1972 and 1992: A Couple of Overlearned Lessons

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” Will Rogers

For a generation now, conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party has held that “liberal” Democrats cannot get elected. This was the basic premise of Bill Clinton’s candidacy in 1992 and his success was widely considered to be irrefutable validation of the “centrist Democrat” approach to politics.

George-McGovern-and-Thoma-008As an organizing principle, the idea didn’t get real traction until Michael Dukakis’ defeat by George Bush in 1988 but it’s George McGovern’s crushing loss to Richard Nixon in 1972 that’s more commonly cited by those who dismiss the idea of a genuinely progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic standard-bearer. Unfortunately, our collective memory of what happened in 1972 somehow seems to leave out the most important reason—by far—that the election turned into a disaster. And it wasn’t George McGovern’s politics.

McGovern was not the first choice of party leaders but his success throughout the primary process made his nomination inevitable. (This was a brave new world in politics. The Democrats’ previously nominee, Hubert Humphrey, didn’t win a single primary.) After securing the nod on July 12, McGovern approached Ted Kennedy to be his running mate, an offer that Kennedy publicly declined. McGovern then settled on Thomas Eagleton, described as “a little-known, pro-labor, Roman Catholic liberal from Missouri.” His quixotic candidacy got off to an uneven start but it wasn’t until two weeks later that the bombshell hit.

Following a whispering campaign in Washington, Eagleton admitted that he’d been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for depression and stress, and that he had undergone electric shock therapy, an enormous scandal that had not been uncovered during vetting. Days later, McGovern’s “1,000 percent” support for his embattled running mate evaporated as the situation became increasingly untenable. Eagleton resigned from the ticket on August 1.

Then, things got worse. Much worse. Wikipedia summarizes the rest of the story:

A new search was begun by McGovern. Six different prominent Democrats declined to run as his vice-president: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Ribicoff, Larry O’Brien and Reubin Askew. McGovern ultimately chose former Ambassador to France and former Director of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. He was officially nominated by a special session of the Democratic National Committee. By this time, McGovern’s poll ratings had plunged from 41 to 24 percent.

By the time Shriver came on board, the entire fiasco had dominated coverage of the McGovern campaign for weeks. (Can you imagine a campaign stewing in a story like that for a almost a month?!) In the process, a half dozen of the party’s most prominent names had publicly rejected the nominee’s entreaties to help. Taking on an incumbent president like Richard Nixon would obviously been difficult under the best of circumstances but it was clearly the Thomas Eagleton story, not George McGovern’s policy prescriptions, that made the election result so lop-sided.

Clinton CoverI’d also argue that Bill Clinton’s results in 1992 were somewhat anomalous and don’t support the “centrist Democrat” narrative as neatly as pundits seem to think. Clinton’s big break came in the aftermath of the first Iraq War when George W. Bush’s popularity surged to historic levels. Facing an incumbent president with such lofty approval ratings seemed like a fool’s errand. As a result, the prominent liberal Democrats who otherwise might have run that year—Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Mario Cuomo—all backed out of the race before it ever began.

When the economy went south and took President Bush’s approval ratings along for the ride, Bill Clinton found himself facing a field that could reasonably be described as the Democratic Party’s AAA team. He won the nomination but never had to face his party’s best candidates in the process. He then went on to beat an astonishingly disengaged George Bush.

So count me among those who are not persuaded by the argument that an unabashed liberal can’t be a successful presidential candidate. It’s a tidy narrative but history doesn’t support it.

A Trivia Quiz For Beatles Aficionados

I thought I’d do something a bit different for today’s blog post: If you’re a hardcore Beatles fan, here’s a short quiz featuring my five all-time favorite Beatles trivia questions. Good luck… and no Googling!

  1. What is Paul McCartney’s middle name?
  2. One single released by the Beatles in the U.S. was unique in that neither side was a Lennon/McCartney composition. What was it?
  3. Only one Beatles song was credited as having been written by all four Beatles. What was it?
  4. Only one Beatles song was credited as having been written by three of the four Beatles. What was it?
  5. Which Beatles song featured only two of the Beatles doing all the vocals and playing all the instruments?

Click here for the answers.

Watching the Beatles phenomenon unfold in real time was one of the great pleasures of my entire life. In the immortal words of Dr. Winston O’Boogie, “You should have been there.”

The Beatles and Vonnegut

My Top Ten Tips for Speaking Effectively in Public

Version 2
This is a vintage image of an unidentified corporate presenter. He certainly looks like someone who’s wearing comfortable shoes.

On Facebook recently, the folks who manage the TED Talks page posted an ostensible list of tips they give their speakers. In the ensuing conversation, I mentioned my own experience as a speaker and the mental list of tips I’ve complied over the years. My comment drew responses that were so encouraging I decided to share a slightly expanded version of that list here. While there are no universally applicable approaches, I can tell you that the techniques you’ll find in this list are the most effective ones I learned (mostly the hard way) over a nine year career delivering corporate presentations:

1. Have a reliable opening, one you can deliver expertly and with confidence. Early on, I “appropriated” (from someone who’s name I’ve sadly long since forgotten) a short opening quip that broke the ice with the audience and almost always got a chuckle. It scaled well and worked reliably with all sorts of different audiences. Having this opening in my toolkit de-stressed the beginning of my presentations significantly. I knew that even if no other single line in my talk connected, this one would. The little bit of connection and the confidence it produced in thirty seconds was all it ever took for me to get off to a great start.

2. Use pauses and silences strategically to grab your audience’s attention. Most speakers’ natural inclination when they want to capture their audience’s attention is to turn the volume up to eleven. In fact, it’s often much more effective to pause and let a silence hang over the room, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. From there, you can deliver a bombshell or a punchline to an audience that’s perched on the edge of their seats to hear what you’re going to say next.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. This is advice that most people only learn through painful experience because no one thinks to warn you beforehand. Trust me on this. (And while you’re at it, make sure that your soles are non-slip.)

4. Design your visual aids with a thoroughly minimalist sensibility. Whatever people are there to learn, it’s better for them to hear it directly from you rather than read it off your slides. The best way to use slides is with a single visual on each one. The next best way is to use words as sparingly as possible; use them not as a script but as a scaffold on which to hang the real presentation, the one that you’ve giving right in front of them,

5. Tell stories. If you can find a short story to illustrate each of your important points, you’ll vault yourself into the top tier of presenters at your conference or event. Audiences relate to stories and, more important, they remember stories.

6. Study video of your presentations. You often don’t look like what you think you look like. I still come across blog posts that advise speakers to practice in front of a mirror. Simply put, this doesn’t work. You can’t see the things you need to see in a mirror. Not that they’re not there; you literally can’t see them because your minds edits and selectively interprets the signals it gets from your eyes. You’re just too involved with the image you see in the mirror to evaluative it usefully. Video gives you something relatively more objective to observe.

7. If logistics don’t confine you to a stage, walk around the room. Your judicious incorporation of movement into your presentation will keep your audience on its metaphoric toes. It’s a subtle but significant way to hold their attention and keep them engaged.

8. Find ways to get your audience to participate. There are lots of ways to get an audience involved. Ask a question and solicit answers. Take a poll that requires  show of hands. Get volunteers from the audience to role play. (NB: There’s a significant “degree of difficulty” factor on that one.) Like other items on this list, audience participation increases engagement.

9. Don’t read from your slides. Closely related to item number four above, this is one of the cardinal sins that unpracticed presenters commit. If this was the only item on this list that you totally mastered, you’d be better than at least half of the presenters that members of your audience have ever heard.

10. Practice, practice, practice. It’s almost impossible to do an outstanding job with a presentation you’ve never given before. There are always places that fall unexpectedly flat and transitions that don’t quite flow as smoothly as they did in your head. If it’s at all possible, find an opportunity to try your big presentation out on an “off Broadway” audience before you step out on stage in front of your actual target audience. Every time you give a particular presentation it will get more and more polished. (And here’s a corollary: In general, it’s easier to find a new audience than it is to craft a new presentation.)

Feeling the Bern at Liberty University

It shouldn’t be any secret that I’m supporting Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. I happen to believe that he’s right on the issues. At least as important is that face that, whether you agree with him or not he, brings a degree of forthrightness and integrity that we seldom see in top tier, major party candidate.

The only other prelude I’ll provide for this video is that I appreciate the courage of any candidate who steps into the opponent’s territory. In this case, Senator Sanders is venturing to Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell to be the cradle of his Moral Majority.

I believe that over the course of a long campaign, addressing inequality in our system will be a message that resonates with a large swath of voters. In reality, there are more substantive interests that unite the bottom 99 percent than divide us. Now, click ahead to the 16:00 mark and give a listen to a guy who flies coach:

A Field of Memes

Now that this blog has a respectable backlog of posts, my plan is to gradually increase the frequency of my posts as I undertake a similarly gradual uptick in my promotional efforts. Toward that end, I’ve begun experimenting with creating memes.

The idea, of course, is to create and distribute memes that will—with any luck—make their way to readers who’ll like what they find here at georgecolombo.com. With all of that in mind, I thought you might want to see a few of my early efforts (along with a random thought or two about each).

CannabisI created this one immediately after writing this blog post about the upcoming efforts to make medical marijuana available in the state of Florida. Both the meme and the blog post seemed to get a fair amount of positive attention on Facebook. I expect this is a topic I’ll be revisiting regularly as the ballot process progresses towards November of 2016.

David Foster WallaceI created this meme after seeing The End of the Tour, a movie about the great author, David Foster Wallace. There’s a slightly better quote than this in the move that conveys basically the same message but I couldn’t find it online and didn’t want to wait. Wallace was a towering intellect and, while Jason Segel delivers a plausible David Foster Wallage, watching video of the real Wallace is more intriguing for me. (Sure, see the movie but check out this Charlie Rose interview in the meantime.)

Martin Luther KingI’ve had three real, enduing heroes over the course of my life but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is at the very top of the list. Today, Dr. King is perceived to be an anodyne figure, bland and inoffensive. The reality is that he was reviled in his lifetime and for a generation afterwards by large numbers of Americans. He was considered a rabble-rouser, publicity seeker, and a communist (the worst epithet you could hurl at someone at the time). This is one of several quotes by Dr. King that have really resonated with me over the years.

Tony BennWhen I saw Michael Moore’s Sicko, this quote by British politician Tony Benn really caught my attention. It’s so stark, so simple and, ultimately, so irrefutable. The specific topic in the movie was healthcare reform but Benn’s sentiment can extend out to embrace a whole range of things we can do with our money besides shoveling it into the production of arms

I’d be curious to get your feedback on these. My intention has been to use quotes that reflect the values of the blog. Does that make sense to you? And a Bonus Question: Can you put your finger on what motivates you to share something when you see it?

Glenn Greenwald on Donald Trump and Jorge Ramos

There are very few indispensable voices in today’s media environment but any reasonable list of those who qualify would have to include Glenn Greenwald. He’s the embodiment of independent journalism and there’s no better evidence of that than his column about the Ramos/Trump story.

It’s tempting to try to summarize the two or three most important take-aways from the article but I’d prefer that you take a moment to read the whole thing yourself. It’s important not only for Greenwald’s perspective on the incident itself but also for the broader issues he raises about the nature of corporate media in 2015. (And by “corporate media,” I mean literally 95 percent of all our media, every newspaper and television program you read or watch.)

If you haven’t seen the video yet, you’ll want to take a look:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes” but no one can fail to see the inherent absurdities and dangers of this Potemkin campaign of Donald Trump’s. Apparently the real challenge for our “serious” media personalities today is to call out the cynical con that’s right there in front of their eyes.

A Modest Proposal for Medical Marijuana Opponents in Florida

Attorney John Morgan’s United for Care is readying another campaign to pass a Constitutional Amendment in Florida that would provide for the therapeutic use of cannabis under doctors’ supervision. (The organization’s previous attempt in 2014 was approved by about 58 percent of voters—a higher percentage than any candidate on the ballot including Governor Rick Scott—but failed to reach the 60 percent threshold required to pass this kind of ballot initiative.)

Medical-Cannabis1While the prospects for success look good in a presidential election year, the opposition is gearing up, too. A coalition of religious and law enforcement organizations including the Florida Sheriff’s Association is trotting out the familiar arguments here. (It’s worth noting that opposition to legalizing cannabis is far from universal in the law enforcement community. A number of progressive law enforcement officials believe that cannabis prohibition is considerably more harmful and dangerous than the plant itself.)

While many point out that law enforcement agencies in Florida have a vested interest in continuing prohibition—they generate millions of dollars for themselves from civil forfeiture proceedings, for example—I’m willing to stipulate that their arguments against liberalizing cannabis laws are made in good faith. But if public health and safety are genuinely what they’re concerned with, I’d like to make a modest proposal that might clarify the issues surrounding cannabis and enhance the credibility of the arguments they’re making.

Simply put, I wonder if the Sheriff’s Association would be willing to broaden the scope of its concern to include all of the substances that individuals use to self-medicate:

  • Cannabis
  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Dietary supplements
  • Over the counter medications

To claim, as the coalition’s website does, that cannabis “has a high potential for abuse with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” is, at best, an incomplete telling of the story. If the problem is that cannabis is dangerous then it’s worth asking: Compared to what?

It seems that we, as a society, have long ago determined that we’re willing to balance the perceived benefits of using any of these substances against some hypothetical state of absolute safety. It shouldn’t be necessary, then, to demonstrate that cannabis is perfectly safe under any and all circumstances. After all, we couldn’t make that claim for aspirin and we certainly couldn’t make it for bourbon.

So, here’s my proposal. Let’s establish an objective set of safety standards and then apply them to all of the items on our list. Then, the Sheriff’s Association or any of the other organizations in the anti-cannabis coalition can make their policy prescriptions in a rational and objective context.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense: Insisting that one item on the list meet standards that we’re not willing to apply to other items that are objectively more dangerous. (If anyone wants to make the case that cannabis is more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol, then I’m happy to let them do so… but I’m guessing that any sort of supporting data would be difficult to produce.)

If it’s genuinely important to prosecute cannabis users in order to protect them from themselves, then don’t we owe the same level of protection to individuals who choose to self-medicate in other ways? But if we refuse to do that—if it seems like an irrational overreach to do so—then maybe it’s time to admit that prosecuting cannabis users never really made much sense in the first place.

Some Thoughts on Participation Trophies

Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker James Harrison posted on Instagram and Twitter that he was returning the trophies his sons received for participating in their youth football program. The story generated a great deal of attention, as you probably know, on television and in social media.

When I responded to Mr. Harrison’s Twitter post by suggesting that he consider some additional perspective on the matter, a few Harrison fans took vigorous exception to my tweet. (One guy suggested that my post was “retarded.” Another incongruously wanted to know how many Super Bowl champions I’ve raised.)

Among the responses I received, though, was one from Daphne Sashin, a CNN reporter who writes about parenting issues. She wanted a more complete explanation of my thoughts on the topic than I was able to provide in 140 characters.

This subject has gotten a great deal of attention in the media since it was first reported so I thought it might be worthwhile to share my thoughts here on this blog. This, then, is what I wrote:

Ms. Sashin,

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 2.25.32 PM

Per your request on Twitter, I’m writing with a few thoughts on James Harrison’s Instagram post about returning his sons’ trophies for participating in sports. Let me preface everything I’m going to write with a few important points: One, I don’t know Mr. Harrison but am confident that he loves his kids tremendously and decided to do this with the very best of intentions. Two, I wouldn’t presume to tell Mr. Harrison (or anyone else, for that matter) how to raise his children. And, third, I am a parent, not a psychologist or a pediatrician. I hope that you’ll contact professionals who are qualified to discuss this topic based on real data (like Nadine Burke Harris, for example) for your article.

Having said all that, let me offer a few thoughts in no particular order.

  • While Mr. Harrison is understandably focused on his own kids, I wonder if he’s considered the fact that his action is likely to diminish the perceived value of the trophies that every other child in the league received. It’s almost certain that, as a professional player and a champion, Mr. Harrison is a big deal among the children who play sports with his boys. His refusal to allow his sons to accept their trophies very likely undermines the league, the coaches, and the other parents who don’t have NFL aspirations for their kids.
  • I find it difficult to understand how setting one’s kids apart from their teammates teaches values like sportsmanship and teamwork, the specific values that most parents are trying to teach when they enlist their kids in sports.
  • It seems to me that there’s a danger of an action like Mr. Harrison’s being misinterpreted by his kids, something along the lines of “Everyone else is good enough for their parents but you’re not good enough for me.” Obviously, his kids are pretty young (they stop giving participation trophies to older kids) and the point he’s trying to make is pretty sophisticated so the chances of this aren’t insignificant. More likely, in my opinion, is that it will become what Dr. Harris refers to as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).
  • My personal belief is that the most important thing we can do for our kids is to provide them with a foundation of love and support on which they can build, on which they’re secure enough to learn to achieve. That’s been the philosophy that guided my wife and me in parenting our two boys (I’ll admit freely that she has an intuitive understanding of these things that far exceeds my own) and I think it’s worked pretty well.
  • Instances in which parents get overly involved in their young kids’ sports endeavors tend to not work out well. You can Google Jimmy Piersall or Todd Marinovitch for a couple of more famous examples. In my experience, I’ve seen more talented young athletes damaged by their parents than helped. One young man on my younger son’s Little League team was an extremely talented pitcher who was never quite good enough to get his father’s approval. By high school, he’d given up baseball altogether.
  • I disagree with Mr. Harrison’s diminishment of the value of participation, especially at a young age. It seems to me that it’s more than a little important to teach the value of participation and to reward it for young kids. It strikes me as counterproductive to tell children that their participation isn’t adequate. There’s plenty of time later to mold them into champions if that’s what Mr. Harrison believes is important.
  • Finally, I understand and even admire Mr. Harrison’s impetus to foster achievement in his kids. I hope, however, that he isn’t doing so at the expense of their happiness or at the expense of his relationship with them in later years. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value my kids’ happiness far more than I value any “achievement” of theirs.

Thanks for reaching out. I hope this is helpful.

I’d be interested in getting your thoughts in the Comments section. And, if you’re interested, here’s the TED Talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris that I referenced on the subject of Adverse Childhood Events:

“Bullshit is everywhere.”

Jon Stewart bowed out of The Daily Show last night with a meditation on the single most pervasive reality of life in the United States in 2015: The relentless, unending cascade of bullshit that rains down on us every day from every media outlet we monitor and every mobile device we own.

The ubiquity of bullshit is almost impossible to overstate. Of course, it pervades every one of the 5,000 marketing messages that are aimed at each of us every single day but that’s just the tip of an enormous iceberg. In fact, the “news” we watch is every bit as phony as the ads. My favorite example is this classic clip from The Today Show. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Michelle Kosinski’s dishonesty here except for the fact that she managed to get caught.

Like Paddy Chayefsky’s Howard Beale, Stewart reminds us that we are ultimately responsible for accepting the bullshit to which we’re exposed. Beale’s famous prescription was getting people to proclaim, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Stewart, on the other hand, is a bit more concise and elegant: “If you smell something, say something.”

Whichever formulation you prefer, the basic idea is the same. Bullshit loses its power when we acknowledge it instead of ignoring it. Is this the right approach for you? Ask your doctor.