he's had an ever-harder time trying to somehow reconcile all he knows, believes and has written over decades with the ferocious no-nothingness of the Bush crowd. Sullivan neatly extricated himself a couple months ago by publicly turning against Bush because of the Republicans' crude gay-baiting (though the gay writer insists he's not a single-issue guy). Like Inspector Renault in Casablanca, Andrew was simply shocked, shocked to learn that these guys would stoop to such gutter tactics.

"Hitch," on the other hand, has been far craftier, using his considerable mental and verbal pyrotechnics to confuse the issues and buy himself some wiggle room between what he'd like to believe and what his senses plainly tell him. In recent weeks, as evidence of the Bush crowd's mendaciousness has mounted, he's gingerly begun tiptoeing away from their worst excesses. But I think he hit his real high water mark in tortured reasoning with this telling, confusing non-endorsement of either candidate in Slate a couple days before the election:

I am assuming for now that this is a single-issue election. There is one's subjective vote, one's objective vote, and one's ironic vote. Subjectively, Bush (and Blair) deserve to be re-elected because they called the enemy by its right name and were determined to confront it. Objectively, Bush deserves to be sacked for his flabbergasting failure to prepare for such an essential confrontation. Subjectively, Kerry should be put in the pillory for his inability to hold up on principle under any kind of pressure. Objectively, his election would compel mainstream and liberal Democrats to get real about Iraq. The ironic votes are the endorsements for Kerry that appear in Buchanan's anti-war sheet The American Conservative, and the support for Kerry's pro-war candidacy manifested by those simple folks at I can't compete with this sort of thing, but I do think that Bush deserves praise for his implacability, and that Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty.

If that seems impossibly unclear to you, don't worry. I can't fathom it either. No, Chris hasn't lost his usual clarity of thought generally. It's probably just that on this issue, after having served as an apologist for the Bush regime for three years, he's decided to quell some of the cognitive dissonance he's no doubt been experiencing. So cut him some slack. Then again, maybe his election-eve hair-splitting was just an exercise in maintaining his insider access, like the lobbyist who donates to both candidates, just in case.

Just for Contrast. On the other hand, consider this splendid little gem of a story (free registration required) from today's Times, a marvel of keen observation and careful word choice, by the paper's new Hollywood beat cop, Sharon Waxman. Profiling former Congressman Dan Glickman, the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America, she begins thusly:

"He's about as bland as Jack Valenti is colorful. A navy blue blazer and a combover. A long face with puffy eyelids that have yet to feel the sharp edge of Beverly Hills' finest technicians. One look at Dan Glickman and you think: Peter Sellers meets 24 years of government service."

With writing like that (reminscent, for me at least, of when Maureen Dowd bestrode the Clinton years as an impossibly acidic and colorful political feature writer, back before either Bush or column-writing apparently sent her a bit over the edge), it's no wonder why the paper went after recruiting this former Washington Post Style section vet with the kind of intensity usually reserved for the Yankees' hunt for 20-game-winners on the free-agent market.

Small Glimmers of Good News from D.C., Part III. You may remember the National Endowment for the Arts as one of the prime whipping boys for the Republican Cossacks who stormed the Congressional palace back in the earth-rattling '94 off-year elections. By calling attention to a handful of the NEA's admittedly bizarre funding decisions (like "performance artist" Karen Finley smearing feces on herself for the delight of audiences and Andres Serrano's angry "Piss Christ" bull whip crapola), Newt Gingrich and his minions tried their best to elicit enough general revulsion to enable them to close the whole place down. Thankfully, they failed. Now comes word of what I would consider one of the best NEA funding decisions ever: a grant to enable the Paris Review to deposit hundreds of its legendary "Writers at Work" interviews in a searchable online archive. The Review, founded in 1952, functioned as something of a literary government in exile for decades. In later years, it was edited, overseen and even subsidized by the independently wealthy bon vivant and man about Manhattan, George Plimpton. When he died just over a year ago at age 76, everything was thrown into limbo with the institution that had come to be synomymous with him. But thanks to the NEA, his irrepressible wit and spirit lives on, and online no less! I think the whole initiative has an appropriate name: the DNA of Literature Project. Enjoy it here, beginning today (theoretically, although it's not quite up yet). It's due to kick off with a 1954 interview with Bill Styron, and each month thereafter, a decade's worth of interviews will be added.

Finally, I loved this small item, which may have escaped your attention, because it has thus far escaped the entire media's attention, with the singular (and honorable) exception of NPR's Morning Edition. In running down the list of possible candidates rumored to be in the running for the then-vacant Attorney General's job, Maura Liasson yesterday dismissed the chances of former Montana Governor and certified Friend of W, Mark Racicot. Why? It seems he failed to pass an earlier ethics screening by the FBI for such sensitive federal posts. That's interesting, I thought. Wonder why that didn't also disqualify him for the only marginally less sensitive job he's been doing for the last several months, chairing the Republican National Committee and serving as a key spokesman for the Bush-Cheney re-election effort. Perhaps she can explore that topic a bit next time she sits in with her joshing colleagues on party-approved State TV, otherwise known as Fox News...

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Time to Take a Deep Breath

Sadly, angry liberals and progressives (at least many of them) have been growing just a bit unhinged since the election. So sure were they that the three debates conclusively demonstrated Kerry's better mental qualifications and so falsely revved up were they by the misleading election day exit polls--and I know, cause I was among them on both counts--that Bush's ultimate surprise victory seems to now be gnawing at the very inner lining of their brains. A case in point is the novelist Jane Smiley--herself a midwestern native, and perhaps most famous for writing a narrative rural tragedy, A Thousand Acres--who lashed out at red-state ignorance in this now-infamous Slate story, posted two days after the election. While it makes some good points, it's also pretty silly and even borderline anti-intellectual in the way it makes blanket statements about millions of individuals who simply happen to share the arbitrary geography of state lines, and fails to recognize that a few thousand votes in various key areas would have utterly changed the outcome. Meanwhile, this little oddity from a blogger in Vancouver, B.C. which purports to prove that the 16 states with the highest average IQs all went for Kerry, also got a lot of play on the web, even though its own footnotes seem to pretty neatly demolish its own veracity, or at least fundamentally call it into question.

Anyway, amid all the overwrought talk about pained Dems threatening to move to Canada in the wake of a Bush victory, I found this enlightening gem of an interview with the famous urban theorist Jane Jacobs especially interesting. I drilled down on her a bit after recently learning from a writerly friend that, to my surprise, the sainted thinker is still alive. She's been so quiet in recent years that I'd assumed she was no longer with us. It turns out that's in large part because she's been living in Toronto ever since moving there with her family during the Vietnam War. This interview is conducted by James Howard Kunstler, a far angrier disciple of her work (who has nevertheless written some thoughtful books about new urbanism, though none that could remotely match her iconic The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Anyway, I found her general optimism refreshing, especially considering how she's generally known for her pessimistic take on things (her most recent book is entitled Dark Age Ahead). Despite the fact that urbanism remains "discredited" in the U.S., she still insists that we should "never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate." Heck, maybe there's even hope for Cleveland. Then again, if we all lived in impossibly vibrant urban places such as Toronto, we'd probably be feeling pretty optimistic about cities too..

Republican Triumphalism. As I mentioned last week, Bush's day-after-election talk about humbly reaching out to the opposition with an olive branch couldn't be taken seriously. But even I couldn't have imagined that this fake era of good feeling would last just 24 hours. A day later, the Frat Boy in Chief was back to his usual arrogant, preening self, talking about all the "capital" he'd won in the election and how he intended to spend it on his agenda. One of his leading post-election issues seems to be fundamental tax reform (sorry, but I don't recall that being mentioned much during the campaign), which the Bushies are soothingly noting would remain revenue-neutral. In other words, the changes would neither cut nor raise taxes on the population as a whole. But as a former Bush Treasury official, now at the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, so vividly noted last week on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: "every poker game is revenue-neutral. At the end of every game there's still the same amount of money in the room. But some people's pockets are empty and others are full." And whose pockets do you think these folks are most concerned about? I'll give you a hint, culled from the infamous clip from Farenheit 9/11, of Bush speaking at a fundraiser: "this is an impressive crowd: the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." Expect that base to be especially well-represented in any tax-overhaul plans.

So Long, Ashcroft. There is, however, much to celebrate today, starting with the news that Ayatollah Ashcroft will soon be stepping down as U.S. Attorney General (though he says he'll stick around until his successor wins Senate confirmation, which could become a significant bargaining chip in the process. Those wily Bushies...). If the Bush Administration does nothing else to sooth some of the anger from the election but this single change, it's nevertheless an important gesture. His admirers in government and media are doing their best to spin his legacy into something positive, but as I've pointed out before, this guy was simply a disaster of historic proportions for civil liberties in this country (probably fated to be compared to World War I AG Palmer, he of the infamous Palmer raids). Even the Bush crowd had had enough of his clumsy boorishness and hyperbolic showboating for the TV cameras, invariably claiming some giant breakthrough in the War on Terror as he crowed about nabbing the latest small fish. After four years, he had become almost a cartoonish figure of firebreathing demagoguery, managing to make the rest of the administration seem reasonable by comparison. Probably only that human right-wing cartoon herself, Ann Coulter, has been better at consciously polarizing American politics. As the chief spokesman for the grossly misnamed Patriot Act, Ashcroft kept repeating that despite some of the law's more worrisome provisions, the federal government hasn't abused them. But as this piece by Georgetown law professor David Cole in the current New York Review of Books nicely points out, that simply wasn't true. He goes on to delineate various misuses of the law. I especially love how Ashcroft is now floating the notion that he may be contemplating a future presidential run. That's better than anything the best stand-up comedian could invent, since this is the same guy who not so long ago lost to a dead man in a race for the Senate in his own native state of Missouri. Despite those and other absurdist distractions, the damage this buffoon did to democratic traditions was unfortunately all too real. Historians may one day settle on this charming bit of demagoguery as Ashcroft's high water mark in anti-constitutional outrage, made all the worse since it was spoken before his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate three months after 9/11:

'To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.'

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Trying to Convert Despair to Mere Depression

'The people have spoken, goddamn them.'
--the late, oft-losing candidate Mo Udall

The intelligent, caring (near) half of the country is trying its best to shake off the despair over this defeat, but it keeps coming in waves. In future days, I'll do my best to describe why we shouldn't feel so bad, to look for the silver linings (the progressive infrastructure that's been put in place, etc). But today, and possibly this entire week I'll instead choose to marinate a little in deep concern for the country. There's a good reason for the ancient wisdom that says when you go after a king you must kill him. Otherwise, a merely wounded monarch will come back at his enemies with renewed fury and ferocity. And that's what we have coming from this no-nothing crowd of Bushies in their second term. Don't be fooled for a moment by all their nice talk about healing the country. As the editors of The New Republic rightly put it: "hard times, brutish times, lie ahead." Sad to say, but this group that so lustily goes after the fundamentalists and their jihads overseas, is becoming more like them than they might care to admit.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Voter Supression Watch

My short wait in line
Seemed so inconsequential
After four long years

--haiku submitted to the Wash. Post from a voter in Baltimore

The afternoon exit polls are looking better for Kerry than even his team could have dared to predict. He's up by 20 points in Minnesota, and even up in Florida (and Ohio), though by far more modest margins. But it's still early--don't pop the champagne yet.

One of the most interesting backstories has been the Republican party's not-so-subtle attempts to try to blunt the effect of the almost 800,000 new registrants in Ohio alone. The parties took turns winning rounds of court appeals on the matter, with an Akron federal judge with the especially evocative name of John Adams (a Bush II appointee no less) ruling that Republican poll challengers couldn't be on hand, because of the chance they would intimidate voters. He was overruled last night shortly before midnight, but that may have been too late for the Republican black-bag operatives to have unfurled their full armada of tricks.

And they are considerable. One tip-off is the name of the guy overseeing it all, a veteran dirty trickster: Ohio Republican Party Counsel Mark Weaver. Those with some memory for the players who made it happen during the Voinovich era sleaze (when he was governor, that is) may recall that name as a man at the center of many things, most of them eyebrow-raising. Anyway, this article last week in the New York Observer caught the attention of a few folks: the writer nicely infiltrated the Ohio Republican preparations for electoral challenges and gives a nice inside account of some dirty tricks war-gaming. And the Village Voice's Rick Perlstein, meanwhile, is brilliantly cataloguing in real time other scattered reports of Cleveland-area attempts at suppressing votes in this blog. To round out your information on this regrettable subject, you might also check these less authoritative but still useful sites (here and here).

All of this is just one more sad reminder of the drearily retro back to the future feel of the last four years under Bush. After all, didn't we settle all of these issues during the '60s, with Johnson's Voting Rights Act (part of the package pushed through Congress which prompted him to remark that by doing so, the Dems would lose the South for at least a generation)? Didn't we clearly decide as a nation that we weren't going to enable crackers to come up with some variation of excuses--intelligence tests, poll taxes, whatever--to keep eligible Americans from exercising their solemn right to cast their ballot? Why are we going back over this ground at this late date?

But in the end, I can't feel pessimistic about this. Average citizens seem to get the seriousness of this issue, even if some political professionals and even elite media have muffled their outrage. At my polling station this morning, there was little chatter amid a soft rain. Instead, neighbors mostly nodded silently to each other. No one needed to acknowledge what we were all there for. This group looked like a band intent on taking back their country. What I loved best was the matter-factness of their attitude. I'd call it Suburban Gothic. The only thing missing was the pitchforks.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Heading for Closure

This long, bloody political trench warfare called a presidential election finally comes to a close this week, one would hope. And I find it endlessly interesting and satisfying that so much of it will culminate right here in my backyard. Kerry holds an evening vigil rally tonight in downtown Cleveland (I plan to be on hand, with whomever of my nuclear family I can talk into coming along to witness some history), and just a few miles away First Lady Laura Bush is due to appear as well.

Here, in this struggling, morale-challenged corner of the American Rust Belt (a very '80s elocution that's unfortunately has some claim to being revived), where a recent #1 civic poverty ranking threatens to derail all the municipal image-boosting efforts of the last 30 years, much of the world will be watching closely to what happens. And I really do mean the world. During this election cycle, some serious commentators in other countries have begun suggesting that, since the American president in the 21st century often has more power over the lives of their fellow countrymen than their own nation's leader does, perhaps the entire world should get some kind of say in the matter of who sits in the White House. They have a point, however unworkable the electoral details might be.

If you've been too immersed in all the cable-TV chatter and the endless rounds of competing polls that so confidently pretend to a kind of scientific precision, just remember this salient fact: today's election-eve final NY Times/CBS poll calls it a statistical dead heat; the same election-eve poll four years ago called it a six-point margin for Bush, who actually lost to Gore in the popular vote. Try to forget the polls, my friends. They're an increasingly less accurate snapshot of reality, for a number of reasons you've probably been hearing and reading about.

Instead, amid all the coverage I see and read in the media and especially all the anecdotal experience I see and hear all around me--including a pitched verbal battle between Democratic and Republican Jews at my favorite breakfast spot only this morning--I sense a classic American awakening, not unlike that slow societal rousting we experienced in the 1940s, after we were attacked. Since 9/11, we have indeed been attacked. But it's not the foreign terrorists that so much concern me. Instead, it's this Bush-Cheney-Rove crowd of savvy disinformation specialists that has attacked our democracy and its very underpinnings with the kind of ferocious demagogic assault that will one day land them black eyes in the history books.

Just as in the '30s, our democratic institutions were slow to respond to those attacks, at least initially. The Congress got stampeded into very nearly repealing the Bill of Rights with near-unanimity. Much of, indeed most of, the media went along at first. All of this went contrary to everything we thought we knew about American democracy and its uniquely inspired series of checks and balances. But someone always seems to step up in this democracy which is now nearing one-quarter of a millenium. In the end, it was liberty-loving groups such as librarians--those often-lampooned ladies who shoosh you for talking too loudly--who had the brass balls that others lacked to resist the Patriot Act. Contrary to their caricature, they emboldened us all to speak up on behalf of protecting our rights.

It's a measure of how extreme and wide-ranging the Bush administration's sins have been that so many of its individual calumnies--which in themselves would otherwise merit so much citizen outrage--have been lost in the larger outrageousness. It seems almost unthinkable that the Abu Ghraib prison abuse episode, for instance, could go nearly unmentioned in this campaign. After all, it has injured perhaps for decades America's reputation for justice, the source of so much of America's vaunted "soft power" (the power of its founding ideals to move hearts and minds around the world and to give us the benefit of the doubt). And yet it just seems like one more count in an indictment overflowing with almost equally appalling outrages.

I won't bore you by recounting all of those individual sins and outrages. You know what I'm talking about. What binds them together is a kind of presidential arrogance that's begun to seem Napoleonic, and that may well be unprecedented in American history. It was perhaps best summed up by what Bush told Bob Woodward in his book Bush at War: "I do not need to explain why I say things—That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." Has there ever been a better summation of the Bush II governing ethos, or a philosophy more at odds with the concept envisioned by the Founding Fathers? And Machiavelli himself could learn something from the vicious, unprincipaled Karl Rove, who, as this profile brilliantly explains, tends to win most campaigns because there is almost nothing he won't do.

Because the incumbent administration went about so much of its work in ways that defied any historical precedent, they have given rise to some unprecedented responses. In its fabled 80-year history, the New Yorker magazine had never published a presidential endorsement. This year it decided to do just that, launching a powerful and eloquent volley at the Bush White House, calling for "America's mainstream restoration," a vote for Kerry.

Anyway, what I've been trying to say is this: I'm optimistic that on Tuesday, that classic American common sense and rough brand of justice and goodness will return, as it periodically does when storm clouds gather on our horizon. And that we will rise up and sweep away these arrogant, foolhardy people who have briefly hijacked our history. And that we will return to our levers of power a group of people who--while perhaps not the brightest or the boldest, maybe not the wisest or the warmest that America has to offer--are nevertheless at least far more in keeping with our national traditions and our proudly democratic temperment. May the Massachusetts sailor and windsurfer maneuver us back to the sensible center, and set a course more in keeping with our heritage as a people who are tempermentally unable to fear the future for more than brief, jittery moments. We've been a nation full of brass-balled folks for far too long to think about changing now.