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Monday, September 15, 2003

Last night, I caught the premiere episode of HBO's "K Street," a post-modern drama about political consultants starring James Carville and Mary Matalin as themselves. They are joined by a host of actors playing ficitional policy experts, as well as many real life politicians such as Rick Santorum and Howard Dean.

To be honest, it's a touch confusing -- Carville and Matalin are both real people you see on television, but the show itself is completely fictional ... or is it? Carville and longtime associate Paul Begala are shown prepping Howard Dean for last week's Congressional Black Caucus debate, and Dean uses a line fed to him by Carville. So that's clearly real, but many of the conversations Carville and Matalin have with their "associates" are not.

The whole thing was produced by George Clooney and Stephen Soderbergh, and it does feel very much like a Soderbergh project. It's shot on digital video, and utilizes the cinema verite' style employed by Soderbergh in a number of films, most notably Traffic. It's very high concept, but I think it's a bit too post modern for regular viewers -- if anything, it will confuse, rather than educate them about the political process. It looks like a reality show, and it sort of is, but it also isn't totally real, either.

But beyond that, I found myself irritated by Mary Matalin who comes off as shrill and condescending. Carville, of course, is as you see him on television, but Matalin is completely unlikable. Also, the actors -- particularly Mary's assistant and the strange pseudo foreign guy who is foisted upon the firm by a powerful political associate -- seem like actors pretending to be political consultants. Their dialogue does not ring true.

Granted, it's an impressive feat to shoot a show and have it on the air the same week -- this was only possible through the power of digital video. It allows "K Street" to be truly topical, which again, reinforces the idea that it is a reality show and not a television drama. It exemplifies the potential of DV to revolutionize how film and television is produced -- particularly when high definition video becomes affordable and the quality is as good as film.

Friday, September 12, 2003

I literally woke up this morning to the news that Johnny Cash -- one of the only musician heroes I have as an adult -- is dead.

The clock radio came on at roughly ten minutes after six. Bob Edwards was saying: "Two celebrities died today -- Johnny Cash and John Ritter."

What a blow. I'm very saddened by this, even though I knew it was coming. He's been so sick thorugh the years, and we're lucky to have gotten some of his best work in the late 1990's. He was one of the few truly seminal American musicians alive -- in many ways as important as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline. But his wife June Carter died on May 16, 2003 -- I knew it was only a matter of time.

And of course, the Washington Post gives greater prominence to Ritter than to Cash. But it doesn't change the fact that an important era in American music has now passed out of existence, never to return. And Johnny Cash is now part of history.

In more political news, the Associated Press says that Wesley Clark will "probably" announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination next week. I'm a great admirer of Wesley Clark's, but I'm afraid that if he runs for President we'll end up with a sure loser like John Kerry or Joe Lieberman. Maybe that's the point -- maybe this is a DLC plan to draw votes from Dean so that one of their guys gets in. Then Clark can be the VP. Not that I believe that the Dem's would sink so low, but the DLC is admitedly terrifed of Dean, despite the fact that he used to receive high marks from them. It's amazing how an anti-war position can turn a candidate into public enemy number one, even when the war was -- as Richard Gephardt so delicately put it -- a "miserable failure."

Also, Howard Kurtz reports that the media is starting to turn on Dean -- now they're painting him as a phony. If only they had the courage to call Bush out on his lies. Instead it's all: "Who do you think is responsible for misleading the President?" Yes, our poor, victimized action figure President, misled by his own team. Every time I feel like we might have some genuine change in the air, the corporate media does something to screw it up.


Thursday, September 11, 2003

Let the exploitation begin!

It’s the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and the airwaves are again filled with shots of people crying over lost loved ones and emotional recollections on the part of newscasters of the terrible day when they were forced to stop being entertainers and start doing their jobs. Could even the robotic Katie Couric manage to squeeze out a tear? I’m not sure -- I turned off “Today” before I could find out.

9/11 was a terrible event, and it needs to be remembered. But the return of all those horrible images, not to mention all the interviews with survivors and their loved ones just seems almost ... pornographic.

No offense to the people in the Midwest who want to feel part of the national tragedy, but I live in Washington, D.C. -- official terrorist target number two. On October 1, 2001 I was among the first civilians given a tour of the Pentagon crash site -- I stepped into the building through the scorched gash left behind by Flight 77’s impact, saw the damage that it wrought on the structure. The Pentagon’s role in 9/11 is very real to me -- I saw the deserted, half-preserved offices of people who died in the building, the family photographs still on the walls. Bookshelves, office supplies, coffee cups left behind -- it was like an ash-ridden Marie Celeste. This isn’t entertainment -- people’s lives were torn apart by this. I think of this every time I return to New York and see the absence of the Twin Towers in the skyline, or pass the Pentagon on the yellow line out to Virginia.

A tasteful memorial is fine, but too much memorial and it becomes a circus -- a show. People far-removed from the impact of the attacks can watch Fox News and get misty-eyed along with Brit Hume just like they would if they were watching a movie on Lifetime. Without at all thinking about how this affects the survivors and their families. The President can use 9/11 next year for the Republican National Convention and to show what a strong guy he is -- he’s the action hero President, almost a star in the 9/11 cinematic epic.

But it’s not a movie -- it was real. And it deserves more dignity than what the media is giving it. I know that I will not be watching the news today out of respect for those who died.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Slate has posted a story today about the current RIAA lawsuits, including this great bit about a new P2P company:

Now that RIAA lawyers have proved they can subpoena the names of KaZaA users from their ISPs, expect a mass migration to anonymous, encrypted P2P networks designed specifically to fix the known vulnerabilities in KaZaA. Earth Station 5 is the most outrageous example. It uses a mesh of proxy servers, encrypted data, and other identity-hiding tricks to keep copyright owners from tracking who's downloading what. To top it all off, the company—which recently issued a press release declaring itself "at war" with the entertainment industry—is headquartered in Palestine.
I'm reminded -- for some odd reason -- of a kid I saw at one of the anti-war protests back in April. His t-shirt read: "We are all Palestinian." Now, we're all apparently going to use Palestinian software to steal music ...
Last night’s Democratic debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News has gotten very little television play this morning -- which is a shame, because it was highly entertaining and revealing. I at least expected to see Tim Russert offer his usual review of the event, but much of the “Today” show was spent with the puzzling train wreck of a 10 year anniversary bash for Conan O’Brien (who, it should be said, looked embarrassed and humiliated to have Matt Lauer hauling out a high school marching band, male strippers, a camel, a guy in a bear suit and a dancing rabbi).

There’s been some discussion about the debate in print and online. As usual the best comes from Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post, where he recaps the Dean-Lieberman fight over Middle East policy mentioned here yesterday and its sequel in last night’s debate.

But beyond the fireworks of Dean and Lieberman slugging it out (and to be honest, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of satisfaction when Lieberman’s attacks received little response from the audience -- in fact, I think I might have actually heard some “boo’s”), the best moment came when John Kerry was asked about whether or not he thought George W. Bush had intentionally misled the American people on Iraq.

His response was (and I’m paraphrasing, so forgive me if it’s not exact): “I don’t know the answer to that -- let’s wait for a congressional committee to do an investigation ...”

Later the same question was posed to Bob Graham, but was amended to include: “Perhaps Senator you’ll give us an honest answer on this one, unlike Mr. Kerry.”

So, not only did Kerry dither about a straightforward question he should have answered, but he was also called out as a liar. Ouch.

Attacks were also made on Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman who all voted for the war in Iraq, but are now speaking out against it -- even going so far as to pretend that they didn’t really mean to vote for the war (except for Lieberman, who is always consistent, even if he is patronizing). Given the enthusiastic audience response to this, I’m now convinced that none of these guys has a shot at the Presidency. Once people start paying attention to the campaign, I think these inconsistencies are going to be crippling.

Dean came out strong -- his answers were always precise and succinct, and almost never ran past the bell. Kerry, Gephardt and Lieberman on the other hand all rambled on into infinity. Lieberman has a voice that could return glaciers to the Western hemisphere. Geez, how did this guy ever get elected in Connecticut? Kerry sounds like a statesman, but his long-winded speeches usually don’t take a position. And Gephardt -- well his 14 years in the House have made him incapable of speaking plain English.

In the bottom tier, John Edwards gave a fairly impressive showing, though he sounds like a trial lawyer, which in turn makes him seem dishonest. I found myself rooting for Bob Graham despite myself -- he does have the experience, but I’m not sure he’d play well in a general election. Al Sharpton was entertaining as always -- he always hits the right buttons, even though mainstream America would never accept him as a serious candidate. And I’m still not quite sure why Carol Mosley Braun is running. I mean -- she's likable enough, but she’s polling around zero nationally. Quite frankly, her one term in the Senate and year spent as ambassador to New Zealand doesn’t exactly impress. Sure she’s a good speaker, but I’m still not sure why she’s there other than to draw votes from Sharpton, who the Democratic establishment fears as a spoiler in key southern states.

Given his record in the House and as mayor of Cleveland, I think Kucinich probably shouldn’t have entered the Presidential fray -- but I do believe he’d make a great commentator on a left wing radio network. Maybe they could give him a show after Franken’s? Maybe they should give Sharpton a show while they’re at it?

All in all, it was very revealing and entertaining. If only more people would bother to tune in.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Today The Washington Post reported a truly radical idea from Howard Dean: complete impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Five days after Dean told supporters in New Mexico that "it's not our place to take sides" in the conflict, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) accused him of advocating a "major break" from the United States' long-standing policy of explicitly siding with Israel in the Middle East ...

In an interview, Dean sought to clarify his statement but did not back down from his belief that the United State cannot negotiate peace unless it is seen as a neutral party in the region. "Israel has always been a longtime ally with a special relationship with the United States, but if we are going to bargain by being in the middle of the negotiations then we are going to have to take an evenhanded role," he said ...



I’ve often thought that U.S. favoritism towards Israel has long tainted our role as an honest broker in the conflict -- perhaps having a more neutral president may result in a peace process that can actually work. Not that I’m that optimistic it can given that this battle has been going on since the Crusades.

This -- along with Dean’s earlier statements that the U.S. should not trade with countries that don’t keep the same labor standards that we do -- seems like an effort to appeal to the voters who supported Nader in 2000. And after only casting my vote for Gore after a great deal of internal debate that continued for some time once I was inside the voting booth, I couldn’t be more excited. Dean’s positions make sense to me. Why do we trade with countries that siphon jobs from the United States and compensate workers just pennies a day? Why do we support Israel and take their side when it’s clear they’re not interested in a fair settlement with the Palestinians? These are questions that need to be raised, and I’m thankful that Dean is bringing them up. Nader might have done a better job articulating them, but he was never a serious candidate -- Dean is. He’s bringing these ideas mainstream.

It’s important to note the kind of appeal Dean’s policies on the Middle East and trade have for people across the political spectrum. Not only do they appeal to the left, they also extend to traditional Republicans, who are equally as skeptical of our current Middle East and international trade policies. It will be interesting to see if Dean can unite Republicans and Democrats who agree on these issues. It’s certainly a daring move on his part -- one his competitors are unlikely to replicate.

Still, it’s funny how Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards have all switched their stance on Iraq. In an effort to siphon off Dean’s support, they’ve all begun using Howard’s pre-war playbook, denouncing the war as unjustified -- even when they just a few months ago attacked him for being against it. Who knows where they’ll go on trade and the Middle East once they realize how deeply these issues resonate with Democratic voters. Lieberman has been most consistent so far, but he’s an ideologue. The others are more interested in furthering their own egos than they are in policy. If Lieberman’s being booed after a recent debate for his attacks against Dean are any indication of party sentiment, the other candidates should be following suit soon enough.

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