The Last Days Of Pomp

December 12, 2020

Never before have we had a president who is such a squaller, who so urgently needs a time-out, who has so utterly dispensed with dignity. This embarrassing regime ends as no other ever has. On top of his lies, grift, cowardice, ignorance and cheerful commission of every single deadly sin (roll call: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth), the leader of the free world has also become the unchallenged king of sore losers. Other presidents have served as role models. For this one, parents must avert their children’s eyes.

Friday brought two of what we fervently hope to be among the last wheezing gasps of America’s own Dark Ages. In the morning, the White House chief of staff ordered the FDA commissioner to approve a covid vaccine that very day or submit his resignation, and the former was done. Then the Supreme Court summarily rejected a transparently desperate lawsuit brought by Texas against the electoral voters of four other states.

The FDA do-si-do is illustrative of the lame-duck administration in several ways. The president’s red-hatted admirers will certainly see it as a bold, forceful move to cut red tape and get stuff done; that’s certainly how it’s being spun in the lumbering, credulous MAGA universe. But the FDA was already preparing its emergency approval for Saturday. POTUS’s strong-arm tactics bought exactly half a day. And, more important, bragging rights — though for these birds, the sun coming up qualifies as braggable. But Saturday is a slow news day and besides, these people have always been tempted to fuck with the system just for the hell of it. This might have been one of their last chances, along with throwing sand into a pandemic relief bill.

Also, note that the threatened firing didn’t come from the leader himself. It never does. The president dislikes (fears?) one-on-one conflict and has never terminated his people in person, not even in his private business. Those who believe “You’re fired!” to be the chief executive’s personal catchphrase have been fooled. That was only a character he played on tv, where nobody was really getting “fired” at all. He enjoyed posing for photos with his finger pointed and an angry face mouthing an “f,” but in real life that never, ever happened, nor did it happen Friday. The uncomfortable stuff is always done by hirelings.

Then, in the afternoon, SCOTUS nailed shut the coffin of a final, hanging-by-the-fingernails effort to usurp electoral votes in four battleground states that Joe Biden won. The suit, incredibly, was led by the AG of Texas but, just as incredibly, joined by 17 other attorneys general and 126 GOP House members, including leader Kevin McCarthy (hmmm…so the elections that you won were fraudulent?); the usual suspects in the Senate, including the increasingly unhinged but nevertheless reelected Sen. Lindsey Graham; and the president himself. The Supremes swatted it away to the dismay of the big chief, who assumed that any of his appointees would automatically side with him on any issue. After all, that’s how it works at his real estate company.

Why would all those Republicans follow Master Orange off a cliff? The best explanation I’ve heard is: pure cynicism. Any thinking being understood that this litigation was going absolutely nowhere, so there would be no downside to joining it, and it would look to the GOP base like bold support for the big guy. Consequence-free MAGA bona fides. Prep work for the next election.

As for the Oval itself, why would it continue to litigate the outcome of a decisive election a month and a half later? (Besides the unintentional entertainment provided by Rudy Giuliani and other henchpeople.) Again, there’s a simple explanation. Making the MAGA gang believe the election was “stolen” is lucrative — north of $200 million in small donations so far, mostly money that the soon-to-be-former president can use any way he wants. For example, solid gold flagsticks at Mar-A-Loco.

Our final worry before the eruption of pending litigation against Individual 1 the moment he descends into private citizenship is the damage he can do on the way out. Nobody expects to see him at the Biden inauguration five weeks from now, but in the meantime there are lots of fires to set, fertile ground to salt, and china to break before he assumes private-sector martyrdom. Never before has an American transfer of power been so grudging and venal. It’ll be one last middle finger flung against us all.


Wine 101

November 24, 2020

I’m a sucker for “introduction to wine” books. It takes a few repetitions to burn something new into my brain, and because it’s a living, evolving substance, wine can be as complicated as the weather. Even two bottles from the same case can taste radically different depending on how they’ve been stored, prepared, and served. As with chess, wine is an endlessly fascinating subject that nobody, no matter how learned, can completely master. Yet there are certain basic Newtonian principles that will gradually sink in if I read them again and again.

By now I do better with wine than with another fascination that continues to elude me. I’m also a sucker for “quantum mechanics for laymen” books. I earnestly want to understand the “quantum” principles that have changed physicists’ view of everything, but so far I haven’t been able to do it. Every hand-holding primer that I’ve tried has lost me by about page 10. To my mind, I’m leaning in, concentrating, following the wave-vs.-particle thing, then I flip the page and read, “so, see, that’s how we can travel through time.” Think I’m gonna need it even simpler, guys.

The problem is that, having gained a grade-school level of knowledge about “bottled poetry,” most introductory guides now read to me like an adult sounds when he’s over-emphasizing syllables to express something to a child. Young’uns can tell when they’re being patronized, and so can I. It’s not necessary for a little cartoon character to lead me along. (Unless he knows something about the many-worlds theory, that is.) 

Well, I just found the perfect textbook for Wine 101. It’s not cloying or annoying, it’s delightful to read and to look at, and it doesn’t think you’re stupid, only ignorant, that being something we can fix right away.

The book is WINE SIMPLE by Aldo Sohm, wine director of the legendary Le Bernardin and proprietor of the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. Two others seem to be vital contributors: co-author Christine Muhlke, who doubtless helped to realize the chatty but authoritative tone, and graphic designer Alaina Sullivan, who has made turning every page a real pleasure. 

Mr. Sohm serves wine both at a fancy New York restaurant and in a far more casual setting, yet you can tell his favorite thing to do at either place is to surprise his guests. This is certainly intended as an introduction to the subject of wine, but it’s packed with information — sugar-coated by gorgeous graphics throughout — that will be new even to experienced oenophiles, particularly the tons of recommendations of lesser-heralded wines that will keep you busy for months. (With an occasional nod to Austria, the author’s native land.)

Of course we begin with “What Is Wine, Anyway?”, running down the basics, including exactly what a winemaker does, and an overview of the key winemaking varietals, styles and regions (a great source for later). We are also introduced to one of the best features of the book: whenever Mr. Sohm has to use a term that might be unfamiliar, it’s defined instantly in a footnote below, and the definitions are all collected in an alphabetical glossary at the end. No cartoon guy holding up signs, no adult kneeling down to pat your head and speak slowly and loudly. 

The author also teaches you how to involve your palate, make the best use of a restaurant wine list, pair wine with food, select and use stemware, set up a home tasting, and lots more. Every sentence is, to use the author’s term, “totally approachable.” The level of detail is thick enough that WINE SIMPLE can actually be used as a reference book, but breezy enough that reading or consulting it is just plain fun. Most of the info is so eternal that it won’t date all that much, and will still be useful years from now.

I wish I’d had something like this when I was first learning about wine. If you know someone who’s just discovering the beverage, this is the only guide they will ever need. If they become obsessed — you can tell because they’ll have to be made to quit talking about wineKaren MacNeil’s THE WINE BIBLE could be their single-volume go-to. But WINE SIMPLE is eminently sufficient all by itself. It’s already done something notable for me: I’ve lost the desire to read any more introductory books. For me, Wine 101 just became an easy A.


So Near And Yet So Far

November 10, 2020

It was “unseasonably warm” last Saturday, and in November that means pleasant. I cracked the window in my kitchen onto a cool, calm and collected day. Then a roar started on the street below. Cheers, honking, DIY percussion. It was the sound of the Giants winning the Super Bowl, or an ethnic parade — Puerto Rican Day or Steuben Day — or the nightly noise for Covid first responders. Then it struck me, just an instant before the bulletin pinged on my watch. Four interminable years of anger, disgust and embarrassment were finally coming to an end, and the pent-up frustration popped out like a champagne cork. It was a taste of euphoria I could really use, because except for this, I wasn’t a fan of the election results.

The big one is not nothing. The most soul-affirming aspect of the 2020 election is that in a few short weeks, once again we won’t have to care what Donald Trump says any more. He already seems diminished, a gimme-hatted old man whacking his way through the golf course and flinging a pathetic thumbs-up sign. He is still “firing” senior officials, but now his lame-duck actions (I’ll bet he despises that term, but that’s exactly what he is) are next to impotent. In presidential terms, this is A Time For Tantrum. 

Another yuge benefit is being able to wave buh-bye to the nest of incompetent toadies who are currently in charge of the federal bureaucracy. Almost all of them richly deserve to be sent skidding on their asses down Pennsylvania Avenue, but I’ll particularly shed zero tears for Betsy DeVos or Bill Barr. No more Wilbur Ross. No more Mnuchin or Miller. No more Jared! I confess I will miss one: “President’s personal lawyer” and repeated butt-dialer Rudy Giuliani, whose penchant for unintentional humor has brightened many a day, culminating in his hilarious Saturday news conference at the now-world-famous Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia. Soon all these bums will be literal history.

But not really. While it’s fun to ding-dong about the wicked witch (Jim Carrey, playing Joe Biden, convulsed the SNL audience last Saturday by slipping into his Ace Ventura character to comically taunt Trump with the hated word “loser”), these birds aren’t going to fade away, and neither are the 71 million voters who looked at the last four years and decided they were just fine with that. Earlier in that same SNL episode, host Dave Chappelle noted, ”I would implore everybody who’s celebrating today to remember, it’s good to be a humble winner. Remember when I was here four years ago, remember how bad that felt? Remember that half the country right now still feels that way.” Those millions — who were, by the way, definitely not gracious winners in 2016 — are an object lesson for our neighbors around the world. 

The fact that this election was even close is stunning. Before Trump traded on his notoriety as a tv game show host and utter shamelessness as an egocentric sputtering windbag, it was preposterous to imagine such a mendacious, ignorant, self-centered sociopath anywhere near the White House. His narrow victory in 2016 left the international community slack-jawed, partly because the victor received millions fewer votes, which is counterintuitive and a little nutty. Four years later the US may have come to its senses temporarily, but any statesman can only interpret the results as evidence that we could easily elect a populist fool again. Imagine a candidate just as mean as Trump, but not as dumb or lazy. International leaders already have. In blunt terms, they have concluded that the American electorate can no longer be trusted.

In fact, El Presidente himself won’t even be going away. He could even run for another term in 2024, which would throw the jockeying to be his successor into chaos, which happens to be his specialty. (Being President was fun for him: you just play golf, watch tv, and rule over MAGA crowds. Now, though, will come the lawsuits, and they are legion. Trump lawyers: get your retainer in advance, bill him monthly, and make sure the checks clear.) Predictably, Trump has started to brag that he received more votes than any sitting president in history. That’s technically true, but his opponent got roughly five million more than that! So he did beat Obama in total vote count — that’s the reason he’s bringing it up — but to his chagrin, his predecessor achieved something that was beyond Trump’s ability. He earned a second term.

Twice in the last twenty years, the Electoral College superseded the popular vote. Al Gore beat Dubya by half a million votes and Hillary beat Trump by three million, but neither one entered the White House. Now Biden looks like he’ll be up by five. The Republicans may be a minority, and a dwindling one at that, but they’re strategically located just precisely enough to keep a national election so close that it takes days to sort it out. I don’t think a Republican can ever again win the popular vote in a two-candidate race, and they must agree because they’ve basically quit trying. Now the game plan is gerrymandering and suppression. Not get out the vote; get the vote out.

Which leads me to the reasons I’m moping today. Most of what Trump did via executive order, which is most of what Trump did, can be undone just as easily. We can fumigate the Oval Office, rejoin the Paris climate accords, affirm our commitment to NATO and WHO, and declare detente in some ill-advised trade wars. But we have to look downballot to find the real damage. 

The Democrats’ failure to flip statehouses means Republicans will be in charge of most redistricting for yet another ten-year census cycle. It’s going to be harder and harder to vote, even to keep yourself on the approved list of registered voters, if you’re black or a college student or live in a city or watch PBS or might be likely to vote Democratic for any other reason. More power will be concentrated among fewer people, because that’s how you keep the Electoral College and the Senate competitive even as they represent ever fewer citizens.

The Senate. Democrats thought they had a chance to flip what was once the world’s greatest deliberative body but has become the place where legislation goes to die, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s stubborn intransigence. It could still happen, if Georgia’s blue-turning voters can win two runoffs in January. That would make it 50-50 with Vice President Harris as a tiebreaker. But Democrats should have just learned not to place their bets on a long shot. It’s more likely that McConnell will still be in charge of the docket, slow-walking judicial appointments as he did to Obama and preventing any whiff of progressivism from ever reaching the Senate floor. He’ll even be able to deny Biden’s cabinet nominees, which was once all but a courtesy — but as the hypocrisy-laden examples of Merrick Garland and Amy Coney Barrett prove, McConnell’s capable of a little chaos himself. 

Oh, forgot one thing. All of a sudden, budget deficits are about to become a terrible idea again — just when the only thing we need worse than a vaccine is a fiscal stimulus bill to help the desperate Americans who are suffering today. Let’s hope that there’s some compassion left on the senatorial right, if not in MAGAland itself.

So getting rid of the worst president of my lifetime, if not of all time, is definitely a step forward. It’s worth celebrating. Like all those crowds outside, I felt much better on Saturday than I had on the previous Tuesday, when it looked at least possible that our national nightmare might continue. But this was not a great election for progressives, and a lot of hard work went for naught. Our last chance to pull this one out is in Georgia. Help if you can. But above all, take care of each other.


One Magnificent SOB

October 28, 2020

I’m sure there are many musical performances that you like. Maybe some that you love. But I’ll bet there are very few that actually force you to regard the world differently. One might say “change” one’s life here, but I prefer “affect.” I’ve listened to a ton of recorded music — I was even paid to do it for a few years — but I can count on one hand the instances that actually altered my entire aesthetic aspect. ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? KIND OF BLUE. SGT. PEPPER. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize there’s one finger left. That belongs to SWITCHED-ON BACH. 

Whoa: how’d that get in here? “You had to be there” is probably the pat answer, but I want to dig a little deeper. This is about the timbre and tempo of musical notes, and how they can combine to perform microsurgery on your brainpan. Oops, I guess I’m loving it too much.

“The cultural impact that SWITCHED-ON BACH had in the late 1960s and early 1970s cannot be overstated,” writes Amanda Sewell in her new study of the record’s chief creator, WENDY CARLOS: A BIOGRAPHY. (Of course it can, but let’s keep moving.) This isn’t a very “good” book. It is not written artfully and has precious little analysis, opinion, or original research. It reads like a competent term paper which would probably deserve a B, and is rife with sloppy editing and proofreading; “echoes” of words and phrases, redundant statements, kid stuff like referring to “Roy Orbinson.” (Oxford University Press is the culpable publisher.) But Ms. Sewell’s tome is still useful as a single-volume aggregation of everything available in the public sphere about the mysterious, reclusive — for a very good reason — performer of SWITCHED-ON BACH. (I’m going to refer to it henceforth as “SOB,” as the giggling creators hoped many of us future commentators would do when they came up with the title.)

Well, this magnificent SOB rocked my world.

I had always preferred folk or pop music to the classics. I had one of the most terrific moms ever: in retrospect I felt that she wanted to push some home-schooled music appreciation onto me — the family even rented an electric organ when such a thing was fashionable — yet I resisted. But in a church-going household one couldn’t escape the great liturgical melodic lines, so I osmosed some Bach, some Ludwig van, etc. I resolutely did not give a musical damn, yet there they were, encased in my evolving brainpan despite my youthful disdain.

Then I’m a young uber-hip college student flipping through the platters in a record store (ask your parents) and I see this cover that stops me cold. A corpulent bewigged figure dressed in the height of Baroque fashion is standing on a Persian rug in his cozy composing room, cat and all, but above his keyboard is a startling anomaly, a bank of plug-ins connected to a great snaking cable — and to top it off, the maestro is holding not a quill pen but a pair of headphones. 

Whatever this is, I gotta hear it, said hundreds of thousands of people. We all took a copy home and dropped the needle.

Even today, the first attack of “Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29,” the opening piece, is to me as thrilling as Bobby Gregg’s initial smacks on “Like A Rolling Stone.” It’s the aural equivalent of the cover image: a composition that has literally lasted for centuries now made audible by cutting-edge technology. It was respectful, even reverent, but cheeky at the same time. The rest of the album was beauty after beauty, most of it new to me. I couldn’t quit playing it, then I couldn’t resist seeking out other more traditional performances. I fell in love with the three Bs, Handel, Mozart, but especially Baroque and especially Bach. However, having SOB as an on-ramp had affected my ear. 

The sound of a synthesizer was far more outré in 1968 than it is today, but one feature that was particularly flattering to Bach’s music was its crystal clarity. You could hear every line. The “Sinfonia” was written to be led by a pipe organ, and when you hear it played on that instrument the performer’s dexterity is remarkable, but the sound is murkier, as if you need a hearing aid: Carlos’s longtime collaborator Rachel Elkind referred to 60s-era Bach recordings as “soggy.” SOB spoiled me for acoustic Bach. One night we attended a performance of all six Brandenburg Concertos, one after the other, the instrumentation changing as the individual concertos require. These are among my favorite pieces of music and they were being performed expertly. But as I listened, I still found myself frequently preferring Carlos’s full-bodied electronic realizations.

(It happens in reverse too. I also treasure Handel’s Water Music Suite, especially the famous Allegro Deciso. But I learned to love this piece by listening to acoustic performances. By the time Carlos’s realization appeared on the SOB follow-up THE WELL-TEMPERED SYNTHESIZER — again with the jokes! — I really missed those French horns on the second statement of the theme. The electronic version just didn’t “sound right.”)

SOB was life-affecting for me because it helped me think about music in a different way. There is a mathematical logic to Bach’s work that manages to combine quality with quantity to produce a sacred order, the music of the spheres. Numbers can sing, which is why musicians count. The strange symmetries and paradoxes of the junction of art and science have never been explicated more delightfully and profoundly than in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1979 masterpiece GÖDEL, ESCHER, BACH. It’s one of the finest books I have ever read. I was familiar with Bach, of course, and with Dutch artist M. C. Escher (I had never heard of mathematician Kurt Gödel or his Incompleteness Theorems). And it was obvious that the author had listened to Bach intently. In 2008 I wrangled a starstruck visit to Professor Hofstadter’s home in Bloomington, Indiana, and at one point in our freewheeling conversation I asked him if he had ever heard SOB. He said no and I detected the slightest wince. I inferred that he approached Bach from that acoustic side that had made me recoil from the switched-on Allegro Deciso. That’s too bad, I remember thinking. You can hear every line.

Carlos’s stuff can really penetrate. You know how when you’re hurting after a traumatic breakup, you imagine that every stupid pop song’s lyrics now actually make sense, and they’re all applicable to you? If you’ve never been that heartbroken you’re one lucky individual, but once I was in the midst of such a romantic funk when I decided to spin Carlos’s SWITCHED-ON BACH II. Astonishingly, the first movement of frickin Brandenburg No. 5 — no lyrics, mind — seemed to perfectly track the entire history of our now-rocks-spattered relationship. (Of course, that might have been the Bach plus the weed, but still.)

There’s a reason SOB and its sequels have lasted half a century now. They are not gimmicks, not novelty records. They are the product of great musical virtuosity plus just as prodigious a talent for taming technology to aesthetic pursuits. Carlos’s electronic realizations were an instant sensation. SOB remained at the top of Billboard’s classical chart for more than three years, ending 1969 as the 21st bestselling album of the year in any genre. It won three Grammys and quickly became the highest-selling classical album of all time. And during all this notoriety, the performer was unavailable for appearances or promotional tours. This is because, as only a handful of people knew, the artist was transitioning.

Wendy Carlos.

Wendy Carlos was assigned the male sex at birth and given the name Walter, which was originally the credited performer of SOB. But by the time it was released she had already begun her “transformation,” as she referred to it. She kept this a secret for more than a decade, shunning the limelight, even dressing in drag as “Walter” when forced to pose for publicity photos. She revealed her true gender in a 1979 Playboy interview, which infuriated her because the printed piece dealt just as much with her transformation as with her work. If she ever were to read this entry, which I clearly intend to be interpreted as suffusive praise, she would still be livid because I have just brought up her former name. To her, “Walter Carlos” does not exist and never has; “he” was a fiction. In SOB’s time that realization might have been a career ender. Now we have LGBTQ awareness and are more tolerant of our neighbors in general, but SOB inhabited the era of Stonewall and THE BOYS IN THE BAND. Obviously the gender issue has exactly nothing to do with the music, so I’m going to quit talking about it now. 

Although she created many other terrific realizations over the years, particularly film scores — among her work for the movies are the iconic Purcell-based theme of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and the creepy main title of THE SHINING — Carlos has never matched the meteoric commercial success of SWITCHED-ON BACH. She continued recording classical pieces (no less an authority than Glenn Gould called her Brandenburg No. 4 “the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs—live, canned, or intuited—I’ve ever heard”) and even revisited the SOB repertoire for a 25th anniversary sequel on equipment that was now the state of the art. Now the cover model holds his quill pen, but there are two computer screens above his keyboard and a gold record on the wall. Carlos adds that classic horror-movie organ piece “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” as a bonus track, but by now, I like the chiller-theatre keyboard version better.

Carlos has become more interested in broadening the horizons of synthesized music with “environmental” works like SONIC SEASONINGS and DIGITAL MOONSCAPES. They are much more in line with her unusual longtime hobby: for decades she has traveled the world to photograph solar eclipses, frequently selling her work for publication. For fun, she even collaborated with “Weird Al” Yankovic on an adaptation of Prokofiev’s “Peter And The Wolf.”

But it’s SOB which bestowed a world of enjoyment on me, one I can never hope to repay. Its recording artist will forever be associated with this groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting work, a metaphor for her own life that dazzles all these years later, and will continue to do so for as long as we are willing to listen.


Book Editor Love

September 23, 2020

Take any trade hardcover off your bookshelf. (By that I mean a commercial book, one sold by the “book trade,” which excludes schoolbooks, case law volumes or medical texts.) Now look on the back flap.

Almost always you will see a credit for the art director who designed the cover. And the photographer or illustrator who created the cover image. Even the photographer who took the headshot of the proud author. Now turn to the copyright page inside. Almost always you will see a credit for the “book designer.” That’s the person who selects the typeface, the font and size, and lays out typical pages for the typesetter to follow — chapter breaks, “running heads” at the top of text pages, “dingbat” ornamentations and the like. If there are maps inside, the mapmaker also gets a credit.

What you will not see there is a credit for the person who has spent more time with this book than all those others combined:

The editor.

Why not? As with much else in life, it’s complicated.

The main difference between the contribution of those artists and that of the editor is finitude. Generally speaking, those others work singly at rigidly proscribed jobs which they see to completion. But setting aside the amorphous quality of the editor’s function, each book takes its own unique road to publication, sometimes shedding its editor in the process.

Different books are different entities, and not only by virtue of the shelving section in the bookstore. Even a group of novels by the same author — say, a mystery series featuring a recurring character — may pass through several sets of hands, especially if the author changes publishers. And just because the stories are similar doesn’t mean they require similar amounts of time or effort. Any author can tell you that. So can her editor. 

Nonfiction books, especially the ones densely reported over a number of years (think Robert A. Caro or Rick Perlstein) can easily outlast their editors, even after a great deal of work has already been done. If I acquire and begin work on a massive biography for two years, then leave for another publishing job and a successor takes over, who actually edited the finished book? At the extreme it may be four or five people. The inability to pin down such a simple question is why editors are usually credited, if at all, in an Acknowledgments section where the author may go into detail. 

A particularly grateful author may also applaud back-office workers who are just as essential: the copyeditor, who marks up the manuscript for grammar, spelling and continuity; the proofreader, who makes sure that manuscript is perfectly reproduced on the page proofs; and much less frequently, the indexer, whose diamond-cutting attention to detail perfectly renders proper names (sometimes narrative events too) into an alphabetical page-numbered list. Next time you thumb through an index, stop to consider that it was created by a human being who managed to avoid going batshit insane in the process.

The editor’s appreciation is completely at the author’s discretion, but its lack of prominence means the reader has to seek it out; vanishingly few book editors become household names. Once this even became a real-world issue, when someone noticed that the Hugo Award — the science fiction field’s Oscar — for Best Editor invariably went to the editors of magazines, where most of the genre’s short fiction originated. That’s because the editor’s name was prominently printed in the masthead of each issue. So in fairness the editing Hugo was split in two, yielding a new “Long-Form” category and ensuring that more Acknowledgments pages were consulted by sf devotees.

It’s always nice to be acknowledged by the author — aw, she noticed those metaphorical beads of sweat on my forehead! — but it’s not something you can ask for. It always comes out of the blue on a manuscript page. Well, almost always. I got a gracious thank-you in Norman Spinrad’s acknowledgments for his novel HE WALKED AMONG US more than fifteen years after I did the work he was thanking me for. I first saw it in a finished copy at the bookstore — the novel itself had migrated to another publisher. I bought a copy to see what had changed since I had my hands on it so long ago. Frankly, I’m interested in anything by this editor.


A Republican Tells The Truth

August 17, 2020

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While breathlessly awaiting the new REAGANLAND, the fourth and final volume in Rick Perlstein’s magisterial account of the rise of American conservatism over barely more than a generation, I read another book that has lots to say on the same subject. Perlstein’s new one (due at my house tomorrow!) is about how the right addressed the Carter years; it ends as Ronald Reagan is about to take the oath of office, and that’s not too far from where Stuart Stevens’s political memoir begins. The title? IT WAS ALL A LIE.

Stuart Stevens has been one of the busiest Republican political consultants since his first campaign in 1978. He has worked on several Presidential races, most recently as the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s attempt to deny Barack Obama a second term. But his hand has really made a difference at the Congressional and state level, where he’s handled dozens of campaigns and won most of them. 

I worked with Stuart in 1979 on a campaign for governor of his home state of Mississippi. I was a writer and producer for the candidate’s ad agency and wrote as needed, pretty much everything except speeches. In those days the Republican Party was just gaining a foothold in the Deep South, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War. The candidate was new to politics, a college football hero and well-respected businessman, warm and genuine. I tended to side with the other team politically, but it was my job and I tried to do my very best.

Also advising the campaign were a few key figures in late-century Southern politics, Mississippians who had dusted themselves off after Barry Goldwater’s embarrassing landslide loss in 1964 and now determined that they would slowly but surely establish the Republican brand in the South. You can read about them in Perlstein’s first volume, BEFORE THE STORM. I got a taste of GOP orthodoxy from them the first time I used the phrase, “the Democratic Party.” One of the ringleaders, Wirt Yerger, corrected me. “Tom, it’s the Democrat Party. We’re democratic too!” Listen closely and you will frequently hear that usage among true believers. It has turned into a cagey pejorative (the other guys aren’t democratic!), so much fun that even Trump, that dimmest of bulbs, has picked it up.

These were not the kind of Republicans who sport MAGA hats and American-flag shirts, not the yahoos who chant and jeer at Trump rallies, whose T-shirts read I’D RATHER BE A RUSSIAN THAN A DEMOCRAT and who worry over pedophiles in pizza parlors. These were sensible, realistic men (mostly) of means (mostly) who thought the less government interfered in their daily lives, the better. It did not take them long to completely flip the “solid South,” making it next to impossible to succeed with a “D” after your name, and they have run things ever since.

But the changes they set into motion had their own vitality, and morphed into something that became harder and harder to recognize. Political science students have had a field day tracing the roots of GOP extremism. Did it start with the revocation of the broadcast Fairness Doctrine in the Eighties, giving rise to partisan right-wing radio? Was it Newt Gingrich’s smashmouth takeover of Congress in 1994, achieved by nationalizing every election and marking the beginning of the end of Congressional civility? However it happened, the Republicans in Stuart Stevens’s wing have been watching the devolution of their party in horror, in anger, but mostly in sorrow. IT WAS ALL A LIE is a mea culpa from a man who understands perfectly well that the malevolent jack-in-the-box that is Donald Trump isn’t the cause of our current climate but a symptom of it. He is painfully aware that he himself is one architect of that climate.

The author introduces race as the “original Republican sin” and confesses to using it to siphon off votes from his opponent in his first campaign. He notes that the party uses “family values” not just as an ethos but “as a club against political opponents.” The politicization of Christianity “as a right-wing force was always more about the acquisition of power.” The party’s intellectual leaders are “paranoids, kooks, know-nothings and bigots.” “Truth” is malleable. Cowardice and fear are rampant in the party: “the base price of admission is a willingness to accept that an unstable, pathological liar leads it and pretend otherwise.” 

But to me, the most dangerous Republican offenses over the last few decades have been financial ones. First, deficits don’t matter unless a Democrat is in the White House: watch how pious GOP leaders suddenly become, basically on Inauguration Day. Yet what was the first order of business in 2017? A budget-busting tax cut. 

And second, a whopper which has been trotted out for decades but just won’t die: tax cuts for the wealthy are good for the economy. ”A belief in the power of tax cuts is about as close as it can be to a definitional core belief that exists in the Republican Party,” writes Stuart. In the Reagan years they even ginned up a theory, “trickle-down economics,” to give the idea a patina of respectability. But as a moment’s reflection will reveal, this notion is absurd. Wealthy people do not inject their tax cut into the general economy by spending it: they invest or save it instead. Nothing “trickles down.” To truly stimulate an economy, tax cuts should go to the least wealthy, who will spend immediately. But it isn’t hard to imagine the donors phoning all over Congress the morning after Trump won: “OK, pal, we gave you complete control of the government at great personal expense. Now cut my frickin taxes, or don’t ever call me again!

I think Stuart is occasionally a little too hard on himself, but it must have taken a great deal of soul-searching to even begin page 1. And he is correct: he was complicit in promoting some ideas he knew to be misleading or false (in the age of Trump, we now call such things “lies”), and he did this for years and years. Of course, coming clean is easier if you’re not an elected officeholder who has to face the voters. One of Stuart’s former clients is a profile in courage, his goodness so out of touch with the rest of his party that they don’t know what to do with him. If there’s a single sitting Republican that Stuart Stevens can still be proud of, it has to be Mitt Romney. Today, Stuart is trying to atone by working with the Lincoln Project, a consortium of Republican hotshots who are using their mighty powers of persuasion for the benefit of mankind: to get rid of Donald Trump. They’re fishing for “Biden Republicans,” today’s equivalent of “Reagan Democrats.”

So where does that leave me? After all, I was right there alongside Stuart for that 1979 gubernatorial campaign. Though I don’t remember deliberately lying, ever, it’s true that our novice candidate was being given talking points — probably even opinions — by the secret masters of the Southern GOP. “Republican” still connoted “freed the slaves” in the hearts of many good ole boys. Our guy was presented as a rebuttal: white, handsome, down-home, reverent, levelheaded, you know. I’m not certain that Wirt, Stuart and the others even expected to win; they wanted to demonstrate that in 1979 a Republican candidate could mount a respectable statewide campaign in Mississippi, and they did exactly that.

I had one more thing to ponder. Election day. While I personally liked the candidate I was working for, I thought his innocence would make it easy for kingmakers to put thoughts in his head, words in his mouth. I had even witnessed as much. I strongly preferred the “Democrat” candidate. But how am I going to take somebody’s money, then turn around and proactively oppose him? I starting thinking about this in October, and it may sound like a trifle to you, but I lost sleep over it. Finally I Solomoned it out. For the first and only time in my voting history, I declined to vote in one particular race. 

We lost. But look what happened instead. On election night I gave a ride home to a key Republican donor’s winsome daughter, who was taking it pretty hard. I continued to gallantly console her for several months thereafter, so I had that goin for me. As for Stuart and company, today’s electoral map looks like Dixieland has been attacked by vampires. They lost that one battle, but they definitely won the war.

8/19/20: A great Politico interview with Stuart.


An Actor Educates

August 13, 2020

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There are precious few silver linings to this quarantine, but for those of us without young children, one of them is a little extra time on our hands. For me, that might mean improving my movie IQ — for example, I’d never seen Monty Woolley in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER;Turner Classic Movies is a shut-in’s treasure — or thumbing a dusty spine off the shelf and finally diving into a book that I’d planned to read when I got, as they used to say, a Round Tuit.

Thus it was that I recently enjoyed a beauty by John Lithgow which was published almost a decade ago, and it hasn’t aged a whit. I heartily recommend DRAMA: AN ACTOR’S EDUCATION to anyone with an interest in the theatre, especially if that interest has blossomed into love.

Lithgow and theatre came together by nurture as well as nature, and most of this fine book is about becoming, not being, an actor. His father Arthur was a producer, director and performer who spent much of his life inaugurating and perpetuating special festivals, the first one in 1951 at his alma mater, Antioch College, where he taught English and drama. Young John appeared onstage more than once, but many of his earliest memories were of the actors flowing through “Shakespeare Under The Stars,” as the annual Antioch Shakespeare Festival was known for seven seasons.

The Lithgow clan was so peripatetic that John attended eight different secondary schools. Arthur created and nurtured ragtag festivals throughout the East, with John learning the realities of the art form as a bit player and crew member. When he got to Harvard he dove into undergraduate drama, “the most active and creative [years] of my life…It was the last time I worked in the theater for the pure, unfettered joy of it.” He was the new kid in town but his father had already stuffed him with years of experience, a fortunate thing because “As a student, let’s just say I was a very good actor.” He can remember the very second — onstage in a Gilbert & Sullivan piece at the Loeb Drama Center — when he decided to become a professional. A Fulbright grant to study in London set him on his way, and “I came home with a fruity British accent that I didn’t even realize I had acquired.”

An actor’s life is one of triumphs and disappointments, and Lithgow — who by now had also acquired a young wife — is candid about struggling in his father’s companies and at endless auditions, “chasing my tail in a parody of the clueless neophyte New York actor.” He actually got a movie first, a nice role in an obscure 1972 picture called DEALING, which brought him to the attention of people in Hollywood who flew him out for some meetings, including one hilarious one with director Terrence Malick, casting legend Lynn Stalmaster, and a canine. Great theatre roles came later. Lithgow’s best audition story isn’t even about himself, but “a pale, wispy girl with long, straight, cornsilk hair.” When it’s over, he reports, “It was the last time Meryl Streep had to audition for anything.”

Lithgow has always struck me as a courtly, courteous, reserved fellow, so it’s especially interesting to see him let down his hair, to read about being in college during the tumultuous late Sixties, feel the pain of the torrid affair with Liv Ullmann that wrecked his marriage, and savor his droll takedowns of some true rascals of the entertainment business. I was startled to see him reference his great screwball turn as Dr. Emilio Lizardo (“Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy!”) in THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI as “far and away my most outrageous screen performance, and, secretly, one of my favorites.” Me too, sir, but I had no idea you could be so informal.

DRAMA is, er, bookended by memories of Arthur reading to his young children from a weathered 1939 volume, TELLERS OF TALES, one hundred great short stories collected by Somerset Maugham; and, fifty years later, of John reading his father’s favorite story from that same volume as the 86-year-old man convalesces from serious abdominal surgery. This was P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” I was lucky enough to see Lithgow masterfully perform this hysterically funny story from memory, along with Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” about two years ago in his one-man show JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART. The personal way the evening was framed — a man, his father, and the very copy of the very book that bound them together — gave me a heartwarming glimpse into one actor’s life. This book is even more affecting, and maintains its emotional power no matter how long its owner might dally over picking it up.


Hail To The

July 24, 2020

Hail to the Redskins,

Hail victory!

Braves on the warpath,

Fight for old D.C.!

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I could cutely perform the Washington Redskins fight song — at least that monosyllabic first verse — when I was but five years old. I was “bred and buttered,” as the Irish say, in Norfolk, Virginia, and in that same year, 1955, our only pro team called it quits: baseball’s Norfolk Tars, Piedmont League affiliates of the New York Yankees. Norfolk’s local allegiance therefore went to the nearest major-league city, and to us that was Washington. Our official baseball team became the Washington Senators. Our official football team was, as ever it had been, the Washington Redskins. I learned that song from the many fans in my family and happily remember basking in their delight at my pre-game shows. 

Usually hosting my Young People’s Concerts was the first football fanatic I ever knew: my mom’s younger brother Bill. At a time when pro baseball was still America’s Pastime — late 50s, early 60s — he was all in for the Skins. Uncle Bill’s house was a Redskins shrine, with merchandising crap on mantelpieces, posters on the den walls, you name it. He dressed out for every game in jersey, cap and scarf — indoors, to watch tv. He changed clothes slightly if it was an away game; there was some sartorial superstition that I’ve thankfully forgotten. Uncle Bill lived and died for the Washington Redskins. 

On December 16, 1979, a friend of mine with Dallas Cowboys connections hosted me at Texas Stadium for Roger Staubach’s last regular-season game with the Cowboys. Their opponents would be those Washington Redskins. Uncle Bill asked me to call him from the stadium when it was over to describe the excitement. The Skins were in position to deny the Cowboys the NFC East title and were leading 34-21 with only four minutes to play. But Staubach went out in a blaze of glory and won 35-34. I didn’t have the heart to find a phone to call my uncle. I knew how much he’d be suffering. 

What would Uncle Bill have thought if he had lived long enough to see the Redskins give up their team name after using it for 87 years (the first four in Boston)? I think it would probably have jolted him pretty hard. But then what? How would he have sorted it out?

Frequent repeated use can strip a word of its power to shock or disturb. Lenny Bruce even had a bit on the subject, repeating the n-word until it detached from its roots in hatred and sounded silly. Now that Black people have staked their claim to that word (they can use it but others can’t), and “queer” belongs to those who are (and has thus been sapped of its power to demean), a little bit of the edge has been sanded off.

Similarly, the word “redskin” doesn’t blare out because it’s been used for most of a century in a non-pejorative way by white people, whose little ones have even “hailed” them. But let’s try an experiment. Let’s change the team name to the Washington Rednecks. That can’t possibly offend anyone, right? Well, maybe rednecks themselves — but heck, they’ll probably just be flattered! Now it’s a little clearer.

I used to edit frontier novels a while ago, and one of my favorite editees was a writer/poet named Robert Conley. I visited him in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation and the end of the Trail of Tears. In hanging out with Robert and his friends over most of a day, it gradually dawned on me that, as I expected, they didn’t use the term “Indian,” but I also hadn’t heard “Native American.” I asked about that, and was told that the term sounded to them like it was invented by some prissy white college professor, and since then I’ve tried to avoid it too. (Keep in mind, though, I was in deepest Oklahoma: to say it’s a conservative part of the country would be the understatement of the century.) Where you or I would use either of those terms, these guys simply said “Cherokee.” I didn’t find out about “redskin” because it didn’t even occur to me to ask.

Baseball’s Atlanta Braves should probably think about this too, as well as the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs. I always thought “braves” connoted, well, bravery. Courage. But then again, I always got a kick out of the team mascot’s name: Chief Noc-a-homa. I’ve seen no less a worthy than Jane Fonda doing the “tomahawk chop” at Turner Field. And of all those terms, “redskins” seems the most demeaning to me, much more than “braves.” But I have to keep reminding myself that it doesn’t matter what it seems like to me, because I’m not Cherokee. I guess that’s where the cultural dissonance begins. Why would any “redskin” ever fight for D.C.?

The sports leagues must have had America’s first conquered people on their minds (some believe the second is the Southerner) when they built themselves out, because those team names and many more like them go way, way back. But if this moment in history gives us a chance to do a little sweeping up around the nomenclature, then it doesn’t really matter how many layers of dust have collected. My Uncle Bill might have — probably would have — grumbled. But I’m positive he would have eventually dusted himself off, gotten with the program, and started worrying about how much it was gonna cost him to replace the houseful of cheesy merch that marks the territory of a true fan.

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Not my uncle’s place. Too sparsely decorated.

 


Milton Glaser, 1929-2020

June 28, 2020

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Milton Glaser was one of the few graphic designers whose name was known outside the advertising field. It’s because time and again he was able to come up with the kind of concept that made you shake your head in awe and jealousy. They were so brilliant that your first reaction was, who thought of THAT?, and so inevitable that the next was, why didn’t I think of that?  

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I first associated his name with that remarkable Bob Dylan poster, the silhouette with the multicolored psychedelic hair, that came inside every copy of his GREATEST HITS album in 1967. This same guy designed the swirling logo for New York magazine, which he co-founded. The logo for Brooklyn Brewery, that’s his too. And the DC Comics “bullet.” And tons more.

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But I think his masterpiece was something he did gratis for his beloved home state. He says he scribbled it down on a taxi ride. No matter who you are or where you live, I’ll bet you’ve seen it. Three huge letters set in American Typewriter along with a rich red heart of exactly the same height. I (heart) NY. I love New York. It’s so arresting that it’s been glommed over the years by hundreds of wannabes. Including, about 32 years ago, by your author.

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When I first got into the advertising business in the mid-Seventies, my agency sent me to a creative seminar in Florida — and one of the reasons I wanted to go was that the keynote speaker would be Milton Glaser himself. Before he began his fascinating slide show and discussed his own work with wit and intelligence, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. It’s the best definition of that ineffable quality we were all seeking that I’ve ever heard.

“Creativity,” said Glaser, “is telling the truth in an unexpected way.”

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Milton Glaser’s contributions to our culture seem limitless. But now I’m afraid the list has become finite, because the great man has passed away at 91. He leaves a world he personally made more exciting (“There are three responses to a piece of design — Yes, No, and Wow! Wow! is the one to aim for”) but is now that much less creative. 

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6/30/20: Milton Glaser’s final interview.


The Masque Of The Red, White & Blue Death

June 20, 2020

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At Prince Prospero’s masque, Jane Asher (c.) and Vincent Price.

Trump loves to brag about how he boldly fought the novel coronavirus by restricting entrance into the US from China. But now we know that, true to form, neither he nor anyone around him had thought through the possible consequences. His hip-shot action made American citizens, particularly in already-infested Europe, so instantly nervous about repatriation that they stormed back to the US at once. 

Many of them landed at airports where the customs officers were unprepared and overwhelmed. Eyewitnesses tell us that the returning travelers waited in long lines in close quarters which were already, as Stephen King wrote about THE STAND’s superflu, “crawling with death.” They weren’t tested or traced. Thus did COVID-19 make its way into the most heavily populated parts of the United States, the ones with international airports. Not even a king can command a virus. And Trump was only a spectator, squandering weeks that could have been devoted to preparation which would have saved thousands of American lives.

We shut-ins make strange connections these days, and all this made me think of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. Not only the Edgar Allan Poe story that so unnerved me as a child, but also the 1964 Roger Corman movie that remains the best of his Poe “adaptations.” I just re-read the story and “Hop-Frog,” a lesser-known Poe tale which is also folded into Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell’s screenplay, and watched the film again, both after many years. Once you discover similarities to our present situation, you can’t shake them off. It’s no longer just an imaginative dark fantasy. In many disturbing ways, our daily life is Poe made real.

“The Masque” (the short story) and THE MASQUE (the picture) got to me as a youngster because of the plague’s creepy inexorability. It’s the same frisson that made the Mummy, to me, the most terrifying of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, you can outrun the Mummy, or flee by air or ocean. Sure, he just shambles everywhere he goes. But once you have incurred the Mummy’s wrath, he will never ever stop coming until he finds you and kills you. It may take years, decades, but you will never be rid of him. He’s getting closer every second, even while you’re asleep.

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Price and Patrick Magee are two very bad boys who get a kick out of inequality.

How naive, how arrogant of Trump to think that restricting traffic from one country — or at least attempting it in his typically hamhanded way — was enough to stanch the spread of a novel virus about which we knew next to nothing. Poe’s Prince Prospero — could there be a more apt fictional name for our current president? — was less naive about the Red Death (“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous”), but every bit as arrogant. He invited the knights and dames of his court, a full thousand of them, to “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.” It was not called Mar-A-Lago, but you can be forgiven the mistake. “A strong and lofty wall girded it in” with “gates of iron” whose bolts were welded shut. The abbey was “amply provisioned.” “With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

Are you getting chills yet? 

“The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’” Even as a grade-schooler, I thought to myself, they think a locked door is going to keep out a disease? 

After five or six months of merry, bibulous quarantine, Prospero decides to throw a masked ball for the ages. This very moment as I write this, Trump fans are gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the first public appearance in months by their prince. Trump campaign rallies are, for all practical purposes, giant parties, celebrations of the minions of MAGA. Some foolish people have even declared today “National No Mask Day,” for the notion of protecting one another from the spread of coronavirus has, incredibly, become politicized. I don’t expect to see many masks inside that Tulsa arena tonight, even though a hot, crowded indoor environment where people are screaming and chanting is absolutely perfect for this disease to flourish and spread.  

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The masque is the centerpiece of Poe’s story and of Corman’s beautiful film, thanks in great degree to superb art direction by Daniel Haller and cinematography by Nicolas Roeg(!). Leading the revelers to thumb their noses at the contagion outside is Vincent Price as Prospero, who has never been smarmier — and the screenplay adds a Satanic subplot for him and Hammer scream queen Hazel Court that is not in the Poe story. You even get a good look at Jane Asher, who at the time was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend and muse. It’s great fun and looks far more expensive than it is — “the money’s on the screen,” as they say.

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Jane Asher takes a bath, to everyone’s delight.

I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that the Red Death finds its way into Prospero’s bash, just as I expect COVID-19 to crash Trump’s Tulsa rally and the Republican National Convention’s nomination acceptance night in another arena Petri dish. It was moved to Jacksonville because the governor of North Carolina would not agree to suspend distancing guidelines for the sake of political optics. Ignoring the whole of epidemiological science isn’t just ill-advised; it represents true madness. Please don’t let this end like Poe’s tale, the final line of which Corman puts up as a title card at the end:

“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

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