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.