UT Faculty, Grad Students Rally to Cactus Cause

There are three members of the UT faculty that serve on the board of the Texas Union, the overseeing authority of the beloved Cactus Cafe, and one of them has now joined forces with Save the Cactus Cafe, calling the decision to close the Cafe “rash” and suggesting it was snuck onto the agenda of a lightly attended meeting without proper notification and consultation:

“This was a very rash decision that was made without proper consultation from individuals and bodies that would have had something to say about it,” professes Dr. Thomas Garza, one of the three faculty members appointed by UT President Bill Powers to serve on the Texas Union board, which as discussed here last week, approved plans Jan. 29 to phase out operations at the Cactus Cafe and terminate informal classes in August.

“There was no faculty representation there at all,” continues Garza, who was at a conference in Indiana at the time. “I’ve been on this board for three years, and it’s always seemed like business would go very much as prescribed, but this wasn’t even on the agenda.”

In what’s become known as “Cactus Gate,” University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith proposed the cuts to save an estimated $122,000 per biennium (not annually, as previously reported here), a move unanimously endorsed – but not voted on – by the board’s six student representatives (see “‘A’ Is for Axed: UT Chops Cactus, Cuts Classes,” News, Feb. 5). Powers backed the decision at last Tuesday’s town hall meeting but was alarmed to learn of this recent revelation. “If there’s an advisory board, it ought to have the full input of the group,” he told the Chronicle (see “UT Budget Cuts,” News).

Garza is now among the 23,000-plus aligned with the “Save the Cactus Cafe (Austin, Texas)” Facebook group, which promises to raise the necessary funds to preserve the campus landmark. The group, along with filing for status as a nonprofit called Friends of the Cactus Cafe, announced a detailed counterproposal on Saturday at Maria’s Taco Xpress that included marketing initiatives to increase revenue and enhanced access to the venue for students through internships, artist residencies, and booking opportunities.

“Money is an issue, but it’s not the primary issue,” shifts Student Government President Liam O’Rourke, who has visited the Cactus five times in five years and only to watch his fellow students perform. “It’s a student building and student space, and students should be the ones leading all efforts to program and use it. …

“Several people have mentioned that there’s space all over campus, but the Cactus is a place with rich history and students want to play there. The main change that’s occurring is the change in management.”

While the Cactus already hosts an open mic night and is readily available for booking by student organizations, not to mention that a new Student Events Center is already being built, the larger issue was laid out succinctly by Lyle Lovett in the Chronicle last year (see “Blood on the Tracks,” Feb. 6, 2009) in celebrating longtime venue manager/booker Griff Luneburg: “Griff is the Cactus.”

To suggest that the UT student body would have more success at running the venue than the Cactus’ three main employees – Luneburg, bar manager Chris Lueck, and part-time staffer Susan Svedeman – with a combined 70 years invested at the venue is to ignore the fact that the Music and Entertainment Committee and the African American Culture Committee, two divisions of the Texas Union Student Events Center, spent close to $60,000 just to bring Busta Rhymes to the (mostly empty) Austin Music Hall in 2004.

“That the decision was about the impact of these institutions on the undergraduate student populations, I find that at best to be a red herring,” concludes Garza. “That’s not the only constituency that the Union is supposed to serve. It’s also about faculty, graduate students, and yes indeed, it’s about the community.”

Kudos to Dr. Garza for stepping forward and stating the obvious: the University of Texas needs to consider the needs of the community that has done so much to support it over the years. 

Meanwhile, the UT Graduate Student Assembly unanimously adopted the following resolution calling for an endowment to fund the Cactus and dismissing the $66,000 shortfall as “minor”, while recognizing the Cafe as a cultural landmark that serves “as a bridge between the University and the Austin Community”:

In Support of the Cactus Cafe

Authors: Samuel V. Scarpino, National Science Foundation Fellow, Integrative Biology; John O. Woods, National Science Foundation Fellow, Cell & Molecular Biology; Hayley Gillespie, Integrative Biology

Sponsors: Samuel V. Scarpino, John O. Woods, Manuel A. Gonzalez, Kyle Shelton, Austin Carlson,

WHEREAS, The Cactus Cafe, a cultural and historical icon for the students at the University of Texas at Austin, is slated to close due to decisions made by the Texas Union Executive Director and the Texas Union Board of Directors; and,

WHEREAS, The Texas Union Board of Directors has no graduate student representation, effectively excluding a key constituency from deliberations on the Cactus Cafe’s future; and,

WHEREAS, The Cactus Cafe is a major component of the cultural environment that makes The University of Texas at Austin so appealing to current and prospective graduate students along with the entirety of the University of Texas community; and,

WHEREAS, The budget shortfalls cited as motivation for closing the Cactus Cafe, amounts to only $66,000 out of total annual revenue of greater than $500,000; and,

WHEREAS, Elimination of the Cactus Cafe is effectively an irreversible decision, which will result in the loss of a nationally renowned¹ brand and cultural icon for both The University of Texas at Austin and the City of Austin; therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED, That the Graduate Student Assembly at The University of Texas at Austin believes the Cactus Cafe is a cultural icon and an important bridge between the University and the Austin community; and furthermore, the Graduate Student Assembly recognizes the profound impact the Cactus Cafe has on the University’s stated mission to develop new knowledge, promote education, and advance society through creative activity and the arts; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the Graduate Student Assembly at The University of Texas at Austin supports preserving the Cactus Cafe and believes it is central to graduate student life as well as culture and the arts at this University and in Austin; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the Graduate Student Assembly at The University of Texas at Austin opposes any decisions regarding the Cactus Cafe made without the direct input of graduate students; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the Graduate Student Assembly supports the creation of an endowment to support the continued operation and development of the Cactus Cafe, and believes $66,000 per year is a minor financial obstacle; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That as a result of the Cactus Cafe’s importance to the graduate students, faculty, staff, and alumni and to the advancement of its mission, the Graduate Student Assembly hereby establishes an ad-hoc committee of its members, in conjunction with other members of the community, to develop a plan for the preservation of the Cactus; and,

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That a copy of this legislation be sent to the Texas Union Board of Directors, the Texas Union Executive Director, the Student Government Executive Board and Student Government Assembly, the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Office of the Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies, the Office of the President, the Office of Representative Elliott Naishtat, and the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System.

I have a message of my own to the members of the Union Board and the University of Texas administration:  is the message getting through?  Destroy this institution, and the damage you do will far, far exceed $66,000 a year.  You will create a rift between Austin and UT that is totally unnecessary and irreversible.  Do the right thing – it’s not even a close call…

Cactus Closing Hits The Mainstream Press

In another sign of the growing outrage over the closing of one of the last great original Austin music destinations, the NY Times becomes the latest national outlet to cover the story, joining Reuters, the UPI, and numerous other outlets with a coast-to-coast (and beyond) audience.  This story is not going away, and to my regulars who may tire of it, I say bear with me: I’ll continue to cover politics, but this is big for me and big for many in my community, as evidenced by the quotes from the Times story:

The closing of storied music sites, often accompanied by protest, fund-raising and other exercises in futility, has become a recurring spectacle in this growing city, where the official stationery carries the legend “Live Music Capital of the World.”

People tend to blame the latest influx of Californians, reliably traced to the latest technology boom associated with the University of Texas. The dropout who started Dell Computer in his dorm room did not personally tear down the Liberty Lunch club, but the general implication abides.

Inside the intimate listening room at the Cactus Cafe, arguably the most storied of the storied sites left standing, a sense of invulnerability has developed through three decades of performances.

Positioned on campus inside the student union building, sheltered to some extent from boomtown costs, the Cactus nurtured the early careers of Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams. It still books such luminaries as Loudon Wainwright III, Butch Hancock and Patty Griffin. And lesser-known acts like Matt the Electrician, Terri Hendrix and the Austin Lounge Lizards, all on the calendar this month, can expect to play to a full room of 150 reverentially quiet listeners.

So a sense of shock and dismay, as measured in the breathlessness of radio news reports and the size of a virtual rally on Facebook, has attended the announcement last month that the university plans to close the Cactus in August, citing, of all things, the university’s own contraction. Under orders from Gov. Rick Perry to identify potential spending cuts of 5 percent, officials say the closing could save the university $66,000 in its $2 billion annual budget.

…University officials said their decision to end its run was not solely financial; rather, the cafe was “largely used by nonstudents.”

The suggestion that perhaps the younger crowd was just not that into the folk scene has done little to ease tensions. On Tuesday, the university president, William Powers Jr., told a public forum that the decision to close the Cactus was made in deference to the student union advisory council.

“They would like to reconfigure the use of the Cactus Cafe to something that, in their view, is more responsive to the needs and the interests of the students,” Mr. Powers said, adding, “I think they made a reasonable decision, and I’m supporting it.”

For the next two hours, speakers at the forum offered to raise money, called for marches in the streets, made pointed references to the university’s lucrative athletic programs and, in one case, suggested that executives of Starbucks, which has a coffee bar in the student union building, were actually pulling the strings on the decision. (They were not, Mr. Powers said.)

State Representative Elliott Naishtat, a Democrat who attended the hearing in a leather jacket, started the discussion on a positive note, saying, “Let’s work together.”

But the tenor quickly shifted as he ceded the floor to Reid Nelson, who described himself as a lawyer, political consultant and musician at heart.

“Irreplaceable, legendary, iconic, a treasure,” Mr. Nelson said of the Cactus, characterizing his view as a mix of sadness, disbelief and anger. “You know, words do not really capture the depth of the loss in this community, this feeling over this decision. This is tantamount to paving over Barton Springs. This is like tearing down the Texas Tower. That’s the place this cafe holds in the community.”

And the UT students, who initally seemed blindsided by the public outburst, are starting to catch on: the student paper today ran a piece from Jillian Sheridan of the Daily Texan Editorial Board that shows how just how underhanded and callous the decision to close the Cactus was:

We hate to say we told you so, but as it turns out, the decision to “repurpose” (read: close) the Cactus Cafe was not the carefully considered, democratically decided, student-guided decision President William Powers Jr. made it out to be at last week’s forum.

In a surprisingly frank admission, Andrew Nash, president of the Student Events Center, told The Daily Texan on Sunday that he was unaware that Cactus Cafe operations would be cut until he was told so in executive committee on Jan. 29.

Unfortunately, rather than call for a delay in the decision and public debate before moving forward, he and other student members, including Student Government President Liam O’Rourke, rubber-stamped the decision. O’Rourke was aware of the plan but did not inform the public or his fellow committee members.

“To be completely honest, I didn’t know the closing of the cafe was an issue,” Nash said.

The faculty members of the Texas Union Board were also excluded from the discussion. In a post on the “Save the Cactus Cafe” Facebook page, board member Thomas Garza — his authorship verified by The Austin Chronicle — explains that he and two other faculty board members were absent from Friday’s meeting and were unaware that a decision could be made, as the topic was not on the meeting agenda. 

Now Nash and O’Rourke, along with other unspecified board members, are preparing to make a proposal to the board that would not undo their previous decision but instead set up a committee to bring different musical activities to the space. They plan to keep the name “Cactus Cafe,” though it would be a bit disingenuous, as the room would not regularly provide food or drinks.

We suggest an alternate approach. Rather than move forward as though the Jan. 29 decision were final and immovable based on a non-inclusive browbeating session in which a few uninformed students rubber-stamped an administrative agenda, we suggest that the proposal to “repurpose” the cafe by removing current management, food, alcohol and regular Austin community involvement be brought to the committee again. This should happen at an open and well-publicized meeting.

Reversing this decision would not be a sign of weakness. Rather, it would show appreciation for public input and validate the board’s commitment to serving students.

The piece by Sheridan is right on the money: the story is in the public domain now – hold a REAL hearing, with both student and community input, and the decision will be easy to make and inevitable: the Cactus stays open, as is, and the University and the community will be at peace with the decision.  In a $2 billion budget, $66,000 is a rounding error…

Another Save The Cactus Proposal Comes Up Short

This one holds more promise than the offer from the Texas Exes, who would donate space but move the club, but it’s still not satisfactory:

The Cactus Cafe might not be closing, but instead head in a “new direction,” according to Student Government President Liam O’Rourke.

O’Rourke and members of the Student Events Center board are proposing that the Cactus Cafe remain open and still feature a stage and bar structure but fall under the management of a committee. O’Rourke did not say who would serve on the committee, but compared it to a SEC committee, similar to Texas Union’s Film Committee that brings movies, and advanced and special screenings to the University. The Cactus Cafe’s bar could only be opened for certain events and whenever cash donations are available.

All SEC committees are comprised of students.

“We’d try to attract new acts and larger demographics of students,” he said. “If save the Cactus Cafe groups would give funds to the student committee, then that would be a great partnership. They would give the committee money for specific things like an Austin music night.”

O’Rourke said he and Student Events Center officials would present their proposal at the Feb. 26 Union Board meeting.

…The proposal is still in its early stages, said Andrew Nash, president of the Student Events Center.

“We’d be creating a new committee within the next few weeks or month that would be tasked with promoting the space and bringing student organizations to utilize the space,” Nash said. “We’re making sure none of the history would be lost.”

Both Nash, who also sits on the Board of Directors at the Union, and O’Rourke denied know the decision to cease operations at the cafe had been finalized until they were told in executive committee on Jan. 29. Both agree with the decision, and both said the proposal was created because of the overwhelming response they received from outside the University.

“To be completely honest, I didn’t know the closing of the cafe was an issue,” Nash said.  “Now that this has all come to light and the Union is … making these cuts, this is what Liam and I have to put together as the student response.”

Well, with all due respect, if these two students at UT, one of whom sits on the Board of Directors of the Student Union, for crying out loud, don’t even realize what a treasure the Cactus is, as evidenced by their comments, then I have little hope that this proposal will preserve the essence of this jewel.  The Student Government President wants the Save the Cactus group to give its money to the students who endorsed closing the club in the first place?  So they can have an occasional “Austin music night”?  You have got to be joking…

Nope…not good enough…we can preserve the character of the club as well as its location.  Keep on pushing!…

RIP, John Murtha

Political differences only count for so much – for me, they pale next to service for one’s country.  In that spirit, I pay last respects to an ex-Marine who served his country during the Vietnam War.  Murtha was much derided by the right for his criticism of the Iraq War - a war that turned out better than Murtha expected, but was nevertheless probably unjustified in retrospect – and he was much too close to a love of money for a public servant in his almost-disastrous flirtation with Abscam and his never-ending affair with earmarks. 

Still, it’s a long tradition of this blog to focus on the positive when remarking on the recently deceased.  For his love of country, then, and for his record of service, I salute him.  I think the Secretary of Defense summed it up nicely:

In a statement Monday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called Mr. Murtha “a true patriot” and said that while they did not always agree, “I always respected his candor, and knew that he cared deeply about the men and women of America’s military and intelligence community.”

May he rest in peace…

I’m A Fan Of New Orleans…

…the city, I mean, so that made me a Saints fan.  Congrats to that fun, fun city that has suffered so much recently for this wonderful win tonight (I’m writing this with two minutes to, but it’s over).  Way to go, Saints!…

Weekend Briefs

Avatar, now the #1 movie of all time both domestically and internationally by significant (non-inflation-adjusted) margins, has been dethroned – in its eighth weekend, it dropped to #2.  The James Cameron 3-D spectacular has now grossed over $2.1 billion worldwide and $630 million in the U.S. (and it’s not done yet!).  The previous record-holder, Cameron’s Titanic, grossed $600 million domestically and $1.8 billion internationally…

Also, the story that has preoccupied me personally has taken another hopeful turn.  About 100 people turned out at the delicious Maria’s Taco XPress yesterday for the first organizing meeting of Save the Cactus:

About 100 grass-roots supporters trying to keep the iconic Cactus Cafe from closing met on Saturday with plans to save and make profitable the landmark music venue.

Gathered on the patio of Maria’s Taco Xpress, the organizers of Save the Cactus Cafe passed out a draft plan to keep the cafe in the student union of the University of Texas.

Already, the group — formed in response to the university’s recent decision to close the cafe — established the Web site SavetheCactusCafe.org and a Facebook page with more than 20,000 fans.

…The group’s organizers are developing and naming a nonprofit for the movement; they began collecting checks Saturday. They said they were also reaching out to students for support. Under the group’s plan, students would be given greater access and control in management, booking and performing.

Organizers also hope to offer cafe internships, a student artist-in-residence program and marketing projects to increase revenue of the cafe.

“I, and my office, will do everything in my power to keep the Cactus open,” said state Rep. Elliot Naishtat, D-Austin, whose district includes UT. “This is something important to the Forty Acres and the whole community.”

Attendees broke into groups and began signing on to committees to fundraise, organize volunteers and organize other events.

“We’re going to continue to mobilize and recruit more and more people,” Nelson said.

Keep up the pressure!…

The Cactus Saved? Not Really…

I suppose it would be better than nothing, but the only real plan floated to save the Cactus Cafe (see my post below) thus far is far from perfect:

The storied Cactus Cafe could be finding a new home on the University of Texas campus — the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center.

Texas Exes CEO and executive director Jim Boon spoke with UT president Bill Powers Tuesday about the idea of incorporating the Cactus Cafe into a planned building expansion set for 2011.

University officials announced over the weekend that the Texas Union would be closing the Cactus Cafe in August due to budget cuts. Informal Classes, too, are set to end.

“We understand the financial pressure the University is under and recognize that it needs to be focused on delivering services to students,” Boon said. “As keepers of the history and traditions of the University, we are always sensitive to experiences that touch students’ lives and create memories for alumni.”

President Powers is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting Tuesday on campus to discuss the proposed budget cuts, including the fate of the Cactus Cafe.

Reaction to the news of the Cactus’ impending closure has been overwhelmingly negative, particularly from alumni. A Facebook group started over the weekend Save the Cactus Cafe currently has more than 13,600 members. University officials have defended the cuts as necessary.

The plan to move the Cactus Cafe to the alumni center would not involve helping Informal Classes.

If adopted, and there were no legal obstacles, the Cactus Cafe would keep its name. The alumni center has its own liquor license and could serve alcohol at performances.

The move could be completed and performances resumed as early as fall 2011.

Let’s be clear about this:  I appreciate the gesture by the Texas Exes and I would welcome this in place of total closure.

But let’s also be clear about this:  it’s not about having a place for live music – Austin has hundreds of live music venues.  It’s about THIS place – THIS room – THIS unique setting.  You can’t take the Cactus Cafe and move it somewhere else and expect it to be remotely the same. 

Kudos to the Texas Exes for thinking creatively – but this is not the end.  Keep up the pressure – write the regents!  Write President Powers!  Write the Statesman!  Write the Chronicle!  If you care about the Cactus, let your voice be heard.  The friends of “Save the Cactus Cafe” are now over 15,300 strong, but it takes more than “friending” a Facebook page to move public opinion.  We’ve got some momentum…now is not the time to let up…and any musicians out there who might stumble by here – let’s start having some benefits!  Let’s raise some big bucks and show the UT brass the only thing they care about – dollar signs…

Here’s another great Bob Schneider clip from the unbelievably awesome Cactus Cafe:

Save The Cactus Cafe

I care about music. That’s obvious to everyone who visits this blog. I care about music so much I based my decision on where to live on my love of music. Austin, TX, is my home for one reason and one reason only: I came here to see the greatest live music on the planet.  I have memories that will last a lifetime of a thousand shows, and I can remember something about almost every one of them.

Dozens of those shows have been at the Cactus Cafe on the campus of the University of Texas.  The Cactus is perhaps THE premiere venue in town for those who truly care about music.  At the Cactus, there is no talking during acts – there are no cell phones – there are no distractions.  It is about the music.  The soul of Austin, Townes Van Zandt, played at the Cactus over 100 times.  Lyle Lovett played some of his first gigs there.  I have seen Joe Ely tear up the stage there on too many nights to count.  I saw a young Ryan Bingham, recent winner of the Golden Globe, and perhaps soon the Oscar, put on an electrifying performance. 

I have been at the Cactus on nights that will live forever in my mind.  And now UT wants to close it to save a lousy $122,000 a year.

Do you have ANY clue how big the budget of the University of Texas is?  Do you know how much money Mack Brown makes in a year?  Do you have the slightest idea what the Cactus means to Austin?  If you live in Austin, you know the answer to all these questions, and you know that this decision is outrageous.

Yes, the Cactus serves mostly nonstudents – so what?  The University has brought much to Austin, but Austin has brought far, far more to the University.  Every year, tens of thousands of students enroll at UT for one big reason: Austin.  Very few people come to UT because of the faculty (sorry, Jacques!).  They come here because of the location.  Yes, Austin would not be Austin without the University of Texas – but UT would be almost nothing without Austin.

This city is full of vibrant, bright, young, resourceful minds – SURELY someone can come up with a plan that closes a lousy hundred grand a year spending gap.  This town has already lost the Armadillo World Headquarters.  It’s already lost the Soap Creek Saloon.  It’s already lost Liberty Lunch.  It’s already lost Steamboat.  If you know this town and its history, you know the meaning of those revered names. You know the memories that were forged there.  You know the heart and soul of this town beats with its music, and you know that the Cactus is worth far, far more than the nickel-and-dime price put on its head by UT administrators.

Today at 4:00 p.m., the University holds a town hall meeting at 24th and Speedway, in the Avaya Auditorium of the ACES building, room 2.302.  The “Save the Cactus Cafe” site on Facebook is already nearing 13,000 friends.  If a fraction of those people show up to be heard, we can bring that town hall meeting to a halt.  The relationship between UT and the citizens of Austin is a reciprocal, bilateral one.  We do not have to stand for decisions that impact our community negatively because we are not students at UT.  We have a right to be heard because we live in the city that has given so much to the university – and we will be heard.

You can’t take the Cactus Cafe from Austin – not without a fight.  Since this university lives and breathes off of money, I’ll make a pledge right here and now:  if the University of Texas closes the Cactus, I will not attend another sporting event on the University of Texas campus.  I will not park my car in any of its parking garages.  I will not see another concert at the Frank Erwin Center – okay, that last one might be hard – because, after all, I DO love music.  That’s what this is all about.  And ultimatums are hard to live by – but I will promise you this:  I’ll weigh every purchase I make of any item that might benefit the University very carefully – and I’ll cut back on all but the most essential concerts at any venue associated with it.  If everyone in Austin that cared about the Cactus did the same, the University would find out just how small that $122,000 a year is. 

This is Bob Schneider at the Cactus Cafe on 9/11/09, singing the great 40 Dogs (Like Romeo and Juliet):

The great Guy Clark, friend of Townes, with Verlon Thompson, and “The Guitar”:

…and for now, I end with Guy Forsyth and “Plant A Little Seed”:

Like A Drunk In A Midnight Choir

Speaking with my nephew this morning about Leonard Cohen inspired me to post this bit of weekend fun…the beautiful “Bird On The Wire” (there’s a skip in the tape about five minutes in and it repeats a verse, but it’s a nice clip nonetheless).  Enjoy your Sunday…

A Health Care Reform I Could Support

I’ve been challenged on numerous occasions to explain what exactly I WOULD support in the realm of providing financing to get additional people on the insurance rolls.  Billy, in a comment on my previous post, provided me with one answer:  end the War on Drugs and provide the savings in subsidies to low-income Americans that could be used only to purchase health care insurance.

Would this finance the elusive “health care for all” dream?  Probably not, in direct savings.  After all, you could only directly use federal savings, not the much larger savings you would see on the state and local level.  If this website is accurate, we probably spend about $25 billion annually in Washington on this hopeless cause.  Still, $25 billion could purchase a lot of coverage.

Now, I know it’s not as simple as that.  But it does highlight the fact that we could easily free up a significant chunk of change without raising taxes by treating drug abuse for what it is: a health problem.  You could get really radical and legalize marijuana and easily raise tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, more annually – that would be a tax increase millions of Americans would gladly pay.

If you think I’m sitting at home in my pajamas smoking dope as I write this, I don’t blame you.  Most advocates of drug reform/legalization are users.  I personally hate drugs.  I realize I am a hypocrite, because I drink fairly regularly, and alcohol is a drug with enormous societal costs.  But most people would live far better lives if they left every non-medical drug alone, including alcohol (although everyone knows prescription drug abuse is skyrocketing, as well).

The arguments against the War on Drugs are compelling, however:  individual freedom, the erasing of the obscene profits that fuel the violence, the essential undercutting of the source of income for bad guys the world over, including terrorists, and the simple fact that prohibition has proven ineffective in this case.

You want audacity?  A reform package that would combine health care reform with drug policy reform would be truly audacious.  Would it have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing?  Sigh…unfortunately, no.  But I WOULD support it!…

Is The Message Getting Out?

We are told, by supporters of health reform, that it is what Americans want.  I suppose that might be true if America were not already drowning in debt and in a financial crisis that is still far from over.  The evidence is not on the side of the supporters, at any rate.  The voters sent a powerful message in Massachusetts Tuesday, one that was unmistakenly a direct response to Obama’s domestic agenda, most particularly health care.  Scott Brown made it explicit – I will be the 41st vote against the current health care proposals in the Senate.

But the voters are speaking up all over the nation.  55% of Americans tell Gallup that the current proposals should be shelved and alternatives that can garner Republican support should be considered.  61% tell Rasmussen Congress should shelve health care reform and focus on jobs.  Even in Massachusetts, as evidenced by the Brown victory, the margin against the reforms is 48-43.

Congress is tasked with representing its constituents.  Leadership, as I’ve stated elsewhere, doesn’t mean that you will always follow the polls.  However, the stakes of the current proposals could not be higher.  This is one of the few national issues that actually touches the lives of individual Americans in a very profound way.  And the message to Congress is clear:  don’t pass this legislation. 

Congress can listen now, or you can bet they will listen in November…


The big story of the day, of course, is the Massachusetts Senate race.  Given the stakes for health care reform, it may be the biggest single Senate race of my lifetime.  Scott Brown has the momentum and a sizable lead in almost all the late polling, but the Dems will bring a mighty GOTV effort to the table.

More later!..

UPDATE 7:49 p.m.: Well, if pre-election harbingers were good, election night signs aren’t great…Boston is going heavily against Brown with 10% of the vote in, and Brown trails Romney’s results in several key towns…

UPDATE 8:09 p.m.:  Last twenty minutes have been better for Brown…he’s holding strong and looks to be the winner…

UPDATE 8:30 p.m.:  Scott Brown has been declared the winner!  This is the biggest non-national election win for the GOP in decades.  What does it mean for health care reform?  It’s either dead, or the Senate version will be quickly passed and rushed through for Obama’s signature….more on the consequences in a later post, probably tomorrow night…

In Praise Of: Martin Luther King, Jr.

NOTE: For the sixth consecutive year, I am moving this post from 2005 to the top in honor of the great civil rights leader.  It’s a tradition I’m happy to continue, and will probably observe as long as this blog is active…

Today’s OpinionJournal contains a moving piece by Roya Hakakian, the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She describes coming to America as a cynical teenager, suspicious of everything, miserable, a stranger in a strange land; then she saw Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and all her misconceptions about America came tumbling down.

It’s that kind of speech, and he’s that kind of man; King’s words, drawing on a long tradition of liberation theology that goes back at least until Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, have an almost mystical ability to inspire millions to this day. Were that his only accomplishment, he would still be worthy of a holiday in his name, but of course, there’s more to King’s legacy than a single speech.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s can be seen in a microcosm in the contrast between two very different men. Spike Lee, among others, makes the distinction between MLK and Malcolm X explicit in such films as School Daze and Do the Right Thing. ‘By any means necessary’ is a rallying cry for the more radical and progressive among us, to be sure, but King rejected the tactics of demonization of his oppressors and violent protest, in the (surely correct) belief that quiet dignity would win more converts than spewing venom. Malcolm wanted to overthrow the white devil; King wanted to change him by using his own conduct towards his fellow man to shame him.

King has his detractors…there are those in the civil rights movement who resented doing the grunt work while King arrived in sync with the television cameras; there are those who accuse him of sympathy with the Communist Party (and it appears he did accept some funds from CPUSA officials). He was a womanizer, and that surely harms our image of him as a forthright, decent man. Mere trivia, all of it, in the face of words such as these:

…Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…but one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free…so we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition…

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation…

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning…but there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Brown Victory Now A Very Real Possibility

It is now undeniable:  Scott Brown has the momentum in the Massachusetts Senate race, and the cause is health care.  That should be horrifying news to Democrats – and if they had any sanity, they would pull back from the brink and embrace the realization that the voters are preparing to send a powerful message.  How powerful?

Consider that, if Brown is victorious, he will be the first Republican senator from Massachusetts in three decades.  That’s a political shift of seismic proportions.  It doesn’t represent a shift at all, to be more precise – it’s a 180-degree change of direction.

It’s not Tuesday yet, and Brown has not won, but recent polling indicates he has a five to nine point lead heading into the home stretch.  The Democrats are mobilizing, with the help of recently bought-off labor interests (the price?  A five-year delay on taxing “Cadillac” health plans used by unions).  Republicans are more enthusiastic, though, than they have been since the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. 

Exciting times, once again, for the GOP…

The Shape Of Things To Come?

The Massachusetts Senate race is notable for many reasons, and the lesson seems hard to ignore:

Riding a wave of opposition to Democratic health-care reform, GOP upstart Scott Brown is leading in the U.S. Senate race, raising the odds of a historic upset that would reverberate all the way to the White House, a new poll shows.

Although Brown’s 4-point lead over Democrat Martha Coakley is within the Suffolk University/7News survey’s margin of error, the underdog’s position at the top of the results stunned even pollster David Paleologos.

“It’s a Brown-out,” said Paleologos, director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center. “It’s a massive change in the political landscape.”

More here:

Democratic desperation and other compelling evidence strongly suggest that Democrats may well lose the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in Tuesday’s special election. Because of this, we are moving our rating of the race from Narrow Advantage for the Incumbent Party to Toss-Up.

Meanwhile, the horse-trading in the ongoing House-Senate negotiations suggests that the deficiti-reducing aspects of the impending health care reform are being bargained away.  Maybe I’m grasping at straws, but if Massachusetts goes Republican on Tuesday, Democrats looking for cover could use a potential negative CBO analysis (I know, I’m jumping the gun) to oppose the reforms on “principle”…

The Avatar Phenomenon

I saw Avatar on opening day, but it was in my recent gloomy period, and I declined to review it.  Yesterday, I saw it for a second time.  This is definitely a movie that holds up well on second viewing – in fact, I liked the movie the first time through and loved it the second.

The problems with the movie are fairly simple to catalog and probably not that controversial, even to fans.  The story is fairly derivative on a high level (it’s as old as Westerns, at least, and probably older).  The dialogue suffers from the same woodenness that most of Cameron’s action movies suffer from.  A couple of the performances are pretty over-the-top and not 100% convincing.  Politically, the movie is fairly anti-American and very much in tune with “green” interests.

All of these things pale next to the technical wizardy, however – and if you’re not seeing this movie in 3D, then you’re throwing away your money.  It’s hard to envision a scenario where Avatar doesn’t win the Oscar in virtually every technical category.  The blending of digital effects and live action has never been so seamless, and the cinematography is breathtaking.  Pandora is a perfectly realized alien environment, and most importantly, the crucial love story at the center of the film rings true. 

One thing is absolutely for certain, though, even if you hated the movie:  James Cameron has his pulse on the type of movie that excites filmgoers.  I don’t consider Cameron nearly as important an artist as Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, or a dozen other filmmakers I could easily name…but commercially, he dominates the movie business in the way that Spielberg used to.  Avatar is now the #2 movie worldwide of all time, behind…James Cameron’s Titanic.  It’s not entirely impossible now that it might even catch Titanic‘s staggering $1.8 billion box office take, as it now stands at $1.3 billion and is still the #1 movie at the box office for a staggering fourth weekend in a row. 

Movies don’t hold like this anymore.  They do amazing numbers their first weekend, then start sinking like a stone.  In fact, it’s pretty standard for most movies to make a full 25% or more of their total boxoffice on opening weekend.  Avatar is simply crushing the (admittedly weak) competition, however.  In this, its 4th weekend, it tripled the money made by its nearest competitors and brought in a healthy $48 million domestically.  There is no reason to think it will not be the #1 movie again next weekend for the fifth time.

Popularity doesn’t make great art…but you have to give respect to a man who has now made two movies that have simply torn up the box office and put up totals that will be very difficult to top for a long, long time.  Cameron has made his second must-see movie in Avatar, miraculously repeating the feat of Titanic.  I’ve already made plans with friends to see it two weeks from now at the IMAX.  I have NEVER seen a movie three times at the theater during its opening run…and I probably never will again.  I guess that makes me a James Cameron fan after all…

There’s No Shame…

…in the performance of the Texas Longhorns last night.  Losing your Heisman candidate senior (who has more wins than any quarterback in NCAA history) in the first quarter is a blow that is impossible to overcome against a team as good as Alabama, but Texas at least made it competitive for a while.  Congrats to both teams, and to the Crimson Tide especially for their championship season.

As for my beloved Red Raiders – well, I might blog more on the Leach fiasco later.  Probably deserves its own post…

Dodd’s Retirement

It seems as good a topic as any for me to reenter the discussion.  With the announcement of the retirement of Senator Christopher Dodd, pundits are questioning whether a trend is in the offing, and the proximate cause.

In Dodd’s case, it’s simple:  he would lose his bid for reelection because of his far too cozy relationship with Countrywide and his sweetheart mortgage deal from the former CEO.  But the larger question is whether the Democrats are already feeling the fallout from the unpopularity of Barack Obama’s agenda, most prominently the health care reform that a majority of Americans consistently poll as opposed to.

Some might say the decision to enact healthcare reform in the face of such widespread opposition shows the power of the Presidency, as well as the hold Reid and Pelosi have on their respective chambers.  Surprisingly, a senior editor of the National Review thinks otherwise:

Some Democrats have decided, and others will soon decide, to end their political careers rather than let the voters do it for them. The national climate right now is brutal for their party, thanks in part to the painfulness of this economic recovery and in part to public unease with the president’s liberalism. Even if that climate improves by November, the party will suffer as a result of the decisions being made right now by successful Democrats to retire and by talented Republicans to run.

Enacting a modest down payment on the comprehensive health care reform they favor — something the Democrats could have done months ago — would have made their prospects brighter. But a significant fraction of them seems to have concluded that enacting a health-care policy closer to their ideals is worth losing some seats.

Which is awfully refreshing. When Republicans ruled Capitol Hill, was there anything they were prepared to fall on their swords for?

Hmmm…well, I’m a firm believer that principle trumps popularity.  We elect representatives to lead, not just to follow.  It’s worth pondering…but I find the evidence to be slim.  The horsetrading that resulted in the votes of Nelson and Landrieu certainly contradict any theory that the sudden emergence of the magic 60 votes in the Senate was due to a stand on principle.

And it’s worth noting that if it was a stand on principle, it was the principles of the center-left and not the fire-breathing progressives, who remain just as opposed to the current proposals as Republicans, though for far different reasons…

Long Hiatus Approaching End?

If there’s anyone out there who still gives a rat’s patooie, I’m not hanging up the blog for good – I don’t think.  I don’t see a need to hide things from my small but devoted audience (at least up to now!), and I’ve still being struggling through some personal issues (of a romantic nature, if you care to know).  Everyone who’s ever had one – and that’s just about everyone – knows that a broken heart causes you to be lethargic, inattentive, and unproductive.  I’m on the upswing…so I think I’ll be ready to start blogging again for real soon.  If you’re still out there – wait for me!  In the words of Ah-nuld:  I’ll be back!…

Boy, Did I Miss The Call

Health reform is going to pass the Senate after all, as Harry Reid bought off Ben Nelson by guaranteeing that the Feds will pay for Nebraska’s new Medicaid enrollees for ever and ever amen.  Of course, when the time comes, all the other states will rightly demand the same treatment, and this mockery of a “deficit reducing” bill will be shown for the sham it is – though far too late to keep our nation from going bankrupt.

Depressing stuff…so let’s turn to the surest antidote – the great one, in fine voice, with a simply lovely tune to brighten up my blues: