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Cursed by March Mad-ness

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David Broder
March 26, 2009
— Cursed

I took a one-week vacation from this column, and the stock market went crazy. The letters AIG were translated into SOS, and the House of Representatives, responding to an outburst of anger across the country, voted for a retroactive 90 percent tax on the AIG traders who had been awarded bonuses even as their company turned to the Treasury and the Federal Reserve for rescue.


This is not what I bargained for. I took the week off in order to focus on filling out my brackets for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I have never done particularly well at doping out this tournament, but last year was particularly poor—even though the four No. 1s all proved that the seeding was right.


I blamed my poor prognostication performance on the distraction of the 2008 presidential primary campaign, then at its height. This year I was determined not to lose my focus; so I shut down reporting for the full week leading into the first-round games last Thursday and Friday.


The bad news is that it wasn’t distraction that explained my sorry performance in the NCAA pool. I just can’t judge basketball. This year, 20 of my 32 first-round picks lost—almost as bad as the 21-11 negative score I had in 2008. Some of it can be blamed on sentiment. I went with American University because I drive through its Washington campus almost every week, and I picked five Big Ten teams because they were my boyhood favorites, even though experts had pronounced this an off year for everyone except Michigan State and Purdue.


My only excuse is that the country put a new twist on March Madness, the television marketing term for the tournament. This year, Americans inserted a hyphen and declared the tournament the time for March Mad-ness.


Normally sane and laid-back people started cursing AIG as if they were Rahm Emanuel ripping John Boehner. And the pattern spread from the White House to Capitol Hill and then across the country.


For a short time, it looked as though Obama had caught the fever. On “The “Tonight Show,” he told Jay Leno he was “stunned” by AIG’s handing out millions in bonuses.


“Who, in their right mind, when your company is going bust, decides we’re going to be paying a whole bunch of bonuses to people?” Obama exclaimed.


With that kind of encouragement from the president, the House quickly passed a patently unconstitutional bill retrospectively imposing a 90 percent tax on the top beneficiaries of the AIG bonuses.


Once he saw where his pals in Congress were headed, Obama began expressing second thoughts, and day by day, in a week when he was a constant TV presence, he further lowered the temperature of his comments.


By Tuesday night, when he held his second prime-time news conference, he had regained his characteristic cool. The bonus issue barely rated a mention, as Obama insisted that he was focused on the big picture—the steps that would revive the economy in the short term and feed into long-range, sustainable growth.


This was Obama the rational man, disdaining any show of populist anger, just as he did for long stretches of the campaign. He was answering a question about stem-cell research when he remarked, “I have no investment in causing controversy.”


But the comment applies to every topic on his agenda, and it explains why he is more immune to the current outburst of March Mad-ness than almost anyone else in Washington.


I think the calm and collected Obama is both more authentic and more persuasive than the guy who was simulating anger the week before.


Unfortunately, I let my emotions run away with me when I was filling out my brackets. I could have done the sensible thing and heeded the seedings, and I would have had 12 of the 16 teams going into the second weekend.


Next year, I promise I won’t get distracted.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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