It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

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What Experience?

Some form of this essay (sans list at end) will be appearing in the January 31st issue of Cedars. I’m told there’s another pro-Obama piece in this issue as well.


The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has essentially narrowed to two candidates: Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The latter has –- recent, bizarre attacks notwithstanding –- focused almost exclusively on Obama’s supposed lack of experience. Behind “change,” (Does Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton suggest “change” to you?) “experience” is the most over-used word of this political season so far. Obama is right, in response, to reverse the charge and question how much experience Clinton has herself: does eight years as First Lady really prepare one to be Commander in Chief?In an influential article from The New York Times in December, Patrick Healy noted that during those eight years, “Mrs. Clinton did not hold a security clearance. She did not attend National Security Council meetings. She was not given a copy of the president’s daily intelligence briefing.” Her biggest project, healthcare reform, was an unmitigated disaster. What, then, is Clinton banking on exactly? Healy mockingly suggests it’s presidential training by “osmosis.”

There seems little doubt that Clinton has a much better idea of life in the White House than, say, you or me. But it’s difficult to see how writing Dear Socks, Dear Buddy (a book I’ve read incidentally) better enables her to lead our country than Obama’s years of working the streets of Chicago, defending the poor and standing up for the marginalized, not to mention his seven years in the Illinois state legislature. It is, the Clinton campaign seems to assert, experience in a federal office (preferably elected) that really counts – which still only gives Clinton a mere four-year advantage over Obama.

Of course, what fewer people seem to question – especially not in the mainstream media – is whether or not experience is really what we want after all. Periodically, various surveys of historians have attempted to rank our past presidents in terms of “greatness” – sometimes vague, sometimes overly biased, but useful nonetheless. An aggregate of those results is even better, and certain names inevitably crop up as our greatest presidents (And no, G.W. Bush registers as neither one of the best nor worst).

If we compare the top ten best with the ten worst (excluding the two who died within a year of taking office) in terms of federal experience, we arrive at a curious statistic. The worst, led by Warren G. Harding, have a median average of 7.5 (mean of 7.3) years of experience. The best, led by Abraham Lincoln, have a median average of just 2 (mean of 4.7) years experience. This isn’t, of course, to suggest an inverse relationship between experience and greatness, but it’s a factor to consider. It might suggest, for example, that preparedness (if that’s even truly possible for our highest office) does not really have a whole lot to do with prior political experience. James Buchanan, our 2nd worst president, had a stunning 27 years experience spread across four distinct & distinguished roles. Three of our greatest – George Washington (#3), Woodrow Wilson (#6), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (#9) – had absolutely zero prior experience, at least in the sense we’re using “experience” here.

Senator Obama’s three years in the US Senate don’t look so insignificant anymore. He’s been there longer, for example, than another eloquent lawyer from Illinois known as a visionary leader and gifted orator: Abraham Lincoln. Comparisons to Lincoln, naturally, should be heavily qualified. It is simply worth noting, however, that after eight years of one of the most highly “qualified” (see: Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney) and yet disastrous administrations, it just might be time to see what the Junior Senator from Illinois can bring to the table. It may just be his ability to lead effectively – to cast and communicate vision, to delegate and deliberate, to creatively re-think the status quo – that best qualifies Senator Barack Obama as the far-and-away greatest choice for Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America.

10 Greatest US Presidents – and their years of experience
1. Abraham Lincoln – 2 years (Illinois congressman)
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt – 2 years (New York senator)
3. George Washington – 0
4. Thomas Jefferson – 12 years (Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President)
5. Theodore Roosevelt – 6 months (Vice President)
6. Woodrow Wilson – 0
7. Harry S. Truman – 11 years (Kansas senator, VPOTUS)
8. Andrew Jackson – 4 years (Tennessee congressman & senator)
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower – 0
10. James K. Polk – 15 years (Tennessee congressman)

10 Worst US Presidents – and their years of experience
1. Warren G. Harding – 6 years (Ohio senator)
2. James Buchanan – 27 years (Pennsylvania congressman & senator, Ambassador to Russia, Secretary of State)
3. Franklin Pierce – 9 years (New Hampshire congressman & senator)
4. Andrew Johnson – 5 years (Tennessee senator)
5. Ulysses S. Grant – 0
6. Millard Fillmore – 9 years (New York congressman, VPOTUS)
7. John Tyler – 14 years (Virginia congressman & senator)
8. Zachary Taylor – 0
9. Richard Nixon – 14 years (California congressman & senator, VPOTUS)
10. Calvin Coolidge – 2.5 years (VPOTUS)


Addendum: after I wrote this I read Garry Wills’ NYT essay “Two Presidents Are Worse Than One” where he correctly points out Clinton’s catch-22. If she admits the president’s spouse has a very small role to play in terms of real political involvement, then she negates 12 months of screeching about how “experienced” she is. On the other hand, if she still wants to insist the president’s spouse plays a vital, direct role in governing this nation then she has to admit that voting for her is also voting for Bill Clinton. Maybe some Americans are OK with that, but I suspect the vast majority won’t stand for that kind of shared power and a continued dynasty.
See also: “Experience is not one of Hillary Clinton’s assets” by Timothy Noah in Slate and just for kicks, “Why Hillary Clinton Should Withdraw From the Race Today.”

2008 Election Overview: Donor Demographics

I spent some time this evening looking into campaign donor demographics via both OpenSecrets.org and The WaPo’s excellent finance tools. I mostly compared Obama & Hillary, discovering, for example that Obama has raised $927k from students (via 1.3k contributions) compared with Clinton’s $850k (681 contributions). Old folks seem to refer Obama as well: contributors who listed themselves as “Retired” gave him $5.3M compared to Clinton’s $4.3M.

It struck me that it might be interesting to see which candidates the richest Americans preferred. Of the top 203 wealthiest1, 99 of them (48.8%) haven’t yet contributed to anyone.2 The other 104 often gave to more than one candidate so that there were 167 contributions total.3 Of those, 53.9% of the billionaires supported a Republican and 46.1% supported a Democrat.

  • Obama & Clinton were backed 22 & 21 times respectively. Dodd was supported 14 times, surprisingly, while Richardson picked up 10. Edwards & Biden each got 5; not a single person contributed to Kucinich.
  • On the Republican side, these billionaires overwhelmingly support McCain & Giuliani who tied with 34 each; Romney was 3rd with 15. Perhaps Huckabee’s impending cash problems are helped here since he was only backed twice, along with Brownback & Thompson. Duncan Hunter, whom nobody even knows about, got one billionaire support while Ron Paul (LOL) got a nice fat zero.
  • Comparing just the top 50 wealthiest Americans with the top 200 produces almost identical results, except now Republicans get 0.4% more support (54.3% total).An interesting thing happens when we change our group slightly. Instead of the richest Americans, I looked at the top 50 philanthropists from 2007. Of the 45 donors eligible this year4, 24 (53.3%) haven’t yet contributed to anybody’s race. The support (and accompanying percentages) are almost exactly opposite what they were above. Among this crowd, 55.9% back Democrats while only 44.1% back Republicans. Within the parties, the percentages cash out about the same though philanthropists apparently prefer McCain over Giuliani just slightly. McCain was backed the most – by 7 of the 21 – with Obama pulling 6 and Clinton, Richardson, and Giuliani each nabbing 5. This list, of course, looks a lot different without usual suspects Bill Gates & Warren Buffett: together they’ve given away nearly 11 billion dollars and are both Obama supporters.

    What does this all mean? Something like this has limited usefulness, but it’s intriguing to me nonetheless. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions. Though I did learn one significant thing: damn it feels good to be a Pritzker (eleven of them made the Top 200).


    1. Not 200 even since the last bunch are all tied at $2.3 billion. At the top is Bill Gates with $59B.
    2. This is, I think, as of September 2007. Updated data is due by January 31st.
    3. Here a “contribution” just means they donated to a candidate, but they did so more than once usually so actual number of contributions (ie, checks sent) is significantly higher but this makes little difference for my purposes.
    4. “Eligible” here means a) not dead b) not listed as a “family”
    P.S… oooh, pretty colours!!1!11
  • Electoral Compass USA

    -> Electoral Compass USA: analyzes your position on “the issues” compared to the presidential candidates.

    Issue : Candidate I’m closet to
    Gun control: Obama
    Environment: Edwards
    Iraq: Paul
    Economy: Richardson
    Income: tie Obama/Clinton
    National Security: Richardson
    Family: Giuliani
    Immigration: Richardson
    Healthcare: Clinton
    Law and order: tie Obama/Paul
    Education: Edwards
    Terrorism: Obama

    All issues:
    1. Barack Obama
    2. John Edwards
    3. tie Bill Richardson / Hillary Clinton

    Farthest from:
    1. Fred Thompson
    2. Mike Huckabee
    3. Mitt Romney


    Speaking of Obama, he recently co-led a bipartisan effort to make government spending more transparent by founding USA Spending.Gov. The massive website allows anyone easy access to all federal spending records with unprecedented openness & detail.It allows me to discover, for example, that in my Ohio district (#13) the single largest contract in 2007 was from the Department of Veterans Affairs for $56.2M awarded — after open competition and 4 competing bids — to Microtechnologies LLC to perform “automatic data processing and telecom services.” I also learned that the Department of the Interior paid Envirocom Construction $455k to replace an aqueduct and that General Services Administration paid Jeter Systems a nice $243k for furniture.

    Nationally, the Lockheed Martin Corporation scored biggest in 2007, snagging $24.5 billion, or 7.6% of the federal budget. Those bastards at KBR Inc. weaseled their way into a mere $3.9B.

    It was also interesting to compare states — noting, for example, that Virginia has 2.6% of the US population but gets 9.8% of all federal money; not surprisingly, Maryland (home to Lockheed Martin) & D.C. (home to Matt Shiraki) also fare well. New York is the biggest loser, home to 6.4% of Americans but only getting 2.6% of the payout pie; Illinois and Michigan follow behind NY.