Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mr. Fixit

I realize that it is a little late for Mitt Romney to spruce up his political message, but nevertheless I have a thought (stolen from a caller to a talk show yesterday). Romney should dub himself “Mr. Fixit” and cap it off with “the non-politician politician.” Both would mesh with his message that Washington is broken and that an insider won’t be the one to turn things around.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Went with Jeanette last night to hear John Irving (Hotel New Hampshire, Cider House Rules, and The World According to Garp) lecture and read a chapter from his new book in progress. He was at the Walnut Hill School here in Natick and he spoke to a full house (it was free.) A few observations:

- He said that he always writes the last sentence of any new book first. Then he works on Chapter One, then back to the last chapter, and then, finally, he fills in the middle. He said that the last chapter almost always writes itself.
- In the intro to his reading he used and then explained the term “Kennedy father”. This referred to JFK’s executive order in 1963 that decreed that married fathers of children weren’t eligible to be drafted (and go to Vietnam.) The female protagonist of this chapter has taken it upon herself to marry as many “dumb boys” (and have their children) as she can to save them from the draft. However, Irving missed one major point – once separated or divorced, Kennedy fathers automatically became re-eligible for the draft. I know because this happened to me.
- He said that his wrestling experiences, particularly his love of constant training and repetition, has helped him with his writing discipline. He is a constant reviser of his prose. He once told a student at Iowa State who said that he “loved to write but wasn’t into rewriting” to “go get hit by a car.”
- Someone asked if he ever has a character that “gets away from him so that a book diverges from his last-chapter intent.” He responded that readers may have noticed that many (minor) characters in his books get killed off. This is how he deals with such issues.
- He told us, before he read the new chapter, what the last sentence was going to be – “There he was lying dead in the road.” And then he read the chapter causing a good deal of anticipation as to how he would get to said conclusion. I won’t spoil it for you.
- The chapter he read wasn’t particularly well written … but it was very well told. It was a typical John Irving narrative, full of bizarre drug and alcohol-induced twists, nudity, expletives and other “hippy” moments. Earlier, he had stated that his philosophy of novel writing was very traditional – the plot comes first. During the Q&A, I should have asked him if he was somehow related to Washington Irving who not only could tell a story but also could turn a phrase.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It’s Debatable

I remember this (paraphrased) back-and-forth from one of the Romney/Kennedy debates back when Mitt was running for the Senate seat from Massachusetts:

Romney (to Kennedy): Did you not use your influence in the Senate to buy a surplus government property in DC and then turn around and sell it shortly thereafter for a few million dollars profit?

Kennedy: I would not sully the Kennedy name of my martyred brothers, Jack and Robert, by engaging in such a self-serving transaction.

(This shut Mitt up on this subject.)

I wish ... oh how I wish Mitt had rejoined with "Does this mean that you are going to give the money back?"

Monday, January 14, 2008

Balancing Act

What do Enron and all of the companies currently taking huge write-offs in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco have in common? They all kept non-performing assets hidden off of their balance sheets. And what has the FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) done to remedy this fundamental flaw in accounting standards? Nothing … I repeat, nothing. Congress has held hundreds of days of hearings pontificating on these issues. Other than that notoriously poor piece of legislation called Sarbanes-Oxley, nothing has changed. Op Ed writers have written furlongs of column inches of suggestions on what to do to stop such fraud. And still nothing has changed. This practice of financial legerdemain continues, each year finding newer and cleverer ways to obscure the true financial health of corporations. (After all, balance sheets were created to indicate the well being of a company at a point in time.)

I have a suggestion … not mentioned anywhere in the Congressional hearings, in the Op-Eds, or at the FASB. Congress and the FASB should decree that the holding of any assets or liabilities off of the balance of a publicly-held corporation is verboten. Simple as that. All reserves, all contingency accounts, all the assets and liabilities of a corporation’s subsidiaries (or those created in non-arm’s-length transactions), anything and everything that relates to the financial health of a company should be disclosed on its balance sheet … not in an obscure footnote, not in the accompanying text, not anywhere else by implication … but ON THE BALANCE SHEET. Simple as that.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rhetorical Question

After seven years of a President whose loquacious stylings remind one of a sculptor welding a jack hammer, I think that Americans are craving a chief executive who can turn a pleasant phrase. Therefore it is no surprise that Barak Obama and Mike Huckabee appear to be currently in the lead in the race to the White House. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has leaned on his pulpit experience to charm the primary voters and Obama seems to be a congenital orator. Most of the other candidates are wooden in comparison … notably Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton (pre tears) …and, therefore, they have suffered at the polls. But Romney seemed to be much more communicative when he prepared and gave his talk on his Mormon religion. In fact, he was downright eloquent. But, on the stump or in a debate, he is far less spontaneous. Hillary, in most of her public speaking, seems rehearsed to the point of robotics. It was because of this perceived handler over-programming that her short lachrymose lament freshened her image enough for the women of the Granite State to change their intended votes.

The real problem is -- good word-smithing is not necessarily a prerequisite for good governing. In fact, it is a little Pollyannaish that we Americans still want to have both … witness our reverence of those presidents who did have both -- Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and FDR. Also, when there is a choice between good speechifying and managerial talents, we seem to opt for the former – witness Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson. And there were those presidents who were good managers without oratorical powers – witness Nixon and Eisenhower. The trick is – not to confuse the two. So my question is: if we can’t have both, why would we rather have someone who speaks well extemporaneously over one who, after consultation and deliberation, more often comes up with the right answer?

(Admittedly, George W. Bush isn’t a particularly good manager either. He has chosen and kept many mediocre acolytes around him. So why do I still support him and his party? Primarily, because he has taken and kept the offensive in the war against terrorism. He also eventually chose two very good Supreme Court justices. And he has (quixotically) attempted to fix the Social Security entitlement’s conundrum. And lastly, none of his appointees have been caught with their fingers in the cookie jar. I can’t see a current Democrat doing any of these things. I realize Bush will never be thought a great president, but then again he won’t be the worst by a country mile. Sorry, Madeline Albright.)