Friday, February 29, 2008

I hereby repudiate and reject Tim Russert

In a time-honored ritual in American politics, African-American politicians and others the predominately white establishment press anoints as "civil rights leaders" or "spokesmen for black America" are regularly called on to "repudiate" the anti-Semitic or racist remarks of such fringe lunatics as "Minister" Louis Farrakhan or some other lesser known black preacher. In 1984, Walter Mondale was asked to repudiate the anti-Semitic remarks earlier that year of Jesse Jackson, who got caught telling a reporter that he had little chance to win "Hymie-town," or what Rand McNally calls "New York City." In 1988, Jesse Jackson was asked whether he would accept the support of the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose embrace of Tawana Brawley's fabricated story about her abduction and rape by New York City police officers diminished his less than legitimate status in the political mainstream. In 1992, Bill Clinton, as I've pointed out before, fended off questions about Farrakhan, Jackson and/or Sharpton by going on the offensive against them.

So, do you notice a pattern here? Each presidential election cycle brings with it the usual calls for "mainstream black political leaders" and the party's usual white standard bearer to "repudiate" the remarks of people who have no influence in the political process. 2008 is no different. Earlier this week, Tim Russert, the mysteriously influential host of NBC's "Meet the Press," demanded in the Democrats' nationally televised debate that Barack Obama "repudiate" the "endorsement" he received from Louis Farrakhan. Trouble was that Obama did not seek out Farrakhan's endorsement nor pay this long-standing crank any mind. No matter. Russert, in his textbook pseudo-dramatic, I-am-the-center-of-the-universe pose, wanted Obama on record as turning down this incredibly inconsequential and clown-like figure's "non-support."

A clearly perplexed Obama complied, saying, more or less, "I repudiate and denounce Farrakhan. Can we move on?" The ever-watchful schoolmarm, Hillary Clinton, looked on with great concern, indifferent to her own campaign's effort to discredit Obama by claiming his "main foreign policy advisor," Zbigniew Brzezinski, -- who is not even "a" foreign policy advisor to Obama -- has it out for Israel and, by extension, American Jews.

I think Obama handled this question with much more grace than I would have. I would have turned the tables on Russert and asked him this:

"Tim, you have appeared on the Don Imus program on several occasions, always referring to him as your "friend" and remarking how nice it was to be there. Rush Limbaugh, another gem, is also among your "friends." Both have dark histories of racist statements, archaic and often repulsive comments about women, the physically disabled, gays and others who fall outside the orbit of well-to-do and well-fed white men. Why do you continue to appear on their radio and television programs despite their obnoxious behavior?"

Perhaps Russert will answer this question sometime soon. When he does, I bet he retreats to the standard Washington-insider explanation. "In this town," he'll say, "you have to learn to agree to disagree. Simply because we may disagree on the issues doesn't mean you have to reject another person's friendship."

Different points on view on whether we should pull price supports from tobacco farmers or fund something other than abstinence-only sex education programs is disagreeing on the issues. Yukking it up with broadcast personalities and politicians like Joe Lieberman and John McCain, who count some of the world's most peculiar white religious leaders among their supporters is a different situation altogether.

McCain, in particular, has some real explaining to do. He just accepted the endorsement of John Hagee, a preacher at a Texas "mega-congregation" who has uttered some truly wacky statements about Muslims and Catholics -- he has no use for either -- that easily puts him in the same stratosphere as Louis Farrakhan. In fact, McCain called him "his friend. Questioned about Hagee's delusional world views, McCain responded that, "all I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee's support."

Tim, oh, Tim . . . can you please find Senator McCain and demand that he "repudiate," "reject," or "stomp out with his heel" the good reverend Hagee's "endorsement?" Better yet, can we put you in front of a national audience and ask you to "repudiate" Imus, Limbaugh and every other right-wing stooge you've indulged over the years?

Or is that just the way things work "in this town?"

Thursday, February 28, 2008


The United States now leads the world in both the number and percentage of its population behind bars.

Incarceration costs the states $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion. In some states, per capita spending on incarceration exceeds per capita spending on health.

America is also Number One in the pornography industry. The United States makes more pornographic movies and ships more pornography abroad than any other country. Americans spend more money on strip clubs than Broadway, regional theatre and orchestra performances combined.

The United States is also the most religious country in the Western world.

In some states, sentences for marijuana offenses can exceed penalties for murder.

Hmmmm . . . ? ? ?

Priorities, priorities.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When good isn't good enough

About a month ago, I ran into the mother -- excuse me, a self-described "hockey mom" -- of a 13 year-old I coached last year in the House and Select programs of our local youth hockey organization. Her son went on to play Travel B at the Bantam-age level, while we elected to remain in the Bantam House and Select programs. That decision was my son's, who informed me he needed "a life" in addition to playing hockey. For the uninitiated, House is open to all players who can, more or less, skate; select is, well, a "select all-star" team of sorts that plays at the Travel B level -- the same level as the Travel B program only -- in addition to House. And Travel is when you decide to spend 80 or a hundred or 213 hours a week driving your kid up and

down the East Coast to play other teams that also spend 80 or a hundred or 213 hours a week driving up and down the East Coast when they're not playing your team.

So, besides the driving, what's the difference between House (and Select) and Travel? Cost (about $1000 a season more on top of the $1,720 you to play in House and Select, and that's not including the fuel, occasional flying, tournament and hotel costs; time commitment (travel teams below the Tier 1 level -- don't ask -- practice twice a week and play, at minimum, two games a weekend; and psychiatric bills for the normal players and parents who wonder why they decided to put so much emphasis on "competitive" youth sports rather than "recreational" youth sports. For more competitive kids with a little more skill than the "average" recreational player, travel can be fun, provided that you love the sport, don't mind building your life around it six months a year and enjoy listening to your parents and coaches -- but never your teammates -- rattle on endlessly about the strengths and weaknesses of your team, the "difficult" player who is making life miserable for everyone around them and whether it makes sense to adopt the 1-4 trap if your team is up by more than three goals to protect the lead.

I've watched a lot of youth hockey over the past 5 years. I've watched kids play hockey at 6 o'clock in the morning and 10 o'clock at night. I've watched them play in tournaments where they played two or three games in a day and still had the energy to trash the hotel swimming pool. I've watched kids make some great plays and even better friends. I've watched kids who could barely skate at 8 years old turn into the league scoring machine by the time they were 11. For the most part, my son's experience, as well as my own, in youth hockey has been overwhelmingly positive, and I wouldn't have traded any of the lost sleep or run-ins with psychotic parents and coaches for anything. My son's best friend is a former hockey teammate, who brings with him to the deal an older sister who is also a hockey player. Their parents are terrific and are now among our closest friends.

But here's the dirty little secret: none of these kids is really that good. The kids here couldn't finish a practice with their counterparts in equivalent programs in such hockey-rich states as Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts and, lately, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Just this past weekend, our local rink, the Rockville Ice Arena, hosted a tournament for U16 girls that brought four teams from Canada and three teams from Michigan, Massachusetts and Minnesota, plus the Washington Pride, the premier girls team in the region.

Guess what? The Pride didn't score until the final day of the tournament. Forget winning. They didn't score. Hockey here just can't compete with the hardest of the hard-core in our nation's Ice Belt.

And that's not even getting to Canada, which increasingly sends its better teen-age players to American colleges to get an education in addition to developing their skills. College hockey has taken a tremendous upswing in the past 10 years largely because of the number of Canadian players who are now playing in the States. That doesn't, however, diminish the growth of American hockey during the same period. Americans make up a larger percent of professional hockey players than ever before, an impressive feat when you consider how the influx of European players has changed the demographics of the professional sport. More Europeans, more Americans and fewer Canadians. Not too dissimilar from how the flow of Latino players into professional baseball has diminished the American hold on the game over the last 15 years or so.

This isn't a knock on the Pride girls. They play hard and give it everything they've got. But, as one of my baseball coaches used to say to me whenever I thought I was better than I was, there's good, and there's "good." Like most people, whether as a kid, a young adult or a man past his prime sliding down the parabolic curb into middle-age, I've experienced error correction after the occasional, "Hey, I'm pretty good at this" feeling I get every once in a while, whether teaching, drumming or holding forth on some important issue of the day. One advantage of getting older, as a friend of mine pointed out last night after our adult hockey game, is that you take greater satisfaction is seeing younger, more talented people develop as a result of something you might have taught them. The best part of my job is watching smart, very together young people maximize their talent. If somewhere down the line an accomplished former student writes me a letter "thanking" me for their help along the way, then my work is done. Over the years, I've learned my limits. I'll never win a Nobel Prize, become president of a university, nab the drum chair for a Steely Dan summer tour or get back together with Sheryl Crow (Besides, my wife is smarter and hotter than Sheryl). But that's fine. A "good" life doesn't always mean you have to prove to someone else that you're "good" or that you "won." In the end, who gives a damn who published what article in what journal, or who the leading scorer was during the 2008 winter season in the Ice Pack Hockey League? You either enjoy life or you don't.

Oh, yeah. Back to my friend the "hockey mom."

So we stop and say hello -- a "stop and chat," as Larry David would say -- and catch up on recent news. This hockey mom is bubbly and talkative, the kind of mom who still makes banners for playoff games and claps for everyone as they come on and off the ice. Her son is a nice kid, a decent enough player whose most important attribute is his size. At 13 going on 14, he's pushing 6' or 6' 1." He moved to Travel B this year after, according to his mom (and dad), "we decided it would help his chances to play college hockey."


I got the low-down on how the season was going, the tournaments, the team bonding, "the usual drama by the usual people" (indeed, the same morons who had starring roles in my post, "Crazy Sports Parents" last spring, have wreaked havoc on everyone around them this year). I listened and listened and listened, having long ago given up hope that asking a parent how he or she is doing would yield an answer other than how the kid's "season" is going or what this fall's controversy was in the P.T.A.

"Look," she said, "we have no illusions that he's going to the NHL. But we think he'll play at the college level, probably D3 . . . nothing major. Don't you think?"

By this time, I was joined by my friend who helped me coach her son last year. He had the same expression on his face as I did.

"Your son is not going to play college hockey," I said. "Not one of these kids in any of these programs is going to play college hockey, if by that you mean a sponsored team. Maybe he'll play club hockey with some friends. But that's it."

"Really?" She was shocked. "What do you think the problem is . . . lack of effort? Ability? Do you think he'll have time to develop? Don't you think travel is helping?"

"I don't think you really have an idea of how good you have to be to make it to the highest levels of a sport. The kids that get there have been training for that day since they were 7 or 8 years old. Most of them are in junior leagues and haven't lived at home since they were 14. The best American players are in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan or in boarding school. They're not playing in rec programs in places like Montgomery County."

She was still stunned. She turned to my friend and co-coach, who looked at her and said, "That's right. Not a chance."

You would have thought that we just snatched the entire reason for her son to play competitive hockey right out from under her nose.

"Oh, we know it's fun, and that's what it's all about," she said. "But we really thought that he could crack a D3 team as long as he kept working. Nick thought he had a chance."

"No," I said. "He's not going to play college hockey. But it's okay to have fun and make friends and just enjoy the game. And Nick (her husband) can't skate, so I'm not sure he's the right person to go to for a scouting report."

"All right! Gotta go watch my son practice! We have a tough game this week and we need to be ready!"

That part I didn't get either. Why in the world do you want to watch a 14 year-old go through drills in a practice? What's interesting about that? No self-respecting teen-age boy wants his mother banging on the glass while telling him to "skate harder!" and reminding him to "listen to the coach." And who exactly is "we?" Parents don't play youth sports. Their kids do. Most of them love the games they play, but there are some every year -- and I've coached them -- who are out there because a parent(s) want(s) them involved in some sport. And it's not enough just to play because it's fun. They have to be "good" and the team has to "win." Every year I had at least one parent or family who simply did understand that we are volunteers giving our time to a community organization so that kids can develop an interest in a sport they like and have fun learning the game. Parents, not kids, complain that the team isn't winning enough, or that Team 4 is "stacked," no doubt because so-and-so had something to do with it, or that the "referees" are against "them" (again, the "them" implies that they are part of their child's team). The kids, I can tell you after time in the trenches doing this, just don't care.

Imagine if a child spent as much time criticizing his father's law firm softball team or his mother's doubles partner, and continually reminded his father that he needed to cancel his after-work engagement with his friends on Thursday so he could be ready for the big game against Big, Bigger and Biggest on Friday. Imagine if a kid stood in front of his mother while she worked out in the gym, telling her to keep her shoulders aligned during her curls or standing over her at the pool with a bullhorn telling her to extend her arms in the water to improve her stroke. How funny would that be? To the kid, hilarious. To the adult, not so much.

A consequence of a society that refuses to allow its children to have a childhood -- to play games because they're fun, or screw up in school and have time to recover, or not view every spelling test as an ultimatum on their pre-college preparation or their parents competence as . . . parents -- is a belief by adults that their children must be the "best" at everything and to misgauge competence as excellence. Playing to scratch at the local public golf club doesn't mean you're ready to take on Tiger Woods. Leading your church basketball league in rebounds doesn't mean that Shaq is worried about his job. Second place in the third-grade science fair doesn't mean that M.I.T. will offer your daughter a scholarship, and that your mission for the next nine years of her education is to make every teacher she has miserable by insisting that they treat the little genius differently than everybody else.

There is just a huge difference at being "good" at a sport, a subject matter, fixing cars, mowing lawns or ballroom dancing, and then competing and succeeding at the highest levels of those fields or activities. In my 46 years, I've come close a couple of times to thinking I was "good" at something, only to realize that I wasn't even within 48 football fields of the standard deviation of what was really "good," much less "the best," at whatever the hell it was I had deluded myself into thinking I could do. So there it is: sometimes being "good" isn't "good enough."

Come to think about it, though, sometimes, with a little perspective, not being "good" is "good enough."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Red State Update on McCain's alleged affair, the superdelegates and a 30 day sex challenge

Jackie and Dunlap weigh in on John McCain's alleged affair, the looming crisis over the "superdelegates" in the Democratic party and extend a 30 day sex challenge.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Do rich kids have an advantage getting into college?

Turns out they do. Hard to believe, huh?

The American system of higher education continues to perpetuate the myth that college is accessible to all students regardless of their socio-economic standing. Professional educators, particularly at the secondary level, know this isn't true. Professional admissions officers, as well as most professors, also know (or should know) this isn't true. A former student of mine, who now teaches high school at an affluent Washington, D.C. suburb that also includes a pocket of lower-income students, sent me a link to an interesting study showing just what an advantage the children of the professional class have in getting into and attending college.

Even if your profession is organized crime . . .

Friday, February 22, 2008

Time for Hillary to clock out?

Should Hillary quit?

That's the question that Eugene Robinson and Colbert King ask in their Washington Post columns this weekend. Robinson and King, along with Harold Meyerson, are the only Post columnists who write for themselves and not to maintain their social standing in the Washington political-media complex. Robinson's interest are more national and international in scope, while King's columns tend to emphasize local politics (and, in particular, the failings of the D.C. bureaucracy to address the needs of the African-American poor).

Robinson notes, in his column, "If Obama Went 0-10," that Hillary's enforcers would be calling for Obama to quit the campaign for the good of the party. The people, especially all the little people that Obama claims to care so much about, have spoken, and it's clear that the little people want the Illinois senator out of the way so that history can proceed apace. Hillary's 35 years of experience, which, now that she has just turned 60, apparently began the day after her graduation from Yale Law School, have time-tested her to step in on Day 1 and take the reigns of leadership of the Free World. Although it's not clear how her time at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, her tenure on the Wal-Mart board of directors, two-terms as First Lady, 18 months in the public eye as aggrieved spouse and 7 years as a U.S. senator make her the default choice for the nation's commander-in-chief, as well as chief executive officer (let's not forget that part of Article II), worse is the nerve of a neophyte U.S. senator like Obama to stand in her way.

Especially when you consider all that she has done for the American people.

King's column is a little more cutting. He takes the Clintons to task for campaigning -- at least at the beginning -- as if the African-American vote was theirs by entitlement. Billl's bad behavior in South Carolina, compounded by Hillary's awkwardness around African-American voters, did nothing to help their cause. Bill, in particular, seemed incensed that African-Americans could get excited by a man of Obama's intelligence and appeal rather than line-up behind his wife's "historical" candidacy to make her the first woman president. Nothing wrong at all, thought Bill and Hillary, with all those, "Women for Hillary" signs, buttons and bumper stickers. But, as King points out, it was a little hypocritical to scold African-Americans for feeling energized by a black man running for president. Not Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, mind you, who could never really attract white votes, but by a man who could win substantial chunks of white voters as well as take the overwhelmingly majority of black voters in Southern states. Perhaps you had to have grown up in the South to understand just how mind-blowing Obama's primary victory in Virginia was just a few weeks ago. Yes, the day should have arrived long ago when white voters put aside their hang-up on race to vote for African-American candidates. And that did happen, in part, in 1990, when Doug Wilder became the first African-American to serve as a Governor -- and in Virginia, no less, home to former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond. Obama, though, has much more "cross-over" appeal than Wilder, and his victory as a national candidate against an incumbent -- and let's not forget that Hillary is running for a third Clinton term -- is more impressive than Wilder's historic victory.

The Clintons, King notes, "low-rated" Obama from the beginning, assuming he was a feel-good, "niche" candidate not terribly dissimilar from Jesse Jackson, a man that could attract both a floor and ceiling of African-American voters and not much else (except for Whole Foods, sensible Eco-Shoe Democrats eager to prove their commitment to an African-American candidate after years of "celebrating diversity" with bumper stickers and honorable mentions of Martin Luther King, Jr. during Black History Month celebrations). They got it wrong.

Should Hillary quit the primary race is a question posed in the future tense. I would put the question differently: Should Hillary, after going 0-10, already have quit the primary race?

Yes. There is only one inevitable candidacy now. And it's not hers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bagels at McDonalds?

Last night, while watching the Washington Capitals fold up like a bad toupee on a humid summer morning against the New York Islanders, I saw an advertisement by McDonalds for a sausage, egg and cheese bagel.

McDonalds is now offering a sausage, egg and cheese bagel on its breakfast menu.

I had to repeat that just to make sure this is really happening.

Now, in all fairness, I haven't stepped inside a McDonalds in many years. The last time I was in a McDonalds was out of sheer necessity. I was driving home from Virginia Beach with my family, and we had run into horrendous traffic on I-95 North right after you leave I-295 to make the turn to Washington. After making this trip for the umpteenth time, I know where all the hidden exits are that allow you get off the interstate and slide over to U.S. 1. We took advantage of my crack navigational skills -- yes, that's true . . . it's the only inborn male trait I have. I can find my way out of any location I shouldn't be back to where I'm supposed to go without resorting to the local "filling station," as they call gas stations in the Deep South, for directions. Having made numerous emergency bathroom and diaper stops over the years around this interchange, I knew exactly where to find a McDonalds, and a relatively clean one.

Salads at McDonalds were strange enough, but I understood where the suits were coming from on this one. Parents are inevitably confronted by their small children with requests to go to McDonalds, and it's hard to say no, especially when you've been traveling and the possibility of a ball pit and indoor climbing structure offers some low-cost entertainment. So much so that you overlook the very real danger of God knows what diseases are lurking on those balls or on the tunnels where grubby little hands have been smearing snot and pee for hours on end. But . . . you do it anyway, convinced that you are providing your children with at least one positive childhood memory. And for parents who are long past their teen-age affinity for Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, a salad offers a reasonable compromise. We agree to subject our children to the plague, or, at minimum, hidden viruses that will affect the stomach and respiratory system, by letting them crawl around a toxic waste site of communicable disease and develop a taste for food that may well enter them into a world-wide obesity competition. In return, the grown-ups get a salad. A trade that works out well for both teams.

Sort of.

But bagels at McDonald? That's like lining up for cannoli at Ollie's Barbeque in Birmingham, Alabama, or just saying, "To hell with it, I will have the ribs," after surveying the choices at Shoney's. Some things you just don't do. Never tell someone you've started getting into jazz and then break out a Kenny G CD. Never tell someone you're "pretty good with computers," and then take the first opportunity you get to "fix" someone's balky laptop to infect it with a virus for which there is no known cure. Never tell someone you "understand women" because, since women tell me they don't understand women, there is no way that men can. Never tell someone you "know the way to man's heart is through his stomach" because, as undeveloped as we might seem to some, we're not all that stupid. Never use the inside fork first in a formal setting (outside in is the rule). Never go to the grocery store hungry. Never, EVER, go to Target without a specific list of items, or else you may as well just start a bonfire with the extra $200 you'll end up spending on useless additions to your laundry room, garage or bathroom.

And never buy a bagel from McDonalds.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The sinking of the Hillary-tanic

So now it's come to this: Senator Hillary Clinton gets crushed -- again -- in a state, this time Wisconsin, that was supposed to highlight her strengths among working people, voters that politicians who haven't prepared a meal, sat in a carpool line, eaten in a food court (except during campaign season) or made a bed in thirty years refer to as "just folks." . . . . you know, the kind of people, like them who don't shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or belong to a food co-op, drive cars until they drop and learn to cut their children's hair so they can save $20 or $30 a month . . .

. . . and the response is that her opponent, Barack Obama, did not attribute a couple of lines in a speech that his good friend Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, suggested he borrow from one of his speeches that they worked on together.

I suppose if you are going through hell, the trick is to keep going (1).

And just like after her pasting in the Potomac Primary (2) on "Tsunami Tuesday" (3), Hillary refuses to accept her defeat with the graciousness and class that 35 years of experience should have taught her. As unhealthy and over-the-top as our sports culture is in the United States, there is something refreshing about the post-game handshake line in hockey (4), or watching baseball players exchange congratulations after a post-season playoff game (5) or even -- and this is me talking -- watching coaches and players give each other high-fives and hugs after trying to put each other in the hospital for two or three hours (6). Last night, after a typically intensely fought but poorly played hockey game between the Red Army (7), my team (8) and the Ice Turtles (9), we shook hands after the game and pilfered each other's food and beer in the parking lot afterwards.

Hillary, on the other hand, is turning into that guy who mutters the "fuck you, asshole" as you go through the post-game handshake line (10) or comes up to you after a gig and says, "I didn't realize you were supposed to play 'Round Midnight' that way (11) or the student who feels compelled to point out mistakes on your PowerPoint slides or the inconsistencies in the office hours posted on your syllabus versus the ones you have listed on your door. In other words, if I can't win or play a musical instrument or make a meaningful contribution to class discussion, I'll point out something irrelevant just to prove how smart I really am.

Except that it underscores the reverse, that you're not nearly as smart as you think you are. If you were, then you would understand that eating your words is not the worst meal out there, especially when you consider the caloric intake in proportion to the wholesomeness of the meal that was prepared for you in bloody England (12).

From the bow of the Hillary-tanic, the good senator shouted before a throng of dozens in Youngstown, Ohio last night:

"One of us is ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world" (author's note: a world she helped make more dangerous by voting for the Iraq war) . . . "One of us has a plan to provide health care for every single American" (author's note: with the assistance, one presumes, of the pharmaceutical industry, which has made Hillary a top recipient of their financial contributions), One of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past. And one of us is ready to do it again" (13) (author's query: Rick Lazio was a serious opponent for the New York senate seat she won in 2000? Or is she referring to the "Republican attack machine" that hounded her during her time as First Spouse to Bill, who will not, it seems, have a chance to place the same title on his curriculum vitae)?

Yes, it is true, as I once told Yogi Berra before I was born, that it's not over until it's over (14). Every so often, though, it is over before it's over, even if it's not over, as is the case now, although it's not quite over (15). Hillary can stomp her feet and pound her fists all she wants over Barack Obama's upending of her presidential campaign. Words, words and more damn words, protests America's own real-life Tracy Flick, do not make things happen or prepare an individual to start governing on Day One. Perhaps she does have a point . . . really, what does a speech like this mean to an American down on his or her luck, or living in fear that her son or daughter will be killed in Iraq (a war that she supported until she decided she didn't) (16):

"You need a different kind of President. You need people committed to pulling together. And you need to believe again that we can make a difference. The beginning of everything is believing that we can do better . . . A Call to Change (emphasis added) . . . .Thank you very much."

Talk, talk, talk . . . that Bill Clinton, the man who included the above words in just about every speech he gave during the presidential general campaign in 1992, sure could make the public swoon, like some sort of rock star, or, at minimum, someone transfixed by a "cult of personality" that had built up around him (17). And according to Hillary he was one hell of a president. Considering he spent the last 2 1/2 years of his term sleeping on the couch, his accomplishments, in which she played an crucial role, except when she didn't, are even more impressive.

Over a year ago, I wrote that Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign would be the Titanic of modern politics -- a $100 million vanity exercise that would sink once that voters got to know her. Her loss in Wisconsin should be the message that it's time to throw out the lifeboat and save face in whatever way she can. Hillary can say this:

"Now, let me pose this question to America. If in the next 5 minutes a television announcer came on and said, there is a major international crisis -- there is a major threat to the world or in this country a major threat -- my question is, who, if you were appointed to name 1 of the 3 of us, who would you choose? Who has the perseverance, the character, the integrity, the maturity, to get the job done? I hope I'm that person. Thank you very, very much." (18)
After all, that's got to be better than this:

"You have to decide whether you want to change or not. We do not need 4 more years of an economic theory that doesn't work. We've had . . . years of trickle down economics. It's time to put the American people first, to invest and grow this economy. . . . We've got to grow the economy by putting people first -- real people like you.

I got into this race because I did not want my child to grow up to be part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than her parents. We're better than that. We can do better than that. I want to make America as great as it can be and I ask for your help in doing it." (19)

Experience vs. words. America's choice in 2008 . . . is . . . remarkably . . . similar . . . to . . . the choice . . . that America was offered . . . in . . . 1992, when George H.W. Bush campaigned as the candidate of "experience" and . . . Bill Clinton . . . campaigned as the candidate of "change."

Don't believe me? Guess which speech was given by whom . . . in . . . 1992.

What goes around comes around, as fear itself becomes the basis for hope that shall pass this way again! (20)


(1) Churchill, Winston, "Sober Thoughts," a long time ago. He might have stolen it from somebody else, maybe F.D.R. but definitely not Hitler or Chamberlin.
(2) Nickname given to Va., D.C. and Md. primaries by someone else. Not my idea.
(3) Davis, Aaron, "Email wondering if Max had cashed his Bar Mitzvah check," 2 or 3 days ago.
(4) A Canadian tradition in the sport invented by a lumberjack playing on a pond somewhere.
(5) See Gagne, Eric, "On importing a Canadian post-hockey game tradition into major league baseball," Journal of Sportsmanship," pp. 221-23 (2006).
(6) A football game I accidentally saw on TV a few weeks ago, passim.
(7) My "adult" hockey team. See my musings on "adult" hockey here.
(8) Name stolen from the Red Army national teams during the Soviet Era. Not for attribution, since treaties no longer apply in post-Cold War era.
(9) Gary Rosenfeld's team. Origin of the team name is unclear. For possibilities, see Anonymous, "Weird names for men's hockey teams," Journal of Arrested Development, pp. 433-34, (1993).
(10) Could be a number of people. See In General, Society, infra.
(11) Some guy waiting for the bus in Tenleytown, circa 1997, not for attribution, supra.
(12) Churchill, Winston, "Quotes of Mine," Bathtub Gin Law Review, 1943.
(13) Clinton, Hillary-tanic, somewhere in Ohio, subject to verification by Norm Ornstein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
(14) Berra, Yogi, "Cute Phrases of Mine I Parlayed Into a Successful Career That I May or May Not Have Really Said," Americana Monthly, last 45 years.
(15) Ibid., post-hoc at 345, passim sub silento.
(16) Clinton, Bill, 1992 presidential stump speech, taken from "The Great American Songbook," Kern, Jerome, George Gershwin and Ted Nugent.
(17) Complaints by various members of the Paul Tsongas campaign, who repeatedly criticized Bill Clinton for wanting to be Santa Claus and give speeches rather than deal with serious matters, 1991-92, better part of, passim, chile con queso.
(18) Bush, George H.W. or Dana Carvey, 1992 presidential debates.
(19) Clinton, Bill (not Hillary), ibid ad nauseum.
(20) Expresssion, Favorite, Handbook of School Teacher Cliches, 1967-79, Vols. K-12. And maybe Seals and Croft, the soft-rock '70s act. Or maybe Al Stewart. But definitely not a Sting lyric.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Red State Update on McCain's endorsements, Jane Fonda's Today Show appearance and more . . .

Jackie and Dunlap on McCain's endorsements from the Bush family and Mitt Romney. Plus some insight into their favorite albums . . .

. . . and the return of Jane Fonda.

Monday, February 18, 2008

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Zeebop Update

Zeebop will be playing out twice this week. Monday, February 18th, we're at La Ferme, the old and well-known French restaurant in Chevy Chase, playing three sets of acoustic jazz from 6.30-9.30 p.m.. If you can't afford to eat dinner there, maybe you'll treat yourself to a glass of wine and some dessert. La Ferme is a great room with great acoustics.

This Thursday night, February 21st, we'll be at Fuzion/The Blu Lounge in Bethesda, right next to the Bethesda Row theaters and across from Barnes and Noble, from 7.30-10.00 p.m. We'll put the soft acoustic music away and break out the funk. Come on out, if you can handle the rumble.

Zeebop is Justin Parrott, bass; Mark Caurso, guitar, and me, drums.

To learn more about Zeebop, click here. You can also find directions to these venues by clicking on the "Schedule" tab on our main site.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Time passages

A few days ago, three little kids charged into an elevator I was taking up to the parking garage from our gym and knocked me over. One managed to spill the contents of his sippy-cup all over my pants; another wiped her little grungy, cheddar-Goldfish stained hands on my jacket as she got up from our spill. The third, the youngest of the trio at . . . hmm? . . . 18-20 months, got so excited by the unanticipated fun of watching her brother and sister knock over a strange man that she . . . she . . . she . . . she . . .

started to pee right then and there on the floor, while still managing to maintain enough composure to stick her finger out at me and laugh.

Before I could get up and collect myself I heard a voice, a voice that could only be a mom, shriek out, "OH, MY GOD, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT, SIR?"

I turned around because, at 46 years old, I still refuse to believe that anyone would call me
"sir" because I have reached that point in life where I am so distinguished, so wealthy and so revered in the community that it only makes sense to call me "sir." For example, I like to think that when another person flips me off during some misunderstanding in traffic, or comes close to running me off the road when I'm riding my bike or accuses me of attempting to severe his head on the ice, he's not saying, "Hey, asshole, watch where you're fucking going you shithead, prick bastard, motherfucker jerkoff! You almost fucking killed me you dickless piece of shit douchebag." Rather, he's saying, "Hey, SIR, watch where you're fucking going you shithead, prick bastard, motherfucker jerkoff! . . ."

. . . and so on. Out of respect.

Of course, I know that's not true. The only people that call me sir are people so young I look a good 5o or 239 years older than them and they were raised to be polite to seniors, and restaurant employees who are required by their corporate training manuals to call all their "guests" sir or ma'm. And maybe an occasional friend of my son's who has caused some damage to our house or knows he's about to get in trouble. Sir, in that case, becomes a defense mechanism.


"It's really all right," I said. "Don't worry about it. I doubt this was a premeditated attack. And if it was you would be liable, not them."


I had to interrupt her.

"It's not a big deal. Let me help you clean up."

We rode the elevator to the first floor, pushed the stop button and dabbed up the pee and cranberry juice as best we could. The Goldfish made a mess, so I took out the towel I had just showered with at the gym and let the dampness soak up the crumbs. I did all of this without complaining and well enough to earn a compliment from this well-meaning but very harried mother of three young children. I even talked to the kids as I was doing this, telling them they should talk their mother into letting them eat Oreos instead of Goldfish for their snacks. Really, it didn't bother me a bit.

We cleaned all this up pretty quickly, quickly enough, in fact, that the mom was able to get her three kids off to their swim lesson. "Actually, it's just the older two. The little one can't swim yet," as if I could not conclude on my own that 20 month olds are not yet ready to swim without supervision and enough flotation devices to lift a WWII submarine from the ocean depths.

"Good luck with them," I said.

"Thank you," came the reply. "You know, you'll be a good dad one day."

At first, I was flattered, thinking that this mom younger than me by at least 10 years thought I would be a "good dad" when my time came, until I realized that she was just well-mannered and courteous. And relieved that I didn't get angry that her kids doused me with juice, crackers and pee.

What this mom didn't know is that I had been where she is now many years before, that I had done Gymboree, swim lessons, music school, circle time at Barnes and Noble and Borders and every other bookstore within a 100 square miles of my house. That I had cleaned up vomit and pee from grocery store and bakery and hardware and restaurant and strangers' floors, or that I had once taken off my shirt to "catch" the pee that had begun creeping out of one of my children's shorts in the middle of Giant, or offered to replace various broken items in stores that broke because my children broke them because I had made the mistake of taking my eyes off them for eight seconds or had taken the wrong child to the wrong birthday party on the wrong day because I had gotten confused about which child was supposed to be going in which direction.

She didn't know that I was more than happy to help her clean up after her kids, just like one day she'll be happy to help another young parent clean up her children's mess. She'll be happy because it will remind her of when her kids were little, when they needed her all the time, when she was their best friend and never their worst enemy. She'll be happy because, like me, she'll see those memories of "firsts" in high definition as she kneels on the floor to clean after somebody else's small children. She'll be happy because she knows that, in the blink of an eye, her kids will be embarrassed to be seen with her, then out the door, and that she'll miss the time when life was exhausting, frustrating, depressing, exhilarating, never-ending and maddening, so much so that wiping up after a little kid she doesn't know will make her smile a smile that can only come from knowing what it's like to love a child.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

More Hillary-ology

Seems that I'm not alone in my belief that Hillary Clinton is not quite the greatest person ever to run for president . . .

Ron Rosenbaum has a perceptive piece in Slate on Hillary's Nixon tendencies. Rosenbaum found Paul Krugman's column on Barack Obama's "cult of personality" campaign and his allegation that the Illinois senator's operatives are running a "Nixonian" smear effort against Hillary just as baffling as I did. Rosenbaum has a much less flattering opinion of Hillary's career in public life, which, outside of her eighteen years as a political spouse and a term and change as a United States senator, consists of time on the House committee charged with investigating the Watergate break-in and cover-up in 1974.

Slate's editors also wonder if Tracy Flick, Tom Perotta's memorable character in his novel, "Election," was based on Hillary Clinton. Most people know "Election," as the movie starring Matthew Broderick as a popular social studies teacher who decides to "fix" a high school election for class president by subverting the perfect campaign of Tracy, played perfectly by Reese Witherspoon.

Here's an interesting, although badly flawed and hyperbolic essay on Hillary's Scarlett O'Hara complex by Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell. I think there's a lot wrong with Harris-Lacewell's argument, but I do understand why black women are offended by the suggestion that, by allowing race to trump gender, they are abandoning women by supporting Obama.

More tomorrow.

Black Eyed Peas on Obama

In case you haven't seen this, here is the Black Eyed Peas's video tribute to Obama's "Yes, We Can" speech.

Here is another one set to John McCain's speeches.

Agree with them or not, they're both well-done.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Originalism to the rescue, Scalia-style

Justice Antonin Scalia, in an interview with the BBC news service, believes that it would be crazy . . . just crazy to assume that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment extens to "so-called" torture in times of imminent threat or even just "knocking someone around" if doing so would produce information to stop a terrorist attack.

Makes you wanna slap Scalia upside the head.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Cult" of whose personality?

Two times in the last two weeks, the New York Times has warned on its editorial pages that the Democratic and, presumably, independent voters who are deserting Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in higher numbers every week to support Barack Obama risk getting pulled into the "cult of personality" that now surrounds the Illinois senator's bid for the White House.

The lead editorial in the February 6th Times concerned itself mostly with the good that will come from a competitive race between Clinton and Obama for the Democratic nomination. But tucked into the fifth paragraph of the editorial was a comment that the enthusiasm generated by the Obama campaign had it "teetering" on a "cult of personality" operation. Apparently, the Times doesn't believe that a candidate capable of generating excitement and interest in a presidential campaign can possibly have much of a brain to understand the intricacies of tobacco farm supports or America's softwood agreements with Canada or possess the knowledge to thwart a terrorist attack. Only a "serious" candidate like Hillary Clinton, who has "mastered" all there is to know about domestic and foreign policy, is truly equipped to lead the country. So what if she doesn't really inspire people outside her "base" of well-educated white professional women? So what if she is dreadful public speaker? So what if her Machiavellian instincts turn off voters looking for something more? Clinton supporters simply cannot grasp that informed Democrats could find solace in another candidate who is plenty smart and happens to have an engaging personality. Underneath the Clinton campaign's resentment of Obama public persona is more than just a tinge of condescension. By portraying Obama as the equivalent of a charismatic tent revivalist hawking nothing more than castor oil in a bottle to adoring crowds completely unaware that they are being swindled, Hillary is not-so-subtly playing to racial fears among some white voters that Obama is just another black street preacher on the hustle.

Paul Krugman, a regular liberal columnist on the Times Op-Ed page and normally a dead-on critic of the Bush administration's fiscal shenanigans and duplicity, wrote his worst column ever on Monday, accusing the Obama campaign of veering into "Nixonland," a phrase created by former Illinois senator and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to describe the dirty tricks and "venom" associated with the only American president ever forced to resign from office. I guess Krugman saw something soft, understanding and genuinely inclusive about Bill and Hillary's race-based assault on Obama's character, readiness and achievements in the South Carolina primary. Read this:

"I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again."
I thought about this paragraph -- a lot. I really did. For the life of me, I can't understand the relationship of a PR stunt to a presidential campaign that has seen a new, fresh face bring people into politics for the right reason who normally would have sat on the sidelines. Or one that has slowly watched fairly hardened divisions within the Democratic party based on race, income, ethnic origin and religion melt away with each of Obama's primary wins. Or how a concocted piece of political theater on an aircraft carrier is similar to well-thought out speeches by a smart man who has lived a sometimes difficult but always interesting life to which many more Americans can relate than a spoiled, superficial president who has been given everything, including the American presidency, because of his family.

What is bad about that? When Ronald Reagan looked into American homes during the 1980 presidential campaign and asked them point blank if they were better off now than they were four years ago, or questioned a sitting president's capability to defend the United States against the Soviet Union, no one condemned his communication skills as bordering on a "cult of personality." For better or worse -- worse, given Reagan's record -- his approach to politics has subsequently been hailed by liberals and moderates and others outside the Republican party as understanding the need to emphasize strong leadership and vision over the endless series of five-point plans favored by Democrats. Let Reagan lay out the agenda and the vision, and then hire the right people to carry it out. Think about it. Why has this Republican presidential campaign so far been about finding the successor to Ronald Reagan? Why didn't any of the Republican candidates market themselves as "policy-masters" and brag about their academic credentials? Because they know it doesn't matter. The last Republican left standing, John McCain, is the least detail-driven candidate of them all, more so even than Mike Huckabee. Elect me, says McCain, and I'll stand tough against terrorists, let you keep more of your money and make sure the hippies don't take over the public schools. Beyond that, there isn't much.

No single presidential aspirant before Hillary Clinton has run as a first-name candidate. No other candidate has appealed so directly to voters on the basis of a single trait, namely, in this case, gender. No other candidate has attempted to refurbish the memories of American voters, young and old, by asking them to consider the successes of her husband's presidency. No other candidate has attempted to disparage a competitor by linking their success to identity politics, in this case branding Obama as an African-American candidate appealing to racial pride. No other candidate has tried so hard to circle the wagons of the establishment Democrats around what she believes is her rightful claim to the White House. The utter shock of the Clintons after Ted, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy endorsed Obama was palpable, a reaction that screamed, "How dare you desert us, me . . . Hillary."

Last night, Obama blazed through the Potomac primaries, obliterating Clinton in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The early analysis suggests that Obama is closing the gender and class divide that has been the fault line in his and Hillary's core followers. He won among Latinos, families earning less than $50,000 and Catholics, three constituencies that Hillary had held onto rather comfortably before the latest round of weekend primaries and yesterday's results. Obama also held onto African-Americans, Whole Foods Democrats and moderate-to-high income voters who identify themselves as marginally Democratic. This is not a "cult of personality" campaign. This is a campaign that is appealing to voters to look ahead and not behind, and offers genuine inclusiveness instead of a guarantee that one is better equipped than the other to head off the "Republican attack machine."

Sixteen years ago, Governor Bill Clinton ran a presidential campaign against an established president that emphasized his opponent's lack of touch with everyday people, especially on matters relating to health, education and social welfare. He ran as the "Man from Hope" (we found the t-shirt in our attic the other day) who could offer "hope" and "opportunity" to the disenfranchised. Sixteen years later, Hillary Clinton is attempting, unsuccessfully, to beat back a campaign run by a fresh young face by daring to suggest that hope is naive and that Americans should trust her 35 year record of "experience." That record of experience has produced not a single significant accomplishment as a public figure or public official. Baby-sitting might teach you how to change diapers and entertain irascible young children, but it doesn't prepare you how to be a parent. Living in the Governor's Mansion or working near the Oval Office doesn't equip you to become president, Hillary Clinton's insistence not withstanding. Absent a public record of real accomplishment, all you have left is to run a political campaign based on a "cult of personality" rooted in a sense of personal entitlement. And, as we have seen over the last six weeks, that doesn't necessarily work.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Live Zeebop

Zeebop returns to Maggianos in Friendship Heights this Wednesday evening, February 13th, from 6.30-9.30 p.m. We'll start out with a little straight ahead jazz and then bring out the funk later on.

Hope to see you there.

Learn more about Zeebop by clicking here.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A tortured explanation of torture

"We do not torture,"

-- President Bush, Nov. 7, 2005

"Waterboarding has been used on only three detainees. . . . We used it against these three high-value detainees because of the circumstances of the time."

-- CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, Feb. 5, 2008

And so begins today's lead editorial in the Washington Post. Shame, shame, on the Bush administration and its defenders of torture, says the Post. "Waterboarding is, and always has been, torture," continues the capitol's distiller of serious, sensible and, above all, moderate opinion on all matters of import to the nation at home and abroad.

Let's back up a bit.

"The halls of Congress are too often filled with cowardice and groupthink. So it is reassuring when not one but two lawmakers show the moral fortitude to defy party politics to take a stand on principle. Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Diane Feinstein showed such courage Friday when they announced their support for attorney-general nominee Michael B. Mukasey. Both are members of the Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Mr. Mukasey's nomination. It is likely that their support salvaged Mr. Mukasey's nomination, imperiled because he would not state outright that the interrogation method known as waterboarding, or simulated drowning, is illegal. While we, like Mr. Schumer, Ms. Feinstein and others, would have wished for such an answer, supplying it would have put Mr. Mukasey in conflict with Justice Department memos that likely allow the technique -- memos that those who may have carried out or authorized waterboarding relied on for legal protection. Both Mr. Schumer and Ms. Feinstein cited Mr. Mukasey's intellect, his stellar qualifications and his reputation for being straightforward and independent as reasons to support his nomination," (emphasis added).

-- Washington Post
lead editorial, November 7, 2007.

"There was one overarching takeaway of Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey's testimony yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee: When it comes to waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques, the ends justify the means. Mr. Mukasey testified that, when evaluating the legality of an interrogation technique, the government had to weigh 'the heinousness of doing it, the cruelty of doing it balanced against the value . . . of what information you might get.' For example, he agreed that the use of waterboarding would 'shock the conscience' and be impermissible if it were used to pry information 'that wouldn't save lives.' But it could pass legal muster if used to prevent imminent harm. Mr. Mukasey's analysis is as flawed as it is disturbing. Waterboarding, which is not currently authorized under the CIA's special interrogation program, has long and unequivocally been considered torture, and therefore illegal, under international law and U.S. statutes. The United States prosecuted its own soldiers for using the technique as long ago as the Spanish-American War. As recently as 2005, Congress passed the McCain amendment to prevent just such treatment. And in 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions apply to all detainees, including suspected al-Qaeda operatives, and not just members of an organized military force. The Bush administration's use of torture and continued use of extreme interrogation techniques have done untold damage to the moral standing of the United States. These practices have also unnecessarily increased the risk that U.S. soldiers and personnel could be subjected to such treatment at the hands of enemy forces. Having the attorney general state flatly that the technique is illegal could help the country begin to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the world.

Instead, Mr. Mukasey mimicked his predecessor, former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales. Asked during his 2005 confirmation hearing about the legality of a litany of abusive interrogation techniques, Mr. Gonzales concluded that 'some might . . . be permissible in certain circumstances.' Both men could have come to their separate conclusions honestly. But neither man could have ignored the possibility that if they'd reached the opposite conclusion they would have found themselves in the awkward position of deciding whether members of the administration broke the law," (emphasis added).

-- Washington Post lead editorial, January 31st, 2008.

Two things should come as no surprise here. First, Michael Mukasey was nominated by President Bush because the president's inner-circle knew he would support the administration's position on torture, as well as everything else. Any idea to the contrary was just wishful thinking or, perhaps more accurately stated, pure naivete. Why in the world would an attorney general-designate take an opposite stance on such a controversial question? Think about it. Your administration comes under world-wide criticism for sanctioning torture. That criticism intensifies when you send inarticulate and not terribly smart flacks like Alberto Gonzales out to defend a position that can't be defended by insisting that U.S. interrogators aren't torturing suspects being held abroad when those closer to the truth than Gonazles had all but admitted that a phrase like "enhanced" interrogation techniques included waterboarding. And the civilized world, including the U.S., in law and in the Army Field Manual, recognizes waterboarding as torture. Mukasey's appointment was a savvy P.R. move by the administration. Gonzales was never taken seriously as a person of intellectual or policy heft. Mukasey came in much better credentialed. The Post supported him as the perfect candidate for the position, a man who would use his understanding of establishment politics to move the administration away from torture and encourage Congress to outlaw waterboarding. He didn't, and the Post is surprised.

Equally unsurprising was the Post's Casablanca-like reaction to Mukasey's defense of waterboarding and torture. I simply cannot understand how anyone, much less people close to the people that set politics and determine policy, could have taken the Bush administration at its face. The longer I live here the less capable I am of deciding whether so many people so close to the fulcrum of political power are just not bright enough to see what's really going on or are so stone cold brilliant that they have to work really hard to persuade themselves otherwise.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Red State Update on Super Tuesday

Jackie and Dunlap review the Super Tuesday results and aren't impressed -- with anything, especially Hillary's victory in the Democratic primary in Tennessee, their home state.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rich universities, poor universities

Two articles addressing an important issue in higher education -- the growing disparity between rich universities with endowments the size of some countries entire GNP and universities, like mine, that are clipping coupons -- appeared in today's and last week's New York Times. How university endowments affect operating budgets, scholarship funds, tuition rates, room and board costs, student activity fees, student and faculty amenities is a tremendously important issue for anyone connected to higher education -- students, of course, but faculty, staff and anyone whose livelihood depends on the financial health of the university.

Here's the first question, though: what exactly is a university endowment and how is it spent?

The first part of that question isn't terribly hard to answer. An endowment is a fund that acts as "mattress money" for a university. Take the wealthiest university in the country, Harvard, which has an endowment of $34.9 billion. It will not spend more than 5% of that endowment in any one given fiscal year. But suppose it does. That comes to about $1.75 billion dollars. Take a not-so-wealthy university like mine, American University. Our endowment is $340 million. Five percent of that is $17 million. Our operating budget is approximately $327 million per fiscal year. Of that amount, approximately 90% comes from student tuition. So why don't universities provide more services or simply cut the cost of attending college by spending a greater proportion of their endowment on their operating budget?

Two reasons. The first is because they don't want to, that's why. Harvard could, if it wanted, cover the cost of tuition for all its students by spending $300 million a year, an amount that would seem well within the capacity of a university endowed with $34.9 billion. American could never, ever do that. Our financial aid system, like most universities, is a labyrinth through which only the most determined and adventurous students and families tread. No one really knows who gets financial aid, or for what, or how much, or whether they will get money next year simply because they got money this year. No student can say for sure that his books will not be taken hostage in exchange for a financial aid supposedly forthcoming but, in reality, is lost in a system that resembled the ball kits into which small children are dropped while their parents shop for sleek looking but incredibly crappily made furniture at Ikea. Will this semester produce a student who, like in almost every other semester proceeding this one, tells me seven weeks into the term that his financial aid check never came through and hasn't been able to buy his books for my class or, for that matter, any other? Of course, the same student appears to have eaten since the semester began, gotten a haircut from time to time, come into class looking hungover once or twice or six or eleven times. But the basic point is this: universities hold onto their endowments for that "rainy day" (or "shock losses") that never seem to come.

Here's another distinction between Harvard and American. Harvard draws only about 66% of its budget from tuition. American, on the other hand, it somewhere between 90-95% tuition dependent. The endowment when I first came to American in 1990 was below $20 million. Harvard's endowment was $4.4 billion. Harvard's endowment has grown by $30 billion, while American's has grown by $320 million. This gap just points to the difference between the wealthiest private college in the world and one, like mine, that is barely less tuition dependent in 2008 than it was in 1990. Does American's endowment really matter if our operating budget is still as tuition dependent as it was almost 20 years ago? Having witnessed the dramatic improvement in our physical plant, the astronomical growth in student amenities, the investment in technology and the money devoted to promoting the university's image and recruiting good students (and sometimes, but far lower down in priority, notable faculty), American's rise to middle-class status among private colleges and universities through endowment income and other major gifts is directly related to money. But we are still quite restricted in how much money we can spend compared to schools that we consider our "peer" institutions. We still charge students an awful lot of money to come here, and I am not convinced that we are asking more of our students than we did when I first came here many, many years. My own view is that are asking a lot less of our students because the university has ceded so much decision-making authority to undergraduates. The almost complete control that students have over determining a professor's "teaching effectiveness" is just one example of how extraordinarily unqualified people are given power to determine if a professor is a good teacher. The professor-student relationship is not a relationship of equals, and our job is to sometimes break unpleasant news to students or make them do things they don't want to do, like read books, write papers and come to class. Professors have less incentive every year to run a tough classroom or make students read and write more than they want because they don't want to feel their students' wrath in their course evaluations. Our students now are no more or less capable than they were a generation ago when I first started teaching here. They are, however, much more determined to get what they want, and the consumer mentality that many of them bring when they arrive on campus is felt by professors and, I should point, the professional staff that advises them, cleans their rooms or makes sure the Stairmasters are working properly.

Endowments are also tricky to understand. Having a $340 million endowment doesn't mean you have cash assets to spend that much money even if you wanted to. Some of that money is tied up in property and other non-liquid assets. Think of an endowment as like having lots of houses or hotels on Monopoly properties. Your properties are worth more now that you've improved them, sort of like replacing the old linoleum floors in your kitchen with custom hardwood. But you can't eat the floors or repair the car with them. Cash value only materializes when you decide to sell your home, and what you get back depends on how long you wait to sell. A modern kitchen in 2008 will not hold its value for 25 years. It will become the "icky," dated kitchen you saw when you bought your house 15 years before you renovated it. Having an endowment tied up in real estate and mutual funds, a common investment strategy for large institutions, means that the "value" of the endowment can fall as quickly, sometimes more quickly, than it can rise. Moreover, many gifts made to universities have specific conditions attached. If I decide to give $15 million dollars to the University of Missouri to endow the Sheryl Crow Professorship of Hotness and Voice Training, that money cannot be used for any other purpose, nor can the investment income my gift earns over time.

But having a $34.9 billion endowment lets you do a lot of things. It lets you modify your tuition so that you can attract the best students in the country by pricing the cost of attending college at or below what public universities in their home states would charge. Billions and billions of dollars lets you turn residence halls into Taj Mahals for the students who live in them. It lets you offer impossibly creative approaches to teaching and research. Next month, I am going up to Harvard to teach one afternoon class to graduate students enrolled in a seminar on religion and democracy. By own calculation, my visit to Harvard will cost about $1200, an amount that is about half to one-third of what we pay an adjunct at American to teach an entire course. There's airfare, hotel, meals, parking and other ancillary expenses routine to business travel. For just one class, one afternoon. And the rest of the semester features a different professor every week. Our payment scale for adjuncts is pretty consistent with what any adjunct professor, on the average, would earn at any other university in the Washington, D.C. area.

Watching the rich get richer isn't easier for universities like mine, which desperately, and sometimes earnestly, want to get better in reputation and in actual quality. We will never be able to fly in a different professor every week to teach a small seminar of graduate students. We still struggle to offer financial aid to students based on merit and need that takes away from any prospective applicant the financial variable in making a decision about where to attend college. But status anxiety among middle and working-class universities like American lead it to spend money in sometimes questionable ways, emphasizing amenities and gloss over academic rigor and high expectations. Faculty salaries and compensation have remained fairly flat in the time I've been here. Administrative costs, on the other hand, have soared, as campuses continue to expand their student services and "professionalize" their marketing and development programs. Another hidden cost saver sometimes unseen by students is the clever expansion of class sizes. Each semester, I teach a GenEd class with an enrollment of 35. I turn down the 15 or 20 requests I get for blue cards because I don't want to teach a class of 50 students after we "marketed" our university as one that emphasizes a low professor-to-student ratio. But now I get notes from mysterious sources telling me that my "real" class size is the number of seats in the classroom I've been assigned to teach. Just because I can put people in my class without violating the fire code doesn't mean I should or that I will. But you would be surprised at the number of students and administrators who see nothing wrong with adding five or eight or 14 students to a class as long as there are seats for them.

I suppose the ultimate test for a university's real wealth is the quality of education it offers its students. I haven't seen much change in my own faculty benefits. I am still limited to $75 from the Honors Program to provide an end-of-the-semester lunch for my students, although we all know that such a small amount of money isn't going to feed 20 hungry and generally poor undergraduates. So I absorb the rest out of pocket. I still can't find chalk in most of my classrooms. Our office supplies are locked to prevent faculty and staff from taking more than they should. On-campus parking for people who work here is outrageous, and I still have to pay, although, I will admit, a pretty small amount, to belong to our gym, and separately to pay for a locker where I can keep my stuff. The university still allows commercial vendors like Einstein Bagels and the former Wagshal's, now the American Cafe, to extort students for food and drink when it should find a way to subsidize on-campus meal choices, or at least offer more reasonably priced alternatives to students who basically have no where else to go. (Brainstorm: replace Wagshal's with Potbelly's. It's way better and much less expensive). There's little in the way of free entertainment on or near campus, something that was readily available to me at the two public universities I attended as an undergraduate.

One constant in all of this, however, is this: the amount of money we charge students to attend American University will increase year after year, despite the increase in our endowment over a nearly twenty year period by $320 million. Numerous factors go into tuition prices other than just operating costs, such as the "discount" given to families who qualify for need-based financial assistance, whole or partial academic scholarships given to students who earn them based on merit, projected increases in everything from energy costs to better amenities to perhaps a regular supply of chalk in our "wireless" classrooms. But one factor you won't hear about is status, and the social importance of charging as much as the other schools we claim as our competitors. Lost in all this discussion of large endowments and reputational status anxiety is how any of this affects the quality of education for the student and the professional environment in which professors do their work. That's what a college education is all about, and I hope, at some point, inquiring minds, which are in much shorter supply at universities than you might believe, start asking some good, hard questions about where all this money is coming from, how it is being spent, and for what end.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Universal health care myths

Sadly, an American presidential campaign is about the worst place in the world to learn about health care policy . . . or any policy, for that matter. Here's a real good article on the differences between the Canadian and American health care systems. Perhaps it will help you understand why the retail price of the prescription drugs you just picked up is $322.50 and you paid $2.13, or why you can't get an appointment with your physical therapist for six weeks when your doctor wants you to start rehabilitation now, or why American health care is just so damn expensive.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Zeebop Update

Got the winter blues? Hard to imagine since we haven't really had much of a winter this year. But pretend you do. Shake those doldrums -- as well as what nature gave you -- in February and March with Zeebop.

This month, we'll begin the first of four consecutive Mondays, February 11th, 18th, 25th and March 3rd, at La Ferme, one of the D.C.-area's oldest and most respected French restaurants. La Ferme is located on 7101 Brookeville Rd., in Chevy Chase.

On Wednesday, February 13th, we'll be back at Maggianos in Friendship Heights from 6.30-9.30 p.m. We'll start with some straight ahead jazz and, because there is no choice, bring on the funk towards the middle and the end. We'll also be back there on March 12th and 26th, both Wednesdays.

We are also pleased to announce that we'll be playing several dates at a really cool new restaurant and lounge in downtown Bethesda called Fuzion, located literally next door to its sister club, the Blu Lounge. Fuzion is across the street from Barnes and Noble and next door to the Bethesda Row movie theaters. We had a great show there last week, and we'll be back on February 21st, and then March 13th, 27th, April 10th and April 24th -- all Thursdays. Break up the week or start the weekend early with us. Straight jazz to start and some booty-shaking to follow.

You can get directions to all three places by going to the Zeebop website. Thanks for your support. Hope to see you out.

Red State Update parties a little bit

Jackie and Dunlap get out of the house to see Great White before they caught fire, analyze John Edwards decision to leave the Democratic primaries, and raise money for Fred Thompson.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Jon Anderson

Cosmic elf. Iron-fisted hippie. Mother Earthship's lost child. Napoleon. A descendant of angels . . . call him what you will. But Jon Anderson, best known to the musical world as the lead vocalist of Yes, is without a doubt one of the most creative, visionary forces in music over the last 40 years. His distinctive contra-tenor voice is without peer. No one else sings like him because no one can. No one writes lyrics like him because no one can. And no one could have combined his personal vision, the self-styled mysticism that has inspired such incredible pieces of music such as "Close to the Edge," "The Gates of Delirium," the two-album suite, Tales From Topographic Oceans, "Awaken," "In the Presence Of," and "South Side of the Sky," to name just a handful of stunning, mind-blowing compositions that bear his imprint.

The first time I heard Jon Anderson sing was 1972, when his voice shone like the sun through the transistor radio I kept by my bed. That radio was pretty impressive for its day. I had AM/FM and, even better, FM Stereo. Not all small radios could broadcast in stereo -- some were still in mono. "Long Distance Runaround" came through the speakers one night, the opening guitar/piano riff stopping whatever else I was doing, the jazz-inflected drumming making me tap my foot and then . . . and then . . . and then the voice calling out:

Long distance runaround/Long time waiting to feel the sound
I still remember the dream there/I still remember the time you said good-bye
Did we really tell lies?/Waiting in the sunshine
Did we really count to one hundred. . . .

And so it was, my introduction to Yes, the band that changed my musical life, and Jon Anderson, the voice that, more than any other in rock music, I wish I had as my own. I didn't really know what those lyrics meant, and later, reading interviews with Anderson, he would confess that a lot of his lyrics weren't supposed to tell stories or recreate love lost or regained, or never gained in the first place. He wrote lyrics to create atmospheres or match some vision that came to him during his sleep, or sitting on a cliff somewhere, staring off into space, assisted by some combination of drugs and personal imagination. Sometimes he wrote lyrics because he liked the way they sounded when he sang them. He might first put down a chord sequence and then start singing over it. Whatever the words were they were. And if they didn't make sense to other people they always made sense to him. Musicians, especially imaginative lyricists, live in their own world, a world that mortals like me can never hope to enter. We are lucky to have visionaries like Jon Anderson to tell the stories and dream the dreams the rest of us are afraid to share with the outside world.

I've probably seen Yes close to 20 or 25 times since 1972, far outdistancing the number of concerts I've attended by any other rock band. Putting together an essay about Yes will require more time and separate space. But one thing I never realized until about 6 or 7 years ago, even after all the times -- and in almost every incarnation -- I'd been to Yes shows and dissected their music with the exactitude of a Nobel Prize winning physicist on the verge of a major innovation, was just how powerful a musical force Jon Anderson is. Early on, like most guys, I think, I was dazzled by the musicianship of guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Christ Squire, drummers Bill Bruford and later Alan White and, of course, keyboardist Rick Wakeman (although Patrick Moraz, during his abbreviated stint with Yes, was also great), and just sort of assumed that Anderson wrote the lyrics and sang. He rarely played an instrument on stage during the early days, only occasionally donning a guitar to strum along in the background or banging around on some drums and other toys on his percussion tree. Then, in August 2001 when I saw Yes perform with a symphony orchestra, it hit me: Jon has always been the vision behind Yes, the guy that pushed the boundaries, who, because of his lack of formal training, broke rules he didn't know existed, and always for the better. His founding partner in Yes, Chris Squire, has always been the earth to Jon's stars, and, hands down, the greatest bass player ever after Paul McCartney. Squire is also a musician of mind-boggling talent. But Jon's hippie-dippie vision of what music should be, and the images it should paint through words and sound . . . these are not the folksy, grounded songs that build legions of fans who can "relate" to what the singer-songwriter has written. Jon Anderson's appeal is precisely the opposite -- that, for people like me, he is off in a place that I couldn't get to if you gave me a road map and GPS. The older I get, the more I want to connect musically with the unknown, the songs, sounds and ideas that I could never come up with on my own but wish I could. I read recently that we are all prisoners of our own talent; that at some point we have to recognize we've only got what we've got, and to do the best with it. That's true. But it's nice to have elves in our midst who remind us that anything is possible if we'd only let ourselves imagine that it is.

Friday, February 01, 2008


Dear Professor Ivers:

Hi! My name is UGG Girl. I am a student in your constitutional law class, Government 350, that meets on Monday and Thursday at 11.20-12.35 p.m. I'm sorry I wasn't in class this morning. I contracted a disease late last night that has the following symptoms: drowsiness, excitability, high fever, chills, frostbite, finger pimples, melted ear wax, constipation, diarrhea, insomnia, narcolepsy, chronic itching, rickets, iron deficiency and sudden, uncontrollable vomiting. I also have some symptoms I couldn't locate in the PDR, like both my big toes turning blue at the same time!!! Since I didn't want to come to class and risk throwing up on you -- sorry, nothing personal! -- or passing out or going on a violent rampage, I thought I would stay home and try to get better. I hope to see you in class next time. I am attaching the homework I apparently wasn't too sick to do this morning when I was so sick I almost died.

Really, I almost, like, died! It was, like, so gross!!! Part of my vomit, when I wasn't sweating profusely or going back and forth between a fever and frostbite, was black. Eeeeewww!

I hope you will excuse my absence. I am eager to learn from you :)

UGG Girl
A student in your 11.20 constitutional law class (Government 350)

* * * * * * * * * *

No, I didn't get this exact letter recently. But I do get plenty like them over the course of the academic year, and I have already started to get some this semester. I got one years ago from a student who felt she needed to go into exacting detail about what happened to her in the shower when her boyfriend surprised her with an uninvited yet welcome visit. She fell down and broke her nose on the bath faucet, and was too "spaced out" from painkillers to come to class. Couldn't she have just stopped at the broken nose? Even if I had had a girlfriend in college I could never have imagined telling a professor that I was absent from class because of a sex-related accident in the shower. Or described every single last one of my symptoms to a professor to explain my absence. I am a professor of government, not an internist or gastroendocrinologist. Just a simple, "I was ill on Monday and unable to make it to class. Please let me know how I can make up the assignment. Thank you," will suffice.

But that's not with this is about. Rather, it's about students who skip class, offer elaborate explanations for why they couldn't summon up the power to endure those 75 minutes at 9.55 or 11.20 in the morning, press upon you the urgency of their illness or life-crisis and then . . . manage to pass you on their way to another class or score a table at the Mary Graydon Center so they can get some much needed face-time and check out the latest in AU fashion, such as 5" platform stilettos with spray-painted jeans and sunglasses the size of Jupiter or, in the case of the boyz . . . outside the occasional drenched-in-cologne, low-rider jeans players with pointy loafers or Puma fashion athletic shoes . . . a new Mets Sunday home jersey is about as fashion-forward as it gets.

Nope. This post is about getting nailed.

Last week, I saw two students who appeared, to me anyway, to be in robust, near-perfect health energetically making their way across campus after they had just skipped my classes. Okay, okay . . . they were nice enough to send me emails telling me about their near-death experiences with strange tropical diseases that could only have entered the United States in a germ box sent by terrorists or orthopedic ailments that prevented them from walking, reading, sitting, writing, typing (except this email), listening, talking, eating, drinking, peeing, skiing, snowboarding, breathing, urinating or driving. That all sounds horrible. It really does. But why do students say this stuff when, on such a small campus, there is a not-so-random chance that you will see them if you walk across the quad or go to Mary Graydon for coffee? And do they feel silly when they think a professor sees them? Last term, I walked over to the bookstore after class and bumped into a student from the class I had just taught standing outside the building smoking a cigarette and talking with a friend. I just stopped and looked at her. She stared right back. I looked at my watch and pointed at the time. She started to open her mouth, but I discouraged her by waving my hand.

"You're nailed," I said. Her friend started jumping up and down, excited that I had called her out, waving her cigarette in the air. "Nailed, nailed, busted, busted, busted!" said the friend, doing a jig completely unfamiliar to me. My student just stood there, caught between two worlds -- the professor who just busted her and the friend who found glee in her friend's embarrassment. In fairness, my student offered no defense and, in true American University fashion, noted that she had not exceeded the number of absences I permit students before I start deducting a half a letter from their final grade. She was an excellent student, so that made her plight all the more satisfying to me and her friend.

At least this student surrendered. More amusing, even puzzling, are the students who don't deviate from their excuses, even though you know that they were not suffering from an emergent strain of the Bubonic Plague or flashbacks from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam when they skipped your class or failed, as is more often the case than it should be, to turn in assignment. If you're planning on skipping my class while remaining determined to meet your social obligations or attend your other classes, just say so. You know all those "Law and Orders" where the cops tell the alleged murderer that if he would cooperate then they would put in a good word with the prosecutors? It's a good idea. Just 'fess up.

* * * * * * * * * *

Oh, but here's an even better one. Imagine that you've taken two classes over two semesters with the same professor. Imagine that you asked the same professor if he would supervise independent study so that you could make up some lost hours without having to take another class. Imagine that in both classes you received excellent grades. Even better, imagine that you had some health issues that required treatment and medication that would leave you tired and not always able to concentrate, that you asked the same professor for some help -- extensions, rescheduling exams, etc., and so forth -- and he gave it you without hesitation. Wouldn't you think that the professor must be either a decent guy or a pretty good teacher for a student to take him three times and ask for him to supervise his independent study?

Having thought about it for a couple of seconds, I would say, yes, I'd have to like and respect a teacher quite a bit to take him three times. I'd have to feel he's a pretty approachable guy, especially if he reassured the student that he would not penalize him for any work he missed as long as he eventually made it up, and he should proceed at a comfortable pace. I'd be even more grateful, as a student, if the professor offered to help me without having to ask him. Pretty good deal, right?

Apparently not. A student doing some work for me on another project came across some comments on one of these "I Hate My Professor Sites" that turned out to be this student's true feelings about me. Let's see . . . you don't learn anything in class from me other than what you read in the books . . . the "heinous stench" of my "liberal politics" evidently clouds my judgment when it comes to teaching and grading, although this self-styled conservative somehow managed to earn two A-range grades from me in the two courses he took from me, and signed up for another one with me this semester. And there is more strongly suggesting that this student's interest in studying with me was completely fraudulent.

Think about this for a minute. Why would you, as a student, do something so stupid? Why would you feel the need to post something disrespectful about your professor on a website that is the educational equivalent of rating porn stars or toasters after he had rewarded you for your good work, worked with you to accommodate your health issues, and tentatively -- but no longer -- agreed to work with you on an independent study? Why would you feel that you could do these things without getting . . . nailed?

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Dr. Ivers:

My name is Capitol Hill Wannabee SuitandTie Boy. You have probably noticed that I haven't been in class all semester. It's not because I don't like your class or anything. I do, even though I haven't been. I really like the way you teach us, even though I'm never there to experience what I claim to know. I realize that you're probably thinking I'm one of those students who is just here for the internships and too busy to go to class, which I am but will continue to insist that I'm not. So I was wondering: could I make up the midterm that I missed and all the daily assignments that I haven't turned in? Could you tell me where we are in the syllabus, since I haven't bothered to find out myself? Can you do all these things for me so I won't have to tell a dean or the athletic director or my dad that you're picking on me because I'm irresponsible and that it's not fair that you're expecting me to do the work in the class that I signed up for? Rather than hold me accountable for my actions, could you turn my plight into a "teachable moment?" You can reach me on my cell or IM me at:

SuitandTie Boy

American University Class '09
Assistant Intern to the Associate Deputy Intern to the Special Assistant for Intern Coordination to the Staff Director of the Minority-Majority-Minority Deputy Counsel to the Member of Congress Whose Name I Cannot Remember.

PS -- Go Devils!

* * * * * * * * * *

I got a letter like this once, as have probably most of my colleagues. What made the letter more interesting that it should have been was that the student wasn't enrolled at American University. He was enrolled at another university here in Washington, D.C., and just got "confused" about which one it was because he was so . . . well, busy! I'm pretty busy, too, and sometimes I forget things I shouldn't, or space an appointment or meeting. Generally, though, I can remember where I work, even if don't always remember what I have to do. Is that really too much to ask . . . to show up on time in the classes that you chose to take with the professor assigned to teach them at the university that accepted your application?

* * * * * * * * * *

Who really knows why some students behave the strange way they do? Sometimes I wonder if students who push the envelope in their personal or professional relationship with a professor genuinely believe that they will never get caught or have to be accountable for their actions. I wonder if students who choose to behave badly or make poor decisions think we're that stupid or unaware of their behavior. I know some professors who are afraid to clamp down on their students because of the consumer mentality increasingly pervasive in higher education -- that somehow an "unhappy" student is always the fault of the professor when, in fact, the jam a student has gotten his or herself into is a homegrown problem. I might not call out a student the first or second time they try to run something past me or spend a class period or two muttering not-terribly-funny commentary under their breath about me or their classmates. It's not as if I'm unaware of what's going on. I just find it a better strategy to say, "This is third time you've died of leprosy in the last three weeks. Are you sure you want to do down this road?" or to the student who can't stop writing notes, scowling with folded arms while leaning against the back wall or attempting to undercut my class by elbowing his classmates about what a terrible professor I am, "Why don't you just leave or vent your anger on-line so I can teach the people who actually give a damn about what's going on in here? You don't like me? So what?" Go sit in someone else's classes for three or four semesters, although they'll be aware of your proclivities for bad behavior because professors often ask each other questions like, "Was this particular student a problem in your class?" And the answers are usually the same: yes.

In the end, you'll get nailed. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But somewhere down the line you have a date with destiny. Learn that now, so that when your prospective employer asks you if your hobbies are still beer-bonging, smoking quality hooch and maintaining an on-line porn site, things you've told that employer by posting them on Facebook for all the world to see, don't act surprised or disappointed. Or when the admissions officers of a law school or Ph.D program wants to know if you are in the habit of posting nasty comments about your professors or classmates on-line you'll have an excuse ready for them. One day, you won't have a Dean or a parent to run to for help, and you'll be left, all by your lonesome self, responsible for your own behavior. Blame me for everything, if that makes you feel better. But remember, the jails are overcrowded for a reason: in the end, the criminal gets caught. And he gets caught because he's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.