Uninspiring shortlists

What do you do when you’re presented with a short-list of eight or nine candidates

and none of them is particularly appealing? That seems to be the case, now,

with both the World Trade Center memorial and the Democratic presidential candidates.

I’m quite glad, now, that I was out of the country when the finalists

for the World Trade Center memorial were announced. I’d been looking forward

to blogging them for a long time, and was very disappointed when I found out

I couldn’t make it.

Now, however, that the initial flurry of attention is dying down, the consensus

opinion is loud and clear: none of the above. It’s not the "we hate them

all" that greeted the original

plans for the site as a whole: it’s more inchoate than that. Rather, there’s

a niggling feeling that none of these concepts is quite right, and that if we

rush ahead and build one of them now, we’ll probably regret it.

I certainly have no faith in the ability of any of these memorials to stand

the test of time. I remember, as a kid, being rather perturbed at war memorials

with eternal flames: it seemed to me axiomatic that whatever else the flame was, it obviously wasn’t eternal.

What I didn’t realise then is that eternal flames have a habit of sputtering

out wherever they are in the world: this is a known issue which still hasn’t

been resolved. But faced with an enormous acreage to convert into a memorial,

everybody seems to have resorted to some kind of technological wizardry vastly

more complex than a common-or-garden eternal flame.

Dual Memory is the worst

offender in this resepect, with its "evolving images [which] are reflected

as water flows down the walls that support the plane of water above". But

did Michael Arad stop

to think about what might happen if his water features had to be turned off

during a summer drought? And there are huge practical difficulties associated

with keeping 3000 votives

in suspension, or maintaing a crystalline

cloud. Remember, these things are meant to last for dozens, if not hundreds,

of years.

With hindsight, the "program guiding principles" were far too broad

and ambitious. The memorial had to, inter alia, "respect and enhance

the sacred quality of the overall site"; "evoke the historical significance

and worldwide impact of September 11, 2001"; "inspire and engage people

to learn more about the events and impact of September 11, 2001 and February

26, 1993"; and, for good measure, "create an original and powerful

statement of enduring and universal symbolism".

It seemed that the winning entrants didn’t take the guidelines all that literally,

but even so, original, enduring and universal symbolism is a tall order for

anybody. (Quite literally: many people, including LMDC bigwigs, seemed to think

that the memorial would include some kind of skyline-restoring structure which

would complement or even outdo the Childs/Libeskind Freedom Tower. It’s interesting

that none of the finalists go much above grade.) In the end, we’ve arrived at

a shortlist of plans which either ignore a number of the principles entirely,

or which fail to meet their high standards. Better to wait a while, now that

Plan A seems to have gone off-track somewhat, than to rush ahead with a proposal

which doesn’t have public support and which, in any case, has been designed

to complement a general site plan which could change significantly between now

and even its first built stages.

But at least, in the case of the memorial finalists, waiting is an option.

In the case of the Democratic

presidential candidates, the timetable is set, and we’re stuck with the

ones we’ve got. One of them, for better or for worse, is going to go up against

George W Bush in November 2004, and it’s up to the country’s registered Democrats

to pick the candidate with the best chance of success.

Once again, received wisdom has it that "none of the above" seems

like the best choice. That’s why Wes Clark joined the race so late: his advisors

were telling him that it was still wide open, and that none of the candidates

had caught the public imagination. In opinion polls, Bush has a narrower lead

against an unnamed "Democratic candidate" than he does against any

named individual: none of the choices, it would seem, has any appeal beyond

simply being not-Bush.

The front-runner, of course, is Howard Dean, who recently went on Hardball

to embarrass himself on

foreign policy:

the key, I believe, to Iran is pressure through the Soviet Union. The Soviet

Union is supplying much of the equipment that Iran, I believe, most likely

is using to set itself along the path of developing nuclear weapons. We need

to use that leverage with the Soviet Union and it may require us to buying

the equipment the Soviet Union was ultimately going to sell to Iran to prevent

Iran from them developing nuclear weapons.

Yeah, that’s right, the Soviet Union. Four times in three sentences Dean proved

himself to be completely out of date, living in the past, and hardly the sort

of person you’d want putting in place a coherent statement on America’s position

in a unipolar world.

Dean is doing very well in galvanising the younger end of the Democratic party;

he’s raising lots of money, and none of the other candidates look like toppling

him in the near future. That said, however, I’ve never liked the guy, mainly

because he seems to have no policies. Push on something like gun control or

gay marriage, and all you’ll find is the federalist cop-out: that’s not a question

for the president, that’s a question for the individual states.

When I saw Dean at an event in New York, he certainly came over very pro-gay,

talking about his implementation of civil unions in Vermont. What he didn’t

say was that they were court-ordered (he didn’t really have a choice in the

matter); and that when he’s pressed, you get exchanges like this:

KING: So you would be opposed to a gay marriage?

DEAN: If other states want to do it, that’s their business. We didn’t choose

to do that in our state.

KING: And you personally would oppose it?

DEAN: I don’t know, I never thought about that very much.

Yeah, right.

The problem, or the reason that Dean is doing so well, is that none of the

rest of the field seem to be having any luck at all in getting Democrats to

care about them. Personally,

I’m a big fan of Edwards, but even I have to admit that he’s done an atrocious

job in getting his message out. Or rather, that’s been his problem: he’s been

concentrating on substance, and thereby losing out at the expense of Dean, who’s

nearly as good as Bush when it comes to showy rhetoric unencumbered by actual


There’s still a possibility that Kerry or even Clark might manage to get a

groundswell going, but I feel Edwards slipping away into the land of the once-likely,

along with Joe Lieberman.

Of course, the fact remains that it probably doesn’t make the slightest bit

of difference who wins the Democratic nomination. I wrote

last year that

The chances of a Democrat wresting the presidency from Bush in 2004 are slim

indeed: in order for that to happen, the economy will have to continue to

deteriorate, the housing-market bubble will have to burst, and the US will

have to fuck up in Iraq. Two out of three might just do it; one out of three

won’t be enough.

And just as the Democrats started seeing Iraq as good for them and not the

Republicans, we get this economic turnaround. Alan Greenspan is going to be

able to keep rates down for one more year, which means that even if Iraq is

an election-winner for the Democrats, the economy and real-estate wealth is

going to go for the GOP. They’ll have two out of three, and the election in

the bag.

Against that sort of incumbency advantage, the present line-up of Democratic

candidates looks decidely sub-par. And no, there isn’t a white knight (Eliot

Spitzer, Hillary Clinton) waiting in the wings to gallop on stage at the Democratic

National Convention and ride into the election with a huge and unexpected mandate.

Unfortunately, unlike the WTC memorial, "do nothing" is not an option.

The Democrats are going to have to choose someone, rally behind him, and hope

for the best. All we can hope is for the best candidate to win – and for

some much-needed luck.

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5 Responses to Uninspiring shortlists

  1. Stefan Geens says:

    “And no, there isn’t a white knight (Eliot Spitzer, Hillary Clinton) waiting in the wings to gallop on stage at the Democratic National Convention and ride into the election with a huge and unexpected mandate.”

    pray tell, why not? I’m ready to quote this back at you. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we all know Hillary is a force of nature.

    Pardon the strained wit.

  2. Felix says:

    I feel a wager coming on: I’ll happily bet you 2BVCs that Hillary does not run for president in 2004. I’ll even go one further: I’ll bet you 2BVCs that the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 is going to be one of the nine now running. (Carol MB, Wes Clark, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, Kucinich, Lieberman, Sharpton).

  3. Stefan Geens says:

    How about we double or nothing the BVC you owe me at the moment?

  4. Stefan Geens says:

    I do apologize, as felix has just pointed out to me, he owes me a BC, not a BVC, so I propose a BVC or nothing in that case, which is more or less a double or nothing.

  5. Felix says:

    OK, for the record, this is now a BC bet, on the understanding that at the moment I owe Stefan 1BC, and that 2BCs = 1BVC. So if I win, I owe Stefan 1BC and he owes me 1BC, the two cancel each other out, and we’re all square. If I lose, I owe Stefan 2BCs = 1 BVC. I win if any of the nine Democratic candidates currently running for President receives the nomination.

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