Saturday, February 28, 2009

Quote of the Day (Todd Rundgren, on a Seminal ‘70s Album He Produced, “Bat Out of Hell”)

“(Songwriter) Jim Steinman still denies that record has anything to do with Springsteen. But I saw it as a spoof. You take all his trademarks—over-long songs, teenage angst, handsome loner—and turn them upside down….If Bruce Springsteen can take it over the top, Meat Loaf can take it five storeys higher than that—and at the same time, he’s this big, sweaty, unappealing character. Yet we out-Springsteened Springsteen. He’s never had a record that sold anything like Bat Out of Hell.”—Todd Rundgren, quoted in Peter Doggett, “Todd Rundgren,” Mojo, Issue 183 (February 2009) (article not available electronically)

This is the second consecutive “Quote of the Day” given over to someone interested in constant reinvention of the self—yet Todd Rundgren, unlike Jane Fonda, does not so much radically upend his life so much as his music. (The one exception is the admission from this now-sixtysomething musician—once the lover of model-rock muse Bebe Buell—that though he used Ritalin and LSD back in the day, his “creative output is much less than it was,” because after he started a family, “I couldn’t pretend to be the free spirit that I was.”)

I began to follow Rundgren’s career most seriously in the mid-Seventies—not coincidentally, when I began to attend concerts. At that point, he was well-launched into his transition from pop balladeer to progressive rocker. I can’t say that his experiments along the latter line were always worthwhile (how many people are going to ask him to replay “The Seven Rays” anytime soon?), but he never sold out.

Rundgren’s interview with Doggett shows the musician at his intelligent, wry, quirky best. Included are discussions not just about his work with Meat Loaf, but also why his early group The Nazz broke up, how a British media rag blew up some remarks he made about John Lennon into a minor tiff with the ex-Beatle, why he moved away from pop (“Lyrically, I was still singing about the girl who broke my heart in high school”), and why a job producing Janis Joplin didn’t work out (“I didn’t identify with her thing of getting so drunk that you black out every night”).

Watching this YouTube video of Rundgren performing “Hello It’s Me” on David Letterman last year, I got this strong sense—and I’m sure you will, too—that he’s getting just a wee bit bored about playing his pop classic for the umpteenth time, so much so that he’s got to do something—anything?—to have some fun with it. (“Hi, Dave, it’s me!”)

What will save him in the end is his never-ending curiosity about music, technology, and philosophy. It’s the best hedge against the obsolescence that a youth-obsessed music industry attempts to foist on singer-songwriters in it for the long haul—which Rundgren, after four decades, indisputably is.

Friday, February 27, 2009

This Day in Business History (Nicholas Biddle, Prototype of the Reviled Central Banker, Dies)

February 27, 1844—Nicholas Biddle, who, as head of the Second Bank of the United States, was once the most important financial official in the antebellum republic, died in disgrace at age 58, his fortune lost and saved from jail by a technicality.

I touched briefly on the Second Bank in my post on Henry Clay’s censure resolution against Andrew Jackson, which had been prompted by the President’s war against that financial institution. But Biddle’s story deserves further exploration.

The go-go years of Wall Street that have so recently and painfully ended didn’t begin with the Reagan Revolution, nor even with the bull market that ended with the Great Depression.

If you want a prototype of the wunderkinds who long ruled The Street before they fell to earth, look no further than to this scion of a famous Philadelphia family, who for a decade bestrode America’s business and political landscape before running into a figure with a will that exceeded his own—Jackson.

Nowadays, Biddle is far less well-known than the mastermind behind the First Bank of the United States, Alexander Hamilton. I don’t think that is because of the precedents set by Hamilton, his part in founding the republic, his epic clash with Thomas Jefferson, or even his tragic duel with Aaron Burr.

More important, Hamilton left behind institutions and a philosophy that have endured. As Gordon S. Wood, the colonial historian, noted in Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, the republic we live in today—one with a powerful military, backed by high finance—is preeminently the one envisioned by Hamilton. 

On the other hand, Biddle was so utterly crushed, both by Jackson and his own folly, that, for all his manifest gifts, he left no historical footprint like Washington’s great Secretary of the Treasury.

To be sure, the two men possessed an enormous amount in common. That propelled both men to the top, where they encountered a host of enemies.

But it’s the difference between them—integrity—that has made the difference in how they are remembered. In history as in life, character counts.

Through much of his career, Biddle matched Hamilton in precocity, intellect, ambition, literary flair—and, finally, political recklessness. Consider the following similarities:

* Promise at a young age—Hamilton came to the attention of elders through his work as a sharp-eyed shipping clerk in the West Indies; Biddle enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at age 10, then, when that school balked at graduating him quickly, he moved on to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he spoke as valedictorian of the class of 1801, at age 15.

* Son-in-laws of wealthy men—Hamilton married a daughter of wealthy upstate aristocrat and Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler; Biddle, who, coming from a prominent old Philadelphia Quaker family, did not need the social connections as much as the up-from-nowhere Hamilton, still managed to do well by wedding the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant named John Craig.

* Personal magnetism—Neither man was particularly tall but struck all who met them with their conviviality and good looks. Hamilton had such an eye for the ladies as a dashing young officer that Martha Washington called her tomcat “Alexander Hamilton”; Biddle made his own vivid impression with his chestnut hair, flashing eyes and fair complexion.

* Writing talent—Though he died before his 50th birthday, Hamilton wrote so much that his collected papers number 27 volumes. Biddle’s public life began with a well-received history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and he served as an editor of the literary journal Portfolio.

* Protégé of a President—At least partly through their writing skill, both men came to the attention of influential mentors. Hamilton served on the staff of General George Washington in the American Revolution, then kept his chief’s loyalty when his plans as Secretary of the Treasury came under attack by Thomas Jefferson. James Monroe, who as American envoy to Great Britain became impressed by Biddle’s skill as his secretary, saw in him someone who could keep a steady hand on the Second Bank of the United States, nominating him as a director. (Having destroyed Hamilton’s bank, the Democratic-Republicans rued their folly when they had no major financial institution with which to fund the War of 1812.)

* Legal backgrounds—Hamilton and Biddle were lawyers before they became masters of finance—and, in certain ways, what they learned about the importance of contracts stood them in good stead as they built their mighty financial institutions.

As head of the Second Bank, Biddle presided over a revival of American commerce after the War of 1812. By issuing uniform currency, it ensured stability. By issuing interregional loans, it helped expand the republic to the limits of the frontier.

Had John Quincy Adams won reelection in 1828, all would have been well for Biddle and the imposing Greek Revival building on Philadelphia’s Walnut Street from which he directed the nation’s financial activities. 

Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay both believed in the “American System” of protective tariffs and federally sponsored internal improvements, which called for the kind of strong central financial direction that Biddle’s bank could have provided.

But Jackson won that hotly contested race, and Biddle’s refusal to take seriously well-substantiated charges that several bank branches had shown favoritism toward Adams supporters put him on the radar screen of a new President already disposed to view bankers with suspicion. (Involvement with a Philadelphia speculator in 1795 nearly ruined Jackson.) 

It didn’t help that Biddle kept "on retainer"—i.e., bribed—such major politicians as Senator Daniel Webster.

Here is another way in which Biddle resembled Alexander Hamilton: an astonishing capacity for political miscalculation. Hamilton’s hotheaded denunciation of President John Adams for pursuing a peace overture from France opened the way toward victory by the Democratic-Republicans, and his own increasing political marginalization before his death. 

Likewise, Biddle’s decision to seek early renewal of the Second Bank’s charter (Jackson would never reject the charter during an election year, he guessed wrongly) spelled doom for him and the bank.

We need not go into the long, circuitous fight over "The Bank War" (which, if you want more detail, is recounted in this excellent episode of the NPR series "Planet Money.") 

What concerns us here is what it meant for Biddle. He thought he could prove the indispensability of the Bank by curtailing credit. All this did was provoke a downturn and prove Jackson’s point that the financial institution was dangerous.

By the end of 1834, Biddle’s credit-curtailment policy had proved so calamitous that he had to duck angry mobs in the city where he and his family had once been hailed.

After Jackson crushed the Second Bank, Biddle attempted to kept it going as a commercial institution, the U.S. Bank of Pennsylvania. But his old financial wizardry failed him, when—in a forerunner of our recent financial disaster—he authorized a series of risky loans.

One Biddle scheme—using bank funds to corner the market on cotton—led to utter catastrophe, as he and other directors were indicted for fraud and theft. He got off with the help of his lawyers, but investors lost faith in the bank, and Biddle's reputation was ruined. 

He spent his last years on Andalusia, the estate his father-in-law had built. In the acid words of poet-editor William Cullen Bryant, Biddle lived out his life “in elegant retirement, which, if justice had taken place, would have been spent in the penitentiary.”

It’s a short, perilous path from power brokering to white-collar indictment—one repeated years later by another purported Pennsylvania financial wizard, Andrew Mellon. 

Charges were also dismissed against Mellon, posthumously (though his recent biographer David Cannadine has argued convincingly that the real offense of the longtime Republican Secretary of the Treasury was conflict of interest rather than tax fraud).

Biddle was right that the nation needed central financial direction. But his career demonstrated the charges of opponents such as Jackson that such an institution was also a breeding ground for corruption that endangered the republic. 

The eventual structure of the Federal Reserve—12 independent regional banks with a central board—sought to recover the strengths of the institution that Biddle created but with crucial checks on its authority.

And here, a final word on Biddle's crucial difference with Hamilton. 

Though his involvement with Maria Reynolds ignited America’s first political sex scandal, Hamilton never benefited financially from any of the financial schemes he proposed. (It’s instructive to compare his private legal practice with that of Burr. Once, working on the same case, Hamilton charged a client considerably less for the same work amount of work put in by Burr.) 

Honor was so central to the man dubbed “the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar” by John Adams that he risked his life for it.

In contrast, Biddle became so intoxicated by his power that he used his office to maintain his control at all costs—and he lost everything in the process, including his good name.

Quote of the Day (Vanessa Vadim, on Jane Fonda)

“Why don't you just get a chameleon and let it crawl across the screen?” –Filmmaker Vanessa Vadim, advising her mother, Jane Fonda, about making a video to explore her life, quoted by Charles McGrath, “Spring Theater Preview: A Radical Vixen Retakes the Stage,” The New York Times, February 22, 2009

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, and Jane Fonda’s gotta act. This is what she was born to do—not to mount political soapboxes, not to become an exercise guru, not to become the trophy wife of a crazy capitalist. With a father (Henry), brother (Peter) and niece (Bridget) also in the profession, it’s in her genes, for heaven’s sake.

Sure, Fonda returned to the big screen after more than a decade’s absence with Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rule, but the general critical consensus seems to be that they were unworthy vehicles for her talent—sort of like Audrey Hepburn closing out her magical film career with the TV film Love Among Thieves and Steven Spielberg’s Always.

That situation promises to change with 33 Variations, a drama written and directed by Moises Kaufman, in which she plays a professor simultaneously afflicted with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and the desire to ferret out why Beethoven became obsessed with an obscure piece of music called the “Diabelli Variations.”

I understand that protestors have already staked out the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Manhattan to vent their disgust with “Hanoi Jane.” I don’t approve of the actress’ past excuses for Communist atrocities in the Sixties and Seventies. (I’m not only talking here about her notorious visit to North Vietnam but also about her later refusal to sign a petition circulated by Joan Baez and published in four major American newspapers condemning the Khmer Rouge for their genocide in Cambodia.)

But at least one of the excesses ascribed to Fonda on her North Vietnam trip—passing off messages slipped to her by American POWs, who were subsequently beaten and, with the exception of one who lived to tell the tale, died—is an urban legend, according to a Richard Snow article in American Heritage eight years ago. Nor was she even the only American entertainer who visited North Vietnam during the war—I don’t recall anyone picketing Pete Seeger or Judy Collins for their trips.

Moreover, if I don’t excuse Fonda for her past inability to see evil in a Marxist, neither do I excuse John Wayne’s penchant for noticing it everywhere he turned. In neither actor’s case does their constitutionally guaranteed right to be politically mistaken interfere with my enjoyment of their work on screen.

And Fonda’s work, from 1969 (after she jettisoned first husband Roger Vadim, in horror over her appearance as a sex kitten in Barbarella and his outlandish sexual demands offscreen) through 1979 (The China Syndrome), constitutes perhaps the finest collective work of an American actress during that decade. She won two Oscars during that period, for Klute and Coming Home, and might easily have won for another, in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Fonda has admitted her naivete about her North Vietnam trip. I don’t agree with much of her politics, but I think it’s well past time to forgive and forget. If I’m lucky enough to catch her on stage or screen soon in the near future, I won’t be seeing “Hanoi Jane,” but someone who I value for her extraordinary ability to create characters and make you care about them.

It’s been 45 years since Fonda last stepped on a New York stage, in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. Welcome back, Jane.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Quote of the Day (Katharine Hepburn, on Aspiring Celebrities)

"People who want to be famous are really loners. Or they should be."—Katharine Hepburn, Me (1991)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” Premieres)

February 25, 1904—At the conclusion of the premiere of Riders to the Sea, at Dublin’s Molesworth Hall, members of the Irish National Theater Society that had staged the play might have been forgiven for thinking they had a flop on their hands, for nobody in the audience clapped. 

The reaction, however, had less to do with theatergoers’ dissatisfaction than with their stunned recognition that the one-act tragedy by John Millington Synge was the budding Irish theater movement’s answer to ancient Greek playwrights like Sophocles and Euripedes.

The dilemma faced by Maurya, an elderly peasant in the West of Ireland—the loss of all of her sons—is staggering, the kind faced by mothers in the wars that convulsed ancient Greek city-states. The Irishwoman, however, was battling the elements rather than military or civil authorities.

The theme of the play, of course, is man’s helplessness in the face of death. It was a dread with which Synge was all too familiar.

Late the prior year, a swollen neck gland, coupled with a debilitating cold, had excited longstanding health fears enough that the playwright feared he had now contracted tuberculosis. 

He had rallied, but his anxieties were not misplaced: In 1909, he passed away from Hodgkin’s Disease at age 37, leaving a huge void in Irish—indeed, world—drama.

Written in a far different key than his later tragicomic masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, Riders to the Sea shared with that play a fascination with Aran Islands diction. You can see it in one of its opening lines: “It’s a shirt and a plain stocking were got off a drowned man in Donegal.”

That line makes a character sit up and take notice, and it made the world do so, too, showing that poetry and high art could be spun from the lives of seemingly simple people who, nevertheless, struggled with burdens that would have bowed those far mightier in the world, including the flawed royals who concerned Sophocles.

(The image accompanying this post comes from Ralph Vaughan Williams' 1937 one-act adaptation of the tragedy for the opera—in this case, in a 2021 collaboration among Ballet-Opera-Pantomime (BOP), Montréal‘s I Musici chamber orchestra, and the Opera de Montreal ‘s Atelier Lyrique.) 

Quote of the Day (Michael Daly, on Edward Cardinal Egan)

“Archbishop Timothy Dolan sounds pretty good after nine years of Edward Cardinal Egan….Egan seems to have been pretty good at watching the diocesan pocketbook, but he was not much good at uplifting the heart.”—Michael Daly, “Change Welcome in Uncertain Time,” The New York Daily News, Feb. 24, 2009

I would go further than Daly in his gently critical summary of the tenure of Cardinal Egan in New York: He was just the kind of pompous, imperious cleric that makes his priests bridle and congregants leave in droves.

Stemming the tide of red ink is the achievement that Egan’s defenders and even his critics acknowledge, but I think this is letting him off too easily. Throughout his ministry, Christ was not an accountant and neither, primarily, should be those who would follow his way.

Closing parishes and schools has been the easy way out for what Daly calls “an ecclesiastical CEO” like Egan and his counterparts in the American Church hierarchy. But the Roman Catholic Church is not a retail chain. It was instituted to uplift and save the fallen of this world.

If you want an idea of the path Egan could have chosen, look at the career of his 19th-century predecessor, Archbishop John Hughes. As much church chieftain as priest, Hughes was a man not easily crossed. Even his crucifix gave rise to a nickname for him: "Dagger John." But he left an imprint that still endures.

After seeing not only his criticisms of Protestant religious practices in supposedly nonsectarian public schools go unheeded, but also his request for tax dollars for the Church’s own schools, Hughes pushed for the creation of parochial schools outside the established educational system. From 1840 to 1870, the number of children in New York’s Catholic schools rose from 5,000 to 22,000.

Make no mistake: Hughes, like Egan, could brook no interference with his ecclesiastical priorities. But the difficulties he faced were far more daunting than Egan’s—not just financial problems, but also active threats to his flock in the form of virulent prejudice. Hughes thought outside the box and made a difference to the lives of millions for more than a century afterward through the parochial school system.

Was Egan ever so creative? Not really.

Oh, wait. I take that back. Yes, he was. Once. It occurred during his time as bishop of Bridgeport, when, during litigation springing from the sexual-abuse crisis, he came up with the novel theory that the Church had no legal liability because its priests were “independent contractors.”

I bet the priests he supervised in Bridgeport—and especially the ones he managed in the far larger jurisdiction of New York—had a real good laugh over that one. It might have been the last time in his career that he ever said anything funny, even if it was completely unintentional.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (Christopher Dodd, on “The Goal of Every Irishman”)

“It’s the goal of every Irishman to be able to be a witness to your own eulogy.” –U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), quoted about his ailing longtime friend, Sen. Ted Kennedy, quoted in Mark Leibovich, “Hold the Eulogies, Kennedy Says,” The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Quote of the Day (Letterman, to Joaquin Phoenix)

“Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”—Late Show host David Letterman, closing out his interview with bizarre guest Joaquin Phoenix, on February 11, 2009

However long the rest of his run as talkshow host might be, Letterman’s interview with Phoenix will likely be among the short list of highlights at the end of his career, along with the appearances by Farrah Fawcett, Madonna, Cher, and Drew Barrymore.

One quote doesn’t begin to convey the truly unique nature of this event—from the almost gushing introduction, through Letterman’s first barb about his guest’s beard (“I make you feel weird about it? I can’t be the first one to make you feel weird about it”), mumbles from Phoenix that Marlon Brando could never dream of, Letterman’s readily visible tongue-in-cheek movements, and the host’s final dispatch of his unbelievably weird guest.

Anyone who has seen Phoenix’s brilliant performances in Gladiator and Walk the Line will, like Letterman, hope this talented actor isn’t giving up film for good. Anyone who has seen this performances—and this disastrous 10-minute appearance on the talkshow circuit—will hope that he huddles with a career crisis-management consultant—and, perhaps, begin sessions with a psychiatrist, if he hasn’t already.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Quote of the Day (Martin Luther King Jr., on “Life’s Most Persistent and Urgent Question”)

“Every person must decide, at some point, whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life's most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 11, 1957

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

This Day in New York History (Hamilton Attacks Burr in Governor Race)

Feb. 10, 1804—In Albany to argue a case that presaged a bright new future as an influential constitutional lawyer, former Secretary of the Treasury and Federalist chieftain Alexander Hamilton couldn’t resist the opportunity to involve himself in the most bitter controversy of the day, as he’d been doing for the last 30 years. 

This time, though, his decision began a long, complicated train of circumstances that resulted in his fatal duel at Weehawken, N.J., with Aaron Burr only five months later.

Faithful reader, if you thought the Spitzer and Paterson follies of the past year contained enough twists to cause permanent whiplash, you need to go back more than 200 years, when the skullduggery involving the gubernatorial race was really something to behold. The consequences of the election were completely out of proportion to the pettiness displayed.

Historians, novelists, and even playwright (Sidney Kingsley, in The Patriots) have long weighed in on the Hamilton-Burr feud. But I’m afraid that it would take a psychiatrist to make sense of the two New Yorkers. The truly amazing thing about the whole affair, after all, lies not in the two men’s differences but their similarities:

* Both men were born within a year of each other;

* Both suffered devastating personal losses in childhood—Hamilton had to live down being, in John Adams’ immortal if nasty phrase, “the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar,” while Burr, before the age of three, had lost both parents, a grandmother, a grandfather (Jonathan Edwards), and a great-grandfather;

* Both enjoyed classical education at Ivy League schools: Burr at Princeton, Hamilton at King’s College (later Columbia University);

* Both rose to become colonels in the American Revolution, serving with great distinction and displaying conspicuous bravery;

* Both became lawyers at the same time, and were considered among the ablest men of the bar;

* Both lived for a time in the 1780s on Wall Street, and even visited each other’s houses from time to time;

* Both were strongly anti-slavery;

* Both were short dandies with a roving eye, with Hamilton becoming ensnared in the American republic’s first sex scandal, the Maria Reynolds affair, while Burr’s second wife, Madame Jumel, successfully sued her septuagenarian husband for divorce on grounds of adultery.

But ever since the early 1790s, when Burr had defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, in a race for the U.S. Senate, the friendly rivalry between Hamilton and Burr had, bit by bit, become less cordial.

During the election of 1800, Hamilton had become so disturbed by what he regarded as Burr’s demagogic tendencies that he even persuaded Federalists in the House of Representatives to back his onetime enemy in Washington’s Cabinet, Thomas Jefferson, when the House was called on to break the Electoral College tie between Jefferson and Burr.

If you want a shorthand description of Burr, you can’t do better than the phrase “too clever by half.” That tendency led him to play footsie with possible Federalist voters in the House, neither requesting nor disdaining their vote. The Virginia leaders of the Democratic-Republican Party—Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—did not soon forget his political opportunism.

By the end of Burr’s first year as Vice-Presidency, Jefferson had made sure he had lost out on patronage in New York State to a faction led by Governor George Clinton. As 1804 dawned, it became increasingly clear that Burr had no future in the White House as an heir apparent to Jefferson.

Now something extraordinary happened. Clinton notified Jefferson that he was going to step down as governor because of age (64) and ill health (chronic rheumatism). Amazingly, however, instead of seeing in Clinton an ex-governor, Jefferson saw him as a future Vice-President serving under himself. Having Clinton as his running mate for his second term, Jefferson decided, would accomplish three aims:

* it would shove Burr out of the way;

* it would put in the Vice Presidency someone who posed no threat to the person that Jefferson really wanted to succeed him, Madison; and

* it would preserve the Southern-New York alliance that had helped the Democratic-Republicans gain the Presidency in the first place.

Just as amazingly, Burr saw an opportunity in the suddenly open gubernatorial seat, too: the chance to become a political player again.

So Burr tossed his hat into the ring. In the free-floating New York state politics of the time, the Federalists had become so emasculated that they could not run a candidate of their own for governor—all they could do was help decide which of the Democratic-Republicans would win.

Enter Hamilton, in Albany to appear in one of the landmark cases in state history. The Federalist, bruised from his Cabinet fights with Jefferson as well as from the bitter clash with President John Adams that split the Federalists in 1800, was now concentrating his efforts on the law. 

His advocacy would allow him to piece together his family life together again while also enabling him to begin making a dent in the mountain of debts he’d accumulated.

At this time, Hamilton was probably unrivaled as a constitutional lawyer. He had already demonstrated his piercing insights into the Constitution through the pamphlets he’d contributed to The Federalist Papers during the struggle over ratification. 

Service in the Cabinet had given him practical acumen in government, and two decades of arguing cases had honed his ability to sway juries through the relentless force of his arguments and passionate oratory. 

With James Wilson dead and Daniel Webster just starting out in public life, there probably was no other lawyer in the land at that time with so much potential to influence constitutional theory before the Supreme Court.

In fact, he was now in Albany for just such a case. Jefferson had announced in his first inaugural address, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans,” but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t above driving into the political wilderness the party that had made his service as Washington’s Secretary of State a form of hell. To that end, he was now pursuing prosecutions of Federalist editors.

One of these editors, Henry Croswell, enlisted as his attorney Hamilton. Croswell’s first trial had ended with the jury finding him guilty.

Now, in Albany, Hamilton was readying a six-hour address to the courtroom pleading for a new trial. In it, he called for freedom of the press and listed criteria for libel that have become commonplace in American press law ever since: i.e., that to be libelous, writing must be false, defamatory and malicious.

That speech, Hamilton’s friend James Kent remarked, was “the greatest forensic effort that he ever made,” and even political foes were inclined to agree.

But Hamilton couldn’t stick to the bar, a practice he venerated. Ever since he’d been a student at King’s College, he couldn’t miss an opportunity to make his mark on the burning political issues of the day. This time, the issue was Burr.

The deep suspicions Hamilton already harbored toward Burr’s advocacy of “democracy” became all the more pronounced because of rumors going around about a Federalist scheme in New England to secede from the Union. Leading Federalists in Massachusetts had become so disenchanted with slaveholding Virginia leaders of the Democratic-Republican Party that they were talking about breaking up the Union. Several of these secessionists saw in the disaffected Burr a potential ally.

Like much else with Burr, it’s hard to determine the extent, if any, of his involvement with this conspiracy. His invariable advice to anyone who received correspondence from him was that they burn his letter. That makes it difficult to reconstruct what he promised or didn’t promise people.

But Hamilton, convinced of Burr’s involvement, now brought it to the attention of the Federalists. He couldn’t oppose Burr’s bid for governor on purely personal grounds, so he had to find something. The New England confederacy became part of his political brief against Burr.

So opposed was Hamilton to Burr’s bid that, in a speech to Federalists gathered in Lewis’ Tavern in Albany, he even backed a longtime foe, John Lansing, a fellow New York delegate that he had opposed at the Constitutional Convention. Lansing's character, Hamilton argued now, was not as bad as Burr’s, and his lack of strength as a leader might actually revive Federalism in the state.

In the end, Lansing decided not to run, and the anti-Burr forces among the Democratic-Republicans turned to State Chief Justice Morgan Lewis. Hamilton now threw his support to him. When the votes were counted in late April, Lewis had, against all odds, beaten Burr handily.

At this point, Burr reminds me of nobody so much as Richard Nixon. After his 1960 loss of the Presidential race to John F. Kennedy, the Vice-President had decided, like Burr, to revive his political fortunes by running for governor of his state, California. 

Nixon’s loss in this second race then led him to lash out at the press with the famously bitter comment, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

As he licked his wounds that spring, Burr’s characteristic sangfroid evaporated. Normally the most charming of men, his feelings turned as rancid as Nixon's would more than a century and a half later. He needed someone other than himself to blame. 

His feelings crystallized when he received in the mail an account that noting “a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”

Burr’s attempt to find out directly from Hamilton what that “opinion” was led to the correspondence that produced Hamilton’s death and Burr’s permanent ostracism from American politics.

Quote of the Day (Arthur Miller, on the Tragedy of a Common Man)

“Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”—Linda Loman on husband Willy, in American playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005), Death of a Salesman (1949)

Attention surely has been paid since the first time that loving but long-suffering Linda Loman’s fiery cry rang through New York’s Morosco Theater, sixty years ago today, at the Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s most celebrated play, Death of a Salesman

Miller had already enjoyed success with All My Sons, but it was nothing compared with the rapturous reception he received this time, and not just because of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award it received.

It’s said that even grown men wept at the fate of the woebegone salesman, whose psychological template the playwright had taken from his father, who had been crushed by the Great Depression.

One reason why the play ignited such powerful emotions was that Miller had taken the traditional concept of tragedy—a great man undone by a fatal flaw—and applied it to an ordinary man. Some critics wrote that the premise of ancient tragedy—the tremendous fall experienced by a mighty man—was thereby undercut. 

But there seems little doubt that Miller’s reconception of this theatrical mode made his play something with which ordinary viewers could easily identify.

Decades after Willy Loman lost his job, millions of Americans continue to struggle with diminished income, fractured family life, and loss of purpose when "terminated" from companies.

A burly character actor, Lee J. Cobb was still only in his late 30s when he played Willy Loman, the defining role of his career. Seventeen years later, he would replay the role, at a more appropriate age, on television.

In 1984, a revival of Miller’s play was mounted for Broadway, then broadcast again for TV the following year, with Dustin Hoffman offering a distinct reinterpretation—or, perhaps, it might be thought, a return to the original conception of the part. 

The playwright had thought of his protagonist, literally and symbolically, as a little man. Cobb, anything but small, was so electrifying that Miller rewrote a couple lines to accommodate that physical reality. Hoffman’s small stature allowed the playwright to see the role as he originally visualized it.

In 1999, I saw Brian Dennehy tackle the demanding role. Earlier that week, the burly actor had been rushed to the hospital, the result of both a physically and emotionally draining part as well as the actor’s frequent media appearances. The following Saturday, at a matinee, I saw him give his first performance since his brief hospitalization. 

At the conclusion of the play, the audience leaped to his feet when he took his curtain call, as appreciative of the particular strain he’d been under as of the powerful performance he’d been giving since the start of the show’s run.

Coincidentally, Miller died in 2005 on the 56th anniversary of the premiere. He had succeeded beyond what he ever imagined in bringing "attention" to the fate of a common man undone by his failure to realize the promise of the elusive American Dream.

(The image accompanying this post shows Mildred Dunnock, who not only played the role of Linda Loman at its 1949 premiere but also on film two years later and on television in 1966, reuniting her with Lee J. Cobb.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

This Day in Pop Music History (The Beatles Appear on Ed Sullivan)

February 9, 1964—With a live studio audience packed with teenagers providing the noise and four moptops from Liverpool providing the visual accompaniment, the Beatles launched the British Invasion in earnest with their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The cultural landscape would never be the same.

A mite too young for the first American manifestation of Beatlemania, I became interested in the Fab Four a few years later, through, of all things, the half-hour Saturday morning cartoon series featuring the group. So, about a decade ago, curious about their first live appearance before an American audience, I watched the show at Manhattan’s Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center for Media).

What struck me full force on that viewing was not the tumultuous reception for the group (I’d read all about it, so I wasn’t surprised), nor their skills as musicians (the wall of sound surrounding them, which sometimes threatened to drown them out entirely, was probably not the best environment to appreciate their abilities), but the sharp difference between them and the other acts that Sunday night.

Billy Crystal’s movie directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night, concerned a sour Bortsch Belt comic—a would-be Milton Berle—who not only got clobbered in the TV ratings by “Davy Crockett” but then had the rotten luck to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as the Beatles.

It’s easy to imagine the sense of bewildered anger displayed by Crystal’s fictional character, Buddy Young Jr., as you watched the other real-life entertainers who filled out the rest of the card in the Beatles’ first of four appearances on the longtime Sunday night hit.

The face most recognizable to Baby Boomers is probably Frank Gorshin, who a couple of years later won enduring fame as one of the villains in one of the favorite shows of my childhood, Batman.

But the musical entertainment that Sunday night is what I’m really concerned with here. Like the many other variety shows that filled TV screens in the Sixties, Ed Sullivan’s was based on the dream of a common culture—the idea that all manner of acts could find a home there, to be welcomed by young and old alike. This night was no different.

One act, Georgia Brown and the “Oliver Kids,” performed a skit from the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! The entertainer that really appeared out of left field, though, was an English act, Tessie O’Shea, a blonde 50-year-old who belted out songs like a Cockney Sophie Tucker, her original inspiration.

At the age of three, Tessie had climbed onto a stage at an English seaside resort and let out with a song called “An Egg, An ‘am and an Onion,” and she hadn’t stopped since. She was an irrepressible product of the dance-hall tradition that John Osborne had already christened a symbol of dying imperial Britain in his play about a seedy comic, The Entertainer.

These types of musical acts—along with, say, opera stars such as Roberta Peters, or jazz musicians such as Buddy Rich or Ella Fitzgerald—depended, to one degree or another, on an older musical tradition in which a performer played songs written by someone else.

And if you wanted further confirmation of the source of these songs, you only had to turn, on the same Sunday night that the Beatles came on, to the show that immediately followed Sullivan’s on CBS, The Judy Garland Show. On that particular episode of her short-lived but well-loved series (JFK’s favorite), the legendary film star sang songs to her children with lyrics crafted for the occasion by the great songwriter Johnny Mercer.

The Beatles were not the first singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, among others, had gotten there ahead of them), but they gave that emerging movement a tremendous forward thrust with their appearance that night. With their powerful demographic force, Baby Boomer listeners—and especially Baby Boomer musicians inspired by the Liverpool quartet—would increasingly desert a tradition that called for composers who crafted songs explicitly for other voices—a tradition that had given rise to Oliver!, Tessie O’Shea and Judy Garland.

One of those listeners was a member of “The Oliver Kids,” a youngster named Davy Jones, who decided, after listening to the Beatles, that he wanted to be a part of a musical group, too. A few years later, he would get his chance when he became part of an American TV knockoff of the four English charmers, The Monkees.

But, after a season of pop hits but no critical love, Jones and bandmates Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork decided they wanted to be more like The Beatles than their record company expected. They not only wanted to act as musicians or even play instruments, but write songs, just like the group that had inspired the creation of their show. So they insisted on ditching the Brill Building stable of songwriters put together by music publisher Don Kirshner and started playing songs their own songs.

Record sales for The Monkees promptly tanked, but at least they had the artistic satisfaction of breaking with the past, just as The Beatles, four years earlier, on a midwinter night before an estimated 73 million viewers, had done.

Quote of the Day (Christian Wiman, on Inspiration and Grace)

“Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends, as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world, it can be very difficult to retain any faith at all in that original moment of inspiration.”-- Christian Wiman, “My Bright Abyss,” The American Scholar, Winter 2009

(In this vivid and spiritually restless essay, Wiman—editor of Poetry Magazine—takes issue with the notion of “returning to the faith of your childhood,” noting that this is impossible—if you think you’ve done so, you either haven’t lived or have “denied the reality of your life.” At the same time, he holds out hope for “radical change” that can transform us “right until the last breath.”

You know what really kills me? That Jesse Ventura interview in which he said, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.” Somehow, I think, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were a lot stronger than that former professional wrestler could ever hope to be. Wiman shows how faith, far from being a “crutch,” poses one test after another, such that “I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.”

If you want to read a 21st century counterpart to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reflection “Experience”—one that takes full account of the tragedies of life, but with a provisional openness to grace—then turn to this unusually thoughtful meditation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

This Day in Cultural History (“Saturday Evening Post” Releases Last Issue)

February 8, 1969—The venerable magazine The Saturday Evening Post, which at one time virtually embodied the mainstream American culture in literature and art, released its final issue, victimized by larger movements in the nation’s culture as well as by particular mistakes made by its management.

The magazine may now seem like a mossy relic from a faraway time, a middlebrow monolith whose passing is not something to be mourned. Yet I would argue that the magazine published the work of some of the nation’s most talented writers and artists; that its demise represented a milestone in the tightening of the short-fiction market; and that its death, hastened by a new medium, constitutes an eerie foreshadowing of the current equivalent of the Great Depression afflicting the media these days.

The artist most commonly associated with the Post, Norman Rockwell, had his last work for the magazine published in December 1963. The editors’ decision to move away from painted covers in favor of photographs did nothing to blunt the magazines’ old-fashioned image, and only turned off longtime readers.

It is certainly true that the magazine’s carefully implemented moral standards could result in a sameness in editorial content. (For example, see how its decision to soften the edges of Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-sleuth Perry Mason resulted in a series far more formulaic than anyone expected.)

But over the years, the Post also published the work of some of the world’s greatest writers, including Willa Cather, Jack London, G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane.

My favorite among the magazine’s stable of writers also happens to be my favorite writer, period: F. Scott Fitzgerald. As Matthew J. Bruccoli noted in his edition of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 65 of the novelist’s 160 published short fiction—approximately 40% of his output—were published in the magazine, including the fine story “The Last of the Belles” and the autobiographical “Basil and Josephine” stories.

Though the Post never had the cachet of, say, The New Yorker, its demise put a chill in writers looking to short fiction to survive. One harbinger of the magazine’s death was the fall of one of its main rivals in publishing short stories, Collier’s.

Over the years, the mass-market magazine market has become an increasingly inhospitable place to the short story. Even The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly have concentrated increasingly on nonfiction over the years. Short story writers are now forced to literary magazines and similar low-paying outlets.

One should also take note of the prominent illustrators whose work first appeared in the magazine, not just Rockwell but also J.C. Leyendecker, Harrison Fisher, James Montgomery Flagg, Steven Dohanos, and Mead Schaffer.

One particular factor in the serial’s demise was an adverse libel ruling resulting from a 1963 article which claimed that football coaches Paul “Bear” Bryant of the University of Alabama and Wally Butts of the University of Georgia had conspired to fix a game. Butts’ victory, in a case that ultimately wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, resulted in a judgment against the magazine of more than $3 million—an amount that the magazine by this time could little afford to pay, given its decline in advertising revenues.

This past year has seen the demise of a number of magazines, including Radar and 02138. The recession and a hostile environment for print (increased by the Internet) has resulted in many casualties in the literary market. That same assault on old-time media was, in a way, prefigured in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when several major well-loved magazines—not only the Post but also Life and Look—fell by the wayside, victimized by the rise of television.

Quote of the Day (Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, on the Endurance of the Church Despite Its Clergy)

"If in 1,800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you'll be able to do it?"—Cardinal Ercole Consalvi to Napoleon Bonaparte, after the general had threatened to crush the Roman Catholic Church

We Catholics can use some more of Cardinal Consalvi’s combination of world-weary wit, humility and historical perspective around the Vatican these days—especially in light of the firestorm surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s removal of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier.

I’m sure the Vatican wasn’t bargaining for that revelation when it rescinded the 1988 excommunication of Williamson and three other bishops ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve, who was expelled from the Church after refusing to accept Vatican II’s embrace of the non-Latin Mass and ecumenism.

Much of the reaction to Benedict’s move has been predictably hostile. (For just two reactions, taken at random, see this post from US News and World Report blogger Bonnie Erbe and atheist/contrarian-at-large Christopher Hitchens.)

But, no matter how overdrawn or even hysterical many of these conclusions may be about the Church’s or Benedict’s current stance toward anti-Semitism (for a discussion of why revoking excommunication does not involve “embracing” Williamson, see Fr. Thomas Reese’s cogent analysis), the pope and the entire hierarchy need to do some serious soul-searching about why this outreach to more traditionalist elements in the Church backfired so badly. In the final analysis, this wound was almost entirely self-inflicted.

I don’t mind the Church taking its sweet time in moving on an issue. But when it does move, it better get it right the first time and not scramble, the way it has, in the most embarrassing fashion, this past week.

Why didn’t more people at the Curia see this coming? More to the point, why didn’t someone notice the paper trail of comments by Archbishop Williamson?

I can see that the Vatican might have felt blindsided by Williamson’s latest ludicrous Holocaust comment, that “the historical evidence is strongly against -- is hugely against -- 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler." That interview on Swedish TV appeared, most inopportunely, on the day he and the three other Society of St. Pius X saw their excommunication removed.

But Williamson made similar comments dating back to the 1990s—one of many remarks that can only be regarded as evidence of psychological derangement. (Want more? How about his belief that the 9/11 attacks were inside jobs? Or that women should not wear pants or attend universities?)

How could these comments not have been noticed?

I’ve been puzzling this out the last several days, particularly in light of something that almost any Catholic can testify to here in the U.S.: the minute someone does something even slightly nontraditional or unorthodox (and I’m not talking here about, say, ordaining women priests, but even something like performing a song not regarded as part of the church’s hymnal)—somehow, somewhere, somebody is going to call the nearest archbishop’s office to complain.

Maybe it’s something in the water in Rome, with that la dolce vita lifestyle. It’s not like the U.S., where everything is wanted on the double and there are reporters from CNN, all the major networks, and every newspaper, not to mention 200 bloggers from every working print or broadcast journalist, knocking on the door of an archdiocesan spokesman the second there’s a problem.

In contrast, think of Pope John XXIII’s reported wisecrack to a reporter who inquired how many people worked at the Vatican: “About half,” he answered.

That same unhurried pace, that “We’re the Eternal City, don’t you know that?” vibe probably lay behind the Vatican’s languid response to the sexual-abuse scandal that rocked the Church in America a half dozen years ago.

I’m not one of those people who think that the Church should change its mind instantly or that it even must abide by whatever most of its members think at any one time. (Would you want interpretations of the Gospels based on what pollsters like Dick Morris think is advisable?)

There is a real danger to the Church shifting like a weathervane, a possibility imagined, to stunning effect, in Brian Moore’s 1972 novel Catholics and the excellent television adaptation of it the next year starring Trevor Howard, Martin Sheen and Cyril Cusack. Moore had broken away from the Churcyh of his youth. Yet in the alternative future he imagined, after “Vatican IV,” the Church has not only embraced the Mass said in the vernacular, but also rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (here, understood to be symbolic) and become more of a social-revolutionary organization that one bent on the saving of souls.

And yet, you have to ask whether the Vatican’s extremely deliberative M.O. has not left Pope Benedict in the same position as Cardinal Wolsey’s in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII—i.e., lamenting that he has been left “naked to mine enemies.”

For reasons of organizational, national and personal history, this pope has no margin for error for either the larger issue of Vatican-Jewish relations or the particular issue of the Holocaust:

* The longstanding anti-Semitism passed down, well into the 20th century, to many members of the Church;

* The heavy responsibility of Germany—the pope’s native country—for the Holocaust; and

* Benedict’s membership in the Hitler Youth as a teenager.

It does not matter that Benedict and his family, by most reliable accounts, were anti-Nazi; that membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory; that Benedict was drafted into the German armed forces against his will, when he was enrolled in a seminary; and that he deserted from the German Army the first chance he had. He will get no pass from large elements of the left, even if some of them (notably John Irving) gave one to novelist Gunter Grass for his patent dishonesty in hiding his SS membership for six decades after the war.

This latest controversy has led to a hitherto-unimagined finger-pointing about who was responsible for not alerting Benedict to Williamson’s long and bizarre history.

Even if you agree, though, that Benedict could have been prepared better for this, you’re left to ask why he keeps getting bogged down in brouhahas like this or the one involving Islam three years ago. He comes across as someone far more comfortable in the groves of academe than as the leader of a worldwide, ancient organization constantly under the microscope.

Consalvi’s statement at the top of this post is a reminder that the Church has been through difficulties as bad—or worse—than the current one. But it’s also a reminder that the highest reaches of the Church have greater opportunity to scandalize than any of its members.

Williamson—and, unfortunately, through his cluelessness, Benedict—have bewildered, embarrassed, and horrified many Catholics who had hoped to turn the page on the darkest chapter in the Church’s history: the anti-Semitism embodied in the deicide charges against the Jews. Why is the hierarchy quicker to find out about renegade ordinations of women priests than they are about something right under its nose: a real church renegade like Williamson who rejects Vatican II’s belated but welcome denunciation of anti-Semitism?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

This Day in Southern History (Tupelo, MS Becomes “First TVA City”)

February 7, 1934—Four months after entering into a contract for the purchase of power generated by Wilson Dam, Tupelo, Miss., became the first city to receive electrical service from one of the signature New Deal programs: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

As my other post from today notes, President Obama is being labeled “socialist” for an extremely mild cap on the compensation of any banker accepting government largesse. TVA was a far riskier proposition: in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, “a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.” Private companies complained that the project constituted unfair competition.

Though Sen. George Norris pressed two fellow Republicans, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, to implement his idea of developing the Tennessee River Valley, it took a Democrat, FDR, to put it into action. In Muscle Shoals, Ala., land belonging to Wilson Dam—a project built in WWI meant to produce nitrates for munitions—was transferred over to TVA.

TVA achieved its great purpose: to provide abundant cheap electricity to people who didn’t have it before. Lorena Hickok, a journalist who became a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, reported on a fact-finding trip in the South only four months after the beginning of service to Tupelo the following as one telling example of the change being wrought: “One thing they are doing is to cut down greatly the cost of wiring a house. For instance, in Tupelo it used to cost as high as $60 to have an electric stove installed in your house. It now costs $5.” Moreover, she reported, industries attracted by cheap power were inquiring about coming to the area.

Over that first year, energy consumption grew 114% for residential consumers in Tupelo and 77% for commercial users.

Throughout the 41,000 sq. miles in seven states covered by the valley, TVA would accomplish the following:

* its electricity would supply homes;
* locks were built to permit more and larger barges to carry goods;
* reforestation and soil-retention projects were begun;
* fertilizer was produced for sale to farmers;
* floods from the Tennessee River--a source of potential danger--came under control;
* reservoirs and lands surrounding them provided for considerable recreational development, including water skiing, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, fishing, swimming, hiking, nature photography, picnicking, birdwatching, and camping.
* conservation was upgraded through control of forest fires and improved habitats for wildlife and fish.

Due to fierce domestic opposition, the TVA turned out to be a one-of-a-kind project rather than a blueprint for similar enterprises elsewhere. But perhaps no other New Deal program better illustrate FDR’s penchant for bold experimentation and desire to boost the economy, nor his longtime interests in aiding farmers and improving conservation.

And Tupelo still prides itself as the “First TVA City.”

Quote of the Day (Sean Hannity, on Obama’s Call for Capping Banker Executives’ Pay)

The cap on executive pay for bankers accepting the government bailout program is “a dramatic move away from capitalism and toward socialism."—Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, quoted in Alex Roth and Corey Dade, “Mixed Reactions From Republicans Demonstrate the Dilemma Faced by the Party,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2009

Years ago, I was out with a group of teenage friends when one guy drank so much that he began acting stupidly—enough so that his father eventually was called. As my friend bent over, vomiting for all he was worth, his father looked down at him and shook his head. “He’s going to learn,” he said at last.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the commentariate, such as Sean Hannity, are, against all predictable human behavior, reversing the cycle that my friend, like most teenagers, enacted nearly ago. The GOP got sick first, in the fall, as the economy doomed any chance they had of holding onto the Presidency and stemming the Democratic tide. It's only now, as the economy worsens and the headlines blare daily about the bloated bonuses and executive-office binges of the fat cats they supported for years, that they’re acting stupid.

Like his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is proving unbelievably fortunate in his enemies. By all rights, last week should not have been a good one for the President. One after another of his appointees were forced to confess to trouble with paying taxes—not a good sign for an administration calling for sacrifice and economic fairness for all its citizens.

To the rescue came the GOP. Years ago, they acted like a posse, coming to teach those out-of-touch Democrats about the perils of disregarding the will of the people; in 2009, however, the same group has come to resemble The Over-the-Hill Gang.

Sure, some of their objections to Obama’s stimulus program (e.g., some items might take years to come to fruition and won’t help revive the economy now) don’t sound totally outside the realm of possibility.

But most of what we’re hearing from them—at a time when the news features daily stories about joblessness and wiped-out savings—is so mindless that it only confirms what Rush Limbaugh, in a comment so rawly and inanely honest that it became a gaffe, admitted not long ago: they hope Obama fails.

Hannity is acting under the mistaken belief that if you cry “socialist” loudly and long enough, people will come to believe you. This might have worked in the late 1940s, when the American Medical Association rallied to kill Harry S. Truman’s modest health-care plan, but it won’t now, for several reasons:

* Republicans, not Democrats, were the ones who made the first move toward wholesale government involvement in the economy in this last turn of the business cycle, when—at the urging of President Bush, Treasury Secretary Paulson, and Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke—they initiated the TARP program. And these weren’t the RHINO—Republicans in Name Only—moderate Republicans that the dittoheads loathe; these were diehard believers in the free market.

* Republican consultants kept crying “socialist” at Obama during the campaign. If it didn’t work then, who’s to think it’s going to work now?)

* When did capitalism become about rewarding failure?

* As it happens, Obama’s cap on executive pay is far less rough than it appears. It only applies to those accepting the government handout (sorry—I meant assistance), not to all bankers. Second, there is an out—senior executives might not get paid more than the amount up front, but can once the bank has recovered and the American taxpayer is repaid.

* Free-market conservatives and their GOP enablers have for years bleated about letting the market alone, about permitting those who risked starting an enterprise reap the rewards—and fall by the wayside when they don’t. Now the bankers—after being allowed to run wild over the last quarter-century, with one brake on their operations after another being lifted--are making like Oliver Twist, asking for more.

Americans thought that Wall Street, after being given life support, wouldn’t start acting silly again. But we were wrong. Let’s put it this way: I scan my 401K statement for one spot, any spot, on my diversified plan that recorded an upturn. Nothing doing. Yet we are told that financial services employees, after recording its most disastrous year in decades, still received $18.4 billion in bonuses. How do they manage to deserve any?

Remember that song "Stray Cat Strut" from the early 1980s? Well, beginning around the same time, we started to see a different version of that tune in corporate America: the Fat Cat Strut. The latter was a hit for far longer than the former, but at long last the giddy music has ceased and the dance has ended.

If they continue their obstructionist ways, Republicans will find themselves in an even worse position than they are now: not only blamed for the economy’s initial failure, but for the failure to revive it. Voters will say to them, as my friend’s father said years ago: They’re going to learn.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Quote of the Day (Christopher Marlowe, on Rulers Shorn of Power)

“But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?”—Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), Edward the Second

(The life of Marlowe—poet, dramatist, religious skeptic, spy, sexual outlaw—was arguably more dramatic than his own plays, which, at their best, were the zenith of Elizabethan theater—and it was certainly more dramatic than the quiet, bourgeois life of his contemporary, William Shakespeare. The quote above, from what might be his greatest play, nicely illustrates his genius at taking a prosaic fact—the loss of the force behind a ruler’s power—and render it into a vivid image. It also perfectly captures the loneliness of a politician/statesman now shorn of the attention that made him a force to be reckoned with.

Nearly a decade ago, a work colleague told me, they had seen Newt Gingrich, who had recently resigned as Speaker of the House, walk into a Manhattan publishing house, alone. Virtually nobody took any notice of him. It must have been agony for that most egocentric of politicians. My guess is that much of the same feeling is now shared, to one extent or another, by Rudy Blagojevich, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, and George W. Bush, among many others. Even the book deals and multimillion-dollar lobbying salaries when out of office are small compensation for the heady rush of power

Thursday, February 5, 2009

This Day in Television History (“Lonesome Dove” Premieres)

February 5, 1989—Debuting on a Sunday night when a Canadian cold front made many Americans disinclined to step outside the warm confines of their homes, Lonesome Dove became a major critical and ratings success for CBS. The star-studded adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel not only marked the end of a way of life for the two aging Texas cowboys at its center, but also the end of the heyday of the major network miniseries. 

Though I had seen a prior issue of the magazine in, of all places, a Manhattan newsstand, the February/March issue of American Cowboy finally led me to part with some of my hard-earned cash. The cover story on the 20th anniversary of Lonesome Dove was every bit as good as I had hoped. It brought to mind many fond memories of the mini-series that I followed breathlessly at the time, and it filled me in on quite a bit I didn’t know before. 

(McMurtry is not a fan of the miniseries made from his book, believe it or not. According to an Entertainment Weekly article, one of the major bones he has to pick with it is that Clara Allen—my favorite character in the creative property and, evidently, one of his—looked nothing like the actress who played her, Anjelica Huston. Instead, the person he visualized in the role was—are you ready?—Diane Keaton. Now, I’m as much of a fan of Keaton as anyone, but I have serious doubts about how her 20th-century urban sensibility would translate into the century before.) 

The author of the article, Tom Wilmes, obviously did his homework, rustling up nearly every surviving major person associated with the TV epic (with the notable exceptions of Robert Duvall and Danny Glover). For many who’ve seen the show or read the book, Wilmes’ description of the creative genesis of this property will be eye-opening (I did not realize, for instance, that the rights were optioned by, of all companies, Motown). Believe it or not, however, I think I’ll be able to add more sidelights about this tangled (or should that be tumbleweed?) tale. 

Before he fleshed it out as a novel, McMurtry sketched out the story of former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call as a film treatment, Streets of Laredo (a title dropped temporarily, then picked up as the sequel to the book and mini-series). Peter Bogdanovich, fresh off his triumph with another McMurtry project, The Last Picture Show, was set to direct. Several of the cast members—Bogdanovich’s new paramour Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, and Ellen Burstyn—had starred in that critically acclaimed 1971 movie. Another set of actors, the Clancy Brothers, were, to say the least, unconventional choices. 

But the real projected stars of the film would have made this a project for the ages. Think of it: Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and John Wayne, all in the sunset movie of their careers. 

When contacted for the American Cowboy article, McMurtry noted that the project appeared to be coming together when it ran into an obstacle: Wayne. “He would have been the Call character in that story, and he didn’t want to play what he considered to be an unlikable, hard-ass character. When he wouldn’t do it, everyone else lost interest.” 

That statement is intriguing, but I think there might have been somewhat more than this at play. If Wayne did not want to play an unsympathetic character, there would have been an easy way around that: Pick either Fonda or Stewart to do it. 

The glorious thing about all three actors is that each could have probably played McCrae as well as Call because they had displayed such versatility in their prior westerns. With a bit of negotiation, one of these two could have switched roles with Wayne, so that he’d get to play talkative Gus while Fonda/Stewart would handle reticent Call. 

But there was another problem with the casting issue: the best roles of Wayne’s career had been as hardasses. I’m not talking about his Sgt. Stryker of Sands of Iwo Jima, his Oscar-nominated turn as the marine who’s tough on his men mostly because the Japanese will destroy them if he doesn’t turn them into killing machines. No, I mean Red River, in which he played a cattle boss who gives adopted son Montgomery Clift the most awful of times, or, better yet, The Searchers, in which he offered a daring portrait of an unregenerate Western racist. 

Even suppose, for the sake of argument, that he was now balking at playing these kinds of antiheroes. I think Wayne would have come around if advised to do so by his mentor, John Ford. Why do I believe this? Because in 1997, I went to an author lecture/signing at Fairleigh Dickinson University featuring Bogdanovich, who was promoting his book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors. I can see now how Bogdanovich came to play a psychoanalyst on The Sopranos: he may have come to filmmaking originally through his work as a movie critic, but his brilliance as a mimic, imitating, in turn, Stewart, Fonda and Wayne, convinced me that he could have made a very comfortable career as an actor as well as a director, had he chosen to do so. 

According to what Bogdanovich said at the FDU lecture, Wayne had, in fact, asked Ford his opinion of the script. The problem was that the great director was now dying. A film about the death of the West—in fact, at a point when the western, the genre that Ford had brought to a creative apogee, was itself going through a decline—was too grim a reminder of Ford’s own mortality. 

So Ford told Wayne not to do the film, and the project collapsed, only to be revived, more than a decade later, with a nearly equally brilliant cast (with Tommy Lee Jones cast as Call, along with Duvall, Glover, Huston, Diane Lane, and the late Robert Urich)—though, inevitably, not one so mythically associated with the western genre. 

Lonesome Dove also arrived toward the end of the heyday of the multipart miniseries on American network TV. Arguably the first, an adaptation of Leon Uris' QB7, had been telecast in 1974. A year after Lonesome Dove saw the appearance of War and Remembrance, which was not the success of its predecessor, The Winds of War. Thereafter the networks left these prestige projects for cable TV. The broadcast landscape has been the poorer for its departure.

Quote of the Day (Mickey Rourke, on One of His Shortcomings)

" ‘Angel Heart’ was a learning experience for me, because I sat across from Robert De Niro. One of my shortcomings as an actor and as a human being was always my attention span and my concentration. Even in sports, that was something I lacked, where I couldn't go any further. Watching De Niro, he would get so goddamned focused. Alan Parker, who did ‘Angel Heart,’ would laugh at me. He goes, ‘Look at that man there, he knows all his lines, and you're out here trying to pick up a girl eating a f–––ing ice-cream cone.’"—Mickey Rourke, quoted in David Ansen and Ramin Setoodeh, “Inside the Actor’s Studio” (The 12th Newsweek Oscar Roundtable), Newsweek, January 21, 2009

(You have to read this Newsweek sitdown with six of the Oscar-nominated actors and actresses this year. No, not for Sally Hawkins, who sounds just happy to have made the cut for “Happy Go Lucky.” Not for Anne Hathaway grousing about the perils of googling and celebrity. Not for Brad Pitt trying to sound like the adult—cool to the perils of fame. Not even for Frank Langella, doing his merrily cantankerous paterfamilias act. No, I’m talking about the interplay between the two designated crazies: Robert Downey Jr. and Rourke. Man, they have gone to the other side and stayed there!)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Quotes of the Day (Liebling and Wright, on Yesterday’s Contests and Today’s)

“You got to respect a boxer. He’ll pick you and peck you, peck you and pick you, until you don’t know where you are.”—Oldtime gym proprietor Harry Wiley on boxing, quoted in A.J. Liebling, “Poet and Pedagogue,” in Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer (2004)

“[Middleweight Dave] Menne executes a sneaky jujisu move and traps [Gil] Castillo in a choke hold called a ‘guillotine.’ Castillo struggles helplessly, blood from eye wounds streaming down his face. With each gasp Castillo’s eyeballs roll farther back in bloody eye sockets. His arms flop helplessly. He looks like a rat being strangled by a snake.”—Evan Wright, describing a typical example of “The Ultimate Fighting Championship,” in “Fight Night,” Men’s Journal, March 2002

We’ve come a long way from the “Sweet Science” of boxing hailed by Liebling—peopled by the likes of Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, the young Muhammad Ali, and others who survived on guile and courage—to a monstrosity called the UFC, or "Ultimate Fighting Championship."

Fans call the UFC a “mixed martial-arts” sports. I call it all organized mayhem. We have no business looking down our noses at gladiatorial contests as examples of the ancient Roman penchant for “bread and circuses” to distract the masses when matches in 21st century America are scarcely less bloodthirsty.

Five years ago, though it seems blessedly longer, I encountered on 48th Street in New York a line of nearly two dozen men in black tie and masks, walking away from the Fox studios. They were contestants on a thankfully short-lived Fox reality dating show called “Mr. Personality,” hosted by Monica Lewinsky.

Well, I guess that if I were on a show hosted by Ms. Lewinsky, I’d want to wear a mask, too, lest my friends and even lots of people I didn’t know discover my infamy. As I watched the long line of these men walk by, I thought I would never again behold a scene so bizarre or so exceeding the boundaries of bad taste. I mean, it was presented by Fox, right? But that was before I read Wright’s account of the UFC.

I had never even heard of the UFC before coming across it in the article by Wright—who, incidentally, in his freelance work for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, LA Weekly, and other publications, has become a vivid chronicler of America’s underbelly. This time, he shows that the UFC is a sport where anything goes—not just the boxing championed by Liebling (perhaps more than deserved, given the rash of pugilists who’ve sustained significant brain damage in recent years and made old before their time), but also kicking and gouging. The whole spectacle only ends when one fighter is knocked unconscious or gives up.

While Republicans and conservatives flail around in confused nihilism today in Obama’s Washington, let’s give them credit for one thing they got right, if only for a short while, on Capitol Hill while they were in control: In the 1990s, Sen. John McCain and columnist George F. Will shamed cable TV from televising the UFC bloodmatches. It looked as if what McCain aptly called a modern form of “human cockfighting” was on the ropes.

But it was not to be. After a few years of peril, new owners of the UFC turned around and mandated “safety rules” and new equipment, such as lighter gloves, making it easier for cable to put on these slugfests all over again.

I’m sorry to say that these “safety regulations” are a myth. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Dr. Steven Brown, a supervising physician for these matches from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. In Atlantic Monthly’s recent profile of former UFC champ Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Brown does his best to make the “sport” sound within the bounds of civilization—it’s not especially brutal, he says—but inevitably what he says spins out of control. He says that he’ll have to leave his ringside seat and enter the ring, because the skill of the fighters is such that an injury is almost guaranteed. Moreover, head injuries are more frequent in mixed-martial-arts fights than in boxing, and there is more bleeding, with eight of 10 cuts that we see coming from the scalp.

Shame worked at least for awhile, so what do you say we try it again—only this time, let’s start on the celebrities who, for reasons because left to their psychoanalysts, have come to the UFC Las Vegas events to cheer on the contenders. Among those who’ve attended these bash-a-thons: Justin Timberlake, David Spade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jenna Jameson ( just the type of tacky exhibition the porn superstar would attend) and Mandy Moore (just the type of show you’d never expect the sweet girl-next-door singer to watch).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This Day in Pop Music History (“The Day the Music Died”)

February 3, 1959—In one of the most grievous disasters ever to hit the American pop culture scene, young rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. (“The Big Bopper”) Richardson perished in a plane crash just hours after performing in Clear Lake, Iowa.

I have been fascinated by this terrible tragedy ever since an elementary school teacher taught my class the use of literary allusion by focusing intently on Don McLean’s 1971 epic pop hit “American Pie,” which took as its jumping-off point “The Day the Music Died.” Today, you can get some idea of the vast lost promise of these musicians—but especially Holly—by taking in the vast number of retrospectives that have appeared in the mass media about the disaster. I’ll focus here on two.

The current issue of Rolling Stone (the one with Bruce Springsteen on the cover) features a terrific article by Jonathan Cott on the circumstances surrounding the tragic day. It reviews:

* the extraordinary conditions that led the three musicians to make their risky flight (a blizzard with minus-30-degrees-below-zero temperatures; the unheated Baptist school bus that left them stranded for hours in the middle of nowhere; the unwashed laundry and lack of sleep that made them desperate for a warm hotel room);

* the camaraderie that developed in the long hours on the bus (Dion, on jamming with the group: “Man, that was heaven, that was family, that was the connection, that was a bit of salvation, that was touching the very center of my heart”); and

* the Bridge of San Luis Rey-type sense of fate as the musicians decided who’d board the plane and who’d stick with the bus (Waylon Jennings gave up his ticket on the plane to the flu-stricken Richardson; Dion balked at the $36 price, which reminded him too much of the rent his parents paid every month for their apartment; and Crickets musician Tommy Allsup losing a coin toss to Valens).

(And now, here, a gripe about how Rolling Stone showcased this piece—or, rather, how they didn’t. Not only is there no link to the article on the magazine’s Web site, but even on the front cover of the magazine, there’s not a mention of it—instead, it has teasers for articles about Franz Ferdinand and Howard Stern’s slob of a sidekick, Artie Lange. One consolation: the Web site does have a link where fans can offer views on the sad anniversary.)

Both this article and Barry Mazor’s article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Buddy Holly’s Still-Living Legacy,” features poignant memories by the rock ‘n’ roll legend’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, recalling how he would, on the spur of the moment, go down to Washington Square in New York and counsel young musicians on the craft of songwriting.

Mazor’s apt summary of the amazing evolution of Holly in just a five-year span—“from covers of three-chord hits to increasingly sophisticated, memorable songwriting, from garage rock to string sessions orchestrated by himself”—hints at all that was lost with the singer’s death. Think of how young the flight victims were (Holly, 22; Valens, 17; Richardson, 28) and visualize what they might have accomplished if they’d been given even another 10 years of life, let alone a normal human life span of around 70-80 years old.

Here are some alternative ways of thinking about that:

* Holly already had a dozen hits at the time of his death. Give him another dozen years—just short of the lifespan of George Gershwin—and you would have had the first rock ‘n’ roller who would have had musicians performing entire songbooks of his material, as Ella Fitzgerald did with a well-publicized series dedicated to the likes of Gershwin, Porter, etc., and as Jennifer Warnes did with the songs of Leonard Cohen.

To visualize the loss, imagine what would have happened if the Beatles had gone down in a plane in the Atlantic Ocean, just before appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Imagine no “Yesterday,” no “Nowhere Man,” no “Day in the Life,” no “Let It Be.” (Push on into their solo careers and imagine no “Imagine.”)

Holly’s last hit was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” But, as we thrill to his songs 50 years after his death, we realize that his career very much did.

Quote of the Day (Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, on How He Composed)

“Ever since I began to compose, I have remained true to my starting principle: not to write a page because no matter what public, or what pretty girl wanted it to be thus or thus; but to write solely as I myself thought best, and as it gave me pleasure.”—Felix Mendelssohn, in an 1843 letter

Felix Mendelssohn, born 200 years ago today in Hamburg, Germany, gave pleasure not just to himself but to music fans the world over before his tragically early death in 1847. Yet his reputation, so high in the years just before his death, fell into eclipse over the years.

Critics such as Eduard Hanslick, according to Sinead Dempsey of the University of Manchester, questioned how much his work resulted from zealous study versus pure genius. Far more virulent and vile was the unremitting hostility of Richard Wagner, who argued that the composer had not achieved greatness because of his Jewish ancestry. So unremitting was Wagner’s anti-Semitism that he overlooked the Mendelssohn family’s conversion to Lutheranism.

(Indefatigable critic/blogger Terry Teachout had a fine column in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the informal ban against Wagner performances in Israel. Whatever initial qualms you might have had about that, you’re bound to be at least somewhat more sympathetic to Israeli musicians’ stance when you read that Wagner likened Jews to a “swarming colony of worms in the dead body of art” or that only one thing could rescue them from “the burden of curse—total annihilation.” No wonder the Nazis liked him—he had advocated the Final Solution three-quarters of a century before they got around to executing the idea.)

Recently, efforts have been made to rectify that. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan recently presented world premieres of a number of the more than 200 of Mendelssohn’s works that had been scattered over the world after the Nazis seized power. Moreover, this past Sunday’s New York Times included an article, “Finding Her Mendelssohn Sweet Spot,” by Vivien Schweitzer, which relates the efforts by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the conductor Kurt Masur to refocus attention on the composer (who, incidentally, sounds as cultured, warm—and non-neurotic—as a supremely talented man can get.)

So the next chance you have, put on the great man’s music. (I recommend the wondrous “Italian Symphony,” used as part of the background music for the excellent 1979 film Breaking Away.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

This Day in French History (Birth of Talleyrand, Machiavellian Statesman)

February 2, 1754—Observers of the Continental diplomatic scene believed, watching his machinations, that he had nine lives, but Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Perigord began the only one actually allotted to human beings as the scion of a family of nobles. 

Physically lame, he had demonstrated, by the time he breathed his last 84 years later, perhaps the most remarkable political and moral nimbleness of any politician of his time.

Somewhere, I heard it said in a spate of dark jesting, that the only creature that would survive a nuclear apocalypse would be the cockroach. Well, in his amazing survival instincts, Talleyrand might have been the closest human equivalent of the cockroach.

At first, I thought that Talleyrand’s longevity might have been surpassed by the Soviet Union’s V.M. Molotov, who lived to age 96. 

But most of the Communist diplomat’s career was spent in the service of Joseph Stalin, and once removed from power by Nikita Khrushchev, he had the good sense to live quietly in retirement as something of a U.S.S.R. “nonperson.”

Consider the following different masters Talleyrand served:

* His aristocratic parents sloughed him off on the Catholic Church once they became convinced he was not made for their life.

* Rising from priest to bishop, he was among the clergy at the Estates-General called by King Louis XVI to consider what to do about the worsening domestic situation in 1789.

* He ingratiated himself with the revolutionaries by a) proposing that the French assembly assume ecclesiastical lands, and b) accepting the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. For his pains, Talleyrand was excommunicated. (Over a decade later, the Church rescinded the excommunication—though Talleyrand remained laicized).

* While in England in 1792, negotiating on behalf of the young republic, the French monarchy was overthrown. When matters became too hot in France, Talleyrand journeyed to England as a private citizen. He wasn’t out of France long when he was branded an émigré—a designation that, at the time, was often assigned to monarchists. It wasn’t a comfortable class to which to belong, and the former aristocrat decided to bide his time.

* The English, not trusting him, forced him out in 1794, compelling Talleyrand to journey across the ocean to the U.S. There he remained for more than a year.

* With the Reign of Terror over, Talleyrand managed to work his way back into the good graces of the five-member Directory, which, in need of an experienced foreign-policy hand (even if that experience had been only for a few years), appointed the returned diplomat as foreign minister.

* Later in 1799, Talleyrand resigned his post—but his shrewd recognition of the coming power in the land, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the latter’s coup resulted in Talleyrand resuming his old ministerial portfolio.

* Talleyrand plied his arts with Napoleon, and for awhile they got along because they needed each other. But a very public reconciliation between Talleyrand and an old enemy led the man who, by now, had gotten himself named Emperor, to wonder if the two might be conspiring against him. In 1809, at a meeting of the privy council, Napoleon launched into a half-hour harangue, climaxing with a denunciation of Talleyrand as “dung in a silk stocking.” Talleyrand didn’t say a peep, before or afterward. The emperor continued to consult with him, but for all intents and purposes Talleyrand had lost much of his influence.

* At the Congress of Vienna, with Napoleon overthrown, Talleyrand represented post-imperial France in a diplomatic assemblage of reactionaries whose guiding spirit was Prince Metternich.

* Napoleon’s return from Elba resulted in Talleyrand resigning again. The wily old diploat waited, then waited some more. It looked as if his diplomatic career was over.

* Er, not quite yet. In the July Revolution of 1830, Talleyrand persuaded Louis Philippe to accept the offer by that year’s group of radicals to become King of France. The grateful new sovereign tried to get the old diplomatic dog to become foreign minister again, but Talleyrand said that minister to England would do fine. He held that last post for four years before taking leave of government, this time for good, in 1834, four years before his death.