Wednesday 28 November 2012

America the changeable

The most important lesson learned from the recent elections is that the US is no longer the country many of us assumed it to be.

Was it ever? Probably not, just when the pious Pilgrims thought they had found their “shining city upon a hill” they had to deal with the rambunctious merchant Dutch.

These New Amsterdamers, however, were a heavenly host compared with the hordes of Papist Paddies who swept through the Eastern Seaboard followed by waves of Germans, Jews, Italians, Hispanics and Asians – not to mention resentful Africans in chains.

These United States are in constant flux. All the more amazing then that a political party would choose to actively alienate more recent arrivals along with other entrenched minorities. Indeed, it often appears that the modern GOP is the spiritual heir of the 19th Century Know-Nothing Party.

My own poor observations of the recent election campaign led me to believe that President Obama would win between 300 and 330 electoral votes. The bedrock of that assumption was that Gov. Romney could not win Ohio, or any other Mid-Western industrialized state, after stating that he would not have intervened to save the iconic American automobile industry.

I also felt that by coming out against the Dream Act the governor would lose both Colorado and Florida, states with large Hispanic voting blocks.

Although most polls correctly predicted the president’s re-election, my sense is that African-Americans, Hispanics and youth have traditionally been under-represented - particularly in landline calls – thus leading to a greater Obama margin of victory.

Why then did Gov. Romney schedule a fireworks victory extravaganza over Boston Harbor for election night? Probably because his pollsters were looking at a country they imagined rather than the real one in front of their eyes. They believed their own hype.

As did most of the media, and that’s one of the problems with modern society. The media jumps on an idea, expounds on it endlessly until it seems to become a reality – “seems” being the operative word.

In the recent election the “reality” was the First Debate “knockout.” Actually, I thought the president shaded the debate in substance, if not style. The governor argued very well but said little of any consequence – his mistake through the whole campaign. He ran against the president’s record but was unable to specify or - more importantly – quantify his own plans.

He did get a solid boost in the polls immediately after the first debate but that was likely Republicans and “independents” coming home. Then again, I’ve always felt that that a majority of white independents (are there any others?) naturally lean more Republican than Democrat.

Did the much-vaunted Obama ground team win the election? They definitely helped but only by enfranchising mostly minority voters and bringing them into the system.

In the end, the victory didn’t hinge on unemployment figures or the economy – most voters felt that the president was a decent enough man who had taken on an almost impossible job. They agreed with him that saving the automobile industry and stabilizing an errant financial industry by judicious big government intervention were necessary moves. After all, what were the alternatives?

Four social truths were learned and they tipped the vote decisively in the president’s favor: Young people are open to gay rights and marriage, women resent politicians who call for the abolition of Planned Parenthood, Hispanics don’t care for the notion of self-deportation, and African-Americans sense inherent racism in the more lurid opposition to this black president (voting patterns among whites in the eleven states of the Confederacy would seem to support their suspicions).

I, for one, am an admirer of certain core Republican principles; this is after all the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower; and there is need for a true conservative party – but one that looks to figures rather than fantasies.

In Texas a majority of schoolchildren are now Hispanic – in twelve years the Lone Star will be a swing state. This is an ever-changing country – any party that ignores that fact does so at its peril.

It’s time for a return of common sense to politics. Chickens always come home to roost.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

The People Have Spoken

So, the election is all over bar the shoutin’! And if you’re from a “swing” state, I’m sure you’re beyond relieved. The rest of us could have slept through the whole affair - says a lot for the Electoral College take on democracy.

How did this election ever end up so competitive – in popular votes, at least? Why would 49% of the country be willing to invest their hopes in a candidate whose only economic policy was “trust me I’m a businessman?”

Oh well, in the end sanity prevailed. But it was a close call and, perhaps, when all is said and done, Gov. Romney would have made a decent president. We’ll never know, given that his views changed more often than Westport weather.

The important question now is will President Obama waste the next two years, as he did his first two, fantasizing that Congressional Republicans will make any meaningful compromise to promote both economic growth and deficit reduction.

He’s got less than seven weeks to come up with a plan that will prevent the “fiscal cliff” can from being booted into next year. What’s so difficult? Cuts will have to be made in entitlements and taxes raised on those earning above $250,000.

There is no lack of credible plans, including the Simpson-Bowles Report; it’s political courage that’s in short supply.

The President should be bold – what has he got to lose? His next race will probably be the 2017 New York Marathon. And he shouldn’t waste his time smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis with Republican House Leader, John Boehner – that man will have enough on his plate dodging his backstabbing second in command, Rep. Eric Cantor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be of even less help: with the Tea Party threatening a primary challenge, look for him to be veering somewhere to right of Attila The Hun over the next two years.

The President should put a reasonable offer on the table; then take his case to the country. Many Republican seats will be up for election in 2014 and blatant obstructionism will not be a popular platform on which to run. The people want a meaningful political compromise that will keep them off the bread lines while paying down the Chinese credit card.

One thing we will get is emigration reform and mucho pronto. In fact it will be a rare Republican who will not be sporting a sombrero and munching on tacos over the next four years. Gov. Romney would be packing for the Oval Office now if he hadn’t advised “self-deportation” to a politically astute and growing Latino population.

No matter what Fox TV says - there has to be a pathway for decent, hard-working people to gain legal status while continuing to contribute to the growth of the country.

One of the highlights of election night was witnessing how democracy is nurtured by the forging of coalitions. President Obama was re-elected by a wide-ranging alliance not limited to women, young people, Latinos, African-Americans, union-members, entrepreneurs, gays, and people from all across the political spectrum who see strength in diversity and community.

The country is evolving and changing – not just in the urban areas but out in the heartland too. American’s greatest resource has always been its vast melting pot that encourages people to reach out beyond their own ethnic and socio-economic confines. Historically, any political party that turns its back on changing demographics does so at its peril.

There will be changes in the ranks of power down in DC. Look for Senator Elizabeth Warren to protect the rights of the consumer and to help a lightly regulated financial industry understand that there’s more to this country than just making a buck.

But perhaps most importantly - two misguided little men will not pervert the corridors of DC with their antediluvian notions that rape is ever “legitimate” or the “will of God.”

The election is indeed over – the people have spoken. It’s time for both sides to give up the petty party politics and work together to restore the country to a sound social and economic footing.

Thursday 15 November 2012

colony records and the sound of silence

You may have noticed Colony Records as you strolled down Broadway – a relic from another era on the corner of 49th. Come to think of it Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant used to be just up the block; in days gone by the old mauler would shake your hand and inquire how things were in Glocca Morra should you mention you were Irish.

Though Colony Records didn’t quite have Dempsey’s pedigree I meant to make one last visit before its recent demise.

Colony did sell records, CDs too, but sheet music was their bag! The store was a Mecca for musicologists - from the highbrow on the hunt for archaic symphonies or barely remembered Broadway flops, to the more humble of us who couldn’t figure out some chord or other.

There was a dusty feel to the place, in keeping with the mounds of sheet music that straddled the store; in fact, part of the charm of a visit was watching the very knowledgeable clerks locate some manuscript from amidst the seeming chaos.

This hunt was often preceded by the customer humming or hollering some bars to the clerk who would cock his ears in empathetic concentration before leaping into action.

On the rare occasion he was flummoxed a colleague would be summoned and the customer instructed to have another belt at the melody; by this time a crowd would have gathered, for customers were often as well versed as the clerks.

It was in Colony one day that I realized I was standing within kissing distance of Paul Simon. I may have had a minor heart attack before embracing the compulsory New York cool. For a kid from Wexford to be sharing the same rarified oxygen with the writer of Bridge Over Troubled Waters was indeed an occasion.

I was later to meet Mr. Simon in the Irish Repertory Theatre when he attended a children’s musical, Rafferty Rescues The Moon, for which I had written the songs. While lounging in the foyer after a particularly spirited performance he approached me.

“Can I tell you something, man?” He inquired.

As I awaited his inevitable benediction of approval, I remembered our first “encounter” at Colony and marveled at how far I’d traveled.

“The piano was out of tune,” he murmured as I fought back the urge to introduce him to the wonders of a Ringsend Uppercut.

But now Colony is gone and with it the warren of studios, rehearsal rooms and agents’ offices that cluttered the upstairs floors of the Brill Building.
Talk about Broadway Danny Rose! Singers, comedians, bands and just the plain crazy flocked to that building, and if you had the required chutzpah you could stroll in on the highest of the mighty, particularly around lunch hour when the receptionists abandoned ship.

Many of these managers, agents and owners of small record companies tended to be squat, no-nonsense Jewish men who liked to chew on large cigars. They were always sympathetic, however, when you informed them you were “just off the boat from Ireland.”

One of them later explained that this arose “because Paul O’Dwyer smuggled guns into Israel for the Haganah.” Probably another Tin Pan Alley rumor, but as ever politics and music make for the oddest of bedfellows.

I liked those old Jewish gentlemen. Some of them may have ripped off the occasional musician but at least they could be appealed to. The new magnates now just appropriate us without even showing their faces.

A case in point: Who the hell is Spotify and what law or deity allows them to hijack my music without even a by-your-leave? In the old days I could have strolled up to the Brill Building, admired a gorgeous receptionist while she attended to her nails, and eventually gained an audience with my tormentor.

Ah, the good old days when one could rub shoulders with the Sound of Silence himself in Colony Records. And by the way, I think you were full of it, Paul - that Irish Rep piano still sounds in tune to me.

Saturday 3 November 2012

I'm Voting Conservative

Since my Irish Echo colleague, Gerry Adams, will supply next week’s column, this will be my final missive about the presidential election. Hooray for Sinn Fein, says your man from Pearl River!

What a long strange trip this election season has been; and the oddest part of it for me: despite the acres of words written about him, I still have little sense of Gov. Romney.

Part of this stems from his unwillingness to speak openly about his core religious beliefs. In fairness, Mormonism has been viewed suspiciously, and even persecuted, since its foundation in upstate New York almost 200 years ago.

Despite this, it’s a credit to the country that the Governor’s religion has played little role in this election. But I would venture to suggest that Mormon turnout in Nevada and Colorado could swing those two pivotal states into the Republican column.

Now, I’m of the opinion that a president’s private beliefs should remain his own. And yet, I have no idea how a President Romney would react to a major international crisis. And that’s scary – given our alliance with Israel and the lines in the sand that are being drawn with regard to Iran and its nuclear program.

The US suffered much from the melding of President Bush’s biblical fantasies and his obsession with fictional weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And who could have guessed that the supposedly agnostic British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, shared many of these beliefs and delusions until he revealed them in his memoirs.

Now hopefully Gov. Romney is the ultra-pragmatic venture capitalist of his memoir but that’s hard to be certain of for his positions seem to change by the day – probably because he must appease the many factions of a deeply divided Republican party that range from an apocalyptic Christian Right through neo-conservative Iraq War apologists to deficit hawks.

In contrast the once-turbulent Democrat Party seem more like a Saturday afternoon knitting circle. Though often labeled a socialist, so staid and centrist are President Obama’s views he might not even gain membership of the Wexford Labour Party, not exactly a fire-breathing Trotskyite cell.

The much derided Obamacare, though a step in the right direction, is essentially a patching together of existing systems that will do little to bring down overall medical costs; in fact, it used to be the Republican alternative to the Clintons’ much more efficient version of a single-payer system.

Odd as it may seem, “no drama” Obama is the real conservative in this election. We know his policies and their likely effect; should lady luck favor him the economy will improve steadily over the next four years - though the middle class will continue to shrink because of the lack of any major restraints on corporate power.

Contrast that with the Republican ticket. Slash taxes 20% in a Hail Mary pass that will hopefully shock-start the economy! But what if it doesn’t? The deficit will surely balloon unless you cut defense, entitlements or mortgage interest tax deductions. Given the saber-rattling about Iran, my guess is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and homeowner relief will all take a big hit.

That’s the problem with current Republican fiscal policy – it’s of the wing and prayer variety with little reality basis, except that it was tried by the last Bush administration and led to the evisceration of the Clinton surplus.

Likewise the mad urge to eliminate Obamacare – and replace it with what? As it stands even the insurance companies don’t want to go back to the old broken system – and why should they with so many new clients arriving courtesy of Obamacare mandatory coverage.

All that being said, I’m coming to agree with a friend who believes that this election will be decided less on economic matters than the reluctance of women to trust Romney/Ryan on social issues. She feels that with a couple of Supreme Court justices likely to be replaced in the next four years women are leery of upsetting the current somewhat reasonable balance of power.

So there you have it, faced with a choice between a radical Romney and a conservative Obama – I guess I’ll be voting conservative this year.