29 June 2008

October, Again

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Back in January, I theorized that a significant danger to Senator Barack Obama’s election hopes would be an “October surprise”: a terrorist attack on the United States that would serve up an unhealthy dose of fear, and scare Americans into voting for the Republican candidate. Several weeks after that, it all popped up again, with subtle leaks of a new Al Qaeda plan. At the time, I wrote: “A slow news trickle about a renewed capability to attack the United States on the part of our Public Enemy #1 – now, as the presidential race takes on a different shape with a presumptive nominee for the Republicans – fits this pattern. It serves a valuable purpose for the tail end of the Bush administration, shifting focus away from the reeling economy and back towards the fear that provokes bad decision-making on the part of both voters and our Congress.”

And five months later, the issue is back – and this time, it is not just me theorizing about it.

In an upcoming issue of Fortune magazine due out July 7th, but available online earlier), Charles Black, an advisor to Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain acknowledged that a terrorist attack on the U.S. would help his candidate – as was seemingly shown by the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. David Whitford, the article’s author, wrote: “‘The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an “unfortunate event,”’ says Black. ‘But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us.’ As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. ‘Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,’ says Black.”

Does anyone still doubt the likely GOP strategy for trying to win the November election?

Needless to say, the McCain campaign has been trying to backpedal. A bit. Sort of. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Senator McCain “disavowed” Charlie Black’s comments, although if you read McCain’s quote as reported, it is not so much a disavowal of Black’s point, rather just an assertion that McCain doesn’t like terrorism: “I cannot imagine why he would say it. It's not true. I've worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear.” Working “tirelessly” to fight terrorism and believing that an attack would help your odds are two different things, Senator McCain.

(As if understanding this point intuitively, but unable to spell it out directly, the AP article noted: “The GOP also questioned the Democrats' record on national security in 2002, with White House political adviser Karl Rove saying Republicans should not shy away from citing terrorism concerns as a reason to vote for their party.”)

Anyway, having Black say it is merely part of the strategy, too: fear needs little proof to be effective. The Obama campaign (rightly) went to town on this. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz picked up the issue. In today’s New York Times, Frank Rich nailed it. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal had a little trouble swallowing this one, though it did quote an expert who agreed that an attack would help McCain. (Favorites? The Tehran Times, calling it “Black’s faux pas” and helpfully defining “faux pas,” and Al Jazeera, which wrote “US election diary: The mask slips.”) Many more news outlets wrote, too, if you want more reading.

We have not heard the last of this issue. Best case scenario: it remains an election issue in words only. The worst case scenario? I would prefer not to think about it, and it remains too easy to imagine.

28 June 2008

Spatial Influences

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I like history, and as I wrote about Berlin a couple of years ago (or about New York, for that matter), I am particularly intrigued by the overlapping elements of history and our physical environment. One of the best experiential components of a visit to any “foreign” place is simply in taking the time to look around, to absorb the things that are otherwise all too easy to ignore or miss. So much of the beauty of life comes in the form of its details.

My experience in Budapest more than met the test for a visual and intellectual extravaganza. It was a busy three days on the ground, and it has taken me as many days since to sift through both my memories and my photos. If the trip was a whirlwind, my recollections here will be similar, a (nearly) stream of consciousness review of a range of visual experiences. The photos included here generally reflect the shifts in the text.

Clearly it isn’t possible to write about Budapest and not recognize its Iron Curtain history, and this was the first thing I noticed driving in from the airport. One sees the wide range of buildings representing the city’s many phases: from the heights of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to the un-fixed damage from (one assumes) the Second World War, to the mediocrity of buildings that were fixed, to structures that look like they were Bauhaus designs, and then to those that were so clearly Soviet chic. At the top of Buda Castle, high on a hill in Buda (and overlooking Pest), it all starts to come together, in a heavy, stone building that still shows the bullet holes from the 1956 revolution, and in the castle building itself: well-restored on the outside, but with a terrible 1970s retro-fitting on the inside.

Up to that point, my sense was that I was in a typical central European city (if there is such a thing). But walking around the walled edge of the castle was a shock because of the mini-minarets. Minarets! Cupolas with wood-and-iron “plugs” closing off their upper levels, surrounding more traditional-looking statuary, and looking out over the city, a massive church, and more. Across the river, things shift quickly to the Art Nouveau period, from the glass ceiling of the “Gresham Palace” (now the Four Seasons Hotel), to the Bedo Haz, a lovely apartment building with a green decorative theme that carries through from the facade, to the chandelier hanging in the café downstairs, to the ear-shaped stained glass windows in the interior courtyard. And yet, just as quickly, the cityscape changes back to the period of empire, with ornate decoration (such as a beautiful, placid face) on the outside of the Liszt Academy of Music, or the layers of grand buildings like the Gellert Hotel and baths.

A steel-frame market building – built by Gustave Eiffel! – is a treat in its own right, with stall after stall of fresh groceries, meats, and pastries. The strudel we sampled – cabbage, cheese, and sour cherry and poppy seed – could not have been any more fresh or of the place, and I think I could have spent several hours just exploring the market and examining both the building and the shops.

The airiness of the market, which felt as open as a classic European train station and just as grand, was a theme unto itself. One of the most astonishing spaces I saw was the Páva Synagogue at the Holocaust Memorial Center: a lovely restoration reveals a sanctuary that could only have been a joy to pray in, with an open, white space accented with light blue and gold. (The Center has some architectural- and exhibition-driven similarities to the Eisenman-designed Berliner Mahnmal, but the exhibition is well done.) If one’s frame of reference for houses of worship are structures that achieve an awe-inspiring feel from their heaviness, then this one challenges those preconceptions head-on.

And in some ways, the synagogue also reflects the mixed design sensibilities that I mentioned at the beginning, with a feeling that is both Mitteleuropa traditional and the remnants of the fantastical architectural elements brought by the many, many invaders over the years. The Museum of Applied Arts, with its Zsolnay-designed cupola tiles, is of a piece with this history too; it looks perfectly at home and yet, in some way, quite alien. Somehow, it all fits together, beautifully, and I look forward to a (longer) return visit.

21 June 2008

Buda & Pest

Is where I am right now. Actual thoughts about it coming soon...

15 June 2008

Foxman in Sheep’s Clothing

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Anyone following the Pastor Wars – in which bloggers, and occasionally the “mainstream media,” dig up the most outré remarks made by men-of-faith who have endorsed a presidential candidate – will have heard that McCain “repudiated” comments made by the Reverend John Hagee. Back in 1999, Hagee expressed the belief that god caused the Holocaust in order to nudge along the creation of the state of Israel, which would in turn nudge along the second coming of Christ – because one of the alleged signs of such is the gathering of Jews in the holy land. Indeed, the phenomenon of Christian devotion to Israel is predicated on this point, rather than any true philo-Semitism.

(This is one reason why I maintain that the U.S.-Israel friendship remains so untested: there has been no war in which the U.S. has had to leap to Israel’s defense, or that has challenged devout Christians to fight for Israel. Whether the U.S. would do as it promises is a legitimate question, which in turn raises all sorts of other questions about the American relationship to Israel, the strength and power of the American-Jewish community, and its perhaps-misplaced priorities. But I digress.)

The New York Times’ blog “The Caucus” reported on Reverend Hagee’s comments again on Friday, this time in order to note that Hagee has apologized to the Jewish people by directing an apology to Abraham Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League. The blog post, reported by Laurie Goodstein, also noted that many Jews may not feel Foxman is empowered to accept such an apology on their behalf. I will certainly second that perspective: Foxman does not represent my perspective or my issues.

The most interesting element of the Times’ story is their inclusion of the text of Foxman’s apology acceptance, in which his perspective is once again distilled to its very essence – as if we didn’t know what that essence was already! Part of Foxman’s statement reads:

“Pastor Hagee has devoted his life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the State of Israel. We are grateful for his efforts to eradicate anti-Semitism and to rally so many in the Christian community to stand with Israel.”

In other words: it’s all hunky-dory because, when push comes to shove, Reverend Hagee loves and supports Israel! (For support read: donates $$$.) Well, I’ll be! I guess as long as someone loves Israel, they can be assured that Abe Foxman will be a paper tiger, just full of hot, anti-defamation air.

No word on whether Reverend Hagee’s support also extends to a donation to the Anti-Defamation League. Would anyone like to make a friendly wager? Sorry, that’s not a bet I’m willing to take.

11 June 2008

Travel Comfort

Actually, that’s: the travel of our comforter.

Taking advantage of a pre-Father’s Day sale at Macy’s, with an offer for free shipping, we ordered a new comforter from Macys.com, along with some clothes for the baby. Early yesterday morning, I received an e-mail alerting me that the first part of my order had shipped, and then today got a note that the remainder was on its way. This was not an urgent delivery; it was idle curiosity on my part, but I decided to click on the link to track the shipment.

Boy, did I get a surprise!

As the picture above – the package tracking information from UPS – shows, the comforter started its journey in Nashville, Tennessee. From there it went to ... Knoxville. And then Roanoke, Virgina. And then Laurel, Maryland. And then Secaucus, New Jersey, followed by Maspeth, New York. From Maspeth it made it into Manhattan, where it was finally delivered.

At a time when oil prices are sky-high, and the cost of jet fuel in particular is staggering, I cannot understand why UPS would consciously choose to ship my comforter to five different locations between here and Nashville, scanning the box (if not necessarily unloading and reloading it) at each location. This from a company that constantly touts its strength providing supply chain services that it pegs to helping companies “Synchronize the Movement of Goods, Funds, and Information.” I think UPS might want to deploy its own consulting team on matters like this, and save itself and its shareholders a little money – and the environment a little CO2 exhaust – before offering to help anyone else. If nothing else, the trek from Secaucus to Maspeth was totally gratuitous: the two locations are basically opposite each other, with Manhattan in the middle, which means UPS trucked the comforter within 4 miles of my home without delivering it – instead taking it an extra 12+ miles (round trip) out of the way to Maspeth.

There’s a great, ironic kicker to this story, too. We opened up the box and on top, amidst the packing information, was a small postcard-sized slip from Macy’s.

It says: “Packed a new way to protect our environment.”

07 June 2008

Not Getting It

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The news today that Senator Hillary Clinton has postponed her campaign for president and endorsed Senator Barack Obama is certainly fascinating – almost as fascinating as the commentary that has inevitably sprouted up in the last few days, as the nature of Clinton’s announcement became clearer.

I respect the various voices who decry the misogynistic response to Clinton’s campaign. The New York Times, for example, carried two interesting commentaries, one by Gail Collins (“What Hillary Won,” June 7th) and one by Judith Warner (“Women in Charge, Women Who Charge,” June 5th). Both noted that where the campaigning was concerned, “mistakes were made” (Warner) and that “she [Clinton] lost because Obama ran a smarter, better-organized campaign” (Collins). Both are right, in my opinion.

Still: the bigger issue(s) in this whole campaign were not about mistakes being made, and not about either sexism or misogyny. The biggest issue, and the reason that Clinton lost, is that she comes with more negative baggage than anyone else. Yes, women voted for her in droves, and yes, there is much to be proud of in her accomplishments. That is not the story here. Clinton lost because she represents an era of politics that – with George W. Bush about to leave office – most Americans are eager and anxious to see brought to an end. Even better is that Democrats have rejected dynastic notions, have pushed back on a millionaire reluctant to release her tax returns, have failed to be bribed by intelligence-insulting pay-offs, have not fallen head-over-heels with problematic policy proposals, and best of all, might finally have gotten more clear-headed about that husband of hers.



In a related story that offers proof of just how much Senator Clinton does not understand the changed times, last week BET president Robert Johnson went public with a hustle for Obama to take Clinton as his vice presidential running mate. Johnson did this by appealing to the Congressional Black Caucus to put pressure on Obama. As I wrote back in March, this represents exactly the tribalism that Senator Obama has (rightly) resisted. Johnson claims Clinton supported his plan. If this is Johnson’s most effective strategy for pressuring Obama, then it is just another small indicator of how not-made-for-these-times is Senator Clinton and her gang. And, I would add, it is another reason why Senator Clinton would never have been able to win the general election in November.


I want to conclude with a story of someone who does “get it”: on Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Philadelphia sheriff John Green (subscription might be required) who has been using his position as a bully pulpit in the best sense of the term. In the face of a national housing and mortgage foreclosure crisis, Sheriff Green has pushed back on the laws he is normally required to enforce, to evict homeowners who have failed to meet their mortgage payments and to auction off their houses. Although it seems he has been on the edge of the law, he has nonetheless managed to get the courts to modify the process. As the Journal reported:

...Judges Jones and Rizzo worked out a streamlined process intended to make loans more affordable for delinquent borrowers who live in their houses.

Such homeowners are entitled to a free lawyer at court-supervised conciliation sessions with their loan-servicing company. Housing counselors are lined up to help assemble financial information to enable servicers and their lawyers to assess borrowers' ability to pay. The lenders are under no legal obligation to reduce principal or interest, but they face strong pressure to make allowances.”

The libertarian in me is on the fence about all this. On the one hand, the rule of law (business contracts included) form the basis of our society; when laws are flouted or contracts unenforced, everyone may suffer. On the other hand, the mortgage lenders and crazy investment banks are largely to blame – for creating and sustaining an environment of easy money, outrageous interest rates, and collateralized loans, as was so brilliantly explicated in a recent episode of This American Life called “The Giant Pool of Money – and many homeowners have been put in impossible positions. Moreover, the banks and investors are also stupid not to try to refinance these loans, since a steady payment at 7% is better than an unpaid mortgage at 14% and a foreclosed house in a flooded housing market.

Sheriff Green may have pushed the limits of the law. If the end result was not necessarily the breaking of the law but a forcible compromise that helps some Philadelphians save their homes, it might very well be worth it. And it’s better than a taxpayer-funded bailout that does not really address the underlying problem of poorly financed and unsustainable mortgages.