Thursday, February 22, 2007

Babbling Brooks has guidance for you if you want to win the Publican nomination, and Bob Herbert says news about serious matters is just boring because, well, look — Brittany shaved her head! Let’s have our dose of Bobo first. (At least he’s not writing the book…)

I want you to know I’ve shelved the idea of writing a book called “The Idiot’s Guide to Winning the Republican Presidential Nomination.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t have ideas. Here are a few rules the G.O.P. contenders should follow if they want to sweep this thing.

First: Be the Snowball. The conventional view is that Feb. 5 is going to be the decisive day of the race, when California, New Jersey, Illinois and a bunch of other states will probably have their primaries. That’s wrong.

Since so many states will be voting then, the candidates will be stretched thin in all of them. As a result, the Republican candidate who does best in the first three states — Iowa, New Hampshire and, on Feb. 2, South Carolina — will sweep on Feb. 5 through sheer momentum.

You want to be that snowball rolling downhill. Focus your efforts on the first three, especially New Hampshire. Win those, and the big states will take care of themselves.

Second: Remember the Rule of Three. When three big candidates go up against one another, two of them often get into a mutually destructive grudge match and the third skates through to victory. (Right now, the McCain and Romney camps seem set to brawl, leaving Giuliani alone.) Whatever you do, don’t let yourself become one of the duelists.

Third: Don’t Be a University. Most campaigns organize their policy experts like academic departments — economists on one committee, social policy types on another, religious leaders on a third. They come up with utterly conventional recommendations.

You want to organize your committees according to priorities. For example, create a Flourishing Families Committee. Get economists, religious activists and psychologists in one room to figure out how government can reduce stress on struggling families. You’ll be surprised by how much interdisciplinary creativity you can unleash and how much closer you get to the problems of real people.

Most of all, you’ll break free from the useless categories most pundits use to define Republicans: social conservative, free market libertarian, neoconservative. If you define yourself by those categories, you’re dead.

Fourth: Be the Change. You are running to lead a traumatized party. Many Republicans think their party can recover from recent setbacks by returning to the old verities: cutting spending, cutting taxes, attacking government bureaucrats.

That’s wrong. The world has changed since the glory days of the 1980s, and no amount of Reagan nostalgia will bring those conditions back.

For example, Republicans in the 1980s could win by promising to expand freedom and reduce overbearing government. But today, post-9/11, most Americans aren’t anxious because their freedoms are being impinged. They’re anxious because there’s chaos all around: foreign policy chaos, fiscal chaos, cultural chaos. The authority structures they rely on have let them down.

You need to lead the party to a new definition of Republicanism. This is a Republicanism that can provide safety, order and authority, so people can feel secure enough to pursue their dreams. This doesn’t mean championing a big government. It means championing a strong government that can do the jobs it is supposed to do.

Your main job over the next few months is to come up with a governing philosophy that explains how individual freedom can be enhanced by a strong, limited and energetic federal government.

Fifth: Make an Offer They Can’t Refuse. If your last name is Giuliani, McCain or Romney, social conservatives are never going to love you. Don’t try to pander to gain their devotion. Instead, offer them a deal.

Tell them: You social conservatives may not agree with me on everything. You may doubt my recent conversions on your issues. You may not even like me. But I’m the guy who can deliver on four programs you want. Then pick out four programs you and they can agree on and repeat them in every speech for the next year.

Sixth: Get Ready for Phase II. Over the next several months, the surge in Iraq will dominate debate. But by late summer, the surge will either have succeeded or failed. A new, broader debate will start. One candidate will define the landscape by coming up with a new Grand Strategy for the war against extremism. Be that guy.

Seventh: Win the T.R. Primary. Many of you admire Theodore Roosevelt. You’ve got his picture on your walls. Every day, as the campaign madness swirls around, wake up and ask, Would T.R. be proud of what I’m doing? If not, take a risk. Do something else.

And now here’s Mr. Herbert about the state of the news. It ain’t pretty.

Have they buried Anna Nicole Smith yet?

Are you kidding? Ms. Smith may be dead and rapidly decomposing, but there’s too much fun still to be reaped from her story to let it die just yet. This is world-class entertainment: Larry King, “Today,” CNN, The New York Times.

Even the judge in the televised hearing over what to do with Ms. Smith’s remains is milking his 15 minutes, like Judge Ito of O. J. Simpson fame. In a burst of wisdom from the bench, the judge, Larry Seidlin, said, “Like a Muhammad Ali fight, sometimes you have to wait the whole 10 rounds.”

When we were kids we were taught not to laugh at people who were obviously mentally or emotionally disturbed. With Ms. Smith, who was deeply and unmistakably disturbed, we put her on television and laughed and laughed. Would she say something stupid, or spill out of her dress, or pass out in public from booze or drugs? How hysterically funny!

Then her son died. Then she died, leaving an orphaned infant daughter. Instead of turning away chastened, shamed, we homed in like happy vultures. Whatever entertainment value Ms. Smith had when she was alive increased exponentially when she was kind enough to die for us. Now she’s on the tube around the clock.

The story, as they say, has legs.

There are other stories out there, but they aren’t nearly as much fun. The Times reported on Monday, for example, that Al Qaeda is getting its act together in Pakistan and is setting up training camps in an area that, apparently, we don’t dare trespass in.

According to the article, “American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan.”

The article went on to say, ominously, “The United States has also identified several new Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.”

I imagine that there are a fair number of television viewers and newspaper readers who have trouble distinguishing the relative importance of celebrity stories, like the death of Anna Nicole Smith, from other matters in the news, like the reconstitution of forces responsible for the devastating Sept. 11 attacks.

If air time is any guide, there’s no contest. It’s been obvious for the longest time that the line between news and entertainment has vanished. News is entertainment. And the death of Anna Nicole Smith is more entertaining — for the time being, at least — than the war in Iraq or the plodding machinations of bin Laden and Zawahri.

Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were on the cover of Newsweek last week with the headline “The Girls Gone Wild Effect.” When you turned to the story, there was a full-page picture of the former best friends, with a glassy-eyed Britney looking for all the world like a younger version of Anna Nicole Smith.

The lead-in to the article said in large type: “Paris, Britney, Lindsay and Nicole — They seem to be everywhere and they may not be wearing underwear.”

The nation may be at war, and Al Qaeda may be gearing up for a rematch. But that’s no fun, not when Britney is shaving off her hair and Jennifer Aniston is reported to have a new nose and the thrill-a-minute watch over Anna Nicole’s remains is still the hottest thing on TV.

It was Neil Postman who warned in 1985 that we were amusing ourselves to death. I’m not sure anyone knew how literally to take him.

More than 20 years later, the masses have nearly succeeded in drawing the curtains on anything that’s not entertaining. No one can figure out what do about Iraq or Al Qaeda. A great American cultural center like New Orleans was all but washed away, and no one knows how to put it back together. The ice caps are melting and Al Gore is traveling the land like the town crier, raising the alarm about global warming.

But none of that has really gotten the public’s attention. None of it is amusing enough. As a nation of spectators, we seem content to sit with a pizza and a brew in front of the high-def flat-screen TV, obsessing over Anna Nicole et al., and giving no thought to the possibility that the calamitous events unfolding in the world may someday reach our doorsteps.



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