Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Early Stumble

My favorite quote from the campaign trail this week:

"I'm not hiring a vetter to vet the vetters."

Barack Obama said that, after the Wall Street Journal reported that longtime Democratic insider Jim Johnson, hired by Obama to lead his search for a running mate, had gotten some sweetheart home loans from collapsing subprime lender Countrywide Financing.

Johnson ended up resigning from Obama's veep committee. The news that the presumptive Democratic nominee hadn't properly vetted the man who would be vetting his vice presidential choice makes some Democrats even more nervous about November than they already were. Obama has called his choice of a running mate "the most important decision" he'll make before Election Day. Yet he's already botching it. Jim Johnson seemed like a safe choice for the assignment; after all, this guy is the consummate Washington insider, and he performed the exact same task for Fritz Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.

Hmm, maybe that's part of the problem. First of all, Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro, though seemingly inspired at first, ended up being more problematic than helpful. Kerry's choice of John Edwards made little difference in that campaign. But why is Barack Obama, who's supposed to be new, fresh, different and exciting - a candidate who says he embodies change so much all by himself that he won't actually have to make any if he's elected - turning to an old D.C. hand like Jim Johnson? Is he trying to pull a George W. Bush, who sought to make up for his own lack of experience and gravitas by leaning on GOP wise head Dick Cheney (so much so that Cheney himself got the number two slot)? There's nothing wrong with seeking sage counsel for such a critical decision (although I will argue in a later blog that it's really not so critical, from a campaign standpoint, as everyone thinks). But come on Obama, if you really want to be different - THEN BE DIFFERENT. Let's bring in Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam to be in charge of vetting. Or maybe a Vietnam Vet who came home and became a veterinarian. The more Obama makes this kind of mistake, the more he'll seem like just another politician, and the less the voters will believe his advertising.

By the way, I was curious about the etymology of this particular meaning of the word "vet" (it's meaning number three in my OED). It turns out it comes from the Latin word "veto," which we all know - as in, checking someone out thoroughly so you can veto the choice if you find anything bad. Such as a cozy Countrywide loan or three on their balance sheet.

Check out the latest polls on our website. Obama is pulling away from McCain in all of them, although that may just be the post-primary, Hillary-endorsed-him bounce. We'll go into some greater detail on the polls in our next post, unless something else leaps out of my brain first. Also, speaking of brains, give yours a tickle by trying this week's trivia question. The answer may surprise you!

Friday, June 6, 2008

History, As It Happens

The poet and critic Matthew Arnold once famously described journalism as "literature in a hurry." Sometimes, I also like to think of it as history, as it happens. There are moments during this long, fascinating presidential campaign when it strikes me that I do actually work for a history company - except, lacking the perspective of decades, or even centuries, I study events in the moment, and then disseminate my findings almost immediately.

And who said, when I got that history degree, that the history firms weren't hiring?

It might be easy in the raucous tumult of the 24-hour news cycle to overlook the historic importance of Barack Obama's Democratic primary victory. Don't let it get lost in the sauce. I hope you'll put your own cynicism, weariness or politics, whatever they may be, on pause, to savor and appreciate just what we are witnessing in 2008.

Obama isn't just the first black nominee. He breaks the 220-year hammerlock on presidential candidacy by white men of Northern European descent (and all Protestant, too, with the notable exception of JFK). His ascendancy opens the door for Italian-Americans, women, Jews, Latinos, or any ethnic, hyphenated American. Obama may not win, but his nomination means there could be a President named Cuomo, or Feinstein, or Martinez, or Jindal. This goes way beyond the color of his skin, to the very essence of what America means.

It has special resonance for me, too. Yes, I am as privileged a white man as you'd ever care to meet, incredibly fortunate to have been born free, white, male and American, probably in the top point one percent of the planet, socioeconomically. But I grew up in a civil rights household, with my father deeply involved in issues of race and discrimination in the 1960s. He was part of the legal team that successfully sued the United States on behalf of the syphilis victims of the Tuskegee experiment. As soon as I was old enough to read, I was stumbling across NAACP Legal Defense Fund briefs and Thurgood Marshall opinions and slave memoirs. When we moved to Wisconsin, where we were among the very few Jewish families, I experienced anti-Semitism that left me forever sensitive to prejudice and discrimination. I still recall the shock of my sixth-grade classmates, back in New York City, when I stood and delivered my book report on the 1860s diary of a slave woman, right after Tracy Present gave hers on "Stuart Little" (I won't even get into the jawdropping reaction to my short story about the beating death of a sharecropper's son for stealing food, which, needless to say, stood in sharp contrast to my friend David Grossman's story about Boris the talking spider).

Every presidential election is pivotal and historic. The 2000 race was described as "the most important of our lifetime." So was the one in 2004, being the first after 9/11. But 25 years from now, at whatever KCBS radio and become by then, some future instant historian will be assigned to do an anniversary piece on that groundbreaking campaign of 2008, when a lanky guy named Barack Obama became the first presidential nominee who wasn't an Anglo-Saxon white dude. Maybe that reporter will go back into our archives and pull some of the sound we've been posting on this website. You can say you were there, and you heard it live. As it happened.