Sunday, June 29, 2008

Farewell to Norm -- er, Jack


I finally understand -- in a visceral way -- why the Bush administration has been so intent on preventing the public from seeing any military funerals. I just attended my first one, and though it was brief, it was easily one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever witnessed.

We bade farewell to my father-in-law the other day and, as a veteran, he was entitled to a committal ceremony and internment at a military site. Two non-coms and an officer officiated, Army Rangers all.

We watched as they moved in the precise, small steps of this respectful ritual to whispered orders they have uttered and obeyed hundreds of times, as they saluted the remains for what seemed an eternity, then slowly unfurled a US flag, presented it and just as slowly folded it into a tight isosceles triangle; as they rotated it three times to methodically crease its vertical edge with white-gloved hands; as they smoothed the surface of six framed white stars on blue; as seven rifles fired three times overhead, each volley followed by the clink of brass on pavement; as a sergeant-major knelt before my mother-in-law to offer the condolences of the President of the United States and the thanks of a grateful nation to a soldier who served his country 63 years earlier; as they saluted the widow and her family when the ceremony was over and we walked back to our cars.

It would be easy to ascribe the behavior of these people who didn't know Jack Didion to their profession: they are trained to be disciplined, or to die. I'm sure this plays a part. But training and demeanor cannot always overcome a human frailty, as I was reminded earlier on this same day by someone who was called to grace.

Before the military ceremony, Jack's wish to be included in a Roman Catholic mass upon his passing was realized. He had not been a regular church goer in his later years; poor health prevented much of anything for him. So since he was of no parish his daughter found a church near the military facility where he was to be interred, and whose priest was happy to oblige.

Trouble was, he got Jack's name wrong. About 15 times. "Norm" or "Norman" is what he said. Jack's given name was "Nolan," and since so many of the arrangements were done on the phone and through third parties this is an understandable mistake.

But it was a mistake, magnified by the circumstances, and many members of the grieving family were very upset: Jack's one and final mass was for some guy named Norm.

When told, through tears, that he had made this mistake, the priest became immediately annoyed and defensive. Nothing was his mistake, and it didn't matter anyway because we had prayed for everybody. Who is Norm anyway, he asked us (?). We don't use nicknames (Jack) in mass. You aren't of this parish anyway.

Nancy couldn't take it anymore and when she looked to me I said "We should leave now" and as we did he said "Oy!" "Oy!" "Oy!"

I returned to fetch my mother-in-law and other members who were, in my view, pointlessly conversing with this flawed mortal who seemed incapable of taking any personal responsibility. As I ignored him and directed the rest of my in-laws to their cars he said something defensive again -- I do not recall what -- to which I replied: "Thank you for that, and for the apology that I am sure was in there somewhere," to which he replied: "Don't be an ass," three times (something about saying something three times must be significant.) After the third "don't be an ass" I repeated to my relatives that we should leave, especially since we had been reminded "we are not of this parish."

I mention this to kvetch, of course, but also to contrast. This shepherd was incapable of seeing the rectifiable error of his ways and resorted immediately to bullying. No apology to the widow, no self-deprecation, no sense of personal responsibility. I wonder how long he would have lasted in the unit that officiated over my father's military ceremony later that morning?

Postscript: The priest, as pre-arranged, also made brief remarks at the military cemetery. His words and sentiments were, in the main, correct -- though he did allow as he wasn't sure Jack was going to heaven (none among the faithful can know this, I guess, but mentioning that "fact" seemed odd) and that he wasn't sure his sermon earlier in the day had resonated with everyone (true enough for the atheists in my posse). And in a bit of overcompensating overkill he used both "Nolan" and "Jack" several times, and a few times referred to him as "Nolan Jack."

As they say, when a pig flies, you don't blame him for not staying up too long.

Of course, we now have a new family joke. What would Norm think, we ask? And we also know that Jack would have dined out on the story of the priest who called him Norm for years, loudly and again and again to anyone who would listen, no matter how many times you have already heard it.

God bless him.

When it was over I went out of my way to thank the priest for his "lovely" words and to shake his hand. He offered me his condolences, and said he "would pray for me."

Heaven help me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Memo to Bill:

Dude, you did your best.

Nobody can accuse you of throttling back or showing any hesitation about muscling Hillary into the White House. Hell -- if anything, your occasional over-the-top jabs at Barack are all the evidence anyone could need that you have met your poli-marital obligations. Setting yourself up for "that man crazy!" from time to time is a great way to prove this ain't no half-hearted debate society resolution for you.

But now it's time to reveal that secret I think I guessed at last January. You're off to a sloppy start: I know there is thunder not to be stolen from the Hillary & Barack show later this week, but don't do this through a spokesman anymore. Also, don't use words like "obviously," which everybody knows is a way of boasting about not concealing a grudging admission.

It's been a tough year. It'll probably get worse before it gets better, before you can continue your dream retirement of going wherever you want, talking about philanthropy and theoretical politics to swooning, silent audiences and calling up world leaders for late suppers.

But first, you have to get over it. You have shake off the game face you even convinced yourself was real.

It's time to start imagining a world without Hillary.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

NBC Plays It Safe By Tapping Brokaw for "Meet The Press"

In a bid for stability over reinvention NBC has tapped former nightly news anchor Tom Brokaw to take over hosting duties for "Meet the Press," the Sunday public affairs program whose long-time moderator, Tim Russert, died unexpectedly 10 days ago.

NBC said Brokaw would moderate MTP through the 2008 presidential election.

The choice of gravitas over what might otherwise be seen as an attempt to attract another -- or at least an additional -- demographic is significant because NBC has an unusually deep bench of seasoned on-air political interviewers and commentators who ply their chair-bound trade nightly on MSNBC -- unlike any of the other networks, who do not have cable counterparts.

Continue reading on wired.com's Epicenter blog.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Oh Hai! Icahn Haz a Blog? LOLWUT??

You know you wish you could quit Yahoo.

But how can you put your feelings into words in a way that would make Stewart Butterfield proud?

You can't. But Wired contributor Mat Honan -- the man behind Barack Obama is your new bicycle -- is here to help with the "Yahoo Resigner." 

Continue reading on wired.com's Epicenter blog

Icahn Blogs Generalities, Silent on Yahoo

The long-awaited blog by Carl Icahn went live sometime yesterday, but there isn't a single word about Yahoo from the man who would control it.

Huh?

Continue reading on wired.com's Epicenter blog

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama Opts Out of Public Funding

The knee jerk reaction is to see this as anti-populist, sleazy, business-as-usual. Only someone who doesn't need $80 million turns down $80 million.

And there is the matter of Obama's agreement to accept public funding (and forgo private money), posited by John McCain. McCain, a genuine campaign-finance reformer (for which he is reviled by many fellow Republicans) pushed that pawn at a time when his fortunes were not good and Obama's were unpredictable.

So, the old pol is a man of the people, and the change agent is just another politician who does what suits him, like those Republicans who got elected on a term-limits platform but decided, after their two terms, that their work was not yet done.

But as Frank Rich keeps telling us, these are not times in which the old prism works. Obama is a shockingly viable candidate -- his viability is shocking -- to a degree that belies even the recent history of this nation. Among the other things he has already done is this: prove that in the post-Watergate, full-bore-Internet era, the reason for public financing has been rendered (nearly) irrelevant.

What public financing was meant to sweep away were giant donations from a small number of people who then had hooks into the candidate and who often even cast candidates to serve their needs.

But while Obama has raised record amounts, he has done it a dollar at a time from a vast swath of contributers. In so doing -- building on the remarkable groundwork of Howard Dean in 2004 and alongside the resilient Ron Paul in this cycle -- he has helped us realize the promise of the original intent of campaign finance reform by muting the influence of special interest money.

While it was always possible that nearly the entire adult population of the United States wanted to contribute to presidential candidates, it was the frictionless facilitation of the internet which has made this happen, and the Obama camp's dexterity in separating people from their money which has led us here.

Where is here? A world where the only disadvantage a candidate has in fund raising is being a lousy prospect. It certainly doesn't seem to be a disadvantage to be a 44-year-old black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

AP vs. The Bloggers: A Portentous Sideshow

The AP probably had no idea it would create such a firestorm in the blogging community by telling the (aptly named) Drudge Retort to remove seven headlines and story briefs from its site.

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis tried to mediate, and then lost his temper. Michael Arrington urged a boycott of the AP (wonder how that went over at AP member the Washington Post). The AP says it plans to meet with the Media Bloggers Association this week to find a way through this thicket.

I'm sure this skirmish over links and intellectual property will sort itself out after the requisite level of shouting, breast-beating, and expressions of indignation. And nothing important will have been resolved.

Let's turn this flame war into a teaching moment.

Continue reading on wired.com's Epicenter blog

Sunday, June 1, 2008

We Don't Need No Stinking Numbers

Jay Rosen and many other press critics have long decried (terrible word, but very handy in journalism) reporting about elections as a horse race -- the obsession with numbers and what the numbers mean and what other numbers would mean.

Part of the criticism is that it is lazy. And it is. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of admitting that, very often, the stories I enjoyed writing most were based on clear facts from a printed page that I could attempt to explain in prose poetry. And there are no clearer facts than those expressed by numbers. Ask any math teacher.

The other criticism is that it squeezes out reporting on "things that matter." We talk about how well candidate Jones has done in the latest poll, so we don't report about candidate Jones's position on health care. Health care is hard. Have pity.

I've been modestly sympathetic to the view that horse race coverage ill serves the electorate but, as with anyone who has a mild addiction to politics, I do enjoy the numbers and intelligent talk about them.

But given where the Democratic nomination race is, this must stop now. The numbers no longer matter. They haven't mattered since it became a mathematical impossibility for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to get the nomination based on votes by voters.

On this subject, Hillary has this exactly right: any credible candidate in an election that will be decided by party insiders not only should stay in the race, but has an obligation to.

Her arguments may ultimately not resonate with the super delegates. The choice of either candidate by this elite voting block may be determined by the negative consequences of the alternative rather than by a compelling positive.

But it is what it is. The fight now is among a few hundred "wise" people, whether we or the cable analysts like it or not. And, unless we can do 24/7 brain scans on these folks, there is nothing for us to talk about.

The numbers don't matter anymore. Let the debate begin.

Great Scott! Why Wasn't I Informed Immediately!

What's fascinating about the Scott McClellan stuff? I'm not sure. After about a week of digestion I'm left with the impression that he's a pitiable child who has come to the embarrassing realization that he was the last to know what was going on at home.

Of course this is no trite family matter since his home was a White House which intimidated press, pundits and most nay-sayers into believing (or at least not questioning) the premise that going to war with Iraq was a strategic necessity.

This is not to say that I agree with any of the hand-wringing Republicans who are "puzzled" and say don't recognize the Scott they know. These non-denials are trivial truths, since they tell us nothing. Of course they are puzzled. Of course they don't recognize him. Scott was a puppy, happy to be petted and fed and stroked as and when master so deigned. That he's now trying to be Cujo -- or at least Underdog -- is puzzling and not like him at all.

McClellan was a professional liar, in a profession where the most integrity you can possibly muster to not address a subject at all, as Mike McCurry did when he was relentlessly questioned about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. McCurry went out of his way to say he had gone out of his way not to talk to his boss at all about this subject. Maybe that wasn't true, but it at least allowed him not to pass along propaganda as fact.

Scott, however, was happy to present the company line and denigrate the inquisitive. One is left with the impression that he simply didn't have what it takes to do otherwise: another feckless, powerless minion whose role was to do no harm as the powerful A-Team did as much as possible. Even the strongest among the inside-outsiders -- Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill -- were expected to sit quietly and nod when they were pushed before the cameras to defend the manhood of others.

So, what about Scott? It's always helpful when someone in the know confirms what critics have asserted, what logic requires us to conclude, and what the country seems to largely believe, given the Nixon-esque polling numbers Bush gets. When a messenger changes sides, his secrets are valuable -- even if he isn't.

But it does lack the impact of a confession from someone who actually does matter. It isn't William Casey (or even Ollie North) outing Ronald Reagan. It isn't John Dean spilling the beans about Richard Nixon. It is a tardy confirmation from a water carrier who came to Jesus, he says, only after reporters made it all clear to him two years later. Hallelujah.

I welcome Scott to our side, but he shouldn't get his hopes up about getting picked to play.