The Producers (The Musical)

April 29, 2021

I’ve been reading (or re-reading) a clump of books about a fascinating sort of artist: the record producer. Three memoirs, from Jerry Wexler, Daniel Lanois and Phil Ramone; and two bios, of John Hammond and Phil Spector. These guys (the overwhelming majority of producers over the years have been guys) are a rainbow of different styles and methods, but they share one key attribute: they all grew up living and breathing music. Nothing else in life was anywhere close.

It’s tough to put your finger on what makes a good producer — or even what it is exactly that a producer does. (As a former book editor, I’m familiar with having an amorphous profession.) At least in the acoustic age, when musicians used to push air around in an expensive soundproof studio, being at a recording session was very much like being on a film set. Most people are surprised to learn that at either place, the thing you do most is wait

A record producer is analogous to a film director, too, but they’re creatively inverted. The director is acting as a general, leading an army of specialists and doling out her full attention among every single inch of the photographic frame: she’s thinking outward. The producer is in a claustrophilic environment, intent on the slightest intonations and their relationship to the other sounds at his disposal: his inclination is inward. They will become one and the same when the director gets to the mixing process long after photography has been completed, but in the primal sense a director is still counting on her eyes, a producer on his ears.

Some producers start out as musicians themselves: Phil Ramone was a violin prodigy, and everybody says Phil Spector was good enough to make a living as a session guitarist had he chosen to. But Jerry Wexler and John Hammond were both swing-era superfans, soaking in everything they could learn about jazz and blues and spending every possible minute listening to music. No matter his background, though, any producer must obviously be able to communicate with musicians, either in a musicological sense (e.g., Ramone) or an emotional one (Hammond). As Hammond biographer Dunstan Prial points out, several members of Count Basie’s band couldn’t read music, but Hammond could talk to them just fine. Paul McCartney doesn’t read music either, but does he ever hear it. Imagine the excitement he felt when producer George Martin introduced him to the piccolo trumpet, which wound up leading the charming break on “Penny Lane.” Producer Ron Richards knew you can’t fit a razor blade between the perfectly pitched high harmonies of the Hollies’ Allan Clarke, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, but on the bubbly hit “Carrie-Anne,” the instrumental solo is taken by — a steel drum. That’s what a producer does.

Recording techniques weren’t as sophisticated when the older guys got their start, and Hammond in particular was famous for plopping down a single microphone in the center of the studio and letting the cats just wail. But since then, arranging mikes and musicians just so has become part of the gig. Phil Ramone is so meticulous that he keeps special microphones for the likes of Judy Collins, Paul Simon and Billy Joel under lock and key, each to be used by no other artist. Daniel Lanois cut his teeth working on ambient music with Brian Eno and filling every atom of the stereo spectrum.

But even a perfectionist like Ramone is helpless before the recording gods when the assignment is a “live” record. (He recorded Simon & Garfunkel’s 1981 Central Park concert.) Gone is the control over performance quality and audio separation which a studio provides. Most “live” albums from the pop era have been “sweetened,” or partially re-recorded in a studio setting after the fact. Even the keepin-it-real Grateful Dead’s EUROPE ’72 sounds better on record than it did in person. The all-time most notorious “sweetening” job was done by Eddie Kramer for ALIVE! (1975) by Kiss; on some tracks the drums were the only unretouched instrument, and even audience noise was altered. Ironically, that was the album that broke the band as a huge concert act.

Some producers, like Ramone and Lanois, started out on the electronic side, as engineers. To again use a movie analogy, that’s the audio equivalent of a cinematographer, translating the producer’s desires (who in turn is trying to capture the artist’s vision) and adjusting the recording process to get it all on tape. Top-flight record engineers like Alan Parsons and Tom Dowd became star producers in their own right. One day in 1975 I interviewed Rod Stewart for his first U.S. recording, ATLANTIC CROSSING, and Dowd was considered crucial enough to be there too. He’s featured heavily in Wexler’s good-natured memoir, which is essentially the history of Atlantic Records. (I already knew “Tommy” from a late-night Wet Willie session in Macon, Georgia, where a chunk of the time was spent calibrating a tom-tom after summoning a drum tuner in the middle of the night. Remember, you sit and wait. That too is what a producer does.) 

Most producers operate in personal obscurity, and you probably wouldn’t have recognized any of the ones I’ve mentioned if you’d passed them on the street, with one possible exception: Phil Spector. The wunderkind of the Brill-Building “girl-group” era, he produced a fountain of Sixties hits (he had his first #1 record at age eighteen) in both New York and Los Angeles, and became more famous than his acts. He is best remembered for what he called the “Wall Of Sound” — redundant instrumentation layered into controlled thunder of Wagnerian intensity. Spector’s signature style influenced countless others: for example, the track “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen sounds like it was cut at a Phil Spector session. On the other hand, Spector is responsible for the unctuous and bullying orchestral and choral “sweetening” that, in my opinion, overpowers “The Long And Winding Road” on the Beatles’ LET IT BE (1970). But Spector is also remembered for his creepy eccentricities, so Mick Brown’s bio is far and away the most dramatic of the quintet I just enjoyed. It ends as Spector is about to go on trial for the 2003 second-degree murder of a B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson — everybody knew he was careless with guns. He was found guilty in 2009, and died in custody at 81 just three months ago.

Besides obsessing over music all their lives, the guys I just read about have one more thing in common: they all worked with Bob Dylan or, in Spector’s case, hoped to. (He said if he ever got the chance he would record Dylan “like an opera.” Hell, Phil recorded everybody like an opera.) But look at the variety. John Hammond signed Dylan and produced his first folk record in 1962, as part of John’s resurgence after jazz had morphed out from under him, from blues and swing to be-bop, during his hitch in the Army. (Hammond also discovered and signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin — her career didn’t take off until Wexler and the Ertegun brothers got ahold of her at Atlantic — Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others. Talk about ears!) Phil Ramone engineered the New York sessions for BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975), which make up about half the finished album. SLOW TRAIN COMING (1979), from Dylan’s Christian period, was produced by that ol’ nonbeliever Jerry Wexler. And Daniel Lanois, who must be the Phil Spector of the digital era — not as loud but just as tasty — produced OH MERCY (1989) and the sultry TIME OUT OF MIND (1997), one of my favorite Dylan albums of ‘em all. 

Digital technology changes everything. Most crucially, it’s now possible to make workable recordings without using a studio: modern demos can sound better than some finished records used to. In fact, it’s possible to forgo the clock ticking your money away and make them in your bedroom (your mileage may vary as to relative quality). If you want, you can realize pretty close to full orchestrations that play only into your headphones, even correct the pitch of your singer if you have to. Digital is great in many ways. Peter Asher, who made some beautiful records with the likes of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, said, “People go, ‘Don’t you really miss tape?’ I say, ‘No, I’m so happy to see the back of it.’ We can do edits now that we could only dream of back then.” No question, technology has made some things easier.

But you cannot make the best record of which you’re capable without a good producer. You just can’t. After enough years spent slogging in the studio, that good producer might be you, but my guess is it isn’t. Here are five people who have really put their marks on music but never really got credit from the general public, only from devotees who paid attention. It was so much fun hanging out with them behind the console — and best of all, I didn’t have to wait one second.

Why I Can Call It The Super Bowl, But Your Local Car Dealer Can’t

March 16, 2021

Have you noticed that around Super Bowl time, each year more and more advertisers refer to the National Football League championship as “the Big Game”? Why don’t they just call it “the Super Bowl,” as I do? Super Bowl, Super Bowl, Super Bowl — see, that wasn’t so hard! But as with many other wonderments in this old world, the answer is simple. Money. 

“Super Bowl” is a registered trademark of the NFL, which also owns the copyright to the televised broadcast of the game. Technically I just infringed, but I’m unlikely to incite the bother of a cease-and-desist letter because I’m not trying to use the trademark to make money. (A pedant would refer to it as Super Bowl®.) 

It costs a metric ton of moolah to buy a sponsorship before the year’s largest television audience. If you’ve ponied up, the NFL allows you, and the network airing the game that year, to use the trademark. But no non-sponsoring business legally may. This year the Super Bowl was on CBS, which allowed the network’s late-night host Stephen Colbert to use the name with a mischievous grin. Back in 2014, when he played a conservative blowhard on Comedy Central’s THE COLBERT REPORT, his writers satirized this protectiveness by creating an impish workaround and raising some hoopla over an exemplary nocturnal avian, the “Superb Owl.” (Official hashtag: #SUPERBOWL.)

The NFL fiercely protects the exclusivity for which sponsors pay so dearly. By now enough C&D letters have gone out, and actual lawsuits been brought, that businesses everywhere have gotten the message — and each year it becomes ever more obvious that infringing on the league’s property is a no-no. So if you want to sell furniture or promote a happy hour around the game, you have to come up with some other way to refer to it, like “the NFL championship” or, increasingly, the “Big Game.“ Everybody knows what you mean, which is the whole joke behind Colbert’s “Superb Owl,” especially if you add pretentious Roman numerals.

One of the most historically litigious guys in America is the loser of the 2020 presidential election. He doesn’t win all that often, but he sues his ass off. His latest antic was sending C&Ds to the Republican National Committee and a slew of other GOP groups about two weeks ago, demanding they “immediately cease and desist the unauthorized use of [the loser]’s name, image, and/or likeness in all fundraising, persuasion, and/or issue speech.” Setting aside the fact that the former POTUS is a public figure who is not protected by trademark law, the demand is equally laughable because his own unsuccessful re-election campaign had received a torrent of C&Ds demanding that he quit using copyrighted music recordings without permission at his rallies. They were all ignored.

If you want to behold some expert sponsorship, check out NASCAR®, which is the registered trademark of the National Association For Stock Car Auto Racing, LLC. (It’s an acronym and should get all capitals — unlike Fox, which is frequently printed in caps by rabid fans but is nothing grander than the founder’s last name. They’re just used to seeing it displayed that way. It’s the KISS effect.) I used to do books with NASCAR a while ago, and they are a rights lawyer’s fever dream. 

First, if you’ve ever seen a NASCAR racing vehicle, you know that every square inch is covered with logos and ads. (For fun, watch as the PGA Tour slowly catches on.) Auto racing is a very expensive business and sponsors are more than coveted, they’re necessary. But the driver’s sponsors are just the front-facing part that the fans can see. Underneath, the NASCAR universe is a dizzying set of interrelated agreements. NASCAR itself has sponsors. (I guess HarperCollins was the Official Book Publisher.) The individual racetracks, which are separate businesses, have their own sponsors too. So, just making this up, a Coke driver could be competing under a Pepsi organization on a Mountain Dew track. Depending on who’s paying for the photos, sometimes you have to do your best to, er, feature. They’ve worked this out after years of experience, and you have to tip your hat: NASCAR magically keeps it all straight.

Sometimes trademark protection can slip away from you, particularly where there is competition involved. It could even happen to “Super Bowl” were it not so zealously guarded. Among the registered trademarks which have fallen into generic use under US law are Aspirin (originally owned by Bayer), Cellophane (DuPont), Escalator (Otis Elevator), Laundromat (Westinghouse), TV Dinner (Swanson), Videotape (Ampex), Yo-Yo (Duncan), and Zipper (Universal Fastener). They could be joined by the likes of Jell-O (Kraft Heinz) and Kleenex (Kimberly-Clark) if they’re not careful. I remember from my advertising days the clever campaign that Xerox ran in Ad Age magazine to encourage proper use: “When you use ‘xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.”

Which leads us to another pair of trademarks that are holding on by their fingernails because everybody uses them without attribution. In this weirdly scheduled year, we’re now about halfway between the, uh, Big Game and the, uh, movie industry’s annual prize ceremony. I refer of course to the Academy Awards®, where each winner receives an Academy Award®, a statuette also known as an Oscar®. All are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which means to keep it that way. 

AMPAS and its, uh, Big Evening are creations of the movie studios themselves. So while it may not even occur to most folks — even most mass media — that the terms are protected by law, look closely at the fine print on the home video packaging of any AMPAS-honored film. The studios, which after all are the ones who published your video, never forget that legal disclaimer. It prevents my old grade school, Norfolk Academy, from bestowing its own Academy Awards, or your plumber from promoting his Oscar-quality snaking skills. Of course, neither can the Academy proclaim its annual throwdown “the Super Bowl of awards shows.” It’ll have to be “the NFL championship of awards shows.” But that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Rush Limbaugh, 1951-2021

February 18, 2021

Rush Limbaugh built an empire on unfairness, and boy, did it catch on.

Most Americans are too young (*sigh*) to remember when radio and tv broadcasts were subject to the “Fairness Doctrine,” established in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission. Along with an “Equal Time Rule” which applied to political candidates, the regulation mandated the presentation of opposing points of view on controversial issues or political endorsements. What right did the FCC have to stick its nose into local broadcasters’ business? Because the airwaves are owned by the public and only temporarily licensed to for-profit companies.

One of the signature features of 60 MINUTES when it debuted in 1968 was a segment called “Point/Counterpoint,” in which liberal Nicholas von Hoffman and conservative James J. Kilpatrick debated a particular topic. As Shana Alexander took over for von Hoffman in 1975, making the segment a de facto battle of the sexes, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was just going on the air. In SNL’s early years Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd had a ball satirizing these debates: “Jane, you ignorant slut!” That line was funny because the real thing was all about ideas, not personalities, and 60 MINUTES’ back-and-forths were conducted with the utmost propriety. The fact that such a respectful atmosphere now feels innocent, even quaint, can be traced directly back to El Rushbo.

There was talk radio during those days, it was just very different. When I lived in Georgia in the early Seventies, on long car trips I loved tuning in to WRNG (“Ring Radio”), an all-talk station in Atlanta. Each jock had a four-hour show and spent it all on telephone call-ins. The host could steer callers toward a topic, but the real stars were the civilians on the line. You could hear crazy tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists, but a later caller would usually inject a dose of reality. Even then, though, I noticed that the ranters were more entertaining. One of the WRNG personalities was a guy named Neal Boortz. He was still doing his thing as late as 2013, but something had long since changed. For WRNG he was a forensic referee, but over time he morphed into fire-breathing right-wing bombast. This is how it happened:

In 1987 the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine, claiming that there were so many media voices in the marketplace that it was no longer needed. Now you could say whatever you wanted without opposition or reproach. The following year a radio syndicator hired a glib 37-year-old Sacramento jock at exactly the right time, and offered his conservative-oriented show for next to nothing as long as you agreed to run three or four minutes of “national” ads. The rest of the commercial time was yours. THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW was eventually carried on more than 600 stations, the reach ever larger and larger as the show moved around to bigger stations at contract renewal time.

By the late Eighties the radio business had been fighting to stay standing in the midst of several cultural hurricanes. For decades a leading and lucrative format had been “Top Forty,” or repeated playing of popular rock and pop singles. But since the late Sixties music fans had been enticed by the clarity and range of album-oriented FM stations. Then in 1981 MTV went on the air and supplanted Top Forty radio as the best way to “break” new acts and records. The business was anemic when Rush came along and changed everything — and AM was just dandy for talk, which doesn’t require a Bang & Olufsen rig to enjoy. Most broadcasters will tell you that Rush Limbaugh is the guy who personally saved the AM dial by paving the way for so many others.

While Rush was emerging to lead the conservative ecosphere, I was in New York working in the book business. One day in 1992, when I was at Bantam, a competitor of ours, Pocket Books, released THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE and it shot to the top of the bestseller list. I had never heard of Rush Limbaugh, but a ton of book buyers sure had. I asked our publicity czar, Stuart Applebaum, if he could explain the new publishing pheenom. “Conservatives don’t have anything to read,” he said. (They do now, even have their own imprints; one of them, Regnery, recently picked up Sen. Josh Hawley’s discarded book after he basically fist-bumped the murderous Jan. 6 mob at the Capitol, triggering a Simon & Schuster morals clause.)

I had to know, so I got a pal to send me a copy and took it home. Although I had still never heard the sound of Limbaugh’s voice — the thing that made him famous — I think I managed to get a load of his public persona all the same. He was an extreme reactionary, brash but so over the top that he was funny too. He clearly saw himself as an entertainer, not a journalist. Some of his provocations were nothing more than a way to get under the skin of the other side, to “own the libs.” Heck, El Rushbo invented owning the libs. But he did it with unrepentant flair. For example, his network was modestly called “Excellence In Broadcasting.”

When I heard him speak for the first time, we were in the same room. The following year, I happened to be in the David Letterman studio audience for Rush’s first guest spot, promoting his second book SEE, I TOLD YOU SO on Dave’s old NBC late-late show. By now people outside the Limbaugh fan base were vaguely aware of him, so he knew he was in the lion’s den. He demonstrated comfort and good cheer, got that faux-boastful personality stated, and ably dealt with a rather hostile crowd (“Let the wrestling begin,” said Dave at one point) while getting his jabs in at the Clintons to groans but smiling all the time. Looking back, I think Rush always resonated not just for what he said, but the way he said it. 

Yes, the media probably did have a liberal bias — truth itself has a liberal bias — so to many conservatives it was a novelty hearing a point of view that actually reflected their own. Rush was speaking for them so accurately that his fans took to calling themselves “dittoheads.” Damn right, Rush: ditto! But anybody can spout reactionary wisdom. What set Limbaugh apart were his terrific performative chops — he could vamp like a jazzman — and a carefree attitude that deflected so many incoming bad vibes like the ones in that NBC studio. 

That verbal Fred Astaire touch is why Rush is irreplaceable. Today’s conservative stars, especially on the Fox News Channel — whose high concept on its launch in 1996 was basically “Rush Limbaugh On TV,” and whose slogan “Fair And Balanced” owned the libs at gut level — are stern and humorless. Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and all the Fox blondes are simply selling outrage, not right-winger fun, and that’s hard to sustain. Remember when Dubya’s color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System remained at “elevated” risk for terrorism every day for months? You can’t keep it up. For longevity you need a song and dance man, a “rodeo clown,” as Glenn Beck memorably described himself. Which brings us to that orange guy, the one with the bizarre combover who cheats at golf. That doofus was nothing but a Rush Limbaugh imitation, and a poor one at that.

Talk about dittoheads. They even amazed the game show host turned candidate: he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. He may or may not have been surprised when a violent mob did exactly what he told them to do, but there’s no denying he was fascinated. His whole reason for being was owning the libs. He was cruder and dumber than Rush, but even the old broadcaster had to be impressed by the idea of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address. Hi, libs!

The portly loser of the 2020 election took his cues and even some of his cadences from Rush, who never missed a chance to use Barack Obama’s middle name, now as much a part of conservative nomenclature as is “Democrat,” as in “the Democrat majority in Congress,” and was all in on “birtherism.” At least Rush was most often punching up, a concept that eluded Mr. Obama’s successor (all bullies are frightened when they must face real power). But not always. The fast-food fan’s shameful pantomime of a physically lesser-abled reporter mirrored Limbaugh’s odious burlesque of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s condition, one of the lowest moments of his career. The guy with the crotch-length neckties has a propensity for grade-school derisive nicknames, his bathetic attempt to emulate Rush’s genius for coinage, as with his word “feminazi,” which is both malevolent and funny at the same time. Of course, Limbaugh once held up a photo of thirteen-year-old Chelsea Clinton and called her the “White House dog” on the air, so he has certainly wallowed in similar disgusting muck.

Most of all, Rush Limbaugh spent three decades stirring the cauldron of conspiracy that now composes the entire Republican Party. Reason is for saps. You can believe yourself the victim of a vast government conspiracy while at the same time believing the bureaucracy to be incapable of the simplest actions. You can hate “blue-state bailouts” when your own red states depend on them to subsidize your existence. You can scream for law and order while you are commandeering a state or federal capitol building. You can call for deportation of undocumented immigrants while taking advantage of their willingness to do highly physical or unpleasant jobs. The way things ought to be, Rush explained, and then see, I told you so. 

When the word spread that Rush had passed away yesterday morning from complications of lung cancer, one Facebook poster quoted Bette Davis: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” While I wouldn’t go that far, Rush Limbaugh was responsible for encouraging the bitter tribalism that keeps Americans from solving common problems. But he couldn’t have done it without the complicity of his audience. I hope enough dittoheads will be forced to use their own brains now and perhaps rediscover comity in the bargain.

The Hitch Catch

January 25, 2021

Ever said to yourself, or even out loud, “If that happened in a screenplay, they’d turn it down. Too unbelievable for the audience to buy”? I sure have — most frequently in the past five years or so, let’s just keep this nonpolitical — but the fact is we’re wrong. The plots of some of the best movies ever made are absolutely ludicrous, but the audience has still bought them with wide-open wallets. Quite a few were created by the same man, one of the cinema’s greatest directors and certainly its most famous: Alfred Hitchcock. 

“It’s the responsibility of the filmmaker,” said Hitchcock, “to create a fictional universe so compelling and complete that we don’t notice implausibilities or, if we do, they don’t make any difference.’’ Throughout his work are instances where Coleridge is turned upside down and the audience is forced into an unwilling suspension of disbelief, propelled by a story which is chugging along faster than its ability to ponder and reflect. 

VERTIGO, one of Hitchcock’s most highly regarded films, is like a piece of delicate crystal, so fragile that it’ll shatter if it’s jostled. How did a murderer know exactly when and where to act, and manage to escape the scene of the crime with an accomplice? How did the Jimmy Stewart character, barely hanging off a roof in the opening scene, get down alive? How could someone deliberately pull off the scene in the San Francisco Bay? How could another person possibly predict the precise limits of the Stewart character’s fear of heights (one that Hitchcock shared). For the film to work — which it definitely does — the answer has to be, who cares: what happens now? That dreamy tilted feeling, the gradual slide of the audience into empathy with Stewart’s obsession, is no accident: fog filters, colors chosen to inspire emotions, even an unsettling nightmare in which we are taken inside his fevered mind, all draw us in and keep us off base so that we quit asking such annoying questions. Then, just like that, Hitchcock takes the dream away and snaps back to reality — and what remains is an exercise in suspense.

Unlikely coincidences also abound in Hitchcock. My favorite example is NORTH BY NORTHWEST, in which the entire plot is launched by a bizarre bit of bad luck in the first reel, when Cary Grant makes an innocent gesture at exactly the wrong time. From there, Hitchcock just starts having fun while the set pieces become more and more preposterous. You can almost hear him giggling. You think that was wild? Just a moment and I’ll top it. The fact that NORTH BY NORTHWEST is impossible is part of what makes it irresistible. David Fincher’s THE GAME works the same way, to the point that at the climax a character must, à la VERTIGO, wander into the precise correct spot to set up the finale, all by himself. How could you count on that in real life? You couldn’t. But by then the audience has already been asked to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Yes, it’s implausible. And your point is?

Alfred Hitchcock could play with reality like this because he had an almost magical connection with his audience and could put himself in their position with unerring accuracy. One of the most well-known shots in cinema history contains a tiny flaw, and once you see the error you can’t unsee it. The person who caught the flub during post-production was Hitchcock’s wife and principal collaborator, Alma Reville. But Hitch reasoned that the audience would be too traumatized at that point to notice, and he was absolutely correct. I’ll bet I could show it to you right now and you’d still miss the mistake, even if you know the film well. Hitch understood that processing the dramatic narrative is far more critical than parsing a photographic frame, especially when your heart happens to be pounding out of your chest. (I’ll try to point you to the moment without spoiling anything for newbies: it’s the last shot in a very intense sequence, and it opens on the subject’s unblinking eye.)

There are dozens of other reality-defying moments, unlikely coincidences and visual flights of fancy scattered throughout Hitch’s movies, which have an international reputation as great and worthy works of art. But Hitchcock’s most significant talent was the one he shared with P. T. Barnum: he was a magnificent and highly effective showman. He didn’t make his pictures for museums. He made them for the audience, which will suspend disbelief in exchange for a fight atop the Statue of Liberty every time.

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 same manuscript has been perfectly reproduced by the typesetter; 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


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.

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