Monday, June 14, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘M*A-S-H,' on Marriage and Divorce)

Major Franklin Marion Burns [played by Larry Linville] [to Margaret Houlihan]: “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.” —M*A*S*H, Season 3, Episode 16, Bulletin Board,” original air date Jan. 14, 1975, teleplay by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner, directed by Alan Alda

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Kathleen Norris, Redefining Sin)

“Like many Americans of my baby-boom generation, I had thought that religion was a constraint that I had overcome by dint of reason, learning, artistic creativity, sexual liberation. Church was for little kids or grandmas, a small-town phenomenon that one grew out of or left behind. It was a shock to realize that, to paraphrase Paul Simon, all the crap I learned in Sunday school was still alive and kicking inside me.  I was also astonished to discover how ignorant I was about my own religion.  Apart from a few Bible stories and hymns remembered from childhood I had little with which to start to build a mature faith.  I was still that child in The Snow Queen, asking, ‘What is sin?’ but not knowing how to find out.  Fortunately a Benedictine friend provided one answer: ‘Sin, in the New Testament,’ he told me, ‘is the failure to do concrete acts of love.’ That is something I can live with, a guide in my conversation.  It’s also a much better definition of sin than I learned as a child: sin as breaking rules.”— American poet, essayist and memoirist Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993)

Saturday, June 12, 2021

This Day in Senate History (Robert Byrd Becomes Longest-Serving Member)


June 12, 2006—Having already occupied the most powerful leadership posts in the upper chamber of Congress, Robert Byrd surpassed Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. Senate. 

By the time he died four years later, at age 92, the Democrat from West Virginia had also become the longest-serving member in the history of Congress as a whole; had cast more votes than any other member; and had won an unprecedented ninth term for his office.

If Byrd had completed only his second, or even third, term as Senator, he might have been remembered far more negatively. In an entry for October 2, 1971 that was posthumously included in The Haldeman Diaries, H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff for Richard Nixon, recorded that his boss, annoyed that a potential Supreme Court nominee, Richard Harding Poff, was withdrawing from consideration for a Supreme Court vacancy, had decided to “really stick it to the opposition now”:

“On the court, he came up with the idea of (Robert) Byrd of West Virginia because he was a former KKK’er, he’s elected by the Democrats as Whip, he’s a self-made lawyer, he’s more reactionary than Wallace, and he’s about 53.”

Byrd indeed was “a former KKK’er,” a recruiter and organizer in the 1940s (though never a Grand Wizard, as some recent GOP misinformation states), as well as an advocate for racial segregation and a supporter of the Vietnam War. 

But the need to secure votes among non-Southern colleagues for Senate leadership offices led him over the years to moderate old positions. Eventually, Byrd backed renewal of voting-rights legislation—a stance that won him praise from civil rights icon John Lewis and Barack Obama, the first African-American President—and he opposed both Ronald Reagan's aid to the contras in Nicaragua and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

As alluded to by Nixon, Byrd defeated the incumbent Democrat whip, Ted Kennedy, in 1971, shocking many political observers of the time. Thereafter he was elected twice as Senate Majority Leader. 

“I ran the Senate like a stern parent," Byrd recalled in his memoir, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. He had little time for small talk or glad-handling, as, for instance, the convivial Kennedy had. But his mastery of Senate rules gave him an unrivalled ability to rack up votes.

Unsurprisingly, then, despite his reputation for oratory (with speeches often studded with references to Roman history or literature), Byrd made a more lasting mark as a legislative technician.

Sanford Ungar’s 1975 Atlantic Monthly profile demonstrated how Byrd structured (or restructured) the Senate business on his way up the hierarchy (including shortening the chamber’s “morning hour” and moderating who could speak on the floor). 

Were he alive today, Byrd might not recognize the political climate in either his native state or the Senate he had served so assiduously. Joe Manchin has been the only Democrat to hold a statewide office in the last four years, forcing him to tack to the right—a far cry from the days when Byrd regularly romped to landslide victories in the general election, or even ran unopposed. (Donald Trump took the state with nearly 69% of the popular vote in both the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races.)

Particularly during his two decades as chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd earned the nickname “The King of Pork” for the enormous federal largesse he secured for West Virginia--$1.2 billion through the Senate from 1991 to 2006, largely due to his efforts, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Though the use of earmarks is now being revived in Congress, the odor of illegality and ethical misdeeds continues to cling to the practice a decade after its use was banned. That complicates Senators’ hopes of proving their value to constituents—and the bargaining leverage for complex, often controversial bills that prior Senate leaders like Byrd would have possessed.

Finally, one suspects that Byrd—an institutionalist who defended the use of the filibuster in the Senate—might have lifted his eyebrows, annoyed at how Ted Cruz and his GOP colleagues have weaponized the practice. Rather than totally ban the filibuster, however, Byrd would probably have tried to punish Cruz for his showboating—perhaps by using an arcane parliamentary rule to stall a pet project—while warning Democratic colleagues against outlawing a procedure that they might find handy to use someday, albeit less frequently.

Quote of the Day (Shirley MacLaine, With a Realization From Her Travels)

“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” —Oscar-winning actress and dancer Shirley MacLaine, Don't Fall Off the Mountain (1970)

(The image accompanying this post is a studio promotional photo of Shirley MacLaine, taken in 1960.)

Friday, June 11, 2021

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, on Living the Lives of His Characters)

“When I am writing a novel I must actually live the lives of my characters. If, for instance, my hero is a gambler on the French Riviera, I make myself pack up and go to Cannes or Nice, willy-nilly, and there throw myself into the gay life of the gambling set until I really feel that I am Paul De Lacroix, Ed Whelan, or whatever my hero's name is. Of course this runs into money, and I am quite likely to have to change my ideas about my hero entirely and make him a bum on a tramp steamer working his way back to America, or a young college boy out of funds who lives by his wits until his friends at home send him a hundred and ten dollars.”— American humorist and actor Robert Benchley (1889-1945), “How I Create,” in The Best of Robert Benchley: 72 Timeless Stories of Wit, Wisdom and Whimsy (1983)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Quote of the Day (Eve Babitz, on Gossip and Why ‘You Have to Care in New York’)

“[Y]ou have to care in New York or you’ll die. It's not like L.A., where you can go around with your purse unsnapped or lost in thought even on the freeway. In New York, the gossip will get you if crossing the street doesn't: for the gossip is so dense and thick that it hovers over the entire city like an enraged bear, ready to snap its teeth on anyone who isn’t fast enough to cover herself with alibis, low profiles, or return red herrings aimed strategically somewhere else. The gossip is like a lightning game of backgammon with rolls of dice leaving behind broken hearts, the dissolution of entrenched power, and awkward guest lists. Everyone (who's left) waits for the next roll, eyes glued to the die. You cannot not care in New York. Even I know that. You’ll die just crossing the street. It’s exciting.” —American artist, author and muse Eve Babitz, “A Californian Looks at New York,” in I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, edited by Sara J. Kramer (2019)

This paragraph gives a pretty good idea of the sit-up-and-take-notice quality of Eve Babitz’s prose. For anyone who hopes to get a sense of California from the 1950s to the 1990s (when a freak accident left her with third-degree burns and effectively ended her writing career), I can hardly imagine a more compelling guide.

But, reading this now, in a time of isolation (even as so many hope that era is coming to an end), the quote above feels disconnected from our time. Gossip thrives on society: not merely secrets shared between two people at minimum, but entire occasions that bring people together, encouraging loosened inhibitions and unexpected shared confidences. We have had little to none of that in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maybe New York will be returning to a recognized form of normality when gossip (as delicious as it is, in Babitz’s words, “dense and thick”) comes back, in the way we once remembered.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Quote of the Day (Bina Venkataraman, on the Need to ‘Prize Bravery Over Bravado’)

“Prize bravery over bravado. Prize all moments of bravery, even the small and unrecognized ones. You can be heroic whenever you choose, whoever you are, without being perfect or celebrated or superbly talented.”— Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman, commencement address at the University of Southern California, May 17, 2021

(The image accompanying this post shows Bina Venkataraman at the New America Foundation, Sept. 24, 2019.)