Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This Day in Theater History (Shakespeare Play Lost in Fire?)

September 30, 1808—It was bad enough that during the morning, the Covent Garden Theatre in London was completely consumed by fire, or that 23 firemen lost their lives in the collapse of the building. But the blaze also destroyed an organ left by Handel, a stock of wine belonging to the Beefsteak Club—and, most important, in the library, a possible manuscript of William Shakespeare

Yes, you read that last clause correctly. Like much else about Shakespeare’s life, the documentary trail about Cardenio is slim and tantalizing: 

* John Heminges, a longtime friend of Shakespeare’s, in charge of the King’s Men troupe, presented six plays at court, including Cardenno (Shakespeare’s age were creative about spelling!) in May 1613. 

* That same year, Heminges presented Cardenna (there they go again with the spelling!) before the Duke of Savoy’s ambassador. 

* “The History of Cardenio, by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare,” was entered onto the Stationers’ Register by the London publisher Humphrey Moseley. No copies survive. 

* Lewis Theobald, a subsequent Shakespeare editor, published a tragicomedy called Double Falsehood, or, the Distrest Lovers. This, he told his audience, he had, “with great labour and pains, revised and adapted the same for the Stage.” 

How did this wondrous play end up in his hands? Let’s listen: “One of the MS. copies was above sixty years standing in the handwriting of Mr. Downes the famous old Prompter, and was early in the possession of Mr. Betterton, who designed to have ushered it into the world.” 

Do you believe that? A lot of people haven’t over the years. I mean, if he had a play by Shakespeare, of all people, why the need to “revise and adapt” it in the first place? 

We already know about the terrible Covent Garden fire. But there’s an unusual postscript to all this. 

In the 1990s, the internationally famous handwriting expert Charles Hamilton came upon an untitled, anonymous manuscript in the British Museum Library and subsequently wrote a book claiming that it was the lost Cardenio and that it was, in fact, in Shakespeare’s handwriting

Now, here’s the interesting thing (to me, anyway) about this play. I always thought it was one of those fascinating coincidences that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date (April 23, 1616, if you want to know), but it seems that they had something else in common. 

Most people know that Shakespeare borrowed (or, to use Mr. Theobald’s word, “adapted”) much older plays for his own purposes. But Cardenio came from an episode in Don Quixote involving two characters named Cardenio and Lucinda. 

Now this was quite a feat, because Don Quixote had only just been translated into English. Ol’ Bill was wasting no time jumping on a good story! 

 A little more about Cardenio: How much of it was attributed to Shakespeare is very much up for grabs.

The last play generally believed to be entirely written by Shakespeare was The Tempest, in 1611. After that, the man from Stratford scaled back his association with London’s theater world. 

Following The Tempest, Shakespeare’s name was paired up with John Fletcher on three other plays: Cardenio, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Henry VIII. Some scholars believe that Fletcher patched these together from some loose scenarios concocted by Shakespeare. 

How appropriate that Cardenio should meet its fate by fire. Even during his lifetime, The Bard almost saw his legacy destroyed in a conflagration that utterly destroyed the Globe Theatre in July 1613.

Fortunately, some of the proudest possessions of the theater—including costumes and its playscripts for Shakespeare—were salvaged. Would that Cardenio had met a similar fate.

Quote of the Day (“Tea and Sympathy”)

“Years from now when you talk about this - and you will - be kind.”—Laura Reynolds (played by Deborah Kerr), to Tom Robinson Lee (played by John Kerr), in Tea and Sympathy, written by Robert Anderson

(Premiering on this date on Broadway in 1953, this drama broke down taboos of the day in its consideration of homophobia. Tom, a sensitive teenager, gets bullied by schoolmates—as well as the housemaster of his boarding school—for his interest in classical music, poetry and folk songs—all regarded in the mores of the time as “sissy” pursuits. In an attempt to prove them wrong, Tom visits a brothel, only to flee in revulsion from the tawdry environment. Part of the problem is that he is in love with the housemaster’s wife, Laura. The famous denouement of the play—the line above—features what would today be, to say the least, an eyebrow-raiser: an older woman making love to a teenage boy, albeit in a tender attempt to show that he can, in fact, love a woman.

Due to Hollywood censors, the subsequent film—also featuring Kerr and Kerr—no relation, incidentally—comes off as unintentionally camp, particularly in its tacked-on ending. Those compromises must have particularly galled film director Vincente Minnelli, who carefully hid his homosexuality from the public—including through a marriage to Judy Garland. Anyone wanting to understand the value of this consideration of sexual mores is best advised to read or see the play itself.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Shea, Hey! Never Can Say Goodbye

“Shea was modern when it opened. I was in architecture school at the time, and I thought this was a harbinger of the future. For New Yorkers used to ballparks where you couldn’t see the whole field, with their obstructed views, this was a revelation. People marveled at it.”—Architecture critic John Pastier, quoted in Richard Sandomir, “Stadium’s Appeal Lay in Futuristic Functionality,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008

“I had a lot of trouble in Shea at first. I was used to the lower stands in the minor leagues and had trouble seeing the ball here. But Eddie Yost took a fungo bat and hit the ball at me from 150 feet, and I finally figured out some things.” Former Met outfielder (and 1969 World Series hero) Ron Swoboda, quoted in George Vecsey, “Sliding Catch in ’69 Series Left Swoboda’s Mark on Shea,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008

(One of my readers has reminded me of what I’d temporarily forgotten in the crush of events, not to mention posts: my intention to pay tribute not just to Yankee Stadium, but Shea. Longtime readers know of my astonishment at how Yankee Stadium was built, including such golden moments as Babe Ruth’s last appearance at the stadium whose future he so heavily influenced. Yet I have also noted the boosterism that brought National League baseball back to New York after the departures of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.

To Shea fans sorrowing over the way the team lost its chance at the postseason, take it from a fan who knows: baseball isn’t baseball if it doesn’t break your heart every once in awhile. Your team will be back, I’m sure—even if it’s at Citi Field instead of the stadium you came to love

Quote of the Day (Masaryk)

"If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help your souls!"-- Jan Masaryk, Czech ambassador to London, warning Great Britain and France about giving up a portion of his country, the Sudetenland, to appease Adolf Hitler

(At the Munich Conference, Europe took a decisive turn toward another convulsive conflict only two decades removed from its last one—and the word “appeasement” took on a far more pejorative connotation. Great Britain and France acquiesced in the dismemberment of the young republic of Czechoslovakia. It was not just the transfer of the this region of German ethnic groups to the Nazi regime, but, in a last minute upping of the ante, a full military occupation and expulsion of all non-Germans living there. But Neville Chamberlain was willing to let it go because the small republic was, as he put it shamefully and condescendingly, “a small, far-away place about which we know nothing.”

The British Prime Minister would learn much more about it soon, as Hitler, unsatisfied with what he had gotten through bullying, decided to seize the rest of the country in 1939. The move also unmanned, at a stroke, a quiet but noticeable revolt that had been brewing among the German upper military brass, who thought that their country was unprepared for a war with Britain, France and, possibly, Germany.

The deal to cede the Sudetenland to full Nazi occupation was made on this date in 1938, then signed the next day. Winston Churchill correctly called it “a total, unmitigated defeat.” Less than a year later, the war that the snobbish—but also naïve and sincerely idealistic—Chamberlain had sought to avert broke out anyway.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

This Day in Religious History (Karol Wojtyla, Future Pope, Becomes Bishop)

September 28, 2008—Karol Wojtyla was consecrated titular bishop of Ombi by Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Krakow. A little more than 20 years later, he would be elected Pope John Paul II, entering the second stage of his high-stakes battle against the Communist regime that had originally backed his ascension into the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

In its nearly half-century of conflict with the Iron Curtain, perhaps nothing helped the West so much as the magnificent obtuseness of Communist regimes. Particularly catastrophic was the Polish Communist Party’s view of the 38-year-old Wojtyla as a potentially more malleable alternative to the nation’s Primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. How could the wrong be not only so wrong, but so badly wrong?

Let’s try to penetrate the thick ideological mindset of Poland’s totalitarian rulers—something many of us can accomplish, ironically enough, by virtue of organizational psychology involving a different kind of leviathan—capitalism. In this type of massive environment, what you want, above all, is the exact opposite of a leader who’s given you grief.

In Poland, that hives-producing leader was Cardinal Wyszynski. Once finished aiding the Polish underground in WWII, he didn’t stop resisting totalitarianism just because its replacement was Marxist. Between 1953 and 1956, the cardinal would be placed under restricted house arrest, moved a total of three times.

As soon as the anti-Stalinist first secretary of the Polish Communist Party let him out, the church leader began to agitate as loudly as before. I’m afraid the cardinal turned more than a few functionaries in the officially atheistic regime into God-fearing men—not because he tried to convert them, mind you, but because they began to offer prayers to God that they wouldn’t have to deal with this ecclesiastical nuisance ever again. You know—the eternal cry of rulers dating back at least to Britain’s King Henry II on Archbishop Thomas Becket: “Will someone rid me of this troublesome priest?”

How on earth did the UB (the Polish secret police) come to see young Wojtyla as the anti- Wyszynski? Their own secret archives, brought to light after the fall of the regime, help us out here. Having survived meager diets in unheated rooms for three years, Wyszynski was in no mood to brook interference with his proud old nationalist church from this upstart Soviet puppet.

For its part, the regime that proclaimed its love of the proletariat 24/7 took a—well, snobby— attitude about the humble origins of this church leader. And the condescension practically drips from the typewriter of the UB functionary who noted the cardinal’s “shallow, emotional and devotional” Catholicism.

And Wojtyla? After constant surveillance, they saw him as a poet, playwright, cloistered intellectual who taught ethics, for heaven’s (oops, better drop that word, comrade!) sake. Even his work as a youth minister sounded a bit leftist. They could work with him.

If the UB made its feelings known, this might have put the cardinal’s back up, because Wojtyla only placed seventh on Wyszynski’s list for the ecclesiastical vacancy. Somehow, however, he made it to the top of the list eventually.

Nearly 10 years later, the Communists had become far more cautious in their assessment of Wojtyla, now made a cardinal himself by Pope Paul VI: “He deftly reconciles-- unlike Wyszynski--traditional popular religiosity with intellectual Catholicism...he has not, so far, engaged in open anti-state activity. It seems that politics are his weaker suit; he is over-intellectualized...He lacks organizing and leadership qualities, and this is his weakness in the rivalry with Wyszynski."

They might have spared themselves some trouble had they read carefully his 1953 Catholic School Ethics (1953), which anticipated methods of nonviolence protest used by Martin Luther King Jr. three years later in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. In the nine-year-interim between his initial appointment and his cardinal’s hat, Wojtyla had also inspired many of the intellectuals that would form the core of the Solidarity movement and secretly ordained priests who served elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain.

Above all, Wojtyla was a Polish patriot who knew just how far to rally churchgoers without provoking a crackdown from the regime. Unlike the blunt Wyszynski, he preferred to go behind the scenes, confident in his own presence and self-confidence—honed as a young actor—to carry the day in one-on-one encounters.

For instance, when the regime requisitioned the church’s seminary building, he went to the Communist Party committee room to make his case in person. In the end, the state agreed only to use the fourth floor of the building.

Above all, Wojtyla never stopped trying. Shortly after his appointment in 1958, he pressed the government to allow the building of a church in Nova Huta, a brand new town built just outside Krakow that was meant to be a workers’ paradise—and, of course, without a church. Only the people wanted it.

Wojtyla’s campaign for the church, while never resorting to calls for violence, was relentless. He would give sermons in the open field on the site in all kinds of weather; file and refile building permits, even if rejected; celebrate Christmas mass on the site; and, when demonstrators jeered out with Communist flunky for his pusillanimous role in denying the permit, Wojtyla intervened before things got out of hand. Finally, 19 years after his consecration as bishop—one year before he was elevated to pope—Wojtyla consecrated the new church at Nowa Huta.

Before long, even Wyszynski had come to recognize the young bishop’s talent, and treated him as a valued protégée. Two decades and a month after his initial appointment, Wojtyla was told by the now-elderly Wyszynski during the deadlocked deliberations to elect a new pope that if the position were offered him, he should accept. Wojtyla did so, becoming John Paul II.

For the little-known story of Wojtyla’s rise in the church, I’d recommend the late Jonathan Kwitny’s Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II. It also counters the mythology of Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi’s His Holiness and Peter Schweizer’s Victory that attributes the fall of Communism to the “Holy Alliance” between Ronald Reagan and the Pope (with Margaret Thatcher added more recently by National Review's John O'Sullivan). On the contrary, Kwitny argues persuasively, that claim detracts from the people who deserve credit the most—the pope and the Poles themselves.

A PBS documentary from a few years ago took issue with some particulars in Kwitny’s case for the pontiff without, I believe, undermining, in any fundamental sense, his central argument—that John Paul II, no matter the manifest weaknesses in his record (notably, a crackdown on church dissenters, lack of concern for finances, and disregard over anguish over priestly celibacy), remains one of the 20th century’s great apostles of nonviolence and freedom.

Quote of the Day (St. Therese of Lisieux)

"You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love at which we do them."—St. Therese of Lisieux

(The Feast Day of “The Little Flower” is on October 1.)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

This Day in Theater History (“Hair” Opens in Censor-Free London)

September 27, 1968—In the West End, the London theater world celebrated its new artistic freedom from state censorship with the opening of an import from America: the musical Hair.

For some viewers of a certain cynical cast of mind, the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”, with its invocation of “The Age of Aquarius,” is likely to seem dated (the clothes, and the hair, of course!), premature (the younger generation did not, of course, inaugurate a new era of peace and understanding, anymore than similarly idealistic generations have done over the centuries), or misguided (sexual revolution and experimentation with mind-altering substances came with some costs, such as AIDS and drug addiction).

Ultimately, however, the musical genre lives and dies by one factor—songs—and 40 years after it stormed the Broadway and London stages, Hair’s (lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, music by Galt McDermot) numbers endure. Amazingly, even when torn from their original stage context, several became Top 40 hits: “The Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” by the Fifth Dimension; “Good Morning Starshine,” by Oliver; and “Easy to be Hard,” by Three Dog Night. (The latter even wins the appreciation of prolific critic-blogger Terry Teachout, who otherwise possesses, at best, mixed feelings about the show.)

(By the way, speaking of the Fifth Dimension medley: Last year, the band—or what remained of it—performed it on a PBS fundraiser. The sight of baby boomers jumping up clapping and rocking made me seriously consider that there out to be a law against middle-aged, out-of-shape people dancing.)

The show appeared in London only one day after the crumbling of a symbolic wall of Jericho: approval by the Lord Chamberlain. Imbroglios of the twentieth century involving this supervision more often than not involved sex, but when state censorship was imposed in 1737, the eye of the state was far more focused on political criticism than carnal depictions.

Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who stayed in office for a record two decades by virtue of massive bribery, had grown tired of being ridiculed left and right on the London stage. Bad enough when John Gay sent him up in The Beggars’ Opera; now, nearly a decade later, Henry Fielding (a judge who would become famous for the novel Tom Jones) began nipping at his heels. Enough was enough, decided Walpole, how in 1737 pushed through the Licensing Act, which made the Lord Chamberlain the arbiter of theater taste—and effectively drove Fielding off the stage.

By the late 1950s, the censor's reason for being was being questioned. Within the next few years, the Lord Chamberlain’s office would be working harder–and taking more critical brickbats—than it ever imagined. Some playwrights produced sly end-arounds, such as Joe Orton, whose Entertaining Mr. Sloane, with its intimations of homosexuality, bisexuality, loose housewives, and murder, gave the office fits. Within a few years came the deluge:

* A Patriot for Me (1966), by John Osborne, featured a drag ball.
* Saved (1965), by Edward Bond, included a scene of a baby being stoned in a pram.
* Early Morning (April 1968), again by Bond (what was with this guy, anyway?) contained a (fictitious) lesbian love scene between Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria.

By this time, The Lord Chamberlain was ready to throw in the towel, as a new Theatre Act went into effect on September 26, 1968—just in time for Hair, with its much-hyped nudity, to come over from America. (This, of course, was before London began to export musicals—including those by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber—to the nation that invented the musical comedy genre.)

For an interesting interview on the creation of Hair and its reception in the U.S. prior to its London premiere, I invite you to listen to Leonard Lopate’s WNYC-FM interview with Galt McDermot.

Movie Quote of the Day (Paul Newman)

Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman): “Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool."

Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason): “So do you, Fast Eddie.”
--From The Hustler (1961), written by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen, directed by Robert Rossen

(Rumors that he was seriously ill and photos demonstrating it had been circulating for awhile. Still, when the news came that Paul Newman had died, I felt the same way I had when hearing that his contemporary Jack Lemmon had passed away several years ago—disbelief that an actor who had been part of my moviegoing life would no longer be around.

He had been acting on stage, TV and film for several years by the time
The Hustler came along—and, if you’d like an idea of what he was like then in the early-to-mid-1950s, you might want to go to the Paley Center for Media to see his performance as pitcher Henry Wiggens in the 1956 “U.S. Steel Hour” adaptation of the Mark Harris baseball novel Bang the Drum Slowly.

He earned his first Academy Award nomination for
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. But for me, the role that would begin to define his legacy in a serious way was the morally compromised antihero “Fast Eddie” Felsen in The Hustler. A quarter of a century later, he would reprise the role in the sequel The Color of Money, finally earning the Oscar he should have won a long time before.

A few other points about Newman:

* When it came time to adapt the Ross Macdonald mystery novel
The Moving Target, Newman had come to believe after The Hustler and his next Oscar-nominated movie, Hud, that the later “H” was his lucky letter, so he requested that his private eye be renamed Harper. The subsequent 1966 film was released under that name.
* Nothing like a loving husband to help his wife to a great role: Newman directed and produced a great vehicle for spouse Joanne Woodward—one that netted her an Oscar nomination—in
Rachel, Rachel.
* His “Newman’s Own” line of salad dressings, launched with the help of Ernest Hemingway biographer A.E. Hotchner, earned approximately $200 million in profits, with the proceeds going to charities, including the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp that the two men created for seriously ill children in 1988.
* The man whose blue eyes led women swoon for 50 years was color blind.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

This Day in Rock History (The Raspberries Play Carnegie Hall)

September 26, 1973—In perhaps the highlight of their career—a moment that would pass all too quickly—the quintessential Seventies power pop group The Raspberries made their New York City debut at Carnegie Hall.

Ah, The Raspberries! They have been the subjects of one of those before-and-after arguments that periodically divide devotees of Seventies rock ‘n’ roll like myself. 

Specifically, was Eric Carmen better as a solo artist (“All by Myself,” “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”) sometimes given over to emotional weepies, or as part of the tougher Raspberries, where his bandmates could keep his lyrical side in check? 

(Similar battles have raged over whether Grand Funk Railroad was better before or after producer Jimmy Ienner, or whether Bruce Springsteen’s best work came before or after Darkness on the Edge of Town.)

I came of musical age during Carmen’s solo career, but after repeated listening to his work over the years, I’m now more inclined to lean toward his output with this quartet that never really got its due until it was too late.

The group from Cleveland had waited several years for its big New York show, and had been bitterly disappointed when a 1972 backup tour gig with the Hollies had fallen through.

Now Eric Carmen, Wally Bryson, Jim Bonfanti, and Dave Smalley made the most of the opportunity in front of a standing-room only crowd.

You want to know what makes me chuckle about this show? The boys started with some chords from The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” before ripping into their high-energy hymn to teenage lust, “I Wanna Be With You.”

What made that move so unusual was that a number of critics had taken them to task for what was seen as overly heavy indebtedness to the Fab Four, a perception undoubtedly enhanced in their early days by management’s decision to put them in matching outfits, just like the Liverpool moptops. (See what I mean in the photo accompanying this post.)

This time, in the same performance venue that had launched The Beatles’ invasion of America in earnest in February 1964, Carmen and Co. were, in effect, giving the finger to the critical powers that be by invoking the memory of the British musicians that had transformed their lives.

It didn’t matter—their fans loved it, as hit after hit from their first three albums came from the group, including “Go All the Way,” “Let’s Pretend,” and “Ecstasy.”

It all ended so soon afterward. Smalley and Bonfanti left the group by the end of the year. Though the LP that Carmen and Bryson made with two replacements, Starting Over, won critical acclaim (particularly for what might have been the group’s production masterpiece, “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record”), the sales just weren’t there, and it all ended up messily in a parking lot brawl. 

From then on “it was Ricky and the Tooth,” Carmen noted in “No Hard Feelings” (“The Tooth” being producer Ienner, who went on to make Carmen’s first solo album).

Among rock ‘n’ roll musicians, Carmen might have the greatest affinity for my literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, as witnessed by the fact that two of his song titles were inspired by The Great Gatsby author: “Winter Dreams” and “Boats Against the Current.” 

It is ironic, then, that in the last five years, Carmen’s career disproved Fitzgerald’s observation that “There are no second acts in American lives.”

In 2005, after 30 years of going solo, Carmen reunited with Bryson, Bonfanti and Smalley in what was originally supposed to be a one-shot gig at Cleveland’s House of Blues but that soon ended up creating a small concert tour. 

The affection that had belatedly welled up for the group over the years was best illustrated by one of their greatest admirers, Bruce Springsteen, who referred to these fine musicians three different times in his summer 2005 concert tour.

Quote of the Day (John O’Hara, on George Gershwin)

''George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.''—Novelist John O’Hara, in Newsweek, on July 15, 1940

This, from one of my favorite writers, is my favorite quotation about my favorite composer. Gershwin’s life ended prematurely, before age 40, through his death by a brain tumor.

But today, rather than memorialize him, as O’Hara did, I prefer to celebrate his accomplishments and his life, which began on this date in 1898.

Do I really have to list all the imperishable songs he wrote with lyricist brother Ira—“Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay”? (The last was the final song he completed before his death.)

Do I really have to mention the orchestral music such as Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and others that broke down the barriers between jazz and classical music?

Do I really need to say that his daring Porgy and Bess has outlived the carping of Virgil Thomson and other detractors and has entered the repertory of major American city opera companies?

I have an additional reason for my interest in Gershwin. As I observed last month, he stayed on the same floor of the same inn at the Chautauqua Institution that I did while there.

As my vacation at Chautauqua drew to a close, I knew I had one more bit of unfinished business. That last Friday, I had to check out the practice shack where Gershwin composed Concerto in F. An employee in the Music Department at Chautauqua was good enough to satisfy my curiosity and lead me over to what amounts to not much more than a hut. 

Except for the inscription outside (see the photo I took accompanying this post), there’s not much there except for the piano—and I’m not even sure that was Gershwin’s original.

Maybe it wasn’t the kind of swanky apartment where the convivial composer lived to play for listeners, but it was the type where he labored hard at his craft to produce one magnificent piece after another in his short but unbelievably accomplished life—one achieved by a kid from the city streets of New York, filled with joie de vivre and glorying in the cultural possibilities presented by our polyglot American culture.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Quotes of the Day (Ferguson and Allen, on Crises Past, Present and Eternal)

“The Great Repression is upon us. On one side can be seen the chain reaction of deleveraging as banks, other companies and households all battle to stabilise balance sheets that became much too highly geared in the days of easy money; as the resulting credit contraction and forced asset sales create a vicious downward spiral; as the slowdown spreads to Main Street and from Main Street to the world. On the other side are the Fed and the Treasury, desperately manning the monetary and fiscal pumps while trying to decide who is too big to fail and who is not.”—Niall Ferguson, “A Long Shadow,” Financial Times, September 22, 2008

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”—Woody Allen, “My Speech to the Graduates,” Side Effects (1980)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This Day in Television History (“60 Minutes” Premieres)

September 24, 1968—TV news took another step forward with 60 Minutes, CBS’ answer to the newsmagazine format. Creator Don Hewitt saw it as a vehicle for exploring, in greater depth, topics that would not fit into the tight two minutes allotted for CBS Evening News but would not require the full hour devoted to a documentary. (Nowadays, of course, he could forget about the latter.)

The program began with Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner as the on-air correspondents, to be joined over the years by, at one point or another, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, Steve Croft, Bob Simon, Lara Logan, and God knows who else. (The number of part-time contributors has grown, making for, I’m sure, quite a lot of competitive yelping for air time.)

Hewitt’s advice to his correspondents—and, I might add, to the unseen producers who, like so much else in TV, are the real movers of the show—was consistent for as long as he ran the show: “Tell me a story.” That might be reflected in a sidelight piece on a major news story, a celebrity profile (a more sophisticated version of the Person to Person show that even the sainted Edward R. Murrow once aired), but more often on the hard-hitting investigative pieces run by the show over the years. In this regard, no on-air figure imparted his personality more powerfully to the show than Wallace, whose bulldog interrogation technique is one that prosecutors probably study enviously.

Over the course of 40 years, 60 Minutes' record has been mixed. It can certainly point to major successes that made a difference in the lives of people, such as searing pieces on Lenell Geter and the Duke University lacrosse players. Most ignominiously, it bowed to pressure from sponsors and legal eagles when it sat on Jeffrey Wigand’s explosive charges against the tobacco industry.

More generally, the show’s techniques—including the use of false identities, sting operations staged for the camera, surprising a subject on camera and chasing him around, and highly selective editing—have come in for well-justified criticism. My own favorites among the show’s segments, then, include the following, all of which, while personality pieces, still manage to convey something about the subjects:

* Clint Eastwood, suddenly dropping his amiable personality and fixing Croft with his best Dirty Harry death stare when the correspondent referred to the actor-director’s seven children by five different women, at least single at the time;
* Helen Mirren, talking about her reputation for nude roles in Britain – and playfully suggesting to Safer that they do their interview in the buff, too.
* William F. Buckley Jr., when asked in an interview in the early 1980s about his penchant for big words, responding: “What is wrong with exploring the fecundity of the English language?”
* Johnny Carson, who told Wallace that he wanted his epitaph to read, “I’ll be right back.”

Quote of the Day (Douglass, on the Nature of Laws and Events)

"It is our lot to live among a people whose laws, traditions, and prejudices have been against us for centuries, and from these they are not yet free. To assume that they are free from these evils simply because they have changed their laws is to assume what is utterly unreasonable and contrary to facts. Large bodies move slowly. Individuals may be converted on the instant and change their whole course of life. Nations never. Time and events are required for the conversion of nations." – Frederick Douglass, address at the National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville, Kentucky, September 24, 1883

(Douglass’ address was a prescient warning about the erosion of African-American rights in the post-Reconstruction era, particularly as it related to the Supreme Court. His address remains, to this day, remarkably insightful and sober about the need to change a culture and attitudes as much as laws. To be effective, one transformation cannot successfully take hold without the others.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

This Day in Baseball History (“Bonehead” Merkle Becomes Giant Scapegoat)

September 23, 1908—In one of the most contentious plays in the history of the national pastime, 19-year-old New York Giant Fred Merkle failed to touch second base before he left the field, expecting, as custom had it in those days, that the game was over. Instead, after mulling it over in a hotel room later that night, the umpire ruled that he had been tagged out by the Chicago Cubs’ Frank Chance.

The ruling nullified the run, leaving the contest all knotted up. In a subsequent playoff game the Cubs won, on their way to their last World Series—and Merkle would end up earning the nickname “Bonehead” for the rest of his playing days.

Bad luck hounded him, it seemed. Eventually, Merkle would make it to five World Series, as player or coach, but not one would he win. Even the one that looked, in retrospect like a sure thing—his stint as a coach with the 1926 New York Yankees—ended up as a loss.

Merkle was one of the first—but hardly the last—baseball players who could be likened to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in suffering from cruel fate. The following were also cursed, by their own fans as much as misfortune: Ralph Branca, Mark Littell, Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, and, in a particularly tragic case, California Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, who committed suicide three years after failing to gain the third strike that would have given his team the victory over the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 AL Championship Series.

For more details on the Merkle game and its denouement, I recommend the article in today’s New York Times by Kevin Baker (like yours truly, a Columbia College alum and Bergen County, N.J. product) or a social history I’ve already recommended in these pages, Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08.

Song Lyric of the Day (Springsteen)

“For the ones who have a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive…”—Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

(Happy birthday to The Boss, for giving us more than 30 days of performances that made listeners like myself glad we were alive to experience them!)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Quote of the Day (Billy Crystal, on “My Worst Bomb”)

“I was playing a place in Pennsylvania, back when The Exorcist was the hot movie. I’d put together a very funny thing, and when I exorcised the demon, it turned out to be Nixon. This thing was scorchingly funny for colleges, but with this audience, it’s just not hitting at all. And I looked out, and the first six or eight tables were all nuns. Afterward I hit my head lightly against the wall and said, ‘Check the crowd first. Check the crowd first.’”—Billy Crystal, quoted in “The Funny Business," in Rolling Stone, September 18, 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Great Pop Cover on YouTube

Every once in awhile, I get the urge to check out YouTube for videos by some of my favorite musicians. Over time, I’ve come across some real gems—a Todd Rundgren bossa-nova-inflected version of “I Saw the Light” premiered on Conan O’Brien, for instance, a Raspberries live montage from 2005, or Bruce Springsteen’s magnificent extended version of “Prove It All Night” in his 1978 appearance at New Jersey’s Capitol Theater.

Over the weekend, I came across another. I had just finished eyeing a column of Hall and Oates videos—most of which I’d seen before—when I noticed a cover version of their “Kiss on My List,” a huge favorite of mine, performed live at the Losers Lounge. Curious, I clicked, and was rewarded, as you will be, too—even with repeated viewings, as I’ve already done within the space of 24 hours.

The band covering "Kiss on My List" here is called The Kustard Kings, and it’s fronted by David Terhune. I had never heard of them before, but hope to hunt down their stuff—and maybe even see them—at some point in the future.

Here’s their version, and I’m absolutely sure you’ll agree with me that seldom has there been a pop classic redone with so much skill, panache, and sheer, absolute joy.

Goodbye to All That: A Tribute to Yankee Stadium

“You know, I played in a World Series, won a World Series, with the Mets. I was a veteran player by the time I became a Yankee, but the first time I put the pinstripes on and walked out of the dugout and up on the playing field—and I had been there before, but when I walked out and I was a Yankee, had the pinstripes—man, that was special. I felt the little short hairs on my neck go up, and I went: ‘Wow.’ I wasn’t prepared to be awed, but I was.”—Ron Swoboda (Mets, 1965-70; Yankees, 1971-73), quoted in Rob Trucks, “They Played in Both,” The Village Voice, September 17-23, 2008

(Somehow, it seems appropriate that the last game in the stadium would be played on a Sunday—they don’t call it “The Cathedral of Sports” for nothing. Me, I’m hoping for an Andy Pettitte win, a Mariano Rivera save, and a Derek Jeter walkoff homer—but this season, like life, has had a funny way of working out. In any case, I’m grateful for 85 years of memories.

For my loyal Mets fans, for the sake of equal time, I’ll try to supply an equivalent tribute for you next week, on the occasion of your team’s regular-season finale at home

Quote of the Day (de Sales)

“We must never undervalue any person. The workman loves not that his work should be despised in his presence. Now God is present everywhere, and every person is His work.”—St. Francis de Sales

Saturday, September 20, 2008

This Day in Film History (Birth of Sidney Olcott, Silent Film Pioneer)

September 20, 1873—Sidney Olcott, a pioneer of filmmaking in both the United States and Ireland, was born in Toronto, Canada, on this date.

Olcott made his mark in film in several ways. First, as the first director of Kalem Studios in 1907, he chose to film one of the great stage extravaganzas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the chariot scene in Ben-Hur. The film—with this scene as the centerpiece and a final others tacked on—lasted only 15 minutes, and was done without copyright permission. This enraged the Henry Wallace, the son of novelist General Lew Wallace, and in a landmark lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the family’s favor.

Olcott had better luck with his other films—at least, as far as staying on the good side of lawyers was concerned. Priests and politicians—well, that was another matter.

Being of Irish descent, he decided, when given a chance to shoot on location, to film in the land of his forbears. The film he shot in Killarney, The Lad From Old Ireland, is believed to be the first American movie made on location outside the U.S. After the success of that 1910 film, he returned the next summer to Beaufort, where over 18 weeks he shot 17 films—an even more remarkable achievement when you consider that area was not electrified at the time. (He supposedly claimed that he enjoyed working with the Irish population because they were all natural actors.)

On the set of his third film, a priest denounced the “tramp photographers”—i.e., Kalem Studios—for disturbing the peace of his parishioners, including through a scene with actors with painted faces making love before the camera in a churchyard. Members of the studio who happened to be faithful Catholics and in attendance at this sermon attempted to reason with the padre, to no avail. So they did what any smart Catholic would do—appeal to the local bishop, who not only forced the priest to apologize but had him transferred, too.

Several Olcott films dealt with Irish nationalism—a theme that didn’t sit well with British censors of the time. Protests by British authorities about Olcott’s treatment of two historical incidents—the rebellions of 1798 and 1803—led to the director temporarily resorting to less controversial subject matter.

In 1912, Olcott tackled his most ambitious project to date, the first feel-reel film ever, From the Manger to the Cross. Now, often filming the life of Christ is one of those cases where angels fear to tread. But Olcott’s film was acclaimed as a masterpiece and made his studio a nice little bundle of cash.

Quote of the Day (Alfred E. Smith, on Intolerance)

"The best way to kill anything un-American is to drag it out into the open, because anything un-American cannot live in the sunlight."—New York Gov. and Democratic Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, campaign address in Oklahoma City, OK, September 20, 1928

As I mentioned in my post last month on Smith's acceptance speech as Democratic candidate, the vituperation, exaggerations and just plain bigotry he was forced to endure in his campaign are not unlike—at least in degree—what Barack Obama is facing this year. How Smith responded said much about his strengths as a man. The same, hopefully, will turn out to be the case for Obama.

Smith's nomination brought anti-Catholic bigots out from everywhere, like ants running out from under a rock just turned over. Even Midwestern editor William Allen White, revered as a symbol of Progressivism, fell victim to this malady, claiming that "The whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith."

Hmm…I think that "sturdy, orderly nation" was about to be threatened more by the 1929 stock-market crash than by Smith's religion, his ethnicity, his "wet" (i.e., anti-Prohibition) views, or even by his connection to the Tammany Hall political machine.

Those who ascend what Winston Churchill called "the greasy pole" of politics have problematic or troubling elements in their background. This year, Obama --with his connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and to former Weatherman William Ayres, and the unusual real estate deal that allowed him to purchase his home—is no different in this respect from Smith. And, I might add, from Senators McCain and Biden and Governor Palin.

Preposterous rumors about Smith's drunkenness—most often revolving around two aides who had to, invariably, help him up—wildly exaggerated his drinking habits. Though people made more than they should have of his connection to Tammany Hall, they ignored his close and growing friendship with moneyman John J. Raskob, whom he had named head of the Democratic National Committee—and who, after the election, employed him to head up the building of the Empire State Building and steered his political views rightward.

But, as Smith noted in his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now, when he stepped off his campaign train in Oklahoma City, "it was quite apparent to me that the foremost issue so far as that part of the country was concerned was religion." And well he might think so: the infamous large burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan was there to greet him upon his arrival, and an urban legend created by the KKK had sprung up to the effect that the New York governor was building the Holland Tunnel all the way to the Vatican!

His campaign entourage realized they had a problem on their hands, but they split over how to confront it. Some were in favor of ignoring it, but Smith felt that the forces of hatred needed to be confronted. And so he did.

One of the best extemporaneous speakers, Smith left no definitive written record of one of his best addresses. All we have left are subsequent newspaper accounts. But it’s clear that he charged the Republicans with introducing religion as a factor into the race; castigated the Ku Klux Klan; and denounced voting for or against him solely on the basis of his religious beliefs rather than his qualifications for the job.

At one point, Smith poured scorn on the attempt to “ inject bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un-American sectarian division into a campaign.” “There is no greater mockery in the world today,” he continued, “than the burning of the Cross by these people who are spreading this propaganda . . . while the Christ that they are supposed to adore, love and venerate . . . taught the holy, sacred writ of brotherly love.”

Barack Obama’s record in public life and his ideology are fair game for discussion—as are John McCain’s. What is not are Internet-spread fictions about Obama being a crypto-Muslim; about moving back his birthdate to when Hawaii had become a state so he could qualify as a U.S. citizen; about actually being born in Kenya; and about not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Al Smith’s point—made in the midst of a frustrating, losing election—bears repeating and elaboration: there must be no place for religious or racial intolerance in American elections. We’ve been through that. That way lies peril to our system. Let’s drag the perpetrators of the lies into the spotlight, Smith-style, and expose them for the un-American frauds they are.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

This Day in Civil War History (Battle Gives Rise to “Rock of Chickamauga”)

September 19, 1863—The bloodiest two days of the Civil War began as Union forces under General William Rosecrans clashed with Confederates under Braxton Bragg at the Battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia.

By the time the battle ended, 35,000 men had been killed, wounded or missing, depleting each army by one-third. It could have been far worse for the Union—its Army of the Cumberland was saved from annihilation only by the heroic stand of perhaps the greatest unsung commander of the war on either side: General George H. Thomas.

One of the best things about writing this blog—in my opinion, anyway—is the opportunity to spotlight a person or event that deserves more notice. General Thomas is a classic example.

It was Thomas’ misfortune to be consistently underestimated, even by otherwise intelligent leaders who should have known better. Underneath his seemingly phlegmatic exterior beat a formidable intelligence joined to an indomitable heart. They didn’t call him “The Rock of Chickamauga” for nothing.

Soliders assigned even more nicknames to Thomas than the normally high number that commanders earn. One of his earliest (and most enduring) was “Slow Trot.” One explanation for this one was that Thomas urged his equestrian students at West Point to treat their much-put-upon animals more gently. The nickname also hinted at his even, unflappable temperament.

But Thomas’ size – two hundred-plus pounds in a six-feet frame that, a soldier said, “gradually expands upon you, as a mountain which you approach--testified to something else about the man—enormous force held in reserve—and God help you if he used it against you.

The most telling anecdote I ever read about Thomas—I believe it was in John Bowers’ article in Military History Quarterly in the early 1990s—is this: At West Point, some fool made the mistake of taunting the young cadet. The wretch continued this tomfoolery until the burly object of his scorn, without saying a word, suddenly got hold of his tormenter, lifted him by the ankles, and held him out the window. Word soon got around—you didn’t mess with Thomas.

In the Civil War, Thomas proved it over and over again by never losing a battle. Even Grant and Sherman, the friends and Thomas superiors who gain the lion’s share of historians’ attention, couldn’t claim the same thing.

The problem was that Thomas was the Union Army’s answer to Robert E. Lee: a slaveholding Virginian faced with the decision on where to stand in the war. Lee’s decision earned him no opprobrium from his neighbors; Thomas’ earned him nothing but that. Even his sisters wouldn't speak to him again.

Many in the North questioned his loyalty. His old classmate, Sherman, had to vouch personally for him with Lincoln. Later, the President—who, as the war went on, became an increasingly shrewder judge of ability--even struck his name from a promotion list, saying, “Let the Virginian wait.”

Over the course of the war, at Munfordville and Stones River, Thomas would save inferior commanders from their worst mistakes. He’d win important victories at Kenesaw Mountain, and, in independent command, at Franklin and Nashville, where he defeated John Bell Hood so soundly that the latter’s army ceased to exist as a fighting unit.

Particularly in the last couple of battles, Thomas’ extremely methodical approach nearly led to his removal by Grant, who had actually written a telegram replacing him before he got the news that the Virginian had given Hood a master class in command of armies.

But nowhere was Thomas’ brilliance more needed than at Chickamauga. The battle was fought amid dense woods and thick underbrush, making it hard for generals to monitor their men or the course of battle.

On the second day of battle, his commander, William Rosecrans, had become so unnerved when James Longstreet tore through an open hole in the Union line that, like General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden in the American Revolution, he abandoned the field of battle. Thomas not only had to cope with the steep losses in killed and wounded, but another portion of the army that had fled with Rosecrans.

The entire Confederate Army was bearing down on Thomas at this moment—an even more desperate situation than Oliver Hazard Perry had faced in the Battle of Lake Erie, when the entire British fleet on the lake had come after his flagship. His men were low on ammunition and, midway through the second day, exhausted and fearful.

Knowing that one of the Confederacy’s best generals, Longstreet, was facing him, Thomas personally rode among his enlisted men, quietly but firmly steeling them for what lay ahead. “This point must be held,” he told one of their leaders, Col. Emerson Epdycke. The latter knew what was required: “We will hold this ground, or go to heaven from it.”

On Snodgrass Hill, Thomas formed a line. Again and again, the rebels threw everything they had at him—seven times. Each time Thomas fought back until, toward the end of the day, he made an orderly retreat that allowed the Union to limp back to Chattanooga where it could lick its wounds.

Chickamauga is an Indian word for “River of Blood,” and seldom has a place so lived up to its billing. But it had also given rise to one of the greatest examples of imperturbability in the face of disaster ever witnessed by the U.S. Army.

Even Lincoln came around. His post-battle assessment had become characteristically pungent and wise. Rosecrans needed to be replaced because he had acted “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head.” This was in direct contrast to Thomas: “It is doubtful whether his heroism and skill, exhibited last Friday afternoon, has ever been surpassed in the world.”

Quote of the Day (Keller)

"The world is full of trouble, but as long as we have people undoing trouble, we have a pretty good world."—Helen Keller

Thursday, September 18, 2008

This Day in Business History (The Panic of 1873)

September 18, 1873—In an increasingly globalized economy, a major financial institution, long driven by overoptimism, suddenly came a cropper, sending shivers through Wall Street. A Republican U.S. President, unwilling to withdraw troops in an occupied region even after a number of years, was blamed for misplaced priorities. But it’s not just 2008—this all happened in the Panic of 1873, too.

This major economic setback began at 11 am in the fifth year of the Grant administration, as H.C. Fahnestock, the New York partner of Jay Cooke, cleared his throat and informed dumbfounded observers that the office was closed.

Though this week’s bankrupt financial institution, Lehman Bros., might be more familiar to Americans, Jay Cooke & Co. might in its time have cut a longer shadow, as the financier of the Union Army during the Civil War and as underwriter of construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It was Cooke’s attempt to back a second transcontinental railroad, at a time when the demand didn’t exist, that effectively ruined the firm and threatened to bring others down with it.

By day’s end, 37 other banks and two brokerage houses would, like Cooke, close their doors. Suddenly European lenders began to call in their loans (for an idea of the foreign version of speculative mania, see Anthony Trollope’s masterful The Way We Live Now).

The economic effects of this massive bubble and its correction have been much remarked upon over the years—notably the tension building between management and labor that flared up in earnest for the next 60 years.

But I learned of an equally significant consequence in Columbia University historian Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution: the unraveling of the Northern attempt to create a more equitable, racially just South.

The nation’s economic pain came at a particularly bad time for Ulysses S. Grant. In a lecture I saw him deliver at the Chautauqua Institution several years ago, Foner referred to the Ku Klux Klan as an agent of “domestic terrorism.” Grant ordered the arrest of hundreds of Klansmen, but it was an uphill battle to make the indictments stick. In the North, support was eroding for an open-ended commitment to keeping federal troops in the South, where they were still viewed as the enemy.

In the South, the “Bourbon Democrats” or “Redeemers” were looking for a way to undercut activist government. The Panic gave them a perfect excuse. The results were, to say the least, all they could ask for:

1) A clamor rose to cut state budgets and lower tax rates;
2) Private contractors leased convicts—the beginning of the “Chain gang” system;
3) Racially integrated state legislatures had, for the first time in the South’s history, funded public schools—but now aid for those schools, and particularly anything associated with blacks, was cut.

As part of the deal to end the impasse over the election of 1876, Democrats allowed the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to win on condition that federal troops be withdrawn from the South’s capital cities. Reconstruction finally received its coup de grace from the Supreme Court’s in Plessy v. Ferguson. But the Panic of 1873 laid the necessary groundwork for all of this.

Quote of the Day (Milton)

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)

(As a librarian, reader and writers of sorts, I have to say that the above would certainly constitute part of any credo I might ever care to formulate.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quote of the Day (Williams)

“I’m so lonesome I could cry.”—Hank Williams

(Hank Williams, born on this date in 1923, wrote the lyrics for this much-recorded song during a rough patch in his marriage to wife Audrey. His death at age 29 brought to a premature close the life of one of the most gifted artists in American music.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Quote of the Day (Beveridge, on Imperialism)

“Therefore, in this campaign, the question is larger than a party question. It is an American question. It is a world question. Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world? Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?”—Albert Beveridge, “The March of the Flag,” delivered at Tomlinson Hall, Indianapolis, September 16, 1898

Yesterday’s Quote of the Day from Martin Luther King Jr. eulogy for the victims of the Birmingham Church bombing retains its incandescent magic and prophetic power 45 years after it was delivered. In his day, Albert Beveridge—who went on to win his subsequent Senate election, and then serve out two terms representing Indiana—also had a reputation for eloquence, even though this particular speech grates on our sensibilities more than King’s.

Nevertheless, Beveridge’s speech warrants analysis as a turning point in American history, for the young (36-year-old) Senate hopeful offered here one of the most systematic defenses of America’s need to adopt the models of imperialism then being practiced by Great Britain, France, and Germany. Just how important it was at the time can be seen in this fact: the address became the GOP campaign document for Indiana, Iowa and other states.

Just weeks before this speech was delivered, hostilities in the Spanish-American War had, for all intents and purposes, ceased, leaving the U .S. in possession of territories once held by Spain. In this address, Beveridge urged his listeners to spread the blessings of liberty abroad—and, at the same time, ensure that America had access to the goods and services these overseas possessions ensured.

A long speech such as this required more space than I can devote to it now, but I’d like to focus on just two aspects:

1) The invocation of race—or, to put it in Beveridge’s terms, “a people sprung from the most masterful blood of history; a people perpetually revitalized by the virile, man-producing working-folk of all the earth.” The language is not unlike that found in Theodore Roosevelt’s history The Winning of the West—and in fact Beveridge was such a steadfast supporter of T.R. that he nominated him for President on the Progressive ticket.

2) The inversion of geography to justify empire—At the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson had pointed to ocean barriers as a reason for seeing America as the foundation for his “empire of liberty.” Now, Beveridge was suggesting that borders didn’t matter in this new empire. Naval power could transcend this--a view held not only by Commander Alfred Mahan and Beveridge but also by Theodore Roosevelt.

Beveridge was by no means a bad man, for his time or even ours. He was a Progressive, remember, backing Theodore Roosevelt’s call for the Pure Food and Drug Act and curtailing the power of Big Business. All the sadder, then, that he did not see clearly enough the deeper moral issues that might have made him question imperialism.

Monday, September 15, 2008

This Day in Religious History (Brown Blackwell Ordained First Woman Minister in U.S.)

September 15, 1853—A decade of education, public speaking and social activism culminated in Antoinette Louisa Brown being ordained the first female minister of a recognized denomination in the United States.

Brown (better known to history now as Antoinette Brown Blackwell, following her marriage three years later to businessman Samuel Blackwell) had to fight long and hard just for a chance at her position—then, once she had it, it all ended quicker than it had to.

Less than a year after her groundbreaking appointment as pastor of the First Congregational Church in Butler and Savannah, N.Y. (in the state’s Wayne County), she left her post for a reason becoming increasingly common in 19th-century America: theological disagreements with her flock. (Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson had parted ways with his congregation 20 years before, resigning from his position in the Unitarian Church, with many attributing it to his disagreement with policy about communion.)

When I first heard how quickly Blackwell had lost her position, it reminded me a little of Bernice Gera. Remember her? After considerable litigation, she finally had a chance to fulfill a dream—umpiring a baseball game—only to give it up, after a single professional game, when the other umps wouldn’t cooperate with her.

Women backing down in the face of rambunctious male opposition—not the first time that’s happened. But I know one part of humanity about which this is not true. One phrase, faithful reader. Think: Irish nun. Just let someone like, say, Earl Weaver—a manager of the old school, complete with clouds of dust kicked up, tobacco juice spit in every direction, expletives drawn from every written and unwritten dictionary on the planet—tangle with one of them. You’d see him walking back to the dugout, head down, hat not turned completely around like a crazy man but held meekly in his hands…

Well, the more I read about Blackwell, it didn’t turn out to be so simple. She had as much backbone as the Irish nuns of my youth. You had to, given everything she had taken. The same year she became a pastor, she was shouted down by a hostile audience when she attempted to speak at the Women’s Temperance Union Convention in New York City. (Women’s right to speak constituted a constant bone of contention in the abolitionist and temperance movements in those years.)

Blackwell formed part of an illustrious circle in the early women’s movement. Her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Blackwell, was the first female graduate of a medical school in the U.S. A brother-in-law married Lucy Stone, her close friend at Oberlin and the first woman in the U.S. to keep her name after marriage.

Yet another friend in the women’s movement was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, at whose funeral Blackwell delivered the eulogy. (One of the few points on which the two friends disagreed was on liberalizing divorce. Stanton took the affirmative; Blackwell, the negative. Reading about their own marriages, you can’t help but think that their personal situations affected their views on this. Samuel Blackwell was consistently supportive of his wife’s activism and achievements; Henry Brewster Stanton was not.)

After she left her pastorate, Blackwell converted to Unitarianism. As the years went on, she published a steady stream of books related to science, philosophy, as well as a novel and poetry. It’s impossible not to respect her wide-ranging intellect.

Quote of the Day (King, on the Birmingham Church Bombing)

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”—Martin Luther King Jr., eulogy for the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 2008

(King’s eulogy at the church, delivered three days after the Ku Klux Klan exploded a dynamite bomb that killed four young girls, ranks, to me, next to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in its concise, majestic power – and, perhaps even more stunningly, in its moral purification of a scene of awful carnage. Matters did indeed come to pass as King had predicted, just as “a new birth of freedom” resulted, however imperfectly achieved, from the horrible sacrifice at Gettysburg. For more on this incident and the road America has traveled since, read Bruce Kluger’s meditation in USA Today from last month, reprinted on the Huffington Post.

The four girls might have been robbed of their lives, but let their names be remembered with those of other martyrs whose names have echoed down the years: Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14

Sunday, September 14, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (Ford Upsets Incumbent in Congressional Primary)

September 14, 1948—Gerald R. Ford began his nearly three-decade road to the White House when he upset heavily favored incumbent Bartel Jonkman in the Republican primary for Michigan's Fifth Congressional District.

This year, conforming to an unswerving quadrennial pattern, Presidential candidates' beginnings in public life are examined. As reporters do so, they might benefit from comparative biography so they have a bit of perspective.

Ford's first race holds particular interest—not only because it represented his first step to the Oval Office, but because it indicated a political sea-change: the erosion of isolationism in one of its geographic bulwarks, the Midwest. (Recall that Senator Robert M. LaFollette and Rep. Charles August Lindbergh—yes, father of the aviator—opposed the gathering sentiment in favor of American intervention in WWI, and that the area remained so committed before Pearl Harbor.)

The primary also exemplified an old style of retail politics—pressing the flesh—rather than the more poll-driven, image-conscious electioneering increasingly pushed by consultants by the time of Ford’s last, unsuccessful campaign: the 1976 Presidential race. (The consultant for Ford’s opponent that year, Jimmy Carter, was Gerald Rafshoon, who, once his client was elected, would be dubbed by Doonesbury as “Secretary of Symbolism.”)

When I first heard about this event, I was puzzled. I didn't recall it from Ford's autobiography, A Time to Heal, which I reviewed in my college newspaper. Then I found a copy of the memoir and saw that it had covered this race, and had even included some interesting details about it. The problem was that Ford (or his presumed ghostwriter, Trevor Armbrister) related the story with little insight—and had left out one or two details that might have spiced it up a bit.

Let’s take as a starting point for discussing politicians their desire for recognition. If you’re Gerald Ford and your father displays an interest in the Republican Party, and if you yourself have a credible background—Yale Law School grad, lieutenant commander in World War II, enough civic involvement when you come home to be named one of the Junior Chamber of Commerce’s “10 most outstanding young men”—then ambition is a given.

But matters become more complicated when fundamental ideological differences with an opponent are involved. And when hearty dislike figures into the equation, as well as an against-all-odds campaign—well, then you have a story—something, I daresay, that would serve as pretty decent fodder for novelists and screenwriters, and something that even Ford’s lackluster speaking style and reputation for ordinariness (making his own toast in the Oval Office!) can’t really undo.

A Fixer Out of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Let’s go back even before Rep. Jonkman—who, truth be told, aside from crossing political swords with Ford, is lucky to rate even a footnote in the history of the House of Representatives. The man who brought Ford into electoral politics, through a kind of negative energy, was Frank McKay, the millionaire GOP boss in the state.

Other than one oddball detail Ford provides in his autobiography about this political boss—his pince-nez—the image that springs to mind, with his overweight frame, his snarl, his inability to let even the smallest thing in state politics to move without his consent, recalls nobody so much as Jim Taylor, the boss played by the ever-reliable character actor Edward Arnold, in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

An anti-McKay reform group called the Home Front coalesced behind a septuagenarian dentist. They had planned during World War II on how to seize control of the Kent County GOP from the McKay machine, but they put it off.

All the way from the South Pacific, where he had plenty of other things to occupy his time (like not getting swept overboard in a typhoon), Ford still managed to apprise himself of the Home Front—even telling his adoptive father, according to Douglas Brinkley’s biography of the President, that, if they ever asked him to do something, “don’t turn them down. I’m going to get into this thing when I get back from service and I’ll take your place.”

Ford had loathed McKay ever since the young man came to inquire about volunteering for Wendell Willkie's Presidential campaign in 1940. McKay gave him only five minutes after letting him cool his heels for four hours in an anteroom. Even after McKay was finished as a political power after the war, undone by bribery scandals, his handpicked cronies continued in important posts in the state, including Jonkman.

A Role Model for an Aspiring Politico

I think you can tell much about a politico by who appeals to him or her as a youth. The young Abraham Lincoln, for instance, looked to Whig Presidential candidate Henry Clay as a model. Alfred E. Smith and Winston Churchill—two politicians an ocean, class and sensibility apart, but very close in age—modeled their speeches after Irish-born Tammany congressman Bourke Cockran. A 1940 commencement address by Henry L. Stimson, two days away from being appointed Secretary of War by F.D.R., describing the looming Nazi threat as a clear issue between right and wrong, inspired a teenage George H.W. Bush to enroll in the Navy on his 18th birthday two years later.

Jerry Ford’s model was Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), a former isolationist who, after seeing what American disengagement from the League of Nations led to (i.e., World War II), was not about to bedevil a President of the opposite party on foreign affairs, as a predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge, had done with Woodrow Wilson. Vandenberg, now convinced that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” lent Harry Truman crucial assistance in passing the Marshall Plan. It annoyed Vandenberg no end that Jonkman, representing his hometown of Grand Rapids, was obstructionist.

As Ford prepared his run, he sought the senator’s counsel. What the wizened pol told the eager 35-year-old went something like this: I can’t publicly support you—after all, Jonkman’s likely to win, and I need to live with him after the election. But you have my blessing. Good luck!

The subsequent strategy Ford employed in the race resembled the one that Barack Obama pursued against Hilary Clinton in the planning for Democratic primaries this year: Fly under the radar. In an Atlantic Monthly article, Marc Ambinder showed how the Clinton campaign was blindsided when Obama finally announced his candidacy for the Presidency—so much so that they had to revise on the fly their strategy for victory. (And, as events proved, unsuccessfully.)

Sixty years before, Ford's campaign manager, Jack Stiles, had the same idea as Camp Obama, advising the political newcomer that the best way to win was to surprise Jonkman. This meant total secrecy—Ford couldn't even tell his girlfriend Betty. (Even when he proposed to her in February, he said they couldn't get married until the fall and he couldn't tell why. This was the beginning of her introduction to politics!)

(Another factor might have influenced the couple's post-primary wedding plans. A Washington Post obit on the President noted that Gerald and Betty might have kept a lid on their nuptials because of concern "that her background as a dancer and a divorced woman would have an adverse effect in the Republican primary among Dutch Calvinist voters in the district." Well, if you ask me, the “dancer” part couldn’t have been that bad—she was a Martha Graham dancer, not a Gypsy Rose Lee wannabe, for heaven’s sake!—so it must have been that “divorced” part that did the trick.)

An Incumbent Afflicted With Overconfidence and Potomac Fever

In his last election, Jonkman had no primary opposition at all and had predictably steamrollered the Democrats. Jonkman was Dutch, in a district where they constituted the largest single ethnic group. Under the circumstances, Ford’s prospects looked so hopeless that virtually the only people who thought he should make the run were his parents and his law partner, Phil Buchen.

An unintended boost to the underdog came from a Democrat—none other than President Harry Truman, who electrified previously demoralized delegates at the Democratic Convention by announcing that he was invoking Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, calling the “do-nothing Congress” back into session to finish the people's business on July 26, 1948—"Turnip Day" back in his home state of Missouri.

The “Turnip Day” session meant that Jonkman was tied down to his desk in Washington at a critical moment, when young, vigorous Jerry Ford was shaking every hand at every fair, picnic, you name it, to make himself known. Not that it particularly bothered Jonkman, in any case: he had already come down, after only four terms in office, with a particularly bad case of Potomac Fever. Jonkman thought press releases and surrogates would be all he needed to coast home. But he had underestimated the underdog and overlooked his own vulnerability.

What did Ford have going for him? Not charisma, but certainly friendliness, energy and looks.

Yes, truth to James Carville's quip, "Politics is show business for ugly people." But make no mistake: If politicians have got it, they flaunt it. And, at this point in his life, Ford's looks were a decided advantage.

I found a photo on the Web of Ford in a post-victory celebration that gives you a sense of his physicality. (The one reproduced with this post gives a somewhat reduced sense of this.) It showed a big, strapping blond guy with a cheerful smile—a football player at the University of Michigan, a model for Look and Cosmopolitan in the 1940s. He contrasted enormously with Jonkman, who was almost twice his age.

Jonkman did not realize that events abroad were making his view of the world outdated, even small-minded. The crushing of one potential republic after another behind the Iron Curtain produced a consensus for counterposing the Soviet Union, through economic aid and, if necessary, arms. As a former serviceman and veterans’ advocate, Ford was personally offended by Jonkman’s shortchanging of veterans’ benefits—and many in the district shared this feeling.

Before long, Jonkman was making additional disastrous mistakes, including:

* rejecting Ford's challenge to debate;
* alienating Leonard Woodcock, the United Auto Workers representative in western Michigan;
* attacking the Grand Rapids Press for an editorial supporting Ford

In the end, Ford not only won, but won going away, with 23,632 votes to Jonkman’s 13,341.

The young Congressman-to-be made sure he kept one of his campaign promises, the most unlikely one I’ve ever heard, anyway: milk cows for two weeks for one area farm family. The farmer was certainly surprised to find Ford on his doorstep first thing in the morning!

As a new Congressman, Ford formed part of a trio of young South Pacific servicemen who in the postwar period would back and then consolidate a growing national consensus toward opposing Soviet power, ultimately leading them to the White House: John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, and Ford. The Cold War they led would ultimately end on the watch of another South Pacific serviceman, George H. W. Bush.

Quote of the Day (Steinfels)

“When it comes to nomenclature, writing about religion is of course a minefield. Terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal,’ ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ are almost unavoidable shorthand, though they suffer from their origins in political categories and almost inevitably oversimplify and dichotomize religious realities that are multifaceted.

But ‘orthodox’ is a special case, because it suggests a sharp boundary between those who properly belong and those who are properly excluded, the way that ‘patriotic’ can suggest a boundary between loyal citizens and something verging on traitors. Religious leaders have a hard enough time wrestling with such matters. Journalists should not get in their way.”—Peter Steinfels, “The Audacity of Claiming the Last Word on This Word,” The New York Times, September 13, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

This Day in Mideast History (Oslo Accords Concluded)

September 13, 1993—The Mideast peace process appeared to take its first important step since the Camp David agreements 15 years before, as Israeli and Palestinian representatives signed a “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements.”

But the Oslo Accords (so named for the neutral site of the secret negotiations between the two sides) merely inaugurated a peace process as uneasy as the handshake between Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who, as you can tell from this photo, is clearly unnerved at the prospect of even touching the hand of the man responsible for ordering the deaths of so many of his countrymen).

This attempt to make peace doomed Rabin, just as 72 years earlier in Ireland, Michael Collins, assenting to a peace agreement with Britain that compromised on partition and the loss of six Ulster counties in exchange for a measure of self-government, correctly predicted that he had signed his own death warrant.

Three years after this White House ceremony, presided over by Bill Clinton, Rabin had been cut down by a Jewish law student who said he wanted to halt the peace process, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party came to power, establishing settlements deeper in Palestinian territory.

What had happened on the Palestinian side veered between tragedy and something more like comic opera, as Arafat, his days as a rouser of grievance over and his time as a bureaucrat and diplomat just begun, visibly struggled as head of the new Palestine National Authority—a government that, in the words of the late great columnist Michael Kelly in his book of collected writings, Things Worth Fighting For, “doesn’t entirely exist or not exist, but in Cheshire cat fashion, fades in and out of reality depending on the angle and the time at which it is viewed.”

The Oslo Accords represented an interim step only toward peace. The projected permanent agreement was never settled. In the summer of 2000, desiring, like Ronald Reagan, a final-year treaty that would constitute his major foreign-policy achievement, Clinton pressed the Israelis and the Palestinians to settle their differences at Camp David peace talks. Unable to come to terms with his new role except for the access it provided him to massive amounts of money, Arafat opted for intransigence. When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered 91% of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, even Palestinian control of Eastern Jerusalem—all in exchange for dismantling the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure—Arafat balked. The intifada ensued that fall.

The road to peace is hard. Photo ops are well and good, but the settlement of differences lies as much in the hands of someone willing to lay everything down, even his life—like Rabin—not in someone who won’t take a chance to build a better life for his people—like Arafat.

Quote of the Day (Wright)

"It was not courage that made me oppose the (Communist) party. I simply did not know any better. It was inconceivable to me, though bred in the lap of Southern hate, that a man could not have his say. I had spent a third of my life traveling from the place of my birth to the North just to talk freely, to escape the pressure of fear. And now I was facing fear again, though I had no notion that I was slowly adding fagots to a flame that would soon blaze over my head with all the violence of the assault I had sustained when I had naively thought I could learn the optical trade in Mississippi."—Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger)

(This past September 4 marked the centennial of the birth of African-American novelist-memoirist Wright. I don't know how I overlooked it, nor, even more surprisingly, why major media—including newspapers, libraries and bookstores—did. His 1953 novel, The Outsider, might stand as a useful label for his entire life—the agony that blew him around the world like a leaf, searching vainly for a place where he could reconcile race, personal aspiration, intellectual openness, and security.

For more than 60 years, many, of not most, of the students assigned Wright's 1945 memo
ir Black Boy have been under the impression that it was the story as he intended to write it. They do not know that they have been reading only half of what he intended. In 1977, Harper and Row came out with the missing second half of the book, American Hunger. Finally, in 1991, in its edition of Wright's works, the Library of America put the two halves together, and it's this version that I've been marveling at for the last several days.

The memoir begins with four-year-old Wright accidentally burning his family's home in Natchez, Miss., and for the rest of the book Wright found himself singed by the world.

It was Wright's tragedy to be piercingly honest, at times agonizingly doubtful about his ability, and, in the end, deeply alienated from virtually every environment in which he found himself. He even started off with the odds against him, on a plantation in Natchez, Miss.—in the heart of the sharecropper system that was reducing the African-American population to a stage not very well advanced beyond the stage they had escaped.

In his great elegy "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," W.H. Auden addressed the great (by then deceased) poet with, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." In Wright's case, mad, racist America hurt him into Communism. The results were not as happy as in Yeats' case.

The attempt to "learn the optical trade" that Wright briefly mentions in the passage above was disrupted by two co-workers when they realized he intended to better himself. Their harassment ended with Wright looking elsewhere.

Eventually, Wright found himself part of the John Reed Communist Party chapter in Chicago. In the end, he tired of mysterious party hacks who appeared out of nowhere to enforce intellectual conformity. It was this half of the manuscript of
American Hunger, describing his savage disillusionment with Communism (including a climactic public assault by two white Communists at a party, with two black Communists looking on without lifting a hand) that Wright agreed to delete in order to make it more acceptable to the Book of the Month Club.

The amputation of this second half of the memoir led Wright to complain in his journal about Communist political pressure on the Book-of-the-Month Club. Indeed, his case seems more than a little reminiscent of how T.S. Eliot, in his editorial capacity at Faber & Faber, came to reject George Orwell's
Animal Farm. Both editorial decisions were made in 1944, before the onset of the Cold War, when the U.S.S.R. was still the indispensable ally of the Americans and the British against Nazi Germany.

Much of this section of the memoir appeared in an essay Wright had published in The Atlantic Monthly called "I Tried To Be a Communist." In 1950, Wright, along with Alfred Koestler, Andre Gide, Stephen Spender, and other left-wing intellectuals, contributed to an anthology called The God That Failed, about their breaks with Communism.

Wright's memoir ends with him sitting at his typewriter, alone, unsure what will happen as he flings his words out into the world. That sense of isolation informed the rest of his life. He could not become a Communist, but he withdrew from organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom that he suspected were CIA-funded. He moved to France, hoping to find acceptance there as an African-American, but came to feel increasing misgivings about that nation's treatment of its Algerian colony. He died in 1960, worn out from a lifetime of contention, paying the price for his independent streak.

His ideological trajectory illustrates bloggers' simultaneous craving for community and need for the independence that ensures their work will have lasting value. The latter will often only come through the alienation that left Wright hungry for company and acceptance