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 of 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 actually 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 Nobelists 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 prints 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 Amazon.com 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.


About The Author

April 25, 2014

aboutThe author is a self-described “old gentleman watcher and teller.” His blog, “Matters On My Mind,” has some 138 followers, from up and down the Eastern seaboard and as far away as Indiana. He Facebooks, he Tumbls, and he has been honored with more than 36 “Re-Tweets.” His letters to the editor have appeared in the Tiller & Gardener Online and Philately Today, and petitions bearing his electronic signature have been delivered to a leading town council, a leading state representative, and the White House.

He has completed part of the first part of a trilogy set in the fantastic world of Freeistan, where humans, dragons and Yeti (the “mount-folk”) live in mutual harmony but become threatened by a sadistic army from the land of Mammonia. He is currently searching for a better exotic name for a civilization based on greed, because his online writers’ support group e-suggests, not to be anything less than 1,000% supportive, l.o.l., that instead of “Mammon,” the invented word instead evokes “mammaries” or “ammonia,” horrified HOME-ALONE emoticon! Still, the saga’s opening chapter, which is the product of nearly twenty drafts, is doggone near perfect, if the author does say so himself.

The author is single.

A fully certified graduate of Diplomas4all.com, where he majored in Leisure Studies, the author more humorously simultaneously earned an advanced degree from the School of Hard Knocks after months of grinding experience. Following the D4a.c e-commencement e-exercises, he began looking forward avidly to the future, but as a statesman once mused, “History? We won’t know. We’ll all be dead.” The author says that’s kind of brain-freaky, like Zeno’s Paradox or Rubik’s Cube, but still, provocatively stated, no?

Kittens!

Don’t get the author started about politics. A lifelong American, he is flabbergasted that so many people actually believe the crazy idiots on that channel. These issues are not exactly rocket science – actually, some of them are, but that is beside the point. The truth is perfectly clear to any discerning human, but some people simply will not listen to reason. These are known as “defriends.”

The author’s nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, grand-nephews, even that new baby that showed up somehow in the Facebook list of Friends, are all delightful. The author has Liked them till the cows came home. How now, speaking of cows, does an author “defriend” a member of his or her own family? Can anyone help the author here? The baby is still delightful, in case anyone is watching.

Turn-ons: 3-D, long battery life, Megan Fox. Turn-offs: gyms, zombies, the French New Wave.

The author may have to turn in early tonight. But first, the author will be dining on a garden salad, wheat pasta and Chicken Parmesan – prepared, though, using two tablespoons of water in the egg mixture: that is the author’s secret (it’s even better than the Olive Garden’s). He plans to pair a sultry White Zinfandel, which is now “laying down” in the refrigerator. More on Twitter as the entrée continues to bake.


Retro Techno

March 15, 2014

missionWant to have some real fun? Do what I just did and rent MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the first entry in Paramount’s popular and lucrative Tom Cruise movie franchise. You may remember it as a fairly smart action-adventure, but watch it today and it’ll be revealed as a time machine from another age.

M:I was released in 1996, believe it or not, a full eighteen years ago. I may well have some readers who hadn’t even been born back then. But what’ll strike you even more is how much technology has changed in barely a generation – both in the movies and in real life.

JURASSIC PARK had introduced “realistic” CGI effects in 1993, just three years before, so the spectrum of what we could see on the screen hadn’t yet been all that widely explored. As with its tv precedessor, the movie-version “Impossible Missions” force had access to all the latest tech playthings; that’s how they could sneak into high-security places, build elaborate sets to fool the chumps, etc. The visual effects supervisor on the film was John Knoll, a honcho at Industrial Light & Magic, which represented the state of the vfx art at the time. This was up-to-the-minute stuff, and that’s how we all accepted it in 1996.

But watch it today, 18 years later, and you have to stifle some unintended laughs. STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T EVER SEEN THE MOVIE. I’LL TELL YOU WHEN IT’S SAFE AGAIN. Basically, our familiar tv boss, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) sets up a big IM sting which is colossally botched, he’s shot to death, and the IM brass in Washington “disavows” our hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). So he has to set up a rogue IM force of other “disavoweds” to win back his reputation, retrieve the MacGuffin (a computer disk that matches our spies’ code names to real names), and discover the real mole who screwed the pooch and killed his mentor. YOU CAN COME BACK, IT’S OK NOW. So Tom Cruise calls forth the world’s best rogue safecracker and its best rogue computer genius (delightfully played by the hulking Ving Rhames). The first thing they’re gonna have to do is break into the CIA’s Langley headquarters, which has as many security checkpoints as does that RAIDERS idol. So Ving goes searchin, and he types

SEARCH LISTSERV

And a bunch of alt.this&thats show up on his screen. (Cruise does the same thing later when he’s trying to puzzle out a message in a Gideon bible.)

Now Ving has already bragged about this top-secret chip he’s glommed, a “686” – remember, this was the age when Intel 80486 processors were the bee’s knees in the non-Apple community, which was nearly everybody – so we’d already begun noticing the disconnect in the previous reel (it would have been so easy to call it a “P6,” as the Pentium Pro developers referred to their new architecture; nobody, least of all a supposed techie, called it a “686,” but so many contemporary viewers knew what a “486” was that it just sounded better). Before long, Ving also has to send a jamming signal by typing, in real big letters so we can read it:

SEND JAMMING SIGNAL

The techies bitch about how their modems can’t connect…it goes on and on. We 21st century viewers realize that any earnest portrayal of the state of the art has to slip through our fingers, because the art’s sophistication is progressing faster than one can even develop the celluloid (another doomed technology).

Another advantage of a second viewing is that this time you will probably be able to follow the convoluted plot. There is a beautiful scene that went over my head in ’96 because I was devoted to soaking up information, and this took a bit of a twist. It’s a SENDING SPOILER JAMMING SIGNAL meeting between a surprisingly rejuvenated Jim and Ethan in a café. By now, Ethan’s figured out that Jim is the mole, and we see events explained away in Voight’s voice but interpreted by Ethan’s imagination – once he even gets it wrong but quickly reverts to what must be the truth (but we find out later he’s wrong about that; see the potential for confusion?). He even asks, “Why, Jim, why?” But Jim is busy pinning it all on somebody else. Heady stuff: thanx, Robert Towne. JAMMING SIGNAL ABORTED

The M:I crew is probably shooting right now, because #5 has already staked out a summer 2015 date. Each of the four we’ve already seen is a real popcorn-chompin thrill ride, heavy on physical, in-camera stunts, and it’s amazing how the franchise manges to retain its integrity even as it invites director after director to have a whirl. (Who are the returning greybeards? Cruise himself, his former partner Paula Wagner, and now J. J. Abrams.) John Woo did a great #2 and managed to squeeze in his signature fluttering doves and two-gun-firing-horizontal-dive. Then Abrams, then Brad Bird, and #5 will be by Christopher McQuarrie. I’ll be there with popcorn in hand, but fully aware that the flick will be setting down some technological markers that may look just as naive in twenty more years. Meanwhile, do you remember who directed #1? If you don’t, betcha can’t guess. It was an auteur who really put his mark on the film, as have all his successors. But he was the first one to latch onto the match. Brian De Palma, baby.


Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after having cut down the nearby trees and bought as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative — to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.


Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by bigger brains than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg: lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type.

A line o’ type.

A chunk of type ready to be "slugged." (Can you read the headline? I can.)

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct but comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays these days. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood


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