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President Obama’s address on Libya last night, and the response to it, reminds me that we live in a country that has seen too many John Wayne movies. Or Clint Eastwood movies. Or…

You get the idea. Our culture—and I think this spans the political spectrum—celebrates, even worships, the lone wolf hero. Or superhero. The man of action, and few words, who’s not much for book larnin,’ but possesses some innate “common sense” and god-given impulse to do the right thing, especially if it means shooting up the place.

What we deeply distrust is anything that smacks of intellectualism. That’s fine for the effete Brits and French, but to study too much, reflect too much—and think too much—well, that’s “dithering.” Intellectual = ineffectual. A sign of weakness.  Not “manly.” “And therefore downright un-American.

By extension, we also live in a culture of absolutes. Black and white. Right or wrong. There are no grays, no shades, no nuances. Complexity—moral, political, economic—does not exist. If it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker or in a sound bite, well, we just can’t get our minds around that. Or, at least, we don’t want to stop and think long enough to get our minds around it.

In our political discourse, we have oversimplified this dynamic to the point where to much of the public, subconsciously or not, Team Right represents our American Man of Action; and Team Left—well, a bunch of diffident “Nancy boys.” Maybe even French.

Stanley Kubrick brilliantly caricatured the two extremes in Dr. Strangelove. On the Right, was Sterling Hayden’s Gen. Jack (“our precious bodily fluids) Ripper and George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck (“no more than 10 to 20 million dead, tops”) Turgidson; on the Left was mild-mannered President Merkin (“Hello…Dmitri?) Muffley, loosely modeled on Adlai Stevenson.

As we approach the 2012 election campaign, the GOP and its media noise machine are turning themselves inside out to portray Barack Obama as the ineffectual intellectual.  It takes some doing, because simultaneously they’re trying to paint him as a Scary Black Guy—go to Barnes & Noble and check out Gangster Government : Barack Obama and the New Washington Thugocracy, the cover of which features our president as, well, a Scary Black Guy.” (The publisher wisely refrained from calling the trashfest Gangsta Government.)

Of course, the real government gangsterism going on right now is in GOP-dominated statehouses. But why quibble?

In any event, the Right is contorting itself to depict President Obama as two people—on national security, he’s Urkel, while domestically, he’s Tupac.

He’s neither, of course. Last night, to me at least, he was a strong,  enlightened leader. Once again, he was the Adult in the Room—especially compared to the clownish roster of GOP 2012 presidential hopefuls.

One can certainly debate his strategy, policy and timing on Libya—history will deliver the verdict—but it’s clear that there was no dithering; nor was there any of the knee-jerk Ramboism the Right is so in love with. God only knows what Mideast military misadventure John McCain would have us mired in right about now.

Even to supporters Barack Obama’s rational pragmatism, his instinct for consensus-building, gets maddening—and renders absurd the whole “Gangster” canard. Perhaps, as Paul Krugman puts it, POTUS is a lousy negotiator, giving too much away, too early, in an attempt to be preemptive.

That’s not weakness. Excessive realpolitikiness, maybe. On Libya, President Obama strove to act as quickly as he could—with international consensus, learning the lessons of the past, when unilateral Western intervention in the Mideast only engendered more resentment and, at worst, terrorism.

Might the result have been more effective a week earlier? Perhaps. But maybe that just wasn’t possible. And politics, is, after all, the art of the possible.

Yes, one can debate specifics. Certainly, President Obama has made missteps—particularly “optical” ones, when he’s appeared detached and tone deaf. But on balance, I’m betting history will look back on him—hopefully after January 2017—as a president who proved that thought and action are not mutually exclusive.

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I like Dennis Kucinich. After all, how can a liberal not like Dennis Kucinich? The Ohio Rep. one of the most consistently progressive voices in Congress, a true champion of the little guy. And no, the pun is not intended. We all know that every time Rep. Kucinich runs for president, he endures endless abuse, dismissed and mocked on late-night TV as a kind of gnome because of his diminutive stature and what casting agents, with rare diplomacy, call a “character” face.

So Denny K. gets a bad rap. Okay, there was the whole “I was abducted by aliens” thing a few years back, I’ll give the Righties, that. But overall, I am a card-carrying Dennis Kucinich fan, and believe he has served our country with valor and distinction.

Today, though, I feel like gagging the good Congressman and locking him in the basement until, say, Nov. 7. 2012.

Rep. Kucinich has been fiercely critical of President Obama’s intervention in Libya. So have a lot of others, on both sides of the aisle, either out of principle or political opportunism.

Indeed, the response to POTUS’ handling of Libya has been fascinating:

He dithered and allowed the crisis to worsen…

He rushed and didn’t consult Congress….

He’s a wimp…

He’s a warmonger.

(It reminds me of the climactic scene in Chinatown, wherein Jack Nicholson  slaps around Faye Dunaway, as she says of her incestuous offspring: “She’s my daughter!…She’s my sister! She’s my daughter! My sister, my daughter…She’s my sister and my daughter.”)

 Kucinich is in the “didn’t consult Congress” camp. So much so, that he suggested Obama’s action may be an “impeachable offense.”

Dennis, Dennis, Dennis—WTF!? All over America, you could hear Democratic foreheads thudding against tabletops.

 Does that mean Kucinich shouldn’t have criticized the President? Of course, not.  Obama’s actions in Libya are certainly open to spirited debate. Was he within his Constitutional authority, or not? Had he waited, and submitted the matter to a bitterly partisan, politically posturing Congress (he did, incidentally, discuss the issue with Congressional leadership), would that have meant a fatal delay, resulting in a massacre in Benghazi, among other humanitarian disasters? And more accusations of “dithering?”

 But the “I-word,” Dennis? Seriously?

 It’s one thing for right-wing gasbags like Gingrich and Limbaugh to talk about impeaching President Obama. I mean, if a Democrat has the gall to get elected POTUS by a near-landslide, you’ve got to do something, right? After all, the whole birther, Kenyan-Muslim-Commie-Nazi thing isn’t getting a hell of a lot of traction outside the Teabagging GOP base.

 But—call me an Obama Zombie—on the verge of a reelection campaign, it just doesn’t seem like the best idea for Dems like Dennis  to be tossing I-word around like that. Can you imagine Republicans doing that to one of their own—at least, unless it was Sarah Palin, looking for revenge, or a paycheck?

 Of course, we’ve seen how—despite all their talk of gun control—liberals can shoot themselves in the foot with alarming accuracy. In the “Obama’s caving” fervor running up to the 2010 elections, we heard a great deal about the “enthusiasm gap” between Democrats and Teabag-stoked Republicans. Even liberal lion Ed Schultz—and I’m an even bigger fan of his than I am of Denny K.’s—proclaimed that he was not going to vote in the midterms.

I don’t know if Ed actually voted or not—but now he’s all over the Midwest reminding us that “elections have consequences,” this as GOP governors are crushing the workers and middle class under the weight of tax breaks for the super-rich, and attempting to turn states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, into Kochistan.

 The world, at home and abroad, is one hot mess these days. President Obama has made missteps, and the Libyan adventure may turn out to be a disastrous one. Recall, though, that our two greatest crisis presidents—Lincoln and FDR—suffered many of the same critiques, accused of everything from weak indecision, to rash tyranny. And they didn’t have to endure the endless, second-to-second harping of the 24/7 cable and internet news cycle.

 For now, according to the latest CBS poll, the public seems to be behind President Obama’s crisis management. And I would wager he’s a heavy favorite to be reelected in 2012. Throughout all our various hot messes, his approval ratings have hovered steadily around 50 percent, and his likability numbers are even higher. His best friend, however, may be a weak GOP field ranging from blandly uninspiring  (despite T-Paw’s attempts to portray himself as an amalgam of Washington, Reagan and Jason Statham) to laughably unelectable.

 But Democrats, liberal and otherwise, can’t take a thing for granted. Political fortunes can change on a dime. Staying home—or protest-voting for somebody like Ralph Nader—on 11/6/12 is not an option.

 Neither is using the “I-word.”

 As Ed reminds us, elections have consequences. And, judging from Republican priorities and performance in the first few months of 2011, the stakes for 2012 could not be higher.

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One of the reasons 67 or so million of us voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was his cool, intelligent, rational demeanor, a welcome change from years of GOP saber-rattling, fear-mongering, bumper-sticker politicking and faux-patriotic bombast. Obama’s Zen focus and “no drama” credo contrasted sharply with John McCain’s erratic truculence; the McCain-Palin ticket promised an itchy finger on the button, with a grinning, winking idiot in the wings.

But at this time of crises, upheavals and catastrophes, domestic and foreign, the President and his political handlers seem to have missed something crucial in his job description. And I say this as a strong supporter, who thinks he’s done an excellent job substantively, and would rather have him in the White House than any Republican, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with Matt Lauer during last year’s BP oil disaster, POTUS said the presidency “is not theater” and that he “doesn’t always have time to perform for the benefit of cable news shows.”

There is something admirable in that, I suppose. But I think President Obama has it wrong. Look back over the past 90 years, since electronic media brought the presidency into America’s living rooms. Who were the most successful chief executives, electorally and in terms of achieving their goals?

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

As far apart as they were ideologically, those two Presidents shared one common gift: They were masters of political theater, using their office not only as a “bully pulpit,” but as a stage. They grasped that a flair for the dramatic was an indispensable quality in a leader. As Jonathan Alter recounts in The Defining Moment, his excellent book on Roosevelt’s election and early presidency, FDR once said to Orson Welles, “Orson, you know, you and I are the two best actors in America.”  And Reagan, of course, actually was an actor.

Privately, both those men are said to have shied away from intimacy; there was something unknowable about them. But publicly both knew how to bond with the country, to be empathetic, to make Americans feel that they cared (Bill Clinton, another two-term President who remains a political rock star 10 years after leaving office, may be the grand master of empathy).

FDR’s speeches and “fireside chats” were tours de force that rallied the nation; not only did he try endless strategies to lift America out of the Great Depression he made sure Americans knew it—made sure it looked like he was doing something.

As for Reagan, he, was the Great Communicator—he, too, knew how to instill confidence. And his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech was so effective that some worshippers credit him with winning the Cold War single-handed.

Both presidents made missteps (as a liberal, of course, I’ll argue that Reagan made more of them). But in the minds of all but the ideologues on either end of the spectrum, they are remembered for their successes—and perceived successes.

With his disdain for political theater and public show, and apparent preference for behind-the-scenes problem-solving and negotiation, President Obama is dismissing the “making it look like you’re doing something” part of the job—and he’s missed several opportunities to do so. As Rahm Emanuel famously said, never let a crisis go to waste. The past two years have brought huge crises that cried out for the president to show some stage presence— something more than the occasional briefing to announce that he’s “monitoring the situation.”

The BP oil spill was a golden opportunity for President Obama to show that he’s not George W. Bush, to immediately say he would take control, to declare war on the disaster, to get down there, roll up his sleeves—and yes, do some photo ops. Instead, he took a couple of family vacations. And while a presidential vacation—especially in this communications age—is always a working one, you have to look like you’re engaged.

The pundits call it “optics.” The explosions in the Mideast and the Japanese catastrophe were two other recent instances that cried out for a show of passion. Instead, we saw President Obama offer up his college basketball picks and celebrate St. Paddy’s Day.

Domestically, the president has been less than Rooseveltian in conveying his impassioned determination to solve the jobs crisis—or look like he’s solving the jobs crisis.

As for the upheavals in the Midwest, where Republican governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Rick Snyder seem determined to crush the middle class under the weight of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, I understand why President Obama has been laying back, not injecting himself into these state fights. It has allowed the blossoming of a huge movement that has energized the Democratic base, and pulled blue-collar and middle class “Reagan Democrats” away from the GOP.

But something like Snyder’s attempt to turn Michigan into a corporate monarchy seems to beg for some kind of comment or show of interest. Still, the jury’s still out—this may be one instance where the President’s detachment works, as GOP overreach makes the party toxic in the electorally critical heartland.

History may prove that on substance, President Obama has generally followed the right course. But in the short term, if purely out of political self –interest, he could learn a few things from Roosevelt and Ronnie about White House stagecraft.

Mr. President, tear down this wall—the wall between you and the rest of us.

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As I first wrote this post on March 1, news spread that Charlie Sheen has joined Twitter. In a matter of minutes, 131,691 souls clicked “follow” on his account, waiting on the edge of their seats for the substance-addled actor’s first 140-characters-or-less Tweet.

Finally, it came. A photo of Charlie and one of his “goddesses” holding up non-alcoholic drinks.

As of this minute, 1:47 p.m. ET March 2, 2011, Martin’s boy is up to 879,058 Twitter followers, one of whom is Sean Combs. Sean John. Puff Daddy. P. Diddy. Diddy. Or, on Twitter, @iamdiddy, who made this request of Charlie
@iamdiddy can u please send me the address to ur house? Ive been dreamin about a party like this all my life #winning! See u soon! Lol

In journalism, there is a phenomenon known as The Story. The one everyone else is talking about, if for no other reason than everyone is talking about it. Now, despite truly historic upheavals at home and abroad, The Story is Charlie Sheen. That is, the public disintegration of Charlie Sheen.

I never thought I’d live to see the day when Charlie Sheen was The Story. Even during those agonizingly slow news cycles—the Missing White Girl, Balloon Boy, Golden-Voiced Homeless Guy cycles. But especially at this moment, when the Middle East is reinventing itself and Americans are in the middle of a bloodless—so far—class war, the mainstream news media’s obsession with Charlie’s porn star stable and his incoherent rants about “Tiger Blood” and “Adonis DNA” is as sad as it is mystifying.

As for the mystifying part of it—not to be insensitive, but what’s the story here? Sheen has been the quintessential Hollywood train wreck for years. It’s like reporting that Marilyn Monroe slept around.

A brief career summary:

1990—Accidentally shoots then-fiancee, Kelly Preston, in the arm. She breaks up with him

Early ‘90s—dates ex-porn stars Ginger Lynn and Heather Hunter.[30]

1995— Weds Donna Peele.

1995—Named a client by Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss

1995 Accidentally ODs on coke; sent to rehab

2002—Weds Denise Richards,

2005—Richards files for divorce— while pregnant with their daughter Lola—accusing Sheen of drug and alcohol abuse and threatening her with violence. Ugly custody battle ensues

2008—Weds Brooke Mueller.

2009—Arrested on domestic violence charges; released from jail after posting $8,500 bond.

2010—Pleads guilty to misdemeanor assault, “sentenced to 30 days in a rehabilitation center, 30 days of probation, and 36 hours of anger management“.

Winning?  Clearly Sheen is a steaming hot mess, and his his unraveling—however outrageously quotable—is sad, indeed.

But what’s really sad is that the media is giving him wall-to-wall coverage. Forget that the Mideast is undergoing tectonic historical shifts—Americans are a parochial people. But right here, in our own Midwest, the entire future of American workers and the middle class is at stake. Not simply the pensions and collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, but what kind of democracy, what kind of country, we’re going to be.

Today, we’re more celeb-mad than ever, though the bar for what passes as celebrity is about ankle-high. It is the kind of media environment that created Sarah Palin, the American Idol candidate, the reality show  cipher. What’s disturbing here is that in the past, we would fixate on the lurid and freakish and sensational during those news lulls. What’s going on in Madison and beyond is enormous and it bears powerfully on all of us. And yet, in many outlets, it’s being covered as a mere blip. Is it the corporate media? The so-called grassroots Tea Party movement, with its corporate-backed, Astroturf anti-Obama, anti-HRC rallies was a source of endless fascination. American workers fighting for the future, not so much.

It’s been pointed out to me that Americans can do both things at once—indulge in the guilty pleasure of Charlie Sheen while still standing up, like Norma Rae, with a “Union” sign, or following events in Libya. But we live in a disinformation age. Fox News, and other MSM outlets—whether purposfully, inadvertently or sloppily—have helped mold an electorate so staggeringly uninformed that 51 percent of registered voters in one of the two major political parties believe the President of the United States is not an American citizen. A little less Charlie and a lot more solid reporting would do nicely now.

Years from now we’ll be asked what it was like to live in this pivotal, history-altering time. How many of us will be able to answer—even if our brains aren’t as fried as Charlie Sheen’s?

Meanwhile, it’s 2:15 p.m., and Charlie’s up to 891,268 followers—to my 413.

And—oops, I just did a whole blog post on him.

Maybe he’s “winning” after all.

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