Wednesday, February 20, 2008

American Idol: Top of the Top 24

Now that we've seen the Top 24, I think there are some clear contenders here. On the boys side, David Archuleta's performance of "My Mama Told Me" last night was one of those where you just go, "Wow, that's it. That boy is going all the way." He has an amazing voice, with a really distinctive husky soulful quality to it, he's got an on-stage presence and charisma that just holds you rapt. And he's got the musicality that the judges are always looking for, the ability to interpret something and make it your own. Plus it doesn't hurt that he's so cute and sweet, the same kind of innocent vulnerability that won people over to Sanjaya last year, except this boy has the voice to go way beyond Sanjaya. So if I had to make a call now, he would be my prediction for the top. He will, however, get a good run for his money from Michael Johns and Jason Castro. And if he can get his confidence back, David Hernandez is very good too. (I loved his "Love The One You're With" last week.) But we may already know who our top three boys are.

On the girls' side, the "Wow, that's it!" award goes to Carly Smithson, whose awesome performance grabbed my attention even before I discovered that she had been suffering from the bronchitis bug that was hitting several of the Idol contestants. (It's been going around LA in general, and it's nasty, my husband and I have both been suffering.) If she sings like that when she has the flu -- damn, there's no stopping her. However, she has some fierce competition from Ramiele Malubay (the cute little Asian girl with the unexpected powerhouse voice) and Syesha Mercado (this girl has serious pipes). And close on their high heels are Asia'h Epperson (this girl is a natural performer), Alexandrea Lushington, Brooke White, and Kady Malloy (if she can find her own voice). And I liked Alaina Whitaker too. Hmm, the girls got a real competition on.

Celestial Sightings

It's been quite a week for celestial sightings. On Saturday night, we got a great view of the International Space Station while the space shuttle was docked with it. We were having dinner with our friends the Newtons at 15 (very cool new Echo Park neighborhood restaurant) and we warned our waiter not to be alarmed if all of us jumped up mid-meal and walked out of the restaurant at 6:45pm. We did just that, and even on the sidewalk of a well-lit street in the city, we got a great view as the brilliant spot of light made a majestic 160-degree sweep of the sky in about 6 minutes, going nearly overhead. Kind of like a shooting star, but in slow motion. A few other curious diners stepped out to see what the fuss was about, and were duly impressed.

There was supposed to be a reprise on Monday night, and I got a bunch of colleagues at work revved up about it, but alas, the Monday evening skies were completely clouded over, and there was no hope. It reminded me of the one time I saw a solar eclipse, in Hawaii in 1992, or rather I saw the effects of an eclipse. We couldn't actually see the sun itself, as it was completely clouded over. But it did quite impressively grow dark.

I was worried that these clouds would hang over and obscure the lunar eclipse that was on for this evening, but today proved the opposite of Monday. The day's clouds gave way to mostly clear skies as the evening stars started showing, and the lunar eclipse was quite impressive, the full moon being in full shadow for about 50 minutes, and passing dramatically in and out of the earth's shadow for a half hour or so on either end.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Readiness on Day One

I taste a little bile every time I hear Hillary Clinton's line about how she'll be "ready on Day One". Those of us who are gay and over 35 should recall all the excitement we felt in 1992 when Bill Clinton promised us that he was going to end the ban on gays in the military with the stroke of a pen on his first day in office. And the subsequent crashing disappointment when we realized he hadn't really thought it through, bungled the politics of it, quickly capitulated the initiative, and ultimately saddled us with the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" compromise. We thought he was our friend, and we were all angry at Sam Nunn at the time. But in retrospect, the reality is that Bill Clinton wasn't really prepared on "day one" to do what needed to be done to fulfill the promise he had made. There are really only two explanations to account for that: he was politically naïve in thinking he could end the ban with the "stroke of a pen", or he wasn't as committed to his promise as we'd like to think.

So, will Hillary Clinton be any more "ready on day one" to move on gay and lesbian issues than was her husband? How serious is she about repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell"? Sure, when she's addressing a "friendly" audience like the Human Rights Campaign, she's outspoken about how she believes strongly that the time to end the ban is now. And she's always claiming that she knows how to get things done in Washington. Well, before 1993, the ban could have been ended by an executive order. But thanks to Bill, the ban became codified into law, and only Congress can fix it now. There's been a bill introduced in the House called the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, that has 109 co-sponsors, including some Republicans. It's just needed a champion in the Senate. Preferably one sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Like, say, Senator Clinton. In fact, if she was serious about overturning the ban now, she's in the best possible position to do it, and has been for the last seven years. Clinton claims that she strongly believes the ban should be ended now, and that she knows how to get things done in Washington. Clearly, at least one of those claims is false, if not both.

All of the Democratic candidates have made statements to the Human Rights Campaign about their position on Don't Ask Don't Tell, and it's rather telling (as well as ironic) to compare the statements of Clinton and Obama. One of them is full of inspirational talk, and cites a few personal anecdotes, but is otherwise lacking in any hard policy specifics. The other one specifically cites the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, but goes beyond endorsing it to provide a multi-point plan of policy specifics to support the implementation of a repeal, including anti-harassment policies, changed protocols, and the re-accession of those previously separated. Care to guess which was which? Turns out if you want someone who really has the substance, who has thought about what a president specifically would need to do on "day one", that would be Obama.

Friday, February 15, 2008

FILM: The Band's Visit

Last weekend, George and I saw the Israeli film The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret), and found it a charming film, full of humanity, about a group of Egyptian musicians lost in Israel. The plot is simple: the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, a group of eight Egyptians in formal powder blue uniforms, arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. Nobody meets them at the airport as planned, they take the wrong bus, and end up in some remote desert outpost, stranded for the night. The feisty owner of a kebab café decides she'll put some of them up for the night, and she foists the others on some semi-willing regulars in the café. What really makes the movie is the characters that are slowly revealed in the interactions between the stranded band and their hosts. There is the band leader, Lieut-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, who is a proud martinet, stiff in the formal decorum he imposes on himself and his band, fretting about the declining respect the band gets from the Police Department (along with threatened budget cuts), but eloquent when he is drawn out, and with some sad secrets in his past. He sparks the interest of the café owner Dina, an impetuous but jaded husky-voiced beauty who's been worn down by bad relationships and her bleak existence. Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz bring exquisite nuance and eloquence to these roles, and their encounter over the course of the evening is very engaging to watch unfold. Gabai's face is a symphony all its own. Another character, Khaled, the youngest band member and a bit of a cynic and a playboy, not only adds some wonderful comic elements, but also affects Tawfiq in unexpected ways. And Itzik, one of the Israelis who takes home several band members for the night, has a touching exchange with Camal, a clarinetist with his own unfinished symphony. The whole film has an overarching tone of wistful melancholy humanity that reminded me of that endearing 1967 French film The King of Hearts (Le Roi de Coeur). Although the mixture of Egyptians and Israelis could have been a political live wire, writer/director Eran Kolirin masterfully sidelined any politics, keeping the film focused on his characters, and on the situation of strangers from different cultures and different languages discovering their common humanity. The language barrier is ever present in the film, in which the Egyptians speak Arabic amongst themselves, and the Israelis speak Hebrew, but most of the dialog is in unsure accented English, their only common language. (Ironically, the film was disqualified from the foreign film category at the Oscars because too much of it was in English.) Kolirin, who talks in interviews about how all Israelis used to watch Egyptian films in the 1980s, shows an appreciation for Arab music, poetry, and culture throughout the film, and there are a couple of nice scenes where Isaelis ask Egyptians to speak some Arabic just to hear the music of it. And there are moments when music and gestures say more than the characters can find words for. The actors, while not Egyptian, had a bit of their own cultural exchange. Sasson Gabai, though Israeli, was born in Iraq and speaks fluent Arabic. And a couple of Palestinian actors were used in the film, including Saleh Bakri as the playboy Khaled. The film has some wonderful comic scenes -- the band trying to pose for a photograph at the airport, and the playboy Egyptian teaching an inexperienced Israeli boy how to put the moves on a girl -- but the film is overarchingly melancholy rather than funny. The setting is a bleak desert settlement, which underscores the tone. When the band arrives looking for the Arab cultural center, Dina says sardonically "No Arab culture center here. No Israeli culture center here. No culture here." The Israelis may make the desert bloom, but the only thing "blooming" in this particular barren spot is a circle of Soviet-looking high-rise housing projects, with not even so much as a tumbleweed in the way of vegetation. The lives of many of the characters seem almost as bleak as the setting, but the humanity that emerges is as beautiful and unexpected as the famous Israeli blooming deserts.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Game Has Changed

Political strategy in a two-party system is not hard to figure out. There's a see-saw balanced on a fulcrum in the middle, and whoever piles more weight on their side wins. The single most effective thing you can do is to control the center, and effectively move where the fulcrum is, pushing it toward your opponent and making more of the see-saw on your side. (This is equivalent to the primary rule of tic-tac-toe: whoever captures the center wins.) Once in a while, you can make a play for the extremes, as Karl Rove did, piling as much weight as you can on the extreme edge of your side where you get the most leverage. But that tactic only works if both sides play for the extremes. If one sides plays for the extreme, but the other side goes for the center, the center will always win. It's kind of like a lobsided game of rock-paper-scissors with red, blue, and purple. Red vs blue could go either way, but purple always beats red, and purple always beats blue. The Republicans understand that, which is why McCain is their presumptive nominee. Very few Republicans are excited about McCain, but the GOP tend to be a practical bunch, and they understood that McCain was their best shot at winning this year. In the exit polls in California, where McCain blew away Romney, "electability" was by far the biggest reason that voters gave for voting McCain.

The Republicans have shown "purple", so now it's up to the Democrats. It should be pretty clear to all but the most ideologically blinded that Obama is the Democrats' best shot against McCain. In a Feb 7 Time matchup poll, Obama would beat McCain 48% to 41%, while a Clinton-McCain race was roughly tied at 46%. In a Feb 10 Rasmussen poll, Obama beats McCain 44% to 41%, while Clinton loses to McCain 46% to 43%. A CNN poll had similar findings to the Time poll. In simple terms, Clinton is "blue" and Obama is "purple". Since blue loses to purple, if the Democrats want to beat the Republicans, they need to put up purple.

Obama has made a hugely successful reach for independents and even for some Republicans. Clinton and Obama both have appeal in the Democratic base, but only Obama has the reach for the center. Look at Obama's remarkable success in "red" states. He's been endorsed by Governors Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Janet Napolitano of Arizona. Obama won southern states Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana by large margins. Those might be dismissed by his strength in the black vote in those states. But what about Obama's wins in Utah (57-39), North Dakota (61-37), Nebraska (68-32), Kansas (74-26), or Idaho (80-17)? Obama has proven an ability to win handily in a cross-section of states including "white red states".

Some Democrats have been thinking that Bush was so despised that there was no way the GOP could win the White House again in November. Those folks need to wake up and smell the coffee. The race is the Democrats to lose, but they could still lose it if they try to put Clinton up against McCain. I worry that the Democrats tend to be more idealistic, and won't recognize the realities of electability the way the less idealistic Republicans do (as evidenced by the way most of them are holding their noses and lining up behind McCain). Fortunately, this evening's news gives me hope that the Democrats may be coming around on that. Maine, whose Democratic population is blue-collar white folk, the demographic that had been Clinton's most solid base, was projected to be Clinton's win. But the results are in, and it's a strong Obama win, 59% to 40%. That gives me hope, and makes me say "yes, we can!"

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Inauthenticity Is Out (Along With Romney)

Mitt Romney dropped out of the race this week after a disappointing Super Tuesday in which he was completely outflanked by McCain and Huckabee. Various post-mortem explanations may be offered, but I think the most significant one is that inauthenticity wasn't playing with the voters this year. And given the way Romney ran, I'm actually glad to see him fail, so that maybe future candidates will not emulate his example. A year ago, I would have given Romney serious consideration -- a guy with a blue-chip business background and impressive executive experience, reasonable and non-wingnutty enough to get himself elected in Massachusetts. But as soon as he started running for president, he basically tried to completely reinvent himself, and run away from his own gubernatorial record. He was desperately trying to claim the mantle of the "true conservative" in the race, and while some may have doubted his conservatism, even more people doubted the "true" part. Mitt Romney the presidential candidate wasn't "true" anything, and the voters could smell it. He started off with his eleventh-hour conversion to pro-life, with lame explanations as to how he suddenly got religion on that issue. That was but the first of a long trail of campaign claims that were constantly being contradicted by those pesky facts from his past. It was as if he had drunk some Jekyll-and-Hyde potion that suddenly transformed a William Weld into a Rush Limbaugh. The truth became so elastic for the "new Mitt Romney" that he even got caught up in silly details, like pandering to the NRA by claiming he was a hunter (when it turned out he was a hunter in the same way my husband is, uh, he had once shot a beebee gun at a skunk that was digging up our lawn), or claiming that he had seen his father march with MLK (the backpedaling on that one involved parsing the word "saw" in ways reminiscent of Bill Clinton testifying about Monica Lewinsky). Some will say he lost votes due to anti-Mormon prejudice, which is true and a shame, but it was his inauthenticity that sunk him. In fact, given his apparent shamelessness in trying to run away from all the rest of his past, I'm surprised he didn't disavow the Mormon church and convert to Baptism. I'm pleased to see that at least for this year, integrity seems to be in fashion. Even though a great deal of Republicans are unhappy with the remaining candidates, both McCain and Huckabee are men of integrity. We know who they are, and they are not hiding who they are. Too bad Mitt didn't take the path of integrity, he may have had a better run.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Obama: Inspiration AND Substance

Sometimes I hear people say, sure, Obama is inspirational, but is there any substance behind the buzz? Absolutely yes, there is. One of the things that impressed me when I read his book The Audacity of Hope was his unique combination of idealism and pragmatism. He is idealistic enough to have hope, and to express his hope contagiously, but he is also pragmatic enough to know how to get things done. I wrote the other night about how he worked for progressive healthcare initiatives in Illinois, using successful strategies borrowed from business process improvement, including working from motivation to consensus, and bringing in all stakeholders. What he did in Illinois was described as a two-pronged approach. On the one prong, he was working with progressive activists to rally popular support around the initiative, which was crucial in motivating his legislative colleagues. On the other prong, he was working with doctors, hospitals, and insurers to reach a workable compromise that address their bottom line issues. What came out in the end still kept the core principles, so the activists were happy, but it was also a workable solution for the institutional stakeholders. Idealism and pragmatism. That's what makes Obama so compelling. Not only does he inspire, but he knows how to get things accomplished in the political arena.

Since being elected to the US Senate in 2004, Obama has been applying his unique brand of pragmatism and transcending partisan lines to accomplish a number of things. In fact those who pay close attention to such things are impressed by how often Obama's name has appeared on legislation as a freshman senator. One of Obama's priorities was the important but unglamorous work of nuclear non-proliferation, specifically securing "loose nukes" in places like former Soviet republics. He knew the guy to work with was Senator Dick Lugar (R-Indiana), a senior and highly respected foreign policy expert who has become an Obama friend and mentor, despite that "aisle" between them. They have served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and co-sponsored the Lugar-Obama bill extending the concept of cooperative threat reduction. Obama also worked with Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), one of the Senate's top spending constrainers, to successfully pass the Coburn-Obama Transparency Act, making the government publish on the web detailed accounts of where all the money goes, and "exposing the pork". I should be clear that this bipartisanship on Obama's part is not about "triangulation" and giving up his principles to ingratiate himself with the other party. On the contrary, as blogger ObsidianWings wrote:
"This isn't what Obama does. Obama tries to find people, both Democrats and Republicans, who actually care about a particular issue enough to try to get the policy right, and then he works with them. This does not involve compromising on principle. It does, however, involve preferring getting legislation passed to having a spectacular battle."
(That was a great post, if you're detail-oriented and want to read a wonkish account of Obama's accomplishments just in his first years in the Senate.)

On Obama's campaign policy proposals, the charges that he hasn't come forth with details are nonsense, as anyone who cares to peruse his website can see. His proposals are as detailed as Clinton and Edwards on all the major issues, detailed enough that you can see the differences (e.g., Clinton wants universal mandates in healthcare whereas Obama is more pragmatic on that). There's a good summary of his policy proposals in the Harvard Crimson endorsement of him. But in truth, it's not the policy details that distinguish Obama from Clinton, it's the way he would go about getting things done. When it comes to the ability to inspire people around a vision, he has shown himself to be extraordinary. And in the pragmatic ability to bring many stakeholders together and get something done, in a way that constructively reaches across the lines of partisan warfare, he has proven himself uniquely capable. Inspiration and substance. That's Barack Obama.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Take a Deep Breath

It's going to be a nail-biter tonight. I'm really hoping that Obama takes California, I would be so overjoyed. The increasing excitement about him here has been palpable in the past week. There's been the high-profile endorsements of course, Ted and Caroline Kennedy, and Maria Shriver (our state's first lady), and was huge. More locally significant, El Piolin, a top Spanish-language radio morning show host was plugging Obama last week, and Obama was endorsed by La Opinion (the largest Spanish-language paper in the LA area, and the second largest paper of any language in the area) as well as the LA Times. But even cooler was the stuff happening on a local level. At the market the other night, there was a young woman who had come from the Obama rally earlier that day, wearing an Obama shirt and just gushing with excitement about the rally, and practically holding a mini-rally in the checkout line, getting everyone at Gelson's pumped up about Obama. And George, who drives all around town as part of his job, says he saw mini-rallies for Obama on street corners all over town.

Of course we won't know anything about California until late into the night, if not tomorrow, thanks to California's big step backwards on electronic voting (more on that in another post). The elimination of electronic voting machines also meant elimination of early voting options that has caused a much larger number of mail-in ballots than usual. That works a bit against Obama, whose momentum has really developed significantly just in the last couple of weeks. Something that works in his favor here is that independents were able to vote in the Democratic primary but not the Republican one. However, a ballot controversy may take away a bit of that. Independents who wanted to vote for the Democratic primary not only needed to punch the hole for their Democratic choice, but there was another hole labeled merely "Democrat" that also needed to be punched, or else the vote wouldn't count. Not sure whose idiotic design that was, but there will certainly be some number of people whose obvious choice gets disqualified because of that, and probably a lawsuit to follow, shades of Florida's butterfly ballots.

A couple of "notes to self" for future campaigns, should I be so motivated again. I did a blanket email of a bunch of friends and aquaintances (about 170 people) telling them how excited I was about Obama, and encouraging them to check out my blog. I got a nice number of positive responses, including several thoughtful ones from some people who were on the fence. I replied to those and hope I might have nudged a few of them over. But I wish I had been more actively on the ball a month earlier, as I had a surprising number of friends who were registered Republicans, but really wished they could have voted for Obama, and would have switched their registration to independent if they had been prompted to do so in time. Shoot. Several missed votes I could have picked up.

It's also important to take a deep breath here, and remember that it's a race for delegates, not states per se. Unlike the Republicans, whose primaries are mostly winner-take-all affairs, the Democratic races are mostly apportioned, often by congressional district. In Nevada, for example, Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama actually got more delegates because he won most of the districts outside of Las Vegas. Nobody is going to get the "magic number" of delegates needed to seal a win tomorrow, and if the delegate total is within 100 after the dust settles on Wednesday, there's still a real horse race. That is good for Obama, who is on the rise. I'm no expert on this, but it's still looking to me like it may well not be decided even after all of the primaries, and may go all the way to the convention in late August. The superdelegates could be decisive. The early read on them is that they were heavily for Clinton, but they're not pledged, and if there's a rising tide, they could well be switched. The race is on!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Barack Obama: Style Counts

"real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose"

Barack Obama inspires people. I know I am more inspired by him than I have been by any presidential candidate in my lifetime. (JFK was before my time, though given the "Camelot mystique" that is his legacy, I'm not surprised that JFK's brother and daughter recognize the phenomenon in Obama.) I wrote the other day about his refreshing candor, but I think it's his ability to inspire, linked with his style of getting things done that makes him so compelling. And this "inspiration business" is not just some squishy insubstantial thing, it has a significant impact on what he can get done. The substance is definitely there: just go to his website and you can read for yourself positions articulated on all of the major issues. Impartial analyses of the candidates identify mostly minor differences in the details of policy proposals from Clinton and Obama. But anyone who's been around for a presidential term or two knows that what a candidate proposes while running, and what (if anything) ultimately gets delivered is always different, the result a function of politics. That's where style really counts. It's not just what they say they're going to do that's important, it's how they are going to do it. What we've suffered for the last couple of decades is an increasingly bitter partisan divide, where most things get stymied, and what gets through is rammed through on a 51/49 majority. What we don't need is someone who will just flip the 51/49 to 49/51 and dig the trenches deeper. That's where Obama is really different. He won't just go off in seclusion with some experts and come back with "the answer" and expect everyone to buy into it. (Remember Hillary's health plan?) His style of working is to engage all of the stakeholders early on, really understand their positions, and work toward a win/win solution. (You can read about how Obama worked with activists pushing for universal health coverage, as well as worked with doctors and insurers, to craft a policy for Illinois that people on all sides of the issue were content with -- in this article, skip about halfway down.) Jonathan Cohn, investigating Obama's record in the Illinois state house, says this: "Time after time, Obama brought adversaries into the process early, heard out their concerns, then fashioned compromises many of them ultimately supported." If this talk about "win/win" and bringing in stakeholders early sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you've worked in or with business consultants, or taken a course in business process improvement at a large company. This is not just "singing I have a dream" squishy stuff. They teach this stuff in business schools, because that's how change in any large organization gets successfully accomplished. It's about understanding all the stakeholders, and what is the "right" way to change. It's also about understanding what motivates people, and motivating them, leading them, and sometimes inspiring them. That's the sort of experience and the sort of character that we need in our next president, and nobody has it like Obama. That's why I am voting for Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Barack Obama speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Day