31 October 2007

I Can’t Wait to Try This New “Waterboarding”!

by Michael B. “Moondoggy” Mukasey

I admit, I was a little surprised when everybody started asking my opinion of “waterboarding.” I haven’t even tried it yet! The Judiciary Committee finds that hard to believe, but it’s true.

I guess my reputation as a surfer precedes me. You might not know it to look at me today, but back in my youth, I was a first-class boardsman. Not a champion, maybe, but I could “hang ten” on the “glassies” with the best of them! I’d get up before dawn, ride the bumps all day, then watch the sun go down as I sat around a campfire with a bunch of cool dudes and tasty bikini wahines, roasting weenies and singing folksongs. What a bunch of great friends: Stingray, Squirrel, Gadget, H-Bomb, Madman, Noser. Those brahs are all on the federal bench nowadays. But they still call me “Moondoggy Mukasey.” (Granted, a couple of them called me “Michael B. Mucus,” but they were just nipping squids on the appellate court.) And I sure miss the good times we shared. Kumbaya, man. Kumbaya.

How often during my career as a judge have I yearned to break free of my confining robes and my stuffy courtroom, and plunge headlong into the pounding surf! Sometimes during a long, boring trial, I just shut my eyes and dream. Forget about endless summations, I’m thinking about Endless Summer! I see myself, young again and at home, my real home, the waves of Malibu or Newport. One summer, I hitchhiked to Oahu and spent a week, sleeping on the North Shore by night and ripping by day. Now, I know you’re going to say there’s no way to hitchhike to Hawaii, but you can’t underestimate a hardcore surfer like me.

Mukasey (second from left) and friends, circa 1971

So you can imagine how my curiosity was piqued when people in Washington started talking about “waterboarding,” and asking me what I thought about it. Now Washington isn’t known for its waves, so I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t know anything about this new trend in surfing. What surprised me was that I knew as little as they did!

Apparently the best beaches for waterboarding are in Cuba and Iraq, but I keep getting the feeling that there are some other, even better beaches out there that nobody will tell me about. I asked Dick “Big Chahuna” Cheney about it the other day: “Bro, where can I do me some waterboarding?”

And he goes, “That’s classified, bro. But there’s nothing illegal about it.” Whoa! What kind of clucker does he think I am? I don’t care if it’s legal, man, I just want it wet and gnarly!

You gotta figure, if everybody is so hush-hush about it, waterboarding must be truly excellent. They’re trying to keep it to themselves. And I don’t necessarily blame them: look what happened to Bondi! That place has turned into some kind of Ozzie poser zoo. But if waterboarding is that good, I want a piece of it, and I’ll go where the action is. I’ll bet you if I got to Guantanamo, somebody will tell me where the really good, secret waterboarding goes down.

So as soon as my confirmation is over, I’m grabbing my new full-on sick boardies and heading to Cuba. It’s like the Beach Boys say:
“Everybody’s gone waterboarding!
Waterboarding U.S.A.!”

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30 October 2007


Queen of Hearts (as a Tart) sold separately
Or rented by the hour
N.B. These are not children.

Ordinarily, the trouble with satire is that real life so often surpasses it: how do you make fun of the headlines when the headlines are so funny themselves? The jokes are so obvious that you can imagine schoolchildren on the playground saying exactly what you’re thinking. But in the present case, imagining schoolchildren on the playground is another part of the problem.

This morning, reading the Washington Post, I was inspired by an article. “Preteens Trading Fairy Wands for Fishnets,” runs the headline, and staff writer Brigid Schulte goes on to describe the latest trend in Halloween consumption: erotic costumes for little girls. The parents who spoke with Schulte were unanimously dismayed by the outfits on sale, although the little girls seemed perfectly willing to dress up as sexy nurses and French maids, the kinds of costumes that Britney Spears, when sober, would think twice before buying. And you’ve got to think, if there are so many of these costumes available, somebody must be buying them: that’s capitalism.

The urge to satirize is unstoppable — almost. Because what can one say (and get away with) about a society that dresses its little girls like prostitutes? Especially in an age when the fear of child molesters touches on mass hysteria? I like to illustrate my blog entries with photos, but we’d all be arrested if I posted any image that reflected the subject matter.

Thus I’m left with no option but the dreary jeremiad, which I’ll cut short: What is wrong with you people?! Does anybody really require an explanation why this is a bad idea? If you buy your daughter a Major Flirt or a Sexy School Girl uniform, if you dress her as a Runway Diva or a Mean Girl Slut, you’re going to Hell. I don’t even believe in Hell, but that’s where you’re going. Be sure to say hello to the people who sold you the costume in the first place.

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29 October 2007

Victory by Blimp

War starts at midnight: Roger Livesey (Blimp)
and Deborah Kerr (“Johnny”) in
Colonel Blimp

Paris being the sort of place where the passing of an artist is commemorated with exhibitions, I was able to return to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 Technicolor epic, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the other day. The screening paid homage to the leading lady, Deborah Kerr, displayed in the full blooming flower of her luscious youth. She portrays three incarnations of a particular ideal of British womanhood: a feisty governess, a genteel hostess, and best of all, a spunky soldier in the women’s Army who hates her given name, Angela, and announces, “My friends call me Johnny.”

I hadn’t seen the film since 1980, when Powell visited the Brown campus with a cartload of his richly imagined films, only a few years after I’d met Deborah Kerr, his muse. Thus Colonel Blimp is the rare movie in which I “know” the responsible parties, and as such it commands my attention. But it’s also a war movie, and a satirical depiction of a class of English society taught “to fight like gentlemen,” who discover that history has moved on and that the modern enemy are no gentlemen at all. Though I remembered the film with admiration and affection, I hadn’t anticipated that Colonel Blimp would speak to me so directly about current events, and the war that America is fighting today.

Colonel Blimp is a propaganda film, like several that Powell and Pressburger produced during World War II: one of the finest of these is The 49th Parallel, a passionate plea to Canada to come to the aid of the Empire, even though the Nazi threat appears (and underscore “appears”) so far distant that it’s somebody else’s problem altogether. And on its surface, Colonel Blimp is an attempt to boost wartime morale by poking fun at fuddy-duddy attitudes. The leading character was born in a comic strip, and predictably enough he’s full of hot air, clinging to old orders.

Somehow Powell and Pressburger turned Blimp into a shrewdly observed, fully dimensional, human figure. A veteran of the Boer War and World War I, he’s brought out of retirement at the dawn of World War II — and almost immediately returned to the inactive list when he declares he’d rather see Britain lose the war than fight dirty, the way the Germans do. He’s frequently brought short by a younger generation, including “Johnny” Cannon’s boyfriend, who are more willing to do what it takes to win — even citing Pearl Harbor as a model for a surprise attack.

Strong advice: Anton Walbrook as Theo

Later in the film, Blimp’s best friend, a German refugee and a gentleman and retired army officer himself (portrayed by the always wonderful Anton Walbrook), gives him some straight talk. “You’ve been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman, in peace and in war,” he says. “But Clive! Dear old Clive, this is not a gentleman's war. This time you're fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain: Nazism. And if you lose, there won't be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years.”

This is of course the argument being espoused by Vice-President Cheney, among others, in the current struggle. Preemptive strikes, secret prisons, eavesdropping on one’s own citizens and imprisoning them without due process or proper legal defense, and the adoption of Nazi and Soviet interrogation methods: all these things are justified, we are told, by the need to defend the nation from an inarguably deadly enemy.

Yet the passing of 64 years has made it possible to view Colonel Blimp in a different light, and I suspect the same light will shine eventually on the positions taken by the current U.S. administration. In World War II, Britain and America played mostly fair, and we won anyway — though we couldn’t know the outcome when Powell and Pressburger made their movie. We know more now about the Nazi tactics, too, than we did in 1943, and we have a better grasp of what it would have meant to employ them: we know, for example, that the Nazis were weakened by, not strengthened by, those tactics. And we know that we would not want to be like the Nazis in any way at all. We can tell the world that we are not Nazis, and the world hears us.

For on a more purely philosophical basis, the more you behave like your enemy, the less distinction there is between you. When the enemy is (as the Nazis were, as Al Qaeda is) bent not merely on conquering you but also on converting to you to his philosophy, you hand him victory every time you behave as he would. Quite a lot of unpalatable practices are justified in the pursuit of defense, but if you cross a line, you are defending buildings, not a nation. You are defending lives, perhaps, but not the worth of those lives. And you make it more difficult for the people you’ve saved, and their children and grandchildren, to hold their heads high, as free and righteous citizens.

This is not at all the message that Powell and Pressburger intended to send in a propaganda film made at the height of wartime. But it’s the message I heard, not least because the filmmakers made a figure of fun a character so sympathetic — you understand why he makes his arguments, whether or not you agree with them — and also because I believe that the spirit embodied by Deborah Kerr is worth not merely defending but preserving.

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25 October 2007

Truths Universally Accepted at the Movies

I coulda stayed home and read a book.

I did not go to hear Mika in concert yesterday evening. I waited until the last minute, or nearly, before deciding that I really couldn’t face the crowds, the noise, the youth. I chickened out.

“Chicken” may not be the apt word, given the difference between my age and Mika’s, but so be it. Instead of attending a pop concert, I went to the movies: Becoming Jane last night, and Knocked Up today. As a result, I have come to the conclusion that movies exist primarily to make men feel superior about themselves. And if I were a woman, I might never go to the movies again at all.

This conclusion has been long a-borning. The first clue comes from almost any picture, in which it is considered perfectly normal for the hero to bed or even wed a girl young enough to be his granddaughter: no one even mentions it. If a heroine dates a man only a few years younger than she, the circumstance automatically becomes the main plot of the entire film.

There’s another school of movies in which the leading man is thoroughly repellent, and yet the leading lady finds him a paragon, for whom she will sacrifice everything, for whose every transgression she will make pardon and excuse, for whose every shortcoming she will find strength to overlook. The model of these pictures is Leaving Las Vegas, in which Nicolas Cage treats Elisabeth Shue terribly, whenever he isn’t throwing up on her or passing out. Nevertheless, she’s devoted to him. She’s a hooker (because in movies hookers always look like Elisabeth Shue), but she doesn’t even charge Nicolas Cage for her favors, on the rare occasions he’s conscious enough to sample them. On the contrary: she pays him.

And what is the job description of Nicolas Cage’s character? Why, he’s an unemployed Hollywood producer, funny you should mention.

The picture is a producer’s wet-dream fantasy: I can be a complete slob, lose my job, and still get Elisabeth Shue.

What’s wrong with this picture? Knocked Up

You’d think Leaving Las Vegas had the last word on this sort of story. Nevertheless, Knocked Up gives us a hero (Seth Rogen) who’s less pathological yet just as much a loser, and we’re supposed to believe that the sublime Katherine Heigl will keep his baby — and ultimately fall for him — after a drunken one-night stand and an awkward morning-after. He’s a fat, unemployed, ambition-free, immature stoner, while she’s a rising television star who looks like Katherine Heigl, and she’s smarter and funnier than Rogen, too. Even his goofball roommates are more interesting than he, yet somehow we’re supposed to think it’s a good thing when Heigl and Rogen wind up together at the end of the picture.

Who the hell writes this stuff? Men do.

Yet surely some of the women involved in the production must have tried to take the men aside and to explain to them that Transformers had a more believable plot.

You’d think Jane Austen would be safe from all this idiotic movie machismo, but she made the fatal error of writing too few books that turned into too many successful screenplays and that therefore demand sequels. Of which there are none. So we’ve seen updates of her plots and revisionist remakes, trying to show how the Austen plots speak to today’s times. In most cases, these have required unbuttoning the passions and unlacing the bodices, as well, to address our post-Romantic aesthetics and our need for explicit sex in entertainment. Darcy, Heathcliff, Rhett Butler, the English Patient, what’s the difference, as long as people buy tickets?

When Byronic met Ironic: James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway
in Becoming Jane

But Austen wasn’t a Romantic, and to try to turn her into one is a colossal mistake: do it, and you rob her of her principal interest. Her characters feel deeply, yes, but they conceal their own feelings and guess at each others’, just as society demands. To write these stories required tremendous psychological insight and a complete grasp of the dominant social order. Romanticism came after Austen, and the two don’t mix. The minute Keira Knightley has an emotional outburst in a cloudburst, on a wuthering moor no less, you’ve entered Romantic territory and your adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is lost.

Becoming Jane tries to present Austen’s early life as fodder for the novels she would write later. There’s scant historical evidence to support such ideas, but that’s almost irrelevant. For not only does Becoming Jane present us with a quasi-Romantic Jane Austen, a rebel artist defying societal conventions — it shows us a Jane Austen who requires a man to show her how to write.

I am amazed that no one burned down the theater.

That man is a drinking, whoring, arrogant, penniless gadabout who dares criticize her writing after hearing — not even reading — a single composition. By the way, he arrives late and falls asleep before she’s finished that reading. Rather than cut him or slap him, she heeds his advice and seeks out more, then falls in love with him. Inspired by their experience and by some of the characters they know, she sits down and scratches out the entirety of Pride and Prejudice in (by my count) three sittings.

Who writes this stuff? Not Jane Austen, certainly.

The actress who plays Jane is the aptly named Anne Hathaway, an alumna of Vassar College. Perhaps when she is a little older she’ll find the courage to tell the people who make movies that their scripts are offensive. Either that — or we can look forward to a lush historical romance in which we learn that Vassar was a school of no account until it began to admit male students.

I should have gone to the concert.

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23 October 2007

Grow Up! The Children’s Closet of Classic Books

Ready to whip out his wand: Dumbledore

It is high time that young readers awoke to the aberrant sexuality of many of the best-loved characters in children’s literature: not merely Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, but dozens of favorites are doing all sorts of naughty things. What’s striking is that J.K. Rowling admitted her character’s sexual deviancy openly (and after the fact), rather than letting readers figure it out for themselves. Now that everybody knows that Harriet the Spy is a lesbian, and that Alice in Wonderland is a nymphomaniac, we can move on to more challenging characterizations in children’s literature.

Sapphic Sorceress: Glinda “recruits” young Ozma and Dorothy

Glinda the Good, the Oz books: But start with an easy one. Glinda lives in a palace with 100 beautiful maidens, defended by an all-girl army. There’s not a man in sight. L. Frank Baum doesn’t even try to conceal his character’s sexual orientation. If you didn’t pick up on this as a child, you were not paying attention.

And I needn’t remind you, need I, that any character who practices magic — whether Glinda, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, or Tinkerbell — is a de facto Satanist. We’re here to talk about sex, not religion, but I wanted to clear that up at the outset. Now we can move on.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Author A.A. Milne makes clear that Pooh is a “bear” — that is, a hirsute older man, typically with a big belly and a taste for hardcore, often fetishistic gay sex. Outcast by society, Pooh is obliged to live under an assumed name (“Mr. Saunders”). Several of Pooh’s practices are implied in his unconventional “friendship” with Piglet (a term commonly associated with younger men who like uninhibited or “piggy” sex) and his obsessive interest in “honey pots.”

Kanga, the Pooh books: Although it’s clear that Kanga is an unwed mother, no mention is ever made of her husband or indeed of any romantic or sexual attachments she might have. This is because there are no other females in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Back into the closet: Pooh indulges his illicit appetites

Mary Poppins: With her extreme taste for discipline, Mary is a dominant, rather butch figure who might at first blush be construed as a dominatrix or a lesbian, or both. More interesting, perhaps, is her taste for rough trade, as seen in her relationship with Bert, a sometime chimneysweep who demonstrates, in his “jack-of-all-trades” career, that he’ll do anything for a pound.

Willie Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: His name is, obviously, a reference to masturbation (“willie wanker” = one who “wanks,” or manipulates his penis, or “willie”). Unmarried, Wonka lures unsuspecting children into his lair with promises of chocolate. When they do not submit to his desires, he punishes them with devious, cruel tortures. This behavior is typical of child molesters. At the end of the novel, Wonka traps the boy Charlie in an elevator, then crashes it through the ceiling and explodes high into the sky, in a symbolic depiction of male orgasm.

Prancing Wonka: And frankly, that purple tailcoat is suspect, too

Mr. Tumnus, The Chronicles of Narnia: Somewhat similarly, the faun Tumnus delights in exposing himself to small children. He wears nothing but a knitted scarf (around his neck, not his nether regions) even in the dead of winter, and his unusually hairy legs arouse considerable excitement among the Pevenseys, particularly young Lucy, who avows she’s never seen anything like them, in a standard evocation of the sexual awakening of a small girl in the presence of a mature male. Tumnus may possibly suffer from satyriasis, as well, and readers should not overlook the horns that sprout, perpetually hardened and erect, from Tumnus’ head of thick, curly hair.

Another character who “flashes” children is, of course, Captain Underpants, a prime exemplar of infantilized sexuality in the adult male.

Wee Willy Winky: The nursery rhyme describes the male child’s anxiety upon glimpsing his father’s penis. The realization that his own, immature penis is much smaller (“wee”) than the adult’s causes the child to run “in[to] my lady’s chamber,” that is, returning to the womb or seeking sexual congress with the mother.

“Fantasy” Lovers: One ring to bind them

Everybody in The Lord of the Rings: When Peter Jackson’s films were released, a number of moviegoers were startled by the tender, Brokeback devotion between Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, and his “servant,” Sam Gamgee. Fellowship? Get over it! All these guys are gay, gay, gay, and the only woman who interests them is the cross-dressing Princess Eowyn.

Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden: In a tale worthy of D.H. Lawrence, author Frances Hodgson Burnett graphically depicts a girl’s sexual awakening in an early-adolescent ménage à trois. Mary eludes her twisted, impotent uncle and his hysterical, bedridden son, Colin; she prefers to trim her neglected shrubbery with the virile, working-class garden-boy, Dickon (a diminutive form of “dick,” or penis), who shows her how to plant seeds. Under Dickon’s tutelage, Mary becomes more physically adept and attractive, and when the couple introduce Colin to their garden, the invalid is able to stand erect, in the novel’s climax.

Dr. Dolittle: A confirmed bachelor who spends all his time with animals, the beloved veterinarian of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh is a coded bestialist. The Pushmi-Pullyu symbolizes Dolittle’s menopausal impotence and ensuing frustrations: because the creature has two heads (and, in the books, two sets of horns — i.e., he is extra “horny”) but no behinds (and thus no sex organs), the doctor can “do little.”

Oedipal victim: Peter pantsless

Peter Rabbit:
Emasculated by his oppressive relationship with his widowed mother, “Peter” (another slang term for “penis”) refuses to wear trousers and fixates on phallic substitutes (witness his oral consumption of carrots), while engaging in a warped sexual drama with the farmer, Mr. McGregor, and his “hoe.”

Peter Pan: Another “peter,” this one hangs out with “lost boys” and fairies. Note also the “dagger” and “sword” with which he repeatedly confronts the castrated father-figure, Captain Hook.

Pat the Bunny: Although rabbits are traditional symbols of fertility and rampant sexual activity, “Pat” is not gender-identified. Child readers of both sexes are encouraged to stimulate themselves by stroking the creature’s luxurious fur.

Beezus Quimby, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary: Sweet Mother of Beezus, her very name is a blasphemy coupled with an obscenity! How can we permit libraries to keep such books on the shelves where children can get at them?

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Peg Bracken

I never met Peg Bracken, the humorist and frozen-food pitch- person who died on Saturday. But if it is true that “you are what you eat,” then up until the age of 18 or so, I was a Peg Bracken recipe.

She’s best remembered for the I Hate to Cook Book, a collection of “quick and easy recipes” that strike fear in the hearts of folks today, yet struck a blow for liberty when they first appeared, in 1960 — the very year my parents wed. America was still in the vicious clutches of the 1950s, described by no less an authority than my English professor, Carolyn Heilbrun, as the worst decade in human history. Women, who had entered the American workforce in great numbers during World War II, were ripped from their riveters and thrust into the kitchen. They were expected to be deferential to their men, devoted to their children, and absolutely nuts about cooking.

Bracken realized that she wasn’t the only woman in America who hated to cook. The 1950s had seen the rise of “time- and labor-saving devices” in the kitchen, and a number of prepared foods came on the market: ingeniously, she came up with dozens of recipes that exploited the innovations, took little time and less effort. This begged the question of what, precisely, the American housewife was supposed to do with all the time she saved. Alcohol, tobacco, adultery, and obsessive involvement in the P.T.A. were only short-term solutions. But soon enough, the American woman figured it out. She ceased to be Laura Petrie, and she became Mary Richards.

Today the American economy depends on two-income house- holds, and you’d think that Bracken’s advice would find even more eager audiences now. However, the true American revolutionary in food burst on the scene at almost the same instant as Peg Bracken: Julia Child was as funny (and less sarcastic) in her kitchen as Bracken was in hers, and Child added a gloss of intellectualism (next- door to Harvard) and culture (French, always tony) that Bracken couldn’t rival and didn’t want to.

America rose to Julia’s challenge. We grew to like things other than steak and potatoes. We grew to enjoy fresh (even organic) ingredients. And although Julia, bless her, always emphasizes the importance of technique, and although some of her recipes do appear quite time-consuming, it’s perfectly possible to succeed with her recipes even if you are clumsy and refuse to watch the pot. I know: I’ve done it. I do it all the time.

But I am the son of a father who cooked perhaps three times — and much to our stupefied surprise — while I was growing up, and of a mother who truly, deeply, desperately hates to cook. My father was, for his generation, broadminded, and my mother worked outside the home, yet there was no question of sharing the kitchen duties. Since both my parents were children of the Great Depression and firmly convinced that poverty was just around the corner, there was no question of dining out every evening. And no serious question of allowing my brother and me to starve. Though I’m sure the thought occasionally crossed their minds.

Peg Bracken’s books answered prayers that my mother may never before have dared to voice. Her recipes proposed functional food: it kept you alive, it tasted okay (though it frequently looked … strange), it required no skill and little patience. And the recipes were funny enough to keep your mind off what you were doing. Tranquilizers were hardly necessary.

This is not Peg Bracken, and that is not a can of Spam.

I should underscore that my mother did not succumb to the temptations of drugs and drink and illicit sex. I’m not sure she was aware that such temptations existed. She was entirely virtuous. That’s why housework was driving her crazy. She needed an outlet — and she found one, in teaching.

And so with the torch of Bracken, the spark of my mother’s feminist liberation was lit. The ensuing flame never rose high enough to burn her brassiere, nor even to singe it much, but it warmed her heart. She struck out in new directions, and she crooned along with Helen Reddy: “I am woman, hear me roar.”

I never owned any of Peg Bracken’s books, and I wouldn’t have dared to bring them with me to France. (Can you imagine the reactions?) I can’t quote or recall with specificity any of her recipes, although I can cite some that are Bracken-esque, such as the Thanksgiving classic:

Take two cans of French-cut green beans and one can of mushroom soup. Mix together and dump into a baking dish. Cover with a can of fried onions, being careful to remove the onions from the can first. Bake until congealed and hot, then serve.

Don’t deny it. You know you love that stuff. There’s also the recipe that Jimmy Swenson’s mother recommended when he went off to college:

Make some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Spray a baking dish with Pam. If desired, cut the sandwiches into triangles and remove the crusts. Then arrange the sandwich pieces to line the bottom of the dish. Open a can of chicken noodle soup. Do not add water. Pour the undiluted soup on top of the sandwiches. Bake until it looks like a casserole; serve and eat while it’s still hot.

I admit, I’m nostalgic for some of this stuff. There was a chicken recipe, very sweet, that I remember fondly, though I can’t recall the name. I think my mother prepared the immortal “Skid Road Stroganoff” several times, until she found a recipe that was even easier. Bracken gave her recipes funny names and sprinkled her instructions with jokes. (The New York Times cited this: “Let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”)

This much is certain: if it hadn’t been for Peg Bracken, I’d never have discovered Julia Child, or French cuisine, or the pleasures of cooking for myself. The reason is simple. I’d have died of hunger shortly after I stopped breast-feeding.

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22 October 2007

The Peasants Are Revolting!

We are not amused: Louis XIV would never have stood for this...

The transit strike in France slumbers fitfully these days. There are brief stoppages, and I glimpsed a half-hearted protest demonstration that blocked most of the traffic in the Place de Clichy at lunchtime yesterday. But I don’t think anybody seriously believes that this baby is down for the night. Sooner or later, the “social movement” will begin again in earnest, and nothing at all will move anymore.

The strike began last week, on Thursday morning, just in time for the arrival of several friends from the States. There is nothing like a labor uprising to win the heart of a conservative Christian lady from Texas. Nevertheless, my friends greeted the circumstances with an admirable mixture of curiosity, ingenuity, and good cheer. I was the one who got screwed.

...Not in these heels, anyway.

I was in Beynes, and I missed the last train on Wednesday evening. I knew the strike was coming, but I made the mistake of believing the union officials who assured us that the strike would last only a day.

Obviously, the rank-and-file union members weren’t entirely convinced, and it’s become clear that there are factions or splinter groups of the big transit unions who simply didn’t watch television, read newspapers, listen to the radio, or access the Internet: they didn’t get the message. They continued to strike on Friday. The officials assured us that would be the end of it. But again, the message didn’t come across to everybody. Saturday saw persistent “important perturbations” in the subway and commuter trains. Buses were running, if you could squeeze onto one. I couldn’t. Though I managed to return from Beynes, I couldn’t find public transport to bring me anywhere near my apartment. So I walked, nearly four miles, while carrying baggage. (Once I arrived, I had to climb six flights of stairs. We have no elevator in this building. But that is not the strikers’ fault.)

We were assured that Saturday was absolutely, positively the last day of the strike (for now). Naturally, on Sunday, the strike continued in isolated pockets. These included the RER train to Versailles: my friends and I arrived on the platform just in time to hear an announcement that “technical problems” required the suspension of service. Thinking quickly, we went to the Gare Montparnasse, where we caught a perfectly charming train that ran just fine. We opted for the RER for our return trip, only to sit in the train at the platform for more than an hour. This time, there was no announcement, no explanation, and precious little warning when the train did pull out. When we emerged at last at the Invalides, there was an announcement that the strike on the RER C line would continue all day Sunday — and Monday, as well. This was the first anybody had bothered to mention it, and of course the announcement flatly contradicted the officials of the unions involved.

A high-speed train, motionless: This is quite normal.
I am surprised you even notice it.

Now I’m not complaining, particularly, because everybody’s got such stories to tell. We were luckier, because I speak French, than the thousands of British and South African tourists who descended on Paris this weekend for the Rugby World Cup finals, to say nothing of all the Irish, Scottish, and New Zealander fans who never left town after their teams were eliminated.

When Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned for president, last spring, he vowed to change the pension plan for government employees (and these include transit workers, because the state runs all the transit systems). He also vowed to require “minimum service” on transit lines during all strikes.

Obviously the unions are having none of that. Granted, the French people generally agree that their economy is cruising toward disaster, and that the pension program is unworkable (not least because so many enterprises are state-owned, with the result that some 60 percent of the population are civil servants eligible for federal pensions), like a cancer on the nation’s long-term health. And yet you will walk a very long time before you find anybody, anywhere in this country, who is willing to make any improvement or change; any sacrifices must be those of someone else, and heaven forbid if I receive so much as a scratch in whatever surgery you undertake to remove the cancer. No, no, we must defend our right (and in their eyes, it is a right) to short workweeks, long vacations, child care, and universal health care in low-skill, high-paying jobs from which we cannot be fired, and from which we will retire at age 50 or 55 with full pension and benefits.

On the one hand, one sympathizes with the striking workers. They signed a contract when they took their jobs, and they expect the government to live up to its agreement. If the country’s economic problems are so dire, why are the unions being singled out to make the first sacrifice? Does the government hold them in such low esteem? I daresay it’s hard to show up and work an honest day when it seems your boss finds you beneath contempt.

Really, the strike is mostly a warning: Sarkozy hasn’t even begun his reforms. He has barely proposed any. So if he thinks the strikes are bad right now, he is free to imagine how much worse they’ll be if his reforms are radical, or even realistic.

Since the Revolution, every French government has lived in fear of popular uprising, and very often the behavior of the citizenry has justified that fear. To this day, the French take to the streets in protest at the drop of a hat, sending even the most ardently reformist governments into panicky retreat. Most Americans find this absolutely mystifying. We’d much sooner call out the National Guard and blast the protesters back to the Stone Age.

Lovely day for a walk: Members of the chief labor union,
In a different strike, in another town.

But Americans are mystified, too, by the French workers’ arguments. The cushiness of a French transit worker’s lot is unimaginable to most of us. We enjoy none — none — of the Frenchman’s benefits, and yet we somehow muddle through. Why can’t these people suck it up and move forward, for the good of their country?

As I puttered around the gilded halls and infinite gardens of the Château of Versailles, and the next day as I climbed the Leftist stronghold of Montmartre, I contemplated the enduring, sometimes violent tension in this country between the forces of order and the forces of freedom. France has seen a continuing cycle of chaos followed by repression, and although this week’s strike is a mild example, it’s nevertheless proof that the cycle continues. The French seem comfortable with these revolutions; they are awfully good at them. They have had a lot of practice. It is almost a sport to them, a way to stretch the muscles and a topic for discussion in cafés. Provided you can actually get to your café from here, Monsieur.

UPDATE, 24 October: Some railway unions continued to strike Tuesday, while announcing another round of “important perturbations” for today: seven full days of a strike supposed to last only one. A general strike that would include all civil servants (including teachers, postal employees, etc.) is under consideration for 20 November.

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18 October 2007

Burgess Meredith

By the time I knew Burgess Meredith, he’d been black- listed and Batman-handled, yet he still showed the resilient optimism of Johnny Johnson, a part Kurt Weill wrote with him in mind.

By the time that play was produced, Burgess was already booked, one of the most successful leading men of the day, the crown prince of the New York stage. Somebody else got the part of Johnny. But Burgess went back and recorded “Johnny’s Song” in the 1950s:

When man was first created
I’m sure his Maker meant
Him for some good intent…

The lines have powerful resonance, because they’re sung by a character who has lost everything — and has been lobotomized. In his time, Burgess, too, had been through the wringer, yet he retained his faith in his fellow man and the eventual justice of destiny. And while I knew him, it really seemed that he was right.

By then, everyone on earth knew him from the Rocky movies — which to this day I’ve never seen one of — and he got a tremendous kick, when we went to the deli together, from hearing the guys behind the counter who imitated him: “Rocky, you’re washed up!”

He marveled: “Out of all the things I’ve done, over all these years, that’s the one thing that everybody remembers.”

He was a frequent visitor to the Kurt Weill Foundation. We set a good table at lunchtime, if I say so, and he was a dear friend of Lys Symonette, as he’d been a friend of Weill himself: Weill suffered his fatal heart attack while playing tennis with Alan Jay Lerner on Burgess’ court. Whenever Burgess was in the city, he’d drop by to see us. Once, we drove through torrential rains to see a production of one of Weill’s works, a Foundation Family Road Trip. He posed for the Kurt Weill Newsletter in what is, to this day, the only important photograph I’ve published. And he told me stories.

I knew enough of his career that I could chip in with the words he was already forgetting: “I was doing a play with Kit Cornell….”


“No, the other one.” (That stumped me.)

(Set aside that he referred to Katharine Cornell, a figure known to me only from history books, as “Kit.”)

When I knew him, it seemed that he’d thrown caution to the wind, and he was determined to live life to the fullest, damn the torpedoes. Maybe he was always that way, but as a little old man, his zest was impressive and admirable. He exercised with vehemence, and when he wasn’t racing off to nowhere on his stationary bicycle, he was practicing yoga or being twisted into pretzels by some shapely masseuse. He moved more quickly than he really needed to. He was a prodigious beer-drinker, and I’m proud to number him among my favorite drinking buddies. He loved the ladies, and he enjoyed success with women a tiny fraction of his age.

Those were good years for him. He did so much voiceover work for television that my mother remarked, “I hear his voice around the house more often than I hear your father’s.” (Burgess loved that.) It seems as if he took damned near any acting job that was offered him. Most of it was crap, and surely he knew that better than anybody, but he’d endured so many lean years that he didn’t complain, and in almost everything he did (vehicles as unlikely as Magic and Clash of the Titans) he emerged not only with his dignity intact, but with at least a scene or two of really smart, crafty acting. That may be the actor’s saving grace: you take the part that’s given to you, and you make the most of it. How else to explain that some of Burgess’ purest, most perfect artistry appeared on The Twilight Zone?

Like most people my age, I’d first seen him in Batman, and he told me the story — a “Just So Story,” really — of How the Penguin Got His Quack.

“I used to smoke, a couple of packs a day. But one night, I had a terrible nightmare. I was trapped in a burning building — somehow my cigarettes had caught fire — and I was crawling around and choking on the smoke. I woke up, and I was shaking. I lit a cigarette, but I couldn’t smoke it. It took me right back to my dream, and I started coughing – WOOOH HOOH HAW. I didn’t smoke again for years.

“Then I got the Penguin job, and I really needed the work. I showed up for the first shoot, and it turned out that the Penguin was supposed to smoke. He’s always got that cigarette holder, and it’s always lit. I didn’t think that would be a problem, but every time I brought the cigarette holder to my lips, I started to cough — WOOOH HOOH HAW. I thought, ‘I’d better get this under control, or I’m going to lose the job.’

“So every time I had to use the cigarette holder, I’d make this quacking noise — WAH WAH WAH — to cover my cough. Penguins don’t really quack, but nobody seemed to mind. The writers for the show loved it, but in the end it turned out to be my downfall, really, because they stopped writing jokes for me. They’d just write: ‘He quacks.’”

He was always writing his memoirs in those days. When I visited his apartment, the manuscript squatted like Sydney Greenstreet on a tabletop. They finally appeared (So Far, So Good, 1994), and I was disappointed: the book was a series of disconnected anecdotes, which wasn’t in truth all that far from a conversation with Burgess, yet lacking his passion and charm. When you were with him, you never noticed whether his stories amounted to anything. Even when you were, as I sometimes was, filling in the blanks for him.

He’d been a star since he was a little boy — a soprano soloist in his church choir, so gifted that nonbelievers used to fill the pews on a Sunday. He’d worked with everybody, known everybody, and been ostracized by them all, too, and bounced back again when they weren’t looking. I sometimes regret that I didn’t have more opportunity to hear his tales, to ask about the things he did and the people he knew, and to wait for his answers.

But living in Paris, I have easy access to lots of old movies. I’ve seen The Great Dictator again and again, and wondered what kind of chutzpah Burgess must have possessed, to marry Paulette Goddard after she’d been Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. How the hell do you follow an act like that? (I did start to ask Burgess once, but I backed down.) For the first time, I’ve seen his desperate, heartbreaking performance in Advise and Consent, and his airy comedy in Lubitsch’s That Uncertain Feeling — which offers glimpses of what his performance in Candida must have been onstage. Old-timers (and there are still a few left) will tell you that Burgess Meredith onscreen was nothing compared with Burgess Meredith onstage, that he never did have a screen role that revealed him in all his glory. The microphone distorted the range and beauty of his speaking voice, they say, and the camera limited his physical grace and prowess.

I can only guess. But I can confirm that there was nobody to beat him for spinning yarns over a beer.

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My Life Was Saved by Rock ’n’ Roll?

The Ramones: Gabba Gabba Hey,
They Accept Me, They Accept Me

In my life, I have attended precisely two rock concerts, the first of which doesn’t really count: Gary Numan, making his first U.S. appearance at the Ocean State in Providence. He sang “Cars” (you were expecting maybe “Melancholy Baby”?), and there was some elaborate lighting involved. It wasn’t really rock, and I wasn’t really interested.

A year later, the Ramones made their way to Providence. There is no describing my love for the Ramones. I didn’t merely love their music, I wanted to be one of them. This is typical of rock fans, but for me the experience was singular. Granted, Joey sang better than I do, but in his hiccuppy, slurred, shouting delivery, I heard something of the voice within myself. The Ramones were raw and urgent; they were funny and angry; they were sexy despite the fact that, with the possible exception of DeeDee, depending on how much heroin he’d done on any given day, they were ugly as bat shit. My roommates at the time — the distinguished professors Steven H. Biel and Jeffrey Lesser, and the acclaimed architect Alan Organschi — and I toyed with the idea of forming a band of our own, the Low Moans. I would be lead singer, of course, because I had the least talent. We even wrote a few songs.

Again, I know that other people do this all the time. For me, it was a nonesuch, a hapax phenomenon.

Jeff and Steve worked for the college radio station, WBRU, and it was a simple matter to obtain tickets to the Ramones’ show in Providence. Thus I found myself pogo-ing frantically atop a folding chair that, if it had any sense of self, would have collapsed on the spot, while the Ramones ran through their catalogue: “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” all the classics, every one of which I knew by heart, played so fast that the entire set was over within minutes of starting, with DeeDee shouting, “One two three FOE,” before each number. And I had an out-of-body experience: I saw myself dancing on that precarious chair, and I thought, “For the first time in your life, Bill Madison, you are the right age for the moment you’re in.”

All my other musical taste was firmly entrenched in the nineteenth century, with occasional exceptions for Bach, Broadway musicals, and the Beatles: I am at best a little old man, at worst a little old dead man. For liking the Beatles is like liking Gershwin or Mozart: it does not connect you to your own time, it connects you merely to eternity. Anybody who pays attention will like this music. Cavemen would have responded favorably to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” or “Voi che sapete”; so will Martians. Liking the Ramones, in 1981, at the ripe age of 19, was just about right.

I never heard another rock concert. This was due in part to the loudness of the music: my ears rang for days after Johnny set aside his guitar. Though many people protest that opera is loud (“It just goes right through me,” my mother used to protest), it ain’t, unless you’re standing right next to the lady hitting the high C. The only amplifiers my friends use are in their sinuses and chests.

I did attend a performance by Lou Reed, another of my early idols. (He’s enjoyed a brilliant career despite being entirely tone deaf, with only rudimentary guitar skills — now there’s a role model I can love.) But he performed in a studio at PBS in New York in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by other middle-aged yuppies. It really doesn’t count.

Everybody's Got to Love Mika Today

Now, however, I discover that Mika, the Lebanese-born pop singer, is performing in Paris next Wednesday. Granted, the difference between Mika and the Ramones is the difference between a cheese grater and a chainsaw. Mika got his start as a boy soprano with the Royal Opera, not as a glue-sniffing punk in Rockaway Beach. Still, he’s a contemporary popular musician, not a Handel specialist performing with an ensemble on period instruments: there will be no basso continuo or theorbo to accompany him. And I really want to hear him.

All last month, as I was wallowing in the morbid, self-pitying blues (until Joyce DiDonato blew through town to sing Handel, with, yes, a theorbo in attendance), I played Mika’s album, Living in Cartoon Motion. I’d heard a couple of numbers on the radio — the boppy “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)” and “Love Today” — and figured that this music was the perfect antidote to my melancholy. And the album performs admirably according to that expectation. Until you get to the final track, “Happy Ending,” which is not happy at all but wrist-slashingly sad:

This is the way you left me.
I’m not pretending.
No hope, no love, no glory,
No happy ending.
This is the way that we loved,
Like it’s forever.
Then live the rest of our lives —
But not together.

Just what you want to hear after a bad breakup. And it’s followed up by an unannounced track, “Over My Shoulder,” that adds the welcoming bathtub of warm water you need for those bleeding wrists. That’s the end of the album: the rest is silence.

With a range of five octaves (according to some) or three and a half (his own reckoning) and a classically trained piano technique, he is my kind of guy. Yet I know that I will not be the right age for the moment. Mika is 23, only a fraction older than my godchildren, and younger than my youngest lovers. I’m not sure how I will cope with that. His biggest fans, to judge from Internet chat, are pre-teens: younger than my youngest godchildren. Oy.

Apparently, Mika’s concert, at the Zenith, is sold out: tickets are no longer available at FNAC, and according to the Internet, I will have to contend with Ebay. My previous encounters with that service have been limited exclusively to dire warnings of account violations (I have no account) that invariably turn out to be scams by unscrupulous Russian spammers. But I’m willing to give it a shot. I will keep you posted, as it were.

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Deborah Kerr

She rhymed with “star”:
The keeper of secrets

Deborah Kerr was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I met her at the stage door of a theater in the West End, after a performance of Bernard Shaw’s Candida, a role he might have written for her, the gorgeous woman who drives men mad with desire, yet who remains faithful to her husband. (A minor role in his Major Barbara proved crucial to her early career.) I was in London for the first time, on my “grand tour” with Carlene Klein Ginsburg, and somewhat to the mystification of the other kids in the group, I spent most of my time at the theater. I passed up the chance to see John Gielgud as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar — I still defend my decision, since I dislike the play, and Gielgud would have been offstage (stabbed to death, don’t you know) after Act II. But in three days, amid all the monuments, I saw two shows. And pretty monumental, at that: Janet Suzman’s magnificent Hedda Gabler, and Kerr as Candida.

Need I point out, children, that both ladies projected their voices to the farthest reaches of the theater without the aid of microphones?

It was my mother’s birthday, and so I asked Miss Kerr to sign my program to her. She was delighted to know that she was collaborating on a birthday present, and she spent a good minute finding a pen that worked properly: she asked everyone at the stage door that evening until she found a ballpoint she liked. Such was her grace.

My mother and I loved her first for The King and I, yet every time I saw Kerr at the picture show thereafter, she kept surprising me: the role of Anna Leonowens was in its way the slightest demonstration of her formidable gifts. (After all, she didn’t do her own singing: that was the voice of Marni Nixon, the wonderful singer, who mimicked her to perfection and whom I met at the Weill Foundation one day.)

Kerr was the muse of Michael Powell, the fantasmagorical filmmaker whom I would meet at Brown, a few years after that performance of Candida. He loved her beyond reason. In his autobiography, Powell wrote things about her that doubtless brought a blush to her fair Scottish face, but he understood her in a way that no other director did: in his pictures, she is carnality incarnate, yet unattainable. No man can own her. And no single film can sum her up. She played three generations of woman in Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: that’s a start. But that’s not all.

Powell cast her, too, as a nun in Black Narcissus, which doubtless paved the way for the nun she played in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a knockoff of The African Queen. As if the taking of vows could explain her inaccessibility! Which is not, in truth, inaccessibility but a completely modern independence. Long before the Sexual Revolution, her favors were hers to give, or to withhold. When she rolls in the surf with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, she murmurs so memorably, “I never knew it could be like this.” To which you want to answer, “Yeah. Right.” She knew, brother. She knew.

Not so fast, big boy.

Her intelligence bursts off the screen as immediately as do her sexuality and her tenderness. Naturally, Shaw was catnip to her. The role of Hannah Jelkes, written with Katharine Hepburn in mind, in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, gives you an idea of the depth of her thought and feeling, yet the character is so damned repressed — can you imagine a reality in which Richard Burton would let Deborah Kerr slip away, even when Ava Gardner* is available and so very, very willing?

We think we know an actress when we see her at the movies. Especially when she is a star, as Deborah Kerr was a star, we arrive with expectations and the comforting sense that we know what we will find, the minute she appears. And of course we’re wrong. A movie camera is in its way no more prodigious than an Instamatic: we catch only glimpses, snapshots. We don’t see the boom mikes, the cables on the floor, the gaffers standing by, the rest of the soundstage, the rest of the planet, the whole of the woman on film. Deborah Kerr couldn’t be contained by a camera.

And so, curiously, I think of her now as that least likely of Bond girls, the lusty Scots lady she played, racing around the moors in a black negligée, in the David Niven version of Casino Royale. For that, too, was Deborah Kerr, if only for a few minutes.

*NOTE: The role of Maxine was written for Bette Davis, whom Ava Gardner admired madly. Roddy McDowell used to tell a story of the two, both surprisingly shy, meeting by accident in a hotel lobby. Gardner, intimidated by her idol, stepped forward and said, “Miss Davis, I’m Ava Gardner —” To which Davis replied, “Of course you are!” and flounced away.

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Before They Were Presidents

As Ronald Reagan once said to me...

My track record for meeting sitting Presidents of the United States is not good: I have yet to shake the hand of the man in office. I had some near misses, notably with Bill Clinton in Des Moines, during the Great Flood of 1993. Dan Rather was to interview the President along the lines of sandbaggers, and I was to be at Dan’s elbow, as usual. The White House advance team assured us that we didn’t need press cards or any other identification. But as the President approached, I got separated from Dan — and the Secret Service detail refused to let me get near. “Where’s your press card?” they demanded. I explained that, not five minutes earlier, I’d been told I wouldn’t need one. I had my CBS I.D., but they weren’t interested in that. They had no reason to believe my story, they said, and they weren’t letting me pass. This was frustrating, and it became clear that their standard practice is to push a person to his limits: if he’s going to flip out, better that he do it right away, and as far from the President as possible. I didn’t quite flip out, but I was upset, still shaky days after the confrontation. And I never got to meet Clinton while he was in office.

Before he was in office, however, I did meet him. Clinton was only one of several Presidents I met before they were elected.

The first was Ronald Reagan. In the autumn of 1979, newly arrived on the East Coast, Kevin Pask and I made a day trip to New York City, taking the train from New Haven in what would become, over the next four years, a kind of ritual. We were strolling up Fifth Avenue when we ran into a group of sharply dressed gentlemen emerging from a couple of limousines and entering the Pierre Hotel. Leading the pack was Reagan. “Hello,” we said, and Reagan replied, “Hello, boys.” He didn’t really pause, but Kevin said, “When will you announce whether you’re going to run for President?”

Reagan hesitated and replied, “I’ll be making that announcement in November.” Then he went into the Pierre Hotel where he told everybody else the same thing: the newspapers carried the story the next day. A pity that, as former co-editors of the J.J. Pearce High School Pony Express, Kevin and I no longer had an outlet to publish our exclusive: we had scooped The New York Times, but we had no way to prove it.

In the summer of 1992, I was working for CBS News, and I attended the Republican National Convention in Houston. Bush père had been stingy with his access, ever since the famous “shouting match” interview with Dan, in 1988. (I was in the room at the time: Dan did not shout. I have heard Dan shout. That was not shouting.) He’d granted Dan one further interview, just as he was moving into the White House, in 1989. But since then, nothing. And we were informed that there would be no interview granted during the Convention.

On the President’s part, I doubt there were hard feelings involved. He and Dan had known each other for years, played tennis together in Washington, and up until 1988, they’d enjoyed a perfectly cordial relationship of the sort for which Mr. Bush is famous. (His relationship with the columnist Maureen Dowd exemplifies this.) But this was politics. Bush’s staff — notably Roger Ailes — understood the political value of casting the press, and Dan above all, as an adversary. The policy had worked for Richard Nixon, and it was working for Bush, so they stuck to it. Barbara Bush has a reputation for grudge-carrying, despite her public image of kindliness, so on her part there may have been hard feelings toward Dan. Her son George is said to take after her. And George fils, the campaign informed us, was the only Bush who would speak with Dan on camera.

Mama’s Boy?

It was an extremely rapid interview, in which Bush fils said nothing of interest. He was visibly uncomfortable in interviews (and he still is, I believe), and it was obvious he mistrusted and disliked Dan. Dan was his usual courtly self, and he approached Bush much as he would a small-town neighbor. (“Give our regards to your folks,” he said.) But this didn’t matter much to Bush, who sneered and scowled all the way through. He was, in short, a jerk.

Politics is all about pretending to like people you don’t care for, in order to get something useful from them, but Bush wasn’t playing that game. We’ve since seen that he’s very good at it, however, which leads me to wonder whether his disagreeable behavior with Dan wasn’t designed to appeal to his core audience, the right-wingers who detested Dan. “See? I won’t be taken in by the devil!”

In those days, nobody thought of him as political timber. The family was grooming his brother Jeb for the big jobs; George was his father’s enforcer, strong-arming Congressmen and contributors, on the occasions he got involved at all. When it was his turn to take the White House, he elevated Rather-bashing to an art form, and I’m among many people who wonder whether he and Karl Rove didn’t set up Dan with the National Guard story — much as his father and Roger Ailes set up Dan with the “shouting match,” with comparable benefits. After the “shouting match,” precisely one journalist (Bryant Gumble, on The Today Show the next morning) dared ask Bush père any further questions about Iran-Contra. After “Memogate,” people focused on the veracity of Dan’s documentation, and on John Kerry’s war record, not on the unseemly (and undenied) spectacle of a playboy shirker who now called on America’s sons and daughters to give their lives in a war of his choice.

Bill and Hillary Clinton spoke of “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” but clearly they didn’t consider Dan a part of it, and in general they preferred to sweet-talk the press. Bill had been building a relationship with Dan since he was governor of Arkansas. When he came to visit our office in New York, his candidacy was triumphant, his nomination assured. He greeted our staff with double-fisted handshakes and an intense stare that I felt sure was calculated to convey a deep and abiding empathy — to feel our pain, as it were. I suspect that he’d read that this was a good thing to do, in a book on Winning Friends and Influencing People. But in practice it made each of us uncomfortable.

One of my former colleagues is slight of stature, well under five feet tall, and as Clinton stared at her, she told us later, she was certain he was asking himself, “Is she a midget?” Dan introduced me as “the brains of our operation,” and I was certain Clinton thought, “Gee, it’s Dan Rather’s brain. You don’t see that every day!”

It’s been documented elsewhere in the press and in nonfiction, and in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, but that afternoon we saw it for ourselves. There’s something artificial, even creepy, about Clinton’s empathy. Though it’s often cited as one of his greatest political gifts, and it led to many of his successes, it’s also weirdly off-putting. You don’t quite know what to make of it, and you’re relieved when he turns his focus on someone else.

See how they run.

Though she may yet be President, Hillary is even less polished than her husband, when it comes to looking as if you give a damn, and her calculations are more obvious. Well, that’s politics.

I met her a couple of times when she was First Lady. For one interview, she was seated on a sofa, and I knelt behind the camera, out of range. Watching her, I realized that Mrs. Clinton has generous thighs, and skirts did not reveal her to best advantage: her panties were white.

Shortly after I made this discovery, it became clear that other people had discovered it, too. An Argentine underwear company started a new ad campaign, including billboards that caught the attention of the North American press. They featured a photo of Mrs. Clinton seated on a sofa and flashing her panties yet again, and the caption was, “Because you never know who’s going to see them.”

Almost immediately, Mrs. Clinton adopted her signature pantsuits. The first Clinton administration was known for airing its dirty laundry in public — think of the little blue dress from the Gap — but I suspect that any new Clinton administration will be far more cautious.

The saddest words by tongue or pen
Are simply these: It might have been

My favorite candidate, however, is now certain not to win the White House: Pat Paulsen died ten years ago. His campaigns for the Presidency were not merely comedy routines, however, and he used to turn up at Democratic Conventions every four years. I never got to meet him, but I’d watch him as he scurried through the halls and wonder how different the world would be if he’d actually won the office. I miss him.

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17 October 2007

Leave It to Diva

America’s Favorite Redhead starred
in the zany sitcom I Love Lucia

Nowadays opera on American television is pretty much relegated to specialty channels on cable; in the early days of television, however, opera lent distinction to all kinds of programming. Among the best-known examples, Ed Sullivan’s weekly variety program featured some of the greatest singers of the day; Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood presented an original opera for children each season. Excerpted scenes and complete operas regularly turned up on prime time on the networks, whether on omnibus shows such as, uh, Omnibus, special-event programs, or series such as Live from Lincoln Center.

The success of these shows led the networks frequently to incorporate opera into all kinds of programming.

Among the most popular shows, M*U*S*H was Joan Sutherland’s weekly lesson in diction for aspiring singers. On The Beverly Sillbillies, a streetwise New York singer adjusted to life in Southern California. My Mother the Carmen starred Nicholas Surovy and Risë Stevens. A renowned singer was delighted to discover that her new roommate was a great big ol’ fan who already owned most of her albums, and some of her old costumes, in Will and Grace Bumbry. And a young composer joined the Los Angeles police force in Adamo-12, equipping his patrol car with a twelve-tone siren.

With imaginative use of puppets, animation, songs and games, Sesame Stratas taught children the fundamentals of the Greek alphabet and an understanding of Kierkegaard. Recurring characters included Big Homeless Bird and Oscar the Manic-Depressive, and favorite songs were “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others (Because It’s Dying of Malnutrition),” “Who Are the Tubercular People in Your Neighborhood?” and “Let’s Count All the Rats in the Basement.”

A number of game shows had operatic themes. In the hit Miss Price Is Right, only Leontyne knew the answers; Irene Dalis was the trophy each afternoon on Bowling for Dalis.

But opera wasn’t necessarily the key to game-show success. Bjoerling for Dollars was dismissed as a rank imitation; Who Wants to Be a Milanov? foundered for lack of sponsors. Let’s Make a Delius offered contestants the chance to win an English composer almost nobody had heard of; most preferred to take their chances on an alternate prize, behind Door Number Two.

Opera failed to make much of a dent in the popular Western genre. Such worthy efforts as Nathan Gunn’s Smoke, The Virginiazeanian, Bonazzi Bonanza, and The Lone Arranger failed to find an audience.

Among other fondly remembered opera-themed shows were:
Eight Is Godunov
Father Knows Bastianini
Lohengrin Acres
Parsifal My Children
Allein! Weh, Ganz Allein the Family
The Six-Million-Dollar Manon
Touched by an Alagna
The Dick Van Dich, Teure Halle Show
The Mary Tyler Morrò, Ma Prima in Grazia Show
The Taddei Show
Here Come the Bartered Brides
Where in the World Is San Diego Opera?
Charlie’s de los Angeles
Bridget Loves Bernheimer
Golden Girls of the Golden West
Petticoat Juntwait
Sex and the City of Kitezh
Laverne and Shirley Verrett
Walküre, Texas Ranger
Welcome Back, Hotter
Family Thaïs
Voigt’s My Line?
Lost in Speight
In Levine Color
Zajick the Night Stalker
Upshaw’s, Dawn Stares
Monty Python’s Flying Cerquetti
Are You Being Served the Head of Jokanaan on a Silver Platter?
Amos ‘n’ Angelotti
Have Goerne, Will Travel
Saturday Night Livengood
Chico and the Manrico
Voyage to the Bottom of the C-Flat
Sanford and Sonnambula
Battlestar Gheorghiu
My So-Called Liebestod
Gilligan’s Eileen Farrell
Saved by the Bellini
The Other Kind of Sopranos

And of course, the unforgettable Six Feet Under Jane Eaglen.

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Robert Mugabe

When I met Robert Mugabe, in 1994 in Harare, I didn’t know I was standing face to face with evil. He was a small man, quiet and thoughtful, and in every visible way entirely gentle.

We came to Zimbabwe as part of our advance coverage of the South African elections for CBS News, and although it seems incredible today, we held up Zimbabwe as a model. Here was a nation that had emerged from colonial rule and white-minority domination to become a viable, multiracial democracy. Even Ian Smith, the country’s last white ruler, had to concede Mugabe’s success, while he continued to bitch about everything else: when I met him at his estate, Smith seemed a ridiculous, even pathetic figure, railing against the present and striving for a discredited past. (At one point — I kid you not — he referred to “Darkest Africa.”) You just wanted to shake the guy: Snap out of it. Mugabe, by contrast, seemed the paragon of pure reason, the philosopher president of one’s fondest dreams.

In those days, Zimbabwe was still brimming with hope and possibility. It is a beautiful country. On our way to Harare, our crew stopped off at Victoria Falls, one of the great natural wonders of the world; it impressed even Dan Rather, who has seen everything twice. The climate is sublime, the people loving. The land would be fertile, if anybody were free to farm it. In those days, foreign investment hadn’t been chased out, and though the economy was faltering, people seemed confident in the promise of prosperity. Even the shantytowns of Harare seemed cheerful and expectant. Since then, Mugabe had those shanties bulldozed, and their inhabitants are now homeless.

Mugabe demurred when we asked him about seizing white property, which Smith warned against so vehemently. Later, Mugabe would pursue precisely that policy with a vengeance both literal and figurative, scaring away most foreign investors and placing the best land in the hands of his cronies, backed up by armies, official and improvised, of brutes and thugs.

But at the time, Mugabe still spoke to foreign journalists of peace and harmony and equality. He lived modestly, for a president, in a low white bungalow, likely the one in the background of the photo posted above. He was polite, but chilly in his reserve. He served us tea, which I have since learned is all he drinks: no alcohol, no extravagance. He looked forward to Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa, and to a close collaboration with his neighbor. He enjoyed the prospect of setting an example, playing the big brother, showing Mandela the way.

Happily, Mandela chose other role models, and he’s among the few African leaders who criticize Mugabe today.

I’d taken a more than usual interest in Zimbabwe’s fortunes since the visit to my high school of Ndabaningi Sithole, a Methodist minister who was the third member of the triumvirate (with Mugabe and Smith) that ruled the country in its brief transitional period from white-minority rule. Nobody will ever be able to explain to me what Sithole was doing addressing a high-school assembly in Richardson, Texas, but he was my first interview with a world leader. The interview consisted of a single question. Kevin Pask and I accosted Sithole backstage and asked, “Why are you here?” Sithole spoke of his desire to communicate with young Americans, but that didn’t explain much. Surely he had better things to do with his time than talk to us. (Even the local Rotarians and Elks didn’t talk to us. We were — rightly — negligible.)

Sithole’s experience might have served as a warning to me, and indeed to the rest of the world: Mugabe seized and radicalized the Zimbabwe African National Union party (which Sithole founded); fearing for his life, Sithole went into self-imposed exile in America shortly after Mugabe was elected president, in 1980. Eventually Sithole returned to Zimbabwe and was elected to parliament, but he was accused and convicted of trying to assassinate Mugabe, who confiscated his property. Whether or not Sithole was guilty (he appealed the verdict), his fate has become usual for any political leader who opposes the president. Sithole died in exile seven years ago.

When I met him, Mugabe was already persecuting homosexuals, and that, too, might have been a warning: after anti-Semitism and censorship, there’s no better barometer of a leader’s tyrannical aspirations. Mugabe is among the many African leaders who claim that homosexuality was merely a tool whereby whites oppressed blacks, and that it doesn’t occur otherwise among African people: therefore homosexuality must be stamped out. We didn’t ask him about that. I wish we had. We didn’t ask him anything about sex or health care, and that’s a shame, particularly now that a vast percentage of his people are infected with AIDS, and now that Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, has made sophistry on the subject his practical policy.

Thus there were clues already that Mugabe would become a tyrant, and that his country would find itself sick, impoverished, and desperate. Yet it’s impossible to reconcile the soft-spoken man I met with the man I read about in the newspapers today. Did he change? Or did he fool me?

Today Mugabe’s gangs beat anyone who speaks against him, and his kangaroo courts jail anyone who opposes him in the press or at the polls. The economy is a shambles. It will be generations before Zimbabwe climbs out of the hole Mugabe has dug, and yet Zimbabwe doesn’t have generations to spare: its children are orphaned already and infected themselves. At this rate, they will die of starvation before they die of illness: as the New York Times reports again today, the people of this nation of rich farmland have no food, and no fire to cook it. And Mugabe has said he will run again in the next presidential election.

I don’t possess an assassin’s character, and most days I’m glad of that. But I’ll always wonder what might have been if I’d murdered Mugabe on the spot. Yes, his bodyguards would have killed me (if I was lucky), and mayhem would have rained on Zimbabwe in the aftermath. Yet I might have rescued a nation from unspeakable suffering.

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15 October 2007

Hanna Schygulla

In her most famous role, as Fassbinder’s Maria Braun (1979)

This is what Catherine Karnow’s life is like. When she is around, everything becomes possible. You will be going about your business, when suddenly lightning strikes. Coincidence is commonplace. The uncanny becomes ordinary. The mundane becomes magical.

So it happens that yesterday, in the parlor of the Hôtel d’Aubusson on the Left Bank, a photo shoot became an encounter with Hanna Schygulla, the Polish actress and goddess of New German Cinema in the 1970s and ’80s.

Simply to meet a star of her magnitude would have been something, but the meeting was more significant still. Only a week ago, I watched the marathon screening of Berlin Alexanderplatz, in which she plays one of the central characters. Then suddenly — ping — there she is, not on the screen but on a sofa, drinking mineral water and giving interviews to French journalists. Moreover — speak of the devil — Cathy and I had been talking about Schygulla, not only because I’d attended the screening but because I recalled that our friendship really dates back to a Fassbinder retrospective at the Brown Film Society, a quarter-century ago. Cathy and I discovered those movies together, and in the process, we discovered each other. All these years later, we’re still friends — and now Schygulla arrived, to seal the deal and offer her benedictions.

When I arrived at the hotel, Cathy greeted me. A Turkish film director was giving interviews in the parlor where we were to be shooting, so we had to wait for him to finish. There indeed sat Fatih Akin on a couch, speaking German with a woman I guessed to be a reporter. Her back was to me, but I admired her abundant silver hair, and I tried to eavesdrop a little. Meanwhile, Cathy went about setting up the shoot.

Then Akin got up to leave, and the “German journalist” remained seated while a young PR rep introduced a French journalist. The German woman turned her head — and I recognized her. She was no journalist. She was Hanna Schygulla.

It became clear over the ensuing conversation that Schygulla is starring in Akin’s new movie, Auf der anderen Seite (English title: The Edge of Heaven). It also became clear that she speaks French flawlessly. But it was hard to concentrate on what she said, because I was so excited. I knew I would have to introduce myself to her, at the first opportunity. And it’s not every day I get to meet a goddess.

Not just any goddess. When I was in college, no other actress was a greater sex symbol. She was astonishingly beautiful, of course, but her screen roles displayed (in addition to every inch of her naked flesh) all the mysteries and contradictions of sex I could bear to contemplate. She was hot and she was cold, either or both at once: most often, she was a slowly burning glacier. Sometimes elegant and sometimes vulgar, but seldom tender or loving. Sometimes hunter and sometimes prey, but always engaged in the chase. She was an object of fascination. Friends and I talked about her long into the night. Whenever I met someone from Germany, I’d ask about her. (The response was invariably, “Oh, she’s a pretty good actress, but there are better in Germany. And you know she is really Polish.”) Just as well I didn’t meet her 25 years ago: I probably would have climaxed — or combusted — on the spot.

Wie eins: In Fassbinder's Lili Marleen, (1980)

Now, with a frankly matronly figure and that flowing silver mane, she is (or is playing) something like a grande dame. During her interview with the French journalist, she referred to a film she’d seen recently. “Of course I had to tune out parts of it,” she said, “with those scenes of extreme violence.” And I thought, “Where did all this delicacy come from? In Fassbinder’s pictures, people smack you, throw you around the screen, kick you halfway across Germany.” But maybe it’s harder to watch such scenes than to play them.

When the French journalist left, Schygulla turned to Cathy and me. She knew we were waiting. She looked very much as she does in the small picture above, although she was wearing no makeup. She has the courage that other screen goddesses lack these days: she wears her wrinkles proudly. And her smile is as devastating as ever.

Instantly, every word of German flew out of my head (an alarmingly frequent phenomenon these days, but insurmountable in the present circumstances). So Cathy and I announced in English that we were huge admirers. Schygulla promptly switched to French, and we continued to speak in the language that is native to none of us.

We talked of friendship and Fassbinder, and of the screening of Berlin Alexanderplatz, and of the coincidence of meeting her at this moment. She wanted to know more about the screening, whether it was well attended, and what it was like to watch the whole picture in one sitting. Cathy was too polite to ask for a photograph — the camera was right there — and although I know the choice was the right one, I regret it anyway.

At one point, Cathy excused her lack of German: “I only know three words, and it’s because someone said them to you once in a movie: ‘Du bist schön.’”

Schygulla wondered who’d said that to her, and in what movie. (Was there ever a movie in which somebody didn’t tell her she was beautiful?) “But surely you know the song,” she added, and then began to sing “Bei mir bist du schön.”

And then she had to take her leave. She shook my hand and said, “Au revoir.” And I had to lie down on the floor. I may never recover.

But let it be remembered, long after I’m gone: this would never have happened if I hadn’t been with Cathy Karnow.

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14 October 2007

The Maltese Bibelot

A recent screening of Kazan’s On the Waterfront, subtitled in French, brought the realization that French audiences may have only the vaguest idea what the film is about: some things don’t translate very well. The characters expressed themselves more like elderly professors than like hard-driving Brooklyn dockworkers, and they eschewed slang: “I could have possessed chic. I could have been a concurrent. I could have been a personage, as opposed to a tramp, that which I am.”

To give you a clearer understanding of the warped perceptions that subtitles must give the average French moviegoer, I have prepared a little screenplay, entitled The Maltese Bibelot.

Scene 1: The Office of the Detective that is called Sam Pique. The evening. A lonely lamp provides the lonely lighting; at the exterior, a neon signal winks through the jealousies. SAM, he is drinking a beverage that is not Cognac. A bourgeoise, VILMA, enters.

VILMA: Monsieur Pique? My exigency is this. I have need that you discover my spouse. He has been disappeared during three weeks.

SAM [voiceover]: I knew that she posed difficulty at the instant I perceived her. Legs of the kind that she possessed must always provoke suspicion.

VILMA: I am at the bottom of my spirits. I fear that he may have been killed by the one that is his business partner. They disputed prior to the disappearance of him.

SAM [voiceover]: To her recounting, there existed an ichthyic element, for that she did not appear to lament the spouse. However, I had not been engaged for my professional services during three months past. The proprietor of my apartment was demanding payment.

SAM: Less rapid, my beautiful. You must acknowledge above all that I require 462.76 Francs by day and the reimbursement of all spending.

VILMA: Your conditions are exorbitant. I am not a person of wealth. I am but a simple woman of the household.

SAM [voiceover]: The words of some lips, they were countermanded by the collar of some diamonds.

(Sudden, the door, it is opened. The lamp, it is fired upon and extinguished. One can see but a shadow in the way of the door.)

SHADOWY PERSONAGE: Are you that he who is called Sam Pique?

SAM: That is I.

VILMA: Regard, Sam! He possesses an arm!

SHADOWY PERSONAGE: You are required to ask of yourself this: do I believe myself to be lucky? Do you, scalawag?

SAM: Are you addressing me? Proceed, render my day auspicious. (Reaches for his arm and takes the aim)

SHADOWY PERSONAGE: Receive this! (Fires weapon) And this! (Fires again) And this as well! (Fires again, then this one disappears.)

VILMA (screaming after him): You unsanitary, malodorous rodent of an exceptional variety that is unsuitable as an ingredient in savory fricassées!

SAM [voiceover]: It astonished me. That woman, she appeared to be bourgeoise, yet she employed the foul parlance of a Brooklyn dockworker. There attached to her a mystery, and a mystery displeases me as does abdominal pain.

SAM: Did he strike you, Madame?

VILMA: No, Monsieur Pique. He fell short of the mark by 1.60934 kilometers. It is indeed fortunate that he extinguished the lights in the room before he fired his arm. For that he was unable to see us, to strike us was not possible.

SAM: You are in error. He did not intend to strike us. He intended to give us fear. Madame, I am in anger now. I take it amiss when unknown persons fire at me. Yes, I shall take this affair. I vow to discover the person that fired at me, and I shall discover your husband, as well, for I am persuaded of the coincidence of these matters.

VILMA: There exists no need to do so, Monsieur Pique. You have merely to assemble your lips ... and emit a current of air. (She commences to exit.)

SAM: Suspend, my child. Do I comprehend you to state that you are allowing the affair to fall?

VILMA: On the contrary. The unknown with the arm was my spouse. I have identified of him the voice. Therefore, he is disappeared no more, and I do not require your aid. Please receive my distinguished expression of gratitude, Monsieur Pique! (She kisses him and makes her departure.)

SAM: Here is to regard you, child.


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