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Talent & education

45 minutes with the mustache

My upfront prejudice, so you all know where I’m coming from, here on the last day of the Mackinac Policy Conference: I’m not a Thomas Friedman fan. The New York Times columnist and best-selling author traffics in glib catchphrases, strangely articulate taxi drivers in Bangalore and a certain sort of cheery fear-mongering. His talk Thursday at the Grand Hotel was no different: Half the Chinese applicants to Grinnell College had perfect scores on their SATs! They built a 2-million-square-foot convention center in Beijing in eight months, while it took longer to fix two little escalators at the Bethesda, Md., Metro stop! The whole world is hungrier than we are, and soon, they’ll be eating our lunch!

All of which may be true, but he never explores the questions I have: If Americans are so stupid, how did they build these institutions of higher learning the Chinese are flocking to? How can you possibly compare a public facility built with enormous government investment, with labor one or two steps up from slaves, with the competitive bidding process required by municipal transit systems? And can I eat Friedman’s lunch? I’d like to work for the New York Times and travel the world talking to “top bankers,” “corporate presidents” and those aforementioned taxi drivers.

Silly me — of course I will never get that gig. For one thing, I lack the chutzpah to stand in front of an audience and tell them they have to be like a Perkins Pancake House waitress, advice that boiled down to, “Put some extra fruit on the plate,” whatever the hell that means.

All things considered, it was far more entertaining to watch the three candidates for Michigan’s U.S. Senate seat yesterday at the Jockey Club — Debbie Stabenow, who glowed and chirped and smiled as she ran down her accomplishments; Clark Durant, a Grosse Pointe Farms patrician who every so often drops a tea party phrase into his narrative (“thank you for your service, but it’s time for someone else,” a sentiment, in identical words, that came up over and over in the Indiana campaign against Sen. Richard Lugar), and Pete Hoekstra, who responded to questions about his birther flirtation by TALKING VERY LOUD, BUT NOT EXACTLY SHOUTING, MORE OF AN ALL-CAPS DECLARATION THAT IT IS SIMPLY LUDICROUS TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION FOUR YEARS AFTER THE ELECTION, OK? JUST LUDICROUS. BUT THERE SHOULD PROBABLY BE SOME SORT OF QUALIFICATION PANEL FOR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES, AND THEY’D DO THEIR JOB AND THEN DISBAND.

But best of all was Donna Brazile and Tucker Eskew, who do this sort of comedy routine as a Democrat and a Republican talking politics, mixing just enough serious in to justify Brazile’s showboating, which is hilarious. By the time she called herself “too sexy” for something (notes are unclear), she had the crowd eating out of her hand.

Which may or may not have been reflected in the straw poll that ended the session, in which Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney 71-29. Scientific? Of course not. Fair? Hardly. But this is Mackinac. The modern world is always held at bay.

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