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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Running on Empty - New York Times

Running on Empty - New York Times

January 26, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist

Running on Empty

Sorry to repeat myself, but I have the same reaction to this year’s energy proposals in the State of the Union that I had to last year’s. President Bush had the opportunity to launch America on a transformative new path for clean, efficient power. He had a chance for a “Nixon to China” moment — as the Texas oilman who leads us into a greener future. Instead, he gave us “Nixon to New Mexico” — right direction, but not nearly far enough.

As I read the president’s remarks, listened to the tepid public reaction and looked at his latest polls, which show Mr. Bush to be wildly unpopular, it seemed to me that the American people basically fired George Bush in the last election. We’re now just watching him clean out his desk. Both his energy proposals and his recent Iraq surge were about the best he could muster, given his pink slip.

The problem is that he is going to be cleaning out his desk for another two years, and Americans deserve better. I would love to see Democrats put that something better on Mr. Bush’s desk — regarding both energy and Iraq.

“The stakes on Iraq and on climate change are way too large for us all to be just couch potatoes waiting for the messiah to come in 2009,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. “That is not an option. Yes, it would be entertaining, but we need leadership on these issues, and we need it now.”

On energy — no, the president’s proposals were not just beanbag. His call to reform CAFE mileage standards for U.S. cars “shifts the debate from whether to compel U.S. automakers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles to how much they should do so,” notes a strategy consultant, Peter Schwartz. And his call for a nearly fivefold mandatory increase in the production of ethanol and other alternative fuels for cars and trucks also changes the debate from whether to how much, and which fuels.

But the devil will be in the details. Will liquefied coal be one of those alternatives — which could add to global warming — or only non-fossil-fuel alternatives? On mileage standards, U.S. automakers will lobby the White House very hard for the smallest possible change. Will they get their way? If so, there isn’t much here.

The really bold, transformative — and popular — initiative Mr. Bush should have offered would either be a national cap-and-trade system for controlling CO2 emissions by utilities, manufacturers and autos, or a carbon tax. Both would create economic incentives for us to get rid of appliances, buildings and cars that emit a lot of CO2 and to invent and purchase those that don’t.

But there is no reason that the Democrats could not right now put a cap-and-trade bill on Mr. Bush’s desk themselves by spring, Mr. Krupp said, “and I think Bush would sign it.”

It is not enough for Democrats to just hold hearings on climate change. They need to use their new power to change the climate. Not only would the public be with them, but so would big business. A coalition of America’s best companies — like General Electric, DuPont, Duke Energy, Alcoa, Caterpillar — and environmentalists just issued a “call to action” for a national cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

On Iraq: talking to some of our senior military lately, I’ve been struck by how concerned they are about the new Bush buildup against Iran. Before we have even won one war in Iraq, the Bush team seems to be courting another with Iran. I am all for brandishing the stick with Iran, but it should be for the purpose of gaining leverage for a diplomatic dialogue with Iran and Syria about Iraq.

“When your house is burning, you don’t go looking to start a fire in the next house,” said Vali Nasr, author of the “The Shia Revival.” Right now, he adds, everything should be subordinated to trying to salvage Iraq.

Let the troop surge be accompanied and reinforced by what the Baker-Hamilton commission proposed: a regional conference that puts Syria, Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia around a table with Iraqis to try to stabilize the place. And that requires that America brandish carrots and sticks with all the parties. If a real regional conference doesn’t work, then Democrats who want to just set a date to withdraw will have an even stronger case because we will truly have tried everything. But let’s try everything: a surge of diplomacy, not just troops.

Let the Democrats put that on the president’s desk. Just as the business community would support a real climate initiative, I think the U.S. military would support a real diplomatic conference. Bush gave America’s voters the reasons to fire him. Democrats need to give voters the reasons to hire them — for the long haul.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice - New York Times

In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice - New York Times:
January 28, 2007

In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 23 — The peers who elected Barack Obama as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review say he was a natural leader, an impressive student, a nice guy. But in the 1990 Revue — the graduating editors’ gleeful parody of their elite publication — they said quite a bit more.

“I was born in Oslo, Norway, the son of a Volvo factory worker and part-time ice fisherman,” a mock self-tribute begins. “My mother was a backup singer for Abba. They were good folks.” In Chicago, “I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since.”

After his election, the Faux-bama says, he united warring students into “a happy, cohesive folk,” while “empowering all the folks out there in America who didn’t know about me by giving a series of articulate and startlingly mature interviews to all the folks in the media.”

In his two memoirs and the biographical video on his Web site, Senator Obama’s legal education is barely a blip, one of the least known chapters of his life. But for the Illinois Democrat who is all but certainly running for the presidency, Harvard was the place where he first became a political sensation.

He arrived there as an unknown, Afro-wearing community organizer who had spent years searching for his identity; by the time he left, he had his first national news media exposure, a book contract and a shot of confidence from running the most powerful legal journal in the country.

As the ribbing in the Revue suggests, Mr. Obama was realizing the power of his own biography. He proved deft at navigating an institution scorched with ideological battles, many of which revolved around race. He developed a leadership style based more on furthering consensus than on imposing his own ideas. Surrounded by students who enjoyed the sound of their own voices, Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.

Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind — and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. It is a tendency that could prove perilous on the campaign trail, as voters, rivals and the news media try to fix the positions of a senator with only two years in office.

“He then and now is very hard to pin down,” said Kenneth Mack, a classmate and now a professor at the law school, referring to the senator’s on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.”

Many of his former professors and classmates say they are cheering on Mr. Obama, 45, in his candidacy. But the skills he displayed in law school may not serve him as well in American presidential politics, which sometimes rewards other qualities — like delivering sound bites instead of deliberateness or fidelity to a base of supporters instead of compromise.

The law review is “fairly disconnected from the breadth and the rough and tumble of real politics,” said Bruce Spiva, a former review editor who now practices civil rights law in Washington. “It’s an election among a closed group. It’s more like electing a pope.”

Mr. Obama declined to comment about his time at Harvard. He arrived at the law school in 1988 with a well-inked passport — he had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia, son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother — and years of community organizing experience in Chicago, making him, at 27, an elder statesman among the students who had tested and term-papered their way straight there.

Mr. Obama spent much of his time alone, curtailing his dating life after his first summer, when he met his future wife, a Harvard Law graduate named Michelle Robinson who was working in Chicago. He often played pickup basketball, replacing his deliberative off-court style with sharp elbows and aggressive grabs for the ball.

Along with 40-odd classmates, he won a precious spot on the law review at the end of his first year through grades and a writing competition. But the next year, when other students implored him to run for the presidency, he demurred; he wanted to return to community work in Chicago, he said, and the credential would be no help. Late in the process, he finally agreed, saying he might be uniquely able to heal the review’s partisan divisions.

The election was an all-day affair with the ego-crushing drama of a reality TV show. Inside Pound Hall, the editors picked apart the intellectual and social skills of the 19 contenders, eliminating them in batches. At the last moment, the conservative faction, its initial candidates defeated, threw its support to Mr. Obama. “Whatever his politics, we felt he would give us a fair shake,” said Bradford Berenson, a former associate White House counsel in the Bush administration.

The two finalists were invited back into the room. But before the winner could be announced, Mr. Mack, a black student who had rejoined the editors after being eliminated, lunged toward Mr. Obama, so moved by the barrier that had just fallen that he embraced him tightly, tears streaming down both men’s cheeks.

Newspapers and magazines swarmed around the first black student to win the most coveted spot at the most vaunted club at one of America’s most prestigious institutions. In interviews, Mr. Obama was modest and careful. (In a rare slip, he told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”) He signed a contract to write a memoir. A prankster posted a cast list for a movie version of his life, starring Blair Underwood. When Mr. Underwood visited the school, he questioned Mr. Obama for material for “L.A. Law.”

“People were always asking me, do young black attorneys really exist like that?” Mr. Underwood said in a recent interview. “I would refer to Barack.”

Winning the job was simpler than doing it. The president had to reject articles by some of the school’s famous professors and persuade a divided group of editors to stop arguing and start editing.

“I have worked in the Supreme Court and the White House and I never saw politics as bitter as at Harvard Law Review in the early ’90s,” Mr. Berenson said. “The law school was populated by a bunch of would-be Daniel Websters harnessed to extreme political ideologies.” They were so ardent that they would boo and hiss one another in class.

Even trickier, Mr. Obama was the most prominent minority student on a campus shaken by racial politics. A group agitating for greater faculty diversity occupied the dean’s office and sued the school for discrimination; Derrick Bell, a black law professor, resigned over the issue.

The law review struggled to decide whether affirmative action should factor into the selection of editors, and how much voice to give to critical race theorists, who argued that the legal system was inherently biased against minorities. That drew the ridicule of conservative students.

And it left the new president with a difficult choice. If he failed to use his office to criticize Harvard, Mr. Obama would anger black and liberal students; by speaking out, he would risk dragging himself and the review into the center of shrill debates.

People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words. Earlier, after a long, tortured discussion about whether it was better to be called “black” or “African-American,” Mr. Obama dismissed the question, saying semantics did not matter as much as real-life issues, recalled Cassandra Butts, still a close friend. According to Mr. Ogletree, students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side. “Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me,” he said.

As the president of the review, Mr. Obama once again walked a delicate line. He served on the board of the Black Law Students Association, often speaking passionately about the tempest of the week, but in a way that white classmates say made them feel reassured rather than defensive. He distanced himself from bombast; he did a mischievous impersonation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he came to speak on campus, recalled Franklin Amanat, now a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. Mr. Obama’s boldest moment came at a rally for faculty diversity, where he compared Professor Bell to Rosa Parks.

But mainly, Mr. Obama stayed away from the extremes of campus debate, often choosing safe topics for his speeches. At the black law students’ annual conference, he exhorted students to remember the obligations that came with their privileged education. His speeches, delivered in the oratorical manner of a Baptist minister, were more memorable for style than substance, Mr. Mack said.

“It’s the inspiration of the speech rather than the specific content,” he said.

Just as he does now that he is a senator, Mr. Obama spoke then about his own biography — initially, Mr. Ogletree said, to correct anyone who assumed he had acquired his position with ease. His message, Mr. Ogletree said, was, “Don’t look at my success and assume that I have had a silver spoon in my mouth and gold coins in my hand.”

During the constant arguments about race and merit, everyone could point to Mr. Obama and find justification for their views. He had acknowledged benefiting from affirmative action in the past, so those who supported it saw him as the happy product of their beliefs.

But those who opposed it saw his presidency as the triumph of meritocracy. He was a black man who had helped one of Harvard’s most celebrated professors, Laurence H. Tribe, with an article on law and physics, and would graduate magna cum laude.

Another of Mr. Obama’s techniques relied on his seemingly limitless appetite for hearing the opinions of others, no matter how redundant or extreme. That could lead to endless debates — a mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights — as well as some uncertainty about what Mr. Obama himself thought about the issue at hand.

In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.

Instead, they wonder how the style of leadership they observed on campus could translate to another kind of historic presidency.

“The things that make law school politics fractious are different from the things that make American politics fractious,” said Ron Klain, who preceded Mr. Obama at the law review and later served as Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff. Mr. Klain has watched the senator’s rise.

“The interesting caveat,” he said, “is that is a style of leadership more effective running a law review than running a country.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BBC NEWS | Americas | View of US's global role 'worse'

BBC NEWS | Americas | View of US's global role 'worse'

View of US's global role 'worse'
The view of the US's role in the world has deteriorated both internationally and domestically, a BBC poll suggests.

The World Service survey, conducted in 25 nations including the US, found that three in four respondents disapproved of how Washington had dealt with Iraq.

The majority of the 26,381 respondents also disapproved of the way five other foreign policy areas had been handled.

The poll, released ahead of President Bush's State of the Union speech, was conducted between November and January.

The number of those who said the US was a positive influence in the world fell in 18 nations polled in previous years.

In those countries, 29% of people said the US had a positive influence, down from 36% last year and 40% two years ago.

Across the 25 countries polled, 49% of respondents said the US played a mainly negative role in the world.

In Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines and the US most of those polled said they thought America had a positive role.

But among Americans, the number of those who viewed their country's role positively fell to 57% - six percentage points down from last year and 14 percentage points down from two years ago.

Mid-East role

Respondents were also asked about the Bush administration's handling of six areas of foreign policy:

  • The war in Iraq: an average of 73% of respondents disapproved (57% in the US). Disapproval was strongest in Argentina and France, while people in Nigeria, Kenya and the Philippines were more likely to approve.

  • Detainees in Guantanamo: 67% disapproved (50% in the US). Backing for America on this issue was highest in Nigeria, where 49% approved.

  • Israeli-Hezbollah war: Washington's role met with approval from respondents in Nigeria and Philippines, but on average 65% disapproved across the 25 countries (50% in the US).

  • Iran's nuclear programme: again, support for US actions appeared strongest in Kenya (62%), Nigeria (53%) and the Philippines (52%). But, overall 60% of respondents disapproved (50% in the US).

  • Global warming: more than 80% of respondents in Argentina, France and Germany disapproved compared to 56% overall (54% in the US). But the White House had 50% or more support among those polled in Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines and South Korea.

  • North Korea's nuclear programme: opposition to US policy was strongest among respondents in Argentina and Brazil. On average across the 25 countries 54% disapproved (43% in the US).

When asked about US military presence in the Middle East, an average of 68% of respondents across the 25 countries answered that it "provokes more conflict than it prevents".


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In Nigeria, 49% of respondents said it was a "stabilising force", as did 41% in the Philippines, 40% in Kenya and 33% in the US.

The poll was conducted for the BBC World Service by GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (Pipa) at the University of Maryland. It has a margin of error ranging from +/-2.5% to +/-4%.

The questions were put to people in: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Friday, January 19, 2007

U.S. Dominance in Space Challenged by China’s Test - New York Times

U.S. Dominance in Space Challenged by China’s Test - New York Times: anuary 19, 2007
News Analysis

U.S. Dominance in Space Challenged by China’s Test

BEIJING, Jan. 19 — China’s apparent success in destroying one of its own orbiting satellites with a ballistic missile signals that it intends to contest American military supremacy in space, a realm many here consider increasingly crucial to national security.

The test of an antisatellite weapon, which the government refused to either confirm or deny today, despite widespread press coverage and diplomatic inquiries, was perceived by regional experts as China’s most provocative military action since it test-fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan more than a decade ago. Unlike the Taiwan exercise, the main intended audience this time was the United States, the sole superpower in space.

Through energetic diplomacy, generous foreign aid and a number of lengthy policy-study white papers, Chinese officials have taken pains in recent yeas to present their country in a very different light: as a new kind of global power that, unlike the United States, has only good will toward other nations.

But some analysts said the antisatellite test showed that the reality is murkier than that. China has surging national wealth, legitimate defense concerns, and an opaque military bureaucracy that may belie its promise of a “peaceful rise.”

“This is the other face of China, the hard-power side, that they usually keep well hidden,” said Chong-Pin Lin, an expert in Taiwan on China’s military. “They talk more about peace and diplomacy, but the push to develop lethal, high-tech capabilities has not slowed down at all.”

Japan, South Korea and Australia were among the countries pressing China today to explain the incident, which, if confirmed, would make China the third power to shoot down an object in space, after the United States and the former Soviet Union.

China’s foreign and defense ministries declined to comment on reports of the test, which were based on United States intelligence data. Liu Jianchao, the foreign ministry spokesman, would say only that China opposes using weapons in space. “China will not participate in any kind of arms race in outer space,” he told Reuters.

China’s rapidly modernizing military, and perhaps especially the Second Artillery forces in charge of its ballistic missile program, remains isolated and secretive, answering only to President Hu Jintao, who heads the military as well as the ruling Communist Party.

Having a weapon that can disable or destroy satellites is considered a component of China’s unofficial doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. China’s army strategists have written that in the event of armed conflict with the United States, over Taiwan for example, the Chinese military intends to rely on relatively inexpensive but highly disruptive technology to impede the better-equipped and better-trained American forces.

The Pentagon makes extensive use of satellites for military communications, intelligence, and missile guidance, and some Chinese experts have argued that damage to those satellites could hobble American forces.

Yet while China’s research into asymmetric weaponry has been well known, the apparent decision to test-fire a satellite killer came as a surprise to many analysts.

“If this is fully corroborated, it is a very significant event that is likely to recast relations between the United States and China,” said Allan Behm, a former official in Australia’s defense ministry. “This was a very sophisticated thing to do, and the willingness to do it means that we’re seeing a different level of threat.”

For the past 15 years, China’s defense expenditures have been growing by nearly 10 percent a year, adjusted for inflation. China has begun to deploy sophisticated submarines, aircraft and anti-ship missiles that the Pentagon says could have offensive uses.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, China has avoided sharp provocations with the United States or Japan that could prompt them to pay more attention to a potential China threat.

Chinese leaders stress that they are preoccupied by domestic challenges, and intend to focus their energy and resources on economic development, a policy they say depends heavily on cross-border investment, open trade and friendly foreign relations.

The government in Beijing has denied any intention to develop space weapons, and it has sharply criticized the United States for experimenting with a space-based missile-defense system. China has assembled a coalition of Asian countries to jointly develop peaceful space-based technologies.

Last month it published and heavily promoted a major report on military strategy that emphasized its view that space must remain free of weapons.

“China is unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development, and always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind,” the paper said.

There is an element of propaganda in such pronouncements. But Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College, says that the Chinese military does in fact act cautiously when it comes to improving its strategic capabilities, like adding new long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, because it does not want to alarm the United States.

“They have talked about antisatellite weapons,” Mr. Pollack said. “But we have always thought that the threat was ambiguous, and that China probably wanted it that way. So what was the calculation to go ahead with an actual test?”

One possible motive suggested by analysts was to prod the Bush administration to negotiate a treaty to ban space weapons. Russia and China have advocated such a treaty, but President Bush rejected those calls when he authorized a new space policy that seeks to preserve America’s “freedom of action” in space.

Chinese officials have warned that an arms race could ensue if Washington does not change course.

At a United Nations conference on the uses of space held last June in Vienna, a Chinese foreign ministry official, Tang Guoqiang, called the policies of “certain nations” disconcerting.

“Outer space is the common heritage of mankind, and weaponization of outer space is bound to trigger off an arms race, thus rendering outer space a new arena for military confrontation,” he said, according to an official Chinese transcript of his remarks.

Even so, Mr. Pollack said, if China hoped that demonstrating a new weapon of this kind would prompt a positive response in Washington, it probably miscalculated.

“Very frankly, many people in Washington will find that this validates the view of a China threat,” Mr. Pollack said. “It could well end up backfiring, and forcing the U.S. to take new steps to counter China.”

Other analysts said the test may have more to do with proving a technology that has been under development for many years than with Cold War-style negotiating tactics.

They said that China maintains a minimal nuclear arsenal, though it could inflict enough damage on an enemy to deter any attempt at a preemptive strike. But the increasing sophistication of American missile interceptors, which are linked to satellite surveillance, may threaten the viability of China’s limited nuclear arsenal, some here have argued.

That may be why the Second Artillery decided to demonstrate that it had the means to protect fixed missile sites and to ensure that China could retaliate to any attack, by taking out American satellites.

At the annual Zhuhai military fair, held last November, the Guangdong Information Times and several other state-run media outlets carried a short interview with an unnamed military official, who boasted that China had “already completely ensured that it has second-strike capability.” The article said China could do so because it was able to destroy satellites in space.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gen Michael Mapes of the United States Army testified before Congress that China and Russia are working on systems to hit American satellites with lasers or missiles. And over the summer, Donald M. Kerr, director of the National Reconaissance Office, told reporters that China had used a ground-based laser to “paint,” or illuminate, an American satellite, a possible first step to using lasers to destroy satellites.

“China is becoming more assertive in just about every military field,” said Mr. Behm, the Australian defense expert. “It is not going to concede that the U.S. can be the hegemon in space forever.”

As the Skeptics Ask Why, Obama Asks Why Not? - New York Times

As the Skeptics Ask Why, Obama Asks Why Not? - New York Times:
January 18, 2007
Political Memo

As the Skeptics Ask Why, Obama Asks Why Not?

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 — There is always, it seems, a fresh new face breezing into a presidential race, offering himself as the person to change the tone, eliminate the vitriol and transform the old ways of politics.

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is auditioning for that role in the 2008 campaign. He said so himself, leaping into the Democratic contest this week on a promise to “advance the cause of change and progress that we so desperately need.”

A long line of Democrats, Republicans and independents have gone before him, casting themselves as the sparkling candidate of the new politics only to find that their freshness withers well before the balloting begins. Think John Anderson, Gary Hart, Ross Perot.

How can Mr. Obama avoid a similar fate?

“Novelty alone is not a criteria for success, nor should it be,” he said in an interview on Wednesday as he walked through the hallways of the Senate. “I do think there are moments in American history where there are opportunities to change the language of politics or set the country’s sights in a different place, and I think we’re in one of those moments.”

Then, after pausing for a moment, he added: “Whether I’m the person to help move that forward or somebody else is, is not for me to determine.”

One day after opening his presidential exploratory committee, a procedural move that created an extraordinary tide of publicity, Mr. Obama returned to work in the Senate. It was the first reminder that even though he bills himself as a man intent on reforming Washington, he still has to report to his day job. In Washington.

And that point alone distinguished Mr. Obama from recent presidential hopefuls who presented themselves as not-from-Washington candidates. Four years ago, for example, Howard Dean returned to the governor’s office in Vermont after his initial foray into the race, and instantly began railing against his rivals stuck in the nation’s capital.

The biography and charisma of Mr. Obama, 45, have catapulted him into early prominence and set him apart from the parade of former presidential hopefuls like Mr. Dean, Mr. Perot, Jerry Brown and others who have challenged the status quo. But like them, he aspires to tap into a similar grass-roots following even as he gains endorsements from the party’s traditional kingmakers.

“There has been more smoke blown in his direction than anyone in his lifetime, but that’s not why he’s running,” said former Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, who has talked to Mr. Obama in recent weeks. “He’s not lost his reasons for doing this. He realizes that it’s his time.”

During his two years in the Senate, Mr. Obama has sought to build a reputation for occasionally stepping across party boundaries. And in his announcement on Tuesday, he did not so much as utter the word “Democrat,” perhaps signaling a desire to expand his appeal.

But Mr. Kerrey, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992, said he was not sure today’s political climate would afford candidates that much leeway, particularly in a cutthroat primary aimed at the Democratic Party’s most loyal base.

“The technique of applause lines are such that you are encouraged to say things that are a bit divisive,” said Mr. Kerrey, who is not yet aligned with any of the candidates. “If it’s a Democratic audience, they aren’t going to give you a round of applause if you say the Republicans are pretty good people.”

Indeed, Mr. Obama intends to frame his candidacy around a story from long ago. By formally declaring his candidacy on Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill., in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s home, Mr. Obama will strive to make the point that America’s 16th president did not have much government experience either, but led the nation through one of its most trying times.

“Just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right,” Mr. Obama said in an interview. “And just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

Still, an early test of his candidacy could come as candidates try to distinguish themselves and emerge from a field of up to 10 contenders during a series of presidential debates that are scheduled to begin by April. That is when an appealing biography gives way to questions about whether a candidate is actually prepared to govern.

Who, after all, could forget the moment in the 1984 primary when Walter Mondale ridiculed the candidacy of his rival, Mr. Hart, a Colorado senator who was running as an outsider on a message of hope, pragmatism and youth.

In a televised debate, Mr. Mondale declared, “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’ ”

Monday, January 01, 2007

Stanley Crouch: Making music, not mayhem -

Stanley Crouch: Making music, not mayhem -

Stanley Crouch: Making music, not mayhem

By Stanley Crouch -
Published 12:00 am PST Saturday, December 23, 2006

One should not be nostalgic about too many things, because far more often than not, the memory takes the form of a wish rather than a fact. Sort of a soothing or a bitter deception. Sometimes, however, the memory is not wrong, and there is proof that will remind anybody interested that it was better in certain ways than it is now. Popular music is one example.

Though I have thought that about music for at least 20 years, I became even more convinced as I looked at a recent documentary about the making of the "Dreamgirls" movie and two books, "Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics" and "Motown in Love: Lyrics From the Golden Era."

"Dreamgirls" is a fictionalized story of a group of young black women, with allusions to the story of Motown's Diana Ross and the Supremes. Even if it does not live up to the hype, the film should remind audiences of one thing that they might have forgotten: Once upon a recent time, there were black men and women who could sing notes and not merely chant gutter doggerel. The lyrics did not constantly refer to men and women in demeaning and derogatory terms.

Audiences might also be reminded that there was a time when women in the music business hadn't been convinced that their freedom called for embracing the looks and manners of hookers or women taking a break at a strip club.

I am sure that those are the reasons beneath the mounting excitement about the "Dreamgirls" movie. Audiences are happy to get something about the so-called ghetto in which the people aren't all minstrel figures disguised behind cursing and pornography.

The idea of black people who manifest human characteristics is still basically out of step with our time, in which the most successful images of black men and women are those of illiterate thugs and tasteless female sex toys. If "Dreamgirls" reiterates some positive things to the masses, popular music might begin a comeback in which actual talent is celebrated. Yeah, right.

The books of Cole Porter lyrics and of the Motown lyricists might surprise people who spend too much time listening to pop radio, where a good number of words are bleeped. Porter was about as good as one could get at writing lyrics, and he consistently showed great invention, wit and sophistication.

It is unnecessary to compare the songs of Porter with those intended for an adolescent audience, the target group for many Motown songs. In their gleaming outfits, the Motown singers performed in the community theaters where young men and women went to learn something about how to express the feelings they might have for each other.

Because something that strong existed in popular music, it is hard to believe that it has largely disappeared and been replaced by the dreck we hear delivered by those from the world of rap. But perhaps we are only in one of the valleys on the roller coaster that this culture can so often be.

Sometimes a revolution of consciousness arrives as the result of being reminded that people were not always so debased. Perhaps "Dreamgirls," "Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics" and "Motown in Love: Lyrics From the Golden Era" will help to spark such memories. We certainly would be better off if they do.