Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Movie Quote of the Day (“As Good As It Gets,” on “A Normal Boyfriend”)

Carol Connelly (a single mom with years of frustration pouring out in desperate tears, played by Helen Hunt): “Why can't I have a normal boyfriend? Just a regular boyfriend, one that doesn't go nuts on me!”

Beverly Connelly (her mother, played by Shirley Knight): “Everybody wants that, dear. It doesn't exist.”—As Good As It Gets (1997), written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, and directed by Brooks

My female readers can identify with this scene, I suspect.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

This Day in Film History (Garland’s “A Star is Born” Premieres)

September 29, 1954—In Los Angeles’s Pantages Theater, the world’s first televised film premiere was held for A Star Is Born, a drama with music featuring a now-classic torch song, “The Man That Got Away.” But for Judy Garland, making a comeback on the silver screen after too many pills, a suicide attempt and termination by long-time employer MGM, what “got away” was an Oscar for her magnificent, gutsy, career-defining performance.

By general agreement, the film is the best of the four basic treatments of the same story stretching from 1932 to 1976. But for nearly 30 years after its release, most people did not realize just how classic it was, because Warner Brothers deleted nearly 30 minutes from the running time after the premiere to boost the number of showings per day and its box-office receipts.

The minutes cut were not just any minutes, either. Maybe if director George Cukor were around, he’d either have been able to plead his case or, at least, snip out the least essential portions from the original 181 minutes. But, like Orson Welles during the cutting of The Magnificent Ambersons, he was far away on location with another project, and he could do nothing but howl in agony as the studio took a meat cleaver to a film as much a landmark to him (his first musical and first color film) as it was to Garland.

Notice that I wrote it was as much a landmark to Cukor as to Garland, not that it was as important. Give the lady credit: Even while still a 20-year-old studio ingénue, not a worn-out veteran dismissed as a shaky has-been by many in the industry, Frances Gumm/Judy Garland sensed an affinity with Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester.

On December 28, 1942, she played the role for a 60-minute straight-drama version on the Lux Radio Theater. Shortly thereafter, she began advocating to MGM the idea of a movie musical based on the story.

The studio, understandably eyeing musicals as an escapist genre, pooh-poohed the idea—and, even given the talents enlisted for the project a decade later (not just Garland and Cukor, but also costar James Mason, screenwriter Moss Hart, lyricist Ira Gershwin and composer Harold Arlen), they were right to wonder if they’d see any money from this.

Making something artistic—even truthful—was another matter entirely.

The cut footage in the ’54 version testifies to the filmmakers’ complicated, uncompromising version. As good as the numbers are, I wasn’t as upset by the loss of "Here's What I'm Here For" and "Lose That Long Face" as by the straight dramatic portion.
Some of the latter lost scenes neatly foreshadow how much Vicki Lester and alcoholic star-in-decline Norman Maine (played by Mason) will risk. More important, they make viewers realize why they’re so devoted to each other.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate just for a second: Warner Brothers was right in claiming the scenes didn’t really advance the plot. And God knows that modern filmmakers could learn a thing or two from notably unsentimental studio production heads about the virtue of economy.

But overall, Cukor was right: less really was less in this case. Cukor subscribed, at least in this instance, to Frank Capra’s contention that every film needs one scene that doesn’t advance the plot but makes you care about the characters. The missing scenes from A Star Is Born do precisely that.
In one crucial sequence, Maine convinces Esther to quit the jazz band and come to Hollywood for a screen test he’ll arrange. But the actor has been whisked away to shoot on location, and Esther has to battle unemployment and unsympathetic film personnel to find him.
Instead of becoming an overnight sensation, we now see, Vicki has had to pay her dues. And, despite the generosity he’s displayed, we see enough hints of Norman’s unreliability to know that there will be significant trouble in this relationship.

One can see why Norman loves Vicki, all right—in the three-minute sequence (still in the butchered version of the film) where she belts out “The Man That Got Away,” she invests the intimate setting of a smoky after-hours nightclub with enough passion to fill an arena. She may be young, but she has heart.

But why Vicki would be interested in him is another matter. His downward trajectory has already been well established in the opening sequence, when the drunken actor misbehaves at a charity event and is only saved from worse embarrassment by Vicki’s adept improvisation of getting him into her act. Getting together with him, then, is already stupid, and might well be crazy.

The missing minutes supply her motivation. At first glance, they would seem to be the polar opposite of the “Man That Got Away” sequence—an extended montage in several locations, rather than one, continuous take in a single tightly controlled frame, as with the song. But I would argue that they combine to create a common metaphor.

With the small jazz combo backing her in the song, Vicki feels comfortable enough to cut loose, to let her emotions out and take chance. It’s an absolute necessity in the entertainment world, we’re about to discover.

Beneath the love story of A Star Is Born is a savage dissection of Hollywood—a community, we’ll soon find out, that does not, unlike its boast at the opening charitable event, “look after its own.” It’s capricious in evaluating raw young talent, then unforgiving of veterans' mistakes. To preserve your career, your ego, even your sanity in this environment, you need a cocoon.

Vicki finds it—briefly—in a creative way among the supportive jazzmen that night, but she needs it in her personal life. That’s what Norman tries to provide, and that’s why, when his world shatters, viewer sympathy is on his side.

Twenty-nine years later, film historian-detective Ronald Haver tracked down all but five of the missing minutes. With a largely complete audio track but only some footage, he used stills to flesh out the story.

We now have at least a bit of a sense what the audience in the Pantages saw in Garland’s performance: not only that this magical voice remained intact from her MGM days, but that she was an actress of power and depth.

In the scene where she asks the sympathetic studio boss played by Charles Bickford why Norman is so intent on destroying himself, her delivery is informed by her own experiences. She is really channeling why she felt so intent on wrecking her life.

Warner Brothers ended up damaging only themselves by deleting the footage from the film. True, the movie ended up more than doubling its initial $2.5 million budget, but the studio might have been able to recoup more—and preserve intact a classic, in the bargain—if they hadn’t trimmed these scenes that showcased Garland’s acting talent.
Instead, the Academy Award for Best Actress that year went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl. Kelly would go on to deliver better, more luminous performances (e.g., Rear Window) in her short career. But that ended up being Garland’s last best chance at the Oscar. Groucho Marx spoke for many when he sent her a telegram saying it was “the greatest robbery since Brink’s.”

Movie Quote of the Day (Humphrey Bogart, on Press Agents)

“A press agent is many things, most of them punishable by law.”—Film director Harry Dawes (played by Humphrey Bogart), in The Barefoot Contessa, written and directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz (1954)

This is one of those near-great films about the movie industry, filled with the kind of insider knowledge and pungent, Shavian lines that only Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) could produce. Believe me, the film was lucky it managed to premiere in New York on this date 55 years ago.

Is there a film counterpart to the term roman a clef—“cine a clef,” maybe? Well, if so, this is one of that genre, along with Citizen Kane and The Bad and the Beautiful—and like those earlier movies, it got a couple of people hot under the collar about how they were portrayed.

That title character, for instance—some people thought it referred to the film’s star, Ava Gardner. But they missed the far more obvious suspect: Rita Hayworth.

Think about it: Both Hayworth and Gardner’s character, Maria Vargas, were Latina dancers who were transformed into international sex symbols by Hollywood, and who left the ersatz aristocracy of Tinseltown for real foreign royalty. Vargas’ husband was based on Hayworth’s most recent, headline-worthy addition to her marital stable, international playboy Ali Khan.

And that nutty billionaire, Kirk Edwards—who else but Howard Hughes? The aviator-businessman-would-be-film honcho certainly saw himself in the role, and growled about filing the mother of all lawsuits unless modifications were made. Oh, yes, after some eye-rolling by the filmmakers, script changes were inserted to Hughes’ satisfaction. But did changing the character from a Texan to a more generic Wall Street type really fool anyone?

You may have thought I was a bit rough on Bogart last week in discussing how he looked in Sabrina. But in this film, released the same year, his appearance was in perfect keeping with his character, a recovering alcoholic who, as the film opens, appears drawn because he’s haunted by death—someone else’s, I'm not saying whose. (No spoilers allowed here!)

One of the press agents that Bogie’s character is talking about in the above quote is Oscar Muldoon, played by the terrific character actor Edmond O’Brien. Bogie talked him into taking the part, and—amid a glittering and talented cast—it was O’Brien who walked away with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

So the next time you want to curl up with a Bogie movie, but you’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, or The African Queen one too many times, you can do a lot worse than spend two hours with this cynical—and ultimately rather sad—commentary on the people who come out of nowhere, move like shooting stars through American culture, then burn out before their time.

Monday, September 28, 2009

This Day in Film History (Botched Sound Ruins Silent Star Gilbert)

September 28, 1929—The transition from silents to talkies claimed its most prominent victim when preview audiences for His Glorious Night howled at the unexpectedly off-putting voice of John Gilbert, successor to Rudolph Valentino as the great male lover of the big screen.

What none of the fans understood that night was that Gilbert’s image had been sabotaged because of a quarrel with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer.

And what did that quarrel involve? Well, the same thing that 99% of guy quarrels revolve around: a woman, of course.

Only this wasn’t just any woman. This was Greta Garbo, the epitome of wistful foreign allure, now as much as then—Mayer’s employee and Gilbert’s lover.

Eleven years ago, at the John Harms Center for the Arts in my hometown, Englewood, N.J., I attended a screening of the most famous Gilbert-Garbo collaboration, The Flesh and the Devil. I had seen the film 25 years before on public television, but this screening was special. Gilbert’s daughter, Laeticia Gilbert Fountain, introduced the movie and spoke about her dad.

Moreover, instead of a clunky piano accompanying out-of-kilter movements, I was watching something closer to the experience of 1920s audiences, with the 95-member New Jersey Youth Symphony Orchestra providing full-bodied accompaniment.

Most of all, that big screen projected images of Garbo and Gilbert that radiated a palpable erotic charge. Silent-film audiences sensed the two weren’t faking their love scenes, and the film became a roaring success.

With Love (an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, only with a happy ending) and A Woman of Affairs, the two became possibly the greatest romantic team of the entire silent era.

Gilbert wanted them to marry—he liked matrimony so much that he went through with the ceremony four times in his 36 years on this planet—but his skittish Scandinavian lover stood him up at the altar. As Gilbert groaned, sulked, and sank deep in his cups, Mayer made a raunchy suggestion about what the actor could do with his runaway bride. Gilbert took extreme offense and had it out with his boss.

That’s how the legend has the prelude to Gilbert’s fall, anyway. Is it true? I’m not sure there’s a smoking gun, but the circumstantial evidence is so suggestive that I don’t see any reason to doubt it.

Let’s pick up on our story, then:

Mayer waited awhile—after all, revenge is a dish best served cold, as they say. His opportunity came with the arrival of sound.

Anyone who’s seen Singing in the Rain or the first wildly funny play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Once in a Lifetime, is likely to chuckle over these depictions of the coming of sound, then dismiss it all as somewhat exaggerated satiric fun. Well…not quite.

The fact is that, when everyone in Hollywood had the rules figured out, The Jazz Singer changed the game. English-challenged European actors, for instance, used to emoting through their gestures, wondered—with reason—if they’d be employable in the new Hollywood.

But even American and Anglo actors grew concerned. Actors began frantically training with voice coaches, lest their careers go the way of Vilma Banky, Clara Bow, and the Talmadge sisters. Even the normally sensible William Powell—perfectly cast as suave, self-possessed private eye Nick Charles of the “Thin Man” series—ran from the room when he heard his voice for the first time.

Was Gilbert scared by all this? From what I’ve read, he didn’t have to be. In the first MGM film featuring sound, Hollywood Revue of 1929, there were no problems with his voice. In all but one film he made afterward, there was likewise no issue with it.

The exception was His Glorious Night, a misnomer if there ever was one. I hope Drew Barrymore achieves more success with her directing debut, Whip It, than granduncle Lionel did in this case.

Lionel Barrymore may have been more even creatively versatile than his marvelous siblings Ethel and John. An accomplished painter, he had enough of a visual eye that he’d already directed some silent films. His Glorious Night would also mark his debut as both a producer and composer, for heaven’s sake.

Maybe all that activity made it harder to keep track of everything. Maybe the family penchant for substance abuse began to rear its ugly head. Maybe he was just flummoxed by that darn microphone, which was bedeviling everyone in those days as they tried to focus on what was happening through the camera lens without having some stupid noise spoil everything. Or maybe he simply threw up his hands at the ridiculous dialogue he had to turn into gold.

Was Lionel paying attention? Because something big was happening beneath his nose: the destruction of a major star. Here’s the story, as related by E.J. Fleming in The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine: Mayer had ordered that all bass be removed in recording Gilbert’s lines.

The results at the preview were everything he could have wished for. He must have especially loved it when a viewer yelled out, “Gilbert, your slip is showing.”

By 1952, when Singing in the Rain appeared, Mayer, ousted the year before at MGM by Dore Schary, was a grumpy old man. But he must have perked up an awful lot when he saw the scene in the great musical from his old studio when Gene Kelly’s character, Don Lockwood, improvises by endlessly repeating to voice-challenged Jean Hagen, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” This was the part that made the audience for His Glorious Night howl.

But was it as bad as all that? A post on the blog "Trouble in Paradise" made me wonder. It has a clip from His Glorious Night that shows what all the fuss was about. I don’t share that blogger’s belief that there was nothing wrong with Gilbert’s delivery—audiences were right to detect something odd and artificial in that voice—but he’s right that it’s not as bad as has been made out. Maybe Singing in the Rain has colored modern perceptions of the scene.

Whatever the case may be, you can trace Gilbert’s decline pretty clearly from this point on. The roles came less steadily now (though Garbo managed to push aside a young Laurence Olivier and replace him with her old lover in Queen Christina), and he drank more heavily. He died in 1936.

I don’t think silent-film audiences saw anything fake in his allure, though. Consider this: In his short lifetime, he not only married four times but had two of the world’s most bewitching women: Garbo and, even at the time of his drink-besotted death, Marlene Dietrich.

Whatever Gilbert had, I’m sure a lot of men wished it could have been bottled and sold.

Bonus Quote of the Day (Billboard, on the Raspberries’ Classic Final Album, “Starting Over”)

“Eric Carmen must be considered one of the strongest rock vocalists around, and it is a mistake to consider this band for kids only. There are a lot of music fans waiting for the kind of skillful, good rock this band serves up. Probably the strongest overall effort yet from this band, thematically and musically. Best cuts: ‘Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),’ ‘Play On,’ ‘I Don't Know What I Want,’ ‘I Can Hardly Believe You're Mine,’ ‘Starting Over.’” --“Pop Pick,” Billboard Magazine, September 28, 1974, on The Raspberries’ final album, Starting Over (from Eric Carmen’s Web site)

All hail The Raspberries! Most of the rock critics of the time wouldn’t give the power pop group of the Seventies a break, and the pressure from the record company just became too great to endure.

Two members left, but it still didn’t help. The title Starting Over took on unintended irony when the band collapsed. By the following spring, it was, as Carmen later sang on his eponymous solo album, time for “Ricky and the Tooth” (i.e., producer Jimmy Ienner).

All I know is that throughout high school, I wore out Starting Over—and, if I’d been able to get my hands on the Raspberries’ earlier LPs, they probably would have received the same treatment. For true believers, none of what I say is necessary.

But for anyone else—well, just think of some of their biggest fans: John Lennon, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Springsteen. From great, full-out rock ‘n’ roll (“Cruisin’ Music,” a Beach Boys tribute covered in a prior post of mine) to the most hauntingly tender love songs (the title track), this album had it all.

But towering over it all was the first song, perhaps the great production masterpiece of Carmen’s entire career: “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” a thunderous five-minute extravaganza packed with piano, guitar, all-stops-out lead vocals by Carmen--and one hell of a lot of heart. It shows the struggle to get a creative product out there for fans to appreciate (“Well the program director don’t pull it/Then it’s bound to get back the bullet”), climaxing in the magical moment when the song-within-a-song issues from a transistor radio.

That LP has been consigned to history in the CD era, but I played it so often I can hear it still, as much as I can the heartbeat of my youth.

In my head I hear
The record play, hear it play…

Quote of the Day (David Walker, on the “Wretched” Condition of American Blacks)

“There are not a more wretched, ignorant, miserable and abject set of beings in all the world than the blacks in the southern and western sections of this country, under tyrants and devils. The preachers of America can not see them, but they can send out missionaries to convert the heathens, notwithstanding….O Americans! Americans! I call God—I call angels—I call men, to witness, that your destruction is at hand, and will be speedily consummated unless you repent.”—David Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles, Together With a Preamble to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and very Expressly to Those of the United States (1829)

He was only the owner of a secondhand clothing shop, not, perhaps in 21st century eyes, a great deal higher than the “wretched, ignorant, miserable and abject” condition of the slaves he bemoaned, and he died less than a year after the appearance of the powerful 76-page tract on which his claim to history rests.

Nevertheless, in David Walker’s Appeal, published on this date in 1829 (the author’s 44th birthday) in Boston, this son of a slave father and free mother sounded a clarion call on what remains, all these many years later, the thorniest of American topics: race.

David Walker put his finger unmistakably on the hypocrisy of a nation that could denounce Turks for their brutal treatment of Greeks, while allowing in its own boundaries conditions that equaled or exceeded these. At the same time, he asked the uncomfortable question why white clergymen could preach of justice all the time it was violated in this country.

The North Carolina native had made his way up to Boston, where he became instrumental in the rising abolitionist movement. His manifesto resonated deeply with a New England used to jeremiads by preachers who foretold God’s destruction if human beings didn’t mend their ways and return to the ways of their forefathers.

(Walker also knew how to prick the conscience of the region where he made his home, noting that even in Boston, a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment, “in the very houses erected to the Lord, they have built little places for the reception of coloured people, where they must sit during meeting, or keep away from the house of God.”)

Colonization of free blacks in America, the solution to slavery preferred by Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Henry Clay, held no charms for Walker, who rightly believed that African-Americans had enriched the land with their blood. But what raised hackles everywhere below the Mason-Dixon line was his call for insurrection, a remedy acted upon in 1831 by Nat Turner—and dreaded for the next 30 years by the South.

Though contemporary American politics has often been likened to a contact sport, it was infinitely more dangerous in the antebellum period, when violence raged everywhere over slavery. Not only was the “peculiar institution” maintained by brutal treatment of slaves, but by resort to duels, caning (of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a particularly fierce opponent), and mob action (against newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy).

That very likely was the fate meted out to Walker. A $1,000 reward had been offered for his death. He was found dead the following year, after the third edition of his essay. The mystery of his death was not solved, though a number of people suspected he’d been poisoned.

The condition of African-Americans has changed fundamentally since Walker’s time, needless to say, but the progress is also surely not as advanced as we’d like. Despair still is still the order of the day in so many parts of the African-American community.

For instance, last night, as I worked on this post, CNN led with a video of a Chicago honors student being brutally beaten to death by gang members.

Crime, subpar school systems, and collapsing family units—interrelated phenomenon—represent the next great arena of civil rights in America. Where is the outrage that will change these conditions, the way that Walker’s protest eventually did?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

This Day in Football History (Lombardi Wins 1st Game for Packers)

September 27, 1959—With a hard-fought 9-6 victory against the archrival Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers signaled more than that they were shedding their losing ways and rededicating themselves to winning.

The win at home, on Lambeau Field, also demonstrated that they were responding to new head coach Vince Lombardi, who had begun to forge his leadership style—as heavy on teaching as on discipline and motivation—20 years before, in a small parochial high school in northern New Jersey.

Jack Pearson had a fascinating post a few weeks ago in 50 Plus News Magazine about the game—the seasons of hopelessness preceding it, what transpired during the victory, and how sportswriters viewed it. (None, needless to say, predicted the coming dynasty.) He tells the story much better than I ever could, so read the above link.

Lombardi came to the Packers by way of the New York Giants, where he and Tom Landry had served as assistant coaches--the greatest assistant staff I can think of in league history. 

Recently I began dipping into one of great sports books of all time, Instant Replay, Packer guard Jerry Kramer’s diary of the last championship season under the coach who had pushed, prodded, cursed, and cheered him into becoming a star. It, along with David Maraniss’ later biography of the coach, When Pride Still Mattered, shows that there was far more to Lombardi than just brutalizing players, that knowing how to make them understand assignments as well as how to inspire each one individually figured much more prominently in his unequaled success. 

Focus again on a couple of verbs in that last sentence: “understand” and “inspire.” They’re central to the mission of teaching, aren’t they? It turns out that Lombardi came by his unique method while a teacher-coach at my alma mater, St. Cecilia’s High School in Englewood, N.J. 

Maraniss’ book makes clear that Lombardi’s middle linebacker at Green Bay, Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke, was something of a reclamation project, a man whose brute strength could easily have been misused as an adult in tough neighborhoods if he hadn’t found an outlet for his aggression. The same thing happened at St. Cecilia, where Lombardi earnestly believed that sports could provide focus and instill character—and where, he felt, he could steer players into more productive pursuits. 

I was reminded of Lombardi’s inaugural season at Green Bay—and of the part education played in it—through Phil Barber’s marvelous article “Lombardi Rules,” in the Fall 2009 issue of American Heritage Magazine. That march to glory started in the summer with plays he diagrammed on blackboards (yes, classic teaching instruments), which the players were then expected to copy out themselves. 

Simplicity was the key to the whole thing. A play could fall apart if someone didn’t understand what he was supposed to do—which happened a lot with the 1-11 1958 Packers, when impossibly complicated play calls at the line of scrimmage, often barked by a quarterback making his voice heard over a roaring crowd, represented a recipe for disaster. 

In contrast, Lombardi’s plays featured an easy-to-remember numbering system: “43 Double Pinch,” for instance, meant that the 4 back would plunge through the 3 hole. 

Lombardi had learned another lesson from St. Cecilia’s, where, for $1,700 a year, he taught physics, Latin and chemistry, besides coaching football, basketball and baseball: don’t move on until even the dimmest bulb in the group understands what you’ve just said. It worked wonders. 

Barber quotes Packer center Bill Curry on what Lombardi “did best”: “What a great teacher does is make you want to please him or her. I’ll never forget what he taught me. That was his greatest gift.” 

Oh, one last holdover from his days as a teacher: grades. One of the most amusing entries in Kramer’s diary occurred early in Packer training camp, when Lombardi lashed out at the players: 

“Usually, we get graded for our blocking, and Vince reads the grades out loud at a meeting. Today he said he was so embarrassed by our blocking grades that he couldn’t even read them out loud. Instead, he wrote them down on little slips of paper and folded up the slips, put our names on them and handed them out.” 

Vince’s kid brother Joe could have told Kramer all about how the coach felt about poor grades. At St. Cecilia’s, Vince had gotten positively emotional about Joe’s—so much so, in fact, that it became one of the enduring legends of the school. 

Maraniss narrates the story in his biography, and maybe there are a few people out there who think it’s too outlandish to have happened. But a friend of mine who attended Saints at the time was present, reeled off the names of several people who were principals in the ensuing sequence of events, and insisted it occurred as Maraniss narrated. 

Lombardi was making a presentation at Blue and Gold Day, an academic-athletic-extracurricular awards ceremony just before the close of the school year that was still a tradition when I graduated in the late 1970s. The coach acknowledged the names of achievers, then referred to his brother Joe, a student in the school at the time. To the astonishment of those assembled, he pulled out a paper and began to read aloud Joe’s marks. 

The mediocre ones came first. It didn’t get any better after that. With each declining grade, Lombardi’s voice grew more vehement and his face more red. When he read the last subpar mark, he flung the paper down and chased his brother out of the hall. 

My friend told me that it took several burly football friends of his to block Vince’s path and enable Joe to make a safe exit—otherwise, he might have ended up pummeled, black and blue, or maybe even worse, if the chase hadn't been halted. 

Chase—a word associated with speed and constant movement, much like the famed “Lombardi Sweep” that the Pack immortalized in the Sixties. I like the quote that Pearson found in the Sporting News in which quarterback Bart Starr related the coach’s first remarks to the team in 1959: 

“Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence.” A pause for dramatic effect, then this conclusion: “I am not remotely interested in being just good.” 

That first season didn’t reach excellence, but it came close—a 7-5 mark. The next year, the Pack made the playoffs before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles. From then on, the Lombardi-led Packers never lost another postseason game. 

If you’re a sports fan, you know the rest of Lombardi’s record. You surely also know about the admiration, love and fear with which he was regarded by his players. What you might not know is the price he exacted from himself. 

The friend who attended Saints in the 1940s during the Lombardi era noted that the ashtray in the coach's office was continually full, with the air reeking of cigarette smoke. Smoking seemed the only way Lombardi knew to relieve the incessant pressure he placed as much on himself as on his players.

Inevitably, it took its toll. Lombardi’s death of stomach cancer at only age 57 in 1970 robbed the game of its greatest coach, and 20th-century American culture of one of its most complicated, driven, fascinating individuals. I've written endlessly every day for nearly two years about individuals from history, but Lombardi would easily make the short list of people I would most liked to have met.

Quote of the Day (St. James, on the Fate of the Rich)

“Well now, you rich! Lament, weep for the miseries that are coming to you. Your wealth is rotting, your clothes are all moth-eaten. All your gold and your silver are corroding away, and the same corrosion will be a witness against you and eat into your body. It is like a fire which you have stored up for the final days.”—James 5:1-3

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy, Minus Hurrahs or Hooting

This past week, the Massachusetts legislature voted in favor of the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s dying wish that his seat be filled immediately by appointment, rather than through a special election. Thus, they rescinded their 2004 vote—made with the support of the same senator—to the opposite effect when it looked like Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, rather than Democrat Duval Patrick, might have to fill John Kerry’s seat. (George W. Bush’s victory made that question moot.)

The other day, Gov. Patrick appointed to the seat Paul Kirk, the type of politico that Garry Wills, in The Kennedy Imprisonment, called an “honorary Kennedy”—one of a group of men closely associated by marriage, politics or friendship with the trio of brothers who dominated national politics for the past half century. The appointment demonstrated how one family became an institution to such an extent that it influences politics even in death.

In the summer of 1964, with America still gripped by post-assassination grief, the New York Times’ Tom Wicker attempted a dispassionate analysis of JFK’s successes and failures in the White House, in an Esquire article called “Kennedy Without Tears.” This post is written in the same spirit.

There should be nothing unusual about this. All public figures in American history—some loved even more than Ted Kennedy—have undergone this corrective process.

Even as the Boston Globe staff-written bio of the senator, The Last Lion, occupies a berth on the bestseller list, and Kennedy’s own posthumous memoir, True Compass, receives respectful reviews, the signs point toward him receiving the same treatment as these earlier figures. It does not appear at this point that a younger Kennedy will occupy a Senate seat anytime soon. As the family power fades, greater objectivity than exists in the aftermath of a death will set in, and the process of revisionism and counter-revisionism will begin in earnest.

Coming to terms with Edward Kennedy, as statesman and private person, is complicated by the wild ardor of admirers and the equally fierce animus of detractors. Neither side, I think, gets at the essence of the man because they ignore anything outside their worldviews.

To a degree that even his older brothers couldn’t summon, he evokes, even in death, Americans’ longstanding ambivalence about matters of class and power-- none of which has ebbed one iota, even after a widening revolution in rights in the nearly half century in which he served in the Senate.

As a Catholic, I am additionally fascinated by the questions his situation poses about penitence, good works and forgiveness— matters far more complex and uncomfortable than we like to admit.

Kennedy at Columbia, 1980
I experienced something of the varied reactions to the senator in a campaign appearance during my sophomore year at Columbia University in 1980. Then as now, students in that Ivy League institution tended to be overwhelmingly liberal, so this was a natural audience for the Massachusetts Senator as he attempted to keep alive his insurgent challenge to President Jimmy Carter in the New York primary.

Roger Hilsman, a professor of government and a member of JFK’s administration, introduced the surviving Kennedy brother. The candidate couldn’t ask for friendlier listeners: young, progressive, with a fairly large Jewish component who (rightly) cheered his attack on the Carter administration for a botched American vote at the U.N. that resulted in an anti-Israel resolution.

Even in that receptive crowd, however, naysayers existed--not Republicans (they were so close to extinction on campus that they were viewed like exotic animals at a zoo), but smart-alecks and dissenters who didn’t buy into the Camelot mystique.

At one point, just before Kennedy started, the crowd standing outside the capacity-filled room in Ferris Booth Hall grew restless. From my seat in the back of the auditorium, I heard one lone male voice lifted above the hubbub, vocalizing the title of a pop standard distinctly alien to most of us: “Call Me Irresponsible…” A couple of people snickered.

Shortly thereafter, a low hum ensued, rising in intensity, as several people joined in. I figured out the title of that tune just at the moment it evoked a loud guffaw: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

If Kennedy encountered that ridicule even on Morningside Heights, he must have experienced it far more often, with much less reticence, elsewhere around the country during that primary season. The question of Chappaquiddick shadowed his candidacy—and, now that he is laid to rest with his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery, it shadows a reputation he can do no more to alter.

Kennedy, as Candidate and Legislator
No less than today, the press gave no real idea of how Kennedy (or, for that matter, Republicans) would govern while in office.

It wasn’t just that reporters were only interested in the horserace aspects of his candidacy. Policy positions made to capture interest groups, in primaries as in general elections, are notoriously fungible once oaths of office are taken. The one better-than-average predictor of performance in office is how a candidate moved legislation as a Senator or governor.

This area was precisely where Kennedy enjoyed a sizable advantage over Carter. Not only was Carter’s inner circle filled with young Georgians (e.g., Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell) possessing little or no experience in Washington, but even in his home state they had been at constant loggerheads with the legislature.

Kennedy, on the other hand, had, by the end of the 1960s, not only passed major pieces of legislation (including bills related to immigration and civil rights) but had served as assistant whip of the Senate. With (at least initially) no intention of moving higher in government, he took the time to learn the ways of the Senate.

In reading about the young Kennedy, learning the ropes of the institution (and especially the fine points of a law and how it would affect the common man), I'm reminded of nobody so much as another Irish-American politician: Alfred E. Smith in the New York State Assembly, learning every particular of a budget—and patiently concentrating during hearings on the Triangle factory fire.

In time, more than 500 pieces of Kennedy-cosponsored bills became law, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration Act of 1965, the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program of 1972, COBRA, and the Medical Device Amendments of 1976. Few, if any, Americans were unaffected by all this legislation.

Yet, though Carter’s incompetence as legislator-in-chief exasperated Kennedy, he was unable to describe it to the media and the public in anything other than one word: “leadership.” In the absence of ideological differences, the media and the public could and did interpret his candidacy as motivated by nothing more than ambition.

Kennedy’s eloquence was another matter. That booming voice was unsurpassed when presented with a prepared text, far less comfortable off the cuff.

As President, then, it seems safe to say, Kennedy would have far surpassed Carter in knowing how and when to cut a deal, as well as in mobilizing public opinion behind policies.

It remains an open question, however, whether Kennedy could have freed himself from the intellectual trough in which liberalism found itself in the late 1970s. For all their decided lack of interest in the machinery of legislation, Jack and Bobby Kennedy had demonstrated an interest in thinking outside the box, even in challenging their natural constituencies.

(See CBS political correspondent Jeff Greenfield’s Playing to Win, which describes the extreme discomfort induced by Bobby when he asked an audience of college males if they felt okay to use their draft deferments when guys the same age with less money could not get out of it, or Michael Knox Beran’s biography of RFK, The Last Patrician, which sees the newly elected New York Senator’s advocacy of an anti-poverty program in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the light of his suspicion of Great Society nostrums).

God knows, the Democratic Party could have used a “third way” between Reagan-style cowboy capitalism and a paternalistic welfare state that offered few rewards for innovation or staying off the dole. Its failure to find such a model, as America’s industrial model was shaken to the core by resurgent international competition, ensured that the Democrats would lose three straight Presidential elections—and that Republicans would take off every brake that had prevented another global economic meltdown after the Great Depression.

Nobody gets through nearly a half century in office with making serious missteps. In failing to accord proper weight to Kennedy’s, his admirers—including former New York Times reporter (and biographer) Adam Clymer—fail to take the proper measurement of his achievements.

So, where was Kennedy found wanting?

* His refusal of a deal with Richard Nixon for a health-care plan. In 1974, Nixon—by now mired in Watergate—offered a health-care plan that, as J. Lester Feder notes, was even more liberal than the one President Obama is backing now, in that it included an employer mandate and a public insurance plan. Kennedy held out for a government insurance option for everyone, and when that wasn’t in the cards, he walked out from any deal. That moment in time ended up being a lost opportunity—right now, even Nixon’s plan couldn’t pass in the current Congress. It’s ironic that the issue most identified with Kennedy’s career also represented his greatest defeat.

* His wildly over-the-top denunciation of Robert Bork's nomination for the Supreme Court. Kennedy was probably used to the style of the Senate, in which lawmakers could routinely denounce bills of colleagues in the most bitter terms—they all knew it was just politics and didn’t take it personally. Kennedy didn’t invent the game of playing politics with Supreme Court justice nominations (Republicans stalled LBJ’s 1968 nominees in the hope—proven correct—that they’d recapture the Presidency before the year was out), but all elected officials have the opportunity to make the atmosphere in DC less toxic. Even Kennedy’s best friends in the Senate, though, such as Joe Biden, while they opposed Bork’s nomination, thought the following words from Kennedy were way too extreme: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of the government.” This was utterly exaggerated—but it worked—much to the detriment of the subsequent nomination process.

* His advocacy of abortion on demand. Senator Kennedy’s support for abortion under any circumstance selicited a predictable response from some Roman Catholics: the urge to deny him a Catholic funeral mass. Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley, I believe, was correct in permitting services. Indeed, denying one would have led to uncomfortable questions about what other sins were so bad that they could not be forgiven. (Would, say, the Church deny a funeral to a convicted clerical child-molester?)

All that said, Kennedy’s resolutely pro-choice stance is an early example of what I call a “nomination conversion”—i.e., a mid-career switch that nearly every Democrat has had to perform in order to have a chance at the nomination. (Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Richard Gephardt, and Al Gore all began their careers against abortion.)

Henry of Navarre, a 16th-century Huguenot who converted to Catholicism to secure the throne of France, is said to have remarked that Paris was worth a Mass. Abortion is the Democratic Party’s answer to that, only a rejection rather than embrace of moral or religious principle to secure ultimate power.

Rather than functioning as a profile of courage, Kennedy’s opposition to any constraint whatsoever on abortion (not even calling for waiting periods or bans on partial-birth abortions) constituted his most dismaying failure to act on behalf of the defenseless he always claimed to support. Before he declared his candidacy against Jimmy Carter, Kennedy mobilized liberal support by saying that sometimes a party had to “sail against the wind.” He was noticeably unable to do so concerning abortion.

It does not constitute, no matter what conservatives might say, an act that invalidated all the good he did in other instances throughout his career, but it was a profoundly dismaying road not taken.

And then there is Chappaquiddick.

Yes, Chappaquiddick—a subject I wish I didn’t have to write about and that many of my readers would rather forget.

Symptomatic of that syndrome is the recent New York Times headline: “Kennedy Book Doesn’t Ignore Low Episodes.” Well, how could it? What publisher in his right mind would sign a memoir absolutely silent on Chappaquiddick?

Chappaquiddick as Moral Midnight
Two months ago, I wrote a 40th-anniversary retrospective of Chappaquiddick. I don’t intend to rehash the details of that piece. But the moral implications of the event not only remain dimly understood, but now, because of Kennedy’s death, rise to the surface again.

Kennedy’s black Oldsmobile toppled over the bridge at Chappaquiddick around midnight. The darkness surrounding the incident to this day is a perfect metaphor for how his actions have come to be construed over the years by supporters.

In a way, conservatives played into liberals’ hands by implying (or, more often, outright claiming) that Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne were having a rendezvous. That meant his supporters could say what happened that night was strictly an act of the flesh, something done in passing, and, hence, not amounting to anything when weighed against the totality of Kennedy’s career.

Let’s change the perspective for a second:

1) What if Mary Jo Kopechne—blonde, attractive, female—was, instead, Jerry Kopechne—balding, male?
2) What if the driver of the vehicle was not Ted Kennedy, but Richard Nixon?

The second question is more easily answered: You can bet your bottom dollar that if “Tricky Dick” were linked to a car with a dead blonde in it, a special prosecutor would have been appointed as rapidly as for Watergate. I think the appointment would have occurred even more rapidly, because the car could have been traced far more quickly to its owner than the President’s ties were to a group of amateurish burglars.

But the first question would have fundamentally changed the perception of Chappaquiddick, too. In that case, Kopechne’s death would be seen not as the result of an affair, but of a tendency toward sporadic, out-of-control drinking that preceded the incident and that continued for a generation afterward. (To be more exact: until nephew William Kennedy Smith's rape trial--and Kennedy's testimony on the stand about getting his son Patrick and Smith out of bed for a night of drinking--endangered his upcoming re-election campaign for the first time ever, and forced him, at last, to turn his life around.)

In an example of brief but welcome candor, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi referred to Chappaquiddick as “a moment of tremendous moral collapse.”

The “moment” occurred when the car Kennedy was driving crashed into the dark waters off the bridge. But the “moment” didn’t kill Mary Jo Kopechne. She survived for a couple of hours through a tiny air pocket in the car. But she couldn’t survive Kennedy’s 10-hour delay in notifying authorities.

That meant that Chappaquiddick was far more than “a moment”:

* It involved a multi-year denial by Kennedy to himself and to well-wishers that he had a drinking problem.
* It spawned a successful, 40-year coverup that left understanding of the incident and its immediate aftermath murky.
* It damaged the Senator’s ability to speak with moral credibility on matters ranging from one President’s coverup attempt (Nixon’s), a Vice-President’s involvement with Iran-contra (George H.W. Bush), and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

Just compare the reaction of Kennedy’s most diehard supporters with how they greeted the news that Dick Cheney had accidentally shot a friend on a quail-hunting trip. The more conspiratorially minded wondered about the chronology of events—how it had all happened, how long it took before medical aid was summoned, why the press wasn’t notified sooner.

If you’re looking for a defense of Cheney’s impact as Vice-President on American foreign policy and on the President he was asked to serve, find another post. With each succeeding revelation of how he helped steer policy with ideological blinders, with each statement he’s made to the media about the Obama Presidency (maybe more in nine months out of office than in eight years in the Bush White House!), I don’t think there’s any question that influence was harmful.

But in this incident, and this incident alone, the bete noire of the left wing did the right thing: call immediately for help. It’s the same thing that responsible adults are morally—and, in the case of incidents involving motor vehicles, legally—obligated to do. It’s the same thing that you’d expect a longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would do. It’s exactly what Kennedy failed to do.

The question not merely of equality of press coverage but equality before the law comes into play with Chappaquiddick.

Within the last couple of weeks, a beloved retired New York Mets pitcher was sentenced to six months in jail for tax evasion. A recent Super Bowl hero received a two-year prison term for carrying an unlicensed, concealed weapon into a New York nightclub.

Nobody died because of Jerry Koosman’s or Plaxico Burress’ actions (though they certainly could have in the latter case). Somebody did, of course, in Kennedy’s case. His punishment? Two months’ probation for failing to report, and leaving the scene of, an accident.

The difference in treatment, of course, resulted from the fact that politicians were not making a high-profile example of Kennedy, as New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg did with Burress. In contrast, Kennedy himself was a politician, and not just any politician, but one whose position came in no small part from family wealth.

Also, a politician who could call on all kinds of human as well as financial resources to evade responsibility. Predecessors of Kirk as “Honorary Kennedys” descended on Martha’s Vineyard that weekend to help extricate the frantic senator from his mess: Richard Goodwin and Ted Sorensen; Milton Gwirtzman, David Burke and Burke Marshall; brother-in-law Stephen Smith; congressmen John Culver and John Tunney—men called on by Ted’s brothers to assist in some of the noblest battles involving civil rights and anti-poverty efforts in U.S. history, now enlisted in something infinitely grimier.

All these shrewd men were forced to, in effect, square a circle—explain how Kennedy, if he was as shaky from a concussion as he claimed, could, in the hours after the accident:

* disregard the advice of lawyer friends Paul Markham and Joey Gargan that he report the accident (take care of telling the girls at the party, he instructed them—he would “take care of the accident”; only he didn’t);

* make more than 16 long-distance phone calls to aides;

* gripe to his hotel manager about a noisy party (forgetting, perhaps, that the one he’d attended the night before wasn’t exactly quiet);

* discuss the regatta race the next morning with a friend as if nothing had happened;

* order two newspapers;

* meet again with Gargan and Markham;

* phone another lawyer.

Then, and only then, did he go to the police.

If Kennedy devoted so much effort just to hold onto a safe seat he already possessed in Massachusetts, what would he have done to gain and retain the Presidency?

If he invested so many resources in covering up the circumstances of what was the life of only one person, what would he have done to paper over those involving service personnel sent into harm’s way in the defense of their country, as every President since FDR has had to do in one form or another?

To the day he died, Kennedy expressed regret over actions he called “irrational, indefensible, inexcusable and inexplicable." Actually, they’re inexplicable only if you accept Kennedy’s statement that he had no more than two or three beers in the hours leading up to the accident.

And this is the amazing thing: for all the talent he employed to get him out of his dilemma, for all the kid-gloves treatment he received from the Massachusetts legal and political establishment, and for all the years he’s stuck to the same basic statement, hardly anyone I’ve read believes Kennedy’s account.

Though it is largely forgotten now, there was a legal finding to this effect, issued by Judge James Boyle following a grand jury investigation. Boyle wrote that Kennedy lied about intending to drive to the ferry slip, and that, given the difficulty in crossing the bridge, it "would at least be negligent and, possibly, reckless" when he approached it at 20 miles per hour.

Want to know the most ironic aspect of this? Respect for Kennedy accrued over the years at the same time that Mothers Against Drunk Driving increasingly stigmatized the type of behavior that just about everyone believes occurred that night 40 years ago.

A Horrifying Moral Calculus
After my post two months ago, I didn’t think I could write anything else about this incident. But three essays filled me with a horror that could only be abated with a response.

A woman died because of Kennedy’s actions and inactions. He survived to become “the last lion” of what remains overwhelmingly a glorified gentlemen’s club (sometimes in both senses of the word).

All the more astonishing, then, that the three essays were written by women who acknowledge what can only be termed Kennedy’s moral turpitude, but drew back from drawing the ultimate conclusions from their analysis:

*Melissa Lafsky, contributing to the Huffington Post, does what just about nobody else I’ve read has done—discuss, even though briefly, the essence of Kopechne (“She was a dedicated civil rights activist and political talent with a bright future,” a career woman who lived in Georgetown and loved the Red Sox). What would this accident victim think of the powerful figure in whose car she died, a man who went on to achieve “the most successful Senate career in history”? According to Lafsky: “Who knows—maybe she’d feel it was worth it.” Nothing like putting words into the mouth of a victim.

* Joyce Carol Oates, in Britain’s Guardian, acknowledges that had Kennedy gone to the police immediately to report the accident, it might have resulted in “charges of vehicular manslaughter or homicide.” Yet, faced with the legacy of the senator, she judges that perhaps his inaction was worth it: “Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.”

* Eleanor Clift, summing up in Newsweek, admitted that “organized women’s groups overlooked a lot to stand by the senator from Massachusetts,” including the fact that he was “a rogue, and his escapades, fueled by alcohol, were well documented.” But it turned out all right in the end, because “He was the indispensable man on women’s issues, social justice, disability laws, health reform, and civil rights.”

When you get right down to it, it’s all a rephrasing of the judgment of Kennedy biographer Clymer, who argued that his "achievements as a senator have towered over his time, changing the lives of far more Americans than remember the name Mary Jo Kopechne."

Prosecutors might have brought the same reasoning to bear on defendants in the Moscow show trials of the 1930s (“What is your life compared with that of The Revolution, comrade?”). How would you feel if someone asked that the life of yourself or someone you loved be weighed against a leader or social movement that would improve “the lives of far more Americans” than would remember your name?

This corollary to utilitarianism endorsed by Lafsky, Oates, Clift and Clymer (i.e., “the greatest good for the greatest number”) is, ironically, one not a part of the Roman Catholic Church of which Kennedy was a lifelong member. The church also believes in free will—an implicit rebuke to the self-pitying notion Kennedy first floated after Chappaquiddick about the “curse” lingering over his family.

I do not doubt for a second that Kennedy turned to religion—and, in particular, the church of his ancestors—for comfort in his last years. Staggering loss and the endangered health of loved ones will do that to you. It speaks well of him that he realized, as he wrote in his final letter to Pope Benedict XVI, that he had “been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path.”

One phrase becomes repeated, over and over again, in defense of Kennedy: “Let he among you without sin cast the first stone.” Yet would those trotting out the phrase deny it to, say, a conservative? Does belief in it eliminate the need for a criminal justice system? If Ted Kennedy can benefit from it, why not Bernard Madoff, who has also said he was sorry? Can you see where this leaves us?

There was also much talk in the last few weeks about Kennedy achieving atonement and redemption. That he labored mightily over the years, there can be no doubt.

But what about that old concept of confession? Does a statement with all too many holes, such as the one offered to Massachusetts voters 40 years ago, really count as a full confession? I think not.

What I think it all boils down to is this: After years of being considered an also-ran of a son, Ted Kennedy had finally found a job he loved and could do well: Senator. Terrified at its possible loss, he bent every muscle to retain it.

Before mercy can be extended, justice and truth should be acknowledged. Neither was served at Chappaquiddick. The attempt to cover up the truth there means that history won’t be, either.

Quote of the Day (Benjamin Netanyahu, on Iran’s Ahmadinejad)

"To those who refused to come and to those who left in protest, I commend you. You stood up for moral clarity, and you brought honor to your countries. But to those who gave this Holocaust denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?"—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, denouncing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the U.N. General Assembly, quoted in Gavin Rabinowitz, “Netanyahu Assails UN for Allowing Ahmadinejad Address, Brandishes Blueprints of Auschwitz Death Camp,” European Jewish Press, September 25, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Wilson Stricken While Stumping for League of Nations)

September 25, 1919—In the midst of a grueling 22-state, 8,000 railroad tour in support of the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson summoned his waning physical resources to delivery an address in Pueblo, Colo., that captured the best and worst aspects of his leadership style. A few hours later, about 20 miles from Pueblo, he collapsed, forcing an end to his tour and precipitating the longest, most confusing Presidential health crisis of the 20th century.

Nearly 100 years after his Presidency began, tons of ink have been spilled over Wilson. I don’t think anyone has noticed, however, the similarity between his character and Captain Ahab’s.

In Moby Dick,, Herman Melville described the “crucifixion in his face” on the obsessed Pequod skipper. The image suggests what’s often forgotten about the mad seadog: his capacity for good as much as evil. He has, after all, a charisma that binds men to him, as surely as Wilson did.

In the end, of course, Ahab’s quest exceeds the bounds of rationality. And so, too, did Wilson’s mission to persuade the American people to accept his dream of a world of peace, justice and freedom.

Ten months before his physical collapse—and the massive stroke that followed on October 2, after the Presidential train had, with virtually no explanation, returned to Washington—Wilson had arrived in Europe as the dynamic, inspirational leader of the nation that provided the margin for victory in the First World War, and which now proposed to put future such conflicts on the road to extinction.

But the intensive peace negotiations that ensued had exhausted him. Britain’s David Lloyd George and France’s Georges Clemenceau extracted so many concessions on other points that Wilson dug in his heels on the point on which they were prepared to yield: the League of Nations. When he returned home, the President grew increasingly dismissive of any dissent from his vision.

By the time the tour was called off, with little explanation, because of the President’s bad health, Wilson had identified the fight for the League of Nations with himself. Those opposed to his brainchild were opposed to him, and vice versa.

Chief among them was the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, as brilliant as he was cold and bigoted. The two men formed a mutual antipathy society.

The battle over the League boiled down to three camps: supporters; irreconcilables, who wanted nothing to do with it under any circumstances; and reservationists, who would agree to the Treaty of Versailles and the League under with certain conditions.

Nowadays, historians are more likely to view the position of at least some of the last group skeptically, largely because, we now know, Lodge admitted to colleagues that attaching reservations—his, specifically—guaranteed that the treaty would die because of Wilson's hatred for him. When a fellow Senator protested that this was “a slender thread on which to hang so great a cause,” Lodge smiled. “Why, it is as strong as any cable with its strands wired and tired together,” he said.

Lodge had his antagonist all figured out. Wilson refused even to share the same platform with the senator at a ceremony for the centennial of a Washington church. You can almost hear Wilson complaining bitterly about Lodge in Ahab’s famous rejoinder to Starbuck about “vengeance toward a dumb brute”: “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.”

The very notion of this Western swing stemmed from Wilson’s personalization of his campaign. The year before, ignoring Americans’ traditional tendency to swing away from the President’s party in midterm elections, he had stumped vigorously toward Democrats. That had made it all the more galling when Lodge and his party ended up in power in the Senate.

Now, with his one-on-one attempts to persuade Senators going nowhere, Wilson decided on his Western tour, in the face of openly expressed concern by his wife Edith and his physician, Dr. Cary Grayson.

There were all kinds of warning signs before his collapse that something was amiss with Wilson:

* The morning of the speech, he had a splitting headache.

* Changing from a hot desert environment to cold, thin mountain air provoked Wilson’s asthma.

* Horrible acoustics at the City Auditorium in Denver forced him to shout, worsening his hoarseness.

* The normally smooth Wilson stumbled three times in the same sentence in the Pueblo speech.

Some historians have ranked the Pueblo speech not merely as the best of Wilson’s Presidency, but even among the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. Without a doubt, Wilson’s impassioned delivery moved many in the audience, some to the point of tears, especially toward the end, when he evoked “our pledges to the men that lie dead in Europe."

At the same time, the speech exposed, for all to see, his inflexibility and stigmatizing of dissenters. Earlier in his Presidency, in an effort to hold onto key components of the Democratic base, he had vetoed literacy requirements for immigrants.

Now, however, after some portions of the German- and Irish-American communities had opposed the war or any worldwide organization in which Britain would hold a key position, Wilson launched into one of the most savage denunciations ever delivered by an American President against ethnics:

“And I want to say—and I can’t say it too often—any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this republic whenever he gets the chance. If I can catch any man with a hyphen in this great contest, I will know that I have caught an enemy of the republic."
Wilson’s stroke plunged his administration and the nation into what, in my opinion, can only be likened to the Regency Period, when the British government operated without its titular head, King George III, who was incapacitated by illness (in this case, madness). For months, Wilson’s entire Cabinet wondered what on earth was happening to the President, since he was in no condition to meet with them. Edith Wilson, afraid (probably rightly) that the loss of the Presidency would kill her husband, was intent that he serve out his term.

Edith Wilson might not have intended it, but she became, in effect, America’s first woman President. By deciding which memos needed to be shown him and acted upon, by controlling all access to the President, she became the one who made the decisions.

The subsequent government-by-paralysis—and how subsequent American Presidents dealt with their health crisis—led to the adoption in 1967 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, providing for what to do in the event of a President’s inability to perform the duties of office any longer.

Her influence meant that Cabinet members and senior aides found themselves cut off from Wilson, and even, in the case of Secretary of State Robert Lansing, forced out (in the latter case, for conducting Cabinet meetings himself without the presence or knowledge of the President). It also meant that Wilson only heard arguments made in favor of compromise with the reservationists. He lost the two subsequent votes on the Treaty of Versailles—the first time the Senate ever rejected a peace treaty negotiated by any President.

Not only did Wilson lose the vote on the League. By not resigning in favor of Vice President Thomas Marshall (a wisecracking pol who, though terrified of his possible responsibilities, was at least prepared to accommodate the reservationists), he also left the world rudderless as an obscure, Austrian-born corporal obsessed with ridding the world of Jews and others he deemed "not worthy of life" waited for his chance at power in Munich.
Several years ago, on a visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Va., I saw a display that occupies an entire room. It contains a Pierce-Arrow limousine, which transported Wilson from New York to Washington after his return from France, then bought by friends after Wilson left the White House. Visitors love to stop and stare at this car, which was specially equipped with a button to enable the incapacitated President to direct his driver.

At the same time, the car vividly symbolizes power at the service of a paralyzed Presidency. For all its wonders, the Pierce-Arrow could not ease the frustrations of Wilson, who had not only lost power but his chance to reorder the world.

Happy 40th Birthday, Catherine Zeta-Jones!

One of my friends—and he knows who he is!—is the self-appointed president of the Phi Zeta Beta Society, an organization devoted totally to worshipping what he calls one of his “dark-haired British beauties.”

The goddess in question was born 40 years ago on this date in Swansea, West Glamorgan, Wales. But one suspects that she is still putting spring into the steps of hubby Michael Douglas as he enters those golden years. (He shares the same birthday--just that his occurred 25 years before hers.)

It’s sometimes forgotten, but Catherine Zeta-Jones can act (see her performance as a drug lord’s wife in Traffic), even sing and dance up a storm (see her mesmerizing, highly deserved Oscar-winning turn as Velma Kelly in the movie musical Chicago).

Now, it appears that she’ll have the opportunity to do all of this again, as she’ll appear on Broadway with veteran trouper Angela Lansbury in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, A Little Night Music.

The brief AP notice on this didn’t indicate what role she’ll play, but how can it be anything other than the glamorous actress-of-a-certain-age Desiree? Which means we’ll have the chance to hear her sing Sondheim’s most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” (Somehow, though, I doubt that Ms. Jones will be “losing my timing this late in my career.”)

Looks like the show at the Walter Kerr Theatre—opening Dec. 13—will be one of the harder tickets to obtain this season. Oh, well…

Quote of the Day (Edmund Burke, on an Active, Informed Citizenry)

“For in this very thing lies the difference between freemen and those that are not free. In a free country every man thinks he has a concern in all public matters; that he has a right to form and a right to deliver an opinion upon them. They sift, examine, and discuss them. They are curious, eager, attentive, and jealous; and by making such matters the daily subjects of their thoughts and discoveries, vast numbers contract a very tolerable knowledge of them, and some a very considerable one. And this it is that fills free countries with men of ability in all stations. Whereas, in other countries, none but men whose office calls them to it having much, care or thought about public affairs, and not daring to try the force of their opinions with one another, ability of this sort is extremely rare in any station of life.”—British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797), letter to a member of the Bell Club, Bristol, England, Oct. 31, 1777, from Letters Of Edmund Burke: A Selection, edited With An Introduction by Harold J. Laski (1922)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

TV Dialogue of the Day (Ralph and Alice Kramden on a Fringe Benefit of Lodge Membership)

Ralph Kramden (played by The Great One, Jackie Gleason): "Alice, don't you realize that if I'm elected Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the Raccoon Lodge, you and I get free burial at the Raccoon Cemetery in Bismarck, North Dakota?"
Alice Kramden (played by Audrey Meadows): "Gee Ralph, I'm so excited, I don't know whether to live or die."—The Honeymooners
(Thanks to my friend Jim for the suggestion.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This Day in Western History (Seth Bullock Dies; Sheriff, T.R. Friend, “Deadwood” Inspiration)

September 23, 1919—Seth Bullock, 70, a Canadian emigrant, died on his ranch in South Dakota, concluding a life devoted to politics, conservation, law enforcement, the military, and settling the American West—not unlike his great and good longtime friend, Theodore Roosevelt.

If you’re an HBO devotee, then you came across Bullock as one of the featured characters on the now-departed series Deadwood. As I mentioned in a prior post about the reburial of Wild Bill Hickok, I couldn’t cotton to the show’s incessant profanity (a little bit goes a long way), so I can’t say how accurate the series is.

But one thing I can say: Seth Bullock and wife Martha hold their own fascination, quite apart from the show. The two contributed mightily to their community, their region, and their country:

* Politics. Seth served in the territorial senate of Montana in his early 20s.

* Conservation. While in that capacity, he helped create the first U.S. National Park, Yellowstone. The resolution he introduced, after exploring that territory on horseback, was adopted by the legislature.

* Law enforcement. Within 24 hours after Bullock arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota, in search of opportunities to expand his hardware business, Hickok was shot to death. The governor’s appointment of Bullock was crucial in curbing the wild ways of miners, hookers, drunks, gamblers, and others. And Bullock didn’t need some measly six-shooter to maintain law and order: his grandson confirmed that Seth’s eyes could “outstare a mad cobra or a rogue elephant.”

* Business. Once his hardware business burned to the ground in 1894, Bullock built a hotel (named after him) on the same site. It’s still in operation.

* Military. Inspired by T.R.’s example, Bullock became a Rough Rider in his late 40s. Though he never saw combat, he became known as “Captain” for the rest of his life.

* Culture. Martha Bullock, a schoolteacher when she met and fell in love with Seth, went on to establish a ladies’ literary group that helped to found Deadwood’s public library.

Bullock met Teddy Roosevelt in 1884, when the latter, serving as a deputy sheriff from North Dakota, was transporting a horse thief for trial. Later, at T.R.’s 1905 inaugural parade, Bullock organized 50 cowboys (including future Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix) who created quite a stir by their presence.

T.R. appointed his old friend U.S. Marshal for South Dakota. On July 4, 1919, a little more than six months after Roosevelt died suddenly, his Bullock helped erect a monument to his old friend—the first in the nation.

Quote of the Day (FDR, on the GOP and His Dog Fala)

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Campaign Dinner Address, September 23, 1944, Washington, DC, before the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America (a.k.a. the “Fala Address”)

In his quest for “teachable moments,” President Obama can, unfortunately, sound like he’s addressing an unruly class. Last week, warning Congress about “bickering,” he came off like he was telling them to shut up. I think he could have chosen a more playful tone to make his valid points—something like Franklin D. Roosevelt.

FDR conveyed a pirate’s zest for close, hand-to-hand partisan combat. Like Blackbeard, he took no quarter and he gave none.

Nobody recalls the above quote as coming from “The Teamsters speech,” even though Roosevelt devoted far more time to labor (and other) issues than to responding to GOP attacks that he spent millions of taxpayer dollars in wartime to retrieve his favorite canine (shortened, for obvious reasons, from the one the President gave him, Murray the Outlaw of Falahill) from the Aleutian Islands. (The Scottish terrier had become accidentally separated from the Presidential party.)

Yet so magnificently droll was FDR’s delivery that the single paragraph in the lengthy address associated with the Scottie became an essential part of campaign lore over the years. What’s amazing is that these well-remembered lines are perfectly in keeping with the rest of the tone of the speech: not mad, but mocking.

Now, I grant you that it’s nice that Obama hasn’t yet taken to self-pity, the way that NewYork Governor David Paterson is now, crying about race just because his poll numbers can’t climb north further than, say, Miami, or the way that Bill Clinton moaned to pal Taylor Branch over the fallout from the Lewinsky affair (it was the pummeling he took from the Gingrich-led Congress, not the sight of Monica’s thong, that made him vulnerable, according to the recently released The Clinton Tapes).

Still, the next time some idiotic Congressman from South Carolina yells “You lie!”—and especially when the GOP charges that, a mere three-quarters into the first year of his Presidency, before his economic program has had time to gain traction or his foreign-policy adjustments to pay dividends, Obama has brought the nation to catastrophe—the President and the Democratic Party should forget their cries about incivility and give it back to the GOP with some common-sense, unanswerable counterpunching of their own:

* “What’s this talk about me being responsible for losing Afghanistan and Iraq? Both were like houses on fire before I ever got here.”

* “So I’m the one who’s driving the economy into the ditch? Well, who left us with shot brakes? What happened with Lehman last September, or with all those people on the unemployment line after that? All that makes for a lot more than a little ol’ economic fender-bender, if you ask me—more like a 16-car freeway pileup.”

But if he wants to see how a real pro did it, without a plaintive, lecturing, elitist tone, Obama should check out how his illustrious Democrat predecessor dealt in the Fala speech with similar suggestions that his policies had brought the nation to economic and military peril:

* On the GOP’s belated recognition of labor unions, after opposing Democratic bills on this, tooth and nail, for years: “We have all seen many marvelous stunts in the circus but no performing elephant could turn a hand-spring without falling flat on his back.”

* On charges that the Republicans were trying to save America from a Democratic-induced Depression: “If I were a Republican leader speaking to a mixed audience, the last word in the whole dictionary that I think I would use is that word ‘depression.’”

* On charges that he’d left the nation unprepared for fighting World War II: “I doubt whether even Goebbels would have tried that one. For even he would never have dared hope that the voters of America had already forgotten that many of the Republican leaders in the Congress and outside the Congress tried to thwart and block nearly every attempt that this Administration made to warn our people and to arm our Nation.”

In Thomas E. Dewey and His Times, Richard Norton Smith contends that the 1944 GOP Presidential nominee delivered a devastating counterpunch to FDR’s Fala address that rallied party faithful concerned by his lack of fire. Smith is a reputable biographer, but count me among the unconvinced.

What Dewey, his handlers, and his amen corner never stopped to think about is that Americans are wild dog-lovers. My family would have pressed for an entire airborne division to retrieve our dear departed pooch if it got lost, not just the mere destroyer that FDR is supposed to have dispatched.

Maybe Dewey’s hard-line supporters cheered, but after 12 long, lonely years out of power, they would, wouldn’t they? In some ways, not much has changed—it’s still a matter of offering what the late great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “boob bait for the bubbas.”

In other words, if only the party faithful cheered, this was a no-win issue for the Republicans. It took another political genius—a corrupt one, admittedly—to co-opt the Democrats’ canny tactic.

The other controversial canine ever to affect a national ticket, I believe, was Checkers. Over the years, Democrats have complained how sanctimonious and lachrymose his master, Richard Nixon, was in delivering that televised address.

But they forget one thing—it worked, saving not just his #2 spot on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 but even his entire career.

The real issue, of course, was the nature of a “secret fund” set up for Nixon by supporters. (In actuality, it was not secret but public and independently audited.) Introducing that cocker spaniel into the conversation was a stroke of genius. Nixon had taken notice of FDR’s success with Fala and one-upped him.

It not only took daring to speak of the dog when nobody had even raised him as an issue, but it kicked up so much dust—and won Nixon so much underserved sympathy from Middle America—that Ike had to retain him on the ticket. (Even though, as Garry Wills pointed out in Nixon Agonistes, Tricky Dick’s suggestion that the other candidates also disclose their finances gave Ike agita, since he’d gotten a nice tax break over his World War II memoirs).

But did Nixon ever love Checkers as much as FDR did Fala? I doubt it. The dog went everywhere with the President and performed all kinds of magic tricks in front of great visitors, including Winston Churchill. And, if you go up to Hyde Park now, you’ll find him buried near his master.

When you look at the marker over the Scottie’s grave, see if his memory—and FDR’s famous words about him—doesn’t make you smile.

Happy 60th Birthday, Bruce!

On a typical summer’s day in my teen years, I felt suffocating tedium, a restlessness born of nothing happening in my town, of seeing the same faces over and over again. Back before the Second World War, the symbol of escape for many people was the plaintive whistle of a far-off train, the kind that George Bailey hears in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Then, through Born to Run, which I picked up at my local Korvettes in Northern New Jersey, just before the start of my sophomore year in high school, the sounds of freedom came from car tires squealing down the highway.

Not knowing how or where I belonged, I desperately longed for a place where I could be myself and find people who would accept me for who I was.

In Bruce Springsteen, I found the voice of my psychic hometown, the person who told me that the promised land lay just beyond the horizon, where I could find another solitary soul with a hungry heart.

Could I ever reach that point? Exultantly, from one who had seen “heaven waiting down on the tracks,” backed by the triumphant saxophone of his boon companion, Clarence Clemons, Springsteen assured me that I could:

It’s a town full of losers,
And I’m pulling out of here to win.

Thanks for all the years of joy, Boss. Keep rockin’!