28 January 2008

The Awful Spanish Language

Earlier this month, I returned to Barcelona, where, long after the demise of the Inquisition and the Caudillo, I ran smack against one of the enduring afflictions of the Iberian peninsula. The people there speak Spanish. This would be no problem to anyone if they confined the practice to the privacy of their homes, and did not subject tourists to it. But no, they are unreasonable and indiscriminate. They will speak Spanish to anyone. It is a compulsion with them.

And so I have discovered something innately pernicious and unfair about the Spanish language: I do not speak it. All over the world, millions of other people speak it perfectly, without ever having studied it any more than I have. Tiny children can speak it, at hair-raising speed and more or less grammatically. They were born into it, as I — a native Texan — was born into a Spanish-speaking culture. Then I spent two decades in another, New York City. I never studied Spanish. It seems unjust that I should have to.

After all, I have been requesting food and drink in Spanish since I was a boy, not from any desire to show off but from a desire not to starve. Español de cocina — kitchen Spanish — is a useful language with a long tradition of excellence, and it is accessible to most gringos, and more or less intelligible. Yet whenever I attempt to speak in a Spanish-speaking country, be it Spain or Cuba or the Dominican Republic, I pose an immediate threat to the safety of myself and of everyone within earshot.

And Spain is the worst. I am quite certain that no Spaniard, arriving in Nebraska, would be unable to find anyone at all with whom he could speak Spanish. Yet in Madrid, there is no one who speaks anything else. You might think that on the Talgo train from Paris, or someone at the information desk at Chamartín Station, the train’s terminus, there’d be someone who spoke French; you might think that at the painfully chic Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum, there’d be someone who spoke English. Or French. Or German. Or Italian. But you would be, as the gringos say, el wrong-o.

In unimportant matters, I have no problems with the language. My ability to read and comprehend lengthy disquisitions in Spanish museums, from guided tours to the texts that explain individual paintings, is staggering. I can even understand what Fidel Castro says about foreign policy, when I can stay awake. But none of this will ever get me fed.

Foreign travel makes children of us all: we cannot communicate like grownups. The simplest and most necessary activities become difficult, even perilous. We cannot proceed without assistance; we rely on kindly adults to take pity, and not to take our purses.

Spanish cuisine features several of my favorite delicacies, readily available (to Spanish speakers) in tapas bars. Vinegary boquerones, fillets of anchovy; jamón Serrano, tangy slices of aged ham, sliced in front of you from the leg of an ill-fated pig; pan tomate, thick slices of bread rubbed with olive oil, garlic, and tomato; pulpos, little octopi; morcilla, a blood sausage that doesn’t resemble the French boudin noir at all; and albóndigas, little meatballs. At other restaurants, there’s sure to be paella valenciana, which is no longer available in Valencia, because they have sent such great quantities of it everywhere else in Spain. Please note that I know the names for all of these things. I can even spell them, after a fashion.

And yet when required to do so, I can’t speak. My tongue becomes a Gordian knot. With a large, cast-iron weight attached at one end. I halt and freeze, I stammer and babble. In the desire to communicate, I panic and grab at any foreign word that comes to mind. In Madrid, anything other than Spanish proved useless: even my attempts at Italian were considered cute but worthless, as if I were a dog who’d learned to walk on its hind legs and then decided to run for president. Resorting to even more remote foreign languages proved altogether counterproductive. If you say in Russian, “Mne nado” (I need), you won’t get what you need. You’ll get nada.

Even when I did come up with the right Spanish words at the right time, and managed an approximation of the Madrileño accent, I seldom got what I asked for. No matter what I asked for, I received a dish of mushrooms. The word for this is champiñones. I know this. It is not what I said. It is nothing like what I said. But it’s what I got — and what I got charged for.

It got to the point that I didn’t dare enter into a tapas bar. The press of customers at the bar meant that I’d have to shout to be heard — and heaven forbid that someone might answer me.

One night in Madrid, unable to survive longer without eating, I found a working-class bar in a deserted, darkened street. The padrón didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand him. But he and his wife gave me something to eat, and a glass of wine. Whether they did so from instinct or from charity, I can’t say. Certainly the other customers were disheveled and not terribly clean, puffing away on tarry black cigarettes and staring wordlessly at the television. But they were amiable, and they made room for me at the bar. They were watching the end of a soccer match.

With difficulty, I listened to the play-by-play, which permitted me to establish, with reasonable certainty, that the match was about two different groups of men, from different towns, who were engaged in a dispute over a ball.

The conclusion of the match provoked some furious spitting on the floor and what I presumed to be cursing, although they might have been reciting romantic poetry from the Golden Age, for all I know. After this, they turned to a Jackie Chan movie.

The movie was dubbed into Spanish, but there was hardly any dialogue, and you need only watch to appreciate Chan’s balletic stunts, worthy of Buster Keaton, his idol (and mine). Soon enough, we were all laughing together, united without language. I finished my meal, but I stayed to the end of the movie. Seldom have I had a better time.

Barcelona is a more sophisticated place. After decades of brutal suppression under Franco, who wanted to turn Catalonia, Spain’s only industrialized region, into a primitive backwater, the Barcelonans are determined to prove, once and for all, that their city is a world capital. Great numbers of them speak English and French, they are patient with foreigners’ attempts to speak Spanish, and they politely overlook anyone’s misguided attempts to speak Catalan.

I threw myself at their mercy. I prefaced every conversation with this phrase: “Lo siento mucho, pero hablo muy mal español.” I had discovered that in Madrid the phrase earned me lots of indulgent smiles, and perhaps best of all, it can be said with a Tex-Mex accent. The Barcelonans liked hearing it, too.

By the third day, several Barcelonans surpassed the limits of ordinary hospitality and insisted that I spoke Spanish very well. Obviously these people were todos locos, and I was lucky to get away from them.

But the mushrooms were delicious.

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24 January 2008

Carol Channing

In a mellow mood

The great stars of the heyday of Broadway musical comedy were not merely talented, they were dangerous. As Peter Pan, Mary Martin persuaded thousands of children that they could fly. Some died trying, and NBC had to take the televised version of her show off the air. Remember that, the next time somebody poo-poos the art form.

But by the time I got to New York, the heyday was well past its sunset. With the exception of Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, I missed out on the whole phenomenon. Mary Martin was still performing onstage, but in a straight play, Legends, that never came to New York. Ethel Merman died about five minutes after I arrived in the city; Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand were in self-imposed exile in Hollywood. But Carol Channing was still around, co-starring with Martin in Legends and perpetually touring in her biggest hit, Hello, Dolly. Not entirely by accident, I managed never to see that show. Word was that the production was pretty tired by the 1990s, and Channing later depicted it as something like spousal abuse, a job that was forced on her by her late husband, Charles Lowe. As many a critic observed, “Dolly will never go away again” began to sound like a threat. I kept my distance.

I’ve seen plenty of great performances in musical comedy, from Bernadette Peters to Donna Murphy, from Betty Buckley to Christine Ebersole; I’ve heard Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch in concert; I was johnny-on-the-spot when Julie Andrews returned to Broadway in the Sondheim revue, Putting It Together. Superlatives are too poor to describe their work. But it’s not the same, I am certain, as experiencing the raw power of those old-time Broadway stars the first time around, in their natural habitat.

I did get to meet Carol Channing once, in a most unlikely setting.

A day or so before the Democratic Convention in New York, in 1992, Bill Clinton spoke at an event at the Four Seasons restaurant. The dining tables had been cleared away to make room for extra chairs, in long rows packed with party luminaries and press, including all three network anchors. And over in a corner was Carol Channing.

All of us little network lackeys were abuzz: Carol Channing! We’d grown up watching her on TV, and we adored her. There was not a great deal of difference between her and a cartoon or a Muppet, at least to the undiscerning eye of a child, and her otherworldly voice and eccentric behavior were one definition of pure fun. And there she was! We tried not to stare. Suddenly Bill Clinton and Bernard Shaw and Pamela Harriman were a lot less compelling.

At the end of the afternoon, the event broke up, and the machers cast aside their chairs pell-mell in order to congregate in little shmoozing gangs. Miss Channing was already delicate, shall we say, and was having a hard time picking her way among the chairs as she made her exit. I leapt forward to clear a path for her.

“Why, thaaaank you,” she said, in that astonishing voice.

“I know why you’re here,” I said.

“Oh, dew you?”

“It’s because you’re just a little girl from Little Rock,” I said, quoting a number from her first hit show, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Her immense eyes began to twinkle. “Why, yay-ess!” she crowed.

In truth, there was no mystery to her presence. She’s an immensely intelligent woman (as a student at Bennington College, she specialized in medieval literature) who’s interested in almost everything, so why not politics, too? Her special brand of high-energy zaniness may even be an extension of her innate curiosity. It’s as if she wants to find out about everything, to go everywhere, to try anything, all at once.

The only art form ever devised that could contain that kind of passionate personality was the Broadway musical comedy. I’m sorry I missed out on it, yet I’m proud that I didn’t settle for its somnambulent reawakenings and mechanical refabrications (viz. not only Channing’s 5,000th Dolly but Yul Brynner’s King and Rex Harrison’s Higgins). And I’m grateful that I got to meet one of its most distinctive practitioners anyway.

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22 January 2008


God damn it.

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21 January 2008

Suzanne Pleshette, and Others

Paragon: Suzanne Pleshette

Suzanne Pleshette has died, and although somebody else is bound to say this, I’ll try to be the first: she was the Myrna Loy of her generation. Just as the older actress embodied a kind of ideal wife (notably in the Thin Man movies), so did Pleshette, on The Bob Newhart Show. She was pretty and witty and bright, as the song goes, and she represented an oasis of sassy, sexy sanity in Dr. Bob Hartley’s crazy universe. By the time I got to college, I didn’t know a straight man who didn’t want to marry her. (The gay guys wanted to be her, though few were keen on being married to Bob Newhart — but that’s another story.)

And that voice! Its huskiness was probably a harbinger of the lung ailments that led to her death — but great art demands great sacrifice. She gave us her all, and she will be missed.

Myrna Loy & William Powell: If it were always like this,
America wouldn’t
need a Defense of Marriage Act.

Another thing I miss: movies with characters. I am reminded of the little old eccentric in the first scene of Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story. He’s got money, too. “I’m cheesy with the stuff,” he explains. “I’m the Wienie King! I invented the Texas Wienie!” Then he adds, “Lay off ’em — you’ll live longer.”

Granted, one reason for Sturges’ prominence is his unrivaled gift for gabby eccentrics, above and beyond the usual quota in a screwball comedy. (Constable Kockenlocker! The Ale and Quail Club! The Lady Eve Sidwich!) But Hollywood movies today put so little store in language, and even foreign films seldom take anything like a comparable delight in oddballs. We are poorer for that.

All hail the Wienie King!
Robert Dudley, with Claudette Colbert

Meanwhile, there’s a new Bette Davis stamp back home. I’d love to lick it, but I just washed my hair.

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Working Out with Lambert Wilson

Wilson: You better work.

You know you’ve been away from the gym for too long when you can’t remember your locker combination; that, as much as loss of muscle tone or gain of weight, is an excellent indicator that you’ve been shirking. I would tell you that everybody at the gym has forgotten me since my last workout, were it not for the fact that it’s a snobby place and nobody there knows me to begin with. The exception, curiously, is our most famous member, the actor Lambert Wilson, best known in the States as the Merovingian in the Matrix movies. (Which I’ve never seen.)

I saw him again today, and his very presence was a reproach: he’s only a little older than I, and he’s in amazing shape. Of course, as a former Calvin Klein model, he has an obligation to maintain a ludicrously high standard. Moreover, his busy schedule demands a certain level of physical conditioning. French actors tend to work a great deal, but Wilson is driven, making half a dozen films per year, including made-for-TV movies, and usually he’ll star in one or two stage plays per season, and sometimes direct a show. Just to keep his hand in, he’ll make a television commercial — not as a celebrity endorser but just as any other unidentified actor. Since he sings, as well, and since he speaks flawless English, he has additional opportunities to work, and he grabs them.

We’re on something more than a nodding acquaintance because he appeared in Bernstein’s Candide with the American baritone David Adam Moore: that personal connection permitted me to introduce myself. Otherwise, need I point out, I’m enough of a New Yorker that I’d never have acknowledged him. I’ve worked out alongside movie actors, opera singers, Broadway leading men, and porn stars, all of them famous, and very rarely have I seen any reason to speak to them, even to say, “Are you using the fifty-pound dumbbell, Victor Garber, and if so, would you mind not dropping it on my foot?” (Back in the locker room, of course, my little friends and I rip the poor guys to shreds.) But thanks to David, Lambert Wilson and I say hi now and sometimes chat briefly.

Thus he has earned the distinction of being the last man in France who insists on addressing me in English. I daresay he wouldn't mind if I didn’t pronounce his name with a French accent: Lawm-BEAR Weel-SONG. He was educated in England. I’m sure he wants to practice his English, and not to display disdain for my French. I try not to be insulted.

I sometimes wonder why Lambert Wilson is so driven, and I don’t know him well enough to answer. He’s a “fils de,” the son of a famous man — Georges Wilson, a painfully distinguished actor and stage director (and director of the Théâtre National de Paris in the 1960s), whose picture appears in schoolbooks, not only theater histories but the standard texts of great plays. Perhaps Lambert feels he has to surpass people’s expectations in order to prove that his success isn’t merely the result of his father’s connections.

Golly, if only I had such a motivating force, just think what I’d achieve!

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20 January 2008

Bob Dole

Bob Dole is one of the wittiest men I met in Washington. Freud would tell us that his humor is a response to his pain, especially to the war wounds that left him with a crippled right arm. Bob Dole would have little patience with that sort of explanation — he’d probably dismiss it with a zinger.

When he is straight-talking, there is no one in Washington to match him, not even his disciple, John McCain. (During the Vietnam War, when everybody wore P.O.W. bracelets, Dole wore McCain’s — but didn’t tell him so until decades later, after they’d been Senate colleagues for years. It wasn’t politics but character, and McCain understood that was Dole’s greatest gift.) The flip side is that Dole is very, very bad at saying things he doesn’t believe.

The witticisms elude him, and he relies on stock phrases that sound not like profoundly held statements of belief but like the targeted constructs of political operatives and think tanks. The energy drains from his face, and the light fades in his eyes, which begin to dart nervously, checking to see if anyone notices. He seems awkward, embarrassed. But as Republican candidate for the vice-presidency (in 1976) and the presidency (twenty years later), and as his party’s leader in the Senate, he did his duty, like it or not, much as he served his country in wartime.

Preparing news reports, we used to see the duality of his nature all the time. Whenever he stopped forging and started parroting the party line (which by the time I met him was a lot more conservative than he was, especially on social issues), he’d fall apart. For example, when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Bob Dole agreed that “We probably do need some kind of health-care reform.” He seemed perfectly sincere, as one might expect from a man whose own physical condition and history gave him an intimate knowledge of the concerns and needs of patients. He’d seen his youthful dream of a career in baseball shattered by his war wounds; he’d spent a long time in the hospital. Better than most in Washington, he knew how sick and injured people feel.

Within a few weeks, though, the lobbyists and party bosses had gotten to him (I presume), and he led the charge against Hillary’s proposals. It can be argued that Hillary’s proposals weren’t very good, yet Senator Dole didn’t propose any alternative, or try to negotiate a middle ground, and all these years later, health care in America is more expensive and less comprehensive than ever.

Other times, you couldn’t be sure whether he was straight-talking or not. When he described the military conflicts of the twentieth century as “Democrat wars,” was he serious? I don’t think anybody can construe our latest conflicts as “Democrat wars” (though Karl Rove has been trying, lately, to say that Congressional Democrats rushed the United States into Iraq), so there may be nothing to learn from this. Perhaps it’s best simply to move on.

Some analysts said that Dole’s sharp tongue caused some voters to believe he was “mean,” and that this perception contributed to his loss in the 1996 presidential election. I’d be willing to argue the opposite: that Dole’s transparency when saying things he didn’t believe cost him more votes than his bluntness when saying things he did believe. He wanted the presidency, and he wasn’t alone in thinking the Republican nomination was his due, after so many years of carrying water for the party. But in order to get the nomination, a candidate must appeal to the primary voters, who are (in both parties) less mainstream than the voters in the general election. A candidate winds up doing a lot of pandering to people he disagrees with. Bob Dole was pretty darned mainstream, and he’s no good at pandering, and he was incapable of covering up his discomfort. I think voters saw that; I know reporters did.

Washington reporters have a sense that most call a “bullshit detector,” and it is developed not only through native skepticism but through laziness: it is a good deal easier to receive the truth and run with it than to go digging for it. Thus the press loved Bob Dole — up to a point. If you could get him on the right subject, there was nobody better to tell you the real deal, usually in eminently quotable, witty language. (He demonstrated this for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, after he’d retired from politics.) But you never could deactivate your bullshit detector when you were talking to him — and the curious thing was that his own bullshit detector was activated, too, and you could watch its functioning.

I met him a few times, always in the company of Dan Rather. I was immediately struck by the similarities between the two men, an impression that Dole’s press secretary encouraged. If I wanted to see Dole as a hardy survivor, a patriot and truth-teller — which was how I saw my boss — then Dole’s staff had no objections. And although it might have been a professional liability for either of them to say so publicly, Rather and Dole liked each other, too. There was always a certain wariness, unsurprising in the circumstances, but there was also a camaraderie between them that I didn’t see often, when either of them engaged with others. They’d known each other a long time, and they respected each other — as pros, as working guys who’d made it to the top.

I had the feeling that, if ever the two of them could get away from the Washington madness for a couple of hours, sit down with a couple of beers and swap a few stories, they’d both have the time of their lives. And, oh, to be within earshot when they did!

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19 January 2008

Persons of Impeachable Character

Clinton and Lewinsky
Contrary to all appearances, this is not a news photo but a reproduction of an image burned permanently into my brain circuits.

You don’t want to see the rest of the collection.

I confess that I’m taken aback by the (relatively sparse) news reports commemorating the tenth anniversary of the unveiling of Monica Lewinsky, that first exhibition of the poor girl that marked the long, long season of Bill Clinton’s squirming shame. Can it really have been ten years already? My wounds haven’t had time to heal.

Some attention has been paid to the ordeal suffered by the direct participants in what’s known (unjustly) as Monicagate. We know that Linda Tripp underwent extensive plastic surgery, in an attempt to move on with her life; we know that Paula Jones posed nude, and boxed with Tanya Harding, in an attempt not to move on from her celebrity. We know that Hillary Clinton is running for president, and that Americans are still baffled by the kind of stiff upper lip she displayed throughout the scandals; they like her better when she cries. We know that Newt Gingrich and a brace of his colleagues lost their jobs in Congress as a direct result of the impeachment, and that Kenneth Starr lost any hope (and he did have plenty) of being named to the Supreme Court. We know that Bill Clinton kept his job, and that Al Gore didn’t inherit it. We know that Matt Drudge became a curious kind of superstar.

But little has been said of what other journalists suffered, psychologically and materially, and without being self-pitying about it, I’d like to share some of my own experience. For thirteen months, I was duty-bound to immerse myself in the most sordid details of human behavior. There was no one to admire in this melodrama, and everyone to fault. One couldn’t condone the President or his accusers, yet one couldn’t quite denounce them, either.

Responsible journalism demands objectivity, but this story demanded a painful, unresolved ambivalence — and that’s a tough position to maintain for thirteen months. To say nothing of ten years.

I was in Havana when word of another “bimbo eruption” came from the CBS News Washington bureau, and we were told to move out. It made no sense to me. Although the President’s womanizing was widely suspected, and although I assumed that one day it would catch up with him, the latest accusations didn’t seem to warrant our pulling up stakes from the story we were covering already: the official visit of Pope John Paul II to Castro’s Cuba. (That story in itself seemed to me a futile junket, but we were in place already, at great expense; the Pope hadn’t arrived yet, and one never knew but that the great adversary of Communism might do something newsworthy.) Somebody tried to explain to me that there was a question of lying under oath, in the Paula Jones case, and that an impeachment might follow.

Of course an impeachment did follow. We were told, by upstanding members of the nation’s opposition party, that “this wasn’t about sex,” and it was about something more than covering up an affair. The President swears to uphold the Constitution, he has an obligation to respect the law and to offer truthful testimony. We now know that Clinton failed to do this.

Yet in any normal courtroom, he would not, I think, have been convicted of perjury, which would have made more difficult a conviction on the charge of obstruction of justice. As the testimony amassed by Kenneth Starr made very clear, Clinton’s behavior was motivated by two things, either or both of which would have played well to a jury.

First, Clinton didn’t want to cooperate with the plaintiff in the Paula Jones case, which had long since bypassed its original, rather dubious merits. (By Jones’ own account, he told her at the time that her refusal to sleep with him would not jeopardize her employment in the Arkansas state government — thus most of the charges leveled at him were denied by her testimony and should have been dismissed.) The Jones case had been taken over, and bankrolled, by something very much like the “vast Republican conspiracy,” namely Clinton opponents who wanted to thwart him. His election in 1992 wasn’t legitimate, they believed, because George Bush père would have won, if not for the interference of Ross Perot; Bob Dole should have stopped Clinton in his tracks, but he failed. It was up to others, using extraordinary measures, to prevent Clinton from accomplishing anything at all in his second term.

That motive became clear as the year 1998 rolled along. Again and again, leading Republicans would tell news organizations, “Just bear with us — this is really big.” But they never made good on their promise, and the case was never any bigger than it originally appeared, no matter how many tawdry details they dug up.

If Clinton did not provide “the whole truth” in his deposition in the Jones case, he tried very hard not to lie, with lawyerly hairsplitting that bespoke his training, and a definition of “sexual relations” that’s familiar to anybody who ever dated a Baptist girl in the Deep South: so long as there’s no vaginal intercourse, she’s still a virgin. The definition of “sexual relations” provided to Clinton at the deposition allowed for this kind of imprecision; when he denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky, he was responding correctly, according to the language of the case, although he was not responding honestly.

But why would he volunteer information not specifically requested to people who were his political enemies?

Clinton’s second motive was less political and more human, and it’s for this reason above all that I think no jury would have convicted him: he’d made a colossal mistake in getting involved with an emotionally fragile young woman, and he was terrified that his wife would find out. If you start digging through Lewinsky’s testimony, especially, you’ll see that Clinton is, after the first couple of encounters, simply trying to placate the girl and get her out of the way, although even when she was testifying, she didn’t understand that. A smart lawyer — and Clinton had plenty — would have appealed to a jury’s sympathy, and although he might not have been acquitted, he would not have been convicted, either.

The United States Congress is not an ordinary jury, however, and although in the ensuing months it was revealed that several leading Republicans (Gingrich, Livingston, Hyde, et al.) had engaged in comparable sexual misconduct, their sanctimonious posturing was unflinching. And it played very well to the base. From the start of Clinton’s administration until its final months, the percentage of voters who disapproved of him remained reliably around 35 percent. The impeachment didn’t change that. They were, I suspect, probably the same 35 percent who believed Clinton should have lost the 1992 election. (And probably the same who never forgave Democrats for humiliating Clarence Thomas and defeating Robert Bork; the same who now regard the Clinton administration as an illegitimate interregnum between George I and George II.) But they were undeniably the people most likely to vote for Republican congressmen, and to give money to the party. Any display of sympathy toward Clinton would have damaged a congressman’s chances in the 1998 election; almost nobody risked it.

And so the case dragged on. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s team now says they never intended for the more lurid pages of their investigative report to reach the public, but that Congress released the full report without having vetted it first. Whatever. I always found Starr’s protestations of good intentions to be thoroughly unbelievable. He wanted that seat on the Supreme Court, and he was grandstanding to the men and women who would vote on his nomination. Although he may not have been the lip-smacking prig his enemies portrayed, he was hardly disinterested, uncalculating, or virtuous. He made sure the cigar and the little blue dress were there for all the world to see — for purely selfish reasons that backfired on him.

One detail got lost amid the shuffle of news coverage, though I still find it illuminating. Monica Lewinsky was set up by Linda Tripp, not only in making her confession but in making her play for the President in the first place. Linda Tripp wanted to publish a juicy Washington tell-all, but the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg advised her that, without sex, the book would never sell. And having been reassigned out of the White House, Tripp was no longer in a position to seduce Mr. Clinton for herself. She did, however, acquire the confidence of an insecure girl whose mother claimed to have slept with one of the most famous men on earth.

That man was Plácido Domingo, although he has (whether graciously or guiltily) never confirmed the liaison. Nevertheless, if one is possessed of a certain kind of insecurity, and a certain kind of competitiveness, such a liaison is a provocation. I call it the Aristotle Onassis Syndrome: when one has bedded one worldwide superstar (Callas, in his case), one seeks to outdo oneself by bedding one even greater (Jacqueline Kennedy).

And I suspect that this, as much as anything, is what provoked the notorious Oval Office thong-snapping that proved so irresistible to the President of the United States. And then, as Lewinsky pursued what she sincerely believed to be a love affair, Tripp was ready with a motherly ear and a running cassette recorder to listen to every detail — for her book sales.

Did free-market capitalism ever come at a higher price?

When the Senate voted not to convict, on Lincoln’s Birthday, we were in Washington. I struggled over a “closing thoughts” for Dan Rather to read at the end of the Evening News, and I actually got out of bed and went downstairs to the hotel bar, to revise my text from scratch on the night before the vote.

It was one of the best pieces of my career, and one of these days I’ll fish it out of a filing cabinet and post it here. My gist was that everybody in this affair had behaved badly, and that all the men and women in our government had feet of clay. (In a certifiable coup, we got unprecedented permission to tape the piece in Statuary Hall.) And yet despite these human failings, and despite the long ordeal of the impeachment, the nation would endure: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth — not today.” [UPDATE: The script for Dan’s “closing thoughts” can be found here.]

Ultimately, I don’t think Clinton was guilty of impeachable offenses — certainly not when compared to the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by his successor. And I’d rather be led by a President who was sexually satisfied than by one who wasn’t. If the man thinks the Oval Office is the place to get his jollies, I’m not offended, although I’d prefer to know nothing about it, and I’d surely prefer not to spend a year of my life poring over the accounts.

But that doesn’t let Clinton off the hook. At best, he’s a serial womanizer whose opening gambit is to come on much, much too strong. In that sense, his celebrated empathy, his ability to “feel our pain,” simply carries through to an inappropriate outlet when he’s alone in a room with an attractive woman.

At worst, he’s a sex addict with a mean streak. The way he treats his former lovers, not merely refuting them but attacking them (though all of them, from Gennifer Flowers on down, seem to be telling something like the truth), is shameful, and unbecoming a man who throughout his career strove to champion the cause of women, of minorities, of powerless, hardworking Americans. Honestly, he needs help, and because of his position, he’s unlikely ever to get it. Our culture won’t permit its leaders to undergo extensive psychoanalysis and behavioral modification.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, Republicans will return to the playbook to thwart any serious reforms she may pursue. I’m not sure why people want to run that risk, but at least we know what we’re getting into: in this sense, experience does count, but it’s our experience of the Clintons, and not the Clintons’ experience, that matters.

And what of me? At the end of those fateful thirteen months, I was burned out. Not only had I been immersed in all those sordid details, I’d been called out of bed in the middle of the night to help report them, ordered to Washington on short notice, and in sum denied any chance at what most people would consider a normal life.

It was only then beginning to dawn on me that, in television news, there is always some “big story” that requires us to suspend our lives, and very often the “big story” is frivolous, a sideshow distraction from the real business of the country. With the rise of the 24-hour news channels, those sideshows became bandwagons, and we had to jump on them, for the sake of the ratings. And ratings being what they are, the stories got sillier and sillier.

You folks in America saw it again last year, when Anna Nicole Smith died. It was a sad story about a foolish, unlucky woman, but nothing about it spoke to the real needs of the country: even in death, Anna Nicole could not change the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she could not boost the economy, she could not offer us universal health insurance or teach our children anything worth knowing.

What you may not have considered, as you watched the anchors talk about Anna Nicole, is that just out of camera range, hundreds of men and women were losing sleep, risking their marital happiness, ignoring their children’s birthdays, and ruining their lives — just so that you could know that Zsa Zsa’s husband claimed to be the baby’s father. So that you could watch every second of O.J.’s car chase. So that you could share every minute of Paris Hilton’s jail sentence. So that you could find out what Bill Clinton can do with a cigar.

For a long time, I’d tell myself, as one big story drew to a close, that “now we could get back to normal.” I was naïve. That big-story madness was normal, because there was always another big story. And most often, those big stories were idiotic. I’d tell myself that journalism was the equivalent of national service, that I was helping my country by giving it the information it needed to make intelligent decisions about its future. Hard to say that about the coverage of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Obliged to live out the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, we weren’t allowed to say what was perfectly apparent.

And so I never warned my fellow Americans that none of the people involved gave a good goddam about anything but covering their asses: that would have been a public service.

There’s a direct connection between my battle fatigue, post- impeachment, and my departure from CBS News, five months later. My relationships with my colleagues had suffered. My home life, like my home, was a mess, and reuniting with my friends, I felt as if I’d been on a distant planet for many years, communicating only with alien beings and somewhat nonplussed when confronted with my own species. Refusing to learn anything from the experience, this Bill even had a very brief affair with a (29-year-old) CBS intern. I had to reacquaint myself with everything.

I took my job at Opera News because, no matter what awful things people do to each other in the opera, they do them to great music, and the rapes and murders all stop when the curtain comes down. I wanted to write stories about artists, not politicians, and I wanted to hold out some hope of admiring, perhaps even liking, the people I wrote about. I wanted to cleanse myself, journalistically.

And I’m still recovering. Or trying to, anyway.

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18 January 2008

The Boushe Legacy

A brainstorming session, aboard Air Force One:
Laura Bush examines the latest draft of the anonymous screenplay.

As presidential administrations wind to a close, it is not uncommon for White House staffers to start thinking about future employment. Many seek jobs in television, usually as commentators (e.g. George Stephanopoulos), consultants, or producers (e.g. Dee Dee Myers). Sometimes, staffers write memoirs and even thriller novels, then try to sell the film rights.

This week, the William Morris Agency released excerpts from an anonymous, soon-to-be-completed screenplay. Although White House Press Secretary Dana Perino declined to comment on speculation that the author was George Bush, she admitted under questioning that the President hopes for a speedy end to the Hollywood writers’ strike, and that First Lady Laura Bush’s background as a librarian makes her “uniquely qualified as a proofreader and script doctor.” Moreover, she said, “This President has long believed that a percentage of the box office is preferable to a percentage of the profits, because too many in Hollywood subscribe to questionable accounting practices and fuzzy math.”

A few sample scenes from the screenplay, The Boushe Legacy, follow.

Seen 3
The Interogation Room, night.
Its real dark, see?

BOUSHE, a tall, hansom man in excelent fizical condition, enters.

Alright, Thomas. Its yore turn to anser the questions now.

HELEN TOMAS, a fat ugly old broad who looks like she may be Islamic, is bound and tied to a chair.

I wont tell you anything, you basterd. Do yore worst.

I dont think I half to do my worst, because I dont torture. Everything I’m going to do to you is perfecly legal.

He takes a wet warshcloth and puts it on her face.

Starring Matt Damon
as George “Gorgeous” Boushe

What are you going to do to me?

What, are you bored? Get it? What-are-bored! Heh-heh-heh-heh.

I am sudenly charmed by your manliness. Lets sleep together.

No, I wont do that. Tell me what the terrorists is learning.

I dont no anything.

I always suspect as much.

But its true. I was just a front for the operation.

Dont play cute with me, Tomas, it wont work. You are either with us or you are against us. And besides, you got to have a cute face if you want to play cute. Heh heh heh heh. Where are they?

Alright, I will tell you everything. Just dont hurt me. The terrorists are in Soddy Arabia.

That is a lie and you no it. Dont you no the old saying, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice — you just should not try to fool people.

He pores water on the warshcloth and she thinks she is drownding.

Alright, alright, its true, they are not in Soddy Arabia, they are in Iran.

I thought as much.

Now let me go, please.

(Shooting her dead)
Now you are free to go. Heh heh.

He turns to his ASSISTANT.

Now its time to take out the garbage. And be sure to destroy the evidents.

Starring Ernest Borgnine as Helen Tomas

Seen 19
The Oval Office, day time.

Boushe, the press has gotten a hold on the story and now the public is upset about your methods. You caint be such a maverick. You have got to go by the book.

BOUSHE shoots the book.

Well you do get results. Maybe I misunderstimated you. Okay, do it yore way, but the secretary will disavo – The secretary will say he doesnt no anything about what you are doing.

I like it better that way.

Seen 54
A glamoro – glamo – A real fancy hotel room.

BOUSHE is laying on top of the bed, reading the Bible. It is very late, probly nine thirty, maybe ten oclock at night. When a SEXY GIRL wearing only a negli – her underware comes walks in the door, BOUSHE jumps off the bed and points a gun at her.

I want to sleep with you. I here you will leave no behind alone, and I have a real nice one.

Who are you?

I will not use protection, because that would be wrong, but I promise I do not have aids and I will raise our basterd child to be a Christian in the eyes of the Lord.

No, abstinen – abstain – No, I am a super spy and I do not have sex with unmarried ladies unless they are my wife.

I understand, and I think yore unyeelding principals are amirable. I will now do what ever you tell me.

Would you like to join me in prayer?

Yes, I believe so.

BOUSHE shoots her dead.

I am sorry to do that, Condy, but you had it coming. Heh heh.

Starring Halle Berry as Condy

Seen 32
The Oval Office, day time.

Super spy agent Boushe, I have a classaf – a class of – I have a top secret mission for you. You have to go to Iran to save Dick Chenny, becos he is so dum, he went and got himself took hostidge.

Yes, I will go. And by the way, here is my plan to fix the econimy and education and make tax cuts permament. Now I will go destroy the terrorists over there, so that they dont come over here.

Boushe, you are my hero. I new I could trust you with this mission.

Mission acompli – Its as good as done, sir.

When you come back, I will make you the President. And by the way, I am your father.

I am better than you.

Yes I no. I am not half the man you are. You are so tuff.

Okay, good bye.

Starring Clint Eastwood as the President

Seen 845
The terrorists hide out, which is over in Iran. And its night.

CHENNY is all tied up and he is crying like a little girl. He is such a wuss.

Do not be scared, I am here to rescue you.

You are my hero.

Shut up, you are so dum.

Yes, you always no what to do. I will shut up now.

In comes the AYATOLLA and AL GORE.

Not so fast, Agent Boushe.

Yes, not so fast. I have a nucular weapon, and I will use it on you.

Oh, no, what are we gonna do now?

BOUSHE shoots the AYATOLLA and AL GORE until they are dead. Then he dismannel – Then he turns off the nucular weapon.

You have saved the day.

Yes, I no that. You do not have to tell me that. I am a super spy, and I no every thing. I am the greatest.

And featuring Joe Pesci as Chenny

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17 January 2008

Cinderella Story

Joyce DiDonato, in Joan Font’s production of Cenerentola,
as seen (not by me) in Houston last year

Photo from Houston Grand Opera

I am accustomed to a high degree of authenticity in the performances of Joyce DiDonato. Indeed, I rely on it. When I listen to her sing, I know I will hear many truths.

What I don’t expect is that I will wind up reenacting the truths she tells me. Yet that’s more or less what happened this week in Barcelona.

Joyce was wrapping up a run as Rossini’s Cinderella character, Angelina in La Cenerentola. It’s a signature role for her, and I’d never heard her sing the part except on records, and one aria (“Nacqui all’affanno/Non più mesta”) a few times in concert; the production, by Joan Font, director of the Catalan troupe Els Comediants, was a big hit in Houston last season; and I’d never visited the opera house, the Gran Teatro del Liceu, before. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Yet on Monday evening, as my high-speed train pulled slooooooowly into the station (a mere eight and a half hours late), Joyce was wrestling with a throat infection, and nobody knew for certain whether she’d sing that night. That is, nobody knew whether Cinderella would be able to attend the ball.

Sing she did, and brilliantly. The reconciliation scene with her wicked stepfather (sung by Carlos Chausson) was revelatory. Who knew this score possessed such emotional depth? I could just picture Rossini himself, immensely pleased (if secretly somewhat surprised) with the results. He’d be strutting up and down the aisles of the Liceu, saying to one and all, “How do you like that? I wrote it!”

Afterward, we went out for our traditional post-show beer, and we added a dash of local color: tapas. We were joined by Joyce’s husband, the conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who despite ample opportunity to change his ways, remains obstinately taller, more talented and better looking than I; by the pianist David Zobel, and by two friends from Geneva, Monika and Carmen. We agreed to meet up again for dinner the next night.

No less an authority than Marcel Proust recommends beer as a remedy for sore throats. But the next day, Joyce was still feeling poorly, and with another performance looming on Friday, she wisely opted to stay home instead of whooping it up in Barcelona’s byways. Trouble is, when she tried to let me know the dinner plans were off, she phoned me and left a message. And my cell phone doesn’t work outside France.

And so I stood in front of the majestic Barcelona cathedral for much of Tuesday evening, waiting in vain. At one point, I ran to an Internet café to check my e-mail, but there was (of course) no message. I went back to the Cathedral. Still no sign of the gang. I figured I’d simply misunderstood.

Somebody beer me!
(Please note that this was Joyce’s first and only beer —
and that neither of us emptied our glasses.
The camera, not the beverage or the subject,
is responsible for the blurriness.)

The next afternoon, at about 1:25, I returned to the Internet café. But the place was closed, so I wandered around for half an hour, exploring the working-class neighborhood just behind the theater. At 2:00, the café reopened, and I found the expected messages from Joyce, miserable to have crossed wires (or to have lacked wires), and proposing that I join her and David for lunch and a little sightseeing. “Can you meet us in front of the Liceu at 1:30?” she asked.

Dear reader, I’d been within a few meters of them, but I hadn’t known it. When I went exploring, if I’d turned left instead of right, I’d have walked in front of the theater, and fallen right on top of Joyce and David. We’d have been telling the story for years to come. But by now, it was 2:03, and they were gone.

I spent the next couple of hours poking my nose into every restaurant in the Barri Gòtic; then I tried staking out the Cathedral again. But there was no trace of my Cinderella. And then I turned into a pumpkin and had to catch my train back to Paris.

In Lyon a few weeks ago, Guignol tried to warn me: without a slipper, the Prince couldn’t find Cinderella. (Granted, I’m not Joyce’s Prince Charming — that’s Maestro Vordoni’s role — but the warning seems to apply to other people, too.) Can you imagine if I reacted this way to every opera Joyce sings? In a couple of months, she’s going to perform Bellini’s version of Romeo and Juliet, I Capuleti e i Montecchi — if I identify as closely with that story, I could wind up dead!

Yet what seems most important is not the bad luck but my great good fortune, and as Joyce’s wonderful blog has dwelt lately on the concept of gratitude, now it’s my turn to be grateful: I went to Barcelona and heard a spectacular performance, I got to hang out a little while with the diva — and I understand the truth of the Cinderella story more completely than ever.

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The Night Train

The shortest distance between two points?

“In the night train, there are ghosts,” Charles Trenet used to sing. I suspect they weren’t ghosts but sleepless passengers instead.

I have just returned from my second round-trip journey to Spain on the night trains jointly operated, it is alleged, by the Spanish national railway (RENFE) and the French (SNCF). I am a great believer in train travel, perhaps in atavistic response to my great-grandfather, an executive with Southern Pacific. However, I must now concede that the Franco-Spanish experience is lacking.

For one of the great pleasures of train travel, the ability to look out the window and see the unfurling countryside, is denied to riders of the night train in winter: when we board the train, the skies are dark already, and when we descend, the next morning, the skies are still dark, or mostly. You are welcome to look out the windows of the bar car or the corridors, but all you will see is your own reflection. Your pale, haggard, sleepless reflection.

This is an unnerving sight, to be avoided at all costs, and for this reason the windows of the compartments are curtained, and it is considered a grievous breach of etiquette to part those curtains for any reason whatever. It is a strict policy, but a sound one. You would be wrong to argue against it.

The trains are designed for teeny-tiny people with no luggage. The corridors are so narrow that I have to hunch my shoulders to pass, and the compartments are not much more spacious. (The adjacent photograph is life-size, by the way.) The seats are painfully upright, and there is no leg room. If one of the passengers has brought along a big bag (and on each of my trips, someone has), there is no floor room, either. You do not know where to put your feet, your elbows, your shoulders. When it is time to fold down the beds, at last one can stretch a bit, but one can’t sit up without banging one’s head on the bed or ceiling above. Even the Europeans, who are on average shorter than I, find this awkward.

Conversation is limited, less by an air of mystery than by a universal desire for self-preserving privacy. The railway publishes a little magazine, which this month featured a positively inspirational article on Alfred Hitchcock’s many suspenseful train films. Nobody took the bait, however, and on my return trip, my compartment mate did not solicit my assistance in murdering his mother, or pass me a secret code, or disappear without a clue, or utter two words for the entire trip. But he did leave his bag in the middle of the floor, so that I could trip over it in the dark.

On the train lines, called Talgo on the Madrid route and Elipsos on the Barcelona route, you will never see a French employee, nor even a Spanish employee who speaks any French, or English, or indeed any language but Spanish.

I have long believed that the French are a bit snobbish, especially about their language, but it turns out the Spanish are even worse. If you do not speak their language, they have nothing to say to you. They certainly do not care to inform you why it is necessary for them to confiscate your passport, or whether they will ever return it to you; or why your train has been sitting idle in the station at Étampes, thirty minutes outside Paris and a very long way from the Spanish border, for the past three hours, or whether there is any reason to hope that, at any time, the train may start again toward its ostensible destination. If they wanted to tell you these things, they would install a public-address system in the train, such as one finds in any other country on earth; if you wanted to know these things, you would have studied Spanish. It is too late now. There is no hope for you.

On my way to Barcelona, we were delayed more than eight hours, for a total of twenty hours on board the train. The railway made some effort to keep us from setting off a crazed carnival of crime in the cars: they gave us free sandwiches at lunchtime, and as we whizzed passed the medieval fortress-city of Carcassonne and the famous flamingos of the Camargue, a conductor generously pointed out the sights.

It did not occur to the train personnel to fold up the beds again, so that we could sit normally in the compartments; most of us took advantage of the situation by trying to catch up on our sleep. But sleep on the Elipsos is not easily to be had, unless one’s concept of the ideal condition is that of a Christmas morning, when a six-year-old boy has decided that it is time to open his presents and therefore sets about shaking you from your slumber. The jostling was constant and fiercesome — when we were moving.

Happily, perhaps, we were not often moving at all. It is supposed to be a high-speed train, but we spent a great deal of the journey at a complete standstill; at other times, we crept along the tracks. I understood at last. The old lady who was pulling the locomotive got tired from time to time, and so she would stop to take a restorative glass of Armagnac; when we got to Toulouse, she took an hour and a half to visit her sister, and to help her bake a cake. I am certain it was delicious, and entirely worth our wait, although we never got to taste it.

I am beginning to reconsider my fear of flying.

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11 January 2008

Marilyn Horne

Just before I fled New York for Paris, I went for dinner at La Mirabelle, one of my favorite restaurants, not only for the quality of their food (good plain home cookin’, if your home happens to be France), but also for the fact that owner Annick LeDouaron and the staff, almost entirely composed of native French ladies with whom I converse in French, have never at any point corrected my grammar or pronunciation. Moreover, Danielle Ruperti, my favorite waitress ever, is a gifted amateur painter, whose canvases decorate the walls (and you can, and should, buy one), and when the fancy strikes her, she cuts forth in song. With a vibrant contralto and laser-sharp diction, she sings a lot of Aznavour and Piaf, and sometimes a snippet of Trenet: this is exactly what I want to hear over my meal. I digest better.

On this particular evening, she came to the table where Feldstein and Mark Dennis and I were dining. “Over there,” she said, for our ears alone, “isn’t that the opera singer, Marilyn...?”

It was indeed Marilyn Horne.

As the evening wore on, I went up to her table. “This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in a restaurant with you,” I said, “and for future reference, next time, what should I send to your table?”

She grinned. “Just yourself,” she said. “Pull up a chair.”

When I was growing up in Dallas and discovering opera, I heard Marilyn Horne more often than was fair. People in other towns didn’t get to hear her sing, in quick succession, Rosina, Azucena, Bellini’s Romeo, and Meyerbeer’s Fidès. And that’s not to mention the quick glimpse of her Carmen I got while watching television’s The Odd Couple, and the many performances I heard on radio. I was entirely convinced that all mezzos sounded like her, because she was very nearly the only mezzo I’d ever heard.

When I got to New York, it was Horne’s performance in Handel’s Rinaldo that inaugurated my Met-going career, and later at the Met, I heard her sing Quickly in Falstaff and Samira in Ghosts of Versailles; at Carnegie Hall I heard her Juno in Semele, perhaps the most perfect concert I ever attended. At Bill Clinton’s second inaugural, I heard her sing to the nation, as if every American could hear her voice from the steps of the Capitol.

Because her voice is so huge, I didn’t expect her to be so tiny. But there you have it. That immense, burnished sound and powerhouse personality dominated the world’s biggest stages, but they came out of a plump little Pennsylvania partridge, a blue-eyed butterball hardly bigger than a handful. The first time we met, after a master class at Lincoln Center, we were both standing: in performance she typically wore high heels (or boots) and feathered helmets, turbans, or headdresses, but off-duty, she wore flats and not so much as a hat. I towered over her, and it was all I could think of to talk about. I feel certain the topic didn’t interest her nearly as much as it did me.

Meeting her at Mirabelle, I had a chance to redeem myself.

She was dining that evening with Robert White, the tenor and Juilliard faculty member, who was equally gracious as I horned in (sorry) on their conversation. Though we talked a little about opera, Marilyn Horne is about as far from the grande-dame diva as anybody you ever met, and she is interested in almost everything. We talked about her grandchildren (at my insistence, she showed me pictures: they’re gorgeous) and about politics. She’s a passionate Democrat, the 2004 elections were days away, and she was worried. Rightly, as it turned out. Her assessments of the political scene were pungent, very funny, and probably unprintable.

I shared a little story with her. In 1988, a right-wing “watchdog organization” published Dan Rather’s office phone number on the front page of The New York Times with the caption, “Are you mad at Dan Rather? Call now!” Enough people were intrigued by this that they tried the number, and by mid-morning it became impossible to do any work. The phones didn’t stop ringing, and though most people were too startled to say much when they discovered they’d reached Dan’s office, there was always another call to answer. So we transferred all calls to my home phone, where I’d set up the answering machine to play Horne’s recording of “God Bless America.”

You wanna complain about Dan Rather? You’re gonna get a dose of real patriotism. She cackled with glee. She’d struck a blow for a free press, and until that night, she hadn’t even known it.

Within about three minutes, it was as if we were old friends. In a sense, we were: I’d grown up with her. If I found myself wallowing in awe for even a second, it wasn’t because I was sitting next to this celebrity, it was because her eyes are arrestingly beautiful, pale blue and brimming with life. Look too deeply into them, and you’ll forget whatever you wanted to say. I fished around the Internet for good pictures to illustrate this little essay, but I found not a single photo that conveyed a fraction of her charm.

I kept beckoning to Feldstein and Mark, but they retained a respectful distance at another table. “This is important to you,” Mark said, and I didn’t manage to explain to him that, if he joined us, he’d be able to talk football — another of Horne’s passions. If she’d known about Mark’s signature move (picking up opposing players by the scruff of the neck and tossing them aside as he charged down the field), she’d have moved to his table.

Meanwhile Danielle and the staff served the last diners and ushered them out the door. Soon enough, we closed down Mirabelle, and the evening came to an end. We exchanged a few e-mails after that, and she offered sage counsel and hearty encouragement for my move to Paris. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” she said, although we never managed to do that. It would be difficult to top our dinner at Mirabelle.

But I brought her recordings with me. At her best, which is most of the time, she manages to combine all that power with dazzling flexibility — while giving the impression of completely natural ease. It’s not only because she was the first singer I heard in dozens of roles that hers is the standard I apply.

Yet what I admire most about her may be what she’s done with the later phase of her career. She teaches constantly, at the Music Academy of the West (where she in her turn was Lotte Lehmann’s student) and in master classes all over the country, and her annual classes at Lincoln Center, timed to her birthday, are a New York institution. Through the Marilyn Horne Foundation, she has helped to teach and to launch dozens of young artists. And she’s johnny-on-the-spot to support charitable and arts organizations, not only with her name and money but with her presence: when Darren Woods invited her to the opening of his festival season at Fort Worth Opera, she was there.

All these things make her not merely influential but one of the most genuinely beloved artists in America. People are nuts about her.

She’s had health problems in recent years, but she keeps on trucking. And we will continue to hear her voice, through the voices of hundreds of young people, for years, perhaps for generations.

Her birthday is 16 January; she’ll be 74. Join me, please, in raising a glass to her.

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10 January 2008

Václav Havel of the Czech Republic

To meet Václav Havel is not only to realize how little you have done for your country. You have not, for example, given the world a clear picture of freedom when your nation was oppressed; you have not led that country into liberty and guided it in its first steps as an independent state. No. To meet Václav Havel is also to realize how little you have written, and how little you have read. And it is to realize that you are hurting the planet, the longer you persist in your cussed ignorance.

During an interview in Prague Castle, in 1994, Dan Rather introduced me to Havel, at the time the president of the Czech Republic. “This is Bill Madison, who is also a writer,” Dan said, “and also a great admirer of your writings.”

Havel smiled politely, and I began to pray that his next words would not be, “Which of my plays do you prefer? Or do you admire my many nonfiction writings? My essays are particularly influential: do you have a favorite?” Because, dear reader, I had read not one word of Václav Havel’s prodigious oeuvre.

I thought fast. “I’m also an admirer of someone you admire,” I said, “and someone who admired you: Samuel Beckett.”

Now his face lit up. Beckett!

It is a strange thing, but it is true, that the mere mention of the name of the Irish playwright, who pretty much cornered the market on a particular brand of anomie and despair, can bring delight to so many people. I’ve seen it a hundred times. Say Beckett’s name, and you will make someone happy. Weirdly, inexplicably happy.

President Havel had just such a goofy grin on his face at this very moment, and we began to talk about Samuel Beckett.

During his long years as Czechoslovakia’s leading author and leading dissident, Havel, like many other dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, turned to Beckett for wisdom. Didn’t Eastern Europe wait for freedom the way Vladimir and Estragon waited for Godot? How often did these men and women say, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on”?

Didn’t writers like Havel himself look at Beckett’s work and understand that his language, his style were in and of themselves acts of defiance?

Havel was sitting in prison and thinking about Beckett; meanwhile, Beckett was sitting in Paris and thinking about Havel. Beckett’s last published play, his most overtly political, is dedicated to Havel, who was languishing in a Communist prison when he wrote it. Catastrophe appeared first not on any stage but in the pages of The New Yorker magazine.

The play depicts a strange sort of rehearsal, for an even stranger sort of play. The Catastrophe, a mute and pitiable figure, stands on a plinth (not a pedestal, not a block, a plinth: word choice is important in Beckett’s work), while two other characters, a director and his assistant, comment on him.

For some reason, my friends Rick Moody and Andy Weems, abetted by a professor, Keith Waldrop, decided that it would be a good idea to take the play — two pages, not counting the cartoon in the magazine — and stage it at the Rhode Island School of Design. They asked me to play Luke, the lighting designer, who has one line.

And that is how I got to be in a world premiere of a play by Samuel Beckett.

Excepting of course that one line is not enough for Bill Madison. Oh, no. Bill’s public demands more. No matter that Beckett’s prose is spare and rigorous and carefully planned; no matter that deviations are not ever, ever permitted in his work. Oh, no. Bill Madison must reach out, to the little people, behind the lights. He must feel the warm embrace of their applause. Given that special relationship between artist and audience, what’s Beckett to him, or he to Beckett?

And so I ad-libbed, “Bring up dimmer four.”

I underscore: this was not a line that Beckett had written, or even anticipated. Nobody else anticipated it, either. Rick and Andy were horrified. The person running the light board (was it Professor Waldrop’s wife, Rosemary?) didn’t understand what I’d said. It took a long minute to get the play back on track, though the play itself lasts only about five minutes. Thus I not only acted in, I spoiled the world premiere of a play by Samuel Beckett. It was a catastrophe of an entirely different kind.

I sketched the roughest outlines of this tale for Havel’s benefit. “You added a line?” he said. He shook his head and chuckled catarrhally. (A lifetime of chainsmoking and several years in prison had done no good for his lungs; he was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we met.) “And you didn’t pay royalties?”

Oh, the follies of youth! And what the hell, it was all in good fun, and Havel was out of prison now, and president besides, and Beckett was dead and not complaining.

While the camera crew were setting up lights, Havel and I continued to talked — briefly — about Billie Whitelaw, one of Beckett’s favorite actresses, whom I’d seen and met in New York; and about Jarmila Novotná, the Czech soprano, whom Havel had welcomed back to Prague after five decades of exile.

I don’t claim that this was the world’s most fascinating conversation, but in Havel’s eye gleamed a light that quickly faded when he began to talk politics with Dan; I had the distinct feeling that he’d be happier to swap theatrical yarns, with me or with Dan or with anybody, than to submit to the public rituals of the head of state.

He was, after all, among the least likely presidents the world has ever known, a poet ill at ease in a jacket and tie, a dissident better acquainted with the philosophy of politics than with the practice. His words were meant to inspire the Czech people, not to discuss policy or to sweet-talk the American television audience.

It is as if, in the revolution of 1848, the French had installed Victor Hugo in power, or, closer yet, Charles Baudelaire, and the wonder is that Havel succeeded as well as he did in the presidency. To expel the Russian military from the country’s borders might have been enough to crown any president with laurels, but Havel also guided the country safely through the split with Slovakia, helped the Czech Republic gain admission to the European Union, and in general helped his people recover their proud traditions of democracy and culture, too long denied them by successive occupations.

Some day I hope to have the opportunity to talk again about theater with Havel. And this time, I intend to read some of his damned plays first.

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Vladimir Zhirinovsky of Russia

For a while, there was serious and justified concern around the world that Russia, in its post-Soviet crises, might turn to Vladimir Zhirinovsky for leadership. Zhirinovsky encouraged the concern, much as he encouraged his countrymen to think of him as the solution to their problems. He enjoyed the game of it. He is a colossal bully. Happily, the Russians seem to have moved beyond him. Mostly.

I have sometimes wondered if he meant anything he said — or, conversely, whether he was deadly serious about all of it. When he arrived at his office for an interview with Dan Rather, in 1994, he was accompanied by bodyguards, all of whom were wearing black shirts. These weren’t uniforms, but still. The head of a rabidly nationalistic party that extols totalitarianism just happens to have a private semi-army that just happens to favor the fashion statement of fascistic black? Either it’s a joke or a nightmare.

He is a professional provocateur. He made friends with Saddam Hussein and supported him as a paragon of democracy, even as the United States was preparing to topple Saddam from power. Now, there’s something to be said for preaching to the choir, for taking a position opposite that of the White House if your constituency suspects and resents the United States. But still. Saddam? Democracy?

He was a tough interview, eager to talk and equally eager to answer nothing. Asked about accusations that he was anti-Semitic, he was liable to reply, “I never said anything anti-Semitic in my life! Where did you hear such a thing? Who told you I did? Was it the Jews?”

He had recently published a book of his poisonous musings on politics, and to butter him up a bit, Dan asked him to autograph a copy. Although we were sitting in the man’s office, he had no pen. I offered him mine.

He didn’t give it back.

Well, that was too much. I smiled gently and said, “May I have my pen, please?”

“Oh, is it yours?”


“Ah. Of course.” He gave me the pen.

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Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia

During much of the Soviet era, the Republic of Georgia enjoyed prosperity unknown to the rest of the Eastern Bloc, due first to the richness of the farmland and abundance of its produce; second to the region’s strategic importance; and finally to the preferential benevolence of certain Soviet leaders who happened to be Georgians themselves. Josef Stalin was Georgian; so was Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister.

By the time we got to Tbilisi, in winter 1994, Shevardnadze was president of the independent Republic. Ever keen for good press in the West, he granted us a lengthy interview. I’ve seldom seen anyone so depressed.

“He’s always like that,” said Mila Taubkina, the brilliant “fixer” from the CBS bureau in Moscow. Yet as Shevardnadze listed his woes (the war in Chechnya on his northern border; a civil war led by his predecessor, the nationalist Zvlad Gamsakhurdia; separatist uprisings in Ossetia and Abkhazia; interference by the Russians almost everywhere), I could understand that he might be discouraged, specifically and not merely habitually.

Reaching out to the American television audience was an uphill climb. Who the hell ever heard of Abkhazia? He patiently explained the background “for the viewers back home,” but I wonder whether the lesson took, whether the interview did him any good at all. When it came time to pose with us for a group picture, you could almost hear the creaking of his disused facial muscles, valiantly but vainly trying to force themselves into a smile.

Though officially outside the war zone, Tbilisi was far from peace. There was no customs official, no passport control at the airport. We’d arrived in a shuddering old Aeroflot plane that, I was certain, had carried Stalin himself and not been renovated, repaired, or even cleaned since. I guess folks figured that if we were willing to take our lives in our hands by flying in that bucket, they might as well let us into the country without obstacle. But there were checkpoints all over town: little groups of soldiers would stop us at intersections and ask to see our papers. In the evenings, they may have been vigilantes, the “neighborhood watch” and not soldiers, but it amounted to the same thing. They’d point their Kalashnikovs into the car and sniff, as if they could smell an insurgent. The streets were lined with bullet holes and burned-out cars.

When we got to the hotel, we had to step over a chalk outline at the front door. Was there an accident, Dan wanted to know.

“No, sir,” said the desk clerk, “there was merely a disagreement. The man left the bar without paying his bill.” The hotel was owned by an Austrian company; the clerk was at some pains to explain that it was not a representative of the hotel staff who had killed the customer.

Dan nodded thoughtfully and pulled out his wallet. He extracted a considerable wad of cash and said, “We’ll pay now, thank you.”

The lobby was a sort of atrium that rose up several stories to a skylight. Men sat in club chairs all afternoon, smoking cigars and drinking vodka, and fondling their Kalashnikovs. For several hours every day, a pianist would come in and play Broadway show tunes, even when the electricity went out, as it did every afternoon. We’d open our hotel room doors to catch the light from the atrium, and “What I Did for Love” would waft up to us, the cigar smoke not far behind.

In these surroundings, I said, “Don’t shoot the piano player” took on special resonance; if some drunk came up and said, “Play ‘Melancholy Baby’,” he’d damned well better. We tipped the poor guy. We tipped everybody.

We went to an outdoor market to see what was left of Georgia’s prosperity. Not much. Vendors lined up in front of little brown shacks and squatted in front of a few dirty sacks of dubious legumes. You could buy a couple of chicken feet, but the rest of the chicken was nowhere to be seen; the head of a calf drew flies but no buyers.

Some of the team remembered the golden days, before the Soviet Union dissolved. There were memories of a bountiful feast that our Tbilisi fixer, Manana, set out for a 60 Minutes crew, so lavish and so photogenic that it became an integral part of the report that Lesley Stahl broadcast from New York. This kind of hospitality was a tradition in Georgia, and it would have been sacrilege to offer his guests anything less: twenty courses or more, plates piled high with delicacies, and countless bottles of wine to wash it all down. You’d start in the afternoon and you’d still be going strong at midnight. Looking around the market, it was clear that the beautiful tradition of Georgian hospitality was gone with the wind.

But Manana invited us to dinner.

His apartment building was in a state of advanced decay; I couldn’t tell if it had been shelled or just neglected. Chunks of plaster and concrete blocked my way. But when we reached Manana’s apartment, everything was all right. Warm and clean, with more furnishings than the rooms could hold. (I gathered their previous apartment had been larger.) And above all — hospitable.

To this day I don’t know how he and his wife did it. There were indeed twenty courses, a staggering variety of foods that, we knew perfectly well, couldn’t be found at the market. Granted, these rich viands were served on very tiny plates — but everything was delicious, and we did not lack for wine. The red was sweet, almost syrupy, and robust; the white was close to turpentine. People kept filling my glass with white wine. I’d drink it up, the quicker to get back to the red. And then they’d fill my glass with white again. Generously. So I’d drink, and they’d refill. And so on.

By the third bottle, I spoke fluent Russian. Never mind that I was the worst student in the history of Brown University, and that the administrators asked me never to tell anyone I took Russian there. It is an official secret, guarded in a vault in the Hay Library. Despite the best efforts of Prof. Barbara Monahan, the most I could say that Sleeping Beauty was my favorite ballet. Suddenly I was a second Yevtushenko. Mila was delighted: from that moment, she resolved to salvage my study of her native tongue. “No more English!” she crowed. “Tolko po-russky!”

There was music, too. Manana’s youngest sons, little Bibi and his even littler brother, came out and sang for us, while their teenaged sister played piano. The little one, Lesley Stahl’s godson, three years old or so, so shy that he hid his face in his brother’s arm — all the while singing in the purest, sweetest voice I’d ever heard.

Then the knock came at the front door.

Manana’s eyes grew wide; his wife looked concerned. The rest of us fell silent, or dropped our voices to a whisper. Nobody knew who was at the door — but very few of the possibilities could bode well.

Manana went to answer.

We tried to hear what was said. Nothing.

Then Manana returned, grinning, with several bottles of wine. “From the president!” he said. “A gift to us for our party!”

The curious thing was that Manana didn’t remember telling Shevardnadze — or anybody from the government — that he was throwing a party.

The later years of Shevardnadze’s administration were not a success, and he was forced from office in the Rose Revolution, in 2003. He had become less democratic and more dictatorial with each year; his family and his cronies profited handsomely from their privileges (though Shevardnadze himself was not implicated in the corruption). Georgia was in a mess, and the mess got mostly worse. He never did find much to smile about.

But if he’d come to dinner at Manana’s house — who knows what might have been?

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