News & Current Affairs

December 30, 2008

Caroline Kennedy fails to impress

Caroline Kennedy fails to impress

Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy wants to become a New York senator

Caroline Kennedy’s latest attempt to press her case to be the replacement for Hillary Clinton as a senator for New York has been widely criticised in the US media.

Ms Kennedy – daughter of former President John F Kennedy – broke weeks of silence on her bid, by giving a series of interviews at the weekend.

But she was criticized for being unknowledgeable on key policy areas, being unable to articulate why she was seeking public office for the first time – and even for possessing a verbal tic.

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Under the headline “Caroline Kennedy no whiz with words”, the New York Daily News mimicked Ms Kennedy’s speech pattern during the round of interviews.

“Caroline Kennedy, you know, might need, you know, a speech coach, um, if she, you know, wants, um, to be a senator,” the paper said.

Totting up the number of “verbal tics” during its 30-minute interview, the paper counted “you know” more than 200 times… and added that “‘um’ was fairly constant, too”.

Asked if President George W Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthy should be repealed immediately, Ms Kennedy replied: “Well, you know, that’s something, obviously, that, you know, in principle and in the campaign, you know, I think that, um, the tax cuts, you know, were expiring and needed to be repealed,” the paper reported.

It consulted experts to give their opinion on her speaking manner. One said it was not necessarily an indication of weakness or doubt, just inexperience. Another advised her to get coaching, to pause more often, and “to listen to her father”.

Columnist Michael Goodwin wrote: “The wheels of the bandwagon are coming off. Fantasy is giving way to inescapable truth. That truth is that Kennedy is not ready for the job and doesn’t deserve it. Somebody who loves her should tell her.”

NEW YORK POST

The New York Post also counted up the number of times Ms Kennedy said “you know” during its interview – 235 times in 41 minutes – “which works out to saying the phrase once every 10.5 seconds,” it said.

The speech expert it consulted described it as a “very, very common” verbal tic called a “vocalized pause,” and said it was a “Kennedyism” as demonstrated by her uncle.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Associated Press said “Kennedy offered no excuses for why she failed to vote in a number of elections since registering in New York City in 1988”.

“I was really surprised and dismayed by my voting record,” she told AP. “I’m glad it’s been brought to my attention.”

AP reported that “since word of her interest leaked out in early December, Kennedy has faced sometimes sharp criticism that she cut in line ahead of politicians with more experience and has acted as if she were entitled to it because of her political lineage”.

In response, Ms Kennedy said: “Anybody who knows me knows I haven’t really lived that way. And I think that in my family, I come into this thinking I have to work twice as hard as anybody else. Nobody’s entitled to anything, certainly not me.”

NEW YORK TIMES

“[Ms Kennedy] still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way,” the paper said.

“She provided only the broadest of rationales for her candidacy for the Senate, saying her experience as a mother, author and school fund-raiser, her commitment to public service and her deep political connections had prepared her for the job.”

The Times said Ms Kennedy spoke “knowledgeably about education issues”.

But the paper added: “… She said she hoped to be a consensus-builder, and declined to describe her positions on other pressing public issues – even in education, where she has some expertise. Ms. Kennedy would not say, for example, whether she supported proposals to abolish tenure for teachers and offer them merit pay instead.”

Ms Kennedy “seemed irritated” when asked to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat. She said “she couldn’t recall”, the article said.

“Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?” she asked the Times reporters. “I thought you were the crack political team.”

HUFFINGTON POST

Huffington Post writer Diane Tucker gave her take on the emphasis other media were placing on Ms Kennedy’s speech patterns.

“The real reason her interview is riddled with ‘you knows’ is because she mocked the two Times reporters halfway through the interview.

“Rookie mistake, Caroline! You gotta play nice in the media sandbox. Good manners are important. …No one ever says ‘you know’ in my interviews for HuffPost. We edit that garbage out. I’m sure Kennedy won’t make that mistake twice. After all, she went to Harvard.”

Tucker adds: “We Americans are a kind-hearted people, and we have always felt deeply sorry for her loss. Couldn’t we make it up to Kennedy by gifting her a Senate seat? Wouldn’t that be nice?

“Never mind that she’s made it perfectly clear over the years that she really isn’t into politics. Never mind that there are hundreds of New Yorkers with more experience. If Prince Charles is entitled to be King, then by golly Caroline Kennedy is entitled to be Senator.”

SALON

Salon’s Joan Walsh writes: “Overall, [Kennedy] was slippery, and regrettably, because I admire her, I came away with the feeling that she views her single best credential for the Senate seat as her celebrity, and, secondarily, her wealth.”

Regarding Ms Kennedy’s comment to the New York Times journalists about writing for women’s magazines, Walsh wrote: “I’ve written for women’s magazines, and I can anticipate people who might object to that remark as condescending, but I thought it was smart and funny: it captured the traditional media’s growing infatuation with the telling sappy anecdote over important discussions of policy – even, sadly, at the New York Times.”

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September 29, 2008

Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

mccain sarkozy shake hands

Rebels with a cause: McCain and Sarkozy

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy won by successfully breaking from – and even, in a sense, running against – a president of his own party, the disgraced and out-of-touch Jacques Chirac.

In a similar way, John McCain is attempting to mount a Sarkozy-style “second-stage” succession to a Republican Party that has also come to be seen as disgraced and out-of-touch.

He has a lot to run against.

When things start to go wrong for a political party – as they did for John Major and the Tories in the 1990s – everything seems to go wrong at once.

How this has happened to the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is worth revisiting.

The Congressional Republicans could have opted to try to win a permanent majority by devising market-based solutions to healthcare or portable pensions that might have won the lasting allegiance of the American people.

‘Populist backlash’

Instead, the GOP leaders in the House and the Senate were content to tinker at the edges of policy.

They aped their Democratic predecessors by using earmarks and other means to reward special interests, reaping huge advantages in campaign donations as a means of holding onto power.

As a result of this change in mindset, the party of probity became the party of disgrace – with more than one leading member in prison or under investigation for various forms of graft.

That there are ample specimens of venality on the Democratic side provides no cover. Voters expect better from Republicans – especially after a series of Democratic scandals that Republicans promised to clean up.

McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy

So Republicans started with a good start under Newt Gingrich promising to bring reform and business-like efficiency. As a result, when Republicans came to resemble what they opposed, voters came down on them twice as hard when they disappointed.

The result is that Congressional Republicans have neither honour nor a majority.

Republican primary voters, disgusted by the direction their party had taken, selected John McCain in a populist backlash. McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy.

By returning to their ideals, Republicans selected the one candidate who could actually pull off such a hat-trick.

Political baggage

Two weeks ago, the race against Barack Obama was, then, following a familiar course. McCain had successfully identified himself as a reformer – shedding Republican political baggage.

Obama was set for certain loss. The reasons for this are simple to see.

For decades now, it has been virtually impossible for a liberal candidate to win an Electoral College majority.

The most liberal candidate of all, George McGovern, received 17 electoral votes against Richard Nixon’s 520 in 1972. Defeat has befallen other liberals – Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

The exceptions to this rule further prove the point:

  • John F Kennedy with his strident anti-communism and tax cuts, won as a conservative Democrat.
  • Bill Clinton won as the candidate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and won re-election after ending traditional welfare and presiding over a surplus.
  • Jimmy Carter won as a budget-conscious conservative, only to lose when he governed as a liberal. Lyndon Johnson won as a successor to JFK.

Had Obama moved to the middle – and chosen a conservative, defence-minded Southern conservative like former Senator Sam Nunn, or even an independent Republican like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska – he would be in a much stronger position.

Instead, Obama chose a dependable, North-Eastern liberal in Joe Biden.

Obama has eschewed “third-way” politics, and stuck to defining his brand of change in terms of simple replacement of all things Bush with liberal orthodoxy on almost every issue.

‘October surprise’

If presidents were selected by popular vote, Obama might be able to drum up enough enthusiasm in California, New York and a handful of other populous blue states to win.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls – Russia’s re-emergence as a revanchist power, and the selection of Sarah Palin

The picture is much bleaker for Obama in winning an electoral college majority in which so many states are dominated by rural issues and cultural concerns (like prayer and guns) alien to the sensibilities of an urban liberal.

This was the expected state of play. However, American elections are notorious for turning on an October surprise. This time, we have prematurely had three such surprises in August and September. And they have shaken up this race and made the result suddenly unpredictable.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls.

The first was the violent re-emergence of Russia as a revanchist power, reminding the American people that we live in dangerous times. It seemed better to trust a crusty war-veteran than the untested, sleek, metrosexual Obama.

The second surprise was an artificial one – McCain’s calculated selection of Sarah Palin. McCain’s campaign enjoyed great success in baiting Obama into several days of exchanges with his running mate – a project that diminished Obama and knocked him off message.

VIEWPOINTS
Mark Davis, senior director of the White House Writers Group (image courtesy of White House Writers Group)
Mark W Davis is a long-time Republican adviser, a former speechwriter for George Bush senior, and currently senior director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group. This is one of a series of comment and opinion pieces that the BBC News website will publish before the election.

Now the third surprise has come – the near-collapse of US credit markets and an economic crisis widely termed the most serious since 1929. This crisis upsets all that had happened before and returns Obama to his preferred field of battle – the economy.

McCain took the high-risk approach of suspending his campaign and running to Washington.

Today, McCain looks less like Sarkozy and more like Sisyphus, shouldering the burden of an economic collapse seemingly without end.

Does this game-changer open the way for an explicit liberal to make history and take the White House?

Or will McCain be able to fight and win with the economy front-and-centre? McCain might do so if he – and other Republicans – are more aggressive in pointing out how Democrats coddled and protected the private-gain, public-risk model of the mortgage giants Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac that enabled this crisis.

If he can do this, McCain might still pull a Sarkozy.

Or will some new event re-orient the race with yet another sudden, stupendous domestic or foreign challenge?

After all, it is not yet October. There is still plenty of time for more surprises.

September 14, 2008

How to be a good president

How to be a good president

Barack Obama says the most important quality is vision for the future. No, says John McCain, the key requirement is experience – or at least that’s what he said until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Ronald Reagan

A former film star, Ronald Reagan was an excellent communicator

Both want the most powerful job in the world – but neither they, nor anyone else, can agree on what, precisely, are the qualities needed to serve as president of the United States.

Indeed, there is not even a job description – only an oath of office demanding the president defend the US constitution.

What’s more, the job keeps changing, evolving constantly in the 230 years since the founding of the republic.

Still, an understanding has gradually emerged of the key qualities required of a president.

The trouble is, they are so many and various, it’s almost impossible to imagine any normal human being matching up.

Preacher and protector

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” Americans have expected first-class rhetorical skills from their leaders.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton

Mr Obama’s camp hopes to capitalise on Bill Clinton’s lasting popularity

A president must be able to inspire, to preach, to stir the American people to greater things.

In the modern era, Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all had a great talent for communication; so too did Bill Clinton, though in a different style.

The presidents who have struggled – both George Bushes and Jimmy Carter come to mind – were those who lacked oratorical gifts.

But the job requires more than that. Americans look to their president as a protector, someone who will keep the country strong and ward off its enemies.

Roosevelt was a great war leader. As the former Allied commander during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower made Americans feel similarly secure.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans still revere Reagan for winning the Cold War.

Minimum mendacity

Foreign policy acumen is a related and essential element in the presidential kit of parts.

Richard Nixon meets John McCain in 1973

Nixon and John McCain could both claim foreign policy expertise

It’s why Mr McCain makes so much of his own experience in international affairs – and why the Obama camp equally emphasizes Sarah Palin’s lack of a foreign policy record.

The first George Bush’s reputation rests on his skillful handling of the post-Cold War world, while his son will have to persuade future historians that he did not make terrible blunders abroad.

Yet skill on the world stage is not enough to guarantee the respect of posterity.

Richard Nixon regarded himself as a geo-strategic sage, thanks to his opening to China, but he is still known by a single word: Watergate.

Domestic scandal trumps international accomplishments. Put that down as another lesson for those keen to learn how to be a good president: you need to be, if not saint-like in your honesty, at least not so mendacious that you get tangled up in your own deceptions.

It helps if you’re someone who can get things done. Lyndon Johnson will forever be saddled with the disaster of the Vietnam war, but he retains respect for passing a canon of social legislation – from civil rights to his war on poverty – that genuinely improved millions of lives.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was seen as a decent but aloof president

That was largely down to his mastery of the often arcane ways of the senate, which he had once dominated as majority leader.

That hard-headed, practical ability to get results is often underestimated.

In the words of British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Johnson “pushed through so much legislation which has changed the way we think about equality, equal rights and human dignity, and I think that is a huge accolade”.

Star quality

It’s good if you’re a palpably decent man, as Jimmy Carter was – but less good if that makes you seem lofty, prissy or aloof, as Carter often seemed.

It’s good if you can keep the country at peace and the economy in rosy health – as Bill Clinton did – but less good if you let that get overshadowed by personal indiscipline, as he did.

Finally, in the modern era, the president needs a compelling personal story, great charisma and as much screen presence as a movie star.

As I discovered making “President Hollywood”, the demands of Washington DC and Tinsel Town are remarkably similar.

Which man matches up to this impossible checklist, Barack Obama or John McCain? Well, the American people will decide that on 4 November.

But they had better get used to one thing right away: the president with every one of these essential qualities simply does not exist.

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