Against Golden Fleece: Proxmire’s anti-science legacy.

For left-leaning Wisconsinites like me, there are a handful of U.S. senators in our state’s history that keep us convinced that we have the best politics in the country, despite certain occasional aberrances from the progressive ideal that I won’t bother to point out. One is Tammy Baldwin, currently serving; another is Russ Feingold, “the conscience of the Senate” until his untimely defeat in 2010. Others included the original Wisconsin Progressive, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and, for a third of the 20th century, William Proxmire. An early critic of the Vietnam War, a leader by example on campaign finance reform, and the driving force behind the U.S. adoption of the international Genocide Convention, he was for the most part a liberal’s liberal, on whom Feingold and a generation of Wisconsin Democrats would model themselves.

But there is one aspect of Bill Proxmire’s legacy that dwarfs the others—and I’ll admit, it can be a little tough to abide.

I’m referring to the Golden Fleece Award, which more than anything else he did brought Proxmire into the national spotlight. In 1975, he issued a press release announcing the National Science Foundation was the first recipient of the award, which he devised to bring attention to what he believed was frivolous government spending for dubious causes, especially in the realm of scientific research. The NSF had spent $84,000 in taxpayer dollars to fund a study on the origins of love. Proxmire didn’t think that was a good use of $84,000. And thus, a new generation of headline-grabbing anti-intellectualism was ushered into an institution where such posturing had a storied legacy on which to build: Congress. Read More…

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What does Obama see in Larry Summers?

As DC-reporting supercouple Ezra Klein and Annie Lowrey informed the world last week, Larry Summers, the former Clinton treasury secretary, Obama economic advisor, Harvard president, and Aaron Sorkin character, has emerged as a top contender in the Fed-stakes for Ben Bernanke’s job. Summers-mentum has snuck up on and perhaps overtaken the wind at Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Janet Yellen’s back; Yellen was very recently seen as a shoo-in to become the first female Fed chairman, but according to Klein and his “plugged-in sources,” Summers was the front-runner as of the beginning of last week. The top reason offered by those sources to Klein: “President Obama really likes Summers. And he’s surrounded by Summers’s longtime colleagues and friends.” This is true, and it was repeated all over the place as reporters came to grips with this dramatic new twist. But what hasn’t really as widely discussed is the question of what the president finds so uniquely enamoring about Larry Summers of all people, to the point where he might pick him over an eminently qualified, highly predictable (from a policy standpoint), and—perhaps above all—historically significant candidate in Yellen. In other words, to paraphrase Michael Bluth: “Him?”

summers and obama

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Battle of the Bills.

Left, Bill Thompson; right, Bill de Blasio

Since my last post (written just before Weinergate 2.0 broke, and posted to the site soon after) is now already a little stale in its characterization of ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner as one of two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, I thought it would be worth taking a look at two suddenly-viable-again candidates who will be spending the next month and a half trying desperately to win over disaffected Weinerites and consolidate the Anybody-But-Her voters who oppose City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Anti-Quinn sentiment (which is really anti-Bloomberg sentiment) has managed to take a bite out of her once-prohibitive lead in the polls—it once looked as though she’d hit the 40% mark in the September 10 primary and avoid a runoff; today, a runoff looks all but certain—but is spread thin among the four other leading candidates: Weiner, Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller and 2009 Democratic nominee Bill Thompson, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

Liu, who is doomed by virtue of a campaign finance scandal, gets some continued attention since he still manages to attract nonzero levels of support in polls, but he has virtually no shot at making it into the runoff. So the candidates who might viably serve as receptacles for what will probably be many don’t-want-Quinn-but-can’t-stomach-Anthony votes are Thompson and de Blasio—Bill and Bill. Read More…

Housing Party.

This past weekend, at Al Sharpton’s invitation, an all-Democratic cadre of New York City mayoral candidates spent the night in the Lincoln Houses housing project in Harlem. Aside from offering a rare opportunity to see seasoned politicians in casual attire (ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner, in shorts and a polo, settled for a happy medium between his usual public ensembles of either suit and tie or… oh, forget it, it’s too easy), the event brought some attention to the state of the projects in one of America’s last major cities to still have them. And though it was derided by some as a publicity stunt, it also offered a reminder of the Bloomberg administration’s record on this particular issue, and the uphill climb the slumber-partiers will face if given the opportunity to act on their campaign promises.

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Insider Joke: What “This Town” can do for this town.

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital 

by Mark Leibovich
Blue Rider Press, 400 pp

Here is the thing about political non-fiction: those who read it usually know what it will say in advance. Game Change, the 2008 election book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is the archetypal contemporary example: here was a dramatic re-telling of a story that had just been told barely months earlier as it actually happened. What’s left, beyond one or two juicyish scoops, is a rehashing of things that were clear to anyone who’d read the headlines during the campaign: Obama is aloof and a little arrogant; the Clintons relish power and have made some poor hiring decisions, and Bill struggles to keep both his mouth and his zipper closed; John Edwards is a lightweight narcissist with horrible judgment; Sarah Palin is an unstable narcissist whose selection took horrible judgment; McCain is short-tempered and can swear a blue streak; no one likes Romney; the economy collapses; Obama wins and, get this, picks his former opponent as his secretary of state; the end.

So in terms of offering up original material or suspense, books like this are handicapped. They succeed or fail, then, in their ability to advance a larger point or unveil an unseen truth about their subject material, which in the case of this book is its own readership. Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capitalhas been widely anticipated with both glee and girded loins in the capital city, to the point where the publishers saw fit to put a tongue-in-cheek “warning” on the dust cover: “This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.” So in this dissection of D.C. culture, does Leibovich, the national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, manage to offer said players anything they didn’t already know about themselves? And can he offer those on the outside, those who aren’t just reading it to see how well they come off, something worth knowing about this town?

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