Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We Regret the Error

Unlike Wall Street executives, journalists don't get $20 million bonuses for botching the job.

Instead, they are subjected to a sort of public flogging in the form of corrections that are displayed in print for all to see.

Some are minor. Others are so serious that the offending reporter might find himself working at Jiffe Lube the next week.

Whatever the case, we in the profession, while devoted to accuracy, find some dark humor in the corrections that appear in the publications for which we toil.

And this column, being no stranger to dark humor, has traditionally marked the passing of the year with some of more noteworthy mea culpas from the past 12 months. Many have been collected by Craig Silverman, a Montreal freelance writer and author a book called "Regret the Error." Others were sent to me by fellow aficionados.

We present them for your reading pleasure, hopefully in correct form:

Early exit: Sportswriter Dave Pratt offered up this explanation after he was found plagerizing noted Sports Illustrated and ESPN columnist Rick Reilly: "It was a Saturday and I wanted to get out of [the office] before noon."

Did They Get Anything Right?: In articles published on 23 and 26 May 2008, we gave the impression that Mr. (David) Gest had contracted a sexually transmitted infection and alleged that he had Liza Minnelli's dog killed without her knowledge. This was wrong. David Gest has never had a sexually transmitted infection and did not have Ms. Minnelli's dog killed. (Daily Mail, UK).

Current Events: The compilers and suppliers of our On This Day column deserve to learn a lot more about electric execution. The recidivist column wrongly stated that the first electric chair execution took place on July 7, 1890. In fact, it was Wednesday, August 6, 1890 in New York - ironically then known as the Electric City of the Future - that wife-killer William Kemmler became the first man executed in an electric chair. Although Dr George C. Fell said Kemmler "never suffered a bit of pain," a reporter who also witnessed the execution wrote in the New York Herald the next day that "strong men fainted and fell like logs upon the floor." (The Guardian, UK).

Current Events, Part 2: We said that, in the American TV drama "24," Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorism agent, resorted to electrocution to extract information. You cannot extract information from someone who has been electrocuted because they are dead. (The Guardian, UK).

Spell Check: In yesterday's column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted. (Dave Barry).

Did He Enjoy the Film? A film review on Sept. 5 about "Save Me" confused some characters and actors. It is Mark, not Chad, who is sent to the Genesis House retreat for converting gay men to heterosexuality. (Mark is played by Chad Allen; there is no character named Chad). The hunky fellow resident is Scott (played by Robert Gant), not Ted (Stephen Lang). And it is Mark and Scott - not Chad and Ted - who partake of cigarettes and "furtive man-on-man action." (New York Times).

In the Pink: We have been asked to point out that Stuart Kennedy, of Flat E, 38 Don Street, Aberdeen, who appeared at Peterhead Sheriff Court on Monday, had 316 pink, frilly garters confiscated not 316 pink, frilly knickers. (Press and Journal, UK).

Family Values: Our article last Tuesday...pictured Mr. Eriksson in a hotel restaurant with a young lady. We wrongly assumed that the lady was an admirer and suggested that he was fondling her. In fact the lady was Lina, Mr Eriksson's daughter, with whom he was sharing a normal fatherly embrace. (Daily Star, UK).

Choice Words: A photo caption in the Oct. 22 Style section incorrectly referred to Bill O'Reilly as a "right-wing pundit." The Fox News host presents himself as an independent. (Washington Post). Note that the correction uses the term "presents himself" indicating a certain level of disagreement with O'Reilly's view of himself. Which reminds us of this classic:

An Oct. 1 editorial referred to Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville as a "classy candidate." This page regrets the error. (Lewiston Morning Tribune).

Skip the Salad Course: Celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson has apologized after accidentally recommending a potentially deadly plant in organic salads. The chef and TV presenter said in a magazine article that the weed henbane, also known as stinking nightshade, made an excellent addition to summertime meals. Henbane, or Hyoscyamus niger, is toxic and can cause hallucinations, convulsions, vomiting and in extreme cases death. (Reuters).

Dangers of Technology: The American Family Association's OneNewsNow site has a standard practice of using the word "homosexual" instead of "gay." They even set up a filter to automatically make the change. This didn't serve ONN well when a sprinter named Tyson Gay made news at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. He suddenly became Tyson Homosexual when the site's filter got a hold of an AP story. The same thing happened several year's ago at a different publication when a filter changed the name of the airplane which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to the "Enola Homosexual."

Dangers of Technology, Part 2: "Please note the important 4th writethru to SCOC-Cromwell which corrects the name of the former Supreme Court judge to Michel Bastarache, which had been changed to Bastard by a spellcheck error." (Canadian Press).
Food for Thought: The source who told us last week about Michelle Obama getting lobster and caviar delivered to her room at the Waldorf-Astoria must have been under the influence of a mind-altering drug. She was not even staying at the Waldorf. We regret the mistake, and our former source is going to regret it, too...(New York Post).

Last But Not Least: Readers of the New Hampshire-based Valley News couldn't help but shake their heads. On July 21, the paper's lead story reported Barack Obama had called the situation in Afghanistan "precarious," but the biggest news was far above the fold: the paper had misspelled its own name. People were reading the Valley Newss.
"Readers may have noticed that the Valley News misspelled its own name on yesterday's front page," read a subsequent editor's note. "Given that we routinely call on other institutions to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes, let us say for the record: we sure feel silly." (Craig Silverman).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Goodby to American Cars

Like many Americans, I am a certified car nut.

When I was young, I spent many a happy hour with pencil and paper doodling cars of my own design. When I got older, I'd ride my bike to the new car showrooms to pick up the glossy literature on the latest models every fall.

When I turned 16, my father bought what was charitably called a "business coupe" meaning one sun visor, no radio. It gave basic transportation a bad name. But I could get my fingernails dirty working on it to my great joy.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I've owned a lot of cars over the years. Among them: Fords, Chevys, Buicks and Chryslers.

Every one of them was a beauty in the eye of this beholder. And every one of them was flawed.

My first Ford burned oil by the barrel. The Chevy came equipped with a assembly line worker's coffee cup still wedged into the engine compartment. The Buick ran hot even when it was going downhill in neutral. The Chrysler was oversized and underpowered.

My experience was the rule rather than the exception. It didn't matter. We loved our cars. They meant freedom. They meant status.

We Americans were taught that if you worked hard you would get ahead and when you got ahead, you could reap life's rewards. What better way to show off those rewards than with some Big Iron from Detroit.

They were chromed, they were sleek. Even though they were built on the philosophy of planned obsolescence, we as a nation of automotive junkies kept coming back for another fix.

Now we stand on a precipice. The Big Three automakers, after years of mismanagement, are in Washington begging for money.

If they don't get a cash injection soon, they could fail, throwing millions out of work, something this economy can't tolerate.

Many experts put the price tag for saving Detroit at between $75 billion and $125 billion.

As dire as the consequences may be, many in Congress are taking the Rhett Butler approach. Frankly, they don't give a damn.

You could make the point that we should. Aside from the economic conseqeunces, Ford, General Motors and Chyrsler are American as apple pie. Preserving them is almost like preserving a part of our country's heritage. It seems like the patriotic thing to do.

Do I care enough to rush out and buy an American car? No. Most of them still don't measure up to the imports. Besides, it wouldn't make any difference.

The automakers are damned by their failure to innovate, cursed by a lack of vision, hogtied by outlandish union contracts.

Thomas L. Friedman, writing in the New York Times, gave another reason for the collapse of the industry.

"General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, GM threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers."

General Motors, for their part, bought a full-page ad in the trade publication Automotive News, apologizing for its failures.

"While we're still the U.S. sales leader, we acknowledge we have disappointed you," the ad says. "At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market."

GM also says it "biased" its product to too heavily favor trucks and SUVs, and "we made commitments to compensations plans" that are unsustainable in today's auto industry. "We have paid dearly for these decisions, learned from them and are working to correct them."

I'm guessing it's too late.

The Japanese and European automakers have been filling the void for more than 30 years by providing reliable, fuel efficient cars to American consumers.

The imports, not Detroit, have become part of the American fabric. Who's won the last five Indy 500s? Honda, that's who. Who's building factories throughout the South? The Japanese and Koreans.

I didn't bat an eye when I traded my big old Chrysler in on a Datsun. Somebody had offered me an alternative to costly repairs and shoddy workmanship and threw in fuel economy as a bonus. It wasn't a hard decision to make.

Now, Americans will will be introduced to car companies like Tata from India and SAIC Motor Corp. and Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. from China. Undoubtedly, they will likely follow the Japanese model and build factories in the United States because of the cost of transporting fleets of automobiles across the Pacific.

I'll miss American cars. They were the visible manifestation of America's manufacturing muscle.

But it's hard to shed a tear over an industry that became so bloated and self satisifed that it let it all slip through their fingers.

Looking Ahead to the Past

"Never make predictions, especially about the future." --- Casey Stengal.

I don't buy watches from guys on street corners, don't by clothes from places called "warehouses" and don't bet on sports that are played on ice.

I also don't make predictions. At least not very often.

I made two in the past year. I predicted I would go on a diet and lose 20 pounds. I gained 10. I predicted Hillary Clinton would become president. She didn't even get to the Big Dance.

But that's small potatoes compared to some who dared to predict what 2008 would bring.

Consider this sampling culled from self-appointed crystal ball gazers:

"If [Hillary Clinton] gets a race against John Edwards and Barack Obama, she's going to be the nominee. Gore is the only threat to her...Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I'll predict that right now." William Kristol, Fox News.

I'm glad someone else bought into the Hillary bandwagon. But at least I recognized that Al Gore was yesterday's candidate.

"Peter writes: 'Should I be worried about Bear Stearns in terms of liquidity and get my money out of there?' No! No! No! Bear Stearns is fine! Do not take your money out. … Bear Stearns is not in trouble. I mean, if anything they're more likely to be taken over. Don't move your money from Bear! That's just being silly! Don't be silly!" Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money" who has been advertised as one of the most influential voices on Wall Street.

I don't know who Peter is but I hoped he learned to follow his own instincts when investing. Bear Stearns lost 90 per cent of its value before being sold to JP Morgan Chase at fire sale prices. Which leads me to believe that trusting the advice of a guy who is the Wall Street equivalent of Crazy Gideon seems like a bad idea.

"...The risks to maritime flows of oil are far smaller than is commonly assumed. First, tankers are much less vulnerable than conventional wisdom holds. Second, limited regional conflicts would be unlikely to seriously upset traffic, and terrorist attacks against shipping would have even less of an economic effect. Third, only a naval power of the United States strength could seriously disrupt oil shipments." -- Dennis Blair and Kenneth Lieberthal, Foreign Affairs.

That was before a group of Somali pirates in rubber boats hijacked a Saudi tanker containing 2 million barrels of oil. Back to the drawing boards.

"[A]nyone who says we're in a recession, or heading into one --- especially the worst one since the Great Depression --- is making up his own private definition of recession. Donald Luskin, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2008.

Luskin joined a host of other pundits who blamed the economic downturn on negativism and panic cooked up by the nation's media. I hope he didn't follow Jim Cramer's investment advice.

We can be thankful these gems from the psychic community did't pan out:

-Donald Trump loses a bet and shaves his head.

-A remake of "Gilligan's Island" will be pitched to Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy. They both accept.

-Britney Spears gets pregnant joining her 16 year old sister.

While these gaffes are real eyebrow raisers, they don't begin to approach some classics from the past.

For example:

"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899.

"If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women." David Riesman, American social scientist, 1967.

"It will be gone by June." Variety, passing judgement on rock 'n roll in 1955.

"Reagan doesn't have that presidential look." United Artists executive, rejecting Ronald Reagan as lead in 1964 film "The Best Man."

"With over 15 types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself. " Business Week, August 2, 1968.

"Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure." Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880.

"The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty,a fad." The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977.

"Space travel is bunk." Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957, two weeks before Sputnik orbited the Earth.

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, 1927.

"Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

And last but not least:"We will bury you." Nikita Krushchev, Soviet Premier, predicting Soviet communism will triumph over U.S. capitalism, 1958.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tis the Season for Cliches

CHRISTMAS makes me cringe.

It's not that I don't enjoy the holidays. Heck, I was born on Christmas Day so I can claim a small piece of the action.

And don't mistake me for TV commentator Bill O'Reilly, who claims there is a war on Christmas, part of the "secular progressive agenda ... because if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs, like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually."

That's laying it on a bit thick, even for a blowhard like O'Reilly.

Nope, what really shakes my sleigh every Christmas is the onslaught of cliches, tasteless commercials and downright bad music that accompanies the holiday season.

I make a mental note each year to see who will be first to trot out the "Tis the Season" phrase in an attempt to seem clever or timely.

The winner this year is a KABC-TV anchor who uttered this particular cliche as part of a newscast in late November. This should come as no surprise. Most television newscasters use more clich├ęs than makeup.

But "Tis the Season" is easy and trite, therefore particularly irritating.

Don't believe it? Check out these examples culled from advertising and Internet sources.

Tis the season to be gorgeous.

Tis the season to be nervous.

Tis the season to stock up on ammo and hunt deer.

Tis the season to be bankrupt.

Tis the season to get loaded.

Tis the season for second jobs.

Tis the season for car thieves.

Tis the season for mass layoffs.

In the Christmas mood yet?

Let's move on to "Yes, Virginia," the opening lines of a classic editorial in the New York Post written by Francis P. Church in 1897 in response to a little girl who doubted the existence of Santa Claus.

Now we see it used thus:

Yes, Virginia, we have lobbyist disclosures.

Yes, Virginia, you can get a free credit report.

Yes, Virginia, there is great meatloaf.

Yes, Virginia, there is a recession.

Yes, Virginia, you can thaw turkeys on the counter.

And a personal favorite to get you in the holiday spirit:

Yes, Virginia, there is a hell.

The ad folks can't leave "Deck the Halls" alone either.

Deck the Halls with a strong, fit body.

Deck the Halls with bars of chocolate.

Deck the Halls with unique deals.

Deck the Halls with beer.

While were at it, let's ban "Twas the night before," the Grinch who stole (fill in the blank) and "Bah, Humbug." Dickens doesn't need the royalties.

When it comes to commercials, my least favorite is the Lexus production where one spouse surprises the other with a new car adorned with a large red bow.

I know if my wife "surprised" me with a $65,000 vehicle, we'd have a frank and open conversation about family finances at the kitchen table shortly afterwards. But these couples never bat an eye. I guess there's no recession in Commercial Land.

Speaking of large expenditures, you've got to hand it to Kay Jewelers "Every Kiss Begins With Kay" ads (One blogger reported, "If you like that, you'll love the slogan of a local jewelry store in my area: "Helping couples copulate since 1958.")

Most of these ads seem to run during football games, an attempt, we can surmise, to ratchet up the guilt level for a lot of American males. It must work. The Kay advertising budget exceeds the national debt.

Then there is that whole concept of buying commitment ... well, never mind.

When it comes to Christmas music, everyone has a favorite. I have least favorites.

Three that send me racing to the mute button are "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee who's voice can shatter ornaments, "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dogs (followed by anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks) and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by a number of unfortunate artists.

Honorable mentions: "Little Drummer Boy" by David Bowie and Bing Crosby; "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by Bruce Springsteen, closely followed by "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patty.

Case closed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Black Friday

Long before the sun rises on the day after Thanksgiving, a curious thing will happen.

Large numbers of our fellow citizens, still groggy from food and drink, will gather like an army of zombies and march through the darkness to the nation's marketplaces

When the doors fly open at 4 a.m. they will be transformed into shopping Marines, engaging in consumer combat until the last bargain has been snatched from the shelves.

It is no exercise for the faint of heart. Only the fast, only the strong survive.

There will be valor and bravery, cowardice and fear.

And that's in the first 10 minutes.

It's not for nothing they call it Black Friday. That term originated in Philadelphia beause of the heavy traffic on that day.

More recently, merchants and the media have used it instead to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers are in the black (turning a profit).

In the current economic climate, most merchants would probably settle for Off White Friday.

Come to think of it, it might be called Black Friday because it reveals the dark side of human nature. Mix up a bunch of adrenalin pumped shoppers, disinterested clerks and a shortage of sale merchandise, throw them together in the pre-dawn darkness and you have all the ingredients of a Japanese game show.

It is said to be the busiest shopping day of the year although recently that factoid has been debunked. The last Saturday before Christmas now holds that honor.

And, in keeping with the times we live in, there is now Cyber Monday, a busy day for online retailers, with some sites offering low prices and other promotions on that day. It's unclear if you have to rise at 3 a.m. to cyber shop. I'm guessing you do.

Black Friday remains, however, the stuff of legends. The Internet is full of stories of those who battled and survived.

One woman told of the time she headed to Toys 'R Us at 5 a.m. As she came to the final last item on her list -- a Tickle Me Elmo -- she saw that it was the last one on the shelf and started running. As she reached for the furry red monster with that infectious laugh, another shopper reached for it as well. Neither intended to let go.

"I saw the Elmo first," she said. "She saw me going after it and all of a sudden she wanted it too, I was determined to get that Elmo for my grandson."

A sales manager took the toy away from them before it broke and said they were acting like children, she recalled. He gave the last Tickle Me Elmo to someone else who'd asked him - before the fight -- if there were any other Elmo's left in the store.

Another guy and his brother recounted how they pitched a tent in front of a store complete with propane heater and laptops loaded with their favorite movies to wait in relative comfort until the stores opened. Unfortunately, a friend who had been drinking stopped by for a visit and promptly threw up in their tent, driving them into the cold with the rest of the masses.

Other stories seem to follow a common pattern. Suzy or Sammy Shopper rise at 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. or some other ungodly hour and slouch off to Walmart or Circuit City or Sears or some other big box behemoth.

No matter what time they go, it seems, the lines are already long, the parking lots are full. People camp out and try to survive foul weather, ill tempered fellow shoppers and crafty line cutters so save a few bucks.

Store clerks usually pass out coupons to those waiting in line for the "door buster" sale items in an attempt to avoid full-out stampedes.

But there is trickery afoot. Some shoppers use carts to block aisles so they can rush unimpeded to their merchandise. Others go to the store a day early and stash goods in different departments to avoid the competition. Rules? There are no rules.

Almost every blog I read concluded that precious few of the advertised specials are in stock and many shoppers go home angry and frustrated even after waiting in line all night.

Those same bloggers seem to chalk it up to bad preparation on their part and vow to return next year even earlier and more determined which leads me to an inescapable conclusion: Americans my not be great bargainers but they are great bargain hunters, willing to undergo untold discomfort and grief to save a few bucks.

As for me, I have my schedule all planned out.

Thanksgiving day: Enjoy the family and watch football, not necessarily in that order. Eat too much, watch more football, doze off. Help with dishes then doze off before going to bed.

Black Friday: Sleep through the whole thing. Somehow, Christmas gift giving will take care it itself. It always does. Watch more football. Doze off. Think about going to the gym but nap instead. Eat leftovers in moderation. Think about putting Christmas lights up. Doze instead. Eventually go to bed hoping everyone who braved Black Friday found the bargains they sought.

Happy holidays.

Everything Worth Seeing

I was at the home of a friend who lived on L.A.'s West Side when I first viewed an ESPN broadcast.

Lucky guy, I thought. Cable TV was in its infancy and my company in Glendale basically offered a package of bad reception and frequent outages.

My friend, however, had the ability to tune in an all-sports channel 24 hours a day, the dream of every red-blooded American male. I was insanely jealous.

So he flipped on his TV set one evening and ESPN was broadcasting a women's collegiate basketball game featuring the University of Conneticut, located a stone's throw from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Two broadcasters in slick green blazers adorned with the ESPN logo ran down the strengths and strategies of both teams.

With their insightful analysis and professional demeanor, they could have been calling the Super Bowl. But when the camera pulled back, it revealed an arena so empty you could almost hear the players breathe and a game that was as devoid of excitement as it was talent.

But what the heck, it was sports.

Later, when ESPN finally appeared on my cable system, I was offered a menu of Australian rules football, Thai kickboxing, darts and a telecast of an airplane race shot with from the ground, reducing the competitors to mere specks.

It once presented a delayed broadcast of the Rose Bowl game featuring two announcers who called the action from a studio in frigid Conneticut while waxing about the great weather in Pasadena.

ESPN has come a long way since then.

The cable company and the Bowl Championship Series this week reached a four-year deal beginning in 2011 to bring the Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and some national championship games from over-the-air Fox Sports to cable and satellite television.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the deal was worth $500 million over the four years, or about $100 million more than Fox had offered.

It also means ESPN now has it fingers in the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, professional golf, college basketball and football, major league baseball and a lot of stuff in between, from poker to bowling.

Why should you care?

- For one thing, ESPN is now the Big Dog in sports broacasting. It controls every major bowl game in the United States. It will decide to a great extent what you see and when you see it.

- This will end up costing you money. You may get ESPN as part of a basic cable package, but it isn't free. Your cable company buys ESPN's service and the price undoubtedly just went up. Of course, that will be passed onto you, the consumer.

- The ESPN deal does not officially include the Rose Bowl. Right now, the Rose Bowl has a contact with ABC to broadcast the New Year's day game. ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney and ESPN says the Rose Bowl game will remain on ABC until 2010. No decisions have been made, ESPN said, but you can bet they plan on shifting the game to cable. If you don't have cable, you won't be watching.

- The Rose Bowl's deal with Disney (ESPN and ABC), ESPN's deal with the BCS and BCS's deal with the NCAA all expire in 2014. And then what?

I'm betting ESPN will shell out big bucks to continue televising BCS bowl games.

I'm also betting ESPN will be switching the big bowl games to pay-per-view telecasts. That's right, folks, the Rose Bowl game will no longer be a freebie. ESPN already has a pay-per-view component as part of its multimedia package so it won't take a technological breakthrough to make this happen.

While all this is not necessarily good news for the viewing public, it might very well be good news for the Rose Bowl.

Fat television contracts and pay-per-view charges all mean additonal revenue and if there's one thing the Rose Bowl could use now it is a generous infusion of cash.

The stadium is old, in need of repairs and money is in short supply for the Grandaddy of Them All.

Of course, this all assumes the BCS won't get dumped in favor of a playoff series for college football, something advocated by no less than President-elect Obama who has vowed to put his weight behind such a plan.

But the President has a better chance of achieving world peace and establishing a bull market than he does of ending the BCS arrangement.

For one thing, the Pac 10 and Big 10 don't want to further diminish the Rose Bowl game, which would undoubtedly happen in a playoff scenario.

Second, there's too much money to me made under the current arrangement. Dump the bowl games and you're dumping cash.

When contract time comes around in 2014, it will be a whole new ball game.

And right in the middle of it all will be ESPN, the little cable company that could.

The Wolves Are in Full Howl

There was a time in this country, so the story goes, when a newly elected President was granted a "honeymoon," usually a 100 day period when the new chief executive was given time to set up his presidency.

It was, like the Easter Bunny, largely a myth.

Princton professor Julian Zelizer points out that while approval ratings tend to be higher in the first months of office, there never has been the kind of honeymoon period often talked about.

"The sociologist Steven Clayman and his colleagues have reviewed the transcripts from White House press conferences dating back to 1953," Zelizer writes, "and found that the White House press corps can be extremely assertive in the first few months, particularly if the economy is struggling."

But that doesn't begin to explain the angst and paranoia that has followed the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.

He won't take office for two more months but already the wolves are in full howl.

Just this week, a Republican congressman from Georgia said he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship.

"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he's the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said of Obama in an interview with The Associated Press.

"I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may -- may not, I hope not -- but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."

Broun cited a July speech by Obama in which he called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military, a plan the Bush administration had once floated.

"That's exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it's exactly what the Soviet Union did," Broun said. "When he's proposing to have a national security force that's answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he's showing me signs of being Marxist."

Also this past week, weapons dealers in much of the United States are reporting sharply higher sales since Obama won the presidency.

Buyers and sellers attribute the surge to worries that Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress will move to restrict firearm ownership, despite the insistence of campaign aides that the president-elect supports gun rights and considers the issue a low priority.

If that's not enough, a group called Focus on the Family Action is predicting that under an Obama presidency, we will have same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the disbanding of the Boy Scouts, compulsory training in varieties of gender identification in Grade 1, the eradication of religious adoption agencies, the banishment of religious programming as illegal hate speech and the forced participation in abortions by medical providers who are morally opposed to them and the end of all obscenity laws.

OK, folks, let's all settle down a bit. We elected a Democrat, not the Prince pf Darkness.

Nobody is going to take your guns away. Nobody is going to unleash an army of jack-booted goons in your neighborood. In fact, you probably stood to lose more personal freedoms under the Patriot Act than you will under Obama.

Nobody is going to disband the Boy Scouts.

This wasn't a conspiracy. It was an election. And in reality is was about once issue: the economy. 62 per cent of the electorate said so.

Who did they have to choose from? One candidate had Warren Buffet as his advisor. The other had Joe the Plummer. One said the economy was priority one and that more oversight is needed. The other said, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I can."

Game over.

Nonetheless, we ought to be concerned that the level of disucssion in this country has reached a new low.

We ought to be concerned that we have lost all sense of civility, of reconciliation, of common sense. Polarization is the operative mentality and centerists in both parties are an endangered species.

We can point a finger at the brave new world of the Internet, instant communications, 24/7 news cycles, endless cable talk shows and partisan journalists. It is a Pandora's Box we may not be able to close.

Professor Zelizer adds to this list "the never ending campaign...

"Frankly, the campaign for 2012 has already begun. Politico has already reported that Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich will be speaking in Iowa to the Republican Governors Association. Mike Huckabee will be in Iowa to promote his new book and Gov. Bobby Jindal will make his way to the caucus state to speak to a number of civic organizations."

We should be worried.

But somehow, this country manages to get it right. This country overcomes adversity. People of good will triumph. Justice is served.

And we do it by rejecting the blatherings of extremists such as the ones we're hearing now.

The View From the Couch

Election night 2008 was the first in nearly 30 years I wasn't huddled down in some stuffy newsroom, munching cold pizza and sipping lukewarm coffee while pouring over election returns, pushing deadlines to the breaking point.

Instead, I watched from home, Joe Viewer absorbing the coverage as the electronic media tackled the most historic election since Lincoln.

What follows is a highly unscientific survey of what TV had to offer, recorded by a guy who was watching election night coverage in earnest for the first time since the Nixon Administration.

Monday: A day largely characterized by talking heads. The best, CNN, featured a cadre of pros from both sides who actually had the courtesy not to try to outshout each other.

The worst: CNBC, the business channel, who had a group that gave the Tower of Babal a good name. All spoke at the same time and then cranked up the volume in a futile attempt to be heard over the others. If you like splitting headaches, this was for you.

CNN persisted in running a scroll across the bottom of the screen that said, "Breaking News: Obama, McCain urge people to vote." That's news, breaking or otherwise?

Meanwhile, the Fox folks ran a scroll during a live feed of an Obama speech that said, "More McCain backers fear voter fraud than Obama backers."

When it comes to creating paranoia, nobody does it like Fox.

Over on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann is making fun of John McCain. I remember Olberman when he was a sports reporter. He wasn't any good at that, either.

Back at the business channel, anchor Maria Bartiromo is interviewing Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa Jr. But soon, her interview becomes a full out attack on union practices and policies. Later, CNBC's Larry Kudlow, an old Reagan hand, is in full rant about what he sees as the death of the coal industry under Obama.

In the middle of it all, Obama and McCain appear on Monday Night Football, interupting a good football game with chit chat.

Tuesday: Election day. Every network has reporters swarming around polling places like flies on a rib roast. It's unclear what their mission is. Voter fraud? Exit polling? Long lines? Mostly, you have a cadre of people looking into a camera and reporting that everything is normal.

Except in Philadelphia.

There, the Fox people have swooped down into a quiet precinct to report that Black Panthers are intimating voters at a local precinct.

Wow, Black Panthers? Haven't heard from them in years.

Fox offers video of two black men wearing leather jackets standing in front of the polling place. One carries a nightstick.

This becomes a top-of-the-page story until the Philadelphia DA's office announces that this was a "non-incident" and that there is no connection betweem the two men and the Black Panther party.

"We don't need anybody trying to trump up anything or generate any kind of excitement," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

The story disolves.

Next up on Fox is columninst Laura Ingrham who proclaims that American conservatives have not lost anything in this election since McCain was not a conservative.

In the meantime, MSNBC is interviewing televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, which seems odd since religion doesn't appear to be an issue and is never discussed.

Suddenly, it's 4 o'clock, crunch time.

CNN broadcasts from a set that looks like it came from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, except more expensive.

It features interactive computerized maps that are so whiz bang high tech it's hard to follow the content.

If that's not enough, they project a reporter from Chicago into their New York studios via a hologram. It's kind of like having Princess Lea on the staff. Unfortunately, the technology trumps the message. She has little to contribute.

On the low tech side, NBC and MSNBC are painting states red or blue on a map of the United States superimposed on the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. I keep trying to imagine why you would project a presidential election onto ice. I can't.

The first projected winner in delcared at 4:02 p.m., Pacific time. McCain takes Kentucky, Obama Vermont. Strangely enough, all stations seem to make their declarations at the same time.

As the evening wears on, however, Fox seems to be a step ahead in declaring winners.

Time drags It looks grim for McCain. Many quote sources inside the McCain camp that a win seems unlikely. Even Joe the Plumber says McCain's chances are slim.

Is it anticlimatic? Not if you lived through the election of 2000.

At approximately 8 p.m., Obama is declared winner. The crowds tell the story. It is spontaneous and moving beyond belief.

"This is man on the moon," Olbermann says.

"In a country that was stained by slavery, he is now president of the United States," says David Gregory on MSNBC. "The ultimate color line has now been crossed."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Here's Mud in Your Eye

Sen. John McCain: "I pledge again a respectful campaign. A respectful campaign based on the issues and based on the stark differences we have on the vision for the future of America."

Sen. Barack Obama: "We don't need John McCain and I to be demonizing each other. You won't get that from my campaign."

That lofty rhetoric was uttered some months back by two gentlemen who undoubtedly had their fingers crossed when they spoke.

Because they, and we, understand there has never been a "respectable campaign" marked by "civil substantive debate" in the political history of the United States.

And this year is no exception. Obama is a "socialist" who "pals around with terrorists" while McCain is a Depends-wearing dupe of the Bush administraion who is "out of touch."

So much for clean campaigning.

When and where did the grand old tradition of mudslinging in American politics start?

It began a long, long time ago, according to historians.

No less than Founding Fathers John Adams, the incument president, and his friend and vice president Thomas Jefferson faced each other in the election of 1800.

The niceities didn't last long.

Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having " a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

In return, Adams' men called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

They didn't stop there. Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson, the eventual winner, was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

The election of 1884 pitting Grover Cleveland against James G. Blaine was one for the ages as well.

Blaine had been prevented from getting the Republican presidential nomination during the previous two elections because of the stigma of the "Mulligan letters." In 1876, a Boston bookkeeper named James Mulligan had located some letters showing that Blaine had sold his influence in Congress to various businesses.

It was perfect fodder for the Cleveland forces.

But then, according to historical accounts, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, that the child had gone to an orphanage, and that the mother had been driven to an asylum.

Cleveland's campaign decided that candor was the best approach to this scandal: they admitted that Cleveland had formed an "illicit connection" with the mother and that a child had been born and given the Cleveland surname. They also noted that there was no proof that Cleveland was the father, and claimed that, by assuming responsibility and finding a home for the child, he was merely doing his duty.

Finally, they showed that the mother had not been forced into an asylum; her whereabouts were unknown. Blaine's supporters condemned Cleveland by singing "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha."

But Cleveland's high road approach won the day.

Contemporary campaigns have had memorable moments.

Remember the "Daisy Girl" television ad from the Lyndon Johnson campaign? It showed a cute blonde child picking the pedals from a flower only to be obilterated in a nuclear explosion. The unspoken message was that Barry Goldwater was threatening a nuclear war. It only ran once but is considered the most famous ad of all time.

The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempted to descredit John Kerry, his war record and his integrity with some success.

Geroge H.W. Bush unleased the Willie Horton ad on Michael Dukakis, holding him responsible for a prison furlough program in which Horton, a convicted murderer, committed armed robbery and rape.

In 1968, the Hubert Humphrey campaign featured an ad that had the words "Agnew for Vice President? on the screen" accompanied by a soundtrack of a man laughing hysterically, louder and louder, until the laughs veer off into a groan. Richard Nixon had the last laugh, however.
So is negative campaigning successful?

Certainly, negative ads are the ones we remeber.

The conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do, in fact, work, according to one study.. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to.
But there is a perceptible "backlash" effect when a candidate persistently publishes or airs negative information about his or her opponent, especially when that information is not perceived by voters as immediately relevant to the campaign.

So when you go negative, you take chances.

In the meantime, here are two negative campaigns that are candidates for the hall of fame:

One, in 1934, was aimed at Upton Sinclair, the socialist muckraker turned Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Hostile newsreels featured actors portraying Sinclair supporters as Soviet comrades, saying lines like, "His system vorked vell in Russia, so vy can't it vork here?" Sinclair lost.
The other reported by CNN featured North Carolina's Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds, who several generations ago denounced his opponent for his alleged habit of eating caviar.
"You know what caviar is?" Reynolds would ask, with a squinty and meaningful eye. In a paroxysm of disgust and incredulity, he would answer his own question: "Why, it's fish eggs! Fish eggs from Red Russia!"
Reynolds told the backcountry crowds that his opponent had once sunk so low as go up to Harvard (pronounced HAW-vud). What did the man do there? Why, he "matriculated"! And, worse, he became "a thespian"! Imagine.

Out of Step

I tuned into "Dancing With the Stars" the other night to see how our new Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade, Cloris Leachman, was getting along.

But before I get to Cloris, a confession:

I think "Dancing With the Stars" is the worst thing on TV since "My Mother the Car." It consists of a bunch of Grade D celebrities and washed up jocks competing in a trumped up ballroom dancing competition while the judges engage in breathless exclamations and the dancers blow air kisses to one and all.

It makes "Hollywood Squares" look like "Masterpiece Theater."

"Dancing With the Stars" is the ultimate embrace of mediocrity. One critic summed it up nicley when she described a male dancer as "stalking his hottie partner on stage like the creepy uncle you always avoid at wedding receptions."

A recent competition featured Heather Mills, the former Mrs. Paul McCartney, dancing with a prosthetic leg. I suspect many people watched for the same reason they watch auto racing. To see a crash.

A lot of people like it. But then again, a lot of people voted to reelect George Bush.

Cloris Leachman, God bless her, is a quality actress with a long (she began appearing on television and in films shortly after competing in Miss America as Miss Chicago 1946) and distinguished career. She won an Oscar for "The Last Picture Show" in 1971 and a bunch of Emmys.

On "Dancing With the Stars," however, the 82-year-old actress looked like somebody's grandmother who had one too many champagne cocktails. I guess it's what passes for humor these days.

Is she really the embodiment of "Hats Off to Entertainment"? It makes me wonder who finished in second place.

My choice for grand marshal is and will be Dodger announcer Vin Scully, a beloved national icon who is arguably the best announcer of all time. I'm betting he wouldn't be caught dead on "Dancing With the Stars."

But once again, Show Biz or what passes for it will triumph over all on Colorado Boulevard.

As they say in baseball, maybe next year.


I was astonished recently to hear Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin say that Barack Obama "... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

Since I wouldn't want to see some fellow traveler in the White House, I decided to investigate.

It turns out Palin was referring to Bill Ayers, one of the founders of the Weather Underground, a bunch of 1960s radicals whose members took credit for explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol during the Vietnam War.

Obama was the first chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school-reform group of which Ayers was a founder. Ayers also held a meet-the-candidate event at his home for Obama when Obama first ran for office in the mid-1990s.

Palin cited a New York Times story that detailed Obama's relationship with Ayers. But according to the Associated Press, the Times concluded: "A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Ayers, 63. But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Ayers, whom he has called 'somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.'"

As for the foundation, Walter Annenberg, who provided a grant to start the foundation, was a lifelong Republican and former ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Richard Nixon. His widow, Leonore, has endorsed McCain.

Under the deal with Annenberg every dollar from him had to be matched bytwo from elsewhere. The co-funders were a host of respected,mainstream institutions, such as the National Science Foundation, theJohn D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the W.K. KelloggFoundation and the Chicago Public Schools.

According to PolitiFact, a project of the the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, among the other board members who served with Obama were Stanley Ikenberry, former president of the University of Illinois; Arnold Weber, former president of Northwestern University and assistantsecretary of labor in the Nixon administration; Scott Smith, thenpublisher of the Chicago Tribune; venture capitalist Edward Bottum;John McCarter, president of the Field Museum, and Patricia AlbjergGraham, former dean of the Harvard University Graduate School ofEducation.

Not a bomb thrower among them.

Dipping Into the Past

When I first drove to a new job in downtown Los Angeles some years back, it was as much a rite of passage as it was a trip down the freeway.

I left the sleepy suburbs behind that day. I was now part of the Workforce, a cadre of men and women descending on the big city every day to engage in commerce, build skyscrapers, cure illnesses, dispense justice and right wrongs.

It felt like I belonged to something big and wonderful.

I'd been in big cities before. I worked in San Francisco while going to college. I served part of my military duty in Washington, D.C.

But working in downtown Los Angeles was something special. This is where my father spent most of his career. When I was a kid, it was a treat to go downtown and have my dad take me to lunch at Cole's, or Little Joes, or some out of the way place in Chinatown. Or if I was really lucky, the Jonathan Club.

When Dodger stadium opened, we'd often stop at Phillipe's on the way to the game. Dad seemed to know every nook and cranny in the city.

Now it was my turn to discover the Big City on my own.

It didn't take my long to find a favorite haunt, a place where I headed as often as I could for lunch.

But it wasn't anything new or trendy. In fact, it was old and worn.

It was the very same Phillipe's, the sandwhich joint which celbrates its 100th aniversary this month.

I can honostly say I have never met anyone in Southern California who hasn't been to Phillipe's at least once. Or at least heard of it.

But if you haven't, it is a somewhat less than elegant eatery that is a shrine to the French Dip, a place hard by Union Station that has been in operation since 1908 making it one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles.

Come to think of it, in a city which has historically bulldozed almost everything several times over, Phillipe's may be the oldest institution of any kind in Los Angeles.

Customers stand sometimes 10 deep behind a long counter staffed by women wearing starched waitress attire the likes of which you haven't seen in 50 years.

When they deliver your order (on paper plates), you sit at long tables atop sawdust covered floors where your dining partners could be anyone from a judge to a transient. Or, befitting the atmosphere of the place, a barrister or a bum.

Specialty of the house: French dip sandwhiches of beef, pork, lamb or turkey although they also serve soups, stews, even pickled pigs feet. Don't ask for lettuce or tomato for your sandwich. They don't have any. In fact, the only condiment available I've ever seen is their homemade mustard.

And if you must wash down your dip with a sophisticated beverage, they even have a decent wine list which includes Silver Oak Cabarnet at 15 bucks a glass. It is a dining experience as meomorable as it is simple.

The origins of Phillipe's French dip sandwhich are legendary.

According to food writer Charles Perry, original owner Phillipe Mathieu told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1951, "One day a customer saw some gravy in the bottom of a large pan of roast meat. He asked me if I would mind dipping one side of the French roll in that gravy. I did, and right away five or six others wanted the same." He quickly ran out of gravy.

"But," he said, "it put me wise." The next day he had a gallon of gravy ready, but so many people wanted dip sandwiches that he still ran out.

An alternative explanation bases the invention in frugality. A fireman came into the restaurant when there were leftover rolls. Mathieu would use them up although they were stale. The fireman complained that the roll was dry, so Philippe dipped it in au jus, basically to get rid of the guy.

This alternative is likely since Mathieu may have preferred to credit a customer rather than waste a stale roll.

The most common story is that Mathieu accidentally dropped a roll in pan drippings, and the customer who had ordered the sandwich agreed to eat it anyway. This is less likely since the "happy accident" theory of food origins is typically used where there is no alternative explanation.

Whatever the truth may be, it was the most fortuitous culinary marriage since peanut butter met jelly.

Time has not stood still in downtown Los Angeles. My father would be astonished to see the skyscrapers, the condos and lofts, the Staples Center complex rising south of downtown.

His employer, the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad, is no more.

My former employer, the Los Angeles Times, is a shadow of its former self. The building, half vacant, is up for sale.

But I'm sure if we could meet one more time for lunch, Phillipe's would be the destination.
We'd have a single dipped roast beef with a side of cole slaw and a lemonade.

It would be as if time stood still.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Now,for the Good News

I was going to write about the presidential campaign.

Or maybe why we are blessed that vice presidential candidates rarely sway our opinions. Joe Biden thinks Roosevelt spoke on TV in 1929. Trouble is, Joe, that was before FDR was president and before television was invented. Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric made her sound like someone off her meds.

I was thinking about proposing that, in view of the Wall Street fiasco, the salaries of Congress members be tied to the meaningful and timely legislation they pass. That would provide plenty of bail-out funds.

But the heck with all that. It gets depressing.

Instead I bring you some news items that may have escaped your attention, and are guaranteed not to have you reaching for the aspirin bottle.

News: In the biggest medical response in recent Rose Bowl history, Fire Department officials treated nearly 1,000 people at a UCLA-Fresno State football game last weekend for heat-related problems. The majority of those treated were visiting fans sitting in the north end of the stadium.

Views: You mean to tell me that it's too hot in Pasadena for those hard-scrabble farmers from the San Joaquin Valley, where summer temperatures average 100 with occasional highs of 112? Where it's humid and the air smells like, well, farmland? The land of truck stops and tule fog?

The town that Johnny Carson used to call "Gateway to Bakersfield," and "Home of the Highest Speed Bumps?


I guess the big city was too much for our country cousins.

News: The fourth annual Big Tex Choice award for best taste this year (at a precursor event to the Texas State Fair) went to Glen Kusak's chicken fried bacon.

Earlier this summer, fourth-generation candymaker Joseph Marini III introduced chocolate-covered bacon bon-bons at his stand on California's Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

And for the more sophisticated, restaurateur Don Yovicsin of Waltham, Mass., serves bacon-infused Absolut vodka (allowed to sit for four weeks' time and then filtered of the bits).

Views: The bacon industry has somehow convinced Americans to smother their product on everything from hamburgers to Pringles (yes, they come in a bacon ranch flavor) to pet food.

I read somewhere that a stand at the Minnesota State Fair featured something called Big Fat Bacon. It's described as a one-third-pound slice of bacon that is fried, caramelized with maple syrup, and served on a stick with dipping sauces.

It was probably invented by a cardiologist.

News: Convicted sexual molester Donald Fox, 62, of Frederick, Md., became the most recent convict to challenge the unfairness of his sentence (40 years in prison) and then have the appeals court agree it was unfair. Except they ruled it was too short. He's now serving 80 years.

Views: Is this a great country or what?

News: Humor columnist Dave Barry had a sewage station named after him and a potluck dinner thrown in his honor Wednesday, according to his website.

"I'm honored," Barry said at the dedication. "It's not every day that your work is compared to human waste."

Views: If you like this idea, the president of Webber International University in Florida is using eBay to auction off the naming rights to the college's new project. The college is building a new sewage plant. So, for the right price, you could have it named after you, a loved one, or someone who deserves it.

News: A Florida teenager claims he was attacked and robbed by four topless blonde women on his way to work. Olmer Morales, 18, told police the attack happened as he rode his bike to work one morning in Stuart, Martin County.

A heavy-set blonde woman wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt and overalls stopped him by grabbing his handle bars, according to the police report. Four thinner blonde-haired women, all wearing overalls with no shirts and no bras, then surrounded him and stole the $100 in his back pocket, Morales told deputies.

Views: Soon to be the subplot of a new James Bond movie.

News: Two Jet Blue pilots have been charged with two counts of theft and one of felony battery after allegedly attacking Miami cab driver Juan Martin over a $9 fare after a ride from a Fort Lauderdale strip club to a Subway restaurant, police said.

Pilots William Hart Smith, 40, and Brad Leopard, 38, both of Fort Lauderdale, allegedly attacked the cab driver about 2 a.m. on Aug. 12, said Fort Lauderdale Detective Katherine Collins. The pilots were arrested weeks later.

Views: Don't let these guys catch you with an extra carry-on.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Great Debate

GUN-toting, moose-hunting hockey moms. Lipstick on pigs. Bridges to Nowhere. Who has the biggest flag lapel pin or the goofiest pastor?

It seems the current presidential election is being scripted by spin meisters, flacks, hired character assassins and mud slingers of every stripe.

It is high time for John McCain and Barack Obama to look the American voters square in the eye and tell them exactly where they stand on the issues.

And some time soon, posturing and politics notwithstanding, we may get a chance for the straight talk we have been so generously promised when the televised candidate debates finally begin.

Think of it as "American Idol" with the free world at stake.

"The candidates and their handlers are aware that all it takes is one bad sentence or one good sentence to resolve an election," said Jim Lehrer, anchor of PBS's "NewsHour."

Some highlights underscore that point.

The first televised debate is perhaps the most famous of them all. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy met in a Chicago studio on Sept. 26, 1960, both sides believing they had something to gain by debating.

Everyone remembers not what was said, but who won the image battle.
Kennedy wore a dark suit, wore makeup and appeared presidential. Nixon, by contrast, looked like a guy who just got caught shoplifting. He wore no makeup, had a 5 o'clock shadow, was recovering from the flu and had lost weight and suffered from a knee injury. He appeared to be
sweating profusely. Many think it was the turning point in Kennedy's campaign.

From 1960 to 1976, no presidential debates took place. Not surprisingly, Nixon avoided debates in 1968 and vetoed repeal of the equal time provision in 1970. Finally in 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford met for three debates. The debates were dominated by Ford's statement that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet control.

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration," Ford said, in response to a question. "I don't believe ... that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union."

In response Carter said he'd like to see Ford "convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain."

When Carter and Reagan met in 1980, the Republican challenger was a clear winner. To Carter's attack that he would cut Medicare, he quipped, "There you go again." And in his closing remarks, Reagan asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" a phrase that struck a chord with voters.

When George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis met in 1988, the highlight of the debate was a question posed by CNN's Bernard Shaw: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty, responded: "No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime..."

His passionless response to the question apparently didn't set well with voters, and while Bush didn't perform well either, he didn't have to.

The 1992 debate was unusual in that it featured three candidates: George Bush, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot. A poll conducted by CNN/USA TODAY found that of those watching, 47 percent rated Perot the winner, 30 percent voted Clinton and 16 percent voted for Bush.

But Perot dropped out of the race, then reentered it, diminishing his popularity in the process.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore and then Texas governor George W. Bush debated. According to published accounts, the debate became a judgment of style over substance. Gore audibly sighed several times during Bush's answers. Some analysts said, Gore forfeited the aura of his position and came across as petulant and petty. Gore did better in later debates but never shook the early reviews.

Just for some perspective, the most famous debates of the pre-broadcast era are the senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Douglas agreed to the joint appearances only after Lincoln followed him around the state, making comments from the audience.

The debates were considered a major success. Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote in her book

"Presidential Debates:" "They were orderly and closely attended. Both advocates were serious and articulate. They addressed themselves to a discreet set of political concerns. The debates advanced the issues, illuminating the areas of both agreement and disagreement."

We can only hope this year's debates will meet that standard.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Flower of Los Angeles

I don't have a lot of influence around these parts.

I'm just an ink-stained wretch who bares his soul on these pages for the amusement and entertainment of our readers.

Or as Gene Fowler once wrote, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."

But I am here today to right a wrong, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, view with alarm, all those things that responsible newspapers are supposed to do.

Specifically, I am here to chastise the Tournament of Roses.

They have done a hell of a job running the Rose Parade for a century or so, making it into a must-view international event long on beauty and family values, short on gimmicks and bad taste.

But for too many years, the Rose Parade folks have ignored in their selection of grand marshal the most visible, most beloved, most celebrated citizen of the greater Los Angeles area, a man who as much as anyone defines the word "institution."

And time may be running short for the opportunity to salute his remarkable talent.

I speak of Vincent Edward Scully, the melliflous and knowledgeable voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 59 years.

He has been named California Sportscaster of the Year 28 times, he received the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, was honored with a Life Achievement Emmy Award for sportscasting and induction into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995, and was named Broadcaster of the Century by the American Sportscasters Association in 2000.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame. There is talk of erecting a statue of him at Dodger Stadium.

Through the power of his voice, he has almost single handedly made the Dodgers one of the top drawing franchises in all of sport.

His popularity has crossed generational, economic and racial lines.

But he has never been grand marshal of the Rose Parade.

Last year, writing about Scully, I said, " When I think of a half-century of Dodger baseball...there is one constant that remains when all the seasons and players begin to blend together in memory.

"That is Vin Scully. Back in the days before every game was televised, Scully was the Dodgers. his voice on the radio meant spring was here. When Scully called the Dodgers, it was time to get the lawn furniture out, fix a cool drink and listen to the drama unfold as only a master story teller could describe it.

"It is Scully who said, 'He (Bob Gibson) pitches as though he's double-parked.'

"It is Scully who described pitcher Tom Glavine as being 'like a tailor; a little off here, a little off there and you're done, take a seat.'

"It is Scully who called Stan Musial 'good enough to take your breath away.'

"It is Scully who said, 'It's a mere moment in a man's life between the All-Star Game and an old timer's game.' "

Scully doesn't announce a game. He sings it. In his hands, it is grand opera.

"Criticizing him is like criticizing Shakespeare," wrote Gary Kaufrman. "You can do it, but you say more about your own foolishness than anything else."

We have watched while tournament officials honored an omlette flipper, a cartoon mouse, a frog puppet, various actors and actresses and inummerable politicians.

This year's theme is "Hats Off to Entertainment" and president RonaldH. Conzonire who picked the theme also gets to select the grand marshal.

Not that the theme makes a great deal of difference.

Last year's theme was "Passport of the World's Celebrations" and featured TV chef Emeril Legasse as the honoree. Go figure.

In 2005, it was "Celebrate Family" and Mickey Mouse was selected. I was never quite able to connect the dots on that one.

So whatever theme the Rose Parade people come up with, Scully fits.

I don't know if he has been asked to be grand marshal in the past and declined. He is as self-effacing as he is talented.

But he rode on the Dodger 50th anniversary float last year so we know he's not adverse to getting up in the middle of the night to motor down Colorado Boulevard.

On Friday, Sept. 5, 2008, Scully announced that he intended to continue calling games through the 2009 season at age 80. It will be his 60th season with the team.

And its high time he rides at the front of the parade.

If you agree, contact the Tournament of Roses at 391 South Orange Grove Ave., Pasadena, CA. 91184. Send them a letter. Ask your friends and family to send them a letter. Send them a copy of this column. Or e-mail them at : rosepr@rosemail.org.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Thorny Issue

Another National Football League season has begun without a team in Los Angeles.

And once again, the apathy is overwhelming.

Let's face it. We have two college football teams with bigtime fan bases in town. UCLA drew an average of 76,000 fans to the Rose Bowl last year with a mediocre team. And you couldn't get a ticket to a USC game at the Coliseum if your name was Tommy Trojan.

The NFL, after an absence of 14 years, just doesn't generate much buzz around here anymore.

Unless your name is Ed Roski.

Ed, part owner of the Lakers and Kings and co-owner of Staples Center, has gobs of money and the passion to bring the NFL back to the Los Angeles area.

He's so passionate, in fact, he has unveiled a plan to build a $800 million stadium in the city of Industry. All he needs is a team.

Which is like saying I can fly. All I need is wings.

If fans in Los Angeles are skeptical, they should be. The wreckage of other NFL plans lie strewn about like so much hurricane debris.

But let's engage in the willing suspension of disbelief for a few moments and presume Ed does the deal.

The Chargers or the Raiders or some other team rises to the bait and moves to Los Angeles.

The first thing the team would need is a place to play while their new stadium is being built.

Enter the Rose Bowl.

Eager to generate revenues for much needed improvements to their aging facility, a NFL team, even as a temporary tenant, would appear to be nothing short of Santa Claus to the Rose Bowl folks. They need hundreds of millions of dollars to bring their stadium into the 21st Century.

When they call the Rose Bowl the "Granddaddy of Them All," the emphasis is on "granddaddy." The place is 86 years old. It operates at a loss. It needs new seats, new tunnels, upgraded video and scoreboards, lighting and sound systems. It needs luxury suites to generate revenue.

It needs to be able to compete.

But there is a downside to all of this. Consider:

If Roski builds his stadium, you can be sure he wants to keep it full. Empty stadia cost money. Full ones create income. So it would be no surpise if Ed would enter the bidding to host the BCS college football championship game, a contest that has been held at the Rose Bowl in the past in rotation with other stadia in the country.

What Roski could offer is a state-of-the-art facility with abundent luxury boxes and other amenities the Rose Bowl, in its current state, couldn't hope to match.

The resulting loss of revenue for the Rose Bowl would be a blow not only to its financial future but to its stature as well, something the city of Pasadena could ill afford.

It is probably far-fetched to think that Roski's new stadium would pick off UCLA or the Tournament of Roses games as tenants. Far fetched but not impossible. With the exception of the Rose, all of the original stadia that hosted New Year's games - the Cotton, Sugar and Orange- have been or are being demolished, the games being played in new facilities miles from the originals.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here. Roski doesn't have a team, the NFL still appears to view Los Angeles with disdain, the Rose Bowl is still packing them in.

But Los Angeles hasn't had a new stadium since the Coliseum was opened for business in 1923. The odds favor a new one sooner rather than later. And if Roski makes his plan work, the ramifications both pro and con could reach right into Pasadena.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Par for the Coarse


News: The Ladies Professional Golf Association will require
players to speak English starting in 2009, with players who have been LPGA
members for two years facing suspension if they can't pass an oral evaluation of
English skills. "Athletes now have more responsibilities and we want to help
their professional development," deputy commissioner Libba Galloway told
The Associated Press. "There are more fans, more media and more sponsors.
We want to help our athletes as best we can succeed off the golf course as
well as on it."

Views: Hogwash. The LPGA, whose television ratings rank somewhere
below reruns of "Wife Swap," is using the race card as a scapegoat for its
troubles.

It seems the women's tour has been populated in recent years by
Korean golfers whose skills often put them on top of the leaderboard. Like
most professional sports venues, it is becoming intermational in makeup.

But apparently many of the recent arrivals can't chat up the
sponsors, schmooze with high rolers in pro-ams or grab big enough endorsement
deals to please the cash hungry LPGA. So the tour leadership is blaming those
who don't look like them.

If it's not bad enough that the LPGA has chosen the meat cleaver
approach to its problems, it broke the news as athletes from around the world
gathered to compete in harmony and friendship in Beijing.

Half the Dodgers roster in recent years has been made up of
foreign-born athletes. Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if Major
League Baseball would have given Fernando Valenzuela or Hideo Nomo the heave
ho based on their language skills?

The LPGA has chosen stupidity over diversity.



News: The newspaper business is going to hell.


Views: This is a topic of great debate but apparently journalists
in San Diego are buying into the glass-half-empty view.

About 20 Union-Tribune staffers slept in the newspaper's lobby
recently, determined not to miss their chance to take what's expected to be the
final buyout offer.


News: Some men may be more genetically predisposed to encounter
difficulties in monogamous relationships, including marriage, a Swedish study
indicates.

Views: Like we guys have been saying all along, we just can't
help it. The research out of Stockholm's Karolinska Institute suggests two
out of five men have the DNA pattern that makes them less able to commit to
a stable relationship.

And you thought we were just insensitive slobs.

If that's not enough, Psychology Today suggests that the history
of western civilization aside, humans are naturally polygamous.
Polyandry (a marriage of one woman to many men) is very rare, but polygyny (the
marriage of one man to many women) is widely practiced in human societies,
even though Judeo-Christian traditions hold that monogamy is the only natural
form of marriage.

Or, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "The maternal instinct leads a
woman to prefer a tenth share in a first-rate man to the exclusive possession
of a third-rate one."

This particular study has set off a debate about whether people
should conduct genetic tests to find out whether potential mates are bad
marriage prospects.

Which means when you give her a ring, she may ask to swab the
inside of your mouth before she says "yes."

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University
who studies romantic love, told the Washington Post that she would not
reject a potential mate whose DNA is suspect. But, she added "I might not
start a joint bank account with them for the first few years."


News: John McCain names Alaska Gov. Sarah Polin as his running
mate.

Views: If McCain wanted to draw attention to the Republican
convention this week, he has succeeded beyond anybody's wildest dreams.

By selecting Polin, he has tosssed a political flash bang grenade
into the room whose resounding explosion is still ringing in our collective
ears.

And while many in the GOP decry the attention focused on Polin as
a liberal media hatchet job, they must know that when someone uknown is
dropped onto the international stage as a major player, questions are going
to be asked.

Are some of these questions irrelevant? Is the media going
overboard? Not when the person in question is next in line to be the most powerful
person on the planet.

I was critical last week when Obama named Joe Biden as his running
mate. A long-winded party insider who has been kicking around the Beltway
most of his political life, he hardly exemplifies the "change we can believe
in" mantra of the Obama campaign.

But Sarah Polin is more sound bite than substance, the victim of a
cynical process in which expediency often trumps experience.

If she's an attempt to corner the female vote, someone didn't do
their homework. When Geraldine Ferraro, a Democrat, ran for vice president
in 1984 as the first woman on a major party ticket, she and Walter Mondale
lost the women's vote by 12 percentage points to Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

And strictly on resume, she makes Joe Biden look like Thomas
Jefferson.




Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Just a Guy Named Joe

News and views.

News: Barack Obama selects Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate.

Views: Joe Biden?

The same Joe Biden who said of Obama, “ I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy…”

The same Joe Biden who said, “You cannot go into a 7-11 or a Dunkin'Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. Oh, I'm not joking."

The same Joe Biden who said in June, “I'd make a great president. I'd make a great Secretary of State. I'd make a great vice president. There are a lot of people out there who want the job. I'm not one of them… (But) you'd have to take it. There's not a single, solitary person who, with Barack Obama as the presidential nominee in this most historic of races, who if asked would say 'no.' I wouldn't say 'no.' I hope he doesn't ask me….”

What, was Yogi Berra unavailable?

If Obama wants to capture the imagination of voters by bringing change to Washington, he might have done better than a 65-year-old insider with foot-in-mouth disease and a Senator Beauregard Claghorn approach to stump politics.

OK, he’s a blue collar guy and is considered an expert on foreign affairs, both attributes the Obama campaign is seeking to exploit.

But when you hear the slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” do you think of Joe Biden? I don’t.

It all goes to show that while the vice president may only be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, it’s not a job that makes the pulse race.

Who ever voted for Dan Quayle or Dick Cheney?

News: It seems like only yesterday the Summer Olympics were in full bloom.

Views: Actually, it was only a week ago. And it was a memorable event, filled with spectacle and excitement not to mention suppression of dissent and lots of “spontaneous” enthusiasm by the Chinese fans.

NBC drew high marks and the event itself was watched by the largest viewing audience in the history of TV.

However.

I could have done without announcer Chris Collingsworth, who conducted a one-man love-in, gushing over everyone and every place he saw. He praised the Chinese people for their unflagging hospitality which leads me to believe he didn’t ask them about human rights or freedom of expression and he kept his distance from the military, whose members appeared to have had any hint on kindness in their faces surgically removed.

And I hope I’ve heard the last of Bella Karolyi, who game new meaning to the term sore loser by ripping judges and athletes of whom he didn’t approve in a voice that sounded chillingly like Dracula.

He directed most of his wrath at the Chinese who he accused on using under-age Munchkins in the women’s gymnastics competition.

I happen to believe he was right.

I’ve seen bigger athletes at Mommy and Me classes. For example, Deng Linlin is 4-foot-6, 68-pounds.Jiang Yuyuan, is 4-7 and 70 pounds.

On the other hand, NBC failed to mention that Japan’s Koko Tsurumi is 4-7 and 75 pounds. Russia’s Ksenia Semenova is 4-6 and 77 pounds. Japan’s team average is just 4-10 and 82.5 pounds.

By comparison, Shawn Johnson of the U.S. is checks in at 4-foot-9 and 90 pounds, a virtual summo wrestler compared to some of the competition.

Size matters in gymnastics.

I’m not saying it wasn’t a legitimate point. I’d just rather hear it from someone who didn’t sound like he was about to bite me on the neck.

While were at it, I could also do without platform diving, team handball, synchronized swimming and field hockey.

Speaking of the Olympics, is the best the Brits could offer at the closing ceremonies was the inevitable David Beckham and Jimmy Paige?

It’s bad enough Paige can’t sing anymore, but then they had to tone down the lyrics to “Whole Lotta Love” which was deemed too sexually explicit for a bunch of 20-something athletes.

Couldn’t he have done “Stairway to Heaven” instead? Or better yet, invite Ringo to sing “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

News: John McCain is endorsed by Daddy Yankee.

Views: No, Daddy Yankee is not another name for Uncle Sam. Indeed, Daddy Yankee is big star among some elements of our younger generation, a musician whose dabbles in something called raggaeton.

This was no offhand endorsement. The two men appeared together in Phoenix where Yankee (or Daddy if you know him well enough) said that McCain is “a fighter for the Hispanic community” and “a fighter for the immigration issue.’’

Replied McCain, “I just want to say thank you, Daddy Yankee.’’

According to the New York Times, Daddy Yankee, a native of Puerto Rico, had a smash hit a few years back called “Gasolina.”Although its catchy refrain, “Dame mas gasoline,’’ or give me more gasoline, fits in nicely with Mr. McCain’s “drill here, drill now” message these days, the Times reported, it is usually understood as a double entendre that has little to do with fossil fuels.

All of which would have caused smiles at Obama headquarters if they didn’t have their own celebrity headaches.

Singer Madonna, never one known to practice moderation in thought or deed, kicked off her latest world tour with images of McCain, Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe, starving children and global warming, all wrapped up in one multimedia spectacular.

In the meantime, Obama was depicted as Gandhi and John Lennon.

Poor Barack. Next thing you know, he’ll be endorsed by the Dixie Chicks.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

Two incidents come to mind when I recall the dawn of the television age in America.

My first encounter with TV came shortly after a neighbor got the first set on the block. I raced to their house one Saturday morning anxious to see the first major league baseball game of my young life.

Until then, big league baseball on the West Coast was a fairy tale, a mystical game sometimes heard but never seen played by larger than life heroes in a faraway land.

I plunked down in front of the set along with the other neighborhood kids only to be required by the lady of the house to stand at stiff attention, salute and sing the National Anthem for those in the living room while some organist 2500 miles away played in an octive out of my reach.

Fortunately, my parents bought a set shortly thereafter so I was able to watch baseball and keep my dignity intact at the same time.

My other memory involves watching a political convention for the first time.

I won't claim to have been a political junky at the age of 10 but there was high drama taking place in Chicago in 1952 as Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft competed to be the Republican Party standardbearer.

Funny hats, fiery speeches, bands, demonstrations, roll calls punctuated by drama and humor. It beat hell out of "I Love Lucy."

I was a Taft fan, probably because his name was Bob. And watching high-energy democracy in motion struck a chord in me that resonates to this day. (I don't recall the Democratic convention. My father, a staunch Republican who considered Democrats nothing more than layabouts and welfare cheats, probably would have forbade me from watching it had I wanted to. Thus, I missed the nomination of Adlai Stevenson who ran on the anti-charisma slate).

Remembering political conventions back when they actually meant something is like yearning for the days of cheap gas and penny post cards. It's hard to believe such things even existed.

But the conventions march relentlessly on as we will see when the Democrats gather in Denver next week and the Republicans meet in St. Paul the following week.

The party business is concluded long before the opening gavel drops which means the conventions become week-long pep rallies.

The day when platforms would be built plank by plank and horse trading and back room dealing would be prime time fare are long gone.

Both parties learned that while dirty laundry may be compelling viewing, it didn't do a lot for them at the ballot box. Look no farther than the ruinous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago to understand that point.

And yet there are reasons to watch this year. Both network and and cable stations know it. They are actually increasing their coverage.

In Denver, Barack Obama will conclude his selection as the party nominee with a speech at Invesco Field, the 75,000-seat home to the Denver Broncos football team. It won't be the largest crowd he has drawn but it is sure to underscore his image as a rock star, able to draw massive audiences to hear his message.

But before Obama takes center stage, there are a pair of 500-pound gorillas that will have their say.

First is Hillary Clinton, who will speak on Aug. 26. Her campaign brought her closer than any other woman in history to securing the party's nomination.

Because of that, her supporters want to stage a march through the hall, a tribute with music and balloons, or some other display to mark her achievement, according to published reports.

Clinton supporters are adament she be shown respect at the convention. You can bet that whatever Hillary wants, she'll get. Her support is too important to the Obama camp.

The other looming presence is Bill Clinton, who, as one wag wrote, is behaving more like King Lear than keynote speaker.

The former president's support of the the Obama campaign has been tepid at best and it's anybody's guess whether he will be party royalty or a royal pain.

Not only that, but he preceedes the vice president nominee on the dias. Given the Clinton proclivity for long-winded speeches, he could force the vice presidential candidate right out of prime time.

Al Gore will speak. How will the man who lost to George Bush be received?

John Edwards will not be there. His next speech may be in front of a self help group for cheating spouses.

The Republicans feature no less than the President of the United States, and Vice President Dick Cheney. Also featured will be 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, now a McCain supporter.

Our very own governor Arnold Schwarzeneger will speak despite his support of the Obama plan for properly inflated tires.

And the keynote speaker will be Rudolph Giuliani. Count the number if times he mentions 9/11.

On paper, the Republicans appears to present a more unified front but McCain's attempts to woo the convervative wing of the party won't be far off stage.

Tune in. It will be the best reality show on TV.

Golden Moments

There are a lot of reasons to shun the Olympics.

A larger-than-life spectacle intended to showcase the very best the human race has to offer, it has been tainted too often by doping scandals, judging controversies, violence and boycotts.

The opening ceremonies have become orgies of extravagance whose cost exceeds the gross national product of some of the participating countries.

The games have been villified, politicized, commercialized and trivilized.

Yet, like California, we love it despite all its faults.

Where else can you see a finish as electric as the men's 400 meter swimming relay in which the U.S. beat the trash-talking, snail eating, bordeaux sipping French, an outcome that would have been more emotional only if we had edged out the Taliban. (Remind me: Why is it we are supposed to hate the French? Because they opposed the war in Iraq?)

Where else can you watch a Ghanian boxer named Prince Octopus Dzanie ply his craft?

Where else would you receive a press release from the Beijing Tourist Bureau announcing the serving of dog in restaurants will be suspeded during the games. "Restaurant staff should patiently suggest another entree," the release stated. Watch out, cats of China.

Where else can you see smog that makes Los Angeles look like Vail? Or as David Letterman said, ""There's excitement in the air over the Olympics...also lead, arsenic, benzene."

Where else can you watch a 9-year-old lip sync "Ode to the Motherland" because the real 7-year-old singer had crooked teeth?

Where else can see you Michael Phelps turn water into gold?

When else would you spend a weekend watching team handball, archery, synchronized diving, women's saber and weightlifting?

When else can you hear archery commentators make a match between Korea and Italy sound like the seventh game of the World Series?

When else would you look forward to the broadcast of events such as rhythmic gymnastics, race walking, modern pentathalon, table tennis and field hockey, all coming to a TV set near you soon.

Speaking of TV, NBC is in the middle of broadcasting 3600 hours of Olympic events. Or as one wag commented, just a few hours short of the number of "Law and Order" repeats running each week.

More than 34 million tuned into the opening ceremonies. An Associated Press dispatch pointed out that means some 270 million took a pass. I guess they were watching a "Law and Order" rerun.

One recent evening, I counted at least seven commercials running back to back during break time. Most of them seemed to be narrated by Morgan Freeman, who can make a credit card commercial sound like the Ten Commandments.

Some touted the candidacy of Barack Obama or John McCain, which means there is no escape from a presidential campaign characteried by tire pressure gauges and Paris Hilton.

Through all this thicket, NBC is doing a commendable job. The hype and overstatement are being kept to a minimum. The coverage extends beyond America competitors to those from other countries. Breaking news is being covered in a professional manner.

Let the games continue. And enjoy the ride.

Gone to the Dogs

Things are particularly dire these days in Sacramento, that political Chernobyl where good government goes to die.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling the state's budget deficit, estimated at more than $15 billion, a "fiscal emergency."

At the same time, a new Field Poll states that only 40% of the residents of our fair land think Arnie is doing a good job. And 57% think the state legislature stinks.

Indeed, 68 per cent think the state is on the wrong track while only 21 per cent think it's moving in the right direction.

But forget all that.

This week, in the kind of bold action that has made making law in Sacramento legendary, our legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that will allow you to leave your personal fortune to your cat.

Or iguana, goat, parakeet, fish or whatever happens to be hanging around at the time you write your will.

We may be broke. Our schools may be going to hell. We may be running out water. But, by God, Californians will have the right to take care of Rex and Fluffy in their golden years.

This bit of legislative derring-do is brought to you by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) whose law will take effect Jan. 1.

Unlike most states, California law has treated pet trust funds as honorary and therefore the trusts are often unenforceable, he said.

"Pets are an important part of the American family," Yee said. "SB 685 will make pet trusts enforceable and assure that the wishes of pet owners are respected."

Great work, Mr. Yee. But while you were busy trying to nail down the pet owner vote, June 15 came and went, the date on which the state constitution says a budget must be enacted.
Then came the next deadline, July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
By late August, the state could be unable to pay its bills without borrowing.

What's going on here?

The Democrats and Republicans are fighting like, well, cats and dogs. Bickering and backbiting are the status quo.

The Democrats contend revenues can be can be raised by closing tax loopholes. Republicans are calling the Democratic plan a tax hike by any other name.

The governor, for his part, wants to borrow heavily against future state lottery revenues, a plan that has flopped with Democrats, Republicans and, according to polls, the public as well.
And if his scheme fails, you and I will pay an additional sales tax of one cent, raising it to 8.25 per cent.

How do we get out of this mess, short of leveling the capitol and starting all over again?

One bright light is a bipartisan, foundation supported group called California Forward which is attempting to get a handle on the problem.

The groups says its mission is "to transform our state government through citizen-driven solutions to provide better representation, smarter budgeting and fiscal management, and high quality public services so all Californians have the opportunity to be safe, healthy and prosperous in the global economy."

"The current budget process," the group says," is largely a relic of the mid-20th century, with the focus on how much to increase spending (or how much to cut), rather than the value that public services bring to Californians over time.

"These annual budget decisions often either push California's fiscal systems toward long-term solvency or away from it. The ongoing and chronic imbalance between revenues and expenditures is one indicator of system failure. Changing how budget process decisions are made could enable public leaders to deal with the more intractable and complex problems involving the revenue system and the state-local relationship."

It's a noble quest, one that could take years to accomplish.

But California Forward is a ray of hope because it's clear that reform in Sacramento will have to come from outside of the legislative establishment.