Friday Talking Points [325] -- McConnell For Sale!

[ Posted Friday, October 24th, 2014 – 17:58 PDT ]

A program note, before we get started: there will be no Friday Talking Points column next week. We have to make room for our traditional Hallowe'en column, where we try to scare the pants off of everyone across the political spectrum with spooky tales of what the upcoming election might mean (plus, we get to show off our politically-inspired Jack-o-lanterns). So don't miss that, but the Friday Talking Points column won't be back until after the election.

Campaign season has reached its peak, and is getting downright frenetic in all the big battleground Senate races. One of these is Kentucky, where first Democrats thought their candidate didn't have a chance, but then Alison Lundergan Grimes got some good polling numbers so the money is now flowing back in. Maybe some of it should go towards exposing what is supposed to -- no, really! -- be a pro-Mitch McConnell ad. An organization called the National Association of Realtors Congressional Fund tried to give McConnell a boost with a mailer. The only problem? Well, it's how they chose to present their message:

In large letters, you see "Mitch McConnell."

Below that, a sign with even larger letters: "FOR SALE."

Check the link out for the image of the mailer -- it's (pun intended) priceless!

A reader of ours in Kentucky also pointed out pointed out that the black line under the words "FOR SALE" is a flap on the mailer -- when you lift it up the word "SOLD" appears.

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Noting Ben Bradlee's Passing

[ Posted Thursday, October 23rd, 2014 – 15:40 PDT ]

That title, by my own standards here, should really be: "From The Archives -- Interview With Betty Medsger, Author Of The Burglary." I am reprinting the following interview I conducted earlier this year with a woman who was a young reporter in Ben Bradlee's newsroom around the time of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Since Betty Medsger is the only one I've ever personally been in touch with who knew and worked with Ben Bradlee, I thought it would be appropriate to mark his passing. Bradlee was a lion of the newspaper publishing industry, and deserves all the praise that is currently being heaped on him, and more. If you didn't read the series when I first published it this spring, follow the links to the two-part book review, and (once again) I highly recommend this book to one and all. The story of the Media, Pennsylvania burglary of the F.B.I. office is one that is not well known, but that doesn't make it any less important in today's debate over secret surveillance by government agencies.


Originally published March 26, 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote an extensive book review of former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger's The Burglary (2014, Alfred A. Knopf). This book chronicles a break-in at the Media, Pennsylvania, branch office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1971, and the subsequent release to the public of files proving the F.B.I. was spending something like 40 percent of its time spying on and harassing political groups and individuals that J. Edgar Hoover didn't approve of. The burglars, who operated under the name "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.," were never caught, despite a five-year F.B.I. manhunt involving more than 200 agents. None of the burglars had ever even been publicly identified before Medsger's book was published.

This was a historic burglary, to put it mildly. It was also the first time modern newspapers were faced with the ethical question of whether to publish news stories which had as their sole source stolen government documents that arrived anonymously in the mail. The Washington Post broke the story forty-three years ago this Monday, while both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (the other two newspapers who received the files) missed the scoop.

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Senate Election Overview -- Democrats Hanging On?

[ Posted Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 – 17:37 PDT ]

Sorry for the overly-provocative title, but I'm a little surprised at how all the big media election-predicting sites have apparently decided to just call the whole Senate for Republicans and clock out early. Because I just don't see it as quite the slam-dunk everyone else does, at this point.

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The Home Of The Brave?

[ Posted Tuesday, October 21st, 2014 – 16:47 PDT ]

Right after I post this column, I am going to go watch the first game of the World Series, which (thankfully, unlike the rest of the postseason) will actually appear on broadcast television. Now, while I personally was cheering for an "all orange-and-black" World Series (right before Hallowe'en!), sadly the Orioles did not make it past the Royals -- even after posting a spectacular season, where they wound up around 15 games ahead of the New York Yankees (with the Red Sox in the basement). That right there is an almost-miraculous season in the toughest division in the baseball, so to get within one step of the finals was spectacular enough for Baltimore fans. At least, for this one. This is all one way of saying I will be rooting for the San Francisco Giants against Kansas City this evening (another big reason is to promote marital bliss, since my wife is a big Giants fan).

But I didn't sit down to write about baseball. Instead I'm going to just use it as a shameless hook to talk about something entirely different. Before tonight's game commences, as with all sporting events in America, we will be presented with a moment of civic pride. Tonight, the crowd will all stand and sing our national anthem -- in the bicentennial year of it being written, no less. Our national song's first verse (the one everyone knows the words to) is composed of two questions, much like a Jeopardy! response. Both ask essentially the same thing: "Is our flag still there? Can you see it?" The final question asks resoundingly: "O! say does that star-spangled Banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?" So while I admit it is a common journalistic affectation (one I use probably far too often) to transform a provocative statement into a headline question just by adding punctuation, today I can correctly say that the question mark in my title is actually part of the quote itself.

I have shortened this line to the part that asks the question that really needs asking right now (which is another way of saying my roundabout introductory ramblings are about to actually get to the point): Are we still "the home of the brave"? Are we, really? Or have we become a nation that responds to every perceived threat with nothing short of outright panic? One wonders what Francis Scott Key would say today were he to witness the metaphorical collective loss of sphincter control that seems to accompany each "crisis" that comes down the pike. Another way to ask this question is: Has America truly been showing its chops as "the land of the brave" to the rest of the world lately? Or have we fallen just a wee bit short of that lofty goal?

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Contemplating A Republican Senate

[ Posted Monday, October 20th, 2014 – 17:40 PDT ]

As frightening a prospect as it is for progressives and liberals and other assorted Democrats, it is now impossible not to contemplate what two years of a Republican-led Senate would be like. While Democrats are still putting on a brave face about their chances in the 2014 midterms ("Our ground game is going to win the day!"), the possibility of Republicans picking up the six Senate seats they now need to gain control of the chamber is very real and even (according to many election forecasters) probable. But what would this mean for President Obama's last two years in office?

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Friday Talking Points [324] -- Don't Panic

[ Posted Friday, October 17th, 2014 – 17:42 PDT ]

That headline, of course, quotes the cover to the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: "Don't Panic." This week, it seems like timely advice, as the news media and American politicians go into full-blown panic mode over one death and two illnesses within the United States.

We'll get to all that in a bit, since we will be pre-empting our talking points this week for my own "Don't panic!" rant (which, for science-fiction fans who were already thrilled with this week's title, will also quote the learned philosopher Ellen Ripley). But first let's quickly run through some other political news, before we get to the idiocy of the "travel ban fever" running rampant among American politicians.

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[ Posted Thursday, October 16th, 2014 – 17:15 PDT ]

Ebola is in the news these days.

This is what is known as a satirical understatement, which I use mainly because these days, it seems, Ebola is the news -- all the news, pretty much all the time. It has not only been the lead story on the nightly news for the past three weeks or so, the story has grown to overwhelming proportions on the airwaves. And that's not even counting what's going on over on cable news, where they have a full 24 hours to fill each day rather than just 30 minutes each night. Fear of the unknown, of course, sells a lot of newspapers, attracts a lot of viewers, and draws a lot of eyeballs to websites. This has always been the case, and it obviously hasn't changed (although the metaphors continue to evolve -- once, just "sells a lot of newspapers" would have been enough).

For one television news personality, at least, things are getting so out of proportion that he had to issue a call to reason. Shepard Smith of Fox News (of all places), recently begged his viewers to ignore what all the other "journalists" have been guilty of, lately:

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Senate Still Up For Grabs

[ Posted Wednesday, October 15th, 2014 – 17:06 PDT ]

Welcome back to my intermittent overview of the 2014 midterm Senate races. On that note, I should add that from this point forward I'll be doing these columns on a weekly basis, right up until the Monday before the election when I'll make my final election predictions.

The past week was a busy one out on the various campaign trails, as many candidates participated in televised debates. There were no monumental gaffes or screwups (so far) in these debates -- at least, not ones that gained national attention. Mitch McConnell did (hilariously) try to convince Kentucky voters that Kynect was somehow separate from the Obamacare he's sworn to try to kill "root and branch" (technical note: it is not separate, it is part of Obamacare and would not exist without Obamacare), but that was about it, really.

Some races moved towards Republicans this week, and others moved towards Democrats. A third-party candidate died in a plane crash in Iowa this week, but the media (following the "ignore all third parties, all the time" rule, no doubt) barely took note. The Republican candidate down in Georgia may have torpedoed his own chances of winning, by proudly noting his own personal history of outsourcing jobs, and the Democrat in Kentucky seems to be getting a bit desperate.

The big question is whether Republicans will be able to take the six seats they need to gain control of the Senate. This is still a largely unanswerable question, as they've only locked up two pickups and only clearly lead in three others -- leaving them one short.

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Voting By Mail

[ Posted Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 – 17:29 PDT ]

The Colorado Senate race this year will be a close contest (no matter who wins), if the polling is correct. Poll after poll shows a very tight race. However, pollsters' predictions of who exactly will "turn out" to vote may be flawed this year, in this particular state. Because Colorado, for the first time, will be joining two other states in the West by conducting their election by mail. Every registered voter gets a real ballot (not just a "sample ballot" or a "practice ballot") in the mail, and will be able to easily return their filled-out ballot by mail. They won't be "turning out," one might say, instead they'll be "turning in."

The other two states with full vote-by-mail elections are Oregon and Washington. In 1998 Oregon passed a voter initiative which changed their system to all-mail voting. Washington changed their election law in 2011. In Colorado, 2014 is the first election to be conducted under the vote-by-mail scheme.

In all three states (I believe), voters who are offended by change -- call them "traditionalists" -- still have the option of going down to the local polling place to cast their ballot. Except that it's not really a polling location anymore, so much as a "drop box" for filled-out ballots to be handed in. But for those who consider voting to be a civic rite, a trip down to the polling spot is still possible (this also benefits procrastinators, too -- people who wait until the last minute to vote).

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Good News From The Vatican

[ Posted Monday, October 13th, 2014 – 17:00 PDT ]

I considered just taking Columbus Day (or Indigenous People's Day, take your choice) off today, but an article in the morning news caught my eye. So I decided to instead run two extended clips -- one I wrote a while ago, and today's news from the Vatican.

The Catholic Church is contemplating some rather big modernizations, led by the charismatic Pope Francis. How far-reaching such changes wind up being remains to be seen, but so far the indications are that Francis intends to significantly move the Church's direction on a number of subjects. Today's news is a preliminary move toward this new direction (which we'll get to in a minute).

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