Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish -- which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By 'eightieth' meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

-- T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Muntader al-Zeidi

Over the past several years I've said a lot of things about President George W. Bush, few of them publishable anywhere except online, and even by blog-standards I've, um, pushed the envelope. So maybe I'm the wrong person to be calling for this. But I'm going to anyhow.

Mr. President, please publicly forgive Muntadhar al-Zeidi for throwing shoes at you, and please state, unequivocally, that the Iraqi journalist should not face charges or endure official harassment for his actions. If American values mean anything at all, this is the right thing to do.

According to press reports, al-Zeidi is currently being held by the Iraqi government in an undisclosed location. He faces quite serious, if as yet unspecified charges:

An Iraqi lawyer said Zaidi risked a miminum [sic] of two years in prison if he is prosecuted for insulting a visiting head of state, but could face a 15-year term if he is charged with attempted murder.

In the United States, "insulting a visiting head of state" is not a crime. Nor should it be. Throwing a shoe could certainly be illegal, and hustling a shoe-thrower out of a press conference would certainly be understandable. But pressing charges?

We value vigorous dissent in this country. So much so, that even when objects are publicly hurled at controversial speakers, we do not necessarily prosecute, and if we do, we do not consider the "insult" the specific crime at issue. Property damage as a result of such an incident might be a felony, but never an "insult."

According to al-Zeidi's brother, the journalist

"might serve two years in prison or pay a fine for insulting a president of foreign country unless Mr. Bush withdrew the case. "If they manage to imprison Muntader, there are millions of him all over Iraq and the Arab world," Maythem al-Zaidi said.

There are indeed. For political reasons, forgiving this man would be nothing but beneficial. It would show that Americans can be tolerant. It would show that Americans are not vengeful. And it would show that we do not consider "insults" to be a matter for imprisonment: we do not hold one set of beliefs and values for ourselves, and another set for others. But this man, a citizen of Baghdad, makes the case better than I ever could:

Dr. Lutfi Al-Obusi, a 58-year-old political science professor, said: "I disagree with [the shoe-throwing] because that is opposite of our Muslim and Arabic traditions. Because Mr. Bush was here to say bye for Iraq and Iraqis. And in the same time Bush is president of the U.S. and he called for the liberation and freedom. So I hope Mr. Bush will forgive Mr. Muntader al-Zaidi for what happened. And if Mr. Bush will not approve for releasing Mr. Muntader al-Zaidi that will create big problem."

President Bush, you need to avoid this "big problem." Do this one thing, this one small thing, for the sake of peace. Forgive Muntadhar al-Zeidi and call for his immediate release, and call for him to be protected against all forms of official harassment.

Do this one right thing before you leave.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stocks Say Recession, but Bonds Say Depression

Extraordinary things are happening in bondland lately. Tuesday's head-spinning news that Treasury bills had been auctioned off with negative interest rates is only the latest in a series of astonishing developments, surpassing even the more widely followed stock-market swings.

While the Treasury auction grabbed headlines, corporate bonds are doing equally amazing things: the average yield on lower-quality investment-grade corporate bonds — triple-B rated — is hovering around 10%, an unusually rich 7.5-percentage-point spread over Treasury bonds of similar maturity. (That spread has tripled over the past year.) Or consider junk bonds, as measured by Merrill Lynch's High Yield bond index, which yield a jaw-dropping 22%. Of course, junk bonds come from the riskiest borrowers, and a deep recession could drive up the default rate among those companies. But current lofty yields imply investor expectations that one-fifth of these bonds will default, according to Moody's, even though the recent default rate in this sector has been around 3%. Notes Kirk Hartman, chief investment officer for Wells Capital Management, a division of Wells Fargo bank: "Spreads [over Treasuries] in the bond market are pricing in a depression scenario, while the equity markets, despite a substantial decline, are pricing in a recession." (Read "The Recession Is Made Official [EM] and Stocks Take a Dive.")

Many factors weigh on the bond market, such as the falling price of oil — it closed at $43.52 per bbl. in Wednesday's trading — and the progress of the auto-industry bailout, not to mention every gasp from the housing market. And then there's the elephant in the room: the downward spiral of economic activity, including last week's chilling November employment report, which showed 533,000 more people out of work — "one of the worst ever," according to Morgan Stanley economist Ted Wieseman. As the various industry bailouts — banks, auto companies, credit unions and, next, states — seek to reassure investors, collectively they confirm just how bad things are.

But at its current extreme, bond-investor fear is myopic. In striving to avoid the falling stock market and the downdraft of the economy, investors are all but ignoring the longer-term inflationary implications of a monetary easing and explosive growth in U.S. government spending and what it could ultimately mean to bond yields. At Thursday's close, for example, the 30-year T-bond was yielding 3.07%, implying investor expectations for stable prices for decades to come. Inflation-protected Treasuries, known as TIPS, are yielding so little that money managers say they imply investor expectations for a deflationary environment for the next few years. All of which points to the fact that nobody really cares about inflation dangers at this point; it's all about safety.

So how should investors approach the bifurcated bond market? Should they run for the safety of Treasuries or consider the neck-wrenching yields now available in other sectors? Notes money manager Hartman: "From a relative-value standpoint, bonds offer an unusual investment opportunity" that he expects to pay off once the housing market bottoms and the financial outlook improves. "Investment-grade corporate bonds are very cheap, and high-yield bonds similarly offer great value at these levels," he says. Treasury bonds on the other hand, are widely viewed as overvalued on the basis of what can only be characterized as the Armageddon-anxiety rally of the past few months. They could wallop investors with losses should the economic recovery take hold next year.

-- John Curran (Time)

Friday, December 05, 2008

from: Geographical History of America or The Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind

Now listen a minute.

If you fly over Salt Lake City it is exactly like flying over the bottom of the sea with the water not in it.

The water is not in it, and so is there any reason why the water should be in it. Sometime the water has been in it but now that the water is not in it it makes it more easy perhaps not to fly but to see what you see as you fly.

Now the reason for the water not being there is one thing but the water not being there is another thing.

Now suppose it is a detective story.

Well it is astonishing to see a pigeon where you had not expected ever to see one.

Not because a pigeon could not be there, not even because a pigeon had never been there but because you could never have expected a pigeon to be there.

Even the wind could not blow the pigeon away once it was really there where the pigeon is.

The pigeon almost falls off because suddenly there is another pigeon there and the pigeon had not believed it possible for another pigeon to be there.

Perhaps there is still another pigeon there but it can not be seen even if it is there and any way the first pigeon turns his back so that he will not be able to see them or the other one and then he changes his mind and turns around toward them.

Perhaps from now on pigeons will always come there. Very likely because that is what anybody can do.

So once more no pigeons being there never again can there never be any pigeon there.

Detective story no 2.

Suppose you know just what has happened does that make any difference if you tell it.

What is the difference between write it and tell it. There is a difference you can tell it as you write it but you can tell it and not write it. There is a difference and the next detective story is to detect that difference.

If the pigeon can come again and he has come again then he can surprise some one but he cannot surprise me.

A pigeon itself if anything is a surprise such as being there can be interested in anything being surprising.

Think how heavily a pigeon flies and alights and if he is there is he likely to think that the wind can blow him away. The wind does blow but does it blow as a surprise or anything to him. Has he a motive in being there and having been there does he come there again.

He does come there again and this has no connection with the wind blowing and there has been no motive for the coming there.

So then what does human nature do.

It does it because it does and having done it it is not because it has done it that it does it it does it because it is there again.

There they are again.

The three pigeons are there again. There is no reason for it.

But if looking at it you are to paint it, the pigeon is there again and turning his back on the two other pigeons who are below it. You only can see from the side where you are seeing everything you only can see the two heads of the other two pigeons and now there are three. That makes four in all.

That is why numbers really have something to do with the human mind. That they are pigeons has nothing to do with it but that there was one and then that there were three and that then there are four and that then it may not cease to matter what number follows another but the human mindhas to have it matter that any number is a number.

So then detective story number III

-- G. Stein

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Late Echo

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be reexamined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

-- John Ashbery

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Global Warming Extinction?

Scientists say a white possum native to the Daintree rainforest in the Australian state of Queensland has become the first mammal to become extinct due to man-made global warming.

The Brisbane, Queensland, Courier-Mail reports the white variety of the lemuroid ringtail possum, found only above 3,000 feet in the mountain forests of far north Queensland, has not been seen for three years.

Experts fear climate change is to blame for the disappearance of the highly vulnerable strain thanks to a temperature rise of up to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers will mount a last-ditch expedition early next year deep into the untouched "cloud forests" of the Carbine Range near Mt. Lewis, three hours north of the city of Cairns, in search of the tiny tree-dweller, dubbed the "Dodo of the Daintree."

"It is not looking good," researcher Steve Williams said. "If they have died out it would be first example of something that has gone extinct purely because of global warming."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bush Administration Fortifies Oil Shale Industry

Firing off another decision that is angering environmental groups, the Bush administration has issued new regulations to develop oil shale deposits straddling almost two million acres of public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The rules lay out the framework to develop these deposits over the next decade, including royalty rates, how to evaluate bids for leases, mitigation requirements and other procedural elements.

The announcement follows last September’s decision by Congress to allow the moratorium freezing the development of oil shale and offshore drilling to lapse.

But most experts had expected the rules on how to develop the deposits to be left to the next administration. They claim the Bush administration is fast-tracking a program that could damage the environment and emit much more heat-trapping carbon emissions without proper consultations.

The Bush administration, said Kevin Book, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, seems intent on taking full advantage of a regulatory window that is about to close at the end of the week.

In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the “Congressional Review Act,” which gives lawmakers a 60-day window to repeal new rules issued by executive agencies. The law was intended to prevent outgoing administrations from passing “midnight” rules in their waning hours. In practice, Mr. Book says, this means the Bush administration has until Thursday, Nov. 20, to issue regulations.

“The Bush administration’s last, best chance for contentious executive branch policies arrives this week,” Mr. Book said.

Critics of the oil shale development plan, which was issued by the Bureau of Land Management, did not provide the public with a chance to protest the decision, and said the rules would also waive royalties for oil companies under certain circumstances.

“The Bush administration is maintaining an unlawful position by amending these resource management plans without providing the public with an opportunity to have their decisions administratively appealed,” said Melissa Thrailkill, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are considering all our options. That includes legal action in federal court.”

The administration said the decision would ultimately help develop more domestic sources of energy. The ban on oil shale development has been in effect for two years.

“Oil shale is a strategically important domestic energy source that should be developed to reduce the nation’s growing dependence on oil from politically and economically unstable foreign sources,” said James Caswell, the director of the B.L.M.

The agency, Mr. Caswell continued, “is taking extraordinary steps to improve our domestic energy security, including the establishment of regulatory regimes designed to boost geothermal, solar and wind development and protect our public land resources.”

The B.L.M. said the program could add up to 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from lands in the Western United States. That figure is highly theoretical.

Oil shale is a controversial and environmentally damaging source of hydrocarbons since it requires vast amounts of energy and water to squeeze oil out of sedimentary rocks. The process emits far more carbon dioxide, which is responsible for global warming, than ordinary refining operations.

Plus, it would still be up to the next administration to decide whether to lease lands to develop the deposits, or to simply ignore the new rules.

“How can the administration write regulations for an industry that does not exist yet, using unknown technologies? They can’t,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council. “This is just a giveaway to special interests that will leave states to clean up the mess.”

It is not the first time this month that the Bush administration has sought to make the best of its last days in office. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management expanded its oil and gas lease program in eastern Utah to include tens of thousands of acres on or near the boundaries of three national parks.

The decision angered environmental groups, who feared it would lead to industrial activity in some of the state’s renowned empty regions, like Desolation Canyon.

According to a report from Felicity Barringer in The Times earlier this month, officials with the National Park Service said that the decision to open lands close to Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument — and within sight of Canyonlands National Park — had been made without the kind of consultation that had previously been routine.

-- By Jad Mouawad (NY Times)

Friday, November 14, 2008

I'm Looking Back

On time again.
so superficial
I know

Leonard Cohen
springs to mind
Then spurts away

I look for one
expansive thought

to sink my
teeth into:
even though

I have a
predilection for
here there and everywhere

I can't seem
to rewrite remember
or acknowledge my

own unwritten
history. here
there everywhere.

I'm looking for a few letters
for status
for the heat of the moment

to wonder all about
this forward movement

of life; what are they?
those forms of life?
I know you know

autumn rains down
too much heat this year
too much forbearance

so much unremembered joy
the old the new

the Vedas the Upanishads
who has all that much
time? or timelessness really.

-- jeff wietor

Friday, November 07, 2008

brains are back

Michael Hirsh

For two days now Americans have celebrated the idea that we may have atoned finally for our nation's original sin, slavery, along with its long legacy of racism. We have rejoiced in the world's accolades over the election of a multicultural African-American to the presidency after nearly eight years of cringing in shame as the Bush administration methodically curdled our Constitutional values and sullied our global reputation as a beacon of hope. Every once in a while, it seems, we Americans do manage to live up to our ideals rather than betray them. Hooray!

I am just as happy as everyone else over all this global good feeling. But there's something else that I'm even happier about—positively giddy, in fact. And the effects of this change are likely to last a lot longer than the brief honeymoon Barack Obama will enjoy as a symbol of realized ideals. What Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back. Sense and pragmatism and the idea of considering-all-the-options are back. Studying one's enemy and thinking through strategic problems are back. Cultural understanding is back. Yahooism and jingoism and junk science about global warming and shabby legal reasoning about torture are out. The national culture of flag-pin shallowness that guided our foreign policy is gone with the wind. And for this reason as much as any, perhaps I can renew my pride in being an American.

I'm under no illusion that Barack Obama will turn out to be Barack Panacea. In terms of holding major office, he's the least experienced president in memory. He'll probably screw up a lot of things, especially at first. The problems he faces—from the economic crisis to Iran's nuclear program—are just too hard. And I occasionally worry that in his eloquent eagerness to empathize and reach across cultural barriers, Obama may overreach in the opposite direction from Bush, stumbling into the appeasement of adversaries like Iran (whose buffoonish president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, practically invited him to do so this week by sending him the first letter of congratulations from Tehran since 1979). Obama must also guard against the sort of intellectual arrogance that characterized the "best and the brightest" of the Vietnam era.

But, frankly, these are all risks worth taking after nearly eight years of a president who could barely form a coherent sentence, much less a strategic thought. We can finally go back to respecting logic and reason and studiousness under a president who doesn't seem to care much about what is "left," "right" or ideologically pure. Or what he thinks God is saying to him. A guy who keeps religion in its proper place—in the pew. It's no accident that Obama is the first Northern Democrat to be elected president since John F. Kennedy. The "Sun Belt" politics represented by George W. Bush—the politics of ideological rigidity, religious zealotry and anti-intellectualism—"has for the moment played itself out," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

From the very start of his campaign, Obama has given notice that, whatever you might think about his policies, they will be well thought out and soberly considered, and that as president he would not be a slave of passion or impulse. While his GOP opponent, a 72-year-old cancer victim, was cynically deciding for political reasons that a woman who apparently did not know that Africa was a continent rather than a country should be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Obama was setting up working groups to study every major international issue and region of the world. Through three debates with John McCain, he refused to be baited into personal attacks. And the more we have learned about his transition process, the clearer it becomes that he intends to be that kind of president as well. Against the very political concerns of some of his loyalists that he, the candidate of "change," is bringing too many ex-Clintonites on board, he is dispassionately welcoming in the best brains (like Larry Summers, Laura Tyson and Gene Sperling) and most experienced hands (considering an extension of Bob Gates' tenure at the Pentagon, for instance). He is actively considering other Republicans for high posts.

How very presidential. And how very unusual.

One tragedy of the Bush administration is the amount of American brain power and talent that went unused, the options that went unconsidered, because they were seen to lack ideological purity. That era is over as we confront a desperate landscape—a serious recession and two prolonged wars. While he hasn't yet invoked Franklin Roosevelt, Obama seems to be embracing FDR's pragmatic approach in 1933—knowing that what the country may need, economically and politically, is not so much an organized program but a hodgepodge of bold experiments like the New Deal. "It is common sense to take a method and try it," FDR said back then. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Obama is judiciously hurrying to push through another stimulus package—and will probably shelve his raise-taxes-on-the-rich plan for the moment—while he is just as judiciously avoiding the Nov. 15 economic summit Bush has scheduled for next week (because it will tie him too closely to Bush's failed policies). "I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face," Obama said in his acceptance speech in Chicago Tuesday night. If he holds to that pledge and nothing else, we'll be OK.

So anything seems possible now, even when it comes to the toughest issues. What might be the result if, say, Obama decided to put Richard Holbrooke (one of the toughest and smartest negotiators in the country) in charge of negotiating with the Taliban, and Bill Clinton in charge of hashing things out with the Palestinians, telling both of them to come back only when they've got a deal? Anything could happen. Maybe even something good.

Victors, it is said, write the history. Obama is now about to write America's new history. Unless I mistake my man, its theme will be that reason and sense and that cardinal American virtue—pragmatism—are going to rule once again. And that's really something to celebrate.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why Barack Obama is Winning

General David Petraeus deployed overwhelming force when he briefed Barack Obama and two other Senators in Baghdad last July. He knew Obama favored a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, and he wanted to make the strongest possible case against it. And so, after he had presented an array of maps and charts and PowerPoint slides describing the current situation on the ground in great detail, Petraeus closed with a vigorous plea for "maximum flexibility" going forward.

Obama had a choice at that moment. He could thank Petraeus for the briefing and promise to take his views "under advisement." Or he could tell Petraeus what he really thought, a potentially contentious course of action — especially with a general not used to being confronted. Obama chose to speak his mind. "You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument," he began. "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security." Obama talked about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the financial costs of the occupation of Iraq, the stress it was putting on the military.

A "spirited" conversation ensued, one person who was in the room told me. "It wasn't a perfunctory recitation of talking points. They were arguing their respective positions, in a respectful way." The other two Senators — Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed — told Petraeus they agreed with Obama. According to both Obama and Petraeus, the meeting — which lasted twice as long as the usual congressional briefing — ended agreeably. Petraeus said he understood that Obama's perspective was, necessarily, going to be more strategic. Obama said that the timetable obviously would have to be flexible. But the Senator from Illinois had laid down his marker: if elected President, he would be in charge. Unlike George W. Bush, who had given Petraeus complete authority over the war — an unprecedented abdication of presidential responsibility (and unlike John McCain, whose hero worship of Petraeus bordered on the unseemly) — Obama would insist on a rigorous chain of command.

Barack Obama has prospered in this presidential campaign because of the steadiness of his temperament and the judicious quality of his decision-making. They are his best-known qualities. The most important decision he has made — the selection of a running mate — was done carefully, with an exhaustive attention to detail and contemplation of all the possible angles. Two months later, as John McCain's peremptory selection of Governor Sarah Palin has come to seem a liability, it could be argued that Obama's quiet selection of Joe Biden defined the public's choice in the general-election campaign. But not every decision can be made so carefully. There are a thousand instinctive, instantaneous decisions that a presidential candidate has to make in the course of a campaign — like whether to speak his mind to a General Petraeus — and this has been a more difficult journey for Obama, since he's far more comfortable when he's able to think things through. "He has learned to trust his gut," an Obama adviser told me. "He wasn't so confident in his instincts last year. It's been the biggest change I've seen in him."

I asked Obama about gut decisions, in an interview on his plane 17 days before the election. It was late on a Saturday night, and he looked pretty tired, riddled with gray hair and not nearly as young as when I'd first met him four years earlier. He had drawn 175,000 people to two events in Missouri that day, larger crowds than I'd ever seen at a campaign event, and he would be endorsed by Colin Powell the next morning. He seemed as relaxed as ever, though, unfazed by the hoopla or the imminence of the election. Our conversation was informal but intense. He seemed to be thinking in my presence, rather than just reciting talking points, and it took him some time to think through my question about gut decisions. He said the first really big one was how to react when incendiary videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's black-nationalist sermons surfaced last spring. "The decision to make it big as opposed to make it small," Obama said of the landmark speech on race relations he delivered in Philadelphia. "My gut was telling me that this was a teachable moment and that if I tried to do the usual political damage control instead of talking to the American people like ... they were adults and could understand the complexities of race, I would be not only doing damage to the campaign but missing an important opportunity for leadership."

The speech was followed by a more traditional form of damage control when Wright showed up in Washington still spewing racial nonsense: Obama cut him loose. And while Obama has followed a fairly traditional political path in this campaign, his strongest — and most telling — moments have been those when he followed his natural no-drama instincts. This has been confusing to many of my colleagues and to me, at times, as well: his utter caution in the debates, his decision not to zing McCain or even to challenge him very much, led me to assume — all three times — that he hadn't done nearly as well as the public ultimately decided he had. McCain was correct when he argued that Obama's aversion to drama led him to snuggle a bit too close to the Democratic Party's orthodoxy. But one of the more remarkable spectacles of the 2008 election — unprecedented in my time as a journalist — was the unanimity among Democrats on matters of policy once the personality clash between Obama and Hillary Clinton was set aside. There was no squabbling between old and new Dems, progressives and moderates, over race or war or peace. This was a year for no-drama Democrats, which made Obama as comfortable a fit for them as McCain was awkward for the Republican base.

And at the crucial moment of the campaign — the astonishing onset of the financial crisis — it was Obama's gut steadiness that won the public's trust, and quite possibly the election. On the afternoon when McCain suspended his campaign, threatened to scuttle the Sept. 26 debate and hopped a plane back to Washington to try to resolve the crisis, Obama was in Florida doing debate prep with his top advisers. When he was told about McCain's maneuvers, Obama's first reaction — according to an aide — was, "You gotta be kidding. I'm going to debate. A President has to be able to do more than one thing at a time." But there was a storm brewing among Obama's supporters in Congress and the Beltway establishment. "My BlackBerry was exploding," said an Obama aide. "They were saying we had to suspend. McCain was going to look more like a statesman, above the fray."

"I didn't believe it," Obama told me. "I have to tell you, one of the benefits of running this 22-month gauntlet is that ... you start realizing that what seems important or clever or in need of some dramatic moment a lot of times just needs reflection and care. And I think that was an example of where my style at least worked." Obama realized that he and McCain could be little more than creative bystanders — and one prominent Republican told me that McCain was "the least creative person in the room at the President's White House meeting. He simply had no ideas. He didn't even have any good questions." Obama had questions for the Treasury Secretary and the Fed chairman, but he was under no illusions: he didn't have the power to influence the final outcome, so it was best to stay calm and not oversell his role. It was an easy call, his natural bias. But, Obama acknowledged, "There are going to be some times where ... I won't have the luxury of thinking through all the angles."

Which is why the Petraeus moment is so interesting. Obama's gut reaction was to go against his normal palliative impulse and to challenge the general instead. "I felt it was necessary to make that point ... precisely because I respect Petraeus and [Ambassador Ryan] Crocker," Obama said, after he reluctantly acknowledged that my reporting of the meeting was correct. "Precisely because they've been doing a good job ... And I want them to understand that I'm taking their arguments seriously." Obama endorses Petraeus' new post, as the commanding general at Central Command, with responsibility for overseeing both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "He's somebody who cares about facts and cares about the reality on the ground. I don't think he comes at this with an ideological predisposition. That's one of the reasons why I think he's been successful in moving the ball forward in Iraq. And I hope that he's applying that same perspective to what's happening in Afghanistan."

Actually, Obama and Petraeus seem to be thinking along similar lines with regard to Afghanistan. I mentioned that Petraeus had recently given a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. "You know, I think this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq," Obama said without hesitation. "The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally," he said, referring to the Petraeus-led effort to turn the Sunni tribes away from the more radical elements of the insurgency. "Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored," he said. In fact, senior U.S. military officials have told me that there is a possibility of splitting Pashtun tribes away from the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan. "But we have to do it through the Karzai government," a senior officer told me, referring to the fact that the Army had acted independently of the Maliki government in creating the Anbar Awakening. "That is one lesson we've learned from Iraq."

Almost exactly two years ago, I had my first formal interview with Barack Obama — and he appeared on this magazine's cover for the first time. It wasn't an easy interview. His book The Audacity of Hope had just been published, but his policy proposals didn't seem very audacious. He actually grew a bit testy when I pushed him on the need for universal health insurance and a more aggressive global-warming policy — neither of which he supported. He has stayed with his less-than-universal health-care plan, and I still find it less than convincing. And his cap-and-trade program to control carbon emissions has taken a backseat to the economic crisis — although Obama insisted that he still favored such a plan, so long as consumers are cushioned with rebates when energy prices rise.

But Obama seems a more certain policymaker now, if not exactly a wonk in the Clintonian sense. He has a clearer handle on the big picture, on how various policy components fit together, and a strong sense of what his top priority would be. He wants to launch an "Apollo project" to build a new alternative-energy economy. His rationale for doing so includes some hard truths about the current economic mess: "The engine of economic growth for the past 20 years is not going to be there for the next 20. That was consumer spending. Basically, we turbocharged this economy based on cheap credit." But the days of easy credit are over, Obama said, "because there is too much deleveraging taking place, too much debt." A new economic turbocharger is going to have to be found, and "there is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy ... That's going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office."

That sort of clarity is new. At the beginning of the year, Donna Brazile said of Obama, "We know he can walk on water — now where are the loaves and fishes?" The inability to describe his priorities, the inability to speak directly to voters in ways they could easily comprehend, plagued Obama through much of the primary season. His tendency to use big rhetoric in front of big crowds led to McCain's one good spell, after Obama presumptuously spoke to a huge throng in Berlin after his successful Middle East trip. Only a President should make a major address like that overseas. Obama seemed to learn quickly from that mistake; his language during the general-election campaign has been simple, direct and pragmatic. His best moments in the debates came when he explained what he wanted to do as President. His very best moment came in the town-hall debate when he explained how the government bailout would affect average people who were hurting: if companies couldn't get credit from the banks, they couldn't make their payrolls and would have to start laying people off. McCain, by contrast, demonstrated why it's so hard for Senators to succeed as presidential candidates: he talked about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the sins of Obama, and never brought the argument home.

But even with his new populist skills, Obama hasn't been as plain as he could be. If an Apollo project to create a new alternative-energy economy is his highest priority, as he told me, why hasn't he given a major speech about it during the fall campaign? Why hasn't he begun to mobilize the nation for this next big mission? In part, I suppose, because campaigns are about firefighting — and this campaign in particular has been about "the fierce urgency of now," to use one of Obama's favorite phrases by Martin Luther King Jr., because of the fears raised by the financial crisis and because of the desperate, ferocious attacks launched by his opponent.

If he wins, however, there will be a different challenge. He will have to return, full force, to the inspiration business. The public will have to be mobilized to face the fearsome new economic realities. He will also have to deliver bad news, to transform crises into "teachable moments." He will have to effect a major change in our political life: to get the public and the media to think about long-term solutions rather than short-term balms. Obama has given some strong indications that he will be able to do this, having remained levelheaded through a season of political insanity. His has been a remarkable campaign, as smoothly run as any I've seen in nine presidential cycles. Even more remarkable, Obama has made race — that perennial, gaping American wound — an afterthought. He has done this by introducing a quality to American politics that we haven't seen in quite some time: maturity. He is undoubtedly as ego-driven as everyone else seeking the highest office — perhaps more so, given his race, his name and his lack of experience. But he has not been childishly egomaniacal, in contrast to our recent baby-boomer Presidents — or petulant, in contrast to his opponent. He does not seem needy. He seems a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.

-- Joe Klein Time Magazine

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber: Making Obama Look Very Good

Anyone who watched last night’s presidential debate quickly heard more than enough references to “Joe the plumber.”

I know that McCain is displeased to the point of desperation over his recent showings in the polls and is scrambling for something, anything, to turn the trend around. Desperation apparently makes you stupid, because using Joe the plumber as the centerpiece of a debate strategy was as dirt-dumb a move as I’ve ever seen.

I had never heard of Joe the plumber before last night’s debate. With the candidates focusing vast amounts of time on him, I said “Who the fuck is Joe the plumber?” My sweetie said she’d tell me all about it after the debate.

Turns out that Joe the plumber is Joe Wurzelbacher of Ohio. Mr. Wurzelbacher showed up at an Obama campaign event in Toledo, Ohio a few days back. He talked with Obama outside the event venue about how he’s been a plumber for some fifteen years and is ready to buy a plumbing business that grosses a little over $250,000. The point of the encounter, of course, was showing that Obama’s tax plan would impose “higher taxes” on Joe for wanting his piece of the American dream.

Anyone who was the least bit curious about Joe the plumber could have found video of the encounter on youtube. Obama spoke with Joe politelty and in great detail for over five minutes. Check it out. I think you’ll agree that Obama did a superb job of addressing the guy’s concerns. Obama pointed out that that only the money earned above $250,000 would be subject to the higher tax rate. Toward the end Obama pointed out his proposed capital gains tax cut and noted that if Joe built his company to a $500,000-per-year business, he’d probably end up paying less in taxes under Obama’s plan than under McCain’s.

It was truly superb work on Obama’s part. Really. See for yourself.

Mr. Wurzelbacher had a “gotcha” look about him throughout the encounter, so it was pretty apparent that something was up. Sure enough, soon after the encounter Mr. Wurzelbacher was on the phone with Neil Cavuto of F[ederal]O[ffice of]X[enophobia] News blabbering about socialism and Robin Hood.

The last time I looked, some poll showed that 30% or so of respondents thought they were in the top 1% of income earners. In my own experience, many who know they aren’t in the top 1% think they will be within the couple of years or so.

And then there’s always a core group of dumbasses who don’t understand the marginal rate system we use to tax income. Those idiots are convinced that there comes a point when making more money actually means making less because tax increases outstrip income gains.

These, along with the VARR (violent, angry, racist retard) community, are the fools that McCain, Fox News and obvious shills like Joe the plumber are playing to. It’s all they’ve got left.

The sad part is, it may be enough.

-- Complete Defeasance

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Alaskan Independence Party: The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

In 2004, America's malleable mainstream media allowed itself to be manipulated by artful Republican operatives into devoting weeks of broadcast attention and drums of ink to unfairly desecrating John Kerry's genuine Vietnam heroics while obligingly muzzling serious discussion of George W. Bush's shameful wartime record of evasion and cowardice.

Last week found the American media once again boarding Republican swift boats against this season's Democratic candidate armed with unfair and hypocritical attacks artfully designed by GOP strategists to distract attention from the cataclysmic outcomes of Republican governance. Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin has taken to faulting Senator Barack Obama for his casual acquaintance with a respected Illinois educator Bill Ayers, who forty years ago was a member of the Weathermen, a movement active when Obama was eight and which he has denounced as "detestable." Palin argues that the relationship proves that Obama sees "America as being so imperfect that he is palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

The Times dedicated a page one article to Obama's relations with Ayers and CNN's Anderson Cooper obliged Palin by rewarding her reckless accusations about Obama's patriotism with a major investigative report. Fox, meanwhile, is still riveting its audience with wall to wall coverage of this pressing irrelevancy.

But if McCarthy-era guilt-by-association is once again a valid political consideration, Palin, it would seem, has more to lose than Obama. Palin, it could be argued, following her own logic, thinks so little of America's perfection that she continues to "pal around" with a man--her husband, actually--who only recently terminated his seven-year membership in the Alaskan Independence Party. Putting plunder above patriotism, the members of this treasonous cabal aim to break our country into pieces and walk away with Alaska's rich federal oil fields and one-fifth of America's land base--an area three-fourths the size of the Civil War Confederacy.

AIP's charter commits the party "to the ultimate independence of Alaska," from the United States which it refers to as "the colonial bureaucracy in Washington." It proclaims Alaska's 1959 induction as a state "as illegal and in violation of the United Nations charter and international law."

AIP's creation was inspired by the rabidly violent anti-Americanism of its founding father Joe Vogler, "I'm an Alaskan, not an American," reads a favorite Vogler quote on AIP's current website, "I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." According to Vogler AIP's central purpose was to drive Alaska's secession from the United States. Alaska, says current Chairwoman Lynette Clark, "should be an independent nation."

Vogler was murdered in 1993 during an illegal sale of plastic explosives that went bad. The prior year, he had renounced his allegiance to the United States explaining that, "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government." He cursed the stars and stripes, promising, "I won't be buried under their damned flag...when Alaska is an independent nation they can bring my bones home." Palin has never denounced Vogler or his detestable anti-Americanism.

Palin's husband Todd remained an AIP party member from 1995 to 2002. Sarah can be described in McCarthy-era palaver as a "fellow traveler." While retaining her Republican registration, she attended the AIP's 1994 convention where the party called for a draft constitution to secede from the United States and create an independent nation of Alaska. The McCain Campaign has reluctantly acknowledged that she also attended AIP's 2000 Convention. She apparently found the experience so inspiring that she agreed to give a keynote address at the AIP's 2006 convention and she recorded a video greeting for this year's 2008 convention. In other words, this is not something that happened when she was eight!

So when Palin accuses Barack of "not seeing the same America as you and me," maybe she is referring to an America without Alaska. In any case, isn't it time the media start giving equal time to Palin's buddy list of anti-American bombers and other radical associates?

-- Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The McCain-isms that Lost the Debate, If Not the Election


In presidential elections, winning and losing results less from the facts presented, than the keywords and key phrases repeated. At no time was this more true than last night's debate in Tennessee.

Second Debate Turns McCain-isms into Major Problem for Republican Chances
More than clarifying John McCain's policy positions, the second Presidential debate showcased the Arizona senator's idiosyncratic tendency to repeat (and repeat, and repeat) certain peculiar phrases while speaking to voters. Over the course of 90 minutes, these oft-repeated 'McCain-isms' not only sank any chance the Republican candidate might have had at winning the debate, but decreased significantly his chances of winning the election.

Without question, Obama appeared much more comfortable in the circular open stage of the Town Hall setting than McCain. Despite having called for more Town Hall debates, McCain seemed physically lost at times in the format. At one point, McCain walked backward while delivering an answer, creating an unmistakable image of anxiousness.

But beyond the staging, there were three phrases that McCain repeated, thereby binding himself over and over with the unfavorable trappings of an earnest, but ultimately untrustworthy politician.

McCain-ism #1: "My Friends" - The Neurotic
Last night, John McCain repeated the phrase 'my friends' 19 times:

MY FRIENDS, until we stabilize home values in America, we're never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy
I know how the do that, MY FRIENDS
MY FRIENDS, do we need to spend that kind of money?
MY FRIENDS, we are not going to be able to provide the same benefit for present-day workers that we are going -- that present-day retirees have today
MY FRIENDS, some of this $700 billion ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations
MY FRIENDS, the last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Herbert Hoover
So let's not raise anybody's taxes, MY FRIENDS
We know what the problems are, MY FRIENDS, and we know what the fixes are
MY FRIENDS, what we have to do with Medicare is have a commission, have the smartest people in America come together, come up with recommendations
Let's look at our records, MY FRIENDS
That's the good news, MY FRIENDS
MY FRIENDS, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth
I vote against them, MY FRIENDS. I vote against them
We've got to drill offshore, MY FRIENDS, and we've got to do it now
MY FRIENDS, we have gone to all four corners of the Earth and shed American blood in defense
We don't have time for on-the-job training, MY FRIENDS
Well, let me just follow up, MY FRIENDS
There was a lot at stake there, MY FRIENDS
I'll get Osama bin Laden, MY FRIENDS
If there was any phrase that defined John McCain in last night's debate, it was not a phrase about foreign policy or the economy or the military. It was the phrase 'my friends.' So what does it say about McCain when he repeats this over and over--how does this quintessential McCain-ism ring in the ears of American voters?

In a word: neurotic.

I spoke to about a dozen people after the debate last night, and listened to about as many pundits. Almost everybody noticed McCain's repetition of the phrase 'my friends,' but not one person said that the McCain-ism made them feel positive about the candidate. Instead, people said that 'my friends' gave McCain an air of nervousness, phoniness--strangeness. Rather than connecting 'my friends' to some positive quality of McCain, debate observers used the phrase as a starting point for attempts at explaining what was 'wrong' with McCain in this debate and in general. Several voters voiced some version of thought in response to hearing 'my friends' from McCain:

McCain said 'my friends' so many times! But it's not like he actually is my friend. He sounds phony when he says that so much. Annoying.

One has to guess that McCain uses the phrase 'my friends' as part of a rhetorical strategy to connect with the audience, but the effect is the opposite. The phrase has a grating result on people, pushing them a way from McCain and towards a conversation about 'what is wrong' with the candidate and why a candidate would repeat such a phrase so often.

McCain-ism #2: "My Hero" - The Sycophant
Last night, McCain repeated the phrase 'my hero' only twice, but he impact was noticeable:

President Reagan, MY HERO
MY HERO is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt
For some reason, McCain peppers his campaign speech with references to 'my hero,' most often citing Ronald Reagan. In some instances, he calls someone 'my hero' in order to demonstrate that he bucked authority, while in other cases he is simply expressing admiration. But in both cases, the end result is very bad for McCain's candidacy.

The dictionary defines 'sycophant' as:

a person who acts obsequiously toward someone in order to gain advantage; a servile flatterer.

Perhaps Reagan and Roosevelt are McCain's 'heros,' perhaps not. Nobody can truly know what is in another person's heart. But what comes across to voters when McCain describes famous politicians as 'my hero' is a gut feeling that he is doing so to gain advantage--servile flattery.

No matter how old or young a voter may be, no matter where they were born, no matter what their ideological leanings may be, wealthy or poor, man or woman--we have all encountered a sycophant in or lives. And nobody--I mean absolutely nobody--observes a person engaged in servile flattery and thinks, 'Gosh, I really like this person.' We think instead, 'Yuck. Gross. Pathetic.'

Americans do not look kindly on people who flatter the boss to get ahead. Sycophants are ridiculed in thousands of movies and books because Americans believe that if you work hard you get ahead and that people who get ahead by calling the boss 'my hero,' are not really qualified or deserving of the job they landed.

McCain-ism #3: "I Know How To" - The Know-It-All
Over the course of last night's debate, Sen. McCain repeated the phrase 'I know how to' seven times:

I KNOW HOW TO do that, my friends
I KNOW HOW TO get America working again
I KNOW HOW TO fix this economy
I KNOW HOW TO do that
I KNOW HOW TO handle these crises
I KNOW HOW TO get him
The funny thing about a 'know-it-all,' as any kid in grade school can already explain: they rarely know what it is they claim to know. Constantly telling someone 'I know how to' says less about one's skills than about one's deep need to be seen as skillful.

This was the impression McCain gave to voters each time he repeated 'I know how to': insecurity.

Why would someone who claims to be an expert in foreign policy, who claims to be an expert in military policy, who claims to be an expert in energy policy, who claims to be an expert in backroom politics--why would McCain be insecure? Because despite all his supposed skills, the 2008 presidential campaign has brought to light very little actual accomplishment in the record of John McCain. Despite all the accusations from the McCain campaign that Barack Obama 'has no experience,' the McCain campaign has offered virtually nothing as evidence of John McCain's accomplishment. McCain has a decorated record as a war veteran, no question, but as a man who claims 'I know how to,' he has nothing to show for having done much.

What Americans hear when McCain repeats 'I know how to,' is not a man with actual skill, but a man who wants to be at the center, at the top more than he knows what to do if he should get there. Ultimately, the know-it-all becomes the least trusted person in the room because with each claim of expertise, we grow less and less convinced of anything but their egotism.

McCain-ism: The Neurotic, The Sycophant, and The Know-It-All
If anything lost the debate for McCain it was the repetition of these three key phrases, each of which gave the the impression that he was an insecure politician rather than a confident leader.

Above all else, Americans in Presidential elections look for a candidate to project an image of confidence. In his performance last night, McCain did just the opposite. And the weight of those phrases, repeated on the stage and amplified in countless stories throughout the media, will likely sink his poll numbers even further.

In an age of internet politics, policy arguments are the stuff of campaign websites. In the debates, voters get a chance to hear what the candidates repeat. And last night, what we heard over and over from John McCain was not the stuff of a candidate who claims victory in November.

© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Is Palin Trying To Incite Violence Against Obama?

At her last rally in Florida, Sarah Palin told the audience that Barack Obama "palled around with terrorists" adding,"I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America." Upon hearing the Republican VP candidate's concern that Sen. Obama might be a terrorist, a voice in the crowd cried out 'Kill him!'

McCain Campaign Amplifies Violent Rhetoric, GOP Crowds Threaten Obama's Life
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank reported an incident at a Palin rally that should open America's eyes to the central role violent rhetoric now plays in the McCain campaign. Milbank describes how Palin told the crowd in Florida that Obama has close associations with a terrorist who sought to bomb the Pentagon and the U.S. Capital, in response to which the crowd responded with a threat on Sen. Obama's life:

"Now it turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers...And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,'" she continued.

"Boooo!" the crowd repeated.

"Kill him!" proposed one man in the audience.
Palin went on to say that "Obama held one of the first meetings of his political career in Bill Ayers's living room, and they've worked together on various projects in Chicago." Here, Palin began to connect the dots. "These are the same guys who think that patriotism is paying higher taxes -- remember that's what Joe Biden had said. "And" -- she paused and sighed -- "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America, as the greatest force for good in the world. I'm afraid this is someone who sees America as 'imperfect enough' to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country." (link)

Palin's new rhetorical strategy signifies an alarming new development in the 2008 Presidential election, and one that has been not only been documented by such high profile newspapers as the Washington Post, but confirmed by the McCain campaign itself.

"It's a dangerous road, but we have no choice," a top McCain strategist recently admitted to the Daily News. "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose." (link)

The 'dangerous road,' however, is not just a generic attack on Sen. Obama's trustworthiness or honesty. Rather, the McCain campaign has chosen to stand before campaign rallies and accuse Sen. Obama of hiding sympathies with domestic terrorists--to accuse their opponent, essentially, of being a terrorist.

With the McCain campaign now using the Palin stump speech to accuse Sen. Obama of hiding a terrorist agenda, the McCain campaign has staked its future on rhetoric that skirts the boundary between character assassination and incitements of actual violence against their opponent.

Meanwhile, while McCain is not yet accusing Obama of terrorism in his own stump speech, the crowds at his rallies are.

In a recent video clip from MSNBC, McCain asked a rally, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" In response to McCain's rhetorical question, a voice from the crowd can be clearly heard to shout in response, "Terrorist!" (link)

Since the start of the election campaign well over a year ago, voters have been subject to ongoing smear campaigns in emails and push polls accusing Sen. Obama of ties to and sympathies with domestic and foreign terrorist groups. No matter how many times these smear campaigns have been exposed, they continued. Now that John McCain and Sarah Palin have echoed these accusations--the idea that Sen. Obama is secretly a terrorist has the stamp of approval of a presidential campaign, but of a multi-term U.S. senator and a U.S. governor.

One wonders at this point how the various agencies charged with the responsibility of protecting the Presidential candidates from violence will respond to this latest tactic from the McCain campaign. If, for example, a McCain supporter threatens the life of Sen. Obama by shouting 'Kill him!' at a Palin rally, should Sen. Obama's Secret Service contingent launch an investigation? Having been accused of terrorist ties by the McCain campaign, will Sen. Obama's name be put on the 'No Fly' list, effectively making it impossible for him to engage in normal airline travel?

An even more basic question, perhaps: Is Gov. Palin trying to incite violence against Sen. Obama as part of an ill-conceived campaign strategy to change the topic from the economy at any cost?

Time will tell how law enforcement will respond, but one thing is already certain: the more Palin and McCain incite calls for violence against Sen. Obama, the more their chances of achieving a victory in November disappear.

-- Jeffrey Feldman

Monday, October 06, 2008

Blacker Monday

Stocks Fall Sharply on Credit Concerns

New York Times

The selling on Wall Street began at the opening bell on Monday and only intensified as the morning went on. Shares moved sharply lower as the banking crisis tightened its grip on the global economy.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell below 10,000 for the first time since 2004 after losing more than 500 points in the first hour. The index has lost more than 1,100 points — or about 10 percent — in slightly more than a week.

Shortly after noon, the Dow was down 450 points or 4.3 percent.

The broader American stock market was down more than 4.9 percent, as measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, its worst decline since last Monday’s 8.8 percent drop. At the same time, oil dropped below $90 a barrel.

The precipitous declines, which accelerated as the morning wore on, came a day after European governments were forced to scramble to save several major banks and lenders from collapse. The moves reinforced the global reach of the current crisis and alarmed depositors and regulators in the United States and abroad.

European stocks fell even further, with the major indexes in London, Paris, and Frankfurt down nearly 7 percent.

The sharp slides came despite a morning announcement from the Federal Reserve, which said it would significantly expand the amount of money it makes available to major banks. The Fed will now lend up to $900 billion in credit, an enormous sum that officials hope will reassure banks that the government will provide them with adequate capital.

The moves were aimed at resolving a problem at the center of the current credit crisis: the reluctance of banks to lend. The healthy functioning of the world’s economy is dependent on the easy flow of short-term loans among banks, businesses and consumers, a stream that has been cut off as banks become more fearful of giving out cash.

Borrowing rates remained very high on Monday despite the passage of the American bailout plan, although proponents of that package argue that its longer-term benefits will take time to carry out. Still, some gauges of anxiety in the market again reached record highs as the week began, and a benchmark overnight borrowing rate, the Libor rate, moved higher. A measure of volatility, the VIX index, jumped to its highest intraday level ever.

“It’s not just a question clearing problem assets,” said Bob McKee, chief economist for Independent Strategy, a research consultancy. “If banks don’t have enough capital they will be paralyzed.”

Oil prices tumbled nearly $4 a barrel to below $90, the first time it has fallen that low since February, before recovering slightly to $90.90 around 10 a.m. The euro continued to fall against the dollar.

Falling oil prices provoked a decline of just over 1,000 points, or nearly 9.9 percent, on the Toronto Stock Market. The drop brought the S&P/TSX index below 10,000 points for the first time since May 2004.

Energy stocks drove the decline, falling 13 percent. Financial industry shares were down 7 percent in mid-morning trading with the Royal Bank of Canada, the country’s largest bank, down 8.43 percent. That drop came despite the fact that the Royal Bank, like most of Canada’s major banks, has relatively little expose to troubled debt in the United States.

Strong prices for oil and gas as well as commodities like metals, have allowed most of Canada to escape the economic downturn in the United States. But the Bank of Nova Scotia report released on Monday said that weakness in the manufacturing sector, which relies heavily on exports to the United States, will push likely Canada into a recession.

In Europe, governments worked over the weekend to prevent the collapse of two lenders, Hypo Real Estate in Germany and the Belgian operations of Fortis. The German government also said it would guarantee all private bank deposits as it sought to avert the spread of the financial contagion.

The FTSE 100 index in London fell 5.6 percent; the Frankfurt DAX was down 5.2 percent and the CAC-40 in Paris lost 5.9 percent.

A similar sell-off occurred in Asia, the Nikkei 225 stock average in Tokyo fell 4.3 percent, while the Kospi index in Seoul fell 4.3 percent. The Standard and Poor’s/ASX 200 index in Sydney fell 3.3 percent, while the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong was down 5 percent.

“People are really disappointed by the inability of Europe to react on a concerted basis,” said Andrew Popper, a fund manager at SG Hambros in London. “It’s still very much a country by country approach. There is also a realization that we haven’t seen any effects on economic growth so far but that now is starting and that’s having an effect on non-financial shares.”

Steps by some European governments over the weekend to guarantee deposits may avoid a panic among consumers but will not help banks cope with their financing problems, said Adrian Darley, a fund manager at Resolution Asset Management in London.

“There are still a lot of issues out there,” Mr. Darley said. “Deposit guarantees are just a short-term solution. It does not necessarily help with interbank loans or if you have bad loans on your books. It will take a lot more than that.”

In Iceland and Russia, trading on banking shares was halted after indexes fell more than 14 percent.

Shares of industrial companies were hammered in Europe with EADS, the parent of Airbus, falling 7.5 percent, ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steel maker, falling 8.6 percent, and the German automaker Daimler down 5.8 percent. British Airways slid 10.3 percent.

BNP Paribas, which acquired a majority stake in Fortis for about $20 billion in an emergency deal late Sunday, was unchanged, while shares of Fortis were suspended. Trading in Unicredit, the big Italian bank, was delayed for an hour after the bank said late Sunday that it would seek about $9.1 billion in new funding and cut its earnings outlook. And Hypo Real Estate, the second-biggest German mortgage lender, fell 28 percent in Frankfurt after it received a new $68 billion bailout Sunday from German banks and the national government in Berlin.

Shares also dropped because many clients are pulling their money out of hedge funds and other investment funds with disappointing returns. “We’re seeing forced sales from redemptions,” Mr. Darley said.

Shares in HBOS, the British mortgage lender that agreed to be bought by Lloyds in a government-brokered deal, opened 20 percent lower on Monday.

Nicholas Bibby, an economist in the Singapore office of Barclays Capital, said that falling share prices showed that many investors were still worried that banking difficulties might spread even after the passage of the financial bailout plan in Washington. “It’s a fear of contagion,” he said, while adding that Asian banks were better positioned than most to withstand the current problems because the region’s high savings rate tends to mean that Asian banks are net lenders in international money markets.

Concerns about Asian exports have also been rising for months, as the region’s high savings rate means that it also has weak spending on consumption and remains heavily dependent on overseas demand.

CFC Seymour, a Hong Kong securities firm, pointed out in an investment newsletter on Monday that even before recent problems in financial markets, the combined trade balance of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines had gone from a surplus of $19 billion as recently as last October to a deficit of $2 billion in July. Only China is still running consistently large trade surpluses.

The realignment in the currency markets that has lifted the dollar and yen against the euro continued, as investors worried about Europe’s banks and economic health and continued their flight to the apparent stability of Japan’s financial system.

The euro fell to $1.3609 in Paris morning trading, from $1.3772 in New York late Friday. The dollar fell to 103.42 yen from 105.32, and the euro declined to 140.74 yen from 145.07.

The Shanghai stock exchange, closed for the last week for China’s National Day holiday, reopened on Monday with the Shanghai A-share market down 3.5 percent. The China Securities Regulatory Commission announced on Sunday that it would experiment with the introduction of short-selling and trading on margin on a limited basis, but did not say when the trial would begin.

Keith Bradsher, Ian Austen, David Jolly and Julia Werdigier contributed reporting.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Legacy

Among the many dispiriting things to come out of Bob Woodward’s quartet of books on George W. Bush is his observation that the president has not changed since he first started talking to Woodward in 2001.

No growth. No evolution. No regrets.

“History,” Bush replied, when asked by Woodward how he would be judged over time. “We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” Broke, as well.

It would have been nice to let Bush’s two terms marinate a while before invoking Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan from the cellar of worst presidents. But then — over the last two weeks — he completed the trilogy of national disasters that will be with us for a generation or more.

George Bush entered the White House as a proponent of a more humble foreign policy and a believer that government should get out of the way at home. He leaves as someone with a trillion-dollar war aimed at making people who’ve hated each other for a thousand years become Rotary Club freedom-lovers, and his own country close to bankruptcy after government did get out of the way.

It’s a Mount Rainier of shame and folly. But before going any further, let’s allow his supporters to have their say.

“He’s going to have an unbelievably great legacy,” said Laura Bush in an ABC interview, citing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Fifty million people liberated from very brutal regimes.”

Fred Barnes argues that Bush is a visionary on a par with Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Bush is a president who leads,” he wrote in a 2006 book. “He controls the national agenda, uses his presidential power to the fullest and then some, prepares far-reaching polices likely to change the way Americans live, reverses other long-standing polices and is the foremost leader in world affairs.”

Finally, from Karl Rove, the Architect. Bush will be viewed “as a far-sighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century,” he said.

After wading through books with words like “fiasco,” “hubris” and “denial” in the title, historians will go to first-hand sources, the people who worked with Bush daily. There they will find Paul O’Neill, the president’s former Treasury secretary. In 2002, he sounded an alarm, saying Bush’s rash economic policies could lead to a deficit of $500 billion. This, after Bush had inherited a budget surplus, prompted many to scoff at O’Neill.

He was wrong, but only in one respect – the projected deficit, even without a financial bailout, will almost certainly be higher.

This means a lot, for every bridge not built, every Pell grant not given to a kid who may never go to college without one, every national park road left to crumble, every sick person who cannot afford to see a doctor in a country that wants to be known as the best on earth.

Historians will also go to Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary. Bush may not be a “high functioning moron,” as Paul Begala called him recently. He is “plenty smart enough to be president,” McClellan wrote this year. But McClellan, in his job as the president’s mouthpiece, found him chronically incurious. He also said Bush deliberately misled the country into war, and in that effort, the news media were “complicit enablers.”

Historians will recall that in each of the major disasters on Bush’s watch, there were ample warnings — from the intelligence briefing that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike a month before the lethal blow, to the projections that Hurricane Katrina could drown a major American city, to the expressed fears that letting Wall Street regulate itself could be catastrophic.

Voluntary regulation. That phrase now joins “heckuva job, Brownie” and “mission accomplished” among those that will always be associated with the Bush presidency.

It’s painful now to realize, just as the economy craters and the world looks aghast at the United States, that the other cancer from the Bush presidency – his failure to even start the nation on the road to a new energy economy – gets short-changed during the triage of his final days.

Bush has hinted that his legacy will be about the war. So be it. He never caught bin Laden, the mass murderer who launched the raison d’etre of the Bush presidency.

But he did topple a paper army in Iraq, opening the drainage for our currency, blood and global reputation. It may go down as the longest, even costliest war in our history.

In a survey of scholars done earlier this year, just two of 109 historians said the Bush presidency would be judged a success. A majority said he would be the worst president ever.

But if you don’t trust those elites in academia, consider the president’s own base.

Bush leaves with his party in tatters. In the 28 states that register by affiliation, Democrats have picked up more than 2 million new voters this year while Republicans have lost 344,000. It seems only fitting that it was the last of the Bush dead-enders in Congress earlier this week who jumped ship when presented with the final horrendous hangover from this man who doesn’t drink.

If ever there was an argument for voting against politicians who are confident about their cluelessness, Bush is it. So it was heartening to see that a majority of the country, in some polls, now views Sarah Palin as unqualified to be president.

We may have learned something, even if Bush has not.

-- Timothy Egan - New York Times

Monday, September 29, 2008

The End is Near

Consider this exchange.

Hannity: What is our role as a country as it relates to national security?

Palin: Yes. That's a great question, and being an optimist I see our role in the world as one of being a force for good, and one of being the leader of the world when it comes to the values that -- it seems that just human kind embraces the values that -- encompass life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that's just -- not just in America, that is in our world.

And America is in a position because we care for so many people to be able to lead and to be able to have a strong diplomacy and a strong military also at the same time to defend not only our freedoms, but to help these rising smaller democratic countries that are just -- you know, they're putting themselves on the map right now, and they're going to be looking to America as that leader.

We being used as a force for good is how I see our country.

Friday, September 26, 2008

McCain proves he's unfit to serve

John McCain's incoherent and opportunistic campaign, which he never "suspended" for 30 seconds, now poses an imminent threat to the world economy. Nobody in the McCain camp, including the policy-challenged candidate, seems able to articulate a firm position on how to restore the stability of the financial markets and prevent a catastrophic lending freeze.
Instead, the Arizona senator is running around trying to insert himself into photo ops and ingratiate himself with House Republicans whose only apparent objective is ideological obstruction. How can he provide leadership when his own viewpoint is increasingly opaque -- and the only thing that remains clear is his desperation about his worsening poll position?
Actually, McCain was clearer in his positions and objectives before he went to Washington for the White House meeting that blew up negotiations over a bailout bill on Thursday afternoon. When he showed up at the Clinton Global Initiative for a breakfast speech, he reiterated his promise to stop campaigning and return to the capital, where he hoped that Barack Obama would join him in "putting politics aside" and "dealing in a straightforward bipartisan way" with the bailout legislation. "I'm an old Navy pilot," he said, never missing a chance to mention his war record, "and I know when a crisis calls for all hands on deck."
The Republican nominee then went on to enumerate five critical issues that had to be resolved before the Treasury proposal could have any chance of passage: a bipartisan oversight board; a provision for taxpayers to recover at least a portion of the Treasury funds; a completely transparent process for expenditure of those funds; a rejection of any "earmarks" for favored companies or any other purpose in the bill; and a guarantee that no Wall Street executives will profit from taxpayers' money.
On those issues, as of approximately 9:30 that morning, McCain declared he would be unyielding and yet bipartisan. "In this crisis, we must work together again ... We must draw on the best ideas of both parties and work together for the common good."
Those particular clichés were irrelevant to the problem at hand on Capitol Hill, as he should have known by then but surely learned when he arrived in Washington -- where the ideas of Republicans and Democrats in the House are diametrically opposed. His Republican colleagues in the Senate were on the verge of agreement with the Democratic congressional leadership in both houses and the White House until the House Republicans decided to smash the bipartisan plan.
Amazingly, McCain decided to connive with the right-wing bloc -- in contradiction of his own stated objectives and his supposed bipartisanship, which Democrats in both chambers plainly shared. At the White House meeting he reportedly said almost nothing, except to indicate that he was working with the House Republicans (which their spokesman, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, confirmed later). He sat passively while House Republican leader John Boehner sabotaged the agreement with a phony mortgage insurance proposal.
Yet the tentative agreement that the Republican minority capsized, with his assent, met all of the requirements that McCain had listed as necessary for his support only hours earlier! The original deal announced by the congressional negotiators, with the assent of the White House and the Treasury, stipulated that the bailout would be subject to strict oversight by an independent inspector general and regular Government Accountability Office audits. Any "inappropriate or excessive" compensation would be forbidden to executives whose firms received bailout funds, and the government would take equity shares in those companies to protect the interests of taxpayers.
Well before the end of the day, however, McCain had abandoned the positions he had taken at the Clinton breakfast -- and his spokesman was insisting that the senator had no firm position on the bailout bill because he wanted to be in a position to lead. Or something like that.
There was never any likelihood that McCain would make any independent intellectual contribution to the discussion at the White House, or anywhere else. But he could have helped herd House Republicans into an agreement that met the criteria he had claimed were important to him, in the bipartisan manner that he had demanded in such ringing words. He didn't, because he meant none of it.
By the time you read this -- and certainly by the time he appears in Oxford, Miss., for the first presidential debate -- the former straight talker will probably have adopted some new stance, in his panting eagerness to appear presidential. His attempts to game this dangerous situation, his waffling between bipartisanship and ideological rigidity, his shiftiness on the real issues and his obvious lack of concentration on the problems that must be resolved -- suggest that he is in fact unfit to serve in the office he desires. Once again he has proved that his claim to put country first is hollow. He was more than willing to take America down as he gambled for that prize.

-- By Joe Conason -

Thursday, September 25, 2008

September 25, 2008 10:32

John McCain faced another crisis yesterday--a political one, not the financial emergency he used as an excuse for his rash actions--and once again he overreacted. This is becoming a pattern (as is his "greatest crisis since..." formulation: yesterday, since World War II; previously--on Georgia--since the end of the cold war), and it is not very reassuring behavior in a potential President.

The political crisis was real. And it wasn't merely that he was slipping a bit in the polls. It was that he was being pressured on three sides. The responsible economic leadership of the Republican Party--people like his own economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin and, I assume, the corporate sorts he consults with--were urging him to support a modified version of the bailout package. At the same time, people like Bill Kristol--who can be a surprisingly amoral tactician when it comes to subjects other than foreign policy where he has firm, if mistaken, beliefs--were urging McCain to take a populist nutball Lou Dobbsian stand against the deal. A large number of House Republicans were leaning toward that position, which is why McCain suffered under the--mistaken, I believe--impression that the bailout was in some trouble. A third source of pressure came from those House Republicans who wanted to vote for the package, but didn't want to be hung out to dry by their standard-bearer: they needed to know if McCain was for or against.

It should be noted that Barack Obama was under no such pressure, since Democrats--reluctantly, angrily, to be sure--actually believe, as President Bush does, that there will be real pain on Main Street if some sort of bailout isn't achieved.

Happily, in the end, McCain did the responsible thing...but he did it foolishly, in a panicky fashion. He did support the emerging compromise. He took the Democrats' modifications--on oversight, homeowner and taxpayer protection, and restrictions on payouts to the executives who made these disastrous decisions--and made them his own. His support will help widen the majority of legislators who will support the bill.

What McCain didn't understand was that the legislative crisis was already receding when he made his melodramatic--and somewhat wild-eyed--suspension of campaign activities statement. (He didn't understand this because he has had no input into the process and, indeed, is neither respected for his financial expertise nor desired in the process because of his combative, peremptory negotiating style.)In any case, the crisis was receding because the Bush Administration was caving to the Democrats' modifications, as the President made clear in his speech last night. A Democratic Senator close to the negotiations told me after the speech, "We pretty much have a deal. The negotiations aren't over, but this is just too damn important to get snagged on a codicil."

Since it would have been fairly embarrassing to McCain for the crisis to end without his meaningless intervention, Bush laid on the White House summit and likely kumbaya session for this afternoon where the deal will probably be announced. And now, McCain faces a further embarrassment: what to do about his decision to pull out of the debate? It seems to me that if agreement is reached today, he has to debate tomorrow--and now, because of his "crisis" announcement, the debate will take place on turf less favorable to him: on economic as well as foreign policy. Even if an agreement isn't reached today, he will be hard pressed to explain why he isn't debating tomorrow. In any case, Obama's cool steadfastness has put him in the driver's seat on this one.

And that raises an interesting question: Why was McCain so quick to pull out of the debate? After all, with the momentum slightly in Obama's direction, he needed a game-changer--and foreign policy is, allegedly, his area of expertise. His peremptory actions yesterday was not the behavior of a confident man. It was the behavior of a man uncertain, despite all the macho bluster, about his chances in the most important theater of battle in any presidential campaign, one where gimmicks, diversions and untruths can be directly countered by his opponent. McCain may clean Obama's clock in the coming debates--but it seems entirely possible that the old fighter jock may be frightened that he's about to ditch another plane.

--Joe Klein TIME

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, "Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,"
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were "stupefied"
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one's hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face
On which the effort of this condition reads
Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark
Or star one is not sure of having seen
As darkness resumes. A perverse light whose
Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its
Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant.
Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what's there
And nothing can exist except what's there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn't matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything.

The balloon pops, the attention
Turns dully away. Clouds
In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments.
I think of the friends
Who came to see me, of what yesterday
Was like. A peculiar slant
Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model
In the silence of the studio as he considers
Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on
In the form of memories deposited in irregular
Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty,
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
I feel the carousel starting slowly
And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,
Photographs of friends, the window and the trees
Merging in one neutral band that surrounds
Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
And I cannot explain the action of leveling,
Why it should all boil down to one
Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
My guide in these matters is your self,
Firm, oblique, accepting everything with the same
Wraith of a smile, and as time speeds up so that it is soon
Much later, I can know only the straight way out,
The distance between us. Long ago
The strewn evidence meant something,
The small accidents and pleasures
Of the day as it moved gracelessly on,
A housewife doing chores. Impossible now
To restore those properties in the silver blur that is
The record of what you accomplished by sitting down
"With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass"
So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous
Forever. In the circle of your intentions certain spars
Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self:
Eyebeams, muslin, coral. It doesn't matter
Because these are things as they are today
Before one's shadow ever grew
Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow.

Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter's deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. Of course some things
Are possible, it knows, but it doesn't know
Which ones. Some day we will try
To do as many things as are possible
And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful
Of them, but this will not have anything
To do with what is promised today, our
Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear
On the horizon. Today enough of a cover burnishes
To keep the supposition of promises together
In one piece of surface, letting one ramble
Back home from them so that these
Even stronger possibilities can remain
Whole without being tested. Actually
The skin of the bubble-chamber's as tough as
Reptile eggs; everything gets "programmed" there
In due course: more keeps getting included
Without adding to the sum, and just as one
Gets accustomed to a noise that
Kept one awake but now no longer does,
So the room contains this flow like an hourglass
Without varying in climate or quality
(Except perhaps to brighten bleakly and almost
Invisibly, in a focus sharpening toward death--more
Of this later). What should be the vacuum of a dream
Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams
Is being tapped so that this one dream
May wax, flourish like a cabbage rose,
Defying sumptuary laws, leaving us
To awake and try to begin living in what
Has now become a slum. Sydney Freedberg in his
Parmigianino says of it: "Realism in this portrait
No longer produces and objective truth, but a bizarria . . . .
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony . . . . The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty," because
Fed by our dreams, so inconsequential until one day
We notice the hole they left. Now their importance
If not their meaning is plain. They were to nourish
A dream which includes them all, as they are
Finally reversed in the accumulating mirror.
They seemed strange because we couldn't actually see them.
And we realize this only at a point where they lapse
Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up
Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.
The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty
As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.
Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

As I start to forget it
It presents its stereotype again
But it is an unfamiliar stereotype, the face
Riding at anchor, issued from hazards, soon
To accost others, "rather angel than man" (Vasari).
Perhaps an angel looks like everything
We have forgotten, I mean forgotten
Things that don't seem familiar when
We meet them again, lost beyond telling,
Which were ours once. This would be the point
Of invading the privacy of this man who
"Dabbled in alchemy, but whose wish
Here was not to examine the subtleties of art
In a detached, scientific spirit: he wished through them
To impart the sense of novelty and amazement to the spectator"
(Freedberg). Later portraits such as the Uffizi
"Gentleman," the Borghese "Young Prelate" and
The Naples "Antea" issue from Mannerist
Tensions, but here, as Freedberg points out,
The surprise, the tension are in the concept
Rather than its realization.
The consonance of the High Renaissance
Is present, though distorted by the mirror.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn't yours. You feel then like one of those
Hoffmann characters who have been deprived
Of a reflection, except that the whole of me
Is seen to be supplanted by the strict
Otherness of the painter in his
Other room. We have surprised him
At work, but no, he has surprised us
As he works. The picture is almost finished,
The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.
It happened while you were inside, asleep,
And there is no reason why you should have
Been awake for it, except that the day
Is ending and it will be hard for you
To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.

The shadow of the city injects its own
Urgency: Rome where Francesco
Was at work during the Sack: his inventions
Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him;
They decided to spare his life, but he left soon after;
Vienna where the painting is today, where
I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959; New York
Where I am now, which is a logarithm
Of other cities. Our landscape
Is alive with filiations, shuttlings;
Business is carried on by look, gesture,
Hearsay. It is another life to the city,
The backing of the looking glass of the
Unidentified but precisely sketched studio. It wants
To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate
Its mapped space to enactments, island it.
That operation has been temporarily stalled
But something new is on the way, a new preciosity
In the wind. Can you stand it,
Francesco? Are you strong enough for it?
This wind brings what it knows not, is
Self--propelled, blind, has no notion
Of itself. It is inertia that once
Acknowledged saps all activity, secret or public:
Whispers of the word that can't be understood
But can be felt, a chill, a blight
Moving outward along the capes and peninsulas
Of your nervures and so to the archipelagoes
And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea.
This is its negative side. Its positive side is
Making you notice life and the stresses
That only seemed to go away, but now,
As this new mode questions, are seen to be
Hastening out of style. If they are to become classics
They must decide which side they are on.
Their reticence has undermined
The urban scenery, made its ambiguities
Look willful and tired, the games of an old man.
What we need now is this unlikely
Challenger pounding on the gates of an amazed
Castle. Your argument, Francesco,
Had begun to grow stale as no answer
Or answers were forthcoming. If it dissolves now
Into dust, that only means its time had come
Some time ago, but look now, and listen:
It may be that another life is stocked there
In recesses no one knew of; that it,
Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it
If we could get back to it, relive some of the way
It looked, turn our faces to the globe as it sets
And still be coming out all right:
Nerves normal, breath normal. Since it is a metaphor
Made to include us, we are a part of it and
Can live in it as in fact we have done,
Only leaving our minds bare for questioning
We now see will not take place at random
But in an orderly way that means to menace
Nobody--the normal way things are done,
Like the concentric growing up of days
Around a life: correctly, if you think about it.

A breeze like the turning of a page
Brings back your face: the moment
Takes such a big bite out of the haze
Of pleasant intuition it comes after.
The locking into place is "death itself,"
As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler's Ninth;
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, "There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this," for,
Though only exercise or tactic, it carries
The momentum of a conviction that had been building.
Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it
Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains
The white precipitate of its dream
In the climate of sighs flung across our world,
A cloth over a birdcage. But it is certain that
What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.
The light sinks today with an enthusiasm
I have known elsewhere, and known why
It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way
Years ago. I go on consulting
This mirror that is no longer mine
For as much brisk vacancy as is to be
My portion this time. And the vase is always full
Because there is only just so much room
And it accommodates everything. The sample
One sees is not to be taken as
Merely that, but as everything as it
May be imagined outside time--not as a gesture
But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.
But what is this universe the porch of
As it veers in and out, back and forth,
Refusing to surround us and still the only
Thing we can see? Love once
Tipped the scales but now is shadowed, invisible,
Though mysteriously present, around somewhere.
But we know it cannot be sandwiched
Between two adjacent moments, that its windings
Lead nowhere except to further tributaries
And that these empty themselves into a vague
Sense of something that can never be known
Even though it seems likely that each of us
Knows what it is and is capable of
Communicating it to the other. But the look
Some wear as a sign makes one want to
Push forward ignoring the apparent
NaÏveté of the attempt, not caring
That no one is listening, since the light
Has been lit once and for all in their eyes
And is present, unimpaired, a permanent anomaly,
Awake and silent. On the surface of it
There seems no special reason why that light
Should be focused by love, or why
The city falling with its beautiful suburbs
Into space always less clear, less defined,
Should read as the support of its progress,
The easel upon which the drama unfolded
To its own satisfaction and to the end
Of our dreaming, as we had never imagined
It would end, in worn daylight with the painted
Promise showing through as a gage, a bond.
This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime is
The secret of where it takes place
And we can no longer return to the various
Conflicting statements gathered, lapses of memory
Of the principal witnesses. All we know
Is that we are a little early, that
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one's present.
Yet the "poetic," straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite--is this
Some figment of "art," not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn't it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can't live there.
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:
Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime
To learn and are reduced to the status of
Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates
Are rare. That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait's will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don't need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
Exist? Certainly the leisure to
Indulge stately pastimes doesn't,
Any more. Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance,
Indistinguishable. "Play" is something else;
It exists, in a society specifically
Organized as a demonstration of itself.
There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn't exist until they are out of it.
It seems like a very hostile universe
But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn't a bad thing
Or wouldn't be, if the way of telling
Didn't somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself. This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
"Not-being-us" is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day, cloud the focus
Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away
Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile
Thought-associations that until now came
So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their
Colorings are less intense, washed out
By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied,
Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their
Implications are still around en permanence, confusing
Issues. To be serious only about sex
Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing
As they approach the beginning of the big slide
Into what happened. This past
Is now here: the painter's
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn't tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else's taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.
Once it seemed so perfect--gloss on the fine
Freckled skin, lips moistened as though about to part
Releasing speech, and the familiar look
Of clothes and furniture that one forgets.
This could have been our paradise: exotic
Refuge within an exhausted world, but that wasn't
In the cards, because it couldn't have been
The point. Aping naturalness may be the first step
Toward achieving an inner calm
But it is the first step only, and often
Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched
On the air materializing behind it,
A convention. And we have really
No time for these, except to use them
For kindling. The sooner they are burnt up
The better for the roles we have to play.
Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the "it was all a dream"
Syndrome, though the "all" tells tersely
Enough how it wasn't. Its existence
Was real, though troubled, and the ache
Of this waking dream can never drown out
The diagram still sketched on the wind,
Chosen, meant for me and materialized
In the disguising radiance of my room.
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

--John Ashbery


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