Richard Belzer, Ice-T Jack Up the Election

Ah, those talking heads—the TV yabberers, not the guys singing about buildings and food. We’ve grown a little tired of hearing from the political world’s institutional pundits over this long election cycle—there’s only so much Roland Martin or Bay Buchanan a concerned citizenry can take. To freshen things up, we decided to open our pages and let a number of notable cultural figures offer their own observations on the 2008 contest. Below, their insights, dreads, and underwear fascinations.


It’s not hype to say that this is the most important American election in history. I’m saying that because FDR was already in office when the Second World War started. And Lincoln was established before the Civil War began.

Not only is there no incumbent or vice-presidential candidate on the ballot this time, this election has boiled down to “Who are we? What is America?”

I don’t think most people understand how dangerous it would be to elect the Republican ticket in 2008. I believe McCain is a genuinely dangerous person. And his age is not the point. I know people in their eighties who are very sharp. My concerns about McCain are that he was tortured for five years during the Vietnam War, which isn’t necessarily ennobling.

Think about his inability to raise his arms above his head. Keep that in mind for someone with such oversized pride and ego, who is so enamored of himself. The fact that he can’t comb his own hair—he must be seething with so much anger for his inability to do the most basic acts. It’s an anger that underscores everything he does. And it’s an anger, in particular, for people who question his judgment.

As for Obama, here’s the community organizer, Harvard Law student, freshman senator, who dares to run for president against the incredibly imposing Clinton machine, which was considered the most powerful, the most well-connected in modern political history. Hillary Clinton thought she was going to stride right into the White House. Both Hillary and McCain are flabbergasted at this young man who spoiled their runs. And Obama hasn’t just beat these old political machines; he’s done it while redefining how candidates raise money—through small donations, not from fat cats.

Every black kid in America will be one inch taller the day after Obama is elected. The rest of the world will see that we’re not the warmongers they think we are. They’ll see that we’re not the racists they think we are. And in the Arab world, this will help heal the scars of Abu Ghraib.

There will be a sigh of relief from both our friends and our enemies.

Richard Belzer appears on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and has recently written the novel I Am Not a Cop! He will be performing at Comix on Saturday, November 1.


An Obama presidency will be the quake that unearths the kind of overt, white-hot racism in both the media and the populace that liberals and conservatives have been telling us doesn’t exist anymore, but that black people have known all along was still alive and well.

How many white candidates for president do you remember inspiring such white Christian-extremist fervor as that which resulted in jeers of “Off with his head”? And while whisper campaigns are clearly necessary in a tired old white guy’s efforts against a charismatic young man with a squeaky-clean past, who but reflexively racist imbeciles could believe that if this guy were a closet Jihadi, we wouldn’t know it already?

Being based in Berlin affords me the luxury of not having to live my life caught up in the media swirl of this campaign. But even in Europe, I can’t escape BBC interviews with good old boys from my home state of California describing Obama as being “the wrong color” or “just not the kind of guy I could trust with this country.” I pity the naive among us who are not ready for the Return of the Redneck—otherwise known as Joe Six-Pack. People who grew up thinking race relations in this country were no more problematic than an episode of The Real World are going to get a dose of reality that will make television look like fiction again.

Stew won both Tony and Obie awards earlier this year for his rock musical Passing Strange.


Barack Obama looks like the English teacher in high school that everybody thought was “cool” but who I never had because I never even got close to those college-prep courses.

Sarah Palin looks like the person that moves into a cool, old Craftsman fixer-upper in a lower-class ethnic neighborhood and starts a neighborhood association and pressures the people who have lived there for years to put the correct windows on their homes.

Joe Biden looks like the actor who plays a politician in a movie.


John McCain looks like the old guy in a ’50s science-fiction B-movie who gets strangled by the alien monster.

Jaime Hernandez’s new graphic novel is The Education of Hopey Glass.

BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY. For me, one of the most powerful—as well as the least discussed—images of the recent presidential campaign was the moment Sarah Palin introduced herself to Joe Biden at the vice-presidential debate. Everyone noticed her style. Her smile. Her handsome, form-fitting black suit. Her disarming simplicity when greeting her opponent. What few people saw—or what they saw without seeing, or what they feigned to not see, or what they are sure they didn’t see although they couldn’t help noticing—was Sarah Palin’s panties.

Absolutely. For an instant, all we could see, to our shock—under the sexy, curve-hugging, fashionable skirt of this ex–beauty queen—was the panty line of her granny panties, a line so clear we could practically trace the elastic through the thin fabric as it crossed her derriere and hips. Modern women who wear this kind of skirt are generally quite careful, making sure nothing interrupts the impeccable line of their silhouette. But Sarah Palin is not a modern woman. The message she conveyed at that instant was that she is definitely not one of those modern, stylish, naughty women who pay attention to this sort of detail. Perhaps there are indeed women who wear panties and panty hose. Perhaps there are even women—get thee behind me, Satan!—who do not wear panties at all! Well, she does. And she wants everyone to know she wears the real thing, granny panties in heavy cotton. She wants us to know that she wears the old-fashioned kind, made in Alaska, sex-proof, comfortable, not in the least sexy, Republican underwear.

Those Democratic sluts are really sans culottes (literally, “without panties”), in the historical French sense, meaning “liberal” or “revolutionary.” Not Palin. No way. Her motto: “Re-pub-li-can.” And definitely “Cu-lot-tée” (literally, “wearing panties” and also “cheeky”). This ostensible “cheekiness” was in itself the summary of her entire platform.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, was published by Random House last month.


Three new things I’ve greatly enjoyed this election season:

1. The increased limberness and muscularity of the American left’s Internet presence. Much improved since 2004. Josh and Kos, in particular: awesome. And, of course, it only kicks ass to the exact extent that it’s nonhierarchical, which doesn’t work nearly as well if your ideology is fundamentally top-down authoritarian.

2. Snap polls immediately following the debates. Cuts out that awful three-day period of gaseous spin and counter-spin while ponderous douche-nozzles decide what we thought. A clear winner by the next afternoon, latest. Smells like democracy. Love it.

3. Watching the debates on cable while surfing live bloggers and comment threads on my laptop. The debates make me anxious, so hunkering down in a giddy virtual crowd of like-minded individuals is perfect for me. And informative. And not infrequently hilarious.

William Gibson’s most recent novel is Spook Country.


In mid October, my 12-year-old daughter, Abbie, and I took the train down to Philadelphia to canvass for Obama. Near the end of the day, we approached a house with an older woman holding back a barking pit bull. When we asked if she was registered to vote, she nodded, and when we further asked whom she was leaning toward, she said it was none of our damn business. Sitting on the couch in back of her was a man yelling expletives into a cell phone. A young woman came out of the house and walked to the front of the porch.

“I want to vote for whoever helps poor people,” she said.

“He’s a Muslim,” the man in the back yelled out, “and he was friends with the guys that took down the Twin Towers.”

The girl rolled her eyes at us.

“I’m trying to save money and GET MY OWN place,” she said pointedly. “I just want to know the truth.”

We assured her that Obama is neither a terrorist nor a Muslim. As the old lady came out again with the barking dog, we told the girl about our candidate’s plans to help the poor. Her face as she listened was open and hopeful. The girl took our brochures. When I think about this election, rather than the two candidates’ faces, I think of that girl. How brave it was for her to come to the porch railing and how important it is that the things we were telling her about Obama’s vision turn out to be true.

Darcey Steinke’s most recent book is the memoir Easter Everywhere.


I wish factory farms were being discussed more. Someone like Governor Palin, it’s very easy for environmentalists and activists to rally against her because she goes out and kills her own moose and shoots wolves from planes—these very obvious barbarities. But you don’t hear Obama coming out against the Chicago stockyards. Our entrenched and accepted cruelty toward animals, just because they’re what we eat—that should be an issue. And the environmental catastrophe of the factory farms, their pollution of water, air, and soil. And the treatment of the workers, many of whom are minorities or women or illegal immigrants who aren’t allowed such basic rights as bathroom breaks. The meat and dairy industry is rife with need for reform. We have to get rid of factory farms—you have pigs in crates where they can’t turn around or chickens packed in cages the size of a record-album cover. I think California’s Proposition 2, which legislates against factory farms, will pass, by a large margin. That would be fantastic—it’s about time.


Nellie McKay’s new album is titled Obligatory Villagers. She performs December 2 at (Le) Poisson Rouge.


In our house—Coco and myself—we intentionally took separate candidates to start the election season.

I picked Hillary, and she picked Barack Obama. We knew we weren’t going to vote for McCain, let’s start off with that. He reminded us too much of Bush, and I just didn’t feel a connection with him. (And I haven’t voted before. I registered to vote for the first time for this election.)

I picked Hillary because I liked Bill Clinton. And as it went, I listened carefully, and Hillary and Obama were very alike on the issues. When I started to go away from her was that time when it turned out she lied about being shot at. . . . I didn’t think you should be lying about that kind of thing while you’re running for president.

In the streets, we have a saying: You don’t need to make a lie to kick it. So Barack started to win me over. But I’ve stayed back in this election. I’m usually out there, but I saw what happened to Jeremiah. And I have that whole “Cop Killer” thing of my own that people love to use against me. I knew the kind of game they’re playing. I saw what happened when rappers said something.

So some of us are, like, “Flavor, go put on a suit. This is real right now.”

I was talking to some street cats the other day—they were wearing Barack T-shirts. That was surprising. I asked them about it. They said, “Ice, we don’t want to hustle.” They wouldn’t be voting for someone because they want more crime.

To me, the election was really Hillary running against Obama. I don’t think McCain was ever really in it. And Palin? If there was a book on how not to run for president, she should write it. I mean, you have to have some level of intelligence to run the country. Well, wait a minute. I guess Bush proved that wasn’t actually true.

I don’t know why anyone would want to be president, especially considering what condition the country is in. But if Barack wants it, more power to him.

I travel all over the world—it’s a good look. It’s a good look. It would give the United States a rebirth. And overseas, we could use it.

Ice-T appears on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.


When I first saw Obama at the beginning of the campaign—and I did tell people this—I said: “You know, I look at Obama and I think, ‘This is going to sound crazy, and I’m not against him, but he seems like the Antichrist.’ ” He’s so good, and yet there’s a certain masklike quality to his presence. If you read that kind of literature, he fulfills the characteristics of the Antichrist. The Antichrist is someone who will gather lots of people around him, like Obama at the beginning attracting these huge crowds to his rallies, with his message about the future. Now, I say this with great trepidation, because, please, let’s elect him.

Avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman’s last production was Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland. He received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1995.


This has been a disastrous presidency. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s amazing the reversal of values that have occurred during this administration.

I came here from Brazil 26 years ago. We were under a military dictatorship in Brazil—there was a lack of freedom, of civil liberties. You were subject to the whim of the government. There was a lack of economic vision for the future. When I came here, I was so glad that I was making money, that the money was protected in the bank, that if I worked hard, I could become somebody.


I am at the point today where I think that if we’re going to have more years like the last eight, I’m going to leave. Because the country that I left 26 years ago now makes a lot more sense than the country that I’m living in right now. It’s very confusing, to ever think that this was going to happen. Brazil, when I left, was not a country respected by others, because of the dictatorship, and the United States was a beacon of freedom—it was highly respected. And in eight years we’ve become some of the most hated people in the world because of our foreign policy. It’s like in Superman when you have bizarre Superman. Everything’s upside-down.

Artist Vik Muniz’s show “Verso” recently ran at Sikkema Jenkins gallery.


Nothing gets your head thinking about these things like landing at George Bush Airport in Houston from Ronald Reagan Airport in Virginia, which I did recently.

I know Palin is the low-hanging fruit. I can’t help but think of her and her nomination as the moment that we cratered as women, as a country, at multiple levels. I’m thinking of her also because I ran the Chicago Marathon this year, my first marathon. It was awesome. I couldn’t help thinking, even though it was 83 degrees and my time wasn’t what I hoped it would be—I couldn’t help thinking about everyone who told me that Sarah Palin runs a marathon in under four hours. It really bothered me! I hadn’t broken the four-hour mark.

And then I remembered that this is a woman who has to be in really good shape for, among other things, the Rapture. She’s gotta be prepared for that. And then it dawned on me that this person, this stuff of fiction, is actually going to be on the ballot.

Sarah Jones won both Tony and Obie awards for her one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel.


I think about the election all the time; it almost feels like a disorder. I’m having such a raw and emotional relationship with this election that I feel as if I have to protect myself from terrible traumas that might lie just ahead. I’m preemptively sick to my stomach about some terrible thing that might happen. That seems very grim, because at the same time I’m also elated all the time. It’s been like love, this election. Being in love, being afraid that the loved one is going to be taken from you. Feeling elation and dread, which is what being in love is about.

Which isn’t to say that I’m in love with any particular candidate, but the emotional stakes are so high that I’ve been kind of a mess and often feel like I have to pull away for my own good—not watch the news, not read anything for a day or two. The month of September was a very black month for me, where after Palin’s selection I almost felt like an abuse victim. I thought, I just can’t let them hurt me again—I couldn’t engage with the news. And then as the poll numbers turned around, I began to feel that I could wade in, very carefully.

Susan Choi’s most recent novel is A Person of Interest.


One of the great guilty pleasures of this political season has been watching conservative pundits jump, one after the other, off the sinking radical Republican ship like desperate little rats.

I say “guilty” only because journalists don’t like to watch other journalists lose their jobs or flounder uncomfortably—we’ve all been there; the schadenfreude factor runs fairly shallow. But what a delight to see curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens—who earlier this year compared Obama’s denouncement of Jeremiah Wright to “selling out his grandmother”—endorse the Illinois senator, not so much out of enthusiasm for Obama but horror at McCain’s “increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical,” and his “deceiving and unscrupulous” running mate, Sarah Palin.

It’s a thrill to have watched proud conservative Andrew Sullivan peel away the layers of his identity over the last few years to become a barebacking Daddy-bear Democrat-lover who posts anti-Palin parodies on his blog. And the star atop the tree was Christopher Buckley, whose late father must have turned into Pinwheel Billy from spinning in his grave when sonny-boy declared his intent to vote for Obama and got sacked from The National Review. Were his parents alive, Buckley fretted, “They’d cut off my allowance.” Aww.

None of these Anglophile creeps seem less than humiliated at their leap across party lines—to vote for a Negro, no less! But it’s truly a joy to see these guys doing what Democrats have done for years—vote against a Republican rather than for a candidate they wholeheartedly endorse.


James Hannaham is a staff writer at Salon; his novel God Says No will be published in 2009 by McSweeney’s Books.


I am a fatalist who votes anyway. Obama makes me happy, despite his flattening out of himself for wider electioneering purposes. To my mind, speeches such as the Philadelphia race speech earn him the benefit of the doubt.

As far as odd or unexpected moments in the campaigns, two come to mind for me. The first was how, during the primaries, the initial response expressed by many African-Americans interviewed about Obama was fear that he would be murdered. That hadn’t occurred to me, and it was chilling to realize what a rational thought it was, given what we know about America.

The other occurred when I recently saw regularly scheduled campaign ads in breaks during a television show. The ads seemed unreal; they seemed fictional. They made the room I was in—and everything in it, including me—feel as if it existed in a movie. The whole election process is so removed and contrived that it only exists as plot development, theater. It’s all ridiculous and depressing.

Richard Hell’s most recent book is the novel Godlike. He’s currently writing an autobiography.


GWEN IFILL: Let’s try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?


SARAH PALIN: Your question to him was whether he supported gay marriage, and my answer is the same as his, and it is that I do not.

Looking back on the campaign, I am particularly intrigued by this political marriage. On TV, the vice-presidential candidates have issued (with grins all around) the idea that for now, today, tonight, it’s OK that gay people don’t have full civil rights. That’s it in a nutshell, folks. They both also say all this blah-blah-blah about how the Constitution protects us, but nobody really wants that. With only a civil union, I can’t file joint federal taxes, and I can’t help my partner get citizenship, and in most states, I’m limited in my gift-giving—and I can’t make decisions about her health, either, except in the state our union is in. That’s a lot to not have.

Why am I being held at bay? Why now? I mean, if you think about it, women used to have a lot fewer rights in marriage before they changed the law. Maybe those changes are what ruined marriage. And we’d just ruin it a little bit more. Pretty soon, nobody’d want it. Let the kids have it. Maybe we should just cut it up into little pieces and feed it to the world. No one’s going to notice. For a while.

Eileen Myles’s most recent book of poetry is Sorry, Tree.


For me, the issue is, who can do the job—not the job of being president but the job of cleaning up after Bush and Cheney. The work that must be done to clean up the mess left after eight years of anti-government government is enormous, and as a lifelong Democrat, I am appalled that once again it will take a Democrat to repair Republican excess. 

I genuinely believe that Barack Obama is the best person to take on that challenge—though he is, from my perspective, quite conservative—fiscally, socially. He is not, for example, what I wish he was—a strong defender of gay and lesbian rights—or even an advocate against what I fear is a frankly dangerous trend toward rolling back those laws and institutions established by feminist advocacy over the last two decades.

Do not mistake me. I am a radical feminist with strong socialist tendencies and a conviction that this nation has long neglected its poor and disenfranchised. I am exactly the kind of person the Republicans and John McCain demonize—the kind of person they accuse Barack Obama of being.

Dorothy Allison is the author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller.


The Folly of Fighting Wars Against Countries Who Have Done Us No Harm: McCain, among others, claims we lost the Vietnam War. But what harm has Vietnam inflicted on anyone, with the exception of Cambodia in 1979 (perhaps, in retrospect, an act of considerable merit)? So the question is: If no harm came of ceasing hostilities against another country Who Did Us No Harm, what can be the danger of once more ceasing hostilities against Iraq, another country Who Did Us No Harm, up to our invasion? Who is the real defeatist? John McCain and the Neo-cons at the White House, who apparently only want lost wars. These subversives are dangerous and un-American, in my view. They are traitors and should be treated accordingly.

Mac Wellman’s most recent play is 1965UU.


A New Crop of Dosas

Give me a vada over a Krispy Kreme any day. These savory doughnuts often have a hole in the middle—just like the sugar-glazed sort—but are instead made from spiced lentil flour. There are plenty of places to get South Indian vadas (pronounced “waa-daas”), but it’s hard to find a good one that’s freshly fried. Recently, I discovered a restaurant where you can crunch on excellent vadas with various chutneys, or eat them paired with idli, dunked in lentil soup, bobbing in sambar, or soaking in a thick blanket of spiced yogurt. And that’s just the vada selection. This restaurant fashions 13 different kinds of dosas and six species of utthappam, all of them made with a skill and care that can’t be faked. So I’m going out on a very wobbly limb and declaring that Staten Island has a restaurant worth trekking to—the forgotten borough has just scored its first South Indian eatery, and it’s among the very best in the city.

Dosa Garden (which makes me think of crispy crepes poking up out of the ground) is situated on the stretch of Victory Boulevard where a scattering of Sri Lankan businesses has cropped up to serve the island’s growing Sri Lankan community. It shares the block with an Albanian mosque and is about a mile down the road from a Hindu temple. (So much for Staten Island being homogenous.)

Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic group is Buddhist Sinhalese. But the largest minority group is Tamil, who are mostly Hindu and ethnically Indian. Moha Chinniah, the co-owner of Dosa Garden, is from Sri Lanka, but identifies himself as Tamil. To sizzle up the dosas and vadas, Chinniah brought over Tamil chefs from Chettinad, a southern region in the Indian state Tamil Nadu, which is separated from Sri Lanka by just a 40-mile strait of water. So, the South Indian–style food at Dosa Garden could be further categorized as Tamil, although trying to neatly sort subcontinental food is like differentiating between an infinite set of Russian dolls—they’re impossibly, deliciously complex.

The menu is encyclopedic and offers dishes that are both veg and non-veg (the common Indian idioms for vegetarian and carnivorous). Along with the dosas and the utthappams (spongy, tangy rice and lentil-flour pancakes), there’s a selection of homemade breads like roti and paratha, tandoori meats, and a short list of Sri Lankan and Indo-Chinese specials. The kitchen has a tandoor clay oven, where the fresh breads and grilled meats are charred.

In my mind, the dishes that make Dosa Garden worth a trip are the iconic South Indian specialties such as idli, dosa, vada, and utthappam, as well as the remarkable Chettinadu curries.

Idlis—steamed rice cakes—are warm and springy. Pick up one of the moist white pucks and dip it in the sambar (spicy vegetable soup) or, even better, the creamy, incendiary tomato chutney. Most items at Dosa Garden are served with the same three accompaniments: the sambar, which is quality but could be spicier; a very fine coconut chutney studded with mustard seeds; and the fantastic tomato chutney.

Thayir vada, two lentil doughnuts swimming in whole-milk yogurt, is augmented with scatterings of fried green chilies, mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves, and whole black peppercorns. The peppercorns, which show up all over the menu, have a delicious, fragrant bite. A friend who has family in South India insisted that the pepper was of such good quality that it had to be straight from the region.

The dosas run from the ordinary—like masala dosa, the tangy rice-lentil crepe filled with spiced potatoes—to the more deluxe—chicken dosa, egg dosa, onion rava masala dosa. All are made to order and are impeccable: crispy, pleasantly chewy, slightly sour, and greaseless. The Mysore masala dosa is a delicate golden slab, teetering across the plate, smeared lightly with a dry, garlicky chutney and filled with spiced potatoes. My only complaint is that Dosa Garden’s potato stuffing, usually bright yellow with turmeric and punched up with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and green chilies, is slightly underspiced.

The egg dosa conjured up all sorts of conjectures at our table: Would it be topped with a fried egg? Filled with a scrambled egg? It turned out to be much simpler than that—a plain dosa, painted thinly with egg wash on one side and wrapped into a cone—but worth ordering anyway. It’s so austere that it seems fit for an invalid (albeit one with very good taste).

If you want something more elaborate, the onion rava masala dosa is spectacular. Made with semolina wheat instead of fermented rice and lentils, the result is a lacy, crunchy sheet. The cooks at Dosa Garden embed peppercorns, curry leaves, green chilies, and cumin seeds in the batter, and then scatter fried onions over it.

The Chettinadu curry is made in fish, shrimp, chicken, or vegetable iterations. The spice-laden gravy is thick, chocolate-brown, and fragrant, and is full of mustard seeds. (It turns out that Chettinad, where the cooks are from, is known for spicy curries and beautiful architecture, and is fast becoming one of the top tourist spots for Indians.) Get the shrimp version—that’s how Chinniah likes it best—and you get lovely, fat shrimp bobbing in the flavorful brew.

One night, my table ordered (among many other things) the pan-fried tilapia appetizer. The nuggets of fish were stained orange with spice and had a fried crust that crunched through into moist fish. This is the sort of thing that could make us—three very loud women—stop shrieking furiously about Sarah Palin and just gaze in ravenous silence at the craggy lumps of fish—a serious accomplishment.



If dressing up like Sarah Palin and passing out halfway through the Halloween Parade is not your thing, allow us to direct you to a more dignified tradition. St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery hosts Day of the Dead, a four-day celebration of the dearly departed whose souls return to visit the living. Today, guests are welcome to assist in building altars and watch a procession of Mexican dancers that begins in Union Square. Halloween night includes workshops on just about everything you need to know on altar decorating, from creating sugar skulls to writing poetry to making special foods. There will also be theatrical performances and live music (mariachis, too!). Be sure to bring photos of those you’d like to honor and unique tokens to add to the altar. Saturday and Sunday (All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day) also include arts-and-crafts workshops, food vendors, and music.

Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2008


Watching the V.P. Debate with Young, Black, Palin-Proud Republicans

The young black Republicans had arranged, at the Voice‘s request, to meet at SideBar near Union Square to watch the vice-presidential debate last week, but there was a problem.

“They’re having some sort of Obama party here,” said James Davermann, a financial analyst for Bloomberg. Actually, it looked like several different Obama parties had showed up and were now clustered around different televisions. Davermann and his friends were going to be seriously outnumbered.

As if to emphasize how isolated they were, a tall, blond man said, as he passed by: “I’m a registered Republican, but I’m voting for Obama.”

“This is some sort of Obama love-fest,” said Shakera Jones, 26, who works at NYU. At the door, she’d been asked which group she was with—Asian-Americans for Obama, South Asians for Obama, or Filipinos for Obama. When the rest of the young conservatives had showed up, they decided to ditch the Obama orgy and headed for Galaxy Bar across the street.

At a table in the back of the bar, the young Republicans introduced themselves. Some were acquainted only through Republican Facebook groups or had met online at A self-professed conservative since the age of 18, Davermann said that his outspoken views have forced his family to ban all politics talk at the dinner table. “My family is all extremely liberal,” he said. “I went to college and studied economics and the free-market system—limited government intervention. My views began to change. My family embraced the Democratic philosophy because when you are black, it’s expected. It keeps people in a state of dependency.”

“OK, so do you all support McCain?” asked Brandon Brice, 25, a junior economist. “I need to know who I’m sitting with.” One by one, they each explained why they were voting for the Arizona senator. “I support McCain for three reasons,” said Davermann. “His stance on foreign policy, he’s a moderate Republican, and his views on immigration.”

“I have an issue with his willingness to engage us in more warfare,” said Jones.

At that point, the group decided to move closer to the television, whose sound was too low to be heard from the back. The room had filled up for the debate, and the crowd was mostly white and Democratic: When Senator Joe Biden was introduced, the place broke into applause.

“Oh, God. Sarah, don’t lose this for us,” said a worried-sounding Jones.

Palin soon responded to her first question, about the Wall Street bailout: “Two years ago, remember, it was John McCain who pushed so hard with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform measures. He sounded that warning bell.”

Brice pumped his fist in agreement, drawing some stares from the crowd. “That’s right—put it out there!”

“She’s awesome,” said Davermann. “They finally let her off the leash. If she can follow Biden up on his points, it’s a wrap.”

Soon, Davermann and Brice were grinning broadly at Palin’s folksy responses. Jones was feverishly texting friends, who were also watching.

“Biden’s doing a great job of not answering questions,” said Davermann. As the Delaware senator described new initiatives, Jones asked no one in particular: “How are you going to pay for everything?”

After Biden said that he supported gay civil unions but not gay marriage, Palin said: “Your question . . . was whether he supported gay marriage, and my answer is the same as his—and it is that I do not.” Jones commented: “It’s mighty bold of her to take that stand.”

By now, some in the crowd were turning to see how the four black conservatives would respond to each of Palin’s statements. One Asian woman, however, wasn’t enjoying the show—she was repeatedly being brushed by Brice whenever he raised his hands to clap at Palin’s remarks.

“Stop pushing me,” she said to him.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m not doing it on purpose.”

“Oh, please,” Jones interjected. “It is not that serious.”

“I know,” the Asian woman responded, appearing to be more concerned about being brushed by a Republican than by the collisions themselves.

“Where’s the ‘Kumbaya’?” asked Jones.

Biden, meanwhile, was saying that he and Barack Obama had a clear plan to shift responsibility for the Iraq War to the Iraqis themselves over the next 16 months. But Jones was skeptical: “What war have we ever announced an end to?” she asked. “Not even in Vietnam.”

When Palin called the Democratic plan a “flag of surrender,” Davermann clapped loudly.

A man walking by, meanwhile, asked: “Is Biden stomping all over her?”

“No, not at all. It’s pretty close,” Davermann offered.

After the debate ended, the group headed back to their table to talk over Palin’s performance.

“She wasn’t a train wreck,” said a surprised-sounding Jones. “All she had to do was not mess up. There is still stuff she should know.” But Jones was clearly still mystified by Palin’s performance in the Couric interview: “How can she not name magazines she reads?”

“I support her because she is a different type of Republican,” said Brice. “This party is going to die if we don’t change or adopt a new outlook.”

The conversation then turned to Barack Obama and his record in Illinois.

“I’m from Chicago,” said Tiffany Shorter, 28, who works at a conservative think-tank, the Hudson Institute. “Obama is kicking the poor people out of the South Side.”

“If he can’t clean up Chicago under Mayor Daly,” said Brice, “he can’t clean up America. If he gets elected, it will be a dangerous situation.”

“He has good intentions,” Jones volunteered.

“Name three things he’s done,” said Brice.

Jones drew a blank.

Talk then turned to taxes, and Democratic plans to help the underprivileged were denounced. Jones said she wanted mothers receiving welfare to be sterilized until they got off the dole. “If my taxes goes to supporting them, I should have some say in how it is spent,” she said.

Palin, on the other hand, was a mother who set a better example. “Palin is the epitome of family morals,” said Shorter.

“I think African-Americans need to see more of that,” Davermann added.


Swing Votes

Before the presidential campaign devolved into a Sarah Palin literacy course, there was this idea, promoted by McCain’s handlers and stolen in fact from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, that we were to choose between experience and change. Eighty-two-year-old drummer Roy Haynes exposed that false choice musically on Wednesday, laying down an authoritative, old-school rhythm and then changing it up thrice to start the Jazz for Obama benefit at the 92nd Street Y. His beats set up a blistering take on McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” during which trumpeter Roy Hargrove established, through deeply considered and physically demanding solos, his willingness to work for his candidate.

Political activism through jazz—think Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and Sonny Rollins’s pointed liner notes to “Freedom Suite”—has been largely in response to racial injustice, but has also on occasion voiced justifiable outrage at senseless war and dishonest government. Still, that was another time. Haynes’s time. “My generation of musicians fell in love with all the music that was a product of that outspoken consciousness,” says Aaron Goldberg, the 34-year-old pianist who organized Jazz for Obama. “Yet, in some ways, we had divorced ourselves from that instinct. The climate we make music in was less politicized and safer—until Bush.”

More even than Obama’s righteous and historic presence, the wrongness of the Bush administration (and McCain’s complicity with such) has rekindled the spirit of resistance and protest within jazz’s ranks. Louis Armstrong once rebuffed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, canceling a State Department tour. Just shy of a half-century later, another New Orleans trumpeter, Terence Blanchard, stood up Bush’s 2006 White House invitation for a celebration of the Monk Institute of Jazz, of which Blanchard is an artistic director. (“I couldn’t pretend. I made my statement with my absence,” he later told me.) Charlie Haden reconvened his Liberation Music Orchestra shortly after the Iraq invasion, and began playing “America the Beautiful” in a minor key.

Political fundraisers make for meaningful outreach—Jazz for Obama drew 750 people and raised more than $60,000—but rarely work as concert productions. But this one was a well-paced, multi-artist affair studded with distinctive performances: Lovano’s duet with Hank Jones, Stanley Jordan’s masterful transposition of a Mozart adagio to electric guitar, and Bilal’s segue from an original tune into a deconstructed “Body and Soul” stand out.

At such affairs, it’s easy to read intent into every choice: Though I doubt pianist Brad Mehdau offered “Besame Mucho,” a standard of Mexican origin, as a statement on NAFTA, vibist Stefon Harris may well have been sounding a get-out-the-vote challenge with his fluid rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” And I’d bet Dianne Reeves, pure-voiced and soulful as ever, consciously appropriated a Reagan theme when she sang Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken.” There could be no mistaking Dee Dee Bridgewater’s purpose, grinding her hips and snarling her way through the Vietnam-era, coulda-been-written-yesterday protest song “Compared to What?”

Other jazz-related Obama fundraisers have popped up in New York City: Tuesday’s event at S.O.B.’s featured, among others, pianist Arturo O’Farrill and singer Claudia Acuña in duet, and the proceeds from this Friday’s Wordless Music event at (Le) Poisson Rouge, which presents Mehldau’s first-ever classical recital, will feed the Obama war chest. Last week at the 92nd Street Y, Goldberg was inventive and adaptive within several ensembles, displaying his continued artistic development. He’s grown as a producer, too: His first fundraiser, for John Kerry, was—like the candidate—tentative and unfocused. This one was winning and decidedly on-message. When the full cast assembled for Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” Kurt Elling, the night’s emcee, made more sense through scat than the Alaskan governor does with real words. Then he grabbed back the mic: “Straight, no Palin.”


Bill Maher Takes Us to Hell!

Life imitates pop art all the time—I bet Robert Downey Jr.’s in blackface in a jungle somewhere as we speak—but in Sally Hawkins’s case, I wish it didn’t have to do it so painfully. In Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Hawkins plays Poppy Cross, a relentlessly cheerful North London teacher whose reaction to everything is a blinding grin. (Of course, she’s never met Sarah Palin.) At one point, Poppy goes to the doctor for back problems and, typically enough, giggles deliriously through the whole visit. Well, Hawkins herself recently snapped her collarbone as if it were a chicken wing, and last week, she was valiantly calling me for an interview en route to surgery! And being upbeat about it! Most stars don’t even call when they’re feeling great and standing two feet away!

My exchange with Hawkins—who’s superb in the role—wasn’t painful at all. Me: Hi, dear. Are you adopting Poppy’s approach in all this? Hawkins: Absolutely. It’s probably the best way, with a happy-go-lucky attitude and let it go. I’ll be taking Poppy in with me. Me: Tell her I said hi. Your face must hurt, too—I mean from smiling so much in the movie. Hawkins: I can’t help it anyway. I’ve got a natural smiling face. But I tend to be not quite to the level of Poppy. Me: She’s astounding! But doesn’t she grate on some people’s nerves (the other characters, I mean)? Hawkins: She never goes out of the way to become annoying or to hurt people. She always acts with the other person in mind. Me: Well, did you ever get tired of her? Hawkins: This is cheesy to say, but no, I didn’t. She’s quite energizing to play. Being inside her head and her skin was quite lovely. Me: Still, wouldn’t you love to play a nasty bitch next time? Hawkins: Keep me on my toes? That would be lovely in a completely different way!

The woman just can’t see the negative in anything. (But she’s never met Sarah Palin, either.) In fact, she ended our interview by thanking me profusely, hoping we can have lunch, and cooing “lots of love” practically while being wheeled into the slicing room. Give her the Oscar already!

A far more sardonic film presence, Bill Maher, celebrated his documentary, Religulous, with a Brasserie Ruhlmann lunch on Rosh Hashanah, and more smirks than smiles were on the menu, thank God (not that there is a God). Was Maher aware that this was a big-time holiday? “I heard it on the news today,” he told me, seeming serious. (Well, Maher’s only half Jewish, and in fact, the first time he was ever in a temple was to film this movie.) How about director Larry Charles, who previously did the hilarious heathen-fest Borat? Did he feel a little Jewish-guilty about having this event today? “Not at all,” Charles told me. “I didn’t even realize it was Rosh Hashanah. It’s not the highest of the holy days. That’s next week—and I don’t celebrate that either! I fast most of the time anyway!”

I bet Sarah Palin knows when friggin’ Rosh Hashanah is. The woman loves Israel, gosh darn it! But back to Religulous, which casts an arched eyebrow on all the fairy tales embraced by the hopelessly devout. It contends that Jesus must have actually been an awkward teen—sort of like Jonah Hill in Superbad. (“Big Jewfro, bad at sports . . .”) Maher swears that when he was an awkward teen, he brought a lawyer with him into the confession booth, though he assured me he didn’t lie to the priest. “I didn’t have to,” he said. “I was so young, I don’t think my sins were that interesting.” But I bet his thoughts were.

On the high holy day of the Palin/Biden debate, golly gosh, I squeezed in a Hamptons International Film Festival screening of Flash of Genius, with Greg Kinnear as the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper and actually wanted credit for it. Before the movie, an exec announced that “Oscar winner Greg Kinnear” would come up to the podium and speak—but he isn’t, and he didn’t. The guy had already left! (“He’s shy” was the official explanation.) But I had talked to Kinnear before that, and he nicely indulged me in an explanation of intermittent windshield wipers and also told me that when he hosted Talk Soup, he got no management feedback whatsoever. No wonder it was so good!

Broadway producers have obviously been getting feedback to keep dredging up old chestnuts because that’s just what they’re doing this season (and next season and the one after that . . .). But at least the carefully paced revival of The Seagull reaches some very dark, fascinating places in Act Two, and so does A Man for All Seasons, with Frank Langella turning on the fireworks before his scheduled head rolling.

An actually new show, 13, is the latest attempt to grab the awkward-teen market that was so stimulated by Spring Awakening and Legally Blonde. (But not Glory Days. When young people write about young people, they just can’t seem to get it right.) 13, alas, feels like it was written in 1955 and, decades later, sprinkled with MySpace references. It’s set in the only American school without gays—even if the lead character was called a “fagmo” in early previews—and all the Scooby Do–like boy-girl hijinks verge on banal, though at least there’s some lilting music and the cast is fresh and loud. Unfortunately, after the show finally reaches profundity with the climactic number, the performers come back out to bounce around on a gratuitous show-off song that makes you wonder why a line in the script disses Disney.

Speaking of teens: Lately, I’ve gotten several e-mails supposedly from underage people desperate to know which clubs they can go to without getting carded. Why do I suspect these requests are actually from undercover cops trying to suss out some more gay places to raid? Whatever the case, I tell them the truth: Nowhere!

To hang with the other team for a change, I finally went to Beatrice Inn and desperately wished I was a hetero instead of having chosen to be gay. The downstairs den and especially the upstairs dance area are filled with young (but legal), hot-looking girls who seem beamed out of 1960s London. One of them, Kirsten Dunst, was all friendly on line for the bathroom until she realized who I was. And yes, she was just using the bathroom to pee.

Over at club legend Arthur Weinstein’s memorial, writer Anthony Haden Guest got so smashed that he became rather unconscious for some time. (Well, it was the rare memorial with an open bar.)

But cheers to Madonna. I hear that for her upcoming stay at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City, Madge’s contract specifies that a new toilet seat must be installed before her arrival, and she needs proof that it was freshly taken out of the box and the seal broken. Of course, no such precautions need to be taken with married men’s penises.

But back, once again, to the g-darn Republican ticket to hell: Tired rumors crazily resurfaced last week about my friend Amy Lumet and her ex-boss John McCain. Amy tells me that when the tale re-hit, publicist Bobby Zarem called her to wonder why he’s never part of these rumors. What the goshdarned heck, let’s add him!

Meanwhile, did anyone think the two pivotal figures in this history-making campaign would be Katie Couric and Tina Fey? I guess life inspires pop art, too.


The Book of Sarah (Palin)

Along with the winks and folksy “doggone” moments early in her debate with Joe Biden last week, Sarah Palin repeated her familiar claim to the title of “maverick,” declaring that “as a governor and as a mayor,” she’s had a “track record of reform” and has now “joined a team of mavericks.”

Despite the free fall that her polling numbers went into after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, that branding as a “reformer” has been resilient. Introduced skillfully before tens of millions during an intense surge of interest six weeks ago, it’s been hammered home with repeated soundbites.

But the label doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. From the controversy that catapulted her to the governorship, to her ties to the indicted patriarch of Alaska’s GOP, to the multilayered nexus of lobbyists and Big Oil interests around her, and, finally, to the Wasilla sports complex that capped her mayoral career, the myth of Sarah Palin, reformer, withers under inspection.

PALIN’S CLAIM to fame as an Alaska reformer—that she risked her career to expose the chairman of the state GOP—is revisionist. In fact, Palin supported the methane-drilling project that helped sink GOP boss Randy Ruedrich before she later decided she was against it—a mirror of her flip-flop on the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. And her reversal had more to do with seizing a political opportunity than following her conscience.

In 2003, Ruedrich, an oil executive known for his ability to raise industry contributions for the party, was appointed to the powerful Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (OGCC) by Governor Frank Murkowski at the same time as Palin, who had finished her second term as Wasilla mayor the year before. Murkowski had given Palin the plum position to compensate for overlooking her when he appointed his own daughter Lisa to the U.S. Senate seat he vacated when he was elected governor in 2002. Palin’s near-win in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor earlier that year—losing to the first Alaskan of native ancestry ever elected to state office—had made her a statewide star. She had filmed commercials and stumped for Frank Murkowski that fall, so he owed her. But she rejected other top posts that he offered until she got the one she wanted—a position that allowed her to live at home and commute to Anchorage, rather than relocate to Juneau. She certainly also saw the commission appointment as a stepping-stone, and as late as October 2003, she told reporters that she was considering a race against Lisa Murkowski in the upcoming 2004 special senate election.

When Murkowski made Palin the $122,400 chairwoman of the OGCC, one of her jobs was to oversee commission ethics, meaning she was charged with reporting any possible ethics violations by staff or commission members to the governor’s office. By her own account, she first did that in September 2003, reaching out to a top Murkowski staffer about Ruedrich. But what she complained about then, according to a source familiar with these conversations, was Ruedrich’s party business on state time. She said nothing about his blatant championing of a methane-drilling project by a company called Evergreen Resources—even though she’d witnessed it herself at a standing-room-only community meeting in August. Palin and Ruedrich went to the meeting because the commission had oversight powers over the drilling, and homeowners in the Wasilla area where she was once mayor were up in arms over the effects they feared it would have on their property and drinking water.

Chris Whittington-Evans, chair of the citizens’ group that helped organize the meeting, says that Ruedrich presented a slideshow very similar to one the company itself had presented at any earlier session. Palin remained quiet through most of the meeting, though Evans recalls that she was questioned about a possible conflict of interest she might have. Palin was then chairing the campaign committee of a pro-Evergreen candidate for Borough Mayor of Mat-Su, the county that includes Wasilla. The candidate, Charlie Fannon, her former police chief, had taken $2,500 in donations from three Evergreen executives and a consultant, though community outrage eventually forced him to return some of the money. Ruedrich had given Fannon $500.

The same three executives had also just given $1,747 to Palin’s 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor. In fact, with the low campaign-finance limits in Alaska, Evergreen was the second-largest giver to both Palin and Fannon. While still mayor, Palin had backed an Evergreen-designed bill that allowed the state to override local objections to the drilling and permitted an ordinance—introduced by her closest ally on the city council authorizing methane extraction—to become law. But the focus of the question at the community meeting was Fannon. Palin had asked Fannon to run and had filmed an ad for him. He was the only candidate she’d ever contributed to—and her father contributed as well. Evans says he found it odd when she insisted that there was no conflict between backing “a big promoter of methane-drilling” and sitting in judgment on the project.


That’s what Tim Anderson, the Borough Mayor who beat Fannon and opposed the drilling, says now as well: “You could say that it was a conflict of interest” for Palin to be on the commission and supporting Fannon. Anderson was also at the August meeting and says that Palin sat up front with Ruedrich and Evergreen. “They were trying to convince the people that drilling underneath their homes wasn’t a big problem.” Fannon’s narrow loss to Anderson, wrote the local newspaper The Frontiersman, confirmed the political potency of the methane issue. In early November, Evans sent Palin an e-mail detailing the case against Ruedrich and demanding that he be fired from the commission. Palin finally acted, forwarding the Evans e-mail to the state’s attorney general. Two days later, Ruedrich resigned.

A few days after Ruedrich’s resignation, Palin searched his commission e-mail and found damaging evidence of his ties to Evergreen and his party abuse of the commission. For reasons she has never explained, she took a month to send those e-mails to the attorney general. In that intervening time, she talked twice to the attorney general’s office, and her own subsequent notes indicated that she expressed “concerns” about whether a continuing investigation was needed, since Ruedrich had already stepped down.

By the time she finally forwarded the e-mails, which were very damaging to Evergreen as well, the company had dumped its top Wasilla-based executive and had begun to withdraw from its Alaska adventure. A couple of weeks later, she surprised everyone and resigned herself, attributing it later to the dilatory response she was getting from state officials. In fact, when she quit, she had given the officials less time to act after getting the e-mails than she’d taken to send them.

Michelle Church, who was the director of the same citizens’ group that Evans chaired, believes that Palin was “definitely supportive of the drilling” and “opportunistic” when she switched and went after Evergreen and Ruedrich. “It really strengthened her support in the community,” recalls Church, who was elected to the Mat-Su assembly as a result of the methane controversy. “She turned on them because it was to her political advantage to do so.” The target was the governorship.

When she resigned from the commission in January 2004, Palin was simply trying to decide which Murkowski she would challenge—Lisa for U.S. Senate, or Frank for the governorship. Lisa Murkowski had a couple million in the bank, while the governor’s campaign kitty was strangely barren. Frank Murkowski’s nepotism, proposed sales tax, and elimination of a longevity bonus for seniors—all of which happened before Palin took Ruedrich on—had depressed his approval ratings so badly that many thought he wouldn’t seek re-election. Palin wrote an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News in April 2004, reliving her days as basketball point guard “Sarah Barracuda” and lauding the good competition of public life. But a week later, she announced that she would not run against Lisa Murkowski, attributing it to her son Track, who she said opposed it. Then she set her sights on the governorship. When Murkowski, the oldest governor in America at 73, finally did decide in May 2006 to run again, Palin had already been an announced candidate for seven months, perfectly positioned as his reform nemesis. He spent a third of what he did in 2002 and lost badly.

SARAH PALIN’S MAVERICK image flies in the face of her longtime ties to the Republican patriarch of Alaska politics, Senator Ted Stevens, who is on trial in Washington for taking $250,000 in gifts from VECO, an oil-services company that was once Palin’s biggest donor. Palin remained nominally neutral in the recent GOP primary, shunning two Republicans who tried to give the already-indicted Stevens a serious challenge. Her chief of staff, Mike Tibbles, left his state post to become Stevens’s campaign manager, and she did a press conference with Stevens shortly before the vote. (Tibbles’s wife is still a top appointee in Palin’s administration.) A Stevens campaign consultant, Art Hackney, says: “She has campaigned with him, and they are enjoying a good relationship.” Asked on a visit to New York recently if she was supporting Stevens’s re-election, Palin replied that his trial had just started. “We’ll see where that goes,” said Palin, who forced the resignation of Ruedrich and another top Murkowski aide on ethics charges that never came close to reaching the level of an indictable offense.

Vic Vickers, a wealthy banker who ran against Stevens in the GOP primary and spent $700,000 of his own money, tells the Voice that Palin and Stevens “are very close” and that the two organizations “merged to defeat my candidacy.” While Palin has called for the resignation of Stevens’s son Ben as national committeeman, Vickers said that “vicious attacks” against him were “coming out of her office” during the primary. “They just torched me in the end,” the anti-Bush and anti-war Republican said. Dave Cuddy, a more conventional Republican and former legislator who also challenged Stevens in the primary, said he reached out to Palin: “We did call, and we played telephone tag. I think she was uncomfortable. She didn’t support me because she thought that I was not going to win.”


Palin’s ties to Stevens go back nearly a decade, when she retained Stevens’s former chief of staff, Steve Silver, as the Washington lobbyist for Wasilla. He opened doors for her on lobbying trips to Washington for earmarks. Silver’s firm was so tied to Stevens that it also included the senator’s former counsel and, according to registration forms, his son. It also lobbied for Ketchikan Gateway Borough, the beneficiary of Stevens’s pork-barrel favorite, the since-killed Bridge to Nowhere, as well as for the Alaska Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, sponsor of the second Nowhere Bridge that’s still alive and runs near Palin’s house. Ironically, the firm was also so tight with Frank Murkowski that it was Murkowski’s since-convicted top aide, Jim Clark, who once headed its lobbying unit and brought Silver aboard.

But one Stevens law firm wasn’t enough for Palin. She hired the firm that included Stevens’s brother-in-law, Bill Bittner, as counsel to the city, ultimately steering hundreds of thousands in payments to it, much of it associated with a costly lawsuit sparked by a Palin development decision. Bittner, who has engineered real-estate investments for Stevens, also rented an apartment to the state for Murkowski’s use whenever he visited Anchorage. A year after Palin stepped down as mayor, she was one of three incorporators of a nonprofit called the Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service Committee that he helped establish to support Republican women.

It’s unclear why Bill Allen, the VECO president who has pled guilty to bribery charges and is expected to testify against Stevens, became such a large Palin donor in 2002. His contributions and bribes were usually connected to his business interests, and he had none in Wasilla. News accounts in Alaska indicate that in 2001, Palin drove from Wasilla to Allen’s home in faraway Cook Inlet. Allen, other VECO executives, and their wives then gave Palin’s campaign committee $5,000, contributing $500 apiece over a two-day period in late December.

No one else in Palin’s underfinanced bid for lieutenant governor came close to VECO. Virtually the same group of executives repeated the pattern in 2003—giving $1,600 to Charlie Fannon’s campaign committee, chaired by Palin. No one seemed to mind that the Alaska Public Offices Commission had collected the largest fine in its history ($28,000) from VECO who were paying employees to make illegal campaign contributions. In the current VECO scandals, which have already led to the convictions of several state legislators, it’s clear that VECO continued the practice of reimbursing the campaign donations of its executives. Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, who recently did a Fox News Sunday appearance on her behalf, collected $16,000 in VECO contributions as a state legislator.

JOHN McCAIN AND Palin share at least one common bond beyond their self-proclaimed independence: They’re both very comfortable with lobbyists. Sean Parnell—who is running Alaska’s government while Palin travels and is so trusted that he was one of only three Alaskans named to the national campaign’s truth squad for Palin—was a lobbyist in the Anchorage office of the legendary Washington firm, Patton Boggs, before he was elected with Palin. Ironically, one of the charges in the eventual ethics complaint against Ruedrich was that he’d sent numerous e-mails to Evergreen’s lobbyist, Kyle Parker, a Patton Boggs partner. Ruedrich admitted that he had even leaked a confidential commission memo on the methane controversy to Parker. Ruedrich was reporting at the time to Kevin Jardell, an assistant commissioner of administration who oversaw the commission. Jardell had lived for months in Ruedrich’s home while he worked with Parker representing the state GOP in a reapportionment case, hired by Patton Boggs, which was the party’s outside counsel.

This intertwining of interests was exposed when all the details of the Ruedrich scandal hit the headlines in 2004. Parnell was then Murkowski’s deputy director of Oil & Gas. Undeterred by Patton’s reputation, Parnell left his state job in 2005 to join the firm, where he soon had his own oil clients. Before joining the Murkowski administration, he had been the in-house lobbyist for ConocoPhillips. Parnell’s bio makes him an odd choice to lead a truth squad—having moved from the state senate to an oil company, then back to a state oil job, and finally, becoming an outside lobbyist for oil interests while running for lieutenant governor.


Even closer to Palin than Parnell is the Alaskan lobbyist whose firm topped the charts in earnings: Wendy Chamberlain. Palin lists Chamberlain on her personal-disclosure forms because Chamberlain took Palin’s daughter Willow and her own daughter on a 2007 summer trip to a basketball camp in Mexico. Palin insisted on the form that she had reimbursed Chamberlain—the legislature had passed a bill that barred executives from taking gifts from lobbyists. A Washington Post story last week revealed that Chamberlain’s clients have deluged Palin with gifts, including three, worth $2,650, from the chief executive of a mining company (Parnell used to represent the same firm, Calista). Todd Palin took two trips from other Chamberlain clients, though the lobbyist claims she had no idea her clients were so generous with her friend.

In fact, Chamberlain tried to minimize her relationship with Palin in a Voice interview (“I know her about the same as any other lobbyist”), though news clips describe Palin and Chamberlain together working the sidewalks for Frank Murkowski in the 2002 campaign. Chamberlain was then married to Eldon Mulder, a state legislator who now runs his own lobbying firm. “We first met Governor Palin many years ago,” Mulder says, “when our daughters were in basketball camp together. About six to eight years ago.”

Chamberlain acknowledged that back then, one of her firm’s clients was VECO. Mulder collected $9,000 in VECO contributions from 1999 to 2001, and, according to press reports, he used his position as chair of the House Finance committee to push for a tax-break bill introduced at VECO’s request by another legislator eventually convicted of taking payoffs from VECO. Mulder was accused by a third House member—also a Republican—of threatening to cut off state funds if he got in the way of the VECO bill. Chamberlain became a lobbyist two years after her husband was first elected to the House in 1992 and ran into problems three times with the ethics committee—mostly for using state offices and funds for her lobbying business. Once, she was sanctioned for “poor judgment” when her husband weakened a cruise-ship-pollution bill in the interests of a Chamberlain client. Mulder and Chamberlain’s lobbying partner, former House Speaker Joe Hayes, contributed $1,500 to Palin in 2006.

One Chamberlain client, the Pebble Partnership, has fared so well with Palin that the governor spoke out against a state initiative that would have erected environmental obstacles to its proposed mining project. A state watchdog group whose members she appoints is now looking at whether Palin’s highly unusual public opposition to a ballot issue—with her saying, “Let me take my governor’s hat off” for a moment of “personal privilege”—violated state laws. Chamberlain pushed so hard against the initiative that other clients, like the Alaska Association of Realtors, decided to oppose it at an executive meeting she attended. Chamberlain’s husband also lobbied for Pebble, and three other lobbyists recently tied to the partnership, one of whom is dating Palin’s legislative director, donated $4,150 to her.

In her 2006 race, Palin received $24,000 in contributions from lobbyists, most of them tied to the oil industry.

EVEN PALIN’S most plausible claim—that she’s taken on Big Oil—is at best a half-truth. She did hike their taxes and push through a natural-gas pipeline deal that, at least for now, has cut them out. But delegates weren’t chanting “Drill, baby, drill” during her convention speech without reason. Shortly after she became governor, she was elected chair of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), a pro-industry coalition of 30 producer states. She soon tapped Michael Smith, who was assistant secretary of fossil energy at Bush’s Energy Department, as its new executive director. Smith left the Abraham Group, the lobbying and consulting firm of former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, to join IOGCC. Harper’s Magazine said of Smith: “While in government, he pushed to promote oil drilling wherever a drop might be found”—and that was before Bush and McCain began pushing offshore drilling.

Smith isn’t the only Palin connection to the most pro-oil administration in American history. One of her 2002 campaign treasurers, Hans Neidig, was named special assistant for Alaska in the Bush interior department. Neidig was selected by Drue Pearce, a former Alaska state senator now in charge of overseeing the federal role in the giant pipeline project. Pearce, a gushing Palin champion in recent news stories, joined in Palin’s 2006 victory party.

Palin also selected Larry Hartig as state environmental-conservation commissioner, though Hartig’s law firm, Hartig Rhodes, lists a dozen Alaska oil and drilling companies as clients, as well as a few mining companies. One well-known Hartig client, Halliburton Energy Services, has surprisingly extensive investments in the state—and even services the company that acquired Evergreen’s Alaska interests. Another, Anadarko Petroleum, is owned by the 30th-largest corporate polluter in the country. Even Randy Ruedrich’s onetime employer is a Hartig client, and the man Murkowski selected to replace Palin when she quit the Oil & Gas Commission in ostensible protest was a Hartig partner.


As commissioner, Hartig rushed to the aid last year of Shell when it ran into trouble getting offshore drilling permits from Bush’s EPA. The onetime Evergreen lobbyist Kyle Parker actually e-mailed Hartig a draft letter for him to forward to an EPA appeals board, and Hartig obliged—altering the language but requesting an “expedited review” so “drilling can proceed this season.” Palin has put Hartig in charge of the climate-change subcabinet she bragged about during the debate as well, suggesting that Carl Pope of the Sierra Club might not be far off when he declared: “No one is closer to the oil industry than Governor Palin.”

Marathon Oil, a Wendy Chamberlain client and sponsor of Palin’s inaugural, has already benefited from one unnoticed Palin decision—her support of an extension of a license that allows it and ConocoPhillips to continue exporting natural gas to Japan and other Asian countries. Palin championed this license though several gas users in Alaska objected that it would worsen the problem of declining gas reserves, and one, a major fertilizer-maker, shut its plant when the extension was granted, forcing 130 workers out of jobs. As frequently as Palin’s lack of foreign-policy experience has been noted in the media, she has never cited her meeting with Japan’s consul over gas issues, perhaps because it might appear inconsistent with her claim that Alaska is a bulwark of production for the U.S. itself.

Even Palin’s ballyhooed pipeline is more a pipedream than it is the blow to Big Oil that Palin pretends it is. (Murkowski was about to award the deal to the oil giants when she beat him.) Two days after Palin’s deal with TransCanada was approved, the company’s chief executive, Hal Kvisle, repeated what he’d been saying all along: “Nothing goes ahead until Exxon is happy with it.” While he was forced to pull back a bit from that moment of candor, his statement that “the five key players”—including TransCanada, the state, and three main producers—have to still “get together” and “craft something” is indisputably true.

All Palin has done is outsource the negotiations with the producers to TransCanada, who can conduct them very privately. She also offered the company a half-billion-dollar state bonus if it can get a deal going, though Palin’s natural-resources commissioner, Tom Irwin, quit the Murkowski administration in part because it gave the producers financial incentives that he said were unnecessary. The only way Palin’s pipeline becomes real (she claimed, absurdly, during the debate that the state was already “building” it) is if the producers, who have announced their own project now, are brought back into it—something, like Troopergate and her possible Pebble Mine violation, that won’t be resolved until post-election.

THE $12.5 MILLION sports complex and hockey rink that is the lasting monument to Palin’s two terms as Wasilla mayor is also a monument to the kind of insider politics that dismays Americans of both parties. Six months before Palin stepped down as mayor in October 2002, the city awarded nearly a half-million-dollar contract to design the biggest project in Wasilla history to Kumin Associates. Blase Burkhart was the Kumin architect on the job—the son of Roy Burkhart, who is frequently described as a “mentor” of Palin and was head of the local Republican Party (his wife, June, who also advised Palin, is the national committeewoman). Asked if the contract was a favor, Roy Burkhart, who contributed to her campaign in the same time frame that his son got the contract, said: “I really don’t know.” Palin then named Blase Burkhart to a seven-member builder-selection committee that picked Howdie Inc., a mostly residential contractor owned at the time by Howard Nugent. Formally awarded the contract a couple of weeks after Palin left office, Nugent has donated $4,000 to Palin campaigns. Two competitors protested the process that led to Nugent’s contract. Burkhart and Nugent had done at least one project together before the complex—and have done several since.

A list of subcontractors on the job, obtained by the Voice, includes many with Palin ties. One was Spenard Builders Supply, the state’s leading supplier of wood, floor, roof, and other “pre-engineered components.” In addition to being a sponsor of Todd Palin’s snow-machine team that has earned tens of thousands for the Palin family, Spenard hired Sarah Palin to do a statewide television commercial in 2004. When the Palins began building a new family home off Lake Lucille in 2002—at the same time that Palin was running for lieutenant governor and in her final months as mayor—Spenard supplied the materials, according to Antoine Bricks, who works in its Wasilla office. Spenard actually filed a notice “of its right to assert a lien” on the deed for the Palin property after contracting for labor and materials for the site. Spenard’s name has popped up in the trial of Senator Stevens—it worked on the house that is at the center of the VECO scandal as well.


Todd Palin told Fox News that he built the two-story, 3,450-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath, wood house himself, with the help of contractors he described as “buddies.” As mayor, Sarah Palin blocked an effort to require the filing of building permits in the wide-open city, and there is no public record of who the “buddies” were. The house was built very near the complex, on a site whose city purchase led to years of unsuccessful litigation and, now, $1.3 million in additional costs, with a law firm that’s also donated to Palin collecting costly fees from the city.

Dorwin and Joanne Smith, the principals of complex subcontractor DJ Excavation & Development, have donated $7,100 to Palin and her allied candidate Charlie Fannon (Joanne is a Palin appointee on the state Board of Nursing). Sheldon Ewing, who owns another complex subcontractor, Weld Air, has donated $1,300, and PN&D, an engineering firm on the complex, has contributed $699.

Ewing was one of the few sports-complex contractors, aside from Spenard, willing to address the question of whether he worked on the house as well, but he had little to say: “I doubt that it occurred, but if it did indirectly, how would I know anyhow?” The odd timing of Palin’s house construction—it was completed two months before she left City Hall and while she and Todd Palin were campaigning statewide for the first time—raises questions, especially considering its synergy with the complex.

Salon‘s David Talbot recently visited the complex, which, he said, resembled “a huge airplane hangar” so far away from the city’s center that kids can’t bike or walk there. It’s adorned by a plaque commemorating Palin. Even as a governor, she is still such a champion of the complex—which loses money every year—that she just steered state funding for a new kitchen to it.


Fireproof Appeals to the Indoctrinated

When Capt. Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron) decides to divorce his Sarah Palin–type wife, his bros at the firehouse come to his rescue with words of wisdom swiped from the Hallmark section at Rite Aid: “You never leave your partner—especially during a fire.” With advice like that, it’s no wonder Caleb turns to Jesus. Naturally, director Alex Kendrick’s style suggests a pharmaceutical commercial—especially in the scenes of Caleb and his father plodding through the woods toward a creepily and strategically placed cross—because what else is Fireproof selling if not a drug? But before it even mentions God, the film works sweetly as a chronicle of a man trying to extend the courage he brings to the job to saving his marriage, mainly by following a 40-day experiment called “the Love Dare” that necessitates being kind to his wife Catherine (Erin Bethea) and, ultimately, unkind to himself—by giving up his dream of owning a boat, and by beating the shit out of his computer for teasing him with a pornographic pop-up ad. Then the film gets all religulous, suggesting that Caleb’s devotion to healing means nothing without Jesus—and so Fireproofstops being resonant with us all and appeals instead only to the already (or easily) indoctrinated.


Sarah Palin Sucks, Sean Penn Rocks

Hooray for movie trailers! They provide an invaluable service! As each one clogs up the screen before the main feature, they invariably prompt thoughts like, “Gotta avoid that one like Wachovia!” and “They made a sequel to that piece of shit? Note to self: Stay home all fall.”

And yet, occasionally a trailer will make a film look worth leaving the house for—i.e., they’ll actually do their job. I just saw the one for Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the murdered “Mayor of Castro Street,” and I gotta say I got Milk. From the snippets, it looks like they nailed the period and the pathos, and Penn appears to be giving the kind of crisp impersonation that can’t be ignored come nomination time. Awards-wise, it helps that director Gus Van Sant is gay. (That kind of touch always gives an edgy movie more sexual credence in buzzy circles.) It helps even more that Sean isn’t gay; the Academy loves the “bravery” of straight actors crossing to the other side, especially when they play real-life heroic victims of the kind of homophobes who, ironically enough, run Hollywood.

Competing against Sean, if the trailer is any indication, will be another extrovert playing a doomed politician—namely Frank Langella in the Ron Howard–directed Frost/Nixon, which has the Tony winner once again defrosting Nixon and almost making him palatable. (Then again, a trailer is designed to sell a film the way Nixon tried to sell his innocence. Don’t trust a word of this column.)

A guy with a tricky dick, Mickey Rourke, is a shoo-in for The Wrestler, for which he gained lotsa weight and allegedly managed to get all kinds of emotions to register on his mattress-like face. I haven’t caught the trailer for that yet, but I’ve seen the one for Doubt—a verbal wrestling match between a possibly pervy priest and a definitely nervy nun—and I must say Philip Seymour Hoffman looks all spruced up and pulled together. (I guess because you have to look good to play a suspected pedophile.) The trailer looks a little dreary, but it’s not supposed to be a Dane Cook comedy—in which case it would be very dreary.

Moving on to actual feature films, how interested are people in Filth and Wisdom, the sex-worker romp directed by Sean Penn’s ex, Madonna? I don’t know, but at a screening I went to last week, there was only one other person in the entire room! I was tempted to look back and murmur, “Madge?”

Even more filth and wisdom come via the Sex and the City movie’s “extended-cut DVD,” which had a life-imitates-art party at the 42nd Street Library last week, especially when Kim “Cougar” Cattrall arrived with her Jason Lewis–lookalike boyfriend. Willie Garson (who plays Stanford) came, too, showing off his nifty brown suit and crowing, “It’s thrift! Eighteen American dollars!” Garson also gave me his two American cents on whether he and Mario Cantone, who drunkenly kiss in the flick, will end up married in the inevitable sequel, Sex and the City: Dead Man’s Chest. “I doubt it,” he said. “I think we ended the movie as good friends. I don’t know if we’re heading toward the altar!” But apparently the entire gay community’s having a big love affair with Garson anyway. The reaction to his portrayal “has been pretty great,” he told me. “No one’s ever said, ‘You’re disgusting’ or ‘No one would wear that pink sweater with those heels!’ ” Even if it’s thrift.

Sex and two cities (and a suspected pedophile) pop up on Broadway, where A Tale of Two Cities almost didn’t become a tale of two acts for me. But nobly enough, I stayed to the guillotine number and beyond, finding it professionally enough done, yet so middling in quality that sometimes it seemed the big banner onstage should say “Fraternity! Liberty! Banality!” At least this is the rare show where a cell phone doesn’t go off in the audience, but I think it’s because they don’t have any.

By the way, the current Playbill has an ad for Ambien that includes two long pages of potential side effects, including waking up unconscious in the middle of the night and doing all kinds of horrible shit, like sex acts and driving. Why do I feel “the Ambien defense” will be the new “Twinkie defense” (see Milk to catch that reference)?—though this one actually sounds like a potentially valid alibi. In fact, I might just pop some and kill a few people tonight!

The downtown set must have been sleepwalking into their living room walls because L Magazine‘s Nightlife Awards at Touch only brought out about 40 people including the presenters, making it the Filth and Wisdom of awards shows. But what winners! Sophia Lamar won Nightlife Icon and told the crowd, “You don’t know who the fuck I am!” Someone else bagged a major prize and announced, “I hate you all!” And, more constructively, a presenter—advice-giver Robbyne Kaamil—said there should be a category for best drug dealer next year. “New York nightlife ain’t shit if you can’t get an eight ball in 15 minutes,” she told the assembled, who nodded in approval. “I nominate ‘Ray-Ray’ on 128th Street, and Lennox and the Dominicans at 170th and the Grand Concourse.” No mention of Sean Penn or Frank Langella.

Some heavy drugs—or at least Ambien—would have been helpful for watching that larger-scale honorfest, the Emmy Awards telecast, which was only jolted out of its ennui by the weird moments like Hillary Clinton poetically popping up in the montage of dead people and Josh Groban belting the theme from The Jeffersons. By that point, my eyes were rolling so fast in their sockets that I almost missed the woman who did the movie about how votes aren’t counted strangely urging us to vote!

For the most part, though, political statements allowed on-screen were as rare as real noses and wrinkled foreheads and generally had to be disguised as bits about “eight more years of prunes.” A winner who was starting to rail against inarticulate leaders became very inarticulate when he was suddenly cut off, and when Laura Linney noted that she’s grateful for community organizers—a coded reference to Obama‘s background, as trashed by Sarah Palin—I could have sworn I heard a trapdoor open that led right back to Off-Broadway.

Speaking of all that, I’ve now had time to consider Palin’s candidacy with some thoughtfulness, and I still come up with two thumbs way down my throat. I mean, Obama‘s ex-reverend is supposed to be the problem in this campaign, but her church believes in praying away the gays? She still thinks the war in Iraq has something to do with 9/11? (Even Dubya got the memo that it doesn’t.) What’s more, Palin thinks it’s almighty God who’s sent us to war? (I guess she never got the fax about separation between church and state either.) She detests abortion yet will gleefully hunt animals from a helicopter? And she looks like a LensCrafters commercial? Plus she never heard of the Bush Doctrine; Cindy McCain doesn’t seem to grasp Roe v. Wade; and her hubby is fuzzy about Spain? Oy. This ticket has been basically giving us a free trailer of a sequel that must be avoided at all costs, even at a senior-citizens’ discount!



Hypothetically, it’s the type of book that Sarah Palin would ban at the school library without even blinking. But here in New York, we hedonists can indulge in Lolita in America, an all-day symposium in honor of the 50th anniversary of the American publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel (originally printed in Paris in 1955) about a man sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. Panelists ranging from Nabokov literary analysts and scholars to journalists will be on hand to discuss the tremendous impact the Russian author’s work had on American culture and examine the relationship it is thought to have with his last unfinished, unpublished novel, The Original of Laura, which is slated to be published soon. The program concludes with a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Lolita. Additionally, “Visualizing Lolita”—works by students from the New School for Design—will be on display from September 24 through October 26.

Sat., Sept. 27, 10 a.m., 2008