Bob Schwartz

Month: August, 2012

Writing Advice From Coco Chanel

Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel had a famous piece of advice for dressing with accessories.

It is also the single best piece of advice for writers or for any creative people. If you practice writing or any of the creative arts or crafts, or if you teach writing or any of the creative arts or crafts, this is a mantra that is guaranteed to improve any work:

Look in the mirror and take one thing off.

The Financier at 100

This year is the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s independent run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket. He continues to come up in aspirational discussions, as much or more from Democrats as from Republicans. President Obama referred to him admiringly earlier this year. The Progressive Party Platform of 1912 remains a touchstone statement of political ideals.

The year 1912 is significant in other, less celebrated ways. At that time, issues of economic and social disparities were not limited to politicians. This year is the centennial of author and journalist Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier, the first book in his Trilogy of Desire series about tycoon Frank Cowperwood, followed by The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947).

Starting with Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser explored the personal and social impact of class distinctions and ever-increasing wealth on early twentieth-century America. Dreiser was a pioneer in what’s come to be called the naturalist movement, telling stories in a plain, unromanticized way that allowed the darkest moments and motives to speak for themselves. More than a century later we’ve come to accept that style of storytelling. But at the time it was not the norm, and the effect on literature was profound.

Among the robber barons of the nineteenth century, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905)  is less well-known than J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller. But you know some of his legacy, including the Chicago Loop and the London Underground. Yerkes’ roller coaster life of ambition—rich today, felon tomorrow, richer the next—was the inspiration for Dreiser’s financier Frank Cowperwood.

Any story of unbridled greed and ambition, fiction or non-fiction, is so common that it is hardly worth mentioning, especially if it is a hundred years old. But Theodore Dreiser was no ordinary observer, attested to by his stature as one of America’s great novelists. At the end of the first volume of Frank Cowperwood’s rise and fall and rise, Dreiser includes a curious little coda. Just a few paragraphs long, it is a description of a fish whose “great superiority lies in an almost unbelievable power of simulation.” The language may seem a bit dense for the twenty-first century reader, but in the context of The Financier, the point is clear:

You cannot look at it long without feeling that you are witnessing something spectral and unnatural, so brilliant is its power to deceive. From being black it can become instantly white; from being an earth-colored brown it can fade into a delightful water-colored green. Its markings change as the clouds of the sky. One marvels at the variety and subtlety of its power.

Here it is in its entirety:

Concerning Mycteroperca Bonaci

There is a certain fish, the scientific name of which is Mycteroperca Bonaci, its common name Black Grouper, which is of considerable value as an afterthought in this connection, and which deserves to be better known. It is a healthy creature, growing quite regularly to a weight of two hundred and fifty pounds, and lives a comfortable, lengthy existence because of its very remarkable ability to adapt itself to conditions. That very subtle thing which we call the creative power, and which we endow with the spirit of the beatitudes, is supposed to build this mortal life in such fashion that only honesty and virtue shall prevail. Witness, then, the significant manner in which it has fashioned the black grouper. One might go far afield and gather less forceful indictments—the horrific spider spinning his trap for the unthinking fly; the lovely Drosera (Sundew) using its crimson calyx for a smothering-pit in which to seal and devour the victim of its beauty; the rainbow-colored jellyfish that spreads its prismed tentacles like streamers of great beauty, only to sting and torture all that falls within their radiant folds. Man himself is busy digging the pit and fashioning the snare, but he will not believe it. His feet are in the trap of circumstance; his eyes are on an illusion.

Mycteroperca moving in its dark world of green waters is as fine an illustration of the constructive genius of nature, which is not beatific, as any which the mind of man may discover. Its great superiority lies in an almost unbelievable power of simulation, which relates solely to the pigmentation of its skin. In electrical mechanics we pride ourselves on our ability to make over one brilliant scene into another in the twinkling of an eye, and flash before the gaze of an onlooker picture after picture, which appear and disappear as we look. The directive control of Mycteroperca over its appearance is much more significant. You cannot look at it long without feeling that you are witnessing something spectral and unnatural, so brilliant is its power to deceive. From being black it can become instantly white; from being an earth-colored brown it can fade into a delightful water-colored green. Its markings change as the clouds of the sky. One marvels at the variety and subtlety of its power.

Lying at the bottom of a bay, it can simulate the mud by which it is surrounded. Hidden in the folds of glorious leaves, it is of the same markings. Lurking in a flaw of light, it is like the light itself shining dimly in water. Its power to elude or strike unseen is of the greatest.

What would you say was the intention of the overruling, intelligent, constructive force which gives to Mycteroperca this ability? To fit it to be truthful? To permit it to present an unvarying appearance which all honest life-seeking fish may know? Or would you say that subtlety, chicanery, trickery, were here at work? An implement of illusion one might readily suspect it to be, a living lie, a creature whose business it is to appear what it is not, to simulate that with which it has nothing in common, to get its living by great subtlety, the power of its enemies to forefend against which is little. The indictment is fair.

Would you say, in the face of this, that a beatific, beneficent creative, overruling power never wills that which is either tricky or deceptive? Or would you say that this material seeming in which we dwell is itself an illusion? If not, whence then the Ten Commandments and the illusion of justice? Why were the Beatitudes dreamed of and how do they avail?

The Art Of The Perfect Game

It looks like nothing. A string of zeros. But when you show this picture of a line score to a baseball fan, the pulse races.

Yesterday Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners pitched a perfect game. None of the batters who came to the plate reached first base. It was only the 23rd perfect game in major league history, and the very first for the Seattle Mariners.

Baseball fans, who are notoriously but justifiably obsessed with statistics, have variously calculated the odds of this happening. Variously, because over 113 years, the game and the rules have changed. This calculation also depends on whether you base it on the number of games ever played (something on the order of 200,000) or on the number of opportunities to pitch a perfect game (twice that, since every game includes two starting pitchers). For those who aren’t already lost for lack of interest, and for very rough and illustrative purposes, let’s say the odds are 1 in 20,000.

You have a much better chance of pitching a perfect game than winning the lottery or beating the house at any Las Vegas casino—if you happen to be one of the most skilled and clever athletes on the planet. Standing at a convenience store counter and handing over two bucks doesn’t take much of anything; standing on the mound, and calculating and executing every pitch without fail, takes everything.

Besides expanding the realm of statistics, baseball has also done wonders for language. This includes both great literature and the invention of words and phrases. One of those phrases is “painting the strike zone,” which means the ability to pitch the baseball 60 feet and have it move precisely how you want and place it precisely where you want. Yesterday Felix Hernandez painted the strike zone like one of the old masters.

Museums and art afficianados are sometimes mocked for making a big deal about paintings that for all appearances are mere canvases of a single solid color, big rectangles of all black or all white.

“I could do that,” people say. No you couldn’t. To the unsophisticated eye it may look like nothing. To those who know, it looks like perfection.

Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

A postage stamp honoring Ayn Rand was issued in 1999; that’s the image used in the National Review cover above. It was issued in the usual way, following a roughly three-year process of being proposed, recommended by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, and then approved by the Postmaster General.

The most famous controversy over any stamp concerned the Elvis Presley commemorative. There was disagreement about which Elvis to depict, the younger leaner one or the older heavier one, and disagreement about whether Elvis should have a stamp at all. In the end, the stamp was issued, and went on to become the bestselling in U.S. postal history. There is no record that there was disagreement about Ayn Rand, though there might well have been.

Paul Ryan honored Ayn Rand too, at least until recently. He stated that her books were the most pivotal in shaping his public life. He gave them to interns as gifts. He spoke frequently about how the decline in America looked increasingly like something out of an Ayn Rand novel.

He is not alone among public servants in his admiration for Ayn Rand. Politico reported last April on 7 Politicians Who Praised Ayn Rand.  Among these are Sen. Rand Paul (coincidentally named), Rep. Ron Paul (who should know about Rand Paul’s name), President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Gary Johnson, Sen. Mark Sanford and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas has his new law clerks watch a screening of The Fountainhead (1949), starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, an adaptation of Rand’s second most famous novel. Maybe the most famous acolyte of Ayn Rand is former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in the 1950s was part of her inner circle and a close confidant.

Rand’s novels are overlong, didactic, questionably artful embodiments of her very particular philosophy. It is a philosophy fed by her early experience as a child in Soviet Russia, a member of an intellectual and professional Jewish family that was reduced to dire circumstances by the forces of collectivism, Communism and totalitarianism.

She came to America and created her own ism. The Atlas Society,  one of the intellectual keepers of the Rand canon, summarizes:

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was set forth in such works as her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, and in her brilliant non-fiction essays. Objectivism is designed as a guide to life, and celebrates the remarkable potential and power of you, the individual. Objectivism also challenges the doctrines of irrationalism, self-sacrifice, brute force, and collectivism that have brought centuries of chaos and misery into the lives of millions of individuals. It provides fascinating insights into the world of politics, art, education, foreign policy, science, and more, rewarding you with a rich understanding of how ideas shape your world. Those who discover Objectivism often describe the experience as life-changing and liberating.

One problem with Objectivism, as with the isms Rand left behind and hated, is that pure systems work well on paper and in the mind, as long as you don’t have to wrestle with the complexities and consequences of the actual world. This is probably why Ayn Rand has always had an appeal to younger people, particularly teenage boys and young men, who are empowered by the idea of their individual greatness waiting to explode, ungoverned by the limitations that the world tries to place on them. The world is filled with people who want something from us, who are jealous of us, who don’t understand our specialness, and who will do anything to hold us back and keep us down.

This phenomenon was wryly captured by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter:

As one wag once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Winters was writing in the context of the Ryan Budget. Paul Ryan is devoted to the Catholic Church, which is founded on the sort of collectivism, anti-individualism, self-sacrifice and charity that Rand abhorred and rejected as immoral. This led in May 2011 to questions about how the Ryan Budget, with reductions in government help for the poor and others in need, squared with the teachings of the Church. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who had previously been Bishop in Wisconsin, made clear in a letter to Ryan that the budget was completely in line with the Church’s mission. Winters wrote:

Ryan’s budget certainly reflects Rand’s weltanschauung more than it reflects the vision Pope Benedict XVI put forth in Caritas in Veritate. That is why I think it was a mistake for Archbishop Dolan to write a letter that, however unintentionally, gave political cover to policies that are antithetical to Catholic social teaching. And, whatever frustrations Ryan – or anyone else – has with the modern, social welfare state, I think it can be said that the social welfare state is to social justice what democracy is to government: The worst form of administration except every other form.

Ryan can assert that his budget is built upon Catholic concerns about human dignity, but there is no dignity in Rand’s crimped vision of humanity. There really is no need to wrestle with these so-called ideas.

Paul Ryan’s distancing from Ayn Rand began last spring when he said that his supposed embrace of the author and her philosophy was “urban legend.” (If so, it is the most high-minded and intellectual urban legend of all time, since those stories are usually sordid and lowlife, as in the flushing of baby alligators into the New York sewers.) Then just yesterday he explained that while he enjoyed the novels for a long time, it was only later that he became aware of her philosophy.

As mentioned earlier, Ayn Rand’s novels are not works of art that have to be savored and investigated so that their meaning can be coaxed out. They are pages and pages of speeches and ideas, with some plot and characters hung on them like ornaments on a tree. There are only two explanations for Ryan’s assertion: he is either dull-witted, which he isn’t, or he is…being disingenuous.

Why all this effort to run away from Ayn Rand anyway? Most people, meaning voters, have never read those novels, and all this fuss is not about to move them to throw away weeks of their lives trying to plow through them.

Here’s why.

First, Ayn Rand was an atheist. In her philosophy there is no higher power than man, no life other than the objective life in front of our faces, no morality other than the morality of rational self-interest. There are plenty of atheists who embrace the moral and ethical concepts at the heart of religious beliefs, such as the Golden Rule. Ayn Rand was not one of those. This is more than inconvenient for anyone, especially politicians, who base their lives and careers on their religious foundations.

But there is something deeper and more significant going on. In 2010 the National Review, America’s most respected conservative journal, published a cover story on Ayn Rand.  In it, Jason Lee Steorts writes about going back to reread Ayn Rand, given her renewed popularity following the election of Barack Obama:

Our president seems to have inspired — which is not quite the word — half the country to read Miss Rand, and I wanted to remind myself what she was teaching them. He finds that he can’t get through the books, because he sees the author for who she was and, therefore, what she espoused.

Steorts relates a scene from Atlas Shrugged. The prime movers, those who are literally the brains behind the success of the country, have gone on strike. This leaves the inferior, parasitic people to fend for themselves. In this scene, a train is stopped before an eight-mile unventilated tunnel. There are no diesel engines, no one to properly operate the train. But facing a demand to make it move, the station officials, writes Rand, “call in a coal engine, procure a drunken engineer, and condemn every passenger on the train to death by asphyxiation.”

The passengers comprise an array of losers, including a professor “who taught that individual ability is of no consequence” and a mother “whose husband held a government job enforcing directives.” They are, in essence, riding a train into a gas chamber. “But that isn’t why I stopped reading,” Steorts writes. “I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.”

That is at the heart of this running away from Rand. Rand’s world is not one where unbridled individualism can co-exist with a diversity of other moralities and abilities. It is either/or. There are producers, there are freeloaders, and the immoral role of government is to stifle the producers and reward the freeloaders with stolen spoils. As soon as government is gone, the producers will be free to shape the world in their image, and the others will learn how that world works or they will, ultimately, perish as their punishment.

If that sounds harsh and heartless, it is. If that sounds like an extreme version of some of the rhetoric we may have been hearing lately, it is. But even the softer version, tempered by compassion, still makes us uncomfortable. That is why, hopefully, Ryan and others will distance themselves from Ayn Rand—not just for political show, but for real.  That is why, when Sheorts in the National Review looked to find out why Obama-haters were reading Ayn Rand, he recoiled at what he found. He discovered a bloodless train, and he couldn’t bear to see where it was heading.

Romney v. Goldwater

There are many things to say about Barry Goldwater. Agree with him or disagree vehemently, he knew what he believed and told you what he believed, in detail. He was capable of now-famous rhetoric—“ I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”—but he backed his words up with specific plans, which did seem extreme to many. He was compelled to tell you because he knew that without that detail, you would not know where he stood nor how to reach the America he envisioned.

That’s what still makes the Presidential election of 1964 so interesting. When pundits talk about competing visions between candidates, that is the model. LBJ was just as clear about his beliefs, especially since he had been an unapologetic architect of mid-century America. There’s nobody then or now who doesn’t know where Goldwater and LBJ stood and the size of the gap between them. Goldwater’s extremism may have been successfully overstated and caricatured, as in Tony Schwartz’s infamous, shown-only-once Daisy ad, but the differences between them could not be overstated. American voters had a choice, and they overwhelmingly chose LBJ.

In the endless talk about what Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s VP candidate means, one of the touted benefits is that we will now—finally—have a clear-cut discussion about competing visions because we will have a clear, executable vision from the Romney ticket. This may be. Ryan is no Goldwater, if for no other reason than American politics has only produced one Barry Goldwater. But Ryan does seem to have a vision, even if it’s not as fully-formed as that of his hero and mentor Jack Kemp (whose political career began, not so coincidentally, as a Goldwater volunteer).

When it comes to detailed vision from Mitt Romney himself, even in the wake of the Ryan pick, expectations remain low. Romney is not only not Barry Goldwater, he is the anti-Goldwater. Besides being one of the most ardent “true believers” to ever be nominated in modern times, Goldwater was a notoriously plain-spoken Arizonan, as in plainly profane, taking no prisoners. If today he came back and got Mitt Romney in the back room, his very vocal thoughts on the candidate and the campaign might leave Romney afraid to come out of the room, assuming he survived.

For better or worse, Barry Goldwater wasn’t afraid of much of anything. And when it came to the measure of truly believing and backing up what he believed, Goldwater was just the right height.

The VP Guessing Game: Too Much Is Never Enough

Come on, political junkies, admit it: You say you’ve had enough of the Republican VP speculation, but like that bag of barbecue potato chips, you kind of hope it never ends.

Character is destiny, and the character of this Republican nominating process has been so wacky that you would expect nothing less from the Vice Presidential selection.

We are beyond “you can’t tell the players without a program,” so if you haven’t kept up, here’s where we stand, as best as anyone can tell.

The supposed short list of possibilities includes Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman and, lately talked about, Paul Ryan.

The list of those speculated about but almost certainly not to be picked is long, and even longer if you include never-going-to-happen-in-a-million-years names such as Newt Gingrich. This season, it’s not so much an insult not to be picked as it is not to be included in the longshot list. Herman Cain deserved to have somebody floating his name.

In between are those who have or had a colorable chance of being picked, though they aren’t on the short list. Chris Christie appears to be out, since he will be giving the keynote address at the convention. From a spectator’s perspective this is too bad: with Biden and Christie as the designated loyal-to-the-death hitmen, this could have been a battle for the ages.

Marco Rubio is a strange case. Some polls show him as the preference of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, though this probably has more to do with name-recognition than anything else. Rubio is viewed as flawed in terms of experience, maturity, baggage and positions, which overweigh any Latino advantage.

Back to the top three, every day brings a different leader—kind of like the much-missed days of the Republican primaries. Just within the past few days, Ryan is being pushed as the true conservative with some real public appeal. Portman is viewed as boring, but solid and from Ohio, two real pluses. Pawlenty has governing experience, but proved in his brief Presidential run that he may lack the right stuff, or even the just okay stuff.

Strategically, it is thought that the selection will come this week. The Romney campaign doesn’t so much need a game changer as a topic changer. It needs a second candidate who can start fighting right now. And it needs to end the polarizing that is now developing around the selection among Republicans, and particularly conservatives.

Everybody is never happy with the selection of a VP candidate. In close nominating contests, the second place finisher is a politically logical choice, so complaints are muted. That’s how we get Kennedy-Johnson and Reagan-Bush. (And when dynamics trump political logic, how we don’t get Obama-Clinton.)

But there is no mandated logic to this VP pick. The longer this goes on, the more the factions will feel free to push their own ideas about what’s best for the ticket and the party. And the more that goes on, the deeper will be the disappointment when the choice is actually, finally made.

Of the top three, any prediction is subject to change in fifteen minutes.

Portman is undynamic, and there is no proof that his selection will “deliver” Ohio. He is haunted by the ghost of an Administration and budgets past. It is an invitation to bring George W. Bush to the convention he is not attending. If Portman is asked whether prosecuting two wars while offering tax breaks is sound budgeting, and whether that contributed to economic instability, he is stuck. If he says yes, he puts into question his role as Bush’s budget chief; if no, his credibility is at stake, since even some Republicans have concluded that the Bush budget was a bad idea that made things worse.

Ryan is instead haunted by the ghost of budgets future, specifically the proposed budget that bears his name. Some Republican pundits have openly said this is a good thing, since the budget should be a central issue, and Ryan will do a better job than Mitt Romney explaining, defending and promoting that budget. That may be the case, given Romney’s unwillingness to be specific about budget issues, other than his general support for…the Ryan budget. Ryan, despite being the most dynamic and appealing of the three, also shares Portman’s lack of elected executive experience.

Pawlenty is more dynamic than Portman, less than Ryan. He has executive experience as governor of Minnesota. His brief run for the Republican nomination was far from stellar, especially given the strange lineup of competitors. Set aside the clichéd test of whether you can see the VP taking over if needed. Set aside all the political calculations, including those above. Just picture the team taking that stagecoach down the home stretch, Romney driving, someone else riding shotgun. For the moment, that someone else looks like Tim Pawlenty.

At least for the next fifteen minutes.

Note: The illustration above is a photo of Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served President Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921. As a matter of political and historical trivia (for junkies who use both), Marshall was the last President or Vice President with facial hair; the last such President was William Howard Taft, who preceded Wilson in office. Almost a hundred years without a mustache or beard in an Administration explains the real reason that Herman Cain did not go further in the process: it wasn’t Pokemon, it was his mustache.

Should the U.S. Disguise Itself As An Emerging Market?

The term “emerging market” was coined in 1981 by Antoine van Agtmael. According to the Economist:

He was trying to start a “Third-World Equity Fund” to invest in developing-country shares, but his efforts to attract money were being constantly rebuffed. “Racking my brain, at last I came up with a term that sounded more positive and invigorating: emerging markets. ‘Third world’ suggested stagnation; ‘emerging markets’ suggested progress, uplift and dynamism.”

The term stuck, but like many neologisms, its meaning has expanded and shifted according to the times. The Economist suggests that it has outlived its usefulness:

Is it time to retire the phrase “emerging markets”? Many of the people interviewed for this special report think so. Surely South Korea, with sophisticated companies such as Samsung, has fully emerged by now. And China already has the world’s fourth-largest economy.

Whatever they are called, emerging markets continue to be prime targets for investment, with clear risks but enormous upside potential.

The U.S. is having problems getting investors to loosen their purse strings and flood our businesses with cash. Our economy is long past and beyond emerging; the perception among some is that it is post-post-emerged, which is to say a little old and over the hill.

That is a perception, not a reality, but perceptions matter as much in investment as elsewhere. So let us change the perception.

The proposal is to declare the U.S. an emerging market. There is a huge underclass just waiting for the means and opportunity to take their place in the middle. There is a middle class with upside potential of its own: although that potential is due to its having receded recently, potential is still potential.

Will investors be fooled by such a trick, what amounts to a name change and disguise? It wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, as Antoine van Agtmael might say, “emerging market” sounds more positive and invigorating than “mired in recession.”

Is Mitt Romney Being Handled?

It is preposterous to think that a Presidential candidate, let alone a President, is being “handled” by other people or forces, instead of just informed and guided. Politicians at that level are accomplished and have big egos, ranging from large to XXL, that seemingly would not permit it.

But less preposterous is the idea that others believe that they should, can, or will handle the candidate. It is an idea that thrives given Mitt Romney’s uncertainty, reticence and vacillation about his positions. It is an idea that has currency. It is an idea that is bothering people, and in an election year, that means voters.

History teaches that some Presidents and candidates have been more malleable or more stubborn than others. One proposed theme of the George W. Bush Presidency is that Dick Cheney really ran the country, that he was the real President, and that Bush merely carried out his bidding. Cheney undoubtedly had huge influence, but the idea that Bush rolled over at his command is inconsistent with anything we know about the ego that was Bush.

More than a century ago, in the election of 1896, it was suggested that Mark Hanna was not only the mastermind of William McKinley’s campaign, but that Hanna was the master of the McKinley Presidency. This idea has persisted since, though some historians believe it was more of a synergistic partnership, each one playing to his political and strategic strengths.

There are not so veiled intimations from insurgent forces in the Republican Party that Romney is expected to be a “team player” once he is in the White House. We don’t know what is said in private, but in public Romney hasn’t so much failed to toe the Tea Party line as failed to toe any line. This encourages some to think that he will ultimately fall into the right place, but others to worry that he will blithely fall into the wrong place.

In other words, there is thinking—well founded or not— that Mitt Romney can or will allow himself to be handled. For some operatives and for many voters, the only question is by whom and for what.