Wednesday, July 27, 2005

PR, presidential style

It shouldn’t be called “politics” anymore.

No, it should be called “public relationics” – and everyone seems to be catching on.

The president and his staff just recently renamed the “War on Terror” to “A Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism.” The New York Times called it a “retooling” of the slogan our president hopes to use to better manage and define what America is up against.

There’s this card game – perhaps you’ve heard of it – called “bullshit.” This reminds me a lot of that.

An Orwellian renaming of our “war” against extremists just points out the weight those in politics are giving public relations. Everything can be made into an opportunity to make headlines, and often Bushie and crew don’t even have to work hard to do it. See above.

Public policy has to be sold to the American public via “slogans” and photo-ops, and giving credit to a plain ol’ good idea or rational directive no longer carries any heft. You know what else helps? Holding events where you place red, white, and black Americans up on stage with you, giving the appearance of unity and support to a cause that most Americans can’t stomach.

This stuff is good PR. Working as a public relations man myself, I have to give credit where credit is due. When you post on your website highlighting the new “free-trade” agreement CAFTA-DR (Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement) to convince us the deal “will increase U.S. exports to the region and bring new prosperity to citizens of our hemisphere who have not known it,” – and not mention how it could possibly close down a few more manufacturing plants in Ohio or Michigan – is brilliant work.

Whoever does the president’s PR deserves a raise. Barring any tax cuts, of course.

On the terrorism slogan renaming, National Security Adviser Steven Hadley told the Times, "It is more than just a military war on terror. It's broader than that. It's a global struggle against extremism. We need to dispute both the gloomy vision and offer a positive alternative." This is classic PR posturing. “Positive Alternative.” “Global Struggle.” Why not just call the damn thing “The Big Hope that Mutants Will Not Blow Themselves Up on Chicago’s El-Train and Cost Us An Election, and while We Feel Sorry for those Brits, we think our Summer Camp over in Iraq is Doing the World a Big Fat American Favor, because it’s Hard Work.”

Bush should hire me – I could write all his slogans for half price. I could even go pro-bono, for a chance to make out fiercely with his drunken daughter. The cute one. Not the one that looks like him.

And the best part? There are people out there that deep-throat this stuff at face value. Don’t even question that a National Guard drop-out can land a plane on an aircraft carrier, declare “Mission Accomplished,” and wink and shake hands. Don’t even fathom how closely this thing mimics a USSR May Day parade. Bush is humping the military image for all it’s worth.

It makes me hopeful that someday I can grow up and be a presidential PR man. Why not? Benefits, good pay, have my good-ol’-boy printed on every headline in the country for doing not a damn thing. I’ll betcha I wouldn’t even have to work that hard.

Up next: Bush saves a sack of kittens from a drowning river, blames “extremist” vets

Friday, July 15, 2005

Fear and Lightning at the Soap Box Derby

For racer’s in Saturday’s Jackson Soap Box Derby, gravity - from the ramps to the rain - kept its grim hold on all that participated.

It seemed a simple enough assignment: I was to judge the cars and pit tents. Which one was decorated best? Which had the higher quality design and paint job? Which kid would I send home crying, finding fault in all creatures with wheels?

The assignment was given as a part of our Breakfast Rotary Club’s participation in the Jackson Soap Box Derby Association, an organization run by former national champs Jim Sunday and Randy Denig. We provided the funds and the brute strength to get this shin-dig off the ground, literally, and my role in the grand scheme of racing was a minor one. But I could use it to my advantage. I would delve into the very fiber of soap box racing, and expose this well-worn sport’s habits and traits.

It didn’t start out as easily as I had hoped. The forecast called for thunder and rain, and when I pulled into the Jackson County Airport - site of this year’s doomed Hot Air Jubilee - the menacing clouds were holding counsel. The size of the airport is easy to grasp from the road, but once you’re inside gripping agoraphobia sets in.

"Jesus," I thought, "I can’t even see to the other side."

I asked a middle-aged man in a green volunteer shirt where I could find the race track, and he pointed in a general direction: "It’s just beyond that big white tent, on the runway." The bastard lied. It wasn’t just beyond the tent, and it took several more dipshits in green shirts and a layer of shoe rubber to find the cursed track.

When I did reach the track, I met my comrade, fellow-Rotarian and real estate broker Cliff Cole, at what was shaping up to be the start line. Men were building wooden ramps, painted green, onto flat-bed towing trucks at a 35-degree angle. When I turned my head, I saw the end of the track - the finish line - was about 400 feet away.

"There’s no way they’ll make it," I thought, "not in this humidity."

Cliff is a genial, good-humored guy, prone to sarcastic jokes and general smart-ass-ism. I liked him immediately. We were given clipboards by Nancy Sunday, another Rotarian and mother of Jim Sunday, who had given us this somber assignment. She gave us directions on where the pits would be set up, a list of drivers, and a bottle of water that was sweating as much as I was. "It’s okay to carry a clipboard," Nancy said. "It lets them know you’re coming." Great, I wondered, how would we ever sneak up on the little bastards with these things?

Jackson soap boxers, it should be mentioned, are a seasoned lot. There were champions here from the late ’60s and early ’70s, back from the time of Nixon, that were still racing. Jim Sunday, a Consumer’s Energy employee and - you guessed it - a Rotarian, was one of them. He was also de-facto leader of this outfit, and commanded respect with his neon green hat with a jolly pink pig on the front. "Nobody wonders where I’m at with this hat," Jim said. No doubt. It was this kind of seriousness that guided Cliff and I, co-judges and rookies to the grandeur of it all. We couldn’t bear to fail in our mission.

We walked around the pits, jotted notes and making comments on the aesthetic appeal of each one. Here was one where two cars were painted like a shark and a tiger, and the pit was decorated accordingly: this half with Tony the Tiger and beanie babies, this half with plastic makos, mouth agape. Another was dressed up in a Formula 1 pit motif, checkered flags and Michelin Man proudly displayed. Mario Andretti didn’t have shit on these kids.

Each car weighed in at about 200-250 lbs, with driver. Infinite rules governing wheel diameter, paint or no-paint, who built the damned thing, etc. Tracks were anywhere from 400-450 feet long, this one’s boundaries set by old racing tires. History, gravity, tradition, sportsmanship. All this was too much to take this early on a weekend.

But what, I wondered, was the appeal? Here you had whole families, taking time out of their Saturday morning to watch little Jimmy Two-by-Four head down a hill in a vehicle he would be vaporized in on any Main Street in America.

One car in particular caught my eye, so I asked the driver and his companions - they looked awfully big to be racing with the steady flow of eight and nine-year-olds - how this whole thing worked.

"It’s all gravity," Scott Denig, three-year Jackson derby champion and heir to his father, Randy Denig’s, 1973 national championship legacy. "Gravity, and getting as low as you can."

I had interrupted Scott as he was trying out the first practice run of the makeshift ramps. He wheeled down the flat-bed, head hunkered low, blue helmet freshly polished, but his car never made it to the finish line. There was no speed here. The ramp’s angle wasn’t steep enough. So they shortened the track to 200 feet.

Scott was an anomaly. Here was a ruggedly handsome kid, 15 years old, shaggy hair and Led Zeppelin shirt telling of his age, and quietly wise to the ways of soap box derbies. His pit was like trophy apocalypse: giant silver and gold stands with marble bases; here a second-place, here a first; all evidence of the type of mastery of a sport most men only masturbate to. How could a hunky kid like this benefit from all this dorkiness? It had to have been the tradition, I thought. Why else?

Scott’s mother, Cindy, handed Cliff and I an All-American Soap Box Derby rule book. While we read, four cars were having their wheels spun. "It keeps the bearings warm," Cindy told us. Even the cars warmed up.

When all the kids began practicing, the telltale storms rumbled across the airfield. It sprinkled, then rained, and some poor newspaper photographer was stuck without an umbrella. So was I, to be honest, but I had the volunteers’ tent for shelter. It didn’t ease the anxiety. After all, I was standing next to "Lightning Magnet" Cliff Cole, who told a group of us Rotarians earlier about how lightning likes to strike in his vicinity. One time, he heard a bolt strike his front-yard pine tree, vaporizing the sap inside and splitting the tree in half. Cliff said it sounded like a thousand mirrors shattering, end to end.

"I used to go to church," Cliff said, "but then my house got hit twice by lightning. I figure it works pretty good as an excuse not to go anymore."

This guy was a riot. But he wasn’t safe, not standing in a tent in a thunderstorm. We ate our boxed lunches, watching the world get wet, when Jim Sunday called off the race before the first heat sped down the ramp. The remnants of Hurricane Dennis were too much for these athletes. Tomorrow was another day.

Cliff and I headed back to our cars, a good mile away, without the benefit of cover as it rained. "You better call this lightning off," I yelled to Cliff. He couldn’t hear me over the ominous thunderclaps directly overhead.

I read in Monday’s paper how the entire Hot Air Jubilee - an orgy of hot air balloons, carnival food, and local mutants - had lost $40,000 because of the rain. The soap box racers, however, had their race.

Scott Denig won, of course, his fourth straight year as Jackson’s champion. "Rain can’t halt teen’s reign" proclaimed the newspaper’s headline. It seemed only fitting, given the family tradition he was carrying. It all added important weight to his career, and seemingly to his car. If gravity was the key to winning, and aerodynamics the skill to get you there, Scott was one road-tested kid.

Head low, speeding down the ramp, the name Denig was always in the race.

Saturday, July 2, 2005

The Creative Class returns

The creatives are abandoning our cities.

And who can blame them? In small cities like Jackson, what is there to keep the up-and-coming creative professional from leaving? It's not like there are an abundant number of - to put it bluntly - things to do in town for young people.

In author and economist Richard Florida's ("Rise of the Creative Class") new book, “The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent," the case is made that the "flight" of creative professionals from American cities to other countries leaves the country with an economic disadvantage.

"The United States of America is on the verge of losing its competitive advantage,” Florida wrote last fall in a Harvard Business Review article based on his new book. “It is facing perhaps its greatest economic challenge since the dawn of the industrial revolution...Terrorism is less a threat to the U.S. than the possibility that creative and talented people will stop wanting to live within its borders.”

But Florida's foreshadowing of America's creative blight doesn't have to be a global warning - we face a similar problem in beautiful downtown Jackson, Mich.

For too long creative, unique high school graduates have left for college only to never return. Ann Arbor isn't that far away, after all, and there's much more the home of the University of Michigan can offer than the home of the "United States' largest walled prison."

But more and more, Jackson is finding itself as an ideal location for hip goings-on in and around the downtown area.

Consider a Jackson Renaissance.

The city has done much to attract, or at least retain, the creative professionals (such as engineers, designers, entertainers, artists, scientists). Governor Jennifer Granholm even awarded Jackson the "Cool Cities" designation, meaning the city would receive grants and funding - as well as nifty signs posted around town - to make it a hip place to be.

The crown jewel is the Armory Arts Project, a renovation and restructuring of the old Michigan National Guard armory center near the old prison walls to turn it into a creative haven and living center for artists.

But venues like the Riverwalk Amphitheatre concerts, Cruise Nights, the Thunderbird Coffee House, downtown bars like The Office and The Crazy Cowboy, and involved organizations like the Arts and Cultural Alliance are making Jackson a creative place to live. And play.

Jackson needs to keep its creative professionals. Since "creatives" - according to Florida - make up about 30 percent of America's work force, Jackson stands to lose a large number of its talented workers if it doesn't provide an interactive, quality-of-life-focused place to live. The factories are leaving, down-sizing, or rusting away where they stand. Manufacturing is on the way out. The service sector will always be there, but new, exciting ideas and economic development have rarely sprung from a fast-food check-out line.

Sadly, barriers still exist - one in particular. Florida's "three Ts" of creative development - talent, technology, and tolerance - make Jackson's mostly conservative population a tough crowd to convince. There are those in town who think that "hippies" need to look elsewhere for their creative kicks, or those who still hold racial, sexual, or gender prejudices that put a damper on any tolerance progress the Rose City could make.

No, Jackson has much potential, and it will take those who are hard-wired to solve complex problems and offer innovative solutions to realize all this city has to offer. It will also take those of a more open mind-set to strip the intolerant of power and influence to really get things done.

Part of all of this is personal. I want to live in a fun place, with things to do, and events and happenings that stimulate my brain. We have two malls. We have a decent concert venue at Jackson Community College. But we're just now starting to entertain and develop creative and signature events, organizations, and artistic outlets that make Jackson...Jackson.

More needs to be done, and there is a certain crop of young professionals who are realizing that, instead of leaving, we can stay and make Jackson a better place to live.

I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon. I want to see what Jackson's creatives have to offer.

But also, I want to see what Jackson has to offer us creatives.