Saturday, September 1, 2012

Grand Visions Or Grand Bargains?: The Real Stakes Of the 2012 Presidential Election And the Larger Fight For Economic and Social Justice


How long will the citizens sit and wait?
It's looking like Europe in '38
Did they move to stop Hitler before it was too late?
How long America before the consequences of
Keeping the school systems segregated
Allowing the press to be intimidated
Watching the price of everything soar
And hearing complaints 'cause the rich want more?
It seems that MacBeth, and not his lady, went mad
We've let him eliminate the whole middle class
The dollar's the only thing we can't inflate
While the poor go on without a new minimum wage...
--From the poem "H2O Gate Blues" (1974)
by Gil Scott Heron (1949-2011)


First, full disclosure: I am not a fan or supporter of President Obama's ideological, strategic, or frankly even tactical approach to politics or economics nor do I think or believe that he has been anywhere near the kind of solidly 'liberal' or 'progressive' political leader and statesman that I strongly thought/believed/hoped he COULD have been or become if he really had the independent will, political vision, inner conviction, and fundamental clarity of ideas, values, COURAGE, and sense of purpose to do so. Certainly he doesn't lack the requisite intelligence, sense of human empathy, political understanding, or even personal experience in his life to do (much) better. However, unlike many others like myself who not only voted for him in 2008 but also vigorously campaigned on behalf of his election and organized others to do so as well, I didn't then and I still don't harbor any illusions or even overly disappointed "hopes" about what he could have accomplished given what he has actually done while in office. I've been past all that for a long time now (at least since the spring of 2009) when after he had finally chosen his very compromised and deeply suspect cabinet of such slavishly neoliberal and openly pro-Wall Street hacks as his Secretary of Treasury appointee Timothy Geithner and major economic advisor Larry Summers along with retaining Bush's own Secretary of Defense (!) in Robert Gates, and picking such resolutely anti-union, creatively unimaginative, and dully moderate cronies/friends from Harvard and Chicago as his Secretary of Education selection Arne Duncan (not to mention Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State!) it quickly dawned on me as it did many others that perhaps Obama was not the kind of independent or even maverick bourgeois politician that would truly fight for real reform in the government and general economy. It was also painfully clear that the general American left as well as many other progressives, liberals, and "fans" of the President had somehow become tied up into self defeating knots over how and when to intellectually question, critique, and politically confront or challenge this President and his often wayward (and somewhat for our tastes) 'conservative' administration. From widespread howls of public complaint over what many considered to be the President's 'betrayal' of our collective trust in him and his agenda to alienated cries of anguish and bitter disillusionment with how the President dealt with the withering demagogic opposition, strongarm tactics, ideological bullying, and contemptuous political strategies of the vociferously rightwing Republican/Tea Party, the general left and other progressive/liberal forces (both those ultimately 'loyal' to the Democratic Party and firmly independent leftist oppositional tendencies alike) seemed to be in a perpetual state of paralysis, confusion, depression, and even chaos about what specific stances and positions to take with regard to such major problems and issues as the Wall Street crisis and the hegemonic stranglehold of the banks, corporations, professional lobbyists, and their numerous legislative protectors and stooges in Congress among both the Democrats and Republicans alike--not to mention a dominant and fiercely anti-Obama rightwing majority in the Supreme Court.

Needless to say this kind of inner turmoil and lack of political/ideological focus only made things worse as it largely inadvertently added to the general stagnation, confusion, chaos, and public paralysis of both the President and his administration as they were relentlessly pushed around and attacked by the Tea Party and the Republicans in Congress which culminated in the worst electoral drubbing for Democrats in Congress in over 70 years when the far right sent over 63 new members to the House in the midterm elections of November 2010 which resulted in the Democratic Party losing and the Republican Party winning and controlling the largest numbers of new seats in the House of Representatives since 1938.

So it is firmly within this larger historical context that my ongoing critical engagement with the President and his agenda continues to make independent assessments and judgments that I think, know, and feel are crucially necessary to any truly progressive critique and practical advancement of alternative political and economic perspectives that will fiercely oppose the venal rightwing agenda advanced by the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan led Republican Party and their Tea Party colleagues and ideological soulmates via their extremely wealthy corporate sponsors and global capitalist cabal led by the likes of the notorious industrial billionaire Koch Brothers and the various financiers and highrolling service billionaires like Sheldon Adelson through their limitlessly wealthy and insidiously secret SUPER-PACS. This ongoing critique from the left also includes demanding that the President and his administration be held strictly accountable at all times to the masses of citizens in this country who very much need and deserve massive aid, support, and assistance by the federal government in every area of American life from education, employment, and healthcare to housing, infrastructure, and the national regulation and control of Wall Street, the banks and corporate America. The following interview with President Obama in TIME magazine tells us what the President intends to do if he gets a second term. While some of his arguments appears to have some merit to a certain extent, far too much of what he says here is unfortunately more of the same with the President stubbornly insisting that if there is no bipartisan support for his program (and one can bet all they have or will ever get in life that the overwhelming majority within the Republican/Tea Party will never cooperate with the President on ANYTHING substantial) he will then "find a way around Congress and assert certain policies and programs independent of the lack of a broad consensus" it remains to be seen if Obama will seriously pursue such a politically bold and dynamic route. Based on his all too tepid, largely incremental, and cautiously bland program of the past four years it is far more likely that he will try to cut some kind of massive deal (or "Grand Bargain" as Obama put it to the House Majority Leader and Republican Speaker John Boehner in 2011 during the disastrous debt ceiling crisis and to which former House Speaker and leading Democratic congressional member Nancy Pelosi eloquently replied that "what we really need is a "grand vision" not a grand bargain") which would entail a serious large scale "budget cutting and tax revenue compromise" that would seriously undermine and eventually sabotage and severely damage the crucial social safety net of Medicare, Medicaid, and eventually Social Security. While the President insists in the following interview that he would stop far short of such a scenario there is absolutely no guarantee that he would avert such a deal especially if the government is forced into a state of semi-permanent gridlock or shutdown due to the determined opposition of a intransigent Congress that was at least half owned and controlled by the Republican right. And as truly dire as this seems and would be it all still assumes that Obama was still the President.
Which is why in spite of all my own many critical reservations, legitimate fears, and many lingering questions I will be casting my vote for this President again in November and strongly urge everyone I know and care about as well as others to do the same. Not so much as a ringing endorsement of Obama's politics or fundamentally moderate agenda which I am at best lukewarm about but because any other scenario involving a Romney/Ryan victory would be an absolute catastrophe of monumental proportions with truly lethal consequences that would immediately plunge this country into a political, economic, and cultural dark ages--not to mention a national moral and ethical decline and massive societal breakdown the likes of which we haven't seen in this country since the Civil War.
As dramatically apocalyptic as that sounds it is crystal clear to me that this and worse would come to past and very soon under a Tea Party led regime in the White House...Stay tuned...



What He Knows Now: Obama on Popularity, Partisanship and Getting Things Done in Washington

By MICHAEL SCHERER | @michaelscherer |
August 30, 2012 |

White House correspondent Michael Scherer spoke with President Obama aboard Air Force One on Aug. 21 for the Sept. 10 issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers. (Also in the magazine: David Von Drehle on Joe Biden’s art of overstatement.) A complete transcript follows.

MICHAEL SCHERER: What is your message for the independent voter who supported you from Ohio or Iowa in 2008 because he thought you could change the tone in Washington, change politics? Did you do something wrong? And why will the next four years be different?

BARACK OBAMA: The message I have for them is no different than the message I have for the rest of the country, which is, I ran for office to not only deal with a looming economic crisis but also reverse a decade in which middle-class families had seen their security erode. And everything I’ve done — most of the time in cooperation with Congress, but sometimes working around Congress — has been geared toward that central goal of making sure that we have a strong, vibrant, growing middle class and we got ladders of opportunity for people who are willing to work hard to get into the middle class.

That’s what the Recovery Act was about. That’s what saving the auto industry was about. That’s what health care was about. And for those who were hoping that Washington would be more focused on dealing with the problems that everyday Americans face, as opposed to party politics, I’m one of those people.

And I still believe that that’s what the American people are looking for: solving problems. What I’ve tried to do is to take ideas from everyone — Democrats and Republicans — that I thought would make a difference in the lives of working families. That’s why the Recovery Act — a third of it was tax cuts, traditionally an idea Republicans supported. That’s why our health care bill relies on private insurance and why it looks so much like Governor Romney’s health care bill.

So what I’m trying to do is to take the best ideas from either party, with one criteria, one filter, and that is: Is this helping to grow the middle class, build the middle class and create ladders of opportunity for people? And hopefully, voters recognize that not only has that been my priority over the last four years, but it’s going to be my priority over the next four years.

So on a couple of those examples — on stimulus, on health care reform and then on the debt ceiling — at each of those points, you express surprise and frustration that Republicans haven’t come further along with you. Has that changed the way you approach them? In the lame duck next year, you’re going to be dealing with probably one body, at least, of Congress controlled by Republicans. How are you going to approach them differently after the election? If voters are looking for a change in the stalemate, what do you see as the thing that changes the dynamic that we’ve had at least since 2008?

Well, one of the good things about this election is it’s going to give voters a very clear choice. I want to keep taxes low for 98% of Americans — everybody making under $250,000. Governor Romney wants to cut taxes by another $5 trillion, including for the wealthiest Americans, and to pay for it, potentially tax middle-class folks to the tune of about $2,000.

I want to continue to invest in things like wind energy. Governor Romney wants to continue $4 billion worth of subsidies to the oil companies. I want to implement the health care reform and balance our budget in sensible ways, making sure that we’re eliminating waste and fraud from Medicare but making sure it’s still a guarantee for seniors. Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan want to set up a voucher plan.

So given how stark the choices are, I do think that should I be fortunate enough to have another four years, the American people will have made a decision. And hopefully, that will impact how Republicans think about these problems.

I will continue to reach out to them and work with them wherever I can. And I think it’s important to note that even in the two years that Republicans have controlled the House, we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done. We have passed a payroll tax cut that affected almost every American. We’ve helped veterans get hired as they come home. We’ve gotten two major trade deals that open up markets and are contributing to us doubling exports.

So even in a pretty sour political circumstance, we’ve been able to get some things accomplished. And I believe that in a second term, where Mitch McConnell’s imperative of making me a one-term President is no longer relevant, they recognize that what the American people are looking for is for us to get things done.

And I will continue to insist to my Democratic colleagues that not all good ideas just come from Democrats and that if we’re going to reduce our deficit in a serious way, we are going to have to cut some spending even on some programs that I like. If we’re going to be serious about energy independence, then we can’t just have a knee-jerk opposition to the incredible resources that we have in our country. We’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy that develops oil and gas and clean coal along with wind and solar.

So my expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election, because it will have been such a stark choice. Where Republicans refuse to cooperate on things that I know are good for the American people, I will continue to look for ways to do it administratively and work around Congress. And a good example of that is, for example, making sure that homeowners around the country can take advantage of these historically low rates and refinance.

There’s no reason Congress can’t move forward and at almost no cost to the federal government really boost the housing market and our economy. But if Congress won’t do it, we’ll keep on looking for ways to get that done without legislation.

In 2011, as part of the grand bargain that didn’t work, you put a lot on the table that was uncomfortable for Democrats — changes to Medicare, changes to Social Security, cuts to Medicaid. For your Democrats who are supporting you now, should they expect you to go no further than that in the second term? What is your message to them about what you’re willing to put on the table to get a deal with Republicans on entitlements?

My message to Democrats is the same message I’ve got to Republicans and independents, and that is, I want a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines additional revenue, particularly from folks like me who can afford it, with prudent cuts on both the discretionary side and the mandatory side but that still allows us to make investments in the things we need to grow.

And that means I’m prepared to look at reforms in Medicaid. I’m prepared to look at smart reforms on Medicare. But there are things I won’t do, and this is part of the debate we’re having in this election. I do not think it is a good idea to set up Medicare as a voucher system in which seniors are spending up to $6,000 more out of pocket. That was the original proposal Congressman Ryan put forward. And there is still a strong impulse I think among some Republicans for that kind of approach.

I’m not going to slash Medicaid to the point where disabled kids or seniors who are in nursing homes are basically uncared for. We’re not going to violate the basic bargain that Social Security represents.

Now, the good news is, if you’re willing to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, then you can make modest reforms on entitlements, reduce some additional discretionary spending, achieve deficit reduction and still preserve Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid in ways that people can count on. The only reason that you would have to go further than that is if there’s no revenue whatsoever. And that’s a major argument that we’re having with the Republicans.

Look, they love to paint me as this Big Government, tax-and-spend liberal. The truth is that growth in the federal government is slower than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower. Taxes are lower than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower. The tax reforms I’m calling for would simply take us back to the tax rates under Bill Clinton for people above $250,000, which means taxes will still be lower under me than they were under either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.

We’re not looking for anything radical here. And frankly, the country doesn’t need radical changes. What it needs is some commonsense solutions that stay focused on helping middle-class families.

You said one of the mistakes you see in the first term was not telling that story better. What does it mean to tell the story better in the next four years?

Well, what I meant by that is that we were in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, so we had to just do stuff fast. And sometimes it wasn’t popular. And we didn’t have the luxury of six months to explain exactly what we were doing with the Recovery Act, which was basically a jobs act and making-sure-middle-class-families-didn’t-fall-into-poverty act.

And there were all kinds of things we could do to have explained that effectively, but we didn’t have time. The auto bailout — now a lot of people are coming around and saying that was the right thing to do. But at the time, I think it polled at 10%. And we didn’t have time to worry about that. We had a million jobs at stake in places like Ohio and Michigan, and we needed to make sure that we acted quickly.

So moving forward, what I want to make sure the American people understand is that investments in education, investments in basic science and research, an all-of-the-above American energy strategy, in making college more affordable, in rebuilding our infrastructure, our roads and our bridges and our ports and our airports — all those things that help make us grow are compatible with fiscal discipline as long as everybody is doing their fair share.

And that’s a story I’m doing my best to tell during the campaign. That’s a story I will continue to try to tell, if I’m fortunate enough to have a second term, in Inaugurations, in States of the Union. I want to make sure that people understand that I’ve got a focus on growing this economy, not growing the public sector, but doing enough to ensure that we’ve got the best workers in the world, we’ve got the best technology in the world and we’re competitive in the 21st century.

I’ve heard two messages about the way politics works. One is, you’ve said — and your staff will say — variations of the line that if you get the policy right, the politics follows. You’ve also said a number of times, usually in fundraisers, that when people get angry or anxious, that rationality and science and reason doesn’t always carry the day. So now you’re four years in, which is winning out? How do you see it? They seem to be conflicting.

I don’t think they’re conflicting. I believe that if you do the right thing, then public opinion will eventually follow. But public opinion doesn’t always match up precisely with the election cycle, right?

So I genuinely believe that five years from now, folks will look back and say, I’m really glad that my 23-year-old can stay on my plan for health insurance. I’m really glad that we’ve closed the doughnut hole, so prescription drugs are cheaper for me. I’m really glad that I’ve got a pre-existing condition and I can still buy affordable health care through the exchanges that have been set up in the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

But that is when the thing is set up that people [will] realize they still have a choice of doctors and this hasn’t been a government takeover of health care — all the uncertainty has been taken out of it. And I’ve got an election in less than three months, not five years from now.

One thing I’ve learned as President — I’ve learned many things, but one thing that’s been confirmed for me is that when you’re sitting in this office, the weight of the office, the realization of how many people rely on you, the conversations you have with folks who are struggling, the sacrifices you see of soldiers who are coming home after losing a leg or worse in a war, requires you to make the very best decisions you can and set aside for a moment what it means for you politically.

And I don’t think I’m unique in that. I genuinely think, despite my strong disagreements with him, that George W. Bush felt the same way. And I know Bill Clinton felt the same way. I know George H.W. Bush felt the same way.

And so, what I wake up determined to accomplish every single day is making the best decisions I can, knowing that not everything we do is going to work, because part of the other challenge that you face as President is the problems that reach your desk are the ones that nobody else had good answers to. If there were easy solutions, somebody else would have solved it before it hit your desk. There’s some tension, there’s some conflict, there’s uncertainty, there’s two paths or five paths that might be taken and you’re not 100% sure that every single one of them are going to work.

And the only thing, then, to guide you is what you genuinely think is going to be best for the country. Because if you start trying to guess what’s going to be most politically advantageous or you try to game all that stuff out, you’ll get lost very quickly.
I assume you’ve done a pretty close study of your opponent, Mitt Romney. I know you admire him for his family and for the work he did on health care in Massachusetts. But I wonder if you could point to a couple of other things in his record and things he has accomplished that you actually admire.

Well, you took away a couple.

I did. I took away the two good ones.

He strikes me as somebody who is very disciplined. And I think that that is a quality that obviously contributed to his success as a private-equity guy. I think he takes his faith very seriously. And as somebody who takes my Christian faith seriously, I appreciate that he seems to walk the walk and not just be talking the talk when it comes to his participation in his church.

But the fundamental difference between Governor Romney and myself, aside from some of our life experiences, I think is really a matter of how do you grow an economy that is strong and healthy over the long term. And when you look at the history of this country, when we’ve done best it’s been when everybody did well — when the middle class was strong, when wages and incomes were keeping up with the cost of living, when the doors of opportunity were widening, when we were giving more people a quality education, when as a country we were willing to make investments in things like science and research that any individual enterprise wouldn’t find profitable. That’s when we do well.

When we do badly is when we have a philosophy in which everybody is on their own and a few people are doing very well, and they amass more and more economic power, political power, and ordinary folks start feeling left behind. That skews not only our economy, but it also skews our politics.

So the most obvious example is the contrast between the 1920s leading into the Great Depression vs. the postwar era of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. And we’ve seen a repeat of that — the growth we had under Bill Clinton vs. a lack of growth that we had under George W. Bush.

This isn’t a matter of who is more patriotic or who is more empathetic toward people or who is nicer. It’s a hardheaded assessment of what makes our economy grow. And the facts are on my side in this argument. The question is whether, while we’re still digging ourselves out of this hole that we found ourselves in, the facts will win the day.

Coming out of 2008, there was talk from you and from some of your staff that you could bring [your campaign's] sort of grassroots movement, the organization, to Washington. And 2009 ended up being very much an inside-Washington mirror. [The year] 2012 is different. But if you’re able to get a second term, have you thought about ways of doing what the sort of promise of 2008 was that was never achieved in terms of bringing larger numbers of people to have a voice in the political process?

I’ve given that a lot of thought. And I do think that we had the best of intentions in 2009 and 2010. Again, we had to move very quickly, which meant that our biggest concern was how do we get 60 votes right now to get this done.

We won’t be in that same kind of crisis, putting-out-the-fire mentality, in 2013–2014. There are a handful of big issues that we’re going to have to deal with. We’ve got to get our fiscal house in order. And so, one way or another, before midyear of 2013, we will have solved that problem. Either Mitt Romney will have won, and he and members of the Republican Congress will have pushed through their tax cuts and all the cuts that they are proposing, and people will be able to assess whether that worked. Or we’re going to have a balanced approach that I’ve proposed.

I think we can get immigration reform done. The time is right for it. We used to have bipartisan support for it. That will continue to be a top priority for me.

I think there’s a lot more progress that we can make on the energy front, not only developing traditional sources of energy — the natural-gas boom, I think, could have huge impact on our energy independence as well as geopolitical implications, making us less reliant on other countries for energy. But also the work that we need to do to become more energy efficient — building on the doubling of fuel-efficiency standards on cars — I want to make sure that we’re increasing energy efficiency in buildings and schools and hospitals, which could put people back to work and save us money in the long run.

We still need to rebuild our infrastructure. And I think there’s still a lot we can do to reform our government — the whole government reorganization, streamlining it to eliminate paperwork, make government more customer-friendly — have one-stop shopping for businesses that want to export that need a credit line, that need technical assistance. All those things, I think, we can make government as consumer-friendly as an Apple store and Amazon.

All those things are areas where, historically at least, we’ve been able to bridge some of these partisan divides. And they’re not particularly ideological. But for me to get those accomplished, I do think I’m going to need to bring in the voices of the American people much more systematically, much more regularly.

Finding the right mechanisms to do that is something that we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, the Internet and the digital age helps. We’ve been able to do that on our campaign. We now need to translate that more to how our government works. But I think the American people are ready for it.

The one thing I feel very strongly about, as I travel around the country, is that as anxious as people feel about the recession we’ve just gone through and the challenges that we’re getting from around the world, Americans are really tough, resilient and decent, and they’ve got good instincts. The more they are actively participating in this process, the better off we’re going to be.

I think that one other big argument I’ve gotten with Republicans is, they like to paint government as something alien and foreign and part of the problem, and if we can just shrink it and neuter it — or as Grover Norquist once said, Drown it in a tub, essentially — that somehow we’re going to be better off. That’s not how the founders conceived of our government. America is based on the idea of self-government, a government of and by and for the people — not of and by and for the lobbyists, not of and by and for the members of Congress, [but] of and by and for the people. And anything I can do to enhance that and to reconnect people with that idea will, I think, lead to better outcomes.

One impediment to that is what we’ve seen in this campaign with money and politics and Citizens United. And so one conversation I think we’re going to have to have with the entire country after this election is, Do we want a situation in which undisclosed donors writing $10 million checks have such disproportionate influence over the course of this country? And if not, what can we do to change it?

Did you make a mistake by not embracing Citizens United earlier or sort of embracing it?

First of all, I’ve never embraced it. What I’ve said is, we can’t unilaterally disarm. I make no apologies for thinking that it’s bad for our democracy when you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by shadow groups that aren’t accountable to anybody and aren’t even disclosing.

Within the parameters of the rules that are being played right now, we’ve tried to make sure that we are disclosing everybody who is contributing to us, our bundlers. We still don’t take money from lobbyists. We don’t take money from PACs.

But look, we’re in an environment right now where money is as prominent as it’s ever been in our politics. And that’s never been my idea of politics. That’s never what has motivated me. I think the American people consider this a big problem, and I hopefully will be able to work with them to find some solutions in a second term.

Read more:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Legacy of Power And Elegance: Venus And Serena Williams Continue To Triumph Both On And Off The Tennis Court

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Damon Winter/The New York Times; Stylist: Deborah Afshani. Hair: Angela Meadows. Makeup (Serena): Sheika Daley. Makeup (Venus): Kazumi Brown.


My favorite athletes on Planet Earth and two of the most interesting and inspiring public personalities of our time are Venus and Serena and therefore I am VERY protective of and outspoken about what others have to say about them--either pro or con. Thus it was pleasantly surprising to find that the following article--while not perfect-- is actually pretty good/not bad considering all the insipid and largely biased garbage that has been written about them over the years by clueless and often racist "mainstream" journalists who don't appreciate just how culturally profound and influential African American athletes generally and the Williams sisters in particular have been--and continue to be--on a global scale. That's why I rather liked what Sullivan had to say here about the larger historical and social context of Venus and Serena's extraordinary story as both athletes and modern women because the writer actually succeeds in conveying a lot of what makes the sisters so fascinating and appealing to so many people across races, genders, and generations. So I applaud Sullivan for having the clarity of insight and sense of humanity to bring that out. My only major objection to the piece overall was how it generally depicts the father of the sisters, Richard Williams, who I and many other people not only throughout this country but the world consider to be an authentic coaching genius and tennis savant who doesn't get enough credit overall for his highly innovative teaching methods and brilliant technical guidance of the sisters' careers (thankfully Venus and Serena DO give their father the credit that he richly deserves in this piece that makes up for some of the all too typically condescending racial caricature of Richard and his ongoing legacy as coach and father). Other that that however this is a very instructive, entertaining, and interesting article that finally does justice to who and what the sisters are and represent (where would American tennis be without them!). So please check out the article and the accompanying video...and pass the word about the appearance of the sisters in both the singles and doubles competition in the 2012 U.S. Open that began ton monday and continues until September 7 in New York...Enjoy...


Venus and Serena Against the World
August 23, 2012
New York Times

There’s video that exists of Venus and Serena Williams playing tennis when they were kids — 8 and 7, respectively — in the late ’80s, on unshaded but otherwise decent-looking public courts in California. This is not one of the clips you’ve maybe seen, taken from various news segments, but an earlier, stranger video, made by their father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, as a kind of audition tape for the tennis-instructional guru Vic Braden, ostensibly requesting an invitation to Braden’s camp, although the real reason for it, you can’t help feel in watching, simply was to let Braden know that greatness had arrived in the world. Richard’s face in the film as he presents the girls to Braden seems, as it does so often, on the brink of laughter. This was in Compton, the low-income, gang-afflicted hub city outside Los Angeles, an area made infamous by many a rap song. Although they enjoyed about as stable an upbringing as you could have in Compton back then, its problems were no mere abstraction: they supposedly knew to lie down on the court when gunshots rang out in the park. And there’s a story that Richard, when asked what he would do if his daughters ever won a Grand Slam, said he would go back and try to help the Crips who sometimes looked out for the girls during their practice sessions. “Venus Williams Is Straight Outta Compton!” read an early promotional poster their father made, to post on telephone poles. He billed the two as celebrities before they were even famous. That was how you did it. Not fake it till you make it. You decided what you were. First you had the belief, and then you had the training. “Belief and training,” Venus told me a couple of weeks ago when I met with her in Cincinnati, where she and Serena were playing in a tournament just days after returning from the Olympics. “That was unconquerable.”

She sat at a round, empty table in the meeting room at the Hyatt, first messing with her dog, a little terrierlike creature, and then placing it inside a duffel bag, where it apparently liked to hang out, because it stayed completely silent there for the better part of two hours, not even receiving any treats or anything. “He’s unemployed,” she said, forcing him with her fingers to make a face at me.

Because she’s usually frowning and scowling on court, or squinting and chewing the inside of her mouth, or looking bummed in the changeover chair — or finally at the end sometimes grinning and laughing maniacally — it’s easy to find yourself unprepared for her sheer prettiness, as witnessed when she’s more or less at ease, 6-foot-1 in pale designer jeans, quietly flashing the smile that made her at one time the richest woman in sports (before Maria Sharapova came along).

I was trying to bring the person across the table into some kind of stereoscopic harmony with the girl on the tape, the one whose short, beaded braids hang like a fringe of tassels on the side of her head. It showed her hitting big, swinging volleys from midcourt at about the skill level of a decent college player, except that she was catching them up above her head, scything the fed balls out of the air with enough topspin to send them arcing down toward the lines. After an especially good shot, Richard would say, “Good shot, Venus,” and Venus would say, in dulcet tones that retained a trace of his Louisiana syrup, “Thank you, Daddy.”

Richard addresses the camera directly. Venus and Serena stand on either side of him, taking shelter in the shadow of his legs as if the camera might not find them there. Richard reveals to Braden that they have been watching his popular tape, “Tennis Our Way,” quoting his fantastically optimistic slogan, “You’ll be famous by Friday.” Richard can’t remember the exact wording. “You kept saying we’d be good by Friday,” he tells Braden. “We was good by Tuesday. We should be great by Friday.”

The remarkable thing about the tape, from the point of view of someone interested in tennis, isn’t the almost voyeuristically candid preflight glimpse it gives of some soon-to-be superstars but simply the footage of Venus hitting. She doesn’t bounce on her feet yet between every shot, she hasn’t fully learned that readiness; she just stands there, in her jeans, waiting to be fed the next ball. Nor is it even the excellence of her technique, although her technique, it goes without saying, is ridiculous for an 8-year-old. It’s more something that she doesn’t even know she’s doing, something having to do with the transfer of force, of mass, from the back of her body to the front, and the way that this transference is passed along into the shot, the way it enters her racket head at precisely the millisecond she hits the ball, resulting in a kind of popping sound, the distinctive pop in ball-striking that signals someone who can really play, the thing you simply cannot and will never learn to do if you are a hack or even a pretty good player who has hit that cruel ceiling, the limits of your own physical ability, beyond which you cannot progress, even after decades of lessons and work, but beyond which some 8-year-old girls can go and indeed beyond which they were born. It’s the tyranny of talent. Watching this little girl do it, watching her have it, that lays it bare, undeniably evident, extracted from the game like the Higgs boson from those protons.

I asked Venus about this tape, if she remembered it at all. She did, she said (vaguely, I sensed), but in general she tries not to look back, preferring to remain “at a continuum of moving forward.”

If Braden ever watched the tape, there survives no mention of it. He must have had parents trying to sell him on their little prodigies every day, and even if he had noticed — as he could not have failed to — that the girls, especially the older one, possessed the proverbial “thing that can’t be taught,” there was plenty else in the tape to put him off. The father’s boasting (relatively subdued, for this performance) has about it the whiff of slight insanity. The way he keeps mentioning the “famous by Friday” business, the way he talks about the girls not as promising youngsters but as celebrities, as princesses, as if he worships his own creation. His Southern accent verges at times on the unintelligible. “Stay in touch with us,” spoken pathetically, hopefully, toward the end of the tape, sounds like, “Stain touch widders.”

Although he has been the subject of excellent profile writing (notably in Sports Illustrated, by S. L. Price and L. Jon Wertheim), Richard Williams remains an eternally elusive and evasive figure. I find him powerfully and movingly American somehow. His whole personality seems to have evolved as a complex reaction-structure to an insecurity so profound that it must remain secret, especially from him. Throughout his daughters’ careers, he has gone about fanning a splendor of boxing-promoter language, of lies, half-truths, boasts, misstatements, non sequiturs, buffoonery, needless exaggerations, megalomania, paranoia — as well as here and there genuinely wise, amusing lines — all of which, you begin to feel, are designed (subconsciously, yes, but no less shrewdly) to deflect attention away from a still, small center, the place where he dwells and operates. It’s there that he is who he is, whoever he is.

He came from a part of Shreveport, Lurr-zeeana, as he pronounces it, in a neighborhood whose school was called, amazingly, Little Hope. At various times he has told reporters or anyone who listened that he was a sports star there in his youth — and certainly it seems plausible, given his height (6-4-ish) and what we realize to have been present at least in a nascent way in the genes — but there are no records of these exploits, if they occurred. Perhaps he dreamed them. Perhaps he assigned them to himself the way a great novelist might give them to a character, as a necessary past for the Father of the Williams Sisters. Perhaps (most likely) he needed them in order to be the girls’ father, to carry the necessary authority in their eyes. Listen to me, now. I was like you. I was a great athlete, too. That may have been useful.

The source that brings us closest to him, precisely because of its complete lack of objectivity, is an extraordinary documentary made just over a decade ago, “Raising Tennis Aces: The Williams Story,” by a black Englishman named Terry Jervis, who himself possesses, from what can be gauged, self-promotional instincts downright Richard Williams-like in aspect. The film is about Richard Williams, mainly, but also done in collusion with him.

Most of it takes place on the grounds of a Florida compound, near where the Williams family relocated in the mid-’90s to hide from the junior playing circuit (Richard’s great stroke of genius — when the other girls were burning themselves out playing the Young Ladies Lipton Cup or what have, his girls were hiding, practicing). In the film, Venus and Serena sit for interviews, under a patio awning, saying their half-meant teenage-athlete phrases, as Richard sits beside them, grim-faced, gripping his thighs, controlling the narrative.

Mainly he is the narrative. We watch him riding around the place on a clay-court-cleaning machine. We meet others — the family lawyer, the family adviser — who speak of Richard and his integrity and foresight. We meet, curiously, another man named Richard Williams, a tennis teacher back in Compton, who gave the sisters some of their first extrafamilial lessons. Williams generously acknowledges his influence. A civil rights activist appears, testifying to how hard Richard had it growing up.

We follow him back to Shreveport, where he pays a visit to his childhood home, the place he shared with his sisters and their mother, Julia Mae Williams. His shock at its dilapidation is such that he sits down and cries. He tells the story of his closest childhood friend, killed by a car that was driven by a white woman who barely stopped to see what she’d done. “She went on her way, gracefully,” Richard says.

It’s not that the story is at all implausible for the South in the ’50s. No reason to doubt it. But there’s something about Richard’s manner. We see him weaving the physical objects of his immediate surroundings into the tale. He puts his hand on a tree in the front yard and says that he planted it after his friend died, because in the wake of that loss, he needed something “solid.” But wouldn’t the tree have been only a sapling at that time? He says the mere idea of its future growth gave him that solid feeling. But those don’t sound like a boy’s thoughts. Richard’s drive to self-mythologize is total. All must be included, even the trees; all must contribute inevitably to what came later. The trauma of the black Southern past is recast by force of will and audacity, becoming prelude to the glory of the Williams present. “Venus was born in ’80,” he says, with cryptic syntax, “but she was . . . taught like a child who was being brought up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and that’s why today if you see Venus and Serena, and we’re at a tennis tournament, and you boo us, it doesn’t hurt us, because we was taught for things like that many, many years ago, we came up in the ’40s and the ’50s.”

The mention of “you boo us” isn’t random. Richard was referring, without mentioning it explicitly, to the notorious incident at Indian Wells, Calif., in 2001, still a recent memory when “Raising Tennis Aces” was shot. People argue about exactly what went down that day, but the flash point was that Venus withdrew from a semifinal match against Serena. She didn’t feel well enough to play. Tendinitis. It’s often reported that she did this with only minutes to go before the match, but in her book (“On the Line,” a better-than-average entry in the genre of the co-written sports memoir), Serena wrote that Venus had been telling the trainer for hours she didn’t think she could do it. That was the protocol: you were supposed to tell the trainer first. But the trainer kept stalling, no doubt hoping she would recover and change her mind. At one point during the day, Venus approached Serena in the locker room and said: “I really don’t know why they’re not making some kind of announcement. I told them I couldn’t play two hours ago.” This game of chicken went on until, in the end, the stadium was full. A tournament official came on the loudspeakers and informed the crowd that the match had been canceled. Rumors of match-fixing began to swirl. A day before, the Russian player Elena Dementieva had joked-not-joked that Richard would decide which of his girls went on to the final.

(Just as an aside, I’ve never bought any of the match-fixing accusations regarding the sisters: yes, their matchups could be weird to watch, sort of hesitating, but is there any mystery to that? They’ve been playing together, more as practice partners than as opponents, practically since they were babies. Their style of play was about feeding each other, testing each other’s strokes, not winning. That dynamic couldn’t be changed overnight. Their matches grew in intensity and passion as their careers advanced, just as you would expect. Also, and perhaps most compellingly, the whole idea of Richard asking one of his daughters to lose to the other goes entirely against his style. It would have been more like him to set them against each other to strengthen them.)

Two days later, when the family returned to the court for Serena’s match against the big-hitting Belgian Kim Clijsters, the crowd began to boo. Both Richard and Serena assert that they heard the word “nigger.” The booing continued throughout the match, which Serena won in a display of all but inexplicable poise — or really something more like fearsomeness, when you witness it. But the most astonishing and little-remarked moment occurred before the match even started, when Richard and Venus walked down to their seats in the players’ box. The booing intensified — it was Venus, after all, who committed the sin, and Richard whom many despised for his frequently asinine Svengali persona (and darker tendencies too — reportedly, a couple of years before the Indian Wells fiasco, he hurt his wife, Oracene, the girls’ mother and co-trainer, badly enough to break a few of her ribs; Oracene later confirmed the reports; he denied them; either way, the marriage was crumbling just as the girls were making it). He turned and faced the crowd, as if to show them his lack of fear. He said a few things back, you can’t hear what. And then he raised his left fist in the air, like John Carlos at the ’68 Olympics. He held it there for a few seconds. The look in his face suggests that he did it almost with a kind of irony. Still, the boldness of the gesture stuns. Tennis had never seen anything like that.

In her postmatch remarks, Serena thanked her father for giving her strength, after first thanking, as she almost invariably does, Jehovah God. “I want to thank those who supported me,” she added. “And if you didn’t, I love you guys anyway.” But not so much, as it turned out. It has been more than a decade since that day, and the Williams sisters have never returned to Indian Wells, one of the tour’s bigger tournaments.

Richard Williams often receives an undue share of attention in discussions of the Williams sisters, their game and how they got started. Partly this is appropriate: he’s their coach. Partly it’s because, for many years, he demanded, or at least commanded, that attention with his bizarre pronouncements and antics. But all of this has led to a persistent distortion in the telling of the Williams story, which is, after all, a story of powerful women — not just Venus and Serena, but the household of women who surrounded and nurtured them.

In the beginning, there were three sisters, none of whose names you may have heard: Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea. They were Oracene Price’s daughters from her first marriage. Oracene became Richard’s second wife when they married in 1980. So Richard lived in the house in Compton with four women — three girls and their mother — just as he had grown up in Shreveport with three sisters and Julia Mae. He had recreated the dynamic of his childhood home.

When he and Oracene first began to talk and dream about founding some kind of tennis dynasty — in the oft-heard tale, it happened after Richard watched a women’s match on TV and heard that the victor, Virginia Ruzici of Romania, would receive $30,000 for her efforts, just for smacking a ball, as they say — Richard first taught Oracene to play. He himself had taken up the game not long before, and he quickly became quite good. But Oracene, too, was an athlete. In her youth she played volleyball and played basketball with her brothers (“Till they got bigger than me”).

“It was like a family recreation early on,” she told me. “I myself learned to play in a year. I always wanted to learn and to learn the right way, like a professional. And Richard would show everyone my backhand.”

She explained that because she was pregnant with Venus when they first started hitting together, the traditional way of hitting a backhand — turning to the side and twisting your torso — didn’t feel comfortable for her. “I would hit the backhand open,” she said. At the time, the shot was rare and barely existed at all in the women’s game. “I made it into a comfortable stroke. I knew I’d feel better if I was low, and then I’d just whack it.”

At first they began with Oracene’s three children. Yetunde, the oldest — who was shot and killed in 2003 in Compton — wasn’t especially athletic. But Isha, many people believe, could have been the third Williams sister, if not for her back problems, and Lyndrea went on to play at the college level. But although the two girls were good, they weren’t great — perhaps they hadn’t been exposed early enough.

With Venus and Serena, Oracene said, “it’s almost like they were raised on the court.” She remembers Serena as a toddler, off to the side while they played. Oracene noticed early that something was different about their game. “They still weren’t as athletic as me,” she said — a thing you learn quickly about Oracene is that she says exactly what she means and never says anything she doesn’t mean, to a degree that can be intimidating and even seem aggressive until you realize that it isn’t negatively charged, she’s just very unto herself — “but I did notice one thing: they had a natural swing. That’s what I looked for first.” She didn’t elaborate on that, but I knew what she meant — the pop. It was the unquantifiable kinesiology of the pop. These two new daughters had it. (Richard would later claim that they were engineered for it, by an express and all but eugenical logic — he saw Oracene’s long, powerful gams and thought they would make great legs for a tennis player. Jehovah God knows if these things are true, but unlike the sturdy-tree story, it feels like something he might have thought.)

Richard and Oracene had become uncannily expert, if unavoidably eccentric, tennis coaches and analysts by the time Venus and Serena started hitting. Indeed, behind the minor miracle of there being two tennis virtuosos in this single family with no previous tennis background, there had been the previous miracle of both parents’ understanding the game well enough to teach and guide the girls. “I don’t honestly know how that happened,” Venus told me in Cincinnati. “It’s interesting. I don’t know how my parents were able to learn the game so well.”

The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park — or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls — but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. “I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers,” Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, “and telling them: ‘The girls are going to be professional. We’re going to need a lawyer, and we’re going to need an accountant.’ ”

Isha, the middle daughter — sharply funny and practical, fiercely loyal to the family — told me: “Life was get up, 6 o’clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis. But it was consistency. I hate to put it [like this], but it’s like training an animal. You can’t just be sometimey with it.” She still can’t sleep past 6.

“For the most part,” she said, “Venus would be on my dad’s court, Serena would be on my mom’s court, and we’d jump. It was like this rotating system.” All the sisters agree that Oracene’s court was the toughest. Richard liked to play games and goof, but their mother was all business and was matter-of-fact in her criticisms. “Even now,” Serena wrote in her book, Oracene is “one of the best at helping to break down my game.” In conversation, Isha points out that it’s always her mother who goes with Serena to the Australian Open, not her father. “And she’s won the Australian five times.”

Oracene did not grow up a Jehovah’s Witness. She belonged to a religious family in Michigan but lacked a church to attend in L.A. Some Witnesses came to her door one day, and she liked their message, with its emphasis on their strict interpretation of the Bible. In 1984, just as Venus and Serena were picking up rackets for the first time, Oracene was baptized and began raising her girls in the faith. Richard never did convert. He read some of the teachings, but he was not and is not a Witness. As much power as he possessed in the family, there remained a kind of inner circle — of women and faith — of which he remained outside, which may go some way toward explaining how the girls can both revere him and roll their eyes at him. He’s their father, but he’s other. Among themselves, the women in the family maintain what Oracene, quoting Colossians, calls “a perfect bond of union.” When I spoke with Lyndrea, the youngest of the three older girls (and perhaps the most unforcedly sweet of all the sisters; about Lyn, as they call her, there was nothing forbidding or closed), she was in the car on her way to the Kingdom Hall in Los Angeles to give a talk. And when I asked Isha if the girls ever went around house to house, the way Jehovah’s Witnesses do, she said yes, she had been “out in service” with Venus and Serena. “It’s a trip, too,” she said, “people be blown away.”

It’s impossible not to feel that this fierce closeness of the Williams women — strengthened by their shared faith, with its emphasis on separation from the world — has had not a little to do with the tremendous psychological stability Venus and Serena have demonstrated over the nearly 17 years of their careers. It’s amazing to think, but when this article was first in the planning stages, only a few months ago, it was conceived as a story that would mark the decline of their careers, the beginning of a conversation about their legacy. The word “retirement” had begun to appear in discussions of both sisters. This wasn’t writing them off; it just seemed like an accurate read of the situation. Venus found out she had Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that often causes severe joint pain, among other symptoms. She’d fallen quite far back in the rankings, because of a lack of match play. The illness dogged her for years, until the doctors finally figured out what was wrong. It had been hard for her to accept that she was sick. “I spent my whole life playing sports and training and pushing myself to the limits,” she told me. “When you get told that you have a disease, it’s like: ‘Really? Nah, it’s all right. I don’t believe that. It must be something else, I’m just making an excuse, let me push harder.’ ” Serena, meanwhile, had cut a tendon in her foot with a piece of glass, requiring several operations, which led to a pulmonary embolism. She also suffered a giant hematoma, caused by one of the shots she took to prevent another embolism. Naturally their fitness suffered. It seemed, frankly, physically impossible that the sisters would ever regain the tip of the tennis pyramid. A good time to talk about what they had meant to the game, how they had changed it and been changed by it.

But last month, Serena won Wimbledon again. Then she won the Olympic gold medal in women’s singles. Then she and Venus (Venus actually playing slightly better than Serena, according to Serena) won gold in women’s doubles. The whole thing was a joke, a comedy. The Williams sisters were dominating tennis again. Serena, in her final match, machine-gunned her onetime rival Sharapova off the court so brusquely and efficiently, it looked as if she had an urgent appointment somewhere that she couldn’t miss. Venus, in closing out the gold-medal doubles match, hit what she felt was the best shot of her career. Her description of it in Cincinnati was beautiful (it can be hard to get tennis players to talk about their game in an analytical way). “I did a play that I normally don’t do,” she said. “Something moved my body.

“Serena was serving from the ad court, and I don’t really like to cross, to poach on the ad court, because I usually like to poach when I have a forehand. I’m thinking: I gotta help Serena out, because she always helps me on my serve. I’m not helping her enough.

“All this is going through my head. So my plan is like, I’m gonna go over, but I’m not gonna go too early; I don’t want [the other player] to see me. But this is all subconscious almost. The next thing I know, I’ve left. I don’t remember making my body move. I’m just hitting the shot. Now, I have a great one-handed backhand volley. But I hit it two-handed! I don’t know what happened. It was like watching myself from above when that happened, and like I feel like, this is the best shot of my whole life.”

I asked Oracene what she felt, watching her daughters reclaim the heights after what they’d been through. “Honestly?” she said. “I reflected on the fact that in the United States, you don’t have many players that are doing well. And then you have these two old, black girls, up in age now, and they’re still holding up America. That to me was remarkable.” I thought about it. She was right. There isn’t another American right now who’s capable of really penetrating at a major. Or maybe, in fairness to Andy Roddick and a couple of other people, it’s better to say that there isn’t another player whose penetration at a Slam would not make your eyebrows jump. It’s just these two girls, these two sisters. They’re what America has right now.

I met Serena a couple of weeks ago in Paris, where she spends several months of each year. She lives in a quiet, pretty part of the Seventh Arrondissement, in a beautiful but not ostentatious apartment that she described as “humble.” It had black floors and big airy windows that let in the sound of children playing on the sidewalk below. Most of the furniture and art pieces were things she picked up at the outdoor markets in Paris. She showed me a binder full of her plans for the interior design.

There had been some mix-up about the time. I’d stood there buzzing for about 10 minutes. Suddenly the door bolted open. The assistant, I thought, maybe coming down to explain.But it was Serena. In purple spandex workout pants, a white top and sunglasses, her hair natural and a little wild, the way she’s wearing it these days.

“You’re early,” she said.

“Really? I thought it was 7.”

“I thought 7:30.”

“I’m happy to hang out for a while.”

“No,” she said. “Walk with me.” She needed something from the pharmacy.

As we walked, she moved back and forth between French and English. Her French was good. Even very good. I had always heard this about the Williams sisters, that they were into languages. But you know how it is with some people — they take a Berlitz course and tell you they can speak Russian. She was expressing herself in the language, charming the Greek guys in the little takeout joint where we stopped, where she seemed to order one of every dish they had. They couldn’t hold sample spoons out to her fast enough. I thought what I’d been thinking for months: that I knew more or less nothing about the Williams sisters. They like it that way, you get the sense. Not many people get very close. This of course warps the perception of them by the public and the media. It feeds the idea to many people that there’s something weird and aggressively off-putting about them. They both seem conscious of the trade-off and O.K. with it.

When we returned to her apartment, she asked, “Do you want a drink drink?” She had just flown in, and there was nothing in the place but Jack Daniels, which she poured for me on the rocks, showing a nonshowy graciousness I didn’t expect. “That oughta get you going,” she said with a laugh. She didn’t have any herself. (Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed to drink in moderation, but whiskey wasn’t part of her training regimen.)

After I moved through the congratulations and the how-are-you-feeling (she showed me the locations of her various scars, including a long and nasty one on her shin), I asked her about Indian Wells. “I’m not going to ask you if you’ll ever go back,” I said, “because I know you won’t. I just want to know if that’s your personal decision or a family decision.”

“It was my decision,” she said, sounding not so much annoyed as saddened by the subject. The rest of her answer, reproduced here in its entirety, surprised me both with its eloquence and its confidence. It was a woman’s answer, not a girl’s. And not a diva’s. She wasn’t trying to be provocative. She was letting her yes be yes and her no be no, the way Oracene had taught her.

“I don’t know if my dad said something. But I don’t need to go back there. They don’t like me. I don’t need to be there. If you can boo a teenager, and you can be white and 60 years old, you know what? I’m cool on you. I can understand maybe if they were 20, 15. But like at the French Open, the crowd boos you, but they’re young, they’re kids, they’re a younger crowd. It is what it is. You just know every time you go to Paris, you get booed, but you see so many kids in the crowd. At Indian Wells, everybody goes there when they’re retired. It’s like Palm Beach. I thought, People like Martin Luther King Jr. boycotted things. And this is nothing on that level. Look at Muhammad Ali, he didn’t even play, he went to jail because he didn’t want to go to war. The least I can do is stand up for my people and not go there. That’s the very least I can do. It’s not even that hard of a decision. I get a vacation on those two weeks. It’s like the easiest decision of my career. They can penalize me to death, I’m never going back.”

She gave me a bit of a look, as if she were peering over the rims of her glasses, though she wasn’t wearing glasses. Something along the lines of, “Does that answer your question?” She had a row of books on her shelf, the kind of beige, 19th-century books you find in the stalls along the Seine (which turned out to be where she found them). I asked if she read any of them. “No, I just bought them for show,” she said. They were beautiful; they made good décor. One faced out, on the end. It was a biography of Toussaint Louverture, the former slave who led the Haitian revolution near the end of the 18th century. The book’s cover had a great old color illustration of him on horseback, brandishing a sword. His blue-and-red coat and gray-black face.

Because she seemed to be handling uncomfortable topics surprisingly well, I moved on to maybe the second-biggest oncourt scandal of her career — her notorious outburst at a lineswoman who had made a questionable foot-fault call against her during the 2009 U. S. Open. To be fair, the call looked bogus in replay, and Serena has suffered enough bad calls at that tournament — some that were almost surreally so, including one in a 2004 match against Jennifer Capriati — to justify a little paranoia. Even so, she went over the line and said things that would have scared the living hell out of me if I’d been in that chair.

“How do you feel about that now?” I asked.

“I was definitely stressed, and I was angry,” she said. “I don’t foot-fault. Like, I have in the past, but this woman should never make a call in the semifinals of a Grand Slam on a person who doesn’t foot-fault. She was totally wrong. I’m sorry. I’m not sorry. I looked at her like — I tried to warn her. And then she did it again. And I’m thinking, This is ridiculous.”

“But you admit you went over the top?” I said.

“What bothered me most was that I was representing my religion. I just felt like anyone who knew I was a Witness was stumbled. And I really don’t want to stumble anybody.” Indeed, Oracene had told me that the Witnesses called Serena in for a dressing-down. “They had to have a talk with me,” Serena said. “And I knew it was coming. I just felt really bad, though, because it’s like, that’s not who I am.”

“How does that work?” I asked. “Were you summoned by a minister?”

“They just talk to you,” she said. “They show you Scriptures. Not ministers, they call them elders. It’s almost like a reprimand, but it’s not bad, because in the Bible it says God loves you, and if someone reprimands you, they love you.”

She went on, talking about how “every year at the Open something happens. Like last year I got a point penalty because of a grunt. Meanwhile, I can name five girls who grunt way louder than I do, and the umpire didn’t even give them a warning. And then I had the ball called out that was this far in. It’s always something. I’m thinking, already, something’s gonna happen this year at the Open. I’m just thinking, Serena, say your prayers, fall on your knees. It’s frustrating, because it’s my home country, you’re playing for the home, but it’s like, the way the umpires have been makes me not want to play there. I’d rather play in Australia, or I’d rather play at Wimbledon.”

The window behind us had an exquisite view of Paris in the twilight. Looking past me, she said: “I love how the city’s all even. I love how you can see the sky. You can’t have too many tall buildings. I mean, there are a few, but for the most part, it’s Old World. I like it.”

Something about her life there, the little I glimpsed of it — she had told me how she liked being alone in this place, how she would “come here just to be around nobody” and how she liked the way people in this neighborhood didn’t make a big deal out of her — it gave me the sense that she was hiding there. From what, though? From America, probably, a country that couldn’t decide if she was a goddess or a threat. And from her father. In the latter case, at least, she had been successful. His energy was nowhere in that apartment. This was what I was seeing, I realized, in meeting both Venus and Serena. They have quietly absconded from his shadow.

Venus had even joked about him in Cincinnati, when I asked her if he was still their coach. She rolled her eyes. “Sometimes he’ll send lengthy e-mails,” she said. “Sometimes they’re really long, and I don’t read them. I get the gist. He’s very, very into it. I think he loves it most. Out of all of us, I think he loves tennis most.”

In fact, not even Oracene accompanied the girls to Cincinnati. “They’re probably tired,” Venus said. “They say, ‘We’re over it, we’ll stay at home.’ ” Her smile had levels I wasn’t equipped to explore. It had coyness in it, it had irony in it, it even had some melancholy in it. “We’re on our own,” she said.

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer and the author of “Pulphead.” He last wrote about the reissue of “Absalom, Absalom!”
Editor: Joel Lovell


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The Williams Sisters Show Off Their Fit Figures On Cover Of New York Times Magazine By Patrice Peck 8/24/2012 The Huffington Post
Given their record-breaking Olympic wins and a bevy of other championship titles, it’s safe to say that tennis titans Venus and Serena Williams are in a league of their own. Covering the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the glowing sisters posed defiantly aside one another, hands clenched and a formidable pair of rock-hard abs on display.

In the cover story titled “Venus and Serena Against the World,” the Williams sisters look back on their long journey to athletic stardom. Their parents and coaches Richard Williams and Oracene Price, who are also spoken about in detail, recalled the Williams’ earlier years when their daughters trained in the inner city neighborhood of Compton, California.

Even during their youth, the ladies have had “the thing that can’t be taught,” Richard told the magazine. Oracene also took a moment to reflect on the mega success of her daughters.

“I reflected on the fact that in the United States, you don’t have many players that are doing well,” she told NY Times Magazine. "And then you have these two old, black girls, up in age now, and they’re still holding up America. That to me was remarkable.”

The article touched on the more controversial moments of Serena’s career, notably her outburst at the 2009 U.S. Open.

“I was definitely stressed, and I was angry,” she said. “I don’t foot-fault. Like, I have in the past, but this woman should never make a call in the semifinals of a Grand Slam on a person who doesn’t foot-fault. She was totally wrong. I’m sorry. I’m not sorry. I looked at her like — I tried to warn her. And then she did it again. And I’m thinking, This is ridiculous.”

Serena also spoke at length about her boycotting of the Indian Wells Masters series after being ridiculed with racial slurs in 2001.

“But I don’t need to go back there,” Serena said in the interview. “They don’t like me. I don’t need to be there.”

“I thought, People like Martin Luther King Jr. boycotted things,” she continued. “And this is nothing on that level. Look at Muhammad Ali, he didn’t even play, he went to jail because he didn’t want to go to war. The least I can do is stand up for my people and not go there. That’s the very least I can do. It’s not even that hard of a decision. I get a vacation on those two weeks. It’s like the easiest decision of my career. They can penalize me to death, I’m never going back.”

Check out the NYT Magazine cover and the sisters' winning their Olympic gold medals in the slideshow below.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Connecting the Dots: Charles P. Pierce On President Obama, American Politics, Racial Ideology, and the Rest Of Us


This is an excellent piece and very true. Pierce absolutely nails the fundamental truth about Obama's presidency on a number of significent levels because he deftly moves beyond the deadly and simpleminded double binds of both the empty sentimentality of those who revere the President and the hysterical demonization of those who despise him, while also chastising those of us who simply feel betrayed and disillusioned by him for having been naive and foolish about his real intentions in the first place. For once a journalist does a truly mature, honest, and clear-eyed analysis of exactly who and what Obama--and this country!--is and isn't...Thanks Charles...


Black Like Him: Obama's Narrow Path to Reelection
By Charles P. Pierce
August 10, 2012

(Published in the September 2012 issue of Esquire, on sale now)

Are you sitting down? Because this might come as a shock. Yes, it's true: Barack Obama is black. But the more shocking thing is that we have fooled ourselves into believing it doesn't matter.

These are some things the president of the United States cannot say but that I can say about him. Because he is a black man, he has an obligation to be grateful to the white people who voted him into office. Because he is a black man, he has an obligation not to use the full powers of his office in such a way as to alienate any of the white people who so graciously voted him into office. Because he is a black man, he has an obligation not to use the full advantages of his office in his effort to get those white people to reelect him as their president for another four years. Because those white people voted him into office, his primary job as president is to make sure his entire presidency is a demonstration of how far we've come as a nation on race, and that means he is not allowed to do anything or say anything that the white people who elected him can perceive to be divisive, because his primary function is to make them feel good about themselves. In theory, at least, all presidents are servants of the people who elected them. In the case of Barack Obama, it has seemed from the start that the idea as applied to him was more than mere metaphor. He is the first president in my lifetime whom the country felt obligated to remind that he know his place.

The rules of the office changed on him just about the second that his hand came off the Bible in January 2009. Every benefit of every doubt that ever was given to every president, good or bad, was not given to him. Now, as he campaigns for reelection, Durham, New Hampshire, kicks up a ruckus because of the amount of money it will cost if he campaigns there. His signature accomplishment, a fundamental restructuring of the nation's health-care system, survived in the Supreme Court, and he was cautioned by voices on both sides of the aisle not to "spike the football," as though what ordinarily would be run-of-the-mill campaign tub-thumping of his primary legislative achievements would be, in his case, unseemly boasting. Imagine someone advising, say, Lyndon Johnson not to campaign on what he'd accomplished as president. You'd need dental records to identify the guy.

It's not the naked racism that's so disturbing — the witch-doctor signs and the postcards featuring watermelons on the White House lawn — or even the carefully coded language of opposition by which some woman from Alabama goes on TV and, weeping, says, "I want my America back," and everybody knows what she means. None of that could surprise anyone who lived through the two campaigns Jesse Jackson ran for president in the 1980s, when it was all out in the open to the point where the artist David Hammons produced a portrait of Jackson as a blond, blue-eyed Nordic and titled it How Ya Like Me Now? (The answer was not very much. The original artwork was destroyed by vandals.)
What's made Obama's presidency so difficult, and what has been used against him to considerable effect by those people who are much too civilized to depict him with a bone through his nose, is the tyranny of other people's sanctimony.

Part of it is his fault. He deliberately set himself up as a conciliatory figure. The speech that launched him as a national figure, his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, presented him as a figure of unity to a country that was coming unglued and would continue to come unglued throughout that election and the four years following it. (The prose in that speech couldn't have been lovelier. The politics of it couldn't have been more naive.) He rang changes on that speech throughout the campaign that made him president in 2008. He offered himself as proof of the nation's greatness and as proof of the nation's atonement for its original sin. And the nation took him up on it. The people who liked him took him up on it and the people who didn't took him up on it. The problem is that once elected, he had to be president, which meant he had to be a politician, which meant he had to offend or anger somebody somewhere, and that is not what we expect our walking absolution to do. Consequently, now that he is running for reelection, he has to run against not only Willard Romney and the Republicans and the naked obvious racism that still exists but also against the sanctimony of the people who thought he was doing them a favor by offering himself up as proof of the country's essential goodness. We must be doing something right. We let a black man be president.
I do not envy him trying to walk this narrow path. In many ways, this president reminds me of the truck drivers in The Wages of Fear, trying to get the nitroglycerine over the mountains without blowing themselves all to hell and gone. In so many ways, he is still outside of things. In so many ways, he is still the flyer the country took in 2008. In so many ways, the path he has to walk to reelection is similar to the path he has had to walk through his life. It was hard not to notice the subtext present in all those earnest warnings about wounding the tender feelings of our financial titans. The president was stepping out of his place. The president was being uppity again.

This is also the case with what is perhaps the most noxious idea out there: that Barack Obama "failed" in his promise to "bring the country together." He's now campaigning in such a way that you might believe he actually wants to be president all over again. He is engaging in politics. Mother of mercy, I swear David Brooks is just going to break down and go all to pieces on PBS some evening over the president's betrayal of his role as the country's anodyne black man and, of course, his upcoming role as black martyr to incivility and discord. It is his duty, dammit, to be all the things that people like Brooks wanted him to be so that he could lose, nobly, and then the country could go back to its rightful owners.

It has been hard not to notice that he is the first president in my lifetime who is treated as though he has been given permission by the country to lead it, a permission that can be rescinded at any time, for whatever reason, fair or foul. Ordinarily, I would not find this to be a bad thing at all. Deference to the president — or, as the political scientists and pundits prefer to call it, "respect for the office" — has gotten the country into some terrible trouble over the past fifty-odd years. It is the presiding dynamic by which the war powers have been leached into the executive branch from their true constitutional home in the national legislature. Watergate dragged on for a year longer than it should have because people lined up not necessarily to defend Richard Nixon, although that was bad enough, but to defend the presidency. Iran-Contra was barely punished at all. The previous administration used the atrocities of September 11, 2001, to cement in place what already was there and, even by the end of things, when George W. Bush had committed all the misfeasance and malfeasance and nonfeasance for which his eight years are now rightly reviled, "respect for the office" remained undiminished.

As is the case with so many things, Bill Clinton was the Great Exception. He was treated as a rube and an interloper from the day he arrived in Washington. He was pursued through a Kabuki impeachment process that was inevitable from the day the Republicans found they had the votes to do it. But somehow there was still enough vestigial institutional awe in the office to fend off even that misbegotten adventure. The country simply wasn't going to stand for impeaching an elected president over a series of blowjobs.

But it has been different for this president. Bill Clinton was not a symbol. People did not invest in him their idea of what America should be or, worse, their pride in what they thought America had become. There was no great moral self-congratulation in having elected a president from Arkansas. It was not epochal that the country had elected a white man, even if he played the saxophone and chased around. (Hell, we'd had Kennedy and LBJ back-to-back thirty years earlier, except for the saxophone part.) But the election of Barack Hussein Obama — and he still jokes on the stump about how nobody voted for anyone with that name because they thought he was a sure thing — was supposed to prove something to the country about itself. Liberals thought it was the culmination of the noble work they'd begun six decades or so earlier. Conservatives thought it was a demonstration of how that work had been completed years before, because their vision of a color-blind America had triumphed. He was a symbol, the fulfillment of everyone's political dreams.

You simply cannot govern that way. Governing is about making choices and fighting on behalf of the choices you make. Obama's own campaign rhetoric always was going to make that difficult, and the interpretation of what his election meant made it almost impossible. He could not respond even to the open racism for fear of validating the noxious stereotypes behind it. Worse, he couldn't be as aggressive as he should have been in battling for his own people — Hello, Van Jones. What's up, Shirley Sherrod? — and his own ideas, because that ran counter to what the country believed his election proved about itself. He made some mildly critical remarks about the profiteers who looted the national economy, and people dove for the fainting couches

In May, Florida senator Marco Rubio called the president the most "divisive figure in modern American history," which, even if "modern American history" for Rubio is whatever popped up on his BlackBerry in the last fifteen minutes, is plainly preposterous. Rubio was reacting to the president's decision to use an executive order to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows. This was a good and decent thing to do, but it was also damned fine politics and Rubio knew it. And, according to the people who dearly would love to throw him out of office, Barack Obama was elected to be "above politics." He wasn't elected to be president, after all. He was elected as an avatar of American tolerance. His attempts to get himself reelected imply a certain, well, ingratitude.

The event of him is still remarkable. The idea that America elected a black man to be its president forty years after it declined to allow Martin Luther King Jr. to stand on a balcony without getting shot still maintains its power to awe and inspire. Of course, he can't make full use of that, either, because as we know by virtue of his very election, race is no longer an issue in this country. But the rest of us can make of it what we will. Even in this, his second cautious, no-drama campaign, there remains a sense that you could get in on the making of history again. It's time for Barack Obama to be as bold as he wants the rest of the country to be. If the path is narrow, you might as well run as walk.

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