Some random thoughts today as we anticipate -- with great relief -- the passing of January ... easily the longest month of the calendar year.
Scott Brown is the flavor of the month. How else do you explain a poll that says he'd be competitive with Barack Obama in 2012?
Let's give him his due. He ran an effective campaign -- not hard to accomplish, seeing that his opponent, Martha Coakley, barely showed up -- and captured the pulse of an electorate that was sick and tired of being taken for granted.
But let's not run too far afield with this. This was not some dramatic repudiation of Obama's agenda as much as it was a statewide election where people got a chance to tell the local leadership that they're not to be taken as rubes who will vote, like robots, for all candidates with a "D" next to their name.
Say what you will about Ted Kennedy (and I have), but the man never took anything for granted. Even when he was running against token competition (can you just IMAGINE how he'd have mopped the floor with Brown?), he worked.
Brown is a Mitt Romney clone (a point that was hammered home to me when it was Romney who introduced him when he gave his victory speech). Maybe he'll surprise me and be an effective advocate for Massachusetts, and I'll be the first to eat Humble Pie if that actually happens.
But it's far more likely that he'll play to the cheap seats, on behalf of the Republican leadership that -- despite his victory -- still sees our state as the People's Republic of Massachusetts.
I suppose if you asked 100 people what their idea of an effective leader is, you'd get 100 different answers. There's no right or wrong definition. And that's especially true if you examine just WHO it is that some people choose to follow.
So with that in mind, here are some of MY criteria for a leader:
-- Inherent decency. By that, I mean honest, accountable, moral and sober (in thought, please, not in temperance).
-- Dignity. This was my only knock against Bill Clinton, and it's one of the reasons why, even though I agreed with him politically, he left me cold in the long run. I can understand human weakness, even though I might not always like it. But getting it in the Oval Office? Tawdry.
-- Even-handed. So far, I think I've described George W. Bush as much as I've described Barack Obama. I had no doubts that Bush was a decent enough guy, even though I didn't agree with much of anything he said. And he was certainly dignified ... WAY more so than Clinton was. But where I part company, and start drifting to Obama's side, is in this category. I never liked the bellicose language that came out of the previous administration. "Bring it on," "Axis of Evil ..." All words like that did was stoke the fires rather than help put them out. I'm not naive enough to believe that there's never a place for that type of draconian language. But not as a matter of course.
-- Independent in thought. Again, my definition of this might differ than yours. I don't want people in high office who are bought and sold by unelected groups of people, whether they're corporations (HATE the latest Supreme Court ruling), unions, lobbyists or political power brokers. If you're a Democrat, and you vote along party lines the majority of the time, I can live with that. You are, after all, a Democrat. And it would be the same if you were a Republican.
But I always got the feeling, with Bush, that his thoughts and actions were almost directed, behind the scenes, by a cabal of -- for lack of a better term -- neocons, led, of course, by Dick Cheney. I know, I know ... I know ... it's almost a cliché. But I have the luxury of having thought that before he was even elected the first time. I also think that it took him almost seven years of an eight-year presidency to realize that these people led him down the wrong path in many respects. And that once he realized it, and fought to stamp his OWN identity on the presidency, he became much more likable.
It's too early to tell whether Obama will meet my expectations in this department. I get the feeling, behind the scenes, that he bucked some fierce opposition to the bank and auto industry bailouts, which leads me to think that -- MAYBE -- he honestly thought these actions were the best way to go (as opposed to the Iraq War, which -- I think -- was clearly the brainchild of unelected neocons whose idea of peace in the valley was more like imperialism).
I could end up being all wrong about this. Obama could end up being a worse hack than I could ever imagine. He could end up being a bigger tyrant than Idi Amin.
Or ... he could capitulate too much to his political opposition ... something Clinton also did when the GOP won the House and Senate in 1994. Right now, he's walking a fine line, and all I can say is that I wouldn't want to be him.
Or ... he could be what he appears to me to be like now ... an honest guy who leans a little too far to the left sometimes (farther than I do, that's for sure), but who seems to be staking out an agenda in which he truly believes. I'll give him that he's a whole lot smarter than I am, and privy to a lot more facts than I am, and that he -- like all our leaders -- has our best interests at heart.
I guess it just comes down to defining what those bests interests are.
Sports are a pretty clear microcosm of the "build you up, tear you down" syndrome. We see it everywhere, but nowhere is it more prevalent than sports. And all you have to do is look at the Patriots to get a good dose of it.
From the time they won their first Super Bowl until they lost, earlier this month, to the Baltimore Ravens, they were the model NFL franchise. Everyone wanted to be like them.
That, of course, is because they were amazingly consistent, and because they won three Super Bowls. This doesn't make them all that special. The Steelers have won six. That's twice as many as three. Other teams, as well, have won more than three Super Bowls, such as the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers (four each).
Heck, even the New York Giants have won three Super Bowls.
But the Patriots won theirs in this decade, which means that they're the latest "model NFL franchise). And the way people went on and on and ON about them, you'd forget that they were, for the previous 40 years of their existence, basically one of the most inept franchises in NFL history .. a team of which it could have TRULY been said that everything they touched turned to shit. The Midas Touch in reverse!
All of this ended the day Bill Belichick signed on to coach them. Belichick is a curious creature. If you get him in a relaxed moment, he's actually an engaging person. He can talk endlessly about arcane matters of football ... and actually make it interesting. I can still remember the day, shortly before the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the Eagles, Belichick gave a wonderfully concise summation of all of Paul Brown's contributions to the modern NFL game.
Trouble is, he's also a churl, especially on game day, and even more especially when you ask him something he doesn't want to address.
For nine years, those who covered him -- and that includes me -- had to sit and chafe under the intense aura of Bill Belichick the genius. How could you prove any of that wrong? The Patriots were successful, and they seemed to have the whole salary cap issue -- a challenge even for the most brilliant economists -- completely knocked.
Then, they lost that famous Super Bowl to the Giants and you could see a little of that veneer of invulnerability starting to chip off. That game exposed some holes that the Pats had managed to keep hidden throughout that 16-0 season. For example, it's easy to hide a mediocre defense when you're scoring 35 points game. But if you can only manage 14 (the way they did against the Giants), that defense had better be a little more than mediocre. Sadly, it wasn't.
Belichick got a reprieve when Tom Brady was hurt in 2008. The Patriots still won 11 games with Matt Cassel calling signals. And even though the Patriots didn't make the playoffs, the season itself validated Belichick's genius once again. Hey, he won 11 games with a guy who'd never played a down in anger since he joined the NFL. He MUST be a genius.
But was that it? Or did the Patriots take advantage of an incredibly soft (by usual NFL standards) schedule? They played some terrible teams in 2008, and -- for the most part -- lost games to teams that matched their abilities ... or were better.
That trend continued in 2009 ... beating teams that they should have, and losing to teams as good as they were (and, it goes without saying, better). Can you recall a game in 2009 where you walked away saying, "I can't BELIEVE they beat that team?" I can't. What's worse, the only time I actually really felt that way was after they beat Carolina, because they played like shit (that was the Randy Moss game, if you know what I mean).
So it should have been no surprise that the Ravens came in and just pounded them. Anyone paying attention could just see the handwriting on the wall.
The point here, though, is that people reacted to it as if it had just happened ... as if someone had pressed a button and the entire bottom just FELL OUT ... just like that!
And now, Belichick may not be a genius as much as someone who has become overly affected by hubris. Now, the question isn't whether Belichick can coach (I think it's pretty clear he can), but whether he has anyone on his staff who doesn't genuflect at his mere presence.
The truth? These things happen in the NFL. It's set up that way. First, it's a copycat league. If everyone likes what you do, they do it too ... until, someday, the rest of the league catches up. Second, you don't just go out and buy Tedy Bruschis, Rodney Harrisons, Bradys, Mike Vrabels, Ted Johnsons, Willie McGinests and Troy Browns in the discount rack. They are special people, and you should consider yourself truly blessed when you have that many of them playing for you at the same time.
They bring more to the table than their abilities, and losing that many of them, in such a short period of time, is bound to affect what you do on the field.
It was a special era. But it's over. That's nobody's fault. That's the way it's supposed to be in the NFL. It's someone else's turn. Deal with it.
Is Brett Favre going to retire? At this point, I don't care.
I also don't care that even at his age, he had a pretty good year, and that the Vikings most likely wouldn't have even had a sniff of a Super Bowl chance without him.
Because in the end, not even Favre, even with his ability to pull plays out of thin air, couldn't save a franchise that has been -- to these eyes -- a combination of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs of the NFL. Every stinking time they get close, either the kicker who hasn't missed a field goal all year shanks one with time running out, or the future Hall of Fame quarterback throws a horrible interception at the worst possible time.
I know people from Minnesota who simply refuse to watch them anymore because they're tired of being let down (which is a feeling that I almost got myself a few times suffering through the famed "Curse of the Bambino.").
But this year, Favre proved everything everyone ever said about him -- good OR bad -- true.
Does he have guts? Absolutely. I thought his leg had fallen off last Sunday, but he never missed a beat. He came back onto the field, and you could clearly see he was hurt. But he soldiered on, completing improbable passes, and leading his team downfield ... so much so that you were SURE they were going to spring the upset and beat the New Orleans Saints.
And that's the trouble with Favre. For the nine things he does right, the one thing he does wrong cancels everything else out. Two years ago, he throws an interception -- horrible pass -- in overtime, and the Giants come back down and win the game.
(And, as an aside, did anyone NOT think the Patriots would have just eaten the Packers for lunch in a Super Bowl? Did anyone NOT think, "oh, oh, this Giants team is playing with house money, which means they're could be tough to beat?)
Sunday, all the Vikings have to do is get five more yards, by hook or by crook, and they win! And while it's true they'd have likely served as cannon fodder for the Colts, it's better to be cannon fodder for the Colts than home watching on your LCD.
Yet, in typical Red Sox/Cubs fashion, the most unlikely, inharmonic convergence of events happens. First, the Vikings call two of the worst, most unimaginative plays imaginable. One of them was so slow to develop they lost five yards.
Then, of all times, they get confused as to who's in and who's out (which begs the question: Hasn't ANYONE on that team heard that when you're in, you're in; and when you're out, you're out), and get knocked five MORE yards back because they had 12 men in the huddle.
That penalty just about knocked them out of field goal range (the Vikings announcer who complained that "all they had to do was take a knee and kick a field goal" was probably simplifying things just a little). They still could have used about five or six more yards. Favre went back to pass (which, at that point, seemed to be the best option), but there was nothing there ... and nothing but open space ahead of him for about 10 yards -- surely more than enough for a decent shot at a field goal, even given the extreme ineffectiveness of all post-season kickers this year.
Now, maybe he was too hobbled to run. Maybe he didn't see all this room he had. Maybe he was just being Brett Favre ... wanting to make "the big play," even though "the big play" was nowhere in sight.
Did I also mention there were about seven seconds left in regulation when the Saints picked him off?
Whatever ... running right and throwing across your body back to the middle? Nothing good ever comes out of that. You're asking for exactly what Favre got ... disaster. Throw the ball away and at least give your team the shot ... slim as it might have been ... to pull this one out. It would have been a 51-yard attempt ... certainly doable indoors, if not automatic.
Well, we know the rest of the story now. The Saints, helped immeasurably by Viking penalties, marched downfield and kicked the game-winning field goal. New Orleans is redeemed. Katrina never happened. The Saints are marching to Florida. And all the rest.
The remaining question is about Favre? Is this it? And this brings us back to the beginning. I don't care. Whatever he does, he does. In some ways, he's heroic. In other ways, he's pathetic. He wants one more shot at the brass ring ... that much is for certain. And if he feels he still has it in him, all I ask is that he say so, now, and not string everyone along the way he did the previous two seasons. THAT'S what makes him so pathetic.
Finally, some quick hits and a parting shot:
-- I wish there was a way to get Johnny Damon back on the Red Sox. He's the same type of "special player" Troy Brown was with the Patriots. Of all the miscalculations the management has made, the one allowing him to leave was the biggest.
-- I'm told Barack Obama used the word "I" 96 times in his State of the Union address. In order to know that, someone had to count. If that's all this obsessively anal retentive person has to worry about, I'd like to be Sean Hannity.
-- Are the Bruins still in the NHL?
-- I can't say I follow the NBA that closely. But come on .. Allan Iverson an all-star? What? You say Wilt the Stilt was dead, and therefore unable to make it? wonder if Iverson will attend practice (there was an incredibly funny bit on Comcast Sports counting all the times Iverson said "practice" in that now-famous rant ... but that's different than counting the "I's" in the president's State of the Union speech).
Finally ... it's incredible what's going on with Toyota. This isn't just scary stuff (although it's plenty scary, since my son drives a Matrix -- which, thankfully, s too new to be on the recall list). It's could be a death blow to the concept that the Japanese make better cars.
That's all we've heard in the last decade or more ... that U.S. cars are inferior to the Japanese ... that the two countries' business models are different ... that the unions strangle the American manufacturers to the point where they can't produce decent cars ... blah, blah, blah.
Well how about now? I realize these cars were manufactured HERE ... but, face it, if your name's on it, it's yours. This MAY put an end to the myth that, somehow, foreign cars (and especially Japanese) are superior to their U.S. counterparts because -- as far as I can tell -- we've never heard of case of a GM car, or a Ford, being a moving death trap (OK, Ralph Nader, there WAS the Corvair, truly unsafe at any speed).
I won't say it's time to put the blinders on and "buy American," no questions asked. But right now, I feel pretty good about the fact that every car I've ever owned falls under the U.S. manufacturers' umbrella.