Ali-Inoki and Clinton-Trump: Same Ring, Different Game

One of the weirder chapters of Muhammad Ali’s career was his embarrassing 1976 bout against Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki.

A 2009 retrospective on this blemish on the champ’s ring record describes what happened when the bell clanged to start the festivities:

Before the ringing had stopped, Inoki had sprinted the 16-feet gap between the two men, and thrown himself feet first at Ali in a deranged two-footed tackle. Ali sidestepped, Inoki missed. Before the two could square up, Inoki threw another lunging kick, missed again, and landed flat on his back.

And then things started to get really silly.

Inoki didn’t get up. He lay on his back at Ali’s feet and refused to stand.

As Ali circled him warily Inoki scooted around on his behind, like a hound trying to scratch its ass on the carpet. Occasionally he would kick viciously upwards at Ali’s knees. He stayed like this for all but the first 14 seconds of the three-minute round.

That was the template for the entire match, though at one point Inoki managed to drag Ali to the canvas and sit on his head. For his part, Ali threw six punches. In 15 rounds. The event was scored a draw.

Inoki’s reputation soared from his non-loss. Ali’s suffered from his participation in a farce. He also sustained significant leg injuries that some say hampered him in later fights.

I hadn’t thought of this piece of sports entertainment in a long time. But it came to mind last night watching two opponents sharing the same stage but playing completely different games — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Hillary Clinton ain’t “The Greatest.” She’s not known for her jab. It’s Trump, not Clinton, who’s renowned for his lip and has shocked the world by becoming the Republican presidential nominee and pulling himself into a position to win the election just a few weeks from now.

But in the debate, we got to see Clinton operating, for better or worse, by the rules of conventional politics. She spent time preparing. She maintained her composure when things got heated. She made a point of appearing presidential in the traditional sense.

Trump played a different game altogether, the one that got him the nomination. He bluffed, he bragged, he interrupted, he contradicted, and he interrupted again. His version of looking presidential was to cite his income for last year — a figure he put at $694 million — as “the kind of thinking that our country needs.”

You might judge who managed to stay on their feet for this round of the Clinton-Trump match and who was scrabbling around on their back kicking at their opponent’s legs by the candidates’ post-event reactions. Or one reaction, anyway:

Game Token

Venturing into deep waters, but here goes: I think it’s safe to say that with Sarah Palin on the ticket, Team McCain has all but sewn up the battle for Alaska’s three electoral votes.

Palin’s sudden elevation from obscure environmental menace to No. 2 on the ticket is the most surprising rise to national prominence since Bush II named Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court. It’s reminiscent, too, of the cynicism that led Bush I to nominate Clarence Thomas to the court.

In the Myers case, the choice met with derision: Mr. President, you’re asking us to believe you have searched our great land high and low and that this is the best candidate for our most august tribunal? Of course, under this president, the notion that competence is a prerequisite, or even desirable, for high office has taken a beating. But in the Myers case, the howls were so loud and insistent from all quarters that the president was forced to let his friend withdraw herself from consideration for the court.

McCain’s choice of Palin provokes the Myers reaction all over again. Senator McCain, you’ve combed the ranks of GOP officeholders everywhere–and even a non-GOP one in the repugnant person of Joe Lieberman–and this is the person you want us to believe is the best-qualified to vault into high office?

OK–if you say so.

As even the dimmest pundit can see and as Palin herself made clear in her debut, she’s on the ticket as a magnet for the legions of Hillary Clinton voters so crushed by Obama winning the Democratic nomination that they’re going to vote for McCain. For them, Palin would clinch the deal. Or maybe McCain and his brain trust believe that everyone who voted for Clinton voted for her because she was a woman. Run out a new body in a pantsuit, put some of the same rhetoric on stage, and see whether anyone notices the difference.

We’ll see how that works, I guess. Meantime, from the Republicans, the party that has fought affirmative action at every turn, arguing that it begets tokenism and promotes the unqualified over the qualified, we get another bizarre episode of tokenism to ponder. When civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall died, they found a black man bent on reversing his legacy to take his seat on the Supreme Court. When Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the court, they suggested a woman without a scintilla of judicial experience or preparation to replace her. And now, to appeal to the partisans of Clinton–as steadfast an opponent of the GOP right as any Democrat–they put up a right-wing Republican.

Pre- and Post Mortem

The primaries are over. And now it’s time for … the 2008 Electoral Vote Predictor. (Would you like polls with that?)

The Clinton campaign is over. Now it’s time for the post mortems. The New York Times’ “this is how history unfolded” piece published online soon after Clinton gave her farewell address dwells on the backbiting and infighting inside Clinton World (and talks about the obvious ways, such as not recognizing until it was too late that Obama was blitzing Clinton in the caucus states, in which the campaign blew it). A better piece, for my money (editor’s note: US$0.00), is one from NBC’s Chuck Todd that focuses on other points, especially the Clintons’ decline over the past couple of years as forces in the party and the Clinton campaign’s early decision to de-emphasize the candidate’s role as history-making woman. And then there’s the people’s post mortem: readers at Talking Points Memo discussing the speech and the campaign.

Maybe the story has been written and I’ve missed it (send me the links), but it seems to me that there’s something substantial to say about what Obama did right. On one level, people have been talking about that for months—for instance, his success in grass-roots fund-raising. But I don’t think anyone really has a grasp of why this campaign took off the way it did. Going into the race, I think most people around the country knew him for the speech he made at the Democratic convention. Clearly there was something about him that reached a lot of people and that people remembered. During my brief tenure at the UC Berkeley Law School in 2005, I suggested that the dean, Christopher Edley, invite Obama out to do a fundraiser for the school (Edley was one of Obama’s professors at Harvard Law School). The dean responded that Obama was very hard to get; he had been told that Obama was getting 400 or 500 speaking requests a week. How many other freshman senators were getting that kind of attention after five months in office?

The last few decades are seemingly full of charismatic, smart, young Democratic presidential hopefuls who were seen as legitimate contenders and then wound up in the ditch. Some self-destructed: Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart. Some just seemed to evaporate when exposed to the harsh campaign climate (and real opposition): Jerry Brown and Howard Dean. Faced with competition arguably tougher than any of these guys, Obama succeeded. The mechanics of his success so far–the tangibles that go with all the intangibles–that’s what I’d like to hear about.

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A Vote for Newspaper Blogging

Doing a quick check on how soome major papers are handling the breaking news in the Hillary Clinton event (text of her speech, and it’s a damned good one, is here). As of 1:10 p.m. EDT, after the event had been under way for at least a few minutes:

–L.A. Times: Lame and badly edited Associated Press set-up story on the event.

New York Times: Topping a boilerplate piece on the campaign (which includes the novelistic statement, “Mr. Obama stayed away [from the event] because he understood this was her moment”) with fresh developments.

Washington Post: Doing on-the-fly rewrites in much the same style as the Times, but feels fresher.

Chicago Tribune: Main coverage is in the paper’s The Swamp political blog. By far the best of the bunch. I like that they skipped the standard bylined story approach and just went with the blogger. The piece has a much more immediate feel, and you don’t really need the back story.

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Commander in Chief

About a year ago, Garry Wills had some thoughtful things to say about the notion of the president as commander-in-chief and about what that role has evolved and is evolving into. He talked about the militarization of our politics, the way “wartime discipline” has become the norm rather than the exception, and about the glorification of the president as a military leader.

I can’t improve on what Wills said. But I can register alarm at the sudden, crazy veering of Hillary Clinton to inform the world that she and John McCain are commander-in-chief material, while Barack Obama is not.

My friend Pete sent me this quote, which I find in a Baltimore Sun blog:

“I think that since we now know Sen. (John) McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that. And I think it’s imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold,” the New York senator told reporters crowded into an infant’s bedroom-sized hotel conference room in Washington.

“I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you’ll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy,” she said.

Sure. As Wills points out, everyone and his sister has to strike the military pose now (even when the effect is comic rather that martial). That part’s unfortunate, but no shock. What seems like lunacy, though, is the embrace of McCain. Yeah, that may help her in her contest with Obama. But apparently she cares nothing about what happens when she or Obama will actually be running against McCain. She’s endorsing him, for crying out loud.

But that’s not the only way in which she’s taking leave of her senses. She’s decided that she has to play act at the job of commander-in-chief. First with the “red phone” ad, and now — as the Sun’s blog describes — by holding what was described as a “cabinet style” press conference in the company of a bunch of military officers who support her. What she’s doing is working to reduce the primary campaign to the president’s military role. Again, this must be aimed solely at Obama, because no one can honestly believe she’ll compare favorably to McCain if that’s the way the campaign is framed.

It’s possible she’s given Obama an opening, though. The president’s military conduct during the last eight years was repudiated in the 2006 election. McCain’s rhetoric about war has become so extreme that, as my brother John pointed out, people are calling him McBush. Clinton is recklessly aligning herself with McCain (an act that, among other things, makes you wonder what, if anything, she really believes about Iraq). After the decade we’ve just gone through, and the prospect that continuing on the same path will not only cost trillions but cripple the armed forces the Bushes, Cheneys, McCains (and now Clintons) profess to love so much, wisdom, restraint and an open mind will look pretty good in the Oval Office. That’s Obama’s argument to make.

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Exit Poll: Undeclared Candidate

CNN on Tuesday night published results of its Democratic exit polling in New Hampshire. In addition to posing the standard demographic questions–showing younger voters tended to vote for Obama, older ones for Clinton, for instance–the pollsters asked the following: If Bill Clinton had been running, who would you have voted for–him or your candidate? (It’s the fourth question listed; the results table doesn’t give the exact wording.)

Overall, the response seems to have been that people would have stuck with their candidates by a large majority: 61 percent said they’d vote for that candidate, 37 percent said they’d vote for Bill Clinton. Of those who said they’d stick with their candidate, 47 percent voted for Obama yesterday and 27 percent chose Hillary Clinton. Of those who said they’d vote for Bill Clinton instead, 58 percent voted for Hillary Clinton yesterday and 24 percent voted for Obama.

In other words, a majority of Hillary Clinton voters in this New Hampshire sample–note all the qualifications there–would vote for her husband instead if given the chance.

How big a majority? That’s a little hard to quantify exactly, since I’m not sure how percentages were rounded up or down and I can’t find a place right now to pose questions to CNN, but let’s try: The reported sample population is 1,955. Assuming every member of the group answered this question, 1,193 people said they’d vote for their candidate instead of Bill Clinton; 723 said they’d vote for Bill over whoever they voted for yesterday; and 39 apparently didn’t answer.

Among the 1,193 voters in the “I like my candidate better than Bill” group, 27 percent, or 322, voted for Hillary Clinton; among the 723 people in the “I like Bill better than whoever” group, 58 percent, or 419, voted for Hillary Clinton. (For comparison: 561 Obama voters said they’d stick with him, 173 said they’d vote for Bill instead.)

If I’ve got those numbers right — and if is the operative word here — 56.5 percent of the Hillary Clinton group said they’d vote for Bill Clinton if he was on the ballot. I find that shocking. Maybe the result is meaningless, a quirk. But maybe it shows that Hillary Clinton’s voters, to some extent, view her as a surrogate for the ex-president (and saying that, I’m shocked again: It flies in the face of one of her main appeals, which is, as Gloria Steinem reminded us yesterday, that she’s a history-making woman). It may also show that the former president is still a powerful draw for Democrats

In any case, I’d love to see the results if the same question were posed in the primaries to come. Go read the poll yourself and tell me whether I’ve got it right.

[Later: MSNBC, which published the same poll, focused on this finding last night. They report the full question as, “If Bill Clinton were eligible to run for a third term and had been on the ballot today, who would you have voted for?”]

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Book Review by a Non-Reader

First off, I admit I haven’t read either of the books I’m about to criticize; in fact, I’m not criticizing the books themselves but rather a journalistic and media prejudice I believe they convey, a belief born of hearing the authors on several talk shows. It could be that the authors are not accurately characterizing their own work or that I’m making flawed assumptions about the work based on my failure to understand the authors’ statements and apparent attitudes. Et cetera, et cetera. Enough for the caveat.

So, in the last couple of weeks, two critical journalistic biographies of Hillary Clinton have come out: “Her Way,” by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, and “A Woman in Charge,” by Carl Bernstein. They may be the finest books ever written about any political figure; but not judging by the tone of the authors during interviews — Bernstein on KQED’s “Forum” program (broadcast from San Francisco) on Tuesday and Gerth and Van Natta on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” today. In both cases, there seemed to be an attitude that ran beyond reporting and criticism to reproach and condemnation. One of Bernstein’s theses is that Clinton is a phony; he deplores her for it. Van Natta and Gerth take her to task for failing to read the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate the Bush administration supplied to Congress before the vote to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq; only in passing do they mention that a) only six members of the Senate say they read that document, b) it was just one of myriad sources of information on the matter at hand, and c) Clinton, despite her vote, has struck an increasingly critical stance toward the war from the fall of 2003 (that last point is germane to Gerth/Van Natta’s claim that she reinvented her position last year).

The thing is: Yes, it’s good that journalists are looking hard at Clinton. One might be tempted to say they’ve learned from the free pass most of the media establishment gave our current president before he was elected. But looking again, it’s hard to believe that anything has been learned.

Sure, Hillary Clinton is an important candidate; aside from her gender, it’s fair to say we’ve never had one quite like her — someone with such close previous involvement with the presidency and such a long and complex track record in and near government. But the attention she’s getting now? It’s more than a little disproportionate. When”s someone going to track down 500 of John McCain’s closest friends and associates so we can get some insight into why he cozens up to the same people who smeared him in 2000? Or really get into John Edwards’s closets and turn them inside out? He’s a personal-injury lawyer, for Christ’s sake! How can there not be something there to get a reporter’s juices flowing?

But then, it’s a market driven type of inquiry. Writing something on her will generate an advance and a level of buzz that no other candidate can match.

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