Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Beauty Of Winning Baseball

My heart skips a beat every time I enter a ballpark and see the perfect symmetry of the infield diamond enveloped by the wide swath of green outfield grass.  I love the meandering pace of the game, the sport's connection to its own and this country's history, the contrasting forces of power and precision, the strategy and the statistics, and the fact that the game has room not only for the pure athleticism of Yoenis Cespedis but also for the phenomenon that is 42-year old, 285-pound Bartolo Colon. 

Baseball is a beautiful game. 

But, I have to admit, it is a whole lot more beautiful when your team is winning. 

You can usually delude yourself through much of a hopeless baseball season that your team can pull it together and make a run for the playoffs down the stretch -- especially now that there are two wildcard teams.  Reality doesn't usually hit until sometime in August.  And then, when you finally accept the inevitability of a losing season, and you are stuck watching a team play uninspiring baseball for the last month or so, when all you have to root for is for your team to spoil another team's playoff run, when your focus is on the individual achievements of your favorite player because your team is going nowhere, much of the luster and lyricism of the game is lost -- at least until the spring, when it all begins again.

But, when your team is having a good year, when you get to experience tension-filled, meaningful games in September and anticipate playoff games in October, there is nothing better. 

After seven straight years with a losing record, preceded by two historic collapses, which were themselves preceded by a heartbreaking playoff loss and countless other frustrating seasons, the New York Mets have clinched a division title.  They have transformed what looked to be another dismal year of mediocrity into a joyful one filled with magical, unforgettable moments.  The Mets are a fun, exciting team with a great core of young players, a fascinating collection of personalities and enough star power to be a post-season force. 

Baseball has never seemed more beautiful.

But, the funny thing about winning is that it feels so good you want it to continue.  Winning the division  -- which is so thrilling and worthy of blissful celebration in the moment -- suddenly is no longer enough. 

Sure, it has been a beautiful September, but what about October?

Well, these are still the Mets. This franchise often finds ingeniously devastating ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Implosion always seems to be just around the corner -- and sometimes closer than that.  Will Matt Harvey and his agent-imposed arbitrary innings limit doom the Mets' chances?  Will newly-minted folk hero Wilmer Flores make a critical fielding gaffe?  Will their often erratic relief corps pick the worst time to be erratic?  Will manager Terry Collins reprise one (or more) of his baffling in-game strategic missteps? 

But, maybe, just maybe, everything will fall into place.  The Mets have had the feel of a championship team since the surprisingly strong return of Mr. All-Time Met David Wright from a back injury, the revelation of 22-year old Michael Conforto (making the jump to the majors from Double A in his first full year of professional ball)  and, most important of all, the acquisition at the trade deadline of La Potencia -- the spectacular Yoenis Cespedes.  Maybe the brilliant yet callow pitching staff can harness their unprecedented power.  Maybe the back end of the bullpen can consistently shut down the opposition.  Maybe other key players like Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy and Travis D'Arnaud will get (or stay) hot.  Maybe a little more magic can be wrung from the likes of Wilmer Flores or Juan Uribe or, dare I say, Michael Cuddyer.

Is it possible that the Mets might be embarking on another miracle?  The answer comes from the late, great Joaquin Andujar, who really summed up the beauty of baseball, as he put it, "in one word:  you never know."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bread For The Journey: The Greek Baker Who Remembers

My old friends and colleagues from another lifetime, Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey, have been researching and volunteering on the Greek island of Kos, which is on the frontlines of the tragic refugee crisis impacting all of Europe. This piece, originally published on Huffington Post about one Greek man's efforts to help includes links where you can help too.  As Dan says, "this story of our time, now dominated in the media by closing borders and fearful minds, needs coverage of the many compassionate helpers acting in solidarity!"

Guest Post by Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey

"Where are the babies? Where are the babies?" asks 76-year-old Dionysis Arvanitakis as he hands out rolls of bread and assorted pastries to refugees from the back of his bakery van on the Greek holiday island of Kos.

A long line of mostly young men from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea line up under the hot mid-morning sun, holding their hands out gently, as if standing for communion, below the thick stone walls of the Castle of the Knights that anchors the island's port.

Arvanitakis tears long loaves in two, and looks each person in the eye as they approach. A balding Syrian man pauses before receiving a piece, and reaches out to hold both sides of the baker's face, kissing him atop the head in gratitude.

The baker hands us a metal tray full of pink and chocolate glazed donuts, and asks us to serve the mothers and children camped out in shaded tents across the street. We had met Arvanitakis the previous afternoon for a conversation at his downtown waterfront bakery, where he warmly greets old locals and tourists alike with a gentle smile and strong handshake.

Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, praised the Greek baker in his annual State of the Union address on September 9th to the European Parliament. In his speech focused on the gravest global refugee crisis since World War II, Juncker implored Europeans to "remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee."

"Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls," Juncker concluded in a nod to Arvanitakis. "This is the Europe I want to live in."

The isle of Kos is one of the closest gateways to the European Union, with the houses and lights of the island clearly visible from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum just two and a half nautical miles across Aegean waters.

Smugglers based in Turkey charge refugees $1,500 or more per person to make the perilous crossing to Kos, while day-tripping tourists only need pay $17 (with the right passport) for the easy half-hour excursion ride. Refugees are piled into rubber dinghies in the black of night, with as many as 70 men, women and children on flimsy 16-foot vessels, and told by smugglers to paddle on their own towards the lights of Kos.

Kos was the intended destination for the Syrian three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who with his brother and mother drowned off a capsized dinghy and washed back ashore on Turkey. The image of the boy lying lifeless and face down on shore sparked global awareness and outrage earlier this month over the Mediterranean immigrant tragedy that has been growing for years.

Just this past weekend, another 40 refugees and migrants crossing the waters between Greece and Turkey are reported dead or missing.

Every morning, Arvanitakis rises early to bake an extra 200 pounds or more of bread and pastries to load in his van. And every morning here, refugees swim to shore off overcrowded inflatable rubber boats, walking to the main port in sea-soaked clothes seeking water, food and shelter.

The baker slowly steers his small white van up onto the seaside bike lane, weaving through refugees and tourists alike, to make his first stop directly in front of the port police station. New arrivals congregate in packed quarters there, anxiously awaiting registration papers for their next voyage on to Athens, where most will begin their walk to northern Europe.

The daily ritual of passing out bread takes place a few hundred yards from the celebrated Oriental plane tree where Hippocrates, the father of medicine born on Kos around 460 BC, purportedly taught his medical students ethics and how to care for others.

Arvanitakis knows deprivation himself, having grown up poor in the Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of mainland Greece. He told us that after difficult times there his family chose to migrate to Australia when he was 16. He was "always running, running" looking for work in his new country, and finally secured a job as a pastry chef.

In 1970, after saving enough money, he returned to Greece and landed on Kos, where his wife Evangelia was born and where he soon opened up his own bakery. He and his son Stavros have since grown the business to seven locations, now the largest bakery on Kos.

"Someone who has not starved, cannot put themselves in these people's shoes," Arvanitakis told the Greek media after Junker's speech. "'It's 'us' and 'them' on the same island; two parallel lines, that somehow converge to the very meaning of the word 'human'."

The best and worst of the human spirit has been awakened on Kos by the flood of refugees washing ashore. Local Greek hotel owners have made sandwiches and handed out leftover travel supplies donated by guests. We interviewed European tourists giving up their holidays to deliver food, water and travel gear. Two couples from Iran donated 300 pounds of food and aid. Two German sisters organized Kos Refugees Need Your Help that serves 800 warm meals daily. Dutch citizens volunteer for the Boat Refugee Foundation, which has over 200 more volunteers signed up in Holland to come help for a week or longer.

At the same time, Amnesty International witnessed "a violent attack on refugees" in Kos a few weeks ago, observing a group of 15-25 thugs hitting them with bats while telling them "to go back to their own country."

A 60-year-old English volunteer from London told us that she witnessed two refugees being attacked the previous evening by black-shirted extremists while sitting peacefully outside their tents. One refugee had his leg broken and the other had large welts from a beating across his back (she showed us photos taken on her cell phone). When she tried to intervene, she was pushed to the ground and threatened by the attackers.

The gravity of the refugee crisis greatly compounds the impact of the six years of Greece's grave economic depression and a long summer of political instability. The wave of refugees has clearly heightened the general anxiety of the times, fueling nationalist anger while overwhelming cash-strapped and understaffed authorities on Kos and other impacted nearby islands.

The country is exhausted and nearly broke, and is on the frontline of the surge of refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa and migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Without adequate financial support from wealthier European countries where most refugees hope to settle, Greece and its eastern islands will not be able to cope with the immigrant flow heading into the winter months.

The mayor of Kos, however, has so far refused requests by the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to set-up a refugee reception center and proper housing away from the island port and tourist areas, in fear of attracting more refugees and migrants.

"I feel ashamed of the Greeks who are so upset about this situation," said the 28 year-old daughter at a popular family-run hotel. "In every family here you have family members who left the country to find a better life. Many went out and did well. But now people forget."

It's been more than 60 years since Dionysis Arvanitakis left Greece to find better fortunes in a faraway land. As he stacks up dozens of empty baking trays in the back of his van after another morning round of helping to feed refugees, one thing is certain: the "Baker in Kos" clearly remembers from where he came.


You can learn more about the refugee situation and volunteer/donation aid efforts on the island at the following sites:

Kos Kindness
Kos Refugees Need Your Help
Boat Refugee Foundation
Medecins Sans Frontieres
Mercy Corps

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The One Thing Jeb! Knows

"You know what?  As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe."  So said Jeb! in response to a quip from Donald Trump about his brother's disastrous administration at the GOP debate.  The audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, predictably, applauded. 

In another mind-numbing experience in which none of the demonstrably false and often bat shit crazy responses by the candidates remained unchallenged (and were often met with cheers), Jeb!'s retort stood out as one of the more remarkably outrageous statements.

His brother kept us safe? Maybe he means his brother Neil.  Because everyone except the foil helmet crowd that comprises the Fox News demographic knows about George W.'s safety record.  He didn't keep safe the nearly 3000 people who perished in the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, having, among countless failures, blown off classified briefings from U.S. intelligence agencies, including the one a few weeks before the attack entitled "“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”  And he didn't keep the nearly 4500 U.S. service members safe who were killed in Iraq, when he launched a war to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11.  (I suppose we could talk about Katrina too, and all of the people of New Orleans who were not kept safe, but in fairness, Jeb! appeared to be referring to terrorism.) 

If this is the one thing Jeb! knows for sure then he really knows nothing at all.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Kim Davis Presidential Litmus Test

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
-- U.S. Constitution, Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unequivocally that the 14th Amendment forbids states from banning same sex marriage.  A government official may not, based on her own personal religious preferences, disobey this ruling and refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.  This is no more permissible than refusing to issue licenses based on a religious belief that does not accept the marriage of mixed race couples or of people like Kim Davis -- the Kentucky clerk at the center of this controversy -- who are three-times divorced. 

The federal judge who found Davis in contempt and put her in jail stated: “The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.  If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems."

And just to be clear, Davis isn't being jailed for her religious beliefs that marriage is only between a man and a woman, as her lawyers have argued.  She can believe whatever she wants.  But she has to carry out her duties as a government official in compliance with the law. 

This is pretty simple.  As President Obama's press secretary put it, “every public official is subject to the rule of law.  No one is above the law. That applies to the president of the United States and it applies to the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, as well.”

Any candidate for president who does not firmly believe in the rule of law -- who believes that Kim Davis is being unjustly punished, who believes that a government official may refuse to follow the law based on her own idiosyncratic religious beliefs -- should be disqualified immediately from seeking office.

That would certainly include the unabashed Kim Davis  fan club:  Ted Cruz ("Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong."); Rand Paul (“I think people who do stand up and are making a stand to say that they believe in something is an important part of the American way”); Mike Huckabee (“ stand with Kim Davis and every American of faith under attack by Washington elites who have nothing but disdain for us, our faith and the Constitution”); Bobby Jindal (“I don’t think anyone should have to choose between following their conscience and religious beliefs and giving up their job and facing financial sanctions"); and Scott Walker ("I read that the Constitution is very clear that people have freedom of religion -- you have the freedom to practice religious beliefs out there, it's a fundamental right").

And that would also include those making fruitless attempts at finding a balance between actual constitutional rights and  what is euphemistically being called "religious liberty":  Chris Christie (“we have to protect religious liberty and people’s ability to be able to practice their religion freely and openly, and of course we have to enforce the law too"); Jeb Bush ("“It seems to me that there ought to be common ground, there ought to be a big enough space for her to act on her conscience, and for now that the law is the law of the land, for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is"). Marco Rubio (“While the clerk’s office has a governmental duty to carry out the law, there should be a way to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of individuals working in the office”).

As of this morning, John Kasich, Ben Carson and Donald Trump have yet to take a stand one way or the other.

So far, only Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham have passed this remarkably low bar, agreeing that Kim Davis, having accepted a government job, has to either follow the law or find work that is more in line with her faith.

The Republican National Committee is forcing its candidates to take an oath promising to support the eventual Republican nominee.  Far more importantly, Republican candidates should be required take an oath that they promise, if elected, to follow the rule of law.  It is one they would have to take eventually if any of them became president -- God forbid.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tell Me Why I Don't Like Military Mondays

What's with the Mets' camouflage uniforms and caps?  Given their excellent play of late I don't think it is in anticipation of a frontal assault by disgruntled fans.  And they aren't much of a running team, so I don't think it is a strategic move to hide their baserunners to make stealing bases easier. 

No, it's Military Monday.

Beginning with the 2014 season, the Mets decided to honor U.S. servicemen and servicewomen at Monday home games by giving them free tickets and retail discounts, and sponsoring community outreach events   And, for those games, Met players and coaches don military-themed uniforms.  (The San Diego Padres do something similar for Sunday home games and all teams do it on Memorial Day.) 

Now, given the marketing prerogatives of major league teams who now sport a ridiculous number of uniform color combinations in order to sell more shirts, caps and jerseys to fans, it is hard to make an argument about the purity of the game.  But, putting players in battle fatigues takes things too far.

There is a difference between honoring members of the armed services and glorifying the military.  Mets ownership already does the former.  They have demonstrated their sincere and deep commitment by supporting the Wounded Warrior Project, arranging for players to visit VA hospitals, and helping found the Welcome Back Veterans, a program that provides treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. 

Players wearing faux military uniforms with American flag decals prominently displayed on the shoulder doesn't feel like it is about supporting our troops; it feels jingoistic.  This is particularly unseemly given that more than a quarter of Major League players are from countries other than the U.S. of A.-- some of which have been invaded by our military and exploited by our government.

And I'm not sure it does honor to the military, anyway.  If anything, baseball players looking like make-believe soldiers trivializes military service and feels more like a marketing ploy.  Sure it is a brave act to face a 90-plus mile per hour fastball with nothing more than 32-ounce wooden bat.  But it is hardly analogous to facing the enemy in a war zone.

We already have the National Anthem before every game -- a tradition that became entrenched during the Second World War to make sure the fans didn't question the patriotism of the players who weren't fighting in the war.  The anthem is often accompanied by the presentation of military colors and a military jet flyover.  And, after 9/11, because one song did not seem sufficient for players and fans to express their love of and loyalty to the United States, Irving Berlin's God Bless America began to be sung during the 7th Inning Stretch, either instead of or in addition to Take Me Out To The Ballgame.  It is still sung at many ballparks on Sundays, holidays and in the post-season. 

Isn't that enough?

If baseball teams are going to celebrate honorable professions, then I would like to see them pay tribute to those who devote their lives to protecting and helping people and improving society in other ways too.  How about we have the players dress up like teachers or public defenders or paramedics or social workers?   

Monday, August 31, 2015

How Life And The Death Penalty Imitate The Marx Brothers

The Court:  We'll take up old business.
Defense Counsel:  I wish to discuss the [constitutionality of the death penalty]  
The Court:  Sit down, that's new business. No old business? Very well... We'll take up new business.
Defense Counsel:  Now, about the [death penalty] ....
The Court:  Too late, that's old business already. Sit down
Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal heard oral argument in the case of Jones v. Chappell, in which a federal district judge ruled that the administration of California's death penalty is irrevocably dysfunctional, resulting in systemic delays in which only the "random few" are executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. As U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney found, of the over 900 people that have been sentenced to death since the adoption of the death penalty in 1978, 13 have been executed, 94 have died of other causes. There are over 750 men and women on California's death row. The process for reviewing their death sentences takes an average of 25 years and is getting longer -- delays, as the court found, that are inherent in the system and not the fault of inmates themselves.

Anyone wishing to hear a spirited argument about this ruling and whether California's death penalty is constitutional did not hear it today.  Here's a clip:

The argument barely touched on the underlying merits of the case.  Instead, the focus was on whether the claim could even be considered at all under the Byzantine rules erected by the Supreme Court and Congress -- rules that are designed to thwart criminal defendants from challenging their state convictions and sentences in federal court.  Under these often insurmountable procedural hurdles, a claim cannot involve the application of a new rule that was not clearly established by the Supreme Court at the time a defendant's case became final in the state courts.  A claim has to be exhausted in state court before being raised in federal court.  If it has not been exhausted it is generally too late to do so.  And if it has been exhausted and the state court rejected the claim, it must also be rejected in federal court-- even if the state court erred -- as long as the state court's decision was not "unreasonable."

One often hears the cliché about criminals being released on technicalities. The reality is that far more often a defendant's righteous claims are tossed out based on technicalities. 
The infrequency of executions and the randomness with regard to which condemned inmates actually will be executed have made a mockery of the supposedly rational justifications for the death penalty.  Because it is “so wantonly and so freakishly” used, California’s death penalty has become a wholly arbitrary punishment in the same sense as the death penalty laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia.

This is a critical issue going to the heart of whether the death penalty as applied in California is so dysfunctional as to be unconstitutional.  The fact that such a claim might not even be considered on its merits but, instead, could be dismissed on a technicality is further evidence of dysfunction.

Not so funny.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Met Fans

My two daughters are the kind of socially conscious, progressive thinking, organic eating, nature loving children that one would expect from being born and raised in Berkeley, California.  They are Bay Area kids in just about every way.  But when it comes to professional baseball, out of some misguided loyalty to their New Yorker father, they blithely turned their back on our two excellent local teams for which they were entitled to root (a variant on birthright citizenship) and became unshakable, die-hard Mets fans. 

And so over the last half-a-dozen years that comprise their sports consciousness, they have watched with dismay as their friends and neighbors celebrate the A's making it to the playoffs year after year, and the Giants winning three world championships, while the Mets keep losing. 

Did I feel guilty about this?  Absolutely.  It is one thing to endure the pain and suffering that comes from a life-long affliction of Met fandom when you can at least draw on the joy and wonder of 1969 and 1986.  It is quite another when the entirety of your Met worldview is framed by bad transactions, crushing injuries and dismal play -- and not one winning season. 

It got so bad that I was afraid to buy them Met t-shirts because each time I did, something would happen to the player whose name adorned the back of the shirt.  Santana shirt -- injury.  Reyes shirt -- free agent.  R.A. Dickey shirt -- traded.  Matt Harvey shirt  -- Tommy John surgery.

As losses mounted and seasons passed, my sweet darlings would look up at me and simply ask "why, Dad?"  I would invariably respond with unsatisfying tropes about the dignity to be found in supporting underdogs; about appreciating the subtle beauty of the game in ways that did not necessarily revolve around winning or losing; about the unfathomable exhilaration that will be felt one day when the Mets eventually turn it around.   "Sure, Dad."

This year seemed like it was going to be another dreadful season.  True there was that incredible 15-5 start which gave them just a taste of what rooting for a winner would be like, but we all knew the team would eventually regress to the mean.  And regress they did, thanks to the worst offense in all of baseball.  And so, we suffered along with the Mets' incredible young pitchers -- Harvey, DeGrom and Syndergaard -- as they pitched brilliantly only to lose games due to some combination of paltry hitting, sloppy fielding, and uninspired managing. 

But then things began to change.

For us, it started in late June when, visiting New York, we went to Citi Field for the debut of another great young pitcher, Steven Matz.  The crowd was electric while Matz pitched a stunning game and responded to the woefully weak lineup behind him by knocking in four runs by himself.  My girls finally experienced the thrill of positive Met energy - of being part a mass of deliriously happy Met fans.   

Not unexpectedly, the euphoria didn't last.  Matz quickly went down with an injury after one more great start (at least we didn't buy a Matz shirt) and the Mets resumed their anemic play.

But then the trade deadline approached and we all know what happened.  The Mets shed players who barely belonged in the minor leagues much less the majors and replaced them with real live professional baseball players.  Wilmer Flores cried when he thought he was traded and became a folk hero after he wasn't -- a folk hero who can hit.  Yoenis Cespedes arrived and with his star power changed the feel of the entire lineup.  And then everybody started hitting -- even the latest in a long line of overpaid disappointments, Michael Cuddyer.  And, to top it off, David Wright, Mr. All-Time Met himself, who was lost early this season to a serious spinal condition many thought would end his career, came back, punctuating his return with a towering home run in his first at bat.

And, just like that, the Mets are in first place and playing inspired ball.  Cespedes hits 3 home runs including a grand slam (7 RBIs) in one game.  DeGrom has a rare bad start but is picked up by the offense in a game where batters 1-7 all hit home runs, the first time that has happened in baseball history.  Harvey skips a start to save his arm, and Logan Verrett, making his first start ever, pitches a gem.  Wright, as mentioned, smashes a home run upon his return.  Wilmer is on a tear since shedding tears.  Even Bartolo Colon gets into the act and pitches 7 shutout innings.  The Mets are not just winning, they're playing like winners.

I'm not delusional  I've prepared my daughters for heartbreak with the requisite horror stories (e.g., the Beltran strike out with the bases loaded to end 2006 playoffs; the loss of 12 of their last 17 games in 2007 to blow a 7-game lead; and another collapse in 2008, when they blew a 3 1/2 game lead, culminating in another devastating loss on the last game of the season.)

But nothing can stop them (or me) from reveling in the moment.  For the first time in their lives, my kids are proud to be Met fans. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thank You Steven Gladstone, Wherever You Are

Two of my all-time favorite rock albums were released in 1975.  Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run.  To commemorate the latter, which came out 40 years ago today, I've revised a piece I wrote a few years back.  
I was in 11th grade in 1975.  A classmate, Steven Gladstone, was touting an album, Born to Run, by a guy with the Jewish-sounding name of Bruce Springsteen.  Turns out, Springsteen is a Dutch name, and Bruce was raised Roman Catholic.  No matter.  His songs, with their epic stories about the love, rebellion, and lost innocence of working class folks on the Jersey Shore resonated with this relatively privileged kid from Long Island.  Throw in a great band, blistering guitar and a soulful saxophone, and I was hooked.

Greil Marcus, reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, described its power and beauty as a revelation:
The song titles by themselves — "Thunder Road," "Night," "Backstreets," "Born to Run," "Jungleland" — suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of Springsteen's new music. It is the drama that counts; the stories Springsteen is telling are nothing new, though no one has ever told them better or made them matter more. Their familiar romance is half their power: The promise and the threat of the night; the lure of the road; the quest for a chance worth taking and the lust to pay its price; girls glimpsed once at 80 miles an hour and never forgotten; the city streets as the last, permanent American frontier. We know the story: one thousand and one American nights, one long night of fear and love.

What is new is the majesty Springsteen and his band have brought to this story. Springsteen's singing, his words and the band's music have turned the dreams and failures two generations have dropped along the road into an epic — an epic that began when that car went over the cliff in Rebel Without a Cause. One feels that all it ever meant, all it ever had to say, is on this album, brought forth with a determination one would have thought was burnt out years ago. One feels that the music Springsteen has made from this long story has outstripped the story; that it is, in all its fire, a demand for something new.


The songs, the best of them, are adventures in the dark, incidents of wasted fury. Tales of kids born to run who lose anyway, the songs can, as with "Backstreets," hit so hard and fast that it is almost impossible to sit through them without weeping. And yet the music is exhilarating. You may find yourself shaking your head in wonder, smiling through tears at the beauty of it all.


"Oh-o, come on, take my hand," Springsteen sings, "Riding out to case the promised land." And there, in a line, is Born to Run. You take what you find, but you never give up your demand for something better because you know, in your heart, that you deserve it. That contradiction is what keeps Springsteen's story, and the promised land's, alive. Springsteen took what he found and made something better himself. This album is it.

After devouring Born to Run, I bought his two earlier records -- which were far more spare, but with equally unforgettable characters and stories embedded in Bruce's eclectic, infectious music --  and gleefully anticipated his next release.  But due to legal wrangling with his manager, the next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, did not come out for three years, an excruciatingly long time to wait.  But then came the album's eventual release and the Darkness Tour.

Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1978.  I had never seen a performance like it before.  There was a relentless energy and intensity throughout the marathon show.  And there was the sheer joy Bruce and his E-Street Band conveyed on stage and the sincerity of the stories Bruce told in the lead-up to some of the songs.  And, of course, there were the great songs themselves.  When I returned to college in the fall I was a fanatic, and sought to spread the gospel of Bruce to my friends by endlessly playing the bootlegs of his concerts that I had obtained.  Then I learned that the tour was coming to my school.  My friend Henry and I, as well as a few other acolytes, slept out overnight for tickets.  We were rewarded with third row seats, and the show remains unforgettable.

Springsteen sort of lost me with some of his later albums and I can't say I listen to his music much anymore.  But, his keynote address at the 2012 SXSW, reminded me of what I loved about him -- the sweep of his vision, the depth of his passion and his unparalleled music chops.  (See The Boss Gives A History Lesson)  He concluded his speech/performance with this advice: "Treat it like it's all that we have, and then remember: it's only rock and roll."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

GOP Candidates: From Bad To Very Bad

Guest Blog Post by Tina Dupuy

I plead with all the writers, journalists, pundits, posters, commenters and tweeters of the nation: Please stop calling the Republican field a clown car. It was funny and image-provoking the first hundred times I read it. Now it’s the quip that won’t die.

Also, in fairness, it’s an insult to clowns. While I’m not exactly a fan of oversized footwear and white face, clowns at least have a whimsical premise. The GOP’s presidential hopefuls are cruel, dismissive and—I’ll say it—mean. They’re bad. Bad on science, bad on basic civics, bad on foreign policy and bad on economics. And they’ve already managed this election cycle to be (yet again) bad on rape.

How can one be on the wrong side of rape? Shocking, I know. Mike Huckabee thinks a 10-year-old rape victim should not be allowed to get an abortion. Why would anyone want more rapists having babies and more 10-year-olds being mothers? See? Just bad.

They’re bad on science. Not just the Creationist with an iPhone Paradox variety either. But science denial. “I’m not a scientist,” yipped Marco Rubio when asked the fundamental question about climate change, the fundamental national security issue of our time. He’s not a scientist? I’m not an engineer, but I can at least I know I’m qualified to say bridges exist.

Scott Walker this week told reporters his bald spot is because he hit his head on a sink a few years ago. Male pattern baldness—probably one of the most ubiquitous and common afflictions in the history of the human experience (second only to death) and Walker has his own weird lie he tells reporters about it. What’s next? Discussion about baby delivery hours for storks? That’s how bad the GOP field is on basic biology—they can’t even admit balding is real.

Ben Carson, who is a doctor and therefore kind of a scientist, is actually just really bad on civics. He and the other doctor (cough) in the field don’t understand what the Constitution actually does besides pepper their boilerplate. In an interview with Chris Wallace, Carson said: “The way our Constitution is set up, the president or the executive branch is obligated to carry out the laws of the land. The laws of the land, according to our Constitution, are provided by the legislative branch. The laws of the land are not provided by the judiciary.” Yeah, that’s not actually right. And, of course, Paul famously said, “Just because a couple people on the Supreme Court declare something to be ‘constitutional’ does not make it so.”

Uh. Yeah, it does. That’s in fact how that works.

The one woman—actually a businesswoman—who’s never held public office but not for lack of trying, Carly Fiorina, when asked how she’d rein in the power of the Chamber of Commerce, mistakenly assumed it was a government agency (it’s not) and proclaimed it was too big. The Chamber is—wait for it—a private organization for the betterment of business. And she’s the failed former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. See? Bad!

Jeb Bush, who even with two former presidents fundraising for him and universal name recognition is still polling near the margin of error in Iowa hits most of the lowlights in his party. He thinks half a billion dollars a year on women’s health care is just too much. This is the guy whose last major decision about a woman’s health care was for Terri Schaivo. He used the power of the government to keep a brain dead woman alive against her wishes and those of her significant other. He’s bad on science, bad on public policy and bad on simple human decency.

Speaking of human decency, Mexicans deserve it. Even undocumented ones. The GOP needs to stop using Mexican immigrants to get angry white people to vote for them. Angry white people will already vote for them. This election cycle kicked off with (still) front-runner Donald Trump saying the Mexican government is sending all their rapists here. These are human beings who are deeply ingrained in our economy, history and culture. The situation at the border is a humanitarian crisis, not a tee-ball to score cheap political points.

On foreign policy the entire lot seems to just say, “I support Israel” to get an applause line and go back to bashing poor people. Bush wants to send more troops into Iraq (a sentence I just cut and pasted from 2007). The others think saber rattling over Iran is sage because it gets them attention.

These are not clowns. Clowns are harmless (and a little creepy). These are people who should never have any real political power. These are your drunken uncle’s Thanksgiving dinner diatribes now charading as major policy discussions.

This is bad.

Originally posted at Tina Dupuy's website.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Morons and Oxymorons: The Fruitless Search For A Moderate Republican

The Republican Party has become such a far right party that a "Republican moderate" appears to refer to someone who occasionally gives lip service to reality, such as acknowledging the existence of climate change or accepting the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.  This is not moderate at all but, even so, it is hard to find a GOP candidate for president who can meet even this generous standard.

Ohio Governor John Kasich once conceded that climate change was a problem but has more recently hewed to the standard Republican canard that, notwithstanding the overwhelming consensus of the relevant scientific community, “we don’t want to destroy people’s jobs, based on some theory that is not proven.”  Virtually the entire field either denies outright that climate change is happening or refuses to believe that it is caused by human activity.  Jeb! takes the relatively more moderate position among the GOP candidates which is to admit that man-made climate change exists but insist that the government do nothing about it.  He believes that climate change will be solved miraculously by American ingenuity alone and, disregarding clear Supreme Court precedent, asserts that environmental regulations aimed at curbing carbon emissions are unconstitutional.  Doing nothing about climate change is not a moderate position.

All of the Republican candidates oppose abortion rights.  Several have staked out the extreme position that abortion should be prohibited even in cases of rape or incest or where the health of the mother is at stake.  This would include at least Rubio, Walker and Huckabee.  And so, the relatively more moderate position taken by the rest of the field is allowing for the aforementioned exceptions.  (Of course, they would all defund Planned Parenthood.) This may be a moderate position for the Republican Party, but not for a majority of Americans. 

Rick Santorum compares the Supreme Court's Obergefell ruling that the Constitution guarantees same sex couples the right to marry to the Dred Scott decision.  Mike Huckabee has urged people to "resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat."  The less extreme Republican position is accepting the principle that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution is the law of the land -- a view that, it should go without saying, should be a given for any public official.  This purportedly moderate stance on same sex marriage, however, also includes supporting a "religious liberty" bill that would prevent the federal government from penalizing businesses that discriminate against same-sex married couples.  John Kasich -- who as governor supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and supported appealing a ruling that found it unconstitutional -- is purportedly the outlier because he revealed a glimmer of humanity during the first GOP debate, admitting that although personally opposed to gay marriage, he went to a gay wedding and would still love his daughter if, hypothetically, she were a lesbian. That, I suppose, is the best they can do.

Donald Trump has gotten a lot of attention for his offensive, racist statements regarding immigrants and immigration.  His most recent proposals include building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, abolishing birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented immigrants, freezing green card applications and mass deportation.  Outrageous, you say?  Well, so-called serious candidate Scott Walker not only agrees but insists that he came up with these ideas first.  Governors Christie and Jindal like the idea of ending birthright citizenship too.  The more moderate position is to not support amending the Constitution to end birthright citizenship but to build a wall to keep immigrants out while, magnanimously, agreeing not to deport those law-abiding, God-fearing immigrants who are already here. 

On most other issues the Republican candidates pander to the extreme right wing of their party --  refusing to rule out torture for terrorism suspects, supporting the repeal of Obamacare, proposing block grants for entitlement programs, opposing federal minimum wage.  And on and on.

The more polished, less overtly wacko Republican candidates supported by the pragmatic, so-called establishment wing of the GOP are treated by the media as if they are well within the mainstream.  But none of them can be considered moderate unless you compare them to their utterly bat-shit crazy cohorts.  This will be important to keep in mind when the eventual Republican nominee begins moving towards the center during the general election campaign and the media's selective amnesia portrays him or her as sane, reasonable and, of course, moderate. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

My Grudge Against Joe Biden

I admit that I tend to carry grudges against political figures.  I will never forgive Bill Clinton for Welfare Reform, Habeas Reform, and the War on Drugs.  I will never forgive Ralph Nader for running a third-party campaign in 2000. 

And now, with rumors that Joe Biden is considering a run for president, I thought I would air my grudge against him.  Three words:  Justice Clarence Thomas. 

Biden was the chair of the Senate's Judiciary Committee during Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991.  And he blew it big time.  He failed to take Anita Hill's testimony about being sexually harassed by Thomas seriously, and lost control to far more aggressive and more overtly sexist Republicans.  In his efforts to be unstintingly fair to Thomas, he repeatedly assured him that "you have the benefit of the doubt," despite the lack of any legal justification for such an assurance.  He refused to permit expert testimony on sexual harassment.   And, worst of all, he reached a private compromise with Republican senators not to call witnesses who would have corroborated Hill, most importantly, Angela Wright, another former employee of Thomas' at the EEOC who also claimed to have been sexually harassed by him. 

Thomas was confirmed by a slim margin, 52–48, with the help of 11 Democrats.  Although Biden voted against Thomas, his shameful performance as Judiciary Chair is directly responsible for one of the most reactionary Supreme Court justices in U.S. history.

This is unforgivable.

Friday, July 31, 2015

No Wilmer, No Cry

There is crying in baseball, especially when it involves the Mets.

Wilmer Flores, the Mets' promising young infielder, who has been with the organization for seven years (since he was 16 years old), received a standing ovation after grounding out.  With the twitter-sphere all abuzz about a season-changing trade involving Flores and the Brewers' Carlos Gomez, the Citi Field crowd believed this was Flores' last at bat as a Met.  When he went to field his position the next inning, upon hearing that he had been traded, Flores, understandably, became tearful.  Turns out, though, reports of this trade were greatly exaggerated.  In fact, there was no trade and Flores is still a Met.

I was initially excited when I thought the Mets acquired Gomez (who they had traded years earlier as part of the deal that brought us Johan Santana), but I'm glad we still have Wilmer Flores, who could turn out to be a very good player.  And his emotional reaction is a reminder that ballplayers are not simply widgets to be discarded -- unless, of course, it is for really great ballplayer.

This was yet another in an unending series of Classic Met Moments.  Hope, Confusion, Despair, Remorse.  But wait, there's hope again. 

At the trading deadline today, the Mets obtained that big-time hitter they badly need -- Yoenis Cespedes. Together with their recent acquisitions of two excellent role players -- Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe -- and All Star reliever Tyler Clippard -- the Mets, shockingly, have all of a sudden become a team to be reckoned with.

In August 1973, nearing the end of a yet another dreadful season, with the Mets sitting in last place, relief pitcher Tug McGraw began chanting "Ya Gotta Believe" during a clubhouse meeting.  As the legend goes, the suddenly-inspired Mets got hot and won the National League pennant before falling to the A's in a thrilling 7-game World Series. 

I wasn't thinking about this history last week, when I went on a bit of a rant -- frustrated by the number of brilliant pitching performances by an incredible core of young pitchers wasted by inexcusably paltry hitting while management seemingly fiddled.

The baseball season is long -- a 162-games -- and subject to many twists and turns.  What we've learned from 1973, is that a lousy season can end miraculously.  Of course, we've also learned from the debacles of 2006, 2007 and 2008, that a great season can end ignominiously.  Anyway, there's nothing like meaningful September baseball.

So, cheer up, Wilmer.  And, welcome, Yoenis.

Ya Gotta Believe.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Trump: Rising From The GOP's Ashes

Donkey Hotey
Guest Blog Post by Tina Dupuy

There’s no shortage of publicity maestro, name-emblazer Donald Trump think pieces on the Internet these days. Most will attribute his straight talk to his more-than-likely-fleeting frontrunner status. Others point to some anger or racism the Trump Brand Name has tapped into. The rest? Apologists or denouncers. But all seem to agree that Trump is bad for the Republican Party; he’s sucking all the air out of the nominee process. That some other alleged Serious Candidates won’t get the attention they need because Trump is, well, trumping them.

But they’ve all missed it. Trump is not the cause of the GOP’s problems—he’s the symptom.

I turn to the classic work by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter in their 1956 tome “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World.” This was the seminal work where the phrase “cognitive dissonance” was coined. The researchers followed a doomsday cult, the Seekers, after their date of The End came and went.

What we’d assume is, after there was concrete, indisputable, undeniable evidence the prophecy was wrong, there would be mass disillusionment. Followers would turn on their leader and realize how silly they’d been. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, the authors observed a doubling down effect. The true believers found disconfirmation to be a reason to believe more truly. And then, firmly committed to their beliefs, they tried to find ways to justify the outcome. In the case of the Seekers, it was that they’d prayed and that stopped the flood which was to wipe out humanity.

When George W. Bush was sworn in with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, compassionate conservatism was going to be veto-less. Tax cuts were going to save the world and supply-side economics would make us all rich! In fact the Heritage Foundation assessed the Bush Tax Cuts would “1) Effectively pay off the federal debt; 2) Reduce the federal surplus by $1.4 trillion; 3) Substantially increase family income; 4) Save the entire Social Security surplus; 5) Increase personal savings; 6) Create more job opportunities.” Being in charge, Republicans cut taxes and THEN put a preemptive war on a credit card. Actually it was two major wars in two massive countries. We were promised we’d be greeted as liberators.

The prophesy conservatives believed—propagated—hoped was true, was that de-regulating business, cutting taxes and dropping a trillion dollars for an embassy in Iraq would “restore honor and dignity to the White House.”

What happened? Well, prophesy failed. Compassionate conservatism failed. The Bush Administration failed. Where’s the GOP now? Well if we go by cognitive dissonance theory, some devotees left the party. This is evident by all those “independent” (wink-wink) voters. The rest, the true believers, doubled down and that’s the best explanation for the tea party. And then the angry conservatives who made up this uprising claimed the economy buckling was Obama’s fault. Anyone’s fault! Too much government, they said. Too many taxes, they claimed. It was anything and everything else save failed prophesy from the Bush Years. Anything other than lies with broken promises built on faulty assumptions based on cherry-picked garbage.

In the wake of this revolt—this visceral, angry, point-to-anything mobile vulgus catapulted Sarah Palin into national prominence. And if you’ve ever wondered what a doubling down on Dubya looks like—it looks like Sarah palling-around-with-secessionists Palin’.

And the male version of this shiny totally unqualified and utterly ridiculous, money-grubbing, vacuous 2008 GOP It Girl is 2015’s Donald Trump. Palin’s signature move was to start media flame wars forcing us all to read endless piles of copy about her pettiness all while making the RNC hilariously lament their long dead intelligentsia. And that pretty much sums up The Donald. So far he’s been fired by NBC, dropped by Macy’s and collectively booed by everyone who sees Mexicans as anything other than rapists. He’s become a walking—err escalator-riding—media flame war.

And so of course Trump is now polling higher than any of the other 634 Republican candidates for president in this cycle. If we’re going by cognitive dissonance theory (and for this column, we are), Trump is the true believers doubling down on their resolve and grasping at straws to justify why Republican policies, when put into practice, utterly fail in every imaginable way.

Trump will not ruin the party. Trump is rising from the party’s ruins.

Originally posted at Tina Dupuy's website.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Not So Amazing: A Promising Season Fritters Away

Now batting . . . John Mayberry, Mayberry, Mayberry.

Met fans are accustomed to frustration and despair.  We are all too familiar with badly flawed teams, uninspiring play, inexplicable trades, underachieving acquisitions, devastating injuries, late season collapses.  We've had a few wondrous moments but many dark years.

I've often told the story about going to Old Timers Day in 1979,  which commemorated the 10th Anniversary of The Miracle Mets, and after watching our beloved 1969 stalwarts play a couple of ceremonial innings, my friend and I left prior to the start of the "real" game. We simply couldn't bear the stark contrast with the then-current team, led by the likes of Willie Montanez, Richie Hebner and the detritus from the catastrophic Tom Seaver trade two years earlier. 

But this year is as frustrating as any I can remember.  You might ask why?  After six straight losing seasons, the Mets opened 2015 in exciting fashion, by going 15-5, including an 11-game winning streak.  It is the end of July, and despite the usual raft of devastating injuries and infuriating play, they are (barely) over .500 and only three games back of the first place Washington Nationals, who were expected to run away with the division. 

But the longer the Mets remain in the playoff hunt and the tighter the race becomes, the more resentful I get.  And I don't think this is just a case of the prototypical Met fan who can't enjoy the good times and is always looking for reasons to be pissed off.  It is precisely because they are so close while management fritters away the opportunity to put them over the top that is so crazy-making. 

The Mets have a young pitching staff for the ages.  John Smoltz, the great former Brave pitcher who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, joining his pitching mates, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, says that the Mets' rotation is "way better" and "more talented" than they were.

And it is these extraordinarily talented pitchers who are keeping the Mets afloat.  But a team built around pitching needs two things to win:  good defense and at least average offense -- and the Mets have neither. 

The Mets have the worst offense in the league.  They typically have two or three players in the starting lineup who are batting under .200.  Their core players are either hurt or badly underperforming.  The lack of depth is exemplified by the fact that their pitchers have a higher collective batting average than their bench. 

Before the season began, the Mets signed two players:  Michael Cuddyer, who by all accounts was too old and often injured, but happens to be David Wright's BFF, and John Mayberry, Jr. who, unfortunately, has never shown the ability to hit the ball anywhere near like his father did -- or probably still can.  They have both been unsurprisingly awful. 

It is outrageous that the Mets continue to keep putting on the field players who simply are not of major league quality. Case in point:  Kirk Nieuwenhuis was cut by the Mets earlier in the year and picked up by the Angels who after 10 games saw all they needed to and cut him too.  The Mets' big acquisition so far this year:  re-signing Nieuwenhuis. 

Want another example?  How about Ruben Tejada, who was supposed to be the replacement at shortstop for fan favorite, Jose Reyes when the Mets (in another brilliant move) let Reyes go (for nothing) four years ago?  Tejada was such an utter disappointment that the Mets demoted him and instead tried utility players like Omar Quintanilla and young Wilmer Flores, who is obviously better suited for another (any other) infield position.  The solution?  Tejada, the Prodigal Met, is back at short and batting second. 

It is painful to watch these remarkable young pitchers play their hearts out (and sometimes throw their arms out) only to lose games because of one bad pitch or a defensive miscue.  There is so little margin for error because their paltry offense rarely scores more than a run or two.  I heard a stat the other day that the Mets were something like 5 for their last 75 with runners in scoring position. Not really surprising when you look at their lineup.

The number of beautifully-pitched games the Mets have lost 1-0 or 2-1 or 3-2 that they could have won with a little timely hitting and a little better defense would be enough to put them well ahead in first place instead of scuffling for a playoff spot that seems more out reach every day. Meanwhile, management does nothing to improve the team.  Nothing, if you don't count the Nieuwenhuis acquisition.

Despite being in the nation's largest media market the Mets' payroll is among the bottom third for major league teams, lower than teams from far smaller markets such as Kansas City, Cincinnati and San Diego.  The owners won't admit it but they are obviously still mired in financial problems because of their entanglement with Bernie Madoff.  And so, they won't increase payroll to sign a big-time player.  And they won't think creatively to sign decent role players.

And so here we are.  After an absolutely devastating loss last night to the first place Nationals, the Mets badly needed to bounce back tonight against the Dodgers and their ace, Clayton Kershaw.  Batting cleanup for the Mets in this key game:  John Mayberry, Jr. and his .170 batting average.  Batting fifth, Eric Campbell and his .179 batting average (catcher Anthony Recker, also with a sub-.200 average was in the lineup as well).  Kershaw was close- to-unhittable, but half the Mets lineup couldn't hit anybody.  And, sure enough, in a 1-0 game in the 7th inning, in what would prove to be their only chance to score, the Mets put runners on first and second, and with two outs, their cleanup hitter stepped up to the plate.  But Mighty Mayberry struck out and then Campbell grounded out.

And there's your unhappy recap.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Barack Obama: Great President Or The Greatest President?

With apologies to Stephen Colbert, the title of this post is not meant as parody (for the most part).

Not that I don't have serious issues with some of Obama's policies and positions.  His refusal to investigate, much less prosecute, the Bush Administration officials who authorized torture and lied us into war remains his most egregious mistake.  (See Just Some Folks Torturing Other Folks.)  His unwillingness to hold Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis is another glaring failure.  His resort to drone warfare is a deeply troubling approach to national security.  And his first term was badly marred by an infuriating inability to recognize or confront the utterly obstructionist nature of the Republicans in Congress.

While far from perfect, I would argue that Obama's presidency -- particularly in light of the domestic and foreign shitpiles he inherited and the racially and politically motivated efforts by the GOP to oppose everything Obama -- has been a transformative one, and should be ranked as one of the greatest. 

Obama has resuscitated a key pillar of liberalism  -- discredited not only by Republicans but by the last Democrat in the White House -- that big government can be an important, positive force in the lives of Americans.  The Affordable Care Act is not ideal, but it has provided health insurance for more than sixteen million people who were previously uninsured.  Its success has instilled in a majority of Americans the notion that health care is not just a benefit, but a right.  Indeed, the panic among Republicans concerning the potential political fallout, when it appeared that the Supreme Court might invalidate the portion of the Act that provided federal subsidies in conservative-leaning states which had failed to set up exchanges, speaks volumes about how quickly expectations about government-mandated health care have changed.

The nuclear arms deal with Iran provides a stark contrast between the Obama Presidency and the dead-enders in the GOP, whose response to every international crisis seems to be a call for bombs in the air and boots on the ground.  Particularly since 9/11, but really since the Cold War, our foreign policy has been dominated by fear --  resulting in overreactions to real and perceived threats out of fear of attack from abroad and fear of being called weak at home. 

Recall Obama's response to a question during the 2008 campaign about whether he would be willing to negotiate with our adversaries without preconditions:  "I would," he said, reasoning that "the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration — is ridiculous."  As Dylan Matthews writes, what was then considered by many to be a "gaffe" now feels like a statement of purpose:  "Obama has reestablished productive diplomacy as the central task of a progressive foreign policy, and as a viable alternative approach to dealing with countries the GOP foreign policy establishment would rather bomb."  This thoughtful, measured approach to foreign policy has also led to ending the pointlessly destructive embargo with Cuba.

The president of the United States has the unique ability to use his lofty position as a bully pulpit -- to give a powerful voice to issues and ideas that might otherwise be muffled.  At least in his second term, Obama has embraced this prerogative with intelligence, passion and grace unparalleled in recent times -- and he has done it on the most fraught of subjects.  Obama's discussion of race in America is helping to upend the long-held whitewashed and uncritical narrative of our moral superiority and exceptionalism, building momentum to forge meaningful policy changes that can begin to repair the long-lasting damage caused by slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism.  His speech on the 50th anniversary of Selma (see President Obama's Exceptional Speech) encouraged us to confront our shameful past -- "loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths." And, as he explained in his eulogy for Rev. Pickney in Charleston, it isn't just about the past: "for too long, we've been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present."   

The Charleston speech, known mostly for Obama's poignant rendition of Amazing Grace, covered a wide swath: gun violence ("for too long, we've been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation"), the Confederate flag ("a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation" and removing it from the state capitol "would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history"), the pervasiveness of racism ("maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal"), and voting rights ("so that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.")

This was followed by a series of remarkable moves aimed at highlighting the unjust nature of a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects men of color and has led to mass incarceration.  Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people, most of whom were serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. He delivered a speech proposing wide-ranging reforms at the annual convention of the NAACP, where he pointed  out that "a growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime."  He talked about root causes of crime and police abuses, calling for investment in early childhood education, police reform, ending mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and reducing the use of solitary confinement. 

And then, Obama visited a federal prison -- the first president to do so (though, it must be said that certain of his Republican predecessors should have been more than visitors).  This simple but unprecedented act acknowledged the humanity of the incarcerated -- in this case, those serving mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses -- and further underscored the human toll of thoughtless, overly punitive crime policy.

One need only compare this with the rhetoric and reality of Bill Clinton's "tough on crime" and "war on criminals" approach -- which even Clinton has belatedly (and rather lamely) apologized for -- to get a sense of the historic nature of this call for ending mass incarceration that, as Obama put it, “by a wide margin … disproportionately impacts communities of color.”

Although late to accept same-sex marriage until it was more politically palatable, Obama has been a strong supporter of LGBT rights, stating unequivocally that LGBT rights are “human rights.”  He ended the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and ordered his Justice Department to reverse itself and stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court.  Last year he signed an executive order banning workplace discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors.  And, more recently, his Administration sided with the parties who argued against state bans on same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court.  

Coming into office during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Obama had to fight the deficit fetishists of both parties to push through a stimulus package that led us to a recovery.  While he should have pushed for larger stimulus and remained too long in the thrall of the aforementioned fetishists, as Paul Krugman notes, "there's overwhelming consensus among economists that the Obama stimulus plan helped mitigate the worst of the slump."

While the Obama administration failed to go after the architects of the financial crisis, he did sign Dodd Frank into law -- a law that provides significant oversight and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Just look at how badly the Republicans want to overturn or neuter Dodd Frank to get a sense of how effective it is or will be.

In the wake of Congress's inaction on immigration, Obama did an end run, signing an executive order that allows "four million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years to apply for a program that protects them from deportation and allows those with no criminal record to work legally in the country."  Another "one million people will get protection from deportation through other parts of the president’s plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration enforcement system, including the expansion of an existing program for 'Dreamers,' young immigrants who came to the United States as children."

Obama's environmental record is mixed, but faced with a Republican Party that does not believe in climate change and is trying to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, Obama has pushed back -- issuing executive orders to curb greenhouse gas emissions and achieving an historic climate change agreement with China. 

Obama has appointed two extremely well qualified, liberal justices to the Supreme Court -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  Approximately a third of the federal judiciary are Obama appointees.  Although there are far too many former prosecutors and corporate defense lawyers among them, it is also true that Obama has literally changed the face of the judiciary -- with the majority of his appointments being women and nonwhite males.

So, to recap, while rescuing the economy from a disaster of President Bush's making, President Obama risked his political capital on an admittedly unwieldy plan to reach a goal attempted and abandoned by so many presidents before him -- national health insurance.  He has achieved critical foreign policy successes by relying less on reflexive military action and more on cooperative, thoughtful diplomacy.  In response to the unspeakable outrage of police killings of so many young black men by the police, and the unspeakable tragedy of a seemingly endless series of tragic shootings, Obama has spoken -- and by doing so he is forcing us to confront not only our history of slavery and Jim Crow, but the institutional racism that persists today.  He is engaging us in a national conversation about crime, gun violence, and mass  incarceration  -- and he is committed to pushing through Congress a series of landmark criminal justice reforms that appear to have bipartisan support.  He is the first president to fully embrace the LGBT community.  And the first to recognize the devastating reality of man-made climate change.  He has appointed the most diverse federal bench in history.  And he has done all this while the opposing political party, having purged itself of moderates, has produced the most reactionary and obstructionist legislative branch in modern times.

A great president or the greatest president?