Reggie Brown, the comedian yanked off the stage at the Republican Leadership Conference, gives me his take. (P.S. Republicans love him.)
The big news out of the RLC meeting in New Orleans last weekend didn't involve a candidate, but a president--or rather, a presidential impersonator named Reggie Brown whose comedy set poking fun at the Republican candidates and the president scandalized the organizers, who yanked Brown from the stage mid-set and later put out a statement slamming him for "racially insensitive jokes." It turns out Reggie Brown and I have a friend in common, and yesterday that friend put us in touch. We talked about how the RLC event looked from his vantage point--much different--and what the fallout has been. (Hint: Not too bad--he's got a bunch of new Republican bookings, including Fox News this weekend.) Here's a lightly edited transcript, along with video of his aborted RLC act and another one from his website that I like.
Was a Republican political conference different from the stuff you usually do?
I normally do corporate comedy, so I'll travel around and do everything from medical associations to lawyer groups, things of that nature. This was the first major political event I've ever been invited to, so I was real excited to get up and perform my material. I thought it was cool that a lot of the people in my act--the candidates--were going to be there. Because my latest material is based on the 2012 candidates, and for them to all be there, I thought it would be a great opportunity to make 'em laugh and poke a little fun at them. I thought that showed a lot for the Republican sense of humor.
Did the organizers give you any guidance about what type of humor they were looking for?
No, no guidance was given prior to the show. They booked me to come down based on my website and the links my manager forwarded them of my recent work. I was booked to do my routine.
What was your intention going in? Seemed like you tried to kind of hit every target, Democrat and Republican.
Oh yeah. Our show is designed to be fair and balanced. If we hit the Republicans we hit the Democrats, and then the Tea Party. We want to make it accessible to everyone, and let everyone have a good time.
So walk me through what happened out there on stage? What was your point of view?
So I came out and was going through my material. I was loving it, the audience was loving it--great energy. We're feeding off each other. And I started to get into my set about their candidates for 2012, and the Mitt Romney joke drew a lot of 'oohs' and 'aaahs,' but also a lot of applause and laughter. I delivered a couple more on Pawlenty and Gingrich, and then as I started into my Michele Bachmann joke and her PowerPoint slide came up on the screen, the music came up. I thought it was a technical error, because we do occasionally experience a glitch with the PowerPoint. Then the mike cut out, and the gentleman came on stage and told me my time was up.
Did they indicate that they were unhappy with your performance? What did he say?
No, not at all. He just came out and said, 'Sorry, your time's up.' I thanked the audience, went backstage, and a few of the organizers were saying, great job, very well done, we're all excited for you. I left the stage feeling like I'd done a great job. It was awesome, it was great.
Did you get to talk to any of the folks in the crowd afterward?
We went directly back to the hotel, my manager and me, and I got mobbed by the attendees. They were all saying, "Oh my god! Are you the Obama? Is that the Obama guy?" Because at this point I was in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. They were like, "You were amazing! You were the best part of this conference. Why'd they pull you off?" People were upset that they didn't let me finish. They were just very complimentary. It was amazing. I had an 85-year-old woman tell me it was the funniest performance she'd every seen in her life and that she'd almost wet her pants. It was very well received and I really am sorry to my fans that I wasn't able to finish.
So at what point did you become aware that the organizers considered you a political problem?
When we got back to my hotel room, all these articles started popping up. The first few were saying "Obama impersonator mocks president at GOP function." Then a few started saying there was a controversy over racist jokes and things like that. So it was crazy to see the spin they started to put on it after I left--feeling I'd delivered a great performance, being told I did well. And then the eruption online.
They put out a statement condemning your afterward, right?
Yes, I met the guy before the show, too, and his wife, and he was all excited. He was like "This is great, I'm looking forward to seeing the show." Like most of the clients he was all happy, smiley, taking pictures together beforehand. Then afterward he started releasing these statements that weren't so positive, or accurate.
Anything in that act you regret?
No, I don't regret one joke. That's what I do. We spend a lot of time tailoring my material. I don't mean to offend anyone through my comedy. It is intellegent humor that's pretty much up to the minute on the political scene.
You don't consider that joke about Barney Frank's "soft backside" a little offensive?
No, that was just in reference to him sitting on his big behind while Freddie and Fannie collapsed. It wasn't really in reference to anything else.
Did you have any qualms about taking the gig? Are political crowds tougher than ordinary crowds?
It depends. A lot of it has to do with the energy, but this was a great audience. You have to be able to poke fun at yourself. It's amazing how things blew up. We've gotten like 500 emails, and news reports from as far away as Europe and South Africa. We already have a lot more bookings that have come in since then, and actually more on the Republican side than the Democratic side. I'll be on Mike Huckabee's Fox show on Saturday, in fact.
Just to clear this up, I'd seen some of your earlier clips and interview on YouTube and you didn't strike me as someone who has any animosity toward President Obama.
Not at all, I love our president. He has changed my life in ways I wouldn't have imagined. I have the best job in the world, I'm able to use my striking physical resemblance to him and my talents to develop this character that the world has been very receptive to. He's given me the opportunity to--and this may sound cheezy--but to live out my dreams. And it's been awesome. I love it.
You mentioned they yanked you before your Michele Bachmann joke. Want to finish your act for me? What was the joke?
[Speaking in the voice of Obama] What can I say about Michele Bachmann that she hasn't already said about herself? Now, last week she called me a one-term president. Uhh, now look. I may be a one-term president, but that's better than your former leader, George W. Bush, who was a one-syllable president.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, and much more.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, cosplay in Paris, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, a train wreck in Pakistan, an airshow over St. Petersburg, Russia, and much more.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The sport should worry that it has only one popular contest and one real star—who’s reached his peak.
On Saturday, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut will attempt to defend his title in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. He’ll probably win, and if he does it’ll be his ninth straight victory—a feat of longevity rarely seen in any athletic competition. Despite being pushed hard by last year’s runner-up in the annual contest, Chestnut’s total of 61 hot dogs consumed was still notably better than the second-place contestant’s 56. By all accounts, Chestnut is the best in the world at what he does.
But his success in the contest masks a problem—he’s been so dominant for so long in Major League Eating’s flagship event that the sport has failed to give rise to a successor. MLE is synonymous with the Nathan’s contest, and the Nathan’s contest is Chestnut’s turf. Ironically, the sport that rewards competitors for focusing on a single food in any given contest may well be undone by its own myopic focus on Chestnut on the Fourth of July.