Dizzy Miss Lizzy

Senator Elizabeth Warren is one of the most indispensable voices in American politics today.  She should not run for president in 2020.

Why not?  Reasons enough, my friends.

Reason No. 1:  While she is a highly effective member of the U.S. Senate (if such a thing can be measured), Warren’s experience as an executive lies somewhere between negligible and non-existent.

Reason No. 2:  As a genuine populist hero of the left, Senator Warren is structurally incapable of appealing to a broad cross-section of the American public, as presidents are generally expected to do.

Reason No. 3:  Outside the liberal enclaves that comprise her natural constituency, Warren tends to come across as a wild-eyed wackadoodle whose entire public persona consists of two or three basic—and borderline radical—talking points from which she rarely, if ever, deviates.

And most importantly, reason No. 4:  The “Pocahontas” thing.

In isolation, none of these would-be drawbacks would be enough to disqualify Warren from seeking and/or attaining high office.  Certainly, they didn’t stop the 44 individuals who have thus far succeeded in doing both.

However, the same cannot be said when all of the above occur simultaneously in a single person, and in the senior senator from Massachusetts, that’s exactly what they do.

Put simply, Elizabeth Warren will never be elected president, and the American left might as well accept this fact now.  Trust me:  It will be a lot more painful on the night of November 3, 2020.

Admittedly, if you take Senator Warren at her word, she will not be a candidate in the first place.  In one interview after another, Warren has asserted, in no uncertain terms, that she is interested only in getting re-elected to the Senate this fall, and has given no serious thought to what she might do with herself thereafter.

Of course, no one believes a word of this—nor, to be fair, should Warren be expected to say anything different until her current race is behind her.  As ever, actions speak louder than denials, and the clearest indication to date that Warren is, indeed, gunning for the White House occurred on Valentine’s Day, when she addressed the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., where she passionately reasserted her conviction that she herself descends from Native American stock.

Why would a mere senator—one who will barely face an opponent this November—feel the need to defend her identity in this manner?  No doubt there were several motivations—pride and family honor chief among them—but the most self-evident to any politically-minded observer must be the fact that President Trump has for months attempted to smear and discredit Warren by repeatedly referring to her as “Pocahontas.”

The basis of this nickname—as a majority of the public probably still doesn’t understand—is the curious gulf between Warren’s certainty about her Native American heritage and the lack of concrete genealogical evidence to support it—a discrepancy that was exasperated last weekend when Warren declined to submit to a DNA test that would presumably resolve the issue once and for all.  Asked by Chuck Todd for an explanation, Warren responded, “Look, I know who I am.”

What she means—as Massachusetts learned in 2012, when she was first elected senator—is that she spent the entirety of her Oklahoma childhood hearing stories from her parents about their family’s Cherokee roots—stories that turned out to be mostly (if not entirely) false, but which Warren took at face value, because why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Years later, still believing this, Warren listed herself as a “minority” in the Association of American Law Schools directory, while Harvard Law School singled her out as an example of ethnic diversity among its faculty.  (At most, Warren is 1/32 Cherokee.)  On the other hand, Warren did not mention her supposed Native blood on her college applications, nor is there any evidence that her would-be minority status resulted in preferential treatment at any point in her academic or professional career.

Taking all of these little contradictions together, does “Look, I know who I am” strike you as an answer that will withstand an 18-month presidential campaign against Donald Trump?  I’d certainly appreciate a clarification or two, and I’ve been in her fan club since Day 1.

What we have here—albeit in embryonic form—is Hillary’s Emails 2.0.  That is, an ostensibly meaningless issue that is blown utterly and inexplicably out of proportion—by Republicans and the media alike—and which slowly but surely immolates the candidacy of the person in question, resulting in four years of President Donald Trump.

Like Hillary Clinton’s email problem, Elizabeth Warren’s “Pocahontas” problem will persist and metastasize as Election Day grows ever-closer, overshadowing every other consideration and rendering her ultimately unelectable.  If Clinton proved an easy target for Russia-based fake news, just imagine what those hackers will do with Warren.

And as with Clinton, the criticisms will not be entirely wrong.  Remember:  When Hillary was ground down by accusations that she had used a private e-mail server for official government business, the point wasn’t that she’d violated some obscure federal rule.  The point was that Hillary couldn’t bring herself to admit she’d done something wrong until it was too late, thereby reinforcing her public perception as a duplicitous, untrustworthy crook.

Elizabeth Warren—someone who, by and large, has cultivated a reputation for frankness and candor on most subjects—can scarcely afford to be seen as evasive and deceitful about her own past.  By dilly-dallying around the truth of her genealogy—by not clearly saying, “I honestly believed something about myself that might not actually be true”—she risks falling into precisely that trap.  If she can’t sell herself to the American public, how on Earth can she sell them higher taxes or single-payer healthcare?

Liberals can argue all they want that “Pocahontas”-gate is a BS issue that is too silly and insignificant to become a determining factor in the primaries and/or general election in 2020.  That, as a candidate, Warren will rise or fall on the strength of her ideas in contrast to President Trump’s.  That, no matter what her contested family history says her about character, she couldn’t possibly be seen as a greater evil than Trump in the morals department.

That’s what we believed about Hillary in 2016, and look how well that went.

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Ted Talk

Over Labor Day weekend, I paid my first visit to the newest civic attraction in Boston:  The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

It was awesome.

This institution, which opened in March but was first conceived in 2003, is a great gift to the public and a noble step in the direction of fostering a more informed electorate.  And wouldn’t you know it:  In the way it has been planned and realized, it even stands a fair chance of being appreciated by the sorts of Americans it most vitally needs to reach.  Namely, young ones.

Let us begin with the center’s name, which is perhaps more revealing than it sounds.  It’s the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.  That is to say, it is a museum dedicated to the history and mystique of the Senate itself—our country’s most exclusive and powerful deliberative body—but is also, simultaneously, a loving and pointed tribute to a single member of that club—namely, the youngest brother of John F. Kennedy, whose presidential library sits just across the parking lot, overlooking Boston Harbor.

This means that, like a presidential library, this new civic tourist trap is a history museum with a point of view.  In this case, the view that the U.S. Senate has, in the end, been a force for good for the American republic.  That, for all its shortcomings, the Senate is the most indispensable and effective means of making life better for ordinary citizens.  And, finally, that Ted Kennedy—who represented Massachusetts from 1962 until his death in 2009—embodied all the best traditions of Congress’ upper house and is a sterling example of what can be achieved therein.

Considering Massachusetts politics and the extraordinary influence of the Kennedy family within the commonwealth and without, it is entirely predictable that such a place would exist.

However, I am sort of curious what Republicans and other conservatives might think about this temple to progressivism and its particular spin on the meaning of America.

On the one hand, right-wingers will presumably gag at the sight of “Lion of the Senate,” a roomful of Senator Kennedy’s greatest hits, from his support for the rights of women, gays and the disabled to his opposition to the Vietnam War to his lifelong pursuit of free healthcare for every man, woman and child.

For liberals, these issues and more are the essence of good government and what it means to forge a more perfect union.

But for conservatives, Ted Kennedy has always personified what they most fear and detest—namely, the idea that the central purpose of the Senate—and of the federal government as a whole—is to create a fair and equitable society and to spend lots and lots of money doing so.  Au contraire:  Republicans, as a rule, believe government should be as unobtrusive as possible and avoid meddling in issues that should be considered on a more local level.

There’s also the fact that, in the summer of 1969, Kennedy killed a 28-year-old woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, by accidentally driving his Oldsmobile off a bridge (Kopechne was in the passenger seat), then waited nearly 10 hours before notifying the authorities.  And yet, because of his illustrious last name, Kennedy was never arrested or charged with manslaughter.  He pleaded guilty only to “leaving the scene of a crash after causing injury” and didn’t spend a single night in jail.

For skeptics, this episode is Exhibit A in the charge that the Kennedys have always thought of themselves—and been treated by others—as being above the law.  The family remains “American royalty” not just because its members are so widely admired, but also because they seem to get away with things that mere mortals do not, from stealing elections to cheating on their wives to allowing young women to drown without calling the police.

If Ted Kennedy was able to redeem himself through 47 years of genuine hard work and accomplishment on Capitol Hill—a debatable but widespread view—so does the Ted Kennedy Institute justify its existence through its loving and meticulous treatment of the house in which Kennedy served.

However you might feel about Congress today, this museum takes great pains to explain how the Senate actually functions—pulling away the curtain to reveal what the day-to-day job of a senator entails.  For a certain chunk of wonky, nerdy right-wingers—the ones who quote Alexander Hamilton by heart and carry a miniature copy of the Constitution in their pockets—this joint may just win the day.

The literal and figurative centerpiece of the Institute is a life-sized reproduction of the Senate chamber itself, complete with 100 wooden desks and a visitor gallery above, and every so often, the museum’s PA system will summon everyone in to debate a bill.  Not a pretend bill, mind you, but an actual piece of legislation that has recently been introduced in Washington, D.C., and is being marked-up and argued about as we speak.  (The day I was there, the issue was whether to require vaccines for all children enrolled in Head Start programs.)

Here, as there, a suited-up museum employee reads a summary of the bill, after which two of his colleagues recite arguments for and against.  At this point, the mike is passed around the room for anyone else to add their two cents (upon being formally recognized by the presiding officer, that is).  Once that is done, everyone present whips out their tablets and clicks “Yea” or “Nay,” with the final tally emblazoned on a giant screen behind the podium.  (Admittedly, such a screen does not yet exist in the real Congress.)

The idea—simple but powerful—is that there is no more effective way to teach people the inner workings of government than to actually bring them along for the ride.  Legislating, like all activities, is best learned through active participation—rather than, say, reading a book or hearing a lecture—and democracy, of all things, should not be a spectator sport.

The people behind the Ted Kennedy Institute instinctively understand this, and their efforts at making the legislative process comprehensible to young (and old) audiences is commendable, not least because it is so rare and so desperately needed in our selfish, ignorant culture.

We are all well-aware of the abysmal attention spans of today’s youth, and I cannot imagine that a conventional museum about government—with long paragraphs of prose plastered all over the walls—would quite do the trick.

To be sure, the Ted Kennedy Institute contains a great many of those paragraphs—indeed, the sheer volume of information in this building is staggering—but you feel neither bored nor bombarded by them, thanks to the inspired idea of making everything electronic.

I mentioned that the mock Senate votes are done on tablets.  In fact, the entire experience is done on tablets, because every visitor is given one immediately upon checking in.  Like audio guides at more traditional museums, these devices allow you to wander the halls at your own pace and summon the sorts of information you are most interested to learn.

Yes, there is writing on the walls—with such predictable subject headings as “What is the Senate?” “Senate Milestones” and, of course, “How a Bill Becomes a Law”—but the words dance around and are interspersed with video and graphics so that your mind doesn’t wander too far before something new pops up.  The Institute’s designers realize that quick facts and choice anecdotes are the secret weapon for getting the average American interested in otherwise boring subjects, and they have been diligent in peppering these exhibits with plenty of both.

Will it work?  Will the hordes of field-tripping schoolchildren who visit the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate leave with an appreciably greater knowledge of how their country runs than when they arrived?

It is hard to conceive that they won’t.  If they do, it’ll be their own fault, because this place tries just about everything.

To be sure, it’s a crying shame that teaching civics in classrooms is such a dying art form that it needs to be exported to cultural institutions.  But at least those institutions exist, and this one in particular seems cognizant of how urgently its services are needed.  The opening of the Ted Kennedy Institute is not going to revolutionize the level of civic engagement in America, but it’s a start.

Everybody’s a Critic

Actor-writer-director Jon Favreau has a warm and wonderful new movie called Chef, in which Favreau plays a renowned cook who leaves his prized position at a swanky Los Angeles eatery and dips his toe into the food truck industry.

The hinge event that causes this sort-of career shift is the result of a bad review.

After a popular local food blogger pans the restaurant’s latest roster of courses, Favreau bitterly lures him back to give him a piece of his mind, which swiftly takes the form of a full-blown meltdown.  How unfair, he protests, that he should passionately and lovingly devote his life to achieving culinary greatness, while this wretched, lazy little puke does nothing but stuff his face and scribble snarky putdowns on the web and call himself a foodie.  Who does he think he is?

While this tantrum is ostensibly at Favreau’s expense—both for those in the room and for us in the audience—the chef nonetheless earns our sympathy, as we acknowledge the basic truth in what he says.  Lording over the kitchen of a great restaurant is a backbreaking job, requiring tireless dedication, creativity and raw skill.  Blogging, meanwhile, requires little more than an Internet connection, a thesaurus and a little too much spare time.  (Cough cough.)

Very few of us could ever hope to be a halfway decent chef.  But anybody can be a critic.

The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously asserted, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.”  This is the attitude toward the art of criticism (if it can be called an art) that seems the most just and ideal.

While it is certainly possible to be a great art critic without being an artist yourself, those who have actually immersed themselves in the subject at hand possess a particular wisdom, and warrant a particular respect, that the armchair quarterbacks of the world do not.  In the spirit of the famous axiom that the only true way to learn how to do something is by doing it, there is no finer means of tearing something down than by building something up in its place.

In politics (as we move from the sacred to the profane), our elected representatives would be well-advised to take this truth to heart.

In Washington, D.C., under the Obama administration, the GOP has assumed the role of the “Party of No.”  Whenever President Obama or Democrats in Congress propose some major piece of legislation, Republicans oppose it almost as a reflex—as if the mere fact of Obama’s support axiomatically calls for Republican dissent.

While it is to be expected that America’s two major parties would disagree about the big issues of the day—indeed, that’s sort of the point—today’s GOP is distinctive for its tendency to meet ideas not with other ideas, but rather with nothing at all.  Be it on health care, immigration, gun control, Syria, Ukraine—and on and on and on—the Republican leadership’s view is “Obama is doing it wrong, and never mind how we would do it right.”

Obviously, this is not the case on every last issue, and there have been lonely efforts by individual senators and congresspersons to craft alternative approaches to things like the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and all the rest.  But these proposals have all been dead-on-arrival upon reaching the House or Senate floor, vetoed by the likes of Speaker John Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who seem to have very little interest in actually solving problems.

The reason this should be a cause for our concern is that the GOP is scheduled to assume control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections, meaning the party will take on far more responsibility in actually proposing, debating and passing laws.  At that point, Republicans will cease being mere critics and start being active participants in the democratic process.  Are they prepared for this eventuality?  For the sake of the republic, let us hope so.

From the moment he assumed the presidency, Barack Obama (and his supporters) rather woundingly learned of certain key differences between campaigning for president and actually being president.  Namely, that the latter is considerably more difficult than the former.

It’s easy enough to stand at a podium and bitch about all that’s wrong with the world and how wonderful things would be if you were in charge.  But holding the keys to the Oval Office and assuming personal responsibility for all actions taken in the name of the United States?  Well, it gives you a far greater appreciation for the challenges of governance than does reading about them in a newspaper or from watching cable news.

Much in the same way that knowing how to prepare a molten chocolate cake yields more wisdom about food than merely eating it ever could.