Now that the smoke has cleared from Debo Adegbile's failed nomination Wednesday to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, there are some lessons to draw from that Democratic debacle.
Why was it a disaster? Seven Democrats defected from their party to vote against Obama's nominee. The nomination had been opposed by police groups because of Adegbile's indirect role in the appeals process for Mumia Abu Jamal, a death-row inmate convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.
Here are three things we learned from the vote.
The nominee was the decider: Senate Democrats and the White House apparently knew before Wednesday's procedural vote that they didn't have the 51 votes needed to allow Adegbile's nomination to proceed to a floor vote.
But Reid told reporters Thursday that Adegbile insisted on the vote going forward as a matter of principle. And Senate Democrats and the White House let it.
That's unusual because when Senate leaders and administration officials know a nomination lacks votes, they'll typically pull the nominee from consideration to avoid an embarrassing defeat that uses up precious political capital.
Also, if Senate leaders know a controversial nomination doesn't have support, they'll usually prevent a vote to keep their caucus members from wasting a tough vote that can be used against them politically.
By allowing the vote to go forward anyway, it suggested the episode might be used to fire up African American voters in November — in a mid-term election year when minority voters typically vote in significantly lower numbers than in presidential years.
Indeed, two vulnerable Democratic senators whose chances might depend on a relatively strong black turnout voted to let the Adegbile nomination proceed — Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
A dead-police-officer story trumps an up-from-poverty story: Two competing and compelling stories formed the backdrop of the Adegbile nomination. There was the story of Daniel Faulkner, an on-duty Philadelphia police officer, as well as husband and father, who was shot to death in a particularly brutal murder for which Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life without parole. For three decades he was either a famous political prisoner or an infamous cop-killer, depending on your politics.
The other story was Adegbile's, the son of Nigerian and Irish immigrants. As a child, Adegbile knew poverty and homelessness, was raised by a single mother and was a child actor on Sesame Street. He later went to New York University law school and eventually held the post at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that was once occupied by Thurgood Marshall.
Adegbile's life story, under more normal circumstances, would have been enough to guarantee him the support of every Democrat. But this wasn't a normal situation. Abu-Jamal isn't just any convicted killer. As far as police unions are concerned, he's the nation's foremost cop-killer. The only part of Adegbile's biography that mattered to them was that he was once — by virtue of his NAACP job — involved in Abu-Jamal's appeal.
All politics are local, still:The nearer you get to Philadelphia, the more heated are the passions about the Faulkner shooting — especially among law enforcement officers. Which is why it shouldn't have surprised anyone that Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Christopher Coons of neighboring Delaware voted against proceeding with Adegbile's nomination.
Unlike Casey, who isn't up for re-election until 2018, Coons is running for re-election this year. Having police unions and their allies actively working against his re-election was one more problem he didn't need.
A world-renowned pianist known for cracking under the pressure of performance sits down to play a concerto before a packed hall. Then he sees the message scrawled in red on his sheet music: "Play one wrong note and you die." The movie almost writes itself.
The premise of the confined thriller Grand Piano has been characterized as "Speed at a piano," and while that's a little reductive, it also gets right this film's audacious essence. Grand Piano is a screenwriter's fantasy of a self-conscious Hitchcockian thriller, daringly written, improbably made — and more unbelievably made well. In fact, from the operatic direction to the pitch-perfect performances, everyone involved in Grand Piano seems on the same page, which will help audiences take the goofiness of the film's concept in stride.
Grand Piano immediately stakes out its territory with a nod to Die Hard, and indeed the film has also been compared to that movie set in a concert hall. Both movies introduce their main characters on airliners experiencing turbulence; when the guy in an adjacent seat sees the protagonist's anxiety, he assures him everything's going to be fine. To Die Hard's John McClane, that's a relief; to nervous wreck Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), there couldn't be worse news. He was really hoping the plane would go down.
Tom's flying into Chicago to play a concert — his return to public performance after five years away from the spotlight. In his last notorious performance, he froze during "La Cinquette," a nearly unplayable piece written by his former mentor, now deceased. Pressure and expectations are now Tom's greatest enemies, and every reminder from the press, his colleagues and his actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé) that this night is kind of a big deal only amplifies his anxiety.
Tom will play on that mentor's gorgeous 97-key Bosendorfer grand, and while his role as favored son and the dead man's towering shadow are parts of what drives Tom's panicky-perfectionist streak, that relationship is mostly left to loom in the past. The script, by Damien Chazelle — whose Sundance favorite Whiplash focuses more centrally on the musical mentor-protege relationship — is a focused, inventive machine that's constantly justifying its premise, mining tension by exploring how and why someone would train a sniper rifle on a brilliant concert pianist and demand perfection. When Tom realizes the threats on his sheet music aren't a prank — and meets his seemingly biggest fan (John Cusack) via earpiece — he's able to control his nerves just enough to play.
Cusack's aggressive, merciless sniper is a serious motivator for a man needing a reason to play without error, but the character's actual motivation for the test will prove far less interesting. (Oh well. Did anyone really care why Dennis Hopper wanted to blow up that bus?) Chazelle's script loses some of its boldness with a relatively predictable third act, but the direction never ceases to be a display of virtuosity. Once Tom steps onstage, Grand Piano proceeds essentially in real time, and Spanish director Eugenio Mira manages the feat of making the three-movement piano concerto the score of the film. He also injects comedy into what might have been entirely self-serious, and the bickering of a couple in the audience increases the sense of menace in the concert hall by contrast.
Mira caresses the material with expressive camera movement and sensational flourishes of color; most critically, he plays the audience finely, letting the weight of what's at stake rest on Tom's every closely-observed stutter and near miss as he's harassed by the sniper and his henchman. (Yes, that is Alex Winter). When Emma's life is also put in jeopardy, Tom fights back, and Mira ratchets up the stress levels as Tom tries to covertly alert someone while simultaneously playing the performance of his life.
It must be said that the fingers moving maddeningly quickly across the keys are nearly always Wood's; most of the movie is just Tom seated at the piano, strategizing, bargaining and fighting back, all while playing a convincingly world-class performance. One long take removes any doubt that Wood is giving a highly technical and physically demanding performance.
Grand Piano glosses on themes worth exploring more fully — relative talent and success between artists in a relationship, the creativity of a composer versus a performer's ability to execute that vision — but in a film of chills over ideas, it has the most to say when it comes to perfection, taking its own lesson and valuing human emotion over cold, flawless execution. Grand Piano doesn't hit all its notes perfectly, but it plays with an intensity that's admirable.
Star Wars stormtroopers in full regalia protesting "oppressive economic policies."
A smiling, larger-than life Sarah Palin touting her latest cable television show, "Amazing America."
Uncle Sam on stilts. Quadrennial pretend presidential candidate Donald Trump. A slew of legitimate White House hopefuls.
There was enough red, white and blue swag, NRA buttons, Rand Paul stickers, GOP tote bags, Gingrich (Newt and Callista) books, and red meat to keep happy every movement Republican who filled the hallways and meeting rooms at the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday.
The suburban Washington convention center that hosted CPAC — typically the GOP's largest annual party (in non-convention years, of course) —roared to life with speeches by big Republican stars like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and breakout sessions that sought to answer weighty questions.
Does Congress Matter Anymore?
Does Legalized Pot Mean Society's Going Up In Smoke?
What's The Deal With Global Warming?
But alongside the big-room speeches and sideline hawking of books and policy, what's always striking about CPAC is the fun everyone seems be having. (CPAC's "everyone" is mostly young, overwhelmingly white, and socially conservative.)
The American Conservative Union, which sponsors the conference, has always made sure that young conservatives could afford to attend the three-day event, which has become fertile ground for those hunting for jobs and internships in the movement.
In the National Rifle Association-sponsored CPAC Hub, where booths are tucked cheek-by-jowl touting everything from Tea Party Patriot videos to a slew of tax reform efforts, Patrice Lee is one of those young faces.
"We're tired of government spending and cronyism," said Lee, presiding over a booth sponsored by Koch brothers-funded Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty and manned almost exclusively by young men in camouflage pants and Army green t-shirts.
"This is all about activism," she said.
Around the corner, Veronica Jones was on a ladder in one booth, painting a mural as part of days-long performance art for a crowd-funded advocacy portal called Movements.us. Not far away, Nan Swift of the National Taxpayers Union presided over a "Cards Against Humanity" game modeled after the popular "Apples to Apples."
"Everyone here is a taxpayer group, but we're the fun one," she said.
There were some fresh messages among the old ones being delivered from the stages of the National Harbor convention center. But there were also hints at the party fractiousness that remained largely hidden during opening day.
In an afternoon panel on reaching out to new voters, when one participant suggested that rejecting people — potential voters — is not a recipe for winning, another panelist interjected: "A little rejection is ok, right?"
Setting the stage perfectly for Friday — when the convention has set aside time and space for a panel discussion on the party's libertarian and social conservative divide — is a speech from the man who seems to be straddling that fault line: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a favorite of young party members.
As a final act, Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, speaks Saturday evening.
Private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management has offered to buy Safeway, Inc., the nation's second-largest grocery chain, for a reported $9.4 billion. Cerberus plans to merge Safeway with another grocer, Albertson's.
"Safeway has been focused on better meeting shoppers' diverse needs through local, relevant assortment, an improved price/value proposition and a great shopping experience that has driven improved sales trends," Safeway CEO Robert Edwards said in a statement. "We are excited about continuing this momentum as a combined organization."
"This transaction offers us the opportunity to better serve customers by adapting more quickly to evolving shopping preferences in diverse regions across the country," Albertsons CEO Bob Miller said. "Together, we will be able to respond to local needs more quickly and deliver outstanding products at the lowest possible price, more efficiently than ever before."
"Last March, Cerberus led a investment group that acquired about 900 Albertsons, Acme, Jewel-Osco , Shaw's and Star Market stores from Supervalu. That deal, which included a stake in Supervalu, was worth about $3.3 billion. Cerberus earlier acquired about 600 Albertsons supermarkets."
"It also sought to buy the Harris Teeter chain, but was outbid by Kroger, the nation's largest supermarket operator, which paid about $2.5 billion."
"Safeway acknowledged buyout interest Feb. 18, saying management was in 'discussions concerning a possible transaction involving the sale of the company.' At the time, Safeway did not disclose suitors."
Reuters says the merger would "[create] a dominant grocery franchise on the West Coast. It also creates a grocery network of more than 2,400 stores and 250,000 employees."
The news agency reports that no store closures are expected.
But Forbes says Kroger, the top grocery chain in the country by revenue, is "reportedly considering making its own offer for its competitor."
Forbes says Kroger "[previously] outbid Cerberus for the Harris Teeter chain of supermarkets, paying $2.4 billion last summer."
Chances are you've already made up your mind about Wes Anderson. Either you're willing to go with the meticulous symmetry of his dollhouse compositions, the precious tchotchke-filled design sensibility and the stilted formality of his dialogue, or you check out of his storybook worlds in the first five minutes. On the evidence of his eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it's clear no one is more aware of his idiosyncracies than Anderson himself — and he's not apologizing.
Grand Budapest is a culmination of the tinkly music-box aesthetic of Anderson's work to date, turned up to 11. If you've already tuned out, all the two dimensional tracking shots, whip-pans, color coordination and stop-motion animation is going to come crashing down on you like a truckload of playfully plinking harpsichords. But if you meet Anderson on his terms, you'll reach the end and just want more.
The film's structure is a justification of the distant remove from anything resembling reality, with Anderson nesting the primary narrative within a series of framing stories. The primary tale is a zany caper set in the fictional Eastern European republic of Zubrowka, involving murder, stolen art, a prison break and a mountainside toboggan chase. At the center is Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the mountaintop resort of the title, and his lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).
That plot unfolds in 1932, but it's a story that, in the film, is related as an oral history in the '60s, written as a book some years later, explained by the author in 1985, and finally, at the outermost level of this series of Russian nesting dolls, read in the present day by a young woman in a cemetery. If the film seems removed from reality, it's no wonder: It's being filtered through decades, multiple perspectives, artistic license and a heavy shroud of nostalgia.
But then nostalgia has always weighed heavily on Anderson's work, and in Gustave, he's created a character even more attached to the past than he is. As the modern world creeps into Old Europe, the stately, exacting concierge constantly laments the lack of dignity and decorum of the advancing 20th century. This is a fact that, on the surface, seems at odds with his habit of sleeping with many of the hotel's elderly female guests, but for Gustave, this is both part of his enduring attachment to the past as well as a function of his hospitality. "I sleep with all my friends," he says matter-of-factly at one point.
His ongoing relationship with one of those friends, Madame D (a delightfully eccentric Tilda Swinton), becomes problematic when she turns up dead and her will leaves him a priceless painting. Her heirs — a bickering bunch headed up by her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and thug-for-hire Jopling (Willem Dafoe) — are none too pleased, and frame Gustave for the crime.
Anderson is well aware that there's great humor to be found in the mismatch between Gustave's Old World gentility and his promiscuity — not to mention his frequent bursts of profanity. Fiennes, a new addition to Anderson's usual stable of actors, proves perfectly suited to the director's arid comic timing, and the result is, in terms of volume and effectiveness of jokes, far and away Anderson's funniest film. He expertly mines the film's contrasting inclinations, making violent and often shockingly bloody jokes. Like much of early-'30s Europe, Zubrowka is on the brink of a fascist takeover, and Grand Budapest has some of the best Nazi-inspired humor since Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler."
There's so much going on here, a constant stream of jokes, plot contrivances, film references, and images overladen with gorgeous detail, that it might all collapse in on itself if not for the relationship between Gustave and his young protégé Zero. For those playing at home, this checks another box off on the Wes Anderson bingo card — his recurring theme of the bond between surrogate fathers and sons.
More important, it gives the movie a beating heart beneath layer upon layer of careful and distancing artifice. There's much to admire on the surface of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but as with all of Anderson's best work, what lasts are the emotional notes it hits, almost invisibly. As Monsieur Gustave would surely agree, the mark of an expert lobby boy is to provide what the hotel's guests need without their ever knowing he was there. (Recommended)