Friday Talking Points [347] -- Spinning Straw (Polls) Into Gold

[ Posted Friday, May 22nd, 2015 – 17:03 PDT ]

It's one of those rare weeks in Washington where Congress deigns to actually do their job and vote on some stuff... before lapsing back into their default status, which is of course: "taking weeks and weeks off, on vacation."

Most of the attention was focused on two big issues this week, authorizing fast-track trade authority and re-authorizing sections of the USA PATRIOT Act. As this is being written, neither one has actually passed the Senate, but it's looking like at least the fast-track bill will probably pass tonight.

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I Miss Craig Ferguson

[ Posted Thursday, May 21st, 2015 – 17:27 PDT ]

You know, today was one of those days when I was typing merrily along, writing a column, and then halfway through it had to research a few things -- and found that my entire premise had crumbled beneath me. Also, I found a few existing columns in other media outlets which said pretty much exactly what I was trying to say. So, suddenly, I didn't give a rat's ass about finishing the article.

You'll have to forgive my language, but it does have a point. After watching some rather uninspired television last night (except for the clip of Drew Barrymore flashing her boobs, of course), the subject of "not giving a rat's ass" lit one of those cartoon light bulbs for me. Which is why I'm running an old column today.

Now, you'll immediately notice that the column below was a complete and utter failure at predicting the future. For this I am eternally disheartened. Would that things had turned out differently -- I would have been much more cheerful, I fully admit. I got it wrong, and I still have an aching void in my life, at 12:35 every weeknight. Also, you'll note that (strangely enough) exactly as mentioned in the article, this week I am actually commenting twice about what's on television, which is a pretty amazing coincidence given the rarity of me devoting columns to pop culture to begin with.

Be that as it all may, I still felt it worthwhile to re-post the following. Because I know I can't be the only one who feels the same way. As Joni Mitchell once sang: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." And, as she predicted, CBS has paved over the paradise that used to be on at 12:35 every night, and put up a virtual parking lot instead.


I Don't Care Who Is On Before Craig Ferguson

[Originally published April 10, 2014]

To borrow (or, more accurately, "to blatantly steal") a phrase: "It's a great day for America!"

Those of you who understand why that previous sentence (in relation to this article's title) is a joke, please keep reading. Those of you who don't, well, I apologize because this column has seemingly wandered into some sort of Bizarro World, what with two columns discussing popular television programs this week (which has to be, to put it mildly, a first here at Today, the subject du jour is late-night television, specifically that which airs on CBS. So if you're one of those people who never watches such things at midnight (or thereabouts), then I would strongly suggest you occupy your time today with other things than this column. Seriously, even watching a funny cat video will likely be a more productive use of your time.

Where was I? Oh, right... the greatness of today for America.

Of course, what everyone is talking about today is the big news that Stephen Colbert is going to take over David Letterman's show. This news has made some delighted and some furious. The funniest reaction I've yet seen was from Arianna Huffington, who posted a great suggestion on Twitter: "I think Stephen Colbert's first guest at CBS should be 'Stephen Colbert' from Comedy Central."

My reaction, however, is one of total ennui. OK, since we're dealing with the written word here, you're just going to have to imagine me saying the following in a really bad fake French accent (although one that, coincidentally enough, allows me to pronounce the name "Col-bare" properly): "Colbert ees taking over for Dave? I don't care... as long as I can still watch Craig when it's over."

That, like the misappropriation of the "great day for America" line, was an homage to Craig himself, who is fond of mocking the French (being British, it's kind of an inbred attitude) on his show. He is also fond of mocking pretty much everyone under the sun.

To get a little more serious (a tough thing to do when the subject is comedy), I'm truly glad that Ferguson wasn't named as Letterman's replacement. Because he is not only not ready for primetime, he is also not ready for 11:35 at night (I should really add, " your region..." to continue the homage).

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying -- not even remotely -- that Craig is unfunny in any way. My position instead is that Ferguson's brand of comedy simply could not survive the move to an earlier timeslot. Which, to be honest, isn't his fault at all -- it is, in fact, network television's fault.

To give just the most obvious example: Ferguson's use, as a running joke, of his own ongoing open warfare with the network censors. When you listen to his show, you are pretty much guaranteed to hear some bleeped-out words and phrases (well, not "bleeped" precisely, but "replaced with amusing overdubs"). He used to open his show, on occasion, with hand puppets. One of the funniest was "Sid, the Cussing Bunny." Think he'd be allowed to do this an hour earlier? I don't.

Craig's shtick is deconstructionism. This is a fancy, ten-dollar-word way of saying Craig doesn't give a rat's ass about anything, up to and including himself, his show, his audience, and even the concept of a late-night comedy show. That's his brand of humor, and I personally find it hilarious. Others don't, for various reasons. That's fine, there are other shows on for them to watch. But Craig is pretty much unique in what he does, which is why I'm glad he's going to keep right on doing it, same bat time, same bat channel.

Many people, in fact, don't "get" Craig's humor, or don't like it for whatever reason. I don't think he's ever even been nominated for an Emmy, for instance (I could be wrong, but I am too lazy to look it up). Many of his show's guests simply can't keep up with Craig, and are left sitting next to him with a look of astonishment (or horror, or disgust... take your pick). I understand all of that. But he must be doing something right, as to the best of my knowledge (again: too lazy to look it up) he's the only late-night comic to ever have been awarded the prestigious Peabody Award (given for excellence in broadcast journalism), for his interview of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Which, completely in character, Craig himself thought was hilarious -- that anyone would give him an award for excellence. Or journalism. Or anything.

Craig's humor is more than a little twisted. Which, as I said, I enjoy. But I seriously doubt he would be anywhere near as funny if he had been given Dave's timeslot. Ferguson may be right when he repeatedly says that the only reason the network gods at CBS allow him to continue doing his show is that most of them are simply unaware of him at all -- he's on so late at night, that he's not a big deal to them one way or the other. But if he moved up to 11:35, those same network gods would have to care about the show. Which would destroy it.

Conan O'Brien is the closest anyone has ever been to Craig's self-effacing and deconstructionist humor. When Conan was on at 12:35 (same timeslot as Craig), he was also hilarious. In a much different sort of way, but also in similar a "we simply don't care" style as Craig. Then Conan got Jay Leno's show. And it killed his funniness, because he had to make so many changes to his comedic style (can't have a "Masturbating Bear" on at 11:35 at night, sorry) that he wound up almost unfunny. And then, of course, Jay came back and Conan was banished to a cable backwater.

I didn't want to see the same thing happen to Craig Ferguson. And I'm glad it's not going to. I really started watching late-night television around when I started blogging about politics on The Huffington Post. The two are connected. Understanding the zeitgeist of America means keeping in touch with who and what is being made fun of -- including politicians. I've seen polling which shows a scary amount of the American public gets its only news about politics from late-night comedians. Meaning watching what they're saying is important when you want to keep in tune with what goes on outside the Beltway. I mean, I draw the line (you simply have to) at watching morning news (gack!); but I have to see what people are saying somehow, so I started tuning in to the late-night shows. Ironically, I wound up watching Craig Ferguson the most, even though he's the one late-night comic who (for the most part) ignores politics (unless there's something juicy like a sex scandal happening). Because he was so damn funny, and because he was so damn honest. And also, because after spending all day on politics, it is fun to get away from it and just laugh for a while. People have seriously asked me: "How can you do what you do every day and not get disgusted or disillusioned?" and my serious answer to them is: "I watch Craig Ferguson -- that's what keeps me sane."

I first noticed Craig while randomly flipping channels one night leading up to the 2008 elections. I saw his rant on why it is important to vote, and my jaw hit the floor. I simply could not believe anyone was talking like that on teevee. I was so impressed I did something I had never before done (and something which I have never afterwards done, as well) -- I typed out the full transcript of his entire monologue and ran it as a column. I thought it was that good, and that important.

So you'll have to forgive me from reacting to the news of Stephen Colbert taking over from David Letterman a bit differently than most others. While plenty of people are having fun speculating about what the show will be like, and others are having fun cranking up the anti-Colbert hatefest, I simply don't care all that much who is on before Craig. Because as long as Craig Ferguson is doing what he does at 12:35 at night, every night, it will continue being a great [tutsi frutsi] day for America, indeed.


Program Note: For those who don't understand why "[tutsi frutsi]" was included in that last sentence, I invite you to watch Craig Ferguson's show. You won't be sorry you did. Or maybe you will, who knows? Either way, Craig won't care.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


How Many More Wars?

[ Posted Wednesday, May 20th, 2015 – 17:17 PDT ]

Jeb Bush certainly had a bad week last week, as he struggled to come up with a clear answer to a question he really should have been expecting in the first place. Other Republicans also struggled to admit that the Iraq War was indeed a mistake (which is somewhat understandable, because by doing so they are criticizing a former Republican president). But while the spectacle of Republicans having to admit a big Republican mistake certainly is amusing, there's an even bigger question which so far has remained unasked: "Knowing all the things we've learned in the past decade and a half, what would it take for you to send American troops to fight an overseas war?" This is the real question the voters deserve an answer to. To put it more bluntly: "How many more wars can we expect if you are elected?"

The present situation should be taken as a starting point for this conversation. Already, some Republican candidates have openly called for more American ground troops to be sent back into Iraq to fight the Islamic State. It remains to be seen whether the other candidates will jump aboard this train of thought, in a frenzy of one-upmanship and chest-beating. But all those who criticize President Obama's handling of foreign policy -- which includes the entire Republican presidential field, it almost goes without saying -- should really have to detail precisely what they'd do differently. The voters really do deserve an answer to this question, since these people are running to take Obama's place in the White House.

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Ireland's Historic Marriage Equality Referendum

[ Posted Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 – 17:17 PDT ]

Ireland may be about to make some history. At the end of this week, citizens of the Republic of Ireland will vote to either give same-sex marriages full and equal rights with opposite-sex marriages, or they will vote the idea down and continue the status quo of not allowing gay people to get married. If the referendum passes, Ireland will become the first country to vote for full marriage equality by means of direct referendum in the entire world. The "Yes" vote is currently polling better than 2-to-1 against the "No" vote, so the chances of passage at this point have to be seen as pretty good.

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If You Care About Government Surveillance, Watch 1971 Tonight On PBS

[ Posted Monday, May 18th, 2015 – 14:49 PDT ]

Everyone who cares at all (one way or the other) about government surveillance should watch the documentary 1971 tonight, on the PBS show Independent Lens. Everyone who has an opinion on the Edward Snowden revelations should watch this film. Everyone who has an opinion on the USA PATRIOT Act should tune in. Disturbed by the National Security Agency's actions? Check your local listings for when Independent Lens airs.

I say all this, mind you, before I've even seen the film. Full disclosure: I'm not being paid or compensated for this plug in any way, either. But I know that however the subject matter is handled by the director, it is significant enough and important enough to pay attention to. I rarely strongly recommend a film, sight unseen. In fact, I rarely venture to recommend any film at all (it's not generally what I do). But in the case of 1971, I do so because I already know the story it is going to tell. This story is not only a fascinating piece of American history few today even remember, but it's also very germane to the current public debate about government surveillance.

What happened in the year 1971 that was so important? A burglary. No, not the one at the Watergate -- that was a completely separate event which wouldn't take place until mid-1972. This burglary took place in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in the town of Media, when the local office of the F.B.I. was broken into and all the secret files were stolen (this was 1971, so they were all paper files). The significant ones were then leaked to the media by the burglars (which was the whole point of the burglary). A whopping 40 percent of the secret files covered domestic political surveillance and investigations of political activity (with a 100-to-1 slant towards investigating liberal organizations over conservative ones). Only one percent of the files covered organized crime, by comparison. This shockingly showed the what the priorities of the F.B.I. were, at the time.

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Friday Talking Points [346] -- Is That Your Final Answer, Jeb?

[ Posted Friday, May 15th, 2015 – 17:28 PDT ]

Jeb Bush, is that your final answer? Sure you wouldn't like to phone a friend, or maybe just get the audience's reaction first?

Heh. OK, we fully admit that we didn't come up with that snarky line ourselves. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post took the prize in the "snarky ways to describe Bush's awful week" contest (runner-up: Heather "Digby" Parton for using the old standard "between Iraq and a hard place"). Jeb Bush, in case you haven't heard, spent the entire week coming up with a believable answer to one question. In other words, when that proverbial 3:00 A.M. call comes, we can expect Jebbie to get back to us by next Thursday.

After watching Bush twist in the wind this week, we can't help but wonder if the 2016 Republican nomination race is going to closely resemble the 2008 Democratic nomination fight. Let's see, we've got a candidate who is sure that raising gobs of money is going to scare everybody else off, and who would really be fine with just holding a coronation rather than that whole messy primary elections calendar, and who sees himself as the inevitable candidate. This should sound at least glancingly familiar. Jeb just announced he'll be skipping the Iowa straw poll as well, which only goes to further the image of Bush's disdainful attitude.

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Crassly Calculating Political Risk

[ Posted Thursday, May 14th, 2015 – 17:02 PDT ]

There's a crass and cynical formula for any given political candidate to follow, when any political issue is being discussed. It goes something like this (yes, I made up all this terminology, so please bear with me):

For any political issue P:

If V(a) < V(p), then: P.

If V(a) > V(p), then: –P.

If V(a) = ??, or V(p) = ??, or V(a) ?? V(p), then: avoid P.

First, let's define the terms. "V(a)" is the number of voters (or votes) that are against any particular issue or political stance "P." They're the "antis." This is weighed against "V(p)," the number of voters that are for (or "pro") issue P. So, in English, here is the same formula:

If the number of voters against political position P is less than the number of voters for it, then the candidate should come out for P. If the situation is reversed and there are more voters against P than for P, then the candidate should come out against P. If either the number of voters for or against cannot be accurately determined, or if it's not easy to see which group is larger, then the candidate should just avoid talking about P altogether, in the hopes that it will go away.

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A Third Dubya Term?

[ Posted Wednesday, May 13th, 2015 – 16:11 PDT ]

Are American voters now being given the option of choosing a virtual third term for George W. Bush? Astonishingly enough, that seems to be the direction his brother's campaign has chosen to head towards. I use the word "astonishingly," since conventional wisdom would seem to indicate that this is a dandy way to commit political suicide. But because Jeb Bush is standing so resolutely with the last Bush administration's policies, he now risks his entire campaign turning into a referendum on whether America is truly ready for a third Dubya term.

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Don't Mention The War!

[ Posted Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 – 16:42 PDT ]

I certainly never thought I'd have this opportunity, but today's title is a quote from one of the funniest episodes of one of the funniest television shows of all time: the Fawlty Towers episode "The Germans." If you haven't ever seen it, you should. The show features John Cleese of Monty Python fame, and while it only lasted one season is still absolutely hilarious. Cleese, as Basil Fawlty, owns a hotel he runs with his wife. During the episode, he repeatedly gets knocked on the head (even once fleeing the hospital instead of recovering from a particularly bad knock), and then in a daze manages to offend his German guests by "mentioning" World War II in practically everything that comes out of his mouth. The goose-stepping scene is one of Cleese's finest comedic performances, in fact.

The opportunity for me to run today's ironic "Don't Mention The War!" title for a political column was dished up by none other than Jeb Bush, due to a recent interview with Fox host Megyn Kelly. Here is the full exchange:

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Slowing The Fast Track Down

[ Posted Monday, May 11th, 2015 – 17:31 PDT ]

There's a big political fight happening in Washington, but for once it does not break down easily along partisan lines. There are free-traders among both the Democrats and the Republicans, and opposition exists on both sides as well. But the main skirmish in this fight is currently happening between President Obama and some of his fellow Democrats. While both sides have valid points to make in this disagreement, I find that both sides are also being a bit disingenuous in their rhetoric and their tactics.

First, the facts. Here's where we are, at the moment. The Obama administration has been hammering out a Pacific Rim trade agreement with many countries in order to open borders and reduce costs to trade around the Pacific Ocean. They have not released a draft of the agreement they have so far negotiated. Drafts have reportedly been available to hundreds of corporate executives in the United States, however, for them to make comments and suggestions. Drafts are provided to Congress, but the text remains "classified," meaning that Congress is not exactly free to comment upon it to the public (lest they be accused of leaking classified information).

Congress will get a chance to vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or "T.P.P.") agreement, and the text will become declassified before they do. The public will indeed get a chance to see what's in it before Congress votes on it. But this week Congress is voting on a related bill, which gives the president "fast-track authority" on trade agreements. This is essentially Congress tying its own hands, and giving up some of its legislative power to the executive branch. Fast-track authority is not a new thing -- other presidents have been granted this power by Congresses reaching back to the 1970s -- but the earlier laws have lapsed, meaning Obama does not currently have this power. Fast-track means Congress only gets an up-or-down vote on any trade agreement proposed by the president; they cannot amend it or otherwise change the text of the agreement in any way. They can only accept it or reject it, as is.

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