A Book Worthy of a Vice President

I just finished A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America by Virginia's U.S. Senator, Jim Webb. It's an eloquent extended essay on America that helped me understand why Webb leads the current Intrade prediction market's pick for Obama's running mate. Webb, like Obama, is an accomplished writer, the author of several novels, including Fields of Fire, which Tom Wolfe described as "the finest of the Vietnam novels."

What struck me in particular about Webb's latest book is what he calls his "passion for history and a desire to learn from it." He tells what he means by history in this passage:
Not the enumeration of monarchs and treaties that so often passes for academic knowledge, but the surging vitality from below that so often impels change and truly defines cultures. The novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote vividly about war and peace, showing us the drawing rooms and idiosyncrasies of Russia's elite. But in reality, he was telling us that great societal changes are most often pushed along by tsunami-deep impulses that cause the elites to react far more than they inspire them to lead. And this, in my view, is the greatest lesson of political history. Entrenched aristocracies, however we may want to define them, do not want change; their desire instead is to manage dissent in a way that does not disrupt their control. But over time, under the right system of government, a free, thinking people has the energy and ultimately the power to effect change. (locations 127-136, Kindle edition)
If those words bring to mind Obama's mantra of change, so will lots of the rest of the book, especially Webb's early opposition to the war in Iraq. In September, 2002, six months before the invasion, he wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled "Heading for Trouble: Do We Really Want to Occupy Iraq for the Next Thirty Years?" Typically, his argument was cast at a high level of national strategy, informed by his long study of military history. Here is a sample:
Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall. Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long-term strategy--and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality--it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world. One should not take lightly the fact that China previously supported Libya, that Pakistan developed its nuclear capability with China's unrelenting assistance and that the Chinese sponsored a coup attempt in Indonesia in 1965. An "American war" with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.
There is lots to admire in this book and lots to provoke reassessment of conventional wisdom, even one's own. Webb's moving description of what it felt like to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, when soldiers were attacked as "baby killers," led me to reevaluate my own beliefs from that era, when I joined more than half a million protesters in the Moratorium to End the War march on Washington in November, 1969. To consider changing one's views about Vietnam is just as difficult now as it was then. Let's just say Webb's account of the Vietnam War and the wound it continues to represent for the Democratic Party struck me as original and smart.

The talking-heads analysis of Jim Webb as a Vice Presidential candidate usually comes round to his 1979 article titled "Women Can't Fight" in Washingtonian Magazine. Twenty-seven years later, Webb was grilled about it by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." Webb told Russert, "I am fully comfortable with the roles of women in the military today" and noted that his authorship of the article "was vetted twice in Senate confirmation hearings in 1984 and 1987." In my opinion, his answers to Russert were effective, but a Twitter friend after watching the Russert interview Twittered, "wow. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt to see if he has grown, realized he was wrong - but dang! he can't say he's wrong." I bet he's closer to saying he was wrong now than he was two years ago.

I hope Webb's responses to the article enable him to stay in contention as Veep, because it seems as if his strategic skills and experience would be valuable on the ticket. He and Obama sound similar themes on domestic policy, foreign affairs, and the need to overcome a broken political system in the U.S. To have these beliefs and values championed by individuals of such wildly divergent personal backgrounds and temperament--Webb is hot and rugged to Obama's cool and graceful--would make for a strong ticket and a strong Administration, in my opinion.

I recommend this book highly to anyone who's as steeped in the Presidential election as I am, and I'd love to hear others' views on it.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Freedom of the Press Redefined

"Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one," H. L. Mencken famously said. That truism has taken another giant step backwards into history, with Amazon's Digital Text Platform.

With DTP, you can self-publish at the Kindle Store at no charge. You set the price for your work as you wish, but it has to be at least a buck.

The process couldn't be easier, as I found out late last night when I uploaded my Wazee Journal essay, "Cold Turkey in Paradise: Twelve Days Off the Internet at Maho Bay." Publication was not quite instantaneous, but just now, about 13 hours later, I was delighted to find my essay simply by searching on "Len Edgerly" on the Amazon home page. I was surprised to discover they had discounted it to 80 cents - a major literary bargain, I might add - and that you can send a sample onto your Kindle for free. I did that, and then from my Kindle, I bought the full essay from myself for 80 cents. Within seconds, the essay was at the top of my Kindle home screen. Proceeds from this sale and any others that may occur will be transferred to my checking account.

Now I'm thinking about those two poetry manuscripts that have been kicking around my work studio, on the shuttle back and forth from poetry manuscript contests. Why not?

Jeff Bezos is doing all the right things to press this revolution in reading to the max. If you have something to publish, try out Digital Text Platform for the Kindle, and let me know so I can take a look at it!


Thursday, June 26, 2008

I Have Seen the Future of Internet Video

At today's Social Media Breakfast 8 hosted by Bryan Person and Bob Collins, one of the great presentations was by Rob Lane, cofounder and CEO of Overlay.tv .

Rob's demonstration reminded me of a talk I heard by Alex Lindsay of Pixel Corps five months ago at MacWorld Expo. Lindsay wowed me at a podcast workshop with examples of videos with links directly to places where you could buy stuff. He said the MacBreak video podcast once experimented with a link to a vendor selling microphones. "So THAT's why we sold 400 instead of 15!" the vendor said when the link was explained to him. I believed it when Lindsay predicted that video links would one day enable podcasters to compete with broadcast television, which has never been able to achieve what he called "the holy grail of TV," because it's never been possible for a viewer to use that remote control to actually buy something. I thought Lindsay's video links were very cool, but it looked to me as if creating them myself was going to be a technical challenge best postponed for later.

What blew me away this afternoon was how easy it was for me to put links into one of my YouTube videos using the free service at Overlay.tv . I had a ball trying the interface out, and it gave me an intimate feel for the potential of video links. They turn the experience of watching an Internet video into something a lot more active. For me as a video creator, it reminded me of the first time I tried creating a link to a word of text in Blogger. All of a sudden, my text creation had a third dimension. Now the same is true for video.

I naturally imagine the uses this could have for artists and arts organizations. I've been spreading the gospel of using new media, especially video, to connect with stakeholders, and now this ability to have videos include overlays makes the case even more compelling.

I'm aware that there are other tools to add links to videos, and that Overlay.tv has not invented the category here. But they were the first one that looked easy enough for me to try, so I'm grateful for what they're doing. Rob says they are a startup of about 12 people, growing fast.

This is the video as I uploaded it to YouTube, without the overlays. The video at the top of this post is the one with overlays.

I got so excited trying out Overlay.tv that I've spent all afternoon and evening playing with it, when I had planned to be working on tomorrow's episode of the Audio Pod Chronicles, which will include a brief audio interview I did with Rob Lane after his presentation today.

UPDATE: Rob Lane emailed me this link to Sawyer Watson's skateboard video. He said he can't yet send me the Smirnoff link as it's built on their next release due out over the next three to four weeks as they come out of beta.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What the Obama Ticket Might Look Like

Someone named Jay Wyatt emailed this graphic to me, saying "Feel free to use this as you like." I must say that the further I get into Web's latest book, A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, the more I can picture this ticket. Webb's deep experience and strategic approach to national security is impressively rendered in the book. He comes across as pretty tightly wrapped in the videos I've seen, but this piece makes a convincing case that his anger management problem is a myth. We'll see...


Saturday, June 21, 2008

A New Joy Discovered on the Kindle

Last night I noticed something about the way I read books on the Kindle. Because I can so easily switch among books, it's as if I am reading a composite book, a mashup of three books at once. This creates all kinds of possibilities in the way I encounter the content of the books. I'll try to explain by following the pathways my mind took last night, curled up in my leather chair with the Kindle.

By happenstance, the three books on the device are Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America by Jim Webb, and The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. I did not choose them because they had any relation to each other, except that they each interested me at the moment I decided to buy them via the magical whispernet built-in wireless connection to the Kindle Store.

But as it happens, there are points of overlap among the books. Andrew Carnegie had a brief role in Lincoln's war administration, transporting Union troops by rail. Jim Webb, a potential Obama vice president, writes about military strategy in Vietnam, where he served and was wounded as a Marine. Carnegie and Webb seem to share personality traits around optimism and can-do attitude. Webb's discussion of the political choices made in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq echo the complex drama of parties, personalities and positions leading to the Civil War. All three books feature prominent Americans playing roles in American history.

My pattern for reading "real" books has always been to have a few on the table by my chair, and to switch among them. My mind seems to enjoy changing the channel every 15 minutes or so. Whether I am conscious of it or not, my thinking goes to making connections among the books, making the entire reading session more creative and enjoyable.

What's new with the Kindle relates to the fact that all three books appear on exactly the same screen, in exactly the same font. So when I return to the Home screen after reading, say, Team of Rivals, then select A Time to Fight, it's as if I've simply changed chapters in one big, sweeping epic. The Virginia U.S. Senator trying to warn of the folly of a decades-long occupation of Iraq becomes another character in a long story, which also includes Abraham Lincoln's skillful restraint during the Republican nomination contest in 1860.

What I love about this insight last night is that it demonstrates how the Kindle is changing the way I read. In this case, it's not a huge change, because I have switched among books before. But the technology makes the process seamless and makes it easier and more natural for me to read this way. It's of course particularly true when I travel. I would not take all three of these books with me on a flight to Denver, but with the Kindle they all come everywhere I take it.

A related feature of the Kindle is that it makes choosing my next book so easy. This means that I often find reference to a new book in the current one, and instead of having to make a note to remember to order it or look for it the next time I'm at the Harvard Coop, I can simply go to the Kindle Store without leaving my leather chair and have the book added to the Home page in less than a minute. This is so much fun that it takes restraint to avoid building up the supply of books on my Kindle to unmanageable and costly excess.

Literature has always enabled me to bring people, ideas, and events from any time in history into my current thought and attention. What I realized last night is that the Kindle makes that basic joy of reading a little bit sweeter.


Obama to Staff: "You've Inspired Me"

I always believed that the way Barack Obama ran his campaign would be his best demonstration of leadership ability, offsetting the fact that his resume otherwise does not contain any governerships, CEO positions, or military command. By now, the results are in. Starting from zero, he assembled a team that toppled the most effective political machine in recent history. They kept going when things were down, and they stayed grounded when things were up. They understood the rules of the nominating game better than the Clinton team did, which led to running up the crucial delegate lead in states like Idaho, for goodness sakes.

What I like about this video is that it provides a peek at the relationship which Obama created with his campaign staff. I've heard a lot of corporate leaders speak to employees, to exhort and encourage them, to give them clear and motivating goals. I have never heard it done as well as Obama does in this brief talk at the Chicago campaign headquarters.

I can only imagine what it felt like to be sitting on the floor of that room, listening to these words--the exhaustion level, the euphoria, the anxiety and hope regarding the next five months, and throughout it all, the sense of actually writing a page in history.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Two N.Y. Senators Who Didn't Know What Hit Them

Hillary Rodham Clinton and William H. Seward--two U.S. Senators, two nominations that incredibly went to rivals not long removed from the Illinois state legislature. On the day Hillary is scheduled to concede to Barack Obama at noon, I am struck by this passage from Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin:
Several blocks away, Seward had finished reading the morning newspapers and was getting ready to go to the Capitol when a chorus of voices outside attracted his attention. Hundreds of devoted followers were assembled in front of his house. Moved by the spirit of the serenade, Seward spoke to them with emotion. "I have been a representative of my native state in the Senate for twelve years, and there is no living being who can look in my face and say that in all that time I have not done my duty toward all--the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the bond and the free."

Perhaps this show of popular support softened the wrenching realization that his chance had come and gone. When a congressmen argued with him that a certain politician would be disappointed if he didn't get an appointment in the new administration, Seward lost his composure: "Disappointment! You speak to me of disappointment. To me, who was justly entitled to the Republican nomination for the presidency, and who had to stand aside and see it given to a little Illinois lawyer!" (Locations 6701-5 in Kindle edition)
Well, neither Lincoln nor Obama fit the "little" part of that description. And, according to Kearns and the journalist Todd Purdhum, neither was/is as innocent of ambition and political calculation as many believe. Purdhum's masterful Vanity Fair profile of Obama argued that what makes Barack a contender is "his mother's daring, his grandmother's grit, and his own relentless drive."

Kearns says of Lincoln in her Introduction:
When viewed against the failed efforts of his rivals, it is clear that Lincoln won the nomination because he was shrewdest and canniest of them all. More accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events, he took the greatest control of the process leading up to the nomination, displaying a fierce ambtion, an exceptional political acumen, and a wide range of emotional strengths, forged in the crucible of personal hardship, that took his unsuspecting rivals by surprise." (Locations 131-36 in Kindle edition)
I happened upon these passages in the Kearns book while thumbing through it the other day at the Harvard Coop. I took a course on the Presidency from her when she was a young star professor at Harvard, and I always love seeing her sad, wise face on the TV screen in her current incarnation as author/pundit. I am looking forward to reading the full book, which Obama has mentioned in talking about his Administration. I will not be surprised to see him assemble his own team of rivals at a perilous point in U.S. history, if he is given the chance.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Breakfast of Activists

This morning in Boston I attended a breakfast conversation titled "The New Paradigm of Social Movements" at the offices of The Philanthropic Initiative, facilitated by TPI founder Peter Karoff, author of The World We Want. It was a high-energy, thoughtful discussion of the elements that are required to create successful social movements adequate to take on global challenges such as climate change.

I set up a live stream using UStream, but instead of getting one single video archive, I have lots of them, because the Internet connection kept cutting out. Here are the pieces of a fascinating, deep consideration of our shared future:

TPI Breakfast 1
TPI Breakfast 2
TPI Breakfast 3
TPI Breakfast 4
TPI Breakfast 5
TPI Breakfast 6
TPI Breakfast 7
TPI Breakfast 8
TPI Breakfast 9
TPI Breakfast 10


Thursday, June 05, 2008

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