Tom, Cruise

August 16, 2014

cruise guyOver the years we’ve gone on four or five cruise-ship vacations, beginning with Linda’s attagirl sail as one of the year’s best-performing employees of the Stroh Brewery Company. It was a Caribbean jaunt on which the Stroh contingent – which, as you may have already guessed, brought along some of its own refreshments – seriously lowered the passenger median age. We would never have gone if it hadn’t been a freebie congratulatory occasion. We imagined stereotypical snoozing on chaise lounges, cocooned in blankets, as the ship poked its way through a dense black-and-white Thirties-movie fog.

While there certainly are many retirees who enjoy traveling this way, they have a perfectly good reason. The crucial advantage of being on a cruise ship is that you have to unpack only once: your hotel does the moving around. The trip is all about the destinations, as are most landlubbing vacations, but a driving-free mobile home base makes it all amazingly convenient and de-stressful, even in places where the language and customs may be unfamiliar. If you’re lucky, you share the experience with nice folks you meet on the spot or, as with the 2001 Alaskan cruise on which we hosted our parents, you live inside a Dickens novel for a week.

A Viking longboat on the job.

A Viking longboat on the job.

We have just returned from a different kind of trip. My sister-in-law and her husband are old pros at this (maybe twenty cruises in all) and we’ve been idly trying to put a vacation together since Alaska, only this time just us four. Maybe it was only after dozens of DOWNTON ABBEYs or PBS NEWS HOURs, but we finally succumbed to an outfit called Viking River Cruises and booked a week on the “romantic Danube,” upriver from Budapest to Nuremberg, with stops in Vienna, Melk, Passau, and Regensburg. A great trip, but apart from the destinations, it was the cruise line that made it great. This was the first river cruise (as opposed to oceangoing) for any of us, but trust me on this: not only are river cruises da bomb, but Viking is also now my favorite cruise line ever.

Heading into a lock.

Heading into a lock.

Let’s answer your first question first. Big seagoing vessels these days have honking stabilizers, so you rarely need “sea legs” under normal conditions; storms on the ocean can cause some commotion, but man up, hoss, it’s not like you’re in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. However, a river cruise on a “Viking Longboat”? Nothing at all, mate. We had returned from our first day in Budapest and were standing in a buffet line when somebody noticed we were moving – by looking out the window. There was no other way to tell: no rocking, no engine sound, no vibration, nothing. The sole and single exception may come when the ship is navigating one of the 26 locks that lift or lower it on the week-long leg. The fit is so snug that the ship may actually brush against the side of the lock with a hardly noticeable tremor (once, for us, a mild jolt as if we’d bumped a small log in the river) and a slight horizontal motion. You can hear the engines gun when the ship is headed toward a higher elevation just downstream of the mighty Inn River, which has flooded the town of Passau several times on its way to the Danube, the second worst flood in centuries occurring only last year. Beyond the Inn, the Danube is like glass (it’s not blue, mate, that’s just poetic license) and the ship floats upriver again as if on air.

Our space-age lighting center.

Our space-age lighting center.

Our ship, the Viking Kara, was only six weeks old when we sailed on it. Though we have never ponied up for the grand luxurious staterooms that you can have if money is no object (think upstairs on the Titanic), we’ve thus found ourselves in cramped quarters with nothing but a porthole to see out of. In fairness, you don’t go on a cruise to stay in your room, which is basically just for sleeping and hygiene. This time, however, while our cabin was still rather cozy, it featured the best accommodations I’ve ever had on a ship. Lighting, plumbing, power, everything was brand new. Your key card inserted in a door-side slot turned on all the lights instantly. Shower doors swung both inward and outward to effectively make the bathroom a little larger; its permanent night-light saved us from unnecessary toe-stubbing. Whenever you slid open the large riverside picture window (we did spring for the “French balcony,” one step up from “Standard” but a long way from “Explorer Suite”), the heating/AC automatically cut off until you shut and locked the door again. You could recharge every electronic thing you had without a converter. The shipboard wi-fi worked nearly as well as my router does here at home, just a little slower because of the massive simultaneous bandwidth drain. A 40-inch hi-def monitor displayed trip news, weather, and even some entertainment (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, we gathered from several dinner companions, was quite popular, but we never watched any tv). Brand new, I tell you! The first day on the river, I went up into the Kara’s “wheelhouse,” where there is no actual wheel, only an electronic array that would make Mr. Sulu nod in admiration.

Die Braut und der Bier! (Did I even get close?)

Die Braut und der Bier! (Did I even get close?)

Oceangoing cruise ships have become so mammoth that their capacity is itself a point of interest: “we wash blah-blah towels every day,” etc. The biggest ones, like the ships that dock every week near our villa in Jamaica, look like skyscrapers with smokestacks. It is kind of perversely amusing that you can take so many people – maybe not entire cities, but certainly enough humans to fill many Stateside county seats – anywhere the winds can blow them. These ships have full casinos, lavish entertainment, even some abbreviated Broadway musicals – Vegas at sea. Our little Kara, long and low, could not compete with a nautical Rat Pack, but there was a sun deck up top (particularly nice for sailing through Wachau Valley, Austria’s gorgeous terraced wine country), an exercise track, miniature golf, shuffleboard, you know. Viking longships can dock alongside each other; passengers just walk straight through to go ashore.



The Viking River Cruises model is, simply stated, less is more. There were fewer than 200 passengers on our upriver Kara run (a big cruise ship can serve thousands), and the staff were also comparably fewer but thus more personable. The big ships sometimes shunt you onto a permanent dinner table where you can get to know your fellow diners and compare walking-tour notes (we have met some lovely people this way), but here you just sit down wherever you choose and make friends spontaneously. It gets to the point where you barely even need the tour guide’s “lollipop” (the circular sign s/he holds up in the town square to make sure everybody’s in the right place). You just look for familiar faces who you know are on the same tour; that’s “33-B.” Viking is about to launch some oceangoing ships itself, but they’ll be much smaller than the competition’s: the passenger capacity will only be in the 900s, which should preserve the line’s close-in experience.

Linda, her sister Roslyn, and her husband Cal waiting to dig some Mozart, Haydn and Strauss in Vienna.

Linda, her sister Roslyn, and her husband Cal waiting to dig some Mozart, Haydn and Strauss in Vienna.

On a Viking cruise all meals are included in the booking price, as are the accompanying beer or wine. (You run a bar tab when not at table.) Also included are walking tours of every port of call, led by carefully screened local guides (ours were all terrific). There are optional extra excursions available for a price: for example, we attended a concert in Vienna, toured the BMW plant in Regensburg, and saw Nuremberg through a World War II filter, including the infamous Zeppelin Field where Albert Speer staged giant Nazi rallies and the courthouse building where he was a defendant in the world’s first international war crimes trial. But we could have just as easily chosen to hang out in the town square, chomp sausages, and lift steins of Bavarian beer.

There’s a program director on board who has everything organized and is the go-to person for all kinds of questions; ours was a delightful six-foot Nordic beauty named Chantal who spent six years as a casino dealer until she got tired of making people sad. We saw her change plans on a dime when a couple of the locks had some mechanical trouble, pushing us slightly off schedule. Her problem, not ours. Because of our flights back home, we happened to be the very last four previous passengers to walk off the Kara while the staff were trying to prepare it for the new sail, yet they still treated us like honored guests unto the final moment. “Are you relieved?” I asked Chantal. “Not the right word,” she replied. “Weird.”



The ocean cruises definitely have their own charms, and different people expect different things from them. While my in-laws were indeed impressed with the Viking experience, they said they did miss “sea days” when you’re just en route and you can relax on that trusty chaise. Also, cheesy seaborne entertainment can be fun to watch. But if you’re mainly there for the travel, this gang operates from the Rhine to the Nile, from the Mekong to the Yangtze, and I even heard a rumor that they’re working on their first American cruise, on the Mississippi. I’ve already seen plenty enough of that river in my life, but on a Viking longboat? Wow, I just might check it out anyway.

Y'know, it IS kinda romantic on the Danube.

Y’know, it IS kinda romantic on the Danube.

A Congress That Actually Works

August 3, 2014

congressI had no idea what to expect when I signed up to attend Ricky Jay’s Congress of Wonders, a “weekend of magic appreciation” held last month in the charming village of Rhinebeck, New York. As I discovered when I got there, neither did our host, Ricky Jay. He might be one of the greatest card handlers and sleight-of-hand artists alive, he may have forgotten more about the colorful history of “variety theater” over the past half-millennium than you’ll ever know, he has kept so many secrets that he might as well be working for NSA, but the very first night he admitted to the audience that he was just winging it. practiceThis declaration came in a q&a after a late-Friday screening of DECEPTIVE PRACTICE, the new documentary of which Ricky is the subject. Director Molly Bernstein and producer Alan Edelstein were also there – more on Alan later – and I’d found the film an odd choice to open the “conference,” since most anyone serious enough about Ricky to pony up the registration fee, including your servant, had already seen it. (For the unwashed few, this flick is the ideal answer to the perfectly legitimate question, “Who is Ricky Jay?” So go watch it already.) Me, I was already having a good time, because I was enjoying one of the weekend’s subtexts: it was a means of connecting people who revel in the ornate ephemera championed and exalted by our host. I had earlier shared a short cab ride and a wonderful dinner with perfect strangers who nevertheless had some important things in common, and similar brain-cell hookups continued, at least for me, over the rest of the event. The conveneers I met were every bit as stimulating as the “talent.”

Now, I did hear, and have since read online, some grumbling. I’ve never been to a magicians’ convention, so I don’t know this from experience, but one can easily infer an atmosphere that I personally would go to great lengths to avoid, and the organizers were way ahead of me. Apparently some magicians (based on my own conversations, I’d say the attendees were overwhelmingly civilian, at least 3 to 1 fans and dabblers vs. past or present pros) were disappointed, even irritated, to read the following note from Ricky to “guests who are practitioners of the Mystic Arts” in order to “make it the best possible experience for the non-magician guests”: “Unlike the traditional magic convention, our focus will be on ideas, not tricks. Therefore I respectfully request that you not perform magic for the registrants. Please keep the cards, coins, bodkins and billets in your pockets…thank you for supporting our venerated Art.” Fine by me. But evidently not by all.

As best I understand, the gathering was produced by an outfit better known for “fantasy weekend” master classes with music notables such as Todd Rundgren and Leo Kottke. They must have asked Ricky if he’d be willing to teach a few sleights, and of course he said absolutely no, never ever, what part of this scowl do you not understand? But somebody on either side must have thought, then what would a Ricky Jay weekend really look like? Hence the Congress of Wonders. If I had to describe it to a Hollywood producer, I’d say it was a series of disparate TED Talks, each with a tendril that reached into the art of magic, plus a buncha Ricky Jay. (That’s a description of what was on stage: the connections within the audience were, as we say down South, lagniappe, though this aspect was almost certainly premeditated as well.)

The event was co-hosted by Michael Weber, Ricky’s partner in their “Deceptive Practices” company that provides “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to movie shoots and other venues where we just need to know how to achieve this effect on this one day, goddammit! For instance, in the (rather forgettable) film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s CONGO, the ape-head worn by an actress was so stuffed with electronics for movement assistance that it couldn’t abide any liquid. How then could this zillion-dollar “mouth” plausibly drain a martini on camera? Ricky and Michael explained the (cobwebby, as we learned) solution, maybe the only method they freely gave up. My favorite statement of the entire weekend was uttered by Michael: “We don’t keep secrets from the audience. We keep secrets for the audience.”

Michael Weber.

Michael Weber.

Michael is a sleight student, like Ricky (in fact, a prodigy, as the Wells Fargo Bank learned one day), and he absorbed a lot from the legendary Charlie Miller, which is how the two connected. I presume you have to be patient to hang with Ricky Jay, because in real life he must grumble a wicked lot. But still, he’s constantly assimilating way-out influences, and to understand more about him, you have to meet some of his friends. Thus this weekend. It was all about creativity, beginning with Michael’s slot on Saturday morning. How to do something impossible? Michael offered three lines of thought that help Deceptive Practices address such a problem: (1) What would we never do?, (2) How might this have been achieved in the past? (e.g., the CONGO gag), and (3) What might be the polar opposite? Yes, these guys know more magic methods (i.e., mind-blowing short-cuts) than we do, but that’s still how they think when they sit down to ponder, as must we all, and to me it was beaucoup profound. Remember, on a big-time movie set nothing is impossible, only cost-prohibitive; you can imagine “unobtanium,” you just can’t afford it.

An Oakes work.

An Oakes work.

What we got later was this cornucopia of creativity, displayed by people from widely varying disciplines. Ryan and Trevor Oakes are identical twins who have developed a way to draw a concave view that more accurately mimics how our eyes actually work. Brilliant, curious, inventive and well-spoken, the boys have also experimented with matchsticks (when placed together with its pals, the tip of each identical matchstick represents a point on an outer sphere, as they demonstrate in a gorgeous and wry piece), pipe cleaners and corrugated cardboard to make the act of perception beautiful and fascinating. Their current show was at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. (I’d never heard of it: it’s on 26th Street, diagonally across Madison Square Park from the Flatiron Building. The following Friday I stopped by to see the show and checked outside, intending to say hi as they continued work on a Flatiron piece, but no Oakeses. I tried, lads!) As with other speakers, the twins hung around all weekend: it was easy to walk up to anyone and chat.

Gary Marcus.

Gary Marcus.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist and New Yorker writer, is the guy who devoted one intense year to learn how to play the guitar, and he explained his process in the bestseller GUITAR ZERO. His lecture began as a slapdown of fellow NYer scribe Malcolm Gladwell’s provocative thought, expressed in the book OUTLIERS, that roughly ten thousand hours of practice are minimally required for mastery in a given field. At least one audience member wanted to scream, but you didn’t attain mastery, mate! No matter; this guy’s game (if a scoche windy), and a q&a (from a “Mr. Weber”) revealed that serious neuroscientists are now being impersonated by crazies who believe magicians actually have arcane neurological secrets that they’re keeping from the rest of us! The pained expression on Gary’s face said all, just before he properly disassociated himself from such bozos. He’s basically Doug Hofstadter Lite, and I’ll never miss anything else he writes.

Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.

Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.

Most of these people were either introduced by Ricky or Michael. I think Ricky must have insisted on the personal perverse pleasure of calling actor Steve Cuiffo to the stage. Steve has developed a body of material based on Lenny Bruce, and he performed about a half hour before the bemused congregants: why the hell are we watching a Lenny Bruce bit? It was the most transgressive, thus courageous, performance of the weekend. Just like Lenny himself. Steve’s impersonation is impeccable, down to the vocal and physical fillips. At least one audience member felt he’d selected bits for this gig that showed off the character at the expense of the funny, but most others were only perplexed. At the conversation afterward with Ricky, Michael, Gary and Steve, the eddies which draw their arts together began to conflate. From the stage, Steve mentioned with fondness the challenge presented by an old friend of mine from Mississippi, John Epperson, who performs as “Lypsinka,” a Joan-Crawfordish drag character who expertly mimes prerecorded tracks, usually from classic movies. John and Steve worked together on THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a replication of a 1973 interview, for which both actors had to synch-in. That night I messaged John to tell him he’d been name-checked from the stage and he was delighted, which I was able to report to Steve the next day, just before he was brought back up to perform a flawless “The Homing Card” manipulation to a “Jack O’Diamonds” track by Bukka White. Whew!

Jesse Dylan.

Jesse Dylan.

Sunday began in the same movie theater where we’d inaugurated the weekend with two episodes of CONVERSATIONS WITH RICKY JAY, a fascinating series featuring Ricky and friends (Tom Waits, Martin Mull, etc.), shooting the shit around a big table at which Ricky will occasionally amaze them with some sleight but usually just grease the conversation. Each ep is called and shot by Jesse Dylan, who came up for a q&a with Michael afterward. At first he seemed reticent, mumbling into his mike. Then began his slide show – he’s a brilliant still photographer, never mind the moving pictures – and he got it out of the way immediately: the first slide showed an adorable little tyke in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, “my dear old dad,” and all of a sudden Jesse was much more grounded and forthcoming. He’s visually gifted but his heart is with the encouragement of creativity in others and its resultant wide-ranging effects. His photographs show the well-adjusted-but-weathered guy inside, talented enough to bring out the best in arty types, frequently progeny with issues – subjects just like Ricky.

Jules Fisher, mensch.

Jules Fisher, mensch.

Then we met Jules Fisher, the guru of theatrical lighting and one of my personal heroes. I’d gone up to him the previous day after a session for which I saw him help solve a lighting problem that shouldn’t have ever happened (see below); without introduction, I realized that has to be Jules Fisher. I told him (“I’m Jules”) that I saw the original Broadway production of HAIR, and after the climax of Act I, in which the players spread a giant sheet over the stage and those cast members who want to take off their clothes and then stand in this soft cinnamon light that makes you wonder for an instant body stockings or buck naked?, at intermission I searched in my program for the name of the lighting designer, that’s how affected I’d been, and there he was. This kind, gentle man listened to some blather very much resembling the preceding sentence, and said thanks as if he’d never heard anything like that before. Talk about knowing how to accept a compliment gracefully!

“I deploy light to help tell stories,” said “Jules” to open his presentation, the most thought-out of the weekend. He reminded us that theater begins with a black void. Now comes his task: what does the audience need to see? Besides countless Broadway spectaculars (and movies that need to depict stage lighting, like CHICAGO), he’s lit all of Ricky’s one-man shows, (the primal connection between the two artists), but he’s also made us able to see legendary rock shows, including the Stones and the iconic Mothership landing which begins Parliament/Funkadelic’s still-storied touring extravaganza. He lit Simon & Garfunkel’s famous Central Park concert, in part by hiring FDNY trucks to hoist lighting rigs up way higher than was “possible.” He constantly reminded us how closely related are the theatrical arts and the Magickal. (In fact, many magic effects depend upon strategic lighting…but I must say no more.) He demonstrated the intensity of a “foot-candle” – the wonderful pre-electric measure which lighting designers still use today, as “horsepower” still serves automakers – by lighting a single candle and letting it describe his face from one foot away. He showed us varying reflections of darkness, on white poster cards with identical black squares, realized with paint, then velvet, and finally with – nothing, as he passed his hand through the square-cut hole in the card set before a black background, while we in the audience were busy trying to decide which card was blacker. Magic!

Michael Weber then took the stage for his own set and regaled us with a story about his youthful publication of a hack of the “Rifkin Safety Sack” bank bag, and an entertaining phone-number illusion, followed by a bemusing discussion of “bad” magic vs. “good” magic, with Ricky at his side, which mainly consisted of YouTube clips which, sadly, we all could have seen elsewhere. Then off to dinner and one final meeting, featuring Ricky Jay.

For our sendoff session, Ricky sampled his only one-man show that hadn’t made it to New York, RICKY JAY: A ROGUE’S GALLERY. A 108-entry grid on the screen behind him triggered ruminations about magic history, stories from his past, whatever – but the actual numbers were picked randomly from the audience, so the sequence would be different every night, and only certain topics would be heard by any one particular audience. At first the numbers were obviously picked randomly – Ricky has a story for every single slot – but then he playfully “forced” them. “If you were at a 99-cent store, what do you think you might buy?” to a randomly-selected audience member. After the answer, “and what do you think it might cost?” We heard great tales – Ricky’s experience at Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas party only works vocally, but it has a HOWLING finish – and saw stuff we were obviously intended to see, like Steve Martin’s “The Great Flydini” routine, which Ricky helped him realize. Ricky is a natural curmudgeon, but I think he honestly wanted to thank us for attending, so as his finale he performed the latter bits from his famous playing-cards-puncturing-a-watermelon routine, beginning with the giant scissors – which, ever the showman, he’d been packing all along.

Earlier, Michael Weber – probably smarting from complaints by several who’d been expecting to see a weekend of Ricky Jay card tricks – had pointed out that connections were among the main reason to keep it small and immersive, and that we should all plan to stick around after the evening show and connect. Now, he said that the Rhinebeck restaurant where we’d had dinner had opened its back room for us. So the entire audience decamped, some through pouring rain, to Foster’s Coach House, where we continued to have a wonderful time together – by now, we all had new friends, and the commiseration became even more intense here. After about twenty minutes, the servers at Foster’s brought in trays heaped with slices of fresh watermelon for everyone: Ricky’s stage melon and two “understudies,” to be fittingly devoured by the gang. It just so happened that our table was served with a slice that bore two telltale marks of the deadly playing card.

The defiled melon slice.

The defiled melon slice.

A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.

A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.

Clearly, this was an icon that had to be saved, and shown to Ricky, the ole card-hurler himself, who arrived to great applause about five minutes later.

Ricky shows up.

Ricky shows up.

I didn’t ask for it, but eventually the slice got transferred to me for safekeeping (nobody, including me, wanted to eat it – the crowd because it was a new spiritual icon, and me because somebody had THROWN TWO FILTHY PLAYING CARDS THROUGH IT). So I asked the waitress if she could wrap it up or something, she asked why, and I tried to explain. It came back in a Styrofoam clamshell. By then, the crowd had thinned somewhat and Ricky himself plopped down at the next table. I pointed at him and said, this is the guy who threw the cards. She, and Ricky himself, looked dumbfounded. I leaned over: “She thinks I’m crazy.” He may well have agreed. But he must have sussed it all out, because half an hour later, when I got up to leave and didn’t take the Styrofoam, he said, “Don’t forget that melon.” Busted by Ricky Jay! Earlier, Alan Edelstein plopped down at my table. We’d been running into each other all weekend after a serendipitous Saturday lunch. He’s a bright-faced, cheerful (Oscar-nominated!) guy who knows a lot about movies, and I’d like to spend some more time with him. As Alan was checking out the next morning, I passed by once again, and said, “See you at the Oscars!” He replied, “Naw, see you at Sundance!” which is much more likely.

Alan Edelstein.

Alan Edelstein.

You may have perceived that I enjoyed myself, and I did. However, I have some beefs. Whoever devised the A/V for the weekend was so incompetent that they would have been fired from a Kiwanis Club luncheon in rural Iowa. Microphones screeched with feedback. (Poor Jules Fisher was particularly plagued.) Lighting was wrong or nonexistent. Simple calls for video playback were met with two-minute pauses. Nobody had bothered to calculate how many onstage chairs might be needed for the next event. Only when the 108 went up on Sunday night and Ricky was able to call out to somebody named “Coco” was there an instant response. Earlier Saturday, Ricky had just spent valuable oxygen instructing us never to perform unless the environment was correct, but that night he got so thrown by unending poor stagecraft (they moved his table offstage, then had to bring it onstage again and bend it at an angle) that he was unable to perform the simple “Fast and Loose” chain sleight. “Dreamcatcher Events,” I blame you. The only other explanation – and this could be more deflating – involves Ricky and Michael and a laissez-faire attitude which belies their own careful instruction. See, we all thought they were bringing their A game.

However, I have to say that the best part of the weekend was the folks I got to meet informally. (Trevor, Ryan, Steve, Jules, and Alan don’t count.) I can’t name them all because I only got first names. OK, Lance Stokes. But I did get to watch Armando Lucero explain the difference between good magic and bad magic using the example of a sandwich, which he pantomimed gorgeously. I got to watch this at my frickin dinner table the very first night, before Ricky ever appeared. I’d never heard of Armando before, and that first name was all I got at dinner; I looked him up later so I could tell you. Guess you just had to be there. And I hope – not guess, now, but hope – that for Ricky and Michael, whom I still had yet to meet, such moments had been the fine point of it all.

Richard Avedon's startling image of Ricky.

Richard Avedon’s startling image of Ricky.

P.S.: One final bit of magic happened on my way back, when I met a guy on a train.

Robinson Crusoe On Mars

July 27, 2014

MartianHere is my choice as the absolute best science fiction novel for people who don’t like science fiction. That’s because although Andy Weir’s beautiful book THE MARTIAN takes place almost exclusively on another planet, you won’t have to deal with any little green men, or time travel, or phantom dimensions, or anything you can’t heartily believe in. It’s a story of will and ingenuity, a fight for survival that’s shared not only by the poor schnook of the title, but also by a huge scientific apparatus that throws itself into his battle over the millions of kilometers that separate them. There’s even icing on the cake: it’s also funny as hell.

Mark Watney is a botanist, part of Ares 3, the third manned Mars mission, a planned 31-day exploration. But six days in, a powerful freak sandstorm forces an early scrub. During the fierce torrent, an antenna comes loose and pierces Watney’s EVA suit. He’s hurled face down into the sand and his vital signs read zero. Despite the mission commander’s frantic attempt to reach his (presumably dead) body, the escape vehicle starts to deteriorate, and she has no choice but to leave the (presumed) corpse behind to save the other crew members.

We learn all this in Watney’s own voice, via a mission log he keeps for posterity, and the first thing he tells us is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” (And don’t worry, pal, there’s plenty more bad luck still to come.) But Mars, and the reader, are about to learn two important things about Mark Watney: (1) he is as resourceful as human beings get, and (2) he is a world-class weisenheimer, opposing what might otherwise be paralyzing hopelessness with a self-effacing attitude that makes you just love him while he’s battling horrible odds. This post’s title may remind you of a fabled B-movie, but it’s a fairly accurate synopsis – only now we have to take the situation seriously.

CrusoeOK. We’re stuck on Mars alone. But we’re still alive, even if nobody else knows it. So. How to survive? How to get water? Food? Mark has the whole crew’s nutrient tablets for the rest of the month-long mission, but there’s no hope of rescue until much, much later – and that only if he can prove somehow that he’s still alive. So what he really needs right now are calories. Any suggestions, readers who have also thought about long space missions? (Hint: as the author has already told us, Mark’s a botanist.) Bit by bit, inch by inch, step by step, you are alongside this castaway as he figures out what he’s forced to figure out, and it’s all explained in a way that even non-scientists like me can grasp. Unmanned missions have already dropped certain key elements onto the Martian surface, making it possible for Mark to come up with a plan, but you have to hand it to him for putting the puzzle pieces together.

The admiration is joined by NASA back on Earth, once a sharp-eyed scientist surveying the scrub site realizes Mark’s still ticking. Mr. Weir also brings in the departed crew, aboard the return vehicle Hermes. This not only raises the stakes, but also provides some welcome shifts in point of view, breaks from Mark’s first-person narrative. I won’t go any farther except to say this piece has already been bought for the movies and, if done right, it’s going to be an APOLLO 13-like nailbiter.

I’ll add that THE MARTIAN is the poster child for self-publication. It was originally published as an e-book in 2011. People went nuts and trade publisher Crown swept in, publishing its edition only this year. I don’t think it’s perfect even now. If I’d had my grubby little editorial hands on it, I’d have asked Mr. Weir to pull out the third-person account of the sandstorm from where it is now (it interrupts the story and becomes a sore thumb) and get it closer to the top, when it actually happened – maybe at the very top so that Mark’s survival can be a mild surprise. I also felt the NASA characters and the Hermes crew were less well written than Mark himself: they were little more than stereotypes built to move the story forward (that won’t matter in a movie, believe me). But boy, am I impressed – because remember now, everything Mark Watney reasons was actually reasoned by the real-life author. Incredible tension, wonderful comic release, many points where all you can do is applaud – don’t you dare miss this one.

8/15/14: My friend Christian Waters pointed me to a press release that says the movie adaptation of THE MARTIAN will be released on Nov. 25, 2015, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. One ticket sold!

The Guy Next To Me On The Train

July 18, 2014

I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.

“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.

“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.

astinMr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.

We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.

He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.

There Are No Angels Here

June 27, 2014

amazon-vs-hachetteWith World Cup fever in full flower – even in America, you proboscis-tilting non-USAers! – it is perhaps meet and right that we gather here to examine whether Amazon v. Hachette is an example of (a) the American-football-style strong-arming ground game, or (b) futbol-style “diving” – that is, clutching one’s knees and falling to the turf after “suffering” a killer-asteroid-length flyby from an opponent so that the entire darby may be temporarily halted while all beautiful-game athletes catch their verdammt breath. I think it’s a soupcon of each.

Amazon’s practice of punitively declining or delaying orders from one of the Big Five trade publishers – the others are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan – has a very large echo in the cable tv business, where “content providers” (Disney; ESPN—wait, that’s Disney too; CBS) have been at war with cable resellers (Time Warner Cable, Comcast, etc. – wait, Comcast owns NBC-Universal, see how weird all this is getting?), but sorta reversed. In cable, the content providers have all the juice. Wanna see the NFL this weekend? Tell Time Warner they’re a buncha greedy late-for-service-calls bums! But in books, it’s as Tom Doherty and Ian Ballantine once agreed, I hope over a cocktail: the book business went to hell when the publishers lost control over their own distribution. To the wholesalers and middlemen who physically deliver books to retailers, they are renewable product like magazines – or loaves of bread – and have to be rotated nearly as often. To retailers, books are lent on consignment and can be returned at the publisher’s expense if they don’t sell, thus the decorative flower-petal stacks of blockbusters you used to see at Barnes & Noble. The idea was to make it easier for bookstores to take risks on unknown authors. The idea got out of hand. But all this is ancient history. People who are still moping about it are schmucks.

Since Alexandria, volumes of info, from the Iliad to Grey matter, have held an exalted status in the general culture. But books, even the finest ones, are no longer bestowed us by patricians or scholars: they come now from big, BIG, profit-oriented corporations. Seventy-five years ago you may have had an argument; that three-martini-lunch gentleman’s game was populated by the artisteic elite. Nowadays you’re encouraged not even to have lunch at all; editors, please dial it back to a drinks date if possible. I’m not saying that book publishing was never powered by heart and intellect. I’m only saying it’s not so any more. Privately owned publishers whose founders are still hands-on (e.g., in our day, McSweeney’s) behave very differently from conglomerates to whom books may be an afterthought, maybe even an asterisk. Many passionate people still work in book publishing: these folks have to auto-motivate, because they don’t make much money unless they’re at or near the top. In the current climate, the Big Five don’t have to nurture, because they can replace you in a heartbeat, get somebody less experienced for less dough, and to advance you don’t necessarily excel, you survive. Today’s book biz is built on bucks. Big Five execs aren’t mean. What they really are is scared.

Amazon is the largest single retailer of books – remember, it began as a bookseller, founder Jeff Bezos reasoning that books were sturdy and easy to ship, and you didn’t have to try on or even touch one before you were ready to buy it – and is more crucial to the industry than even B&N. Yet book sales account for only 7% of Amazon’s total revenue, according to research by Jeff Bercovici of Forbes. So publishers need Amazon far more than it needs them. Furthermore, Amazon owns the e-book market: about 30% of all books sold in the U.S. are digital, and of that market Amazon has a 65% share. Put another way, nearly one of every five books sold in this country is a Kindle file.

Publishers just now are enjoying being on the noble side of the Amazon dustup; agents, booksellers and even some authors have long viewed the big houses as deep-pocketed suits. Now there’s a more monstrous foe: worse than mass-market editions (which first upended the hardcover pricing model), mail-order book clubs (which made trips to the village bookstore unnecessary), superstores (which strangled independents with, um, selection and discounting), and digital books (which – wait, didn’t they provide the monster’s only jolt in the neck in a generation? – were too cheap). Andrew Wylie, of the highest level of literary agency, wrote, “The book industry is overwhelmingly the repository of our nation’s culture. To destroy it is to destroy the culture.” Painters, composers, screenwriters, anyone else wish to speak up? No, the contemporary trade book industry is overwhelmingly concerned with making money, and screw the culture. Any one of the remaining Big Five trade publishers would gladly swap three Nobel laureates for one HUNGER GAMES franchise and throw in a few poets besides.

Amazon is pushing Hachette around because it wants to improve its profit margins, and everybody else is holding their breath not because they’re gallant brothers in arms, but because Amazon’s contract with Hachette happened to expire first. Whatever the company wrests from them will be the same deal it wants from all the others. This happens all the time in other industries; Bezos perhaps appears a tad scuzzy only to those who have been insulated from the real world all their corporate lives. In case you’re not absolutely sure yet that times have changed, Hachette responded by purchasing Perseus (in the movie business you’d call it a “mini-major,” like Lionsgate), making itself even larger. As the long case against Apple and and the then-Big Five (Penguin has since folded into Random House, which temporarily resisted Steve Jobs’s entreaties and was therefore not party to the antitrust action) wore on, one fact remained clear: when the publishers colluded (we don‘t have to say “allegedly” any more), they were no longer thinking about their customers, only their own profit margins. Publishers actually received more money for each e-book under Amazon’s “loss-leader” pricing than they did under Apple’s “agency model.” They weren’t working with Apple to prop up e-book prices because they felt competition was swell. They were defending nothing more righteous than, as federal judge Denise Cole remarked, “consumer perception of the value of a book.”

The printed retail price of a book has little to do with trim size, page count, all the physical factors you might expect. It’s derived from a larger profit-and-loss assumption that includes the expected distribution, the projected shelf life in paperback, and the amount initially expended (the “guarantee,” or “advance”). Why then does the breezily-set 400-odd-page MR. MERCEDES from Stephen King sell for $30? Because trade book prices only go one way, up, and because Scribner knows its “price” will be discounted down the line, even though the publisher keeps roughly half of whatever number it chooses to print on the front flap. Kinda nuts, isn’t it – and here’s another wacko fact: all those “$30” hardcovers won’t come anywhere near paying out Uncle Stevie’s guarantee (huge authors get paid huge money up front, unless they’re “back-end” profit participants, like the biggest movie stars, but star authors are far rarer). As in movies, the publisher finally makes its profit downstream, years later, on the paperback — and digital — editions, which theoretically go on forever. Not this quarter. Much later on.

So Amazon is coming into a genteel industry and refusing to be genteel about it. I think it’s a PR minus for Bezos & company, who are supposed to be looking out for their customers above all – and now they’re making it harder to buy Hachette books? Not too bueno. They may have actually done a lefthanded favor by encouraging people to reconsider their online purchases. I just bought a Hachette book called AMAZON: THE EVERYTHING STORE from Powell’s Books – one of the great indies still standing – and though their site was clunkier than Amazon’s, I had no trouble sailing through the order process, and I felt kinda good about it. But the higher price I freely agreed to pay was pulled forth from Hachette’s ass.

Yes, Amazon is acting like a bully, and yes, the industry is doing its best to preserve its ineluctable pricing power. So be very careful before you pick sides in this fight. There’s plenty of venality to go around.

A sticker promoted on the air by Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author.

A sticker promoted on the air by Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author.

This Single Is A Homer

June 13, 2014

76 coverWhen did everything change? Because everything sure has. High rollers pay to go backstage at rock concerts, which are themselves underwritten by huge corporations, and Dylan tunes are musical beds for commercials. A stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as writer or actor, is a golden ticket to a career in sitcoms or the movies. Pop and hip-hop musicians are regular White House guests, and it’s the rare politician indeed that doesn’t have some classic rock stuffed into his iPod, itself created by a company founded by a couple of hippies in a garage, not all that long ago.

David Browne makes a compelling case for 1976 as the cultural hinge point in a swell new Kindle Single, THE SPIRIT OF ’76. (A Kindle Single is an electronic piece too short to be a book but too long to be a magazine article; the writing is of professional quality, curated by editors at and sold through the Kindle e-book platform, which means you don’t have to own an actual Kindle to read it: just download the Kindle software on any Internet-connected device you have.) Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Browne fan, dating back to when he was the chief music critic for Entertainment Weekly. I also edited his first book, DREAM BROTHER, a fascinating history of the parallel careers of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff which, among many other pleasures, demonstrates that musical talent may actually be genetic. He’s still knocking them out today as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

While we were celebrating our country’s bicentennial, Mr. Browne reports, the counterculture was becoming mainstream in so many ways; the tremors were rattling dishes everywhere. The new SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a rock-world reaction against corny tv variety shows like Carol Burnett’s, won the first four of its Emmys. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were bringing the same sensibility to the decidedly non-hip world of computing. The Ramones arrived to carpet-bomb the artificial barriers between givers and receivers of music. A struggling, hangdog-looking actor created a movie sensation glorifying blue-collar determination and come-from-behind perseverance. A Southern-drawling peanut farmer who loved the Allman Brothers was a serious contender to dethrone the sitting president of the United States. They were all part of a wave of excitement and optimism that didn’t last long, but smashed its way through pop culture all at once. “It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop,” says Tommy Ramone.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76 looks closely at all these events and more through that prism. It’s as breezy and authoritative as Mr. Browne’s astonishing book-length FIRE AND RAIN, which connects four important pop acts and albums from 1970 in such gorgeous detail that no matter how many times you’ve worn out these records, you will learn something new about CSN&Y, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. (How does somebody so young find out all this stuff? It’s called journalism.) Mr. Browne’s work is so entertaining and likable because he seems to be speaking for the reader. He doesn’t live in a snobby critic’s ivory tower; he’s a fan just like you and me (albeit more industrious and learned). Pick up this Single and you’ll find yourself not only glad there was a 1976, but also sad that its vaulting spirit dissipated into venality and cynicism.

The Land Of Bush And Cheney

May 9, 2014

daysfireIs it too soon to examine the White House of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Their tenancy is hardly ancient history, after all. We’re still mired in an unfunded war and struggling through a crippling financial crisis which both began on their watch. The plutocracy that they personified still rules American electoral politics and grows more powerful every Supreme Court term. And it will take decades to establish whether their overriding priority, a “global war on terror,” was an aberrational reaction to a temporary climate of shock and fear or the new, amoral chapter in world history they perceived.

Still, nearly all the key players have already weighed in with self-serving memoirs: both Bush and Cheney themselves and a pallet’s worth of others, including Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks, Karl Rove, George Tenet, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Ari Fleischer, Paul O’Neill – even John Yoo, the lawyer who attempted a legal justification for our country’s use of physical torture on its “detainees” who had (and in some cases still have) yet to be charged with a crime. Of course, a memoir can only represent its author’s particular point of view, meaning only as much as the author can or cares to “remember.” What we really need is a dispassionate narrative with no particular axe to grind, and here is the first one: DAYS OF FIRE by Peter Baker, the New York Times reporter who did a similarly non-judgmental job in THE BREACH, the definitive fly-on-the-wall account of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial.

If you have any presumptions about the two featured men, either as an admirer or a critic, you’ll likely find corroboration here, beginning on page 3, where Mr. Baker lays out the impressive Bush-Cheney record of accomplishment (if he’d done nothing else, Bush would still be the best friend Africa has ever had in the White House, one reason accusations of racism stung him so), and then in the following paragraph recounts the “misjudgments and misadventures” that “left them the most unpopular president and vice president in generations.” What impressed me throughout, though, was how the author was calmly able to disabuse me of some assumptions I personally held that just aren’t true.

George W. Bush is not an unintelligent man, though he’s aware that he can come across this way and over the years has found it useful as a bit of jujitsu against opponents: it gives him a negotiating advantage whenever he’s “misunderestimated.” Rather than dim, what he seems to be instead is incurious and impatient, probably after having lived a life that found its way down prescribed and predictable paths (with one notable exception). He has always had the benefit of mentors, friends, guides, some of them inherited. You can gauge your personal prejudice by considering the chilling five minutes on 9/11 after Andy Card told the president the country was under attack and he didn’t move from his chair in that Florida elementary-school classroom. Some will see a steely gaze on Bush’s face as he silently vows to bring the evildoers to justice. Others will note the same expression and see a man desperately hoping for somebody to tell him what to do. Mr. Baker suggests that Bush had thrived on, insisted on order, punctuality, and disruption-free schedules since he changed his life by giving up alcohol at age forty, and his temporary paralysis may have indicated he was coming to grips with the enormity of the desperate, uncontrolled, improvisational days to come.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dick Cheney was not Bush’s puppet master, and that was the notion which rankled “the Decider” personally, particularly as he became more confident of his footing in the second term (to the eventual detriment of both Donald Rumsfeld and Scooter Libby). Cheney was certainly adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, and served as the final gatekeeper regarding what the president saw on his desk, but none of Mr. Baker’s many sources can remember a single instance in which Cheney talked Bush into doing something against his will. Cheney’s genius was in understanding how Washington operates – most of it alien to his less experienced boss, even after having observed his father’s long federal career – and in encouraging inevitability. The perfect example was his own selection as vice president; as candidate Bush’s designated point man assigned to find a running mate (after first being asked if he would like to be considered himself), Cheney vetted nine potential veeps in such grinding detail that he possessed valuable information about each of them that precluded perfection in any of them. When the governor finally implored Cheney to run alongside him, the irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Dick Cheney had long said he’d love to be president if the job were simply handed to him; it was all the required baby-kissing and money-grubbing by the figurehead in an actual campaign that he disdained. Now, here was the closest anyone could ever get to that wish. Colleagues who served with Cheney as far back as the Nixon administration were later heard to mutter, this isn’t the Dick Cheney I thought I knew. But anyone who bothered to check his Congressional voting record, so radically conservative that it fit right in with early 21st-century smash-mouth Republicanism, wouldn’t have been so surprised. Except nobody did bother. Cheney, the great inquisitor, was himself never vetted as a V-P prospect. The job was simply handed to him.

Cheney was particularly attractive to Bush for another reason besides his long experience in government and business: uniquely among modern vice presidents, he did not aspire to the top job. As noted, he found running for national office odious, and that became doubly apparent during the campaign. There would be no sniping or second-guessing, no positioning or ass-covering for some future race. Halfway through the first term, Cheney mused aloud: “In this White House, there aren’t Cheney people versus Bush people. We’re all Bush people.” He was being overly generous to the president: of course there were Cheney people, led by chief of staff Scooter Libby and bulldoggish attorney David Addington, and his cadre quickly found itself at odds with the likes of Secretary of State Colin Powell and, less frequently, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, particularly during the runup to Iraq. But as a potential competitor to the boss, Cheney didn’t compute at all – and Bush liked that, both as candidate and as president. The deference extended to official meetings: Cheney never opposed the president in public and tended to either keep silent or ask an occasional question. They held private weekly lunches, but all we know about them is what they told us or their aides.

Having served in the Nixon administration and as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff before being elected to Congress, Cheney witnessed firsthand what he felt to be a dangerous swing of the pendulum of power from the Presidency toward the legislature – an overreaction, in his view, to the Watergate scandals. When it came to authority, Cheney was a Nixonian (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) and felt no more need to “ask permission” for extraordinary rendition and CIA black-ops than Ronald Reagan had for the Iran-Contra affair. Cheney’s world was black and white, populated by heroes and villains, and from this he never wavered during his years in office.

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.Conventional wisdom about the self-described “compassionate conservative” was that George W. Bush was basically a nice guy who got in over his head, but that isn’t accurate either. It’s a notion held over from his fairly successful service as Texas governor, a constitutionally weak position in which he was forced to work alongside Democrats in the state legislature. But family observers had long noted that Bush personally took after his tough, no-prisoners mother over his more conciliatory father. He had been the senior Bush’s doctrinaire enforcer and hatchet man during the 1992 campaign; it was George W. who informed chief of staff John Sununu that he should resign. Upon losing the popular vote and gaining the presidency by its fingertips when a Florida recount was halted in a highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the Bush administration – particularly in the form of Cheney – proceeded to govern as if it had won a landslide. There would be no compromise, divided electorate or not. Advisor Karl Rove, who comes off in this account more important in his own mind than he is to day-to-day governance once the elections are done, famously admitted as much early in the first term: it doesn’t matter how close the margin, just as long as you win. The first concrete indication that these people weren’t all that compassionate was a private-sector task force convened by Cheney a few months after inauguration to advise on federal energy policy: not only were outsiders barred from the meetings and their conclusions, we weren’t even allowed to know who had attended. One name appearing on everybody’s speculative list was the doomed Enron’s doomed Kenneth Lay, whom Bush affectionately called “Kenny Boy.” But we don’t know for sure. Transparency was for wimps.

One thing the satirists did get right was Bush’s tendency to receive a first impression and then stick with it, to “go with his gut.” He “loathed” Kim Jong Il of North Korea, but after meeting Vladimir Putin, pronounced him “honest, straightforward.” “I looked the man in the eye,” said Bush, and “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” When Cheney looked Putin in the eye, he thought, KGB, KGB, KGB. Unlike the hard-charging 1992 campaign worker, the presidential Bush was more likely to shy away from personal conflict. He hated firing people, particularly those who had been loyal to him. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s head came on the block, the attorney insisted on a personal meeting, and during an uncomfortable lunch at Bush’s Texas ranch it became clear that the General wouldn’t be able to appeal to longtime friendship.

Bush’s complicated relationship with his father almost surely colored his entire presidency, partly in ways we’ll never understand. For most of George W.’s pre-political life, it was his industrious younger brother Jeb of whom their parents expected great things; the eldest son was wasting himself in frivolity and desultory attempts at business. It was a strange inversion of the Kennedy family history, in which golden boy Joe Jr. self-abdicated in a premature WWII bomb explosion, and younger freewheeling playboy Jack ascended to the Senate and presidency instead. When George W. Bush sobered up in 1986, he was still the “black sheep” of the clan, and he had lots to prove, both to his father and to himself. When he unexpectedly beat Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race on the same night that Jeb lost his first election for Florida governor, Bush asked his father over the phone, “Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don’t you feel good about me?”

There were two main lessons “43” took from “41”’s presidency. First, breaking the elder Bush’s famous “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge cut him off at the knees among hard-line conservatives, who use a Mad Hatter-like formulation regarding taxes and the economy. If there’s a deficit, businesses are being taxed too heavily and are disinclined to hire and grow. If there’s a surplus, as “43” inherited from President Clinton, then taxes are still too high because the government is taking in more than it spends. (Never mind the national debt; that only clouds the issue. As Cheney said one day, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” That is, unless a Democrat is in the White House.) “This is not only no new taxes,” Bush proclaimed during a January 2000 debate. “This is tax cuts so help me God.” He made good on his promise barely four months into office.

Bush Attends Ceremonial Swearing In Of Veterans Affairs SecretaryThe second lesson emerged only in retrospect. When the Persian Gulf War liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army in February 1991, “41”’s popularity was the highest of his presidency: even Democrats approved of his performance be a four-to-one margin. He looked unbeatable for re-election. But less than two years later, he was defeated by a deteriorating economy and the Clinton campaign’s unerring focus on it. The tax issue was probably the dealbreaker, but “43” and Cheney detected another chink in the armor: with the world’s most powerful ground force deployed only kilometers away, “41” had not completed the job by deposing Hussein with military muscle. There were many good reasons to simply accomplish the stated mission and leave, which is exactly what happened, but Bush and Cheney felt Saddam had only been emboldened to continue terrorizing his people and developing nukes. A disrupted 1993 car-bomb plot to assassinate Kuwait’s emir and “41,” purportedly traced back to Saddam, was a particular burr. “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad,” Bush said at a 2002 fundraiser. If generals had seized the day and marched on Baghdad, that might never have happened. At one of their weekly lunches, as Bush was wrestling with the decision to extend his own war into Iraq, Cheney even goaded him on a personal level, one cowboy to another: “Are you going to take care of this guy or not?” Years later, Bush was surprised that this bit of impertinence had stuck with him, but it had its effect at the time.

After 9/11, the notion of retaliation against Iraq had surfaced almost instantly, beginning with Bush himself. “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way,” he ordered counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. “But Mr. President, Al-Qaeda did this.” “I know, I know, but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” (As events later proved, he wasn’t kidding about the shreds.) The first few hours after the planes struck were chaotic, with the president struggling to get back from Florida while buildings were burning in New York and D.C. As United Airlines Flight 93 sped toward Washington, Cheney ordered it shot down – and twice more as a military aide re-confirmed “authority to engage.” Recollections differ as to whether he had obtained Presidential approval in advance, but “none of about a dozen sets of logs and notes kept that day recorded the call,” writes Mr. Baker. The plane was brought down instead in a Pennsylvania field by its passengers, before any Cheney order was given (and, fortunately, ignored), as frantic cell-phone calls revealed that other airliners were being used as deadly missiles. Most observers speculate its target was the Capitol or the White House; Cheney and team were below the East Wing in a secure but “low-tech” bunker that had never been used in a crisis before. Cheney spent most of the next few weeks at one or another “secure undisclosed location” (his own words) in order to maintain the line of succession in case of further attacks. Usually the secret hideout was no more exotic than Camp David or his own residence, but it was still undisclosed.

Bolstered by an historic wartime thumbs-up from the electorate – not dissimilar to Bush’s father’s – which extended into the 2002 midterms, Bush and Cheney might possibly be forgiven for convincing themselves that they were acting on behalf of a united nation. To the “reality-based community” (a notorious term that came from an anonymous Bushie widely believed to be Karl Rove), however, the administration needed to pound into “truth” the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (Never mind that another member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” North Korea, actually had nukes.) Some suspected the actual motives were less noble after watching post-invasion Iraqi looters sack everything in sight – including museums and munitions dumps – except for the one bit of infrastructure under Coalition protection: the oil fields.

unknown“Stuff happens,” shrugged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at one of the press conferences that made him something of a rock star after the invasion proved easier than anybody expected. Saddam’s army quickly dissolved away, allowing a cathartic “victory” to play out on American tv sets tuned to the “shock and awe” channels, and it turned out that Iraq had actually long since disposed of its WMDs but maintained enough of a pretense to juice the dictator’s perceived international importance and keep the hated Iran at bay. Rumsfeld is the subject of Errol Morris’s new film THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, which one might expect to be a companion to his Oscar-winning THE FOG OF WAR (2003), in which former SecDef Robert S. McNamara expresses second thoughts (his “eleven lessons”) about our prosecution of the Vietnam war. But Rumsfeld displays no contrition, no beard-stroking, no doubt whatsoever. In this he was typical of the Bush inner circle.

Without Donald Rumsfeld, you might not even have a Dick Cheney. It was Rumsfeld, Cheney’s longtime mentor, who convinced President Ford to bring Cheney in to succeed him as Chief of Staff when he became the youngest man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. Cheney returned the favor years later when he counseled Bush to appoint Rumsfeld as the oldest SecDef in history. Through all the intramural squabbles of the Bush years, Cheney and Rumsfeld were never on separate teams. Rumsfeld was the ultimate organization man, highly attuned to protocol and what he saw as proper chains of command. He communicated orders and random thoughts in hundreds of memos that were so voluminous they came to be known by his staff as “snowflakes.” Rumsfeld spends much of THE UNKNOWN KNOWN reading from various snowflakes, some of which sound like koans, full of Zen ambiguity but lacking any enlightenment. For example, this passage, which originated as a press conference answer and gives the film its title: Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know. One Rumsfeld snowflake was directed at President Bush as he searched in vain for WMDs in Iraq: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. By such logic did our country invade a sovereign nation in a runup so blind and frantic that besides squandering precious blood and fortune, it also consumed the political career of a man who otherwise might well have become the first black president of the United States: General Colin Powell. (Think about how that might have altered the Republican brand.)

In Rumsfeld’s view, SecDef’s job was to wage and win a war. Whatever happened afterward was somebody else’s responsibility. In fact, the various administration members’ accounts of the post-invasion debacle form a Quentin Tarantino-like Mexican standoff, pointing at each other with fingers rather than pistols. What fool dissolved the Iraqi army, encouraging trained soldiers to fade back into the population as armed dissidents? Who failed to protect storehouses of weapons and ammunition, never mind priceless, irreplaceable cultural antiquities? How did uniformed American jailers turn into sadistic monsters? When did we begin fighting wars with contractors and mercenaries, including a private-sector paramilitary immune from U.S. or Iraqi law? What gave us the idea that we could pay for this whole mess with another country’s oil? Each memoirist tells us, in his or her own way: I don’t know, bro, but it sure wasn’t my fault.

rummyRumsfeld held a great advantage over Bush, at least while war plans were being laid. To his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson’s tragic mistake in Vietnam was trying to micromanage the war from Washington. Bill Clinton, to some extent, had been guilty of the same thing in tentative humanitarian uses of the military (even though Clinton had worked his will in Kosovo without a single casualty). Instead, Bush resolved to listen to his generals on the ground, under the direction of Rumsfeld. The only general he didn’t listen to was Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “several hundred thousand soldiers” might be needed to occupy Iraq after the war, in direct opposition to Rumsfeld’s notion of a quick, sleek, in-and-out strike by a lean, techno-savvy force. Shinseki was never asked to elaborate, and was replaced later in the year.

The speedy ground “victory,” and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” football-spike aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, kept the wartime fervor bubbling hot enough to defeat Sen. John Kerry and win a second term. Bush liked to brag that more people voted for him than for any other presidential candidate in history. (The all-time #2? Sen. John Kerry in that same election. It helps when there’s no vote-siphoning from a third-party candidate, as Ross Perot did to “41” and Ralph Nader did to Al Gore. Both were topped by Barack Obama four years later, but Bush is still the only Republican presidential candidate to win the popular vote since his father in 1988.) Re-energized, vastly relieved at never having to campaign again, emboldened by a victory that was clearly mathematical after the overly lawyerly 2000 race, and much more comfortable in his presidential skin, Bush enthused in his first post-election press conference: “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.”

But now the war had entered its excruciating just-dragging-on phase, a bloody grind of noise behind anything else the president tried to accomplish. He had some plans for the second term, to at least partially privatize Social Security and forge some desperately needed immigration reform. But the public was losing patience with the war effort and thus its authors. Sovereignty had been handed over to Iraq (“Let freedom reign!” Bush scribbled on Condi Rice’s note. Not “ring.” Reign.), but without U.S. troops it only amounted to a few words on a piece of paper. The lurid images from Abu Ghraib prison had been assimilated but not forgotten. Don Rumsfeld had gallantly offered his resignation over the scandal, but as Mr. Baker writes, “cynically, it could be seen as forcing Bush to either support him or cut him loose.” “Pretty smooth,” Bush told an advisor. “He called my hand.”

That had been the first-term Bush. The more assured second-term president now paid less attention to the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld; one imagines he must have been growing tired of advice that the fullness of time had proven so wrong. There’s a famous clip, used by Michael Moore in his film FAHRENHEIT 9/11, of Bush resolving to hunt down America’s enemies, then stepping back to a golf tee and saying, “Now watch this drive.” It makes him seem callous, flippant, even foppish (whatever PR officer approved that idiotic photo-op should have been beheaded), but that’s not so, either. Bush agonized over the victims of his wars, at least on the American side, and his frequent visitations and other acts of kindness to veterans and their families went unpublicized, which suggests to me that they were genuine. (He even temporarily gave up golf in sympathy, perhaps because of that embarrassing clip.) The war consumed Bush, and if any regrets were deeply internalized – you can’t betray your troops by second-guessing their mission, he frequently said out loud – they were still present.

Despite Rumsfeld’s space-age cogitations, it appeared that what we really needed was more troops (easier to argue than more domestic spending, which we needed as well), and with the support of the usual suspects – John McCain has never seen a military muster he didn’t like, and his obviously bobbleheaded choice of Sarah Palin later helped our nation dodge a fusillade of bullets because he could only grouse from the Senate, not push buttons from the Oval Office – Bush doubled down on the troops a la Shinseki and thus helped tamp the reddest Iraqi embers. When I heard Citizen Rumsfeld’s Fox News comment two months ago that, in his words, “a trained ape” could have done a better job handling Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai than President Obama and his team, I first wondered how the word “ape” came to mind, and then reminded myself that I shall never again be lectured on foreign policy by this particular individual. As for Cheney, Mr. Baker writes that by the time of the surge, “He was becoming more like a regular vice president.” In June 2007, when Cheney urged bombing of Syria’s newly discovered nuclear reactor at a meeting of the national security team, Bush asked, “Does anyone here agree with the vice president?” Not a single hand went up.

When Bushies were delivered their electoral “thumpin’” by a war-weary electorate in the 2006 midterms, it was finally time for Rumsfeld to go away for good, and the chief picked up SecDef’s longstanding offer of resignation like a Texas-League grounder. (Some Republicans, who were beginning to recognize a sinking ship when they saw one, began grousing that if Bush had thrown Rumsfeld to the dogs before the election, it might have helped their chances, but to Bush that would have been a sign of weakness, always less desirable than wrongheadedness.) This did not sit well with Cheney, but less and less did these days; if the president was a lame duck, then what did that make a vice-president who was not interested in running for higher office? The debilitating ennui of the war, now officially America’s longest, topped by a financial cataclysm overseen by the “business party” (i.e., the foxes had been guarding the henhouse all along) rendered McCain’s ticket – made to appear even more feckless by the transparent Hail-Mary selection of Gov. Palin and his tin-eared insistence on a money-meltdown White House “summit” at which he barely spoke – DOA against the first credible black candidate in history, who was only there because he’d narrowly beaten the first credible female candidate in history. On the way out, Bush even chest-thumped Cheney one last time by refusing to pardon the veep’s loyal aide Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of leaking the name of a covert CIA officer. He commuted Libby’s sentence, obviating jail time, but refused to wipe the slate clean, despite all of Cheney’s protestations right up to Inauguration Day. Bush was his own man on this issue, and if he had not always been, perhaps he had grown in the office. At least when measured against Dick Cheney.

cheneyCheney was nothing if not stalwart. He became obsessed with the possibility of another attack against America, a “second wave,” and he never let it go. As with the Commies he hated, to him the end justified the means, thus “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” his cold-blooded euphemisms for US-sponsored extra-legal kidnapping and torture. He famously held that “if there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Queda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” applied only to 9/11, not the 95% of scientists alarmed over man’s contribution to climate change or the 90% of Americans who favored stricter gun regulations. He continued to insist, notably in R. J. Cutler’s 2013 film THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DICK CHENEY, that he had protected America against further attack and foiled evil plots due to information gleaned extraordinarily, though some interrogators say they obtained every bit of actionable stuff without resorting to torture.

Bush admired Barack Obama’s meteoric rise but felt his successor was unqualified to prosecute American foreign policy, perhaps forgetting his own global inadequacies on Inauguration Day 2001. When candidate Obama remarked in a debate that he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan to chase terrorists even without the government’s permission, Bush found it “stunning” in its “naivete.” (That Cheneyesque bit of bravado, of course, was exactly how Obama eliminated Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment that had eluded Bush for seven years.) “This guy has no clue, I promise you,” he ranted one day. “You think I wasn’t qualified? I was qualified.”

Near the end of his term, a former aide asked Bush, “You’re leaving as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. How does that feel?” Bush responded, accurately, “I was also the most popular president.” After 9/11, his approval rating reached 90%, the highest ever recorded. But his fall from public grace was also historic. During the nadir of the financial crisis in October 2008, a Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans disapproved of Bush’s job performance, the lowest marks for any president since the firm began asking that question in 1938. And while others at their worst – Nixon, Truman – fell below Bush’s low approval ratings, his dragged on and on. The last time a majority supported Bush was March 2005, “meaning he went through virtually his entire second term without most of the public behind him,” as Mr. Baker writes, and Cheney fared even worse. But “Bush’s graceful post-presidency seemed to temper judgments.” Unlike Cheney, unlike Rumsfeld, unlike nearly everyone else in his administration, Bush has found the fortitude to resist self-indulgence. In retirement he has uniquely been able to maintain a discreet silence, and his legacy is at least partially mending as he displays the common courtesy that few others in his party can manage to conjure.


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