Working Miracles

Feb 27, 2009 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few is to be found in their perseverance under the promptings of a brave, determined spirit.
--Mark Twain

Sometimes all you need is a title. That's what my dad, a songwriter, used to tell me; "After that," he'd add, "the song may write itself."

My earliest memory of an inspiring title was The Miracle Worker, the dramatization of how Annie Sullivan helped the blind and deaf six year old Helen Keller learn to communicate. (The title derives from Mark Twain's description of Sullivan.) I loved it because that "miracle" suggested not some supernatural event, but an astonishing achievement resulting from months of intense effort against near-impossible odds.

Mostly, miracles don't happen. In 2000, at the peak of the bubble, Village Voice Media -- an alternative newspaper chain that included the Voice and LA Weekly, of which I was publisher -- was purchased for top dollar by Goldman Sachs and other bankers, about whom nothing more need be said.

Having borrowed heavily to make the deal, they had to show significant growth over the papers' already huge profits to execute their "exit strategy" -- a plan to sell at a profit the company you haven't even bought.

They needed a miracle, and hired consulting firm McKinsey -- colorfully described as both blue chip and white shoe -- to pull it off. The vaunted McKinseyans exhorted us to keep sticky eyeballs on a multi-platform, which evoked a strange new Olympic event. We were supposed to franchise a brand...or was it brand a franchise? "Win-win situations" could "drive revenues," and we could maximize "clickthroughs," minimize "churn rates" and "grow our margins"!

Their proposed miracle boiled down to six syllables: Internet radio.

Anyone remember Village Voice Radio? LA Weekly deejays on their I-Pods? I didn't think so.

Barack Obama's election was a true miracle by Sullivan/Keller standards. It started with a brilliant strategy, but only succeeded by overcoming Herculean obstacles through endurance, focus and back-breaking work.

For most Americans, Inauguration day was one of the most thrilling, unifying occasions in modern history. It seemed like everyone who cares about the future -- including conservatives like the normally supercilious George Will, Bush apologist Bill Kristol and even wingnut David Horowitz -- was deeply moved by this profound milestone. It began a hopeful new chapter for the country while relieving us of a presidency whose disastrousness we are just beginning to appreciate.

What comes next? Some on the left won't be satisfied with less than the dawning of a progressive era of evenly distributed economic growth, universal health care, worldwide respect for human rights and peace through negotiation. That kind of miracle would require supernatural intervention.

But we do have a chance to move in that direction. President Obama understands that while we need economic recovery measures right away, only a slow, methodical hunkering down to attack systemic problems will right the ship for the long term.

Of course, some on the right would like nothing better than to see the Obama administration fail, consequences be damned. The Limbaugh/Hannity thugs have set up the President as a straw-miracle-man, and will call out any bad news as evidence of his failure, as they did on Inauguration Day when the stock market tanked. (They had to scramble the next day when the market soared.)

For liberals and progressives, the trick is to keep up the pressure for realistic change, while resisting the temptation to demand too much too fast. Given the internecine bickering that's plagued the left in the past, that would be its own miracle.

Obama's got the title, but this song can't write itself.

To help on the competence front, he is bringing on the country's first "chief performance officer."

Her name is Nancy Killefer. She's a McKinsey alum.

This could be a fine thing. I have hope, if not faith, that the President will bring out the best in Killefer and the other smart and seasoned McKinsey execs he's appointed.

But if you hear that Internet Radio is part of the recovery package, watch out.