Saturday, January 2, 2010

Women Who Had a Major Influence on Thelonious Monk's Life and Art: Barbara Monk, Nellie Smith Monk, Alberta Simmons, and Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams

Nellie and Thelonious Monk

Nellie Monk (1921-2002)


See what I said about "Genius and Recognition" in my previous post below about Monk, Baraka, and Robin Kelley? Well, that admonition goes
DOUBLE here. So thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU Mrs. Barbara Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Alberta Simmons, and Nellie Smith Monk (the one Thelonious always "crepesculed" with) for being absolutely instrumental as well as essential in the formation and growth of one of the greatest and most important artists of the 20th century...


The Women Who Made Thelonious Monk
by Walter Ray Watson
National Public Radio--NPR

My story about Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley ran on All Things Considered yesterday. But wait! There's much more to say: Kelley's new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original, takes considerable pains to acknowledge the support of women in the life of the musician.

The photo ID of Barbara Monk, Thelonious Monk's mother, shows that she was employed by the City of New York to clean public offices. (courtesy of the Thelonious Monk Estate)

First, there's his mother, Barbara Monk, who moved to New York City with Thelonious Monk Sr., and their three children: Thomas, the eldest; his sister Marion, and Thelonious Jr., the youngest child. The family moved to New York City to escape the farm life they had known in North Carolina. Thelonious Sr. eventually returned to Carolina, and Monk's mother and sister raised the family. Barbara Monk cleaned city offices to support her kids. When the youngest Monk began skipping classes during his senior year at Stuyvesant High School -- and eventually left altogether -- it was Barbara Monk who encouraged him to take that leap of faith.

A few years earlier, she had also supported Thelonious Jr.'s decision to follow a Christian evangelist, a woman whose name was never known to the family (and whose precise religious affiliation was just as hard to pin down), on a barnstorming tour of Midwestern towns for nearly two years.

As Kelley recounts in his book, Monk's travels through Kansas and other states is the most mysterious and undocumented time in Monk's life. But they were also perhaps his most fruitful years as an itinerant artist, learning how to call tunes on the spot, and how to respond to both musicians and audiences in the moment.

There was also a piano teacher early in Monk's development named Alberta Simmons. Kelley learned about Simmons' life from her daughter, Alberta Webb; Simmons, born in 1892, died long ago. Alberta Simmons was a performer, and assimilated the stride styles of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake. She played the Clef Club, speakeasies in New York City, and even went out to Flushing, Queens for gigs. But as Webb told Kelley, "Being a woman, [Simmons] got sort of sidetracked trying to raise her children. Unfortunately things did not work out in later years."

Kelley's detective work found New York census records of Alberta Simmons at five year intervals. As time progressed, Simmons reported her career as piano teacher, and, in later years, "domestic worker." But before her earnings as a teacher dried up, Thelonious Monk learned stride piano from the woman. Monk was known to visit the home of James P. Johnson, and attend "cutting sessions" by other famed stride practitioners. But early on, Alberta Simmons showed him the way.

Kelley told me that Alberta Simmons never got the chance to make a recording, so there's no sample artifact of her playing style. Her daughter, Alberta Webb, told Kelley that she unfortunately had no photographs of her mother to share either -- and Webb died before the publication of Kelley's book. It's one of Kelley's regrets, he says. (Then again, you develop a mountain of regrets when you interview 300 people, read countless lost articles and spend 14 years on a mission that no one quite believes you would complete.) On the bright side, Kelley says that it's not much of a leap to think of Monk's 1956 solo recording of "Memories of You," the Andy Razaf/Eubie Blake song, as his tribute to Alberta Simmons. According to Kelley's research, she played this tune often, as if it were her own. Here's an excerpt (from The Unique Thelonious Monk, originally issued on Riverside Records):

Then, of course, there's his wife, Nellie Monk. She can't be underestimated for her role as partner, protector, career manager and supporter of Thelonious Monk. She gave her husband the space and time to develop his musical sense of space and time. She also cleaned private homes and worked as a seamstress in the lean years: The period when his music was dismissed or ignored by critics, thus making him a hard sell to the public, to club managers and to anyone considering him for studio recordings.

Last but not least, there's the great pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who defended, promoted and befriended Monk. Reportedly, she first heard him as a young man in Kansas City while he was touring with that mysterious traveling evangelist. She later helped him get gigs in New York, and introduced him to a great deal of music. Kelley writes that despite Monk's Baptist roots and travels with evangelical revivals, he attended Catholic churches with Williams. Among the home recordings Kelley was exposed to by the Monk Estate were these pieces that Williams arranged and wrote out for Monk to try. Hear Monk practice "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm."

Takes One and Two:

Take Three:

Robin Kelley also sent me an unpublished excerpt he wrote about the music.

After ending his home recording of "Body and Soul" abruptly, Mr. Monk then shuffles some papers on the piano and announces, with the enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store, "Now let me see how we make out with this now. Mmmmm!" He then proceeds to tentatively work through an arrangement of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" -- a Gus Kahn and Bronislau Kaper composition Mr. Monk never recorded nor included in his repertoire. The initial choruses sound a lot like Mary Lou Williams' 1946 trio recording (Classics Records 1050) of the song, which I confirmed when archivist Ann Kuebler helped me locate the arrangement (titled simply "Chillun") in Ms. Williams' papers at the Institute for Jazz Studies. It is likely that Mr. Monk had a copy of her arrangement from the 1940s since they exchanged quite a bit of music during the early days of bebop. In particular, Mr. Monk takes from the arrangement Ms. Williams' rephrasing of the melody, the ascending arpeggios in the third and fourth bar of the song's A section, and the key signature: A-flat ... By the second take, he begins to incorporate more of his own unique phrases and improvised lines, including a striding left hand and dissonant clusters in the piano's upper register. Perhaps as a tribute to Mary Lou Williams, his final six bar cadence incorporates the kind of "boogie woogie" left hand figures Ms. Williams often used. By the third take, "Chillun" is entirely his own. Opening rubato, almost ballad-like, Mr. Monk throws in an unusual bass line in bars 9-12 and shifts into stride piano, over which he plays several high register phrases over and over to see what they sound like. By the time he returns to the melody, Mrs. Nellie Monk adds her singing voice and Mr. Monk closes with a tag similar to what he plays at the end of Gershwin's "Nice Work if You Can Get It."

Also, Mary Lou recorded this [arrangement] on October 7, 1946 (three days before Monk's 29th birthday). Unique are her phrasing of the melody and, most importantly, the bass line, in bars 3 and 4 of the A section; those ascending arpeggios. Notice how he echoes her phrasing throughout, especially in early takes of the song.
Here's the first 'A' section of Mary Lou's version:

Now go back and listen to Monk's versions with this information: The context makes a huge difference.

As long as Monk's legacy still rings in our ears, the women who contributed to Monk's development as a child, student, artist and man are to be honored. (And then there's the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, but that's another story in itself.) Thanks to Robin Kelley for keeping their gifts to the music alive, if not unearthing them altogether.

7:45 PM ET | 12-30-2009 | permalink

MONK, BARAKA, AND KELLEY: The Joyous Confluence of Great Music & Great Writing

Thelonious Monk

Amiri Baraka

From: The Independent Ear
Nov 17, 2009








Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the exhaustively-researched and superb new Thelonious Monk biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original (Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster), contributed the following piece to the recent 75th birthday commemoration for Amiri Baraka. He granted re-print permission to The Independent Ear. Read Robin’s contribution to our ongoing dialogue between African American music writers: Ain’t But a Few of Us by clicking on the month of October.

Author & USC Professor Robin D.G. Kelley

What Amiri Baraka Taught Me About Thelonious Monk
by Robin D.G. Kelley

"Monk was my main man."
— Amiri Baraka

I just spent the past fourteen years of my life researching and writing a biography of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk, and over thirty years attempting to play his music. My obsession with Monk can be traced back to many things and many people, but paramount among them is Amiri Baraka. Let me explain.

My path to "jazz" began like so many others of my generation who came of age in the late 1970s — with the funky commercial fusions of Grover Washington, Jr., Bob James, Patrice Rushen, Earl Klugh, Ronnie Laws, through Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea. But inexplicably, at the tender age of seventeen or eighteen I took a giant leap directly into the so-called "avant-garde", or the New Thing. By 1980, the New Thing wasn’t so new (and as Baraka and others have shown us, it wasn’t so new in the 1960s), but the music appealed to my rebellious attitude, my faux sense of sophistication, and to the way I heard the piano. As a young neophyte piano player and sometimes bassist, my heroes became Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, late ‘Trane, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, those cats. I knew almost nothing about bebop, nor could I name anyone in Ellington’s orchestra except for Duke. I just thought free jazz was the beginning and end of all "real" music. My stepfather introduced me to Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, but I wasn’t yet ready to fully appreciate bebop. Then in one of my many excursions to "Acres and Acres of Books" in Long Beach, California, I picked up two used paperbacks by one LeRoi Jones: Blues People and Black Music.

I dove into Black Music first. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a thoughtful piece on Monk in a book that I understood then to be a collection of essays primarily about the "New Thing." Don’t get me wrong; I dug Monk from the first listen. I had heard an LP recorded live at the Five Spot Cafe with Monk and tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. I wore it out, especially their rendition of Monk’s "Evidence". But Monk wasn’t part of the jazz avant-garde. He was already an old man when Ornette Coleman made his debut, or so I thought. Baraka’s Black Music corrected me, schooling me on the roots and branches of free jazz. Between his piece on "Recent Monk," his brilliant treatise, "The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)," and several other pieces on white critics and the jazz avant-garde, I began to hear Monk and "free jazz" quite differently. It was Baraka who dubbed the jazz avant-garde the "New Black Music," insisting that it emerged directly out of a Black tradition, bebop, as opposed to the Third Stream experiements of Gunther Schuller, Lee Konitz, and Lennie Tristano. While Black musicians might have milked Western classical traditions for definitions and solutions to the "engineering" problems of contemporary jazz, Europe is not the source. "[J]azz and blues," he writes, "are Western musics; products of an Afro-American culture."

Of the few hundred times I listened to Monk, Johnny Griffin, drummer Roy Haynes, and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik tear the roof off the Five Spot, I probably heard Baraka, shouting his approval and urging them on from his table near the bandstand. It was August of 1958 and Baraka (when he was still LeRoi Jones) had been an East Village resident for the past year. He became a Five Spot regular when Coltrane was with Monk in the summer and fall of 1957. His constant presence gave him unique insights into Monk’s music and the challenges it created for the musicians who played with him. Indeed, Baraka was one of the few critics to admit that "opening night [Coltrane] was struggling with all the tunes." Baraka just didn’t come to dig the music, he studied Monk.

In fact, he was arguably the first American critic, along with Martin Williams, to really understand what Monk was doing and why a new generation of self-described avant-garde musicians was drawn to Monk’s music and his ideas. By the time Baraka entered the fray, most critics had either dismissed Monk for having no technique or formal training as a pianist, or they praised him for his eccentricity and inventiveness precisely for his lack of technique or formal training. For Baraka, the whole issue of Monk’s technique was nonsense: "I want to explain technical so as not to be confused with people who think that Thelonious Monk is ‘a fine pianist, but limited technically.’ But by technical, I mean more specifically being able to use what important ideas are contained in the residue of history or in the now-swell of living. For instance, to be able to double time Liszt piano pieces might help one become a musician, but it will not make a man aware of the fact that Monk was a greater composer than Liszt. And it is the consciousness, on whatever level, of facts, ideas, etc., like this that are the most important parts of technique."

While Baraka’s fellow Beat generation writers embraced Monk because they heard spontaneous, instinctual feeling and emotion as opposed to intellect, Baraka saw no such opposition; he was careful not to divorce consciousness and intellect from emotion. He writes, "The roots, blues and bop, are emotion. The technique, the ideas, the way of handling the emotion. And this does not leave out the consideration that certainly there is pure intellect that can come out of the emotional experience and the rawest emotions that can proceed from the ideal apprehension of any hypothesis." Like his insights about Monk’s technique, the point underscored Baraka’s general claim that bebop was roots music, no matter how deep the imperative for experimentation, because it carries deep emotions, historical and personal. The music of the Blues People.

And if Thelonious Monk was anything, he was Blues People. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the grandson of enslaved Africans, delivered by a midwife who was thirteen when Emancipation Day came, Monk was raised by parents who grew up picking cotton and survived on odd jobs and cleaning white folks’ homes. His mother brought Thelonious and his two siblings to New York in search of a better life, and while they enjoyed more opportunities the Monks settled in the poor, predominantly black neighborhood of San Juan Hill (West 63rd Street, Manhattan). Thelonious grew up listening to the blues, jazz, the rhythms of calypso and merengue, hymns and gospel music (he spent two years traveling through the Midwest with an evangelist). His mother Barbara, scrubbed floors to pay for his classical piano lessons, and Monk continued his studies under the tutelage of the great Harlem stride pianists of the day. Monk told pianist Billy Taylor "that Willie "The Lion’ and those guys that had shown him respect had… ‘empowered’ him… to do his own thing. That he could do it and that his thing is worth doing. It doesn’t sound like Tatum. It doesn’t sound like Willie ‘The Lion’. It doesn’t sound like anybody but Monk and this is what he wanted to do. He had the confidence. The way that he does those things is the way he wanted to do them."

Willie ‘The Lion’ never mentions Thelonious in his memoirs, but he described the all-night cutting sessions which sharpened Monk’s piano skills: "Sometimes we got carving battles going that would last for four or five hours. Here’s how these bashes worked: the Lion would pound the keys for a mess of choruses and then shout to the next in line, ‘Well, all right, take it from there,’ and each tickler would take his turn, trying to improve on a melody… We would embroider the melodies with our own original ideas and try to develop patterns that had more originality than those played before us. Sometimes it was just a question as to who could think up the most patterns within a given tune. It was pure improvisation." A later generation of bebop pianists would often be accused of one-handedness; their right hands flew along with melodies and improvisations, while their "weak" left hands just plunked chords. A weak left hand was one of Smith’s pet peeves among the younger bebop piano players. "Today the big problem is no one wants to work their left hand — modern jazz is full of single-handed piano players. It takes long hours of practice and concentration to perfect a good bass moving with the left hand and it seems as though the younger cats have figured they can reach their destination without paying their dues."

Teddy Wilson, though only five years older than Monk but considered a master tickler of the swing generation, had nothing but praise for Thelonious’s piano playing. "Thelonious Monk knew my playing very well, as well as that of Tatum, [Earl] Hines, and [Fats] Waller. He was exceedingly well-grounded in the piano players who preceded him, adding his own originality to a very sound foundation." Indeed, it was this very foundation that exposed him to techniques and aesthetic principles that would become essential qualities of his own music. He heard players "bend" nots on the piano, or turn the beat around (the bass note on the one and three might be reversed to two and four, either accidentally or deliberately), or create dissonant harmonies with "splattered notes" and chord clusters. He heard things in those parlor rooms and basement joints that, to modern ears, sounded avant-garde. They loved to disorient listeners, to displace the rhythm by playing in front or behind the beat, to produce surprising sounds that can throw listeners momentarily off track. Monk embraced these elements in his own playing and exaggerated them.

Finally, Baraka was one of the first critics to predict that Monk’s long awaited success in the early 1960s might negatively impact his music. Indeed, this was the point of his essay, "Recent Monk." Thelonious’s fan base had expanded considerably after he signed with Columbia Records, made a couple of international tours, and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964. But Baraka noted that Monk’s quartet, like so many successful groups, began to fall into a routine that sometimes dulled the band’s sense of adventure. Baraka warned, "once [an artist] had made it safely to the ‘top,’ [he] either stopped putting out or began to imitate himself so dreadfully that early records began to have more value than new records or in-person appearances… So Monk, someone might think taking a quick glance, has really been set up for something bad to happen to his playing." To some degree, Baraka thought this was already happening and he placed much of the blame on his sidemen. Of course, Monk hired great musicians during this period — Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), bassists Butch Warren and Larry Gales, and drummers Frankie Dunlap and Ben Riley. But the repertoire remained pretty much the same, and the fire slowly dissipated. Monk himself continued to play remarkably, but there was an element of predictability that overrode all the amazing things he was doing. "{S}ometimes," Baraka lamented, "one wishes Monk’s group wasn’t so polished and impeccable, and that he had some musicians with him who would be willing to extend themselves a little further, dig a little deeper into the music and get out there somewhere near where Monk is, and where his compositions always point to."

Baraka never gave up on Monk, and while I can’t prove it I suspect Monk’s music continues to have a strong philosophical and aesthetic influence on both his literary and political work. But more than anything, I will always be grateful to Baraka for helping me discover Monk, for revealing that Monk’s rootedness in this history, in family, in tradition explains why his music, as modern as it is, can sound like it’s a century old. It explains why he always remained a stride pianist; why his repertoire was peppered with sacred classics like "Blessed Assurance" and "We’ll Understand it Better, By and By"; and why the careful listeners can hear in Monk’s whole-tone runs, forearm clusters, unusual tempos and spaces, shouts, field hollers, the rhythm of a slow moving train, rent parties, mourners, children playing stickball and marbles, and the Good Humor or Mr. Softee truck on a summer evening.

Like most scholars and other voyeurs, we are always listening for, and looking at, art for personal tragedy rather than collective memory, collective histories. Amiri Baraka understood the fallacy of this approach. Perhaps this is why he writes in the poem "Funk Lore" (one of several associated with Monk):

That’s why we are the blues
That’s why we
Are the

It should be noted that the source of the various passages from Baraka’s writings on Monk, as well as the interview segments and book passages Mr. Kelley quotes in this appreciation of Amiri Baraka are meticulously footnoted — as they are in Kelley’s exhaustively-researched book. For the sake of webzine brevity we elected not to include Robin’s footnotes and source materials… and also to urge you to run out and purchase your copy of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original… and do that with a quickness!

Referencing this special book, here’s a passage on Ellington’s sense of Thelonious (chapter 10, p. 138) during a time when Monk and his music were widely misunderstood, or dismissed as some sort of hopeless eccentric by musicians, critics, and the listening public:

"During the summer of 1948, while Duke Ellington’s band was traveling by train in the southern coast of England, trumpter Ray Nance decided to pass the time away by listening to records on a little portable phonography he had picked up. "I put on one of my Thelonious Monk records. Duke was passing by in the corridor, and he stopped and asked ‘Who’s that playing?’ I told him. ‘Sounds like he’s stealing some of my stuff,’ he said. So he sat down and listened to my records, and he was very interested. He understood what Monk was doing."

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Real Progressive Reform in Government or Anywhere Else is Not Merely Rhetorical


This is a very interesting, insightful, and yet highly contradictory article. On the one hand Bai does an excellent analysis of what is currently wrong with the Obama presidency and why so many factions of the progressive liberal and left wing of the Democratic Party--and among independent radicals and progressives outside of the DP--are so justifiably upset with the meandering and heavily compromised directions domestic and foreign policy have taken over the past year. On the other however Bai establishes a curiously apologetic tone on Obama's behalf that is just as flat and disingenuous in its own way as Obama's half hearted rhetorical slap at Wall Street. For example: In no way is Obama's present political trajectory like that of historically mainstream progressive politicians like FDR and La Follete. Progressivism in government is not merely a projection of individual "temperament" or "populist sentiment". That is, the issue is emphatically not whether Obama himself is or is not a "populist"--by either temperament or style. No. The real issue is whether he is a true progressive by dint of his actual governmental policies and programs. In other words SUBSTANCE OVER STYLE is what is most important and valuable in any truly progressive or reformist agenda. It's absurd to assert as Bai does in this article that Obama's pursuit of national healthcare reform in and of itself "may well place him alongside F.D.R. and Lyndon Johnson in the pantheon of progressive presidents who were able to substantially amend the nation’s social contract." That would be true if in fact Obama and the Democratic Party in Congress had actually proposed, pursued, and won a truly progressive or even liberal reform of the health insurance industry. However as we all well know by now that is very far from the case. By contrast FDR's "New Deal" strongly progressive reforms in social security, union protections, workers' rights, and financial and corporate regulation among many other programs were far more substantive, useful, and dynamic than anything Obama has yet advocated and fought for; even LBJ's "Great Society" domestic policy agenda--however marred and distorted by his disastrous foreign policy in Vietnam-- was actually progressive with regard to civil rights and anti-poverty legislation in ways that the Obama administration have not even yet proposed let alone actually politically fought for and won.

So the real issue for the Obama Presidency and all progressives and liberals challenging him is not whether as Bai absurdly suggests that if "today’s liberals are serious about calling themselves progressives, then they may yet have to give up on the ideal of a president who enthusiastically excoriates fat cats — settling instead for a leader who is serious and methodical about reforming their ways." That deceptive and ultimately empty statement still smacks as one of "style over substance." It's not a matter of whether Obama and his administration does or does not rhetorically excoriates "fat cats." It's a matter of whether his policies and programs actually does something valuable, concrete, and definite that advocates, promotes, advances, and protects the political, social, and economic interests of the masses of working people and the poor that goes far beyond mere excoriation of the wealthy elites toward widespread democratic reform and fundamentally progressive change in the society and culture as a whole. That's what "progressivism" in government or anywhere else really means and Obama-- like any other President or politician --has to be held fully accountable for whether he's actually on the side of the great majority of the citizenry or that of the wealthy political and economic elites--who most decidely are not. Rhetoric or personal style in and of themselves are not enough...


January 3, 2010


No-Commoner Obama
New York Times

20% of liberal Democrats say that Obama listens to liberals in his party more than moderates.

There was something discordant, even tinny, about Barack Obama’s attempt to castigate Wall Street last month. No doubt the president was trying to acknowledge and channel the resentments in his own party — and in the country — when he told CBS’s Steve Kroft during a “60 Minutes” interview, “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers on Wall Street.” Yet the rhetorical slap felt a little flat. In part it was the oddity of the epithet, a musty Washington cliché that had the effect of making Obama, the most urbane president in a half-century, sound as if he belonged in some black-and-white talkie from the ’40s. Why, listen here: I oughtta pound you — and all your fat-cat pals!

But it was also Obama’s body language, the dutiful way in which he delivered the line and elaborated on it, that gave the impression of a dapper man trying on an ill-fitting suit. When the president sat down for an amiable conversation with a group of those very same fat cats the next day, it only reinforced the impression among disenchanted Democrats that Obama shows more deference to moneyed interests than he does to liberals.

Go to any Democratic enclave in Washington these days, and you will hear the same complaint: Obama isn’t a real progressive, and not only because his economic team, culled mostly from Wall Street, boasts an elite pedigree. Union leaders are incensed over the administration’s ambivalence toward a bill that would make it easier to organize workers. Black lawmakers accuse Obama of doing little to stem unemployment among the poor. Liberals in Congress are appalled that the president has jettisoned the “public option” he once championed for his health care plan, which has only temporarily distracted them from their fury over the military buildup in Afghanistan. The left is on the verge of full revolt.

For any Democratic president of the modern era, of course, such a state of affairs is about as predictable and unavoidable as repeats of “Law and Order.” Going back to the 1960s, a succession of Democrats have had to navigate two currents — on one side, the movement liberals who embrace social justice as their guiding cause, and on the other, more moderate coalition builders. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both identified more with the moderates than with the liberals and paid the price. Carter faced a challenge from his left, in the person of Ted Kennedy, during his 1980 re-election bid, and Clinton’s legacy of “triangulation” haunted his wife’s candidacy last year. Obama has long managed to plant himself in both camps, by virtue of his rhetoric and his résumé. In his writings, Obama casts himself as a flexible idealist, a less-partisan Democrat who rejected the dogmas of the ’60s generation. But largely because of his early stance against the Iraq war, and because he was a onetime community organizer and the first African-American president, liberals felt certain that he had to be, at heart, one of them.

By the definition of the word as it came to be used in the early part of the 20th century, Obama is indisputably in the progressive tradition. Like both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson, he has pursued financial regulation — radical by the standards of the last two presidents — that would seek to temper the power of the markets without controlling them. His recalibration of campaign fund-raising, achieved through the triumph of small-dollar donations over the influence of lobbyists and corporations, would have delighted progressives like Robert La Follete, who fought in their day for women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. And Obama’s relentless pursuit of health care reform, even at the expense of provisions that liberals held sacred, may well place him alongside F.D.R. and Lyndon Johnson in the pantheon of progressive presidents who were able to substantially amend the nation’s social contract.

What Obama is not, at least not by temperament, is a populist. This is why digressions like his “fat cat” moment come off sounding forced and why a lot of liberal activists find his governing style disconcerting. In the last decade of Democratic politics, going back to Al Gore’s theme of “the people versus the powerful,” the party has rediscovered its populist voice in domestic policy, a strident counter to the pro-Wall Street policies of the Clinton era and the corporatist culture of the Bush years.

What so many liberal critics really want in a Democratic president now is someone who will denounce the wealthy and punish the barons of industry (and insurance). Exasperated by the old notion of a rising tide that lifts all boats, something that turned out not to be true in the era of globalization, the left demands confrontation and contrast, and, at almost every juncture, Obama gives them compromise and complexity instead.

A year into Obama’s presidency, it is no longer inconceivable, if still unlikely, that he could face a challenge within his own party in 2012, especially if Democrats suffer sizable losses next November. (When Howard Dean made a point of trying to scuttle health care reform altogether, was he simply trying to get a better bill, or was he setting himself up as a populist insurgent?) And yet, history would suggest that it is the progressive, and not his populist antagonist, who makes change palatable and, in doing so, alters the trajectory of the country. William Jennings Bryan remains something of a patron saint to the economic populists, but it was Theodore Roosevelt who channeled the popular unrest of the day into a movement away from unbridled corporatism. And it is T.R.’s distant cousin Franklin, not contemporaries like Huey Long, who is celebrated for having made the New Deal the guiding framework for 60 years of American government. If today’s liberals are serious about calling themselves progressives, then they may yet have to give up on the ideal of a president who enthusiastically excoriates fat cats — settling instead for a leader who is serious and methodical about reforming their ways.

Matt Bai writes about national politics for the magazine.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Declining American Economy, American Corporations, and the Financial Sector: 2000-2009


The whole truth and nothing but from the economist Paul Krugman...


December 28, 2009


The Big Zero
New York Times

Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever. (Yes, I know that strictly speaking the millennium didn’t begin until 2001. Do we really care?)

But from an economic point of view, I’d suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.

It was a decade with basically zero job creation. O.K., the headline employment number for December 2009 will be slightly higher than that for December 1999, but only slightly. And private-sector employment has actually declined — the first decade on record in which that happened.

It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. Actually, even at the height of the alleged “Bush boom,” in 2007, median household income adjusted for inflation was lower than it had been in 1999. And you know what happened next.

It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early: right now housing prices, adjusted for inflation, are roughly back to where they were at the beginning of the decade. And for those who bought in the decade’s middle years — when all the serious people ridiculed warnings that housing prices made no sense, that we were in the middle of a gigantic bubble — well, I feel your pain. Almost a quarter of all mortgages in America, and 45 percent of mortgages in Florida, are underwater, with owners owing more than their houses are worth.

Last and least for most Americans — but a big deal for retirement accounts, not to mention the talking heads on financial TV — it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. Remember the excitement when the Dow first topped 10,000, and best-selling books like “Dow 36,000” predicted that the good times would just keep rolling? Well, that was back in 1999. Last week the market closed at 10,520.

So there was a whole lot of nothing going on in measures of economic progress or success. Funny how that happened.

For as the decade began, there was an overwhelming sense of economic triumphalism in America’s business and political establishments, a belief that we — more than anyone else in the world — knew what we were doing.

Let me quote from a speech that Lawrence Summers, then deputy Treasury secretary (and now the Obama administration’s top economist), gave in 1999. “If you ask why the American financial system succeeds,” he said, “at least my reading of the history would be that there is no innovation more important than that of generally accepted accounting principles: it means that every investor gets to see information presented on a comparable basis; that there is discipline on company managements in the way they report and monitor their activities.” And he went on to declare that there is “an ongoing process that really is what makes our capital market work and work as stably as it does.”

So here’s what Mr. Summers — and, to be fair, just about everyone in a policy-making position at the time — believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets investors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.

What percentage of all this turned out to be true? Zero.

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is — tax cuts and deregulation.

So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

When Is Guantanamo Bay Prison Going To Be Closed Down?


This is sheer ineptitude on the part of the Obama Administration. Just ridiculous! The President is quickly turning into Jimmy Carter--another worldclass political bungler--right before our very eyes! There is no way under the sun that Obama can possibly excuse or defend not closing down Guantanamo after an entire year has passed and he continues to claim in public (as he did just two weeks ago in Oslo upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize) that it is a "major priority" to have already closed it down (remember what the President said on inaugural day January 20, 2009?). Now everything is being set back to "at least" 2011. Just like the continuation of the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the many related issues of torture, secret warfare, and rendition of the previous criminal Bushwhacker administration, the Obama Administration has consistently shown an ominous tendency to lie and dissemble about its own actual goals and "priorities" with respect to American foreign policy. In any event Obama and his former Bush/Clinton team of hawkish military policy makers and advisors (Hillary, Jim Jones, Robert Gates) bear complete responsibility for the now ongoing criminality of the U.S. government in these matters and no amount of "moral" hand wringing or passing the buck to rightwing Republicans-- who like always oppose the very idea of closing down this heinous prison--can make up for this disaster...


December 23, 2009

Plan to Move Guantánamo Detainees Faces New Delay
New York Times

WASHINGTON — Rebuffed this month by skeptical lawmakers when it sought finances to buy a prison in rural Illinois, the Obama administration is struggling to come up with the money to replace the Guantánamo Bay prison.

As a result, officials now believe that they are unlikely to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer its population of terrorism suspects until 2011 at the earliest — a far slower timeline for achieving one of President Obama’s signature national security policies than they had previously hinted.

While Mr. Obama has acknowledged that he would miss the Jan. 22 deadline for closing the prison that he set shortly after taking office, the administration appeared to take a major step forward last week when he directed subordinates to move “as expeditiously as possible” to acquire the Thomson Correctional Center, a nearly vacant maximum-security Illinois prison, and to retrofit it to receive Guantánamo detainees.

But in interviews this week, officials estimated that it could take 8 to 10 months to install new fencing, towers, cameras and other security upgrades before any transfers take place. Such construction cannot begin until the federal government buys the prison from the State of Illinois.

The federal Bureau of Prisons does not have enough money to pay Illinois for the center, which would cost about $150 million. Several weeks ago, the White House approached the House Appropriations Committee and floated the idea of adding about $200 million for the project to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year, according to administration and Congressional officials.

But Democratic leaders refused to include the politically charged measure in the legislation. When lawmakers approved the bill on Dec. 19, it contained no financing for Thomson.

The administration will probably not have another opportunity until Congress takes up a supplemental appropriations bill for the Afghanistan war. Lawmakers are not likely to finish that bill until late March or April.

Moreover, the administration now says that the current focus for Thomson financing is the appropriations legislation for the 2011 fiscal year. Congress will not take that measure up until late 2010.

Frustrated by the difficulties in obtaining financing from Congress, administration officials had discussed invoking a little-known statute that would allow the president to declare a national emergency and then use military funds allocated for other construction projects to buy and retrofit the Illinois prison.

That statute, however, has never been used for a project quite like this one. Fearing that lawmakers would be angered by such a move and could respond by erasing the statute, the administration decided not to invoke it.

Matthew Waxman, who was assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the Bush administration, said the Obama administration would need lawmakers’ support for its long-term post-Guantánamo plans. Invoking emergency powers to unilaterally buy Thomson, he said, would be “poking Congress in the eye in a way that would be very counterproductive.”

Still, it is not clear that Congress will be willing to approve money enabling the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to domestic soil — especially as the 2010 midterm election campaign heats up, with the likelihood that Republicans will pick up seats.

This year, Congress restricted the ability of the executive branch to transfer detainees into domestic prisons, a ban reiterated in the 2010 military appropriations bill.

The Thomson proposal enjoys strong support from Illinois Democrats, including Gov. Patrick J. Quinn and Senator Richard J. Durbin, who have hailed the idea as a means of creating jobs. More than 300 people turned out Tuesday in Sterling, Ill., for a hearing on the proposal, The Associated Press reported, and emotions ran high among people on each side of the proposal.

The White House has argued that closing Guantánamo would enhance national security by removing a symbol used by terrorist recruiters. It also said the closing would save taxpayers money because the Defense Department pays $150 million a year to operate the Guantánamo prison on the naval base there, while running the Illinois prison would cost $75 million.

Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Obama remained committed to closing the Guantánamo prison, adding, “We will continue to work with Congress to ensure that we secure the necessary funds to purchase and upgrade the Thomson prison, which will operate at a substantially lower cost to taxpayers, next year.”

But many Republicans oppose closing Guantánamo, arguing that housing the detainees on United States soil would create unnecessary security risks. Some crucial moderate Democrats are also skeptical.

Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is said to have privately expressed doubts to administration officials about the plan. Another member of that committee, Representative Loretta Sanchez, Democrat of California, also raised security and legal questions about the proposal.

“Particularly making something on U.S. soil an attraction for Al Qaeda and terrorists to go after — inciting them to attack something on U.S. soil — that’s a problem, and we need to think it through,” Ms. Sanchez said in an interview Tuesday.

In the Senate, Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has argued that the problem with Guantánamo has been its lack of due process rights, not its physical location. He said recently that terrorism suspects “do not belong in our country, they do not belong in our courts, and they do not belong in our prisons.”

Mr. LaBolt pointed out that the detainee population was now smaller than it had been at any time since 2002, and that on other fronts in the effort to close Guantánamo, “substantial progress has been made in recent weeks.”

For example, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently announced the first sets of civilian and military prosecutions for 10 detainees, and more such announcements are expected soon.

Last week, the United States transferred six detainees to Yemen in a trial program of repatriation to that country. About 91 of the roughly 200 detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni; many are not considered “high value” suspects, but officials have been reluctant to repatriate them because of security conditions in Yemen.

Still, Congressional resistance to approving money for Thomson represents a steep hurdle toward dealing with the detainees who the administration has decided can neither be prosecuted nor safely transferred to the custody of other countries.

Indeed, Mr. Waxman said, the debate is certain to set off discussions on an issue that could drive away many civil-liberties-minded Democrats who have voiced initial support for Mr. Obama’s Thomson plan: the administration’s intention to imprison some detainees on United States soil without trials. “Some members of Congress may want to support rapid closure of Guantánamo but not to signal support for broad military detention powers,” Mr. Waxman said.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company