Archive for May 2008

Tired people say stupid things.

May 30, 2008

Last summer, when the presidential candidates were still wedged into their respective debate venues like too many SUVs in too few spaces meant for Honda Civics, and Nevada was still a campaign destination, the Reasonable Reporter was granted a sit-down interview with one of them. The time allotted was ten minutes.

The candidate arrived at the airport around dinner time, after a long flight from a state east of the Mississippi. He came directly to the event site, spoke to the assembled partisans for about 15 minutes, and then retired to a conference room for the interview, where he immediately requested a cup of coffee. His eyes were dull and dark-circled, and his skin had a grayish cast. The press coordinator said they’d gotten up at 4 a.m. after a late fundraising event.

(He. There will be no ambiguity about whether the candidate was Mrs. Clinton. It was not.)

The Reasonable Reporter often begins an interview with a politician by asking a question about his area of greatest expertise. There are several reasons for this, but mostly it’s a cover-your-cute-little-buns technique that ensures if the plug gets pulled early, there is at least one piece of tape containing complete sentences and a bit of substance to facilitate further research. God helps those who help themselves.

The coffee arrived, and the question was asked, and indeed, the candidate should have been able to go on at some length. The candidate, in fact, should have been able to hold up his end of a one-hour interview on just this subject, given his level of expertise.

He began to answer, and stopped in the middle of the first sentence. He started again, got about three sentences into it and then stopped.

The candidate looked helplessly at the Reasonable Reporter and said, “I know what you mean, but…”

He took a swig of coffee and said “Let’s start again.” At which point he fell back on a talking point, although it was clear that his original intention had been to deliver something more.

The months passed, and then there were three. They’ve all been tired for many months, and tiredness does wreak hell with the human brain.

If you have doubts, ask someone who works the morning radio shift, where wake-up time is 3:30 a.m., day after day after freaking day. Drooling at dinner? Yes, if you can stay awake for dinner. Reading a newspaper? Well, you can stare at the words, but on any given day, the meaning can be quite unclear. Calling your spouse by the cat’s name? It’s been known to happen.

Someone should study the performance of the American presidential candidates in terms of mistakes per day, and then factor in the length of the campaign, the number of appearances, time zones traveled, and hours of sleep.

The results might show an amazing level of competence considering the circumstances. The mystery would be why relatively few blunders – given the stress on the human machine — manifest themselves in such devastating terms. References to assassination, for instance.

Maybe tiredness allows a glimpse into their souls, and maybe tiredness just mixes up the marbles. And maybe the regional primary advocates are right, and the primary period is just too long. Maybe several regionals would leave the hopefuls functioning better, and put them back in the Senate where they could pay proper attention to the very issues they claim to want to solve, and all the inappropriate utterances would be made in the proper zip code.

Voluntary immersion in contradictions of all kinds

May 23, 2008

It is the solemn responsibility of intelligent people to wrestle with contradiction. The month of May has served up a heaping load of contradiction while the Reasonable Reporter was busy with other things, not the least of which was exploring the inherent contradictions in police work and motherhood, for a news series on female cops with kids.

Contradiction #1: As that work was being done, a woman who operated quite outside the law chose to end her life, rather than go to prison. The suicide of D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey should have served to spotlight the nation’s schizophrenic public attitude toward the oldest profession. But it didn’t. Since we began to glorify ourselves by identifying and taunting hypocrites, news organizations are no longer occupied with analysis of victimless crimes.

A notable feature of Palfrey’s legal battle was the publication of phone records which were presumed to contain the identities of many high-profile Beltway customers. (While it yielded few that were considered “newsworthy” it caused some johns to scramble to the phone and order their attorneys to negotiate ways to keep their names quiet.)

Meanwhile, there are American cities where powerless, ordinary-citizen-johns are publicly humiliated through a program that publishes their names in newspapers, and forces them to pay money to attend federally subsidized “john school.” In john school, the customers are educated about the dangers of buying sex on the street. In some of the cities — the Planet San Francisco for instance, where political enlightenment dictates the designation “sex worker” rather than prostitute — the johns are chastised by former sex workers for the psychological harm their patronage causes the women. Sounds almost sexy, doesn’t it?

Did any of the late Deborah Jean Palfrey’s johns advocate, administer, or vote for the federal funding that pays for john schools? This contradiction has not been explored, and Palfrey’s suicide went rather unnoticed, as sex-and-politics stories go.

Contradiction #2: Hillary Clinton is offering up some finely-crafted contradiction, promising simultaneously that she will never give up the fight, and that she will support the nominee, implicit in which is that she will not be the nominee.

This seems to sum up a longstanding Hillary Clinton dilemma. She is the alpha dog who isn’t free to fully express her alpha-ness.

Recall the soft entry, with the chatty living room video and the pink suits. At Nevada caucus appearances, everyone who introduced Hillary or who spoke on her behalf reliably followed this three-part formula: Didn’t know her and I had no opinion of her. Then I met her, and was surprised by her intelligence. Oh, and I was really taken with how nice she is. She’s really nice. Really, she is.

The focus on nice was necessary, since Hillary was not considered likeable, and was generally not known for being nice.

Why didn’t they know what the rest of us smart girls know? It is not possible to be both the smartest girl in the class, and the most popular girl in the class. There are plenty of smart girls who can testify that nobody has ever pulled it off. The smart girls inside the campaign should have figured this out much sooner.

Hillary has gone from nicer-than-we-could-have-imagined, back to tougher- than-everyone-else. She broke down and cried in New Hampshire. Four months later she was touted in Indiana for having testicles. (The testicle talk was quickly put on ice, you should pardon the expression. It was just too amusing to be of any help.)

Contradiction #3: Apropos of nothing, except for voluntary immersion in contradictions of all kinds. iTunes has made it possible to spend a dollar and own a single song by an artist whose broader repertoire is not of any interest.

The Reasonable Reporter is not and has never been a fan of Bruce Springsteen. But as a student of audio production, she is prepared to credit him with one of the most perfect pieces of music ever produced, recently rediscovered through the miracle of iTunes.

For anyone who’s forgotten, and for anyone who’s never heard it, Tunnel of Love is a study in contradiction, swirling and bubbly on top, suggesting the ecstatic giddiness of being swept into love. Beneath the top tracks, there’s a strength and consistency that supports the song’s lyrics, which lay out the maturity and commitment required to stay in love once you’re up to your neck in it.

All the while, every sting and strain and guitar strum on every track is clear, and the song is subtly punctuated with the sounds of carnival rides. Subtly punctuated, she repeated.

In two decades since the song was produced, multi-track production technology has become so simple, anyone can do it. But nobody is engaging in this kind of artistry. Check it out, you can’t beat it for a buck.

Even an old guy like McCain would know better.

May 16, 2008

“Hold on a second, Sweetie,” said the Democratic front-runner to the female reporter. And Barack Obama says John McCain has lost his bearings! What’s next, for crying all night, “How’s it going, toots?” “Be right with ya, doll?”

The Reasonable Reporter is not particularly sensitive about misplaced terms of endearment from men. Most men mean well. And let’s face it, some of the things they say are just plain funny.

One former boss actually said, in the context of a formal review, “You know, you’re a very sharp gal.” That’s some damn funny material, and why squelch it? God knows, there’s little enough humor in the workplace.

But in politics, the guys who blast beyond the level of, let’s say, Commissioner of Traffic and Parking — they need to mind their manners when it comes to interactions with women. That’s because lots of women are touchy as hell about the way you treat them.

(And this is ironic, considering how an association to any sex-related misstep by just the right man can pay off in spades for a sharp gal. Consider Eliot Spitzer’s call girl, whose singing ambitions were discovered, and who racked up thousands of downloads from people curious to sample her music after the former New York governor’s prostitution scandal broke.)

Now Detroit TV reporter Peggy Agar has national profile as a result of having been double-dissed by a presidential candidate, who simultaneously ducked her question and addressed her as “sweetie.” Agar was presented with an interesting dilemma. Let it pass, and become the heroine of local newsroom folklore, or report it, which would inevitably put her at the center of the story.

Agar recorded her now-famous news package, in which she focused on campaign issues. She included audio of her own shouted question to Obama and the sweetie response, and tagged out of her report saying, “This sweetie never did get an answer to that question.”

This was not necessarily the wrong choice, given our American fixation with fake respect in politics, and given that Mr. Obama is beating the socks off of a classic 1970s feminist. The blunder needed to be reported, and by the way, it was reported by other outlets, something any first-year journalism student could have predicted.

But Agar took a cheap shot, which was the easy way out. When she decided to make herself part of the story, she put herself on the hook for pursuing the interesting question: Shouldn’t a law professor- Democratic politician- minority presidential candidate who came of age in the 1980s know better?

She might have been justified in breaking with protocol to chase down Obama and his entourage like a bunch of dogs, and throw a righteous fit — off camera — in order to end up with a great step-back piece about gender and power and elitism, topics which have become central to this race.

Of course, the Reasonable Reporter has no idea what Agar was up against in that particular situation. Sometimes it’s impossible to push, sometimes there are physical constraints, sometimes you really do need a moment to think. She may have lost the opportunity by pausing to ask herself, um, did he just call me sweetie?

As for Obama, he later called her and more-or-less owned up losing his bearings. He made a very skillful apology, and that’s why he’s the front-runner.

Gibbons divorce- we hope to honor the boundaries.

May 5, 2008

Hey wait a minute — isn’t this the state that made divorce into a commodity? Why the preoccupation with our governor’s failed marriage?

Here’s why: because there’s a lingering bit of neurosis in our American souls that says politicians should have solid marriages, while surgeons, college professors, accountants, hair dressers, and bus drivers can get divorced with no inquiry as to its affect on their job performance. This says a lot more about our attitude toward government than it does about our attitude toward marriage or professional competence.

Governor Gibbons has asked for privacy, and few details are available. That hasn’t stopped us from placing it at the top of the news, and won’t stop further probing into the most personal details from Jim and Dawn Gibbons’ marriage. Someone will get them, and someone will publish them.

What won’t be described, because it can’t be, is their personal anguish. Those who haven’t experienced divorce can’t do it justice, and those who have, if they’ve got a beating heart, would rather not try.

The Reasonable Reporter recalls an earlier chapter, when a chilly darkness descended over her own household while the daily business of life went on for more than a year. Weekends were planned, dry cleaning was picked up, friends were entertained, material obligations were met. But there was an odd emptiness to it all.

More strange, in retrospect, was the utter lack of eye contact. How do two people live under the same roof day after day, week after week, and never look each other in the eye?

Ah, the tidal wave of relief on the day the word was finally spoken. “Divorce.” It wasn’t until three months later, during the final sweep of the vacuum cleaner over the vacant floors of a vacant house, that the sadness finally set in.

As for job performance, it sharpened during and after the divorce. The job was a place to focus. Besides, when your worthiness as a life partner is called into question, professional competence takes on new importance. Hell, your boss always loves you as along as you deliver the goods. That’s one relationship where the rules are clear cut.

Probably, no two divorces are alike. But one suspects the broad outlines are similar. And one hopes we can honor the boundaries. It’s not up to us, of course, it’s up to our bosses, who love us as long as we deliver the goods.