Studying Hagelian Philosophy -
President Obama's selection of former Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon is the most interesting of his second-term appointments: most of them are too inside-Beltway for me to comment upon (Is CIA nominee John Brennan a torturer and murderer by proxy? I couldn't say. Do I care that the next Treasury Secretary's signature, which will be printed on currency, is a bunch of illegible loops? Not at all. ) The most interesting thing about John Kerry's selection for Secretary of State will be the scramble to follow him into his Massachusetts Senate seat, yet another high-cost battle to deny Scott Brown and make Congress ever more free of moderate Republicans.
Hagel bonded with Obama on distaste for the Iraq conflict, and those who would oppose him from the progressive side, because he's Republican or a conservative, should understand that cutting Defense spending and preventing American "stupid wars" (Obama's 2008 campaign term) will be fundamental to his value to Obama's second term. He will also be a useful contrarian voice when Obama goes around the table, as he is said consistently to do on major decisions. In his confirmation hearings, Hagel will need to walk back from immoderate statements that are too hostile to Israel, to gays, to strong economic sanctions against Iran, and I presume he will do those things to ensure his confirmation, which I then presume he will obtain. I think those who have identified Chuck Schumer (D - NY) as the key vote Hagel will need are absolutely correct, and the winning formula will be sufficient assurances to Schumer so that Schumer can pass on to key Israelis that they need not fear that a Hagelian DoD will fail to back Israel sufficiently--on anything except a foolish and dysfunctional unilateral Israeli military strike.
Scheduling his second-term inauguration for Martin Luther King Day, January 21, is a classic Obama product, the combination of luck, design, and poetic justice. There is a building sense of excitement about this event, though it will be hard to match up to his first inauguration, which was one for the history books. Expect to see yet one more plea for consensus in the interest of our common interest, an appeal to some sort of Christian God to give us some sort of a break, an appeal to end our culture of mass violence (following on VP Biden's report, and which will be the most controversial aspect of his speech), and for racial justice. I don't expect to hear the words "fiscal cliff" or "debt ceiling" mentioned in the speech--they are beneath the occasion, and for that matter almost beneath him. Because the ceremony will be on a national holiday, not on NFL-owned Sunday, January 20 (I presume the statutory expectation for Jan. 20 as Inauguration Day allows for such an exception), ratings should be very good.
NFL: The Divisional Round
Speaking of NFL football owning American society, this weekend is truly the highlight of the sport's TV viewing season, as it features the top eight playoff teams (College football, take note--please!) We are halfway through it as I type, and the two most critical games were played yesterday. Both of them met up to any expectations for drama, if not for the kind of high-quality defense we might expect from the playoffs (despite all the rules designed to defeat it).
Yesterday's first game--probably the game of the year--featured the awesome confrontation of Ray Lewis, the superb linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, who dramatically announced before their first playoff game that this will be his last season, against the equally-superb resurgent quarterback of the Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning. Manning missed all of last season with neck injuries that required multiple surgeries and could easily have ended his career, but he came back this season, as good as ever, and led his new team to the top record in the AFC. Still, because his signing came late, after national TV games were all scheduled, the Broncos were something of a mystery to viewers like me.
The Ravens have been known for their defensive prowess since their 2000 Super Bowl win; their reputation is something like the Pittsburgh Steelers', and the two teams' matchups are classics of the hard-nosed old school NFL. Their offense is underrated, though, with a strong running game behind Ray Rice and Joe Flacco, a consistent performer who has built a body of postseason experience. Combined with the emotional push that Lewis gave them, the Ravens battled evenly with Denver through a high-scoring, highlight-filled first half, then met the test in the second half to prevent Manning coming up with the big plays. The surprise of the day was repeated Bronco failures in the secondary, allowing the Ravens instead to have the long pass completions. Regulation time ended 35-35; then defense took over in the overtime, eventually giving the Ravens an edge.
I chose to skip the second key game, Packers-49ers, in favor of a movie night, but the game featured a matchup of two hot quarterbacks, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick represents the new wave in offense, pioneered by Michael Vick, of a passer who can run extremely well. Along with Kaepernick, two 2012 rookies, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Washington's Robert Griffin III, are practitioners of the new approach, which presents extreme difficulties for defense preparation and execution. Kaepernick exposed the weakness of Green Bay's defense--it had a bad regular-season performance on yards given up, though better in scoring defense--with game-breaking runs. The weakness of the approach, as shown by the recent history for both Griffin and Vick, is the added danger of injury to the QB.
Today's games do not quite have the dramatic appeal of yesterday's, but they have their own story lines of interest. Each will feature one team who, like the Broncos, had a strong regular-season performance but go into their first playoff game of the season as uncertain propositions. Those teams--the #1 seeded Falcons in the NFC and the AFC #3 seeded Houston Texans--will have as their opponents teams headed by high-profile quarterbacks. Among those there is one old-school QB--Tom Brady of the Patriots--and one run-pass option QB master, Wilson. I would favor both of the big-name QB's over the unproven playoff teams, the Texans and the Falcons. Brady has been particularly hot, and it would be hard to pick against him in any game, even in favor of the Ravens or in the Super Bowl. Seattle over the Falcons, on the road, as a slight underdog and similarly unproven playoff team, is a tougher pick, but the Seahawks have made a strong late-season run. My pick for the Super Bowl: Patriots, over the 49ers.
Tennis: The New Year
The Australian Open's beginning (tonight; tomorrow Aussie time) marks the beginning of the real 2013 season (there are a couple of warm-up tourneys in Australia and the Middle East). There are major story line/quetions for each of the big 4 in men's tennis, though one of them will not be answered in Melbourne:
1) Will Novak Djokovic be unstoppable this year, or just really hard to beat?
2) How much longer can Roger Federer compete at the top level?
3) Can Andy Murray win again in a major?
Number 4 (but not in the standings) is Rafael Nadal, who is returning from knee problems, but not in the Aussie Open; will he return to his standard of excellence? The test for Nadal will really be during the clay court season in late spring, when we would expect him to be ready to challenge Djokovic and the others (if not dominate them).
In the women's game, the story will be whether Serena Williams can return to top ranking. It has been a long road back for her after her health problems (the cut on her foot, which led to a dangerous blood clot), but she has established herself, once again, as the top player when she is healthy, as she appears to be going into the new season. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova have well-established positions as the top two contenders in her absence. Serena's big sister, Venus, has to answer the question in 2013 whether she too can return to her previous top form; she has been hampered by an immune system syndrome.
Prediction: Djokovic over Murray in the men's final; Serena over Sharapova in the women's.
NHL Players: Locked Back In
I am far from a big hockey fan, and I actually was rooting against an agreement, which came just in time to save the regular season. The issue of the lockout is the usual one in the current era of professional sports: enough owners had made bad, wasteful contract commitments to outvote the ones who hadn't (and profited competitively from their better investments) and drive the players from the field (or rink, in this case). The players' union was willing to take pay cuts in the aggregate but not to allow its guaranteed contracts to be abrogated based on owner incompetency. The union's great pressure tactic is "decertification" of itself, which would allow the players to bring an antitrust suit against the league--which under those circumstances, would probably cause a historic defeat to the monopoly of the owners' "union". That court test will not happen, due to the belated agreement achieved this week. At the end of the day, the players chose living within the cartel rather than fending for themselves in the European professional leagues (or my preference, a new Canadian-centered league to challenge the "National" US-centered NHL).
NHL hockey's regular season is the weakest of the major sports--it's all about finishing in the top 8 of the conference and getting into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This season will make that clearer than ever.
The two deceased from last month whom I would like to commemorate briefly are Ravi Shankar and Daniel Inouye. The former was much more than a fifth-, sixth-, or whatever Beatle, but he was the go-to sitarist when the performance of Indian classic music came out into the world in the late Sixties and beyond. He played with all and brought a dignified but exciting permanent addition into world music. The sitar solo had a clear influence on the guitar solo that deserves more study. He left that legacy, as well as one daughter famed for Indian classical music and one (Norah Jones) for jazzy popular composition.
Daniel Inouye was a unique character of American history. A second-generation Japanese-American who bought a ticket out of the WWII internment camps by fighting, and suffering serious injury, in Italy. He was a significant, but not dominating, figure as a junior Senator on the famous Ervin Watergate Investigation Committee of '73-'74, which led to the eventual collapse of the Nixon Administration. He continued on in the Senate for another thirty-something years, a respected, relatively non-partisan voice for liberal Democratic orthodoxy.
Built Up by Dubious Means
Two sports-related topics that I have avoided more than I might have done are the Lance Armstrong revelations in cycling, and the issue of the possible inclusion of baseball players who used performance-enhancing drugs into the Hall of Fame. Both of them have taken the form of major sporting heroes whose reputations have been degraded by allegations of cheating, allegations that have been generally (though not universally) denied by the heroes in public, but have been variously substantiated in secret investigations and leaked, though the press, to the public, and sometimes into the courts.
The collapse of Armstrong's wall of defense after years of both whispered and full-throated accusations came suddenly in the past two months. A special US cycling Anti-Doping commission investigated and found that Armstrong had not just abused the rules, but had required his teammates to do so. Some of those finally dared to voice those experiences, and Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and more. At last hearing, Armstrong, who had been a symbol of cancer recovery with his "Livestrong" campaign, is beginning an effort to rehabilitate his image, starting with a private TV "tell-all" interview. His fall has been so complete, and so definitive, that I doubt that he can be restored to any kind of commercial favor (and that's probably what matters), let alone be allowed to compete again.
The baseball/HOF controversy is complex and much broader, and it will not end anytime soon. There have been numerous court cases and Senate hearings, which have focused on alleged misdeeds of the players, and sometimes of their personal trainers or purveyors of PED's, but have obscured the silent cooperation in abuse of MLB's rulemakers and management during the period when it was was most pervasive, the late '90's and early '00s. These were the years when Babe Ruth's long-standing single-season homerun record was obliterated, first by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, then by Barry Bonds, and Hank Aaron's career HR record was then topped by Bonds. All those records remain in the books, but investigations have tainted the reputations of the players: McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and pitcher Roger Clemens being the most prominent, but not the only ones.
Early indications of how the writers would view this issue came a couple years ago, when McGwire and another slugger who actually failed a drug test late in his career, Rafael Palmeiro, fell way short of the required 75% vote level in their initial eligibility for the Hall. This year came candidates of dubious reputations but with stronger credentials--Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa. For Bonds and Clemens, in particular, there was an argument that they had already compiled baseball achievements worthy of enshrinement prior to the alleged use of PED's, a claim which could not be so easily made of Sosa, Palmeiro, or McGwire. This year there were also others, such as Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, who never failed any drug tests or had testimony against them, but about whom there were suspicions. Finally, there were candidates, both new candidates and holdover ones, whose statistical qualifications were not quite so outstanding but had no PED accusations against them. It was a crowded ballot with no easy decisions.
The results were all over the place, as some came close to the 75%, a number fell well short, and some got embarrassingly low vote totals, but the net result was that no one was elected. There is plenty of precedent for no one being selected, but the issue is far from settled. There are unambiguous candidates who will be elected in the next two years--Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and Pedro Martinez--which will reduce the controversy, but the names of Bonds & Co. will remain out there, and there will eventually need to be some reckoning. I would classify the "political" positions in three groups:
- no one with any suspicion should ever get in the Hall (and those already in, if there are any, should be cast out);
- "untainted" peformance by the accused should somehow be measured and discounted by the tainted performance; and
- there will be some recognition of the widespread nature of PED use, and those with damaged reputations would be admitted with some qualifications.
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?
Translated, that would be "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" A famous line from the 15th-century French poet Francois Villon, riffed upon by Joseph Heller in Catch-22 as "Where are the Snowdons of yesteryear?", Yossarian referring to his lost aviator comrade.
So, where are they? That's what we want to know here in the Chicago area; the talk here being (along--not coincidentally?--with the flu, fictionally represented for us in extreme and unforgettable form by Soderbergh's movie Contagion a couple of years ago) the record length of time since the last snowfall of an inch or more--we are now over 320 days and counting. The last snow of an inch or more was, of course, last winter, and the winter ended early. There's an element of luck involved--there was a measurable snow on Dec. 20, just not an inch's worth, and other areas around here have had something like a normal share--but between this winter and last, we don't need convincing that there is a trend toward milder winters.
It could be good for Chicago--mild winters would do a lot to make it one of the most habitable cities in the country--but I can only imagine what the climate would then become for places like Houston, Atlanta, and St. Louis. Well, there's always air conditioning for them, isn't there?