Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top-five politcal embarrassments of 2011

Journalists love lists.

Journalists love lists so much that they place them side-by-side with such noble endeavors as the profile and the expose among the seven main article types taught in magazine-writing classes. (There's even a list of the top list headlines, if you can believe that).

There are of course things journalists love more than lists, and one of them is watching politicians step in their own poo. Lucky for us there was a lot of that going on in 2011. This year we witnessed something of an epidemic of foot-in-mouth disease. A entire colony of the virus seems to be attached to the GOP presidential field, passing from one candidate to the next like a lollipop at a chicken pox party. But Democrats too have had their share of stupid, shortsighted or just plain “ick” moments, some involving their mouths, and others attached to less auspicious parts of the body.

My magazine writing professor instructed us to use odd numbers for our lists, like the nine best TV shows of the year, or – come to think of it – the seven main article types taught in magazine-writing classes. He said they stand out more that way and leave the reader wanting more. So in honor of him, I give you the five biggest political embarrassments of 2011. Click here to read more at the Philly Post.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Can Iraq survive the Americans?

“By definition, you cannot impose democracy; you cannot force people to make a free choice.” -- Edward Peck

On November 14th, months after combat operations officially ended and two weeks before he was scheduled to ship out, 23-year-old Army Spec. David Emanuel Hickman rolled over an improvised explosive device while traveling through Baghdad in a convoy of military vehicles and became the last U.S. service member to die on active duty in Iraq.

The distinction places him in the company of U.S. Marines Charles McMahon and Darwin Lee Judge—who were killed during a rocket attack on Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport during the American evacuation of Saigon—and U.S. Army Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione—a photographer’s assistant who was fatally wounded while taking aerial pictures of Tokyo three days after Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II. Not a single one of these “last casualties” was over the age of 23.

The chilling sadness that attends their deaths is hard to shake. It’s not that they are any more tragic than casualties that occur in the beginning, or the middle, of a conflict; there is no monopoly on tragedy. Yet more than the others, I think, their deaths underscore the capricious nature of war and the utter senselessness of the violence levied upon young people by the whims of their elders. Read this story in its entirety at the Philly Post...

Friday, December 16, 2011

The professor and the pornographer

One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History,
By Larry Flynt & David Eisenbach
Palgrave MacMillan, April 201
264 pp

When Larry Flynt's new book, “One Nation Under Sex,” arrived in my mailbox a week before I was scheduled to sit down to an interview with the iconoclastic pornographer, First Amendment crusader and all around rabble rouser, I'll admit I didn't know what to expect.

The promotional materials promised the book would “explore the origins of America’s fascination with sex scandals and explain how we can put aside our political moralism and begin focusing on the real problems that threaten our nation.”

I'd read Flynt's 1994 autobiography, “An Unseemly Man,” and found it to be a sophomoric if amusing chronicle of the publisher's life, most memorable for its account of the author's childhood experimentation with chicken sex. Not exactly heady stuff.

So, what to make of a volume of U.S. political history penned by a man who once wore the American flag as a diaper and was famously tossed out of the U.S. Supreme Court for calling the Chief Justice an “asshole?”

The incongruity was not lost on Flynt. “I knew that nobody would read a history book by a pornographer,” he said during a promotional stop in Philadelphia, “so I reached out to someone they would [read].”

That someone is David Eisenbach, a professor of American history at Columbia University who’s written two books on media and politics – including one on the history of the gay rights movement and its impact on American polity (Gay Power: An American Revolution, Carroll and Graf, 2006). In 2009, Eisenbach produced a series of shows for the History Channel titled “Beltway Unbuckled” that explored the sex lives of several U.S. presidents. Eisenbach says it was around then that Flynt – who had seen the show – called him “out of the blue” with an invitation in Los Angeles.

“He said he had been thinking about writing a book on this subject and thought we should work together,” said Eisenbach. The 38 year-old New Yorker knew he was taking a calculated risk putting his name on the project; but Eisenbach says two things swayed him: the once in a lifetime opportunity to work with Flynt and the desire to see his work discussed beyond the gilded halls of academia.

The product of the collaboration is a breezy yet surprisingly dense 264-page narrative that takes the reader on a guided tour of the boudoirs and backseats of America’s leaders from the dawn of the republic to the Clinton years (and the unwashed blue dress that nearly took down a president.)

Flynt's penchant for thinly-sourced conjecture and checkbook journalism notwithstanding, “One Nation Under Sex” is unadulterated historical reportage -- painstakingly referenced with well over 1,000 citations (a testament to the work of Eisenbach and his two research assistants, who spent the better part of two years poring over primary source materials in presidential libraries from Hyde Park to Little Rock.)

“This book is the first-ever made to consolidate the history of this subject—presidents, first ladies, mistresses and lovers and to find out how it affected policy,” said Flynt, during an end of summer promotional tour in Philadelphia “Most history books are published by conservatives and they don't want to know about sex. They want to know about politics and policy. That's why so much history got shoveled around.”

While sex is the vehicle through which the narrative unfolds, the real stories here are the evolution of the American media’s relationship to its leaders and the cutthroat nature of partisan politics; the scandals described in “One Nation Under Sex” are only relevant insofar as they can be exploited to undermine a rival’s political career, steer public sentiment in a favorable direction, and, in many cases, change the course of history.

From the “Peggy Eaton Affair,” during the presidency of Andrew Jackson – which helped turn John C. Calhoun from an ambitious but relatively harmless vice president into a rabid secessionist and one of the first South Carolinians to lobby for a break from the Union – to the more recent Monica Lewinski scandal – which is blamed for distracting president Bill Clinton from his determination to take out up-and-coming terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, the authors take pains to reveal how sex scandals and policy outcomes are inextricably linked – with the end results typically not in the national interest. Read the entire review and part of my interview with Larry Flynt at AlterNet.

Monday, December 12, 2011

What happened to the U.S. Postal Service?

Tradition holds that: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” will keep the United States mail from getting through; but in the end it may be simple economics that dooms one of the oldest and most trusted government agencies in America.

That, and good old-fashioned politics.

Last week Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe announced that come spring the U.S. Postal Service will shutter 3,700 retail facilities, and more than half of its 500 mail processing centers, in an effort to address a $5.1 billion deficit in 2011. Also gone will be next day mail service; half of first class mail will now take up to three days to reach its destination, while the other half will get there in two.

It’s estimated that more than 100,000 employees will lose their jobs as a result of the cuts. Donahoe is also seeking congressional approval to cut out Saturday delivery, which he says will save the agency some $3 billion annually.

The operational efficiencies — as the Postal Service refers to them — are aimed at reducing costs by $20 billion by 2015 in order to return the agency to profitability, according to David Williams, vice president of USPS Network Operations. That would be a noble accomplishment, except for the fact that — on paper at least — the USPS already turns a profit every year. But a mandate contained in the Postal Service Accountability and Enhancement Act — a 2006 reform bill that was signed by President George W. Bush — created a highly unusual burden on the agency that within a single year helped turn it from an operation that pulled in $1.4 billion in profits in 2005 to one that now bleeds cash like a sieve. Read this article in its entirety at The Philadelphia Tribune

Thursday, December 1, 2011

This Is America. This Is America on Drugs

Imagine spending billions of dollars a year to advertise a product to a group of people who aren’t even authorized to buy it. Sounds pretty crazy right? Well not if you’re a pharmaceutical company. Thanks to lax laws that make the United States one out of only two countries in the world (New Zealand is the other) where prescription drug makers are allowed to hawk their products directly to consumers on television and radio, the airwaves are chock-full of little green butterflies (Lunesta), smooth-talking bumblebees (Nasonex), and middle-aged hunks who can’t get it up (Cialis, Viagra, Levitra) all working toward one goal: convincing you that you’ll be healthier, happier, sexier, if you can just get your doctor to write you a prescription. Read more at The Philly Post...