Artur Davis and the Schmooze Factor Monday, Sep 3 2012 

So now that Artur Davis has delivered back-to-back speeches at two national party conventions – the Democratic in 2008 praising Barack Obama, and the Republican in 2012 blistering Barack Obama – what are the odds he’ll go for the hat trick, three in a row, at the Libertarian convention four years from now?

Sad, sad, sad. Just two years ago, there was talk that Davis, who represented the state’s Birmingham district, might become Alabama’s first African-American governor. As a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he had the support of none other than George  Wallace’s daughter, Peggy. That he nevertheless lost the nomination – to a candidate who in turn lost the general election to Republican Robert Bentley – obviously left him embittered.

In over half a century in politics (yes, that long), I have yet to meet a losing candidate, other than Barry Goldwater, who took personal responsibility for his loss. They are either (1) let down by people they depended on, (2) victimized by the lying tactics of their opponents, or (3) misrepresented or otherwise treated unfairly by a biased media.

Davis, for his part, chose Option (1): He blamed his loss on what he perceived as the backstabbing treachery of Alabama’s Democratic establishment. That in mind, he packed his bags, left Alabama, and headed for Northern Virginia, within a local phone call’s distance from the White House where his friend and former Harvard law school colleague Barack Obama now lives. What happened next – Davis’ switch to the Republican Party, his endorsement of Mitt Romney, and his appearance at the GOP convention – can best be explained by what didn’t happen.

To the point, can you imagine this sort of political embarrassment being visited on a White House run by either Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton? Obama’s campaign aide Stephanie Cutter attributes the defection to Davis’ being a self-interested, attention-seeking opportunist – as if that tells us anything we didn’t know about anyone (including the man she works for) who runs for political office.

No, whatever Artur Davis’ egocentricity, my bet is that he wouldn’t have switched parties, endorsed Romney, or shown up in Tampa if the man whose nomination he seconded four years ago, and/or members of his White House staff aimed the slightest bit of – to borrow a once-favored Obama term – empathy  in his friend’s direction.

A job offer? Possibly, though presidents like Johnson and Clinton knew that reaching out to wounded egos often means simply a private lunch or dinner; a weekend at Camp David; a flight aboard Air Force One; or merely a photo, autographed, taken with the president.

Ah, but this president, as Jane Mayer revealed in her recent New Yorker piece “Schmooze or Lose,” isn’t much for that sort of empathy. He has no time for posed, autographed photos with guests at White House holiday parties. Little time for table-to-table schmoozing at fundraising dinners. Not even, as Maureen Dowd tells us, a thank you note to supporters who make their homes available for fundraising events.

How to explain a president who sees and practices politics this way? Looking back (before my time), I can think of only one model. Not Kennedy, as Obama’s admirers would have us believe, or Carter, as his detractors would argue, but Woodrow Wilson, another cool professor with no time for the nitty-gritty.

Of course, for all that, Wilson did win a second term – but narrowly. Whatever that bit of ancient political history tells us, it would be well for Artur Davis’ erstwhile friend in the White House to remember that Tip O’Neill had it only half-right: All politics is local, yes, but more than that, it’s personal.

Sound Bites to Remember (in translation):

“In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.”

–Charles de Gaulle, circa 1965

“You kiss ass one day so you can kick it the next.”

–Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom, circa 1955

Why 2012 Should Be a GOP Year Monday, Jan 9 2012 

“Why 2012 Should Be a GOP Year”

— Headline, George Will’s New Year’s column

The Oracle has looked into his crystal ball and foreseen the future. According to the Washington Post‘s pre-eminent conservative pundit, Republicans should “stride confidently” into the coming election year, with nothing but good news ahead – unless you include losing the presidency again to Barack Obama.

That’s what the man said: Republicans will win the House and Senate but because of a flawed nominating process will lose the White House. They can then spend the next four years blocking everything Obama wants to do in a happy state of partisan gridlock.

Flashback: I recall a bright young Post columnist once summing up a dismal political situation with the trenchant observation that “if you set your standards low enough a train wreck can be counted a success.”

That columnist, if my octogenarian memory serves, was George Will. But of course George, as he confessed in another recent column, has now reached the septuagenarian stage of life, so he can be forgiven a few lapses; such as recommending, in his  second column of the new year, that a Romney-Santorum ticket is just what Republicans need to capture the key state of Pennsylvania come November.

That would be Rick Santorum, the Great Right Hope of the moment, who lost his home state of Pennsylvania by 17 points when he ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Small wonder why Will is touting a Romney-Santorum ticket for the fall: He’s out to make his prediction of an Obama victory a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But I digress — a common failing among those who have lived through too many presidential elections to take the promise of “change” seriously. My original point was that if the GOP loses to Obama in November it won’t be because of its nominating process but the fact that Republicans took over the House in the mid-term elections.

Lucky Barack Obama. What would the odds against his re-election be this new year if he didn’t have an out-of-control Republican majority in the House to blame for his failure to deliver “change you can believe in.”

A little political history is in order, if Professor Gingrich won’t mind my muscling into his territory:

In 1948 Harry Truman was so unpopular that both the left and right wings of his party broke off to nominate their own candidates for president. Yet he won re-election not by running against his nominal opponent, Tom Dewey, but a Republican Congress whose time and energy had been spent trying to repeal the New Deal.

Flash forward half-a-century to find another unpopular Democratic president rescued by the mid-term election of a Republican House that undid itself by closing down the government because, as its Speaker confessed, he was asked to leave Air Force One from the rear rather than the front exit.

In that case, it was lucky Bill Clinton. What would the odds against his re-election have been in 1996 if he hadn’t had an out-of-control Newt Gingrich to blame for his failure to deliver the New Covenant he’d promised.

Obviously the idea that elephants never forget doesn’t apply to pachyderms of the political species. On the other hand their Democratic opponents have taken heed: A front-page New Year’s headline in the New York Times tells us OBAMA PLANS TO RUN AGAINST CONGRESS.


Steele might become a reasonably good writer if he would pay a little more attention to grammar, learn something about the propriety and disposition of words and, incidentally, get some information on the subject he intends to handle.

                                 — Jonathan Swift on Richard Steele

You’re the President of the United States . . . Monday, Sep 5 2011 

. . . and you’re sending a long-overdue jobs program to a contentious Congress. To work up public support you plan to deliver a prime-time speech from the Oval Office, asking the American people to call, write, contact their representatives on Capitol Hill, to let them know their constituents support the President’s program.

Question: What’s wrong with that scenario? Answer: Nothing if you’re a politically savvy president named Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, more interested in getting your message across than in the spotlight of delivering it.  What better way to put pressure on members of Congress than a direct appeal to their constituents?

But if you’re Barack Obama, that’s not the way to go: Center stage, captive audience, on-camera — daytime, prime-time, anytime — is the be-all and end-all of his presidential leadership. So it is that having earned the distinction of being the most over-exposed president in American history, the Lecturer-in-Chief now moves to make the calling of a congressional joint session commonplace.

What’s that, the President again, speaking to Congress? Must be a summer re-run. Flip the channel.

Barack and the Kingfish Tuesday, Aug 2 2011 

About that debt limit problem . . .

George Will, who has seen more erudite days as a political sage, screwed up badly in a recent column when he dismissed Barack Obama as “Huey Long with a better tailor.”

A story from my Louisiana youth to show how inapt is any comparison between the Kingfish and this president:

In the worst days of the Great Depression, midwinter of 1933, the Hibernia National Bank of New Orleans was about to close down after massive withdrawals. Desperate, the Hibernia’s directors turned to Huey for help and in short order the Kingfish lined up funds from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Reserve.

One problem, however: The transfer of funds couldn’t be made until Monday, February 6, and since the bank would have to open on Saturday, February 4, the withdrawals would continue. Huey’s answer? Find some reason to declare a bank holiday. The problem, as historian T. Harry Williams put it, was that “February 4 was apparently the most unmemorable day in the history of the nation.”

But February 3, that was another matter. On that date in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had severed diplomatic relations with Germany. That was good enough for Huey. Hell, said the Kingfish, a move that big couldn’t have been completed in just one day.

So it was that in 1933 both February 3 and 4 became Louisiana state holidays, the Hibernia National Bank was saved from defaulting, and the Kingfish could turn his attention to the serious business of teaching bartenders at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria the proper way to mix a New Orleans gin fizz.

Huey Long was many things – a demagogue, a megalomaniac, a clown — but he understood that leadership comes not from the audacity of hope but of action.

That said, if George Will’s comparison were apt, what would have happened had the Kingfish handled the Hibernia problem in the patented style of our 44th president?

First, he would have called a news conference, followed by a radio address, to announce the appointment of a “balanced” commission composed of auditors and creditors to conduct a study of possible options to save the bank.

Second, he would have called a news conference, followed by a radio address, to announce a meeting of New Orleans business, labor, and religious leaders to arrive at a consensus on solving the crisis.

Third, by this time the Hibernia having gone under, he would have appointed a Banking Czar to explore the possibility of asking the RFC and Federal Reserve for funds and, if necessary, declaring a holiday to prevent such a bank failure from happening again; after, of course, calling a news conference, followed by a radio address, to give us his thoughts on the upcoming 1933 basketball, baseball , and football seasons . . . .

Hail to the Chiefs Tuesday, Feb 1 2011 

Re the White House re-staffing, a little history to remind us how far we’ve come in pursuit of administrative efficiency at the Executive level.

Before Eisenhower there was no such office as “chief of staff” in the White House. There were presidential assistants like FDR’s Marvin McIntire and Truman’s Clark Clifford but no administrative boss over the president’s staff. Ike introduced the chief of staff concept because, having served his entire life in the military, he liked things channeled through a single deputy.

The idea took hold and all succeeding presidents have had chiefs of staff, including Jimmy Carter who, in typical Carteresque fashion, said he was abolishing the position, then appointed Hamilton Jordan to carry out its function. Nixon had his Haldeman, Reagan his Jim Baker and Donald Regan, Bush 41 his John Sununu and Bush 43 his Andy Card.

Now comes Barack Obama’s second chief of staff, William Daley, said to be a business-oriented functionary with an eye to carrying out his President’s State of the Union pledge to give the American people “a government that’s more competent and more efficient.”

Daley’s first act? He has, according to the Washington Post, “hired his own chief of staff, Emmett Beliveau.”

So now we have a chief of staff to the chief of staff. What, I wonder, would General Ike think?

Of memorials and rallies Sunday, Jan 16 2011 

“President Obama gave a terrific speech Wednesday night.”

John McCain in the Washington Post, 1/16/11

Remember that bridge to the 21st century Bill Clinton used to talk about? It turns out to be easier for some to cross than for others. For those born, raised, and brainlocked into the 20th century, last week’s “terrific speech” from Tucson is a prime example of how far we’ve fallen behind.

Not as a partisan carp but simply as an observation: I can’t recall any prior presidential address at a memorial service that brought on sustained cheering and standing ovations. I’d tuned in for what I presumed would be – as the President had previously called for – a moment of “prayer or reflection” and instead found myself watching the equivalent of a celebrative political rally.

That, however – or so I’m advised by editorialists and commentators – is the way it’s done nowadays.

It seems that L.P. Hartley had it only half-right. “The past is a foreign country,” he wrote. “They do things differently there.” Add to that, from this observer’s perspective, that for some of us it’s the present that’s a foreign country. They do things differently here. Or should I say, terrifically?

The Woe Is Me Presidency Tuesday, Nov 23 2010 

Sub-headline,  Newsweek cover, November 2010:  WHY THE  MODERN  PRESIDENCY  MAY  BE TOO MUCH  FOR  ONE  PERSON TO  HANDLE.

Here we go again. Sixty years ago, while Harry Truman was grappling with post-war problems  at home and a Cold War overseas,  the contrarian Senator William Fulbright — called by Truman “an over-educated Oxford  SOB” — questioned the one-man presidency and suggested the country’s sole hope for survival lay in adopting the British parliamentary system.

Thirty years later the one-man presidency again came into question with Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office micromanaging  both the Tehran hostage rescue mission and his staff’s  use of the White House tennis courts.

Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn, weighed down as he is with the burden of getting Senate confirmation of  the  New START treaty  on  one hand, while writing children’s books with the other.

All of which leads this under-educated White House observer to think that while  the  modern presidency might be  too much to handle for some incumbents,  it isn’t for others.

Or am I simply being querulous in asking why Newsweek editors didn’t raise the same banal question when  Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were calling the shots in the Oval Office?

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