Saturday, May 31, 2008

This Day in American History (Seventeenth Amendment for Direct Election of Senators)

May 31, 1913— Following ratification by 36 of the 48 states then in the Union, as Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan certified one of the most important measures of the Progressive Era, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed for direct election of U.S. senators.

The Founding Fathers crafted
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution calling for election of U.S. Senators by state legislatures. By this means, they hoped to give stakes in the newly created republic a stake in the fledgling federal government. At the same time, they hoped that such legislators—elected at one remove from the people (the Founders were not crazy for direct democracy) –would cool the passions of the House of Representatives, whose members were directly elected by the populace. With each state given two votes in the Senate, all would be equal, neutralizing the advantage of larger states in the Union at that point, such as New York and Virginia.

It all sounded fine in practice, and for awhile it even seemed to work. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America even praised the Senate for its “monopoly of intelligence and talent.”

That might have seemed reasonable at the time, amid an age dominated by the Senate’s “
Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. But even in the instance of Calhoun (who would re-enter the Senate shortly, after a brief stint as Vice-President under Andrew Jackson), the reality was darker. He was elected by a legislature that itself was elected largely through large property owners, with poor, unpropertied whites having heard any voice and with African-Americans, of course, in far dire straits. Moreover, by the end of his life, he represented a region – the South -- whose influence should have, according to its share of the population of the time, been less than it possessed.

Though the first bill calling for direct Senate elections was introduced in 1826, the movement picked up momentum in the post-Civil War period. In my home state, New Jersey, a donnybrook erupted in 1866 over the election of
John Stockton, when opponents charged that he’d been elected by a plurality rather than a majority of the legislature.

But worse was to follow. The Industrial Revolution created Gilded Age magnates who’d bribe an entire legislature without batting an eye. Between 1866 and 1906, the U.S. Senate was forced to deal with nine—count ‘em, nine—bribery cases involving state legislatures. And those were just the ones that were publicly known. The nation’s foremost deliberative body might as well have just hung out a “for sale” sign. In addition, vacancies were going unfilled for long periods—45 deadlocks occurred in 20 states from 1891 to 1905 alone.

Many Senators undoubtedly wanted to keep the means by which they had been elected in the first place. But the combined effects of an inability to conduct business without a Senate body fully staffed and undiverted by investigations, a strain on their legendary comity (working on so many bribery cases would have caused a lot of bruised feelings), and media stories such as “
The Treason of the Senate” run by publisher (and aspiring politico) William Randolph Heart all brought a gradual change of minds.

The Populist Party made direct Senate elections a part of its platform, and within a decade Progressives such as Robert M. LaFollette, George Norris, and William Borah were pushing the idea. In 1911 Senator Joseph Bristow of Kansas introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment. The idea was opposed in the Senate by regional blocs in both parties: Southern Democrats (who, despite the passage of additional Jim Crow legislation, were still insanely afraid of the influence of African-American voters in direct elections) and Republicans throughout New England, New York and Pennsylvania, who not only would lose valuable money from industrials but would be suddenly exposed to the wrath of immigrant workingmen they had dissed. Eventually, however, the idea won out.

To me, the most interesting test of the new amendment came in 1916 in Massachusetts, involving Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. Most American history students know him as the canny Senate leader whose opposition to America’s entry into the League of Nations doomed Woodrow Wilson’s dream of peace. He is also recalled, like his great friend Theodore Roosevelt; as an arch-imperialist and advocate for enhanced naval power, as well as the first (unofficial) Majority Leader of Senate Republicans in the early 1920s; and as the patriarch of a political dynasty.

But I think he deserves at least a corner in any Hall of Infamy for his zenophobia. In 1881, he termed Irish emigrants “undesirable” and “hard-drinking, idle, quarrelsome and disorderly.” Nearly two decades later, he introduced a bill for “
The Restriction of Immigration.”

In three elections, this unregenerate bigot won through the good offices of the Massachusetts state legislature. Now, following passage of the very amendment he opposed, he would, for the first time, directly confront a populace that contained a large proportion that he had dissed as being out of the American mainstream.

That year, the Democratic standard-bearer was
John F. Fitzgerald. Two years before, his re-election campaign as mayor of Boston had come to a sudden end when the challenger, James Michael Curley, announced an “educational” lecture for the voters: “Great Lovers: From Cleopatra to Tootles”—a not-so-veiled reference to a blond cigarette girl widely rumored to have had an affair with the married “Honey Fitz.” Fitzgerald would never win another election, and with his enemy Curley in the mayor’s office he could not even count on a united voting bloc.

But opposition to Lodge was fierce enough that Fitzgerald gave the previously comfortable incumbent the most difficult campaign of his career. When the votes were counted, the proud senator had withstood the challenge by only a narrow margin, signaling that the supremacy of the Boston Brahmin in Bay State politics was coming to an end—a fact that registered unmistakably in 1952 and 1962, when his grandson and great-grandnephew, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and George Cabot Lodge, lost Senate campaigns to grandsons of Honey Fitz, John Fitzgerald and Edward Kennedy.

Quote of the Day (DeGeneres)

“Just go up to somebody on the street and say ‘You're it!’ and just run away.”— Ellen DeGeneres

Friday, May 30, 2008

This Day in Theater History (Christopher Marlowe Murdered)

May 30, 1593—Nearly three and a half centuries before Raymond Chandler began turning out a series of mysteries featuring a detective named Marlowe, Elizabethan England featured a real-life mystery revolving around a protagonist of the same name, as the short and tumultuous life of playwright-poet-spy Christopher Marlowe ended with his stabbing death.

Scholars bemoan the lack of documentation concerning the life of William Shakespeare. However, in the case of Marlowe—born only two months before the Bard—a different problem exists: the suspect nature of the documentation that does exist. Controversy over the truth of these sources stems directly from the repressive nature of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s times.

Shakespeare and Marlowe seem to have been aware of each other in the small, circumscribed London theater world. However, their fates—and, to an extent, their posthumous reputations—owed much to how they chose to protect their innermost secrets.

Several recent scholars, notably Stephen Greenblatt and Clare Asquith, have seriously considered the possibility that Shakespeare—or at least his family members—was a recusant or secret Catholic, using coded language in his plays that could only be understood by others of his faith, lest he be brought up on charges. He lived like a bourgeois, dying comfortably after retiring from the stage in his late 40s.

Marlowe, on the other hand, was only 29 when he died. He was part of a group of “university wits” –products of a restless, urban, higher-education culture—drawn, as Greenblatt described the milieu of one of them, Thomas Watson, to “impressive learning, literary ambition, duplicity, violence, and ruthlessness.” 

While at Cambridge, Marlowe was recruited by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. (Why is it that so many spies over the years—not just Marlowe, but also Whittaker Chambers and the Cambridge Spies for the Communists--are recruited on campus?) 

Before long, Marlowe was pretending to be a Catholic seminarian on the Continent, feeding Walsingham the kind of information that made Her Majesty’s intelligence network so feared (and admired) among European rulers that, it was said, she knew more about the Spanish Armada than the Spanish monarch, King Philip II, did.

Pretending to be something you’re not is great training for the theater, but it can also produce a fractured identity, particularly if you have many secrets of your own to guard—and Marlowe had at least some. 

At various times, Marlowe faced accusations related to sexual orientation, counterfeiting, and atheism, in addition to spying. In the dark atmosphere of the time, when slanders were produced by means of torture (no press in those days), it’s impossible to say how much of this was true. Even if only one or two of the many accusations made against him were true, however, the playwright was running counter to the ethos of his time.

Within a few years of his death, rumors began to circulate about the manner of Marlowe’s passing .One of the first instances of the rumor that he died in a barroom brawl came in five years after his death, when the critic Frances Meres observed that the playwright was “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in lewde love.”

Remarkably, the document with the most information about his death—the coroner’s inquisition—didn’t turn up until Marlowe scholar Leslie Hotson discovered it in the archives of the Public Records Office in London in 1925. It’s just as important for what it doesn’t say as what it does.

To start with, Marlowe did not die in a barroom, as many otherwise reputable reference books commonly state. It occurred in the home of the widow Eleanor Bull, in the town of Deptford. Bull’s connections at the court of Queen Elizabeth, as well as her home’s presence by the sea (making for easy access to the Continent, where spies like Marlowe worked), made hers a safe hosue for government agents. 

The four men at the house on the day in question—Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Marlowe—were all connected to Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron and a cousin of England’s recently deceased spymaster.

The coroner’s report identified Poley, Frizer and Skeres each in turn as a “gentleman.” What it did not note was their connection to Thomas Walsingham. Nor did it identify what the four men were doing there at Bull’s home, nor who gave exactly what testimony. 

It placed the blame for the incident on Marlowe (called “Morley”—the Elizabethans were notoriously flexible in how they spelled names) over “the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le reckoning.” After some words were exchanged, Marlowe attacked Frizer with a dagger, and in the ensuing commotion fatally stabbed the playwright over his right eye, the report claimed.

All kinds of rumors have circulated over the years as to the real cause of Marlowe’s death, including a case of rough sex getting out of control and the need to silence him over his heresy (an order for his arrest had just been issued by the Privy Council). 

But given Marlowe’s associations and the furtive world of 16th-century English espionage, one of the strongest possibilities of all, according to Russell Aiuto, is that the playwright was a victim in the struggle for survival by Francis Walsingham, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. (The latter two were beheaded some years after the Marlowe murder.)

In any case, Frizer was quickly pardoned. At this point, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure if Queen Elizabeth accepted the judgment that he had acted in self-defense or that the powers that be hoped to bring down the curtain of silence forever on the brilliant but reckless rival of Shakespeare.

Quote of the Day (Tomei)

“Quirky and funny is always good. Bald isn’t a deal breaker, but you have to at least have the other two. I think what happens is the bald guys focus on only that. ‘I’m bald! I qualify!’ No. You don’t.”—Actress Marisa Tomei, forcefully denying the suggestion inspired by the “urban legend” in a famous Seinfeld episode that she’s into “quirky, funny, and bald guys” (like George Costanza), in an interview in this week’s Time Out New York

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review: “Piece of My Heart,” by Peter Robinson

Piece of My Heart: A Novel of Suspense
, by Peter Robinson (paperback)

Have you ever bought a book as a present for a friend, then become so fascinated by it that you decided to buy a copy for yourself? That happened with me in this instance—though, as sometimes occurs, I put it aside until I had the time and motivation to read it. Both arrived around the new year. 

 At the time, I had nothing else pressing to write, and, while contemplating what to read next, I noticed an obituary in The New York Times for Arabella Spencer-Churchill, granddaughter of the British Prime Minister, who carved out her own niche by establishing the Glastonbury rock festival in the 1970s. That reminded me of the Robinson book and its treatment of the rock music scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies, as did Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll. I picked up Robinson’s mystery with renewed interest at that point, and did not want to put it down again until I finished. 

I was surprised to discover, from Robinson’s Web site, that he hails from Canada rather than the England that forms the heart of so many of his novels. So atmospheric and textured are his tales that, I assumed, they could only have been written by someone intimate with these places—a lifelong native, actually. 

Though plot is inevitably at the heart of a mystery’s appeal, many readers of the Banks series such as myself are also quite taken with his musical tastes. Several delighted reviewers have even gone so far as to suggest that you can create a very fine iPod program through the songs he mentions during the book. 

Like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (which, come to think of it, has one of the first fictional detectives, Inspector Bucket), this “braided narrative” intertwines two plot lines, seemingly unconnected at first, but which, we gradually learn, bear on each other. One involves a beautiful young woman found dead at a British music festival in 1969; the other, a freelance male journalist found dead 36 years later, bludgeoned to death, in the same Yorkshire region as the earlier crime. 

The detective in each case—Stanley Chadwick, a Scottish WWII vet horrified by the excesses of ‘60s youth (including his own teenage daughter), and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks nearly two generations later—puts together the clues, revealing his own failings as well as the facts in the investigation. 

Pulling off these constant shifts in time and plot is devilishly hard, but Robinson has created an artistically brilliant structure of such suspense that it leaves an increasing knot in the reader’s stomach. The first of his police procedurals that I’ve read, it also left me eager to read more. 

The protagonist in more than a dozen of Robinson’s novels, DCI Banks possesses his full complement of personal difficulties. (This particular installment in the series hints at prior problems involving his brother, as well as an intimate relationship with subordinate Annie Cabbot that has subsided to a bantering friendship.) 

Maybe it’s because Robinson has devoted so much attention before to Banks, or maybe because I am so interested in the 1960s background of the first murder (my childhood occurred during that decade, and like many other people those are among my most vivid memories). 

But DCI Chadwick comes across as a more compelling character than Banks—prickly and out of step with the psychedelic milieu he must investigate. The younger generation disgusts him with their pacifism and drug abuse. At best, they leave him cold; at worst, they raise his ire to the point where he can barely control it, and is even prepared to exceed the limits of his stern moral code to build a case against one of them. 

(Chadwick is very close to my age now, and while I don’t share his conservatism and rock-ribbed Presbyterianism, I’m inclined to agree with him more than I might have done at the time that ‘60s youth could be awfully self-congratulatory and smug about how they were going to change the world.) 

Part of the fun in the novel lies in its roman a clef (i.e., “novel with a key”) element—you’re continually reminded of real-life counterparts to fictional situations. The group at the heart of the Sixties mystery is the Mad Hatters, a name not only unmistakably reminiscent of one of the major literary influences of the age, Alice in Wonderland (see Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”), but also suggestive of the insanity that swept through the entertainment industry of the time and the larger world that embraced its radical experimentations in musical form and expanded consciousness. 

Other real-life elements echoed here are a mysterious death in a swimming pool (a la the still-unexplained demise of Rolling Stone Brian Jones) and the madness of one of the Hatters, a musician who will bring to mind for many readers such people as Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. (The latter is also memorably evoked in Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll). 

What makes this novel so suspenseful is Chadwick’s personal stake in the outcome. From the first, we sense that his daughter Yvonne is too close to the crime scene for his comfort—in age and looks, she almost resembles the victim—and as the plot continues, her ties to the events only strengthen. 

Like so much else in the novel, even its title has a double element. Fans of ‘60s music will recall the Janis Joplin hit of this name. However, the title also refers to a grisly piece of forensic evidence at the heart of this unusually thoughtful, compelling mystery.

Quote of the Day (Conkling)

“Parties are not built up by deportment, or by ladies' magazines, or by gush.” —Sen. Roscoe Conkling, New York State Republican Convention, 1877

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (Senate Acquits Andrew Johnson in Impeachment Trial)

May 28, 1868—Two months after it began, the trial of President Andrew Johnson formally concluded with the U.S. Senate deciding narrowly not to remove him from office.

In a
prior post, I discussed the circumstances leading up to the House vote to impeach Johnson. Now, as promised, I’d like to consider how he escaped removal by the Senate—and the precedents this vote set for the later impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

In all likelihood, high school and college students will be able to tell you that Radical Republicans were out for revenge against Johnson for his mild Reconstruction policy; that he survived by a single vote short of the necessary two-thirds required to convict in the Senate, with key support provided by seven moderate Republicans; and that the last undecided Republican, Edmund G. Ross, looking “down into my open grave” before his vote, essentially committed political suicide, as he never again won electoral office.

The actual story is more complicated than this, as most history tends to be. The version with which most people are familiar was first propounded by historians who viewed Reconstruction as a “tragic period” in American history of rapine and revenge against a South prostrated by its huge losses in the Civil War, then filtered in a less politically correct—and more dramatic—fashion by (then-Senator) John F. Kennedy in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage (1956).

To be fair to this school of thought, there were problems with the impeachment case against the President—the counts were not very specific; the Senate prosecutors sought to include anything that could tarnish the President’s image, even if it was tangential to the major issues at hand (e.g., Johnson’s drunkenness at his inauguration as Vice-President); and at least some of these prosecutors (e.g., Benjamin Butler) had keen political self-interest in pursuing the President’s removal.

Rutgers historian David Greenberg has called into question JFK’s heroic depiction of Ross, noting that the young senator had reasons of his own for voting for acquittal, such as a patronage fight he was waging within his home state of Kansas.

More than 100 years later, when Richard Nixon’s involvement with Watergate came to light, the precedent set by the Johnson impeachment trial was that the phrase “other high crimes and misdemeanors” could not involve simply policy disagreements, but rather grave offenses against the federal government.

Nixon resigned, of course, before he could be formally removed by the Senate, but he possessed enough sense of political mathematics to realize his days were numbered.

Besides the seriousness of his crimes and the host of political enemies he had made during his tenure in office, two other conditions unique to that time, I believe, sped his removal from office:

a) an atrocious economic environment, including an energy crisis, that convinced the public that his inability to concentrate on the tasks for which he was elected meant he could no longer be useful in office; and

b) bipartisan cooperation between two moderate groups on the House Judiciary Committee—moderate Northern and Midwestern Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats – that provided lopsided votes on the obstruction of justice (27-11) and abuse of power (28-10) counts. (The third count, on contempt of Congress, for defying the panel’s request for materials, passed by a closer 21-17 party-line vote.)

Even Clinton defenders at his Senate trial admitted he had lied under oath concerning his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Moreover, as Peter Baker’s account of the proceedings, The Breach, indicates, several Senators who eventually voted in his favor, such as Fritz Hollings, Russ Feingold, and Patsy Murray had hoped initially that he’d do the country (and the Democrats) a favor by resigning.

But Clinton's poll numbers, strengthened by a still-buoyant economy and the absence of military conflict, convinced lawmakers that it was not the will of the people that he should be removed. Moreover, the two factions that held the fulcrum of power in the spring and summer of ’74 against Nixon—the moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats—had, over time, withered to numerical insignificance in their parties, leaving it easier for the proceedings to be seen as partisan. (Capitol Hill Republicans fed this perception by pushing hard for impeachment rather than censure of the President.)

A third factor might also be mentioned here: What George Stephanapoulos termed the Clinton White House’s “
Ellen Rometsch strategy” of dampening opposition to impeachment with the veiled threat of leaking lawmakers’ own sexual peccadilloes. (The name, if it sounds unfamiliar, is to an East German girlfriend of President Kennedy’s implicated in espionage. Robert Kennedy instigated her rapid deportment, as well as J. Edgar Hoover’s subsequent warning to Capitol Hill lawmakers not to look further into this matter as it would open up others’ sexual secrets.)

Quote of the Day (Fleming)

I’m not in the Shakespeare stakes. I have no ambition.”-- Ian Fleming, when asked if creating James Bond had kept him from more serious literary endeavors such as those of brother Peter, an explorer and travel writer.
(He might not have been in the “Shakespeare stakes,” but Fleming—born on this date 100 years ago—was responsible for creating one of those immortal characters that endure far longer than their pop-lit origins, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His books represented President Kennedy’s favorite reading in the White House, and the films, of course, have become the most successful brand in cinema history.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This Day in Music History (“Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” Released)

May 27, 1963—Three days after his 22nd birthday, Robert Zimmerman, the boy from the North Country of Minnesota, completed his transformation into Bob Dylan, the most heralded new member of the suddenly exploding folk-music scene, with the release of his second album,
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

In my favorite scene in A Hard Day’s Night, Ringo Starr is asked by a journalist out of touch with his music and his generation if he’s a mod or a rocker. “I’m a mocker,” Ringo answers, with a gravity belying the insouciance of the reply. With the quip, the cheerful Liverpool moptop served notice that he and his bandmates would not let the media pigeonhole them into a single category; that they’d absorbed both categories in their music; and that in fact his generation had created new categories beyond the imagination of their interlocutors. 

So it was with Bob Dylan. That’s what you would expect with this magpie of musical and literary influences, implied by one word in his album title: “freewheelin’.” 

The press latched onto the album’s protest songs, casting him as a kind of musical scion of Woody Guthrie, but in fact the subject matter extended into the personal as well as the political, because he was absorbing everything that came his way in the Greenwich Village where he had lived for the last couple of years—not just the usual suspects of the folk-music scene, but also Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Harry Belafonte, Dylan Thomas, William Blake, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, and Smokey Robinson (“America’s greatest living poet,” he told a group of nonplussed music journalists). 

Over the years, Dylan’s albums have comprised a collective work in progress, with one identity and pose exchanged for another. The same thing can be glimpsed in microcosm in his sophomore effort. 

It all began on April 24, 1962, with producer John Hammond recording a mélange of traditional songs and others heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie. After several months, a second producer, Tom Wilson – later famous for tweaking Simon & Garfunkel’s acoustic “Sounds of Silence” with a rock beat—was brought in. 

Though not as startling in this instance, Wilson gave a booster shot to the raspy young singer, who promptly experimented with different styles and voices, on compositions that have become essential parts of his songbook: “Girl From the North Country,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” 

The last of these, covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, became Warner Bros.’ fastest-selling single to date, reaching #2 on the pop charts that summer. The success of the LP justified the faith in him shown by Hammond, the legendary producer who discovered Billie Holliday and Bruce Springsteen. 

Dylan’s eponymous debut album had cratered, and Columbia Records was getting nervous about this unusual song stylist. In 1963, more than 200 folk-music albums were released, according to David Hadju’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina. Now Dylan’s label had the artist who was not only acclaimed as the best of the bunch, but even as “the voice of a generation.”

Movie Quote of the Day (Heston)

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” – Astronaut George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston), to his ape captor, in Planet of the Apes (1968), screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle

(If I had just seen the line on the printed page, I might have thought it was the cry of thousands of females in the corporate and political jungle, fending off unwanted male advances. But no—it’s the first line in the sci-fi satire spoken by a human being to the apes. That line was voted the #66 movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute.

Believe it or not, except for one or two scenes caught on the fly on TV here or there, I had not seen this film until this week. It’s hard to believe it premiered 40 years ago this past spring. Amazingly—especially in its pitiless depiction of mankind’s self-destructive streak that threatens to reverse the evolutionary cycle—the film has not dated at all. And, if you’re like me, you had lots of fun trying to match the various actors’ voices with their ape faces. (The ape masks helped win the film an honorary Oscar for makeup achievement.) I might add that Heston’s silent scenes, when he tries unsuccessfully to communicate with his captors, made me appreciate more just how good he could be when given a real acting challenge. Why, oh why, did Tim Burton feel compelled to remake this classic?)

Monday, May 26, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (TR Sues for Libel)

May 26, 1913—In Marquette, Mich., in a courthouse that later served as the location for the James Stewart legal drama Anatomy of a Murder, an equally extraordinary real-life proceeding began: a libel suit by Theodore Roosevelt against an editor who had accused him of habitual drunkenness.

The suit by the ex-President against George Newitt, editor of local weekly paper Iron Ore, was unparalleled, according to Patricia O’Toole’s When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, because it was “the first to expose a former president’s personal habits to public view, and Roosevelt was the first former president to hold a newspaper to account for the sort of calumny that might affect his place in history.”

A Tumultuous Campaign Swing—In More Ways Than One

The indefatigable T.R. thought nothing of becoming the first U.S. President to journey outside the confines of the country while in office (in this case, Panama, to inspect the construction of the canal), of shooting big game in Africa, or, soon, of exploring the unnavigated “River of Doubt” in Brazil (a trip that nearly cost him his life). Going to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then, was cake by comparison, and Roosevelt enjoyed it so much during his life that he toured 14 of the area’s 15 counties.

The second of these trips, on October 9, 1912, in the midst of his bid for a precedent-setting third Presidential term as nominee of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, was the one that led to his later court date in Marquette.

The 250-mile swing through the Upper Peninsula was greeted tumultuously, with many veterans of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders turning out along the way. Places that hardly anyone knew existed (Soo Junction and Munising Junction, anyone?) brought out at least 500 people, and often more.

One person unimpressed with the hoopla was George S. Newett, who used his bully pulpit at Iron Ore to try to keep Colonel Roosevelt from reaching his favorite one: the Oval Office. The editor’s animus was aroused for two reasons: he was a former appointee of the President’s (serving as postmaster of Ishpeming) deeply disillusioned when T.R. split with chosen successor William Howard Taft over the latter’s conservatism, and as a teetotaler he was disturbed by unpublished scuttlebutt that the ex-President was an alcoholic.

Hearing the same rumor on the campaign trail, the candidate was determine to scotch the rumor the secret it made its way into print. Three days after the Upper Peninsula trip, Newett obliged, with an editorial that put the rumor out unmistakably: “Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way. He gets drunk, too, and that not infrequently, and all his intimate friends know it.”

Put yourself in the candidate’s shoes in 1912, late in an election you still believe you can win. Do you ignore some publication that nobody’s ever heard of outside its backwater of the Midwest—or do you take the rumor on now, even if it’s in the middle of a campaign, when your attention will be diverted and you risk giving credence to a rumor?

Roosevelt didn’t hesitate for a second. Shown Newett’s editorial while he was dining in a Chicago hotel, he was as good as his initial vow: “Let’s go at him,” he told associates. Two weeks after the editorial, before voters had gone to the polls, Roosevelt’s legal team filed suit against Newett.

Anatomy of a Rumor

In preposterousness, Newett’s claim might be surpassed in modern times only by the paternity suit filed against that raging heterosexual Boy George, or by Matt Drudge’s 2004 pseudo-e-scoop that John Kerry fooled around with a young intern. (Drudge might have thought better of the mental processes that produced his quickly retracted story—i.e., A Democrat + A Female Intern=Sex Scandal—by considering a powerful countervailing bit of evidence: Kerry’s wife Teresa, who surely would have pulled a Lorena Bobbitt if she had discovered her husband philandering.)

Over the course of TR’s life, I’ve been able to turn up only two instances when he became intoxicated, both of which occurred while he was a student at Harvard: at his initiation into the Porcellian Club (according to Gore Vidal, who, characteristically, calls Roosevelt a “sissy” but is unable to document any other drunken adventure other than this); and after the death of the father he worshipped, when, he wrote in his diary, he “got tight” after receiving the news. (The ashamed young man scratched out the diary entry, but David McCullough was able to decipher the passage while researching Mornings on Horseback.)

The youngest man ever to become President and the first President to complete a full term in the 20th century, T.R. seems, in the public eye, far more than his immediate successor, Taft and Woodrow Wilson, a quintessentially modern chief executive who was, in the marvelously apt phrase of historian Henry Adams, “pure act.”

That perception disguises how much Roosevelt was a product of the mid-Victorian era, in his attitude as much as in his age. He did not smoke (indeed, he was the first President to ban smoking, by executive order, in federal buildings, because he feared the loss of historical records by fire). While praising Leo Tolstoy as “an interesting and stimulating writer,” he also judged him “an exceedingly unsafe moral adviser.” While matching fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt in narcissism, T.R.’s never made him susceptible to attractive women.

In other words, this was a man who did not even come close to Newett’s description—and he had an entire railroad car of friends and associates who were willing to journey out to the middle of nowhere to testify on his behalf to this effect.

Given all of this, how on earth did a private investigator working for Newett’s defense team turn up 40 witnesses willing to swear they had seen Roosevelt intoxicated? “I was really unprepared for perjury on a gigantic scale, perjury scores of alleged witnesses,” Roosevelt wrote a friend.

Intoxication or Caffeination?

If political enmity played a role in these memories, as Colonel Roosevelt hinted, it might have been an instance not of inspiring a lie so much as in coloring perceptions of images that would have looked different to someone else. In an affidavit submitted at the trial, for instance, Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Battle of Manila Bay, wrote of his former civilian head at the Naval Department, that "all people at dinners, whether drink anything or not, are more or less excited. I have seen teetotalers very excited, and I have seen Mr. Roosevelt at dinners where he would be full of spirits, full of life and animation. All who knew him knew his peculiarities in this respect.”

What else might have contributed to this perception of TR as out of control? Henry Adams noted in his posthumous memoir that the President “had the reputation of being indiscreet beyond any other man of great importance in the world, except Kaiser Wilhelm and Joseph Chamberlain" (the latter British politician was the father of future appeaser Neville Chamberlain).

How could someone be so indiscreet and so impetuous? Mere acquaintances might have identified T.R.’s fault as alcohol, but I believe they missed a cause a thousand times more likely: caffeine.

Years ago, someone I knew in the business world was fond of proclaiming that he got all his ideas after he’d had coffee. What he never seemed to notice was the high percentage of these brainstorms that were insane.

Though TR’s hyperkinetic energy was usually ascribed to youth and physical fitness, I believe coffee had a lot to do with it. He loved the stuff. One of his most famous statements came when, after consuming a cup of a then-relatively-unknown brand called Maxwell’s at Andrew Jackson’s Nashville mansion, The Hermitage, he pronounced it “good to the last drop.” Anyone who drinks a gallon of coffee a day, as the President did, bids fair to becoming the most overstimulated person you’ll ever meet.

Crucial Rulings, Devastating Testimony—Then a Favorable Verdict

Perry Mason notwithstanding, lovers of courtroom drama are best advised to keep a sharp eye out for jury selection and rulings from the bench, rather than for shrewd cross-examination by legal eagles, as the best barometer to how a case will turn out.

So it proved here, with the Roosevelt legal team getting its wish for a jury comprised of workingmen (four miners, three teamsters, two farmers, one blacksmith, one locomotive foreman, and one lumberjack). Moreover, local trial judge Richard Flannigan ruled that Newett could not introduce statements from other newspapermen that it was generally reported that T.R. was frequently drunk.

That last point in particular is important. The anything-goes ethos of the Internet means that print journalists can now sneak out reports of candidates’ infidelities and other assorted peccadilloes as media stories (e.g., “Isn’t it awful how Reporter So-and-So says that Candidate X is a philanderer?”) rather than actual statements of fact (“Candidate X met with Prostitute Y for the umpteenth time in Washington”).

Were he alive today, Newett could simply have claimed the rumors existed and he was simply bringing them out into the open. In addition, one of the conditions imposed on plaintiffs by the Supreme Court in its landmark ruling New York Times v. Sullivan -- that they needed to prove that defendants knew their statements were false or in “reckless disregard of their truth or falsity”—would have made it immeasurably harder for Roosevelt to file his suit.

Things became quickly worse for Newett, starting with Roosevelt’s testimony. Once again, the President revealed his talent for the dramatic when, upon being asked by his attorney if he’d ever been wounded, the ex-Rough Rider rolled up his cuff, displaying an ugly gash on his forearm that he'd received in his famous charge up San Juan Hill (really Kettle Hill)—something that, uncharacteristically, the publicity-hungry politician had never divulged to the public. (“I wasn’t officially wounded,” he explained on the stand. “I never went to an aid station. Somebody wrapped a bandage around my arm and I went on.”)

The final straw was the collective parade of famous witnesses who testified that Roosevelt had never become intoxicated—former Cabinet members, ambassadors, judges, department heads, and newspaper owners. He stayed away from heavy beer and wine, stopping at the occasional glass of wine with meals, they agreed.

Once the ex-President’s legal team finished this devastating testimony, Newett took the stand and conceded that he could not prove the charges, for all of the witnesses he had relied on were unwilling to swear to their statements. He was now willing to admit he had made a mistake, with his only defense being that he had not written the editorial with malice.

The Roosevelt defense team desired $10,000 in damages, but he immediately requested Judge Flannigan to only award him nominal damages, as he had filed suit not to gain money but to disprove the rumors once and for all. Flannigan granted his wish, instructing the jury to award the plaintiff six cents—the price, it was noted, of a good newspaper. After the jury did so, the judge issued an unequivocal statement that the ex-President’s sobriety had been firmly established.

T.R. had fought many bruising battles with Irish Catholics who formed the base of the Tammany Hall political machine. But in Flannigan, an ex-Democrat who left that party because of William Jennings Bryan’s free-silver policies, Roosevelt surely found one to his liking.

Aside from the Midwest jurist’s favorable rulings during the five-day trial, his personal characteristics, as described by longtime associates nearly 15 years after the trial, would have appealed to the energetic, impetuous—but personally abstemious—master politico: “hard working, straightforward, blunt, yet intensely human.”

Quote of the Day (Blunden)

“Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay,
The lost intensities of hope and fear;In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,
On the thin breastwork flutter the grey rags,
The very books I read are there—and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags

Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Into green places here, that were my own…”—Edmund Blunden, ”1916 seen from 1921”

(Blunden, according to a
web site tribute, was “the longest serving First World War poet.” This British poet had a different experience of war from other soldiers because of his horrendous two years in the trenches, including a reconnaissance mission under constant shelling. But his vision of the “dull grief” that haunted him should be remembered by all on this day that, unfortunately in this country, has become an excuse for a beach weekend instead of solemn remembrance and honor for the fallen dead.)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

This Day in Labor History (UAW & GM Agree on 1st Cost-of-Living Wage Increases)

May 25, 1948—In a move that ended nearly two decades of labor-management warfare, the United Auto Workers (UAW) agreed on a contract with General Motors (GM), with the union gaining an "escalator clause" that increased wages in tandem with prices, while the automaker earned a longer period of labor peace.

The agreement helped inaugurate two decades after the war when Detroit ruled the world unchallenged as the king of automotive manufacturing. All the while, the car took ever more tenacious root in American culture—the car as status symbol, the car as phallic symbol, the car as vehicle of discovery, the car as badge of maturity. The age was summed up in the Bob Seger song "Making Thunderbirds," when, on the production line, the famous cars "were long and low and sleek and fast/They were all you ever heard."

Summed up this way, they seem like halcyon days. They weren't viewed that way at the time. To workers then, one set of problems had been solved—their right to negotiate, as embodied in the Wagner Act 13 years before—but a whole new set of uncertainties existed.

After 14 years of Democratic control, Capitol Hill had fallen to an unsympathetic new GOP leadership, which promptly passed the Taft-Hartley Act. Labor leaders were watching one method that Communists had used to seize power in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—seizing control of unions—and determined to drive them out of the leadership before the same thing could happen in the United States. And only the month before the pact, UAW President
Walter Reuther was shot right in his own apartment by a sniper with a 10-gauge shotgun, in an attack that not only almost severed his right arm but nearly ended his life.

Looming larger than these uncertainties, however, was inflation, which ignited when wartime price controls were lifted. Real wages couldn't keep up, and Americans' standard of living plummeted. Reuther and the rest of the UAW leadership decided to act promptly on behalf of the 65,000 GM workers they represented.

It was part of Reuther's announced policy upon assuming command of the union two years before, when he called for "a labor movement whose philosophy demands that it fight for the welfare of the public at large." Over the next decade—actually, until his death in a plane crash in 1970—Reuther pressed and won concession after concession with the Big Three automakers, including guaranteed annual incomes, annual productivity raises, cost of living allowances, health insurance, and corporate-guaranteed pensions, in addition to good wages—collectively, a form of business-based welfare capital for workers.

What made it all possible for so long were consumer demand, pent up by nearly two years of the Great Depression followed by WWII; the weakened state of not only Germany and Japan, but even wartime partner Great Britain, after peace was declared; and productivity increases. And the good times kept rolling on, seemingly never to end.

But the seeds of the auto industry’s catastrophic decline may have been sown in the agreement hailed at the town as a historic tradeoff. So, at any rate, argued David Halberstam in
The Fifties. Explaining why GM President Charles Wilson (later Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense) signed off on the escalation clause, the historian noted: “In effect it made the union a junior partner of the corporation, [and] reflected the absolute confidence of a bedrock conservative who saw the economic pie so large that he wanted to forgo his ideological instincts in order to start carving it up as quickly as possible."

Planned obsolescence became the norm in the U.S. auto industry. So long as the American consumer had no alternative, the Big Three reaped all the profits they could handle -- $35 billion from 1947 to 1969. Auto industry business practices were looked to as a model for other U.S. industries, and two Big Three heads—Charles Wilson and Robert MacNamara—were even named to head the Defense Department. Likewise, unions won for workers unprecedented gains, and this success led them to stop prospecting for new workers and industries and simply help those workers part of their fold.

Within less than a decade, it all came apart, with oil-price shocks and foreign competition cutting into profits. We know the rest of the story of the mutual blindness of management and labor—involving, in the case of both, an inability to see beyond the immediate future, a lack of vision that has reduced both to the status of past tense in the power sweepstakes.

Quote of the Day (Pope St. Leo the Great)

“The effect of our sharing in the body and blood of Christ is to change us into what we receive.”—Pope St. Leo the Great

Saturday, May 24, 2008

This Day in Religious History (John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience”)

May 24, 1738—John Wesley, back in London after quarrels with his Georgia congregation and unhappiness in love, uncertain about the meaning of his ministry, underwent a conversion experience on Aldersgate Street that propelled him to preach with the tongue of an angel the beliefs that came to be known as Methodism.

In 1999, I came across the story of Wesley’s Savannah mission while visiting his statue in Reynolds Square. (The photo accompanying this post, taken from the Web, comes from that site.)

I’m continually astonished that, despite the fact that it absorbs the attention of so many Americans, religious history is told less in the schools than just about any other subject. I do not exempt myself from this criticism. But, while in Savannah, I vowed to learn more about the co-founder (with brother Charles) of Methodism.

Aldersgate experience particularly fascinates me as a Roman Catholic. It starts out like something out of Dante’s The Divine Comedy—a believer lost “midway upon the journey of our life” —and ends like the Apostles’ overwhelming experience of God’s presence during Pentecost.

From his earliest days as a young cleric, Wesley demonstrated extraordinary intensity and an equal capacity for alienating others. As a fellow at Oxford’s Lincoln College in 1729, he and Charles, friend
George Whitefield, and others formed the “Holy Club.” 

The little band of clerical brothers went about the Lord’s work—fasting twice a week, visiting prisons, aiding the sick, and the like—but their strict, at times seemingly outlandish piety (Whitefield was witnessed kneeling in prayer with his face in the dirt, not even bothering to move when rain turned the ground beneath him to mud) led skeptical classmates to label them “Methodists.”

Tiring of the religious apathy surrounding him, the young Anglican divine thought that ministering to Native Americans in Georgia might be more in his line. Instead, the new colony’s founder,
Gen. James Oglethorpe, suggested he should serve the English-speaking settlers.

No matter how difficult it might have been to preach to Indians with a different language and culture, Wesley couldn’t have experienced less success than he did with his fellow English transplants. His service began in February 1736 and lasted a little less than two years.

“The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father,” according to Ezekiel 18:20—but sometimes, it seems, the son repeats the father’s mistake, as happened with Wesley. 

As a young curate assisting his father Samuel in England, he saw firsthand how a minister’s financial ineptitude and strictness could enrage a flock, to such a point that it was rumored that Samuel’s rectory had been set ablaze by an angry parishioner. In Georgia, John followed in his father’s footsteps, ticking off parishioners with by-the-book High Church strictures.

His first sermon, preached at Savannah’s Bull Street and Bay Lane, was “
On Love.” It began with characteristic bluntness: “There is great reason to fear that it will hereafter be said of most of you who are here present, that this scripture, as well as all those you have heard before, profited you nothing.” 

Still, his ultimate message about the passion for God was well within the bounds of what other ministers preached. But the title took on ironic meaning because of Wesley’s troubled relations with women.

Wesley, according to James Harrison Rigg’s
The Living Wesley, “could at no time in his life dispense with the exquisite and stimulating pleasure which he found in female society and correspondence.” In other words, whenever a pretty girl came into view, the brain stopped being his primary organ for thinking. Millions of guys, then as now, could relate. And let it be said immediately that Wesley never acted criminally or even immorally. Just really, really stupidly.

An infatuation at Oxford had already given Wesley a bad taste for women. In Savannah, his experiences led to the mother of all midlife crises, not to mention a lawsuit. (And there was no infestation of tort law back then!)

An 18-year-old girl, Sophy Hopkey, led him to ponder whether he should devote his life to God or chuck it all for marriage. While he was considering this dilemma, Sophy accepted the proposal of another suitor.

Unable to surmount his jealousy, the minister refused her communion on the pretext that she hadn’t registered for the rite. Few if any of his congregants bought that argument, least of all Sophy’s family, who filed a defamation suit. Not surprisingly, Wesley decided that "The hour has come for me to fly for my life, leaving this place."

Six months after leaving his Savannah church, Wesley was in London, taking solace in some German Moravian friends, whose simple piety had impressed him so enormously that he even translated some of their hymns. 

One of these friends, Peter Bohler, advised the heartsick 35-year-old: "Preach faith till you have it. And then because you have it, you will preach faith."

At dawn of the pivotal day in his life, Wesley found in 2 Peter 1 the following: “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye might be partakers of the divine nature." Nothing registered at first.

That evening, against his better judgment, he attended one of the Moravians’ meetings on Aldersgate Street. Around 8:45 pm, he recorded later in his diary, while a minister was preaching on Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans and “describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

All of a sudden, Wesley was a man transformed—preaching as many as 15 sermons a week, traveling on horseback thousands of miles a year, and knitting together (notably through the “
small-group” concept that has lately invigorated certain branches of American Protestantism) a trans-Atlantic network of believers. 

His stress on conservative moral teaching and progressive social advocacy (abolitionism, prison reform, child labor laws, medical care units, and shelters for battered women) reminds this Catholic of the duality of Pope John Paul II that confounded believer and non-believer alike through his papacy.

In a certain respect, Wesley’s conversion experience—slow, then sudden—contrasts with that of others in his movement, something that he noticed himself. In
The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quotes the minister as follows, not long before his death: 

“In London alone I found 652 members of our Society who were exceeding clear in their experience, and whose testimony I could see no reason to doubt. And every one of these (without a single exception) has declared that the change was wrought in a moment.”

Christian perfection” was a subject to which Wesley continually returned. Naturally, being human, this state was not something he could achieve or, at times, even reasonably approach. 

For all his enormous success through the remaining 50-plus years of his life, Wesley could not enjoy satisfactory relations with women.

A dozen years after his Savannah imbroglio, the minister became entangled with Grace Murray, who broke off their engagement and took up with one of his preachers when she became convinced that he didn’t really want her. 

Two years later, on the rebound, he made one of the great mistakes of his life and finally married Mary (Molly) Vazeille, a widow of a London merchant. The childless union ended after only a few years, with Wesley’s (perhaps sexist) biographers characterizing Molly as a hopeless harridan.

Quote of the Day (Crane)

“O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” –Hart Crane, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” in The Bridge (1930)

(On this date in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened. The landmark—created by John Roebling and completed, after 14 years, 20 deaths, and $9 million over its projected $6 million budget, by son Washington—transformed the life of the borough of Brooklyn and New York in general, giving the city an unforgettable diadem of its skyline. Only some time after the creation of his poem did Hart Crane realize its inspiration came to him in the very room in which Washington Roebling, by then paralyzed by “The Bends,” had supervised completion of the amazing suspension bridge.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

This Day in Colonial History (James Otis, Patriot “Flame of Fire,” Killed by Lightning)

May 23, 1783—James Otis, the lawyer who represented what fellow patriot John Adams called “a flame of fire” in the cause of American liberty, only to be struck down by madness when the struggle for American independence reached its climax, died in the same manner he had hoped for: by a lightning bolt.

The death of Otis was much like his life: unnerving, unexpected, violent, and tragic. A vicious coffeehouse brawl 14 years earlier had resulted in a blow to the head, ending, for all intents and purposes, his legal and political career. Except for all-too-short periods of lucidity, the rest of his life had been anticlimactic.

Even schoolchildren not taught to learn much history nowadays are still likely to have heard of (if not recall precisely) such patriots as Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine. It’s much less likely that they’ve heard of Otis. In fact, they might even know more about his younger sister, the brilliant woman of letters
Mercy Otis Warren.

Otis deserves better. Even before the Stamp Act, Otis had rallied opposition to arbitrary rule by England with a powerful 1761 speech that became one of the early landmarks of civil liberties in North America. As John C. Miller’s
Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda relates, Otis was known as the “American Hampden” and was more important than Sam Adams in the early days of colonial protest.

I first became aware of this fascinating, brilliant and often neglected patriot through the Esther Forbes novel
Johnny Tremain. (I was surprised to hear that this Newbery Award-winner from 1944 was still being read by youngsters—or at least by Bart Simpson, persuaded that it would be cool by sister Lisa.)

The scene with Otis is still the one that stands out most vividly in my memory, nearly 40 years after I read it. Late in the novel, just before the outbreak of war, young Johnny is meeting with the Patriot group the Observers when one of its founders, Otis, climbs into the attic.

You can just see the current members of the group rolling their eyes or looking away from their brilliant former colleague. Why couldn’t he just go away? Couldn’t he take a hint that they didn’t want him around? His indiscreet remarks might blow everything.

And now, the madman confounds them, just as he had once confounded Tories. You haven’t been bothered by crown, he says to each of the Observers in turn, until he identifies the cause they’re really fighting for—not the liberties of Bostonians, or even simply Americans, but of people everywhere. “We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills….we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.”

How much of this was true? From all appearances, Esther Forbes invented this dialogue.

But that fictional encounter with Otis had its counterparts in both his eloquent, five-hour, pro bono 1761 defense of 13 merchants who had run afoul of Britain’s Writs of Assistance and an appearance nine years later before his friends that led John Adams to lament, in his diary: "He talks so much and takes up so much of our time, and fills it with trash, obsceneness, profaneness, nonsense and distraction, that we have none left for rational amusements and inquiries...In short, I never saw such an object of admiration, reverence, contempt, and compassion, all at once, as this. I fear, I tremble, I mourn, for the man and his country; many others mourn over him, with tears in their eyes."

Otis' death allowed old comrades such as Adams to remember him at his brilliant best, as the orator who helped popularize the notion that "taxation without representation is tyranny."

Quote of the Day (Stewart)

“Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.”—Elwood P. Dowd (played by James Stewart) in Harvey (1950), written by Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney and Myles Connolly (uncredited), based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Chase
(Three days ago marked the centennial of the birth of James Stewart. One of the central roles in his extensive and much-honored filmography is gentle tippler Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric convinced that he has a white rabbit friend (“Six feet three and a half inches--now let's stick to the facts”) named Harvey. On stage and screen, Stewart made this treatment of genial noncomformity a classic, as he did with so much other material.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Quote of the Day (Morris)

“There is always a sneer in Las Vegas. The mountains around it sneer. The desert sneers. And arrogant in the middle of its wide valley, dominating those diligent sprawling suburbs, the downtown city sneers like anything.” – Jan Morris, Journeys (1984)
(I’m back from a business trip to the City of Neon, the metropolis built on the 4Fs—flash, flesh, fantasy, and the future. I’m instinctively mistrustful of any city so desirous to take my hard-earned money that they’ve even installed slot machines at the airport. More and more, I’ve come to believe that this deeply artificial city cannot sustain itself—not at a current population growth that will strain its weather supply. Rising gas prices and near-hopeless congestion on the Strip, may finally be forcing this ultimate automobile city—a place where I waited in line for a taxi one day this week, in 100-plus degree weather at 6 pm, for 35 minutes—to reassess its ways, though, as this story about—gasp!—
increasing bus ridership—makes clear. Maybe this will make the “sneer” that Morris noticed a little less pronounced—and save the city from itself.)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

No Posts for Several Days

I’m flying on a business trip today, so there will be no posts from today until Thursday the 22nd –and, as I handle the work piled up in my absence, posting is likely to be lighter for the next few days than it has been so far this year.

Quote of the Day (Kennedy)

“For Israel was not created in order to disappear - Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom; and no area of the world has ever had an overabundance of democracy and freedom.”—John F. Kennedy, Speech at the Zionists of America Convention, August 26, 1960
(Words still useful to remember as Israel continues to battle foes bent on its destruction, even as it celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding this week)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Quote of the Day (Voltaire)

“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” -- Voltaire

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This Day in Immigration History (Chinese Exclusion Upheld by Supreme Court)

May 15, 1893—In Fong Yue Ting v. United States, one of its worst rulings ever, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld by a 5-3 majority the constitutionality of the Geary Exclusion Act, which banned emigrants from China and persons of Chinese descent from moving to America.

Thomas Geary, a Democratic Congressman from California, had proposed the legislation the year before as a 10-year extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (The measure also denied bail to Chinese in habeas corpus cases.) At a stroke, roughly four-fifths of Chinese population in the United States were now at risk of deportation.

Then as now, economic distress fed resentments that immigrants were taking jobs from native-born Americans. Imported into the U.S. as cheap labor for railroad construction in the West, the Chinese soon ran afoul of labor unionists’ beliefs that they would be used as scabs.

Passage of the measure, however, provoked opposition at home and abroad. In the U.S., in one of the first acts of massive civil disobedience, thousands heeded the urging of the Chinese Six Companies to refuse to carry photo ID cards. In China, feelings against the act ran even higher, probably doubly so because the U.S. had insisted that its own citizens be allowed admittance into the country. Protestant missionaries, who had made numerous converts to Christianity while stationed in the country, feared for their safety in the tense atmosphere.

The first man forced out by the Geary Exclusion Act was Ming Lee Twe, who was deported on the steamship Rio de Janeiro three months after the Supreme Court ruling, with his fare paid by a $35 U.S. government voucher.

The legislation worked all too well. The Chinese population in California, which stood at 72,000 in 1890, dropped by more than half at the turn of the century. The demographic decline continued because Chinese women had also been banned.

The anti-Asian feeling did not abate at all as the twentieth century opened. The Exclusion Act was renewed in 1902, with Chinese immigration now being ruled illegal. Five years later, fearing retaliation against American citizens and needing a counterweight to Russian expansion in the Far East, President Theodore Roosevelt concluded a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Japanese government that excluded immigrants from that country. In return, at Roosevelt’s behest, the San Francisco board of education reversed its decision to place Japanese children in segregated schools

It took another President Roosevelt—Franklin—to allow Chinese to enter America again. In 1943, to keep China among the Allies in World War II, FDR finally reversed America’s 40-year exclusion of Chinese immigrants.

Quote of the Day (Murrow)

"Anyone who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation." –Edward R. Murrow
(The great CBS newsman was born 100 years ago this past April 25. How odd—and sad—that his centennial went largely unnoticed in the electronic media he did so much to enhance. And that is a “situation” I don’t understand.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Theater Review: “Sunday in the Park With George”

Nearly three months after seeing the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park With George in a preview, I’m not surprised by the news from the other day of the show’s nine Tony nominations. Surely it deserved all of them. The real question remains, however, the same one that has plagued it from its original 1984 production concerning French impressionist Georges Seurat and his (fictional) grandson: What on earth is that second act doing there?

That act should benefit from the familiarity of Sondheim and book writer James Lapine with the contemporary art world. In particular, Sondheim is not just, as a composer, sympathetic to the struggles of an artist (albeit one in a different medium), but from what I understand, he is friends with many artists. The satire of the modern art scene, with its gallery owners and patrons, is shrewd and sharp, but, unlike Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, affectionate.

And yet…The first act works better than the second. Our sympathies run deeper with Seurat than with his American grandson; the sacrifice of love for art is more poignant; the final victory of art, in the great Seurat painting
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (which now hangs, incidentally, in the Art Institute of Chicago) is more emphatic; and—let’s face it—the idea of a grandson artist for Seurat mirroring his struggles is not just fictional, but also just plain contrived. The second act came to be because Sondheim and Lapine needed an Act II—not because this one sprang organically from their Act I.

Too bad. The musical is, in many ways, Sondheim’s most personal, about the ruthless demands creators make on those closest to them—and on the ruthless demands their pursuit of artistic perfection makes on themselves. It includes some of the composer’s finest songs, including “Children and Art,” “Putting It Together,” the Act I finale “Sunday,” and my favorite, “Finishing the Hat,” Seurat’s moving soliloquoy on the love he has missed in life and on the measure of victory he’s gained in the process (“Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.”).

Unlike the John Doyle daring productions of Sondheim’s Company and Sweeney Todd, or even the Roundabout’s Follies, this musical, while playing to a sold-out audience of people like myself – i.e., Sondheim cultists—elicited respectful attention rather than rapture. This is hardly the most off-putting of Sondheim’s musicals (that distinction would probably belong to either Pacific Overtures or Assassins), so I tried to figure out why. It’s hard to work up love for a show in which Art, rather than Love, conquers all.

The other problems with the show are, in comparison with these, minor. The show has its share of broad, cheap shots, notably in Act I, which features a husband-and-wife “ugly Americans.” They’re not only fat, not only Southern, but Texan (even though there were few fortunes in the state in those pre-oil gusher days). The show’s producers should have resisted the urge to shoot for the cliché, no matter how well they knew their home audience’s need to feel superior to another part of the country.

In addition, Studio 54 does not seem like the best space for this show; it’s more suitable for Cabaret’s evocation of life on the edge in seedy between-wars Berlin, or even Follies’ depiction of a crumbling entertainment palace.

Director Sam Buntrock first worked on this production at the Meinier Chocolate Factory, then in the larger Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End, before taking it to the U.S.

Which brings me to my next question for the Roundabout: What gives with the British imports recently? (In this season, we’ve had this show, The 39 Steps, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.) No, I’m not for cultural protectionism – I want to see a good show as much as the next person, and don’t care where I see it. Still, there seems to be a kind of snobbery at work in all of this. Can’t American directors have the requisite vision for this kind of show? Don’t American actors enunciate their lines just as well as their cousins across the Atlantic?

By the same token, I have to say that Jenna Russell, with her cockney accent, sounds a bit jarring as a young French woman. It took awhile for the conceit to (sort of) work: her character, “Dot” (like the pointillist technique) may be French, but she’s also lower class, isolating her further from artist-lover Seurat.

I wish Jessica Molaskey, whom I’ve admired for the last few years while listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s weekend show on WNYC-FM, could have had a larger role, but at least it was literally at the center of the production—she’s the figure at the exact middle of the frame that Seurat composed. (Incidentally, little is known of the painter’s life, so the musical began with Sondheim and Lapine freely imagining him and the people who populated his influential landscape.)

Daniel Russell, reprising his Olivier Award-winning performance in the U.K., made a forceful impression as the obsessed Seurat – brilliant in his artistic vision, lost at communicating his love for another human being.

The post-show discussion was one of the most bizarre in my 10 years of watching these at the Roundabout, with the speakers twice interrupted by someone griping at the ushers’ alleged rudeness (which nobody but the loud person seemed to notice!). It’s too bad, because it distracted from one of the best-informed panelists in the series, a Star-Ledger theater critic and blogger named Peter Filichia. He noted, for instance, that the ’84 production (starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters) might have been saved because of producer Bernard Jacobs’ willingness to pay for all kinds of sprinklers below stage for the numerous props. (This production eliminates the problem; wondrous 3D projections, allowing experiments with animation, permit objects and people to be seen against very thin screens.)

Quote of the Day (Frank Sinatra, on 'The Last Voice You Hear')

“May you live to be 100 and may the last voice you hear be mine.” – A favorite toast of Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), quoted in Tony Bennett, "That Old Sinatra Magic," Vanity Fair, August 2009

Ten years to the day after his death, Sinatra’s wish might just come to pass. Seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history after the British Invasion and the rise of the youth culture in the ‘60s, the Chairman of the Board looms larger than ever as the most significant entertainer of the 20th century—the performer with the greatest impact on popular music, the movies, and the relationship between Hollywood and politics. 

Consider all this, along with his status as an Italian-American icon, his rumored friendships with Mafia figures, and his boundless acts of generosity, and then ask yourself: Can any biographer capture his total achievement or full complexity? I doubt it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Theater Review: “Take Me Along”

As I mentioned in a prior post, I have almost never been disappointed by any production of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre. Such was the case again when I attended a Sunday matinee in late March of their revival of the 1959 musical Take Me Along. (That particular production was taped for a Japanese documentary by someone associated with the show.)

This piece of Americana has never seemed at home on Broadway. The year it premiered, the show—starring Walter Pidgeon, Una Merkel, Jackie Gleason, and a very young Robert Morse—ran up against two other musical comedies that quickly turned into powerhouses: The Sound of Music and Gypsy. At the time, critics also carped that the cast member with true marquee value, Gleason, had had an essentially subsidiary role swollen to match his box-office appeal. Despite several Tony nominations, the show ran for only 448 performances. Twenty-six years later, the Broadway environment was still not propitious for the musical, which closed after only seven previews and one performance at the Martin Beck Theater.

The intimate nature of the The Irish Repertory Theatre lends itself far more to the show than a cavernous Broadway theater. I imagine that the musical required an entire orchestra when it premiered nearly a half century ago, but it got by very nicely this time with just three musicians, playing bass, banjo, guitar, and woodwinds. Perhaps Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly, the longtime creative forces behind the Irish Repertory, reduced the cast size somewhat, but it’s impossible to tell here.

Why was this show, with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell, playing at the Irish Repertory? The answer lies in its original source material: Ah, Wilderness!, the only comedy ever written by Eugene O’Neill.

Great tragedians, it appears, continually feel the need to take a break from their morose treatment of their obsessions. Tennessee Williams did so with Period of Adjustment; so did Ingmar Bergman, with his film Smiles of a Summer Night (the inspiration, of course, for Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music). Both titles could just as easily apply to O’Neill’s coming-of-age story.

An, Wilderness! (1933) represents O’Neill on a holiday—and as if to underscore the point, the play itself is set on the Fourth of July, in a place called “Centerville, Connecticut” (perhaps better thought of as Anytown, USA). From Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, we know all too much about his own troubled family not to notice the shadows hanging over this play—notably, the specters of substance abuse and guilt over illicit sex. For just this once, however, the playwright preferred to look back not in anger or sorrow but in wry amusement at the ways of youth and appreciation for the wisdom of the middle-aged.

The Miller family, the unit at the center of Ah, Wilderness! and Take Me Along, came to O’Neill “in a dream,” he remembered. Theirs is a sunny house, presided over by wise paterfamilias Nat, the editor of the town newspaper, and his sweetly understanding wife Essie. Richard, the middle brother of three sons, is a comic stand-in for the adolescent O’Neill, whose real-life initiation into sex and Nietzsche was far more tortured than the misadventures pictured here. This is, of course, O’Neill’s exercise in wish fulfillment, and given his myriad tragedies and miseries, who can deny him a laugh or two?

Set in 1906, Ah, Wilderness! corresponded with O’Neill’s adolescence. For Take Me Along, the date was moved back 14 years, for no discernible reason. Post-World War I America was a far more turbulent place than what was depicted here. (It is also glaringly incongruous for a play in which alcohol is featured so prominently to take place in a year when Prohibition was enforced more stringently than it ever would be again.) Probably like most of those in attendance, I simply ignored the implications of the musical’s dating and soaked up the sunny atmosphere.

And bright pastels set the tone of the otherwise comparatively minimally decorated set. The musical began with Centerville gathering for the dedication of a fire engine, and before long it celebrated the joys of a more innocent time, when people strolled around on a summer’s day with parasols, straw hats and white shoes. You half expected a barbershop quartet to appear at any time

O’Neill also has some sly fun with the mores of this pre-Freudian age, when sexual secrets, more likely than not, were mistakenly communicated. (Oscar Wilde was “guilty of bigamy,” Richard Miller is told by his older brother Art, who has reliably heard this at Yale.) It might be hard for jaded people such as ourselves to credit this, but despite the hormones of adolescence (raging as hotly then as now), begging for a kiss was about as far as a teenaged boy could get with the average girl then.

The comic style of O’Neill didn’t employ the snappy one-liners perfected by Neil Simon, nor does the Stein-Russell book here. Don’t expect the slapstick of a Feydeau bedroom farce, or a sophisticated drawing-room comedy. Rather, it’s, as O’Neill subtitled it, “a comedy of recollection” of an adult looking back on the way he was, marveling how he could have been so idealistic—or so naïve.

The major conflict Richard Miller faces is between the world of his books—Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam—and the reality of love. He thinks he’s all wised-up from reading his literary rebels, but doesn’t begin to understand what depravity really is until, after setbacks with the 15-year-old object of his eye, Emily, he ends up in “Pleasant Beach House,” a nearby whorehouse. But in this pre-Cabaret musical, even this isn’t as louche as it sounds—young Richard is not in any condition to do much of anything, and he’s not even particularly interested in the house of ill repute.

The darkest elements of the play relate to something O’Neill knew only too well—alcoholism. Essie’s brother Sid has breezed into the Millers’ home from Waterbury, where he’s lost his job on a local paper because of his drinking. Everybody’s hail-fellow-well-met, a softened version of traveling salesman Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, he announces that he’s been sober “for three weeks—or almost three weeks.”

In the role of Sid, it’s doubtful that Don Stephenson consumed anywhere near the amount of oxygen that Jackie Gleason appears to have done in the original show. But, with his rangy frame, he makes it very easy to see why people considered the character “a card” and smiled at his antics, even though it’s almost impossible for anyone to imagine that at this point this chronic ne’er-do-well can turn his life around.

Teddy Eck was amusing and William Parry endearing as the intellectual Richard and his father (so wise and kind that he would make Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver and Cliff Huxtable look like ogres).

But Beth Fowler was probably the most compelling cast member with her poignant turn as Lily, the middle-aged woman who broke off her romance with Sid years ago because of his drinking. Her voice was lovely and haunting, hovering on the thin love between disillusion and the desperate hope that maybe this time, things would be better between her and her old love. (Showing how much the passage of time can change people’s perception, a fellow audience member told me after the show, “I wanted to yell at her, ‘Run away—run away from him as fast as you can, and keep going!”)

For just this once, O’Neill allowed one of those “pipe dreams” his plays continually depicted as impossible as they were inevitable. Coming at the end of mid-century America, before Pax Americana fractured at home and abroad, the Stein-Russell-Merrill musical adaptation– and this Irish Repertory Theatre revival of it—captured all the charm of his sweet nostalgic dream.