Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Last standing Anti-Romney still plugs away

When Newsweek called Barack Obama America's "first gay president" last week for his embrace of same-sex marriage, Fred Karger had to have had mixed feelings.

 Karger wanted to be America's first gay president, and not simply in the sense that Newsweek's Andrew Sullivan meant it. Karger is seeking the Republican nomination for president, a long-shot (OK, no-shot) quest that makes him the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party in U.S. history.

He rolled into Bakersfield last week in a black campaign RV adorned with his smiling, larger-than-life mug and, surrounded by an entourage of one, made an effort to look up some old friends.

He spoke with Stan Harper, who, like Karger, made a name for himself running political campaigns for conservative candidates and causes. Karger had hoped to meet up with old friend Ed Jagels, the former Kern County district attorney, but to no avail. Jagels led the ultimately successful 1986 effort to oust state Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird and Karger worked on the campaign.

And Karger knows a bit about what former state legislator Roy Ashburn has been going through over the past couple of years, having publicly come out as a gay man later in life himself. Karger, who is 62, made the acknowledgement at age 58. Ashburn was 54 when the circumstances of a March 2010 DUI arrest in Sacramento essentially forced him to admit what had long been suspected by many.

Karger, who lives in Laguna Beach, says all the things a good Republican would be expected to say about the federal deficit, Obamacare, Medicare and the death penalty, but he swims against the tide on gay rights (duh) and abortion -- he's in favor of a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

 "A pro-choice Republican, " he says, "is an even narrower niche than a gay Republican." Karger has never held elective office, but he's been on many a campaign trail, having served as a senior consultant to the campaigns of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford. He was also a partner at the Dolphin Group, a California campaign consulting firm. He must be able to read tea leaves pretty well, then, right? So why this quixotic quest? Three reasons, as nearly as I can tell.

He loves tweaking nominee-apparent Mitt Romney for his policy flip-flops and especially for the Mormon Church's position on gay rights. Karger's grass-roots organization, Californians Against Hate, took on the church over its campaign to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law. (Karger's group also waged war on major Proposition 8 donors like Bakersfield's William Bolthouse.) When Salt Lake City is on the phone, Karger maintains, President Romney will take the call every time.

He relishes the fact that his campaign has actually gained a little steam: Karger outpolled Ron Paul in the March 18 Puerto Rico primary, 1.43 percent to 1.22 percent. And now he's the only Republican on the June 5 California ballot who has not formally dropped out and is not named Mitt Romney.

That makes him the last surviving anti-Romney. But the main thing that drives him: He knows that young gays are watching him. "I was walking in an Occupy New Hampshire march and this 15-year-old girl walked up to me, " Karger says. "She said, 'Are you Fred Karger?' 'I am, ' I said. And she said, 'I'm gay.' She shook my hand and just held it; we stood there for maybe 30 seconds and cried a little together. And that symbolized what I'm doing."

His gripe with the Republican Party is that its tent is too small. There's no room for new or different ideas. "It's like you're with the party on every issue, or you're against it completely, " he said. "That's got to change."

Karger is trying to help. Those windmills are tough targets, though.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The night I almost slapped down Reggie Jackson

Larry Blake's closes, famed Cal hangout


When Reggie Jackson came back to the Oakland Coliseum as a member of the hated Angels to play the A's in 1982, I let him have it from the 99th row: "Jackson, you suck!" And I swear he turned up to the stands and looked right at me. After the game our obnoxious group went to Larry Blake's in Berkeley, and who do you think I ran into at the entrance? Yep, No. 44, looking large and fit. I may have soiled myself. A couple years earlier I'd landed a job bartending at Larry Blake's in Davis. That was the scene of my one and only nightclub singing appearance. I harmonized with my roommate Eli on a couple of his original songs, and I swear we did not suck. Reggie Jackson was not in the audience.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A real-life civics lesson

Kern High School District trustee Ken Mettler believes in civic education. We know this because in 2007 he enthusiastically endorsed the creation and classroom placement of 3,000 “In God We Trust” posters declaring that “Civic Education is Fundamental.”
As valuable as those posters might be in impressing American values on the hearts and minds of Kern County students, they pale in effectiveness next to Mettler’s own vivid example.

His lesson for the kids: Our electoral process still works fine after all these years, but a little lubrication sometimes comes in handy.

Mettler, who is running for Jean Fuller’s soon-to-be-vacant 32nd Assembly District seat, has oiled things up by throwing a straw candidate into the proceedings. Faced with an opponent, Shannon Grove, from the formidable camp of political consultant Mark Abernathy, Team Mettler “invited” another Shannon — Shannon Holloway — to run against him too. Mettler’s ally and fellow trustee, The Rev. Chad Vegas, helped secure the signatures needed to qualify her candidacy. Doppleshannon would split the “Shannon” vote and lift the crafty school board trustee to victory. “It’s a political strategy,” Holloway confessed to radio host Ralph Bailey last week. The assumption behind the strategy, of course, is that voters are as malleable as sheep. Which may be correct.

In addition to demonstrating to government students across the San Joaquin Valley the depths to which some candidates will sink, Mettler, consultant Tracy Leach and their associates have struck a blow for bored campaign advisers everywhere. Politics need not be so gosh-darn serious all the time! Underhandedness adds an entertaining dimension to the enterprise that folding brochures and knocking on doors could never offer.

Of course, there’s downside to all of this for Mettler, who has always tried to position himself as the voice of the moral majority. He might come across as just another politician willing to check his honor at the door of the campaign office.

Fact is, he has shown dubious judgement before. Remember the street-corner scuffle with the No-on-Prop. 8 protester who had obtained and defaced a Yes-on-8 sign? You’d think a fiftysomething school board member would have the sense to walk away from a 21-year-old knucklehead, but instead Mettler took a swing — and was spared a juicy YouTube moment only because the camera angle wasn’t up to optimal production standards.

And you might recall the dust-up over the 2002 Rosedale Union School Board race, when incumbent trustee Mettler was charged with vandalizing an opponent’s sign by covering portions of it with white paper. The case went to trial, but the judge dismissed the charges, saying the alleged actions didn’t meet the definition of graffiti under the penal code section that Mettler was charged with.

Now, with this ham-handed attempt to confuse voters, Mettler has succeeded in the previously thought-to-be-impossible task of making the Abernathy team look like the aggrieved party.

No small chore, that. The folks from Abernathy’s Western Pacific Research have seen every trick in the book, and may have written a few.

The Abernathy crowd isn’t so clumsy they’d spell it all out in e-mails, but their footprints are at a few crime scenes. Consider the role played by candidate Phil Wyman in the 2006 GOP primary for this same 32nd Assembly District seat. When the votes were counted, it was clear that Wyman had successfully split the anti-Jean Fuller vote (i.e., the anti-Abernathy vote), resulting in Fuller’s election and the defeat of well-funded businessman Stan Ellis, a level-headed guy whose heart seemed to be in the right place. Did Abernathy recruit Wyman to enter the race? There’s no telling, but after the election, Fuller and Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a longtime Abernathy client, officially sponsored a fundraiser to pay off Wyman’s campaign debt.

There’s got to be a temptation among people who run campaigns for a living to run with the big boys and engage in a little political larceny. Campaign intrigue gets the heart beating faster. Stamping envelopes is boring. Finding ways to exploit the quirks and vulnerabilities of the multiple-candidate ballot has got to be downright fascinating.

But there’s an ethical line there somewhere that separates gamesmanship from fraud, and if Mettler, et al., didn’t cross it, they stepped on it.

Shannon Holloway dropped out of the race Friday (her name will still appear on the ballot), but her place in the annals of Kern County political shenanigans is assured. She can thank Ken Mettler for that — as can high school government teachers across the county. Lessons so rarely write themselves before our eyes.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Two-thousand ten vs twenty-ten

I’ve often thought it would be fun, if I weren’t so dignified and respectable, to climb into an aluminum-foil jumpsuit and re-create a scene from a certain sci-fi movie that persists in my memory:

The disoriented time traveler finds himself on a barren desert road. He walks into a lonely, one-pump gas station and asks the grizzled old proprietor, “What year is it?” And without batting an eye, the old man answers, “Why, it’s 1948!” — as if he got that particular question as often as “Is this the road to Pearsonville?”

Last week, minus the silver jumpsuit, I got to ask that same question. And not because I’d just emerged from a time-space vortex — I simply don’t know how I’m supposed to say “2010.” Now that we’re several days into the new year, we ought to have developed some sort of consensus. But what is it? So I started asking: “What year is it?”

The two options would seem to be “two-thousand ten,” in keeping with the habit of the past 10 years (“two-thousand [and] nine,” “two- thousand [and] eight,” etc.), or “twenty-ten,” in keeping with the habit of the thousand years or so before that (“ten sixty-six,” “fourteen-ninety-two,” “seventeen-seventy-six,” etc.)

Liz Rodriguez was trying to pay for her car wash when I cornered her with the big question. “It’s twenty-ten,” she said. “Two-thousand-ten takes longer to say. My name is Elizabeth but I call myself Liz. Same reason.”

Gilbert Espinoza, the car wash customer service manager, observed with flawless logic that because last year was two-thousand-nine, this had to be two-thousand-ten.

Vanessa Guitierrez, working behind the cash register, observed that because brevity usually wins the day, this has to be twenty-ten. “Nobody said two-thousand-nine. It was oh-nine, oh-eight, oh-seven. Same deal.”

Yvonne Copeland received divine guidance on the issue. It was spelled out right on the front of last Sunday’s church program at Calvary Bible: “How to win in twenty-ten.” The shorthand answer, in case the Rev. Ted Duncan accuses you of napping through the sermon: Immerse yourself in God’s word.

Mae Leslie Strelich started the new year one way and then changed course. “I’ve actually discussed this with my 19-year-old son. He said, ‘Mom, it’s twenty-ten.’ So I guess I must have started off saying ‘two-thousand-ten.’”

It’s good to know the preferences of younger folk. This is their decade, their century, their millennium, not ours. So this matter is settled — or will be, as soon as I walk over to this teenage girl to get linguistic confirmation. Oops.

“Two-thousand-ten,” declared Brooklyn Lowe, a high school sophomore. “Twenty-ten makes thirty!”

“Yeah, two-thousand-ten rolls off the tongue,” said her mother, Wandra Lowe. “No doubt there.”

Well, there’s plenty of doubt. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick gave us “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and the titular year was pronounced “two-thousand-one.” But in 1969, the singing duo Zager and Evans warned us, “In the year twenty-five, twenty-five, if man is still alive ...” Pop culture isn’t particularly helpful here.

In fact, contradictory information is everywhere. One of county government’s most important planning documents is the 2010 General Plan, and everyone seems to pronounce it “twenty-ten.” The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 12 and the organizing committee is already referring to the big event as “Vancouver twenty-ten.”

But car makers, with a few exceptions, are talking up their “two-thousand-ten” models. That’s the auditory version supported by David Crystal, the author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. However, he notes, 2011 will be "twenty eleven." Go figure.

Then there’s the influence of Spanish, which can’t help but bleed a little into ordinary, daily English. KKEY-TV anchor-reporter Jaqueline Hurtado says she has heard it only one way: “Dos-mil-diez — two-thousand ten. You don’t hear people say, ‘viente diez.’” But perhaps she doesn’t go to the same car wash I do.

These are not idle questions. The answers, I think, speak to our comfort with linguistic tradition, whether we place more value on logic or convention, and whether logic and convention even apply to year-naming.

My final tally was 15 to 7 for “twenty ten” (with two inexplicable votes for “oh-ten”), but I am less convinced than when I started. I may have to ask again next week. Maybe I’ll try the foil jumpsuit.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Was this ’00 decade about ‘we’ or ‘me’?

Ten years ago, I didn’t know how to spell “millennium.” Did it have one “n” or two? An “e” in the middle, or an “i”?

At the time, this was important to know because the dawn of 2000 seemed to signify something Profound and Historic, and perhaps even Apocalyptic: Would nuclear power plants and intercontinental ballistic missiles be so confused by a “00” date they would throw digital tantrums and spew radioactive haze all over the globe? The possibility of millennial disaster seemed so real that we saw runs on bottled water, size-D batteries and large-caliber ammunition.

Ten months and seven days later, Al Gore was declared the winner of the November 2000 presidential election — for about 20 minutes. It seemed like the ’00s were indeed destined to become the False Alarm Decade.

Sept. 11, 2001, was no false alarm. The outrage of those attacks had one apparent benefit, however: America suddenly found new purpose and unity. The ’00s were suddenly the “We Decade,” the flip side of the self-centered, platformed-shoed “Me Decade” of the 1970s.

But, alas, “we” didn’t fit the evolving national argument over whether America had responded properly to 9/11. “We” didn’t fit a time of political and cultural polarization like none in living memory.

Naming this decade — and we must, because we are Americans, and we name things — isn’t going be so easy. Some decades, at least in retrospect, are easy calls. The Gay Nineties. The Roaring Twenties. The Psychedelic Sixties. But naming the ’00s is a challenge best postponed, because nothing we’ve considered rings with authenticity.

The Aughts? Problem is, hardly anyone under the age of 90 knows that “aught” means “zero.”

The Oughts? As in, we really ought to have sold the house when the Realtor told us it had tripled in value.

The Oh-Oh Decade? As in, uh-oh, our PG&E bill is $800.

No, no and no.

All we can do is look at the evidence that historians and sociologists not yet born will consider. And one thing, beyond the bookend disasters of 9/11 and the Great Recession, stands out: Technology reshaped who we are and how we interact.

Social media took hold of America in the last few years of the ’00s, with 350 million users on Facebook, 100 million on MySpace, and 18 million using Twitter.

Some of us are using these platforms to communicate important things to each other. But many of us are not. To a great extent, social media are simply self-aggrandizing spotlights.

At least that’s how Rhonda Dugan, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Bakersfield, sees it.

“I’d call it the Decade of Self-Importance,” she said. “Everyone is networking online, but they’re not doing it just to find jobs. They’re doing it to talk about themselves. The ‘Me Decade’ was all about me. Now it’s about me and telling everyone about it. I use Facebook myself. And now I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I posting that I ran a half-marathon?’ We’ve become more narcissistic, and social media has helped push it along.”

Evidence that we’re neck-deep in an era of public narcissism goes well beyond social media; you don’t need to know the difference between a computer and Coke machine to have seen it. Anyone can be a reality TV star, or so one might think: The Balloon Boy hoax and the White House party-crashers were logical conclusions to a decade of mind-numbing self-exploitation led by Tila Tequila and “Fear Factor.”

Russell Travis, the now-retired CSUB sociology professor-turned- Portland-based philanthropist, thinks in somewhat broader terms about the soon-to-be-past decade.

“I’d call it the PTSD — the Post-Traumatic Stress Decade,” he said. That name “reflects the cumulative stress from the aftermath of two ongoing wars and the many coming home afflicted with (real) PTSD; the aftermath of a seriously tanked economy; ... and the aftermath of the 2001 bombing of the Twin Towers.”

Maybe this is how we’ve come to deal with events just too big and too profound to process — by blocking out the wider world and turning inward, going to our own, personal safe place where the mundane trumps the abstract, the ordinary blocks out the incomprehensible, and 140 characters (or less) just about covers it.

Or, better stated in a Dec. 15 tweet by MeanKrystin: “Driving to the country club. I am drinking a juice box. Rock and roll.”


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The song that once roiled America is 40 years old


Merle Haggard must occasionally hear that drunk guy in his sleep. More than a few times in his long and fruitful career, the Bakersfield-born singer has been on stage, warbling in his fine baritone, when some yokel in the back bellows, “Play ‘Okie’!”

And, more often than not, Haggard, writer of hundreds of gentle and poignant jazz-country ballads, will — dare I suggest reluctantly? — oblige. Sometimes Haggard’s most famous, profitable and career-solidifying song, the one that expressed disgust with smoking marijuana, burning draft cards and those “hippies out in San Francisco,” must seem like an insufferable relative who just doesn’t know when to go home.

Forty years ago today, “Okie From Muskogee” was at the peak of its power, smack dab in the middle of a four-week run at No. 1 on the country music charts. In the span of those few weeks, Haggard cemented himself in the top tier of American entertainers.

But looking back now on “Okie,” the populist anthem Haggard has said he wrote in 10 minutes, it’s clear the song was much more than that: It was, and remains, a signpost on America’s difficult and unfulfilled journey toward self-identity.

Almost immediately upon the song’s ascent to No. 1 in November 1969, “Okie From Muskogee” was regaled as the voice of the silent majority, a revitalizing tonic for conservatives who had grown defensive and angry over Vietnam and the counter-culture movement it had helped spawn.

Of course, Haggard had been covertly political for most of his career, so covert perhaps Haggard did not fully realize it himself. “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” “Hungry Eyes” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” among others, had already firmly positioned Haggard as a man with working-class, anti-elite, populist sentiments. To a great extent, “Okie” tracked that same course.

Sociologists, historians and assorted pundits (including cultural historian and former Californian reporter Peter LaChapelle, author of 2007’s “Proud to be an Okie”) have long debated the song’s meaning and intent. Was it a parody or a sincerely indignant jab at the LSD-tripping left? At various times, Haggard has suggested both.

Haggard had no inkling what he’d created until he played the song publicly for the first time: His unveiling, at a club for noncommissioned Army officers in Fort Bragg, N.C., inspired a response so passionately rowdy that Haggard, then 32, later admitted he’d momentarily feared for his life.

The song, recorded in Hollywood on July 17 and released in August, made Haggard one of the hottest concert commodities in the country. The Atlantic Monthly described one scene on Dayton, Ohio: “… Suddenly they are on their feet, berserk, waving flags and stomping and whistling and cheering … and for those brief moments the majority isn’t silent anymore.” As a single, the song sold 264,000 copies the first year, propelling Haggard to 1970 entertainer of the year awards from both the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association.

Some critics decried the song’s ultraconservatism; others tried to rehabilitate the song by reading it as a populist, working-class assault on middle-class snobbery and elitism. It became perhaps the most parodied songs of the Vietnam era, inspiring left-of-center knockoffs by Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys (“Asshole From El Paso”), Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and Arlo Guthrie. So many country, rock and country-rock groups released transmogrified versions of “Okie” that Rolling Stone magazine kept score: As of March 1971, the song had been recorded 20 times, with the tally standing at “Honkies, 12, Hippies, 8.”

In the context of Haggard’s lifelong body of work, it’s clear that when Haggard saw protesting college students, he didn’t just see disrespect for flag and country, he saw class distinction and privilege. He saw trust-fund snot-noses who’d never stooped over a row of cotton in their lives, never seen dirt under their own fingernails. The marijuana was one thing — and maybe not such a big thing at that — but the naïveté was quite another. If the literal weight of the lyrics was an indication, the song was less about Vietnam than about class dignity. After all, “I’m proud to be an Okie” is the song’s most repeated line.

Eventually Haggard began expressing misgivings about the song’s tendency to brand him a reactionary, preferring to explain it simply as a statement of Okie pride. When Haggard spoke at the “Oildale and Beyond” history symposium at Cal State Bakersfield Nov. 7, that was the interpretation he shared.

But conservative politicians identified a natural constituency in country music fans, and their efforts to exploit it during the Vietnam era featured Merle Haggard.

Sometimes Haggard allowed it: He of course gratefully accepted Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 1970 pardon for crimes that eventually led to his incarceration at San Quentin Prison in the late 1950s. And he accepted Richard Nixon’s invitation to the White House in 1973 to sing at wife Pat’s staid birthday party. But Haggard refused to endorse George Wallace when the Alabama governor and presidential aspirant — who was already campaigning with country-music singers singers Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins — asked for his support in 1972. Years later he rejected similar overtures from one-time U.S. Senate candidate David Duke, the ex-Klansman.

Eventually Haggard came to the conclusion that protest “wasn’t un-American” after all. Those young Vietnam-era protesters, he told interviewer Deke Dickerson, could “see through our bigotry and our hypocrisy. ... I believe history has proven them right.”

By 2007, Haggard had moved to the center-left, if his salute to then-presidential candidate (and longtime conservative target) Hillary Clinton was an indication: “This country needs to be honest; Changes need to be large; Something like a big switch of gender; Let’s put a woman in charge.”

But Haggard has never cared much for labels. Try to put a liberal pin on his lapel and risk that scowl. Maybe his political soul is best revealed in a lesser-known song, “Somewhere in Between,” recorded a short time after “Okie” but never released: “I stand looking at the left wing, and I turn towards the right; And either side don’t look too good, examined under light; That’s just freedom of opinion, and their legal right to choose; That’s one right I hope we never lose.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A profile of Merle Haggard

I interviewed Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart for a history department symposium at Cal State Bakersfield on Nov. 7, 2009 -- an event titled "Oildale and Beyond: Interpreting the Region Through Words, Images and Music." I realized later that the event fell more or less on the 40-year anniversary of Haggard's release of his most controversial and enduring (though probably not his favorite) song, "Okie From Muskogee." The CSUB event also fell on the two-year anniversary of the release of Time-Life Records'3-disc set of Haggard songs -- an anniversary that probably means more to me than to Haggard, or anybody else for that matter, because I wrote the liner notes for that package. Here's a sampling of that profile:


The court transcript reveals only spoken words, not stage directions, but the scene is easy to imagine: Bakersfield defense attorney Ralph McKnight has asked the judge to grant his client probation and spare him a prison sentence. But he can offer little to recommend that sort of judicial benevolence beyond the unwavering maternal love of one woman, seated behind him in the gallery. “This mother has tried very hard,” McKnight says, nodding toward her deferentially. The Honorable Norman F. Main looks down at the lengthy rap sheet, glances across the courtroom at anxious Flossie Haggard and then studies the defendant. “If he had tried half as hard as his mother did ....” And down deep, 20-year-old Merle Haggard knows that the judge speaks the simple, undeniable truth.

Merle Haggard apologized to his mother in song, with “Mama Tried,” which reached No. 1 in 1968. But in the half-century since that courtroom scene, Haggard’s music has more often celebrated the Sons and Daughters Who Tried — the hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck, rent-to-own people who drove the trucks, picked the cotton, punched the time clocks and, yes, sometimes committed the crimes, both petty and grievous, as they struggled against a system that seemed weighted against them. Not just the working class but the tier below as well -- the hungry class. Haggard has sung about back doors, swingin’ doors and cell doors, but he has never strayed far from the defining themes of his life’s work: blue-collar pride and personal dignity. Basic Okieness.

The rest of the profile (rather lengthy, but worth every minute of your time) is here.