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Memphis soul comes to the White House tonight

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Mavis Staples will sing at the White House this evening. (photo by Jalylah Burrell from Wikipedia, under Creative Commons License)

The White House will host a who’s-who of legendary soul musicians and modern stars Tuesday night in its latest “In Performance” concert.

This will be the tenth “In Performance at the White House” show, and will focus on Memphis Soul. Several artists from the classic Stax-Volt record label will be featured, most notably Mavis Staples, who sang classics such as “I’ll Take You There.” Guitarist Steve Cropper (who played for Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and pretty much everybody else on the Stax-Volt label), Sam Moore from Sam and Dave, “Knock on Wood” singer Eddie Floyd, and William Bell will also perform.

Justin Timberlake, the Alabama Shakes, harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper, and Queen Latifah are also on the bill. The only performer that really makes me scratch my head, however, is Cyndi Lauper. (Yes, I know she released a star-studded blues album in 2010. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that the woman who sang “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is trying to remake herself as a blues shouter.)

Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MGs will be tonight’s bandleader. It will stream starting at 6:55 p.m. EST on the White House’s website, and will air on PBS stations nationwide April 16 at 8 p.m.

Past shows have paid tribute to Motown, blues, country, Latino music, Broadway showtunes, and music from the Civil Rights movement. During last year’s blues concert, President Obama even took a turn at the mic during the all-star jam on “Sweet Home Chicago.” But for me, the funniest moment from that show came during Gary Clark Jr.’s smoldering performance of “Catfish Blues,” when the camera caught Obama lost in the music, with his eyes closed, head bobbing, and mouthing the lyrics. That moment of presidential music geekery can be seen at the 1:30 point in the following video.

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Stop Swag

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In opening my emails every morning I’m accustomed to a plethora of press releases. Today the release that caught my eye was the announcement of President Obama signing an executive order to cut federal agency travel, printing and IT costs.

However it wasn’t the “news” in the release that has me blogging. It’s the use of the word swag. Sports reporters have been using the word for months now.  There is no doubt that you will hear swag used if you tune into ESPN’s SportsCenter. But I didn’t expect the White House to jump on the bandwagon.

screen shot from WH press release

Is it just me or does the word swag bother anyone else? And the fact that the White House used it in an official press release.




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White House press secretary Carney is major rock nerd

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One of these men is the Senate Minority Leader. The other played drums on "Voodoo Child" and "All Along The Watchtower." See if you can guess which is which. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The never-ending debt ceiling debate appears to be making White House Press Secretary Jay Carney punchy. Here’s how he began this afternoon’s press conference:

CARNEY: Last night, the President called Senate Majority Leader Reid, Speaker Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mitchell, and House Minority Leader Pelosi to discuss progress we are making — Mitch McConnell, sorry — Mitch Mitchell, in addition to being a great drummer for Jimi Hendrix, is also a guitarist in Guided by Voices — (laughter) — a different Mitch Mitchell.  (Laughter.)

Q: Whoa!

CARNEY:  It just — let’s motor on here.

Q: I didn’t know the President was a fan of Guided by Voices.

CARNEY:  I’m working on him.

This exchange comes two weeks after Carney ended a semantic debate over “cutting” vs. “slashing” entitlements by citing Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash. Which proves just how big of a rock geek Jay Carney is (although I should probably not throw stones in that particular glass house).

In honor of Carney’s hipsterish flub — and to help him expose the President to the joys of late-90s indie rock — here is Guided By Voices’ “Teenage FBI.” (Yes, I know this song was recorded after Mitch Mitchell left GBV. I’m posting it anyway because it’s got FBI in its name, which gives it a federal angle.)

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Read the rest of this entry »

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Welcome to the semantic jungle

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Slash really is everywhere. (Ed Jones, AFP/Getty Images)

A reporter sparred with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney today over possible reductions to Social Security — which might also lead to lower COLAs for federal retirees — and kicked off this surreal semantic debate:

CARNEY:  The President is interested in strengthening Social Security for the long term in ways that preserve the promise of the program and don’t slash benefits. [...]

Q: So the inflation adjustment measure is off the table because it would slash benefits, right?

CARNEY:  I’m not going to talk about individual items about the President’s policy that he enunciated back in January. [...]

Q: What does “slash” mean?

CARNEY:  Haven’t you got, like, a dictionary app on your iPhone?

Q: Well, it’s a word that you use instead of “cut.”

CARNEY:  “Slash” is, I think, quite clear.  It’s slash.  It’s like that.  (Laughter.)  It’s a significant whack.  (Laughter.) … I’m not going to put a numerical figure on it.

Q:  So it means a significant cut.

CARNEY:  I think slashing is a pretty sharp, direct –

Q: It’s not the same thing as cutting — the point is, it’s not the same thing as “cut.”

MR. CARNEY:  It’s slash.  (Laughter.)  And I don’t mean the guitarist.  (Laughter.)

Oh, OK. Thanks for clearing that up, Jay.

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White House bends over backwards to apologize to Sherrod

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How many times can Robert Gibbs use the word 'apologize' in one press conference?

How many times can Robert Gibbs use the word 'apologize' in one press conference?

What a difference a day makes in the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. According to three sources who spoke to Politico’s Ben Smith, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina praised the speed at which the administration acted, and reportedly said Tuesday morning:

We could have waited all day — we could have had a media circus — but we took decisive action, and it’s a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere.

And here is White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, just a few minutes ago:

Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I will do so on behalf of the administration. … A disservice was done for which we apologize. … The secretary [Tom Vilsack] is trying to reach her. I hope that the secretary reaches her soon and they have the opportunity to talk. The secretary will apologize for the actions that have taken place over the past 24-36 hours, and on behalf of the administration, I offer our apologies.

I certainly hope Gibbs stretched properly before backpedaling so furiously. You can hurt yourself doing that.

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Kal Penn leaving White House for Harold & Kumar 3

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kumarOne of the Obama administration’s more … um … unusual appointments is rumored to be leaving the White House this summer. Kalpen Modi, AKA Kal Penn, AKA the perpetually high Kumar from the Harold and Kumar movies, will reportedly quit his job soon to start shooting the third in his series of stoner comedies: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.

The White House and Penn are not confirming these rumors, but his co-star John Cho said the movie is pretty much a done deal.

Kumar is currently the associate director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. He’s kept a low profile since he appeared at Obama’s inauguration concert last year, but he’s been acting as the White House’s liaison to the Asian-American, youth, and arts communities.

It’s unclear who will take Kumar’s place when he’s gone. But if Obama knows what’s good for him, he’ll start recruiting Neil Patrick Harris right away.

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WH talks government modernization

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The White House held a modernizing government forum earlier this year, inviting more than 50 private-sector chief executive officers to share best business practices with government officials. The White House recently released a report of its findings from the forum — to view the full report, click here.

The results reported aren’t too surprising. The best practices shared by the CEOs were pretty clear — be more transparent, plan your IT projects better, and don’t let IT projects drag on for five years. Do things quickly and implement IT projects in stages to test whether they’ll work, the CEOs said.

Here are a few key points OMB says it will adopt:

  • Manage IT projects in a transparent form using tools such as the IT Dashboard.
  • Re-evaluate comprehensive IT review processes to make sure leaders know the status of major IT projects.
  • Create customer satisfaction surveys to gauge customers’ experiences with the government

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“Making government cool” is the Obama administration’s Poochie

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"Can we rasta-fy the government by 10 percent?"

"Can we rasta-fy the government by 10 percent?"

If there’s one phrase I’m tired of hearing over and over from senior White House leaders, it’s their desire to ”make government service cool.”

An occasional quip would be one thing. But it’s become a mantra for the Obama administration, included in everything from official bios to speeches to interviews to strategic plans. And what’s worse, it’s a meaningless catch phrase. 

If the government is having a hard time attracting and retaining talented young people, it’s probably because it takes five months to hire somebody and because hard workers don’t feel properly rewarded and think slackers aren’t dealt with — not because of a perceived lack of cool. After all, there’s a good deal of evidence suggesting many young people are already interested in public service.

All the coolness talk reminds me of the Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie.” In it, television executives try to boost the ratings of the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon by adding a new, “hip” character called Poochie, who they describe as “extreme!” and “totally in-your-face!” But the transparent and desperate attempt at coolness falls flat with the show’s audience, and Poochie is quickly killed off.

Young people can see right through such superficial talk, and it only turns them off of what you’re saying. Simply repeating “we’re going to make government cool” may be the least cool thing anyone can do.

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WH declassifies cybersecurity parameters

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The White House has declassified much of a cybersecurity initiative developed during the George W. Bush administration.

The release of Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative’s 12 key goals is part of the Obama administration’s quest for transparency, said Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt in a March 2 White House blog post announcing the declassification. Bush created the initiative in 2008 and few details were available about it before the March 2 release.

Schmidt wrote:

We will not defeat our cyber adversaries because they are weakening, we will defeat them by becoming collectively stronger, through stronger technology, a stronger cadre of security professionals, and stronger partnerships.”

Portions of the initiative outlining cyberwarfare plans remain classified.

To read the 12 initiatives, click here.

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More about new WH dashboard

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My colleague Elise Castelli posted a blog earlier this week about the White House’s launch of a new open government dashboard, which you may have missed for all of the Snowpocalypse/Snowmaggedon/snOMG news.

Not much information is posted yet on the dashboard’s Web site, which is part of the administration’s move to make government operations more transparent. President Obama signed an executive order Dec. 8 giving agencies until April 7 to detail how they will open up data to the public, and more will be added to the dashboard once agencies have released their transparency plans.

But until then, the first version of the dashboard — Version 1.0 — is a preview of what’s to come for federal transparency, wrote Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra  on the White House blog Tuesday.

Version 1.0 of the Dashboard focuses on agency execution of the deliverables explicitly identified in the Open Government Directive.  It makes it easy for the American people to visually track progress on the deadlines to date.  The Dashboard also links to each agency’s Open Government Webpage, where the public can find more details on the steps taken to implement the Directive. Just look for the words ‘Evaluating our Progress.’”

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