Sunday, December 30, 2007

'Cheap seats' lucrative for media consultants

(Originally published 12/29/07)

“Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats, A.J.? … Because it occurs to me that in 25 years, I’ve never seen YOUR name on a ballot. Now why is that? Why are you always one step behind me?”

So asks President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) of his chief of staff, A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), in The American President.

It takes a lot of work to support a politician. Elected officials have all kinds of staffers with all sorts of different jobs. As such, and out of necessity, there are many sections of “cheap seats.” But as the New York Times reported this week, some cheap seats yield bigger bucks than others.

The Times reported that during the 2004 presidential election cycle, five Democratic strategists and their media consultant firms raked in nearly $9 million in fees for handling the television advertising for U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.

President Bush’s re-election campaign paid about the same amount for its ad blitz, though it was “more extensive,” the Times reported.

Doesn’t that make your stomach turn?

Democratic moneymen began asking questions about how so few people could make off with so much money, the Times said; “…and with more money than ever on the line this time around, resentment has been building, donors and other operatives say, at how, win or lose, presidential elections have become gold mines for the small and often swaggering band of media consultants who dominate modern campaigns.”

You know their work: those obnoxious fliers you get in the mail, sometimes weeks in advance of an election; the radio advertisements with the disdainful voices denigrating a candidate; those dreaded phone calls you get during the dinner hour; the TV commercials that infect the otherwise-positive hour you spend watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Admit it: One of your first thoughts every election season is to finally drop those extra bucks for a DVR so you can skip over those self-aggrandizing commercials.

I’ve seen a lot of political advertising. None of it was worth $9 million.

Most media consultants I’ve encountered are political junkies who are full of ambitious ideas during campaigns, but they disappear when it’s time to do the heavy lifting. They’re like the cousins of the cowardly lion. In most cases, they are just like the politicians they serve – minus the courage to put their own names on a ballot.

So, from the sidelines, they concern themselves with the facts only long enough to twist them into weapons. They wrap their attacks in glossy mailers and American flags, throwing in some smiling kids here and there for good measure. And they do it all in the cloak of virtual anonymity, using sham return addresses and names like the coalition to protect thus-and-such or the foundation for the betterment of this-or-that. It’s a drive-by mugging, with art. And it’s lucrative.

But candidates will only pay for effective marketing, and that’s the sad part about all this: Political media consultants exist because they get results. People complain all day long about negative campaigning, but guess what? They listen. Voters allow themselves to be influenced by these 30-second eggings candidates pay to perpetrate on one another.

So I propose a New Year’s resolution that we can undertake together. Let us resolve this year to ignore all political advertisements designed to speak to us in terms of the lowest common denominator, whether they are delivered over the airwaves or into our mailboxes. Let us resolve that every dollar spent this way will be a dollar wasted.

Let us resolve that the cheap seats will live up to their name.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Faith, family traditions key to Christmas joy

(Originally published 12/22/07)

I love Christmas.

I have fond memories of our family singing traditional Christmas carols at the candlelight services at our church when I was a kid. Afterward, my dad took us to check out the Christmas lights all over town. My mom used that time to wrap presents, stuff stockings and make all the final preparations for the big day.

After we went to bed, my dad made Santa footprints by sprinkling carpet cleaner (or soot itself, before my mom made him switch) out from the fireplace, munched the cookies we left and wrote us a note as a final touch. Looking at his letters, I would wonder whether all those cookies gave Santa a sugar high; Dad confessed later that he had scrawled with his left hand so we wouldn’t recognize his handwriting.

My mom makes egg and sausage casserole for Christmas brunch. I remember watching her make it many times on Christmas Eve after our town tour. As much as I love that casserole (and trust me, my portion disappears in a hurry), I will only eat it on Christmas morning. Although I take a lot of grief for that (you know who you are), it makes that meal a special part of Christmas for me.

I’ve had mixed results incorporating my childhood traditions into our family practices. For example, I get a bonus casserole since I make my own, but somehow, it’s not the same; in addition, I’ve learned that the soot trick leaves much to be desired if you have wood floors.

I have developed some traditions of my own, and they echo those candlelight services of my youth. Music is perhaps the most important part of Christmas for me, outside of celebrating Christ’s birth and being with my family. Music can reach a part of the human soul untouchable by words alone. It seems to have the ability to reach through time and space to unite those of us in the modern age with those of antiquity who experienced the first Christmas. I guess that’s not surprising; after all, the ability to express one’s self through song is one of the few things that we still have in common with our forebears.

I love to listen to Christmas music, especially from the 40s and 50s and new arrangements of classic carols. I’ll turn it on while I wrap gifts, which I do the way I used to study for mid-terms – all at once and always the night before. Christmas Eve is the procrastinator’s playground!

(By the way, is there a better hero for procrastinators than the Grinch? He had put up with the Who-Christmas Sing for 53 years, but he came up with his “wonderful, awful idea” only under the pressure of one more: “Tomorrow is Christmas; it’s practically here!”)

So on Christmas Eve, as I wrap presents and listen to music that has delighted people for 60 years or more, I’ll be thinking of my Christmas wishes, and I’ll share them here with you:

  • That every child throughout the world would be safe, happy and loved;
  • That every homeless person would find inviting shelter;
  • That every hungry man, woman and child would have a warm meal to warm their souls;
  • That everyone already blessed with these things would share them with a less fortunate brother or sister, not just on Christmas but throughout the year; and
  • That your home on Christmas morning will be filled with the music of the season: songs of faith, family and giving – and the greatest gift of all.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Presidential debates next to useless in current form

(Originally published 12/15/07)

I have sometimes wondered why the general public has little to no use for presidential debates. After all, one of the participants is going to end up being sworn in as the leader of the free world; why aren’t people paying attention?

After the debates this week in Iowa, I know why.

The Des Moines Register-sponsored debates this week were so wanting in form and substance that they were roundly – and rightly – criticized as the worst of the cycle.

(By the way, in their current form, they’re forums, not debates.)

Wednesday’s GOP forum featured one inexplicable addition: Former U.S. ambassador and perennial candidate Alan Keyes. Keyes is known for his special grandstanding brand of unctuous conservatism. I hadn’t heard any mention of him during this cycle until candidate introductions.

Register editor and moderator Carolyn Washburn kicked off the event by telling the candidates that the questions would "focus on issues Iowans say they still want to know more about."

Indeed, Washburn’s first question about the country’s financial situation was "the single biggest issue Iowans of both parties wanted you to talk about," she said. For this most important issue, candidates were allotted a whopping 30 seconds -- each! -- to respond.

It went downhill from there. Keyes predictably became a sideshow, arguing with Washburn at one point about answering a question directed to other candidates and then sounding eerily like my six- and three-year-old

"They had a minute," he whined. "Why do I get 30 seconds?"

Washburn also posed what may be the most useless question in presidential history when she asked the candidates to "please suggest a New Year’s resolution for one of your opponents here today."

Thankfully, most of the candidates had the sense to deflect the question.

The Democratic debate Thursday was much the same. Although Washburn acted less like a grumpy parking lot attendant, the event was exceedingly mundane, even for hardened political junkies like me.

One reason was the (again) inexplicable exclusion of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He reportedly didn’t qualify because his Iowa campaign director works out of his home instead of from a commercial storefront.

(One major cable news network reported late Thursday that its reporters were unable to locate a campaign office for Keyes. Hey, that requirement was arbitrary, but at least the Register wasn’t enforcing it, right?)

And I have to ask: In what world does Keyes, who made his first forum appearance this year, garner more support than the self-proclaimed candidate "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?"

Here’s why Americans don’t have use for these "debates:" They aren’t useful. But wait, I have the solution! Here’s how the powers-that-be can actually make next year’s debates worth watching down the stretch:

Schedule a series of 90-minute policy debates – perhaps 10 or so, roughly one per week between conventions and Election Day – limit each debate to one or two topics, and insist that moderators ask only open-ended questions.

For example, Washburn asked GOP candidates Wednesday for a "show of hands:" Who believes global climate change is a "serious threat and caused by human activity?" Instead of being rebuffed and rebuked by former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, she could have simply asked the candidates to share their thoughts on climate change.

In addition to eliciting a more complete answer, this would give candidates more time to explain their views, and it has the added benefit of eliminating that annoying habit they have of talking past their time limit.

Yes, it will take more time. But aren’t the issues – and their answers, and our choice for president – worth it?

And who knows? People might actually pay attention again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Candidates must get to the bottom of illegal immigration

(Originally published 12/8/07)

You know that old saying about Social Security being the third rail of politics?

That’s so last century.

Now -- for Republicans, at least -- it's illegal immigration.

GOP faithful are given to all kinds of gnashing of teeth when the topic comes up. They have the visceral reaction to it that government expansion used to draw, back in the days before there was an earmark in every pot.

So it’s no surprise that Republican candidates for president are clambering to see who can get the farthest to the right of the political continuum without falling off. Commercials detailing scary crimes committed by illegal immigrants that would make Hollywood horror filmmakers proud, mailers featuring dusty corners of the border guarded by warped wire fence and arguments over so-called "sanctuary cities" have become part and parcel of the GOP landscape.

Gee, it’s even affecting Mitt Romney’s lawn. The candidate fired his landscaping company after Boston Globe reporters, in a piece of ‘Gotcha!’ investigative journalism not likely to win the Pulitzer, planted themselves outside Romney’s home in Massachusetts for two months, followed the landscapers, questioned them about their immigration status and then – AHA! – delivered the stunning revelation that they are in the U.S. illegally.

(On a side note, the Globe made no mention of its efforts to report its findings to federal immigration authorities. But I’m sure it was just an oversight.)

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, the founder of the deportation wing of the GOP, had one of the best sound bytes from last week’s CNN-YouTube debate: He assessed his fellow candidates’ immigration platforms as "people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo."

Indeed, with apologies to Barbara Mandrell, Tancredo was against immigration before being against immigration was cool.

During the debate, Tancredo fielded a question from a small-business owner who stays competitive with imports by using employees through a seasonal guest worker program. Would Tancredo support the continuation of the guest worker program as president? the man asked.

"Well, I’ll tell you, I’m not going to aid any more immigration into this country," Tancredo said, going on to say that "massive immigration, both legal and illegal" makes assimilation difficult and takes American jobs.

"I reject the idea, categorically, that there are jobs that ‘no American will take.’ I reject it," he said.

Over applause, Tancredo said he believes that American workers eschew the jobs illegal immigrants are doing because of the low wages and poor working conditions they typically entail.

But it was the next statement that made me look up from the dishes I was washing.

"But am I going to feel sorry if a business has to increase its wages in order for somebody in this country to make a good living? No, I don’t feel sorry about that and I won’t apologize for it for a moment. And there are plenty of Americans who will do those jobs," Tancredo said.

Whoa, I thought. I wonder how Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, Dole and others agricultural giants will feel about this!

What about the National Association of Home Builders, their state subsidiaries and all the associated construction trade organizations?

A Republican candidate for president arguing for better pay and working conditions? Tancredo sure sounded more like he was stumping for a union endorsement than trying to impress a bunch of capitalists.

It’s a simple fact that the labor provided by illegal immigrants undergirds a large portion of the economy. The question is whether American workers would, indeed, fill those jobs held by illegal immigrants – and, if so, at what cost.

Finding the answer will require a lot of deft stepping by the candidates over America’s new third rail.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pricing the priceless: What is your vote worth?

(Originally published 12/1/07)

You are going to be very, very angry in about five minutes.

According to a survey of 3,000 students at New York University last month, 66 percent of those polled said they would trade their right to vote next year for a year’s tuition at the school.

That’s right. For about $35,000, two-thirds of NYU students would give up their right to vote.

Think that’s crazy? Twenty percent would take – get this – an iPod Touch.

I know that’s unbelievable, so here it is again: One in five students would sell his vote for an electronic gadget that retails for $299.

Gather ‘round, children, while I tell the story about the day America died.

How many of you served in the military? Have spouses, brothers, sisters, moms or dads who wore the uniform?

Who among you has nursed the wounds – physical or otherwise – of a soldier returned from battle? Who has stood at the graveside of a loved one, heard the echo of a 21-gun salute and received a folded flag?

When I read about that survey, my first instinct was to gather up a few friends, head to NYU and stage a little campus protest, if you know what I mean.

Shocking. Shameless. Selfish. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the pure heinousness of the attitudes behind these results.

To their credit, some NYU students were similarly repulsed by the survey’s results. "Is an i-Touch worth a dictatorship? How about one of those PLUS an i-Phone?" asked one student in the Politico’s forum.

I wonder what the men and women of Iraq would say about this survey. I bet their comments could be summed up by one purple-tinged finger.

I wonder what the men at Lexington and Valley Forge, Antietam and Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Bataan, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Saigon, Kabul, Fallujah and countless of other battlefields where American blood has been spilled would say.

While researching this story, I read over a history of the struggle in which American women fought for the vote: "One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage." Could $35,000 balance the gritty determination of Stanton, Anthony, Howe and their partners in the struggle – or the alienation, public humiliation and retribution they suffered along the way?

And what about those who led the civil rights movement? Pull up YouTube on your iTouch, NYU students, and hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his dream to the quarter-million people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963. Listen to that, then ponder your price.

How could the freedoms bought and secured by so many for so much be worth so little in the eyes of so many?

Another contributor to the forum called it "a sign of the times," adding, "The 20-something generation hasn’t really experienced any sort of major global hardship so they’ve gotten complacent. To them the whole world is just a big nationless, cultureless mess of wannabe hipsters sipping $6 lattes at the local coffee shop."

Some observers have sought to blunt the survey: 90 percent of the students who said they would trade their vote also considered voting "very important" or "somewhat important," they said, and although fully half of the students surveyed said they would give up their right to vote forever, it would take $1 million.

I can see them now: "That’s a lot of money, even with the weak dollar," they nod approvingly.

John Gage was right: Signal you’re for sale, and the only remaining question is your price.

Apparently, the price of freedom isn’t what it used to be – and that’s an insult of the highest order to those who defend it.