Monday, April 30, 2012

Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, on Theater Critics)

“I have always been very fond of them . . . .I think it is so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theater and know so little about it.”—British playwright-actor-director-composer Noel Coward (1899-1973), quoted in The Noel Coward Reader, edited by Barry Day (2009)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Flashback, April 1812: George Clinton Death Starts VP Melee

The greatest gift Mitt Romney may have received by sewing up the GOP primaries at this point is time—not merely time to build fences to his party’s restless right wing, but to vet his potential Vice-Presidential running mate. His overriding rule should be to observe the Hippocratic dictum, “First, do no harm.”

The Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and his allies did not adhere to this precept. Even the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, Jefferson’s lieutenant and eventual successor in the White House, disregarded it to his peril, paying no attention to the necessity of stability in the Vice-Presidency, and 200 years ago this month he experienced some of the consequences of that failure.

The death of 72-year-old George Clinton on April 20, 1812 removed one headache for Madison—what to do with a running mate, once a workhorse of the party, now more of a broken-down nag, who could not be counted to take his side. At the same time, this first Vice-President to die in office opened another issue: how to avoid another running mate too old/unfit/unsuited for the job, let alone succeeding to the Presidency in an emergency.

It’s one of the ironies of American history that a politician who figured in every national election from 1788 to 1808 is now nearly entirely forgotten by the public. (Quick: Did Trivial Pursuit ever feature him as the subject of a question? Jeopardy? Cash Cab?)  Say the name “George Clinton”—heck, even type it into Google—and you’re likely to get all the information you want about a certain musician, but comparatively less on the man who who inaugurated a tradition: New York governors who looked in their mirror and glimpsed a future President. (Maybe a few names will give you the idea: DeWitt Clinton--George's nephew--William H. Seward, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Mario and Andrew Cuomo...)

It’s a further irony that, because of the pathological fear of a repetition of the election of 1800—a Vice-Presidential candidate with enough appeal of his own to constitute a threat to the ticket’s head in a disputed contest—Jefferson and his party helped mold a system in which the running mate became a toothless, superannuated nonentity.

The politician who had given Jefferson such a bad scare, Aaron Burr, could not have presented a more vivid contrast with his successor. He might have been a rogue who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but when he bid farewell to the Senate over which he had presided in his single term as Vice-President, the urbane Burr left hardly a dry eye in the chamber with his vigor and eloquence.

The Senate couldn’t have been more disappointed by his successor. There was, for one thing, Clinton's voice—which might have been  readily audible on Revolutionary War battlefields he commanded 30 years before, or in the New York legislatures he dominated as a governor—but had diminished in volume in the Senate. Moreover, his social and listening skills were poor, as noted by the inveterate diarist of the Senate, the Federalist William Plumer of New Hampshire:

The Vice President preserves very little order in the Senate. If he ever had, he certainly has not now, the requisite qualifications of a presiding officer. Age has impaired his mental powers. The conversation and noise to day in our lobby was greater than I ever suffered when moderator of a town meeting. It prevented us from hearing the arguments of the Speaker. He frequently, at least he has more than once, declared bills at the third reading when they had been read but once—Puts questions without any motion being made—Sometimes declares it a vote before any vote has been taken.  And sometimes before one bill is decided proceeds to another.  From want of authority, and attention to order he has prostrated the dignity of the Senate. His disposition appears good,—but he wants mind and nerve.”

As the election of 1808 approached, Clinton made no secret that he wanted the Presidency itself. He had gone alone with the greatest grumpiness in accepting the consolation prize of the Vice-Presidency when the popular Jefferson ran for reelection in 1804. No such compunctions stood  in his path in 1808. 

Jefferson himself, however, would not allow his faithful friend, Madison, now Secretary of State, to be bypassed. The caucus of Democratic-Republicans meeting in early 1808 chose Madison for the Presidency. Clinton, not liking this at all, allowed a boomlet for himself to rise in New York. With his usual highly amused eye for the spectacle of history, Henry Adams (great-grandson of the first, comically frustrated Vice-President, John Adams) related  the resulting scene in his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson:
“Before long, the public was treated to a curious spectacle. The regular party candidate for the Vice-presidency became the open rival of the regular candidate for the Presidency. Clinton’s newspapers attacked Madison without mercy,  while Madison’s friends were electing Clinton as Madison’s Vice-president.”

Clinton was an even worse fit for Madison than he had been for Jefferson. In 1811, Madison  requested congressional approval for renewing the Bank of the United States. The vote ended up tied, one of those rare but constitutionally mandated instances when the Vice-President could vote. Madison was annoyed by Clinton’s vote against the measure, and that frustration grew worse when the nation found itself  in severe difficulties the following year, when the War of 1812 required massive expenditures.

With Clinton unable to attend any Congressional sessions in early 1812, the possibility loomed larger that his office would be vacant. Candidates began jockeying for position, and Clinton’s death removed the need for any subtlety in such maneuvers.

At first, the Democratic-Republicans turned to John Langdon, a former Senator from New Hampshire, but he declined on the sensible grounds that, at age 70, he was too old and ill. The caucus then turned to a comparative spring chicken, 67-year-old Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

This was not the office Gerry had wanted. Collector of the port of Boston was what he had in mind, as it would help him retire the debts dogging him. 

Madison, however, saw not a potential tax collector but a potential V-P, for several reasons:

1    1)  He had been involved in politics all the way back to the 1770s, when he served on the Continental Congress;

2    2) Clinton notwithstanding, Madison thought that Gerry’s advancing years would make it unlikely he’d want the Presidency himself at this point in his career, thereby ensuring that the Presidency would pass to another  Virginian, James Monroe;

3    3) Again unlike Clinton, Gerry was sure to provide a favorable vote for the administration. In fact, he was perceived as so partisan that, when he signed off on an electoral reapportionment scheme that, some suggested, resembled a salamander, the “gerrymander” was suggested as an alternative--thus giving rise to an eternal neologism.

Gerry did not help Madison secure Massachusetts in the election—a fact that the Virginia Dynasty should have anticipated since Gerry had lost his own re-election bid as governor, necessitating his need for a different job. But far worse was about to happen. 

By the summer of 1813, not only was Gerry seriously ill, but so, under the pressure of waging a war, was Madison. The distinct possibility loomed that, with the nation in a struggle for survival against its old British enemy, both the President and Vice-President would be either physically incapacitated or dead. 

Fortunately, Madison rallied. Gerry, however, continued to weaken, and in November 1814 he died, just as Clinton had, while in office.

James Monroe had only marginally better luck with his running mate. Daniel Tompkins, another former New York governor (see what I just saying a few minutes ago about seeing a future President in the mirror), hounded by debt like Gerry, began to drink heavily. Tompkins was out of the Vice-Presidency for only a few months when he, too, perished.

Quote of the Day (Anne Lamott, on God’s Assembling 'The Motleyest People')

“You've got to love this in God —consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community. It’s a centuries-long reality show—Moses the stutterer, Rahab the hooker, David the adulterer, Mary the homeless teenager. Not to mention all the mealy-mouthed disciples. Not to mention a raging insecure narcissist like me.”—Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Marilu Henner, Memory Maven

My memory is nowhere near as good as I would like it to be. Oh, I have no trouble recalling the worst and/or most embarrassing incidents in my life, and I could recall enough of what I read to do okay in school. But my memory has never been prodigious enough to make me serious money, e.g., on quiz shows such as Jeopardy or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And several years ago, in writing chapters of a memoir, I sometimes wished I could recall more.

That was a big reason why I attended a book-signing event for actress Marilu Henner at Bookends, an independent bookstore in Ridgewood, N.J., in the same county where I live. I don’t lose my mind over celebrities (see, for instance, my decidedly non-agog response to the prospect of Lady Gaga in my office building, in this prior post).  Even those associated with a show or film I’ve enjoyed, such as Ms. Henner’s classic sitcom Taxi, don’t necessarily interest me.

But a celebrity writing or talking about memory—yes, that does interest me. 

Ms. Henner was promoting her new book, Total Memory Makeover. She spoke without notes, laughing easily and often, constantly engaging the audience. She even conducts classes on memory, and based on this appearance, I doubt if she has any problems holding attendees’ attention.

I hadn't kept up with her career much after she left Taxi. After her appearance, I learned from the Internet that she'd appeared on Broadway in Chicago and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife--and, as the grandnephew of a Titanic survivor, I found it intriguing that she had played, in a 1997 TV movie, one of the most famous survivors, Margaret Tobin "Unsinkable Molly" Brown of that disaster. I wish I had learned more about her background before the event.

Nearly all of her eight prior books deal with health (even the title of her inevitable showbiz memoir, By All Means, Keep on Moving, sounds like an exhortation to exercise—and, indeed, she did discuss in it her strong belief in healthy living, in between accounts of her career and relationships to date). Though it has a whole chapter dealing with the physical aspects of memory, this newest book is primarily concerned with memory as an aspect of mental health. Ms. Henner disagrees with those who think that “forgetting” per se might be a necessary element of forgiveness. On the contrary, she urges readers to relieve bad memories in an effort to prevent recurrences of events or behavior patterns (e.g., unhealthy eating, bad relations) holding us back in the present.

I’ve perused a couple of other books on the subject of memory before—notably, Joan Minninger’s Total Recall and the long-ago Harry Lorayne-Jerry Lucas bestseller, The Memory Book, but Ms. Henner’s is different in its focus on the autobiographical element. That’s not surprising,  since the actress is, as documented in a 60 Minutes segment from a couple of years ago, one of only a dozen people who have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), the ability to recall even the smallest, most trivial detail on virtually any day of her life. (She can even hear a specific date and know what day of the week on which it occurred.) That ability has led her recently to become a consultant to Poppy Montgomery’s CBS series, Unforgettable.

In the course of her talk, Ms. Henner noted that those with HSAM can remember not just what was going on in their own lives on a certain day, but what was happening around the world (July 16, 1999 was the day JFK Jr. died). She also recalled some of the more interesting days in her career (e.g., the last day of shooting Cannonball Run 2, when crew and cast on that flop were desperately trying to wrap everything up in the 100-degree-plus heat—especially Dom DeLuise in a nun’s habit), and upcoming projects (a horror comedy called Vamps, also starring Alicia Silverstone, Sigourney Weaver, and Malcolm McDowell).

There weren’t many questions before the book signing itself; more people, like me, preferred to do so one to one with the actress.  Given my longtime fear, upon meeting new people, that I’ll put my foot in my mouth, it was especially important that I not say anything publicly embarrassing. So, when I came to the desk where Ms. Henner was signing, I asked an open-ended question: “What was your most memorable episode of Taxi?”

The episode—a two-part-er, actually—was called “Shut It Down,” taped late in 1979 and aired in January 1980, in the show’s second season. In agreeing to negotiations to end the cabbies’ strike, their bullying, lascivious boss Louie wants a dinner engagement with the shop steward, Ms. Henner’s Elaine Nardo—during which, he instructs her, she’ll have to refer to him twice as “Stallion”!

I was glad I asked the question: Anderson Cooper, she told me, had asked the same thing that morning, so even though it wasn't the most original one I could have come up with, it was one she felt comfortable answering.  It certainly brought back happy memories for Ms. Henner. When I opened the book a couple of minutes later, I read the following inscription: “Hey Mike! I love ‘Taxi,’ Too!”

It’s an indictment of Hollywood that it doesn’t know what to do with actresses such as Ms. Henner after they reach a certain age. Luckily for her, her books, classes and consulting work have led to a more diverse, healthy—and perhaps even more interesting—life.

Quote of the Day (Goethe, on Sicily)

Caltanissetta, 28 April [1787]. At last we can say we have seen with our own eyes the reason why Sicily earned the title of ‘The Granary of Italy.’ Soon after Girgenti, the fertility began. There are no great level areas, but the gently rolling uplands were completely covered with wheat and barley in one great unbroken mass. Wherever the soil is suitable to their growth, it is so well tended and exploited that not a tree is to be seen. Even the small hamlets and other dwellings are confined to the ridges, where the limestone rocks make the ground untillable. The women live in these hamlets all the year round, spinning and weaving, but during the season of field labour, the men spend only Saturdays and Sundays with them; the rest of the week they spend in the valleys and sleep at night in reed huts."—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey, in Selected Works (Everyman’s Library, 1999)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Quote of the Day (Ulysses S. Grant, on His Simple But Grand Ancestry)

“My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.”—Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs (1885-1886)

The Civil War defined irrevocably what it meant to be American. Characteristically, the man who more than any other was responsible for winning the conflict set out the theme of his own life with this opening line. The statement does not beg to become an aphorism, but like the tone of the rest of the book, it is steady and winning. Its glow of quiet pride is unmistakable. Above all, it is credible—a fact lost on Larry McMurtry, who reviewed Bill Clinton’s My Life favorably in contrast with that of the man the novelist condescendingly called “dear, dying General Grant’s.”

Ulysses S. Grant was born on this date in 1822. Nearly 12 years after his death, on what would have been his 75th birthday, over 1 million people attended the parade and dedication ceremony of his tomb—the largest in North America--in New York. Over the next century, this mausoleum, funded by 90,000 donors and modeled on one of the ancient wonders of the world, would be allowed to deteriorate disgracefully—a situation in direct contrast to the final resting place of Grant’s great adversary, Robert E. Lee, in Lexington, Va. (The Confederacy might have lost, but die-hard adherents to the Lost Cause knew how to preserve their sacred monuments.)

It took the vigorous efforts of a Columbia University student, Frank Scaturro—and a threat by the general’s descendants to relocate his remains and those of wife Julia elsewhere, where they could be taken better care of—for the National Park Service to provide, in time for the centennial of the tomb's dedication, a necessary $1.8 million facelift for a site that at one point had more visitors than the Statue of Liberty. Every one of those dollars was well-spent, considering the general's enormous service to his country. When he was dying and working desperately to complete his memoirs, a stranger sent him a $500 check with an attached note: “'General, I owe you this for Appomattox.''

(By the way, though the 1997 work helped, much of the area around Grant’s Tomb remains badly in need of repair, as frankly acknowledged on its Web site.)

Grant produced his Personal Memoirs under harrowing circumstances, trying to rescue his family from the bankruptcy into which he had been plunged a couple of years earlier by an unscrupulous business partner. (That was another thing that makes him especially American to us: his Wall Street brokerage firm was fleeced by a swindler.) He completed it only four days before he succumbed to cancer, and during much of the writing he refused medication that would dull the pain but leave him too mentally groggy to write. His publisher, Mark Twain, compared the book favorably with Caesar’s Commentaries.

Edmund Wilson must have had in mind the opening line—and many others—when he wrote:

“Grant's Memoirs are a unique expression of the national character... The book conveys Grant's dynamic force and the definitiveness of his personality. Perhaps never has a book so objective in form seemed so personal in every line. The tempo is never increased, but the narrative, once we get into the war, seems to move with the increasing momentum that the soldier must have felt in the field. Somehow, despite its sobriety, it communicates the spirit of the battles themselves and makes it possible to understand how Grant won them.”