"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
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-- Proverbs 11:25
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Monday, January 01, 2007

The Brilliant 20 of 2006
Posted by Jill | 3:09 PM
I'm a bit perturbed that the only woman on this list is behind the scenes of a nascent radio network. It isn't that there weren't accomplished women out there, but when I had to narrow down the list to those people whom I thought really accomplished something this year. Nancy Pelosi is the obvious person missing, but frankly, it remains to be seen just how brilliant she's going to be. I'm hoping to be able to place her at a high spot in the 2007 list, but so far I'm treading cautiously. The female entries from the 2005 list, like Arianna Huffington, Randi Rhodes, and Rachel Maddow continued their excellent work, but this list is those who truly stood out as exceptional this year. This may make me a traitor in feminist circles, but I'm OK with that. It just means women have to try harder this year.

And so, without further ado before we wrap up 2006 and put it in the attic along with the clothes that will never fit us again, here are the Brilliant 20 of 2006.

20. "Action" Jackson Jones. In a perilous year of complex problems, it may seem frivolous to give any spot on this list to an infant. Sure, he's cute in that "He Looks Just Like Old Man Finkelstein" kind of way, but why this particular baby? Well, it's because it isn't everyone who can survive the miscarriage of his twin, hide from a post-miscarriage D&C so that mom doesn't even know you're there, and then hang on for 23-1/2 weeks and survive placenta previa before arriving nearly fatally premature on June 14, 2006, weighing 1 pound, 4 oz. Jackson's proud daddy Jeff has written the family's experiences in a book, which will be available soon. Meanwhile, take a look at this kid, nicknamed "Superboy", because this is one tough little guy who is going to be one badass muthafucka when he grows up. And join me in wishing his parents Jeff and Dana a very, very happy new year. So far they're off to a good start.

19. Yul Kwon and Ozzy Lusth. It sounded like the most tasteless reality show gimmick since "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire." Mark Burnett, usually the class act of reality show impresarios, decided it would be an interesting experiment to divide the tribes on Survivor: Cook Islands by ethnicity and see what happned. There was much hue and cry and spilled ink (which was probably the point), but in the end, despite the best efforts of the Caucasian contestants (who were some of the dumbest, most loathsome people in the show's history), the final four consisted of two Asians, one Jamaican-American, and one Latino, and the million buck final prize came down down to a vote between perhaps the most deserving finalists ever. The too-good-to-be-true Kwon won by one vote over the obviously disappointed Lusth, the latter being perhaps the most amazing pure challenge animal the show has ever produced. But it isn't often that two players on a team outnumbered 8-4 can manage to get to the end playing an almost completely clean game and without backstabbing anyone -- not even each other.

18. Michael C. Hall. America loves its antiheroes, but this year we were treated to the antihero to end all antiheroes in Dexter Morgan, the serial killer with a moral code. Dexter, the dark and disturbing new Showtime series, cemented the premium network as the next HBO in terms of delivering quality programming. But while much of Dexter plays like routine cop drama stuff, it's saved almost single-handedly by the amazing performance of Michael C. Hall, who gives what should be an unlikeable character layers and textures that a lesser actor would not be able to do. We've already seen how Hall can portray complexities and roiling emotions in his unforgettable portrayal of the gay funeral director David Fisher on Six Feet Under. But he's equally adept at portraying the complexities of a man closed off from his emotions. It's extraordinarily difficult to crawl out from under a role with which an actor has become identified, but Hall is more than up to the task, trading one iconic role for another.

17. Jet Li. It was described as "his last martial arts action film." It remains to be seen whether this claim is true. But in the eponymously-named Jet Li's Fearless, the five-time Chinese wushu champion not only provided stunning fight scenes in this profile of martial arts Master Huo Yuanjai, but also came into his own as a talented, multifaceted actor. With his pockmarked complexion and a face that can go from puppy adorable to cold blooded killer in a flash, Li may be the most versatile actor to come out of Hong Kong cinema. But more importantly, Fearless was a demonstration to the world of the beauty of Shaolin kung-fu, a discipline we don't see often in a country that has a tae kwon do school on every corner.

16. Sacha Baron Cohen. 2006 was the year in which Sacha Baron Cohen held a mirror up to middle America and asked, "Do you like what you see?" The problem is that everyone liked what they saw of Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat Sagdiev character represented their own collective id. A little of Cohen's various schticks goes a long way, and I never would have dreamt that Borat would have become not just a huge moneymaker but a cultural phenomenon. It isn't that turning on the cameras and allowing ordinary Americans to be appalling all by themselves is anything new; Michael Moore has been doing it for years. But it's rare for a film's agenda to be as carefully couched in comedy. Cohen is nothing if not fearless, and it says a great deal about America that we have embraced his misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted and clueless fake Kazakh journalist with so much love. Jagshemash indeed.

15. Howie Klein, Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher. Every election needs a great campaign commercial, and in 2006, Maxwell and Mosher, formerly of Squirrel Nut Zippers, provided the framework for one in Had Enough. A reworking of the SNZ song Put a Lid On It, Had Enough became the rallying cry of the entire election, with almost 100 individual versions of the video produced for various races. Klein's story of how the song came to be is here, and you can see a selection of the videos here.

14. Ned Lamont. I had to think long and hard about whether Ned Lamont belongs on this list -- not because he lost the November election, but because he made the fatal mistake of listening to the Washington consultants that Hillary Clinton sent to Connecticut and became just the kind of careful, finger-in-the-wind politician that we've grown to loathe. But let's not forget that Lamont took on perhaps the most entrenched of Senators in Joe Lieberman, daring to run an antiwar campaign at a time when it was still risky to do so, defeating Lieberman in the process. It's possible that Connecticut voters, given another shot to vote to Lieberman in the general election, decided that the committees and seniority were more important than the fact that Lieberman regards himself as somehow entitled to keep his Senate seat as long as he wanted, and the fact that he is arguably a stronger supporter of George W. Bush than most Republicans are at this point. But Lamont was the first to believe that you can go up against incumbents and win. And for that, he deserves his spot on his list -- as long as he's learned not to listen to the consultants.

13. George Clooney. As if it weren't enough to be gorgeous, talented, and an Academy Award nominee in 2005 for Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney continued to put his money where his mouth is in 2006, lending his name, face, and clout to legislation introduced by strange political bedfellows Barack Obama and Sam Brownback to pay more attention to the genocide occurring in Darfur. This year, Clooney led a delegation to Darfur in April and implored the U.N. to act upon his return. In December he accompanied the Safe Darfur coalition and others on a human rights mission to China and Egypt (photo) to discuss the genocide. Clooney's name is often brought up in a political context, but so far he shows no inclination to run for office. Our loss, I think.

12. Sam Seder. As Air America continues to struggle, Sam Seder continues to develop as a force in radio. With Marc Maron being let go yet again, and Mike Malloy being unceremoniously canned while on his way to work, Sam Seder kept plugging away even while his own future was in the balance. Fortunately, the army of nimrods and Republican moles currently running the network found what little sense they had and not only kept Seder on, but moved him to a daytime slot, where he has thrived on having his own show. Seder, the one AAR host who openly invites conservatives to call, has amassed a tiny stable of wingnuts who for some reason seem to respect him, as much as they disagree with him. Passionate, articulate, and even occasionally funny, Seder is a rare bright spot in the AAR mess right now.

11. Sen. Russ Feingold. Feingold's decision not to pursue the presidential nomination was disappointing to me, for all that I know full well that this country is not going to elect a twice-divorced guy named "Feingold." But in 2006, Feingold was the only Democratic Senator not intimidated by President Thirty Percent in introducing a resolution to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The usual voices on the right were quick to attack Feingold, but the results of the November election indicated that Americans were far more in synch with Feingold than with those who want to keep on the same course or worse, escalate the war. Similarly, most Democratic Senators were afraid to move against Bush's illegal widespread surveillance of Americans, fearful that they would be branded as "soft on terrorists." Only Russ Feingold had the guts to defend the Constitution and habeas corpus. Feingold's courage and sense of what's right caused the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin to call him the most valuable political player of 2006.

10. James Hansen. On January 29, the New York Times published an article in which Dr. James Hansen, the top NASA climate scientist, revealed that the Bush Administration had tried to prevent him from calling for immediate and dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases. Hansen has been outspoken about the reality of climate change all year, bucking threats of "dire consequences" for doing so by the Administration. I hope Hansen continues to speak out, because nothing has yet changed. Earlier this month, a climate scientist in Boulder, Colorado was told never to say the word "Kyoto" or the phrase "climate change".

9. The New York Mets. I thought of naming Omar Minaya, or Willie Randolph, but the reality is that the Mets' success this year was a team effort. Yes, the team fell short of making the World Series by just one pitch, but the 2006 Mets represented the first time since 1986 that this organization has fielded a team worthy of the kind of goofy affability for which Mets baseball is famous. With a young lineup represented publicly by the sunny countenances of third baseman David Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes, anchored by classy veterans like Tom Glavine, Cliff Floyd, and Carlos Delgado, the Mets played great ball right up until that one pitch in game 7 against the Cardinals. For the first time in over a decade, the Mets made baseball fun again.

8. Sheldon and Anita Drobny and Mike Newcomb. When Air America was about to declare bankruptcy this year, Sheldon and Anita Drobny offered to invest $2.5 million to keep the network afloat -- and were turned down. The Drobnys, who were among those who originally conceived Air America, decided that whatever happens to Air America, progressive talk radio is worth the risk. The result is NovaM Radio, which unlike Air America, is starting small -- with stations in Little Rock and Phoenix -- and building from there. NovaM has already picked up Mike Malloy off the side of the road where AAR literally dumped him, and is slowly building a stable of on-air personalities, presumably some earlier or yet to be jettisoned by Air America. With pollster John Zogby and Joe Trippi also behind the endeavor, there's a formidable train trust here, one which no doubt has learned from Air America's mistakes.

7. Jim Webb and Jon Tester. I link these two newly-elected Senators together because they are the public face of the 50 state strategy and two of the most promising new Democratic faces in Congress. Webb, with his stern demeanor and background as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, combined with a strong progressive stance on economic issues and libertarian streak on social issues, is perhaps the dream Democrat for whom we've been waiting. In strongly Republican Montana, Jon Tester, the organic farmer with the buzz cut, defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. Neither of these guys would have been given a chance by the Emanuel/Schumer hack brigade, but with the help of DNC money and netroots support, both candidates are going to be sworn into the Senate this week. Barack Obama is sucking up the energy right now, but right behind him, these two guys are the top prospects in the new Democratic farm team.

6. Bill Clinton. The slavish worship of the right wing by the media was born during the Clinton years, when a tawdry affair became grist for the burgeoning role of the media as regurgitator of right wing talking points. While he was president, Bill Clinton tried to remain above the fray. Whether he should have, or if he should have fought back then and there, remains to be seen. But now that he is no longer president, he's mad as hell and he isn't going to take it anymore. So when Chris Wallace ambushed Clinton in an interview that was supposed to be about the work of Clinton's foundation with questions about whether the latter "could have prevented the 9/11 attacks", Clinton let Wallace have it with both barrels. It was the first indication that Democrats could fight back and the world wouldn't come to an end. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats will continue to fight or if they will succumb to the inevitable swiftboating that will occur as they take over Congress, but on September 22nd, it was the Big Dawg who drew first blood.

5. Howard Dean. It shouldn't surprise anyone that after the Democratic victories in November's election, the publicity hogs Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer would be the first ones in front of the cameras taking credit. These are guys invested in the old strategy of funnelling the party's money to Washington-based consultants who get paid not for results, but for how much money they can spend. Both fought Howard Dean's 50 state strategy tooth and nail, but when the dust cleared, it was the 50 state strategy, which sought to build Democratic organizations and field candidates in every state, in every district, which brought the results. Without Howard Dean's 50 state strategy, Jim Webb doesn't win in Virginia, Jon Tester doesn't win in Montana, and Claire McCaskill doesn't win in Missouri. "People-Powered Howard" really did return the process to the people, and the results are obvious. Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel is left to wonder why his candidates like Tammy Duckworth, his "sure-win" candidate in the 6th District of Illinois couldn't pull it off despite losing both legs in Iraq. Perhaps I can tell him: All politics is local, not national. Howard Dean understood this.

4. Stephen Colbert. An integral part of the bluster of the right is its pretense at bravery and courage. The gasbags of the media right give lip service to courage while safely ensconced in their studios. This year, the pre-eminent fake right wing personality entered the belly of the beast and promptly laid a lovely 24-karat gold turd in the punchbowl. Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner was one of the most astounding addresses ever given in front of a room full of people. It isn't everyone who can ambush a president, a vice president, and their apologists in the media before the targets even know how theyve been pwn3d. That night, Colbert proved that he isn't just the smartest guy in the room, but he might be the smartest guy on the planet. Just don't tell his television alter-ego. You know how he gets.

3. S.R. Sidarth. Every now and then, someone's fifteen minutes of fame changes the course of history. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, the effect can be cataclysmic. The day that college student S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer for the Webb campaign, became the object of Sen. George Allen's Inner Bigot not only spelled doom for Allen's battle to retain his Senate seat, it was, at least for now, the final nail in the coffin of Allen's presidential aspirations. Allen was being touted as a logical successor to George W. Bush -- another affable nitwit that you'd want to have a beer with. But when Allen began to dig an ever-deeper hole for himself, Sidarth, with impressive poise, remained above the fray. As a real Virginia native, Sidarth's Indian roots made him a perfect example of the American Dream -- far more than Allen's faux populism and privileged background as scion of a legendary football coach. Yet Sidarth didn't just behave with grace, class, and intelligence as the furor surrounded him, he also showed a wry sense of humor, applying for entrance to a coveted spot in a Campaigns and Elections class with an essay consisting of three simple words: "I am macaca."

2. Michael J. Fox. If Keith Olbermann began tearing down the wall around George W. Bush, Michael J. Fox exposed the gargoyle behind even the lame mask of Rush Limbaugh. In coming forward in favor of candidates who support stem-cell research, Fox showed an entire nation what has become of one of their favorite television personalities. We'd all seen Fox' tremors, but not like this. And in appearing in public with his Parkinson's disease -- even medicated -- on full display, he forced us to see what the stakes are for people with neurological diseases, and how hypocritical a so-called "pro-life" stance is in the context of stem-cell research using cells from embryos that are routinely thrown away. Rush Limbaugh was understandably panicked, and the image of that fat bastard flailing around in a cruel parody of what he believed was an unmedicated, but in reality was an overmedicated Michael J. Fox showed what the talk radio right is really all about -- and it isn't about morality. The reality is that without the medications, Fox can no longer even speak. Not since Christopher Reeve has a public figure put himself so "out there" and never has one been so mocked by the cowards of the so-called moral right. Fox' bravery, his poise, and his grace under appalling attacks by the most vile segment of the media, make him the second most brilliant person of 2006.

1. Keith Olbermann. Perhaps no one was more instrumental in tearing down the wall of delusion that the mainstream media had built around George W. Bush than the former ESPN sportscaster. It's not that Olbermann is a stranger to principled stands; he had quit MSNBC once before when he got tired of reporting the Lewinsky scandal as news. But when Olbermann called out Donald Rumsfeld in his first Special Comment on August 30 for impugning the patriotism of dissenters, it marked a cataclysmic change in the perception of this Administration. From that night on, Olbermann went on a roll, with comments on the 9/11 anniversary, George W. Bush's September news conference, the response to John Kerry's flubbed joke, Bush's litany of lies, and more. The more Olbermann spoke out, the more people watched -- and listened -- and little by little, the wall of denial began to crumble. Olbermann's false modesty about not being fit to wipe Edward R. Murrow's boots is misplaced. Not only has Olbermann singlehandedly revived Murrow's passionate defense of the TRUE American way, but he may have singlehandedly, in his own snarky, odd way, salvaged the integrity of television journalism. No other individual was as influential this year in finally getting through to the American people that they must no longer allow a Republican rubber-stamp Congress to enable this most corrupt and evil of executive Administrations. I'll leave it to history to say whether Keith Olbermann single-handedly saved the republic in 2007, but from where I'm sitting, he certainly played the most significant role.

(A special, warm welcome to those of you who came over from Digby's place. Sheesh, if I'd known you were coming I'd have picked up a bit and baked cookies.)

(UPDATED to fix the link to Digby. Oops. Sorry. I just got very excited there at all the company. You know how it is, unexpected guests and all, and you burn the spanakopita.)
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