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Catsimatidis Disses Bloomberg in a Billionaire Battle Royale

John Catsimatidis might be yet another self-made billionaire who wants to be mayor of New York City, but he’s even less of a politician than Mike Bloomberg was when he first ran for the office 12 years ago. “I am what I am,” Catsimatidis declares—indeed, it’s the mantra of his fledgling campaign. It’s delivered, in a Noo Yawk rasp, over dinner at Osteria del Circo, a flashy Midtown restaurant where Bruno Dussin, the maître d’, hovers like an anxious courtier over Catsimatidis and his wife Margo, who was his secretary when they got together 39 years ago. John, then a budding grocery-store magnate on his way to acquiring the Gristedes chain, was married to his first wife at the time.
John Catsimatidis
He calls himself 'a visionary,' offering his business success as proof. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Even at age 25, Catsimatidis had a certain commanding presence. “He’s always the boss,” Margo says. “He expected perfection.” Ensconced in a banquette behind a groaning table—a meal-sized salad; pizza slices; a whole fileted Dover sole; and various side dishes, followed by berries and cream—they are an unlikely looking couple. She is chic, blonde, and slim; he is rumpled and stout. A small stain graces his shirt near the collar, and he takes defiant pride in the cheapness of his suit.
“If we had less professional politicians,” he says, “the country might be better off.” As if to test this theory, Catsimatidis (pronounced “cat-see-ma-TEE-dees”) gamely agrees to rate the men who most recently presided at City Hall.
Ed Koch: “He told the truth and everybody liked him because he was a New York character.”
David Dinkins: “Maybe we should have made him Tennis Commissioner.”
Rudolph Giuliani: “By the time he was ready to leave office, he was the most unpopular mayor around. Then 9/11 happened and he gained a lot of popularity back.”
Mike Bloomberg: “He hasn’t bought me that dinner he’s owed me for four years.” It was a promise Bloomberg allegedly made after Catsimatidis was summoned to the mayor’s palatial town house on East 79th Street. Catsimatidis was flirting with a Republican candidacy for mayor back in 2009, but he obligingly relinquished his claim to the GOP nomination and helped smooth Bloomberg’s way with the county Republican chairmen (one for each of the five boroughs) when Hizzoner decided to undo New York’s term limit and run for another four years in office. Bloomberg hasn’t even invited him to one of his frequent dinner parties, says Catsimatidis. “Maybe he doesn’t like me, I don’t know.”
In a previous conversation at the ramshackle West Side headquarters of the Red Apple Group—the corporate umbrella for his estimated $3 billion holdings in a Pennsylvania oil refinery, some 400 Kwik Fill gas stations, hundreds of commercial and residential properties in the New York metropolitan area, 32 Gristedes stores, and a couple of corporate jets—he suggested that Bloomberg initially nursed higher ambitions. In the summer of 2008, said Catsimatidis, the mayor “went to see Obama and he went to see McCain, and I guess he felt that he had no future with either of them ... I think he wanted to be vice president. And the rumor—and only rumor—says he offered each $500 million for their campaigns and they both turned him down. I can’t confirm that—that was just what was floating around.” The mayor’s press secretary declined to comment on Catsimatidis’s improbable account.
At dinner, Catsimatidis says Bloomberg has done “a pretty good job,” but takes issue with his ban on supersized sodas and sugary drinks, scheduled to take effect in March. “I don’t know if it’s his concern for people or his concern that by drinking that 32-ounce soda, people will become fat cats and it’s costing the city more in health care,” Catsimatidis says. “I would not enforce it, or I would repeal it, or whatever. But I would put a regulation in our education system so that kids are taught better nutrition.”
As he tucks into his meal and his wife nibbles at her broiled shrimp, sharing some of it with this Newsweek reporter, Catsimatidis can’t resist pointing out that Bloomberg, Giuliani, and Koch were either unmarried or going through a divorce while in office: “New York deserves a first lady—which we haven’t had in a long time.”
“In a long time!” the missus agrees.
Gristedes Grocery
Can Catsimatidis go from Gristedes to Gracie Mansion? (Anthony Behar/Sipa via AP)
“And Margo would make a great first lady.”
“I think John would be the most amazing mayor of this city,” Margo opines. “He feels the pulse of all the people ... I know I’m his wife, but every day I see what he does. I think he’s wonderful.”
The 64-year-old Catsimatidis owes his tongue-twister of a surname to his birth on the tiny Greek island of Nisyros. “That’s why it’s John ‘Cats’ when I’m running for mayor,” he says. “You know Gotham had Batman? New York is gonna have Catsman!”
He was brought to this country at 6 months old and grew up on 135th Street in Harlem. His father worked as a busboy but wasn’t able to master English. “He never made it to waiter,” the son says. “You know how I learned to speak English? I had an Emerson TV set with a seven-inch screen and a big picture tube, and I learned how to speak English from that.” It also fueled his ambition. “One of the shows I watched was Burke’s Law. I admired Gene Barry, pulling out of the garage with that Rolls Royce.”
Today he lives in a lavish Fifth Avenue apartment and a beachfront estate in East Quogue; he gets around town in a chauffeured Mercedes. He is at once an avatar of the American Dream, the hero of his own Greek myth, and a carnival barker luring customers to the spectacle of his personal narrative. “This little pipsqueak of a kid!” Catsimatidis marvels, patting his ample belly girded by suspenders (“I’m a bit bigger now,” he notes). “This little pipsqueak of a kid, born on a rock in the Aegean Sea, comes to 135th Street and grows to No. 132 on the Forbes List!”
And not only that. The Catsimatidises are big-time political players by virtue of having donated more than $2 million, and raised even more, for both Republicans and Democrats (to say nothing of giving around $3 million annually to a host of local charities) and flying candidates around the country in the corporate Gulfstream IV or the Boeing 727. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a beneficiary of their largesse when she was running for the Senate and the White House, was an honored guest, along with the rest of New York’s power grid, at daughter Andrea’s recent $2 million wedding to Christopher Cox, the son of Edward and Tricia Cox and the grandson of Richard Nixon.
“My husband fired the party planner six weeks out,” Margo recounts, “and there was no wedding, there was no bridesmaids’ dresses, there was no decorations, there was no nothing. This was my daughter’s dream and I pulled it off—within budget, I might say!”
John adds with a laugh that one wedding guest, New York’s irrepressible senior senator, Chuck Schumer, was at the Waldorf Astoria “thanking everybody for showing up. He was greeting everybody at the hotel!”
Catsimatidis
Catsimatidis's daughter married Richard Nixon’s grandson. (James Devaney)
“Like, really?” Margo says, rolling her eyes.
It’s unsurprising that a full-page ad in the Feb. 6 New York Post, signed by John and Margo and ostensibly “IN MEMORIAM” to Koch, was largely about Catsimatidis, who was pictured with the late mayor, both wearing the same red, eagle-dotted ties. “Every year I design a necktie for family and friends, and I always made sure Mayor Koch got the first one in the city,” the ad copy read. “I was proud when I saw you wearing it ...” And so on and so forth.
In his windowless conference room, Catsimatidis smiles and leans forward to share a confidence. “Making mayor is not as difficult as you think,” he says. “If anybody thinks that ‘Oh, John is not gonna do it’—make my day!”
As a candidate, Catsimatidis has obvious assets—his announced willingness to spend up to $20 million of his own money, and his regular-guy persona—but also conspicuous liabilities. New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic city—a steep uphill climb for even the most polished, campaign-tested Republican. Catsimatidis, who self-identified as a “Clinton Democrat” until Barack Obama beat Hillary in the 2008 primaries, prompting him to back John McCain and switch parties, is a tenderfoot in a treacherous political jungle.
He calls himself “a visionary,” offering his business success as proof, but beyond his plans to bring back the World’s Fair and stress vocational education in the public schools, his message is a muddle of generalities and digressions. His post-announcement appearance on NY1’s The Road to City Hall, a command performance for any aspiring mayor, did nothing to clarify his reasons for running (other than an admirable desire to “give back”) or certify his grasp of the issues.
He frequently succumbs to rhetorical excess. During a Dec. 13 appearance on NY1, he likened President Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to the Nazis’ Final Solution. “We can’t punish any one group and chase them away,” he argued. “We—I mean, Hitler punished the Jews. We can’t have punishing the ‘2 percent group’ right now.” Explaining his opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, he tells Newsweek: “How would you like it if a member of the Ku Klux Klan came and put a Ku Klux Klan flag in front of a Martin Luther King statue? I’m as liberal as you, but there’s got to be some sensitivity.”
Catsimatidis—who faces former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Joe Lhota, a Giuliani protégé, in the September Republican primary—is in the process of assembling a campaign team and has been talking to E. O’Brien Murray, a respected operative with several New York victories under his belt, for the job of campaign manager. Yet a few Republican consultants and activists, who asked not to be named, worry that like many neophyte candidates who’ve been extraordinarily successful in business, Catsimatidis will be difficult to discipline and reluctant to defer to the pros.
“I always listen,” Catsimatidis says before quickly revising: “I’ll listen most of the time. But I am who I am. I won’t lie.”
Catsimatidis has his defenders—especially among politicians who have received his generosity. “I think he’s a terrific human being,” says one of them, former New York governor George Pataki, a Republican. “If he’s prepared to make the effort, somebody with his background and his record of achievement unquestionably can be a serious candidate.” Another, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat who represents a New York City district, calls Catsimatidis “a very serious and successful businessman” who “has made many contributions to the city.”
Yet many Democrats call Catsimatidis a “vanity candidate.” Former public advocate Mark Green, who narrowly lost the mayor’s race in 2001, is dismissive: “Having run against Bloomberg, let me say that John Catsimatidis, despite some superficial comparisons, is no Mike Bloomberg.” Says prominent Democratic media consultant Jimmy Siegel: “I don’t think this is a let’s-elect-another-billionaire-for-mayor year.”
But Edward Cox, who is not only chairman of the New York Republican Party but also Andrea Catsimatidis’s father-in-law, argues: “This is no vanity candidacy. It is a serious candidacy because New York City means the world to him.” Cox, who is officially neutral in the Republican primary race as his role requires, adds that since Catsimatidis first started thinking about running for mayor five years ago, he has played an important role among the city’s Republican activists, meeting regularly with the county chairmen, buying tables at their dinners, and providing financial support (such as his recent $20,000 donation to the Manhattan Republicans—a donation that Manhattan GOP chairman Daniel Isaacs insists is not the reason he has endorsed Catsimatidis for mayor). “He is a political strategist,” Cox says, “and has tremendous influence and has had a very beneficial impact on the whole process and what we’re doing.”
Catsimatidis, who in the past has indicated he’d drop out of the race should New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly decide to run, today insists he’s “in it to win it.” Yet he seems to know he’s a long shot.
“It’s a fork in the road,” he says over dessert. “You know what a fork is? I’m 64 years old. You hit 64 and you start having soul-searching. Everybody experiences it. I’m looking for a new career. Meaning that I want to dedicate myself to the city and do something good. I’ve been working seven days a week or whatever for 40 years. If I don’t get elected, it will be time for me to take a little time off. I want to be able to get in the airplane and fly to Davos with the rest of my family.”

From the White House to Target, Designer Prabal Gurung Hits His Stride


Prabal Gurung
Prabal Gurung: Looks from the current Target collaboration. (Courtesy of Target)
Four years ago, you might not have heard the name Prabal Gurung, much less known how to pronounce it. But now the Nepalese designer is on the brink of becoming a household name. On February 10, Gurung will be the latest designer in a long line of fashion stars to release a collaboration with Target, putting out more than 80 pieces—ruffled neon dresses, playful printed shorts and blazers, bright wedge sandals—ranging in price from $12.99 to $199.99.
It’s a collection, as he describes it, inspired by a woman’s journey through love. “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than love,” Gurung says. “Whether you have it, whether you want it, whether you lose it.”
As Fashion Week opens in New York, the young designer (who is in his 30s but doesn’t like to give his exact age) has the schedule of a seasoned industry professional: appearances to promote the Target collection (including a giant carnival-themed party), the show for his own label on February 9, and the debut of his latest collection for ICB, a lower-priced Japanese line that relaunched in the U.S. for fall 2012.
It’s indicative of how Gurung is shifting into the role of an experienced designer and away from his newcomer status. Until now he’s been regarded as a fashion-world darling—a talented young thing buoyed toward stardom with the help of A-list fans such as Oprah Winfrey, Kate Middleton, and Michelle Obama. But the Target collection promises to introduce his clothes to a whole new clientele—and to pave the way for an even bigger business.
Gurung burst onto the scene early in 2009, after five years as the design director at Bill Blass, where he landed after attending Parsons School of Design and stints at Cynthia Rowley and Donna Karan. Working for Blass, he honed his tailoring skills, and he eventually broke off to start his namesake label (with pieces that retail from around $600 to $4,000) at almost the exact moment the global economy was tanking. But the fashion world instantly took notice of his skills: a red silk dress from that first collection wound up on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily—a big coup for any new designer.
At first, money was scarce. Gurung was largely self-funded—and to this day says he hasn’t taken investment money—but he immediately sold pieces from his first collection to four retailers, which gave him the backing he needed to continue. Since then, his coffers have been lined with prize money from the prestigious Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award in 2010 and as a runner-up in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2011, both of which honor emerging talent. “I started my collection off without any money,” Gurung says. “I’ve been relying on the support of the industry: the editors, the buyers, the people that believed in me.”
Among those people is Fern Mallis—who is credited as one of the creators of New York Fashion Week—who helped Gurung land his first show at the vaunted Bryant Park tents. “I was very impressed by the quality of his workmanship, but I was also very impressed with him,” she says. “He was adorable and so well spoken—and that set him apart from other young designers out there who don’t have that capacity.”
As a finalist for the coveted CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, Gurung was assigned to mentors Carolina Herrera and her company’s president, Caroline Brown, who helped him refine his design process and, as Brown puts it, “understand the balance of a real business.” In 2011 he won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear.
Prabal Gurung
The designer backstage at his Fall 2012 runway show. (Amy Sussman/Getty for FIJI Water)
Gurung says he has always dreamed of designing a special collection for Target, calling it a “rite of passage” for a designer. (The store’s past designer collaborations include Jason Wu, Rodarte, and Proenza Schouler.) Gurung’s collection, which features everything from $20 crystal necklaces to bold printed shorts for $26.99, seems like a sharp departure for a designer accustomed to luxury fabrics. But Gurung claims he made few compromises in the design process: “For me to think I had to dumb it down to meet the mass market—well, if I had thought that way, it’d be pretty arrogant of me.” he says. “I’ve always been aware—in designing something or in talking to someone—that it’s just about knowing your audience. I looked at this opportunity to let the world know what I stand for as a brand. And that’s about making beautiful clothes.”
The Target collection will inevitably help Gurung expand awareness of his brand—but its success with everyday Americans will depend on a unique mixture of buzz, price, and really great design. “His collection has been living in a category that’s very luxury, but he has a very democratic perspective as well,” Brown says. “He has a bigger bandwidth than just the one his core collection is living in—he understands how real women dress today.

Kuala Lumpur: Capital Without a Past

Its name means “Estuary of Mud,” and it started life as a tin-mining frontier town in the 1850s. Perhaps that is why Kuala Lumpur has always been reinventing itself. Since independence in 1957, the capital of Malaysia has been striving to rise, like a lotus flower, above its murky, terrene origins. And it has succeeded. Today, one of the most spectacular sights in the city—or anywhere in the world—is the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. Lit up at night, they glitter like a pair of diamond-encrusted ears of corn. But whenever I see them, I think also of Bok House, a mansion 10 minutes’ walk from the Twin Towers.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
As Kuala Lumpur has modernized, parts of its history have been forsaken. (Vin's Image via Getty)
Chua Cheng Bok built the mansion in 1929. He started out poor, but became one of the richest men in the country and constructed his home in the Renaissance style, incorporating Chinese and Anglo-Indian elements into its design. In 1958 it was leased to a restaurant called Le Coq d’Or. In the early 1980s, when I was 10 or 11, my parents used to take my sister and me for dinner there once a month. Le Coq d’Or’s menu was Western: fish and chips, chicken chop, steak, but Malaysianized (the chicken chop came soaked in a mushroom gravy; the vegetables were steamed but still crunchy). The staff was Hainanese, of the kind much sought after as cooks by the English during colonial times.
On every visit I would wander around the poorly lit mansion. The lobby was tiled in squares of black and white. Italian marble statues covered in a skin of dust posed on heavy traditional Chinese blackwood furniture. A grand staircase with art nouveau cast-iron railings rose from the center of the lobby into the darkness of the closed-off second floor. The dining room smelled of starched tablecloths and stale frying butter. Oil paintings, murky with age, hung on the walls. Part of the thrill of exploring the house was my suspicion that it was haunted. Going to the washroom on one of my first visits, I turned down the wrong corridor and came to a room furnished with only an immense Chinese blackwood opium divan. The mother-of-pearl decorations on its headboard were elaborate and eerie, giving the divan a malevolent air.
Our regular dinners at Le Coq d’Or tapered off when I started secondary school. I went there a few times after I graduated from college. The Twin Towers were rising behind Bok House, and soon after, I was told that Le Coq d’Or had closed for good and that the mansion would be demolished. Conservation organizations fought to preserve Bok House as a heritage building, and for a while I thought it would be saved—the house had fended off worse threats to its existence before, including Japanese bombs during the Second World War. But one morning in December 2006, workmen showed up at Bok House. By sunset the 77-year-old house was gone.
I remembered how, whenever we dined at Le Coq d’Or on special occasions, my father would order Bombe Alaska. That was where I first saw the flambéed dessert being prepared: the ancient waiter wheeling the cart to our table, dousing the mound of ice cream with rum and then setting fire to it with a match. The shadowy dining room was the perfect stage for this performance. I would watch the flames play over the ice cream, so blue I felt they ought to be ice-cold and not burning hot.
Today, Kuala Lumpur has five-star restaurants offering cuisines from around the world. Air-conditioned elevated walkways connect one massive shopping mall to another, malls filled with all the luxury brands you desire. Once a year the city explodes into a frenzy when the F1 drivers compete at the Sepang racetrack an hour and a half’s drive from the city. In its rush to modernize, to rise above the silt, Kuala Lumpur has erased nearly every reminder of its past. With its merging of Eastern and Western designs, its antique opium divan, its history and hoard of memories, Bok House was one of those reminders.
Sometimes, walking to the Twin Towers, I would pass the property where Bok House used to stand. I would stop and, for a minute or two, look at the place where, many years ago, set among Kuala Lumpur’s numerous Malay, Chinese, and Indian eating places, there was once a restaurant called Le Coq d’Or. In its dining room you could order a Bombe Alaska and watch it being set alight at your table, and for a few seconds the flames would illuminate the faces of the people around you, before fading away.

India Bans Kamal Haasan’s Movie ‘Vishwaroopam’

Another day, another movie protested/banned/censored/take your pick. India is the world’s largest producer of feature films, their stars some of our biggest icons, their songs instant hits that are sung by youth all over the country. Yet India is also home to an inordinate number of people who take offense at scenes in films and want them cut. So vocal are they—clearly more vocal than free-speech advocates—and often so ready to threaten violence, that they usually get their way.
India Film
India has a long history of censoring or banning films—from Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970s to today. (Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty)
The most recent case is the Tamil film Vishwaroopam (Image of the World), apparently some kind of thriller about terrorism (no, I have not seen it). Some Muslim groups have protested, saying it has portrayed Muslims poorly and thus “hurt their sentiments.”
That last, it has always seemed to me, is an empty statement heard far too often and taken far too seriously. Instead of standing up to this bullying, the southern state of Tamil Nadu decided to ban the film, citing apprehension of law-and-order problems. Days later, with its makers frantic at losing out at the box office—Tamil Nadu, naturally, is the biggest market for a Tamil film—the filmmakers agreed to sit across a table with these Muslim groups. What emerged was a series of seven cuts to be made in the print.
Chalk up one more blow struck at the shaky edifice of free expression in India.
Speaking of which, I have personal experience of what such offense does to ordinary folks’ understanding of free expression. Some months ago, the film was Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal (hard to translate—literally Wonder Fun Lottery, though the Vatican uses the title Laugh, Be Happy), apparently some kind of potboiler in which a Catholic priest is shown to be a lottery addict (no, I have not seen it). This time it was Christian groups who were offended, their sentiments hurt by such “blasphemy.” Even the Vatican took note. Of course there were cuts made.
Sometime in the middle of it all, Christian groups organized a protest rally against the film, starting at a church not far from where I live. The writer—and my buddy—Naresh Fernandes called with a suggestion: what about going there to register our protest against this protest? Especially because we both sport good Portuguese Catholic names (Fernandes, D’Souza). So we rustled up two quick handwritten posters and walked over to the church, arriving 15 minutes before the rally started. Time enough to try to talk to those present.
To start with, the protesters were welcoming and polite, almost to a fault. “Sure, you can have your point of view,” they said. “We’re completely open to differences in opinion,” they said. Naresh and I mingled with the congregation, expressing our points of view as best we could. All well, we thought.
Except it wasn’t long before we started getting dark looks. A woman pronounced loudly and pointedly that only those who agreed with the protest would be allowed to join the march—not that we intended to join anyway. Two young men moved through the crowd and then pushed past us, muttering under their breath about the need to gather “many” people to “give pasting.” (“Pasting”: Bombay Catholic slang for “thrashing.”) Was the mention of “many” a nod to our biceps that rippled, above our potbellies that jiggled?
When the procession began, we unfurled our posters and stood holding them above our heads. Politeness? Suddenly an endangered species. One of the young men stopped to shake his finger in my face, issuing this warning: “You better not even think about walking with us, or we’ll give you pasting!” The other strolled past, laughing theatrically. But then he ran back, now snarling, and leaped to grab and tear my poster (“SIMPLE: DON’T WATCH IT”)in two. Job done, he ran back to the procession, once again laughing theatrically.
Good Christians, no doubt. Just as those protesting Vishwaroopam are good Muslims, no doubt.
India Film
Actress Pooja Kumar on the set of Vishwaroopam, which has created waves in India. (Courtesy of Raajkamal Films)
Seems these are times when far too many people appear to have settled into a particularly putrid pattern: search for ways to feel offended, then demand that the world take notice, take action. It would be tempting to think there was a time when folks did not act like this. Except that they always have. In the 1970s India’s censors refused to allow Jesus Christ Superstar to be shown in the country—for in it, Indian Christian groups asserted, Mary Magdalene displayed “carnal love” for Jesus Christ. This was unacceptable. In 1988 Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ attracted a brutal assault from Christian fundamentalists in Paris. Their bombs injured over a dozen people who were watching the film in a theater. In 1995 the director Mani Ratnam showed his film Bombay—a love story set against the 1992–93 riots in the city—to the late Shiv Sena chief and Hindu leader Bal Thackeray prior to its release. Thackeray demanded several cuts; among other things, he was angry that the film showed the character representing him expressing remorse for the riots. Why Ratnam should have shown Bombay to this man at all is a question worth asking, and in fact, Muslim groups asked it at the time. Note that they demanded their own cuts as well.
Vishwaroopam, then, is just another entry in a dismal list. Before reaching the compromise that spelled out the seven cuts he agreed to, the film’s producer, Kamal Haasan, made an almost tearful pronouncement. Threatening to move out of the state that has made him a superstar, Tamil Nadu, he said: “I am an artiste ... I will have to seek a secular state.”
Which state would that be, you have to wonder. Gujarat, which has banned films? Uttar Pradesh, which has banned films? Punjab, which has banned films? The filmmaker Harini Calamur has a list that makes for depressing reading. Yes, sir, Mr. Haasan, which of India’s states will you choose? Which of India’s administrations has ever shown the fiber to defend freedom of expression rather than succumb to bullies whose sentiments are easily hurt? Which state can you expect will protect, first and above all, your artistic freedom? I don’t know.
Not that I’m into blowing my own trumpet, but in the end it seems to me there is only one answer to all this. That answer lies in the words Naresh and I hastily scrawled on our poster that day at the church, the poster that so offended a passing protester. These words: SIMPLE: DON’T WATCH IT.

Booze–and Bliss–in Beirut

At Le Bristol, as soon as I am alone and the lights have come up, I order a vodka martini shaken and chilled with a canned olive speared on a stick. I am resolutely solitary at the hotel bar at 10 past 6, and the international riffraff have not yet descended upon its stools. It is l’heure cocktail, and I am content. The birds are still loud on Rue Madame Curie and nearby Rue Al Hussein, and as yet there are no hookers strolling the carpets. I am alone, I think to myself, on my little lake of slightly gelatinous vodka. I am alone, and no one can touch me. I am haraam. In Arabic there are two words, often rendered as haram and haraam in English, that are etymologically related but distinct. The former refers to a sanctuary or holy place; the latter to that which is sinful or forbidden.
Beirut
Booze is legal and widely consumed in Lebanon, where 40 percent of the population is Christian. (Guenter Standl/laif via Redux)
i like the Bristol, which lies so close to the Druze cemetery of Beirut; I occasionally wander there if no one has picked me up or a conversation has not dragged me down. The Druze drink alcohol, and no disrespect is possible. I also like the hour of 10 past 6. When I touch the rim of the night’s first glass, I feel like Alexander the Great, who speared his insolent friend Cleitus during a drinking party.
The Bristol’s bar is half hidden in that anxious lobby where men in dubious suits eat honeyed cakes all day long. It is an exercise in discretion. The businessmen who sit here late at night do so with tact, because not all of them are Christians. In Lebanon, which is still 40 percent Christian, alcohol is legal and enjoyed widely. I sit at the end of the bar, and my second vodka martini comes down to me on its paper serviette, with the olive bobbing on the side. Salty like cold seawater at the bottom of an oyster, the drink strikes you as sinister and cool and satisfying to the nerves, because it takes a certain nerve to drink it. Out in the street, beyond the revolving glass doors, a soldier stands with an automatic weapon staring at nothing.
At dusk the first addicts drift into the lobby: soon there is that syrupy commotion of the bar stirring to life as light fades out of the outer world. Subtle intoxications take over. I look over the bottles of Gordon’s and Black Label and Suntory and Royal Stag, the brand names ever prevalent in the East, and then at the tongs idling in an ice bucket and the Picard ashtrays and the barman’s geometric black tie. How universal in its format the bar has become. It is like a church whose outposts are governed by a few handy principles. The stool, the mirror, the glasses hanging above by their stems, the beer mats and the wallpapers that have been chosen from suppliers to morticians. Everywhere in the world these shrines have emerged, and everywhere they exist the cult of intoxication advertises itself with jukebox music and screens filled with faraway football games and the bottles filled with liquids inspired by the Arab alchemists and chemists who 800 years ago gave us al-kohl—a sublimation of the mineral stibnite designed to form antimony sulfide, a fine powder that was then used as an antiseptic and as an eyeliner. Was it the fineness of powdered kohl that suggested the fineness of distilled alcohol, as some lexicographers claim? Or was it the way the “spirit” of stibnite was sublimated into that powder? Either way, in these dens we spend much of our time forgetting what we are.
alcohol is mentioned a mere three times in the Quran, and its use, though frowned upon, is not always explicitly forbidden. The hostility to wine in the holy book, if stern, does not seem especially ferocious. It is drunkenness, rather than alcohol per se, that provokes the prophet’s ire. The first mention of wine in the Quran’s traditional chronology, in the very first surah, known as “The Cow,” is this: “They ask you about drinking and gambling. Say: ‘There is great harm in both, although they have some benefits for the people; but their harm is far greater than their benefit.’” Next we have this: “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” Later, drink is referred to as Satan’s handiwork more explicitly: “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside that you may succeed.”

Will Singapore Allow Disruptive Art?

Art: Singapore
Visitors take photos in front of an oil on canvas painting entitled ''The Snake'' by Yue Minjun of China at Art Stage Singapore 2013 in Marina Bay Convention and Exhibition Center on Jan. 23. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty)
Singapore is so dedicated to tidiness that chewing gum is forbidden, or so goes an old cliché that, as it happens, is also a fact. The city-state also has strict rules about carrying open durians, the fruits loved by locals for their nauseous stink. Even the tiny food stalls in Singapore’s vast hawker centers, possibly its greatest cultural treasures, come stamped with health-department approval.
And now there are signs that Singapore’s rule makers want to disturb all this order with the mess of the avant-garde. Last month they threw their weight behind Art Stage Singapore, a commercial fair and festival of contemporary art. Also hitting its stride is Gillman Barracks, an old British military site that authorities renovated into a contemporary-art complex, with room for 17 commercial galleries and a nonprofit center. Stretching over 15 acres, Gillman feels like the white cubes of New York’s Chelsea scene transplanted to a polo club. “There’s an acknowledgment that for Singapore to be a developed society, arts and culture have to play a role ... We want to make art a bigger part of the lives of people here,” says Eugene Tan, the elegant Singaporean who runs Gillman for the Orwellian-sounding Lifestyle Programme Office of the Economic Development Board, which fosters the business end of art making. Singapore also has an eager Tourism Board, which sells local achievements to foreigners, as well as a generous National Arts Council, which helps fund artists and nonprofit spaces. There are plans for an absolutely massive National Art Gallery due to open in a few years. The bones of an art scene are there, clearly, but there’s still considerable doubt about whether any soul is in sight. Is a society that controls the chewing of gum likely to fill the half million square feet of its new museum with art that has bite? After all, this is a place where every exhibition and performance has to submit its plans and seek a permit from the censors at the Media Development Authority.
“The art is an adjunct, a barnacle to this whole tourist environment,” says Valentine Willie, a Malaysian art dealer and adviser who has had galleries across Southeast Asia and has been called the “mayor” of the scene there. He points out that Singaporeans love the term “controlled environment”—and that it applies to their art scene as much as to their air conditioning. When he put up one of his influential surveys of young Singapore artists, he was told he had to seek special approval for an image of a government official. He cites a nude performance piece that came to an unplanned end at the 2011 edition of the Art Stage fair and a gay-themed installation at the Singapore Art Museum whose erotica was censored. He points out that vexed issues of identity are at the heart of the most advanced works in Southeast Asia (this was true even at Singapore’s latest commercial art fair), and yet race, religion, and sexuality are the topics Singapore’s authorities take most exception to. “You are in the most educated country in the region, the richest in the region, and yet you can’t speak freely,” says Willie. “Art as commodity is their model.”
This is something you hear again and again in Singapore art circles. Even Tan, charged with helping that commodity succeed at Gillman Barracks, acknowledges that market forces have played too big a role on the Asian art scene: “When the market becomes too dominant, it affects what artists make,” he says. (Tan can hardly be accused of being a market lackey, despite his current position: his Ph.D. was on notions of time in conceptual art, and he has spent most of his career as a curator at nonprofits.)
Art: Singapore
"Myth of the Flat Earth" (John Clang, 2012)
It’s clear that one reason for Singapore’s new love of cutting-edge creativity is its desire to diversify its sources of wealth and grab a piece of the new global creative economy. “It’s about sell, sell, sell,” says 69-year-old Tang Da Wu, who founded Singapore’s freewheeling Artists Village in 1988 and functions as the godfather of contemporary art in the city, despite a reticence that borders on the reclusive. (Insiders were surprised he agreed to talk for this story.) He will be one of two Singaporeans included in a prestigious show of new Asian art that opens Feb. 22 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “We have to distinguish between art that is just economic and art that is profound and spiritual ... We need a few people in authority who appreciate art and know the difference between the different kinds.”

Make Them Read Rand! A Scheme in Idaho to Put Objectivism in Schools

Writing in the pages of William F. Buckley’s National Review, Whittaker Chambers, a former communist turned vigorous anti-communist, offered what would become the most famous criticism of novelist Ayn Rand: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” Fifty years later, Buckley would tell Charlie Rose that this was, perhaps, unduly harsh, though Chambers distaste for Rand’s was on target. After all, Atlas Shrugged was, Buckley said, “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism.”
NYC AYN RAND
State Sen. John Goedde introduced legislation that would make Idaho high schools to add Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” to the required-reading list. (AP)
Not all who read Rand, even those who would seem her natural constituents, are transformed into foot soldiers in the objectivist army, despite what Idaho State Sen. John Goedde might think. Goedde caused a minor media storm this week when The Spokesman-Review reported on a bill he sponsored requiring Idaho high school students to read the lumpy and ideological prose of Rand and pass a test on its contents—or run this risk of not graduating. Sen. Goedde chose Atlas Shrugged, he said, because it was the book that “made my son a Republican,” and would likely do the same for many of Idaho’s children.
Missed in the subsequent outrage and buried beneath The Spokesman-Review’s provocative headline (“Bill requires all Idaho kids to read ‘Atlas Shrugged’”) was Goedde’s clarification that, well, he wasn’t entirely serious. As The Spokesman-Review explained, he was merely “sending a message to the State Board of Education, because he’s unhappy with its recent move to repeal a rule requiring two online courses to graduate from high school, and with its decision to back off on another planned rule regarding principal evaluations.” Goedde told the paper that he was firing “a shot over their bow just to let them know that there’s another way to adopt high school graduation requirements.” The Rand bill will go forward, though Goedde will not schedule a hearing on it.
Thankfully, the children of Idaho won’t be consigned to Galt’s gulch.
It was the combination of a Rand requirement, and that the requirement was Rand, that allowed the story to spread, but attempts to ideologically transform school curricula are boringly common, from the Texas school board’s move to teach creationism (and a more conservative version of American history) to sundry progressive organizations demanding that the past be viewed through the prism of “social justice.” The Zinn Project, for instance, is an organization that “promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s bestselling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country.” And Zinn is to history as Rand is to literature.
Nor are attempts at establishing a Randian beachhead in the curriculum entirely new. Former BB&T CEO John Allison, who now heads the libertarian Cato Institute, has financially underwritten university programs that require Rand’s books on the syllabus. At Guilford College, students who enroll in “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism,” funded by the BB&T foundation, will read Rand, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek, alongside Paul Krugman, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes (by contrast, take a look at this radical-economics class from Oberlin College, with required reading that doesn’t stray outside of the Marxist framework—which, I should say, is also fine by me). Unsurprisingly, Allison’s Rand grants caused much heavy breathing in the academic world. One Guilford professor complained that “now we’re an Ayn Rand school,” and “everything, [students] might rightly conclude, is for sale, even the college curriculum.”
I’ve always been turned off by Rand and uninterested in her novels (Chambers is right that “its shrillness is without reprieve, its dogmatism is without appeal”), but Atlas Shrugged has sold by the pallet load and has been an ideological touchstone for many free-market types (see Paul Ryan and Alan Greenberg, among others). And one needn’t look far to find trite, poorly written, and lazily reasoned books in the university classroom. But what is missed by both Senator Goedde and those who object to Allison’s project is that students are often more clever than academics, legislators, and philanthropists assume and aren’t willing to simply adopt the politics of whatever book is plunked down on their desk. Exposure rarely translates into blind adoption, and it’s often the case—and my experiences tend to confirm this—that students at exceptionally liberal or conservative campuses react against the politics they're spoon-fed.
The deeper one gets into the objectivist canon, when one inevitably butts up against the cultish fandom she engenders, the more likely one is to flee screaming in the opposite direction.
This is very much true of Rand, too. The deeper one gets into the objectivist canon, when one inevitably butts up against the cultish fandom she engenders, the more likely one is to flee screaming in the opposite direction. I recall one libertarian writer attempting to interview a Rand disciple and being rebuffed; he was curtly told that his publication had failed to demonstrate sufficient reverence for the Great One.
There is nothing wrong with a well-executed ideological novel, and many examples have—or should—find their way into advanced high school curricula. Upton Sinclair’s agitprop is ideologically clumsy, anachronistic, and outdated, but still very much worth reading, as is John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (and the teacher could perhaps then explain Dos Passos’s anti-communist turn).
But do we really need a law telling teenagers to consume Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand, I’m afraid, is simply what curious teenagers read. If Goedde’s bill was serious and in danger of passing, it would have exactly the opposite of its intended effect. By mandating her books be studied in school, it’s likely that Rand’s influence on the young would be immeasurably lessened forever.
In Idaho, at least.

Senator Today, Gone Tomorrow: Mo Cowan Joins Senate Short-Termers Club

Welcome to the United States Senate, Mo Cowan. Don’t get too comfortable now, but get to work.
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U.S. Sen. William “Mo” Cowan (D-MA) is sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden during a reenactment of the swearing-in Thursday at the Capitol. Looking on are (from left) Cowan's wife, Stacy; sons Grant and Miles; fellow Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; and Secretary of State John Kerry. (Alex Wong/Getty)
With his swearing-in today, William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts became the latest in a longish line of lawmakers to enter the world’s most deliberative body after being appointed by their governor with the understanding that they are only to keep the seat warm for a few months until a real election, with real politicians, can be held.
So what is a short-termer to do: at once one of the most powerful people in the nation but toiling away in a body filled with members who measure their tenure in decades, not years; where seniority is the most enviable attribute; and where productivity is measured in millimeters?
Since 2002, 15 people have been appointed to the U.S. Senate. Five entered with the expectation that theirs was a short-term appointment. The Daily Beast spoke with four of them to see if any had advice for Cowan.
“See as few lobbyists as you can and get as much done as you can,” says Dean Barkley, who served in the Senate for just 62 days, following the death of Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in a plane crash weeks before the 2002 election.
Oh, and he adds, “Look out for the girls in Washington, because they like senators. They really do. I kind of wish I wasn’t married when I was there, because there is a lot of opportunity.”
The first point, at least, was echoed by others who knew they would only be there a short while.
“Make the most of it, every day,” says George LeMieux, who was picked by Gov. Charlie Crist to serve out the last 17 months of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez’s term. “It’s a tremendous honor where you have your whole state and your whole country relying on you. Don’t think just because you are there for a short amount of time you can’t get anything done.”
On the other hand, remember this is the U.S. Senate we are talking about. There is a low bar for getting something done.
“The most important thing to remember is that the Senate is a go-with-the-flow kind of place in terms of how it functions,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide to Joe Biden who took his place when the vice president moved to the White House. “I don’t mean go with the flow in terms of with everybody on the issues. But keep in mind that the Founding Fathers didn’t build this for precision or schedules or any kind of regularly ordered behavior. You just have to relax in terms of ambition and time.”
Back in the day, it was often the widows of deceased senators who got picked for the appointment. But ever since women started coming to Congress in increasing numbers, it is instead often a chief aide of the governor—such as Cowan was to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick—who get picked. Or, as in Kaufman’s case and that of Paul Kirk of Massachusetts, the appointee is close to the senator who held the seat. According to Senate historian Paul Ritchie, governors who appoint themselves are performing “the kiss of death,” and the governor turned senator often goes on to lose the next election.
“It’s a wonderful job, especially if you don’t have to spend 60 percent of your time getting elected.”
“Voters really dislike this. It’s why most governors appoint a placeholder,” he said.
Anytime someone is appointed to fill a Senate seat, it can be awkward, Ritchie noted. In 1960, after he was elected president, John F. Kennedy really wanted his brother Ted to succeed him. The only problem was the younger Kennedy was too young, so President Kennedy implored Massachusetts Gov. Foster Furcolo to appoint his college roommate Benjamin Smith to keep the seat warm until his brother came of age. In 1964 Pierre Salinger was in the midst of a heated Senate campaign in California when the retiring incumbent died. Salinger was appointed to fill in for him for a few months, but the incumbency did him no good: he was stuck in Washington while his Republican opponent barnstormed the state and went on to win.
Carte Goodwin of West Virginia was picked by Gov. Joe Manchin after 92-year-old Robert Byrd died after holding his seat for 51 years. Goodwin only had for a few months before a special election could be held, which Manchin entered and won.
Goodwin insists there was no quid pro quo and dismisses those who are dismissive of his short time in the Senate.
“As I like to put it in polite company, Robert Byrd and I combined to served for over 52 years in the U.S. Senate,” and adds that he didn’t hesitate, even though he knew it would be a short-term assignment.
“The opportunity to go up there for any amount of time and see my name on the door of a United States Senate office with the words ‘West Virginia’ after it, it was worth any amount of time,” he said.
Goodwin—who is now considering running for the Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Jay Rockefeller—said that within five minutes of being sworn in he was on the floor, casting the deciding vote to break a filibuster over extending unemployment benefits. The key, he and others say, is to rely on helpful colleagues. And despite the popular conception of the Senate as place of ponderous partisanship, the short-termers say they all quickly grew to really like their colleagues.
“The senators are just really a great of people to hang out with,” says Kaufman. “Even with all this talk about unrest and all the rest of it, they are just a great group to be around. I know the Senate has low approval ratings, but if you had to pick a group to kind of hang with, senators are good people to hang with.”
Asked who in particular, Kaufman demurred. Barkley was less circumspect.
“Well, I loved Fred Thompson. I thought he was cool. When he said he had to quit the Senate because he had a new wife and he couldn’t afford it on a senator’s salary, I guess he went back to Law & Order and became a TV star again. I liked him. I liked Ted Kennedy. He gave me a lot of advice. We went up to his office, had a few drinks. He showed me all the pictures on his wall, all the good old stuff. He was very nice to me. And good old Hillary [Clinton] sat in front of me. She was very good at buying food in the cloakrooms in the back. She would foot the bill for the chicken wings or whatever we were having back there. It was fun.”
There are real advantages to knowing that your time in the Senate is short and circumscribed. You don’t have to raise money, don’t have to fret about the next election. None of the people spoken to for this article said that they would have done anything differently if running again for the seat, although the temptation must surely be there. All spoke to little legislative accomplishments they made. For Goodwin, it was the cloture vote on the unemployment benefits and confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; Barkley mentioned providing his state with a waiver on a new welfare law, something he got by withholding his vote on a Homeland Security bill. LeMieux mentioned crossing party lines on a small-business bill, something he may have not have done if he was concerned about his next election.
“It’s a wonderful job, especially if you don’t have to spend 60 percent of your time getting elected,” says Kaufman, who was one of the lead  investigators of the financial crisis during his time in office. “It’s great because of your access to information. If you really care about public-policy issues and you are a U.S. senator, you can call anybody in the world, and they will call you back. And so if you are interested in what is really going on, in what we should really be doing in Afghanistan, or you are really interested in what is going on on Wall Street, if you are really interested in these type of issues, it is an incredibly opportunity to really get to the bottom of what is going on.”
All four interviewed for this article said they were glad they did it and would do it again if asked. And there are perks to being a former senator, no matter how short the term. You still can insist on being called senator, for one. You can still go on the Senate floor anytime you like. There is a small pension waiting for you.
Barkley said he went back twice: once to just smoke a cigar in one of the leather chairs of the Senate cloakroom and the other time just to look back nostalgically at his old desk.
He said he would recommend the experience to anybody.
“Contrary to popular belief, being a senator isn’t that hard. It really isn’t. You have a staff, you have people that do most of the work. You just have to keep your wits about you and do some negotiating. If you can walk and talk and think, you can be a good senator.”
So good luck with it, Senator Cowan.

Obama Must Fight One More Campaign: To Keep Senate & Win House in 2014

may have to defy history—again. To pass much of his agenda for change, he not only will have to hold the Senate, but may have to gain the House in 2014, or come close, opening the way to what has eluded every two-term president in modern times—and at almost any time: a final two years of important, even historic, achievement in domestic affairs.
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President Obama talks on the phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron last year. In his second term, Obama has focused on domestic affairs, but he'll need hold the Senate and gain the House in 2014 to push his agenda. (Pete Souza/The White House)
It’s a daunting challenge. Here’s why Obama may have to meet it—and here’s how he can. 
Since the election, the Republicans have been dispensing a series of predictable speeches about rebranding. Following Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor weighed in with his own call for a newer, better, and still, of course, conservative GOP. The rhetoric was mostly as empty of substance and evasive on details as a Paul Ryan budget. Indeed the whole exercise across the top ranks of the party is little more than an attempt to put lipstick on an elephant. Meanwhile, it’s plain to see that the elephant hasn’t done a backflip—or stepped even a few feet away from the rigidities of inaction and reaction.
House Republicans did decide, reluctantly, that they couldn’t afford to crater the full faith and credit of the United States or shut down the government. They’ve pulled back from the dubious and conspicuous tactic of crashing the economy. But they now claim they are ready to bleed it with the sequester—the automatic, across-the-board cuts that would depress growth this year to a pallid 1.4 percent. Unemployment would remain above 7.5 percent until 2015. House Speaker John Boehner denounced the president’s proposal to avoid the sequester before he actually announced it.
The Republicans may blink in the glare of public pressure, but a blinkered and unmanageable GOP House caucus may plunge right—far right—into the darkness.
On guns, Obama’s best possibility may be a universal background check. He’s just all but conceded the chances for measures like a ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of bullet magazines. That doesn’t mean the president shouldn’t fight for them—or use them as a midterm electoral lever. It does mean that Boehner and company will do the work of the National Rifle Association and ignore their duty to the memory of Newtown’s children.
On immigration, Marco Rubio, Florida senator and almost certain U.S. presidential candidate, may be willing to countenance reform with a path to citizenship—at least until he confronts Tea-inebriated primary voters in 2015. Cantor, who’s tried so many times to apply concealer to the face of the GOP that he must have majored in cosmetology, praised Rubio in his latest makeover speech and endorsed the DREAM Act, which he’s previously voted against. But that act applies only to young people brought here as children—and would leave millions, including their parents, in the shadows. House Republicans are content with, even eager for, that. They’ve just held a hearing where they emphatically signaled that they favor a permanent legal status for “high-skilled workers,” a kind of limbo between illegality and citizenship that would introduce a form of apartheid to America.
So much for a refreshed Republican Party, which in fact still imbibes and spews the bitter waters of intolerance and exclusion. The House GOP blocks the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and plots the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Republicans both there and in the Senate oppose equal rights for LGBT Americans. Republican governors and legislators conspire to suppress the vote of African-Americans, the young, and other minorities—to the democracy-shattering extreme of contemplating a gerrymander of the electoral votes for president so the loser can win. Add to this the party’s thirst for economic and social injustice. And in addition to stunting growth now with an austerity policy of sequestration, the GOP would exploit tax reform not to bring the budget gradually toward balance, but, surprise, surprise, to lower tax rates for corporations and the wealthy. Along the way, the GOP yearns to privatize and pulverize Medicare and Social Security.
He will have to say to voters: You elected a president who’s on your side. Now will you elect a Congress on your side so we can move America forward?
I’d be happy if the House pursued something other than this dreary catalogue of discredited right-wing policies. But an institution whose public approval is lower than that of head lice—and even Donald Trump—will probably march to the angry drum of its fringe constituents, scorning the outcome of the 2012 election—where all these issues were debated—and the generally commanding support in poll after poll for the president’s positions. This could put the White House out of reach for the GOP in 2016, but House members shadowed by the specter of primary challenges may not care. As I’ve argued, it may take several national defeats for Republicans to come to their senses—and incline their appeal to a changing, more diverse America.
But what can and should Barack Obama do to secure his landmark objectives and assure that his final two years aren’t a token presidency in the domestic arena? He will have to invoke the full persuasive power of the bully pulpit—and sustain the full firepower of his vaunted political organization in 2014. In effect, he will have to run all out for a third term in the midterms.
Precedent is nearly uniformly against him, although JFK in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis saw Democrats gain four seats in the Senate—gaining nearly a two-thirds majority—while losing only four of their massive majority in the House. Similarly, under less fortunate circumstances, Bill Clinton’s party actually picked up five House seats in 1998. Democrats might have taken control then, if the president had had his way despite skittish party strategists, and advanced a decisive argument sooner than in the last two weeks: why are Republicans so obsessed with impeachment when the country wants Washington to focus on Social Security, education, the environment, and Medicare? I helped make the ads; it was too late for a sea change, but late enough to break the midterm jinx.
To confound the conventional, almost ominous predictions about 2014, Obama will have to articulate and amplify the narrative of his campaign last year. He will have to argue not intermittently but consistently that it’s time to do the country’s business and fulfill the voters’ mandate. He will have to say to them: You elected a president who’s on your side. Now will you elect a Congress on your side so we can move America forward? And he will have to be as totally engaged as he was in 2012.
He may have to explain why Republicans are responsible for a sluggish economic recovery. He will have to demand economic fairness. And if it doesn’t happen, he will have to insist day after day on real immigration reform. He will have to stand against the war on women. He can—and must—bring Hispanics, African-Americans, women, young people, and gays to the midterm polls in unexpected and unprecedented numbers. The changing contours of the American electorate shaped his triumph last fall. They are a demographic reality—but in November, the president and his state-of-the-art, ahead-of-the-arc campaign made certain that demography was destiny.
And that’s the heart of a second imperative. Yes, from the bully pulpit, Obama can provide air cover; he can even appeal to national-security voters by holding the GOP accountable for the indiscriminate slashing of the defense budget. But something more will be required. On the ground, Obama for America, now renamed Organizing for America, will have to wage a nonstop battle to reach and mobilize the sometime voters who can make the difference if they just turn out. If you receive the OFA emails, you are looking at the early signs of just such an effort.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and campaign chair Steve Israel have identified the districts where Democrats can capture the 17 seats that will give them a majority. I was at a meeting last week where they made a convincing case that this was more than possible. Pelosi, the most effective speaker in memory, is now the most tireless campaigner and fundraiser. She did more than 600 events in the last two years—and will do 600 more in the midterm season. But she and the members of her party—in House contests and in vulnerable and winnable Senate seats, too—absolutely need the full weight of the Obama enterprise: social media, granular voter contact, and tailored messages that push and follow potential supporters all the way to the ballot box. Democrats also need a relentless, OFA-led movement to combat suppression and persuade voters to wait in long lines if they have to.
Finally, money matters—even if it couldn’t buy Mitt Romney and Karl Rove a win because they were so plainly out of touch and out of the mainstream. The president’s already agreed to 14 fundraising events for House and Senate Democrats this year—“an aggressive schedule,” according to one party official. There will be more such events. But there should be—and I think will be—a more intense offensive on a wider front. OFA should launch and fund a super PAC targeted on the most promising and perilous races—and designed as well to replace Republican governors and legislators in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
No past president has ever pulled off something with the scope and impact of what I’m suggesting here. But Obama has already written singular chapters in American politics. In 2014, for the sake of his vision, his legacy, and the land he has twice been elected to lead, he may—and probably will—have to upend the settled order of things one more time.
He called last year his last campaign. He has another one in him. And that may decide whether his last two years, and even these two, are truly consequential and not just a case of counting down the days.