Thursday, November 27, 2014
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Meanwhile, in other news...

Obey and Boehner and Newsweek and more

Meanwhile, in other news...

 

 

Anything happen this week? Not much, really. Just a spreading oil disaster in the Gulf, killer floods in Nashville, new evidence of a broader terrorist coalition, a sudden and precipitous Dow meltdown...What's next? A plague of locusts? A sky raining frogs, as in the film Magnolia?

I'll stick to the more prosaic stuff that's still in my notebook:

David Obey's decision to quit his House seat potentially foretells a Democratic disaster in November. Obey says he's simply "bone tired" at age 71, but there's no way that the powerful House Appropriations Committee chairman, an outspoken Wisconsin liberal with a string of election victories dating back to 1969, would voluntarily give it all up unless his sixth sense told him that ill tidings were imminent.

If David Obey is bailing out, you know the Democrats have to be in trouble - just as baseball fans understand that if David Ortiz is (again) hitting 100 points below his weight, the Red Sox surely have to be in trouble.

Obey had raised roughly $1.4 million for his '10 re-election bid, enough to wage a highly competitive race in a Wisconsin district that had supported both John Kerry and Barack Obama in the most recent presidential years. But aside from the fact that Obey was set to face a serious, well-financed Republican challenger (a county district attorney who'd once been a reality show cast member), the congressional veteran surely sensed that the Capitol Hill climate would be grim in 2011 even if he did prevail.
 
In all likelihood, either he'd be back in the minority, or he'd be a member of a shrunken majority; in the case of the latter, Obey would have even less opportunity to push a liberal agenda. He happens to believe that the '09 economic stimulus bill wasn't big enough, but good luck making an argument for a bigger stimulus if the House Democrats are forced to operate with a thin majority margin.

Indeed, two days ago, Obey said as much: "I do not want to be in the position, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, of producing and defending lowest-common-denominator legislation that is inadequate to the task. And given the mood of the country, that is what I would have to do if I stayed."

No wonder the House Democrats' Big Papi has opted to hang up his spikes.

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When I was a kid, everyone subscribed to a newsmagazine. In my neighborhood, you either lived in a "Time house," or a "Newsweek house." We only had three TV networks, delivering the news only at the dinner hour, and we had daily newspapers, most of which were parochial. Time and Newsweek filled an important niche, providing much-needed weekly perspectives.

I lived in a Time and Newsweek house. Newsweek was edgier, however. It featured breakthrough coverage of the civil rights movement, and snappy narratives from far-flung correspondents (thanks to all the millions that The Washington Post's Graham family pumped into the product). And it was notably prescient about Vietnam, writing in 1968: "The war cannot be won by military means without tearing apart the whole fabric of national life and international relations. Unless it is prepared to indulge in the ultimate, horrifying escalation–the use of nuclear weapons–it now appears that the U.S. must accept the fact that it will never be able to achieve decisive military superiority in Vietnam."

So it was a tad sad - though not surprising - to hear the other day that The Post's parent company had put Newsweek up for sale, amidst reports that the magazine had lost nearly $30 million in 2009. Conservatives should refrain from jerking their knees and declaring that the magazine's decline is somehow a thumbs-down referendum on "the liberal media," because magazines in general have been hit hard by the recession-driven decline in print advertising, and by the revolution in young news consumers' reading habits (if you can get free perspective on the news via your iPhone, why buy a print magazine?). Indeed, the decidedly un-liberal Business Week was unloaded last year by its parent company for a mere $2 million. And the notoriously middlebrow U.S. News and World Report isn't even a weekly newsmagazine anymore; it's a barely-breathing monthly.

Sixteen years ago, when I was a foreign correspondent in London, I had lunch with the guy who ran Newsweek's London bureau. The Internet was barely a blip on the screen, but I recall him saying mournfully, even then, that print magazines were "a mature industry" - "mature" being a code word for slowly dying. People in 1994 didn't need weekly news recaps anymore, not with CNN pumping out stories and features 24/7; the subsequent ubiquity of the web has merely accelerated the newsmagazine identity crisis.
 
Both Time and Newsweek have undergone repeated makeovers - Newsweek's, as recently as last year. Thus far, none have arrested the decline. Change is inevitable, of course, especially in the midst of a technological/digital information revolution that also has roiled newspapers everywhere (including, presently, the Philadelphia papers), and perhaps some fabulous future has yet to be revealed. But it may not come quick enough for those of us who fondly remember Newsweek in its prime. And the other day, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham articulated the bottom line; referring to the magazine, he said, "I defy you to make a compelling argument that the country is going to be better off with fewer places like this."

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Kudos to John Boehner, the House Republican leader, for voicing skepticism yesterday about the new legislative proposal (a quick-fix idea spearheaded by Joe Lieberman and Scott Brown) to strip Americans of their citizenship if they are suspected of affiliating with terrorist groups. Boehner said, "If they are a U.S. citizen, until they are convicted of some crime, I don't see how you would attempt to take their citizenship away. That would be pretty difficult under the U.S. Constitution." Ya think?

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Over the past seven days we've heard some fascinating punditry from those who have somehow convinced themselves that liberals/Obama/environmentalists willfully conspired to either blow up the BP oil rig, or to hamper the cleanup operations, for the express purpose of discrediting offshore oil drilling at a time when the option seemed to be gaining popularity. I had a hard time picking the award winner, so let's count down the top three.

Second runner-up, Rush Limbaugh. On his radio show: "What better way to head off more drilling and nuclear plants then by blowing up a rig? I'm just, I'm just noting the timing here."

First runner-up, Michael "Heckuva Job, Brownie" Brown, once again displaying the pre-FEMA disaster credentials he earned as head of the International Arabian Horse Association. On Fox News, he said that Obama delayed a federal response to the oil spill for political reasons, so that he could "pander to the environmentalists and say, 'I'm gonna shut it down because it's too dangerous.'" He went further on MSNBC: "Let no crisis go unused. So this is an opportunity for a president who wants to bankrupt the coal industry, and basically get rid of the oil and gas industry, to shut down offshore drilling."

Grand prize winner, former Bush press secretary Dana Perino. On Fox News: "I'm not trying to introduce a conspiracy theory, but was this deliberate? You have to wonder...that there was sabotage involved."

Magazines like Newsweek are on the wane; in their place, we have cable networks that float fact-free paranoia. Rush only gets third place because Rush is Rush, a guy with the same entertainment instincts as a circus clown. Brown gets second place because he's a marginal, discredited character. Perino gets top prize because she was once a White House spokesman. As someone who held that position of responsibility, she should know better.

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And finally, the story of the day. It writes itself.
 

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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