Friday, October 30, 2009

Joe Lieberman as Fredo Corleone

Joe Lieberman has spent a lot of time over the past few weeks making a spectacle of his disloyalty to the Democratic Party. He's gone out of his way to announce that he'll filibuster against the public option, preventing the majority that gives him his committee chairmanship from bringing their most important legislation to a vote. Then, as if it weren't already clear, Lieberman wanted make sure everyone knew he'd be stumping for some Republicans in 2010. Just in case, you know, anyone mistakenly thought he was loyal to the caucus that gives him his power in the Senate.

My usual approach is to look for the logic (whether sound or not) behind seemingly irrational or quirky decisions. But plenty of other people have already taken their best shot at finding some clever stratagem buried inside Lieberman's operatic disloyalty, and come up empty. This isn't a smart play at all. Lieberman's constituents are solidly behind the measure he's threatening to torpedo, and behind the President he's defying. He can't get anything close to the deal the Democrats are already giving him from the Republicans, and while the Democratic leadership has been too easy on him there's no percentage in reminding them of that. This isn't business. This is personal.

Lieberman's frustrating and possibly self-destructive behavior is an example of the management riddle I call The Fredo Problem, after the incompetent brother in The Godfather. For those of you who aren't familiar with the movies or the novel, Fredo Corleone is not at all cut out to be a gangster like his father and brothers, but is kept around their organization in progressively-more-marginal roles while his terrifyingly competent little brother runs the business. Predictably, no good comes of this. The Fredo Problem comes from employees who, like Fredo, can't be fired but who also can't advance, because their expectations outstrip their capabilities. Keeping such employees happy is basically impossible. Keeping them loyal to the organization is nearly so.

The Fredo problem isn't simply about incompetence or about ambition, each of which can be managed. It’s about the horrible, unsustainable conjunction of the two. The only thing that a Fredo believes will make him happy is a job that he isn't qualified to get. In fact, Fredos are often mediocre at the jobs they already have, and can't go anywhere else without accepting a big demotion. So they're stuck where they are, and their supervisors and co-workers are stuck with them.

How does this apply to a man who’s a United States Senator, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and seemingly on the Sunday chat shows twice a week? The secret to understanding Lieberman’s behavior is that he expected to be the candidate for President in 2008.

When Lieberman was nominated as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, he had to indulge himself in some fairly vivid and specific fantasies of running for the big prize, presumably as incumbent Vice-President, in 2008. That dream can be very difficult to let go of. And in each of the national elections since then, Lieberman has made efforts to get on a national ticket. He ran in the Democratic primaries in 2004, losing badly, and clearly negotiated with McCain about joining the Republican ticket in 2008. (Since McCain was considering Lieberman until very late in the process, and only dissuaded from choosing him at the last moment, McCain had to know that his friend from Connecticut would say yes.) That Lieberman would consider defecting to McCain’s losing cause suggests how unrealistically he evaluates his own chances, and how hard it is for him to give up his West Wing dreams. Even Lieberman’s refusal to use his Homeland Security Committee to rein in Bush and Cheney is connected to his own imaginative identification with executive power and his own fantasies of wielding it.

The hard truth is, since Gore made him a national figure, Lieberman hasn’t succeeded much at anything. He was a mediocre running mate in a campaign that did not succeed in gaining the White House. Lieberman certainly isn’t to be blamed for how the Gore campaign went, but neither did he do much good or make any case for himself as a potential nominee. His 2004 campaign quickly became a footnote. (If you don’t remember that he ran: Yes. That’s the problem. And the fact that everyone but Joe himself has forgotten has to rankle.) And then Lieberman had the humiliation of losing his Senate primary and having to run as an independent while begging for campaign help from his Democratic peers (including wunderkind Obama). The last nine years of Lieberman’s political life have been very strange. He’s been brought to the brink of national power, only to have it slip further and further from him with every election cycle. He’s been given the royal treatment by the national press even as his actual political career brings him increasing frustrations and embarrassments. In fact, the more poorly he does, the more the TV pundits revere him. The cognitive dissonance must be dizzying, and the cycle of flattery and rejection in ever-increasing doses would be enough to erode most people’s judgment.

Worst of all, from Lieberman’s perspective, is that he’s been leapfrogged by an upstart, Barack Obama, who was entirely unknown when Lieberman got his first addictive taste of national glory. (As Fredo Corleone puts it, “You’re my kid brother! I was passed over!”) To Lieberman, who on some level believes he should have become president, the ascent of a youngster who in Lieberman’s mind wasn’t even supposed to be running is a particular affront. And being defeated by a politician from a younger generation makes it painfully apparent that Lieberman’s presidential hopes will never, ever bear fruit. If it seems to you unrealistic that Lieberman could ever imagine himself beating Obama, or think of himself as the rightful heir apparent, well, yes. Unrealistic ambition is the heart of Fredo-hood. Honest self-evaluation, which is the only path out of the Fredo Syndrome, is simply too painful, and the Fredo fights harder and harder to protect his fragile ego.

(Interestingly, defeated Vice-Presidential nominees have seemed more likely to turn into Fredos recently than defeated Presidential nominees have. John Kerry has become a good soldier for Obama, and seems to find chairing the Foreign Relations Committee honorable and engrossing, even if he had hoped for more. Al Gore has turned aside from presidential ambition and found enormous rewards along his new path. Meanwhile, the never-ready-for-prime time John Edwards has devolved into a petty schemer who can’t even count the cards in his own hand, making Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton offers they can refuse with laughable ease. Sarah Palin, a running mate so bad that her damage to the ticket can be measured by polls, has become the most spectacular Fredo of our time: Il Fredo di tutti Fredi, or if one prefers La Freda del Freddo. Maybe it’s that vice-presidential candidates can blame their principals and fantasize about another chance, while defeated presidential nominees know they’ve had their last shot, and that they’ve made their own decisions.)

Obama’s challenge in wrangling Lieberman is comparable to taking a job managing an employee who’s applied unsuccessfully for your job twice, and then barely held onto his own job after your predecessor tried to fire him. Harry Reid’s job is even less palatable, like trying to manage someone who’s applied for your boss’s job twice, survived one attempt to fire him for insubordination, and believes in his heart that you should be reporting to him and not the other way around. If it sounds insoluble, it is. The Godfather films offer no solution to this problem. (The end of The Godfather, Part II does not actually represent a plan. The Fredo problem is simply allowed to fester until it become completely insupportable and ends with the worst possible result for everyone.)

Fredos are almost inevitably disloyal, even when the people they betray their organization to offer them much less than the organization itself does. The Fredo can be bought with attention and flattery, by making him feel important. The home team, no matter how generously they treat the Fredo, will always be a source of wounded pride. That Barack Obama helped Lieberman when he was down in Connecticut gets him less than nothing; reminding Lieberman of that only reminds Lieberman of being down. John McCain’s expressed desire to put Lieberman on a doomed ticket earned McCain attack-dog loyalty even though McCain didn’t follow through. Lieberman was willing to do the surrogate dirty work for McCain, who had given him nothing, that Lieberman had been unwilling to do for Al Gore when it counted. The key is that McCain treated Lieberman as a serious contender, White House material, while the Democrats had long since stopped thinking of Lieberman that way.

There is no way to fix this as long as Lieberman remains in both denial and the Senate. And, as Puzo’s Godfather suggests, disloyalty can become an identity that is nearly impossible to abandon. Disloyalty only makes the Fredo more unhappy with himself, and more resentful, because it makes it even harder for the Fredo to examine himself honestly. You might forgive a traitor, as Tom Hagen puts it near the end of Puzo’s novel, “but people never forgive themselves, and so they [will] always be dangerous.”

cross-posted at

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sports Are Serious

So last Sunday I was thinking: could Chris Berman be a political talking head in this country? And would he be any worse than the natterers on cable news, or the morning shows? I mean, Berman is clearly a silly and shallow blowhard, but that never stopped Tim Russert.

My suspicion, fully borne out this week by l'affaire Limbaugh, is that sports are treated far more seriously in this country than politics are, especially by our media. That a comment on the state of our political press and on our national priorities.

Rush Limbaugh is not serious or stable enough to buy into an NFL team. This is true. (And, to get the NFL's back, they're an association of private businesses, in a business based on publicity, and they have every right to choose partners who will reflect well on them and not create problems or damage their brand. You can't make somebody take a business partner.) However Limabaugh's fundamental lack of stability, seriousness, or basic politeness does not disbar him from discussing public affairs in this country.

Should this be a shock? Please. ESPN has already fired the man, for making divisive and intemperate comments. There's no place for a toxic clown like Limbaugh in the business of big-time sports. So he had to go back to discussing politics. (Where transparent race-baiting is not only permitted, it seems, but entitles the race-baiter to self-righteous counter-attacks on his critics.)

Dennis Miller, similarly, was not knowledgeable or lucid enough for Monday Night Football. So instead he has to talk about politics.

On the other hand, an ESPN personality like Keith Olbermann can make the transition from snarking about box scores in the morning to cable news punditry without seeming in any way less smart, serious or prepared than his rivals. In fact, by comparison he's the smart one. And while he too is a pompous, self-righteous and inflammatory geek (in the original sense, as someone who would bite of a chicken's head to get a moment's attention), he is only nearly as bad in this regard as his competition.

We don't take politics nearly as seriously as we take sports. We do not demand the integrity, the manners or the garden-variety sanity from our political commenters that we insist on from the color guy on the game of the week. And that, eventually, will show up in the box score.

cross-posted at

Friday, October 09, 2009

Prize Logic, Part One

So, have you heard about President Obama winning the Nobel Prize? If you'd suggested this to me yesterday, I wouldn't have believed it, let alone been able to put forth an argument for it, so I won't pretend it made intuitive sense when I woke up this morning.

I do think this prize makes more sense when you think about the nature of the Nobels for Peace, and for Literature, and understand how they work. If you think of the Nobels, or similar prizes, as straightforward and objective rewards for merit, then it seems obvious that Obama should continue paying his dues, and maybe the Middle East's dues, before it's his turn.

Of course, the Peace Prize, unlike the other Nobels, has never been about completed labors. It's not a gold watch for a retiree. They didn't wait for global warming to end to give the Prize to Gore. They didn't wait for Poland to free itself from Communism to give the Prize to Lech Walesa, who won in 1983. This is the twentieth anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama winning the Prize; his homeland remains under Chinese rule. And the 1991 winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest. The prize has always been for the struggles the recipient undertakes rather than the struggles they win. A prize that's about ending war forever has never been solely about results.

But the larger problem is that no award like the Nobel Peace Prize is or ever could be an objective recognition of merit. There is no way to assess the question objectively. (The Prize for Literature, like all arts prizes, faces the same question.) The Nobel Prize is not a box score. It is an action, taken by the committee.

That action does two things: it attempts to build up the prestige of the Prize itself, and it lends the Prize's accumulated prestige to the winners, as additional leverage in their struggles.

The first is less obvious, so I'll deal with it first, and save the second for another post. The Prize always seems to be a straightforward consecration of the winner by the Prize committee. But the Nobel, like any other prize, is only as prestigious as the list of previous winners make it. Sure, the Prize comes with 1.4 million dollars, and that's not hay. But if a bunch of rich donors started giving out a 3 million dollar prize ever year, and always ended up giving it to obscure state legislators with crank theories, the prize would never matter to anyone. The Nobel Peace Prize matters because Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King and Theodore Roosevelt and George C. Marshall won it. Has it gone to the occasional dud? Sure. It's impossible to get it right every time. But part of the Prize Committee's business is choosing recipients who will sustain and increase the prize's luster. In the long run, it's Dr. King and President Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama who make the prize big, more than it's the other way around.

(This, very clearly, is how the Prize for Literature works. Even if it's been given to a few second-raters over the years, the fact that it's gone to Yeats and Faulkner and Garcia Marquez makes it virtually impossible to refuse. And understanding the prize decisions are based on the attempt to promote the Prize's own future prestige makes those decisions easier to understand.)

The Prize Committee didn't just give Obama something. They also attempted to attach themselves to him, to make his stature and charisma part of the Prize going forward. (Ask not what the Nobel can do for you ....) It's an investment decision, although the investment is in symbolic capital. The committee invested the Prize's authority in President Obama, speculating that over time his historical profile would make that authority grow.

Giving the sixth Peace Prize to Theodore Roosevelt was probably one of the smartest investments the Peace Prize Committee ever made, associating the prize with a charismatic international statesman and a rising world power. The previous winners had been pacifists and international activists: worthy people, but with nothing like Roosevelt's clout or stature. Giving Roosevelt the Prize changed its nature, and increased its influence.

The Prize Committee's decision can be understood as a sign that it wants to grab onto Obama's coattails, and more importantly to associate itself with the United States and its international power, just as the 1906 Prize Committee did. Clearly, the committee does not imagine the United States as a power in decline. Rather, they seem excited about America returning to a position of world leadership. Obama gets the prize, I suspect, for coming back to the world table as Chairman of the Board, a position that Bush abdicated.

American leadership, American international diplomacy, American power is in again, and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee wants to buy in early. I think that's the best news I, as an American, can have.

More thoughts in the next post.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"Especially for the Women": The Scarlet Letterman

Near the end of his televised confession Thursday night, David Letterman admitted that the details of his affairs with staffers might be embarrassing, "especially for the women."

That line was a lot of things: a self-deprecating joke, an appeal for privacy, an attempt to position himself as the defender of his former employees and girlfriends. Perhaps it was a disingenuous piece of rhetoric; perhaps it was a sincere moment of protectiveness; it could very easily be both. But whatever else it was, it was the truth.

The most vulnerable people in this scandal are the people who are not rich or famous. That means, as it so often means in sexual scandals, the women.

That truth is being roundly ignored in our media. The hunt is on to name and number every co-worker Dave's slept with, the consequences for those women be damned.

Blogs, alas, led the way to the bottom. One of Letterman's assistants had been widely identified as a figure in the case before noon on Friday. Blogs were providing pictures and video of her. (Gawker, TMZ, Radar: I am looking, but not linking, your way.) By Saturday morning, even the Gray Lady was giving up a name, although this person has not been accused of any crime, appears to have no involvement in the blackmail plot, and (as the subordinate in a workplace affair) can't possibly have harassed her multimillionaire celebrity boss. The New York Times actually reveals her name in an article that explicitly admits she's not a suspect.

I understand no one's very interested in what happens to these people after they're publicly dragged through the mud. That's exactly what's wrong with it. Even if the press isn't interested in people themselves, because they don't happen to be bright shiny celebrities, the media should concern itself with the consequences of its own actions. And it's precisely the private figures, the women, who get hurt.

Consider the one person to be punished most heavily for Bill Clinton's sexual escapades: Monica Lewinsky.

Now, many people might think that Clinton was punished most. Wasn't he publicly humiliated? Wasn't he impeached by the House? Didn't he see his presidency at risk. It's easy to focus on Clinton, because he's more interesting and dramatic and because he had so much more to lose. And that's the point.

Lewinsky didn't have nearly as much to lose. So she lost all of it.

Clinton had vastly more to lose, which made him vastly easier for him to sustain losses, to defend against them, and to recoup them. He lost some dignity and some respect and some influence, but was left more than enough to rebuild his position. I think you'll notice that he's doing just fine today. Mrs. Clinton, dragged through the humiliating scandal, has also done rather well for herself. It's just Lewinsky, who was not famous or talented or powerful or special, who has to wear the virtual scarlet letter until she dies. After that, she'll be trashed one last time, in the obit for the Times.

Do you think Lewinsky will ever have a normal job interview again in her life? Do you think she'll ever go on normal first date? What do you think happens to her when she checks into a hotel, when she hands a cashier or a waiter her credit card, when she's recognized in the street? Civilians don't get to live things down the way stars do. She doesn't get a second act, where the talents that originally made her famous "redeem" her from ignominy; the ignominy is what made her famous.

And Lewinsky, unlike a politician or media star, doesn't have the kind of money it takes to insulate her from public shame. Bill Clinton doesn't check into a hotel at the front desk, and he doesn't get served by a waiter who wasn't specifically prepared to serve him, and he doesn't go to the supermarket. Wealthy people involved in a scandal have their personal shoppers, and their housekeepers, and their security staff between themselves and the thousand petty humiliations Lewinsky gets. Nor can Lewinsky make even part of the money it would take for that, except by participating in the same media freakshow that ruined her. Any hope Lewinsky had of a normal career was pretty much scorched by her mid-20s. (Imagine telling your legal department that you had hired America's most famous workplace fraternizer.) That's why the poor underqualified kid had to go on freaking book tour, because the only money she could make came from her humiliating place in the public eye. But Lewinsky doesn't have the rarefied talents that would allow her to navigate a successful public career. Really, almost none of us do.

Neither, alas, do the women Letterman has slept with at work. We're not talking about Merrill Markoe here, who was once his head writer and who helped him invent the Letterman show we're familiar with today. We're talking about women, now in or around their thirties, who originally had unglamorous production-side jobs with Letterman and who have now moved into decent professional gigs in TV or in other careers. There's no value to hurting these people's modest careers or their private lives, unless ruining and humiliating a bystander is imagined as a good in itself. They won't be harmed as widely or as profoundly as Lewinsky was. The scandal won't be as big, and they've had more time to build resumes and reputations in fields outside "public laughingstock." But they will be certainly harmed, and their ability to protect themselves in limited.

And what have these people done? They've made an error of judgment while young and in possession of a vagina. That's why they'll get no protection, and why some people will justify trashing them in public: because women's sexual decisions are stigmatized in a way men's never are.

That's why the general public is okay with trashing Lewinsky: she's a scarlet woman, who committed adultery with another woman's husband. She was also an immature twenty-something who lacked the sense or worldly experience to turn a charismatic older man who was leader of the free world. In any just or merciful world, she would be allowed to live that mistake down. It's not a moment of shining virtue, but Clinton shouldn't need to rely on Lewinsky's judgment to head off bad behavior.

Some of Letterman's employees slept with him: maybe because he had more power, maybe because they were starstruck, maybe because he seemed so much more accomplished and interesting than suitors closer to their age could be. Stupid? Maybe. Immature? Yes; in every case, we're probably talking about people under thirty, very early in their careers. And it wasn't for them to bring the maturity to the table when they dealt with Letterman. God knows, they made a human enough mistake, and it shouldn't be open to google and the wide world for the rest of their lives.

If we're going to be Victorians, we should be consistent at least. If we still, after all this time, punish women's sexual misdemeanors harder than we punish men's, we should at least have the corresponding Victorian reticence about exposing vulnerable young women to scandal. It's still especially embarrassing for the women, even if it shouldn't be. So it would be nice to keep their names out of it.

crossposted at