Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Luck Of The Draw

The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by John Sides and Lynn Varvick (Princeton University Press, $29.95, 331 pages)

Is The Gamble a truly definitive look at the 2012 election?

The Gamble large

There are books that over-promise and under-deliver; this is one of them. A front cover blurb from Nate Silver promises that The Gamble is “The definitive account of what really happened and what really mattered in the campaign.” This is far from a definitive account.

One of the main points made in this mathematics and polling-based treatise is that voters tend to be almost evenly split in American presidential elections and, thus, it takes something substantive to move them to one side or the other. It especially takes some major event to change their initial choice as to who to vote for. In the 2012 election, neither Mitt Romney’s 47% remarks nor Barack Obama’s poor debate performance in Denver were dominant factors in the outcome according to Sides and Vavrick: “The impact of this debate showed, once again, how quickly even dramatic moments like the 47% video could be undone by new events as the tug-of-war between the candidates continued. The losses Romney appeared to suffer after the video’s release actually made subsequent events like the debate more likely to bring him gains….”

And then there’s the factor cited in The Gamble, that the incumbent in the Oval Office wins 68.7% of the time. Against this background, where many votes are cast in stone, the writers supposedly explain what factors determined the election outcome. Except that they actually don’t. In a number of instances they tell us that voter surveys were not “necessarily dispositive.” And then they examine various factors – such as religion, only to tell us that the factor or factors were negligible: “In 2012, Romney’s religion appeared to be a minimal factor in his loss.”

The writers discount the notion that the economy would define the election: “There was much speculation as to whether late changes in the economy would reshape the presidential race. This has rarely been the case… (major economic) shocks are uncommon.” So much for that issue.

Some issues are brought up and left unresolved such as the alleged personal favorability gap between Obama and Romney: “The exit poll can shed no light on this question. Our data cannot resolve this issue either….” The writers go on to quote a statement from Mitch Stewart, director of the Democratic campaign group Organizing for America, to the effect that “the electorate is just not that volatile.” (emphasis in the original) Sides and Vavrick also repeatedly remind the reader that “Many (voters) were loyal partisans.” Because the data they present is not determinative and because the writers cannot pinpoint what decided the election, the account is far less than satisfying.

The Gamble would have benefited from better editing. As an example, in a section discussing the number of local campaign offices for each candidate we find the statement, “Romney had outsourced the operation to the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was charged with mobilizing support for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.” Since the RNC is not a person – notwithstanding the debate as to whether a corporation is a person, this is grammatically incorrect.

If there’s one point worthy of consideration raised by this account, it’s that Romney sought to appeal to conservative Republicans when he actually needed the support of moderates and liberals in the party. But the book undervalues the importance of Bill Clinton’s involvement in securing a winning margin for the re-election of President Obama.

Personally, I never arrived at the feeling that this rather emotionless book “explained” the 2012 election. A book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down: Game Change 2012, is the competing account that does so, while presenting the politicians on both sides as honorable yet flawed human beings. Halperin and Heilemann bring flesh and blood to their story, something that is sadly lacking in this robotic and inconclusive interpretation of events.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-gamble-by-john-sides-and-lynn-vavrick-2/

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I’m Walking to New Orleans

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington: A Documentary (shown on PBS TV on January 3, 2013 and afterward)

Joseph Cao was a Congressman who voted for Obama Care before he voted against it.   This is one of the factors that led to his defeat when he ran for a second term as a U.S. Congressman from the historic Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana.   The producers of this documentary would have the viewer believe that Cao’s defeat had more to do with racial partisan politics but that may be an overstatement; an attempt to find more meaning than is supported by the facts.Mr. Cao profile

Mr. Cao, a once-politically Independent Vietnamese-American who became a Republican, was elected to go to Washington in 2008.   His election was such a surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory with 78 percent of the vote in the Second Congressional District, the national media came to call Cao “The Accidental Congressman.”

Cao was a former seminarian whose pro-life Catholic views colored his approach to political issues, and may have put him out of touch with his poor, primarily African-American constituents.   A key issue, as stated by an African-American community spokesman in the film, is that when speaking to constituents, Cao would say that he would do whatever was necessary to secure government funds and services for his district (i.e., a big government approach); but when in the company of big donor Republicans, he would oppose taxes on the rich and take other highly conservative positions (i.e., a small government approach).   It was transparent enough for the voters to catch on quite easily.

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington seems to argue that Cao was roughed up the vicissitudes of politics, but then politics is not bean bag; it’s a sport for big boys and big girls, and the thin-skinned need not apply.   When the Democrats nominated Cedric Richmond, a younger version of President Obama, Cao chose to go negative against Richmond, something that one of his chief political advisors (as seen near the end of the documentary) viewed as a basic mistake.   Throwing mud on Richmond seemed to contradict Cao’s labeling of himself as a man of “high integrity.”   Cao clearly worked extremely hard for his constituents after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Coast oil spill, and perhaps his campaign should have focused, first and foremost, on his successes in securing services and corporate and federal rebuilding funds for his heavily-impacted district.

Cao’s strategy was proven to be quite wrong on Election Day 2010, as African-American voters in the District turned out at almost twice the usual rate – despite a heavy rain – to vote for the challenger Richmond.   The election was held just days after Cao had lost his father, and he appears to be devastated and disoriented at the end of the hour-long film.

Mr Cao Ep Main

This is an excellently produced documentary, and it’s fully engaging.   However, I suspect that it offers fewer lessons than intended for the average viewer since Cao is somewhat less of a sympathetic figure than the filmmakers intended.   Joseph Cao seems to have been bitten by the hubris that infects most politicians, and he appears to have adopted a world and political view that was strangely narrow, based more on his religious training and personal background than on the needs of the generally impoverished voters that he was elected to serve.

In the film, we’re expected to believe that Cao honestly viewed President Obama as a close friend, despite the fact that they were of different political parties.   (Sixty-eight percent of Cao’s votes over two years were supportive of the Administration.)   The friendship would not survive Cao’s position change on Obama’s landmark Affordable Health Care Act, which led to distrust on both sides.   Joseph Cao, like too many once-idealistic human beings, attempted to play both sides against the middle.

The lesson of Cao may be that a politician is free to change his or her views on major issues, but doing so without sufficiently explaining those changes to one’s constituents can be, and often is, fatal.

Mr. Cao is a tough reflection of a tough town.   It succeeds when brightly reflecting the political wars that rage in our capital.   It’s less successful when viewed as a tribute to a flawed, transitory political figure.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review DVD was provided by PBS.   Mr. Cao Goes to Washington premieres on PBS TV on January 3, 2013. 

My thanks to Daniel D. Holt of Master Po Editing Services HP for his assistance on this review.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Video (TV/Film) site:  http://blogcritics.org/video/tv-review-mr-cao-goes-to/ .

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Waitin’ On A Sunny Day

Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $28.00, 494 pages)

I was living in Los Angeles in the winter of 1975 when a live concert by a then-unknown East Coast band was stereo-cast late one evening by a Metromedia FM radio station.   The group, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, was playing at the Roxy Theatre and for all of Southern California.   The performance began with a song called “Thunder Road,” and the band proceeded to play all of the songs that we would soon come to know as the Born to Run album.   (I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band when they hit San Francisco the following year.)

Fans of Springsteen know that despite all of their digging, not much is known about his personal life.   Peter Ames Carlin, author of the well recommended Paul McCartney: A Life, and of Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, attempts to remedy this in Bruce.   Carlin draws upon numerous interviews to flesh out a picture of a real human being behind the rock legend.

Some will be surprised to see how vulnerable Springsteen is.   He’s a man who often worries about what others think of him, one who has been unsuccessful in numerous personal relationships, one who has experienced a high level of depression and relied upon years of professional counseling, and one who has often sought a geographical solution to his problems (moving from East Coast to West Coast and back, to the South and back to the West before settling back down in New Jersey).   The mature Springsteen is now a family man, with a wife, son and daughter, who has repeatedly stuck his neck out for social causes and for political candidates – notably supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential races.

Carlin has an insider’s ear for music and provides a quite satisfying amount of information about Springsteen’s recording sessions over several decades; some of the insights may cause readers to purchase albums or revisit the ones they already own.   Carlin’s best, detailed work comes in reviewing how The Rising album – a work of healing and redemption if there ever was one – was recorded after 9/11.   His analysis is excellent except for the fact that it fails to mention the very best song on the album, “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.”   (How did that happen?)

“(Springsteen is) an artist fixated on the intimate stories of ordinary folks whose labors make wealthier mens’ dreams come true…”

Bruce provides the insight that Springsteen has crafted his albums in the same manner in which a movie producer crafts a film.   Each album is intended to represent a story, generally about the people left behind in an otherwise prosperous society.   It’s no wonder that Springsteen’s most recent release pleaded for us to take care of our own.

This story of a performer and his unique band of brothers is more satisfying than most musician bios and it makes for a fast read despite its length.   It is, however, likely to have a short shelf life as the “definitive” biography – to quote Publishers Weekly – of The Boss.   As with bios of Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger and other rock notables, there’s certainly more to come

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“There are many things I could and should be doing right now, but I am not…  I am reading and rereading this book.   Why did you do this to me?”   Jon Stewart to Peter Ames Carlin  

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Missing You: A Review of Losing Mum & Pup by Christopher Buckley

According to his only child, Christopher, William F. Buckley, Jr. often said, “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”   Accordingly, Christopher Buckley has written this memoir – literally a book of memories – about his parents’ final years as a way of dealing with his loss and sense of disorientation.

We all, of course, knew about his father, the late conservative icon often symbolized by the initials WFB.   WFB wrote 5,600 newspaper columns between the years 1962 and 2008; hosted Frontline for 33 years; and had completed 56 books as of the time of his death.   Patricia Taylor Buckley, WFB’s wife, is someone we knew little of, but she comes to life in her son’s telling as a regal and charming – if occasionally impatient – woman.Losing Mum and Pup mediumLosing Mum and Pup cover

What is very clear about the Buckleys is that they were, indeed, larger-than-life figures.   When Patricia one day received a call intended for WFB and was told the president was on the line she responded, “The president of what?”   Of a female politician she said, “That woman is so stupid she ought to be caged!”

While we may think we knew WFB, this book provides a few new views and perspectives.   It was clear that the author of God and Man at Yale was an intellectual (a man who could dictate using perfect punctuation), but not many of us suspected that he was a daring sailor and pilot whose near-death escapades make for lively reading.   As summed up by Chris, “Pup was the bravest man I knew.”

Well, but then politics is a dangerous sport.   Christopher, who supported Barack Obama, has the great sense to touch lightly on conservative versus liberal in this memoir.

Christopher does show us that WFB was both a prideful man and a man of fine humor.   When asked, back in 1965, what he would do first if elected mayor of New York City, WFB answered, “Demand a recount!”

WFB was to say that “Despair is a mortal sin”; and also that “I believe in neither permanent victories nor permanent defeats.”   Perhaps this is why his son crafted this book of memories so that it celebrates the lives of his parents – despite some personal faults that he clearly divulges – rather than the defeat he felt from their passings within a year of each other.

“Christo,” as he was known to WFB, was able to directly tell his father, “I love you very much.”   This despite the fact that WFB could be a harsh critic of his son’s work, including sending this e-mail message just after receiving his son’s latest book:  “This one doesn’t work for me sorry.   XXXB.”

There’s little cause to doubt that Losing Mum and Pup would have “worked” for both WFB and Patricia Taylor Buckley.   While, in the words of a traditional American folksong, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land…”, this is a life-affirming work.

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley, Twelve Books, Illustrated, 251 pages, $24.99.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Thanks to Karen at Hatchette Book Group USA for supplying the review copy; much appreciated!

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