Saturday, April 30, 2011

Flashback, April 1521: Magellan Killed Rounding World

He had traveled to lands Columbus had only dreamed of, faced down challenges that would later undo other commanders, and braved all kinds of physical dangers on the first circumnavigation of the globe. 

But, after becoming the first European to journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, Ferdinand Magellan interfered in local tribal politics on Mactan Island in the Philippines and was killed before the horrified eyes of crew members unable to save him. 

In his history of American naval operations in WWII, naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison noted that the month before he died, Magellan and his men reached an island in the Philippines known as Limasawa, where “westward-advancing Christianity first met eastward-advancing Islam.” 

That phrase has become more pregnant with irony and portent in the 60 years since Morison wrote them. It also inspires a different way of viewing Magellan’s odyssey. 

In one of the last essays of his long, illustrious career, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. assailed the Bush administration for going “eyeless in Gaza” by venturing into Iraq with poor intelligence. Even then, though, Bush and his Cabinet had at least some information from journalists, historians, diplomats, refugees, and defectors. 

Now flash backward five centuries, as Magellan--like the Bush administration, failing to proceed with care in a faraway land--decided to aid a local chieftain who had converted to Christianity. 

Not happy that 800 of these tribesmen followed their king to Christianity all in one night, the pious explorer insisted that others in the area do likewise. Their refusal led him to burn their villages. 

Nearly two weeks later, instead of leaving while he could, he demanded that these tribes provide his crews with provisions. When they replied that they could only provide some, he decided to teach them a lesson by leading 50 to 60 men on three boats on a punitive mission. 

The result was something like a maritime version of Custer’s Last Stand. 

Suddenly, Magellan found himself facing three or four thousand natives, roused to fury first by being fired on (ineffectually) by musket and cannon from a distance, then by watching their huts burned by the Spaniards. 

Though he had previously benefited by some natives’ perceptions that he and his men were god-like figures, his sense of vulnerability evaporated now, especially when the natives noticed that a) his bare legs left him exposed and b) he could only pull out his sword halfway because he’d been wounded in the arm. 

Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian traveling with the crew, described what happened next: 

"When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off." 

When your leader is traveling in lands where he not only doesn’t know the history but even the language or geography, the temptation is overwhelming to urge caution upon him. 

But caution was not what led Magellan to greatness. Caution did not lead him to sail beyond the limits of the known world. Caution was not the byword of the country under whose flag he sailed--Spain, well launched toward its destiny as the great 16th-century empire. 

 If you want to read a thrilling account of Magellan’s epic voyage and of the terrible fate that befell him on April 27, 1521, an excellent place to start is with William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. In fact, I’d advise you to read only those chapters in this work dealing with the explorer. 

As for the rest of this history of the transition between the middle and modern ages, skip it--Manchester, an excellent chronicler of 20th-century history, had compounded his mistake of ranging far beyond his usual writing domain by a) sticking overwhelmingly to secondary rather than primary sources, and b) rehashing the same old stereotypes about the Dark Ages that historians had long overturned. 

But as I said, the Magellan portion is something else entirely. It began as a foreword to a biography of Magellan by Manchester’s friend Tim Joyner, but Manchester’s fascination with the explorer grew so intense that it became the climax of his own book. 

Like John F. Kennedy, the subject of Manchester’s bestselling Death of a President, Magellan is a hero who lets nothing stand in the way of his will, leading this dashing leader to his appointment with destiny. 

Manchester could write so well about Magellan, I think, because he well understood that constitutional inability to stop while he still could. 

Nearly 20 years ago, an academic friend told me what had delayed the next volume in Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion: The author became so consumed by his research that he worked himself into a state of exhaustion--a pattern that had repeated itself since Death of a President.

Something like this led to A World Lit Only by Fire

Manchester had been advised by doctors to rest while he was still only two-thirds through his epic work on Churchill. He could comply with part of their advice--not interviewing people or visiting archives--but he had to be writing every single day on something, for heaven’s sake. And so, this particular project gripped him. 

Not surprisingly, you have to admit. Magellan might have felt himself invincible at the Battle of Mactan because he had already survived the following: 

* Even before reaching South America, Magellan had had to relieve from command a leader of a planned mutiny against him. 

* Cold weather while heading south led him to decide to winter in present-day Patagonia. 

* In Patagonia, Magellan had to put down a second mutiny attempt. 

* On a reconnaissance mission, one of Magellan’s ships, Santiago, wrecked. 

* While sailing through the strait now named for him in South America, Magellan was faced with the loss of another ship, whose captain turned tail and sailed home. 

* While crossing the Pacific, many members of Magellan’s crew were hit with scurvy and forced to subsist on sawdust, leather strips from sails, and rats. 

Even after Magellan’s death, the survivors of his fleet weren’t through with hardship. Portugal seized one of the ships, taking with them Magellan’s log (which became lost during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755). When the remnants of his fleet staggered into Spain in September 1522, only 18 of the original 225 who left the country three years before made it home alive.

TV Exchange of the Day (“Seinfeld,” Showing Even Back Then “It Was McDowell”)

Newman (played by Wayne Knight) (to Keith Hernandez): “June 14th, 1987. Mets Phillies. You made a big error. Cost the Mets the game. Then you're coming up the parking lot ramp.”
Keith Hernandez (playing himself): “YOU said, ‘Nice game, pretty boy.’”
Kramer (played by Michael Richards): “Ah, you remember.”
Newman: “And then you spit on us.”
Keith: “Hey, I didn't spit at you.”
Newman: “Oh, yeah, right.”
Kramer: “No no no, well, then who was it?”
Keith: “Well lookit, the way I remember it [back to the grainy 8mm Zapruder-like film parody] I was walking up the ramp. I was upset about the game. That's when you called me pretty boy. It ticked me off. I started to turn around to say something and as I turned around I saw Roger McDowell behind the bushes over by that gravely road. … Anyway he was talking to someone and they were talking to you. I tried to scream out but it was too late. It was already on its way.”
Jerry Seinfeld (playing himself—sort of): “I told you!”
Newman: “Wow, it was McDowell.”
Jerry: “But why? Why McDowell? “
Kramer: “Well, maybe because we were sitting in the right field stands cursing at him in the bullpen all game.”
Newman: “He must have caught a glimpse of us when I poured that beer on his head.”
Newman: “It was McDowell.”—Seinfeld, Season 3, Episode 18, “The Boyfriend, Part II,” written by Larry David and Larry Levin, directed by Tom Cherones, original air date February 12, 1992

Did Larry David ever dream that life would imitate art for Roger McDowell? Seems like the onetime Mets reliever really does take cranky fans a little too much to heart. This week, of course, he got into trouble for hurling homophobic insults at three fans…then profanely threatening another fan who protested that such behavior wasn’t appropriate in front of children…then simulating sex with a bat and his hands.

In other words, a lot worse than launching a “magic loogie.”

During his playing days, McDowell had something of a reputation as a merry prankster—perhaps why he was so up for his bit part in the classic Seinfeld "second spitter" episode. But he’s not laughing too much these days, especially after being put on administrative leave from his current job as a pitching coach.

Of course, Mets fans would say, this is what he gets for working for their onetime (and perhaps future) tormenters, the Atlanta Braves.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Flashback, April 1906: TR Lashes Out at “Muckrakers”

In what normally makes for a dry, ceremonial occasion, President Theodore Roosevelt blasted the investigative journalism that lent fuel to the Progressive movement he headed--and, in the process, demonstrated anew his talent for phrasemaking--by lashing out at purveyors of negativity that the public, taking his lead, quickly labeled “muckrakers.”

Those fascinated by language--the late William Safire and his ilk--have long known about TR’s neologism. But looking at both the content and context of his speech makes for a fascinating glimpse at how America’s leaders once tried to channel political discourse, why the public responded to TR’s particular appeal, and what impact his words made.

The occasion for the President’s address was the dedication for the House of Representatives office building on April 14, 1906. For more than two decades, since his days in the New York state legislature, Roosevelt had battled the forces of corruption that had found a happy hunting ground in the Gilded Age. In the years since, 10 magazines with a combined circulation of 3,000,000--including Everybody's, McClure's Magazine, and the American Magazine--had alerted ordinary Americans to the depredations of robber barons such as John D. Rockefeller, Charles Yerkes, Andrew Carnegie, and others.

The groundswell generated by the resulting anger had enabled T.R., Robert M. LaFollette, Charles Evans Hughes, and other Progressives to pass legislation related to trusts, food and drug safety and municipal corruption.

But two months before the address, whatever goodwill the President felt toward such revelations began to dissipate. The cause was a magazine series called “The Treason of the Senate,” written by reporter/novelist David Graham Phillips.

The Senate was, indeed, a mega-scandal waiting to happen: Because its members were still at that time voted in by state legislatures, they became almost nakedly beholden to corporate interests. Quite simply, the Senators’ votes--their very offices--were for sale.

The President, known to resort to intemperate rhetoric and even name-calling on occasion (when predecessor William McKinley hesitated about going to war with Spain, TR said the President had “no more backbone than a chocolate ├ęclair”), was unnervingly sensitive to its use by others. He became further aroused in this case upon discovering that one object of Phillips’ charges was Roosevelt’s own mentor, the affable junior senator from New York, Chauncey Depew.

TR was annoyed enough that Phillips had gone after his ally and friend by writing of Depew that the New York Central Railroad, operated by Cornelius and William Vanderbilt, “owned him completely.” The President saw the attack as a product of innuendo and exaggeration.

But Roosevelt also saw another force behind the scenes: William Randolph Hearst, who in the past decade had not only become a media mogul but a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Hard to believe, in light of his late-life reputation as a reactionary, but at this point he was selling himself as the people’s tribune.) It was Hearst’s publication Cosmopolitan that ran the Phillips series.

If anyone had an ulterior motive for his actions, TR believed, it was Hearst rather than Depew: By tearing one politician off his pedestal, the publisher-politician was ensuring that he would mount one himself. Ultimately, even Roosevelt’s administration was being undermined by this, he felt, when an ardent supporter such as Depew was being impugned.

Roosevelt did not hit out immediately at Phillips. Instead, he tried out his criticism privately, writing to friends, to see how they would react to his line of argument. Then he vented his frustrations with “hysterical sensationalism” publicly, in the address at the laying of the corner of the House of Representatives Building.

Several points should be mentioned about the speech:

* The literary allusion, “The Man with the Muck-Rake,” that TR transformed into a new term, “muckraker,” derived from John Bunyan’s 17th-century allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. Virtually every college graduate of the time--and a much wider swath of Protestant America--would have recognized instantly the source. A century later, in a time not only more secular but less likely to install this book as part of the literary canon, that no longer would be true.

* Though later generations seized on the muckraking image as the most notable part of the speech, the media highlighted another aspect of it at the time: TR’s embrace of the progressive income tax. It was TR’s way of signifying that, though he might have resisted the knee-jerk negativity of the muckrakers, he agreed with them that the divide between rich and poor was a menace to the republic and the robber barons of the time needed to be restrained. (That call for a new tax--and one on the rich--would be verboten in the GOP of John Boehner and Paul Ryan, of course.)

* TR’s criticism of investigative journalism was of a piece with his overwhelming distinctions between “good” and “bad.” Jackson Lears’ New Republic review of Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt is hyperbolic in labeling TR “drunk on his own self-regard,“ but he does have one point: The President lived in a binary universe of moral absolutes. In much the same way that he distinguished between “good” and “bad” trusts, the President drew a distinction between “good” journalism--”absolutely truthful” reports on “every evil man, whether politician or business man, [and] every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life”--and “bad” journalism, which, in its “epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character,” ran the risk of undermining faith in democratic institutions.

* Muckrakers did not take kindly to TR’s criticisms. The day after the speech, Lincoln Steffens, a pioneer of investigative journalism with his “Shame of the Cities” series, told the President: “Well, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you." Though some publications carried on the practice, others began to cool on the idea, as admitted by John O'Hara Cosgrave, editor of Everybody's: "The subject was not exhausted but the public interest therein seemed to be at an end, and inevitably the editors turned to other sources of copy to fill their pages."

Quote of the Day (Christopher Hitchens, on Kate and the Royals)

“Myself, I wish her well and also wish I could whisper to her: If you really love him, honey, get him out of there, and yourself, too. Many of us don't want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a dessicated system. Do yourself a favor and save what you can: Leave the throne to the awful next incumbent that the hereditary principle has mandated for it.”—Christopher Hitchens, "Beware the In-Laws: Does Kate Middleton Really Want to Marry Into a Family Like This?”, Slate, April 18, 2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Quote of the Day (John Wayne, on Ann-Margret)

“When I die, I want Ann-Margret to dance on my coffin. If you don't see me in five minutes, you'll know I'm dead for sure."—John Wayne, three weeks before his death, on former co-star Ann-Margret, quoted in Paul Rosenfield, “Ann-Margret A-Go-Go,” Vanity Fair, October 1991

In his characteristically gruff (if, in this case, ghoulish) way, The Duke voiced what many American males felt about Ann-Margret in her heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Not surprising in Rosenfield’s article from nearly 20 years ago is one anonymous actress’ contention (denied by A-M) that she was the only woman to have slept with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and JFK. That has to be some kind of trifecta...

(Do you really need to be told that she’s with The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the image accompanying this post, from Viva Las Vegas? This YouTube clip makes us sorry not only that Elvis never had another female co-star to match his charisma onscreen--one reason why his films made a ton of money but little lasting impression--but that the two never made another film together.)

It comes as a shock, then, to realize that the former “Kitten With a Whip” (a title in her own series of mostly forgettable ‘60s films) turns 70 years old today.

But it’s equally a surprise to recall that she first burst upon the nation’s consciousness 50 years ago with an attention-getting performance at the Oscars and a supporting role as Bette Davis‘ innocent daughter in Frank Capra’s last film, Pocketful of Miracles…or that it was 40 years ago that she finally began to earn recognition as an actress, in Carnal Knowledge…or that I was in high school when she scored another Oscar nomination in Tommy.

Many people would be astonished to find out that this woman with the over-the-top screen persona is, in private life, a homebody, or that she’s so sensitive that her co-workers have always been deeply protective of her. (She, in turn, returns that loyalty, as seen in this portion of a 1994 interview by Charlie Rose in which she refuses to say anything that might detract from the memory of Elvis.)

That sensitivity informs what I think of as her best, and bravest, performance: her 1984 TV appearance as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In this scene, she invests Blanche with emotional fragility over the loss of would-be savior Mitch--and the realization of her fading looks--along with mounting terror over menacing in-law Stanley.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Photo of the Day: The Torrents (and Reflections) of Spring

I took this photo a week and a half ago in Saddle River County Park in Bergen County, N.J. Looks like we'll be getting a bit more precipitation before the month is out, if the weather forecasters are correct...

Quote of the Day (John Quincy Adams on Dying Ex-Boss James Monroe)

"I paid a visit to the ex-President [James], Monroe, at the home of his son-in-law, Mr. Samuel Gouverneur. He was confined to his chamber, and extremely emaciated and feeble. Congress passed, at their last session, an act making further allowance to him for his claims, of thirty thousand dollars, which have been paid to him. He has advertised for sale his estate in Loudoun County, Virginia, and proposes to go there in a few weeks; but it is doubtful whether he will ever be able to leave his chamber. Mr. Monroe is a very remarkable instance of a man whose life has been a continued series of the most extraordinary good fortune, who has never met with any known disaster, has gone through a splendid career of public service, has received more pecuniary reward from the public than any other man since the existence of the nation, and is now dying, at the age of seventy-two, in wretchedness and beggary…I did not protract my visit,, and took leave of him, in all probability, for the last time."—Former President John Quincy Adams, on the man he served eight years as Secretary of State, James Monroe, in his diary entry for April 27, 1831, in Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary, Vol. 8, edited by Charles Francis Adams (1876)

John Quincy Adams was correct. Far less dramatically than predecessors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who died not only on the same day but on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence they had brought into being, James Monroe (in the image accompanying this post) died on Independence Day 1831, in the New York home of daughter Maria, a little more than only two months after John Quincy Adams visited him in New York City.

The “claims” that Adams noted arose from Monroe’s dire financial straits. Like his two immediate predecessors among the “Virginia Dynasty” in the White House, Jefferson and James Madison, Monroe found himself caught in a perfect storm: an agricultural recession in the state caused by the erosion value of the chief crop, tobacco; the rise of Kentucky as a competitor; the enormous expenses of maintaining the hospitality expected of a plantation owner; and the expenses required as an American diplomat.

Before it became known in the late-1950s that Harry Truman was living off his Army pension and Congress passed legislation providing former Presidents with pensions, the nation did nothing to help its ex-chief executives when out of office. Monroe was caught in a vise that Adams, with his parsimonious Yankee habits, but little understood.

Quite a bit different from today's world, when ex-Presidents not only have their own pensions, but can, if they wish, write memoirs that will net him them a nice bundle, not to mention deliver speeches at hundreds of thousands of dollars a shot....

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quote of the Day (Liz Phair, on Elvis Costello, 3-Minute Novelist)

“Elvis Costello writes novels in three minutes. He gets inside your head, and he doesn't let go. I'd pay a great amount of money to audit a course taught by him. If you love Elvis Costello, it's because you love what he's thinking — the depth and breadth of his notice is astounding. Sometimes I wonder if he watches people on the Strand in London and makes up entire histories for them. (‘This person didn't pass the bar and has thyroid problems.’ ‘They're jogging because they just went through a breakup.’)”—Liz Phair, “Elvis Costello,” in Rolling Stone Magazine, “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time” Issue

In case you were wondering, the magazine places the former Declan MacManus at #80.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Quote of the Day (P.G. Wodehouse, Showing No Man Is a Hero to His Valet)

“ ‘Oh, Jeeves,' I said; 'about that check suit.'
‘Yes, sir?'
‘Is it really a frost?'
‘A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.'
‘But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.'
‘Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.'
‘He's supposed to be one of the best men in London.' ‘I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.’"—P.G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves Takes Charge,” in The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology (Everyman’s Library Edition, 2007)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bonus Quote of the Day (Stephen Vincent Benet, on Beauregard, Victor at Ft. Sumter)

“Beauregard, beau sabreur, hussar-sword with the gilded hilt, the gilded metal of the guard twisted into lovelocks and roses, vain as Murat, dashing as Murat, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard is a pose of conquering courtesy under a palmetto-banner. The lugubrious little march goes grimly by his courtesy, he watches it unsmiling, a light half-real, half that of invisible footlights on his French, dark, handsome face.”—Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body (1928)

As I searched for an appropriate quote to commemorate the recent 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter and the onset of the Civil War, I was surprised that the epics that centered around the war gave this battle relatively cursory treatment.

Well, let me amend that: in one case, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, I wasn’t that surprised—that novel deals with the impact of the war on a Georgian plantation, so, within that focus, it made sense that this event would be treated in conversation, as something happening offstage, if you will.

The real surprise was Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body. You can make a great case that this Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry is an American Iliad, an epic poem on the most riveting conflict in our history. And, to be sure, Benet devotes far more pages to his titular hero, or the Battle of Gettysburg, or Lincoln, or Lee, than to this siege that lasted less than 48 hours.

In contrast, the poet’s coverage of the siege is atypical. He disposes of it in three paragraphs, showing the aftermath rather than the battle itself. Moreover, as you can tell from the quote, it’s rendered as a prose poem rather than in verse like most of the rest of the book.

Yet I would argue that how Benet treats the battle mirrors what occurred off the coast of Charleston that day. Both the event and the literary treatment are unexpected and deeply ironic—starting with Benet’s focus here, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard.

Some years ago, I spoke after a walking tour with our guide, an affable fellow who was doing his dissertation on Beauregard. I guess if you spend a long time with a biographical subject, you’d better like them, or you’ll go crazy. The guide fit the bill. He loved Beauregard, making sure I knew that the general had kept the North from capturing Charleston later in the war, when it was facing hopeless odds, because of his skill as an engineer.

Maybe so. But you’d never know from listening to the guide that Beauregard’s flaws—not just in confronting the enemy but in handling boss Jefferson Davis—would be exposed pitilessly before long.

Like the South in the early going of the war, everything seemed to go Beauregard’s way for awhile. Several months after Fort Sumter, he was co-victor with Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Bull Run. The two victories made him for awhile the toast of the Confederacy.

Slightly less than one year after Sumter, Beauregard would lose the Battle of Shiloh—a fight that seemed all but within his grasp by the end of the first day—and keep the winning streak of Ulysses S. Grant intact at a point when it seemed most vulnerable. When he went on medical leave without requesting Davis’ permission first, the Confederate President—who didn’t much care for the soldier known as “The Little Napoleon”—had an excuse to sideline him.

You can see the mixture of promise and vanity that vexed Davis and so many others in Benet’s description of the general. For every word suggesting his magnetism (“dashing,” “courtesy”), there’s another that undercuts it (“vain,” “unsmiling”). (And yet, had we wanted to do so, the poet could have added another detail that would have nailed the latter qualities even more strongly: it seems that the general did not share the frequent modern practice of calling himself “Pierre.” The name seemed too foreign, Beauregard reasoned. No, he preferred his middle name--Gustave.)

The men who won the war weren’t the cavaliers such as Beauregard, nor those, such as the general and his counterpart in the North, George B. McClellan, who also earned the nickname “Little Napoleon.” No, it was the dogged, weary men who endured everything--the ones to whom Benet paid tribute, in a brief description that contrasts sharply with the supposed hero of Fort Sumter, Beauregard:

“Their faces are worn and angry, their bellies empty and cold, but the stubborn salute of a gun, fifty times repeated, keeps their backs straight as they march out, and answers something stubborn and mute in their flesh.”

Quote of the Day (Thomas Merton, on Easter Sunday)

“All the apple trees came out in blossom Good Friday. It rained and got colder, but today is very bright with a pure sky. The willow is full of green. Things are all in bud.

"And in my heart, the deepest peace, Christ's clarity, lucid and quiet and ever-present as eternity. On these big feasts you come out on top of a plateau in the spiritual life to get a new view of everything. Especially Easter. Easter is like what it will be entering eternity when you suddenly, peacefully, clearly recognize all your mistakes as well as all that you did well: everything falls into place.”—Thomas Merton, diary entry for Easter Sunday, March 28, 1948, in The Intimate Merton: His Life From His Journals, edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (1999)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

This Day in Pop Music History (Judy Garland, in a Conquering Carnegie Comeback)

April 23, 1961—In its long, legendary history, Carnegie Hall has served as a platform for countless musicians who left their mark on the New York venue. But it’s almost impossible to think of one who had fallen so low before an appearance as Judy Garland, nor one who rose again so high on the strength of a single exultant performance as the former Wizard of Oz star.

Offstage, Garland was such a mess that if she came to visit, you’d better say goodbye to the contents of your medicine cabinet. But put her in front of thousands of cheering fans with a microphone in hand, and she ruled.

It was practically a physical change that those closest to her witnessed. That night at Carnegie, for instance, journalist Shana Alexander, who had been holding the star’s lit cigarette backstage as the audience excitement built before the 8:30 pm scheduled start time, was astonished to see that as Garland let go of the curtain and headed onstage, she “actually got bigger.”

Hype, you say. But Garland was so over the top herself that even when you describe exactly the way she was, in what you view as realistic terms, it comes out as hype anyway.

Sports bring comeback stories aplenty—in fact, baseball even has a “Comeback Player of the Year.” But in the entertainment industry, with only one notable exception that I can think of—John Travolta, who has noted wryly that he’s had four or five so far in his career—they’re harder to mount. Though sports had its share of triumph over physical adversity (Ben Hogan’s car crash, Tony Conigliaro’s beaning in the head), most “comebacks” happen after a subpar, injury-plagued season. Heal a bone and the body does wonders again.

Entertainment comebacks are different. Entertainers might not be overcoming simply a medical condition, or even the inevitable self-doubt in the wake of this kind of setback, but also the attitudes of those who make the deals in Hollywood. Make no mistake: For all their professed progressivism, when it comes to a performer who can interfere with a payday, Hollywood moguls can be as intolerant as the worst bigot.

The only entertainment comeback I can think of comparable to Garland’s was the one staged by her good friend and old MGM colleague, Frank Sinatra, with From Here to Eternity (recounted in this prior post of mine). But Sinatra only had to do it once, and by 1961 he was bigger than ever.

Not so with Garland. Oh, nobody doubted her ability to invest the Great American Songbook with the same drama that Ol’ Blue Eyes did. But the lift provided by her comeback vehicle after her suicide attempt and public firing by MGM, A Star Is Born (1954), proved ephemeral.

Five years later, after looking at her 4-ft.-11-in., 180-lb. frame in a hospital bed, drained of fluids, with a liver compromised by years of alcohol and pills, a doctor not only bluntly warned Garland she would be a semi-invalid for the rest of her life, but that under no circumstances could she even walk again.

Maybe Garland misheard him—maybe she thought he said she could never work again. Whatever. She was going to prove him wrong.

More than a few people thought she couldn’t do it. And more than a few people, tired of her chronic tardiness and unreliability, thought her such a high-maintenance pain in the neck that they weren’t even inclined to wish her well.

You get a very pungent sense of this in James Kaplan’s terrific 50th-anniversary retrospective of the Carnegie Hall concert in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair. Among the friends and fans who function as a kind of Greek chorus in this tragedy that was magically delayed, one quote especially stands out, by actress-singer Polly Bergen:

“She’d been gone, and her career was over. Nobody really understands. Her career was over. Nobody wanted to see her. Nobody wanted to put up with her. Nobody cared. I’m talking about nobody in the Business. And let’s face it, the Business is what creates the business. So if people in the Business didn’t care, nothing was going to happen.”

But two thought they could reverse that impression: Bergen’s husband of the time, aspiring agent Freddie Fields, and his partner, David Begelman (yes, the future head thief of Columbia Pictures). In January 1961, they outlined their plan to revive her career. One element of this was re-establishing her as a marquee live performer—and a key component of this was her date at Carnegie Hall.

That sold out within hours after a small ad was placed in The New York Times. Yes, there was an element—similar to those watching Charlie Sheen’s current bizarre tour—wondering if they might be watching a self-immolation onstage. Yes, there was, for those pre-Stonewall days, a gay coterie out to pay homage to a performer already turning into one of their idols. Yes, there were even those in show business—not the suits described by Bergen, but the performer’s own acting and music colleagues—who cherished their troubled but talented, funny, endlessly warm-hearted friend.

And there were those who cut across all these groups and more, who wanted to see a once-in-a-lifetime performer who could make them marvel, laugh and cry at every turn because, in giving voice to every joy and sorrow of her heart, they heard an echo of their own.

You can cite the usual results of the concert that night—an album (Judy at Carnegie Hall) earning five Grammy Awards, placing number one on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks—but it’s all pallid and bloodless. It was a night in which not merely a career but a life hang in the balance.

The minutes dragged by after the 8:30 start time, leading some to fret a backstage breakdown. Far from it, though: Garland was milking the excitement for all it was worth, until it could barely be restrained. From the moment she hit the stage, singing “When You’re Smiling,” everyone realized that she was in as good physical shape as she’d been in for the last two years—and that not only the pipes remained intact, but that her ability to put over a song might even have been enhanced by the years of heartache.

I’m not going to get into the years after the show—you know the sad story already. What I do want to do is leave you with a sense of what it felt like to be among the three thousand strong in Carnegie Hall that one magical evening of 20-plus songs.

(In a sense, words will have to do. Fields was only able to persuade Garland's record company to audiotape the proceedings that night because they thought they'd never be able to get her into a studio with any regularity. But, except for a few precious seconds caught surreptitiously by a fan that night, contained in this YouTube excerpt, no visual record remains of that evening.)

Garland had true believers in the audience that night, but she made even more, including Mike Nichols. Still a comic partner of Elaine May, not yet a film and stage director, Nichols was unprepared for what he saw, according to what he told Kaplan for the Vanity Fair piece:

“Everybody loved Judy Garland, and I liked her, but I wasn’t obsessed with her. Then she comes out and she’s like on fire from the first moment. You just thought, Holy shit! What is this? I don’t remember what she sang when. I just remember that our jaws dropped, because she seemed to be singing these songs for the first time, which of course was her gift anyway. We kept clutching each other and gasping and cheering and yelling and carrying on.”

Movie Exchange of the Day (Cagney and Clarke, Having It Out in “Public Enemy”)

Tom Powers (played by James Cagney): [shuffling to the breakfast table in his pajamas, hungover] “Ain't you got a drink in the house?”
Kitty (played by Mae Clarke): “Well, not before breakfast, dear.”
Tom: “I didn't ask you for any lip. I asked you if you had a drink.”
Kitty: “I know Tom, but I, I wish that... “
Tom: “...there you go with that wishin' stuff again. I wish you was a wishing well. So that I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya.”
Kitty: “Well, maybe you've found someone you like better.”
[Enraged, Tom shoves a grapefruit in her face as he leaves the table]—The Public Enemy (1931), written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, adapted by Harvey Thew, directed by William W. Wellman

A complete revolution in audience attitudes has occurred in the 80 years to the day that filmgoers first witnessed this scene, but I doubt if the visceral shock has faded a bit. Part of this shock derived from Mae Clarke’s reaction to James Cagney’s grapefruit pushed in her face. (Later, the actress claimed that the scene was supposed to climax only with verbal abuse, while he said that the grapefruit was supposed to brush past her but look like a real attack.) The surprise—the disgust—registers unmistakably on her face, as you'll see in this YouTube excerpt.

This performance, his fifth for Warner Brothers, made Cagney, in the same way that Richard Widmark’s similarly villainous turn did in Kiss of Death and James Woods’ did in The Onion Field. Impressions this vivid have a way, through no fault of the actor’s, of becoming a creative straitjacket.

It could have been especially true for Cagney, a a song-and-dance man on Broadway before this role led inevitably led to one Hollywood thug role after another. The ironic thing is, he wasn't supposed to play gangster Tom Powers when shooting began. Then, a few days into shooting, director Wellman realized that Edward Woods, originally cast as Powers, wasn't working out, and had the brainstorm of having Woods and Cagney switch roles.

This scene was essential for Cagney in staking out the ground for Powers. It’s not enough to show that Powers is a vicious sociopath—any shot of him with his pistol out on the street would do that. No, he is truly dangerous in his volatility, a trait best shown in a seemingly ordinary setting: a breakfast table.

It’s this upsurge of savagery that isolates Powers, as a man utterly uncomfortable with the slightest bit of domesticity, even with his moll. (One suspects he would become positively bug-eyed at mafia chieftain/affectionate papa Vito Corleone in The Godfather, as well as at Tom Hanks’ mob killer by day, devoted dad at night in The Road to Perdition.) Though he later dumps Clarke for Jean Harlow, he’s clearly more at ease in the company of fellow male killers than with a female. Never mind a wife—he can’t even keep a mistress without rejecting her.

The Public Enemy wasn’t the prototypical gangster film—that honor belonged to Little Caesar, the Edward G. Robinson vehicle released by Warner Brothers earlier in 1931. But The Public Enemy offered quite a variation on its predecessor. As Roger Dooley noted in From Scarlett to Scarface: American Films in the 1930s: “Just as Robinson made Rico, written more or less sympathetically, repellent, so did Cagney make Tommy, meant to be repellent, irresistible.”

Cagney did so through an irresistible force field emitted by his small body. There’s that same sense in another performer and movie as far removed from Cagney and Public Enemy as you can get: Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

I say “unlikely,” except for a qualifier that really makes all the difference: Growing up in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s, an area with strife to match the Prohibition Era Chicago of Tom Powers, Branagh sat enthralled before his TV by the films of the Irish-Norwegian-American Cagney. As soon as he had the box-office credibility to do so, he staged a drama whose title directly paid tribute to his boyhood idol: Public Enemy.

Without the matinee-idol looks of fellow Shakespearean actor-hyphenate Lawrence Olivier, Branagh, a self-confessed “short-assed, fat-faced Irishman,” made use of his plebeian looks in Henry V with a restlessness and common touch that Cagney would have applauded.

The electric charge that Branagh recognized in the American was so powerful that Warner Brothers, fearing the heavy hand of censors concerned that he would glamorize evil, began to cast Cagney in films where he would be on the right side of the angels, such as G-Men.

But so outsize is the impact made by Cagney’s gangster roles—Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, even the late Love Me or Leave Me—that you wonder where it all came from. That mystery only grows when you recall the nickname bestowed by fellow Hollywood “Irish Media” friend Pat O’Brien: “the faraway fella.”

Cagney was far, far removed from Hollywood mainstream in both living arrangements and attitudes. Sure, he would battle the studios when he had to for better parts, but he was instinctively inclined offscreen to trade pugnacity for pensiveness.

Start with his single marriage, of more than 60 years. Only once during that time was he tempted to stray—on a train ride with Merle Oberon—and even then he stopped before anything really happened. This product of the Lower East Side, as soon as he could, bought farmland in upstate New York, where he raised horses, and became proficient at painting as well.

Maybe the eye he trained in painting enabled him to pick up visual clues that enabled him to become an emotional sponge, to embody those he saw on the mean streets of New York without falling victim to their pathologies. The quintessential "New York actor," he would sketch the outline of a broad character type, but fill the space between with different psychological shades and hues that made each role uniquely human, vibrant, still able to burst the bounds of screens all these years later.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Quote of the Day (“Ben-Hur,” on Witnessing the Way of the Cross)

“He was nearly dead. Every few steps he staggered as if he would fall. A stained gown badly torn hung from his shoulders over a seamless undertunic. His bare feet left red splotches upon the stones. An inscription on a board was tied to his neck. A crown of thorns had been crushed hard down upon his head, making cruel wounds from which streams of blood, now dry and blackened, had run over his face and neck. The long hair, tangled in the thorns, was clotted thick. The skin, where it could be seen, was ghastly white. His hands were tied before him. Back somewhere in the city he had fallen exhausted under the transverse beam of his cross, which, as a condemned person, custom required him to bear to the place of execution; now a countryman carried the burden in his stead. Four soldiers went with him as a guard against the mob, who sometimes, nevertheless, broke through, and struck him with sticks, and spit upon him. Yet no sound escaped him, neither remonstrance nor groan; nor did he look up until he was nearly in front of the house sheltering Ben-Hur and his friends, all of whom were moved with quick compassion….Then, as if he divined their feelings or heard the exclamation, the Nazarene turned his wan face towards the party, and looked at them each one, so they carried the look in memory through life. They could see he was thinking of them, not himself, and the dying eyes gave them the blessing he was not permitted to speak.”—Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880)

You don’t read Ben-Hur, the 19th-century publishing phenomenon that broke down traditional Christian taboos against fiction, for the dialogue, which sounds stilted, and even less so for the title character’s encounter with a vamp, which is just plain silly. No, you read it for the description, which can be very fine indeed.

As you might have guessed from the film adaptations—the 1925 silent epic (which I wrote about here) or, even more so, the 1959 Charlton Heston multi-Oscar winner—General Lew Wallace’s descriptive powers were most evident in his action sequences. But it comes to the fore in an unexpected way, in the novel’s closing sections on how the Prince of the House of Hur witnessed the death of the “the Nazarene”—the man who had transformed his life, showing him there was more to life than a quest for revenge, the same Prince of Peace who would transform the lives of countless others in the two millennia since.

One other point: Unlike Mel Gibson's hugely controversial The Passion of the Christ, Ben-Hur is as far from anti-Semitic as you can get. For all the real anguish experienced by Christ on the road to Calvary, there is no imputation of collective Jewish guilt. The title character is himself Jewish, somehow who proves as noble in spirit as in birth.

(The image accompanying this post, by the way, is Pieter Bruegel's oil painting, The Way of the Cross.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

This Day in Texas History (Independence Won at San Jacinto)

April 21, 1836--For a fight whose great rallying cry was “Remember the Alamo!”, the Battle of San Jacinto did not gain anywhere near the same amount of ink--not to mention screen time, or encrusted myths--as the desperate struggle that took the lives of William Barret Travis, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and their small band of Texans.

But Sam Houston’s victory over the Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna—an almost exact reversal reversal of the results in San Antonio six weeks earlier--was arguably more momentous than the earlier battle. It lifted Houston--who had suddenly resigned in 1829 as governor of Tennessee, in a mystery that reeked of scandal and sent him into an alcoholic tailspin and exile among Indians--higher than he had ever risen previously. Over the next two and a half decades, he would not only occupy the most important posts of the republic and state of Texas, but even be discussed plausibly as a potential Presidential candidate.

More important, the win by the norteamericanos marked the opening salvo in the trans-Mississippi region of manifest destiny--the belief that it was the mission of the United States to become, in the Jeffersonian phrase, an “empire of liberty” from sea to sea. In the deepest of ironies, the anglos who settled in Texas and claimed to be fighting for freedom introduced slavery into a region where it had been banned by the young nation of Mexico. The United States, once (mostly) content to expand by treaty or annexation, would now do so increasingly through conquest--first of Mexicans, then of Native-Americans.

In certain ways, Houston’s victory over Santa Anna can be likened to British general James Wolfe’s over France’s Louis Montcalm at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 (discussed in this prior post of mine):

* Both losing armies were surprised--the French, discovering at dawn that the British had managed to scale the seemingly impregnable cliff in the way of Quebec; the Mexicans, by an assault during their mid-afternoon siesta.

* Both losing generals committed grave mistakes bred by overconfidence: Montcalm, in believing that “We need not believe the enemy has wings!”; Santa Anna, by dividing, in the days before battle, his force, contemptuously dismissing Texans that not only had been retreating for the past month, but whose compatriots he had already defeated at the Alamo and Goliad.

* Both battles were decided within a half hour.

* Both victorious generals were wounded: Houston, in his ankle; Wolfe, three times, the last fatally in the chest.

* Both battles sharply reduced the territories under the sway of the non-Anglo losers. France lost Canada to Great Britain and would never get it back, even after it helped America win its independence. Similarly, Mexico not only lost Texas but, in a war fought a decade later over unresolved tensions from the Texas War of Independence, it would also lose what is now the American Southwest.

* Both Anglo victorious forces might, in hindsight, have wondered if the results of the battle really justified what happened. Having expended blood and fortune to secure an overseas empire, the British were astonished when their American colonists rebelled at shouldering the fiscal costs. What followed was a fratricidal conflict. Six decades later, many Southerners, emboldened by the win at San Jacinto, began to push for the expansion of slavery elsewhere--not just in Texas or even in the American Southwest, but also in Cuba, even as far south as Costa Rica and Nicaragua, both of which fought off attempts by the American filibuster William Walker to seize them by force in the hope of turning them into slave states. That insatiable desire to spread slavery proved to be the last straw for the great mass of Northerners who might not have been sympathetic to the horrifying plight of African-American slaves, but who very much feared the undermining of their own free labor by the “peculiar institution.” The result--the Civil War--was an even bloodier, more fratricidal conflict than the American Revolution.

After all this, you might regard me as a revisionist when it comes to American history--someone like historian-novelist Jeff Long, who, in his account of the Alamo, Duel of Eagles, saw San Jacinto as an atrocity story. (The Texans continued to kill the Mexicans even after the battle was over. )

But I reject the term “revisionist” for myself, and not simply because I resist labeling. History might not be entirely black and white, but neither is it a matter of moral relativism.

Texans might not have been the simple freedom fighters of legend, but their cause and methods were still better than the man who sought to crush them. Santa Anna, who liked to see himself as the “Napoleon of the West,” was in fact a pioneering caudillo, the kind of strongman who has seized and held power throughout much of Latin America for decades. He could have been the George Washington of his country, setting it on a path of stability and continuing improvement. Instead, his greed and lust for power sent Mexico hurtling back and forth, across the decades, between anarchy and dictatorship.

In contrast, Santa Anna’s opponent grew in stature and greatness over time. Houston could have had his foe put to death, the way the cruel Santa Anna had done at the Goliad Massacre and after the last few defenders of the Alamo had surrendered. He did not.

Moreover, Houston not only learned to conquer his own temptation toward alcohol, but voiced dismay to his fellow Texans about the dangers of yielding to their own temptation: expansion that inflamed relations with Native-Americans and Northerners. The history of his state and his country would have been altogether different if his advice had been heeded.

Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, on Charlotte Bronte)

“Charlotte Bronte electrified the world by showing that an infinitely older and more elemental truth could be conveyed by a novel in which no person, good or bad, had any manners at all. Her work represents the first great assertion that the humdrum life of modern civilisation is a disguise as tawdry and deceptive as the costume of a bal masque. She showed that abysses may exist inside a governess and eternities inside a manufacturer; her heroine is the commonplace spinster, with the dress of merino and the soul of flame. It is significant to notice that Charlotte Bronte, following consciously or unconsciously the great trend of her genius, was the first to take away from the heroine not only the artificial gold and diamonds of wealth and fashion, but even the natural gold and diamonds of physical beauty and grace. Instinctively she felt that the whole of the exterior must be made ugly that the whole of the interior might be made sublime. She chose the ugliest of women in the ugliest of centuries, and revealed within them all the hells and heavens of Dante.”—G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (1908)

This season, another screen adaptation of Jane Eyre is upon us—and undoubtedly it won’t be long before we see yet another TV or film adaptation of the literary classic by Charlotte Bronte, who was born on this date in 1816.

Charlotte appears on the right with younger sisters Anne and Emily in the image accompanying this post. The original portrait was painted by brother Branwell, who—in a portent of his creative and personal oblivion—painted himself out later.

When it came time to release to the wider world the stories they told to sustain themselves while tending to alcoholic, drug-addicted Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne used pseudonyms keyed to their initials but not readily identifiable by gender: Currer Bell (Charlotte), Ellis Bell (Emily) and Acton Bell (Anne). A good thing, too: after it became rumored that the author of Jane Eyre was female, the initially rather favorable critical reaction turned more hostile. A woman wasn’t supposed to write about such disturbing aspects of life.

In the second edition of the book, Bronte—still writing under her pen name—addressed these critics:

“The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make external show pass for sterling worth -- to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines. It may hate him who dares to scrutinise and expose -- to rase the gilding, and show base metal under it -- to penetrate the sepulchre, and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.”

Modern feminists find in Jane Eyre a questioning of patriarchal norms, but it is that and so much more. It is precisely the “disturbing aspects of life”—or, as the great essayist G.K. Chesterton might have put it, the disturbing aspects of interior life—to which contemporary reviewers objected that we continue to find so compelling today.

Like Henry James’ Washington Square, another novel about a shy, plain woman, it is about the hard-won struggle for individual autonomy and dignity by someone facing unbelievably difficult odds, forced to rely on intelligence and the wisdom gained by misfortune.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quote of the Day (“The New Yorker,” on Gwyneth Paltrow, Hearty Eater)

“Dinner guests [at the publication party for Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook, My Father’s Daughter] included people who do know her: Jay-Z, Cameron Diaz, Alex Rodriguez, the Seinfelds, and assorted food-world worthies. Most guests saw nothing unusual about getting cooking advice from a stick-thin actress; in fact, many said that they associated Gwyneth Paltrow with food. Mario Batali, in pink cargo shorts, was talking to Ruth Reichl. ‘She eats like a truck driver,’ he said of Paltrow. He recalled being in Valencia, Spain, and ‘watching her eat an entire pan of paella as big as a manhole cover.’”—Lizzie Widdicombe, “Dept. of Hoopla: Gwyneth’s World,” The New Yorker, April 25, 2011

Eating like a truck driver? Sure, that’s the first thing to come to mind when I see Gwyneth Paltrow!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Song Lyric of the Day (James Taylor, Invoking “Blossom” As Muse)

“Blossom, it's been much too long a day
Seems my dreams have frozen
Melt my cares away.”—“Blossom,” written and performed by James Taylor, from his Sweet Baby James LP (1970)

Funny how the songs of youth have a way of rooting themselves in you, played so often at the time that they’re taken for granted, then appearing in your consciousness fully formed, years later, like a glistening, watery landscape revealed after an iceberg has melted.

So it is now with James Taylor, the first performer I ever saw in concert, in 1975, at the then-Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. This particular song was not the Top 40 hit that the shattering “Fire and Rain” was from the same Sweet Baby James album. But that soothing voice, calling for an antidote to deep world-weariness, seems fresh and meaningful to a now-middle-aged listener, four decades later.

In some ways, I would have liked sunlit blossoms for this shot. But this image, taken outside a senior-citizen project in my hometown of Englewood, N.J., at twilight, seems appropriate for this set of lyrics, so here it is...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Quote of the Day (Kinky Friedman, With the Eternal Motto of Political Insurgents)

“I can’t screw it up any worse than it already is!”--Campaign slogan for singer-songwriter-humorist-novelist Kinky Friedman in his unsuccessful race for governor of Texas, quoted in Lance Contrucci, “Bad Ol’ Boy: Kinky Friedman Takes on the Establishment; Pity the Establishment,” Reader’s Digest, May 2008

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Quote of the Day (Matthew, on Jesus Entering Jerusalem)

“Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.’”—Gospel According to Matthew 21:8-11

(The accompanying stained-glass image appears in Chartres Cathedral in France.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Photo of the Day: Duck Squadron

(Photo taken recently at Saddle River County Park, Ridgewood, N.J.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Photo of the Day: It Might As Well Be Spring

(Photo taken recently at the Tenafly Commons in Bergen County, N.J.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Photo of the Day: Spring Struggling to be Born

(This picture was taken earlier this month at the Tenafly Commons in Bergen County, N.J.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Truman Fires MacArthur)

April 11, 1951—When President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command of American and United Nations forces in the Far East battling in Korea, it plunged the Missourian into the fiercest firestorm of his two controversy-filled terms.

But, though the short-term political damage was intense, the President demonstrated what distinguished the United States from younger, infinitely more fragile republics: the clear ascendancy of civilian over military authority.

It’s funny how current news items confirm the truth of Mark Twain’s observation that history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. This morning’s edition of The New York Times reported on retired General Stanley McChrystal’s decision to accept an offer from the Obama administration to lead an advisory board supporting military families.

Yes, that’s the same soldier who last year was removed by the President from his post overseeing our surge in Afghanistan. As far as I know, nobody today bothered to note the remarkable coincidence of this more recent event with the anniversary of the earlier civilian-military clash. A year ago, though, the parallel with MacArthur’s firing—a Democratic President in the midst of a troubling Asian land war sacking a general who questioned his leadership—was too irresistible for the media to miss.

But when you get right down to it, that’s about as far as the similarities went. Walter Karp’s extraordinarily incisive analysis of the MacArthur situation in American Heritage 27 years ago makes clear why the McChrystal case was at best only a 48-hour news story: plain-speaking Harry had done all the heavy lifting for Obama and, indeed, all his other successors in the Oval Office these past 60 years.

The differences in the outcomes of what we can call “the two Macs” are so stark that they speak volumes about the changed landscape in this country:

* Truman acted at a point when the prestige of the military was close to an all-time high. By mid-1951, Americans were dismayed that American soldiers had been set back on their heels by North Koreans backed by Chinese and Soviet Communists. But they hadn’t forgotten that just six years before, American commanders had brought “The Good War” to victory. The questioning of military authority that erupted in the Vietnam War was still off in the distance.

* Truman, a captain who led troops under fire in WWI, then achieved national attention investigating procurement policies in WWII, was intimately experienced with war and its commanders in a way that Obama is not. Truman had seen enough of war in his week’s worth of combat to understand the chaos of conflict and know that leaders were not infallible (the commanding officer and chief of staff of his division left headquarters just as the Meuse-Argonne offensive began). As head of a Senate committee investigating the defense industry in the war, he learned all the tricks used by what Dwight Eisenhower would memorably call “the military-industrial complex.” In contrast, Obama would not only be part of a generation that, because of the all-volunteer military, would be unlikely to serve in the armed forces, but, because he had only served in the Senate four years before he ran for President, he had little time to master the details of his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

* MacArthur was an American legend, used to getting his way in several high-profile posts; McChrystal fell to earth almost as soon as he had nobody to run interference for him. Given a command of his own, no longer simply reporting to David Petreus, McChrystal ran straight into political headwinds. A Los Angeles Times piece that ran last year about McChrystal used terms such as “flinty,” “forbidding,” “hard-charging” and “unyielding.” Still, he certainly had nothing on MacArthur, who had been a WWI hero, superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff, head of U.S. Army forces in the Far East in WWII, and overseer of the occupation of Japan after the war. Eighteen years before tangling with Truman, he disregarded orders from President Herbert Hoover by ordering attacks on the tents and shacks where the “Bonus Army” and their families were encamped in D.C. A few years later, when he bitterly complained about his reduced military budget to Franklin Roosevelt (“When we lose the next war and an American boy is writhing in pain in the mud with a Japanese bayonet in his belly, I want the last words that he spits out in the form of a curse to be not against Douglas MacArthur but against Franklin Roosevelt"), the President shot back: “Never speak to the President of the United States that way." MacArthur was fortunate not to be fired long before Truman got around to it.

* McChrystal was fired more for comments made by his staff in front of a Rolling Stone reporter than for what he himself said; MacArthur was relieved of duty for a letter he wrote to Republican Congressman Joseph Martin criticizing the President’s decision to seek a negotiated end to the Korean War. The lips of McChrystal’s staff concerning Obama and his aides loosened through considerable consumption of alcohol; MacArthur initiated his firing offense while he was stone-cold sober.

* McChrystal, a soldier with no discernible political ambitions, apologized before his last meeting with Obama, then left his post quietly; MacArthur, of course, did not. When asked what he did before WWII, Eisenhower replied that he had studied theatrics under General MacArthur. Has there ever been another American commander with such a flair for the dramatic as MacArthur? Do you think he could possibly leave the national scene without saying, “Old soldiers never die--they just fade away”? Do you think he could simply “fade away”? Not on your life--particularly when, even in the midst of WWII, he had done little to discourage speculation that he might run for President one day as a Republican.

* McChrystal was a blunt soldier serving a famously silver-tongued Chief Executive; MacArthur was an ornate rhetorician serving a President famously given to “Plain Speaking.” If a general’s staffers are any reflection on him, then McChrystal’s were, at times, almost hilariously offensive. On the other hand, while the press eagerly reported on every saying of MacArthur (perhaps the only American general to deserve a monograph entitled, Douglas MacArthur: Warrior as Wordsmith), Truman could not have been more direct in a radio address about the aim of the limited war he wanted MacArthur to conduct: “In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a Third World War.” The general, confident that he knew “the Oriental mind,” had previously dismissed warnings that advancing on the Yalu River risked bringing Chinese Communists into the war. The resulting massive offensive by Mao Tse-tung’s troops unleashed what MacArthur mordantly told the Joint Chiefs of Staff was “an entirely new war.”

A farmer and failed haberdasher before his entry into politics, Truman, unlike the Ivy-educated Obama, was not perceived by the public as a learned man, but he enjoyed reading history--and there is every reason to think it left an impression on him.

Several weeks ago, I caught a few minutes of a C-Span special featuring the descendants of American Presidents. The reminiscence I recall most vividly was from Clifton Truman Daniel, Harry’s grandson. (He also recounted this story in the pages of Prologue Magazine.) When four-year-old Clifton and two-year-old brother William came downstairs in their house, after their grandfather had left the 0val Office, Truman found them sneaking into the den to watch television. Nothing doing, the ex-President said: “I have a better idea.”

Truman pulled a book down from the top shelf, then began reading it to them. It wasn’t a comic-strip book, a boys’ adventure, or anything like that. It was Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. More than 40 years later, a now-grown-up Clifton still found that book “tough going.”

Maybe so, but Harry Truman appears to have absorbed the wisdom of the ancient Greek: even the seeming justice of a cause does not justify foolhardy military adventurism. He wanted Communist rulers to know that aggression would be countered, but he was absolutely bent on ensuring that military action would not be widened beyond a point where it could provoke a war waged against astronomical odds. Because Douglas MacArthur did not share this outlook, he had to go.

Quote of the Day (Ring Lardner, Giving Voice to a Boneheaded Ballplayer)

“FRIEND AL: Coming out of Amarillo last night I and Lord and Weaver was sitting at a table in the dining car with a old lady. None of us were talking to her but she looked me over pretty careful and seemed to kind of like my looks. Finally she says Are you boys with some football club? Lord nor Weaver didn't say nothing so I thought it was up to me and I says No mam this is the Chicago White Sox Ball Club. She says I knew you were athaletes. I says Yes I guess you could spot us for athaletes. She says Yes indeed and specially you. You certainly look healthy. I says You ought to see me stripped. I didn't see nothing funny about that but I thought Lord and Weaver would die laughing. Lord had to get up and leave the table and he told everybody what I said.”—Ring Lardner, You Know Me Al: A Busher’s Letters (1916)

Anyone interested in the continuing relevance of the national pastime—heck, anyone interested in 20th-century American literature—will want to read the first successful book by Ring Lardner, the epistolary novel You Know Me Al. More than 70 years before Ron Shelton envisioned Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh for his classic film Bull Durham, Lardner had set the prototype for the callow rookie pitcher with his protagonist, Jack Keefe.

Once you’re done guffawing at the “busher” hoping to make it with the Chicago White Sox, you’ll want to turn to a fine article in the Spring 2011 issue of The American Scholar, “Baseball’s Loss of Innocence,” by Douglas Goetsch, which looks at Lardner’s savage disillusionment with the game he once approached with a sportswriter’s skill but a fan’s heart.

I’m not saying the piece is perfect, mind you—for my money, I wish Goetsch had discussed how the light irony of the Keefe pieces (originally published in the Saturday Evening Post) shaded into Lardner’s increasingly bitter (non-baseball) short stories of the 1920s (e.g., "Champion," "Haircut")—but it spotlights a part of this great original writer’s career that I, for one, knew little about: his views of the game in the 1910s. (Inexplicably, this sharp-eyed man noticed Ty Cobb’s hustle and drive on the diamond, but not his near-psychopathic tendencies.)

From the article, it appears that writer-director-actor John Sayles’ depiction of Lardner in his film about the Chicago “Black Sox” gambling scandal, Eight Men Out, was on target. Goetsch also speaks with shrewd insight into why contemporary baseball writers, like Lardner eyeing corruption in the game, have reacted with such bitterness to the steroids scandal: “They like to keep reminding their audience that ‘baseball is a business,’ yet their job is about the love of sport, and the good ones can’t help sniffing the same glue as the fans.”

No matter what the verdicts will be in the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens trials, keep that quote in mind when the two former bulked-up baseball bruisers come up for election to Cooperstown at the hands of these successors to Lardner.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Flashback, April 1976: “All the President’s Men” Inaugurates Romantic Age of Journalism

If Ingrid Bergman could do it for nuns, there was no reason why Robert Redford could not for reporters. When the matinee idol’s latest star vehicle, All the President’s Men, premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on April 4 thirty-five years ago, the ostensible reason for the occasion—a benefit for a fund for investigative journalism—was entirely superfluous.

The blond actor, portraying Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, together with co-star Dustin Hoffman (taking on Carl Bernstein), had inadvertently glamorized an ink-stained profession, just as Bergman became the despair of American moms watching their dreams of grandchildren going down the drain as their daughters opted instead for the convent life. (How much the big screen departed immediately from reality, for a subject based on the dogged pursuit of facts, can be seen in the stark difference in appearance and tone between dark-haired, Midwestern Woodward and the man who played him, California sun-god Redford.)

This month’s issue of Vanity Fair contains the type of article that the glossy publication, when it’s not falling over itself photographing the preposterous playgrounds of the superrich, actually does quite well: chronicle the making of a classic film. (Past examples include Thelma and Louise and The Godfather.) This time, Michael Feeley Callan's piece, "Washington Monument," looks at the frequently tumultuous making—and triumphant reception of—All the President’s Men.

I adored that film when it came out, and I suspect that, were I to see it again, my reaction would be exactly the same. But it was so magical that, in certain ways, it exerted a baleful effect on journalism.

On my college newspaper, some fellow staffers were not merely prepared to run over their grannies if it meant jobs at the New York Times or Washington Post, but would, I’d wager, part with precious bodily organs to win admittance to these citadels of journalism.

The way things have been going lately in journalism, all of this might as well have been in the days of Horace Greeley. The outfits that can make a profit in the digital age are few and far between, and those publications that haven’t gone under or trembled as if they might (such as Newsweek) have been shedding what one would think of as their lifeblood: reporters.

The way things used to be—the boundless youthful energy, now seen, at journey’s end, as so much waste—and the way they are now are aptly summed up by a disillusioned veteran reporter in Black and White and Dead All Over, a marvelous satiric murder mystery by now-retired New York Times journalist John Darnton:

“It was like putting money in the bank—all those canceled holidays, those late nights, those planes you jump on to fly to the latest disaster, those kids’ birthdays you miss. Then the editors who praised you move on. New ones come up. They don’t know what you’ve done. You turn around one day and the slate’s clean. The bank account’s vanished. You get older. People don’t return your phone calls so much. When you get right down to it, nobody remembers any of the good stuff—nobody but you yourself.”

How different it all seemed when Alan Pakula’s true-life thriller hailed the triumph of “Woodstein” in cracking the Watergate scandal. The movie and the book that inspired it gave these impressions to aspiring journalists:

* You could not only be a crusader in print, but even bring down a government;

* You could write on subjects filled with conflict and drama;

* You could write a bestselling book, then sell the work to Hollywood for another bundle.

All of this inflated journalists’ (and journalistic wanna-bees) self-importance and sense of invulnerability—a very dangerous combination for anyone in a profession making noises about “the public’s right to know.” As the Roman writer Juvenal wrote, “Who will guard the guardians?”

Typical of much of the hooey that too many people—including journalists—came away with after seeing the film are the following assertions by Emanuelle Levy in an online DVD review:

* Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon. On the contrary: If any of the following had occurred, we would have seen a full second term for Tricky Dick, and the President could have told Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and the rest of the Post, like the Duke of Wellington: “Publish and be damned”: a deeply divided (instead of unanimous) Supreme Court ruling on whether Nixon had to give up the Oval Office tapes; a bonfire of said tapes on the White House front lawn that, in one stroke, would have eliminated the evidence that brought down the President; special prosecutors getting cold feet about pursuing the case to its logical conclusion; a continual flow of Mideast oil that would have given the economy some breathing room instead of miring it in inflation, convincing the public that the President could perform his job without distractions.

* The film assured victory for a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in 1976. On the contrary: Gerald Ford fell by a whisker to the Georgian, despite facing the following deficits: a GOP still deeply divided after Ronald Reagan’s near-upset of the incumbent; a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that made Ford look ineffectual by overriding one veto after another; a disastrous gaffe about Poland that lost Ford much momentum just before the election.

* The film boosted enrollment at journalism schools by 50,000. On the contrary: Aside from the fact that this assertion is unsourced and without a date specified, the film’s role in any jump in enrollment is likely exaggerated. One 1995 study, for the Freedom Forum media foundation, attributed the increase “to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

One deeply troubling trend arising from Watergate coverage was reliance on the anonymous source. Leave aside, if you can, the way in which using such sources subverts a person’s right to face and answer an accuser. Use of the anonymous source also gave reporters and their often all-too-credulous editors cover for stories that were at best inaccurate or, worse, one-sided, or, worst of all, invented from whole cloth.

The most prominent publications running into such problems—the ones who fell for their own self-created myth—were, in fact, the ones that my friends and I wanted to work for: the Times and the Washington Post.

Trouble caught up first with the Post, which less than a decade after Richard Nixon’s resignation, found its editors—including, by that time, Woodward—having to explain how Janet Cooke’s fabricated Pulitzer Prize-winning work ended up getting published on their work. It took two decades for the Times to catch up, but eventually it, too, found itself not just embarrassed, but in downright disarray because of the Jayson Blair scandal.

All the President’s Men, then, had a deleterious effect in depicting a glamorous profession. But one of the shots that has stayed with me the longest is of Woodward and Bernstein poring over circulation records in the Library of Congress in search of a missing piece to their puzzle.

That single scene gives the most realistic—and, in its way, idealistic—sense of a profession that, at its best, should depend more on dogged attention to tedious detail than on the Errol Flynn-type heroics that even Bernstein fell victim to in submitting a screenplay that he and then-wife Nora Ephron wrote about the exploits of himself and his partner.