Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Brightness and Darkness of John Updike

“As for John [Updike], he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince….I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd….One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations.”—John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever (1991)

For me, this 1976 entry from John Cheever’s journals was more startling than his battles with the bottle, his wife or his bisexuality. Someone identifying himself as “C.B.C.” called him requesting a comment on “a fatal automobile accident” involving Updike. The fraudulent report—perhaps, Cheever’s daughter Susan suggested, started by an overambitious stringer, “who saw the name on a police blotter and decided to cash in”—sent the older novelist on a crying fit until he learned the truth later in the day.

John Updike, of course, lived for another three decades, much honored—including two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards—before dying of lung cancer in a hospice in Massachusetts this past Tuesday, at age 76. Cheever’s premature retrospective has been echoed in the obituaries and appraisals that have flooded the conventional media and the blogosphere these last couple of days.

Elsewhere in his journals, Cheever admitted to envying Updike—and who can blame him? Leave aside the latter’s unbelievable productivity, a roughly book-a-year pace that served as an inspiration and rebuke to other published writers, not to mention poor bloggers like myself.

Something more territorial, though, probably nagged at Cheever: Updike was exploring much of the same turf that Cheever had claimed as his own—suburbia, depicted with a similar lyrical sensibility even as it looked askance at its desires. When they don’t obsess over every line, writers worry incessantly about their reputations, wishing success for their friends but not too much, if that means that their own worth is overshadowed in the process.

Neither writer needed to worry. Following his novel Falconer, his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, and the journals that divulged his private torment in exquisite detail, Cheever’s place in the mid-century American pantheon, as a successor to F. Scott Fitzgerald in his quest for elusive grace, is secure.

Likewise Updike’s, in a different way: as a man of letters on more of a European model. Imagine Edmund Wilson, only with somewhat less focus on nonfiction—and considerably more success with fiction.

I can’t think of another major American author who worked in so many different genres—the novel, short short, poetry, drama, literary and art criticism—or on so many different subjects: the small town, suburbia, baseball, golf, art. Few were ready to dare more, whether through a fictional trilogy inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, another novel suggested by Hamlet, a late-Seventies satire on an African dictator (The Coup), or a first-person narrative of a 21st-century American who becomes hooked by Islamic fundamentalism (Terrorist).

And I haven’t all touched on the decades-long tetralogy that is probably his best-known work, on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, which won him his two Pulitzers.

Not that Updike didn’t misfire occasionally. You would, too, if you put out so much work. For me, at least, his sentences sometimes went over the line from baroque to rococo. As for his sex scenes: As recently as this past fall, he won Britain’s Lifetime Achievement for Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. I think that should be renamed in his honor, in much the same way that the winner of America’s Super Bowl now receives the Lombardi Trophy

When all is said and done, though, I suspect that his reputation will rest most securely on his massive output of short stories. Most of it sticks to the milieu of his own life, which he knew intimately. As a massive record of American life, they will be ranked along with Cheever’s. The high quality of the prose exceeds that of another great New Yorker short-story master, John O’Hara, though not his range in characters.

In particular, I think his fictional couple Richard and Joan Maple, whose marriage he charted from its hopeful beginning to painful end over two decades—roughly the period of his own first marriage. Those stories formed the basis of a fine TV film, Too Far to Go, starring Michael Moriarty and Blythe Danner, with Glenn Close in an early, supporting role.

Back to Updike and Cheever. They resembled each other in one other way: Their belief, increasingly unfashionable in an age hailing “The Death of God,” in their sense of the powerful, immanent presence of God. No matter how guilt-ridden Cheever felt over his addiction to drink and lust, he seldom if ever felt separated from God. Particularly at an Episcopolian service, he felt God almost as a physical presence, as real as the sunlight coming through the windows of his church.

By the end of his life, Updike had upset certain elements of the liberal community as much for his belief in God as he had others in the Sixties with his reluctant backing of the Vietnam War and feminists in the Seventies and Eighties in what was deemed sexist treatment of his female characters. (The earlier criticisms had a good deal more justice than the later ones.) James Wood, whose atheism sometimes warps his critical faculties (sample essay titles: “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season" and "Knut Hamsun’s Christian Perversions”), took off after “John Updike’s Complacent God,” attacking in particular the novelist’s belief, influenced by theologian Karl Barth, that God confers grace through the gift of creation.

Contra Wood, Updike’s belief in the world’s governing divinity is anything but “complacent.” Particularly in his early years, he had a real affinity for the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard. A terror more powerful than that afflicting the physically tormented Cheever lay not far beneath the surface of Updike’s sex-and-death-drenched world. In his poem “Religious Consolation,” originally published in The New Republic and reprinted in Best Spiritual Writing 2000, Updike notes:

“One size fits all. The shape or coloration
Of the god or high heaven matters less
Than that there is one, somehow, somewhere…”

Why do we need more worlds? he asks rhetorically. The answer: because “This one will fail.”

Far more precisely than Wood, who fixated on Updike's almost sensual delight in the sentence, Cheever identified the best elements of his younger friend's work: the connection to "his most exalted and desperate emotions" that alike informed his faith in God and his understanding of weak but striving humanity.

TV Quote of the Day (“30 Rock,” on “The C-Word”)

Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey): “We need to fire Lutz.”
Pete Hornberger (played by Scott Adsit): “What? Why? What happened?”
Liz: “He called me the worst name ever.”
Frank Rossitano (played by Judah Friedlander): “What did he call you?”
Liz: “I'm not gonna repeat it. That's how much I hate it.”
Pete: “Fat can?"
Liz: “No.”
Frank: “Mouth hooker?”
Liz: “No.”
Frank: “Monster bitch.”
Pete: “Hatchet face.”
Liz: “No! The one that rhymes with the name of your favorite Todd Rundgren album.”
Frank (utterly confused): “It rhymes with Hermit of Mink Hollow?” –30 Rock, Season 1, “The C Word,” written by Tina Fey

(Now that Frasier has gone into Syndication Heaven, 30 Rock has become my favorite sitcom. You could, I suppose, say it harkens back to two great situation comedies starring Mary Tyler Moore: The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Both of the latter shows take at least some time out away from the workplace to focus on the characters’ family and/or nutty neighbors and friends. 30 Rock, however, allows Liz Lemon, head writer for a Saturday Night Live-type sketch comedy, virtually no life outside the frenzied studio--even her social events feel like work--making her all the more crestfallen when she discovers that some co-workers really don’t like her.

Two other differences with the earlier MTM shows:

1) Rapid dialogue. All three shows feature brilliant ensemble casts, but the words in 30 Rock seem to fly out at supersonic speed, mirroring the manic, stressful environment of the show-within-a-show. Even the quote above doesn’t hint at how sharp it is—and by multiple members of the cast. It’s like the cast sat down and watched a “Screwball Comedies of the Thirties” Festival. Saying that every member of the cast has to be at the top of his game doesn’t indicate the intensity involved—it’s more like every cast member has to attack the net.

2) Pushing the censorship envelope. You have to see this scene within an even larger context. It begins with Lutz about to say the “C” word, only to have the camera cut away to guest Rachel Dratch speaking about her “runt” (the same trick used in the "Austin Powers" movies). Then it’s on to this scene, which goes to the edge again, only to pull back with a clever pop reference (reminding many of us Baby Boomers of Rundgren’s pop prime in the Seventies, when fans—including more than a few at the Wollman Ice Skating Rink, where I saw him—held up signs reading, “Todd Is God.”

Oh, by the way: My favorite Todd album is still Something/Anything?)

Friday, January 30, 2009

This Day in Broadcast History (Pegeen Fitzgerald, “First Lady of Radio Chatter,” Dies)


January 30, 1989—In the New York City apartment from which she taped so many of the shows she did for more than two generations with husband Ed and, eventually, by herself, Pegeen Fitzgerald—nicknamed “The First Lady of Radio Chatter”—died of breast cancer, at age 78.

Amid the current in-your-face shouting of today’s talk-radio hosts, it’s hard to believe there was a time when the decibel level was lower or when on-air personalities didn’t scream at guests.

It wasn’t that the Fitzgeralds didn’t fight--it was just that it was with each other, done in their own living room, and concerning the little relationship ticks that get under the skin of longtime married couples.

Last month, I visited the Paley Center for Media (successor to the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan) to listen to a tape of a Fitzgerald show from 1971, late in their run. On and on they went about a utility incident just down the block from their apartment. I kept waiting for them to switch to something else. I was still waiting as I caught 40 winks!

If I, a middle-aged male, found my attention span sorely tested, then surely those who grew up with video games and MTV would be stunned beyond belief by the couples’ dialogues—with little to break things up but clattering teacups, the meowing of Pegeen’s numerous cats, and, on one memorable occasion, the barking of seals from across the street in the Central Park Zoo.

I doubt if you’ll find more than one or two people under the age of 50—maybe not even under the age of 60—who recall Ed Fitzgerald and his wife today. Yet, if you want a very early template for the kind of chit-chat that Regis and Kelly do in the morning, the place to look is with “The Fitzgeralds: Book Talk, Back Talk and Small Talk,” which pulled in 2 million listeners at the peak of their careers.

You could measure the Fitzgerald’s influence and success in several ways:

* Compensation--$160,000 a year in the 1940s, when radio—and their format—reached its peak.

* Satire—The couple’s on-air sniping led to a parody, “The Bickersons,” starring Don Ameche and Frances Longford.
* Imitators—After their show became a success, Pegeen told People Magazine in an interview two years before her death, Variety “counted 78 couples who were doing shows. Ten years later they found that all of them were divorced or dead.” Well, not quite that soon—though you couldn’t blame the Fitzgeralds for scorning the Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies who tried to piggyback on their success. The most prominent were Tex and Jinx McCrary and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and husband Richard Kollmar.


The latter couple, with their la-di-da talk of opening nights at the Thea-tuh and that new restaurant they’d tried, especially brought out the scorn in the Fitzgeralds. Jack Benny and Fred Allen became famous in their radio heyday for their fake “feud,” but the war of words between the Fitzgeralds and the Kollmars was the real thing—so much so that eventually their common corporate parent, WOR, was forced to tell them to knock it off.

As my turn at the console at the Paley Center indicated, I didn’t know what to make of the Fitzgeralds. As it turned out, for years neither did WOR. You’d expect that incomprehension after 30 or 40 years, when the station suits began mumbling ominously about the highly desired “demographics” (i.e., baby boomers), the absence of whom could kill a longrunning TV show as certainly as it did a radio mainstay (as happened with The Beverly Hillbillies, still going strong in the early 1970s when CBS terminated it).

But WOR had also been nonplussed by the Fitzgerald’s concept at the start of it all, in 1940. You could understand the discomfort of the station—after all, this was not only one of the first shows not derived from theater or vaudeville, but also without a producer, without an engineer, without even a script. (Well, almost no script—perversely enough, that was the part of the show that the couple did prepare beforehand.)

The reason why the on-air couple came together at all owed to circumstance. In the late Thirties, both Ed and Pegeen had their own shows for specific audiences—Ed, a book-review spot and an all-night program called “Almanac de Gotham”; Pegeen, a fashion show for women.

Pegeen’s illness one day scared the radio execs. What was happening with their mealticket? If she really felt bad, couldn’t she be persuaded to broadcast from her apartment while she recuperated?

She might have been a canny businesswoman (she’d been a department-store advertising manager before her showbiz gig), but Pegeen was also in her way old-fashioned and modest. It wouldn’t do, she said, for her regular announcer to see her in her bathrobe. She proposed an alternative male stand-in: her husband.

So there they were that day in 1940, with just the microphone and as little else as possible between them and their listeners. WOR was undoubtedly pleased that the show didn’t turn out to be a disaster, and probably very pleasantly surprised, if not shocked, to see that the experiment was so successful.

As I discovered when I put on the earphones at the Paley Center, the Fitzgeralds’ style was rambling when it wasn’t obsessional. Francis X. Clines, The New York Times’ peerless longtime “About New York” columnist (now a member of the editorial board), summed up the format as well as anyone: “They wool-gather and play off each other. They steep themselves daily in remembrances using the airwaves as their Proustian bed.”

Superficially, at least, Ed would seem my type of guy: a lover of books and theater, sporting the last name of my favorite novelist. Only when I listened to the couple, I found Ed to be a grouchy old cuss. Now Pegeen—she was easier on the nerves, with an easy laugh that suggested she’d learned to tolerate her older mate’s contrary ways over the years and that, with a little bit of eavesdropping on the part of you the listener, you would, too.

Well, most of the time, anyway. They did have their on-air disagreements. One involved a particular penchant of Ed’s, who, from his days as a child actor, had picked up the characteristic of raising his hands when he thought his wife was dropping her voice. One morning, Pegeen decided to return the favor. Her annoyed hubby walked away from the table and left her to complete the show on her own.

Over the years, their listeners became used to the Fitzgeralds broadcasting from homes all over the place in the Northeast, including:

* a 22-room triplex on East End Avenue;
* a Fifth Avenue penthouse with an actual lawn;
* an entire island off the Connecticut shore (put at their disposal by a sponsor)
* the Hotel Pierre, across from the Central Park Zoo
* Kent, Conn., in the foothills of the Berkshires.

We’re so used these days to program directors changing formats at will—sometimes within months. Though their locales might have changed, the Fitzgeralds’ format didn’t over 40 years. By the early 1970s, WOR had gotten restless enough with the show that it tried to kill it. The show’s longtime loyal viewers protested and staved off its execution for nearly another decade.

Not long after Ed’s death from cancer in 1982, the station finally axed the show, but Pegeen managed to find a stint on the local New York public radio station, WNYC-FM. As a faithful listener these last few years to the Leonard Lopate Show, I was surprised to learn before he arrived, the time slot had been known as Senior Edition, with Pegeen Fitzgerald sharing airspace with Marty Wayne and Kate Borger.

Both by herself and with Ed, Pegeen made no bones about her vegetarianism and her passion for animal rights. She became president of the Millennium Guild, a group co-founded by George Bernard Shaw, and maintained over 500 cats in five shelters in Connecticut and New York. (Elderly listeners even left their animals to the Fitzgeralds in their wills.) One of her causes, the Last Post Animal Sanctuary in Connecticut, survives as a result of her deathbed request to her lawyer that this work continue after her death.

Pegeen’s interest in animals showed a particular soft spot she had for the vulnerable. But I like the strong interest she took in human strays, too—the orphans, convicts and former convicts she aided over the years.

The Paley Center in its Manhattan location has only two tapes from the Fitzgeralds’ 40-plus years on the airwaves. One was the 1971 show I mentioned previously; the other, an excerpt from a 1949 show that became compiled as part of a “radio bloopers” episode.

Exposure to the couple, on such a limited basis, is probably not the best way to judge a show or a life. It certainly didn’t give me a sense of the other fascinating aspects of Pegeen’s personality: not just her animals-rights advocacy, but also her hobbies (painting, collecting toy antique fire engines, and racing antique cars), and her parties.

Over nearly half a century, Pegeen Fitzgerald and the man she waggishly styled her “Lord Edward” made viewers feel like invited guests in their homes. Though the early-morning talk show format they pioneered persists, it’s now colored far more strongly with show-business trappings. The Fitzgeralds’ lifestyle and idiosyncratic form of entertainment are now part of a world we have lost.

Quote of the Day (Robert J. Samuelson, on Americans’ Susceptibility to Advertising)

“Essentially, Americans are like the dog on the racetrack chasing the mechanical rabbit always just ahead. Americans always want a bigger car, for example, or a car with leather upholstery, or a GPS device or a DVD player in the back seat. It’s a familiar cycle that turns luxuries into necessities.”—Economist Robert J. Samuelson, “A Conversation With Robert J. Samuelson: Inflation Rules,” in The American Interest, January/February 2009, interviewed by Adam Garfinkle (excerpt only on Web site)

(Amid a longer—and equally interesting—discussion of how the hyperinflation of the Seventies led to the disinflation of the next quarter-century, which in turn led to our current crisis, Samuelson pauses to reflect on advertising and its influence on Americans’ thriftless behavior.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

This Day in Colonial History (Benjamin Franklin Transformed into American Rebel)


January 29, 1774—The Massachusetts Assembly thought that it would be one step closer to seeing the last of their hated royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, by petitioning King George III for his dismissal. Instead, the petition furnished an excuse for reactionaries in Parliament to strike at the moderate agent for the firebrand colony, Benjamin Franklin.

The monarch’s advisory body, the Privy Council, may have felt it was removing a troublesome bit between its teeth by castigating Franklin from his role in leaking Hutchinson’s correspondence. Instead, it converted a colonial who thought of himself primarily as an Englishman into one of the Mother Country’s most dangerous enemies—a wily foe who gave the drive for American independence prestige, then won crucial support for the new nation as America’s diplomat to France.

Americans visiting London are understandably shocked to find Franklin’s home at 36 Craven Street preserved. Sites in Philadelphia, they can understand—this was the city to which he escaped as a teenage runaway apprentice and that, in turn, he devoted most of his philanthropy. Even sites in Boston, the city of Franklin’s birth, don’t nonplus tourists.

But London is the only city in the world to preserve, in original form, a home associated with Franklin. 36 Craven, just off Trafalgar Square, was where he lived for 18 years, from 1757 to 1775. The address reflected his desire to conquer the center of London as surely as he had the City of Brotherly Love.

He loved London—the adulation he received as a scientist, the friends he could meet in the fashionable new coffeehouses that were providing alternatives to alcoholic establishments, the society women he could flirt with—and his work as agent for the Massachusetts Assembly and as deputy postmaster-general for the colonies provided him with convenient excuses for why he couldn’t go home sooner. He had stayed away from home for more than a decade, constantly pleading urgent business, even when his wife suffered a partial stroke. Her death in late 1774, while he was still away from home, left him some guilt.

In the decade preceding the American Revolution, Franklin sought unsuccessfully to make King George III and his ministers see reason regarding the colonies. In 1774, he had dragged his feet on presenting Massachusetts’ petition to remove Governor Hutchinson and the latter’s lieutenant governor and brother-in-law, Andrew Oliver, arguing that patience was the colonies’ best course.

But then came the Hutchinson letter controversy. You think that the Valerie Plame leaking imbroglio was bad—not to mention the one nearly 40 years ago involving Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers? Well, take those two cases, multiply them, then take the product and square it. That’s how controversial the Franklin affair was.

Gov. Hutchinson had been indiscreet enough to write British minister Thomas Whately from 1768 through the following year on how to bring colonial agitators to heel by restricting their liberties. In Massachusetts, the tinderbox of the American Revolution, exposure of their contents would make a sensitive situation far worse than it already was.

Somehow, Franklin came into possession of this political nitroglycerin. He never said how, and we don’t know to this day. But he sent the dozen letters to friend Thomas Cushing, speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly. Don’t copy them, he warned—just show them around to a few trusted friends.

One of the friends Cushing trusted was Samuel Adams. Big, big mistake! The agitator, as thrilled by this correspondence as Count Dracula would be by the presence of a blood bank, copied and distributed it. The reaction, as Adams hoped, was strong and powerful enough that the letters were specifically cited in the assembly’s petition to remove Hutchinson and Oliver.

In England, things got really crazy because of the affair. By this time, Thomas Whately, the original recipient of the correspondence, had died. But his brother William thought he knew the culprit—an American named John Temple, former governor of New Hampshire, now deeply sympathetic to the colonists.

The incensed Temple didn’t sue William Whately for everything he had, as he would today. Instead, he challenged him to a duel. The two men had at each other in England’s Hyde Park. They survived for probably the most common reason why anyone did in those days: the participants’ incompetence with weapons. Neither Whately nor Temple could wield a sword very well, and when Temple nicked Whately, the requirements of honor were judged to have been met. Only Whately’s friends claimed that Temple hadn’t fought fairly, leading the American to reschedule a rematch with the minister.

Enough already, Franklin decided. He owned up in a public display that he’d been the only one responsible for the letters’ distribution. Early in January 1774, sensing that trouble was ahead, he had asked permission to have counsel by his side when he appeared before the Privy Council.

That may have been a mistake: by allowing counsel to represent him, he gave up the ability to speak on his own behalf. This turned out to be critical, because it soon became apparent that it would be him, not the Massachusetts petition, that would occupy the council’s attention.

Franklin’s supporters were outnumbered in the crowded room by detractors by a 4-to-1 margin. The British Solicitor-General, Alexander Wedderburn, subjected Franklin to more than an hour of abuse—rancor so bad, supposedly, that the worst of it never ended up being printed.

What we do know of it was bad enough. Wedderburn charged Franklin with being “the prime agitator” behind the controversy. As Wedderburn continued his assault, with the anti-Franklin crowd of peers hooting and hollering for all they were worth, Franklin remained silent, fuming. Though the court’s manner of conducting busy left him unable to speak, he also believed that the manifest unfairness of Wedderburn’s conduct would turn reasonable men away from the abuse.

The proud 68-year-old bottled up his emotions for as long as he could, then, as soon as the proceedings had adjourned for the day, with the council issuing its previously prepared report exonerating Hutchinson, turned on Wedderburn. Bumping into his tormenter outside the hearing room, he said, with unmistakable intent that would be fulfilled more than a year later: “I will make your master a little king for this.”

That he did. The day after the proceedings, the Council delivered another blow to Franklin by dismissing him from his postmaster job. By that time, he had crossed a mental Rubicon in his attitude toward the Mother Country. Taking off the clothes he had worn to the Privy Council hearings, he vowed that he would never wear them again until he could help dismember the British empire. It took ten years before he could make good on his claim, but he wore the clothes when he signed the Treaty of Paris ensuring American independence.

The breach with England also led Franklin to break off relations with his son William, the royal governor of New Jersey, who had become a confirmed Loyalist, as well as several friends in the U.K. who had not signed with him. It was part of the process that turned this long-loyal British subject into what biographer H.W. Brands termed “The First American.”

Movie Quote of the Day “(“Dr. Strangelove”)

General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden): “Today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”—from Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George, adapted from George’s novel Red Alert, aka Two Hours to Doom

(Forty-five years ago on this date, Dr. Strangelove burst, like one of the bombs in the movie, on an unsuspecting world.

The first test screening, scheduled for November 22, 1963, was pushed back—along with the film’s premiere—because, it was felt, America would not be ready for such a bitterly dark satire so soon after the traumatic assassination of JFK.

Even when it was released, one scene had to be toned down: a custard pie-throwing fight in the War Room. When the President falls face down after being hit by one of these pies, Gen. “Buck” Turgidson leaps up to scream: “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!" No way that was going on celluloid after the events in Dallas…

The film’s great acting triumph came courtesy of Peter Sellers, who played three roles: British Capt. Lionel Mandrake, the Stevensonian American President Merkin Muffley, and, of course, the title character.

Originally, Sellers was supposed to tackle a fourth role—Maj. T.J. “King” Kong—but was having trouble with the Texas accent. Depending on your point of view, a broken ankle Sellers incurred either forced Kubrick to find a replacement in that role or offered Sellers a graceful exit from a difficult part.

One person offered the Kong role was Dan Blocker—Hoss from Bonanza—who wasn’t crazy about a script written by liberals. But if that’s hard to swallow, try the other potential replacement in that part: John Wayne, whose political views tended far more toward Gen. Ripper’s than President Muffley’s. At least Blocker turned the part down. Wayne didn’t even deign to reply to the offer!)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Quotes of the Day (Samuel Butler and John Erskine, on Different Types of Females)

“All young ladies are either very pretty or very clever or very sweet; they may take their choice as to which category they will go in for, but go in for one of the three they must. It was hopeless to try and pass Charlotte off as either pretty or sweet. So she became clever as the only remaining alternative.”—Samuel Butler (1835-1902), The Way of All Flesh (1903)

“There's a difference between beauty and charm. A beautiful woman is one I notice. A charming woman is one who notices me.” —John Erskine, American author and educator (1879-1951).

Samuel Butler represents a dilemma for members of the “reality-based community”: How do you stereotype a writer as a religious mossback when all his life—even in the posthumously published novel that became his greatest work—he savages the clerical life at every turn? With his kind of perspective—not to mention the wit displayed in the above quote—you can’t.

After initial enthusiasm for The Origins of Species, Butler became increasingly disenchanted with Darwin’s take on it. Several of his mid-career tracts sought to reconcile will, intelligence and design to a world now under the sway of natural selection.

Judging from the sardonic passage above from The Way of All Flesh—one of many in the novel—I suspect that the novelist would have deduced Erskine’s quote as proof positive that Darwin was not infallible, in much the same way that Henry Adams pointed to the arc of American Presidents from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant as evidence of the same phenomenon.

Butler, at least, allowed for the possibility that women could be classified into three types. In contrast, Erskine’s comment implies a narrowing of the adaptive strategies of the female of the species—in a word, devolution.

In researching Erskine, I learned that he was one of the founders of the “Great Books” movement in the U.S., largely because of his advocacy of it at my alma mater, Columbia University. Contemporary Civilization and Literary Humanities—the two courses that use the mode of Socratic teaching he championed—still represent the rock of Columbia’s curriculum, 90 years later.

But I’m afraid that if Erskine had women in his classes, they might not have taken so kindly to his comment above. "Sexist pig," they might have called him (an epithet that would certainly be hurled in my time, across Broadway from Barnard), with more than a little justice. "Get over yourself," today's confident Columbia coed might have said.

In any case, the “charming woman” for whom he yearned--the type of woman that all too many males, truth be told, want--might have done so for reasons having nothing to do with his good attributes.

The critic Dwight Macdonald got to the heart of the situation in describing one woman who would unquestionably have to be classified as “very clever,” Mary McCarthy: “'When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.''

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quote of the Day (Christopher Caldwell, on Americans and Poetry)

“Americans believe that what separates poetry from normal speech is either pomposity or pseudo-intellectualism. Today they are almost always right about this. There is no longer any widespread understanding of how poetry works, or what function it is supposed to perform in the lives of individuals or societies.”—Christopher Caldwell, “Official Rhyme Without Reason,” Financial Times, January 24-25, 2009

The occasion for Caldwell’s blast against modern poetry is Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of “Praise Song for the Day,” at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Personally, I had no problem with that poem—but then again, after Maya Angelou’s performance at the first Clinton inauguration, my expectations for poetry at occasions of state have been permanently lowered. (The latter sounded like a politician’s attempt to touch every base in an electoral coalition: “So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew/The African, the Native American, the Sioux ... ”)

Still, Caldwell’s larger point, I think, is on target and fair. Contrast the position of poetry with that of songs—almost any songs—which Americans have taken to heart. I think that part of the reason for the latter is that the lines in the latter rhyme.

For centuries, poets were, in Shelley’s words, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A big reason why was that rhyming schemes helped engrave their words in people’s memories. Poets lost their centrality when they forgot that, fact much like jazz ebbed in the affections of Americans when be-bop musicians forgot that one of the things that people loved about jazz was that they could dance to it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

This Day in Film History (Samuel Goldwyn Buys Rights to “Wizard of Oz”)

January 26, 1934—After months of negotiation, Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, for $40,000. Yet four years later, still not having developed the property, the independent producer turned around and sold the rights to the studio that had forced him out the decade before: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

The more you read about Baum, the more you recognize what a brilliant children’s book writer he was, what an imaginative man—and what a terrible businessman. He had a kind of reverse Midas touch: aside from writing the Oz fantasies, everything else he tried—even movies based on his characters—flopped.

As early as 1914, Baum had formed the Oz Film Manufacturing Co. and had even produced three five-reel silent movies based on his 14 Oz novels. Like the musical later created from his work, he didn’t stint on costs; the entire studio lot covered seven acres. Predictably, given Baum’s prior business history, it failed.

MGM had had its sights set on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz back in 1924. But after negotiations dragged on, the rights to the children’s book classic were sold instead to Chadwick Pictures. Nine years later, when the studio wanted to make a series of animated cartoons from the series, they still couldn’t get the rights—though a year later, Goldwyn managed to buy the progenitor of the whole series.

His purchase of the property owed a great deal to playwright Sidney Howard, who not only strongly urged the producer to do so but had even bothered to buy him a copy of the work so he’d not what he was getting.

What happened next deserves to be among the classic “Goldwynisms” that made the producers famous within the industry. Several weeks after the deal was consummated, Howard checked back with the producer and asked his opinion of his new property.

“Wonderful,” Goldwyn answered, as recounted by Aljean Harmetz in her history of the film, The Making of The Wizard of Oz.

Had he finished it yet? Howard pressed.

“No,” Goldwyn answered. “I’m still on page 6.”

What was keeping him, anyway? Lots of films requiring his attention, for one. In the four-year period from 1934 through 1938, nineteen films came out bearing his logo.

There was also his attention to detail, and his picking the brain of everyone and his brother about what they thought about all kinds of details related to the production.

In an oral history reminiscence about Goldwyn for Columbia University, for instance, actor Dana Andrews recounted an early meeting he had with the producer, who showed him a picture of Gary Cooper made up as Abraham Lincoln and asked him what he thought of it.

“I later learned from many years of experience with Mr. Goldwyn that this is one of his practices.,” Andrews recalled. “He asks everybody, from the hairdresser on the set to the head of the business department, what they think about little things like hairdos, or whether a man's clothes fit properly, or questions about his personality. A lot of people say, ‘Goldwyn asks everybody what they think and then does what he thinks.’ But I think what he thinks is made up to some extent (or influenced, certainly) by what he hears from various people.”

What might a Goldwyn-produced musical of Oz have looked like? Well, there was a very good chance that he would have found a place for it for comedian Eddie Cantor, with whom he made six musicals in the Thirties.

For whatever reason, the prospect of an Oz film did not spark Goldwyn’s interest sufficiently that he made it a priority. Standing in the wings, however, was someone who would: Arthur Freed of MGM, a songwriter who was yearning to make it as a producer at the studio.

A huge fan of the Oz series, Freed thought a musical based on Baum’s creation would be just the thing to do, and he even had someone in mind for its main character Dorothy. Not Shirley Temple, who so many wanted, but a new, somewhat older actress, a teenager with an unbelievable voice—Judy Garland. He convinced the powers that be at MGM to buy the rights from Goldwyn—and wangled a producing assignment in the upcoming production from producer Mervyn LeRoy.

Though a big critical hit upon its release in 1939, The Wizard of Oz didn’t start to make serious money until its rerelease in 1948, and it did not enter the pantheon of immortal movies until it began to be shown on TV, on a regular basis, in 1956.

Quote of the Day (Maureen Dowd, on New York Senator-Designate Kirsten Gillibrand)

“The 42-year-old Gillibrand, who has been in the House for only two years, is known as opportunistic and sharp- elbowed. Tracy Flick is her nickname among colleagues in the New York delegation, many of whom were M.I.A. at her Albany announcement.

Fellow Democrats were warning Harry Reid on Friday that he was going to have his hands full with the new senator because she’s ‘a pain.’”—Maureen Dowd, ““Which Governor is Wackier?” The New York Times, January 24, 2009

(I have my issues with a larger trend that Caroline Kennedy came to epitomize: the “branding” of American political dynasties—not just the Kennedys, but also the Clintons, the Bushes, the Gores—who capitalize on family connections and fame to elbow aside others in a democracy.

Nevertheless, for all her inarticulateness—a weakness that, the overwhelming majority of the press failed to note, sometimes afflicted her uncles Bobby and Ted—Kennedy struck me as basically a class act. She certainly did not deserve the leaking and trashing to which she was subject by the minions of Gov. David Paterson.

What a way for Gillibrand to make her entrance onto the big political stage: to be likened to the budding high-school politician played by Reese Witherspoon in the great comedy Election. One term in Congress, peddling positions that would make the NRA smile, and now she’s ready to assume the seat once occupied by Bobby Kennedy, one of the past century’s most prominent victims of assassination. What was Gov. Paterson thinking?

I have to wonder if this fiasco would have occurred if Paterson still had by his side Charles O’Byrne, the ex-priest-turned-political insider. O’Byrne had become close to Caroline Kennedy while he was in Columbia Law School with one of her cousins. A decade later, while still a Jesuit, he officiated at the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. as well as at his memorial service.

Disclosure of his failure to taxes for four several years earlier in this decade, during a period of clinical depression around the time he left the priesthood, forced O’Byrne to resign as Paterson’s chief aide. At one stroke, his departure seems to have left Paterson—a genial man with generally good policy instincts—without a shrewd political enforcer.

At very least, O’Byrne would not have resorted to trashing his old friend after her withdrawal—he would have found a face-saving way for her to pull out. He might even have been able to intervene earlier in the process, persuading Kennedy not to jump into the fray lest she she become covered with muck.

Instead, Paterson has now managed to tick off the Clintons, the Cuomos, AND the Kennedys over this affair. It’s hard to see how a one-term upstate Congresswoman who sounds even less appealing than Sarah Palin can help him.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Film Review: “Doubt,” Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley

Whenever an acclaimed play transfers to the big screen, the first thing cineastes want to know is if it’s been “opened up,” and skeptics fall back on their invariable cliché in such situations that it’s too “talky.” Reactions to Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, are no exception—partly because the screenwriter-playwright’s rookie film directorial effort, Joe Versus the Volcano, turned out to be such a disaster that he walked away from Hollywood for the next 18 years.

Well, even the best directors—Hitchcock, Ford, Welles, you name it—had at least one misfire on their illustrious resumes. The margin for error for a playwright-director seems smaller because, supposedly, he’s concerned first and foremost with words rather than moving pictures that, every devotee of film studies courses will tell you, are the essence of cinema.

Here’s my advice: See Doubt without any preconceptions. In that way, you’ll not only have the best opportunity to judge it correctly, but you’ll also heed one of its central lessons: Approach a person or event with as little as possible of personal baggage.

“All well and good,” you say. “But what did you think of the film?”

(Sigh.) I found the movie well-written, (mostly) acted convincingly, and compelling in dissecting the sexual-abuse crisis that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church in the last six years. (The problem existed long before that, of course: I choose the date 2002 because that’s when it exploded on the front pages of The Boston Globe and its sister daily in the Times Co., The New York Times—the latter being especially crucial, since a story there sets the agenda for smaller papers as well as TV coverage.)

The plot centers on the suspicions harbored by a principal that a parish priest might have molested the Bronx parochial school’s lone black student. Like an old-school cop, with no illusions about human nature but plenty of prejudices, Sister Aloysius (played by Meryl Streep) is convinced she can sweat the truth out of Fr. Brendan (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Resisting the Urge for Heroes and Villains

Like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Doubt superficially employs a detective-story format (with Sister Aloysius as the investigator) to explore themes of sin, guilt, hubris, and man’s relationship to God. Set in 1964—one year after the deaths of the beloved Catholic “two Johns” (Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy)—it portrays an American, primarily immigrant-driven Church at a moment of deceptive self-confidence—just before the ferocious energies of the Sixties will sweep all the certainties away—and, we know now, already well into the period in which the crimes of errant priests were being covered up by archbishops. (I have always maintained that this is not a priest-abuse crisis but an archbishop-coverup one.)

Despite the presence of Oscar-winners Streep and Hoffman to lend the project box-office appeal (not to mention Academy Award potential), I’m still stunned—and delighted—that a film of this type even got produced. For it flies right in the face of Hollywood’s tendency to serve up films with all-too-familiar heroes and villains, along with easy answers.

(In making Dead Man Walking, for instance, Tim Robbins was begged by studio heads to make the murderer on whom the film was based into an innocent man in the film—and, when that didn’t work, not to show the murders for which he was convicted, lest it dilute audience sympathy for him. Luckily, Robbins didn’t listen.)

The culture wars—not to mention a real one since 9/11—has only exacerbated this mindset that sees everything in black and white. Doubt will have none of that.

Conservatives would have you think that the sex-abuse scandals resulted from the presence of homosexuals being winked at in seminaries during the Sixties and Seventies, while liberals point to celibacy and an all-male hierarchy as the root causes. With people as well as with issues, it’s all supposed to be easy to sort out. Only it isn’t.

Sister Aloysius seems the very epitome of the type of hellfire-and-damnation, sin-obsessed church that so many rebelled against in the Sixties and Seventies, and Fr. Brendan—with his call for openness and belief that doubt might open the way to truth—the exemplar of the spirit of Vatican II. And it sure seems that his worldliness—not just his affection for the young student, but even such exotic personal details as his long fingernails and his penchant for extra helpings of sugar in his tea—provokes her suspicions as much as anything he’s actually done.

But what happens when the “liberal” priest is confronted with her suspicions? He falls back on the very thing he would be the first to denounce: the oath of obedience she swore to the male hierarchy, including him. So he’s guilty.

But is he? Or is he guilty of something else? Shanley’s cleverly constructed script overturns presumptions about character based on issues or appearances. Both prey and quarry, it turns out, have something to hide—and, in the end, some manner of doubt.

A Religious Battle of the Sexes

Think of Sister Aloysius-Father Brendan faceoff as a radical variation on the priest-nun clash given life by Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s. I have heard it argue--convincingly, I think--that this 1945 sequel to Going My Way is, in fact, a coded love story, marked by misunderstanding between two people who should be perfectly matched to each other, until a form of perfect (though chaste, mind you!) love exists between them by the end.

Look past the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, however, and you’ll see that director Leo McCarey depicts a real-life, long-running tug of war going on between the nuns who largely operated the parochial schools and the priests who controlled their purse strings—and, unfortunately, were also called on to (in consultation with the hierarchy) on whether or not to close them. The two sides not only viewed matters from radically different worldviews, but in a number of cases, the power dynamic was affected by sexism.

You cannot view this film without that resonating in the background, along with the issues of character that we all bring to bear on judgment.

Directorial Hits and Misses

As a director using his camera to buttress or counterpoint his own script, Shanley has his share of hits and misses. A scene of a dark, windy day too bluntly symbolizes storms about to sweep through America and the American Church in the 1960s.

On the other hand, he nicely frames the contrast between Fr. Brendan and Sister Aloysius in the opening scene, when shots of the liberal priest delivering a sermon are juxtaposed with the nun roaming up and down the side aisle, scanning the pews for youthful slackers and troublemakers—a hint of their eventual conflict. A confrontation in the principal’s office turns into a carefully choreographed glimpse at who had the upper hand, as priest and principal take turns moving into the chair behind her desk and making each other uncomfortable.

Because the film doesn’t make you gasp over its stunts a la the Indiana Jones and James Bond franchises or marvel at its use of makeup as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, its success rests to a large extent on the credibility of its actors. Though all four of the major actors in this movie have been nominated for Academy Awards, some are more deserving than others. Below, in ascending order of accomplishment and conviction, are those performers:

* Philip Seymour Hoffman—While never really hitting a false note, he also never makes you think it impossible for any other actor to take on this role, as he did in supporting turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley or his Oscar-winning performance in Capote.

* Meryl Streep—We’ve always known she’s a master at Berlitz-style accents, but what this film registers strongly is the way her face can register conflicting emotions, even as her character pushes relentlessly for what she believes is certain.

* Amy Adams—In any other year, her performance as Sister James (based on Shanley’s first-grade teacher, Sister Margaret McEntee, a Sister of Charity who served as a technical consultant on the film) would be a virtual shoo-in for an Oscar, based on the quality of the work here along with her rising standing with Academy voters. This year, Adams is likely to see her votes split with another cast member in this category. Too bad: her role is pivotal as a novice whose innocence is lost as she becomes caught in the tug of war between Sister Aloysius, her superior in school and the convent, and Father Brendan, whose optimistic view of human nature accords with her own.

* Viola Davis—Her small role is small but riveting as the mother of the student whose relationship with Fr. Brendan has been called into question. It’s the type—not too many minutes of screen time, but conveyed with maximum impact—for which the Best Supporting Actor and Actress Awards were created. She brings a kind of desperate fortitude to the role of a woman willing to overlook a possible transgression by a priest who might still be the best chance her son has to escape the cycle of prejudice and poverty to which African-Americans were assigned at the time.

In a recent interview with “Studio 360” of the New York public radio station, WNYC-FM, Shanley spoke of the time in which he wrote the play—the run-up to the invasion of Iraq—and how little questioning or doubt took place at that point. In this view, the film becomes a grander metaphorical questioning of the assumptions of authority.

It’s natural that Shanley would want to escape from a strictly—to pardon the pun—parochial view of his work. Nevertheless, his film has captured a particular time and place with great subtlety (watch, for instance, the contrast between the bonhomie of the priests’ dining table and the silent, more austere world of nuns from the time). Most of all, he has honored his characters by treating them not as mouthpieces for particular points of view (including his own, whatever that might be) but as people tangled up not just in their well-formed ideology but in their internal contradictions.

The sex-abuse crisis has introduced a level of doubt about people and events from their youth that never existed before. Doubt shows how maddening, if necessary, this self-examination can be.

Quote of the Day (Father Patrick Desbois, on Childhood Holocaust Victims)

“These were young children who were forced, in the course of one day, to fill the grave and to witness. They heard the last words of the dead. They want to speak."-French Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois, on childhood victims of the Holocaust, quoted in Jordana Horn, “How Father Desbois Became a Holocaust Memory Keeper,” The Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2009

(Fr. Desbois, himself the grandson of a prisoner of the Nazis, has taken on the mission of uncovering previously undocumented Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, including an estimated 1.5 million in Ukraine. In the latter region, unlike the death camps, the method of execution consisted of mobile killing units who made it their specialty to force, at gunpoint, locals—including, horribly, hundreds of children—to assist with the execution.

An exhibit describing this crucial work of historical memory, “
The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust by Bullets,” will run until March 15 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Fr. Desbois sounds indefatigable in his use of archival research, eyewitness accounts, and photographs. Seldom have the methods of historical been employed to such startling—and necessary—effect.
\
Fr. Desbois helps ensures that these crimes will never be forgotten. It’s up to us to ensure that they’ll never be repeated
.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (John Mortimer, on Differences in an Attorney’s Clients)

"Matrimonial clients hate each other so much and use their children to hurt each other in beastly ways. Murderers have usually killed the one person in the world that was bugging them, and they're usually quite peaceful and agreeable."—Lawyer-turned-author John Mortimer, explaining why he preferred murderers to divorcing spouses as clients, quoted in Jill Lawless, “Writer John Mortimer, 85; Creator of 'Rumpole' Plays,” The Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 17, 2009

(In recent times, I can’t think of another British author—except, maybe, for John LeCarre’s spycatcher George Smiley, as embodied by Alec Guinness—associated more closely with a particular actor than John Mortimer with the late Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS’s “Mystery!” series. As much fun as it was to watch the actor on TV, it was even better to hear him READ an entire Rumpole story on tape, taking particular relish as the lion among British barristers referred to his wife as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

Mortimer’s quote above, like the writer’s other work, is filled with exquisite irony and wit. It’s a shame to think we won’t be getting any more of his clever w
ork.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

This Day in Civil Rights History (24th Amendment, Banning Poll Tax, Ratified)

January 23, 1964—One more brick in the vast edifice of American apartheid was knocked loose, as South Dakota became the 38th state to ratify the 24th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, which had now achieved the required three-fourths of states to go into effect, outlawed the poll tax that had been used in the South since Reconstruction to prevent the poor—and especially African-Americans—from voting.

Nobody could miss on inauguration day the symbolism of Barack Obama taking the oath within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King had proclaimed his dream of equality for America. One of the props that had kept African-Americans from taking their rightful place among the American electorate had been not just violence, as bad as that was, but clever subterfuges meant to deny them suffrage, such as literacy and poll tax requirements.

The poll tax was especially insidious. It relied on a long history that proponents could point to, dating back to Europe, of raising funds through such taxes (“Poll” was an old English word for “head.”), as well as a more recent colonial America belief that property holders would be more likely to have a stake in the outcome of an election.

Under the poll-tax system, if you wanted to vote, you had to pay the tax. The genius of the system, from a segregationist’s point of view, was twofold:

* If a voter couldn’t pay the tax one year, he still had to pay that tax –as well as for the next election’s—if he wanted to vote again.

* Though seemingly race-neutral, the tax disproportionately affected blacks, since they were mired in poverty through lack of educational opportunities, the denial of voting rights, and the sharecropping system in the South that kept them in a condition of quasi-slavery.

Eleven of the former Confederate states had adopted the poll tax as part of what they thought of as the “Redemption” period after the war, when the federal government signaled that it would no longer enforce rights due African-Americans. As early as 1873, in Lexington, Ky., institution of the poll tax resulted in two-thirds of African-Americans being denied the right to vote, giving the election to Democrats rather than Republicans who favored equal rights.

Attempts to eliminate the poll tax had begun in 1939, but it took an entire generation—and the onset of a wider civil-rights movement—for the effort to have a chance at succeeding. Even then, it was not the all-out assault on systematic segregation represented by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

* By the time the proposal passed Congress in 1962, only five Southern states still had the tax left on their books.

* The amendment only applied to federal, not state, elections.

* The best evidence of the incremental nature of the bill might have been its sponsor: Senator Spessard Holland of Florida, who only a decade before had been one of the Congressional signers of the “Southern Manifesto” decrying the Supreme Court’s move against segregated schools in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Though aware that African-Americans had been disenfranchised by the tax, his real aim was to eliminate the tax as a source of corruption for political machines, who, when it suited them, simply paid to buy the votes of those who couldn’t pay the bills themselves.

An unbelievably astute politician who never lost a race throughout his long career, Holland believed—correctly—that he could sell this to voters who otherwise would have run away from other forms of civil-rights legislation. Knowing the historical tendencies of courts, he believed that it would take not a simple piece of legislation, but an entire constitutional amendment to ensure this legislation would not be undercut. Each year for 13 years, he introduced his bill for the amendment, finally seeing it ratified in 1964.

In witnessing the certification of the amendment a week and a half after South Dakota passed it, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted, “There can now be no one too poor to vote. There is no longer a tax on his rights. The only enemy to voting that we face today is indifference.”

The saddest part of that statement is the last sentence. LBJ bemoaned the fact that in the 1960 Presidential race, less than two-thirds of the eligible population cast ballots. Despite a chance to make history and inflamed political passions owing to a recession and war, only 61% of the eligible American electorate turned out to vote in the 2008 election—the highest since 1968, and only a slight improvement over the 60% recorded for the 1960 race.

Nevertheless, elimination of the poll tax opened up opportunities not only for African-Americans to vote but for African-Americans to take office—and white Americans to become accustomed to that prospect. The 24th Amendment was an incremental measure in the larger story of civil rights in the U.S., but that is the essence of the American system—an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process.

Quote of the Day (Herbert Croly, on America’s System)

“The American economic, political, and social organization has given to its citizens the benefits of material prosperity, political liberty, and a wholesome natural equality; and this achievement is a gain, not only to Americans, but to the world and to civilization.”—Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (1909)

Croly, the creator of the political concept of the “The New Nationalism” (subsequently adopted by Theodore Roosevelt), was born on this date in 1869. The magazine he founded in 1914, The New Republic, still endures.

Equally important, after influencing TR, Woodrow Wilson, and Progressivism in general, Croly's prescription for liberalism—combining the big-government form of Alexander Hamilton with the egalitarian ends of Thomas Jefferson—looks like it’s about to make a comeback in Barack Obama’s Washington.

The centennial of the publication of The Promise of American Life is one that libertarians, such asVirginia Postrel, will certainly rue. But if you want to understand a century of American political thought, his manifesto is a good place to start.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Quote of the Day (Samuel Johnson, on “Jollity”)

“I live in the crowd of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself.”—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quote of the Day (Barack Obama, on the “New Era of Responsibility”)

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”—Barack Obama, Presidential Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009

(How did Obama’s moment in the sun come off? Impressive—the best inaugural address, I’d say, since Kennedy’s, with the kind of self-confidence we look for in a leader along with a sense of sobriety about the number and nature of our challenges.

Since at least Theodore Roosevelt, Presidents have sought to characterize their programs with an overarching catchy title. Early on, it seemed to work: “Square Deal” (TR), “New Freedom” (Wilson), “New Deal” (FDR), “Fair Deal” (Truman), “New Frontier” (JFK), “Great Society” (LBJ).

From Nixon on, however, those catchphrases have had little lasting resonance: “The New Federalism” (Nixon), “The New Spirit” (Carter), “The New Covenant” (Clinton). Perhaps the impermanence of these phrases has something to do with the fracturing of consensus, the era of “petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics” to which Obama referred.

Will Obama’s program for “A New Era of Responsibility” take hold? Well, he has the best chance of anyone in a generation, at least. The American people are as eager for affirmative government as at any time in a generation—maybe since LBJ, even.

Oddly enough, his major troubles might not come from Republicans (who right now are reelling like ducks conked on the head, committing self-defeating blunders such as the “Puff the Magic Negro” parody) but from the fellow Democrats who are now in control of Congress.

Senators not only look in their mirrors and see a President (why do you think so many current and former ones made the long run for the Presidency last year?) but are notoriously touchy about their prerogatives. They didn’t line up like good soldiers for Carter and Clinton, and they may not be all that much more inclined to do so with Obama.

Not with Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, anyway. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan accused him of being the anonymous source who said the Clinton administration would “roll over [Moynihan] if we have to” on welfare reform—and Emanuel’s denials didn’t exactly ring true. When even Clinton diehard and CNN commentator Paul Begala describes his former colleague’s style as a “cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache”—well, let’s just say it won’t always be fair weather between the administration and Capitol Hill.

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose,” Mario Cuomo said over 20 years ago. Yesterday, as he showed four and a half years ago in the Democratic Convention speech that made him a political supernova, Barack Obama proved he’s a Wordsworth among politicians.

We’re about to find out what kind of prose practitioner he is as a statesman—Ernest Hemingway or Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (you know—the guy who wrote an opening sentence to a novel, “It was a dark and stormy night,” that has inspired a bad-writing contest). We’d better hope he’s a master. Last night, I found myself nodding in agreement, for once in my life, with Donald Trump. If Obama is not great, he said, then we’re going to be in big trouble, given the mess we’re already in.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Quote of the Day (George H.W. Bush, on Having “More Will Than Wallet”)

“We have more will than wallet; but will is what we need. We will make the hard choices, looking at what we have and perhaps allocating it differently, making our decisions based on honest need and prudent safety. And then we will do the wisest thing of all: We will turn to the only resource we have that in times of need always grows—the goodness and the courage of the American people.”—George H.W. Bush, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1989

The first Bush President spoke prematurely—now, following the economic crisis of this past fall, we really have more will than wallet, in no small measure due to the son who entered the Oval Office and produced a deficit and recession, the extent of which would have staggered the father who had to deal with both in his single term in office.

It’s intriguing to read this 1989 address written by then-speechwriter and current columnist Peggy Noonan (who, since then, has become critical of the Bush now departing the White House). It’s even more interesting to consider the circumstances surrounding it. Where Obama will be calling to mind Lincoln, Bush was invoking George Washington, even using the same Bible on which the first President took the oath of office.

In contrast to today, when despots and terrorists feel newly empowered, a sense of hope infuses this speech, a belief that freedom is an irresistible force sweeping all before it. It was several years into Gorbachev’s program of glasnost, and only 11 months until the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down.

Most of all, there’s the rhetoric. Some of the sentences and phrases could show up just as easily in Obama’s address with nobody being able to tell the difference in tone:

* “There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people.”

* “My friends, we are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives.”

* "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle.”

“I am speaking of a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done.”

This Bush would not have urged Americans to go shopping after 9/11. I still believe he was involved up to his eyeballs in the Iran-Contra scandal. But in his belief that there had to be more to government and the meaning of people’s lives than getting and spending, he was anything but the successor to Reagan that many conservative Republicans wanted, or that his son strove to embody throughout most of his Presidency.

The man who delivered this speech was not the politician who by the end of his term practically twisted and turned himself into a pretzel for the thankless task of satisfying both the Religious Right and self-styled “revolutionary” Newt Gingrich.

Instead, he sounded like the youth who took to heart what he heard Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson say at the commencement address at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., about the American soldier being “brave without being brutal, self-reliant without boasting, becoming a part of irresistible might without losing faith in individual liberty.”

It’s that sense of reserve, humility and service to others in Washington that has gone missing and needs to be recovered if we hope to recover our moral balance, never mind our economic bearings.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Quotes of the Day (James Russell Lowell, on Edgar Allan Poe)

“Mr. Poe has that indescribable something which men have agreed to call genius.”—James Russell Lowell, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, February 1845

“There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,
Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.”—James Russell Lowell, “A Fable for Critics,” 1848

In celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe today, so much of his career seems curious yet peculiarly fitting. There is, to start with, his birth itself, in Boston—a city that provoked his annoyance in adulthood, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute—to parents who were actors—in keeping with an artist whose life was theatrical and slightly disreputable, and whose work has given employment to countless thespians and allied professions over the years.

Here’s what else is curious about Poe: the set of opposing quotes by Lowell. What had happened to lead the Massachusetts poet—a leading literary light of his time, though hardly of ours—to praise Poe so much, only to lampoon him so thoroughly two-and-a-half years later?

It all goes back, I’m afraid, to the streak of self-destruction that intrigues academics, fellow writers of our time, and—let’s face it—most readers. As the American counterpart to the French poet maudit (poet living outside the bounds of society), Charles Baudelaire, Poe’s dark side emerged not only in his prolific writing but also in his alcoholic binges. Most people who know a bit about his life are aware of that much, and a smaller percentage of these readers recall the murky Election Day circumstances that led to his mysterious death in Baltimore in 1849.

But Poe could be self-destructive in other ways, engaging in what biographers have termed “the Longfellow Wars.” Actually, since he threw wild charges around against at least a few people, including Lowell, I’d call this “The Poe Plagiarism Wars.”

Poe’s stature today with the academic community far surpasses that of the men he criticized, but it’s not because of the genre in which he wanted to be remembered: his poetry. Read “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and his other poems. They’re cloying and so intent on repeating sounds that they come off overwrought and sing-song. Instead, his reputation rests on his pioneering contributions in three fictional genres: science fiction-adventure (his only novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym), the detective story (“The Purloined Letter”), and, of course, the horror tale (too many to mention, or even to choose one or two from as favorites).

Literary criticism, however, earned Poe his daily bread in the 1840s. Though his activity in this area contains many elements of his genius, it also reflects the mental instability that led to the confused train of events in the last months of his life.

As a literary critic, Poe wrote with unusual perception, such as in his observation that the short story should aim toward a single overwhelming effect. But from his editorial perch he also aimed brickbats at the Boston literary community, which really didn’t deserve it. He became oddly obsessed with the question of plagiarism, with much of this preoccupation stemming from the odd belief that he himself was a victim of this.

Initial admiration for Longfellow turned to dubious claims about him, even the charge that he was pilfering the work of others.

As you might surmise from one of my prior posts, Longfellow lived in nothing like Poe’s financially pinched circumstances. Still, whatever sympathy you might have for an underdog dissipates when you consider how unfair Poe’s attack was. Given that, Longfellow’s forbearance was extraordinary, extending even to providing financial assistance after Poe’s death to the latter’s mother-in-law.

Another Boston-area poet, Lowell, had been an admirer of Poe. But an invitation that Lowell arranged to lecture at the Boston Lyceum turned into a catastrophe when Poe read his poem “Al Aaraaf” in a drunken stupor. Before long, Poe was taking after Lowell, too, as a plagiarist.

By this time, Poe had achieved a reputation as something of a “Tomahawk” critic, which he promptly secured with a series of articles on the “The Literati of New York.” One of the men profiled, Thomas Dunn English, didn’t take kindly to Poe’s published claims. Now the shoe was on the other foot, with English charging Poe with forgery.

The enraged poet struck back with a libel suit. Did he win? Well, define “win.” If Poe looked around his apartment after the jury’s conclusion and counted the number of chairs he’d been able to purchase because of their favorable verdict, he might have believed he had won. But the trial also turned up entirely believable episodes of Poe’s drunkenness, making it increasingly unlikely that he’d be able to find another job in New York. That, in fact, is what happened.

There are people who, no matter how relentless their labors or how high their achievements, are doomed to fail because of their own personalities. Poe was one of these. Even as we acknowledge his achievements, our distance from the quarrels of his time should not make us overlook that he was, as Lowell put it, “two-fifths sheer fudge.”

Sister Peggy O’Neill, Peace Activist and Former St. Cecilia Teacher, Honored


Longtime readers of this blog know of my interest in all things involving my alma mater, St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J. –now, sadly, closed for more than 20 years.

Over the next few weeks, before the next Super Bowl, football fans are likely to hear an awful lot about one person connected to the school: legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who got his start in his profession through an eight-year stint coaching at Saints.

As much as Lombardi accomplished (and he’s a far more fascinating—and complex—character than the vast lore surrounding him might suggest), students and faculty associated with Saints have done far more than this understandable focus on athletics might suggest. One person who deserves far more recognition for her unrelenting efforts is Sister Peggy O’Neill, who taught at the school while my older brothers were there in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

In the November 12, 2008 issue of The Catholic Advocate, the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Newark, a news article mentioned that Sister Peggy had won the “Peacemaker Award” of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace Chapter in West Long Branch, N.J. The award came for her 21 years of work in El Salvador, honoring her specifically for her “contribution to peace making and work for justice.”

I meant to write about this honor before—first when the piece originally appeared, then on New Year’s Day—but was unable to locate the piece. Now that I have it in hand, it seems somehow just and fitting that this post appears on the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another religiously inspired person who sought to bring peace and social justice to the downtrodden of this world.

Sister Peggy went to El Salvador in 1987, when that country was in the middle of a 12-year civil war. Death squads roamed the land, with religious communities—including, in two notorious cases, four Maryknoll nuns in 1980 and six Jesuit priests nine years later—hardly exempted. The war left an estimated 75,000 dead and a country unable to advance economically or even establish ordinary levels of stability.

Working through Centro Arte por La Paz, Sister Peggy has moved to counter this desolation and sustain life. She has put into practice, day after day, what she taught for years in her classes: the necessity of doing the work of Christ through helping others. A moving account of her ministry and the still-scarred region in which she works is contained in the following blog post, written by a religion student visiting the area this past fall.

This past week, a college friend of mine, a cradle Catholic who is now, sadly, disaffected from the Church, told me of his interest in Quakers, especially their work for peace. “If Christianity isn’t about peace, I don’t know what else it is for,” he said.

Dr. King—who said shortly before his death that he’d like to be remembered as “a drum-major for peace”—would know what my friend means. So does Sister Peggy. Lord knows that I’ve spent more than a few moments on this blog criticizing the cheats, liars and users of our society, but it’s useful to be reminded by the work of Dr. King and Sister Peggy that the basic instinct of our nature is not toward the despicable but toward the idealistic.

Thoughts for Martin Luther King’s Birthday: Kemp, the GOP, and African-Americans

“We had a great history, and we turned aside. We should have been there with Dr. King on the streets of Atlanta and Montgomery. We should have been there with John Lewis. We should have been there on the freedom marches and bus rides. We should have been there with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955.”— Jack Kemp on how the “Party of Lincoln” went astray, quoted by Fredric Smoler, “We Had a Great History, and We Turned Aside: An Interview With Jack Kemp,” American Heritage, October 1993

(Earlier this month came the announcement that Jack Kemp-- former Republican Congressman, Presidential candidate, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Vice-Presidential nominee—has been stricken with cancer. The news filled me with sadness, then with something more: the sense that a voice for the best in the GOP, past, present and future, might be stilled.

Don’t get me wrong. A pay-as-you-go guy, I have never believed, unlike Kemp, in the “Laffer Curve”—economist Arthur Laffer’s theory that a large reduction in tax rates would reduce the deficit. It didn’t happen under Ronald Reagan, its fiercest advocate among Presidents, so you can’t really say it hasn’t been tried.

The deficits that mounted sharply in the Reagan administration as a result of that theory only look good by comparison with the laughably speculative “Value at Risk” scenario for risk management that led to Wall Street’s most recent debacle. (For an intriguing account of how the latter came to be, take a look at “Risk Mismanagement,” The New York Times, January 4, 2009).

No, what I have valued in Kemp’s career is the passion for civil rights indicated by the above quote. Perhaps like his former-athlete counterpart in the Presidential sweepstakes, Bill Bradley, Kemp may have been especially sensitized to this issue by interactions with teammates in the 1960s. He glimpsed the greatest promise of Lincoln in egalitarianism, the belief that men of all races were entitled to earn the sweat of their brow.

For six decades after the Civil War, the GOP followed the path laid down by the Great Emancipator, and became the party of choice for African-Americans. Consider some of the following, much of it forgotten now:

* Ulysses S. Grant acted against the Ku Klux Klan during his term.
* After leaving the White House, Rutherford B. Hayes became involved in fostering educational opportunities for blacks, even distributing a scholarship for study abroad to the future educator-author W.E.B. DuBois.
* Theodore Roosevelt earned catcalls from the Democratic-controlled South for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House.
* Warren G. Harding, far better known for the corruption scandals that engulfed his administration, became the first President to denounce, right in the heart of the deep South, “the stain of barbaric lynching.”

Even after FDR began to lure African-Americans to his standard with New Deal legislation, African-Americans had not totally forsaken the GOP: in each of his wins, Dwight Eisenhower took over 30% of the vote. Republicans would be lucky to receive half of that today.

The news about Kemp is doubly disheartening because two recent events reinforce the idea that the party that benefited disproportionately from a “Southern strategy” these last several decades now finds itself at the end of the road. Yet, amazingly enough, certain top officials are signaling that African-Americans are still not being accepted and might not be for the foreseeable future.

The most recent news item was Ann Coulter’s blithe dismissal of Barack Obama’s chances of being assassinated by a white racist.(In her view, most Presidential assassins tend to be left-wing or even politically unaligned).

Let’s start with the obvious, Ann: No African-American has even been in Obama’s position before as President-elect. But just about every Presidential contender with a halfway-decent shot at a party nomination gets death threats. It happened to Jesse Jackson—hardly, I’m sure, Ms. Coulter’s idea of conservative or politically unaligned—in 1984 and 1988. It happened to candidate Obama this past year when a 22-year-old Miami man was arrested for threats against him.

And we haven’t even touched on the matter of assassination of African-Americans who were not Presidential candidates. Remember the Vernon Jordan shooting, Ms. Coulter? Medgar Evers? And you haven’t forgotten about the man whose life we celebrate today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have you?

You could, I suppose, make the case that Coulter has been reduced to a clown, what with her idle threats not to vote for the GOP last year if McCain were nominated. You could write her off as someone likely to say or write something increasingly outrageous just to get attention, like a junkie needing a fix. The only problem is that high party officials have made their own tone-deaf mistakes regarding the African-American vote.

Consider the “Puff the Magic Negro” controversy. Chip Saltsman, a candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, has defended the parody of Peter Yarrow’s old folk tune “Puff the Magic Dragon” as satire.

It’s hard to think of a major party shooting itself in the foot so needlessly and foolishly. Distribution of this piece of idiocy manages a unique feat: it reeks of racist condescension even as it insults the intelligence of the American electorate, betting that voters will giggle themselves silly while forgetting the current national crisis the GOP did so much to create.

You’d think that a party that just suffered a humiliating Presidential defeat and is no longer in control of Congress might think twice about alienating anybody. But I guess the GOP is going to have to get whacked on the head by the electorate again and again and again, like Britain’s Labour Party before the election of Tony Blair or the Democrats out of power between Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Normally, I think it’s a good thing for an ethnic group not to become too attached to any one political party: It gives them no voice in the party it rejects and it encourages the one it patronizes to ignore it as safely in the bag.

But, on the 80th birthday of Dr. King, you can’t blame African-Americans for wondering why they should cast their votes for the GOP anytime soon. The rest of us might wonder the exact same thing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

This Day in Broadcasting History (Walter Winchell Begins Long Radio Run)

January 18, 1929—Armed with a faster-than-the-speed-of-sound delivery, newspaper gossip columnist Walter Winchell made the leap from the printed page to the airwaves with a radio program that would make him a force to be reckoned with by Broadway producers and U.S. Presidents for more than a generation.

For a man who would become known on the Great White Way for breathtaking arrogance, it’s especially rich to know that Winchell’s show—which went out on a 42-station hookup on its premiere, sponsored by Gimbel’s Department Store—began life as “New York by a New York Representative.”

Far before Howard Stern got there, Winchell was the original “King of All Media.” Well, almost all.

His newspaper column was the bedrock of his kingdom, the same way that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority served as the linchpin of New York “Power Broker” Robert Moses’ civic empire. And, like Moses, Winchell seemed for the longest time a law unto himself, an egotist who let nothing stand in his way.

But there were also realms the two men could not conquer: electoral politics in Moses’ case (he lost the race for New York governor by an embarrassing landslide and never sought office again), TV celebrity journalism and variety shows in the case of Winchell. (His stint as narrator of The Untouchables came when he was already being regarded as a something of a historical relic, lending all that much more seeming authenticity to the crime show.)

One other thing the two men had in common, besides longevity. Arrogance and an unconquered realm: Neither collapsed in a sudden fall. Instead, their influence slowly ebbed, like the half-life of uranium.

For a long time, it seemed that not just Winchell but the atmosphere of his time was gone for good. Print reporters and blow-dried journalists, trained in graduate schools of journalism, looked down their noses at the former starstruck city kid whose education ended with the sixth grade. And Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Bell were heralding “the vital center” and “the end of ideology” at the dawn of the Sixties, a distinct rebuke to a commentator who rode his political hobbyhorses as eagerly as he roared through city streets in a car featuring a radio receiver, a flashing red light and a siren.

Well, that was then. This is now.

Over the last decade, the atmosphere created by the Internet has come to resemble the go-go years of radio in the 1920s and early 1930s. The similarity lies not merely in the way both became the go-to sources for breaking news in their times, but in a kind of radical egalitarianism that would have sparked the Founding Fathers’ disapproval.

Winchell, as indicated previously, did not advance far in school. But in his time, education was hardly an insuperable barrier to getting on in the new medium. Everyone wanted to form his or her own radio station, and rather than being told how, for instance, a President’s voice sounded, listeners could decide for themselves.

Likewise, in the Internet era, everyone can become his or her own editor or publisher. Information is unmediated, with neither an editor nor necessarily even education necessary. Matt Drudge, for instance—who, with his hat and the word “developing” at the end of his scoops, styles himself explicitly after Winchell—admitted in his book Drudge Manifesto that he graduated 341st out of his high school class of 355.

Like Drudge, Winchell could hit or miss with the accuracy of his scoops. But in his time, he was far more a force to be reckoned with than Drudge. He was also a more complicated figure:

* Though known at the end of his career for allying with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Winchell began as an outspoken supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. Unlike other American Jews such as Walter Lippmann and The New York Times’ Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who were so intent on assimilating into the U.S. that they downplayed the Holocaust while the news reports were circulating about it during the war, Winchell denounced Nazi terror early and often.

* Though hardly handsome, Winchell’s energy made him attractive to women, enabling him to conduct numerous affairs.

* His breezy style of reporting led Winchell to coin all kinds of terms that become known as “Winchellisms,” including the now-familiar “scram” and “pushover” and the more unusual “Reno-vating” (for divorcing), “infanticipating,” and “debutramps.”

* As the inventor of the gossip column at the New York Evening Graphic, he pioneered the practice of exposing the private lives of public figures, inspiring so much resentment that the actress Ethel Barrymore once remarked, “It is a mark against American manhood that Walter Winchell is allowed to live.” Yet he harbored an explosive secret of his own that he carried for more than four decades: the fact the he had never married June Magee, the woman whom he passed off as his second wife. He feared that had he done so, the marriage license would have forced him to reveal the illegitimate birth of their daughter Walda.

The career of Winchell inspired the classic 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster’s sinister columnist J.J. Hunsecker resembling him in a number of ways. That film resembled the takedown of another feared press lord, Orson Welles’ thinly veiled expose of William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane. Both films:

* featured scaldingly brilliant scripts that anatomized the will to power of a press lord.

* were written by men who had bitten the hands that fed them. Welles’ co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, had been a guest at Hearst’s home San Simeon before he came up with the idea for the film. One of the two screenwriters of Sweet Smell, Ernest Lehman, had become familiar with Winchell’s tactics as a press agent before entering the film industry.

* included scandals that their subjects would prefer be quashed. Hearst’s longtime liaison with silent-film comedienne Marion Davies, hardly a secret in Tinseltown, was held up for savage ridicule by Welles and Mankiewicz. Just as J.J. Hunsecker sought to break up the romance of his younger sister, Winchell shattered a man named Billy Cahn who had secretly dated the columnist’s daughter over the latter’s vociferous objections.

* featured protagonists who, for all their power, ended up alone and psychologically maimed. Charles Foster Kane dies alone in his fabulous but forbidding mansion Xanadu; Hunsecker’s crushing of his sister’s affair leads her to break off all relations with him.

Sweet Smell’s forecast of the lonely end of Hunsecker proved to be an accurate foretelling of Winchell’s own fate. When his longtime paper, the Daily Mirror, died in 1963, Winchell had lost the longtime mainstay of his career. During the Columbia University demonstrations in 1968, he was astonished to find that he couldn’t persuade a young cop to let him past the barricades: “They don’t know me. They don’t know who I was.”

Four years later, after his wife had died, a son had committed suicide, and his daughter Walda no longer speaking to him, Walter Winchell died. Only one person attended his funeral

Quote of the Day (Stephen Prothero, on “Religious Literacy”)

“Americans are doomed to repeat their earlier mistakes if they do not start to reconstruct the chain of memory that bound their ancestors to Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and other religions. And those who are not religiously literate are doomed to marginalize themselves from debates on matters of no less importance than the fate of the Middle East, the religious freedoms of the First Amendment, the politics of Islam, and the propriety of gay marriage.”—Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t (2007)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

This Day in Supreme Court History (VCRs Ruled Acceptable)


January 17, 1984—By the narrowest of margins, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that video cassette recorders (VCRs) did not infringe on Hollywood studios’ copyrights. The ruling in Sony Corp v. Universal City Studios, representing the opening skirmish in a long-running war pitting new technology versus copyright of artists, paved the way for Blockbuster Video and similar businesses.

“Fade in to Murder,” the 1976 season-opening episode of the Peter Falk detective series Columbo, featured a VCR (called at the time a video tape recorder, or VTR) costing $3,000—a price illustrating the affluence of the owner of the device, the killer.

It seems appropriate, then, that the great VCR battle between Sony and Hollywood was sparked by an ad for Betamax, the first compact, affordable VCR available to consumers, noting that viewers no longer had to choose between watching Columbo and its Sunday night competitor Kojak: Through the concept of “time-shifting viewing,” fans of the shows could look at one show while taping the other for later.

Sensing a threat, Universal City Studios and Walt Disney Productions went to court to stop distribution on the grounds that they copyrights had been infringed. The case wended its way through the lower courts, even being decided against Sony at one point. But the Japanese firm pressed on until it achieved victory before the Supreme Court.

Most of the time, not long after individual Supreme Court justices begin to issue their rulings, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty how they’ll decide cases. Not in this instance, however. Consider the motley crew of dissenters in this case: the court’s most conservative member, William Rehnquist, joined by centrist Lewis Powell and two liberals, Harry Blackmun and Thurgood Marshall.

Given the narrowness by which Justice John Paul Stevens’ favorable ruling was decided, it might seem surprising that its results were far more quickly accepted than those involving rights issues such as abortion and gay rights. This might be because, however, businesses rapidly assess that the continual costs of litigation are prohibitive and counterproductive. It might also be due to the fact that consumers cast their own votes on products.

In fact, though Sony won its eight-year legal battle, its victory proved Pyrrhic because of this very consumer decision. By the end of the Eighties, its Betamax standard lost out to JVC’s rival VHS standard—not really because of quality, but because VHS tapes at 3 hours lasted longer than the half-hour Betamax tapes.

The Sony decision had several consequences: it broke the hegemony of network programmers, putting consumers more in charge of what they would watch and when; once Hollywood figured out that it could take advantage of the new format, it provided a new distribution channel for the industry; and it further defined an issue that would become increasingly contentious, for librarians such as myself as well as consumers: the “fair use” aspect of copyrights.

From the Internet to the new digital formats for film and music, we are living today in the aftermath of the Sony decision.