Thursday, April 08, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #12: Obama, Brzezinski and Middle East peace plans (UPDATED and CLARIFICATION)

As a reporter in the Jewish press throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, there were many rumors about Barack Obama that I found myself writing about, and debunking -- but none may have been more persistent than the one about Zbigniew Brzezinski being one of his foreign policy advisers. If I was doing "Jewish Fact Checks" back then, it was the kind of thing I probably would have written about.

The charge had a grain of truth undergirding it -- Brzezinski had endorsed Obama and introduced him at a foreign policy speech Obama gave early in the primary campaign. But the Obama campaign, and even Obama himself, insisted that the former Carter national security adviser was no more than a prominent endorser of the candidate, and no role in the campaign or in formulating Obama's foreign policy views.

Which is why I was so surprised and disappointed when I read yesterday's David Ignatius column in the Washington Post suggesting that the administration was thinking about proposing an American peace plan for the Middle East. Whatever the wisdom of such a plan, I was struck by one of the "advisers" pushing such a policy...Zbigniew Brzezinski! As Ignatius writes:

Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, spoke up first, according to a senior administration official. He urged Obama to launch a peace initiative based on past areas of agreement; he was followed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for Jimmy Carter, who described some of the strategic parameters of such a plan.

The New York Times even added that Obama had dropped in on the meeting -- which also included a number of other former national security advisers, although not Condi Rice or Stephen Hadley from the Bush II administration (Colin Powell, who was NSA during Bush I but Secretary of State during W.'s first term, was part of the meeting.)

This is really kind of stunning, when one looks back at the efforts the Obama campaign went to in order to make sure Jewish voters knew that they had nothing to do with Brzezinski and his ideas on the Middle East. And there was good reason for that: Brzezinski is not considered much of a friend of Israel by many pro-Israel voters. Last fall, he even suggested that if Israel sent jets to attack Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. should shoot them down.

Obama surrogates, and even Obama himself, insisted that they had virtually nothing to do with Brzezinski, constantly making this case to Jewish and pro-Israel voters for months. Take this comment from an appearance Obama made before Jewish voters in Ohio in February 2008:

There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the US and Israel should be interacting. It has evolved over time. It means that somebody like Brzezinski who, when he was national security advisor would be considered not outside of the mainstream in terms of his perspective on these issues, is now considered by many in the Jewish Community anathema. I know Brzezinski he's not one of my key advisors. I've had lunch with him once, I've exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan, where actually, traditionally, if you will recall he was considered a hawk. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party was very suspicious of Brzezinski precisely because he was so tough on many of these issues. I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally.

Such a statement didn't stop either Hillary Clinton supporters or Republicans from continuing to spread the charge. In fact, it started to annoy me how much this apparently false information was being spread. Back in March 2008, not long after Clinton adviser Ann Lewis had been quoted saying that Brzezinski was an top Obama foreign policy adviser, I asked her at a panel during the UJC Young Leadership conference why she kept repeating that charge. She responded that she had read the information in the media -- after which Obama adviser Dan Kurtzer replied that Brzezinski wasn't even an adviser to the campaign -- something that seemed to genuinely surprise both Lewis and McCain rep Larry Eagleburger.

Then Republicans, most prominently the Republican Jewish Coalition in ads like this one, continued to parrot the charge all through the general election campaign. And the Jewish press tried to set the record straight, as my former colleague Ron Kampeas did here and here, noting that while Brzezinski did represent the campaign once on a call for Democrats Abroad, he played no role in the campaign.

The Brzezinski stuff even continued after the inauguration -- I noted that Florida Republican leader Adam Hasner had incorrectly repeated it in a March 2009 piece at the American Thinker.

Well, I don't know what was happening a year ago, but, now, after Ignatius' piece, it looks like Hasner has been proven right. No, Brzezinski's not an official member of the administration, but administration officials are openly soliciting and, apparently, taking, his advice -- and then touting it proudly in public. If the RJC wants to run those ads ripping Obama for having Brzezinski as an adviser this November or in 2012, they won't hear any commplaints from me -- because they're now supported by the facts. If one wants to argue that Brzezinski isn't as "anti-Israel" as groups like the RJC claim, that's fine -- but there's no argument that he's involved with the administration in a somewhat serious way.

Do I believe that the Obama campaign advisers -- who are now serving in the administration -- telling me and others that Brzezinski had no role in the campaign were lying or trying to mislead me? No, I don't -- I think they were either telling the truth as it was at the time or at least believed what the candidate was telling them. But do I feel like sort of a sucker for actually defending the campaign against those spreading the Brzezinski rumor when the administration turns around a little more than a year later and brags about getting advice from the guy? I sure do.

CLARIFICATION: I've had a couple complaints about this post, so let me clarify what I was saying. I never said that anyone was untruthful about the Brzezinski issue during the campaign. I never said Brzezinski worked for the administration or was a key adviser to the president. I don't even think there's necessarily anything wrong with the national security adviser bringing former NSA's in to get their points of view on occasion, as was apparently happening here. But if you are going to bring them in, and then have the president drop in, ask for advice and have Scowcroft and Brzezinski outline a Middle East peace plan -- and then leak to the newspapers in an apparent trial balloon that you're seriously considering taking their advice -- how is it wrong to conclude that Brzezinski is advising the president on Middle East issues? That's my point.

Meanwhile, a postscript: Kampeas wrote in one of the articles linked above that the Obama campaign insisted that Obama's views were close to Dennis Ross, not someone like Brzezinski. And while it's unclear how influential Ross is in the administration, it's interesting that while anonymous administration officials are talking positively about Brzezinski, at least one anonymous administration official late last month smeared Ross, telling Laura Rozen of Politico that Ross "seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests." Quite a change from the campaign, one might argue -- although to be fair, NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough did respond on the record that "such an assertion is as false as it is offensive."

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

I can't believe how stupid this NY Times article about American Idol is

What program is Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times watching every Tuesday night at 8 on Fox? Because after reading her rave today about Ellen DeGeneres as an American Idol judge, it doesn't seem like she's actually watching American Idol. Either that, or she never watched it before last month. As an out-of-work journalist, reading such a silly piece in the gold standard of newspapers, the New York times, makes me fear for the future of my profession. And I hate when someone who is supposed to be watching television for a living doesn't seem to know anything about it.

Stanley has a history of factual errors in her TV criticism, but the problem in this article isn't facts. And yes, Stanley has every right to hold whatever opinion she chooses and, as long as she's employed by the Times, write about it. But her opinion that Ellen DeGeneres is somehow now the star of the show and has elevated it is so crazy and different from the opinions of any avid watcher of the show that I barely know how to respond. I just can't believe anyone would actually hold such an opinion unless they were a family member of Ellen or the president of her fan club.

Here's the money section of Stanley's piece:

She has little experience in the music business, but midway through her first season Ms. DeGeneres has all but hijacked the show, playing second fiddle to no one, not even the overbearing Mr. Cowell. She has elevated the tone with her own style of mischievous good spirits and well-honed, down-to-earth charm. She couldn’t be friendlier or more congenial, but she doesn’t quite blend with the other judges; at times, her facial expressions betray a quizzical distance from the show’s cheesier moments. It makes her all the easier for viewers to identify with, but she also makes the other judges look all the more like show business hacks.

There is a power shift playing out onstage. Ms. DeGeneres sometimes looks like the keen, dedicated new teacher who wins over students but is treated with polite suspicion by burned-out veterans in the faculty lounge.

She certainly tries harder. The alpha judge, Mr. Cowell, is a showy enunciator, but the words he utters with British bite are quite banal (“pointless” and “silly” and “useless” ). The other judges pay almost no attention to syntax or cliché — contestants are repeatedly told they “nailed it” or “hit it out of the park.” Randy Jackson, in particular, never tires of telling contestants, or as he constantly calls them, “dawg,” that they are “pitchy” or that they are “the bomb.”

Ms. DeGeneres keeps reaching for fresh, incongruous metaphors. She compared one singer’s uneven performance to the two panels of “a hospital gown” and a standout performance by another contestant as “Snooki’s pouf” (a reference to the bouffant hairdo of a cast member of “The Jersey Shore”).

I will agree with one thing Stanley says here. Ellen doesn't blend with the other judges--because she has no music industry experience. And that's a big reason why she's such a bad judge. Sure, she's occasionally said something funny or made a good critique, but most of the time her criticism consists of something like "I didn't like the song choice, but you were great." Or "It wasn't the best I've seen you, but I love you and you're great." Or possibly the low point for an American Idol judge, when she praised Paige Miles' outfit and then said something like "I'll let Kara handle the music critique." Actually, no, the low point was when she hugged Tim Urban for a mediocre performance.

She's hijacked the show? Really? Does she really think any singer on the show, or family member of a singer on the show, would rather--if given a choice--rather have a positive critique from Ellen than from Simon? Of course not. Does any viewer of the show look more forward, or give more respect to criticism from Ellen than Simon? Other than Alessandra Stanley, I doubt it. As for Ellen's use of "fresh, incongrous metaphors," Simon has used plenty of those over the years. There was the time he described someone's performance as a "beautiful dress with a slight tear in it." Or when he talks about someone sounded like the performance by a 10 year old at a family brunch. Some of them don't even make any sense, but they're incongrous and often fresh.

I've probably written too much about this already. But anyone who thinks adding Ellen--and continuing with four judges--is somehow a good thing for American Idol isn't much of a fan of American Idol. Adding someone with no professional knowledge of music, combined with the departure of Simon from the show after this season, is the death knell for the show. I just can't believe there's no one editing the arts section in the New York Times who watches the show and didn't say to Stanley, "Really, you sure about this? I watch the show and I think this article is insane."

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Another reason NCAA tournament expansion sucks: The proposed schedule

Amidst John Feinstein's recap today of the NCAA's hypocrisy in claiming the expansion of the NCAA tournament won't affect the "student-athletes," the thing that bothered me even more was how the NCAA says they plan to schedule the expanded 96-team event. Basically, that schedule will end up ruining the best two days of the NCAA tournament.

My first real vivid memory of the NCAA tournament is March 14, 1981 -- which was basically the birth of the fantastic finishes, buzzer beaters and upsets for which modern-day "March Madness" is known for. I was 10 years old and sitting on the couch, and remember the remarkable succession of events in about a half hour -- U.S. Reed of Arkansas hitting a half-court shot to defeat defending champion Louisville, Rolando Blackman running the last four minutes of the clock off in a tie game (in the pre-shot clock days) and hitting a jumper for Kansas State to upset number one seed Oregon State, and St. Joseph's hitting a late shot to defeat Mark Aguirre and number-one ranked DePaul. I'd never seen anything like it, and it started my love for the NCAA tournament. Imagine if a few minutes after Kansas lost to Northern Iowa this year, Kentucky got beat and then Duke lost on a half-court shot 15 minutes later, and you'd have something like what happened that day.

And over the years, I've always thought that of all the rounds of the NCAA tournament, that first Saturday and Sunday with the round of 32 is the best round of the tournament. You get a quadrupleheader on Saturday and a tripleheader on Sunday, but unlike the quadrupleheaders on Thursday and Friday, the games are tighter, there are fewer blowouts and frequently the top seeeds, even if they prevail, are really tested in a way that their games against 15 and 16 seeds don't provide in the first round. And the best thing about it is it's on the weekend--so you can basically spend a full two days, if you choose, watching the game without pesky obligations like work bogging you down.

But in the new schedule for the 96 team tournament, the round of 32 will be scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week of the tournament! This either means that they'll play all these games in the evening as doubleheaders simultaneously, and thus we'll get to see considerably less of this round on television, or they'll play half of the games during the afternoon (either in the format the first round is now shown on television, with separate doubleheaders at noon and seven or something like a continuous quadrupleheader that starts around 3 p.m.), thus allowing that pesky thing called work and other normal weekday obligations to get in the way of enjoying the most fun round of the tournament.

So for the formerly exciting kickoff of the tournament on Thursday and Friday, we're now going to have no top seeds playing, but just the nine through 24 seeds. Don't know about you, but if the biggest upset possible that day is say, the 24th-seeded tournament champion of the SWAC or Patriot League knocking off the fifth place team in the Big East seeded at number nine, those two days lose a lot of their luster. Then, on the weekend, we'll have the traditional round of 64, which, like this year, does frequently bring us upsets and buzzer beaters, but also a lot of blowouts--like when that SWAC champion plays Duke. It's a great appetizer for the weekend feast of the round of 32--but not the main course that we should be watching on Saturday and Sunday.

But now, those great two days of basketball are going to be diminished by ending up on Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week--where they'll be immediately followed on Thursday and Friday by the Sweet 16 round. This is another mistake because it disturbs the natural rhythm of the tournament. For most teams -- not counting the smaller conferences -- making the round of 32 is nice, but making the round of 16 is the true sense of achievement, a sign that you've had a successful season. No one keeps track of how many years in a row a team reaches the second round, because it's not considered that significant if you're in a major conference. And it's rare that any team makes the Elite Eight more than a couple years in a row. But hitting the Sweet Sixteen six, seven years in a row is an impressive accomplishment. That's why it makes sense that the tournament breaks for a few days in between the second round and the third, allowing us to sit back, take stock of what we've seen in the first four days and analyze what's to come over the following weekend. But in the new schedule, the Sweet 16 starts the next day after the round of 32 ends! It doesn't give us any time to breathe and it's a mistake.

Now, of course, the NCAA could easily fix this if they just moved the round of 96 to Tuesday and Wednesday and played the first three rounds consecutively in the same week. It still wouldn't fix the bigger problem in expanding to 96 (diluting the field), but at least it would leave the tournament viewing experience basically intact and unchanged. That might make more "student-athletes" miss school (cough, cough), but it would be the best thing for the tournament. We can only hope someone will realize that before it's too late.

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