Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why Won't Political Reporters Use The Word "Liar" To Describe A Liar?

Newt Gingrich did something perfectly ordinary this morning -- something that billions of people do all over the world every single day, as they negotiate the mundane mechanics of human cognition -- and, in doing so, shocked the living daylights out of CBS News' chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell.

He used the word "liar" to describe a person who lies.

On CBS's "The Early Show," O'Donnell first quoted Gingrich insinuating that Romney was a liar before incredulously asking her guest, point-blank, if he was actually calling Mitt Romney a liar for Romney's habit of saying things, both on and off the stump, that are demonstrably untrue.

Gingrich replied -- bluntly and beautifully -- "Yes."

If you haven't yet seen it, you can watch it here. (Scroll to the 3:00 mark to see the relevant exchange.)

To me, the big story isn't that Mitt Romney is a liar (which he is; Gingrich's well-delivered explanation is unimpeachable in its clear-headed reasoning). Nor is the big story even that Newt Gingrich called Mitt Romney a liar on national television on the morning of the Iowa caucuses, which is admittedly a pretty ballsy thing to do.

No, to me the big story is all summed up by the stunned and even pained look on Norah O'Donnell's face when Gingrich -- after a delicious pause -- utters that one affirmative monosyllable, unencumbered by any kind of equivocating baggage, and delivered with the tiniest of what-the-hell shrugs. Yes.

O'Donnell's eyes widen into big blue saucers; she leans forward anxiously in her seat. She clearly can't believe what she's heard. It's as if Gingrich had just called Romney an arsonist or a child molester.

Why does the act of labeling someone who tells lies a "liar" continue to be so taboo in print and television media? When Richard Blumenthal, the former Attorney General of Connecticut, publicly lied about his service in Vietnam in 2010, the most damning headline that The New York Times could muster was: "Candidate's Words on Vietnam Service Differ From History." The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler -- one of the best political reporters in the business -- has his own column in the paper dedicated to fact-checking the claims of various political figures. The column's mission statement is noteworthy for the many different ways it describes the act of political lying -- an act that comes as naturally to politicians as kissing babies -- without ever actually using the words "lie," "lying" or "liar." Suffice it to say that none of those words ever appear in Kessler's column, either, a column which features as its branded mascot the cartoon image of a long-nosed Pinocchio. Throughout the column -- per sober and judicious Washington Post style -- euphemisms like "misleading" or "inaccurate" or "contradictory" are employed instead.

With the exception of highly partisan cable squawk shows, TV news isn't much better. I was always amazed at how the late Tim Russert, as feisty an interviewer as there ever was, could grill his guests so mercilessly, often confronting them with past quotes that showed them to be bald-faced, out-and-out liars . . . but never once, to my knowledge, using that particular word (or any of its variants) on the air to describe any of them. I feel fairly certain that Russert used the word all the time in private, as do Kessler and O'Donnell. As do we all, in fact, whenever we're looking around for le mot juste to describe people who knowingly and intentionally speak mistruths.

It all got to be a bit much for one of those partisan cable squawkers, Lawrence O'Donnell (no relation to Norah), on MSNBC a while back. After Mitt Romney released a blatantly misleading ad that used editing tricks to make it seem as though President Obama had said he was afraid to talk about the economy (a stunt I blogged about here), the mainstream print and TV media clucked its tongues a little, but basically gave Romney a free pass, with most of the ad's critics placing it within the category of all's-fair-in-love-and-war. The fed-up O'Donnell liberally and unabashedly peppered his nine-minute tirade against Romney's dishonesty with multiple iterations of the L-word, as if he had single-handedly taken it upon himself to make up for all the times that his fellow journalists had wimped out. Like Gingrich's brief moment of candor, it's bracing and refreshing, and you should watch it. So should Norah O'Donnell and Glenn Kessler and the entire Washington press corps.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ron Paul Makes Sense, Jumps Shark

In case you missed it, here's the exchange between Ron Paul and Michelle Bachman from last night's (12/15) debate. The subject was Iran, and specifically whether the United States ought to be preparing for a war with it. The exchange is remarkable for many reasons, not least among them the image of a lone Republican presidential candidate whose foreign policy seems to be founded on the crazy idea that we should maybe think twice before going to war.

Now: I should probably state, for the record, that I will not be voting for Mr. Paul in any upcoming primaries, nor will any of us be voting for Mr. Paul in a general election. Having said that, I think it's telling that the reception on the right to Ron Paul's cogent and well-articulated position -- namely, that it may not necessarily be in America's best interests to go to war with Iran, and inflame the passions of hundreds of millions people living in Arab nations, if it's at all possible to achieve our goals via other means -- has been angry and derisive. One analyst described Paul as having "jumped the shark."

Those who think Paul's position is crazy might want to scroll down to the last third or so of this document, which advocates a similarly prudent and cautious approach to engaging in foreign entanglements, and ask themselves if they believe its author is guilty of the same wacky, off-the-wall, shark-jumping looniness.

Friday Snake Video!

Herpetologists Tony and Paulie discuss instances of hermaphroditism among certain reptile populations. PROFANITY WARNING: It's from "The Sopranos." So even though it's a thirty-second clip, it manages to get the f-bomb in there a couple of times.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt And Six Sigma: A Reader Responds

Reader John M. has a smart and very civil rebuttal to my post on Newt Gingrich and Lean Six Sigma. He writes:

I think you are showing your lack of corporate experience here . . . I can tell you that Six Sigma is required training for just about any manager in any mid- to large-size company. Like all management philosophies, yes, there are dogmas and symbols to help us drones better understand the concepts, but the comparison to Scientology is weak at best. Is there math involved? Yes, but that in itself does not make it overly complicated or futuristic. That being said, I am not convinced any business management philosophy will work in government.
The growth you refer to in Six Sigma is about making more profit, or really making more money, with the same cost outlay. It is very conceivable that a conservative [would] see the analog to the federal government simply being less in debt. . . . [Y]our argument loses its effectiveness when your points are easily argued by anyone with any management science background. Rather, I would focus on the fact that there is almost no evidence of any business principle working long-term in the public sector. 
As for the pseudoscience stuff, I agree only if we accept that EVERY management science theory is chock full of things that make what would seem like common sense to many people complex and "important" sounding. Anyone with an MBA could fill up notebooks with different complex theories masking common sense. Not sure why this is exactly, but my opinion is that our culture has tried very hard to turn making money into a scientific pursuit, when underneath it all it's just: buy low, sell high.

John M. is right, of course, that my post betrays my own lack of immersion in the world of management science. And I should probably confess -- just in case it isn't already quite evident -- that my complaints against Six Sigma specifically, and management science more generally, are largely aesthetic. I have nothing against the thought of MBA candidates or junior executives in the manufacturing sector learning about quality control theories; indeed, I want tomorrow's Steve Jobses and Jack Welches to be up on the latest ideas. But as a writer and editor, I do find somewhat pitiful the reflexive unwillingness to identify these ideas as basic and commonsensical, and the corresponding need to couch them in impenetrable jargon and shroud them in such (colorfully-belted!) pseudoscientific drapery.    

My post was really intended to be more about why someone like Newt Gingrich, in particular, would be so naturally attracted to a large, highly complicated, doctrine-based system like Six Sigma when it came time to discuss what he would do to reduce the size of government, which is ostensibly the animating drive of modern conservatism. I was trying to distinguish between the relatively easy-to-understand, albeit brutal, philosophy of someone like Grover Norquist -- who believes that most of what we think of as government should simply be de-funded until it weakens and dies -- and someone like Gingrich, who has always had a penchant for grandiosity, and who paradoxically wants to be thought of as a public servant who prefers small government but who also "thinks big."

Six Sigma, I think, is a natural fit for Gingrich philosophically, since it purports to do things like cut waste and improve quality, which ought to appeal to small-government conservatives, but also forces its precepts onto a ridiculously inelegant theoretical framework that ladles on the jargon to make itself seem scientific, and employs all of that colored-belt silliness to make it seem meritocratic and ancient and guild-like. It's that aspect of Six Sigma, I would argue -- the silly, bloated, self-satisfied aspect -- that Gingrich is drawn to. Because it describes him, too.

But I didn't mean to suggest that Six Sigma doesn't work in the manufacturing sector. Indeed, all signs suggest that it does. And John M., who has a corporate background, is in far better a position than I am to criticize or defend it. So okay, maybe the Scientology comparison was a cheap shot. But all those colored belts? And all those expensive certification courses that will help you ascend to the next "level"? C'mon. They do make such comparisons pretty easy to draw.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Newt's Fixation On "Six Sigma" -- The Scientology Of Management Philosophies

Over the weekend, the new GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich introduced me to a term I'd never heard before: "Lean Six Sigma." For those of you who, like me, were completely unaware of the term's meaning and provenance, it's essentially a management philosophy that was initially developed within Motorola during the 1980s, and designed to address various problems relating to inefficiency and customer dissatisfaction that were plaguing the company back then. It worked well enough for Motorola that the philosophy was refined, modified and exported to the manufacturing community at large (including GE and IBM), where it became very popular among a particular type of scientifically-minded corporate futurist who believed that there was nothing wrong with American business that an overwhelmingly complicated and weirdly cult-like systems methodology couldn't fix.

Newt has publicly stated on a number of occasions -- as far back as August and as recently as last week -- that as president he would move to adopt Lean Six Sigma principles in government which, if implemented properly, could save taxpayers as much as $500 billion per year, or $5 trillion over ten years. He has a five-page outline of how it would all work on his website. Putting aside the question of whether or not Lean Six Sigma could actually reap benefits outside of a manufacturing context, one must acknowledge -- after spending even just a few minutes familiarizing oneself with it -- that to apply this system to the functions of government would be to abandon any conventional definition of "conservatism," and to profess that the way to save America is through adherence to a dogma more rigidly schematized than anything cooked up by liberal academics or entrenched government bureaucrats.

Newt, who is exactly the kind of scientifically-minded corporate futurist this system is designed to attract, doesn't seem bothered by this. Nor does he seem bothered by one fundamental, inescapable fact that ought to be causing conservatives real alarm. Management gurus come up with byzantine systems like Lean Six Sigma because they want business to be in a constant state of growth and expansion. Conversely, conservatism claims to be all about shrinking government, reducing its overall size and scope. The possible, and indeed intended, outcomes that might result from applying to the workings of the federal government a management philosophy meant to help a company like Motorola keep growing -- to keep increasing its market share, so that it can make more products (and open more plants, and hire more workers) -- ought to be evident to conservatives.

One wonders what Grover Norquist would make of a government directive instructing all employees of, say, the Department of Energy to undergo a week-long training course in Six Sigma principles, so that they might better understand the difference between DMAIC and DMADV/DFSS five-phase project methodology, or better absorb the lessons to be learned from the three-step Japanese poka-yoke system of error-proofing. Successful completion of the course could earn employees points that would go toward the eventual acquisition of a "green belt" or a "black belt," just two of the ways Six Sigma denotes and certifies that its adherents have advanced to the next level of understanding. Sort of like the way Scientologists move from up from one OT level to the next, until they finally get "clear" and are allowed to go live on that awesome cruise ship. (Six Sigma even has its own cool little symbol that subtly evokes the Scientology glyph.)

"Or," Norquist and his like-minded conservative brethren might say in response, "you could maybe, you know, abolish the entire Department of Energy. Just sayin'."

Norquistian conservatives who care about reducing government -- rather than injecting into it a fresh dose of arcane methodological doctrine -- ought to be frightened by this clear bit of evidence that Newt Gingrich has a decidedly unconservative view of governmental growth. He doesn't want to shrink it until it's small and weak enough to drown in the bathtub. The egomaniacal, "visionary," dogma-loving L. Ron Hubbard of the GOP wants to turn it into IBM. Or maybe even something bigger.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Et Tu, Jon Huntsman?

So many metaphorical models to choose from when trying to describe Jon Huntsman's transformation from heterodox believer in global warming to mealy-mouthed questioner of the (firmly settled) science behind what's causing it. Who's he more like? Leonard Zelig, morphing chameleon-like from one being to another, depending on the context? A junior high honors student who, when asked why he ditched school to go smoke cigarettes down in the ravine, explains that "all my friends were doing it?" Winston Smith in the final, damning paragraph of 1984, when he finally allows his capacity for reason to be annihilated by the juggernaut of ideology and tearfully professes his love for Big Brother?

Any one of them will work, sadly. Back in August, the former Utah governor Tweeted: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." He later doubled down on such cheekiness by linking Rick Perry's climate-change skepticism to a dangerous anti-science current that was flowing through the GOP and risking its entire future. Such pronouncements went a long way toward endearing Huntsman to liberals and political journalists. They rewarded his bravery by becoming his base, in its paltry entirety.

Despite some pretty conservative credentials, Huntsman has spent his autumn of 2011 floundering at or near the bottom of practically every poll, thanks in large part to the Tweet heard 'round the Beltway (and also, it should be noted, that one "red flag" portion of his resume that detailed his stint as the Obama administration's ambassador to China). But as his fellow Republicans wilted or exploded their way out of contention, one by one, he found himself, just a few days ago, standing alongside Romney and Gingrich as the two prepared to do ultimate battle. A quiet, almost imperceptible buzz began to develop. Republicans asked themselves: Is it time for us to rethink Jon Huntsman, perhaps? Gingrich is a clownish tyrant, Romney a blow-dried cipher. Do we still have time to kick Huntsman's tires and take him for one last, quick test drive before we have to decide on which of these two buffoons we put up against Obama?

Cut to a meeting room at the Heritage Foundation yesterday, where Huntsman picked up on the collective vibe and responded by, uh, refining his position on mad-made climate change. "The scientific community owes us more in terms of a better description or explanation about what might lie beneath all of this," he said. "But there's not [enough] information right now to formulate policies in terms of addressing it overall, primarily because it's a global issue."

Actually it's Zelig, the insecure junior-high-school truant and Winston Smith all wrapped up in a single, desperate, go-for-broke body. Note the dog-whistled obeisance to climate-change skeptics who still believe, erroneously, that there exists anything like a schism among climate scientists with regard to whether or not climate change is real. (What does exist is a statistically insignificant smattering of doubting scientists who owe their fame and financing to politically conservative backers. There's a word for these scientists: "bought-and-paid-for outliers." But climate-change skeptics in the lay world would have you believe that there are enough of them to constitute a legitimate, albeit squelched, counter-movement. There are not.) Huntsman backed up his performance on the dog-whistle by adding some ominous-sounding violins, repeating the oft-heard theme that "there are questions about the validity of the science, evidenced by one university over in Scotland recently."

The reference -- a mistaken one, by the way, since the university in question is, in fact, in England rather than Scotland -- is to a favorite conspiracy theory shared by skeptics. E-mails that a hacker obtained by breaking into the computer system at East Anglia University supposedly "proved" that climate scientists were engaging in a massive cover-up of data that contradicted the climate-change orthodoxy. In fact, careful scrutiny of the same e-mails by politically disinterested parties showed that the scientists who were sending and receiving them were just doing what scientists do all the time: arguing over the precise meaning of the data, and even some of the methodology by which some of the data had been accumulated. But what they were not arguing over -- and this bears repeating -- were the ultimate conclusions. Skeptics manufactured the controversy, which relied on the fact that most people wouldn't understand this distinction. (Huntsman came somewhat late to the ignorance party -- but now he's here, and he's ready to get his buzz on, apparently.)

In that same late-summer Tweet that he's now trying to live down, Jon Huntsman -- call him crazy! -- proclaimed his belief in evolution. Let's see how he's evolved, then. As governor of Utah, he supported cap-and-trade and unequivocally called on government to take the steps to reduce man-made global warming. (When you stop to consider that Utah has almost no industry to speak of, but does have a lot of really pretty natural scenery and a cultural tropism towards outdoorsy activity, this position doesn't seem like such a radical one for a Republican governor to take.) Then, upon entering the presidential race in the guise of a "different, smarter" brand of GOP candidate, he said he believed that man-made climate change was real, but that the problem was too large and intractable for the federal government to do anything about by itself. Not the kind of rare, bloody red meat that ideologues love to dine on, but still: a logically defensible position that was probably within the circumscribed boundary of conservative acceptability.

And now? After months of getting no traction whatsoever, he sees the slimmest of openings. But he knows he can't win with logically defensible, nuanced positions. And so Huntsman's evolution from proud free-thinker to fearful parrot is progressing very nicely, thank you. He has finally learned how important it is to give the Heritage Foundation's Ministers of Truth exactly what they want to hear. He may refuse to kiss The Donald's ring, but he will happily kiss the scraped knuckles of the troglodytic right wing. It'll be all right, everything will be all right, the struggle is almost finished. He is winning the victory over himself. He -- almost -- loves Big Brother.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Newt Gingrich And The GOP's Mike Tyson Problem

Now that we've all had a few days to absorb the idea of Newt Gingrich as the GOP's nominee, and with it the idea -- much, much less likely -- of Newt Gingrich as the president of the United States of America, it may be worth looking around and taking the political temperature, as it were. As of this writing, Newt Gingrich would appear to be very hot indeed. He's now leading polls in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, by comfortable margins; at the same time he has managed to erode, rather significantly, Mitt Romney's 30-point lead in New Hampshire, cutting it down by more than half. Barring some sort of late-breaking scandal or embarrassing episode (neither of which is beyond possibility, given the man's history), it looks like he will win most of these contests handily. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that rank-and-file GOP voters have not only agreed to give Newt Gingrich a second look after his campaign's unimpressive launch, they've actually come to like his pedantic, abrasively self-assured manner. To them it's not a liability; it denotes exactly the kind of confident swagger that will be required to beat the confident, swaggering Obama come November.

Democrats are over the moon. Barney Frank says he doesn't know what he's done in this life to deserve the good fortune of a Gingrich nomination. Pelosi smilingly concurs and suggests that she has, socked away in her filing cabinet somewhere, thousands of pages of presumably rich, fertile oppo dirt on Gingrich -- all of it dating from the good old days of his Congressional reprimand and subsequent resignation -- which she just can't wait to pull out and hand-deliver to David Axelrod; indeed, she seems almost afraid to say anything bad about Gingrich right now, for fear of jinxing it. Meanwhile, Gingrich's fellow conservatives are in one of two camps: the openly critical and the press-shy. George Will excoriates, Tom Coburn publicly repeats his no-confidence vote, the right-libertarian magazine Reason details his appalling civil-liberties position. Politico is doing long stories about how all the conservatives who once had to serve alongside Gingrich in Congress and still really, really hate him (Dick Armey and Lindsey Graham among them) are "holding their tongues" for now.

So what does it mean for a Republican presidential candidate when (a) prominent Democrats are eagerly hoping he'll be the nominee, (b) he can't even get the conservative media to say nice things about him and (c) his former colleagues either trash him or refuse to answer questions? I think it says this: The people who know how this game is played know that Newt can't win it. The people who don't know how this game is played think that maybe he can. And the disconnect between the two groups -- what we might refer to as the Newt Gingrich Heat Index, the difference between his perceived potency and his actual potency -- is widening, not shrinking, as the clock ticks and voters grow more desperate.

What's fascinating to me is the barely concealed contempt that's at at the heart of this disconnect between the establishment and the rank and file. The message from above is: "Gingrich is a tyrant and an egomaniac who'll turn off moderate independents with his combination of pedantry and grandiosity. He's nasty, ill-tempered and vindictive." The message from below is: "That sounds pretty good to us right now. How are we going to beat Obama with anything less?" These voters are envisioning the general election debates as boxing matches, with Obama as Holyfield and Gingrich as Tyson. They don't see Gingrich's vituperativeness and mercurial temper as flaws. They want excitement, violence, surprise, blood. He's promising to give them all those things, and more.

Will he melt down? Will he abruptly divorce Calista and make Robin Givens wife number four? Will he bite off Obama's ear at a Newseum debate, and then run out and get one of those cool Maori face tattoos? Count me among those Democrats who are rooting for Newt. He has about as much chance at winning the presidency as Mike Tyson does, but he and his bloodthirsty backers have the power to make 2012 the most enjoyable election year in modern history.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Snake Video!

From the 1944 movie "Cobra Woman," starring Maria Montez in a dual role as ingenue/villainess twin sisters on a tropical island where snakes are worshiped and nosy visitors are tossed into the volcano to appease the angry cobra-god. This is Montez's famous "Cobra Dance" -- which absolutely, positively blew our minds when L. and I saw it on the big screen in Hollywood, at the Egyptian (I think) about a dozen years ago.

The underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger once called "Cobra Woman" his favorite movie of all time.

Fast forward to 2:30 to watch Montez shimmy her way into your psyche, forever. You won't be able to un-see this, once you've seen it. And you won't want to. Best. Snake. Dance. Ever.


The Romney-Bot, Pre-Programmed For Opportunism

Robert Draper's profile of Mitt Romney in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine is must-reading for anyone who wants to understand what makes the nominee tick (title: "Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot"). I imagine the Gingrich and Obama campaign teams will be especially drawn to paragraphs like this one:

Squaring such sentiments with the Mitt Romney who won the Michigan primary in January 2008 is more vexing. More than one adviser told me that Michigan was where Romney “found his voice” — an odd claim, given the widespread view at the time that the primary featured Mitt Romney at his most pandering. While the front-runner, McCain, delivered “straight talk” that some industries in Michigan were unlikely to be rejuvenated and that worker retraining was the more prudent course than trying to “recreate the past” — an argument for creative destruction — Romney labeled his opponent a defeatist and sunnily pledged “to fight for every single job.” (Ten months later, Romney returned to his Bain mind-set and wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times titled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”)

I actually remember reading that Times Op-Ed; at the time I thought: "Huh. That's not what I would have expected from someone so closely linked to the state of Michigan and the auto industry. That really took some guts to write!"

Suffice it to say I was unaware of the spat between McCain and Romney that had occurred less than a year earlier, when Romney had bitterly attacked his rival for the GOP nomination for expressing almost exactly the same ideas.

Seriously, is there any better summary of Mitt Romney's huge, seemingly intractable credibility problem than this? His entire political philosophy can be summed up in one sentence: "Whatever my opponent thinks, I think the opposite." You see it in these debates, when he criticizes Obama on everything -- everything -- and then offers no alternative vision -- nothing -- as a follow-up to his critique. He's thinking: That should be enough, right? "I pledge to do the opposite of whatever Obama does!" Thank you, folks! Goodnight!

The Times editors got the title of Draper's article just right. Romney's a robot who prefers to stick with his pre-programmed settings than to share his actual thoughts, which might risk alienating some Republican voter, somewhere.

Maybe it really is the safest way to play it, though. The punch line to the story is that the Op-Ed Romney wrote for The New York Times was majestically, comically wrong in its forecast. He predicted that bailing out Detroit would be a dismal failure that would utterly destroy the American auto industry.

Um . . . not so much, as it turns out. Silly robot!

The Evangelical Conundrum

Loved this quote from the otherwise completely unlovable Robert Jeffress, the lead pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, taken from Dave Weigel's Slate story on the relationship between Newt and evangelicals.
“Do you vote for a Mormon who's had one wife, a Catholic who's had three wives, or an Evangelical who may have had an entire harem?”
Hey-O! Does the drummer in the house "worship band" at First Baptist do rim shots?

You may remember Jeffress as the pastor who
warned his fellow Christians back in 2007 that Mitt Romney was most definitely not one of them, and that the Mormon faith Romney espoused was really nothing more than a "cult." His church -- the biggest and most venerable house of worship in the city of Dallas -- actually has a long history of blending right-wing politics with religious bigotry, and spewing out the bilious mixture at parishioners from the pulpit. Back when JFK was running for president, pastor W.A. Criswell delivered a blistering sermon denouncing Kennedy as a tool of the papacy, and predicted that the election of this Catholic -- or any Catholic, for that matter -- would spell nothing less than the end of religious liberty in America. (Folks who are interested in this ugly bit of Dallas history will get to read more about it, I hope, in my novel. More on that soon...)