Thursday, August 4, 2016

(With a Big Caveat,) Clinton Only Needs One More State

If the saying is true that a week is forever in politics, then it can be no coincidence if the inner circle of the Trump Campaign feels as though the past fortnight has been a double-eternity. Charging forth from his own, suitably(-?) raucous convention, Mr. Trump found himself in a flat-footed tie with Secretary Clinton, herself still reeling from the damaging final report of the FBI regarding her private e-mail server. He wasn't leading much of anywhere, but in the national tracking polls he'd pulled nose-to-nose with the once seemingly invincible Clinton juggernaut.

To say that things have not gone well for Mr. Trump in the fourteen days since is to say that matters have not recently gone well in Syria. Always the bombastic narcissist, Trump has responded to the conclusion of his biggest private show to date with a series of otherwise stupefying unforced errors -- the most well-known of which, his public feud with Khizr Khan, may not even effect the deepest or most lasting damage on his candidacy.

Consider just one twenty-four hour window from the past fourteen days, during which...

  • In a Washington Post interview, Trump declined to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan against his primary challenger
  • He reiterated that he hasn’t endorsed Sen. John McCain and said the onetime prisoner of war “has not done a good job for the vets”
  • He slapped out at Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, saying “she has given me zero support”
  • He suggested that Americans should pull their 401(k) funds out of the stock market
  • He said he’s “always wanted” to receive a Purple Heart but that having one gifted to him by a supporter was “much easier”
  • He said that the handling of sexual harassment has “got to be up to the individual”
  • He accused Khizr Khan of being “bothered” by his plan to keep terrorists out of the country, and said that he had no regrets about his clash with the family
  • He appeared to feud with a crying baby during a rally
  • He reiterated that “if the election is rigged, I would not be surprised”
  • The sitting president of the United States publicly called Trump “unfit to serve” and urged Republicans to withdraw their support for him.
  • Trump spokesman Katrina Pierson suggested that Obama and Clinton are to blame for the death of Humayan Khan, who died in 2004, despite the fact that neither were in the executive branch at the time
  • An ally of Paul Manafort told John Harwood at CNBC that the campaign chairman is “mailing it in,” leaving the rest of the staff “suicidal.”
  • Sitting GOP congressman Richard Hanna, HP head Meg Whitman and former Christie aide Maria Comella all said they plan to vote for Hillary Clinton
  • The Washington Post released a transcript of its full interview with Trump, indicating among other things that he paused five times to watch TV coverage in the middle of the sit-down
  • A GOP source told NBC’s Katy Tur that Reince Priebus is “apoplectic” over Trump’s refusal to endorse Ryan and is making calls to the campaign to express his “extreme displeasure”
All of this, understand, happened in just one news cycle out of the fourteen in question (hat-tip: Teagan Goddard's Political Wire).

The effect of all this chaos on the political horse race is only just now beginning to register -- but as of this writing, Secretary Clinton has surged to a comfortable lead in the national poll of polls. Her biggest lead, according to Fox News (!), shows her up by ten points. Mr. Trump is in big and self-inflicted trouble, and it's beginning to take its toll on the firewall of support he's previously enjoyed even through what seemed to be his gravest missteps of the primary season. 

Thing is, the United States doesn't pick its President on the basis of a nationwide popular vote: it picks the winner according to the weighted outcomes of fifty-one individual contests at the state level (including the District of Colombia). And as has been reported on this site at various times, the state-level polling often lags the true picture of the election by several days, for various abstruse reasons. Even without a return to normalcy in the dynamics of the race and/or its media coverage, we probably won't have a clear sense of where the individual states are running for another few days, possibly a week. And the point of today's column is that this is very, very bad news for Trump and his supporters, indeed.

To see why, we turn to the excellent and highly underrated reporting of Dr. Andrew Tanenbaum at An expat living in continental Europe, Dr. Tanenbaum has since 2004 chronicled the day-to-day fortunes of Presidential candidates by tabulating their respective standings in the electoral college in real time, tallied according to the most recent polling data available by state. Tanenbaum doesn't project anything from polling data or polling trends, which has the paradoxical effect of making his reporting much more reliable than at least one inexplicably more popular (and very often spectacularly wrong) colleague of his. Instead the tone of Tanenbaum's site is reserved, sometimes downright diminutive, but it more-or-less has to be if prognostication is to be expressly verboten in this fashion. Point being, those of us who read him every day take the rock-solid surety of the thing and the clamped-down rhetoric as the necessary halves of an important and under-represented corner of the political blogosphere: If Andy says it, you're never going to be embarrassed because you repeated it at a cocktail party. He has a lot of friends. He deserves them.

All of which brings us to a report appearing in his August 3rd edition, in which co-contributor Christopher Bates tabulated the safe states for each party in a "blue wall" and a "red wall," and then commented at some length on the dis-equal electoral vote tallies of the two resulting floors, and on the dynamics of the race in the few states that fell in neither secure camp. Here is a reprint of the graphic used by Bates to inform his commentary:

The "blue wall" column in this graphic shows exactly what the name would suggest: the complete list of states, with their electoral vote tallies, which have gone for the Democratic Party's candidate for President in no fewer than six consecutive election cycles. The Republican equivalent was divided by Bates into a "red wall" and a "pink wall," owing in part to a fairly sizable discontinuity in the Republican winning streaks of the two sub-groups.

But even adding the "red-" and "pink wall" together, the two subgroups of states only afford Mr. Trump a starting "floor" of 180 electoral votes, while the corresponding floor for Secretary Clinton is shown as 242 -- in a contest where it only takes 270 to actually win the damn thing. This is an enormous built-in advantage for Team Blue in the big contest, and it has been this way for some time -- independent of a self-destructive opponent. The graphic above would look exactly the same if Mrs. Clinton were running against Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush.

Probably, not definitely, but probably, Mrs. Clinton would be correct to bank those 242 electoral votes against any rival. A case can be made that Pennsylvania might be more- or less competitive, given a certain specific Republican candidate; a similar case can be made regarding Wisconsin or Michigan or Oregon. But these are the arguments we hear from Republican strategists every four years, and somehow every four years the blue wall seems to hold. Remember, this is Andy Tanenbaum we're talking about here: he and Bates aren't calling anything for this November. They're merely stating the cold, hard fact that the Democrats have carried these 242 electoral votes through good election cycles and bad ones, in some cases over the span of much of our lifetimes.

It doesn't take your present reporter to note how close 242 is, to 270, or that a Democratic win in either one of Ohio or Florida -- all by itself -- would run Clinton's total over the top. So it may seem strange, in such circumstances, that the states I'd like to talk about here aren't Ohio or Florida, but Iowa and New Mexico and Colorado and New Hampshire.

And yes, that does seem strange, so do bear with me.

It happens that Iowa finds its way into the "swing state" category of Bates' table on the basis of one, single, solitary election: 2004 -- during which it flipped from Gore in 2000, to a Republican candidate whose name escapes me for the moment. I think he flew airplanes for the Texas National Guard for a while, if memory serves. Or maybe he didn't. But at all events, Iowa was one of just two states John Kerry failed to hold from the Al Gore coalition (the other being New Mexico), and for that reason Iowa is listed objectively as up for grabs. Except this is a state that hadn't gone for a Republican before that war-on-terror-soaked fiasco since Ronald Reagan. Notably, Iowans even chose Michael Dukakis over George H W Bush in 1988, a distinction shared by just nine other states and the District of Colombia.

If for the moment we assume away Karl Rove's magical anti-gay-marriage gambit and the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq including Humayun Khan, the streak of Democratic victories in Iowa would stand at seven -- the same as Hawaii and New York. It seems reasonable to me to consider such a state a relatively safe bet for the good guys. I'll be happy to take a wager or two on the subject if anyone's interested.

This is a counterfactual, of course, and once one plays such games with the data there is no hard limit on where they can lead. But let's put it this way: To believe that Iowa is in play this year, you must believe that Mr. Trump is capable of appealing to a wider coalition of Iowans, or a narrower coalition in much deeper numbers, than were willing to cast their votes for either George Bush Senior, Bob Dole, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. Let me just repeat that last part: Mitt, freaking, Romney didn't win in Iowa. And Mitt Romney won 27% of the non-white vote in 2012.

Yes, Iowa is whiter than the country at large -- but so is Minnesota, and in both places the under-structure of that homogeneity is a smart and well-funded school system and a long tradition of deep commitments to Democratic-Party ideals, if not practices, on issues ranging from organized labor to agricultural subsidies. Maybe Iowa really is a swing state, but as someone who suffered and bled for John Kerry more than most (I was unemployed at the time), I just can't see it.

The other state that Mr. Kerry failed to hold, is New Mexico. And here the swing-state status is rendered even more dubious by the large and growing Hispanic population -- effectively none of whom are planning, even now, to cast ballots for Mr. Trump.  New Mexico didn't vote for Dukakis in 1988, but except for 2004 it has turned blue on every election night since, which would peg its counterfactual, John-Kerry-less streak at six, or the same as California and Connecticut. I'll be happy to take wagers from any Trump supporters on that one too, thank you very much.

Next door to the Land of Enchantment is the much more defensibly swingy state of Colorado, which in the last six elections has gone twice for Barack Obama, twice for George W. Bush, and once for- and once against Bill Clinton. On paper at least, it doesn't get any swingier than that. But these historic data points harbor an even bigger problem than the large and growing Hispanic population in the inter-mountain west, which is that Colorado is also home to a large and growing population of former Californians, most of whom owe their relocation to the wild successes of the American technology sector, and are therefore much more liberal. The dynamics of the race in The Centennial State have been sour for Mr. Trump almost from the beginning, and they have soured so dramatically in the past few polling cycles that the Clinton Campaign has quietly non-renewed their advertising buys in the state until further notice.

Across the country, if not the ideological spectrum, is the Granite State of New Hampshire, whose status in Bates' swing-state table is owed to the most heartbreaking and little-known fact of this entire column: The fact that it, and it alone in the Northeast, voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Without those four electoral votes, Bush would have lost to Al Gore despite all the shenanigans in Florida.

People love to say that a few hundred votes in Florida determined who would be President in 2000, but with all the controversy surrounding that state's count we may never confidently know for sure. What's much less in dispute is that Bush carried New Hampshire by fewer than 7,000 persons -- meaning that if 3,500 of them had reversed themselves, much of the unspeakable carnage and global heartbreak that has followed would never have happened. It is an idea not to be borne any longer, so let's leave it there by observing that, if we reverse New Hampshire's outcome in 2000, their streak of Democratic-Party victories would also stand at six. Again, wagers are welcomed and encouraged.

For any of these states to fall for Mr. Trump, a person would have to believe that one-time victories in some of them are better predictors than pulled advertising in others. This might be the conservative play in some parallel universe with an election that featured two grown-ups, but in this election it seems nothing short of willful. More specifically, considering these four states to be in play any more than Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania represents a stretch of sufficient proportions to raise equally valid questions about the predictability of the blue wall itself. In other words, I fail to see how one can confidently bank Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania for the Clinton team, and not include the four states I've listed here.

Okay. Assuming you've stayed with me this far, let's add Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Colorado to Secretary Clinton's blue wall, and see where that leaves things (courtesy of

Cosmetically, at least at first, there's nothing terribly different about this map from any number of unresolved maps of the electoral college we've all been playing with on this site and others for the past dozen years, now. Some states are blue, some are red, and some -- five, to be exact -- are legitimately up for grabs: Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and of course Florida. At a glance, this is dog-bites-man stuff. 

But incline a little closer to the map and you'll notice something genuinely arresting about it: Unless you disagree wholescale with the arguments I've employed to get us to this point, Secretary Clinton stands exactly one state shy of being President. She can lose any four of the five gray states above, as long as she wins the fifth one, and she's over the top. This, you understand, is before we factor-in the structural problems Trump is encountering in such otherwise predictably red states as Mississippi and Georgia and Arizona. If he loses any of these, it's truly curtains. And Mrs. Clinton is currently ahead in Arizona, together with North Carolina, Florida, and New Hampshire. Even a nimble political pro -- even a Jeb Bush -- would be in seriously deep kimchi at this point. Remember, most of the data we have on where things stand at the state level has not fully accounted for the blizzard of self-devastation to rock the Trump Campaign over the past few days.

And the caveat suggested in the title? It's not the one you're probably expecting. Yes, all of this can change on a dime: Hillary Clinton could be caught in some fresh firestorm of mendacity tomorrow. A bunch of nitwits could fly a plane into the side of a building in the name of a God who teaches us to be nice to everybody. Markets could crash or Boris Johnson could move to Poughkeepsie. But that caveat is both implicit and peremptory: The whole point of an electoral college map in August is to see where things would stand today, if the election were today, and to use that information as a proxy for theorizing about how things might proceed between now and November 8th. The big day is still a ways off, much can happen in-between, and these things needn't be said.

The caveat referenced in the title is that, for all his self-destructive behavior, Mr. Trump doesn't seem to be hurting the GOP's chances down the ticket very much. Tanenbaum has a running tally of where things stand in the Senate, and the headline that inspired the present column from yours truly was that, if the election were today, the Republicans would hold the Senate majority and it wouldn't even be terribly competitive. And the thing is, this is the result of a conscious and I believe ill-advised decision by Secretary Clinton: to reach out to Republican candidates in pursuit of their support.  

Calm down. I'm not about to go on one of those un-moored Bernie-Brothers' rants about how Secretary Clinton is effectively campaigning as a moderate Republican. She is, and as Democrats we're stuck with that much. We got some real movement out of her on some key issues, and whether she means it or not is academic at this point because she's the nominee. (For a more in-depth consideration of why it might make sense to vote for her anyway, see my most-recent previous column.)

The error in judgement here, it seems to me, is in her apparent expectation that the Republicans who benefit from this outreach will perceive some sort of indebtedness to her come January, and that with this indebtedness to her credit Mrs. Clinton herself may look forward to more substantive and collegial legislative success in her Administration. Nobody has said this, exactly, but it does seem to fit hand-in-glove with Clinton's curious gaffe a few weeks ago in which she praised Nancy Reagan for having raised awareness about AIDS -- despite the fact that Nancy Reagan not only did nothing of the kind, she did the very opposite. Only a politician who thinks she can woo the other side into voting her agenda would make that sort of gaffe.

As strategic expectations go, this one is beyond baffling and into the realm of the delusional: Nobody, but nobody, in the Republican Party is going to take any position toward a President Hillary Clinton that isn't cravenly antagonistic, and for all her supposed political acumen she really ought to know as much by now. It's not that elected Republicans are all monsters (well, perhaps it's not just that elected Republicans are all monsters), as much as that the echo-chamber media outlets favored by their constituents will see a Clinton Presidency as a ratings bonanza, and will fan their viewers into the same sort of full-throated acrimony that can only be secured by someone who isn't just Barack Obama's third term, isn't just a Clinton, but a WOMAN, to boot. No doubt some of the Republicans who benefit from Clinton's non-confrontational approach will feel deep remorse at having to assassinate the character of their benefactor from the House- and Senate floors, but assassinate it they will. They'll simply have no choice if they don't want to get Cantored.

In such a context, the only sensible strategy is to do the exact opposite of what Mrs. Clinton has been doing: to run up the score as much as possible. To wallpaper the airwaves with campaign ads that morph Republican House- and Senate candidates into Donald Trump, and blend their most odious statements back and forth until the persuadable voters among us can barely tell the difference. Only by defeating Republicans, instead of trying to curry their indebtedness, can Secretary Clinton realistically expect a successful Presidency. Only with Democratic support in Congress can she realistically expect to accomplish anything but four more years of stalemate.

And on that particular proposition, I'm afraid I won't be taking any wagers.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

This Bernie Supporter Declares For Hillary

With Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Hillary Clinton earlier today, complete with hug, the long-festering and often contentious rivalry at the top of the Democratic food chain is finally over. Funny thing is, someone seems to have forgotten to tell a good many of the Vermont Senator's supporters--at least some of whom have reacted with a sense of indignation and even betrayal. Secretary Clinton, they argue, is simply unacceptable: a candidate whose long record of equivocating on the issues of deepest concern to Joe Lunchbox have rendered her preternaturally incapable of empathizing with us as President.

This has been the mantra within the progressive left throughout the election cycle with nary a pause nor a stolen moment's circumspection. Indeed it may or may not surprise you to learn that your faithful correspondent, here, has distinguished himself as one of the few people he knows who was banned earlier this year from commenting in the discussion fora of all three of the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and Teagan Goddard's Political Wire, for raising these very sorts of concerns. So I hope it is from that Nixon-in-China platform that I may take a few moments of your time to explain why I, The Key Grip, Dave O'Gorman of Gainesville Florida, am hereby choosing to follow Senator Sanders' courageous lead, and endorse Hillary Clinton to be the next President of the United States.  

To begin with there is the greatly enhanced probability of a Democratically controlled Congress, to consider. Not every Sanders supporter is yet ready to concede that, fair playing field or otherwise, the Vermont Senator had effectively no chance to secure the 2016 nomination for President of the United States. Had he won Iowa, had he performed even respectably in South Carolina, things might have been different. Had he not given that disastrous interview to the New York Post, things might have been different. Had he taken a few more of the big primary states, even by narrow margins, things might have been different. But really, with the rules as they existed at the time he agreed to campaign as a Democrat, the probabilities involved were vanishingly small. Yes, there is a strong argument that the Democratic Party's system of picking nominees needs to change -- but that argument can't be made retroactive to last fall, regardless of who gets on board. This leaves Sanders supporters with a weighty little tidbit of political game-theory to consider: The greater the progressive turnout in November, the greater the chance of flipping control of Congress.

If we believe, as I suspect most people reading these words believe, that Mrs Clinton has a strong inside line on electoral victory, the turnout question ceases to have much relevance on its original terms: If staying home won't cost her the top job, then all it can cost her is the chance to sign better bills into law than the ones likely to come her way from the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. And by the way, it's not as if the legislative priorities of the candidate herself haven't undergone a pretty bracing transformation in the meantime. This is point number two.

The Clinton Campaign has made meaningful strides in adopting progressive policy positions. Like many of the most ardent Sanders-supporters, I've maintained my involvement in the political information culture through the thickest and thinnest hours of the past year, and one thing that has troubled me is the tendency of Clinton-supporters to impose a false dichotomy regarding how best to respond to the challenge from their left flank: "They want us to beg them to vote for her," as one regular commentator on Political Wire recently put it, "and I'm tired of begging, so ... f*ck 'em." You've probably seen similar sentiments yourself -- and if you're anything like me they have probably struck you as a curiously restrictive set of options. Where, I wondered in writing over and over until I got banned for it, was the possibility of winning over those Sanders supporters with some solid movement on policy? For months, the better part of a year in fact, the very idea seemed toxic.

But why? Nobody would have considered the Sanders campaign a failed indulgence in narcissistic ego-tripping if, on the night before the Iowa Caucus, Secretary Clinton had announced that she favors a public option to the Affordable Care Act, free tuition at public universities for in-state families earning less than $125,000, and a $15/hour minimum wage -- and if Bernie Sanders had then immediately called a press conference to announce that he was suspending his campaign. Moreover, those three positions would have cost Secretary Clinton not a single vote from the so-called "Reagan Democrats," all of whom are Republicans now and hate her anyway.

Never mind: Today, with Bernie Sanders standing directly beside her on a campaign stage in New Hampshire, Secretary Clinton presented herself as someone who favors all three of these policy positions, and I hope that even the most battle-hardened of Sanders' supporters are willing to concede that they never imagined any of these outcomes, much less all three. So what of the nagging problem that Secretary Clinton could still reverse herself, or fail to wield sufficient capital in a hostile congress to accomplish them? Well, that brings me to my third argument in favor of supporting her candidacy moving forward.

Coming from Secretary Clinton, a pledge to accomplish these things is no less bankable--not a scintilla--than it was when it was coming from Bernie Sanders. These words will no doubt rankle the most ardent supporters of the Vermont Senator, and I do hope those folks will bear with me, because this isn't about whether Bernie could have beaten Donald Trump: of course he could have. Consider 2008: With a galvanized progressive base behind him, Barack Obama defeated a far more popular Republican opponent, after all -- and in case you've forgotten, Barack Obama in 2008 may not have been as far to the left as Bernie Sanders, but the Clinton team's knock against his electability was the same. If a guy named Barack Hussein Obama can defeat a decorated POW for the White House, let no one tell you that Bernie Sanders couldn't have defeated Donald Trump, because he could have. Would have, even.

No, the reason to take seriously a Clinton pledge to raise the minimum wage, and add a public option to the ACA, and implement free tuition at public colleges, is that the job of running for President and the job of being President are never the same thing. Only the most willfully fatuous among us doesn't understand that a promise to do any of these things is only as strong as the confluence of favorable legislative climate, stalwart public resolve in the face of counter-narrative, and good old fashioned luck. Whatever the Bush II Administration was planning to accomplish, legislatively, it almost certainly didn't plan September 11th -- to pick one random but illustrative example of how campaign platforms can collide, sometimes literally, with the facts on the ground after election day.

This is not to say that the reason to weight Clinton's promises equally with Sanders' is that both would have been valueless. No. Instead these promises serve as markers on the giant felt that is our national agenda. A candidate who says, "Make me President and we will end the war in Iraq and close Camp X-Ray in my first term" probably accomplishes even one of those two things perhaps once out of a hundred times--but in the other ninety-nine he gets us a lot closer than the guy who calls such promises juvenile and reckless. They serve as informal guidance regarding which legislative initiatives will be embraced, and which will be actively resisted, by an elected administration, and as such they steer the much messier and less tractable machinations of the policy wonks in the deepest bowels of government. By saying that she supports a $15 minimum wage, and free tuition for some public university students, and a public option to the ACA, Secretary Clinton sets the same three markers on the same felt as a President Sanders would have on those three points -- and with the same, largely informal result in terms of framing. And with these three issues framed in this way, progressives may look forward to having three fewer fronts on which to fight with representatives from their own party. This is my fourth point.

Secretary Clinton's policy shifts have narrowed the playing field for the remaining and difficult legislative fights that lie ahead. If you've followed the discourse on the Democratic side as closely as I have, you've probably long-since wearied of the mantra that the reason to support Hillary Clinton is that she isn't Donald Trump. As it happens this isn't just a tired argument; it's also a dangerous one -- insofar as it allows the goal posts of the national dialogue to be set up with Donald Trump at one end, and a slightly less scary version of the same agenda at the "other end," as it were.

In political science circles this phenomenon is known as the "overton window" and it can produce some deeply regrettable results, such as a Vietnam-war apologist running against the man who lied about Algier Hiss, and waging the campaign struggle over which of them will do a better job of restoring "law and order" to the nation's dis-empowered inner cities. Absent the movement we've seen from the Clinton camp, as described above, this would have been the reason not to support Secretary Clinton in the upcoming campaign, and I probably wouldn't have -- but a funny thing happens when an otherwise centrist candidate starts cherry-picking progressive causes like this: It frees progressives to oppose that same candidate on the other issues, after the election.

If, as seems likely, Secretary Clinton wins in November, then I submit to you that there is nothing particularly hypocritical about having voted for her, on the one hand, and continuing in our efforts to reform the Democratic party on the subjects of banking, mass-incarceration, and trade, on the other. By moving toward the progressive end of the field on the minimum wage, tuition, and the ACA, Secretary Clinton has permitted the overton window to, in a way, wrap back on itself: The progressives who might not otherwise have supported her may see a tangible benefit from doing so, in the form of a reduced array of battles to be won, as opposed to those we would face in the terrifying alternate reality where the next President has orange hair and a shameless sexual fixation on his own daughter. Make no mistake, this is not saying that the reason to vote for Secretary Clinton is that she isn't Donald Trump; it's saying that only half of the platform she's running on is even objectionable as Secretary Clinton's, anymore. That's a big difference. And that's my fifth and final point.

Last, and certainly not least, is the chance that her victory could empower not just women but us all. As a big fan of comedian Patton Oswalt, I find myself having to lunge for the volume knob on my work computer more often than almost any of my professional colleagues, to be sure. But for one segment of a recent routine of his I catch myself easing the knob up, instead of down: It's the one in which he talks with just his curious blend of hilarity and truth-to-power about how profoundly the country, and with it the world, was changed with the election of Barack Obama as President. "I don't think most people know this," he opines in the linked clip, "but Barack Obama made time-travel cheaper. I used to think I'd have to go back a hundred years to blow people's minds with my time machine, but now I can go back to 1999, and just tell everyone that our President isn't just a black guy; he's a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama. We elected a jamba-juice supplement with a dictator's middle name! That's how great 2009 is! I'm gonna vote for Ginseng Hitler Bee-pollen!"

The point Oswalt makes so eloquently while we're too busy laughing to notice, is that President Obama didn't just become the first Black President: With his election, he became the guy after which it was literally impossible to tell a black kid that he couldn't be President. And if such sentiments would have sounded like ancient history anyway, I will remind you of the 1996 Presidential election campaign, during which Collin Powell was approached by the Dole campaign, and he turned down the Vice President's job ... on questions of safety. You read that right: A four-star general, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with Mother Theresa approval ratings, felt he couldn't accept an invitation to run for Vice President, in 1996, because he was black -- and his wife feared for his safety

That, friends, that is how much Barack Obama's election to the White House changed the game. And not just for blacks, either: For everyone. All of us win when merit is the guiding determinant of success, in favor of the confederate aristocracies so tenaciously preferred by our learned colleagues on the other side. 

When a black guy can be President, it's less of a stretch to imagine that a public-school-educated nitwit with an economics degree might someday get a book advance. Or a date. Almost anything is possible. And by securing the victory most of us expect of her in November, Secretary Clinton will accomplish the same thing and then some. Her victory will mean that neither skin color nor gender can impede a person from aspiring to literally the highest possible achievement in the world. Merit will have won out over aristocracy and aristocracy will never, ever, recover. And good riddance.

I freely acknowledge that Secretary Clinton is a flawed candidate. I still disagree with her, to varying degrees of alarm and even vehemence, on finance reform, pending trade laws, and military adventurism -- particularly in the Middle East. But between the likely force-multiplication of a united campaign, the policy movement we've already seen, the narrowed playing field for the remaining fights to come, and the profound implications her electoral victory would have for the causes of equality and merit, I am proud to consider myself today not just a Bernie Sanders supporter, but a Hillary Clinton supporter as well. 

She's earned my vote, and I'm proud to say I'll be casting it for her this November.

Dave O'Gorman
"The Key Grip"
Gainesville, Florida    

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, Economists, and Empathy

When a fiasco as tumultuous as Brexit is visited upon the world, one of the most basic and predictable human impulses is to point fingers. Already the opinion-sphere is alight with stentorian treatises about every prospective social cause for yesterday’s vote in Britain, from apathy to xenophobia. What these missives have in common are two things: their proclivity to blame the voters themselves, rather than the conditions which led to their vote, and the absence of any call for prescriptive adaptation on the part of the policymakers whose actions created those conditions in the first place. This tendency to acquit the table-setters of bad group-think is as durable as it is counterproductive—going back at least as far as 1930s-era Germany—and it has to stop.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

A Theme Park for Writers

Come in, come in. Sit down. Thank you for coming.

Thank you for having me. What can I do for you?

Well, I've been thinking for a while now that what this planet really needs is a theme park for writers. And you're going to make that happen for me.

I'm ... not sure I understand. You mean, like a Hall of Fame that showcases history's best writers? Or do you mean a building where people can do serious work as writers themselves? Because I think both of those things already exist. So which one did you mean?

Neither. What we need is a place -- a whole, sprawling place -- where people can go, and live, and write.

Like a writers' colony. Don't those exist already too?

Yes. But they're too exclusive, and too expensive, and they don't have restaurants.

The ones in big cities do.

Sure, but they're still expensive and highly competitive and they still limit a person's choices for how, and where, and when to work. We need a place where writers can go and just ....

Let it fly?

Exactly. We need a place where writers can go and just let it fly. They have to feel like their time is completely autonomous. When they get up, they get up. When they want to write, they write. When they want to do something else, they can do that too. When they want to go to bed, they go to bed. And then the next day they can get up and do it all over again.

So this can't be a single building, or even a complex of buildings, but an entire locale that makes a person feel like his or her writing is the primary use of time. A sort of gigantic, open-air library. Doesn't a close friend of yours have a cabin way up in the woods -- someplace like Appalachian Tennessee, wasn't it?

North Carolina. But that won't work as a staple destination for a couple of pretty good reasons.

Such as?

Well, to begin with there's really no easy access to anything more cosmopolitan. That's kind of the whole point up there: you can write all day long, or go for long walks up and down the twisting gravel road, and anything else will take the best part of an hour. And since the restaurants in the area all stop serving at eight o'clock, that means a lot of self-catered dinners, or early nights.

Okay, I get it. So this place has to be a city. And it has to feel like a cosmopolitan destination and not just any old city. It has to feel smart. Like ... this.


But a minute ago you said a "couple of reasons." Is there another?

Yes. I'm banned from going back to that friend's place in North Carolina because I'm a klutz and I keep breaking everything up there.

Ah. So you need a place that's in bad-enough shape, and/or offered anonymously, so that you can't fuck it up.

But it also needs to be okay with itself.

Ah, pre-broken but comfortable. Sort of like this.


Okay, so what about a city somewhere else in the Appalachians? Something like Morgantown, West Virginia? Talk about "pre-broken but comfortable with itself," am I right?

Not cosmopolitan enough. There have to be museums, and well-appointed libraries, and readings to go to, and those things have to feel like central aspects of being there.

Madison, Wisconsin?

Not big enough. Good scene as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far.

Well some of the most famous writers in the world come from the big Southern cities, like New Orleans. 

No, the place in question has to have shitty weather.

Um... and why exactly does the place in question have to have shitty weather?

To ensure productivity. Some people can write when it's sunny and seventy-nine degrees (or a hundred), but not everyone can. Some of us need a crappy day to go with our latte and our window-side seat, in order to do our best work.

Okay, so something more like ... this?


Well it sounds to me like you're talking about the Upper East Side. The museum scene is ubiquitous, the restaurants are literally world-class, and there isn't a single thing -- not even a light fixture -- that isn't dirty and broken already, so your klutziness would disappear into the background noise.

No, New York isn't exotic enough.

Wait: you didn't say anything about that.

Okay, so I'm saying it now. This place, wherever it is, needs to feel alien enough that it resonates as a true experience. It can't be New York and it can't be Boston, which often gets suggested too. You know, the more I think about it, the place we're looking for really has to be in a foreign country.

Why? There are plenty of places outside the United States that feel less cosmopolitan, exotic, and alienating than New York or Boston. I mean. Duisburg Germany is less cosmopolitan, exotic and alienating than Dayton Ohio. Are you sure you're being honest with yourself about all of this?

No, of course not. But meting out different-colored money is something a person earns and deserves in his life once in a while. Besides which, if we're talking about a cosmopolitan experience, and at least part of the motivation is for the sake of its strangeness, there's no reason to think New York or Boston won't eventually feel a little ... too ... familiar. Remember, I grew up not far from both of them.

Okay, I'm getting it. So the place has to *feel* like it's a major departure from the familiar. Something like ... this?


Okay, then how about London? The reading room at the British Museum is about as close to a Sun Records Studio for writers as a person is likely to find. You could even stay at that lovely little bed and breakfast just down the street on Gower that you liked so much.

Well ....

What is it now?

The thing is, some writers have really, *really* bad ADHD.

Most of them, if it comes to that. But what's your point?

Well, if we're going to designate an entire city as a writers' destination, wouldn't it make sense for the other people there to speak a different language, other than English?

Wait--what? I didn't follow that.

Well, if the residents of the city speak English, they'll form a natural ceiling on one's ability to concentrate on his own language arts. They'll be sitting at the next table of the restaurant, speaking the same language as the characters in his book.

And there's no way to just ... gosh, tune them out?

Not for some of us.

You mean to tell me that in all your forty-six years of life, you've been quietly suffering from the intrusion-of-privacy that comes from not being able to tune-out the conversations at the next tables of restaurants?

Sometimes not so quietly. But yes. That's exactly what I'm saying.

Okay, this is getting weird, but I think it's also coming into focus. We're looking for a city, not a cabin in the woods, and the city we come up with has to offer a dingy, already-broken milieu, in a foreign country, where there's no way for the day-to-day humdrum to intrude because it's in the wrong language. Something like ... this?  

Yes, that's getting into the swing of the kind of city we're looking for. But it also has to have a good public transit system.

Um ... why?

So I can ride it.

And what would be the point of that?

Well, to begin with it would reinforce the sense of being in a cosmopolitan space. It would create an atmosphere of routine, but a routine that was also totally autonomous. I mean, there I'd be, with my little sack lunch ....

I can see it now: you being all writerly, while everyone else was just drudging back and forth to work. Won't you be just cute enough to kiss with your I-don't-have-to-go-to-work, all up in everybody's face on the public transit system. Oh, and you'll go everywhere right at rush hour, of course.


So we need a city with something like ... this.


Okay, what about Panama City? Doesn't your same friend with the place in North Carolina also have property in Panama? You also have a business partner there, if I recall.

Yes. But neither of those two are in Panama City, and the weather isn't nearly bad enough down there.

Oh, right; I forgot about that part. So, okay, what about Paris? I mean, Paris has got to be the perfect place for checking-off all of these criteria.

Well ....

What now?

Paris is really tough to get to. And expensive. And crowded. And most of the people who go there are intending to do much more active things in much the same way as with New York.

It sounds to me like what we're looking for is a big city with a shitty reputation as far as tourist draws are concerned, but not very expensive and not very difficult, and with a really good underside that visitors wouldn't necessarily know about. Particularly when it comes to fine, affordable meals like ... this.

Yes, that's what we're looking for. In a foreign country.

With writerly weather.

But where English isn't the primary language, yes.  

And with a handful of unusually outstanding venues in which to write. Like this


Wow. This is going to be really tough. 

That's why I called you in here.

Well ... Asuncion is cheap. And they have a bus system. And restaurants. And bad weather.

Where is Asuncion?

It's the capital of Paraguay. 

Oh, yes. I remember hearing about it once or twice. And writers go there, do they?

Nobody goes there, asshole; I thought that was the whole point.

Well ....


Well ....

You're afraid of Asuncion, aren't you.

... Yes. I am.

Oh my God in heaven; are you kidding me? So let me just see if I've got this straight: You want a writerly city, with bad weather, that's cheap and foreign and easy to get to, and alien enough to be a fresh substrate on which to create -- but not *so* alien that anything bad could possibly happen to you in a hundred years of walking around the sidewalks after dark with your hands in your pockets like the giant, cashew-headed goober you are. Like ... this.

Yes, exactly. Just like that.

You want five-star restaurants where you can order in English and pay a laughable pittance when they bring the check, but you don't want to hear English at the next table. You want a safe, efficient mass-transit system, and you want the money to be funny looking. And if anything bad *does* happen, you want to be able to scurry home on a direct flight with your tail tucked between your stubby little muppet legs. Did I miss anything?

No. That's about it.

Well that's a relief. For a minute there I thought you were going to make this tough.

So do you have any place in mind?

I ... might.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida Click Here to

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Persist, Adapt, Repeat

My name is Dave O'Gorman and I am trying to finish a novel. And the problem with that idea is that I am not particularly smart. For more than two decades of on-again / off-again writing and on-again / off-again adulthood I've put up a serviceable front as someone with something going on above the neck, but the truth of the matter is that I've been largely faking it the whole time. Some would tell you otherwise, but I'm actually not a terrifically bright guy.

This is not false modesty. I am not smart enough to have taken the undergraduate math classes I would have needed to excel in a graduate-level economics program, and I'm not smart enough to have realized that shortfall before trying a second time. I'm not smart enough to see a half-full glass when the totality of the world's progress all seems pointed in such an unhealthful direction, and I'm not smart enough to avoid alienating people by crabbing about it on Facebook. I'm not smart enough to learn my lesson about trying on ideas with friends who'd rather not be monopolized by the uncooked pasta salads oozing from my brain, and I'm not smart enough not to brood when they get tired enough of listening to me, to call me on my bullshit.

What I just may be smart enough to do, is persist.

True, this persistence has often manifested as a dogged, unsavory, almost Nixonian dedication to silencing some critic or doubter or imagined slight -- but this doesn't change the fact that in the half-dozen venues I've decided are important to me, I've proven almost without exception that I can calm the screeching sleet-storm inside my head sufficiently to leg out my agenda. The only big thing I've really ever quit on is my Ph.D. in economics, and that was after I'd passed the written preliminaries. So, okay, no: I can't keep my gigantic mouth shut; I can't wake up tomorrow and not be mostly self-focused and vain and cranky. But if I've proven anything it's that I can grit my teeth and finish something if I want it bad enough. (Badly is an adverb.) It's a meager form of emotional intelligence -- hell maybe it's the most meager form of emotional intelligence -- but it is something I can do. And until very recently it would have been enough to get me the rest of what I want. I can persist. It's not nothing. It's just not everything, either.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

A Liberal Economist Remembers Tom Landry (...Again.)

In the run-up to last week’s Superbowl my Facebook feed was just like yours: Positively vibrating with un-contained buzz for a sporting event about which I neither could, nor plan to, care any less. I haven't been interested in the Superbowl for years, except perhaps as a source of lament for the ever lower stoops it represents at the riverside of American popular culture. Last year at the same time I had to be told by one of my students who was playing.

As an unashamed progressive, aspiring artisan, *and* professional economics teacher, the two-week hypestorm of the Superbowl can be a gauntlet of spirit-crushing alienation—the yours-truly equivalent of all the scary desolation that befalls other single people around Christmas. To stave the blues I even make an annual ritual of tossing-off the same joke to my college classes, in which I lament that the conference alignments have permanently prevented Detroit from ever facing New Orleans in the ultimate contest. …And every year I have to explain all over again why there should be any irony whatsoever in the mental image of a nationally enthralled audience, rapt before the telecast of a contest between “Saints” and “Lions.” Pretty generally the kids still don’t get it. Point being, I may actually be the only person among my first, second, or even third circles of real-life friends who is officially all out of fucks to give about the Superbowl and its smorgasbord of unsavory capitulation to the engines of kleptocracy.

Not that there's been much of anywhere to hide: For fourteen straight days in January my Facebook feed was a veritable who’s who of people I’m supposed to look up to, preening in anticipation of an evening of diabetic sloth and Orwellian prostration in patronage of two corporate monoliths trying to ruin each others’ employees’ lives with leg sweeps and armored headgear. Somehow it felt even worse this year, though this of course could be more about me, than it. But mixed in with the usual dreck about which team was better positioned for the game, which commercials were going to be the best and worst, and how the halftime show was expected to come off (remind me again who Katy Perry is?), there were some noteworthy flourishes of genuine interest--and two of these items ultimately came together in my consciousness in such a way as to merit a sugar-free thought or two of my own.

The first was a quiz making its way around Facebook about which NFL team a person should support. Perhaps you’ve seen it: After the usual handful of benign questions and a few seconds of thoughtful machination, the website hosting the quiz purports to tell you which NFL franchise is best suited to your personality and temperament. With many better things to do, I took the quiz and was told I would make a very good Patriots fan. Go figure.

My immediate reaction to the thing when it popped up in my feed was to comment on precisely this flaw: Sports affiliations in general, and NFL allegiances in particular, are highly durable to one’s otherwise evolving tastes and values. To tell someone he ought to be a Patriots fan after an eight-question quiz is less like telling him he should try Pepsi and more like telling him he’d be happier as a Rosicrucian. Cute, maybe, but it ain’t gonna happen. Like our political values, we form our NFL connections early and with a great deal of nostalgia-tinged influence from our local environments, typically while we are still children. And because the choice of team we support has no real consequence for us or anyone else, it is in consequence all but indestructible once it sets: a slab-on-grade foundation, if not of who we are then of who we were when we came into it. Impervious to changes of geography, parental influences, broadcast rights or lists of fellow supporters, however unpalatable the company. Our sports allegiances in this world are as inviolate as our lifelong distaste for the man down the street who threw rocks at us for cutting across his lawn on our bicycles.

Now hold that thought while I explain that the other blip above the din of Seattle-Boston hate week was a reprint of Sarah Vowell’s improbably touching memorial to Tom Landry, who passed away in February of 2000. 

You probably know that Landry was for over a generation the steely-eyed, granite-impassive head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. What you may not know is that he was what we would now call a Christian-Conservative Republican, or that, at the time, so was I. For Ms Vowell to have eulogized him in such a touching way was at once both the perfect complement to my early reactions about the quiz, and a bittersweet moment of regret for an earlier time in all our lives, regardless of one's favorite team. 

For me the default NFL-football allegiance was, has always been, and more-or-less remains, with the Dallas Cowboys. I’m not a million miles from ashamed to admit that lately but it’s still true. And it is precisely that combination of the youthful certitude with which I imbued my initial choice, and the changes that have happened since—to me, to the Dallas Cowboys, to the country we both used to love—which have made Ms Vowell’s remembrance of the passing of their former head coach Tom Landry so difficult for me. Not for what it says about him, or me, or even her, but for what it says about us.

In January of 1978 I had just turned eight years old and my mother and I were living in a dreary apartment in Wappingers Falls, New York. I remember the big day as just the sort of cold and rainy winter Sunday that often besets the Mid-Hudson Valley for weeks and sometimes months on end. All afternoon a blustery drizzle had fallen over the vanishing snow drifts outside our window and speckled them in a pepper-crust of dirt. With all my friends inside for the evening and no appetite for a solo assault on the weather, I decided more or less by default to join Mom on the couch for this thing they called the Superbowl. I had never seen an NFL football game before. And I was hooked. Permanently, or so I thought at the time. Indeed hooked before I had any real notion of what was going on. To say I was changed by the moment is the sort of understatement people usually reserve for car crashes.

The precedent for such na├»ve zealotry had come three and a half years before, with my bitter disappointment over President Nixon’s resignation, and later with the eventual outcome of 1976 Presidential election. At age four I had known very few things, but I knew I was a Republican. I knew in the very broadest terms what this meant but the connections to my own daily life and potential livelihood were as distant as the nearest quasar and there was precious little appetite among the available adult influences to try to set me straight. 

The idea that I could have been a Republican was just fine with my Democratic-leaning Mother, who thought it was cute that her precocious and ever-nattering young son should bother to have a political identity of any kind. She’d been aggressively over-handled as a young child herself and come whatever consequences she was damned and determined that the legacy of her constriction would be a fierce independence in her progeny. (She succeeded.) 

Meanwhile my by-then-estranged father was far too busy ignoring me for our seven yearly ski trips at the far end of the Taconic State Parkway, to notice. Had he received the news of my politics he would have validated them--but this would have called for a level of interest sufficient to register me as anything beyond a consumer of lift-tickets, and this requirement placed such potential simpatico firmly beyond our collective reach. Which is another thing that never really changed—if also a topic for another column. Point being, I was as staunch a Republican as a person can possibly be at an age when he can’t be relied upon to pedal a bicycle without supervision. 

There wasn’t really much of a choice about this, either. In the mid-1970s nobody reeled from the abrupt disappearance of Richard Nixon as I did. His presence on the television had peppered my earliest childhood with just the sort of butch-gravel voice and haughty command most young boys can easily find at the other end of their family’s living room. To me he was the ultimate man’s man: Listening to him speak was an exercise in the receiving of dulcet toddies—as if Santa Claus had been cast in the role of a 747 pilot, narrating the surely-smooth landing to us over a crackly P/A. Walter Cronkite had painted a terrifying world against the eyeballs of a four year-old watching the evening news unsupervised in 1974, and the main force in my life that had made it less so, was Richard Nixon. How bad could things possibly be, when I could count on the thick tongue and stern visage of the CIC as he spelled out to me why it was so important to continue bombing Cambodia? To me Nixon hadn’t been a Republican, or even a politician of any kind. He’d been, simply, The President. The only one we’d ever had in my lifetime and, presumably, the only one we ever would have, either. And then he’d resigned. And I—knowing positively nothing of which I spoke—had blamed the Democrats in Congress.

The grown-up realization that I wasn’t alone in this misapprehension lessens the shame of its remembrance, if only a little. After all, by this time a series of full body blows had landed on both me and my country with an almost eerie verisimilitude: On the very day that the North Vietnamese captured the Saigon Independence Palace, indeed at the very moment that Sandy Gall was narrating the tank breakthrough at the iron fence, it was explained to me what a marital separation meant, and that soon I would have to move and change schools and learn how to live with one parent at a time. Surely all of this had to be someone’s fault, and the obvious choice was the political movement that had reduced our trusty and benevolent jumbo jet-pilot to a whimpering wreck on national TV the previous summer. In my teens and twenties I would write three separate term-research papers about Watergate—one each in high school, college, and graduate school—and to re-read them now is to witness a fractious and painful transformation from the certitude of Executive Privilege to the necessity of the Rule of Law.

I remember very little about Nixon’s successor other than the tears I cried when he, too, was taken from us—albeit via more conventional means. In the summer of what should have been our national zenith of jingoistic masturbation over the bicentennial, an unknown and almost preternaturally inexperienced smarty-farty had galvanized the cynical Washington press corps around a message of sweeping change, and bullied his way to the Democratic nomination by making shrewd use of the caucuses to compensate for less stellar results in the primaries. Tenaciously opposed in Congress and lacking even the most basic agenda for his tenure, he had quickly retreated into rudderless platitudes, unforced gaffes and mealy mouthed equivocation. (Stop me when any of this starts to sound familiar.)

True, no one yet knew what an Ayatollah was, but still I may have been the only seven year-old ever to be threatened with removal from a U.S. classroom over the hand-back of the Panama Canal. It was only the new President’s first summer at the head of our affairs, but clearly this guy and his ilk had to go. Later that same season I’d started looking into the matter in earnest, and by late autumn I knew the country’s future could stand no better chance than with the tall and straight-talking career administrator and former chair of the RNC, one George Herbert Walker Bush, whom I supported steadfastly in favor of his Hollywood-flack opponent for the Republican nomination (a man whose name escapes me just at the moment). Eventually I would cry on the third night of the 1980 Republican convention, too—if not over the eventual outcome until much, much later.

All of which brings us back to the moment I sat down on that couch in Wappingers Falls to view the spectacle of two NFL franchises slamming away at each other for the most coveted of prizes: SuperBowl XII, in January of 1978, Dallas vs. Denver. I had at this point already chosen George H W Bush for 1980, and I had never seen football before. I didn’t even know the rules. If this much doesn’t tell a person everything he needs to know about my childhood, nothing will.

On game-night itself it was the pageantry struck me first. The New Orleans Superdome was in its gawky infancy and it’s hard to remember what a glittering spectacle of cocky commercial gravitas it was, given what has happened there since. When the two teams were introduced they took the field between flanking plumes of color-coordinated smoke and confetti which erupted from canisters that looked like nothing so much as mortar tubes. The National Anthem was sung by Phyllis Kelly and even before she started there were American flags everywhere. Everywhere. The halftime show was called “From Paris to Paris, Texas” and was performed by the Apache Belles—a majorette corps from the two-year college in Tyler, Texas. The play-by-play commentators were Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshire. A thirty-second commercial spot on the CBS telecast cost $162,000. The Cowboys were favored by six.

Now, if you’re eight and you’ve never seen a football game before, and you’re me, the first thing you have to do—even before you work out what a quarterback is or how to keep the score—is decide which team will be yours. And you have to do so with the death-grip passion of a summons to jihad. Good news, that, because for an eight year-old me still smarting over Watergate and the apparent theft of our ’76 freedom-fest by a spineless peanut farming wimp, this was the easiest decision I’d encountered. Possibly ever.

Nobody had to tell me that the Cowboys were “America’s Team,” or that their hometown would soon rise to prominence as the Martha’s Vineyard of the Republican Party. No one had to tell me that Dallas had a higher payroll or even that they were favored. All of this was at once inescapable and irrelevant: Dallas would win because they walked like they deserved it. They would hold the field because they took it expecting to. They would prevail because right-minded decent folk who polish their act and cross their T’s and don’t try to squeeze by on corner-cutting guile, were the ones who were always rewarded in our society and always deserved to be. The Cowboy team was more poised, more fit, way better looking, and far more polished in their execution.

And so it came to be, at least then and there. The 27-10 final score was if anything under-representative of Big D’s total dominance. The factious and nerve-crippled Broncos would eventually commit eight (!!!) turnovers, and even a doe-eyed little kid who didn’t quite know what was happening could have essentially called it from the opening kickoff, and felt good about it. After all, what could have been more just? If you trusted in the basic elegance of markets and the fundamental correctness of their outcomes, you knew to pick the Cowboys in Superbowl XII before Randy White had barreled through the line to force the first bad snap. People won because they did their homework and had their shit together. Might didn’t make right; it flowed from it.

This is what being a Republican used to be about.

This is why, when those of us of a certain age think of Tom Landry, we can’t help transport ourselves back to a time—yes, I’ll say a more innocent time—when the Jack Kemp’s and Tom Kean’s and Bob Dole’s of the world could smile a hale greeting for you and shake your hand until it hurt and look you straight in the eye and tell you they saw things differently. And if you disagreed you didn’t hate them for it because they’d given you no reason to. They knew in their hearts they were right, just as you knew in your heart that they were not, and neither of you was pandering for the TV-soundbite or the disingenuous red meat to fan his base. No one was winning after having cast the other guy as a cartoon character. You disagreed, but you did it in good faith. Both of you. A person could say this about Republicans once, an increasingly long time ago.

And of all the people you could say this about, you could perhaps say it first about Tom Landry: a Christian Conservative before it was fashionable to capitalize either of those two words, and a Republican the way most of us breathe oxygen, but never with the faintest hint of antagonism for those who would come at things from a different perspective. In sport, as in politics, there was always much to hate about the larger group, but personally I never heard anyone say they hated Tom Landry the man. They hated his team. They hated that he won. But these are not the same thing. No matter how you felt about his record or his politics, you didn’t hate him personally. So, okay, never mind the current crop of politicians for a moment; can you say the same about any Republican-leaning athlete of the modern era? Can you say it about Curt Schilling? About Lynn Swann? About Tim Tebow? …Really?

This is what happens to us when we spend too much time on Facebook, of course: Eventually we find two little blips, backed more or less against each other in our feed, and the combination sparks some otherwise improbable thought which completely commandeers our day. In this much, at least, I am not alone. And so it is that the tragedy of loss I feel over Sarah Vowell’s memorial isn’t just a typically nostalgic reverie for the innocence of youth; it is a nostalgic reverie for the country we all used to share. I don’t just mourn for the loss of Landry, or for the loss of the youth I enjoyed when he and I were in our primes; I mourn an entire era when the sharing of our national discourse meant good-faith disagreement and mutual commitment to proportionate governance. And I mourn it because it’s just as gone as he is.

You of course know where the story goes from that rain-swept evening in 1978—not just for the Cowboys, and the nation, but for me as well—even if you don’t know me personally. As the giddy Republican resurrection of 1980 petered out and a once promising vanguard of the moderate wing lost his bearings under the cult of his boss’ outsized persona, a cabal of increasingly nervous Texas businessmen banded together in suburban Dallas to give rise first to Lee Atwater, and then to Jerry Jones, and eventually to a progressive liberalism in the bosom of your present author, in retaliation for the other two developments.

The sadness I feel, in other words, isn’t for the realization that I have changed: It’s for the realization that, really, I haven’t; it’s the country that’s changed. The country, and the Republican Party, and the poisoned well of social discourse which they’ve wrought to consolidate their ugly grip on power. With the reprint of Landry’s eulogy, I can again remember not just a legacy of championship-level excellence, not just a corresponding chapter from our own lost innocence, and not just one of those grainy historical contexts which always manages to seem greater in our memories than any of them ever really were. I can remember a time—not that long ago, really—when an NFL football coach could be an avowed Christian, an avowed Republican, and almost universally respected for the class, and dignity, and above-all the good faith with which he hurled himself at everything he did. I remember Tom Landry once again, fifteen years later, as the Republican You Could Disagree With, and Not Hate.

He’ll be missed.

Dave O’Gorman
“The Key Grip”
Gainesville, Florida  

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Ten Reasons Why Writing is Harder Than You Think

And so it has come to this. A year that I ushered in by completing the first draft of a 550-page novel is now eight seven months before the mast and the novel only feels that much farther from being ready. That's not a whine (much as it sounds like one), as much as a completely adjusted perspective on just what an undertaking a novel really becomes when one is fully present about crafting prose instead of showing off his 100,000-words-in-a-month parlor trick.

And what an adjustment that has proved to be.

From 2000 to 2012 I wrote seven different manuscripts -- fiction and non-fiction alike -- in addition to contributing (irregularly) to this blog, revising and submitting short stories, and by the way teaching a full load at one or the other of the two colleges in my town. Those of you who write do not need to hear me say that these documents were generally pretty ragged and often downright terrible. The lesson of those quasi-lost years would seem to be that, sure, you can write a book and a third during your month-long trip to Eastern Europe... but not if you also expect anyone who isn't a blood relative or a first-circle friend to read it when you're finished.

Writing, it turns out, is friggin' *hard*. To make anything worth showing to a wider audience an author has to be completely present about every thought, every paragraph, every sentence, every word. And then after typing the signoff he or she must leave the room, and then return in a few days to tear the whole thing apart and start over. Again and again and again and again and, again. In the face of that kind of demand on one's resources the idea that I might have ever published any of the earlier crashed efforts is downright laughable.

But writing is also friggin' hard for a variety of other reasons, too: some of which are less than obvious and others of which are rarely accorded the full weight of their due. Some of which are things no one ever told me. Some of which are things I never even really considered until I went through this non-consensual transformation into the stately turtle you see before you now. And yes, your mileage may vary: writing is about talent, too, and not just perseverance, and a more talented writer may not experience everything on this list as acutely -- or at all. But this column isn't for them; it's for the rest of us: the journeymen. The folks who, like me, aren't procrastinating, aren't "blocked," aren't putting off until tomorrow what can be typed or penned today, and who still find the job of creating a worthy piece of art as seemingly elusive as ever.

These are the ten reasons why writing isn't just hard, in other words, but harder than you think:

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