Trying to figure out whether to support Mubarak or the people in Egypt is not the first time the US has been in this position

In the United States, part of the coverage of the happenings in Egypt involves how the United States should respond. As has been noted by many, the US is stuck in a difficult position: we have generously supported Mubarak but we also claim to be about freedom and democracy. How can we balance these two approaches, particularly when our larger strategic goals in the Middle East region are tied to Israel and Egypt’s long-term support of this country?

It would be helpful is this difficult position would be put in some historical context. This is not the first time this has happened for the United States (nor is it likely to be the last time). Since the end of World War Two when the United States emerged as a superpower, we have ended up in this position numerous times in countries around the world. Look at Iran. Look at Chile. This has occurred in recent years in Palestine – does the United States support open and democratic elections if it means that Hamas is voted into power? In order to further our strategic interests, we have ended up supporting dictators. Some commentators have said Egypt presents the same conundrum: support Mubarak or open it up to the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power?

When American presidents speak about advancing freedom (President George W. Bush did this openly for years when talking about Afghanistan and Iraq), could people around the world take them seriously? On one hand, we claim to be a beacon of light in the world. On the other hand, we act in ways that seem at odds with the interests of “the people” in other countries.

All of this could lead to some interesting long-term discussions in the United States about approaching global politics.

(As an aside, it has been interesting to watch live coverage on the Internet from Al Jazeera English. I just heard an anchor openly argue with an official in Mubarak’s ruling party about whether the people in the streets were mobs or not – the official said they were looting and burning and creating disorder, the anchor kept saying that the protesters were peaceful and just wanted democratic elections. This perspective is quite different from coverage in the United States.)

Kennedy/Nixon debate fanfare overblown?

Fifty years ago yesterday, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate. The debate supposedly “changed the world” and the narrative of the Kennedy win has long been part of history:

It’s now common knowledge that without the nation’s first televised debate – fifty years ago Sunday – Kennedy would never have been president. But beyond securing his presidential career, the 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America’s political history. “It’s one of those unusual points on the timeline of history where you can say things changed very dramatically – in this case, in a single night,” says Alan Schroeder, a media historian and associate professor at Northeastern University, who authored the book, Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV.

But after reading and reviewing the book Getting It Wrong, I’m a little more skeptical of these claims. So let me be the contrarian for a moment and suggest why this media moment from 1960 is overhyped:

1. It is part of the lore of JFK. It was in this moment that the country saw his youthful charm and in contrast, Nixon’s shadiness. JFK’s image fit television perfectly and the media has since played up the Kennedy family as American political royalty. Of course, JFK’s charm was likely evident elsewhere and Nixon was still elected president twice (after having served as vice-president under Eisenhower).

2. It suggests televised debates, in general, are critically important for elections. I’m not sure about this – I think the media thinks they are more important than they are. By always looking for a “winner” and “loser,” candidates are set up to succeed or fail. Television doesn’t lend itself to nuanced debates about critical issues; it is perfect for sound-bites and unflappable dispositions. If the voters care about debates, it is because they have been told that such debates matter.

3. Overall, it suggests TV can be an important contributor to democracy rather than just the source of junk television shows. This is debatable.

Paying attention to Presidential reading lists

Americans are apparently interested in what the President reads.

A question: who exactly is interested? On the whole, many Americans read very little and these numbers grow among the younger generation. Tevi Troy argues, “We as Americans seem to like the notion that our presidents are reading more than just their daily briefing books — especially since, we assume, their busy schedules make it hard to find reading time.” So we expect more reading from our President than what many Americans are willing to do themselves?

Another question (perhaps too cynical): how much is the Presidential “reading list” just an opportunity to help shape an image?

Measuring Presidential popularity with merchandise

There are traditional ways to measure Presidential popularity: polls that in some way measure approval or disapproval. Here is another possible way: sales of Presidential merchandise.

I’ve always wondered why Presidents or other political officials allow such merchandizing using their figures and words in order to make money. Perhaps it is simply publicity (even if it is in opposition to them). Or perhaps they don’t want to appear to be the politicians who cracks down on such things. Or perhaps by running for or entering public office, there is a tacit understanding that they are now in the public eye and can be used for money-making purposes.

And what does it mean culturally to reduce any politician to a piece of merchandise?