Olympic Yoga: S.E. Cupp’s Silly Critiqué of Obama

Conservative critics are never reluctant to stretch a bit when it comes to criticizing Barack Obama but S.E. Cupp’s recent tweet about the president reveals a level of stretching and contorting that we’d see if yoga were an Olympic event.

The idea that a politician is entitled to immunity from criticism because his critic happens to be overseas is novel in the extreme. It’s certainly a standard that I’ve never heard expressed or even suggested before.

I suspect Ms. Cupp might be a little confused here. What she might be referring to is what was once a longstanding bipartisan American tradition of not criticizing a sitting U.S. president when he or she is overseas (a rule that’s been repeatedly ignored by the GOP since Obama was elected in 2008).

It’s Ms. Cupp’s party that has radically and repeatedly transgressed American tradition, not President Obama. Surely this is obvious.

What’s really sad, though, is to see Ms. Cupp waste whatever credibility she has on a candidate as reprehensible as Trump. The “I’m no fan of Donald Trump…” formulation is a cliché, a variation of the old “I’m not a racist, but…” dodge. As a student of communications, let me offer a pro tip: The best thing to do when you find yourself starting a sentence with one of those is… just stop talking.

The Night David Peel Introduced Me to John and Yoko

In 1972, The Mike Douglas Show was the kitschiest thing on television. Douglas was a second tier Big Band crooner who hosted a live talk show that originated out of Philadelphia, a low budget affair that aired every weekday afternoon from 4:30 to 6:00. For those of us who grew up in that era, it was mainly the background entertainment your mother listened to while she prepared dinner.

Mike DouglasBut for the week of February 14th, The Mike Douglas Show suddenly became the center of the entertainment universe. Part of Douglas’ unique schtick was to feature a different cohost each week, usually an actor who hadn’t made a film in a few years or a comedian who’d just finished a gig somewhere in the Borsht Belt. This week, however, was different. For reasons that no one could even begin to comprehend, Mike Douglas’ cohosts were going to be John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Mike Douglas was the embodiment of everything that was conventional, comfortable, and patriotic. John Lennon was the most famous radical on the planet, grudgingly tolerated by the cultural cognoscenti but actively despised by the political establishment. It was difficult to envision Douglas and Lennon making even five minutes’ worth of small talk at a party. Imagining the two of them sharing bon mots for ninety minutes every day over the course of a week was basically impossible.

For an insecure, irresolute seventeen year old, the whole thing had an irresistible appeal. Spending a week’s worth of afternoons watching John and Yoko on television seemed infinitely more appealing than wrestling with the incomprehensible social and academic environment that was Columbia University, especially when flunking out ignominiously already seemed like a forgone conclusion. Of course, that seventeen year old was me and that was how I came to be watching The Mike Douglas Show in the common area of my dorm in the middle of a Monday afternoon, smoking a joint and musing about John Lennon.

Smoking a joint in the middle of the afternoon was nothing new for me. I’d begun smoking “grass” during the summer of 1967 with an older cousin. He and I would stroll down Crescent Street in East New York and “smoke a reefer” before returning to his house to listen to music. We’d usually alternate between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Are You Experienced?, the two most mind boggling releases in a year that was already defined for us by mind boggling music.

I smoked through three years of high school that were marked by a disastrous family situation, paralyzing social anxiety, and a decent level of academic achievement in the midst of it all. My first two years of high school were spent in a Catholic military boarding school. With the Vietnam War raging on in the daily headlines, my disdain for the military trappings became overwhelming. I had the second highest GPA in my class but when I began circulating a petition that called for transforming our vaunted ROTC Honor School into a co-ed non-military prep school, the Commandant of Cadets (Brother James, a short, laconic man and a member of the Christian Brothers who was known among cadets as “The Rat”) coolly informed me that I’d be summarily and permanently sent home if I persisted.

Most afternoons, a select few of us would convene on the edge of the campus on a small beach area that peered out onto Long Island’s Great South Bay to smoke a joint or two and muse about how fucked-up life and school were. Sufficiently stoned to negotiate the rest of the evening, we’d return to the residential hall where I’d kill time by playing the guitar and singing. My repertoire included Alice’s Restaurant (yes, I’d play the whole thing!) and I Like Marijuana, a classic anthem by David Peel and the Lower East Side. David Peel was a New York City street musician, not a big star but to counter-culture types in high school who smoked pot—my particular demographic at the time—he was a real hero. He unapologetically shouted on vinyl all those things we weren’t even able to whisper at home or at school.

After two years, I’d had enough of military school and lobbied my mother to let me move back home in order to spend the remainder of high school in public school. I wanted to grow my hair out (ironic for those of you who know me now), wear regular clothes, and sit in class with… girls! She relented and I began my junior year at the local high school, an experiment that failed in almost every way possible. I continued to do well academically but living with my mother made me nostalgic for the relative emotional warmth of marching with rifles and undergoing locker inspections. My good grades notwithstanding, I hated everything about my life and needed to make a change.

I visited  my guidance counselor one afternoon and told her that there weren’t any circumstances under which I was going to return to school in September. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to change my mind, we put a plan together: I’d pack my schedule for my last semester, graduate at the end of my junior year, and head off to college. And that’s how I found myself attending Columbia University in 1971 at sixteen years old, out of the house again but no more well-adjusted or less insecure than I’d been in high school.

I turned seventeen in December of 1971 and finished up my first semester with a spate of “Incompletes” and little hope that the second semester was going to be any better. So when February rolled around, watching John Lennon on television for five days in a row—even if it was on The Mike Douglas Show—didn’t seem like an unreasonable way to spend my time.

As I watched the first show on Monday, I found myself thumbing through a recent issue of The Village Voice and noticed an article about David Peel, the same guy whose ode to smoking pot I sang in high school. The article detailed how he and John Lennon had become running buddies when Lennon moved to New York. It seemed to me that David had reached some unimaginable level of counter-cultural hippie nirvana: Leading a life that consisted of singing about marijuana and hanging out with John Lennon. As I watched Lennon on television and perused the article, I wondered if David was watching. And then a wonderfully weird idea occurred to me in my smoke-induced reverie.

On a whim, I bounded back to my dorm room and grabbed the White Pages directory that was sitting in my closet. I navigated to the appropriate page and there it was: A listing for Peel, David.

I dialed the number, heard the phone ring a couple of times, and then David Peel’s unmistakable voice came across the line: “Hello?” All these years later, I can’t really explain what happened next. It wasn’t planned or thought out in any coherent way whatsoever. All I can tell you for sure is that it just happened.

“Hi. My name is George Colombo. I’m a free lance writer working on a story for New York Magazine about the counter-culture in New York City. I was hoping that I might be able to stop by and ask you a few questions.”

WTF?! I was stunned by the words that were coming out of my mouth. It was too late to make myself stop them but it didn’t matter. Surely, my crude duplicity was obvious even over the phone. David could certainly see through my flimsy story and could certainly hear that the voice on the other end of the line belonged to a seventeen year old kid who all of a sudden was scared shitless.

“That’s cool, man. Sure. So you want to come by here tomorrow night?”

I can’t tell you much about the rest of the conversation except that I could feel the pulse of my heart in my temple and wanted nothing in the world as much as I wanted to get off the phone before I was unmasked. I got his address and made arrangements to meet him there the following night.

The next day, February 15th, moved as slowly as molasses would have run in the cold that was enveloping New York that week. I watched John Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show again that afternoon (toking up as I did, of course) and was a bit surprised that Jerry Rubin turned up as a guest. Rubin was a yippie and a member of the Chicago Seven. He was as radical as it was possible to get. If Douglas and Rubin had met under any other circumstances, they might have tried to kill one another. On television, though, the encounter seemed surreal in its apparent normalcy.

By the time I took the subway downtown that night, it was freezing cold. I wasn’t at all familiar with the East Village and remember being surprised when I stumbled across The Fillmore East on my way to David’s apartment. He opened the door and was extremely gracious as he welcomed me into an apartment that was small and disheveled. The apartment’s only heat came from the open oven in the kitchen. If David was on to me, he was keeping it to himself.

I asked questions about counter-culture in New York and the political movement that was emanating from the streets and then dutifully recorded David’s answers on the clipboard I’d brought. He wasn’t impatient but was distinctly fidgety. After a respectable amount of time chatting, I worked up the nerve to ask the question that really mattered to me, the one I’d imagined myself asking since we’d gotten off the phone the day before: “Hey, would you like to smoke a joint?”

A moment later, I’d pulled a joint out of my coat pocket, fired it up, and was passing it back and forth with a guy whose songs about pot I sang almost every day in high school! Surely, I thought, this was going to be the highlight of the night. But, as it turned out, things were just getting started.

As he crushed the roach in the ashtray, David asked suddenly and without explanation, “Do you want to take a ride?” I had no idea what that meant but it didn’t matter. I was hanging out with David Peel, smoking pot in the Village, and all was right with the world. Whatever might keep the evening going was going to be fine with me.

I followed his lead as we worked our way over to the IRT and took a train uptown. I thought we were going to get off at Times Square but we continued up to 50th Street where we disembarked and walked a few blocks back downtown. David was pretty intent and there wasn’t a lot of banter going on. I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and just followed along.

David PeelSuddenly, we were standing in front of a nondescript wall that comprised the side of a building. There were no signs and no windows, only a solitary door in the middle of the wall. David pushed a doorbell next to the door but no sound seemed to emanate. We waited a moment and then the door opened. A very big guy opened the door, leaned out to survey the street, and then turned his attention to David. Wordlessly, almost imperceptibly, he motioned for David to come in. When I started following him inside, the big guy reached out and put his hand on my chest. He didn’t need to say the words, the message was perfectly clear: I wasn’t coming in.

From inside, David looked back and yelled back, “It’s okay, man. He’s with me.” Big guy said nothing and his face betrayed nothing. He simply removed his hand from my chest and stepped aside to let me pass.

Silently, I followed David down a hall and into an anteroom where he planted me in a chair near a side table and then disappeared. There was a large, upholstered door that was caddy corner from where we’d entered and over the next ten minutes or so, I watched people emerging and entering including, at one point, David. Whenever the door opened, I’d hear a voice inside booming over what sounded like a public address system: “We mayka payna fazen danz…” Even though I could only hear it in disjointed snippets, the voice seemed to just keep repeating the same thing over and over again. Weirdly, the voice sounded remarkably like John Lennon… or, at least, someone who was doing a great job of imitating John Lennon. There was no music, though, just the voice singing/yelling the same indecipherable incantation repeatedly. It was nothing I’d ever heard from Lennon before and I’d listened to every bit of his music including esoterica like Two Virgins.

As I sat there, trying to figure out exactly what was going on, an energetic figure bounded in from down the hall and deposited himself in a chair that was on the other side of the table next to me. I only saw the top of his head as he picked up the desk phone that was on the table and began dialing. When he looked up, though, the face was familiar and unmistakable. It was Jerry Rubin, the same guy I was watching on TV just a few hours earlier. I was too stunned to catch the beginning of the conversation. By the time I regained my composure, his end of the conversation was easy to discern (even as I looked away and pretended to be nonplussed). “Did you catch me this afternoon? How did I look? Did I look alright?” It wasn’t the kind of post-game analysis I’d have expected from one of the counter-culture’s most famous proponents but a more pressing question was occupying my attention: Where the hell was I?

Just then, David peeked out from behind the upholstered door and motioned for me to come inside. On the other side of the door, the answer to my question quickly came into focus. I was in a large room and in front of me was an enormous audio console facing out towards an empty recording studio. A couple of huge speakers were mounted on the ceiling in front of the console, the source of the obscure mantra that was once again repeating. While I was taking all of that in, David motioned for me to be quiet and take a seat in a chair in the back of the room. It was only after I sat down that I was able to turn my attention towards the three figures seated at the console with their backs to me.

Neither of the two men’s faces was visible but the woman sitting  onthe right was turned slightly to face towards her companions on her left. The lightbulb of recognition brightened in two distinct steps:

One: “She looks Japanese.”

Two: “That’s Yoko Ono.”

I still couldn’t see the faces of the two men sitting next to her but it didn’t matter. I suddenly knew who at least one of them was. And I realized why the voice booming through the speakers sounded just like John Lennon. There must have been a tape machine somewhere but I don’t remember seeing it. The man next to Yoko reached for a bottle that was sitting in front of him on the console, took a long swig, and put it down, a gesture he repeated several times over the next half hour or so until, apparently, the contents of the bottle were gone. The now familiar incantation kept repeating. Sometimes the entire phrase several times in a row, sometimes just a word or two. “We mayka payna fazen danz, we mayka payna fazen danz…”

As I took everything in, my urgent objective was to stay as quite and unobtrusive as possible. A disturbing vision kept intruding on my consciousness, the big guy from the front door bursting into the room, pointing at me, and shouting, “Grab that kid! He’s not from New York Magazine!”

Suddenly, there was a break in the proceedings. The guy sitting on the far left of the console got up and left the room. When he did, David walked over (I hadn’t even realized that he’d left) and motioned for me to join him. We walked up to the console and the guy sitting next to Yoko turned around. The fact that I knew it was going to be John Lennon didn’t mitigate the palpable electric shock of recognition even a little bit. My mind immediately flashed to another February night, almost exactly eight years before, when I saw his face for the first time on my grandmother’s television set. It took all the will I could summon to keep the atoms of my body from disintegrating and floating away to mix with the cigarette smoke that filled the air.

David positioned me behind John’s chair and repeated almost verbatim the fraudulent biography I’d given him on the phone the night before. (“This is George. He’s a freelance writer working on an article for New York Magazine.”) John considered me for a second and said something that might have been perfectly decipherable under other circumstances but I was not processing sensory input very well at that particular moment. My impression was not of someone being deliberately rude or dismissive but it was clear that the second of his attention I’d already consumed was all I was going to get.

I turned towards Yoko who seemed to plumb the depths of my soul with the most intense gaze I’d ever experienced. She’d heard David’s introduction and simply nodded. My abiding impression was that she was beautiful in a way that transcended any image of her I’d ever seen. Like most other Beatles fans, I had always wondered what it was that John saw in her. Seeing her in person, I never wondered that again.

David led me away from her, not back to my chair but out the big upholstered door. My time was up. As I left the room, the third figure who’d been sitting at the console walked back in. It was Phil Spector.

David and I said our goodbyes and I promised to let him know when the article was going to hit the newsstands. He didn’t seem very concerned about that but he had one last item to run down with me. “Yoko wanted to know if you had an extra joint you could leave for her.” As it happened, I did. I reached into my coat pocket and handed it over to David. I’ve often wondered if the joint really made its way to Yoko or if David kept it for himself. For a long time, I whimsically hoped that wound up with Yoko. Now, I find myself thinking that I’d be just as happy—maybe even happier—if David had kept it for himself. It would be a small bit of payback for a guy who graciously orchestrated the most improbable, unbelievable night of my life.

Postscript: On June 12, 1972, John and Yoko released Sometime in New York City, John’s third solo album, produced by Phil Spector. The album’s first song was “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” Lennon’s attempt at a feminist anthem that ended with the repeating refrain, “We make her paint her face and dance.”

Progressivism and the 2016 Election

Viewing the 2016 election simply through the prism of stopping Donald Trump strikes me as a big mistake. It’s reminiscent of how the GOP has spent the last eight years solely trying to stop Obama. Progressives need to have confidence in their vision and in a set of policies that can win over those disaffected voters who currently see Trump as their only alternative. This is not a time for us to be timid and it’s not a time for us to shrink into defensiveness.

The Hillary T. Firefly Primary Season

duck-soup-5The Marx Brothers’ greatest movie was their 1933 classic, Duck Soup. Described as an “anarchic classic,” it follows the exploits of Rufus T. Firefly, a ne’er do well who finds himself in charge of Freedonia, a small country that’s bankrupt and on the brink of collapse. As the thoroughly unqualified Firefly (played by a brilliantly subversive Groucho Marx) muddles through his first cabinet meeting, this inspired exchange takes place:

Firefly: And now members of the cabinet, we’ll take up old business.
Cabinet Member: I wish to discuss the tariff.
Firefly: Sit down, that’s new business. [pause] No old business? Very well, then we’ll take up new business.
Cabinet Member: Now, about the tariff…
Firefly: Too late, that’s old business already. Sit down.

As a gag in a farcical comedy, the exchange works perfectly. But as a template for selecting a candidate for president, it’s a great deal less amusing. Yet a virtually identical approach is being employed by the Democratic Party’s leadership. It’s stiff-arming the party’s progressives and stonewalling any substantive challenge to the establishment’s anointing of Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee.

It’s early March and only a handful of states have voted but a persistent drumbeat has already emerged, a demand to forestall any pointed offensive against the frontrunner. The message comes across in a variety of formats. On the Daily Kos, it’s Markos Moulitsas’ cynical declaration on March 4th (!) that the site will officially transition “to a General Election footing” on March 15—roughly half way through the primaries—if Bernie Sanders hasn’t made enough progress by then to satisfy Moulitsas. On social media, it’s the oft-repeated contention that criticizing Hillary is tantamount to supporting Donald Trump.

While the specifics vary from one occurrence to another, the unwavering theme is that it is criticism of Clinton—and only Clinton—that needs to be muted. Implying that Sanders is a sexist or a covert racist or is contemptuous of children who were murdered at Sandy Hook are all fair game. The entreaties for party unity mysteriously seem to only operate in one direction.

The justification for the virtual gag order is ostensibly a fear of weakening Clinton in advance of the November contest. (Apparently, the prospect of Sanders emerging as the party’s nominee is not deemed worthy of serious consideration.) But concern-trolling from our very serious commentariat notwithstanding, there’s really very little evidence that a vigorous primary contest hurts a party’s nominee in the ensuing general election.

There were few primary contests in recent memory as vigorously contested as the one between Clinton and Barack Obama. While few Sanders supports rule out supporting Clinton in November, there were plenty of Clinton supporters in 2008 who swore they wouldn’t back Obama. In the end, they did what almost all partisans do: they backed their party’s candidate.

The 2000 bout between George W. Bush and John McCain was as nasty as modern political bouts ever get but McCain and his supporters closed ranks in the fall and helped Bush get to a point from which he was ultimately able to prevail in the Supreme Court and take office. Bush faced many obstacles on his way to the White House but blowback from supporters of the man he smeared in the South Carolina primary was not one of them.

The only two modern contests in which a bitter primary season might have contributed to a candidate’s defeat in November were in 1976 and 1980. Both cases involved weak incumbent presidents, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter respectively, who had plenty of other problems beyond a challenge in the primaries. In fact, in contests that don’t involve an incumbent, it’s easier to make a case that primaries strengthen the victorious candidate than that they weaken him or her.

Besides, there’s more at stake than simple electoral considerations. If now is not the time to examine one of the party’s prospective candidates, then when are we supposed to do it? And if we’re not allowed to ask pointed questions, if one candidate is assiduously protected from any and all criticism within the party, then what is the nature of the process by which Democrats are supposed to decide?

Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have put their fingers on the sentiment that’s motivating and angering voters in 2016. (In a different way, Donald Trump has, too.) That sentiment is a visceral reaction to an inescapable perception that the game is rigged, that the fix is in. That’s already true when it comes to perceptions about the economy. But the Democratic Party is playing with fire if it continues to feed the perception that it’s also true when it comes to our elections.

“The Private Works of Puncher and Wattmann” (2015) by Joseph M. Colombo

Joseph_Archives_webFrom their website: “The dynamic bass clarinet/marimba duo Transient Canvas (Amy Advocat, bass clarinet & Matt Sharrock, marimba) has been blazing its own trail in the world of contemporary music since 2011. In under five years, they have premiered over 60 new works, essentially creating an entirely new repertoire for their unique instrumentation.”

Here’s a recent performance of theirs of a piece that was composed by Joseph M. Colombo, a young San Francisco-based composer whose career I’ve been following for… well, let’s just say for quite some time. It’s a 2015 piece called The Private Works of Puncher and Wattmann and there’s nothing about it that isn’t terrific. Enjoy.

Like Romney and McCain, Hillary Extends a Middle Finger to Voters

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, it was clear that Mitt Romney believed his tax returns had the potential to be problematic. No one alleged or even believed that Romney had committed any illegal acts but it was likely that he had aggressively avoided taxes, something that wasn’t going to play well with beleaguered middle class voters who still hadn’t recovered from the damage guys like Romney had done to the economy while fellow scion George Bush was president.

Years earlier, Romney’s father was running for president and pointed out that a narrowly drawn snapshot of a candidate’s taxes could be a “fluke.” In an effort to be as transparent as possible, he released 12 years of his own returns. George Romney’s analysis was clearly correct but 44 years later his son obviously felt that he wasn’t in a position to follow in his father’s footsteps. Mitt’s solution was simplicity itself: He declared that two years’ worth of returns were “what we’re going to put out…those are the two years that people are going to have.” Period. (Breaking with modern precedent, John McCain—the guy who owned so many houses that he couldn’t remember exactly how many—had taken the same tack four years earlier.)

Both candidates basically decided that their message to voters was: Fuck you, it’s none of your business. And although McCain and Romney lost their respective elections, there’s no evidence that either paid a price for their lack of transparency or intransigence.

The lesson that stonewalling is a viable strategy was clearly not lost on Hillary Clinton. Consistent with her longstanding tendency to emulate the worst behaviors of her GOP counterparts, Hillary has settled on a message to voters who want her to come clean about her handsomely compensated speeches to all those Masters of the Universe on Wall Street: Fuck you, it’s none of your business.

Borrowing a tactic from the standard GOP playbook, Hillary pretends that she’s really the victim of a double standard here. In fact, she’s in precisely the situation she anticipated and one for which she prepared meticulously. In her standard speaking agreement, Hillary required her bosses clients to not only provide stenographers at her events but to also stipulate that she, not they, would own those transcripts. All the transcripts exist, then, and there’s nothing preventing her from releasing them other than her own unwillingness to do so.

The Clinton years in the White House were characterized by a willingness to be too cute by half when it came to truth-telling and transparency. It was only Republican overreach that shored up the administration’s approval ratings during the second term. Hillary’s first campaign for president eight years ago exhibited the same casual relationship with the truth and the same barely disguised contempt for anyone those who’d question her.

trump_clintonIn 2016, Hillary’s approach to politics once again reveals a candidate who shares with Republicans a disdain for anyone who wants answers about how she’s conducted herself in the years before she officially became a candidate for the highest office in the land. Her boundaries seem to have been defined by asking, “How much can we get way with?” and, like the Republican stonewallers she emulates, there’s no reason to believe that she’s going to pay a political price for this behavior. At least, not in the primaries. But by the time she gets to the general election, it will be too late for Democrats to do anything about it.

Update: In a masterful and ironic bit of trolling, Mitt Romney is now chiding Donald Trump about releasing his tax returns.

Nevada and South Carolina

If you’re like me, here’s your soundtrack for tonight’s results from Nevada’s Democratic caucus and South Carolina’s Republican primary:

Hillary Clinton, a deeply flawed candidate who almost certainly cannot win in November (and who wouldn’t exactly represent a step forward for the country even if she did), looks like she’ll be squaring off against Donald Trump, the embodiment of almost everything that is wrong with the U.S. in 2016. If you’re looking for a silver lining concerning tonight’s results, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. I got nothing.