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Presidential Material

Jon Stewart and the Burden of History

He’s not so funny anymore, and it’s not only because he’s come to take himself seriously. It’s because in the Obama era, we’re starting to see the price of refusing to stand for anything.

By Tom Junod, Esquire Magazine, October 2011

Jon Stewart

Tim O’Brien

Published in the October 2011 issue, on sale any day now

They gather under the tall Jon Stewart. They gather under the Jon Stewart who takes up the whole side of a building on Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan and is about three stories high. They gather under the Jon Stewart who has his hands clasped, his chin lifted, his eyes narrowed, his lips drawn in a tight line. They gather under the Jon Stewart who is professionally skeptical and won’t take any bullshit. They gather under the Jon Stewart who is imitating a self-serious news anchor and who, while imitating a self-serious news anchor, has this message: “For Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, go one block down and take a right.” They gather under the Jon Stewart who is funny and who, with his dark backswept hair set off by graying temples, is a few years younger than the Jon Stewart of today.

They are mostly young themselves, college kids who sit on the sweltering summer sidewalk when they’re not pressed against the stanchions that have been set up to organize ticket holders waiting to see The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. They are not all young, however, and the oldest among them seem genuinely surprised when this gavone in a black Daily Show T-shirt comes out to the sidewalk and begins, like, yelling at them — when he tells them they’ll have to submit to a TSA-like screening before they go inside, that if they get caught using their cell phones, their cell phones will be taken away, and that they won’t be able to use the bathroom once they’re in the studio. “I guess they have to screen for conservatives,” says one guy who’s come all the way from California, trim and gray-haired, wearing a T-shirt and chinos.

“But conservatives are so much better at taking orders than we are,” says his wife, before changing her mind in light of the impasse over the debt ceiling. “Well, some of them. I wish the ones in Congress were better at it…”

In fact, everybody on line is accomplished at taking orders and being civilized and compliant. They understand that somebody who takes the stands that Jon Stewart takes — who, in the words of the gray-haired guy, “is not afraid to piss people off, especially powerful people” — needs tight security. They are quiet and docile as they are corralled into manageable little groups, which is why it’s weird that they keep getting hectored about their cell phones and their bladders until the studio doors finally open and a thick-necked woman with short hair and big red-framed eyeglasses that look like a souvenir from her work as an extra with The Rocky Horror Picture Showemerges with one last warning. “All right,” she says, “this is a comedy show, so we want to keep it light. But if we catch you fucking up, we will take your shit. All right? If we catch you using your cell phones, we will take them away. This is private property. So if we catch you taking a picture of the studio, even on the way out, we will take your camera and delete your photos. Got that? All right, now go in and have a great time…”

And they do, they do. They file in very quietly, into the pulsating blue studio that’s a reasonable facsimile of the studios over at Fox News, and nobody says how strange it is that the spiel you hear before you’re allowed to see Jon Stewart just happens to be exactly the same spiel you hear before you’re allowed to walk through the barbed-wire gates of —

Well, Gitmo.

Jon Stewart The Daily Show

Ethan Miller/Comedy Central/Getty Images

Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are happy to have as our guest Jon Stewart. We all know Jon — he’s the comedian and media critic who for the last ten years has pretty much decided who’s a dick and who’s a douchebag in our politics and in our culture, all without ever himself coming across as a dick or a d —

Wait a second (hand to imaginary earpiece) — excuse me, folks. What’s that? What about the Chris Wallace interview?

Well, what about it? Okay, so a few months ago, Stewart went to Fox News and gave an interview to the Fredo of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Chris Wallace. Of course he did. That’s why we love him — that’s why he’s been able to transform himself from late-night comedian to liberal conscience. He does what nobody else does. He goes into the lion’s den and does that thing — that Jon Stewart truth-to-power thing. He manages to be the voice of reason while still being funny, manages to be sharply critical while still being affable, manages to be…

Wait. He wasn’t funny? He wasn’t affable? He kind of spoke power to truth when Wallace dared to point out that Stewart seems to crave political influence? He sort of pulled rank on Wallace, and was smug and condescending without bothering to be funny at all? He even started saying, “Are you suggesting that you and I are the same?…” in the same tone he would have used if Wallace had gotten a little schmutz on Stewart’s shirt?

O-kay. Well, Stewart had his reasons, I’m sure. After all, he’s really not the same as Wallace, is he? I mean, Stewart’s the coolest guy in the room, any room, by definition, while Chris Wallace wouldn’t look cool next to the guys in hats riding little cars at a Shriner’s Convention. He’s the very embodiment of the self-important yet dim-witted — or is that dim-witted yet self-important? — media creature whom Stewart has made a living schooling over the last tumultuous decade. So if Jon Stewart can’t be smug and contemptuous and superior with Chris Wallace, who can he be smug and contemptuous and superior with? It’s not like he came right out and said he’s betterthan Chris Wallace…

Oh. Wait. He sorta did? He said, “What I do is much harder than what you do”? But just last year didn’t he tell Rachel Maddow that what he did was less honorable than what she did? Ah, well, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little talk-show hosts. It’s not like he started comparing himself to, like, Mark Twain or someone like that…

No! He did that too? He actually asked Wallace, “What am I at my highest aspiration? Who am I? Am I Edward R. Murrow or Mark Twain?” And then he told Wallace: “I’ve existed in this country forever. There have been people like me who have satirized the political process… I’ve existed forever. The box that I exist in has always been around.”

Come on! He did not say that! He’s Jon Stewart, for God’s sake. And Jon Stewart did not go onFox News Sunday and say that He Is Music, and He Writes the Songs…

He was pretty damned smart. He was pretty damned funny. And in the wake of 9/11 he did something amazing: He taught America how to make jokes — hell, how to laugh, even with a mass grave still smoldering in downtown New York and America just beginning to embark on the series of insanely unexamined moral misadventures that persist to this day. He’d taken over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn in 1999, and by 2004 the language he crafted night after night with correspondents like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert — the language of “fake news” and “truthiness” — had become strangely reassuring, especially to a generation that got its news from TV fearmongers and Internet hysterics rather than from the responsible drudges and drones of daily newspapers. Kids who couldn’t sleep at night worrying that their president was a bad guyand that their country was doing bad things could now rest easy knowing that their president was just a dick, and that their country, while stupid, was still essentially innocent. It was like you could get upset about what was going on but still live your life, because there was Jon Stewart right before bedtime, showing you how to get upset entertainingly, how to give a shit without having to do anything about it. He denied having a message — admitting to a “point of view” but not an “agenda” — but of course he did, and it was this: that life goes on, and that politics may change but stupid always stays the same. He had a great long-suffering mug that could have gotten laughs in silent movies, but underneath the sad eyes with the dark circles he was an optimist, and by saying incessantly that he was just a comedian, that he was just trying to make people laugh, he was giving not just himself but also his audience exactly what they needed most: anout.

But now let’s roll the clip of him on Crossfire in 2004. No, not that one — not the one everybody’s seen already, of him calling bow-tied conservative cohost Tucker Carlson a dick. The clip that we want is the clip of him before the show, talking to the guy who’s ostensibly on his side, the liberal in the old Crossfire equation, Paul Begala. Stewart was in the makeup room. (“You don’t want to see him without makeup,” says one of his former employees. “He’s not just sallow, he’s the color of a manhole cover.”) Begala dropped by for a little ice-breaking, and also “because Stewart had done something for the troops and I wanted to thank him,” Begala says now. “And I remember thinking: He’s really nervous. And it struck me as kind of weird, because he was the host of his own show, and was much more experienced at this kind of thing than I was.”

What Begala didn’t know, of course, was that Stewart was nervous in the way that Michael Corleone was nervous when he walked out of the bathroom of the Italian restaurant with more than his dick in his hand. He’s a great reflexive comic who’s made his living reacting — or appearing to react while scripting his reactions — on The Daily Show, but on this day, he, Jon Stewart, had Something to Say. “I thought he was going to push his clever book that had just come out,” Begala says. “But he wanted to be more serious. He came out and started tearing into us. It was funny and pointed, and it was great TV before the whole thing got derailed and the name-calling started.”

We’ve all seen the clip a few million times… Well, millions of us have seen it a few times, making the video of Jon Stewart’s guest appearance on CNN’s Crossfire one of the most transmittedvideos of all time — indeed, one of the inspirations behind the creation of YouTube. And so we’re all familiar with some of the greatest hits: Stewart calling Begala and Carlson … [pause] partisan hacks, Stewart telling Begala and Carlson that they’re…[pause] hurting the country, Stewart pleading with Begala and Carlson to … [pause] please stop. Was he kidding? No, he was not — as Carlson remembers, he was “totally sincere, and in full flower.” And that’s what makes it funny, at least at first, until Carlson, flinching and desperate, with his voice an octave higher than when he started, says, “I thought you were going to be funny,” and Stewart looks at him with dead, we’re-all-part-of-the-same-hypocrisy eyes and says, “No. I’m not going to be your monkey.”

So there it is: No jokes for you. And the crowd erupts, thinking that he’s made the ultimate sacrifice — for them.

Jon Stewart

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Now look at him. It’s seven years later, and he’s aged like a president. He’s been graying for years, but now he’s gone gray, and a transformation seems to have taken place. He’s forty-eight years old. He has a wife and two young kids whose lives he worries about missing because he stays so late and works so hard. Last year, when he did that thing, that Jon Stewart thing, thatrally in Washington, D. C., he looked like he was starting to, like, fill out — his suit looked a little small on him as he made his big valedictory speech — but now he’s gaunt, and his face is sort of bladelike, collecting itself around the charcoal axis of his eyes, nose, and mouth. Still, he’s jacked. The whole studio is. You don’t have any choice at The Daily Show. For one thing, the music gets louder and louder as you wait before finally reminding you where Stewart’s from with a climactic rendition of Born to Run. For another, there’s a tummler, a warm-up guy who bounds around telling you that you might laugh to yourself while watching Jon Stewart at home, you might smile and chuckle at the aperçus, you might silently congratulate yourself for getting the jokes, but you’re not at home anymore, and here you have a responsibility — you’re the laugh track. “Do you want to be on TV! Do you want to meet Jon Stewart! Then you better get loud…”

And now here he is. The man did stand-up for years, and in the studio you can actually see it on him, because whereas on television he clings to his desk like it’s an iron lung (former writers say that you know a bit is doomed if it requires him to get up from behind it), here he actually stands up and goes out to the audience to answer questions. And he’s a kibitzer — it’s not Plato’sSymposium, folks. The first question is “What’s your daily routine?” and Stewart answers as he’s been answering since Destiny’s Child was together: “Jazzercise.” The second question is “Which one of the animals on my T-shirt would you like to be?” and Stewart responds with a question of his own: “Is there a correct answer to that?” And even when a young woman with short hair and glasses and a faded cause on her T-shirt asks if “our greatest media critic” has actually had an impact on the way the media does business, he instantaneously cocks his chin, sucks in his cheeks, and narrows his eyes until he looks like a wizened version of the man whose image is emblazoned on the wall outside; then he deepens his voice confidentially and says, “Well, look who’s carrying the NPR tote bag.” Of course, he denies having an impact — “the satirist depends on shame, and everyone knows that our culture has become shameless” — but when somebody calls out, “But you killed Crossfire!” he says, “No, I didn’t. Crossfire was already dead…”

And there it is again, that denial of power upon which his power depends. It’s strange, isn’t it: One of the fastest and most instinctive wits in America feeling it necessary to go on explaining himself again and again; a man who lives to clarify resorting to loophole; the irrepressible truth-teller insisting on something that not one person of the two hundred watching his show in the studio — never mind the millions who will watch on television — can possibly believe.

Jon Stewart

(Obama) Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images; (O’Reilly) Peter Kramer/AP Photo

He is only one man, after all. It may even be said — if we may say so — that he is just a man. May we? We may, because that’s how Stewart likes it. But we all know that some men become more than men by how they respond to their times. Such a man is Jon Stewart. He has stepped up. He might have started out as a great comedian, but when he saw that the times were no laughing matter, he became also a great man. He transformed himself, and so was himself transformed. Even as the media and politicians he mocked so relentlessly lost their moral compass, he found his. He saw wrong and tried to right it; saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw war and tried to stop it; saw his old friend Anthony Weiner’s penis and tried to make jokes about it…

Sorry. It’s just that when you’re talking about Jon Stewart, you’re never just talking about Jon Stewart. You’re invoking the Jon Stewart narrative — the collective fantasy about Jon Stewart — and it leads to all sorts of inappropriate historical comparisons. You can even play the Jon Stewart Game, in which you start telling his story and see how long it takes you to compare him to someone he should feel really uncomfortable being compared to. See, he really is just a man, and a man from New Jersey at that. The township he’s from, Lawrence, is right between Princeton and Trenton — right at the intersection of smart and tough. He’s always been a ballsy little guy, with a feeling for the little guy. Before he started doing stand-up, he used to tend bar at a joint with a steel door and no windows, in the back of a liquor store on the Trenton side; you see that place, you know that here’s a guy used to living by his wits. So he moved to New York — where else is a guy like that gonna go? Now he’s a real New Yorker, which means he doesn’t take any bullshit and at the same time bullshit doesn’t bother him, depending on the circumstance. But when Congress started jacking those 9/11 first responders around, stalling on the bill that promised them benefits: That bothered him. So he found his opportunity and took his shot, started telling preposterous old biddies like Mitch McConnell to just pass the fucking thing. And they passed it, last December. And you know what he got in return, from all the grateful firemen in New York? A birthday party for one of his kids in the firehouse in his neighborhood in New York, with a birthday cake in the shape of a fire truck. And you know what else he got? A story in The New York Times that compared him to Edward R. Murrow…

See? It never takes long, when you play the Jon Stewart Game. But hey, it’s not his fault. He saw the Edward R. Murrow thing in the Times, was smart enough to say “What the…?” He made sure to remind us that he’s a comedian, for crying out loud. He makes funny faces and fart jokes. But here’s the thing: When he protests that he’s a comedian, he’s not escaping from the collective fantasy. He’s feeding it. The collective fantasy, you see, is not just about Jon Stewart, it’s about America, especially liberal America, and its need for redeemers to rise out of its ranks. Jon Stewart’s just a comedian the way gunslingers in old westerns are really peaceable sodbusters who hate all that bloodshed and all that killin’ but finally have to strap on them six-guns and march on into town. Heck, he’d go back to telling jokes if he could, but he can’t, not with hired guns like Tucker Carlson and Jim Cramer around…

Stewart interviewed Cramer in 2009, a few months after the financial collapse that the bellicose CNBC swami claimed never to have seen coming. Stewart found footage of him encouraging the very kinds of manipulation and cynical double-dealing blamed for the crisis, and showed it to him. The resulting interview was as pivotal to Stewart’s rise to the position of national conscience as his beatdown of Carlson and Begala on Crossfire, but it made Stewart and some of his writers uncomfortable, because once again they were being praised for the wrong things. He was and is uneasy with the interviews on The Daily Show, anyway — he can’t control them like he can control the comedy, and a grand jury watching them would definitely have enough evidence to indict him on charges of journalism. But the Cramer interview led his audiences to expect blood, when that’s not what he’s about, dammit. He didn’t have anything against Cramer, but Cramer tried to submitto Stewart, and his submission only elicited a coliseum roar from the studio audience. The interview ended with Cramer curled up like a guy who just didn’t want to get Tasered again.

Because Stewart was out to make the poor bastard recant. He said, “Maybe we could remove the ‘financial expert’ and ‘In Cramer We Trust’ [from Cramer’s promo] … and I could go back to making fart noises and funny faces.” Cramer was unable to bleat out anything more than a weirdly grateful “Okay!” He even offered Stewart his hand. But my Bubbe has a colorful expression for what Stewart was offering, and it’s this:


Stewart isn’t just being a bully here. He is being disingenuous, and he knows it. Worse, he’s tapping into the collective fantasy without knowing it. He’s the gunslinger saying he’s going back to the farm while at the same time putting notches in his belt. More precisely, he’s the presumptive Edward R. Murrow saying that he’ll go back to comedy once he cleans up journalism. But he can’t go back. He can’t go back to the pleasures of fart jokes and funny faces — the pleasures of comedy — because he’s experienced the higher pleasure of preaching to weirdly defenseless stiffs like Jim Cramer. He’s saying once again that he’s outgrown comedy and is no longer a comedian. But he’s not saying what he actually is, because then he’d be judged. And Jon Stewart, to a degree unique in the culture, exists outside the realm of judgment.

Jon Stewart

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Was Jon Stewart being a dick when he was subjecting Jim Cramer to enhanced interrogation? Sure he was. He was also being a dick when he called Tucker Carlson a dick, and when he was preaching to Chris Wallace. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. What matters is that even when Stewart’s a dick, he is never the dick. It is Stewart’s unique talent for coming across as decent and well-meaning when he’s bullying and hectoring and self-righteous. And this is because his talent is not just for comedy and not just for media criticism or truth-telling; it’s for being — for remaining — likable.

Now, you have to understand Jon Stewart is just like everybody else: He can be a dick. His father took off when he was a kid, leaving a hole in his heart approximately the old man’s shoe size. He’s damaged and is capable of doing damage in return, especially in close quarters. There are plenty of Daily Show staffers, present and former, who love and revere their boss for his difficult brilliance. There are also plenty — mostly on the former side — who have been, well, fucked up by him and his need to dominate. When he arrived at The Daily Show in 1999, its humor was goofy and improvisational, based on the interplay between the fake-news host and the fake-news correspondents and dependent on whimsy and happenstance. But Stewart knew what he wanted right away, and it wasn’t that. He wanted the show to be more competitive, almost in a news-gathering sense, and he wanted it to have a point of view, which happened to be his own. There are writers and producers from the first five years of the show, both male and female, who are described as “battered wives”; hell, there are people who used to work for him who are scared to talk about him because they’re scared of not being able to work again. And before he pushed out the show’s cocreator, he notoriously threw a newspaper at her in a story meeting and then, according to a staffer, apologized to her later with the words “Sorry, that was the bad Jon — I try not to let him out…”

We don’t have the clip for that. And that’s because it’s not the point — not of Jon Stewart, and certainly not of his comedy. The point of Stewart’s comedy, even before it became political, was that it was the comedy of a smart-ass from Jersey who knows he can be a dick but who is striving for decency, even when he’s being funny … or, hell, by being funny. “The genius of Jon’s comedy is its vulnerability,” says Wendy Liebman, the comic who opened for Stewart right before he started doing his first talk show at MTV in 1993. “He lets you in. And so you wind up empowering him so that he can empower you.” He has always been able to get the audience on his side. Sure, there’s a bad Jon. He’s human, ain’t he? But he’s also a guy who’s very clearly trying to do the right thing, who’s trying to live up to the best iteration of himself, who wants to be more or less what he’s become. He’s a child of divorce who’s become a devoted husband, a doting dad, and a slave to two pit bulls. He’s a vulnerable guy who’s become amazingly …

Invulnerable. Unassailable. Unimpeachable. The most sacred of liberalism’s sacred cows. The man whom a certain percentage of the country doesn’t just agree with but agrees on, more than they agree on anything, more than they agree on health care or President Obama. He protests, often, that he “doesn’t have a constituency”; what he does have, though, is a consensus, a presumption of unanimity anytime he walks into a room, unless that room is the greenroom at Fox News. Bill Maher is an atheist; Jon Stewart is a humanist, and by his humanism he’s become the strangest of things, the influential comedian, the admired comedian, the eminent comedian, the comedian who feels it necessary, always, to disavow his power. He’s been saying for ten years that he’s just a guy in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs; but he never gets spitballs thrown at him in return. He mocks without being mocked; he parodies without being parodied. It’s not that he can’t be; there are guys on Jon Stewart’s staff who do a wicked Jon Stewart. But in all the years he’s been doing The Daily Show — in all the years he’s been scribbling on that notepad, closing that mouth around his fist in spasms of mock feeling, and emitting that Olympian whinny — he’s never been parodied on Saturday Night Live. Why? Because according to Jim Downey, the longtime SNL writer who last year wrote the great Keith Olbermann parody for Ben Affleck, “you can only parody comedians when they’re not funny. Jon’s funny. Plus, we all like him.”

And there it is: Funny! Likable! Smart! And therefore the one indispensable figure of the cultural and political Left, the love child of the Boss and Tina Fey. Like a lot of other comedians, he makes a living making fun of people; unlike a lot of others, if he makes fun of you … well, you should be so lucky that such a nice man as Jon Stewart is making fun of you. And so when he made fun of Willie Geist on Morning Joe — a great bit that focused on Geist’s face while Mark Halperin was apologizing for calling the president “a dick” — Geist had no choice but to call the mockery “brilliant.” “You just have to throw up your hands and go with it,” Geist says. “You definitely don’t want to trade with him.”

And if you do? Well, he made fun of Rick Sanchez, the erstwhile CNN anchor, so relentlessly that Sanchez, he just couldn’t take it no more. He called Stewart “a bigot” in an interview, and when the interviewer reminded him that Stewart is Jewish, said, “Very powerless people. He’s such a minority…” He got fired the next day. But here’s the thing: Sanchez, in an e-mail, says that Stewart called him and said, “Sanchez, I made fun of you because you’re the one I liked.” And then in his speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, Stewart made sure to say that Sanchez was a victim not of himself or of, well, Jon Stewart, but of the media’s insatiable need for conflict. So in his e-mail Sanchez wrote this: “I think Jon Stewart is misunderstood by a lot of people, and I say that as someone who misunderstood him myself. There aren’t two Jon Stewarts. There isn’t a ‘real’ Jon Stewart and another hiding behind comedy… It’s all the same person. It’s all Jon Stewart. And it’s all real…If anything, Jon is consistent. He’s an equal-opportunity omedian and satirist who has a simple, unified message and focus: He is opposed to extremes. He’s opposed to the extremes that exist in our political system, culture, and discourse. He’s opposed to extreme positions, statements, and policies. He’s opposed to extreme politicians and pundits…”

With all due respect: Rick Sanchez was destroyed by Jon Stewart. He just got his comeback gigdoing color commentary for the football team at Florida International University. He lost his job and his career. He doesn’t have to say that he’s the dick and express his gratitude to Stewart for reeducating him. He’d even be forgiven for being pissed off. But he’s bigger than that, because Stewart’s bigger than that — because Jon Stewart is a good man trying to be better…no, a good man trying to be better by making us all better.

“When I tell people that I used to work for Jon, the thing they ask, all the time, is ‘Oh, is he nice?'” says Stacey Grenrock Woods, a former Daily Show correspondent who is now Esquire’s venerable sex columnist. “Now, I would never think of Jon Stewart as ‘nice.’ He’s a comedian, and comedians aren’t always particularly nice people. But these people look so hopeful, and it’s obviously really important to them. So I always say, ‘Yes, he’s very nice.’ And they always say, ‘Oh, thank God. I don’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t.’ ”

Jon Stewart

Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/AP Images

Of course, he doesparody himself sometimes. Last year, with Rachel Maddow, he even parodied himself parodying himself. It was pretty brilliant — Stewart and Maddow against a black background, in solemn imitation of Stewart’s own appearance with Charlie Rose…

Wait a second. Run that clip again. You mean … that wasn’t self-parody? You mean even when he made gentle fun of himself for being pompous, he really was being pompous, like a fighter who starts shaking his head right after he gets tagged, thereby proving that he is what he says he’s not? You mean he wasn’t even kidding around when he explained the Rally to Restore Sanity to Maddow by saying that “in twelve years, I’d earned a moment to tell people who I was”…?

Okay, then: He’s being sincere. But what is he saying here? How has he earned his moment? And why does he want it? He’s always gotten pissed off when people say he’s “just” a comedian and that he “just” tells jokes; they never say that musicians “just” sing songs or that writers “just” write stories. They’re not just jokes; they’re him, and that’s what has made The Daily Showmatter. That’s what has made Jon Stewart matter. So why does he suddenly feel the need to reveal the “real” Jon Stewart so acutely that he organizes a rally in Washington, D. C., for that very purpose?

Because make no mistake: That’s why the Rally to Restore Sanity took place. Sure, it was an answer to the rally that Stewart’s right-wing counterpart Glenn Beck organized on the Mall two months earlier just as surely as “Sweet Home Alabama” was an answer to “Southern Man.” And sure, it was held on October 30, 2010, three days before the midterm elections that would decide whether we’d have a presidency or a lingering hostage crisis. And sure, two hundred thousand people showed up. So it had the appearance of a political rally, the appearance of an event that meant something. And it did, it did — to Jon Stewart.

He even gave a speech, as Jon Stewart. Not as Jon Stewart the comedian but as the Jon Stewart his viewers discern beneath the comedy; not as the Jon Stewart who can be mercilessly funny but as the Jon Stewart who looks like such a nice man. He had conceived of the Rally to Restore Sanity as an extension of The Daily Show — as a translation of The Daily Show into the form of “the rally,” in the same way that his books are a translation of The Daily Show into the form of “the book.” It would be another parody, but with the participation of a cheering throng wearing funny hats and carrying funny signs. It was supposed to be a joke … except that it didn’t feel like a joke on the day it happened. There were so many people, and they didn’t “believe” in him in a high-concept way — they believed in him in the same way that Beck’s multitudes believed in Beck. They wanted something from him. For years, he had clung to what he calls the “text” of The Daily Show — the rigorous maintenance of “false authority.” Well, now they wanted the subtext. They wanted the authority he exercised to be genuine. They wanted to give him exactly what he thought he’d earned — his moment

And so he took it. He even changed clothes. All day long, he’d worn a sweatshirt and a red-white-and-blue warm-up jacket emblazoned with stars and stripes. Now he put on a suit and a tie and stepped out of — and forever into — the collective fantasy. You see, it was all true. He wasn’t “patriotic”; he was patriotic. He wasn’t “serious”; he was serious — indeed, a comedian whose biggest moments were all serious, from the speech he gave after 9/11 to his appearance onCrossfire to his interview with Jim Cramer. He was also smart. He was also sincere. And most important, he was nice. He didn’t make fun of Rick Sanchez; he said that Rick Sanchez had been victimized by the media’s need for constant conflict. He didn’t attack Republicans for their extremism; he said that both parties were equally to blame. And he articulated a conciliatory vision of America rooted in his experience as a Jersey boy who grew up to be a New York man — a vision of America rooted in his experience of watching four lanes of traffic winnowed into two at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The cars have to take turns, he said — “one from the left, one from the right, concession by concession, ‘You go, then I’ll go, you go, then I’ll go’ … and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.”

Did he do what he wanted to do? Did he come out and say who he really was? You’re damn right he did — he was like a guy at a karaoke bar singing that Goo Goo Dolls song on his girlfriend’s birthday. That’s why he was giddy afterward, at the press conference he gave with the rally’s cohost, Stephen Colbert. And that’s why he was so surprised when Christiane Amanpour asked if he and Colbert “accept” the notion that they were now “players in our civil society.” Players? Didn’t she get it? Didn’t anyone? Three days before a crucial election, Jon Stewart had stood in America’s most symbolic public space and given a speech to two hundred thousand people. The speech wasn’t about his need to be a player or his need for power or his need for influence. It wasn’t about getting out the vote or telling people to vote in a certain way. It was about Jon Stewart — about his need for another kind of out. For years, his out had been his comedy. Now it was his sincerity — his evenhandedness, his ability to rise above politics, his goodness. And three days later, when the side he didn’t even say was his side was routed in the midterms, he pretty much proved his point. He was no player. He had no political power. He’d proven he was beyond all that by presiding over the biggest celebration of political powerlessness in American history.

Jon Stewart

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“Welcome to The Daily Show. Good show tonight… Our guest tonight is NPR’s Juan Williams… [hand to imaginary earpiece] Really? He’s not there anymore? Well, I’ll definitely ask him about that…”

Oh, well: another night, another show about Fox News. It’s been like that, over at The Daily Show, ever since Obama was elected. Stewart just doesn’t have the material he used to have when George W. Bush was in power, nor the nightly foil. (Audience members still ask him to “do Bush” during the introductory Q&A.) He’s been accused of making halfhearted jokes about Obama in an attempt to keep the show ideologically balanced, but that’s not the problem, not really; the problem is that Democrats, with their perpetual disarray, are not as funny as Republicans, with their reality-bending unity, and that Stewart is left to nurse what is probably the most potent comedy killer of all: disappointment. According to one former writer, the creative atmosphere at The Daily Showhas gotten “doomier” since it became clear that Obama wasn’t going to fulfill his promise — and that Jon Stewart was not in a position either to help or to savage him. “You can see the strain in his interviews,” the writer says. “It used to be, ‘Hey, we’re a comedy show.’ Now it’s, ‘What we do is so hard.’ And it is hard. One of the reasons I finally left is that we were running out of targets. I was like, ‘Do we really want to make fun of Fox & Friends again? Really?'”

Indeed, there are days when Stewart himself says, “No Fox today — let’s go after a more elusive target.” But then, Fox is always there, and Stewart has formed a symbiotic relationship with it. He goes on O’Reilly’s show, O’Reilly goes on his; he devotes a broadcast to a parody of Beck’s farewell from Fox, Beck complains on his last show that Stewart is only funny because he employs so many writers. In fact, Stewart gives Fox’s hosts something to complain about — confirmation that the media is “biased” and the game rigged against them — but Fox gives Stewart a reason to exist, and he’s been obsessed with Roger Ailes ever since he went to O’Reilly’s studio and was summoned into Ailes’s office. He stayed an hour and came out a freaked-out admirer, like the crazy newscaster in Network once Ned Beatty got through with him. It wasn’t just that Ailes asked him, right off the bat, “How are your kids?” and then berated him for hating conservatives; it wasn’t even that both men are intensely concerned about what people think of them and have no qualms about trying to influence how they’re portrayed. It’s that Ailes is all about power and so has accepted the obligation that Stewart has proudly refused. You want to know the difference between the Left and the Right in America? The Right has Roger Ailes, and the Left has Jon Stewart; the Right has an evil genius, while the Left contents itself with a genius of perceived non-evil.

And yet a man can dream, can’t he, and on the evening he has Juan Williams on his show, he does that thing again, that Jon Stewart thing, of saying who he really is, and what he really wants, and his vision for America. Oh, he takes a few stabs at comedy, but the debt-ceiling controversy is about as funny as a joke in Farsi, and by the time Williams comes out, Stewart is ready to do some talking about journalism. Williams is pushing a new book, Muzzled, about the experience of getting canned from NPR for saying that he was afraid of Muslims on Fox, and after Stewart makes another tote-bag joke and gently tries to get Williams to admit that Fox hired him at least in part to score points against NPR, there isn’t a lot of the surprise that Stewart both fears and prizes in his interviews … until he asks Williams to stay for a while after the show ends, so they can talk. Stewart, you see, has something he wants to talk about. More precisely, he has an idea, and he wants to run it by Juan Williams.

“If somebody wanted to start a twenty-four-hour news network that would focus on corruption and governance as opposed to the politics of it, do you think that that would have a chance to be successful and change the way debate occurs in the States? The same sort of relentlessness, energy, and passion that Fox pours into being the conservative counterweight — imagine that being poured toward better government or anticorruption… Boy, it would be an interesting thing to be: a Roger Ailes of veracity.”

Really. Straight up. No shit. That’s the vision and that’s the dream. And that’s where the Foxification of Jon Stewart comes to some weird alternate-universe fruition. In his mind, he’s always been the Roger Ailes of veracity, but on a dinky scale. He’d like to take it to a bigger one. Here’s a guy who goes to work in a building whose entrance has the words “Abandon News, All Ye Who Enter Here” inscribed on the lintel, who spends his waking hours criticizing journalists and at the same time rejecting journalistic responsibilities … and who dreams of being the president of a nonideological twenty-four-hour news network. It’s crazy and it’s touching, as even he must know, for no sooner does he allow himself to dream it than he hears a voice in his head whispering, “Stay in your lane, boy. Stay in your lane.” But he’s forty-eight years old, with a wife and two kids; his father left home when he was eleven and has apparently never attended any of his gigs as a comedian. He has always benefited from the collective fantasy. But the fantasy of being the Roger Ailes of veracity is not collective — it’s his and his alone.

He hasn’t really aged like a president. He’s aged like the president. They are close to the same age — they are both terminal baby boomers whose identification with their generation consists of listening to old-school music and remembering when basketball players wore really tight shorts and tube socks — and they both benefited from the same collective fantasy. They are both cool and smart, and they both gained moral authority by seeming to rise up in answer to our terrible times … and yet somehow they have both ended up as political figures who insist that they are above the troublesome fractiousness of politics. Jon Stewart likes President Obama personally but is disappointed in him. Well, who isn’t? Even Obama is disappointed with Obama. Indeed, it’s Stewart’s disappointment with Obama that solidifies his status as the Obama of comedy. He might not win his battles, he might not even fight them, but damn, he’s admired for his evenhandedness. And on the night he had Juan Williams as his guest, he told one joke about Obama for every joke he told about John Boehner, as if they were cars making their way into the Lincoln Tunnel.

Was he funny? Well, there is a sound that comedians know is always there, waiting for them. It’s not laughter. Nor is it the sound of booing or catcalls. It goes like this: Whooooo … and American audiences make it to signal not that they find a joke funny but that they get it and agree with it. Comedians fear it, because they know it’s easy to get. They know that it’s the end of something and the beginning of something else — the end of comedy and the beginning of “humor,” in which they get no more laughs but bask in the applause of the audiences whose prejudices they flatter.

Jon Stewart has made a career of avoiding “Whooo” humor. He has flattered the prejudices of his audience, but he has always been funny, and he has always made them laugh. At the Juan Williams taping, however, at least half of Stewart’s jokes elicited the sound of Whooo! instead of the sound of laughter. He’s been able to concentrate his comedy into a kind of shorthand — a pause, or a raised eyebrow, is often all that is necessary now — but a stranger not cued to laugh could be forgiven for not laughing, indeed for thinking that what was going on in front of him was not comedy at all but rather high-toned journalism with a sense of humor. Which might be how Jon Stewart wants it by now. But outside the building there’s still a giant version of him standing with clasped hands, and he looks ready to take the piss out of anyone, including the gray-haired man inside, talking seriously to a Fox News analyst about starting a network something like Fox, without the laughs.

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A Lying Rat

Obama is Coming to Cut Medicare

By: Jon Walker Firedoglake.com, September 9, 2011

I don’t want to be entirely cynical about President Obama’s jobs speech yesterday. Some of the ideas in his proposal, like the money to fix up old schools, are great. He is finally putting his rhetorical focus on the issue the American people actually wanted him to be talking all along. If the package Obama outlined last night was actually a compromise that Obama got the Republican Congressional leadership to agree to, I might even consider this fairly poorly designed plan a decent deal.

The problem, though, is that this jobs package isn’t going to pass Congress, so this speech wasn’t about policy, it was about messaging. From that perspective, the speech was very scary to me as a progressive, because in the middle of what should have been a speech about getting Americans back to work, Obama very publicly endorsed putting Medicare and Medicaid on the deficit-reduction chopping block. Most important, Obama signaled he supports reducing Medicare spending that “some in his party” won’t like. From Obama’s Speech:

This approach is basically the one I’ve been advocating for months.  In addition to the trillion dollars of spending cuts I’ve already signed into law, it’s a balanced plan that would reduce the deficit by making additional spending cuts, by making modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and by reforming our tax code in a way that asks the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.  (Applause.)  What’s more, the spending cuts wouldn’t happen so abruptly that they’d be a drag on our economy, or prevent us from helping small businesses and middle-class families get back on their feet right away.

Now, I realize there are some in my party who don’t think we should make any changes at all to Medicare and Medicaid, and I understand their concerns. But here’s the truth: Millions of Americans rely on Medicare in their retirement.  And millions more will do so in the future.  They pay for this benefit during their working years. They earn it. But with an aging population and rising health care costs, we are spending too rapidly to sustain the program.  And if we don’t gradually reform the system, while protecting current beneficiaries, it won’t be there when future retirees need it. We have to reform Medicare to strengthen it.

This statement from Obama is, of course, a deception, to make it  seem as if Congressional liberals are unreasonable when it comes to Medicare. Progressives support ways to reduce Medicare spending by methods such as allowing Medicare to directly negotiate for drug prices. Progressives just do not support shifting costs onto old people. Obama saying he supports Medicare changes “some in his party” won’t like is code for saying he will support cutting benefits.

Most of the jobs parts of the speech are unlikely to pass, so on the policy front they won’t really matter much. On the other hand, there is a Super Committee currently empowered to make large deficit reductions, so this part of the speech about cutting Medicare benefits could be the only policy from the speech that is enacted.

I fear all that may result from this speech is that Obama gets a campaign message about how the Republicans don’t care about jobs, and Obama helps the Super Committee raise the Medicare retirement age.

Photo by: Ed Yourdon under Creative Commons.

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Bogus Benefits

Consumer advocates fear health law will favor business

By Mary Agnes Carey and Marilyn Serafini | Kaiser Health News

WASHINGTON — Publicly, consumer and patient advocates continue to cheer wildly for last year’s health care law. Behind the scenes, however, some worry that they’re losing a few key battles to the insurance and business communities.

They point to a long-sought provision in the law that entitles patients to external reviews if insurers won’t pay for a medical service, and they charge that recent regulations limit its effectiveness. One of their biggest gripes? It allows insurers to choose their own “external” reviewers.

“Advocates who have dealt with the external review process believe that it’s pretty clear that if (a reviewer) is being chosen by an employer (or insurer) it’s not independent,” said Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law.

Erin Shields, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration was “working to ensure a balanced approach” toward all stakeholders. “The Affordable Care Act provides some of the most important protections for health care consumers in history,” Shields said.

With more regulations on the way, including one that will define which benefits insurers must include in many health plans, some consumer and patient advocates worry that the appeals rule could be a harbinger of things to come.

One former Obama administration official said there was cause for concern.

“There’s been a growing sentiment (in the administration), and it’s been there from the beginning, even before health reform passed, of bending to business. Now it’s reaching the boiling point,” said the former White House official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

To be sure, how these rules are written can significantly help — or hurt — consumers, insurers and businesses, and that presents the White House with a tough balancing act. While it needs to reassure individuals that the law won’t disrupt their current coverage or make it more expensive, the White House also has to appease the employers and insurers who must make that happen.

Even when they feel slighted, consumer and patient groups are reluctant to complain.

“There is a sentiment in the health care community that they don’t want to push too hard,” said Carmen Balber, the director of Consumer Watchdog’s Washington office.

Consumer advocates are well aware that any controversy surrounding an implementation decision that favors them could be used by opponents as another argument to repeal the law or defeat Obama in 2012.

“They all understand that, if he loses, the law and all of its patient protections, including, of course, all of the insurance reforms and coverage expansions, will be at severe peril,” said Chris Jennings, a health care consultant who was a senior health care adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Balber complained that the administration had made the external appeals rule more business-friendly since its initial version was published last year. In the version released this year, a consumer’s ability to file an “external appeal” shrank from four months to 60 days, and the scope of what could be appealed narrowed considerably.

It also limited appeals to quarrels that involve “medical judgment” or a rescission of coverage, when an insurer cancels coverage, said Stephen Finan, senior policy director for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. Those changes mean that patients won’t be able to appeal anything that falls into the category of contractual disputes, such as whether a particular service or drug is covered, he said.

But reviews must be conducted by independent review organizations, which are “independent and not part of insurance companies,” HHS’ Shields noted.

Patient and consumer groups criticize other aspects of the law’s implementation, including:

• It allows insurers to sit on boards that govern exchanges, the marketplaces created in the health law where eligible consumers and small businesses can start purchasing coverage in 2014.

• They find the law too vague on what happens if states want to run either an exchange for small businesses or one for individuals, but not both. “If you start dividing core functions and responsibilities and authority between the states and the federal government, that one-stop-shopping concept could disappear very quickly,” Finan said.

• It chose to base workers’ eligibility for federal insurance subsidies on the cost of individual coverage, rather than a family’s premium. People who have employer-sponsored insurance can receive federal subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges if the coverage costs more than 9.5 percent of their incomes. Many more people would qualify if the subsidies were tied to the cost of family coverage.

Looking ahead, consumer advocates are nervously awaiting a so-called essential-benefits regulation, which will decide which medical services insurers must offer in health plans sold in the exchanges as well as in the individual and small group markets.

A key goal of the health law was to ensure that comprehensive health policies were offered to individuals and small groups. “There are a lot of plans on the market today that cover very little in the way of prescription drugs or severely limit hospital benefits,” said Edwin Park, the vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

(Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent news service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy organization that isn’t affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Read more: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/09/07/123384/consumer-advocates-fear-health.html#ixzz1XJQpLhak

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Too Little Too Late

Democrats fear it’s too late

By Alexander Bolton, The Hill, September 7 2011

President Obama’s new effort to revive the ailing economy may be too little, too late, according to Democrats and liberal policy experts.

They contend that Obama missed his chance to turn the economy around by November 2012, but still want him to call on Congress to move an aggressive new jobs plan — even if it has little chance of passing.

Obama should swing for the fences during his speech on Thursday, they say, claiming there is no need to be politically pragmatic with the House in GOP hands.

“The president has to bring forward a bold proposal. He can’t start the process by negotiating with himself,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Senate Democrats. “He needs to say, ‘If we do A, B and C, we can create millions of new jobs,’ and take it to the American people.”

The risk for Obama, however, is that he could appear weak by putting forth a jobs proposal that is immediately viewed as dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.

Liberal activists say the best chances for passing legislation that would have really spurred growth was in the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the House and as many as 60 seats in the Senate.

Obama successfully pushed a stimulus bill through the 111th Congress, but it attracted only a few votes from Republicans and was criticized by liberals as too small. The White House vowed it would keep unemployment rates at around 8 percent. Now, the nation’s unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Obama made a mistake by not pushing for more stimulus when Democrats had the votes in 2009 and 2010.

“He should have said, ‘This is a great first start, but we’re going to need more,’” Baker said.

Obama has dropped hints he will push ideas that he knows won’t pass anytime soon.

During an appearance on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” last week, Obama said, “If Congress does not act, then I’m going to be going on the road and talking to folks, and this next election very well may end up being a referendum on whose vision of America is better.”

At press time, Bloomberg reported that Obama will propose boosting job growth with a $300-billion plan that focuses on tax cuts, infrastructure spending and direct aid to state and local governments.

The president is feeling pressure from the left and right on his highly anticipated speech. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday called on Obama to meet with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle before he delivers his address.

Some Democrats are publicly calling on Obama to embrace hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus spending, complaining that Washington is focusing too much on the deficit and too little on job creation.

Without drastic action, they see little hope of turning the economy around in the next 14 months. And they concede Republicans, who are feeling more confident about winning back the White House next year, will block all of Obama’s ambitious plans.

Republicans counter that they agree with Obama that three pending trade agreements, with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, would create jobs. Those deals are expected to move later this year.

The worst scenario for many liberal Democrats would be if Obama proposes a modest, centrist approach that does little to encourage new hiring and gives them little ammunition against Republicans in the months ahead.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said she wants Obama to emphasize incentives for domestically manufactured goods and stripping incentives for companies that outsource production overseas.

She also wants Obama to endorse and Congress to appropriate $16 billion immediately for a civilian conservation corps that would be led by unemployed military veterans.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Obama should throw his support behind a made-in-America initiative that would provide incentives for companies that hire workers in this country. Like Kaptur, he says the Congress should do everything it can to eliminate incentives for companies that move production facilities overseas and outsource U.S. jobs.

“The country needs to see this as a very big crisis. You can’t nibble around the edges,” Dorgan said. “The president doesn’t have a choice but to be very bold.”

Still, Dorgan realizes the political realities: “The things we’ve seen from Congress [do not] suggest that very much can happen.”

Baker would like Congress to pass $100 billion a year in state aid to keep teachers, police officers and firefighters on local government payrolls. But he admits that is not likely to happen, given the political environment in Congress.

He thinks it’s more likely Obama could convince Republicans to support a work-share program that would redirect unemployment funds to encourage employers to keep workers at reduced hours and wages instead of firing them, a program that has worked well in Germany.

Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and a former top economics official in the Obama administration, said an infrastructure program that addressed the national backlog of school maintenance would be effective. But he admits “it’s going to be a very heavy lift” to pass it through Congress.

Bernstein said he expects Obama to propose extending the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits, which he thinks Republicans are likely to accept.

He said those proposals could reduce the 9.1 percent unemployment rate by half to three-quarters of a percentage point. But that would likely fall short of what many Democrats think could be effected by an ambitious stimulus spending program.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said Congress has waited on the private sector for three years to begin creating more jobs, and it has not happened.  He said the government needs to borrow and spend more to augment consumer demand.

But he thinks the time for getting Congress to act might have passed.

“I think they’re going to bury their heads in the sand and do absolutely nothing,” Lilly said.

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The ACLU on Obama and core liberties

By GLENN GREENWALD, Salon, September 7, 2011

The ACLU on Obama and core liberties

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
In this photo taken Aug. 31, 2011, President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House

The ACLU decided to use the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack to comprehensively survey the severe erosion of civil liberties justified in the name of that event, an erosion that — as it documents — continues unabated, indeed often in accelerated form, under the Obama administration.  The group today is issuing a report entitled A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years After 9/11; that title is intended to underscore the irony that political leaders who prance around as courageous warriors against Terrorism in fact rely on one primary weapon — fear-mongering: the absence of courage — to vest the government with ever-more power and the citizenry with ever-fewer rights.  Domestically, the “War on Terror” has been, and continues to be, a war on basic political liberties more than it is anything else.  The particulars identified in this new ACLU report will not be even remotely new to any readers here, but given the organization’s status among progressives as the preeminent rights-defending group in the country, and given the bird’s-eye-view the report takes of these issues, it is well worth highlighting some of its key findings.

Let’s begin with the ACLU’s summary assessment of what President Obama has done with regard to these matters:

Last week, the top lawyer and 34-year-veteran of the CIA, John Rizzo,explained to PBS’ Frontline that Obama has “changed virtually nothing” from Bush policies in these areas, and this week, the ACLU explains that “most [Bush] policies remain core elements of our national security strategy today.”  At some point very soon, this basic truth will be impossible to deny with a straight face even for the most hardened loyalists of both parties, each of whom have been eager, for their own reasons, to deny it (and even the two differences cited there, though positive, are wildly exaggerated by Obama defenders: the torture techniques authorized by Bush were no longer in use and the CIA black sites were empty by the time Obama was inaugurated; by contrast, there is ample evidence that the Obama administration continues to use torture by proxy and rendition/CIA-black-sites by proxy as well).

The ACLU then highlights one of the most perverse though revealing ironies of Democratic Party opinion on civil liberties in the Obama age: the way in which Bush’s attempt merely to imprison a U.S. citizen without due process (or merely to eavesdrop on citizens) prompted such outrage, while Obama’s claimed right to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process provokes virtually no protest:

Critically, the ACLU emphasizes that this Obama fixation — wildly expanded programs of targeted killings even of U.S. citizens far from any battlefield — is as threatening to the rule of law, and at least as dangerous, as any policy implemented by Bush/Cheney:

For all the talk about how Bush and Cheney turned the U.S. into a rogue state, here is the escalating result of this Obama policy:

The ACLU then devotes an entire chapter to the way in which immunity for America’s torturers — bestowed jointly by President Obama and a judicial branch meekly deferential to his and Bush’s claims of state secrecy — has contaminated and degraded the entire justice system and made the future reintroduction of torture a virtual inevitability:

Then there’s the ongoing targeting of American Muslims for some of the most invasive and unconstitutional rights-abridging actions in decades.  Explains the ACLU: “No area of American Muslim civil society was left untouched by discriminatory and illegitimate government action during the Bush years . . . In short, the Bush administration used religious, racial, and national-origin profiling as one of this nation’s primary domestic counter-terrorism tools.”  And now?

A separate chapter is devoted to what the ACLU calls “A Massive and Unchecked Surveillance Society.”  It explains: “Using Patriot Act  authority, the Bush Administration started — and the Obama Administration has continued — to conduct wholesale ‘preventive’ surveillance of innocent Americans without judicial review.”  And “the result is a national surveillance society in which Americans’ right to privacy is under unprecedented siege.”  But little is known about exactly what is being done by this purely unaccountable hidden government — what The Washington Post calls “Top Secret America” — because of this:

This Surveillance State, like most other Bush/Obama Terrorism policies, is justified by a never-ending orgy of fear-mongering.  But other than the enrichment of the private Security State industry (see here and here), its real purpose — as I documented last week — is this:

But the primary cause of this Bush-Obama continuity is the vigorous embrace by both Presidents of the same theory of war and Terrorism — the unlimited global battlefield and the President’s resulting unconstrained power to act anywhere in the world without limits — which was once so controversial during the Bush presidency but has now become mainstream, bipartisan consensus:

Pointing to that core theory of both presidencies, the ACLU dispatches one of the most misleading claims of Obama defenders: that the President’s failure to close Guantanamo is due exclusively to Congressional obstructionism; in fact, long before Congress acted at all with regard to that camp, the President announced his intention to continue its core injustice — indefinite detention — albeit in a different locale:

During the Bush era, the actions and condemnations of the ACLU received ample positive attention from progressives. That, of course, is no longer true, and this damning report will likely be ignored in most of those circles, just as this truly remarkable comment from the ACLU’s Executive Director has been.  And, as usual, anyone urging that attention be paid to these facts will be met with demands that eyes be diverted instead to how scary Sarah Palin Christine O’Donnell Michele BachmannRick Perry is, and then this will all blissfully fade away in a cloud of partisan electioneering even with the election more than a year away.

Either way, this creeping unchecked authoritarianism marches forward unabated, and is now — rather than the province of the right-wing GOP — fully bipartisan consensus.  I really don’t understand how progressives think they’ll be taken seriously the next time there is a GOP President and they try to resurrect their feigned concern for these matters; they’ll be every bit as credible as conservatives who pretend to be deficit-warriors and defenders of restrained government only when the other party is in power.

But even that ultimately matters little: so entrenched is this institutional militarism, secrecy, surveillance and authoritarianism that even if there were greater public debate over it like there was during the Bush presidency, this system would hardly be affected, let alone threatened.  Governments and other power factions — especially ones threatened by the prospect of social unrest and upheaval — do not relinquish this sort of authority unless compelled to do so.

UPDATE:  Tomorrow morning beginning at roughly 11:20 am EST, I’ll be on NPR’s On Point, discussing 9/11 and civil liberties, along withThe Washington Post‘s Dana Priest, who will be on from the start of the show at 11:00 am discussing Top Secret America.

UPDATE II: Donald Rumsfeld becomes the latest right-wing figure — of many — to heap praise on President Obama’s Terrorism and civil liberties policies (h/t flellis):

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says President Barack Obama has come to accept much of the Bush Doctrine out of necessity, despite what he campaigned on in 2008. . . .

“They ended up keeping Guantanamo open not because they like it — we didn’t like it either — but they couldn’t think of a better solution,” Rumsfeld told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren on Tuesday. . . .

The same is true with the Patriot Act, and military commissions, and indefinite detention. All of those things were criticized but today are still in place two-and-a-half years later because they are the best alternative to the other choices — and they are in fact successful in keeping America safer,” he says.

Just as nobody could have strengthened the Bush/Cheney Terrorism template the way Obama has, so, too could nobody have provided vindication for those policies the way he has.

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Wall Street’s Whores

Don’t Blame Bush: This is Obama’s Depression

By Mike Whitney,  Information Clearing House, September 04, 2011

This is Barack Obama’s economy now. George Bush can no longer be blamed. And if the economy dips back into recession–as it most certainly will–then that will be Obama’s fault, too. Because it’s Obama’s fiscal policies that are driving the economy back into the ditch. This is no small matter, because Obama’s failure will likely result in political change that will deliver the White House to the GOP in 2012. Then the deficit hawks will control both houses of congress and the White House, and they will slash spending and push the economy into another Great Depression. This is not speculation. This WILL happen. Obama has made sure it will happen by shrugging off the warnings of every competent economist in the country, all of whom have said repeatedly that we needed more stimulus to lower employment, to reduce the output gap, to increase GDP, and to put the economy back on track.

Now–according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)–the economy is producing no new jobs. Obama’s policies are producing ZERO JOBS. Let that sink in for a while.

At the same time, GDP is sputtering below one-half percent for the first 6 months of 2011 and the output gap has reset at a level that will cost the country 5 trillion dollars in lost production in the next 4 years.

Is it any wonder why consumer confidence is in the dumps and everyone is so pessimistic about the future? It’s because there is no future, Obama has made sure of that.

The economy is dead. That’s what it means when there’s no growth and no new jobs. How would you describe it?

Obama had the economy going in the right direction. When he took office he already had his economics team in place and they quickly implemented his $787 billion fiscal stimulus plan just a month after he was inaugurated. The country was losing 750,000 per month, the stock market was plunging, and GDP was deep in in the red. Exports, retail sales, manufacturing and consumer spending were all falling faster then they had during the Great Depression. But the stimulus turned things around, and in just 6 months, the hemorrhaging of jobs slowed to a trickle and the economy returned to positive growth. By the 4th Quarter of 2009, GDP had climbed to a healthy 5.0 percent while unemployment slowly began to retreat from it’s peak of 10.1 percent earlier in the year.

What seemed like a miracle was nothing more than basic economics; Keynesian economics. Not Voodoo economics, not supply side economics, not make-it-up-as-you-go faith-based Republican economics, but Keynesian economics, which is to say, economics that is grounded in observable phenomena, facts, science; y’know, reality-based economics.

When consumers are unable to spend because of the losses they sustained when the housing bubble burst, ($8 trillion in losses) then the government must provide sufficient resources to keep the economy running, otherwise activity will slow, businesses will trim costs and lay off workers, government revenues will shrink, the deficits will rise, and the economy will go into a long-term funk.

Simple, right? If there’s no demand, the economy nosedives.

And, that’s what was happening when Bush left office. The economy was tanking. But, Obama applied the right ideas, and the economy responded. In other words, ideas count. If you apply stupid ideas–like the GOP deficit hawks–then you will get bad results. This seems so obvious that it hardly seems worth repeating repeating. But, we have to repeat it, because we’re dealing with people who insist that stupid ideas are smart ideas, and, regrettably, there’s a difference. And the difference is quite excruciating for the people who end up being victims of these flawed ideas.

So, even though Obama could see the results of the fiscal stimulus, and even though he could see that GDP had risen to the 3 percent range for the entire time the stimulus was feeding into the economy, he decided to do a 180 and start preaching the ideology of his rivals, the gospel of austerity.

Is this a fair account of what happened?

It’s not that Obama merely brushed off the considered advice of liberal economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, Mark Thoma, Dean Baker etc etc etc. But he also ignored the main players in his former economics team; Lawrence Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orzag, all of whom strongly recommended more stimulus (to avoid another downturn) in editorials in leading US newspapers.

But Obama knew better than all of them, after all he was a community organiser, right? Besides he had other things in mind, like hammering out a structural adjustment plan (the “debt ceiling” agreement) that would constrain public spending forever making it impossible for the government to increase deficits even in an economic emergency. In other words, Obama was fulfilling the right wing “wish list” to strangle big government and to ensure that entitlement spending faces savage cuts in the future.

That was the game-plan, right?

So, now the economy is headed back into the toilet; manufacturing is sputtering, consumer spending is off, business investment is falling, GDP is barely positive, housing remains in a historic swoon, unemployment is stuck at 9.1 percent, the 10-year Treasury is signalling “deflation”, 47 million Americans are on food stamps, and there are NO NEW JOBS. And–Oh yeah–Obama is still jabbering about “cutting the deficits”.

Does that sound about right?

Obama can’t fix the problems the country faces because he’s owned by Big Business and Wall Street. Everyone knows that. But to continue to pretend that the Democratic Party is a viable alternative to the GOP, is beyond misguided; it’s delusional. The policies that are presently in place–and which are largely supported by the Dems in Congress–are destroying the economy, the country’s reputation, and our children’s future.

There’s got to be another way.

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Time to Resign, Bambam!

A President Adrift

Michael Tomasky, Daily Beast, September 2, 2011

After a week of presidential humiliations and capitulations, Michael Tomasky suggests that Obama will soon pass the point where he can be taken seriously as a leader.

More dispiriting news, this time about the White House overturning the EPA’s proposed new rules on smog. That comes a few hours after the jobs report from Friday morning, one of the bleakest yet. And it comes a few days in advance of what everyone expects will be a small-thinking, modest, blah jobs speech by the president. It’s not only getting to the point where it’s getting hard to see him winning reelection. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to imagine  people taking him seriously for the remaining 14 months of his current term.
The smog decision is a real low. The story behind this includes the fact that, as Brad Plumer reports environmental groups were going to file a lawsuit in 2009 about Bush-era ozone rules, and the Obama administration told them, in effect, “Wait, don’t hassle us with a lawsuit, we’re going to propose stricter rules soon.” So the stricter rules were proposed, and the White House has now said, “Sorry, changed our mind.”

We can’t calculate yet how this will reverberate through the environmental world, but we can imagine. This is the kind of thing that sticks with people. A promise was made and broken. And you know how partisans say sometimes in anger that we’d have been better off with the other guy? They say it for effect and don’t actually mean it. But in this case, it’s literally true. Bush-proposed standards in 2008 were tougher than the 1997 standards under which companies will now operate. I doubt environmentalists will forget this one.

And not just environmentalists. Even the Center for American Progress—the leading Democratic think-tank, an organization that is very, very close to the administration—issued a statement criticizing this decision (apologies—it was emailed to me, but without a link). That may be a first for CAP, which called the decision “deeply disappointing” and said it “grants an item on Big Oil’s wish list at the expense of the health of children, seniors and the infirm.” And the timing of it could not be worse, coming at the end of a week that included a stupid unforced error (the speech fracas) and leaks indicating a set of small-bore proposals to be offered next week.

On the jobs front, as Matt Yglesias points out, things are going exactly according to Republican plan, insofar as massive public-sector layoffs every single month are helping to depress overall jobs numbers. These layoffs are of course the direct result of budget cuts—reductions in federal aid to states in various programs that have come under the knife since the spring. The deals Obama has made with the Republicans have therefore contributed to the jobs crisis. The Republicans of course know this and surely have a chuckle about it in private. Obama makes videos bragging about the single biggest budget cut in history.

Which of the Democratic Party’s big-money people can reach Obama? Who can pierce the armor of his inner circle and tell him he needs to change course in a hurry?


Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images


I keep thinking back lately to that candidate and team I watched in 2008. The candidate really had his finger on something. The team almost never made a serious mistake. When a mistake did happen, they did a respectable job of digging their way out of it. They had some fight in them. Well, I’ve learned something new from these folks: Up until now, I’ve thought that running a strong presidential campaign is a sign that one can probably govern fairly well too. But there appears to be little correlation between the two.

One wonders if there is concern now in the party’s higher echelons about the White House’s methods. Of course there must be. But what, for example, do seasoned Democratic senators say to one another when they chat in private? What about the party’s big money people? All of them must be dismayed. But which of them can reach Obama? Who can pierce the armor of his inner circle and tell him he needs to start doing business in a different way in a hurry?

This week has the feel of one that might become retrospectively pivotal. If indeed we are standing there watching as President Perry is sworn in two Januarys from now, and we’re forced to ponder the what ifs, space will be reserved on that list for a week in which the administration made a boneheaded political mistake, presided over a jobs announcement with zero growth, and turned on a key constituency group.

Believe me, I’d rather be writing positive columns. But if I were a sports columnist at The Washington Post and the Redskins had lost five in a row, I could hardly write, “Hey, gang, everything’s going according to plan.” It ain’t. I have little expectation that they’ll listen to me. I can only hope someone they will listen to breaks through soon, before it becomes too late to turn things around.

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