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 could 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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See How They Run

April 7, 2020

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The coronavirus lockdown coincided with my six-week rehab period after a hip replacement. (I got the new hip just a few days before the hospital indefinitely postponed all elective surgery.) So I can’t go out to a restaurant or a movie or a concert or a play or a game or a museum or anything else. But I knew I’d be housebound. I just didn’t expect all of you to be in the same boat with me.

When I survey such a chasm of time one good thing remains, an opportunity like poor old Burgess Meredith thought he had in that postapocalyptic TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Books. Lots of books. Especially big fat ones that had formerly intimidated me with sheer spine size. Thus it was that I plucked a honker off the shelf that had been sitting there for nearly thirty years: WHAT IT TAKES by Richard Ben Cramer. 

Everybody had told me over the years that this was the single best book about a Presidential campaign ever written, better than Teddy White’s, better than all the op-edders whose tomes come out like clockwork these days. I always said, yada yada yada. I trust you all, don’t get me wrong, but this sumbitch is a thousand pages long! Now, newly hipped, I had no excuse, just a truckful of hours in front of me — so what the hell; I cracked it expecting to snooze though about a hundred pages. 

Friends, this is the single best book about a Presidential campaign ever written. 

It covers the 1988 race, in which you may remember that George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the 41st POTUS. But that two-man general election battle appears only in a modest epilogue at the end. The overwhelming majority of the book deals with the primary competitions, on both the Democratic and Republican sides, in which the prize is the party’s nomination in an election without an incumbent on the ballot. What distinguishes Mr. Cramer’s work from Theodore H. White’s masterful MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT volumes isn’t the accuracy of the journalism, but its deeply personal nature. White appears to be everywhere, sifting through mountains of third-party research as well as his own field work, to produce a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of an almost unimaginably grueling journey. Mr. Cramer digs deeper, so that the reader isn’t on the wall but inside his subject’s psyche. The level of empathy he thus achieves is far beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. 

Mr. Cramer fulfills the promise of his title in two ways. We follow along on a physically and emotionally debilitating slog, which wreaks a tremendous toll not only on the aspirant himself but also his wife (the candidates are all men) and children. That’s what it literally takes to seize a major party’s nomination for president. But there’s a second meaning: we reach into the personal histories of each of Mr. Cramer’s subjects deeply enough to find out what it takes to seriously imagine yourself in the nation’s highest office. In other words, what kind of guy runs for president in the first place — and how does he then go about it?

The author intended to profile six main subjects divided equally between parties, but campaign events dictated a different combination. So we follow Vice President George H. W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole on the Republican side, and four Democrats: former Senator Gary Hart, Congressman Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis — and Senator Joe Biden, whose candidacy in 2020 makes this report unexpectedly timely. Other abiding figures also make their appearances, including a pugnacious George W. Bush (“Junior”), the pre-Fox News Roger Ailes, and of course Ronald Reagan, whose relationship to his veep’s effort to succeed him was fraught with unwanted drama. 

The first commonality you notice is that all six of the candidates are alpha males who demonstrated leadership skills and a competitive spirit early in life. You could have picked each one out of a grade-school class and said, that kid could be President one day. Our most recent two Republican Presidents were born to privilege and used that status as leverage throughout their lives, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Only one of these guys — Bush — was descended from money, and he made up for it by flying daring combat missions over the Pacific (he was such an obvious preppy that his nickname aboard the aircraft carrier wasn’t “Butch” or “Curly,” but “George Herbert Walker Bush”) and trudging around in the west Texas dust trying to start an oil business on his own in the early Fifties. The rest of them were classic hardscrabble overachievers, each with something to prove. And when they all compete against each other, sparks fly, but there can only be one winner.

Mr. Cramer’s reporting is legit. He interviewed more than a thousand people. Every depicted scene comes either from eyewitnesses or from independently published reports verified by eyewitnesses. The author read back every section to “the candidate, to a family member, or to closest aides — whoever seemed likeliest to know about the events described.” In other words, this is exactly what really happened.

The book flies — it took me less than a week to gulp it down, and I invariably couldn’t wait to get back to it — for two main reasons. One, after a more legato opening section where we calmly get to know each of the distinctive personalities, Mr. Cramer juggles six intertwining narrative arcs at increasing speed over 130 chapters (the book moves fastest when whirling through the scandal that quickly derailed Gary Hart’s campaign; the chapters are “Saturday Night I,” “Saturday Night II,” “Sunday, “Monday,” “Tuesday” and “Wednesday”). Two, Mr. Cramer’s writing style is informal and thrillingly compelling, a kind of cross between a slightly calmer Tom Wolfe and a slightly medicated Hunter S. Thompson. Here he is, inside the mind of Lee Atwater, Bush’s blues-guitar-playing Southern hatchet man:

This was part of Atwater’s southern fire-wall strategy, Lee’s determination to erect an unassailable, insurmountable Super Tuesday bulwark, so that even if Bush lost Iowa…even if he fell on his face big-time and pissed away his lead (and Governor Sununu’s help) in New Hampshire…even if Bob Dole got hot and swept the lesser early contests in Minnesota and South Dakota…even if Jack Kemp convinced the tax-cut-and-Star-Wars crowd that he was the Real and Rightful Reagan Heir…even if Pat Robertson’s eye-in-the-middle-of-the-forehead charismatics crawled out by thousands from under church pews…still, even so!one way or another, George Bush was going to look like a winner on March 8. This was defense by suffocation — you look to see where the other guy’s breathing, then mash down the pillow of Bush, Inc.’s superior resources.

Man, that’s how I want my campaign journalism to read! The whole book is that colorful, even when representing family and friends in moments of jagged agony or tearful tenderness, and there are plenty of each. The level of access is nothing short of phenomenal. The reader has a backstage pass that gets through any imaginable door.

With a sole flukeish exception — his own son in 2004, when Dick Cheney’s terror-tinged slogan was basically Vote for us or die! — George H. W. Bush was the only Republican to win the popular vote over the last 32 years. Absent a candidate with Reagan-like charisma (and that would be exactly who?), the GOP may never win the popular again. They’re outnumbered, and it gets worse every cycle. (Which of course is very different from saying they won’t continue to occupy the White House.) The main takeaway from this magnificent book is not how little personalities have changed over the years, but that the seeds of Republican national electoral dominance were carefully tilled in fertile soil for more than a generation. In our republic, determination is truly what it takes.


To Whom It May Concern

March 12, 2020

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I write this on Thursday, March 12, 2020. My planet is being ravaged by a worldwide pandemic, declared only yesterday by the World Health Organization. No one yet knows what the end will bring, but I leave this document in the hope that it may eventually be recovered by persons who will benefit from a contemporary report.

Perhaps they will find it in the rubble of a crumbled Manhattan. Maybe a long-untouched virtual computing cloud will be examined by those clever enough to reconstruct it. These words may succumb to entropy and never be found at all. But I have to try and explain what happened. Somebody has to try.

In December 2019, a new severe acute respiratory syndrome virus was first reported in Wuhan, Hubei, China. It was transmitted among people via respiratory droplets, similar to influenza, but the elapsed time between exposure and symptom onset was as long as fourteen days. So by the time a patient exhibited fever, cough and shortness of breath, other nearby infections were likely already present. Most patients would exhibit flu-like symptoms and recover. But the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) seemed to be about ten times more lethal than influenza. Most deaths, at least initially, were among people over 60; the vast majority of fatalities had pre-existing health conditions, including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Within weeks the virus had spread beyond China, beyond the far East. Different countries tried different responses, but our interconnected world was unable to stop the spread of this virulent strain. The most useful tactic seemed to be finding ways to slow it down, so that the overtaxed healthcare infrastructure would have more time to catch up. Countries with national health services were able to mobilize mass testing more quickly and dampen the rate of spread by emphasizing proper hygiene, the avoidance of crowds, and other social distancing.

Then there was the United States, the origin of this report.

The nation, oddly, had elected a vain, narcissistic television game show host to its highest office. His governing style was to foment chaos by pitting his countrymen against one another. He did this by demonizing real and perceived enemies, casting doubt on the veracity of the free press and the government bureaucracy, and — aided by the country’s most partisan tv network — spewing forth cascades of lies and misinformation until it became a chore to distinguish the truth, even impossible for about a third of the country. 

The pandemic arrived in America in an election year, and the president was desperate to win re-election. Legal technicalities associated with his office had so far shielded him from the most serious consequences of his sordid actions, but as a private citizen he would again be subject to a torrent of temporarily postponed litigations, perhaps even criminal indictments. So he was frantic.

The president’s guiding philosophy had always been to take all credit and deflect all blame; to never concede and never apologize. His orientation had always been to himself above all others, coupled with a fierce xenophobia. So his first instinct was to portray the virus as a foreign threat that could be battled by closing borders. At a February 26 news conference, he claimed there were only 15 cases in America. “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” he said.

As the virus marched inexorably forward, he falsely tried to slam his hated predecessor for regulatory restrictions that did not in fact exist. He falsely blamed his political opponents and the media for exaggerating the severity of the threat (the reporting turned out to be accurate). He even repeated on social media the theory that coronavirus was a secret biological weapon deliberately wielded by the Chinese.

The president had always used one particular metric to gauge the strength of the economy: the Dow Jones Industrial Average. When it slid 2,000 points in two days during the last week of February, he ignored investors’ fears of a global pandemic and instead blamed it on poor response to the most recent Democratic candidate debate. He was not puzzled by the logical conclusion: if investors noticed weak opposition to the incumbent, thus implying his re-election, why in the world would they sell? And never mind that the debate took place after the second day’s closing bell. The eleven-year bull market that he had inherited from his predecessor had finally come to an end on his watch.

Just as inept was the president’s spectacularly uninformed medical knowledge. Early on, he advised that the virus “miraculously goes away” in April. He said WHO’s early calculation that 3.4 percent of reported cases of the virus had died was a “false number.” Based on “my hunch,” he put the true figure at “way under 1 percent.” During one meeting, he seemed surprised to learn that influenza can be fatal. He falsely claimed spread of the virus was not “inevitable,” that cases in the United States were “going very substantially down” — and that they “are all getting better.” He said there could be “hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work” — the single worst piece of advice they and their colleagues could possibly receive. He said scientists were “very close to a vaccine,” within “months” — at least an entire year ahead of all legitimate researchers’ forecasts.

In case anyone doubted that the president’s main concern was his prospects for re-election and not human lives, he declared he would prefer to keep the thousands of passengers and crew of a cruise ship off the California coast aboard the vessel rather than bring them ashore for quarantine. “I like the numbers being where they are,” he said. “I don’t need the numbers to double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” 

Then, last night, after the WHO pandemic declaration, he decided to speak to a nervous nation. “The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States,” he said unconvincingly. All around him, schools were closing, sports leagues were suspending or postponing their seasons, workers — including those in government — were being urged to do their jobs at home. New York canceled its huge St. Patrick’s Day Parade and banned all gatherings of more than 500 people, including Broadway shows. Late-night talk programs were planning to tape indefinitely without studio audiences, and college basketball’s “March Madness” games would not be played at all. The entire world was preparing to move into a strange new era, where public gatherings are dangerous and it becomes rude or even gauche to shake hands. The president’s rosy picture of the outbreak was now a laughingstock, but nobody was laughing.

In his Oval Office address last night, desperate to be seen to be doing something, the president disturbed Europeans by announcing a 30-day travel ban — the U.K. was exempted for some reason, perhaps the existence of president-owned golf courses — and added that the prohibitions would also “apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo.” An hour later, he backpedaled: “Very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe.” (The president also said in his speech that health insurance industry leaders had agreed to waive all co-payments, not only for coronavirus testing but also for treatment. That was not so.) This morning in a statement, the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission called the outbreak a “global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action. The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.” Of course, despite any travel ban, the virus was already here. Stock futures started plunging even while the president was speaking last night, and this morning the market lost 7% so rapidly that, for the second time this week, a rare “circuit breaker” trading halt was imposed to prevent an even more precipitous slide. The Dow continued to sink and closed off almost 10%. If the president’s intention was to calm anyone down, he only managed to emphasize how rudderless the United States has become, and dismayed the rest of the world even more.

So here we are, hunkering down against the inevitable. We’re not afraid of dying, that’s not it. Even if the virus goes on a rampage in our tightly packed city, most of us will only get sick and recover. But as the cancellations and restrictions continue to feed on one another, how long will it be before vital services are threatened? How long before we run out of food — or are unable to transport it onto the island? What about ATMs? Is this essentially a hurricane that’s going to last for weeks and weeks, or will life miraculously return to normal in April? The notion of facing feral groups of investment bankers is absurd until you think about it a bit too long. How anxious should I be? Here on March 12th, I don’t know. You in the future, maybe you do. But if the worst has happened and the inflection point of 2020 has been lost to deep time, maybe these small details can help you piece it back together.


Slavery, Death, And The Beatles

December 8, 2019
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“Beneath the blue suburban skies” in Penny Lane.

We visited London over the long Thanksgiving weekend and took a “day tripper” pilgrimage to Liverpool, where neither of us had ever been. Of course it was for the Fabs. I was standing in Penny Lane when our tour guide said, “look up.” The weather gods had bestowed “blue suburban skies,” and I took the above photo. Delighted, I later posted it on Facebook, both to travel-brag and because the day happened to illustrate Paul McCartney’s lyric so ridiculously well.

Among the responses was one from my longtime friend Robert Harland, who reminded me that Penny Lane’s namesake, thought to be one James Penny, had been a Liverpool slave trader. And he wasn’t alone, for Liverpool was a major slaving port. Its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave market in the latter half of the 18th century. Probably three-quarters of all European slaving ships in this period left from Liverpool. It was Liverpool ships which transported fully half of the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. 

Our tour guide had already told us all this. To its credit, Liverpool seems to be owning its sordid past and coming to terms with its historic role in a cultural atrocity. There’s no effort to whitewash the record; on the contrary, the International Slavery Museum which opened in 2007 provides a frank, visceral look at a time when buyers and sellers of human beings were men of respect, like James Penny — not just in Liverpool, but all over the world. (America is dutifully represented too.)

Robert suggested that were it not for the Beatles song, the street name would probably have been changed by now, but it’s not that simple. “Penny Lane” is a kaleidoscopic trip through McCartney’s memories; they’re “beneath the blue suburban skies,” yet it’s “pouring rain (very strange).” The barber, the banker, the fireman, the “shelter in the middle of the roundabout” — none of these are actually located on Penny Lane the street. Locals refer to the whole area as “Penny Lane.“ So even if the city fathers amended the street name, Liverpudlians would almost certainly continue to use “Penny Lane,” song or no song. After all, nobody calls Sixth Avenue “Avenue of the Americas” except for the postman. 

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Inside the International Slavery Museum, some Liverpool place names that found their way to Jamaica.

Once you understand Penny Lane’s etymology, it becomes harder to true up Paul’s joyous, carefree nostalgia, but the song is so redolent with play and innocence (there is one naughty bit) and humanity that it wins. We have the ability to overlook overt racism when it becomes so commonplace that it sounds correct: for example, the Washington Redskins. (Why don’t they just call themselves the Washington Rednecks and be done with it?) Liverpudlian place names — including Penny Lane — traveled across the Atlantic as well, some surviving in Jamaica, one of the trade’s major ports of call, where the sugar business was built on the backs of slaves.

Of course, slavery had long since been abolished when the four lads were traipsing around their hometown, and they were “woke” enough as The Beatles to refuse to play before segregated audiences in America. We visited their childhood homes and imagined them discovering each other, and followed their tracks in places of note all over town. And then we came upon the grave of Eleanor Rigby. 

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It was discovered in the Eighties in the small cemetery of St. Peter’s Parish Church, Woolton, Merseyside. Across the street is the church hall where John Lennon’s band the Quarrymen were playing on July 6, 1957, the day Paul McCartney walked in. Paul has often been coy about the origin of Eleanor Rigby’s name, but he and John almost certainly strolled through this graveyard more than once. Paul may even have genuinely forgotten where the name came from, but when shown this headstone, he conceded that the name might have lodged somewhere in “me subconscious.”

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The Beatles have probably been overthought more than any other pop music act, but here are some tantalizing details. It was the custom for a deceased wife to take her husband’s name for the memorial stone, and as you can see, Eleanor Rigby was Mrs. Woods. But almost uniquely in this setting, Eleanor was “buried along with her name” — her maiden name of Rigby. Also, a few stones down lies the body of John McKenzie, who died at 73 in 1915. Just under his name is that of his daughter Rachel, listed more traditionally. Could Paul have seen this stone too? Was the real-life inspiration for “Father McKenzie” not a priest at all, but a proud father in the familial sense? At any rate, however these snippets of real death did or did not inform the composer, what emerged was a melancholy McCartney masterpiece.

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How much emptier our lives would have been without the series of coincidences that flung these four lads together. That’s also the subtext of Danny Boyle’s very entertaining new movie, YESTERDAY, which I highly recommend. I want to remember them the way sculptor Andy Edwards does. His bronze statues were unveiled in 2015 at Pier Head on the Liverpool waterfront, where they stand surveying the Mersey today. 

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Fighting Ignorance With Ignoreance

June 24, 2019

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Last Tuesday night, Donald Trump “officially” launched his 2020 re-election campaign with a rally in a nearly full Orlando, Florida arena. Nothing new was said, because Trump has never really quit campaigning. By my count, before Orlando he had held at least 88 electioneering rallies — you know, the ones with the red hats and the yard signs and the group chants — since winning the 2016 election. 

But something new did happen Tuesday night. Almost all the cable networks cut away long before the speech was over (but not before CNN broadcast the crowd yelling, “CNN SUCKS!”). Only TASS, I mean Fox News Channel, showed its viewers the entire 76-minute campaign commercial. For that is what it was, and I hope the mass media have finally realized that they helped this mess happen by bestowing on Trump a fortune in “earned media.”

“Earned media” is basically free publicity. You get it when the media cover you on their dime rather than accepting your payment for advertising. In the 2016 election, Trump benefited from earned media in two ways. According to data from tracking firm mediaQuant, he received $5.6 billion worth during the 2016 campaign — more than the combined spending of every other candidate who ran for president that year and an order of magnitude greater than Trump’s likely actual net worth. This also allowed him to dominate news coverage while expending relatively little on advertising, or “paid media,” much less than other candidates were forced to spend. In other words, the media were complicit in Trump’s election, and it’s starting to dawn on some of them that they facilitated his rise.

In hindsight, handing Trump a huge, free megaphone seems awful, but it isn’t hard to understand how it happened. Trump is a walking, talking outrage, combining ego and bombast with staggering ignorance and amorality. He was vigorously covered because nearly everything he said was pure-dee batshit. You might not choose to broadcast a circus geek biting the head off a live chicken, but if he’s running for president, it’s great tv. During the campaign Trump lied repeatedly and merrily. He used profanity. He condoned violence. He cruelly made fun of people’s physical appearances, including a disabled man. He denigrated a war hero and the family of a veteran killed in the line of duty. Impromptu words spilled out of his mouth nonsensically, as if he was reading jumbled refrigerator magnets. He used crude grade-school nicknames for his opponents. A Donald Trump appearance was riveting: nobody could predict what crazy bile would vomit from his mouth, because he kept defining propriety down. So this was somebody you couldn’t look away from, like a teetering tightrope walker or a crashing NASCAR driver. How far can he go before he implodes? Will people swallow this too?

When Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes, he was probably literally correct. (“Well, he must have had a perfectly good reason…”) His base is anchored by viewers of his popular tv show THE APPRENTICE, in which the four-time-bankrupted star (technically it is his corporations which have declared bankruptcy, not Trump himself — but let’s face it, no U.S. bank will lend him money any more, which is where Russia comes in) played the carefully scripted role of a shrewd businessman. And since it was a “reality show,” his fans bought it as real. But in point of fact, Trump has faked his way through life just as he’s faking his way through the presidency, and what we elected was not a canny dealmaker, just a game-show host. He wasn’t Moses, only Professor Harold Hill. The media created Trump the tv star before Trump the candidate.

I’ll never forget the early press conference when Trump first bypassed a question from CNN by saying, “you’re fake news,” and then moved on to somebody else. It was just one of what turned out to be many head-spinning moments to come. Did he just say a legit journalistic organization was “fake”? Since then, “fake” has been redefined to mean anything Trump doesn’t like. The maddening thing is that “fake news” really does exist: the Russians used it masterfully to promote Trump’s election. But in two short years he has coaxed normal, well-meaning, low-info people into distrusting truth itself. We’re in Orwell territory (“Ignorance Is Strength,” to be precise), except that Trump and his people thankfully tend to be too dense to rule on purpose; the innate fecklessness and absurdity of Trumpworld are obvious, sometimes even humorously so. Yet real damage is still being done, and sometimes one feels powerless against the relentless tide of shock, shame and nausea that the Trump presidency induces in rational citizens. But he is not invulnerable. One of his key weaknesses is there for all to see.

Remember when he was stuck in the White House last Christmas during the 35-day government shutdown? He whined on Twitter that he was “all alone,” because even this dimwit managed to comprehend that it would make horrible optics to play golf at Mar-A-Lago while thousands of dedicated public servants scrambled for a paycheck to replace the one they normally earned. A source close to the White House told New York magazine that Trump dislikes the entire production surrounding Christmas, “because it’s not about him!” This person added, “If it were about him, he’d love it.” This same juvenile lust for attention is why Trump plans to hijack Independence Day with a self-aggrandizing speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Otherwise, the Fourth of July wouldn’t be about him either.

This is an important fact to remember. We all know Trump craves the spotlight. But the flip side of that is, he can’t stand being ignored. So that’s what we have to start doing. 

I’m not recommending that we quit reacting against his policies. Letting your voice be heard on substantive issues is one of the foundations of democracy, and if we want to save ours, we’d better be louder than ever. But we don’t have to make everything about Trump any more. So don’t put a Trump rally on the air at all; let Fox News serve red meat to those who actually believe he was exonerated by the Mueller report. Don’t repeat his answers when they are meaningless: take that airtime away from him. (“Are we going to war with Iran?” “You’ll find out.”) Find ways to talk about issues rather than personalities, science rather than science denial, fixing a broken immigration system rather than sneering and blowing it up, jobs for the middle class instead of tax cuts for the richest, affordable health care rather than ceremonial White House tables full of fast food. 

If you want to wallow in Trump’s boorishness, well, that’s what Colbert and OUR CARTOON PRESIDENT are for. Also, simply follow his Twitter feed for a heapin’ helpin’ of presidential lunacy. But don’t give him the media attention he so desperately needs, without which he’s nothing because there’s no there there: his image is the only thing he’s got. Lose the cameras and he loses oxygen.

Unlike Trump, I am self-aware enough to appreciate that I’ve just ignored my own advice by writing this very piece. Yet more ink about Trump. But there are two things he hates: being mocked (cf., his overheated responses to Alec Baldwin and his startled reaction when the entire world laughed in his face at the UN) and being ignored. So I’m going to take my own medicine. I’m going to try my best to ease back on social media posts about the man, comment less frequently on personal Trumpian idiocy, and concentrate on what really matters. Not just beating him, but beating back the shallow cult of personality that got him to Washington in the first place.

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New York magazine’s July 8-21 issue, featuring the same idea.


Danger In Delaware!

July 24, 2018

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Are you as nostalgic for a competent, compassionate executive branch as I am? Do you wake up every day with the same low-grade anxiety and check the “breaking” (sic) news with horror-movie dread? Do you hope today’s presidential antic or TWITTER TANTRUM! will just be idiotic as usual rather than potentially fraught with real harm? Would you prefer your head of state to care about others and speak in complete English sentences? Then I have a book for you. It’s only a short one, but take it from me, for a couple of hours it’ll make you feel better.

HOPE NEVER DIES is a mystery novel by Andrew Shaffer. This is Mr. Shaffer’s very first mystery novel. That’s because he’s actually a humorist who specializes in literary and pop culture parodies. I’m not actually a diehard mystery fan either. The reason I picked this one up is that the private investigators who set out to solve a murder are Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

Biden, hilariously, is the narrator and centerpiece. A beloved conductor on the Acela Express has been struck and killed by a train, and “Amtrak Joe” takes it personally. He’s been irritated that “44” has been enjoying all these glamorous vacations since leaving the White House — windsurfing, kayaking, hanging with Richard Branson and Bradley Cooper — without even calling. So imagine his surprise when Obama shows up in a black Cadillac Escalade with a Secret Service agent in tow. 

Mr. Shaffer juggles that funny Internet meme of Biden as a Ray-Banned muscle-car badass with the mundane reality of a seventyish suburban guy whose physical best days are behind him. Before long, Biden and Obama ditch the Escalade for Joe’s own ride, a “2017 neon-green Dodge Challenger T/A., 3.6-liter Pentastar VVT V6 engine with an 8-speed Torque-Flite automatic transmission.” Biden’s hardboiled monologue is priceless: a grizzled cop is “as tough as a two-dollar steak,” a rural lake is “as calm as a soul at rest.” Yet his prim Irish character shines through: where you might say “No shit, Sherlock,” Joe says “No crap, Matlock.” Obama is as cool as ever (if prone to overthink and overexplain), but Biden’s body is notably slowing him down. Both guys are terrified of their wives.

We spend much of the story on the mean streets of Wilmington, Delaware. Most of the typical detective-story ticks are laid before us, but personalized to the two politicians: “Barack placed one of his oversized ears on the door. Political cartoonists had loved to mock Barack’s elephant ears. If only they could see him now, using them for their God-intended purpose.” Obama’s own foibles are comedy grist: when he’s forced into a McDonalds, the only thing on the menu he can stand to eat are the apple slices. In a gas station, Biden chats up the counter girl:

“Hot one out,” I announced, tossing a five spot on the counter. Barack rolled his eyes—he wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. However, I was a Delawarean. And Delawareans make small talk. The girl looked out the window. “Global warming,” she said with a shrug. “Actually, it’s more of a gradual process than that,” Barack said, suddenly interested in our conversation. “That’s why we prefer the term ‘climate change.’ What you’ll see is a degree or two warming over the next fifty years, which will be enough to cause the sea levels to rise ten feet. When that happens—”

Again, I’m not a particular genre fan, so I found the first part of Act III a little flabby during a long passage in which the plot thickens around Biden with Obama offstage; aficionados will probably see nothing wrong at all. But the rest of the book is a wistful delight. The wistfulness comes from Mr. Shaffer’s ability to remind us why we respected the heart and dignity these men represented while making fun of them at the same time. That’s the soul of “An Obama Biden Mystery.” Late in the story, Joe warns Barack against stepping on the third rail in the Wilmington yard. “‘Guess they don’t call you Amtrak Joe for nothing.’ ‘I know some things,’ I admitted.” Oh, for leaders who know some things.

8/5/19: A sequel has dropped.


So Long, Keppler

June 27, 2018

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Late-night comedy loses another promising voice tomorrow night, when THE OPPOSITION W/ JORDAN KLEPPER broadcasts the last of its 129 episodes. Comedy Central has been having trouble filling the key four-times-weekly slot following THE DAILY SHOW, the one ruled for years by THE COLBERT REPORT, and now they have to try again. First Larry Wilmore — frankly, a better writer than an on-air host — tried THE NIGHTLY SHOW, at the time the most color-centric program in late night. Then star DAILY SHOW correspondent Jordan Klepper earned his turn at bat. It’s a shame they’ve pulled the plug: his show was very good.

THE OPPOSITION is a creative cousin to THE COLBERT REPORT. Stephen Colbert spent almost ten years as a character named “Stephen Colbert,” a self-important, thick-headed right-wing blowhard modeled on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and especially the one he called “Papa Bear,” Bill O’Reilly. (The show even parodied specific O’Reilly segments, only evident to those who’d actually watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR.) To appreciate this character you had to use some ironic detachment, but it was hilarious, and Colbert surprised everybody, probably even himself, when he was able to hold on to the bit and broaden the character over a mammoth run that extended from Dubya well into Obama. 

A similar character, “Jordan Klepper” — again saying basically the opposite of what the writers actually mean for you to understand — is a madman conspiracy theorist. His walls are covered with crazy-quilt lines of connecting string, there are piles and piles of binder-clipped sheets of paper scattered all over his desk. He resembles nobody more than Alex Jones, the goofy shouting nut who hosts something called INFOWARS. In fact, just as O’Reilly hipped to Colbert’s “homage” early on, somebody must have told Jones that there’s a guy on tv making fun of him, because he started fighting back on air — only, in true conspiracist style, he got it all wrong and kept calling the host “Keppler.” (THE OPPOSITION even did a segment on INFOWARS’s pathetic putdowns of “this guy Keppler” and it became a running gag.) That’s the concept, and they never drop the premise. The audience are “opposers.” Instead of “We’ll be right back,” Klepper says, “The fight continues.” During his nighty interview segment, his last question is always, “Tell me something I already know.”

Klepper is a great presenter and superb improviser, which “we already knew” from his stint on THE DAILY SHOW. On this very program, the host earned an honored place in television history with his brave MAGAMeal Challenge. But what I’ll miss the most about THE OPPOSITION is its correspondents; per the conspiracy theme, they call themselves “Citizen Journalists.” This gang, culled as usual from comedy clubs and improv stages, is the sharpest and most energized bunch since the heyday of Jon Stewart’s run.

While each Citizen Journalist helps Klepper take down imaginary threats from the Deep State, and each has posted brilliant field pieces, they’ve managed to carve out their own personalities in record time. Tim Baltz is the privileged white oaf with slicked-back hair, a wannabe Gordon Gekko. Laura Grey (Klepper’s wife) is an adorable wide-eyed ball of anger whose contradictions obstruct any feminism. Niccole Thurman is a black conspiracist who usually doesn’t see what the libtards’ problem is. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson are flamboyantly gay men powered by their own hysteria. And Kobi Libii, my favorite of them all, has managed to find his way as a buttoned-down paranoid, inventing innumerable methods of gaming the system and presenting them with a self-satisfied kilowatt smile. These people are all aces, the best team on late-night. I hope each and every one of them gets another great gig right away. 

When I read of the cancellation about a week ago (they’ve been having fun with it on the air ever since — see, it’s part of the grand conspiracy to silence them!), I admit my first thought was that the dark maddened universe inhabited by Trump’s tweets is funnier and more outlandish than anything the writers could ever dream up. We’re living in a real world that looks uncomfortably like THE OPPOSITION’s invented world, and maybe it felt too on-the-nose; after all, Alex Jones frequently sounds like a comedian, just not on purpose. Maybe the format itself was too kinetic. And maybe THE OPPOSITION was simply too hip for the room. At any rate, thanks, gang, best wishes from a fan, and let’s all make sure the fight continues.

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Citizen Journalists, all. From left: Josh Sharp, Laura Grey, Aaron Jackson, Jordan Klepper, Niccole Thurman, Tim Baltz, and Kobi Libii.


Space And Race

June 21, 2018

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The other night at a campaign rally in Minnesota, Donald Trump added a new chant for his fans, who already yell “Build the wall!”, “Lock her up!”, “CNN sucks!”, and even, lately, “Nobel! He ordered them to start howling, “Space Force!”, and naturally they obliged. Trump proposes to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. military because “there’s no place like space.” 

A “Space Force” is a notion which might occur to any bored ten-year-old doodling his way through a droning civics lecture, and that’s pretty much Trump’s emotional age. Whether or not he has the authority to actually create a new military branch is unclear, like so much else about his administration. (He also told the Minnesotans that he was “re-opening NASA,” which of course has never closed.) But I thought he used an interesting phrase to describe how this new outfit would be apart from but equivalent to the other five branches. He said it would be “separate but equal.” 

I’m not going to give Trump “credit” for deliberately using a loaded term from the civil rights era to excite his base. I think it’s just something he heard on tv one day and it kept floating around in the burbling word-stew inside his brain. Just like the time Sarah Palin, another colossal dumbass, used the term “blood libel” without realizing (I’m betting) that she was rubbing next to some serious antisemitism. The words just sounded cool to her. But accidentally or not, Trump sent a message to his eldest (and most virulent) fans, those good ole boys who can well remember when America was especially great — for white people like them. 

The doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal” was established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which has come to be regarded as one of the worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court. In Plessy, the Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. For the first half of the twentieth century, segregation was the law of the land, and guess what: Plessy has never been explicitly overruled. It’s been hacked away at, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which held that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional when it came to schools and ignited the American civil rights movement. (Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat the following year.) But technically, Plessy is still on the books.

Again, Trump has probably never heard of Plessy v. Ferguson. But make no mistake, there are folks at his rallies who really miss the days of “separate but equal.” Man, that was when America was really great! And one of them who can remember is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the gentleman from Alabama. I believe the General knew exactly what he was doing on June 14 when he opened his Bible to defend the barbaric “zero tolerance” policy that cruelly tears kids away from their parents. 

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Sessions. “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” He was referring to Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (RSV). This passage has been especially popular in two American eras: it was frequently invoked during the Revolution by British loyalists, and again just prior to the Civil War by defenders of slavery — and Sessions knows it. Both groups were on the wrong side of history, as he is now. 

Besides, if you want actual Biblical advice on immigration, how about Leviticus 19:33-34 (RSV)? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” You can cherry-pick the Bible to support almost anything, but that sounds pretty dadburn specific to me. 

Trump may not understand everything he utters. Or he may believe his own childlike fantasies. (Remember when he tried to take credit for coining the term “prime the pump” during an interview with The Economist? The Economist!) His level of ignorance is prodigious: he’s nothing but a game show host, mate! But there are people around him who do know exactly what they’re saying. At the moment things seem to be going their way — but they’re building up a tsunami of karmic debt, and one day it’s going to come crashing down.

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The Boys (And Girls) Who Cried Wolf

May 1, 2018

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Boy, did Michelle Wolf raise a ruckus last Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Or, more precisely, a ruckus was raised about her. Because, man, what did you expect when you hired a topical comedian? As Judd Apatow noted, “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man.’”

Did Wolf’s set step over a line? Judge for yourself. You can read what she said here, or watch her say it here. I would recommend going directly to the source, because the set’s already being misrepresented by guess which tribe. For example, despite what you may read and hear, Wolf did not make fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance. She made fun of her mendacity and enabling as White House Press Secretary. True, Ms. Sanders was sitting a few feet away, and was visibly unamused, but all this has happened before, you know.

I’m thinking back to the 2006 dinner, when Stephen Colbert “bombed” by speaking truth to power. His show was brand new at the time, and not everybody realized his right-wing blowhard character, “Stephen Colbert,” was an ironic parody of windbags like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I was in a COLBERT REPORT audience later that summer and overheard a guy explaining to his date before the taping, “You have to read between the lines of everything he says. And a running joke is his huge ego. Everything’s all about him.” The concept was still new enough to need a rundown. Now Jordan Klepper is doing the same thing to conspiracy “theorists” like Alex Jones by playing a character and trusting you to sift out the truth.

So it’s possible that whoever booked Colbert for the WHCA dinner was unaware of the gag and took him at face value. People are not always as subtly thoughtful as you may wish them to be, and conservatives are not known for their senses of humor. To the room’s apparent surprise, Colbert cleverly blasted George W. Bush while pretending to be a fawning acolyte: “tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say I did look it up, and that’s not true. That’s cause you looked it up in a book.” On he went. Watch the set here. Bush clearly did not find it funny, much of the laughter in the room was only nervous, and the first reports were that Colbert had died with a lousy bit. But then we noticed where those first reports were coming from: Fox News and other Bush promoters. When we later got a chance to read Colbert’s set, and even see him deliver it, we realized what had happened.

The prevailing attitude at occasions like this had always been, we kid you, Mr. President, but we do it with love and we’re grateful for your service. But what Colbert was saying now — and what the President was receiving — was, Mr. President, sir, we don’t think you’re doing a very good job. That’s what made the live audience uneasy. Colbert was turning on the right-wing spit for days afterward, just as Michelle Wolf is now, but when you look back twelve years later, Colbert’s remarks were both funny and spot on. The next year, WHCA overcompensated by booking the dangerous rogue mind of Rich Little.

At least Bush’d had the guts to show up. Wolf called Trump “cowardly” for skipping the WHCA dinner for a second time (in favor of a self-aggrandizing rally in Michigan) and that’s accurate. Trump’s legendarily fragile ego cannot coexist with even a smidgen of criticism; he’s still smarting from the time Barack Obama roasted him at WHCA — with some funny stuff — just after secretly giving the order to kill Osama bin Laden. Trump even refuses to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park, I assume for two reasons. First, he’s afraid of getting booed, which would certainly happen. Second, the 60 feet from mound to plate is a lot longer when watched by a mid-five-figure crowd, bigger than any rally he’s ever headlined — and as Trump himself might put it, “people are saying that he throws like a girl.”

Speaking of girls, Michelle Wolf. I didn’t find everything she said funny, but I could also say that about Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, even Lord flippin Buckley. Any comic who’s at all edgy is taking a risk with every joke. But, especially after the Colbert incident, if you aren’t aware of a comic’s body of work before you hire her, then any blame is on you. What is fairly irritating here is the faux outrage and abject hypocrisy. Wolf was “disrespectful”? Trump is permanently dripping with louche contempt and schoolyard meanness: these juvenile nicknames, cruelly mocking a physical handicap, treating women as pieces of meat, constantly punching down at people who are (temporarily, always remember) less powerful than he. Where is his dadburn respect? Wolf was “vulgar”? Again, the pussy-grabbing shithole in the Head Shed is Numero Uno among that rapacious gang of bottom-feeders who are his colleagues. When Trump does his best every day to delegitimize the very notion of White House correspondents, maybe we’re talking about a different kind of relationship, and perhaps some more acerbic words are in order. Even from a frickin comedian. 

There was something else unexpected about Wolf’s performance, probably what brought some caustic comments even from representatives of non-fake media like the New York Times and NBC. Michelle Wolf took them down too. “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.” It’s fun and games when politicians are in the crosshairs, less so when it’s you yourself — and deep down, White House correspondents know they actually do have a lot to answer for.

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained to those same correspondents after Trump seemed to question Rex Tillerson’s intelligence, “He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime, but he simply made a joke.” Maybe everybody should try it sometime.


Civil Righting

February 25, 2018

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I expect the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to become a regional travel destination: if you’re anywhere near Jackson, Mississippi, you will want to take time to stop by. I lived in Jackson for more than twenty years, beginning as a 12-year-old in 1962, so I was made keenly aware of the prevailing Jim Crow culture, so starkly different from that of my native Virginia (which had sported its own share of slaveholders, to be sure). But it’s so hard for a white man to truly appreciate what it was like to have the wrong skin color in the most notoriously racist part of the United States. This place helps us get it. For the victims of civil injustice, and their descendants, there’s yet more. Their long struggle has been laid bare for all to see. Their bottom-line emotion must be something beyond gratitude. Something like pride.

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The museum is a well-heaved stone’s throw north of the Old State Capitol, where generations of elected bigots made black life miserable, first with enslavement and later by exploiting Dixie whites’ inbred revulsion to the notion of racial equality. Racism is by no means restricted to the Deep South (neither were lynchings, which took place in your state too — look it up), but that is the stereotype. Give Mississippi credit, though, for owning up to its past: this is the first museum about the U.S. civil rights movement to be sponsored by a U.S. state. (The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis.)

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There are actually two museums under the same roof in the new complex. You can also visit the Museum of Mississippi History, which unless I miss my guess was floated by white legislators as a quid pro quo to allow the civil rights exhibition. It begins with dioramas of cavemen — there’s lots of history down in Mississippi — and it’s fun in its own way. But the headline grabber is the civil rights side.

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The facility is managed by the state’s Department of Archives and History, a stand-up agency which pored through its own files as well as those of the vile, secretive Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, sort of a state-run White Citizens’ Council which prowled the political sewers from 1956 to 1977. The people who put this campus together are scholars, not partisans. Nothing is spun or sugar-coated. Nowhere in either museum did I find anything but unvarnished history, nor did I read a single word which I knew to be untrue.

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The Civil Rights Museum is intuitively easy to navigate. The exhibit halls radiate out from a large central rotunda, where you return after each exhibit. Keep going clockwise, and you’ll see it all in order. (A two-day “Dual Admission” lets you into either museum or both, which should give you all the time you need. If you are very interested in the subject and a physically fit museum-goer, you could easily spend a whole day at each one. I barely scratched the surface.) The first exhibits have to do with the slave trade: the physical passages are close and cramped, to give you a slight sense of discomfort. As you approach the birth of the activist movement, the rooms become larger, suggesting possibility, solidarity, and eventually freedom and triumph. This joint was built by pros.

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There’s lots to read, which suits me fine, also a nice helping of tastefully programmed a/v. Little built-in theaters let you sit down and watch very well-produced short pieces on, for example, Medgar Evers (they also have the rifle that killed him, which is worked into the presentation). Hidden audio speakers startle you every so often by blasting an angry voice: “Whatchoo lookin at, boy?” Some of this stuff was happening while I lived there (e.g., Evers), but I was a white pre-teen and while I was dimly aware, I was not yet, you know, woke.

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This movement is about blood and grit and passion. It can be emotionally exhausting before you come to the end — and you’re only in a museum! But you can’t make it through without hearing the glorious strains of songs like “This Little Light Of Mine” wafting past. That returns the mighty, overwhelming slog back to the shape of one human heart. Now the brave Freedom Riders feel like nervous soldiers engaging a fearsome enemy, and that’s exactly what they were: heroes in a long, grim battle.

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The museum was dedicated last December 9. You may have read something about the ceremony. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican — these days they’re almost ALL frickin Pubs down there — decided to invite Donald Trump to the dedication. (I assume it was Trump’s people who ordered the invite from the feckless guv. At the time, you’ll recall, he was stumping for fellow racist Roy Moore in neighboring Alabama.) The NAACP pleaded with Trump not to come. Nearly every civil rights leader, aghast, stood on principle and regretfully boycotted the ceremony. But it gets worse. Trump didn’t even attend the dedication. Instead, he took a private, 30-minute (?!) tour of both museums while protesters marched outside, then gave a ten-minute speech to a small, Trump-approved group of worthies. And then he went away. He did what he does best: he stuck his fingers in the eyes of anyone to whom this museum meant anything. He blew up what should have been a reverent dedication ceremony without even having to frickin go. His slimy work in Jackson was finished before the first Big Mac was unwrapped on AF One. (Civil rights leaders returned to the museum for a Trump-free “christening” on February 24.)

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Well, this museum is going to outlast the current White House gang and the fool who lives there. I’m so glad to be able to pay tribute to this indefatigable movement, which fundamentally changed our country against all odds, political and physical. I’ll definitely be back. The museum was full of school groups when I was there. Maybe more than one child — of whatever race — will pause and look and listen. You want role models, kid? This place is packed full of them.

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