Archive for August, 2008

Everything I Can Think of to Say About Sarah Palin

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

Give the Mayberry Machiavellis running McCain’s campaign credit: They’re willing to go for it. They play the game with gusto.

Sarah Palin, based on the little bit of video I’ve watched, is fairly bright. Like Obama and Biden (but very much unlike the current iteration of McCain) she can speak in front of the camera without cue cards. She’s inexperienced, yes, but she has the potential to surprise anyone in the Obama campaign who assumes she’s going to be a pushover, and that all they have to do is point and laugh in order to make the case that she has no business being McCain’s veep.

Yes, she’s got that “troopergate” scandal hanging around. Yes, she’s outside the mainstream in terms of her views about teaching Intelligent Design in public school science classes and denying abortions even in cases of rape and incest. Yes, she apparently doesn’t know jack about all those serious foreign-policy issues that the McCain campaign has been claiming Obama doesn’t know enough about.

None of which really matters. She’s only the veep. This country’s voters were willing to put Dan Quayle a heartbeat away. Don’t tell me a sharp, cute, former state-champion point guard can’t clear that bar. She can.

What the Palin selection is about is just this: Changing the subject. When I walked into work on Friday, the day after Obama arguably destroyed the McCain campaign on the last night of the Democratic Convention, no one was talking about Obama. Everyone was talking about Sarah Palin.

Mission accomplished.

Even if it comes out, as seems likely, that Palin has lied publicly about her role in the troopergate thing, and her role in the repurposing of the Bridge to Nowhere funds, and even if she commits a headline-grabbing gaffe every day from now until November 4, she’s a win from a political standpoint. Because she’s changing the subject.

As long as we’re all watching and listening to and talking about Sarah Palin, we’re not talking about the slam-dunk case Obama made against McCain Thursday night. We’re not talking about how McCain represents a continuation of the Bush presidency. It’s style over substance: See? I’m willing to choose a hot little firecracker like Sarah Palin as my veep. I’m not a stuffy old dude who has sold out his principles to ally himself with the forces of darkness in a last, desperate grab for the brass ring. I’m a maverick. I’m different. People are talking about me. (Well, about her.)

Not about that other guy.

I’d like to think it’s not going to work. I’d like to think Obama is too smart to fall into the trap of talking about Sarah Palin’s lack of qualifications.

Do you remember the vice presidential debate when Lloyd Bentsen absolutely eviscerated Dan Quayle with that “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line? Here it is in case you’ve forgotten:

All you Obama supporters who are gleeful at the prospect of going after Sarah Palin, watch that clip. You’re not going to get anything better than that. (Actually, you’re not going to get even that. Sarah Palin is no Dan Quayle.) And then remind yourself who won that election.

Do not be distracted by Sarah Palin. She’s a sideshow. She’s a misdirection. She’s a wave of the magician’s hand to get you to look right while he’s loading up his sleeve on your left.

I’d like to think the trick isn’t going to work. But I’ve got grudging admiration for the people who tried it.

Au on McCain’s Shortness and Bad Clothes

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Alan Au casts a critical eye at what John McCain is saying with his too-large jackets and old-man sweaters: Is 5’7″ John McCain Dressing For Defeat?

In a world dominated by visual images, McCain has the fortunate opportunity to have what every shorter actor wants on camera… a female costar that can make him look taller. McCain can look at least 5’9″ standing next to his lovely wife, if dressed in the right wardrobe. However, all too often it just looks like he’s trying to ride her coattails into the White House.

I highlight this only because of the nostalgic way it made me feel about the fashion coverage I offered during the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial. Well, okay. I also wanted to engage in some negative, low-road snark. We can’t let the McCain campaign have all the fun in that area, can we?

War, the Old-fashioned Way

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I’m not sure what category to put this in, but I found this article on the war in Georgia by the “War Nerd” pretty fascinating on a couple levels.

First, it’s an interesting realpolitik-perspective summary of just what’s going on there, which — correct or not, I don’t know enough to say — is the sort of thing I’ve been wanting, since the reasons and timeline of that conflict have not at all been clear to me. Perhaps somebody else knows better, but his analysis at least has a ring of truthiness to it.

But second, apparently this War Nerd Guy — a military obsessive with an amoral, but well-informed sense of history, and a lame white-collar day job — is apparently a complete fabrication of some writer, who uses him to write about this stuff with a certain bent… sort of like “fake Steve Jobs”, who brings a certain fake-but-true perspective to Apple and its fandom. I find this fascinating because, well, if I ignore my more higher judgment about what I should be taking pleasure in, I know what he’s talking about: this is sort of the perfect adolescent armchair military enthusiast war, with clear-cut historical precedent and textbook military tactics. I’m not sure what that says about the writer (or me), but it’s worth a read anyway.

What Obama Is Not Asking About McCain

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

McCain has spent the last several weeks making a focused, concentrated argument that Obama is not qualified to be president. That the arguments he’s been using have been either ridiculous, dishonest, or both does not change that. Based on the polls, McCain has been at least somewhat effective with those tactics.

But notice what Obama has been doing (or rather, not doing) during this time: As was predictable, based on the way he responded to thematically similar, though less-awful, treatment at the hands of the Hillary team during the final months of her campaign, he has mostly been staying above the fray. He has been failing to respond in kind, failing to point out the many ways in which it’s actually McCain who, for a host of reasons, is not especially qualified to be president.

Imagine a world, though, in which Obama was willing to engage in the same sort of negative campaigning as McCain. What might he be bringing up? Would he be able to present similar arguments to the ones McCain has been presenting? Would those arguments have any more basis in fact than the ones McCain has been presenting?

To my way of thinking, the answers are yes and yes. Take a look at the case that Rex Nutting makes here, for example: Why McCain would be a mediocre president.

A careful look at McCain’s biography shows that he isn’t prepared for the job. His resume is much thinner than most people think.

On Anthrax, Bentonite, and Conspiracies

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

Your homework for today: read Glenn Greenwald’s item on the reporting that was done back in 2001 on the anthrax letters that had everyone freaked out for a time: Vital unresolved anthrax questions and ABC News. (Those who want to play along without doing all that reading can skate by with Kevin Drum’s Cliff Notes summary: Bentonite. But you better hope the teacher doesn’t call on you.)

One thing that bugs me about all the reporting over the last few days is the readiness of the media to accept that Bruce Ivins’ death was a suicide. There sure have been a lot of suicides over the last few years of people about to come to trial for what potentially could be blockbuster charges with major repercussions in Washington. And I realize that it’s Hollywood, but I can’t help thinking of that scene from Michael Clayton where the two operatives kill Tom Wilkinson’s character and make it look like a drug overdose.

I know that most conspiracy theories are ridiculously wrong. But not all of them. I think anyone who’s honest about the limits of human wisdom would admit that there must be a smallish subset of widely-held conspiracy theories that are essentially correct. (Just as there are almost certainly a fair number of criminal conspiracies that have never been suspected, even by the tinfoil-hat crowd.) But which ones are correct? I don’t know. And neither does anyone (well, almost anyone) else.

That’s one reason why I’m fairly tolerant toward the 9/11 truthers I come across. I think they’re almost certainly in the “ridiculously wrong” crowd. But I respect their willingness to endure the ridicule they get in pursuit of the truth. I don’t believe 9/11 was an inside job; I think the evidence on that is pretty clear. I think it’s unlikely that Flight 93 was actually shot down, as opposed to crashing when the passengers rushed the cockpit, but I’m less confident of that.

The real world is a fairly complex place, and it doesn’t always slice up as neatly as we’d like it to. For example, I’m pretty sure O.J. killed Nicole and Ronald Goldman — but I also think it’s a better-than-even chance that Mark Fuhrman jumped the fence at the compound to plant the bloody glove. If believing in O.J.’s guilt makes you reflexively dismiss anyone who says Fuhrman might have planted evidence, I think you’re not being honest about how the world works.

If there’s one thing that the history of scientific discovery teaches, it’s that if your epistemology and methods are good enough to allow you to discover a hitherto unsuspected truth, in many (most?) cases that truth will turn out to be something that appears fairly outlandish from the perspective of someone who hasn’t run your experiments or examined your data. People put too much faith in Occam’s Razor. If the available evidence is insufficient to illuminate the true state of affairs, Occam’s Razor doesn’t elevate the quality of your data. It may make you a smidgeon less likely to be wrong. But it’s no substitute for actually knowing enough to be right.

Bruce Ivins almost certainly knew some really important things about the identity and motivations of the 2001 anthrax attacker(s) (even if it was only that he wasn’t one of them), but sadly, that knowledge died with him. Meanwhile, the folks at ABC News who reported that “four well-placed and separate sources” told them that tests had found traces of bentonite in the 2001 anthrax letters – a fact we now know to be false – also possess really important information that bears on how the government responded to those attacks. It would be really nice if they’d share that information with the rest of us.

Update: It’s a few days later, and there has (obviously) been a bit of news since then, with the FBI laying out something approximating a prosecution’s opening statement against Ivins yesterday (though in the absence of an actual criminal process, or a defense, I’m not especially comfortable basing any conclusions on it). Glenn Greenwald has continued to post items about the story, and this morning I got an email from someone named Simon Owens who runs a site named Bloggasm (ew; sounds kind of messy) where he’s posted an item that includes details from interviews he did with Greenwald and others about ABC’s original bentonite story. He (Owens) is looking for some links, so here you go: Should ABC News reveal its anonymous sources?