Vignettes and Vendettas

Returning home to California from a recent business trip in Pittsburgh, I needed some reading material to keep me occupied for several hours of flying, so I picked up “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton’s election postmortem that had been drawing mixed reviews in the media. I was interested to see whether Clinton could shed any insight into how things went so terribly wrong for a campaign that was supposed to be the surest “sure thing” since the Reagan era.

I managed to consume most of the book as my plane traversed the vast swathes of middle America where Clinton had gotten clobbered, where I grew up and lived most of my life, which many of us white-collar coastal types sneeringly refer to as “flyover country.” (A helpful suggestion: my fellow native Midwesterners don’t like that. Stop it.)

As I plunged deeper and deeper into Clinton’s retelling, it struck me that it neatly mirrored the backward-looking party she recently led: stuck in the past, alternately nursing old grievances and happier times, with no useful answer to the most important question of all: What now?

Before I go too far down that path, I should present some important disclaimers. As my regular readers already know, I am a Democrat. I supported Hillary Clinton, both in the primaries and certainly in the general election. I think she would have been a good president. And frankly, I think she got the shaft, particularly from the national political media, which—as Clinton rightly and quite bitterly notes in her book—focused so much attention on an absolutely stupid story (the ridiculous e-mail kerfuffle) as to drown out all other issues. Nobody in American public life since Richard Nixon has gotten the consistently lousy treatment from the media that Hillary Clinton has received for the last 25 years. The difference is that Nixon earned it.

So know going in that my natural inclination is to be sympathetic to Clinton, a fact which in retrospect may have colored my expectations about how the 2016 election would turn out.

That said, her book disappointed me. Although she paid lip service to taking responsibility for her own mistakes, much of the book was an exercise in settling scores: with Donald Trump, with James Comey, with the media, and even with a few individual members of Congress.

When Clinton wasn’t sniping at those who had wronged her—which, in fairness, was completely understandable given the bad treatment she received from them—she spent much of the rest of the book telling tedious anecdotes. It’s nice that she and her staff celebrated birthdays together, but I didn’t buy her book to read all the details about the candles and the cakes.

Sprinkled in amidst all the touching but boring vignettes were the occasional nuggets of gold. For example, Clinton rightly calls out the national political media for focusing on garbage stories—e-mails and the “horse race”—rather than real issues, which is not a new complaint and is certainly a valid one. For what it’s worth, this columnist was as guilty of focusing on the horse race as anyone else, and I have had my share of disquieting moments when I have pondered whether my rosy predictions might have given some readers the mistaken idea that the election was in the bag. I will say this: her assertions that the media played a role, wittingly or not, in elevating Trump to the presidency have real merit, and her takedown of NBC’s Matt Lauer on that score was almost worth the sale price of the book by itself.

And I really did admire the honesty with which she wrote. Whether you agree or disagree with her statements, it is pretty clear that she wrote what she was really thinking and feeling.

On the whole, however, I thought the book fell short. I got the impression that she was still trying to convince people that she was a “normal” and “likeable” human being, but in relating anecdote after anecdote about all the famous elites she knows, this was a hard sell. It read as if she was still trying to fight against the caricature painted of her by her enemies, and I had to wonder why. At this point, to borrow a phrase she herself famously used, “what difference does it make?”

I suppose the thing that lost me the most was it read very much like a book written by someone who is still running. No, I don’t think Hillary Clinton will seek the presidency again, and I certainly hope she doesn’t after losing a slam-dunk race against the least-qualified, most buffoonish major-party nominee to seek the presidency in the history of the republic. That ship has sailed and I expect she understands that.

But in every story about some particular voter she met on the campaign trail, it struck me over and over again that Clinton, in her book, was still campaigning. Maybe it isn’t a habit that is easily broken, but in those moments, it read like the kind of book that candidates write when they are getting ready to run.

In the end, even with her political career clearly over, the key takeaway from “What Happened” is that Hillary Clinton just can’t stop running—not for president this time, but for understanding and vindication. I suppose that’s fine and well, and given what she’s been through, I don’t begrudge her a bit of self-indulgence and self-care.

But if you are looking for answers about what future candidates, or we as citizens, can do differently, you’ll have to infer them on your own. “What Happened,” as its title would suggest, fights the battles of the past, not the future—much like a Democratic Party that is still tearing itself asunder over whether the “Hillary wing” or the “Bernie wing” should inherit the shattered dreams of the glass ceiling that Clinton ultimately couldn’t break. It may be useful to look back, but only if we can apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future. Neither Clinton’s book, nor her party—my party—seem prepared to do that just yet.

On This Labor Day, Let’s Start Respecting Laborers

Since I began writing for the Observer a little over two years ago, I have done very little posting here on my own site. It seemed to me to be superfluous to write here for free when I could get paid for my writing.

However, on occasion, I stumble upon a topic that perhaps is better suited to my blog than for professional publication. And on this Labor Day, I would like to share an experience I had yesterday that seems to be a very appropriate topic for this holiday.

Recently, I moved to a new community in order to be closer to my day job, as my company is moving here in a few weeks, and I wanted to spare myself a dreary 45-minute car commute each way. I have been in the process of getting to know my new neighborhood. Part of that process, naturally, involves finding a good place to get breakfast on a Sunday morning, so I walked over to a little diner not far from my new home and sat at the counter, where a friendly young woman took my order.

The server was engaged in conversation with another customer, a middle-aged, white, male businessman, and she mentioned that when she had left work the previous day, she had forgotten to take her paycheck with her.

The businessman responded: “When you get into the professional world, there is this thing called direct deposit.”

I’m sure he meant nothing untoward by it and was oblivious to the many notions packed into such a statement. For those of us who are tremendously privileged, as he and I are, it is often easy to say things like that without thinking twice about it.

I don’t know the man’s background, but I do know mine. I grew up among union steelworkers, secretaries and servers. And I have never known any of them who are not in “the professional world.” They are engaged in professions for which they get paid; ergo, they are professionals.

But this man’s statement spoke volumes about how those of us in the white-collar world think about those who aren’t. It was dismissive. It carried the idea that if you wait tables, mop floors, drive nails (or paint nails), or do anything that doesn’t involve sitting in an office, you are less than a professional. You are less than.

His statement also carried the weight of the presumption that blue-collar jobs are just a weigh station in life until the “smart ones” find their way into the “professional world.” This is the exact sentiment that fuels opposition to a living minimum wage. “Oh, why should we pay McDonald’s workers $15 an hour? They’re just kids working their way through school.” This, of course, flies in the face of data showing that the average age of a food-service worker is nearly 30 years old.

The young server at the diner yesterday may well be waiting the counter now while she pursues an education that will enable her to enter into a white-collar career. Or she may not. She appeared to be about college age. She almost certainly was not a high-school kid waiting tables on the weekend, because she had an intricate tattoo on her upper arm, and California, like most states, does not allow individuals younger than 18 to be tattooed without parental consent. At any rate, this may or may not be a temporary career endeavor for her. It is possible that she will work this job or another service job for the bulk of her life. And if that is her choice, it deserves better than to be implicitly and thoughtlessly disrespected by someone who looks down his nose at what she does.

A lot has been said and written in recent months about the feeling of alienation that blue-collar people feel in our society. I think that to a great degree, this sentiment has been overused for the purpose of excusing or overlooking the blatant racism and sexism that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency. That said, the disconnect between the white-collar and blue-collar worlds is palpable, as is the disdain that the former too often holds for the latter.

In America, we too often judge people to be successful based on whether they work with their hands or not. If you’ve gone to college and landed an office job, you are thought to be smart and successful. If not, you are often considered to have failed, or to be stupid. Well let me tell you something: the guy who fixes my car is not stupid. The older woman who cuts my hair has worked hard for years to perfect her craft. The server who keeps multiple orders straight while dealing with her share of difficult customers is quite talented. And the people who build the roads and the bridges and the trains we use to get to our comfortable offices know what they’re doing. They work hard every day to keep this country running. They do vital jobs. But we treat them with tremendous disrespect.

If we want to bridge the chasm between the white-collar world and the much larger blue-collar America—where the overwhelming majority do not earn bachelor’s degrees—it starts with those of us in the white collars respecting every person and every profession equally. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be surprised when they manifest their resentment in the most inconvenient places—such as the voting booth.

Responses to New Observer Column

It is my policy to respond to any e-mails I receive through, so long as the e-mails are generally respectful and not threatening. However, I have received such a large volume of e-mail in response to my Observer column of May 31 (“It’s Okay If You’re A Republican“) that I have been unable to respond to each individual note, for which I apologize.

While a fair amount of the e-mails were abusive, and most were in disagreement with my column, I was pleased that so many of them were constructive and clearly written in an honest attempt to engage. If you took the time to write a thoughtful critique and I did not respond, I apologize, and I encourage you to stay in touch in the future.

In the next day or two, I plan to post on this site a general response to the comments I have received via e-mail and Twitter.

Whether you agreed with my latest column or not, thank you for reading and responding.

The Silliest Criticism Ever

Over the last quarter of a century, there have been countless allegations and criticisms hurled at Hillary Clinton. Some of them have had merit. Others have been silly. Not a small number have been outlandish. (“She murdered Vince Foster,” for example.)

But by far the most ridiculous criticism ever leveled at Clinton is that she may, on occasion, have said some nasty things about the women who went to bed with her husband. This bit of foolishness is rearing its head again today, as Donald Trump apologists attempt to draw a parallel between his outrageously sexist and porcine statements, revealed this weekend, and how Bill Clinton has behaved with women over the years. Inevitably, Clinton supporters counter that Bill Clinton, unlike Trump, is not running for office, and that Hillary Clinton is not to blame for his behavior. And Trump’s remaining apologists counter, “Yes, but she degraded the women her husband preyed on.”

First, Bill Clinton didn’t prey on anybody, despite Republicans’ repeated insistence over the years that he somehow tricked or pressured impressionable young women into bed. He committed adultery with consenting adults who, like him, should have known better.

Second, and this is an important point, wouldn’t anybody whose spouse cheated have some negative things to say about the person or people he/she cheated with?

Seriously, if you find yourself criticizing Hillary Clinton for voicing a poor opinion of her husband’s mistresses, do yourself and everyone else a favor and just stop talking. You’re being ridiculous.

The Debates Won’t Make A Nickel’s Worth Of Difference

Don’t be expecting too much from tomorrow’s presidential debate, or any of the debates. We live in a time in which most people already have their minds made up and can’t be swayed by anything. If Donald Trump climbs up on the moderator table, drops his pants and defecates right there, his supporters will cheer.

The country is locked into two ideological camps. People are going to tune in tomorrow night largely to cheer for their side, much like a sports contest. They’ll boo if their candidate gets a tough question, in the same way sports fans boo every call against their own team. Most of the few who don’t tune in to cheer or boo will just be watching to see if a train wreck occurs.

Rah-rahs and gawkers. That’s the American electorate. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

Twittered Out

It would be no exaggeration to say that I owe my position as a columnist with the New York Observer to Twitter. I happened to get into a Tweet-out with an Observer columnist about a year ago, and the editor noticed, took a look at my blog, and offered me the opportunity to write for him—an offer it took me roughly four-tenths of a second to accept.

By that time, I had been an avid Tweeter for some time and was beginning to grow a small following of people who liked my political analysis. I had a strict policy: nothing but political analysis. I soon found other serious political analysts liking and re-Tweeting my tweets, not to mention hundreds of regular Joes and Josephines with an interest in the topic.

Somewhere along the way, I went from learning how to master the medium to being mastered by it. I’m not sure exactly when that happened, but I soon found myself typing anything that I thought was going to get eyeballs, the more outrageous the better. And it worked. I kept getting new followers. It was still a modest following, but one that went up by about 30% in a year’s time.

It became addictive. It was like a sugar rush to throw out the snappy comeback and to get the cascade of likes and retweets. It meant I was finally being noticed; that I had something to say that people wanted to read. It was a giant ego boost to have all these people cheering me on whenever I landed a punch.

I found that I, introvert of introverts, had all kinds of new friends I’d never met. And suddenly, I was sucked in. I found myself compulsively checking my phone to see the latest Tweets. It began to be where I got most of my news and, increasingly, a disturbingly large share of my social interactions—a substitute for the real social interactions I increasingly failed to seek out in a new city.

Somewhere along the line, the line got crossed. It became personal. And I found myself getting into increasingly nasty arguments with trolls. Or was I the troll? I guess that would depend on one’s point of view, wouldn’t it?

The more invested I got in it, the less fun it became and the more it seemed like an unhealthy escape from real life. I began to treat occurrences on Twitter as if they really mattered to me personally. I actually stressed over whether somebody I’d never met, and never would meet, managed to get the better of me in an argument. I guess you could say the people on Twitter did matter and they do matter, because the people I interact with are indeed real people with real lives, but it’s dangerous to forget that you’ve got to live your life where you are. You can’t live it in the Twitterverse, even if it seems like a more interesting world than the one you actually inhabit physically. I began to forget that. Hell, I forgot it entirely.

So here’s the dilemma. How do I pull myself back from this overindulgence in Twitter without cutting off the opportunity to interact, to influence, and most importantly, to market myself as a political analyst and columnist with valuable things to say? How do I keep attracting an audience without overdoing the personal touch?

I guess that’s the trick, isn’t it? Maybe one day I’ll discover the answer.