Sunday, June 26, 2011

Next stop: Aspen, for a mass meditation on memes

ASPEN, 3:47 MST -- The first thing that strikes you as you fly into this town during the summer is the span of mountains, tinted like Christmastime green velour, variegated with Kelly green, interspersed with laces of snow. To the far left, on the horizon, are the purple cascades of the mighty Colorado Rockies, forever capped and streaked with snow, hulking anchors for the entire state. As prehistoric and dusty as the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains of California are, these stand in full opposite, lush and brimming with life.

Well, those visuals and the fact that the wind, even on a sunny, blue cloudless day, enjoys bumping around propeller planes, such as the Frontier number on which yours truly and a host of other attendees for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival arrived.


A festival to generate and explore ideas. In a world of flooding with terabyte information and squeezed by millimeter attention spans, the concept of stealing away to some quaint hamlet for a week to leisurely discuss, argue, and champion approaches to issues great and small seems luxurious if not impractical for most. In some ways, both the premise and setting bespeak to the nature of those likeliest to attend. Festivals of this sort have started creeping up as the latest "in" thing for the wealthy and well-connected craving to challenge their intellectual and cultural assumptions, and have a good time doing it.

Think TED. The Milken Institute Global Conference. The World Economic Forum, shorthanded simply to its location in Switzerland -- Davos. And so forth.

Even if these gatherings aren't mainstream, they're far from secret. Technology and altruism provide some equalizing elements for this festival and others of its kind, but first-hand beneficiaries tend to be able to shell out thousands of dollars in admission costs (and tickets sell out within weeks) in order to rub shoulders with those assembled. The monied, in essence, get first crack at whatever trend, policy movement or "it" item moving toward the masses, as is generally the case in life.

So that makes Aspen the perfect setting, a tucked away playground largely for the rich and super rich. A place where houses can be seen nearly full scale aboard an incoming plane, median single-family listings averages around $6 million and outlets such as Dior and Sotheby's have permanent locales in a town about as big as 8 square city blocks.

But this isn't a sudden setting. The Aspen Institute has been gathering Big Think folks together since its founding decades ago, to explore ideas, deepen dialogue and inspire action -- powered by monied folk. In more recent times, it formally partnered with The Atlantic magazine and others to further circulate its findings through this festival, inspiring actual and virtual attendees and presenters, an alumni roster that ranges from U.S. secretaries of state and Supreme Court justices to Bill Gates to Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers to school reform crusader Geoffrey Canada. The list of political, corporate, philanthropic and artistic movers and shakers is vast, as is the overarching goal -- distilling The Big Idea.

And The Big Idea, much like the little idea, can become infectious. Some scholars contend that ideas are organisms in their own right. Richard Dawkins pioneered this research, coining the phrase "meme" (rhyming with "seem") -- a culturally-based idea or reference that voluntarily spreads from person to person.

(Think of the number of people who challenge assertions with the retort "Really?" now vs. five years ago.)

Memes arise, live and breathe, based on the viral energy they get from, for lack of better terms, their hosts. Slang and colloquialisms are quick examples, but so are chain letters, old wives' tales and conventional wisdom of every shape and size, positive and negative, truthful and false.

They can be as vast or small-minded as the person who conceives them.

So what about memes on the structure, size and funding stream for modern American public education? What a decade post-9/11 has really meant, devastated and elevated -- and why? Uplifting an American economy in totality, not just corporate profits? The overall healthy of America, the Democratic Ideal? That defines this week's work, split into two three-day sessions, poses to mull these memes, to uncover Big Ideas to address these and their myriad interrelated theories and scenarios -- the mini-memes.

Of course, equally sound questions will be which among them can grow legs, become "sticky" and lead to implementation. Because a Big Idea without execution is just air, as Darwinistically doomed as a species without mates.

Therein lies the challenge. Let's see how poised the all-star cast of speakers, moderators and attendees are in meeting it.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Searching for Dem stars amid cloudy skies


Re-election is far from assured for President Obama. But his chances are notably higher by dint of incumbency and glimmers of the magic woven so perfectly in 2008. If Democrats refrain from their usual posture of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and rally behind the notably battered and all-too human president, 2012 could be a lock, with voter registration ratios alone.

Whatever way it shapes up, one thing is abundantly clear: there’s a vast void for Dems for 2016.  

Unlike on the GOP side, the spotlight has been scant for up-and-coming Dems during the Age of Obama. His shadow so all encompassing, it’s been hard for the public to focus on a pipeline. Worse, there are fears among activists that a bench of any depth may not truly exist.

This is the flip side of incumbency, as it provides an easy and open platform for dissent – voices that are most resonant when the other side appears solidly sewn up. It’s the space that is occupied by the Chris Christies, Nikki Haleys and Paul Ryans, among others. They’ve not only drawn national spotlight, but they’ve invited viewers in for close-ups with actions that tease higher aspirations.

Even if Obama is not returned to the White House, his presence indicated a national appetite for younger leadership, more prone to innovation and not chained to the Boomer-based culture wars and pathos. That will be one of many factors voters will explore in the coming years, on both sides of the aisle.

Unless something drastic occurs, 2016 will probably produce a field and a candidate from nowhere, a la Bill Clinton circa 1992. And Dems have to hope that diamond in the rough can outshine the crew from the other side already glossing their lips, hair and talking points. 

That said, here’s a quick glance at the constellations and a few younger Dem stars – shooting and falling:

Harold Ford Jr.
The former congressman’s worked hard for most of his career to establish himself as a centrist, and presented himself in ways that would have most ignore his hint of color – including hanging at the Playboy mansion. He was savaged in a U.S. Senate race in his home state of Tennessee despite his hawkish and socially conservative Blue Dog Democrat credentials. Flirtations for a run in his adopted New York never materialized, yet despite that stumble, the 41-year-old has remained a player on the scene and handles his media appearances with confidence. But it’s been a minute since his 2000 address before the Democratic National Convention – a platform that Obama used far more effectively in 2004.

Jennifer Granholm
As a former governor of a hard-scrabble, hard-hit state, she has plenty of supporters and detractors based on her two terms of service and her earlier bid as Michigan’s attorney general. Sharp-witted and fun on the stump, she’s won over legion and continues pushing for the party. Being a woman and raised in blue-leaning California are pluses, but as she was born outside the United States (a native Canadian whose family roots trace to Norway and Sweden), this blonde’s ambition is Constitutionally short-circuited.

Amy Klobuchar
Claiming her place in the stuffy boys’ club known as the U.S. Senate, the Minnesota lawmaker routinely brings wit, humor and thoughtfulness to the table on behalf of Democrats. Part hip teacher, part subversive, her personality matches her policy and she’s been a loyal and fierce party stalwart. Her Midwest roots and authenticity give the 51-year-old a boost. Her liberal following poses to be as much of a hindrance as a benefit.

Marty O’Malley
Maryland has laid goose eggs in sending lawmakers south to occupy the White House, but this former Baltimore mayor and current governor combines urban grit with suburban language – a winning combination for him to date. His risen from assistant state attorney through the muck that is Baltimore City Council to Annapolis to chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Plus, he has his own Irish jam band for extra cool points. At 48, he has youth and the Catholic Church on his side, even if his national profile is still fairly muted.

Deval Patrick
Having run a liberal state in the Northeast for two terms, though his re-election was tight, gives the 54-year-old Massachusetts governor the executive leadership bonafides voters crave. While Obama bust open the color barrier, it’s not clear the country is ready for another black man to take the helm quite yet (despite any best-case-scenario dreams of the GOP’s Herman Cain). Still, being tight with Obama, having the requisite autobiography selling and retaining a neat public profile gives him a platform for consideration.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz
This is one woman who doesn’t mind being a pit bull in the political arena. Her command of talking points and fearlessness in tearing into an opponent’s argument won her fans. Her tenacity – and the milquetoast tenure of Tim Kaine – won her the post of Democratic National Committee chair. That she is a woman and from voter-rich Florida adds to her arsenal. Her biggest detractions would be a perception that she skews too far to the left and may have scrambled Middle East priorities. One 44-year-old to watch.

Anthony Weiner
So much has been said about the former New York congressman whose hubris overtook his common sense. Shame. His vicious, vitriolic attacks on the more ridiculous, hypocritical aspects of GOP policy served his party well. Youthful enough to eventually mount a comeback in the public arena, his dreams of occupying NYC’s City Hall anytime soon vanished overnight with mounting tabloid coverage of his “sexting” affairs – much less 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And for the wildest of wildcards . . .

George Clooney
Okay, why not? The GOP had Reagan. The Dems could recruit one the foremost Hollywood humanitarian actor/director/thinkers for a White House run. No one would take him seriously at first, much like Reagan. Then he could dazzle with his command of the topics and his eloquence. His skills would be formidable; consider all the scripts he’s had to memorize and the benefit of his relative ease in front of a camera in this media-driven age. In a populist-leaning year, he could be what ails the party – beefcake factor aside. Besides Michelle Obama, this would be the dream candidate that no one would imagine knocking on a voter's door.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Media moment

Neglected to update this earlier, but yours truly rejoined the Inside Story panel today. The rotation is about once a month for those of us who are regulars on the top-rated public affairs program out of Philadelphia.

Tackling everything from the financial fracas that is the School District of Philadelphia to the potential sale of the 76ers, we hit a full range of issues. Don't want to steal any thunder. You can watch the entire program, including the interview with newsmaker Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Enjoy the link. It'll take you to this segment for about a week only, so check it out quickly if you missed it on 6ABC at 11:30A this morning. And as always, your reviews and comments are welcome here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Wincing at the Weiner weep


So let’s face it. U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) was the pol left-leaning liberals loved to hear and cheer, particularly after the fall of colleague Alan Grayson of Florida.

Brash and bodacious, Weiner’s one-liners were classic and entertaining. And his snarky and snarling attack-dog style showed that he picked up considerable tricks from the master – his former boss, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

A weeping Weiner. Photo courtesy: Richard Drew/AP
But keep peeling the onion. It seemed inevitable, really, that media-induced fame, fueled by constant appearances on cable TV (he practically had his own chair at MSNBC) and missives in the blogosphere, would do him in. Something about geeks when they become chic. They simply lose their minds. It’s just a matter of time, usually.

Now, Weiner is contrite, apologizing with near tears in his voice to his newlywed wife, Huma, who can always talk with her boss about straying husbands; she works for Hillary Clinton. 

Having a tech savvy Big Apple pol admitting to fooling around online was some kind of way to kick off New York's Internet Week, for sure.

In his confessional, it wasn’t clear which was more painful – ‘fessing up to lying to the public or having to apologize to Andrew Breitbart, himself a known deceiver and accused race-baiting media troll.

What’s worse for the Dems is that they’ve lost another rouse-the-base voice at a time when they were about to get the GOP on the run due to its Medicare stance. That Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for an ethics investigation is one thing, but not enough of a thing.

Weiner’s actions, though not criminal, were clearly classless and demonstrated poor judgment, not to mention libidinous and lewd behavior directed toward young women. It’s not a whole whit better than the lunkheadedness displayed by former U.S. Rep. Chris Lee, whose political career also was upended by a sex scandal of the stupid sort. At least he stepped down quickly. Weiner has offered no such pledge.

While his constituents may decide to return him to office, he’s become a major liability for his party, much like Lee did. There may yet be a life for him beyond the halls of Congress or the constant limelight he’s come to adore. Full-scale politics may not fuel that new world of his, though.

Good money says this Brooklyn boy can kiss his City Hall dreams goodbye.

There was a time when a political career would teeter with the discovery of a “dead girl or a live boy” in the bed of a pol. Or that some kind of physical transgression had taken place. Now, it’s the discovery of frat-minded insights and pictures floating in cyberspace. As a modern media consumer, Weiner should know and face that fact.

No cover can be afforded. Not with behavior this foul. Not in an atmosphere this toxic. Nor should it.