Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump‘s campaign slogan “make America great again” has become as ubiquitous as his personal brand (or, say, widespread violence at his rallies). But until now, Trump’s remained frustratingly vague about just when the U.S. was actually winning.
Now he’s finally given the public a clue of just what era he wants to take the U.S. back to. In an interview with the New York Times, the billionaire business mogul pointed to the onset of the 19th century and era during and after World War II as times when the U.S. was truly great.
“If you look back, it really was, there was a period of time when we were developing at the turn of the century which was a pretty wild time for this country and pretty wild in terms of building that machine, that machine was really based on entrepreneurship,” Trump told the paper.
“And then I would say, yeah, prior to, I would say during the 1940s and the late ’40s and ’50s we started getting, we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do, yeah around that period,” he added.
Perhaps by sheer coincidence (though likely not), this happens to be the era before extensive civil rights legislation was passed by Congress.
As CNN notes, Trump also did something few other Republicans might be able to get away with— criticizing the presidency of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who he blamed in part for the “disaster” of the NAFTA trade deal.
“As much as I liked Ronald Reagan, he started NAFTA,” Trump told the Times. “Now Clinton really was the one that — NAFTA has been a disaster for our country, O.K., and Clinton is the one as you know that got it done, but it was conceived even before Clinton, but you could say that maybe those people didn’t want done what was ultimately signed because it was changed a lot by the time it got finalized. But NAFTA has been a disaster for our country.”
Some stories are too good to check, and some myths are too perfect to bust. We’ve seen that dynamic in action all month, as GOP presidential candidates trot out their favorite foreign policy anecdote: the Parable of the Hostages.
The story goes that on the day of his inauguration, in January 1981, President Reagan convinced the Iranian regime to free the American Embassy hostages more or less just by glaring harshly in the direction of Tehran, which quailed in the face of his unyielding toughness and released the Americans immediately.
According to this appealing version of recent history, Iran had kept the hostages during the Carter administration because they knew Carter was “weak,” but they so feared Reagan’s red-blooded American resolve that they acquiesced the second he was sworn into office. The moral of the story, therefore, is that negotiating with Iran or any of America’s enemies is a sign of harmful weakness, whereas refusal to negotiate shows Reagan-like strength that will protect Americans.
It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that this version of history is not remotely accurate. While there is a kernel of truth — the hostages were, in fact, released on the day Reagan was inaugurated — the rest of the story bears no resemblance to the myth that has risen around it. But the bigger question is not just whether the story is true (it is not), but why it is so appealing to the current GOP candidates. The answer tells us a lot about the state of Republican Party foreign policy — and what the candidates think Republican primary voters want to hear.
Rubio and Cruz: If I’m elected, I’ll have Tehran-controlling superpowers just like Reagan did
(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
You know a foreign policy myth is having a moment when two competing GOP candidates trot it out almost simultaneously on different Sunday news shows.
On January 16, Marco Rubio said on Meet the Press that Obama had “put a price on the head of every American abroad” by allowing a prisoner swap in order to free Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other US citizens held by Iran. “Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it.”
“When I become president,” Rubio claimed, “it will be like Ronald Reagan, where as soon as he took office, the hostages were released from Iran,” because “our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama.”
Ted Cruz gave a remarkably similar statement the same day on Fox News, saying that the temporary seizure of the US sailors by Iran was “the direct result of the weakness of this presidency,” and that “it’s worth remembering, this same nation, Iran, in 1981 released our hostages the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.”
The problem with this story: Iran released the embassy hostages because of Carter’s negotiations, not in spite of them
How a stodgy, mainstream party was reinvented as a den of lunatics and monsters — and why it was no accident
Every so often I conceive the bizarre desire to help save the Republican Party from itself. This is futile even by the standards of futile campaigns launched by columnists, given the obvious fact that Republicans do not want my help and have good reason to mistrust my motives, and that if anyone in the GOP leadership actually read my advice, they would immediately do the opposite.
It isn’t that I feel some fervent nostalgia for the good old days of moderate Republicanism, although it’s true that the Nixon-era GOP was only microscopically to the right of today’s Democratic Party on most major policy questions – and decidedly to its left on healthcare and social spending. (Which United States president actually proposed a nationwide, single-payer healthcare system? Well, I’ve already given you the answer.) Go back to Dwight Eisenhower, who presided over a more progressive and redistributive tax code than anything seen before or since, and sent federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, and in relative terms it looks like Lenin and Trotsky trying to out-radical each other. (The top marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans in 1960 was 91 percent. Just try to convince your Fox News uncle of that one.)
All of that is amazing and incomprehensible today, as is the fact that the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate was a Republican (Edward Brooke, in 1966), and so was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress (Margaret Chase Smith, elected to the House in 1940 and the Senate in 1948). But the real point lies a little deeper. It isn’t so much that the old Republicans were awesome, but at least they existed in the real world and practiced real politics. They had vigorous internal debates about numerous issues and represented a broad coalition of interests, holding to a reasonably coherent ideology of limited government, social order and support for business.
Those words are still used, of course; they are closely identified with the Republican brand. But thanks to the Matrix-like magic of our altered political reality, they do not mean what they used to mean. “Business” refers only to the infinitesimal ruling caste of multinational capital. “Limited government” means a limitless, borderless police state with low internal taxes and little or no social safety net. “Social order” means the stealth revocation of citizenship rights, first for blacks and women, to be sure, but ultimately for everyone else too.
There is no silver lining to the fact that one of our nation’s two political parties has disappeared into a self-concocted ideological fog of delusion and denial that has cut it off from political reality, American history, basic economic facts, international law and even its own past. The evil zombie sock-puppet condition of the GOP is the most gruesome single symptom of our failing democracy, and one that has inflicted immense harm not just on our country but the entire world. It didn’t happen by accident.
I would contend that the Republican Party has been the subject, willing or otherwise, of a version of the Stanford prison experiment, conducted on a grand scale. I wrote about that famous 1971 simulation, now the subject of a new feature film, earlier this week: A group of normal, middle-class California college students eagerly embraced roles as sadistic guards and abused prisoners, submitting almost immediately to the social order of an entirely fictional institution they knew had no real power. Properly understood, the Stanford experiment is not about prisons or schools or other overtly coercive social institutions, although it certainly applies to them. It is about the power of ideology and the power of power, about the fact that if you change people’s perception of reality, you have gone most of the way to changing reality itself.
The Republican Party did not organically evolve into a xenophobic, all-white party of hate that seeks to roll back not just the Civil Rights movement and feminism, but the entire Enlightenment. It did not accidentally become untethered from reality and float off to the moons of Pluto. Those possibilities were already present, but they had to be activated. Partly as a result of its own ideological weakness and internal divisions, the GOP was taken over from within and from above: In the first instance, by a dedicated core of right-wing activists, and in the second by the ultra-rich, super-PAC oligarchy epitomized by the Koch brothers. The two forces sometimes worked separately, but ultimately the first was funded and sponsored by the second.
One key element of this ideological conquest was that the party’s understanding of itself and its place in American politics and American history was reshaped to conform to a fictional narrative that is now widely believed to be true. Ultimately the Republican prison experiment has replicated itself on an even larger scale, remaking not just the GOP but American political reality.
Among other things, the GOP’s flight to Crazytown has permitted leaders of the Democratic Party to crawl ever more cozily into the pockets of Wall Street bankers and to become ever more intertwined with the national security state — while still proclaiming themselves, in all innocence and with considerable plausibility, to be less noxious than the alternative. So we see millions of well-meaning people getting ginned up to vote for Hillary Clinton, despite the nagging sensation that the political universe in which she represents the best available option is a cruel hoax. Pay attention to that feeling! It’s the reality we have discarded, banging on the door.
It’s true that the re-engineered Republican Party, with its counterfactual and frequently contradictory worldview, appeals most strongly to a shrinking minority of Americans, most of them white and male and rural or Southern. But despite that, or in some sense because of that, it has been an enormous success. Not only has the zombie GOP driven the Democrats much further to the right that at any point in their history, it has paralyzed the legislative process, driven electoral participation to historic lows and turned the deep American current of political apathy and mistrust into a majority sentiment. Whether or not the Republican prison experiment was consciously intended to produce a period of oligarchic rule in which political parties and elections become increasingly irrelevant and increasingly ignored, that has definitely been the outcome.
Some participants in Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 experiment began to believe, after just a few days, that they were real prisoners in a real prison, and that the outside world no longer existed or mattered. At any rate, they began to behave as if that were true, which in functional terms is much the same thing. Zimbardo himself became so engrossed in his fictional role as the prison warden that he lost all perspective on the morality and ethics of his experiment. Is it any wonder that after 30 to 40 years of sustained psychological warfare, most Americans who consider themselves conservatives believe that the current Republican Party represents undying, bedrock American principles that have never changed and never will? Freedom isn’t free, chump. These colors don’t run.
Any discussion of what those bedrock Republican and American values might be, beyond jingoistic clichés about freedom, is to be avoided at all costs. That might pierce the veil of unreality and reveal things that have been declared to be untrue, including that the Republican Party was not always anti-immigrant, not always opposed to socialized healthcare, not always committed to a fundamentalist reading of the Second Amendment and, for the love of Christ, not always obsessed with abortion.
Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak had to remind me about that one, in her discussion of the recent right-wing attack video purporting to show a Planned Parenthood employee discussing the sale of fetal body parts for nefarious purposes. Planned Parenthood is constantly and unanimously vilified by today’s Republicans as a Satan-worshiping, baby-killing feminist cult. But in 1970 it was granted federal funding by none other than the guest star of today’s show, President Richard Nixon. Furthermore, here’s what Nixon said at the time: “No American woman should be denied access to family-planning assistance because of her economic condition.”
I know: Mind blown. Read that quote to any of the 97 current Republican candidates for president and watch their heads explode. That Communistic rhetoric coming from the lips of Tricky Dick strikes me as noteworthy in several ways. Many leftists of my gender, it must be said, have a hard time focusing on how far the political climate around reproductive rights has eroded in the last 40 years. There were prominent pro-choice Republicans as recently as the mid-1990s, but the party’s official ideology on abortion has been reshaped by an activist minority just as the party itself was, through the use of emotionally charged symbols and images and the banishment of such wussified abstractions as facts, logic, history and context. Did Ronald Reagan need that kind of crap when he personally tore down the Berlin Wall, shot Hitler and freed the grateful slaves? He did not.
Lastly, there’s the most unlikely part of Nixon’s startling pronouncement: Its direct reference to economic inequalities and the need to address them. No Republican would say any such thing today, of course, and even for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, the commitment to equality comes surrounded by an ideological hedge: Healthcare for women, sure, but we’ll have to find a way for the market to provide it. I do not delude myself that Nixon cared about poor women or their health, but in the political climate of the time he was obliged to say he did. That political climate was exactly what had to be changed, from the point of view of the overlords who designed the Republican prison experiment, because it posed a long-term threat to their economic and political supremacy.
Social wedge issues like abortion and guns and immigration have been important elements in consolidating a more extreme Republican ideology and in firing up its core supporters. (Gay marriage worked that way for a while but has now been pitched overboard, except by poor, sad, sincere Rick Santorum.) But the powers behind the Republicans’ terrifying metamorphosis either don’t much care about those things or are being actively duplicitous, as with the immigration issue. They’re OK with pouring endless billions in wasteful deficit spending into the empty theater of border security (hey, at least it’s not going to poor people!), but they have no intention of cutting off the flow of low-wage labor, which benefits Big Capital in any number of ways.
Does anyone suppose that the Koch brothers, a pair of globetrotting culture-vultures whose names are carved in marble on the front of every New York fine-arts institution, give a single solitary fuck about all those Megachurch Dad-Pants Yahoo Apoplexy issues at the supposed heart of the supposed Republican ideology? Unless and until it impacts the bottom line, that stuff is just the icing on the delicious cake the Kochs are baking, a rich and eggy batter of soft corporate fascism inside a candy shell of imitation democracy. Can you smell it? It’s in the oven right now.
Progressives often view the zombified 21st century GOP with an understandable mixture of apprehension and bewilderment: How the hell did this happen? Can it really be working? The answers to those questions are that it was the result of a brilliant long-term strategy to alter the dynamics of American politics – to change perception, and then to change reality — and that it’s working much better than most people perceive. As Phil Zimbardo can tell you, when you’re inside the experiment it’s hard to see how much it has shifted your perspective.
Furthermore, those who comfort themselves with statistics about the dying Republican voter base, or political-science bromides about “the emerging Democratic majority” (which we have been promised for at least 20 years) are whistling past the graveyard. No doubt the Koch brothers will do their damnedest to get their boy-toy Scott Walker elected president, and I’m sure their dislike of Hillary Clinton is sincere. But they are shrewd enough to understand that it might not work, and also that the real prize is much bigger than one candidate or one party. They have redrawn the playing field of American politics and rewritten the rules of the game so effectively that even when they lose, they win. To put it another way, what good are the Democrats without democracy?
Thanks to a growing economy President Obama’s approval rating has reached its highest level since May of 2013. Obama is now more popular than George W. Bush, and as popular as Ronald Reagan was at the same point in their second terms.
According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, the Obama resurgence is being fueled by the growing economy. Fifty-two percent of respondents called the U.S. economy very or somewhat good while 48% said the economy was very or somewhat poor. The President’s approval rating has increased with 18-29-year-olds (57%), women (51%), Democrats (88%), and liberal Democrats (97%).
The news gets even better for Obama when his approval rating is stacked up against the previous three two-term presidents. With the exception of Bill Clinton, President Obama is faring better than or equal to the most recent two-term presidents.
Here is the approval rating for the last four two-term presidents in April of their seventh year in office:
At this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton held a 60% approval rating following his impeachment trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, largely buoyed by a strong economy. George W. Bush posted a 36% approval rating in April 2007, buffeted by the war in Iraq despite mostly positive reviews of the economy.
And the spring of Ronald Reagan’s seventh year in office saw him earning a 48% approval rating from the public, a rating that was just beginning to recover from the Iran-Contra affair and didn’t get any boost from a tepid economic climate.
Many supporters of the President will view his increasing approval numbers as Obama finally getting credit for the economic turnaround after pulling the country back from the brink of a potential depression when he took office, but these numbers could foreshadow a Democratic strong point in 2016. If the economy keeps growing, Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, will be able to run on maintaining and expanding the Obama economy.
Republicans are arguing that a Clinton win would equal an Obama third term, but what if the American people like where the nation is heading under Obama? The Republican attack could backfire and actually make the case for electing Hillary Clinton. President Obama has held Democrats together, and he is on the upswing.
His critics tried their best to destroy him, but President Obama is not only surviving, but he is also growing stronger.
Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands. No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.
The bipartisan select commission which reported this spring concluded that the Cuban influx to Florida made the United States sharply aware of the need for more effective immigration policies and the need for legislation to support those policies.
For these reasons, I asked the Attorney General last March to chair a Task Force on Immigration and Refugee Policy. We discussed the matter when President Lopez Portillo visited me last month, and we have carefully considered the views of our Mexican friends. In addition, the Attorney General has consulted with those concerned in Congress and in affected States and localities and with interested members of the public.
The Attorney General is undertaking administrative actions and submitting to Congress, on behalf of the administration, a legislative package, based on eight principles. These principles are designed to preserve our tradition of accepting foreigners to our shores, but to accept them in a controlled and orderly fashion:
We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.
At the same time, we must ensure adequate legal authority to establish control over immigration: to enable us, when sudden influxes of foreigners occur, to decide to whom we grant the status of refugee or asylee; to improve our border control; to expedite (consistent with fair procedures and our Constitution) return of those coming here illegally; to strengthen enforcement of our fair labor standards and laws; and to penalize those who would knowingly encourage violation of our laws. The steps we take to further these objectives, however, must also be consistent with our values of individual privacy and freedom.
We have a special relationship with our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Our immigration policy should reflect this relationship.
We must also recognize that both the United States and Mexico have historically benefited from Mexicans obtaining employment in the United States. A number of our States have special labor needs, and we should take these into account.
Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status. At the same time, in so doing, we must not encourage illegal immigration.
We shall strive to distribute fairly, among the various localities of this country, the impacts of our national immigration and refugee policy, and we shall improve the capability of those agencies of the Federal Government which deal with these matters.
We shall seek new ways to integrate refugees into our society without nurturing their dependence on welfare.
Finally, we recognize that immigration and refugee problems require international solutions. We will seek greater international cooperation in the resettlement of refugees and, in the Caribbean Basin, international cooperation to assist accelerated economic development to reduce motivations for illegal immigration.
Immigration and refugee policy is an important part of our past and fundamental to our national interest. With the help of the Congress and the American people, we will work towards a new and realistic immigration policy, a policy that will be fair to our own citizens while it opens the door of opportunity for those who seek a new life in America.
For any American who has been conscious over the past six years, the idea of a Republican, or any iteration thereof, displaying tenderness, compassion, and empathy for people is laughable if not a complete fallacy; especially people who are suffering or in some way distressed. If anything, Republicans and their cohorts are inhumane by choice, and next to being hypocrites, rivals their racism as major defining characteristics of the entire conservative movement. Since President Obama announced he was fed up, like a majority of Americans, waiting for Republicans to take action on immigration reform, Republicans revealed, in grand fashion, their inhumanity, racism, and hypocrisy in their outrage over executive action on immigration.
Even before the President threatened he would use his authority as head of the Executive branch to “reform” immigration enforcement policy if Republicans failed to act, all manner of conservatives called such a move unprecedented, outrageous, and a gross display of Presidential overreach. They have since threatened impeachment, a lawsuit, eliminating executive authority for President Obama, and force the government to shutdown if the African American President dared do what Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush did in regards to immigration; use executive authority in a humane act towards immigrants.
Now, Republicans will never admit it, but their man-turned-god, Ronald Reagan, was the first Republican president to take executive action on immigration to put a screeching halt to his party’s inhumane treatment of Hispanic immigrants. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the what would prove to be the last comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass Congress. The legislation, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) granted up to 3 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they had lived in America “continuously” since 1982, or four years; nearly identical to President Obama’s proposal for comprehensive immigration reform Ted Cruz will not let House Republicans debate or vote on.
There was a problem with the new immigration law that bothered Reagan’s conscience because it did not include spouses and children of the 3 million immigrants the law affected. At the time, the Senate Judiciary Committee said that the “families of legalized aliens would be required to ‘wait in line.” This abomination of “split-eligibility families” also wore on the consciences of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that drove them to condemn the separation of families that conflicted with Reagan’s so-called “pro-family” bona fides.
A year later some members of Congress offered up a legislative fix to include the now-legal immigrants’ family members in the IRCA, but it failed. So when Congress failed to do the humane thing and keep immigrant families intact, Ronald Reagan took it upon himself and changed the policy under executive authority, and “prosecutorial discretion” to extend the protections against deportations. Not surprisingly, there was no outrage, claims of presidential overreach, threats of impeachment, lawsuits against Reagan, government shutdowns, or summary elimination of his use of executive orders. Current Republicans are well-aware of Reagan’s executive action but it was a different story ‘then’ because that president was a white man.
The next white Republican president, George H.W. Bush, took nearly identical executive action in 1989 as his predecessor Reagan without the approval, or input, of Congress. The first President Bush agreed with Reagan, and President Obama, that immigration law “would be enforced humanely” without tearing immigrant families apart. Like his white Republican predecessor, the elder Bush’s executive actions were not unprecedented, outrageous, presidential overreach, and he was not threatened with a lawsuit, government shutdown, impeachment, or summary loss of his executive authority through the budget process.
The next white Republican president, and another less-intelligent but no less compassionate Bush, George W, in 2008 signed into law a humane immigration reauthorization to protect immigrant children from three Central American nations. The bill was co-sponsored by Republicans Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and Chris Smith of New Jersey. The children get a fair hearing, are placed with family members or appropriate homes to ensure they are not victims of human trafficking.
This is the Bush-Republican law President Obama is following to that has Republicans apoplectic and summoning armed militias, and national guard units to the Southern border. There were no threats to impeach, sue, shutdown the government, or abolish Bush’s executive authority. In fact, Bush had said a couple of years earlier that “We’re a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways.” The only difference between what President Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush did in taking humane action on immigration is that one of those four U.S. presidents (the Black one) is taking unprecedented action and abusing executive authority. That one President is also being threatened with a congressional lawsuit, impeachment, a government shutdown, and loss of executive authority for the high crime and misdemeanor of taking the same humane executive action as three white Republican presidents.
It is noteworthy that every president since and including Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration without facing threats of lawsuits, government shutdowns, impeachment, or loss of executive authority; because they were white. No American dare ever say the current crop of Republicans, teabaggers, conservative pundits, and conservative media are not inherently racist, hypocritical, and living representations of vile inhumanity. Fortunately, history will portray them for exactly what they are; hypocritical and inhumane racists who hate immigrants just as much as they hate the African American man occupying the White House.
On HBO’s Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver presented an informational segment on the enduring influence of libertarian writer Ayn Rand on politicians and captains of industry, asking, ‘Ayn Rand: How is she still a thing?”
Noting that Rand is popular with conservatives, despite the inability by many of them to pronounce her name correctly, the narrator explains that Rand became famous for her philosophy of objectivism, “which is a nice way of saying, ‘being a selfish asshole’.”
Rand is shown in interview saying, “Why is it good to want others to be happy? You can make others happy and when and if those others mean something to you selfishly.”
Rand is noted for her two novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Foutainhead, “Stories about rapey heroes complaining about how no one appreciates their true genius.”
“Ayn Rand has always been popular with teenagers,” we are informed. “But she is supposed to be something you grow out of, like ska music or handjobs.”
The segment notes that Rand is still popular with “a certain type of adult,” using tech billionaire Mark Cuban as an example, pointing out Cuban’s “287-foot yacht is named ‘Fountainhead,’ because sometimes having a 287-foot yacht just isn’t enough to warn people you’re a douchebag.”
Partucular attention is paid to Rand’s popularity with conservative politicians and commentators such as former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and TV host Glenn Beck, noting that her views on subjects near and dear to conservative hearts — such as abortion, atheism, and love of Ronald Reagan — are in direct conflict with mainstream conservative thinking.
The segment concludes by wondering why people still love Rand when there are so many “other advocates for selfishness they could choose, like Donald Trump, or Drake, and basically anyone on Bravo.”
It was the smile that did it — that toasty-warm, utterly genuine smile. Watching it spread across his face, impossibly wide, bringing out the rose in his cheeks, setting those blue eyes to twinkling, was one of the greatest joys of watching Robin Williams perform.
When Williams smiled, you couldn’t help but smile, too. That his jokes were likely to make you bust a gut — this was icing on the cake. But the smile was always there, bursting out even in his serious work. Look at John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society: filled to the brim with love of poetry and pride in his freethinking pupils, smiling even when he is forced out of his classroom.
There’s a moment at the end of Bobby McFerrin’s music video for Don’t Worry, Be Happy, which starred Williams, in which he looks straight at camera and lifts the sides of his mouth, very slowly, until his whole face is beaming. It’s no shame to McFerrin to say that this one moment of infectious joy from Williams conveyed the message of the song far better than the song itself.
Now that smile is gone forever, and it’s almost too much to bear. As was the case with many of the greatest comedians, that smile could mask depths of despair, depression and doubt that the audience, rollicked with laughter, could hardly begin to guess at.
In her statement about her husband’s untimely death, Williams’ wife Susan Schneider begged us to focus on “the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.” But it’s no disservice to also remember that much of Williams’ tremendously diverse body of work seemed driven by a certain dissatisfaction, a restlessness, a desire to find out what ills of mankind — and of his own — his talents could address next.
Hilarity, sadness, anger, thoughtfulness, all of it turning on a dime: these were all part of the whole Robin Williams’ package. Turned out we loved it all, the whole mercurial grab-bag. If he had left us a century from now, it would have been too soon.
Many comedians would have been happy to be where Williams found himself in the late 1970s and early 1980s: the star of a sitcom, Mork and Mindy, that was wildly popular and accessible to kids and adults alike. Spun off from Happy Days on the strength of his performance, written entirely around his improvisation, Mork was a plum role for a thoughtful comedian. It required him, week after week, to catalog the strange behaviors of mankind, even if he did have to bust out a catchphrase every now and then and put up with canned studio laughter.
For Williams, it wasn’t enough, and thank goodness.
Many comedians would also have been happy to stay on the road, touring with one of the greatest stand-up routines in history. To watch Williams’ HBO special A Night at the Met (1986) is to see a comedian at the absolute height of his powers.
Thejokes and impressions come so thick and fast you’d be advised to have an asthma inhaler to hand, even now. Though the subject matter includes Ronald Reagan, South African apartheid and Dr. Ruth’s sex advice, the performance has not aged one bit. Nobody has ever done madcap scattershot stand-up better than this. No one is ever likely to.
Still Williams wasn’t satisfied, and thank goodness.
His movie career blossomed when he refused to be limited to wacky comedy roles like Popeye (1980). With The World According to Garp (1982) and Moscow on the Hudson (1984), he tentatively branched out into the type of movie generally known as comedy-drama, but better described as uncategorizable — like life itself.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987), which garnered Williams his first Oscar nod, was a classic of that genre. In playing a desperately funny man who was desperately angry about the hypocrisy of war, Williams certainly made some viewers uncomfortable when the jokes vanished towards the end of the film. As for the rest of us, dare I say the majority, he made us think. DJ Adrian Cronauer may have sounded a little like Mork on the air, but Mork this was certainly not.
But it was Dead Poets’ Society (1989), Williams’ first fully serious role, that really made us think. The film introduced me to Walt Whitman and the concept of carpe diem; it opened my eyes to the possibilities of education; it was my first hint that not all teachers were rote-learning sadists.
Indeed, if there is to be a national day of mourning for Robin Williams (and I hope there is), let us all stand on desks and recite “O Captain, My Captain.”
The serious roles came fast from there. Williams’ stunning turn as a damaged homeless man in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) not only earned him his second Oscar nod, but also made us think differently about homelessness and mental health (plus, it taught us how to turn champagne tops into miniature chairs). But just when you thought he was getting too serious, he surprised you with Aladdin (1992) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).
Sometimes the roles got too serious, too intense, too worthy. Though I love the whole concept and the special effects of What Dreams May Come, Williams’ husband, scouring heaven for his late wife, was a one-note character. But for every Bicentennial Man there was a Birdcage. We may have rolled our eyes at Jakob the Liar, but he blew us away in Good Will Hunting, for which he was finally — almost criminally late — awarded an Oscar.
Actors would have killed for just one of these roles. Comedians would tie themselves in knots to get one-tenth of the laughter. This was a life well lived, an astonishing array of characters and thoughts investigated and propagated. Every one of them was filled to the brim with joy and passion, laughter and tears, with sheer soul.
We can only thank this man, this legend, for his prolificness, for sharing so many of those smiles. Though the original may be gone forever, the memories of that infectious grin will live on forever.
The past week has not been kind to Obama. But could it be a turning point for his presidency?
Day 1,956 of his presidency was not too kind to President Obama. Having to announce within a four-hour span that he had lost both an embattled Cabinet secretary and his chief spokesman, Obama looked Friday like a man gamely trying to get a stalled administration back on track. He entered the week still stuck with low approval ratings and facing fierce criticism of his policies both at home and abroad. On Wednesday, he tried to chart a new course internationally with a West Point speech setting out a new foreign policy. On Thursday, he dealt with widespread criticism of the speech. On Friday, he tried to dig himself out of a troubling Veterans Administration scandal by jettisoning VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a man he thought was being unfairly blamed for the problems. Then he accepted the resignation of press secretary Jay Carney, the longtime public face of his White House. It is a cliché to note the aging of our presidents, to count the gray hairs sprouting with each passing day in the Oval Office. But Obama does look weary. And he is at a point in his administration when his agenda seems tired and many of his appointees are exhausted. In that regard, he is no different than every second-term president since World War II. For all of them, the sixth year was troubled and filled with administration scandals, political challenges and executive turnover. A second-term president has to figure out how to govern effectively without his original band of hardy loyalists. Most of them have fled government at this point. When Obama looks around his White House these days, he sees Valerie Jarrett and Dan Pfeiffer and only a handful of other aides who were with him on that frigid day in 2007 in Springfield when he announced his long-shot candidacy. Only three of Obama’s original 16 Cabinet officers remain—Eric Holder at Justice, Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, and Arne Duncan at Education. He is on his fourth budget director, his fifth chief of staff, and, soon, his third press secretary.
The turnover at press secretary is the least surprising. Few appreciate what a tough job that is. Marlin Fitzwater, who served Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said that the biggest shock to him when he became press secretary was how hard he had to dig to get the facts and to make sure what he said publicly was accurate. As Carney was later to learn, most of that work is done off-camera, fighting to be included in the inner circle. The two-term presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have all worn out their press secretaries. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each had four, and Ronald Reagan had three. Lyndon Johnson, who served less than two full terms, had four. Each had to struggle with the reality that the public starts to tune out a president in his second term. This is a highly personal office. A president is the only politician whom voters, in effect, invite into their homes and watch on television every night. But in a sixth year, people tend to believe they have pretty much heard it all from the president and about all they hear seems to be bad news. In making his announcements on Shinseki and Carney, the president did all the things expected of him in the circumstances, projecting determination and even smiling bravely. But what he didn’t do was signal convincingly that he knows how to provide a way forward for the 966 days he has left in the White House. How he responds now will determine whether this week is regarded as a low point or a critical turning point for his presidency.
The notion that Ryan was dog-whistling to racists is actually the best-case scenario. Here’s the scary alternative
I spent a depressing amount of time this weekend trying to think up a scenario in which someone might say the following without being motivated, to at least some degree, by malign intent.
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
What I came up with was strained and unlikely, but troubling if true.
In case you slept through last week, the person who said this was congressman and one-time GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. It ignited a fairly heated debate over whether he was intentionally trafficking in racial code words to pander to white conservatives. Ryan claims he spoke inarticulately and was thus misunderstood. For proponents of the dog-whistle theory, the fact that Ryan cited Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” was the smoking gun.
For my part, I don’t think they need a smoking gun, because Occam’s razor does all the dirty work. You can take Murray completely out of the equation and the likelihood that Ryan wasn’t at least subconsciously playing to the prejudices of resentful or racist whites is pretty low.
But let’s assume Ryan’s playing it straight, and his defenders, like Slate’s Dave Weigel, are correct when they argue that this is just how Ryan and other conservatives “think about welfare’s effects on social norms.” If that’s true, it’s actually a bigger problem for the right. If Ryan was even a little bit aware of how people would interpret his remarks, or understood the reaction to them when it exploded online, we could just say that some conservatives want to play the Southern Strategy at least one more round, and leave it at that. Close the book on this controversy, without drawing any larger conclusions about the state of conservative self-deception.
But if Ryan genuinely stumbled heedless into a racial tinderbox then it suggests he, and most likely many other conservatives, has fully internalized a framing of social politics that wasdeliberately crafted to appeal to white racists without regressing to the uncouth language of explicit racism, and written its origins out of the history. If that’s the case it augurs poorly for those in the movement who are trying to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal, because it’s easier to convince people to abandon a poor tactic than to unlearn rotten ideology.
In his 1984 book “The Two Party South,” political scientist Alexander Lamis quoted a conservative operative later revealed to be Ronald Reagan confidant Lee Atwater, who traced the evolution.
”You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—-r, n—-r, n—-r,’” Atwater explained. “By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—-r’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N—-r, n—-r.”’
Treating intergenerational laziness of inner-city men as established truth, and bemoaning the ways social spending programs supposedly nurture that “culture,” blends seamlessly into Atwater’s framework.
Weigel interprets the fact that Charles Murray has lately softened his claims as exculpation for Ryan and other conservatives who cite him. But Murray’s just following a social Darwinist’s rendition of the trajectory Atwater traced. I suspect both men are wiser to their intentions than their apologists give them credit for. There are ways to promote conservative social policies that aren’t remotely racialized — they just don’t ignite the passions of resentful white people in a politically meaningful way. If I’m wrong, though, conservatives better hope the party doesn’t nominate Ryan or any like-minded thinkers in 2016.
A quick point of trivia: I first learned about Atwater’s comments years ago, in this New York Times column by Bob Herbert questioning why anybody was surprised to hear GOP education secretary-cum-talk radio host Bill Bennett say, “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose — you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”
Guess whose program Ryan was a guest on when he stepped in it last week?