Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hiding in plain sight.

It was 86 degrees here in Chapel Hill last Wednesday, shattering a record for that late October day.  Some weeks earlier, there had been Kansas-like tornedos in New York City.  To say it’s been a strange year would be an understatement.  And, of course, it isn’t only the weather, which, unusual as it may be, pales in comparison to the 2010 election cycle.  I’ve been looking for a single word that might describe it best and all I could think of was hiding.

Thanks in part to the Supreme Court we’ve witnessed an extraordinary amount of unencumbered corporate (just plain folks like us) money flowing into the national parties and local campaigns.  I say in part because of those ├╝ber-rich candidates who have poured eye-popping amounts into their own races, led by eBay billionaire Meg Whitman who managed to outspend Mike Bloomberg, and that’s an accomplishment.  But, as Gail Collins is wont to say, I digress.  What has gotten more attention than the super rich spending to promote their personal ambitions are the big pools of money whose donors are, as yet, unknown.  They are in hiding.

Far more striking, however, are the large number of candidates on both sides who are hiding in plain sight.  These cowardly souls stand as the official nominees of their respective political parties, yet the word Republican or Democrat is nowhere to be found on their literature, campaign signs or TV advertising.  It’s reminiscent of those megachurches where no cross or religious iconography is to be found — Christianity hiding in plain sight.  In some cases, the nominees, especially Republicans, are Primary victors who ran against the establishment and who prefer to hold on for dear life to their outsider identity, as if their name on the ballot won’t be found under their party’s banner.  Others, especially Democrats, who were part of the most legislatively productive Congress in many years, are suddenly pretending that they didn’t take those votes and most certainly don’t know anybody named Pelosi or Obama.  They are hiding in plain sight.

When children are very young and still a bit unsure of themselves, we sometimes play a kind of mock hide-and-seek — they or we hide, but remain in plain sight.  We engage in this charade, co-conspirators as it were who know exactly what’s afoot, but find some mutual comfort in let’s pretend.  But all the players in this election year are adults (even if they don’t always act the part) and know full well that this hiding fools no one.  We may not know the names of all those who contributed to this or that patriotic sounding front organization, but we most certainly have a good idea of who they are.  Special interests can’t really hide whether they are insurance companies, banks, labor unions, the Koch brothers or George Soros.

Perhaps this hiding in plain sight tells us more about the nature of today’s politics than will be revealed in the vote tally on Tuesday night.  It isn’t simply that getting votes seems to be more important than telling the truth, it is that we have a generation of politicians who seem unwilling or, more frighteningly, incapable of taking responsibility.  Democrats or Republicans who are delighted to dip into party and contributor coffers are hiding like those two year olds pretending that we won’t know who or what they are.  The old adage, you can fool some of the people…is bound to catch up with them and, let’s not forget with their enablers as well — that would be all of us.  Perhaps hiding will work in this cycle, but plain sight is plain sight.  Some of us may wink this time around, but the hiding isn’t pretty and is bound to have a limited shelf life.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

After thoughts.

If there is any story of the 2010 election cycle, it is said to be that many 2008 Obama enthusiasts are, if not disillusioned, then disappointed.  If there is one sure outcome of next week’s vote, it’s that a large number of those who so enthusiastically will have flocked to the polls in protest — tea party folks and others — are destined to be equally disappointed in a year’s time, if not sooner.  Within both groups, perhaps the margin of victory in each ballot, there seems to be a common, almost romantic notion, that their wishes will be fulfilled with a snap of the right fingers.   Rest assured, events and outcomes will disappoint.

Thoughtful people across the political spectrum understand that our problems and challenges are far too great for instant fixes.  Even those with diametrically opposite views recognize that the seemingly self-evident solutions they glibly put forward — more spending or less, across the board or limited tax cuts — are no magic bullets. They also know that what has been characterized as dysfunctional in the specific (i.e. the Congress), evidences a much more fundamental and systemic problem, one that ultimately puts into question whether the democracy we have in place can effectively address the 21st Century.  Don’t expect anyone to answer, much less ask, this question any time soon.  Band-Aids will remain central to our problem solving tool kit.  It wasn’t only Richard Nixon who perpetrated the great cover-up.

I continue to believe this election is about only one thing.  Yes, James Carville remains the ultimate wise man.  It’s the economy, not the jobs alone but our national sense of economic insecurity.  Everything else is noise and distraction.  Whether Obama did too much or too little on healthcare and financial reform, whether he communicated well or responded inadequately to Republicans is worth considering, but ultimately irrelevant.  If unemployment were at 5% and real estate values were ticking up, all of that would not even come into serious play.

The problems we face as a country are complex and where we’ll be a decade from now remains uncertain.  But what will be going on next week, regardless of the numbers, is no mystery.  Whatever gains or losses will occur, no one will be satisfied.  The real issue at hand is whether, as a country, we’re prepared for the change that Obama spoke about in 2008 and probably much more of a change than we allowed him to address or suggest.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I'm angry too.

If recent history is any predictor, more than six in ten eligible voters will stay at home on November 2nd.  These paltry participation numbers give new definition to the greatest democracy on earth.  The last time more than 40% of us voted in an off year was back in 1970.  Even in Presidential contests, 2008’s 56.8% was the highest since 1968 (60%) and it’s been fifty years (JFK vs. Nixon) since we have seen 63%.  Contrast that with the 65% who only recently voted in the UK when New Labour was voted out or the almost 78% in 1997 when Tony Blair first came to office.  Only 49% of Americans had voted the year before when Clinton beat Bob Dole.  84% of French voters turned out when Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President in 2007.

To put my gloomy assumption about 2010 in some perspective, it’s likely that (given a split electorate) not much more than 20% of us will have voted in the Congress that will be enacting our laws for the next two years.  To put it bluntly, thanks to us, our representative government is hardly representative.  The next time you hear a legislator pompously say she or he speaks for the American people, remember how few people (their voting constituents) they are really talking about.  In this year of anger and rebellion, tokened by the much-hyped Tea Party, it should be noted that their primary victories came from a scant 8% of eligible voters — that’s right, 92% of us had no part in it.

So forget Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and their patron Rupert Murdoch, what makes my blood boil are the millions of Americans who just can’t engage themselves enough to spend the few minutes it takes to pull a lever or fill out a paper ballot.  In his speech before the assembled at the March on Washington, my immigrant-citizen father warned that we must not allow ourselves to be a nation of onlookers.  Well, when it comes to exercising our most precious right, onlookers are exactly what we have become.  His words in 1963 reflected the experience of someone who had watched the citizenry of his native Germany stand by complacently as their country was overtaken by a murderous totalitarian regime.  Not surprisingly, he took both his gained U.S. citizenship, along with the responsibility to vote, seriously teaching his children and grandchildren to do the same.

We’ve all seen the stories lately of Hispanics, African Americans and, most disturbingly, young people who are sitting out this election.  Somehow Barack Obama just didn’t live up to their expectations or push their agenda’s hard enough.  What a lame, self defeating, if not infantile, reason for not exercising your rights.  It isn’t only that our national attention span and patience is that of two year olds, it is that we seem perfectly willing to let a tiny minority determine our destiny, to be onlookers.  We like to complain, to say how our elected officials are letting us down, but in fact they are delivering the kind of governance that we deserve, in some cases much more than we deserve.  Do Hispanics, our fastest growing group of fellow citizens, really believe that staying home will produce legislators ready at long last to enact progressive immigration laws?  With all the talk about burdening the next generation with debt, do young voters really think they have no stake in 2010’s outcome, that voting in 2008 was the total fulfillment of their obligation to the rest of us, not to mention themselves?  Enthusiasm gap — give me a break!

Yes these are hard times.  Yes it’s difficult to buy into the platitudes that our best years lie ahead when so many people’s personal prospects look so dim.  But that’s a reason to engage, not to stay at home.  The sixty-plus percent of eligible voters who will be AWOL on November 2nd, are no friends of our future.  Their prophecy will be of the self-fulfilling kind, and that’s inexcusable.  It’s what makes me really angry two weeks before Election Day.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Still don't know what for.

Bette Midler can belt them out, but so too can she deliver with a resolute quiet that brings you almost to tears.  I have always been particularly taken with her rendition of John Prine’s Hello in There.  It’s a poignant song about aging, both the process and resulting loneliness.  But the line that always stops me short concerns something else entirely.  It speaks to warfare and remains as fresh and disturbing today as it was when written in the early 1970s — we lost Davy in the Korean War.  I still don’t know what for…

Prine’s lyric, much as did Robert Altman contemporaneous film Mash, references Korea, but is a proxy for Viet Nam, a conflict still too raw and real for linking Davy’s loss with futility.  Midler’s Hello evokes life-fatigue where seemingly matter-of-fact reporting poses the most provocative question, one that haunts so many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children.  We lost Davy or Suzy in the war and, truth be told, have no idea what for.  Of course, it’s a question left unspoken by both loved ones and the larger society, its implications too unbearable to contemplate.

Stand-in or not, the stalemated Korean War exemplifies the futility that became Viet Nam and extends into the present day Iraq and Afghanistan, all unwinnable conflicts.  The victories of the twentieth century World Wars are a dim memory.  Replacing them is the image of Kim Jong-il and his pudgy twenties-something heir apparent Kim Jong-un reviewing a military parade in Pyongyang.  Korea was a war that never ended and whose lessons remain strikingly unlearned.  Viet Nam’s senseless 47,424 combat deaths put that unlearning into sharp focus. But apparently not sharp enough to prevent our repeating its errors and deluding ourselves into thinking wars, especially of the current kind, are even remotely winnable, much less lending themselves to any semblance of reason.  Perhaps this stubborn resistance to learning can be attributed to the American psyche, not to mention a good dose of national hubris.   The former prevents us from letting go — still seeing Viet Nam as a moment of shame and disgrace that somehow must be redeemed.  The hubris, allows for the delusion that the world’s most powerful military is at once invincible and essential across the globe, if only in our own minds.

In these more antiseptic days when mostly other people’s children wage wars, few of us experience the personal anguish and bewilderment of Davy’s mother.  A hired professional military and unmanned drones permit us to avert our eyes, become complacent and, most of all, avoid assessing the cost or waste of war.  So we delude ourselves into thinking about bad wars and good wars, more a mind game than having any semblance of reality.   That it’s a game is evidenced by another Bob Woodward bestseller inside storyline, profiteering if not on the war itself then on our insatiable appetite for the gossip of court squabbles.  Who’s up and who’s down?  It is life as a TV reality show, allowing us to pretend we were flies on the wall in the room where history was being made.  It’s the all consuming world of make believe, or as Ecclesiastes would have it, vanity of vanities.

Sure the players on both Wall Street and Main Street brought our country to its economic knees, but they got a good head start from the twin unbudgeted wars whose foreseeable cost is now estimated to be as much as $2.4 Trillion.  We have begun our exit from Iraq and perhaps, the generals kicking and screaming notwithstanding, we’ll start withdrawing from Afghanistan this coming summer.  These wars, or our involvement, will end.  No peace treaties will have been signed, no victories proclaimed.  Most likely none of us will have the courage to say at long last that war doesn’t work.  At some time in the future, a mother will report on the loss of her Davy, admitting that she knows not what for.  But what should worry us most is the finish of Prine’s lyric line: we lost Davy in the Korean War, I still don’t know what for — don’t matter any more.  Sure it matters and that’s what we should be thinking about.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Slogans and sound bytes.

January 20, 1969, the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President was also when Harry Robbins Haldeman became White House Chief of Staff.  Haldeman is best remembered as a central player in Watergate (for which he went to jail), but of interest here is that in the twenty years prior to joining Nixon, he was at J. Walter Thompson, one the country’s largest advertising agencies.  In the modern vernacular, Nixon needed help and called upon one of the mad men.  Ronald Reagan, a onetime pitchman for GE, put his trust in an ad hoc group of mad men superstars called the Tuesday Team including BBDO’s Phil Dusenberry (who created later GE ads) to hone his message and image.  Dusenberry’s subsequent News Hour interview provides great insight into the role of advertising in modern campaigns. We brought a perspective, he said.  Political strategists often [believe they] must cram everything there is to cram into this piece of communication. We believed just the opposite, that less was more…the way to go.

In recent years the GOP turned to Frank Luntz, a deft user to research to identify the most concise, compelling and persuasive language to sell ideas whether for political, commercial or other purposes.  It was Luntz whose research showed that, in campaigning for its elimination, death tax was a more powerful descriptor than estate tax.  In that regard, he also advocated climate change over global warming, a term that, while accurate, suggests less urgency with the obvious legislative consequences. As Luntz maintained in a 2007 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, all of the words and slogans he suggested (and that can be claimed by others like him) are truthful.  Indeed, death does precipitate the tax, but it is the impression that counts.   Words are pregnant with suggestive meanings that often transcend narrow definition.  That’s what advertising, not to mention much of effective (even private) communication, is all about.  Think about how many people won’t say that a loved one has died but prefer the euphemism that she or he passed away.  To be sure there are some theological implications in that terminology — passed onto eternity — but for the most part passed seems gentler, more transitional, less final.

Of course, the use of slogans and sound bytes in American politics is nothing new.  When Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, he was commenting on a phenomenon long in place, even if it had then reached a new level of sophistication.  As early as 1840, in what has been called the first modern presidential campaign, Whig Henry Harrison, the log cabin candidate, ran on the slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!  It was a reference to a victorious 28-year-old military battle and to his running mate.  It was a slogan that lacked relevant substance, but one that carried a suggestive punch.  Pepsi started proclaiming Twice As Much For A Nickel Too in 1939 literally meaning that they were offering more ounces of cola for the same money, but implying that their product was certainly on a par, if not identical, with Coke.

In 2008, President Obama’s campaign developed one of the most powerful, albeit totally ambiguous, assertions of all time, yes we can! The words resonated because they implied empowerment that transcended the candidate and his team to include the audience — the message in the word we was citizen power.  Given how difficult the execution of change, one might argue that yes we can was an overpromise that has come to haunt the administration since.  But more important, is that Obama’s use of this powerful slogan coupled with the single sound byte word change was for Democrats the exception and not the rule.  For decades now, Republicans have been far more successful in both sloganeering and staying on the message, and that’s a gross understatement.

Republicans, whether with the 1994 Contract with America (in which Luntz was deeply involved) or characterizing their opponents as tax and spend, have taken control of the conversation.  They repeat their sound bytes with unshakable discipline until both the public and the media adopt them, effectively defining issues as they would like.  There is no revelation here.  The wordsmith skill employed by Republicans over that last decades have been widely written about and discussed by analysts and pundits for years.  What mystifies me is how inept the Democrats have been in responding and how lame their attempts have been in using language as a preemptive tool.  Think about the healthcare battle where probably the most memorable (totally disingenuous and misleading) term was death panels.  That characterization brought attention to seniors and Medicare, which were not the primary focus of a bill aimed covering the uninsured and containing unsustainable escalating costs for all Americans.  Democrats were at a loss to find the right words, which not only has led to a misunderstood bill but one that likely and unnecessarily fell short of what it might have been.  It’s hard to believe there is no Frank Lutz on the left.  I must conclude no one is really looking for one.

Without question the susceptibility of Americans to slogans and sound bytes has deep sociological roots.  As the Pepsi example suggested, and Vance Packard wrote about back in the 1950s, we are all subject to a constant barrage of images and words aimed at influencing our behavior.  The new episodes of the popular NCIS TV shows employ suggestive product placements of iPhones and iPads that reinforce the messages of Apple’s commercials during the breaks.   They expand an already powerful cutting edge user imagery brand into the heroic.  This is not to say that advertising is bad per se — I’ve spent most of my career in branding — but that the simple message, the most powerful, most suggestive and least offensive, does by nature blur, if not skirt, the truth.  Democrats generally believe Republicans use clever slogans to promote blatant lies.  Not that Democrats are guiltless in this regard, but maybe they are more uneasy about it.  Perhaps it’s a a matter of feeling obliged to explain the details, not wanting to dumb them down to some simplistic phrase that might leave the wrong or a bloated impression.  That of course is putting the best face on it.  Were that it was so simple.  For some reason, probably for many reasons, Democrats, including another cerebral President (and I mean that positively), simply can’t bring themselves to get in that game of obfuscation and disinformation.  Perhaps that’s admirable, but it sure does put them, and I would argue as a result the country, at a disadvantage.  We may soon be paying the price.  Again.