Old-School Joe

Joe Biden is an “old school” politician.  First elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 — that’s almost 50 years ago, folks — he traces his roots to a different political era.  Joe Biden has been involved in politics at the national level for longer than just about anyone you can think of, and certainly longer than anyone else who might be a serious candidate for President in 2020.

screen_shot_2019-04-02_at_10.23.19_pm_0It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden is what you might call a “hands-on” politician, the kind who likes the handshakes and arm around the shoulder photos and ropeline grappling with admirers.  That’s why you can find countless photos of Joe Biden in physical contact with somebody — some of whom look happy about it, and some of whom look very uncomfortable — and why some of the people who are attempting to explain his current predicament say things like “he hugs everybody.”  It’s a political style that was commonplace in decades past, when some politicians believed that the personal touch and laying of hands was a way to establish a memorable connection with voters and establish power relationships with other politicians.  The backslaps and shoulder grabs were also a way to allow the politician to remain the center of attention, even when someone else was getting an award or making a speech.  Such politicians embodied the old comment about the politician who so craved attention that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

When you’ve been playing the political games for as long as Joe Biden has, perhaps you lose touch with prevailing views, and perhaps you lose a good sense of the line between an appropriate contact and creepy, personal-space-invading behavior.  No one, male or female, is going to object to handshakes, or a backslap or tap on the shoulder.  But grabbing the upper arms or shoulders of a woman to pull her close, smelling and kissing the hair of a woman, and leaning in so that your face is inches away clearly cross the line into more intimate contact and should be reserved for close friends and colleagues.  The fact that Joe Biden was routinely engaging in such conduct with complete strangers, from biker women in diners to political candidates at rallies to the wives of people appointed to federal jobs, shows that he simply didn’t — and perhaps still doesn’t — understand what are long-standing, and commonly accepted, social boundaries.

Joe Biden’s old-school roots may help to explain his behavior toward women, but they don’t excuse them.  Part of being an effective politician is having sensitivity to what is going on, and how society — and standards and boundaries — are changing.  Joe Biden apparently lacks that quality.  His clutching and space-invading behavior with women is creepy and a real problem, but in my view the fact that he apparently didn’t understand that until now raises deeper concerns about him.

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Thin-Skinned

One of the most curious aspects of the first few days of the Trump Administration is the little dust-up about the size of the crowd at the new President’s inauguration.  Trump thinks the news media has intentionally underestimated the crowd to try to make him look less popular than he really is; the news media points to photos of the National Mall that indicate that the inaugural crowd was not as big as the crowd for the Women’s March the next day or the crowd for the Obama inauguration in 2009.

It’s a weird story, because no one really should care about the size of the crowd.  It’s an insignificant fact that has no lasting impact on the new President or the country.  No historian includes size of inaugural crowd as one of the factors used in ranking our Presidents from best to worst.

So why does Trump care about something that would otherwise be quickly and forever flushed down the memory hole?  I think it’s because he’s someone who’s convinced of his popularity — he just won the election, after all — and he’s a bit thin-skinned about suggestions that he’s not as popular as he thinks he is.  That’s why he’s struggling to let it go, and also keeps bringing up the claim that he would have won the overall popular vote if millions of purportedly illegal voters hadn’t cast their ballots.  Trump denies that he’s thin-skinned, of course, but the reaction to the inaugural crowd reports make it difficult to agree with his self-assessment.

I think this is one of the areas where Trump’s lack of a political career has had a real effect.  Most career politicians have gotten used to absorbing the slings and arrows of outrageous statements after a few years in the political arena.  By the time they get to the point of running for president, they’ve developed an outer coating tougher than a rhinoceros hide that allows them to slough off criticism.  But Trump hasn’t had that experience, and hasn’t developed that protective layer that allows him to ignore the slights and the barbs.

Trump presumably will develop a thick skin soon; it’s hard to imagine you could be President for long without it.  The concern for me is whether political opponents or foreign leaders will see Trump’s apparent hypersensitivity as an opportunity to be exploited:  can they goad our touchy President into taking a reckless step by playing to his pride and ego?  That’s why I’m hoping Mr. Trump stops worrying about crowd size — at least publicly — and starts to show that he’s not troubled by the little things.

Graham Scram

Lindsay Graham has announced that he is suspending his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016.

It’s kind of a sad thing, when you think about it.  Graham has been a Senator for years, and he was somebody who seemed to have a nose for getting his face in the press.  He was featured regularly on the morning news shows and Sunday morning shows, and he tried to stake out a niche in the crowded Republican field as the guy who was tough on terrorism and hawkish on foreign policy but also willing to be bipartisan at times.

lindsey-graham2Unfortunately for Graham, his pitch just didn’t work.  He never made it to the stage with the big boy frontrunners in the Republican debates — although some observers said he won some of those undercard debates that almost nobody watched — and he never really registered as more than a blip in the polls.  Now his campaign is on the scrap heap, along with those of Rick Perry and Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.

You could poke fun at Lindsay Graham, I suppose, and question his ego, and wonder why he ever thought he could possibly be elected President in the first place.  But sometimes politicians have an itch that they just need to scratch.  Graham obviously thought that his particular combination of message and personality and positions might strike a chord with the country as a whole.  He was wrong.

So let’s not make too much fun of Senator Graham.  Somebody’s got to want to be President, or our system wouldn’t work.  He took a stab at it, at least, and he fell short.  Now somebody else will be the nominee.

A few more departures of candidates, and we’ll be able to fit all of the Republican candidates on one stage, just in time for the first caucuses and primaries that are scheduled for the first months of 2016.

Batten down the hatches, folks — the campaign is about to start in earnest.

Bloggers And The First Amendment

Senator Lindsey Graham — who seems to be quoted about every topic under the sun — misspoke earlier this week.  In discussing a “shield law ” that Congress is considering in the wake of the Department of Justice’s aggressive pursuit of journalist email and other news-gathering information, Graham asked whether “any blogger out there saying anything” deserves First Amendment protection.  He later corrected himself and said that every blogger enjoys freedom of speech.

Of course, that’s right.  Every American enjoys freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, and there isn’t any exclusion for bloggers.  Graham’s misstep, though, is one of those instances where a politician’s statement reveals a deeper truth about their actual beliefs.  Graham is an old-line politician who is struggling with the modern world, where the traditional daily newspapers and nightly network broadcasts that he grew up with are fighting a losing battle to hold on to an audience, and any person with a computer and a camera can contribute to the national dialogue about issues and events.  At the root of his comments are these core questions:  how do we deal with these new guys, and who are they, really?

Bloggers must be a pain for politicians.  The traditional methods of controlling the media — having a press secretary who interacts with those pesky reporters and answers their questions, wining and dining the big-time reporters and throwing them a scoop now and then to stay on their good side — just don’t work with bloggers.  There are too many of them, and they don’t go to press conferences or call press secretaries for comments.  They tend to be out in the real world, reacting to what politicians are actually saying, observing the politician actually interacting with the citizenry, and (often) reading the bills and committee reports to try to understand what the politicians are actually doing.  The teeming mass of bloggers makes political manipulation of the press a lot harder.

That doesn’t mean that bloggers are any better or purer than traditional reporters — just different.  Most bloggers come at the issues from a clear ideological bent, and their stuff should be read and weighed with that reality in mind.  Their postings aren’t edited by professionals or subjected to the fact-checking and publication standards that exist at good daily newspapers.  But there is no denying that bloggers — awkward stepchildren of the modern world that they are — have made, and increasingly are making, significant contributions to the national dialogue about the issues of the day.

I’m glad Senator Graham corrected his misstatement and recognized what should be undeniable:  bloggers, like all citizens, are protected by the First Amendment.  It’s just a bit troubling when one of our elected leaders makes such a fundamental blunder in the first place.

Voting For A Liar

Anthony Weiner has declared that he is running for Mayor of New York.  You’ll no doubt remember him.  He’s the former Congressman who sent compromising photos of himself via text message, then lied about what he had done and kept stringing out the lie, to an increasingly skepticism, until finally he was forced to admit the truth and resign.

He says he’s learned his lesson, and he wants to get back into the fray and fight for the people of New York.  But why would any voter want to pull the lever for a politician who showed such contempt for voters that he stuck to obvious falsehoods until it no longer become possible?  Who would believe him?

The New York Daily News story linked above says that Weiner may be a formidable candidate, because he has lots of money left over from his campaign war chest when he resigned from Congress.  I refuse to believe that money is going to cause voters to forget that this is the same guy who was serving in an important office only two years ago when he decided that lying to the electorate was in his best interest.  I hope I’m not wrong.

As far as Weiner himself goes, I think his decision to run for Mayor is pathetic.  If he had any class, he would retreat to a private life — but the pathetic thing is that he can’t.  Whether it is because he has nothing else that he really can do, or because he craves the limelight, or because he has a war chest and figures he may as well spend it, Weiner can’t resist opening himself and his wife up to intense ridicule.  He deserves it, but his wife doesn’t.  If he had any class and decency, he would recognize that.  That he apparently doesn’t recognize it also says something important about why this guy should never be the Mayor of a major American city.

A Peek Inside The Brittle, Thin-Skinned D.C. Bubble

Every once in a while we hear about a story that gives us a good sense of the warped world of politicians and journalists in Washington, D.C.  The recent snit between Bob Woodward and the White House is one of those stories.

In case you missed this earth-shattering tale, Bob Woodward — the Watergate reporter who has since made a career out of writing turgid, insider-based accounts of Washington events — was getting ready to write about “sequestration,” the Rube Goldberg process by which $85 billion in “automatic” spending cuts will be made today because our current President can’t lead and our current Congress can’t legislate.  When Woodward told a White House aide his view on the genesis of the “sequestration” concept and the President’s approach to it, he says the aide yelled at him for a half hour, then sent Woodward an email that stated, among other things, that Woodward would “regret” staking out his position on the issue.  Woodward, miffed, disclosed the exchange, which he saw as a veiled threat.

What does this tell us about Washington, D.C.?  It tells us that the White House is focused more on spin than solving problems and is amazingly thin-skinned about criticism.  “Sequestration” — the implementation of “automatic” spending cuts that were consciously designed to be so draconian and blunderbuss that they would force the parties to sit down and reach an agreement — is an idiotic way for our government to operate.  I don’t blame the White House for trying to blur its role in putting such lunacy into place.  The Democrat-controlled Senate, and the Republican-controlled House, are engaging in similar juvenile finger-pointing.  The notion of accepting responsibility and reaching agreement on a rational approach evidently is too adult a concept to hold sway in the weird world of Washington.

But what of Bob Woodward? He received a dressing down from some presidential flunky and then got an email he thought was ill-considered.  Big deal!  I guess the politicians and reporters in D.C. are so chummy that a few strong words are deeply wounding and cause for scandal.  Maybe that’s our problem.  The reporters and the politicians in the D.C. fishbowl are so used to stroking each other that real reporting never gets done and real accountability never gets assigned.  I’d be perfectly happy if more politicians and aides with bloated egos did some yelling at reporters tracking down the news, and more reporters shrugged off the tirades and printed what they and their editors decided was the real story.

Michelle Obama And The Oscars

On Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, First Lady Michelle Obama was the surprise presenter of the award for Best Picture.  What isn’t a surprise is that, in the wake of the Academy Awards show, some people have criticized her appearance as frivolous and not befitting her role as First Lady.

I’m heartily sick and tired of this kind of sanctimonious stuff.  I don’t see anything wrong with a First Lady participating in the Academy Awards broadcast if she wants to do so (although I’m not sure that, if I were the First Gentleman, I’d want to be part of the phony, kissy-face Hollywood scene).  It’s not as if Michelle Obama — or any other First Lady — is expected to be pondering weighty affairs of state at all hours of the day and night.  Even her husband, who unlike Michelle Obama was elected to his current leadership position, is not begrudged an occasional vacation, golf outing, or basketball game.  Why should anyone care if the First Lady wants to spend an hour of her time appearing on an awards show?

People who think First Ladies should act like Mamie Eisenhower are kidding themselves.  The line between politicians and celebrities has long since been blurred to non-existence.  Presidents and presidential candidates and First Ladies have been appearing on talk shows for years now; how is the Oscars broadcast materially different?  Hollywood is one of America’s most successful industries, one that employs a lot of people and generates a lot of income.  Would people object if the First Lady presented an award to, say, the Teacher of the Year or recognized the owner of a successful business that opened a new plant?  If not, why object to the First Lady’s acknowledgement of the film industry?

In our struggling country, Michelle Obama’s decision to present the Best Picture Oscar is the least of our concerns.  If the First Lady wants to share a bit in the glitz and glamor of Oscar Night, I’m not troubled by her decision.  Now, can we start talking about the real, important issues of the day?