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Friday, August 29, 2008

The speech

Posted By on 08.29.08 at 03:02 AM

The thing I love most about political conventions is that it's one of the few chances to see high-stakes oratory and the broad range of people--smart, charismatic, successful people all--who fail and succeed at it. Mark Warner, for example, was a successful high-tech businessman and a fine governor, and he's coasting towards the Senate. Remarkable achievements. And he gave, out of all generosity and ideological bias, a forgettable speech. A dud. It translated fine as soundbites in the wrapups, since it was a hash of soundbites, but as a speech, an act of performance, it failed.

And it really doesn't matter all that much. Mark Warner is a good, popular, and not uncharismatic politician, and it wouldn't at all surprise me if he succeeded his namesake John as a long-serving, powerful Senator with bipartisan admiration.

On the other hand, having just seen Barack Obama deliver a masterpiece in all respects--style, structure, delivery, and strategy--it was bracing to feel the awesome power of great oratory. As someone who cares very deeply about the power of words across all media and who thinks in my darkest moments that the art of sustained, sophisticated prose is past us, watching and realizing that rhetoric qua rhetoric can change the course of history on its own, realizing this as it is happening, is a rare experience. The last couple minutes, beginning with his invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr., are breathtaking.

Bill Clinton could go there on occasion. George W. Bush, who was a good and underrated speech-giver (as distinct from speaker) back when he had the confidence of his team and the American public, before he himself burned out, could too.

Reagan I was too young to appreciate, but I have it on good word that he was better than anyone who followed him, at least until now. Before that I suppose you have to go all the way back to JFK. And presuming that Obama is their equal as an orator is vital to understanding his appeal. Neither Reagan nor Kennedy, to me at least, was a good president, but both galvanized movements and have been, since their presidencies, the key figures for their parties. As a partisan Democrat I find this a bit shameful with regards to JFK, but I do admire the role of his oratory and personality in revitalizing the appeal of public service and scientific achievement as patriotism. On the other hand, I also admire Reagan's role in building a young, devoted, and devoutly patriotic conservative base.

Both men, deservedly or not, represent national greatness for the Republican and Democratic parties, which is a troublesome but inevitably appealing concept and one that can, even in the hands of an ultimately disappointing politician, do right by the country. We may need a "good, dull Cincinnatus" (to borrow P.J. O'Rourke's phrase--I guess Eisenhower would be the modern equivalent? a non-sociopath Nixon?); we want someone inspiring, even if it means casting that inspiration back upon ourselves for it to do any good.

This is what's worth remembering when people contend that Obama is using the Democratic party. It takes two--he's what Democrats wanted, for the nation and for the party. That gift, which we saw tonight, is the reason he's the Democratic nominee, partially through the wisdom of the crowds, partially through the machinations of history, partially because these very ideas were earnestly hashed out in the media and on the Web. And I can't tell you where it's going, but after tonight I have a better sense of how it got here.

Update: Publius at Obsidian Wings has a smart take. "This is why he got nominated — and he came through." And if there's precedent for a politician gaining prominence on the basis of his speeches, it's Reagan. It's not so much that he was an actor--a "celebrity"--as the time he spent barnstorming for G.E. His job was writing and giving speeches.

P.S. One thing I should emphasize--a speech like Warner's, provided it has a few good soundbites, is fine for most purposes, in that it gets a few bones out there for pundits to play with. But stirring an audience demands the craft, the attention to detail, the through-composed structure that Obama's speech entailed. Politically it was quite sophisticated, as well--the defenses against McCain's attacks doubled as attacks, the difference between gay marriage and civil unions was addressed while slyly if cynically elided, etc.

But the one part that moved me, as craft, was the structure. It was surprisingly engaging, sometimes riveting, for 45 minutes, and sustaining that kind of momentum for that long takes a real virtuoso. Compare it to Hillary's speech, which was professional, well-delivered, effective, and at the end inspiring and even exciting. It was a very good speech, while Obama's was truly great. Enjoy the conventions while they last--if you're into the dying art of oratory, it's like the Olympics.

P.P.S. Offhandedly I'll say that I think McCain had this gift in 2000, but after the brutal loss to Bush in South Carolina, having to eat W's shit with a smile for eight years, and suffering all that for the nomination just to fight not only Obama but a rotten heap of an imploding party--call it the Morning After in America--might have broken him. At the very least I can see why he seems so pissed off all the time. I'm too tired to make this argument in any respectable form so YMMV, but that's my intuition, at least.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

A clean power play

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 08:07 PM

For years environmental advocates have been trying to get the coal-burning power plants in Pilsen and Little Village to close down or clean up, citing evidence that they produce enough toxic air pollution to cause at least 40 premature deaths and scores of trips to the emergency room each year.

But when two dozen activists—many wearing air filter masks for effect—gathered outside Mayor Daley’s office Wednesday morning, they delivered the message with a new, urgent twist: it’s about the Olympics.

“We’ve been fighting to shut them down for a long time, but the mayor hasn’t shut them down,” said Kimberly Wasserman Nieto, an organizer for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which was behind the event. “So we figured that if he won’t do it for the residents, maybe he’ll do it for all the Olympic visitors.” 

In other words, they’re trying to use the Olympics as leverage. The strategy should sound familiar: south- and west-siders have already started forming coalitions to demand funds for affordable housing, transportation, and parks before they agree to using chunks of their neighborhoods for Olympic facilities. 

And why not? The mayor does as much of what he wants as he can; banding together to pressure him may not work, but it’s certain that nothing else will. 

That said, it’s going to be tough to force the power plants to shut down. For starters, the mayor and his staffers have their defenses well-established by now. They say they don’t have the authority to force the plants to close or even curb emissions, even though they’d of course like cleaner air; and they say that jobs would be lost and electric rates might climb. All of these arguments are debatable, but since 2006 the Daley administration has also been able to point to a deal the state brokered with Midwest Generation, the owner of the plants, to cut most of their pollution within a decade. 

The LVEJO activists say that’s too long—the health of hundreds of Chicagoans will be imperiled over that time, and the plants won’t even be cleaned up before the 2016 games. They’d like to see the plants turned into training centers for renewable energy jobs. “We want to really be seen as the greenest city,” said Samuel Villansenor, another organizer. 

The group is also part of the growing chorus demanding public transit improvements as part of any Olympic package. Michael Pitula, LVEJO’s point man on transit, called on Daley to make a priority of securing more federal and state funding for the RTA, clean up the CTA’s bus fleet, and boost its maintenance staff. “Come on everybody and join me: No transit, no clean air, no Olympics!” he hollered. 

Of course, Mayor Daley was 1,000 miles away, and most of the media with him; the hallway outside his office was an echo chamber. But the LVEJO leaders said they’ve already sent him a letter asking for a community meeting. If they don’t hear anything back, they say they’ll show up outside his office again. Then they’ll start drafting a note to the International Olympic Committee

“We’ll tell them it’s not as pretty a picture as [Daley's] painted it,” said Wasserman Nieto. She added: “We’re not opposed to the Olympics per se, but we need to get the mayor’s attention.”

 

 

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YouShoot: Ominous trade

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 06:14 PM

kel1

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Studs on the freedom train

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 06:03 PM

This made me feel better about America, briefly.

Pissing up the wrong rope

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 05:28 PM

I bet Ben Joravsky or John Kass would be happy to go on Milt Rosenberg and discuss the significance of Barack Obama's ties to the Chicago Democratic machine, but it's clearly not as sexy as importing a guy from D.C. to talk about Obama's tenuous ties to an employee of a city-located state university whom the mayor has actually employed. (To Stanley Kurtz's credit, he does eventually get around to talking about substance, i.e. Ayers, the Annenberg initiative, and CPS policy--but Milt interrupts him to whine about angry e-mailers.)

I will be very confused if Mayor Daley's ties to Ayers aren't making everyone freak out come election season. Confused in a separate, abstract, alternate universe, at least.

The normally sensible Eric Zorn is in a snit--of all things--the backdrop to Obama's speech: "The faux grandeur of this set will create a distracting controversy and for what reason?" Because they don't care what once-every-four-years theater critics think? Good for them. Kitschy neoclassicism is far from a radical aesthetic for a politician. It's tacky, fine, but it's in considerably better taste than the crucifix the Republicans used four years ago.

Go read this, it's interesting and significant.

Update: The Washington Post has done some more interesting investigative work on the Obama campaign recently, and here's another piece; via the Beachwood Reporter.

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An open letter from Roger Ebert to Jay Mariotti

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 04:35 PM

The following e-mail was forwarded to the Sun-Times editorial staff by editor in chief Michael Cooke:

Dear Jay,

What an ugly way to leave the Sun-Times. It does not speak well for you. Your timing was exquisite. You signed a new contract, waited until days after the newspaper had paid for your trip to Beijing at great cost, and then resigned with a two-word e-mail: "I quit." You saved your explanation for a local television station.

As someone who was working here for 24 years before you arrived, I think you owed us more than that. You owed us decency. The fact that you saved your attack for TV only completes our portrait of you as a rat.

Newspapers are not dead, Jay, and this paper will not die because you have left. Times are hard in the newspaper business, and for the economy as a whole. Did you only sign on for the luxury cruise?

There's an old saying that you might have come across once or twice on the sports beat: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Newspapers are not dead, Jay, because there are still readers who want the whole story, not a sound bite. If you go to work for television, viewers may get a little weary of you shouting at them. You were a great shouter in print, that's for sure, stomping your feet when owners, coaches and players didn't agree with you. It was an entertaining show. Good luck getting one of your 1,000-word rants on the air.

The rest of us are still at work, still putting out the best paper we can. We believe in our profession, and in the future. And we believe in our internet site, which you also whacked as you slithered out the door. I don't know how your column was doing, but we have the most popular sports section in Chicago. The reports and blog entries by our Washington editor Lynn Sweet have become a must-stop for millions of Americans in this election year. After a recent blog entry I wrote about the Beijing Olympics, I woke up at 5 a.m. one morning, when North America was asleep, and found that 40 percent of my 100 most recent visitors had been from China. I don't have any complaints about our web site. So far this month my web page has been visited from almost every country on earth, including one visit from the Vatican City. The Pope, no doubt. Hope you were doing as well.

You have left us, Jay, at a time when the newspaper is once again in the hands of people who love newspapers and love producing them. You managed to stay here through the dark days of the thieves Conrad Black and David Radler. The paper lost millions. Incredibly, we are still paying Black's legal fees.

I started here when Marshall Field and Jim Hoge were running the paper. I stayed through the Rupert Murdoch regime. I was asked, "How can you work for a Murdoch paper?"

My reply was: "It's not his paper. It's my paper. He only owns it."

That's the way I've always felt about the Sun-Times, and I still do.

On your way out, don't let the door bang you on the ass.

Your former colleague,

Roger Ebert

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"It's not his paper. It's my paper. He only owns it."

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 04:18 PM

Roger Ebert is awesome. That is all.

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No alarms and no surprises

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 03:36 PM

A partial examination of the documents did not reveal anything startling about the link between Obama, the Democratic presidential contender, and Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground, a Vietnam-era anti-war group that claimed responsibility for several bombings. Ayers, who spent years in hiding, is now a UIC education professor.

Huh, no shit. There are Chicago links of much greater interest and concern (it's kind of messed up, but you can still read most of it; see also), like to this guy--who has heretofore been much more closely involved with Ayers with much less controversy--but there doesn't seem to be any interest in the finer points of local politics. I guess it's hard to turn a popular mayor into an albatross but it seems more engrossing than the shitfit over the DNC backdrop.

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Free shit

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 02:56 PM

We do our best, but there are advantages to being governor.

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What it takes

Posted By on 08.28.08 at 02:49 PM

In the months just before and after Smoque opened, Mr. Sorkin and one of the partners spent 120 to 130 hours a week tying up loose ends.

The amazing thing about living in the current restaurant capital is not so much the quality of the restaurants, it's that anyone ever opens a restaurant at all. Via Gapers Block.

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