Monday, October 31, 2005

Good Night, Good Luck -- and What’s Stephen Colbert Up To, Anyway?


George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck reminds us that some of the best movies come from short stories rather than novels. Not that an actual short story was actually the inspiration of this film about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s courageous battle against the witch-hunting tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy -- but the historical incidents which form the basis of Clooney’s little tale are far better suited to short-story treatment rather than being decked out in the trappings of an epic.

Writer/director Clooney (who also plays Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer and later the sage convener of some lively and provocative televised seminars on journalism ethics) and co-writer Grant Heslov (who plays staffer Don Hewitt, later 60 Minutes’ producer) center most of the action of the film within the walls of one building, CBS’ Madison Avenue headquarters, over a span of what ultimately shakes out as several weeks during 1953 and 1954. The compressed space and schedule of storytelling within the film, of course, enhance the atmosphere of terror that must have pervaded the hallways of CBS, like many other corridors in America, during the height of McCarthy’s influence – the tension wafts through each pressure-cooked scene like the omnipresent cigarette smoke of each of the film's characters.

Yet the film still has the feel of an old newshound’s reminiscence over the aforementioned cigarettes and a few glasses of scotch – something which emerges from the depiction of the courtly camaraderie among the people in Murrow’s newsroom, and also from Dianne Reeves’ beautiful soundchecks (in which she sings such tunes as “Who’s Minding the Store,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”), coming at natural resting spots along the way, commenting on the newsroom behind-the-scenes action with a kind of gleeful yet un-judgmental detachment, not unlike the way real New York reporters of yore might have commented on Washington behind-the-scenes action. She functions, in a way, as the reporter on the reporters.

The performances handily sell Clooney’s vision of the piece – David Strathairn’s Murrow is note for note correct, as dry and determined and alone as one would expect, and Ray Wise, as the pathetic news anchor Don Hollenbeck, manages to embody the pervading fear in his few scenes, smiling so hard it hurts behind eyes peeled back with gulping dread. The only misfire in the cast seems to have come in the form of documentary footage of Joe McCarthy – who, as one of my friends observes, is “just too over-the-top to be believable.”

A number of reviewers have observed that Good Night, and Good Luck’s depiction of the goings-on of a real TV newsroom is unrivalled, although I would submit that while its depiction of a newsroom that produces a show with the intelligence and integrity of Edward R. Murrow’s programs is spot-on, such activity in actuality bears little resemblance to what goes on in today’s TV newsrooms. In fact, it is much more likely that the activity in today’s newsrooms is better suited to turn out the kind of broadcast that Stephen Colbert parodies in his new 4-nights-a-week program, The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central.

While Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (of which Colbert is an alum) parodies a newscast, Colbert is taking on the Alpha-male, self-righteous commentators that take up space between news breaks on cable news networks. But mostly, he’s taking on Bill O’Reilly -- because, let’s face it, O’Reilly’s the ripest of the bunch.

Colbert is a deft and clever writer, and as a performer, he manages to carry off his portrayal of “Stephen Colbert, host” without the slightest wink to his true identity. It’s a fearless approach, a real high-wire act, that makes his show much more akin to the productions of Ali G than of Jon Stewart – and while critics seem to love what’s going on, as quickly as they give praise they wonder if it all can be sustained.

Jon Stewart’s success came as a complete surprise to those who watched him fill the shoes of The Daily Show’s founding “anchor,” Craig Kilborn. In fact, however, it was Kilborn’s stridently detached hipness – all sarcasm, without the mitigating goofiness of Kilborn’s progenitor, David Letterman – that shut down Kilborn after he left The Daily Show. Stewart showed up Kilborn by being a genuinely good-natured human being and by permitting himself to be humiliated from time to time. He is also, unexpectedly to those of us who had our doubts (recalling his ill-fated tenure at MTV), a consummate performer of the old school – a superior mimic, and a take-artist to out-Benny Jack Benny.

So far, Colbert’s real strength comes as an interviewer. In a recent segment with CNN’s Lou Dobbs, Colbert ran roughshod over Dobbs’ pet issues – immigration and outsourcing – by suggesting to him that the U.S. should just outsource all those jobs that those illegals keep coming here for. Even Dobbs had to laugh. Colbert’s schtick -- which combines a singleness of satiric purpose with a disarming (though non-winking) playfulness -- does require otherwise serious people to play along, but when it happens, it is as satisfying as anything on TV these days.

I do not worry so much about Colbert’s ability to keep his on-screen characterization afloat over the long term. I worry more about the defensive humorlessness of those he would hope to book for his show. While Stephen Colbert is having as much fun as anyone should be allowed to have on TV, I can imagine that his booking agent is walking around looking like Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck in Good Night, and Good News – dodging the post-McCarthyite terror and precious image management that pervades American political TV today.

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Keats


One of the great English lyric poets and, along with his literary comrades Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, one of the three great poets of the English Romantic era, Keats’ popular image is a victim of his self-written tombstone epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ on water." This, along with his death from tuberculosis at 25, and the argument of Shelley’s elegy to him, Adonais, that Keats’ premature death was brought on by his visceral suffering at the harsh words of his critics (principally Robert Southey, in Shelley’s opinion), leaves one with the impression of a sprite too mild for this Earth.

The truth of the matter is that Keats was a pugnacious young man, opinionated and intense about his literary cause, but tolerant of critics who had a fair beef; his epitaph was merely a reflection of his fear that his life’s work would disappear into obscurity at the hands of bone-headed hack critics, rather than that his life itself was too faint a force, or faintly lived.

The son of a stablehand -- born on this day in 1795 in London -- as a youngster Keats was known as a high-minded, protective bull terrier, a boy who would fight anyone at the drop of a hat to defend a good cause despite his diminutive stature (he grew only to 5 feet). In between fisticuffs, however, Keats developed a love of literature, translating most if Virgil’s Aeneid for his own amusement while still a teenager. By the time Keats was 15, however, his father had died from injuries after falling from a horse and his mother had followed due to illness; and as the eldest of the 5 Keats children, his schoolyard spirit translated into a fiercely protective loyalty to his siblings. Despite a growing attachment to writing, Keats began to apprentice for a stable and financially secure career as a surgeon in the small town of Edmonton.

Small-town life made Keats restless, which drove him into the company of his former headmaster, John Clarke, and his son Cowden, intellectuals around whom talented people gathered, including radical publisher Leigh Hunt. It was among this crowd that Keats first discovered the 16th century poetry of Edmund Spenser, with its fanciful and sensuous dreamscapes. It was a transformative moment, leading Keats to experiment with writing his own poetry, initially in the Spenserian style. These early efforts were clumsy, but soon thereafter Keats would give up his career as a surgeon and see his poetry published in Hunt’s Examiner ("To Solitude" and "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer," both 1816), with themes reflecting an interest in the role of artists in healing the suffering world and fighting for intellectual freedom, and in the celebration of the genius of other artists.

Next he published a lengthy verse allegory, signaling a return to nature in order to access the heart in all its intensity, Endymion (1818) which critics ferociously dismissed as "mawkish" and "slipshod"; Keats was hurt, but ultimately agreed with their assessment. His attachment to a Wordsworthian nature-born aesthetic blossomed into Keats' notion of "negative capability," a kind of transcendent engagement of reality by immersion in the uncertainties and mysteries which inhere in beauty, without reference to facts or reason.

While nursing his dying brother Tom, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and courting the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, Keats wrote the first 2 books of a planned epic on the Greek myth of creation, Hyperion (1819), and went on to write his finest shorter poems: "The Eve of St. Agnes" (based on a story from Boccaccio about the belief that if a maiden followed certain rituals on St. Agnes' Eve she would see her future husband in her dreams), "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (inspired by seeing a Wedgewood copy of a Roman imitation of a Greek vase at the British Museum), "Ode to a Nightingale," and "To Autumn" -- the latter 4 representing some of the greatest achievements of the Romantic movement. "To Autumn" was his last poem, representing the capstone of a mere 4 years of productivity as a poet.

Brother Tom died in 1818, and by 1820, tuberculosis had taken hold in Keats himself, and for a time he was nursed by Fanny Brawne, to whom he was now engaged. At the warning of his doctor that another English winter would kill him, he accepted the invitation of Shelley to visit him in Rome, traveling there with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. Feverish and convulsive, believing that his unconsummated love for Brawne was slowly killing him, he died on February 23, 1821 in Rome, with Severn attending him, thereby fulfilling the stereotype of the Romantics. When Shelley drowned barely a year later, he carried a copy of Keats' poems in his pocket.

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth." -- J. Keats, 1817.

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Plame: Round Two Begins

After 60+ hours of heads sniping and counter-sniping on TV following the announcement of Lewis Libby's indictment on charges of perjury and onstruction of justice on Friday, I must say I am amazed that apologists so often seem to be able to say that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald "found no violation" of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the Espionage Act without being called on it. Seems to me we all heard a long, awkward baseball analogy from Fitzgerald about the catcher blocking his view (or sand in the eye, or something) to the effect that he couldn't tell whether there were violatons or not. That's not much of a vindication for those who wish to argue that the White House acted beyond reproach.

In case we have any doubt about the seriousness of outing Ms. Plame, I would recommend 60 Minutes' brief report on the matter on Sunday. A number of commentators have explained 'what the big deal is' quite adequately, but few have captured the human side of the story as well -- the loss of cover for an intelligence analyst who did not otherwise enjoy diplomatic immunity, the loss of a life's work and career, the outing of her fictitious employer and consequent loss of a long-cultivated CIA asset, the insights into the workings of the CIA provided for all the world to see, the potentially dangerous effect on Ms. Plame's past and present associates, the potential effect on future spouses of diplomats, etc.

Whatever the outcome of this sorry tale, it certainly seems to have left one senseless unholy mess within a vital aspect of statecraft (i.e., our nation's intelligence gathering function) that had already taken quite a beating over the past decade.

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Clement Haynesworth

The withdrawal of Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court brings to mind another failed nomination -- that of Clement Haynesworth, who was born on this day in 1912 in Greenville, South Carolina.

Haynesworth was a somewhat flamboyant but respected Greenville lawyer when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by Dwight Eisenhower in 1957. President Nixon attempted to appoint Haynesworth to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Abe Fortas (following allegations that he received questionable honoraria), but Haynesworth's appointment was scuttled in the Senate when it was discovered that Haynesworth's wife owned stock in a company which came before him in litigation in the Fourth Circuit. Senate Democrats also claimed he was too conservative when it came to civil rights and labor issues, and they were still pretty sore about the Fortas thing.

You never can tell about such things, however. Remaining on the Fourth Circuit bench, it has been noted that Haynesworth's opinions were largely responsible for liberalizing prisoner's rights in the Fourth Circuit. As a sidelight, I'm told he was also, incidentally, the Circuit's authority on insurance "suicide" cases involving sexual self-asphyxiation.

Unfortunately, Haynesworth is today unfairly grouped with Nixon's other failed appointee, Harrold Carswell -- about whom Nebraska senator Roman Hruska, trying to give his support to an unsupportable candidate, said "Mediocre people deserve representation, too." Haynesworth died after an illustrious career as a jurist, in 1989.

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Exclusive Interview with Iraqi President


My friend, FNC's man in Baghdad Gordon Robison, reports about his exclusive interview with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani (on his Mideast Analysis site and on the Fox News site). He and another Fox News representative were invited to dine with Talabani, his chief of staff and two Iraqi cabinet ministers at the end of the Ramadan fast. As reported by Robison, Talabani expressed his frustration with U.S. forces on turning security responsibilities over to the Iraqi police, and predicted that the U.S. would be required to maintain a presence in Iraq for the long term, to assist Iraq in dealing with potential threats from Syria, Iran and perhaps Turkey.

Robison did live spots on FNC about the interview at 5 and 7pm EST on Sunday.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Boswell's Life of Boswell


James Boswell was the original groupie, in the modern sense; but, in the 18th century, there were no rock stars, so if your psychological make-up demanded of you that you adopt the shape of a groupie, you attached yourself to literary celebrities. Since nearly all literary celebrities in the 18th century were men, if you were a heterosexual male groupie, you could not avail yourself of one of the great benefits of being a groupie; Boswell worked this out by sleeping with anything with a pulse wearing petticoats.

Boswell was born on this day in 1740 in Edinburgh. His father was a high court judge, and although it was expected that Boswell would follow in the ancestral profession, the Scottish Bar, Boswell did everything he could think of to avoid his studies, principally scribbling verses and chasing after actresses. In 1760 Boswell ran away from the law, at least temporarily, and took up residence in London for 3 months, flirting briefly with Roman Catholicism but dropping it as it got in the way of his increasingly daring sexual adventuring.

During his stay, he caught the buzz of "the great, the gay and the ingenious," hanging with the likes of Laurence Sterne and Edward Augustus, the Duke of York (the future George III's younger brother), a period that marked the beginning of his celebrity addiction. Yanked back to Edinburgh, he studied law listlessly and pressed his case with his father for getting an officer's commission in the Footguards so that he could stay in London. His father, fearing the boy was destined to be perennially irresponsible, hooked him into a trusteeship with a meager allowance and blackmailed him into finishing his course in law, which he did, even as he indulged his taste for London and its literary lights.

In 1763, Boswell met Dr. Samuel Johnson, London's leading literary light, in a Covent Garden bookshop and apologized to him for being Scottish; Johnson replied that it was a fault Boswell shared with many of his countrymen. Soon Boswell became Johnson's charming if imperfect little brother, walking beside the big man and jotting down notes of all of their conversations.

Boswell went to Utrecht the following year, ostensibly to continue his legal studies, but Utrecht became his home-base for European gatecrashing; his great cajones got him into the damnedest interviews with such giants as Voltaire and Rousseau. Rousseau inspired him to go to Corsica to witness its ill-fated revolution against Genoa, which formed the basis for Boswell's first literary success, An Account of Corsica (1768).

Meanwhile, he entered the Scottish Bar in 1766, entered the practice of law (after a fashion), and despite the allure of numerous affairs (including an episode with Rousseau's own mistress), married his cousin Margaret Montgomerie, a woman who ultimately seemed capable of putting up with Boswell's lack of self-control. He was elected to The Literary Club in 1773, a collection of Johnson's witty pals which included playwright Oliver Goldsmith and the actor-impresario David Garrick, and shortly thereafter took Johnson on a tour of the Hebrides, to be recounted in Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785).

Between 1777 and 1783, Boswell wrote 70 articles for the London Magazine under the self-conscious pseudonym "the Hypochondriak" (a blogger before there were bloggers, if you will); after the publication of the Hebrides journal, however, Boswell's most famous work, the Life of Johnson (1791) was his central preoccupation. With the death of his wife in 1789 and the Life under his belt, drinking withered him in his last years, and he died in 1795.

While the Life was celebrated for its lively detail, it didn't necessarily elevate Boswell to the pantheon of major talents; that status would wait until the 1920s, when his copious, daringly confessional journals from his early visits to London (London Journal, 1762-63) were found in an ancestral trunk and published. In them, he shows a precocious understanding of human motive, his own and those of others, which would infect his later journalism, and reveals his own flaws with captivating detachment -- a most modern tell-all 300 years ahead of its time.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Teddy


On his many treks across hill and dale, Theodore Roosevelt's motto was "Over, under or through -- but never around." The motto could have been America's own at the turn of the 20th century, and in some sense Theodore Roosevelt's manic energy, undeterrable ingenuity and larger-than-life persona set the tone for what the nation hoped to be in the 20th century.

The second child of a prominent Manhattan banker and his Southern belle wife, born on this day in 1858 in New York City, "Teedie" was a scrawny, sickly child, asthmatic and myopic, yet quite experientially curious (especially about flora and fauna; he wrote a natural history of insects at age 9) and hyperactive. Roosevelt, Sr. encouraged his boy to put all his energy to good use, to build himself up physically, which he did with a rigorous gym workout program.

At 18 he entered Harvard and was an extracurricular star, taking a lead in campus activities from the Hasty Pudding Club to natural history lectures to boxing. Although he wanted to pursue natural history as a career, his girlfriend Alice Lee prevailed upon him to study law. In 1880, he married Alice and entered Columbia Law School, but Roosevelt dropped out before the end of a year to write (The Naval War of 1812) and run for the New York assembly.

At the end of his term 1884, Roosevelt suffered a grievous tragedy: after giving birth to their daughter Alice, Mrs. Roosevelt died from complications of childbirth -- and on the same day, in the same house, Roosevelt's mother also died. Heartbroken, Roosevelt packed himself off to the West, where he worked as a cattle rancher and served briefly as sheriff of Billings County in the Dakota Territory.

After two years in the wilderness, Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1886, married his childhood friend Edith Carow, and then, while also serving as a member of the U.S. civil service commission (1889-95) and president of the New York City police board (1895-7), he concentrated on his writing, publishing biographies of Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Hart Benton as well as books on the West.

William McKinley appointed the 39-year old Roosevelt as his assistant secretary of the Navy, and Roosevelt used the somewhat obscure post as a soapbox for expansionism and war with Spain over Cuban independence. Although McKinley had hoped to resolve the Cuban issue through diplomatic channels, the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst painted pictures of Spanish atrocities which inflamed public opinion and led McKinley to launch the Spanish-American War in April 1898. The following month, Roosevelt resigned his post to serve as commander of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (otherwise known as the "Rough Riders"), and became a national hero with press accounts of his heroic charge up Kettle Hill on the Cuban liberation front.

Upon his return after only four months of service, he narrowly won election as governor of New York, where he promoted women and child labor reform laws and promoted the state's first income tax on corporations. He reluctantly accepted nomination as vice-president for McKinley's 1900 re-election campaign, believing that the job would be a colossal bore following his statehouse stint; but while vacationing with his family in the Adirondacks, he received word that McKinley was dying in Buffalo from an assassin's bullet, and by the time he arrived at the president's bedside, McKinley was dead, leaving the 42-year old Roosevelt to be sworn in as the youngest-ever U.S. president. The old guard was aghast: "Now look," exclaimed Senator Mark Hanna, "That damned cowboy is president!"

The themes of his presidency, both in serving out McKinley's term and following his landslide re-election in 1904, were concerned with macho involvement and grand gestures of socio-economic reform: he led the liberation of Panama, the purchase of the Canal Zone and the construction of the Panama Canal; proclaimed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine on U.S. intervention in Latin America, summarized in Roosevelt's advice, "Speak softly and carry a big stick"; mediated the Russo-Japanese War (and won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize); promoted federal antitrust laws; launched the National Park system; and, following the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, signed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

He probably had more fun in office than any president, staging wrestling demonstrations in the East Room, leading unsuspecting foreign ambassadors on rambling hikes and playing cowboys and Indians with his children. His greatest achievement, however, was perhaps his transformation of the office into the "bully pulpit" (his own phrase) -- a position of moral influence and a touchstone for the collective emotions of the American public.

Most of his immediate predecessors had, for some time, hidden their countenances behind high collars and full beards; Teddy wore turned down collars (you could see the veins bulging in his robust neck when he got excited) and actually permitted himself to be seen to be smiling in public. For Roosevelt, an uninhibited display of personality was the greatest political tool at his disposal.

After his first full term, he handpicked his successor, William Taft, and went on safari in Africa, bagging elephants, hippos, rhinos and lions and collecting plant and animal specimens for the Smithsonian. After his return, he signaled his discontent with Taft's conservative drift and in 1912, he challenged Taft for the Republican presidential nomination (coining the phrase, "my hat is in the ring"), but his forces were no match for the incumbency machine. Undaunted, Roosevelt and the liberal Republicans launched a third party, the Progressive (or "Bull Moose") Party, with Roosevelt as the standard bearer, supporting an unprecedented regulation of American business. In the 1912 election, Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt (taking a bullet in Milwaukee and insisting on delivering his scheduled speech before going to the hospital) to acquit himself better than any third party candidate during the 20th century, running second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, but effectively splitting the Republican majority.

In 1913, he took to the wilderness again, this time leading an expedition down the River of Doubt in Brazil (where he contracted malaria and a nasty leg infection, both of which would plague him for the rest of his life), wrote books and magazine articles, and, upon the U.S. entry into World War I, he harassed President Wilson about his war policy and offered to raise a regiment (but was turned down by Wilson, despite hearing from French premier Georges Clemenceau that for the French, Roosevelt's name "sums up the beauty of intervention" and that allowing Roosevelt to fight would "gladden the hearts" of the French). Roosevelt's youngest son Quentin died in the War, which took a great deal of gusto out of the old warrior; his recurrent Brazilian infections and a case of mastoiditis which left him deaf in one ear sent him to the hospital in 1918, but the Great American came home to Sagamore Hill on Long Island for Christmas and was dead within 2 weeks, on January 6, 1919.

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H.R. Haldeman


While we await a possible announcement regarding indictments in the Plame Leak investigation (or not), it is perhaps fitting and appropriate that we remember H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, President Nixon's chief of staff and convicted Watergate conspirator, who was born on this day in 1926 in Los Angeles.

The son of one of the California businessmen who contributed to the private political expense fund which inspired Richard Nixon's famous "Checkers" mea culpa in 1952, Haldeman was an ad executive who helped to engineer Nixon's winning image during the 1968 presidential campaign. After the election, Nixon appointed Haldeman as his White House chief of staff.

The lynchpin of Bob Haldeman's administrative approach was the cultivation of an image for himself, one of ruthlessness to front-line adversaries and constituents outside the White House as well as among the hired help. Sporting a military-style crew-cut long after it had fallen out of fashion, Haldeman was an arrogant, cold-blooded field marshal who enforced his sense of order upon White House calendars and to-do lists in the service of Nixon's objectives, and he reveled in press descriptions of Nixon's "efficient Prussians" (Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic adviser) building a "Berlin wall" around the Oval Office.

As the White House puppet-master he knew about the covert plans of the Watergate burglars and participated in the cover-up; the infamous "18-1/2-minute gap" in the White House tapes contained a conversation he had with Nixon which many believe would have shown that Nixon had known all along about the entire Watergate affair.

After the Watergate story broke and he was forced to resign in April 1973, Haldeman grew his hair to a neat and somewhat fashionable length in a last-ditch attempt to soften his public image; nevertheless he was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice and served 18 months in prison.

Afterwards, Haldeman went into the real estate development business and published two memoirs, The Ends of Power (1978) and The Haldeman Diaries (1994) in which he took responsibility for the paranoiac atmosphere which prevailed in the White House. He died in 1993.

After Bob Haldeman, the position of White House chief of staff became a public one, reserved in large part for ex-officeholders -- ex-Senator Howard Baker, ex-Governor John Sununu, ex-Congressman Leon Panetta, ex-Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card, etc. In effect, it became a position demanding as much public trust as most elected positions -- while positions such as deputy chief of staff and chief of staff to the vice president have, until the recent scrutiny of the press, been faceless to the public at large.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Alfred the Great


George Vertue's 18th century lithograph of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great (at left) says a great deal about Alfred's status within British culture. Vertue depicts the king as a vigorous middle-aged king, at the height of his powers -- bearded, crowned and wearing an ermine-lined robe. For Vertue and his fellow Britons, Alfred is the archetype of English royalty.

Although he would not receive the title "Great" until the 16th century, Alfred's memory has persisted through history with almost Arthurian mythic proportions. Without doubt, he embodied the virtues that the English people often seem to cherish most: evident military might and scholarly diligence.

King Ethelwulf's youngest son would seem to have gained a taste for both at his father's knee, accompanying him on his pilgrimage to Rome to visit Pope Leo IV and his trip to the Frankish court of Charles the Bald. Although Ethelwulf was probably grooming Alfred for a religious career, when his older brother Ethelred died at the hands of the Danes in 871, the Witan council passed over Ethelred's two sons in favor of Alfred as the new king of the West Saxons.

Almost immediately, Alfred found himself locked in a flip-flopping series of battles with the Danes. He was not a man of great personal physical strength, but he was tactically adept, and though he kept the Danes at bay, he concluded that buying peace was better than wasting any further time with fighting by the end of the first year of his reign. He used the purchased peacetime to rebuild his army, which he began to use when the next wave of Danish chieftains began to move on him in 876.

In 878, a Danish army surprised Alfred at his court in Chippenham, causing Alfred to flee into the marshes. While he regrouped, legend had it that Alfred disguised himself as a harper, entering the Danish camp to spy, and incurring the wrath of a swineherd's wife for burning cakes left in his care. If true, Alfred was none the worse for the scolding, because later that year he maneuvered the Danes into a defeat at Ethandune.

During the peaceful years that followed, Alfred created 25 new fortifications around his kingdom, developed schools (decreeing that the sons of all freemen should learn to read and write in English, and then Latin), revised the law code of the old West Saxon king Ine and introduced it to his people, encouraged scholars to join his court, commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and even translated works from Latin into English (notably Gregory the Great's Pastoralis). By 885, Alfred had also developed the English navy into a formidable fleet, which helped him (along with those fortifications) to stave off the Danes during renewed onslaughts in 885 and from 893 to 897.

After putting the Danes away for one last time, at age 50, Alfred succumbed to a chronic illness that dogged him through much of his adulthood -- assumed by some to have been the royal malady, porphyria -- on this date in the year 899.

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Sharkey vs. Carnera


Jack Sharkey and Primo Carnera, both born on this day (Sharkey in 1902 in Binghamton, New York, and Carnera in 1906 in Sequals, Italy), were participants in one of the most infamous heavyweight title matches of all time in 1933.

Sharkey's real name was Joseph Cukoschay or Zukauskas (depending on the source) -- he took the name "Sharkey" after a former leading heavyweight contender, Sailor Tom Sharkey, after leaving the Navy himself for a boxing career. He fought his way within striking distance to the heavyweight title with victories over Harry Wills and Mike McTigue, among others, before losing under controversial circumstances to ex-champion Jack Dempsey in 1927, getting knocked out by Dempsey while protesting to the referee over an alleged foul by Dempsey.

Controversy continued to dog Sharkey in two bouts against champion Max Schmeling: in Sharkey's first title try in 1930, he lost to Schmeling on a foul; in 1933, he beat Schmeling to take the heavyweight title, though critics complained Schmeling appeared to be the winner on points.

Carnera was a dull-witted 6' 5-3/4", 270 lb. circus strongman, "discovered" by an American boxing manager and brought to America in 1930, where he was allegedly unwittingly boosted up the heavyweight rankings in a series of bouts which had been fixed by Owney Madden and the other mobsters who controlled his purses.

Carnera first faced Sharkey in 1931 before Sharkey, then styled as the American champ, had wrested the world title from Schmeling. It was Carnera's only loss that year. In 1933, though, Carnera beat Jack Sharkey in a suspicious six-round knockout, thought to be a fait accompli arranged by Carnera's mob backers, to become the heavyweight champion. He successfully defended his title against two nonentities before being trounced by Max Baer. In his last celebrated fight, he was hammered by Joe Louis in 1935, and he retired from boxing in 1937.

Carnera later appeared as one of the big, ugly strong men in the film Mighty Joe Young (1949), and stinted as a TV wrestler. Sharkey, who many feel never really boxed to his ability, retired to become a champion angler. Carnera died in 1967, and Sharkey in 1994 -- both continuing to deny that the 1933 fight was fixed. Sharkey's reputation was rehabilitated with his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame shortly before his death, but Carnera is still widely regarded as a big man with paper hands.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Politics and Religion -- at the Same Time

Old-fashioned wisdom was that you never brought up politics or religion in polite company. Professionals within either discipline, of course, could always be counted on to bring up either religion or politics at the drop of a hat; but since the 1980s, Americans have built up quite a tradition of talking about both religion and politics at the same time -- Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and even George W. Bush himself, to name only a few, have thrown caution to the winds and have introduced both topics to the lunch counter and the supper table.

The astonishing openness of such folks with regard to both topics at the same time today makes today's two birthday anniversary people all the more unusual for their time, the mid-20th century.

During the height of the Depression, Father Coughlin (born Charles Coughlin on this day in 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) was the best-known, best-loved Catholic voice in America, delivering homilies on his "Golden Hour of the Little Flower" radio show on CBS with his kindly (but fake) Irish brogue, virtually creating in the broader public mind the character of the stereotypical earnest Irish priest later to be played by Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. Yet as his popularity increased, Father Coughlin's message turned political, and as it turned political it became more and more stridently insurgent.

Beginning in 1923, Coughlin was the parish priest at the Shrine of the Little Flower (named for the recently canonized St. Therese of Lisieux) in Royal Oak, Michigan. Offered radio time by an Irish Catholic station owner in 1926, Coughlin began broadcasting his sermons weekly, and in the process raised thousands of dollars for his Michigan church. As the Depression hit the auto factory communities from which Coughlin drew his parishioners, Coughlin began to warn of the dangers of Communism, on the one hand, and the tyranny of predatory capitalism, on the other (personified by the "Wall Street financiers" and "international bankers," code words by which Coughlin tapped out his thinly-muted anti-Semitic vibes), formulating a somewhat muddled, isolationist economic theory based on remonetizing silver and nationalizing the banking system.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's presidential campaign in 1932, but by 1934 his relationship with Roosevelt began to fray over personal slights: he did not, as he naively expected, play any major role in Roosevelt's administration and the Roosevelt camp took pains to distance themselves from Coughlin, in particular undermining Coughlin's presumptuous purported spokesmanship for Roosevelt in his radio sermons.

Feeling power in his loins, Coughlin had an impact -- how much of one is subject to debate -- on the defeat of Roosevelt's proposed treaty on American membership in the World Court, and began to align himself with other defectors from the FDR team, Huey Long and Dr. Francis Townsend, hinting at the creation of a new political party. After Long's assassination Coughlin completely renounced his affiliation with Roosevelt and announced the formation of the Union Party along with Townsend and Long's purported successor, Gerald L.K. Smith, and subsequently designated activist-congressman William Lemke as its presidential candidate. From the beginning the campaign was an uneasy alliance of cross-purposeful demagogues, and Coughlin had all but given up on the campaign by election day. Having failed to deliver the 9 million votes he had brashly promised (Lemke polled less than 900,000), Coughlin briefly retired, only to reemerge in 1937 to continue to attack Roosevelt's "communistic" New Deal.

The following year Coughlin began to publish a weekly newspaper, Social Justice, which did not bother to thinly-mute its pulsing anti-Semitism. His following reduced to a rowdy collection of crackpots, Coughlin preached against U.S. involvement in World War II, peppering his radio sermons with kind comments about Hitler and Nazism until he was drummed off the air by the government, who banned his newspaper as "seditious" after Pearl Harbor, and the Church, which could no longer tolerate his fringe political activities. Off the air after 1940, he remained pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower until 1966, and passed away in 1979.

On the Protestant side of the aisle, there was Homer A. Tomlinson, founder of the Church of God (World Headquarters) and a perennial U.S. presidential candidate. Born on this day in 1892 in Westfield, Indiana, Homer was the son of Ambrose J. Tomlinson, a founder of the Pentecostal-influenced, Cleveland, Tennessee-based Church of God. Homer Tomlinson first went into the advertising business before his father was thrown out of the Tennessee Church of God and decided to form his own denomination, the Church of God of Prophecy (1922). To assist his father, Homer went into the ministry, establishing a congregation in Jamaica, New York and evangelizing around the Northeast. When Ambrose Tomlinson died in 1943, Homer's brother Milton was elected overseer of the Church after the elders received a prophecy in tongues "to bring forth the younger son."

After losing a legal battle over control of the Church, Homer established his own denomination, the Church of God (World Headquarters) in New York City. The ad man's instincts immediately kicked into gear, and he began attracting attention to his new Church with his new stated mission -- to get members of his church elected to public office so that they could help usher in the kingdom of God. Homer himself volunteered to go after the U.S. presidency, which he did as nominee of the self-founded Theocratic Party in 1952, 1960, 1964 and 1968, advocating the union of church and state, tithing instead of taxes and the appointment of two new cabinet posts -- the secretary of righteousness and the secretary of the Holy Bible. His vote counts have gone mostly unrecorded, but it is thought that he picked up 20 votes in 1964.

His lack of success at the polls did not deter him from his aims, however; at the 1954 convention of the Church of God, claiming to have been hailed "almost as a new Messiah," Tomlinson crowned himself king of the world, and when he wasn't running for president he was traveling to and briefly landing in over 100 countries around the world, staging quick coronation ceremonies before puzzled local authorities, using a gold-painted crown and a six-dollar folding chair standing in for the "throne of David." (When he held his coronation in Red Square in Moscow, Pravda referred to the event as a publicity stunt by "an American actor.") By dint of his presence in foreign lands, he claimed to his small American following that he had averted revolutions and wars, ended droughts, and had begun to usher in a time of peace and goodness. His mission ended with his death in 1968.

Tomlinson's Church of God still exists today as the Church of God, General Assembly, with its headquarters in Lincoln Park, Michigan, but its membership is unreported and is thought to be quite small.

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Hotel Palestine Photos

Gordon Robison (see my previous post, "'Too Close for Comfort'") has posted photos of the aftermath of the Hotel Palestine bombing.

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Rosa Parks, 1913-2005


On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a petite, unassuming 42-year old African-American department store seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded a public bus and sat down in one of the first 10 seats -- which were reserved for white passengers regardless of whether there were any. Moments later, the bus driver asked her to give up her seat for a white male passenger. When she refused, the driver said that he would have her arrested. "You may go on and do so," she calmly replied.

Parks later said she was tired and weary after a long day's work, but that was shorthand for her greater exhaustion from the racism and segregationist policies of the American South. Her quiet protest marked the beginning of the civil rights movement that caught fire in the U.S. through the early 1970s, giving momentum to the careers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others; but while it was a milestone in American history, for Rosa Parks it was just another act in a long career of commitment to civil rights. She passed away yesterday.

Born in poverty on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, at age 11 Rosa McCauley entered the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a school founded by Northern liberals which promoted self-worth among its students, and later moved on to study at the Alabama State Teachers College. In 1932, she married Raymond Parks, a barber who was active in African-American voter registration.

During the next 20 years, while working as a seamstress or clerk here and there, Rosa Parks became an active participant the local NAACP, ultimately as secretary and youth advisor for the Montgomery branch (1943-56), where she anonymously helped victims of "flogging, peonage, murder and rape."

Dissatisfaction within the Montgomery African-American community, which represented about 42% of the population of the city and about 70% of the ridership of the city bus lines, had been building for some time by April 1955, when an African-American teenager named Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Montgomery civil rights leaders decided not to pursue Colvin's case as their test of segregation, given her age (15) and the fact that she was an unwed mother-to-be, and similarly passed on the case of 18-year old Mary Louise Smith, who was arrested in October. When Parks took her stand in December, it was a surprise to her colleagues, but she was immediately seen as the ideal protagonist for the cause: married, middle-aged, employed, sweet and demure, but nonetheless possessed of a strong will and a superior sense of the politics of her situation. "My God," exclaimed local activist E.D. Nixon, "look what segregation has put in my hands!"

The local Women's Political Council almost immediately initiated a one-day bus boycott, after which local activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected 26-year old Baptist pastor Martin King as their leader. With boycott extended, the bus lines began to lose money, and the white city commissioners and their hooligan-supporters resorted to harassment of African-American carpools and pedestrians to get the activists to drop their mission. A number of the boycotters, including Parks and her husband, lost their jobs in the fray; King's home was bombed; and a court order barred the NAACP from operating in Alabama. In February 1956, however, civil rights lawyer Fred Gray filed a federal suit challenging segregated transportation, and was successful in having it declared unconstitutional, a ruling which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under an order served by U.S. marshals, after 382 days of the Montgomery bus boycott, the buses were finally desegregated on December 20, 1956.

Parks was thankful for the result, but noted that there was much more work to be done. Parks moved to Detroit, and despite her own sufferings and losses as a result of the episode (hospitalization for stomach ulcers, a period of joblessness, her husband's nervous breakdown), she campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the cause, raising funds for the NAACP. From 1965 until her retirement in 1988, she ran the Detroit office of Democratic congressman John Conyers and maintained her presence as a community activist for jobs and cultural issues. In August 1994, Parks was the victim of a robbery and assault in her home. In 1999, however, she showed that she still had plenty of fight left in her when (ultimately with the help of attorney Johnnie Cochran) she sued the rap act OutKast over the misappropriation of her name for the title of their Grammy-nominated song "Rosa Parks"; a federal court eventually ruled that OutKast's song title was protected by the First Amendment.

Much decorated, she became an elder statesperson of the civil rights movement, still determined to drive home her points. When the elder George Bush mistakenly referred to Birmingham as the site of the bus boycott during her appearance at a White House ceremony in 1989, she later commented, "Instead of having better ceremonies, we need better programs" for the poor and disenfranchised.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

'Too Close For Comfort'

My good friend Gordon Robison, currently Baghdad bureau chief for Fox News, gives his account of today's deadly bombing of the Palestine Hotel, where international journalists huddle in Baghdad these days -- see "Too Close for Comfort" on Gordon's blog, Mideast Analysis.

I spoke to him this evening by phone, and he reports that all of his people are safe and sound, though quite shaken. A glass of scotch comes in handy at times like these.

See also TVNewser: FNC's Baghdad Bureau Chief. . ..

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Three Pioneering Women, Hard as Nails

Today is birth anniversary of three hard-as-nails women who achieved unusual feats for their time.

Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood, born on this day in Royalton, New York in 1830, was educated as a schoolteacher before giving up her career to marry Uriah McNall, a farmer, and raise a daughter, Lura. When McNall died, Bennett returned to teaching to support herself and Lura, but became incensed by the fact that male teachers in the district made twice as much as female teachers, and went back to school at Genesee College.

Eventually she moved to Washington, DC, where she married Ezekiel Lockwood, a dentist and Baptist minister, and opened one of the first co-ed schools in Washington in 1867. While Lockwood assumed administrative duties with the school, Bennett pursued a law degree -- though was denied admission to three law schools on the grounds that she was a woman and married, before beginning studies at National University Law School. She completed her studies in 1873, but had to petition President Grant in order to receive her diploma. She was admitted to the D.C. Bar, but was not permitted to plead cases before the U.S. Court of Claims until she pushed enabling legislation through Congress in 1876. The following year she sponsored Samuel Lowery, the first Southern African-American to be admitted to the federal courts.

Bennett gained a reputation handling land cases on behalf of Indian nations in the West, obtaining a $5 million judgment against the federal government for the Cherokees. She became the first woman to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 after drafting and successfully lobbying for the passage of legislation permitting the admission of women to the Court.

As a women’s rights activist, she successfully campaigned for the passage of an "equal pay for equal work" bill for federal workers (1870) and legislation recognizing a woman’s right to own property in the District of Columbia (1896), and tried to secure passage of amendments to the Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico statehood bills giving women the right to vote. "Fight, fight, fight, everlastingly -- not with your claws and fists, but with your wits," she would say. In 1884 and 1888, Bennett became the second woman candidate for president of the United States, receiving the nomination of the National Equal Rights party, a symbolic effort opposed by Susan B. Anthony and the old guard of the women’s rights movement; yet Bennett managed to poll 4,149 votes in 1884 (not including votes in Pennsylvania, where ballots cast in her favor were thrown out).

Bennett had little patience for "professional suffragists" who talked too much and lacked practicality; she viewed herself as a feminist who liked men and only wanted to join them in their professional and civic pursuits. She died in 1917.

Throwing practicality to the wind, 46-year old Annie Edson Taylor (who was born on this day in 1855 in Auburn, New York), a widow and schoolteacher from Bay City, Michigan, became the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive to tell the tale, in 1901. Seeking to capitalize on the fad that had recently been revived when Bowser Nissen twice successfully went over the Falls in 1900 and 1901, the 160-lb. Taylor, dressed in a long black dress and a flowery hat, climbed into a four foot-long white Kentucky oak barrel and, standing on a 100-lb. anvil placed in the bottom of the barrel for ballast, sailed over the Falls. When she was retrieved from the barrel 40 minutes later, having suffered only minor cuts and bruises, she gasped, "Nobody ought ever do that again!" Unfortunately, Mrs. Taylor never managed to make much money from her stunt, living out the rest of her life (she died in 1926) quietly avoiding life-threatening activities.

Alexandra David-Neel was a daredevil of a different sort. Born on this day in Paris in 1868, Alexandra was a restless child of middle-class parents (her father was a friend of Victor Hugo). As a youngster she dreamed of traveling far and wide, and even ran away from home several times while schooling herself in religion and philosophy. At 17, she left her home in Brussels unannounced to hike in the Alps carrying only a raincoat and a volume of Epictetus; the following year, she bicycled around France with her belongings on her handlebars.

Upon reaching legal maturity, the 5-foot tall Alexandra left her parents for good to study Eastern philosophy and languages in Paris, and was warmly received by feminist and anarchist circles for having already lived a life of liberation unheard of among women of the time. She also studied music and virtually blundered her way into a career as an international opera star, touring Eastern Europe, Asia and Northern Africa with an opera company in Gounod's Faust, Massenet's Manon and Bizet's Carmen. Although she adored the travel, she didn't care for the career; and in 1903, at the age of 35, she turned briefly to journalism before marrying, against her better judgment, Philippe-Francoise Neel, a distant cousin who was a French bureaucrat in Tunis.

Little changed in her life, however, as Alexandra continued to write and study, living in London and Paris and occasionally visiting Philippe in Tunis. The marriage was largely a platonic arrangement, though the two were deeply committed to each other in their way. Honoring Alexandra's wanderlust, Philippe agreed to pay for her expedition to India in 1911. She promised to return in 18 months, but ended up not seeing Philippe for 14 years, apprising him of her travels by post.

She went to Sikkim in 1912 and befriended the prince while absorbing Tantric Buddhism from Himalayan monasteries, studying with the 13th Dalai Lama in Darjeeling and the young Lama Yongden, a 15-year old Sikkimese priest. In 1914, with Yongden as her guide, she retreated to a cave at 13,000 feet in the mountains of northern Sikkim and undertook the training of a Buddhist monk through 3 arduous Himalayan winters. Unable to return to Europe during World War I, the pair visited Japan in 1917; but Alexandra missed the Himalayas, so they crossed Korea, Mongolia and China on their way back.

In 1923, traveling incognito as a Tibetan peasant woman and risking capture and execution as an unwanted foreigner, Alexandra became the first European to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa, marching over 20,000-foot passes in the Himalayas with Yongden as her constant companion. She returned to Philippe in May 1925, knowing that she would be unable to resume a middle-class French life. They separated amicably (Philippe remained loyal and supportive until his death in 1941), and Alexandra settled with her adopted charge Yongden in Provence where she built a monastic retreat and wrote a memoir, My Journey to Lhasa (1927).

At 69, she returned to Lhasa with Yongden for several years, but had to flee on foot as China erupted in a civil war and World War II began, reaching India in 1946. She returned again to Provence, where she continued to write and study. In 1955, Yongden passed away, leaving her again nostalgic for Tibet. Even at the age of 100 she dreamed of returning; she caused shock and dismay when she showed up at the local Prefect's office to renew her passport. She died just before her 101st birthday, and 4 years later her ashes, along with those of Yongden, were scattered on the river Ganges.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Flirting with the Coast of Maine


We were in Maine this weekend for a wedding, and it was a quick, refreshing break. Bouncing along the coast from Kennebunkport (where we discovered that there actually is a local Democratic headquarters, which has a mighty fine parking lot next door), to Ogunquit and Perkins Cove, to Cape Neddick and York Harbor . . .

They say in Maine that if you don't like the weather, wait awhile.

Friday was a beautiful sunny day if mighty cool, and the Atlantic was as calm as a silk scarve casually thrown upon a drawing room tabletop at the beginning of a friendly visit. Quickly though, Saturday turned darker in anticipation of the rain that would come on Sunday, the grey-aqua sky bowing down to the white sea at the horizon, like a clear-eyed, courtly uncle embracing his sleepy nieces and nephews before taking his leave . . . then the uncle left, and the rains came, and the nieces and nephews awakened on Sunday morning and turned and threw their white caps in the air, galloping and cavorting . . .

The chill also sent us inside various shops, including a jewelry store, run by an old couple named Thomas and Carol, where it can be confirmed that somewhere in this universe there is someone who enjoys listening to Roger Whittaker (who knew?). Carol enjoyed it so much, in fact, that she sang along, enthusiastically, giving her browsing customers a perhaps inadvertant cabaret show ("Say . . . did you happen to see the most beautiful girl . . ."), interrupting herself only to remind us to look upstairs. "They-ah's wonderful things up they-ah . . . some beautiful lamps."

"Lambs?" asks Thomas from behind the cash register.

"No, lamps."

"Oh, I see, I didn't think they-ah were lambs up they-ah."

And Carol was right -- they were beautiful, and they were lamps, not lambs.

The cold weather also gave us a good excuse to have a chunky bowl of lobster stew and a Shipyard Ale at Barnacle Billy's on Saturday. It was, in fact, a weekend of good lobster -- lobster roll, with just enough mayo to hold it together on Friday, a tender and succulent whole lobster at Foster's Downeast Clambake on Friday night, lobster inevitably everywhere -- punctuated by doses of sweet, juicy mussels, corn on the cob and haddock.

It was just a weekend, but it was our first time in Maine, and the trip was so quick and so astonishingly mind-clearing, that as we sit down at home this evening, sipping wine and chewing it over, we are struck by all sorts of possibilities.

We resolve to return some day soon.


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Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Newt Gingrich Candidacy


While everyone else seems to be awaiting the shoes to drop in the Plame Leak investigation, I sit around thinking about 2008. In my spare time. Typically at 3 a.m. during a sleepless night.

Call it inspiration, call it nocturnal spasms, or call it evidence of brain atrophy – but I actually know who the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 will be -- barring a cataclysmic event, like a new vice president or something. And, be certain, dear readers, I will deny this if reminded of it in harsh circumstances come the summer of 2008. I may even have occasion to deny this next week.

The 2008 Republican presidential nominee will be Newt Gingrich. Listen to the pin dropping, folks.

Here are my top 4 reasons why Newt is It for 2008:

1. He’s Tan, He’s Rested, He’s Ready: Newt has been out of office and out of the limelight since 1999. While he had high negative poll ratings nationally at various times during his Speakership (i.e. 60%+ thought he may have been the spawn of the devil), he’s been filing down his horns -- his recent ubiquitous TV appearances as humble elder statesman and commentator have softened his image. It took Nixon 8 years to live down his red-baiting, Checkers-speechin’, used-car-salesman image as Eisenhower’s veep; it took Reagan 12 years to live down his reputation as a cranky political fluke with his last minute abortive run for the nomination in 1968 – but they did it, and they managed to look like the most statesman-like alternatives by the time they ascended to the Republican nomination. Like Churchill, each of them spent their time “in the wilderness” after a moment of public failure, writing and observing, before returning from isolation and reaching their zeniths as leaders. Gingrich appears to be laboring through the same mythologies.

2. He’s the Last Big Man Standing from the pre-Bush Age: Bush’s victory was considered a victory for conservatives in 2000, but here in 2005, you’ll hear a number of conservatives confess their disappointment with Bush and his team: in their eyes, Bush has become a big deficit spender who hasn’t thrown many bones to his base on social issues, and he has squandered the capital he might have used on fiscal reform, tort reform and social security reform on a poorly executed Iraq War. As numerous would-be candidates for the Republican nomination position themselves vis-à-vis the questionable Bush legacy -- either by running to the Left (McCain or Hagel, for example) or by maintaining their loyalty and arguing that things are better than you think (George Allen or Santorum), both of which are potentially risky strategies in a Republican primary campaign – Gingrich is an outsider today. As a leader of the Republican Revolution in Congress and progenitor of the 1994 midterm election watershed moment, the “Contract with America,” Gingrich may stand alone to the Republican base as an icon of pre-George W. Bush, politically-effective, conservative achievement.

3. He’s Preparing to Run to the Center: Was I nuts, or did I see Newt standing shoulder to shoulder with Hillary Clinton talking about health care technology? No, I wasn’t nuts, because it happened earlier this year – and as often as a TV talking head would use it as evidence of Hillary Clinton preparing to run to the center, where she needs to be once she is the Democratic nominee, I was thinking that Newt was using it for the same purpose. He’s recently begun staking out ground on the “progressive” issue of health care reform, proposing personal health care accounts and a version of universal insurance coverage by which he no doubt hopes to steal thunder from Democrats.

4. He Wants It: Gingrich has been spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire promoting his book, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America (aren’t all presidential candidates required to write books just before the campaign?). Asked last week if he was gearing up for a 2008 candidacy, he replied, “There are circumstances where I will run . . . My hope is that five or six candidates are going to jump up, steal all of my ideas, and I will be able to relax and go golf.” Funny, but I’ve never thought of Gingrich as a golfer. This all sounds a lot less like a cordial threat than a full-bore promise.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Best Work Ever

Yesterday Kerstin and I attended a neighborhood block party hosted by friends of ours in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. What I didn’t realize until I arrived (the husband is, of course, the last to know about the ramifications and significance of any social occasion), is that one of the themes of the event was pumpkin-carving. Shortly after we arrived I was standing in our friends’ kitchen, Bloody Mary in hand, watching about a dozen children carve pumpkins on our friends’ back deck.

A short time later (say, another Bloody Mary or so), the weather turned cold and windy, and the kids all rushed in. My wife chose that opportune moment to ask if I would go out and carve our pumpkin. “Our pumpkin?,” I sputtered. “I thought that was a kids’ event.”

“I thought it would be nice if we had a pumpkin, too.”

But, since I’m always being told that I’m the artistic one, “we” meant “me.” My lack of training in the fine arts is often all too evident (my little drawings of Foucault, Gish and Hubbert should provide ample evidence of this), but my friend Kevin was encouraging. “Didn’t Rodin get his start carving pumpkins?”

“He may have gotten his start eating pumpkins.”

So there I was, hunched over a pumpkin in 25 mph winds, two-Bloody-Marys-or-so down, carving a pumpkin for my wife and myself.

After a good 20 minutes of silent toil, I heard a note of disapproval from Kerstin from inside the kitchen and regained some consciousness. Looking at my pumpkin as for the first time, I concluded that it was the worst looking mess I’ve ever seen: two fretful, roundish eyes and a giant, lopsided Edward G. Robinson mouth. Thereafter, I couldn’t stop laughing at my own sorry creation for some time. If I had gotten around to taking a picture of the thing, I might have been permanently paralyzed with laughter, and for the sake of my own composure, there will be no home-carved pumpkin gracing our doorstep this Halloween.

I was so pleased with myself that I couldn’t help but remember the piece of work that Mark Twain once said was the laugh-out-loud funniest thing he had ever created, his self-designed “Map of Paris,” published in the Galaxy in November 1870. Although, I'm fairly certain that his creation was probably on purpose.

MARK TWAIN'S MAP OF PARIS.

I published my "Map of the Fortifications of Paris" in my own paper a fortnight ago, but am obliged to reproduce it in THE GALAXY, to satisfy the extraordinary demand for it which has arisen in military circles throughout the country. General Grant's outspoken commendation originated this demand, and General Sherman's fervent endorsement added fuel to it. The result is that tons of these maps have been fed to the suffering soldiers of our land, but without avail. They hunger still. We will cast THE GALAXY into the breach and stand by and await the effect.

The next Atlantic mail will doubtless bring news of a European frenzy for the map. It is reasonable to expect that the siege of Paris will be suspended till a German translation of it can be forwarded (it is now in preparation), and that the defence of Paris will likewise be suspended to await the reception of the French translation (now progressing under my own hands, and likely to be unique). King William's high praise of the map and Napoleon's frank enthusiasm concerning its execution will ensure its prompt adoption in Europe as the only authoritative and legitimate exposition of the present military situation. It is plain that if the Prussians cannot get into Paris with the facilities afforded by this production of mine they ought to deliver the enterprise into abler hands.

Strangers to me keep insisting that this map does not "explain itself." One person came to me with bloodshot eyes and a harassed look about him, and shook the map in my face and said he believed I was some new kind of idiot. I have been abused a good deal by other quick-tempered people like him, who came with similar complaints. Now, therefore, I yield willingly, and for the information of the ignorant will briefly explain the present military situation as illustrated by the map. Part of the Prussian forces, under Prince Frederick William, are now boarding at the "farm-house" in the margin of the map. There is nothing between them and Vincennes but a rail fence in bad repair. Any corporal can see at a glance that they have only to burn it, pull it down, crawl under, climb over, or walk around it, just as the commander-in-chief shall elect.
Another portion of the Prussian forces are at Podunk, under Von Moltke. They have nothing to do but float down the river Seine on a raft and scale the walls of Paris. Let the worshippers of that overrated soldier believe in him still, and abide the result -- for me, I do not believe he will ever think of a raft.
At Omaha and the High Bridge are vast masses of Prussian infantry, and it is only fair to say that they are likely to stay there, as that figure of a window-sash between them stands for a brewery. Away up out of sight over the top of the map is the fleet of the Prussian navy, ready at any moment to come cavorting down the Erie Canal (unless some new iniquity of an unprincipled Legislature shall put up the tolls and so render it cheaper to walk). To me it looks as if Paris is in a singularly close place. She never was situated before as she is in this map.

MARK TWAIN.
_____

TO THE READER.

The accompanying map explains itself.

The idea of this map is not original with me, but is borrowed from the "Tribune" and the other great metropolitan journals.

I claim no other merit for this production (if I may so call it) than that it is accurate.
The main blemish of the city-paper maps of which it is an imitation, is, that in them more attention seems paid to artistic picturesqueness than geographical reliability.

Inasmuch as this is the first time I ever tried to draft and engrave a map, or attempt anything in the line of art at all, the commendations the work has received and the admiration it has excited among the people, have been very grateful to my feelings. And it is touching to reflect that by far the most enthusiastic of these praises have come from people who know nothing at all about art.

By an unimportant oversight I have engraved the map so that it reads wrong end first, except to left-handed people. I forgot that in order to make it right in print it should be drawn and engraved upside down. However, let the student who desires to contemplate the map stand on his head or hold it before her looking-glass. That will bring it right.

The reader will comprehend at a glance that that piece of river with the "High Bridge" over it got left out to one side by reason of a slip of the graving-tool, which rendered it necessary to change the entire course of the river Rhine or else spoil the map. After having spent two days in digging and gouging at the map, I would have changed the course of the Atlantic ocean before I would have lost so much work.

I never had so much trouble with anything in my life as I did with this map. I had heaps of little fortifications scattered all around Paris, at first, but every now and then my instruments would slip and fetch away whole miles of batteries and leave the vicinity as clean as if the Prussians had been there.

The reader will find it well to frame this map for future reference, so that it may aid in extending popular intelligence and dispelling the wide-spread ignorance of the day.

MARK TWAIN.
_____

OFFICIAL COMMENDATIONS.

It is the only map of the kind I ever saw. U. S. GRANT.

It places the situation in an entirely new light. BISMARCK.

I cannot look upon it without shedding tears. BRIGHAM YOUNG.

It is very nice, large print. NAPOLEON.

My wife was for years afflicted with freckles, and though everything was done for her relief that could be done, all was in vain. But, sir, since her first glance at your map, they have entirely left her. She has nothing but convulsions now. J. SMITH.

If I had had this map I could have got out of Metz without any trouble. BAZAINE.

I have seen a great many maps in my time, but none that this one reminds me of. TROCHU.

It is but fair to say that in some respects it is a truly remarkable map. W. T. SHERMAN.

I said to my son Frederick William, "If you could only make a map like that, I would be perfectly willing to see you die -- even anxious. WILLIAM III

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sharp Sounds


Last night, Kerstin and I were fortunate to attend WYEP-FM’s “CD Live” Bonnie Raitt concert, featuring Maia Sharp, at the Benedum Theater in Pittsburgh.

With Bonnie Raitt, what you expect is what you get – an evening of spirited bluesy pop and sass, consummate guitar mastery, and Ms. Raitt’s obsessively tight rein, in media res, on sound engineering and arranging. “See all that ‘conducting’ she’s doing on stage, ordering people around?,” my red-headed wife leaned over and whispered to me. “That’s what red-heads do,” she explained, as if I needed reminding.

One of the performers she was “ordering around” was the non-red-headed singer-songwriter Maia Sharp, the daughter of veteran Nashville songwriter Randy Sharp. I first encountered Ms. Sharp back around 1998 -- when WYEP (one of our 3 local NPR stations) was pushing her album Hardly Glamour, featuring a pulsating, romantic, outlaw guitar trot, “I Need This to be Love” – and I’ve come to appreciate her work.

Somehow I missed her 2002 release, Maia Sharp, when it came out, but I quickly snapped up her third album, Fine Upstanding Citizen, earlier this year. I missed her most recent appearance in Pittsburgh during the Spring, but three of her songs turned up on Bonnie Raitt’s new release Souls Alike, and I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Sharp would be opening for Bonnie Raitt at the show for which I had already purchased our tickets.

Like any opening act, Sharp’s set suffered a bit due to set design – the headliner calls the shots on where her band’s instruments are to be placed, and so sitting in the 4th row, we got a little more percussion from Sharp’s drummer than we needed. Nonetheless, Maia was in top form on some of her best songs. She has a dark caramel voice that is anything but a typical pop singer’s voice; consequently, on tunes such as “Red Dress,” "Something Wild" and “The Reminder,” the intelligence of her lyrics seems rather highlighted by her unusual sound.

She has a knack, also, for getting the most out of very little as an arranger – which I guess is why I had no idea that Sharp knew how to play so many instruments. After a few tunes with the guitar, Sharp sat down at the keyboards and explained, “Okay, now I have to tell my brain . . . ‘piano’ . . .” – only to break off without warning in the middle of the song to pick up and play a neatly concealed soprano saxophone. During the rest of the evening, when Bonnie Raitt brought her out to play along with her band a few times, Sharp would eventually play 4 kinds of saxophone, lugging a baritone sax out for one rock number and blowing it well enough to out-Morphine Morphine’s Dana Colley.

Raitt is to be credited for pushing Maia Sharp out to a greater audience, and last night’s concert was a great chance to see her growth as a songwriter and performer.

(You might want to try Maia Sharp’s Fine Upstanding Citizen for yourself.)

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Michel Foucault


Long after the cults of other 20th century French thinkers have faded here in the U.S., American academics still seem to love Michel Foucault, who was born on this day 79 years ago in Poitiers, France. Going out on a limb here, I'll guess that this has something to do with the fact that the historical, public ebb and flow of our Democratic institutions has given us a well-developed sense of injustice -- that, and we do love our conspiracy theories here. Although Foucault himself doesn't necessarily focus on such matters, his arsenal of critical weapons and predilection for piss-taking certainly have allowed us Americans to beat injustices and conspiracies with a stick.

A brilliant youth, Foucault entered the highly prestigious Ecole Normal Superieure in 1946 at a time when official France still required his homosexuality to be hidden from broad daylight. In the pressure-cooked environment of the ENS, Foucault developed an armor of argumentativeness, intellectual superiority and scorn for those who earnestly played by the rules, coupled with an obsession with suicide resulting in an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself in 1948.

Although he read philosophy voraciously, particularly Heidegger and Nietzsche, and studied under Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Canguilhem and Louis Althusser, he supplemented his education by immersing himself in psychology. After graduating in 1952, he taught at Lille and Uppsala and worked in a psychiatric hospital before publishing his first work, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), in which he argued that the notion of "insanity" was a discursive tool used by authorities to categorize acceptable and unacceptable behavior (rather than an illness), and that insane asylums were depositories for excluding nonconformists (rather than treatment facilities).

In this first book, he established some themes that would dominate his subsequent work: writing beyond the genre of "philosophy," Foucault wrote about the history of thought, science, society and institutions with highly personal doses of irony, cynicism and wit (remnants, no doubt, from his old ENS suit of armor) to supplement his philosophic seriousness and skepticism, exploring the ways in which those who are in power cultivate distinctions within society -- dividing and conquering in the process -- and therein hide the mechanisms of their self-preservation.

His books The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) discussed the rationalization of practices which were ultimately used to control subjects within the domains of the physician and the state, respectively; and The Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) examined the embeddedness of "organization" or "order" as a component of social knowledge and self-identification, and the limits of revolution as an effective device for change in the face of such organization.

Finally, his unfinished History of Sexuality (1978-87) revealed some of the aims of his later work, that he was less interested in articulating a theory of power than in providing opportunities for reexamining the "self," taking Nietzche's destruction of cause-and-effect and the notion of phenomena not having any intrinsic meaning as points of departure for crashing through the web of social relations which constitute the "self."

Foucault was often grouped with the Structuralists, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, because his arguments were based on the view that the world is only intelligible to humans because of the order they impose upon experiences. Although he personally campaigned for the same causes as the Marxist radicals (prison reform, gay rights, the student uprisings of 1968), he rejected Marxism for its strident scientific strains. In fact, he stubbornly refused to attach himself to "movements," as "movements" for him were themselves rationalized regimes for perhaps casting himself as intellectual victim.

Foucault, who died of AIDS-related complications on June 25, 1984, concealed the nature of his illness at the end (some would say, as a way of dismissing the relevance of biographical facts), and ironically died in the same hospital, once an insane asylum, that he had researched for Madness and Civilization.

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Lillian Gish

I will admit that silent films are difficult to watch today -- technology, culminating in the 24-hour availability of talking heads in our living rooms, has made us a dialogue-obsessed culture. One has to approach silent film today as if one is beginning to learn a new language, and to watch the earliest silent films is to be given an opportunity to watch a language actually coming into being.

Lillian Gish, born in Springfield, Ohio 112 years ago today, was perhaps the finest craftsman among actors of the cinema at the precise moment that D.W. Griffith, the first great American film director, began to shape his vision of the cinema as a legitimate art form. Thus, she became the focal point of Griffith's technical development -- his groundbreaking editing, lighting and close-ups. At a time when physical intimacy was reserved for the closest relationships of blood or marriage, filmgoers could stare into Lillian Gish's shining eyes at close range and see the trails of her tears projected at super-human scale on a screen. We are used to such representations of intimacy today, but for audiences at the beginning of the 20th century, the experience must have awakened unfamiliar fascinations.

Gish started acting in stage melodramas with her younger sister Dorothy at age 5, and traveled with touring stage companies throughout her youth. During a lean period in 1912 (legitimate stage actors normally wouldn't be caught dead trying to get work in the "flickers"), she and Dorothy turned up at the Biograph Studios looking for work, were recognized by their old friend Mary Pickford, and were cast by Griffith that afternoon in what became one of Griffith's classic short films, An Unseen Enemy. As Griffith's canvases became larger (in films such as Judith of Bethulia, 1914; The Birth of a Nation, 1915; Intolerance, 1916; Broken Blossoms, 1918; and True Heart Susie, 1919), Gish was his perfect heroine, looking like a fragile Victorian beauty but possessing indomitable inner strength, exposed in her delicate, often lyrical yet defiant gestures.

Griffith was also in love with her, but she never lost her head or took advantage of him; she gave him his due as commandant, but otherwise treated him as an intellectual equal, a partner in art. After appearing in two more of Griffith's last successes, Way Down East (1920, risking her life on ice floes near a waterfall) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), she broke with him over salary and had a string of successes before the advent of sound (notably The Scarlett Letter, 1926, and The Wind, 1928).

Turning 33 at the advent of sound film, she would never be a flapper, and rather than risk being treated as an antique, she returned to the New York stage, starring in revivals of Chekhov and Shakespeare (as "Ophelia" to Gielgud's Hamlet). She appeared in character roles in films from the 1940s onward, winning an Oscar nomination for Duel in the Sun (1946) and delivering a memorable performance in Night of the Hunter (1955), sitting in her rocking chair cradling a shotgun in her arms while awaiting a psychotic Robert Mitchum. She remained active into her 90s, observing, "I can't remember a time when I wasn't acting, so I can't imagine what I would do if I stopped now."

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Let's Make a Deal!


I'm pleased to report that John Edwards has left the Oak Creek police (see previous post, "A Few Bugs Here and There" ) and has joined Fortress Investment Group as a "part-time global dealmaker."

Oddly enough, Edwards' experience is becoming commonplace, perhaps an emerging typical narrative arc for a lawyer-turned-politician. Even the hapless Dan Quayle can now call himself an investment banker as an advisor at Cerberus Global Investments (named for a three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell), a post he's held since he left the politics game in 2000.

I guess it beats pretending to practice law.

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Wild Garlic in the Pentagon


McSweeney's saves me from doing what very often comes naturally to me by presenting "THE NAMES OF THE PRESIDENT AND THE MEMBERS OF THE PRESIDENTIAL CABINET ACCORDING TO THE ETYMOLOGICAL BACKGROUNDS OF THEIR FIRST AND LAST NAMES, AND OF THEIR MIDDLE NAMES WHEN AVAILABLE." Apparently the Secretary of Transportation was omitted "due to unavailability of a reliable translation of the name 'Mineta.'"

I would never have expected to learn that pious and humble Michael Chertoff is a descendant of "The Devil." The fact that Donald Rumsfeld, however, is "The Ruler of the World and the Ruler of the Home Who Hails From the Field of Wild Garlic" is merely something that I've always suspected but never brought myself to articulate.

(Via Taegan Goddard's Political Wire)

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Rube Waddell


It is hard to believe that this dignified gent to the right was actually the pitcher about whom Bill James once wrote, "[He] would have been as great a pitcher as Walter Johnson if only he had the sense God gave a rabbit."

Turn-of-the-20th-century lefty pitching star George Waddell, known to the ages as "Rube," was born on this day in 1876 in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

Rube Waddell may have been a congenital idiot, but he was also one of the most feared left-handed pitchers in organized baseball at the turn of the century. A big, powerful, grinning, heavy-drinking man/child, Waddell was as easily distracted by a friendly barroom brawl as by little wind-up toys, a fact which gave his managers no end of frustration. The list of reasons why he would simply fail to show up for games would make a 10-year old boy proud: Waddell would get sidetracked while fishing or playing marbles, or he'd hurt his arm wrestling, or would chase a fire engine down the street and help the firemen put out a fire, and he'd temporarily forget about baseball. Sometimes, however, he was just drunk.

When he could be coaxed into the ballpark (sometimes under guard of his teammates or even hired Pinkerton agents) and made to focus on the game, his blazing fastball, biting curve and (ironically) his pinpoint control made him nearly unhittable. In 13 fitful major league seasons (6 with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics), Waddell led the league in strikeouts 7 times, setting a 20th century single-season record for strikeouts (349 in 1904) which would not be beaten until Sandy Koufax pitched 382 in 1965. In 1905, Waddell led the Athletics to the American League pennant with a record of 27-10, 7 shutouts and an ERA of 1.48.

For all his talent, he could not be relied upon, and only the patient Mr. Mack could have withstood him as long as he did; but ultimately Waddell's antics wore thin even with him, and Mack sold Waddell's contract to the St. Louis Browns in 1908. Waddell returned the favor by striking out 16 batters the next time he faced the Athletics.

His lack of practical sense meant that he could not be paid a regular salary; to avoid it being cheated out of him, or instantly spent on boyish vices, his team owners would dole out a few bucks to him here and there as he required it.

By 1910, Waddell's erratic behavior and declining skills landed him in the minors. He died on April 1, 1914 in San Antonio, Texas at the age of 38, from tuberculosis supposedly contracted while standing shoulder-deep in cold water for hours, repairing a dike during a flood in Kentucky. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Few Bugs Here and There


On Monday, it was announced that the Republican National Committee had hired Patrick Ruffini to serve as its "eCampaign director," ostensibly to run the Party's website GOP.com.

Patrick has been the proprietor of a very useful website called 2008 Presidential Wire, which I have as a featured link on this blog. 2008 Presidential Wire is a mechanized web-wire service which apparently automatically picks up blog and mainstream media coverage of some 30 or so Democratic and Republican potential 2008 presidential candidates.

Yesterday, there was a headline on 2008 Presidential Wire that caught my eye: "Oak Creek Boy Dies When Stove Falls On Top Of Him." That's certainly an unusual headline for an article about a potential presidential candidate, I thought, so I couldn't resist checking it out. The article reads as follows:

An Oak Creek toddler died under a stove over the weekend. . . "We're looking at the possibility if there was neglect involved at any point that could have prevented this from happening," Oak Creek Police Lt. John Edwards said. . .

It is a tragic story, but one that I predict will not figure prominently in the 2008 race, unless it is determined that former U.S. Senator and Democratic veep candidate John Edwards is now moonlighting with the Oak Creek Police. I can't say I've seen too much of Mr. Edwards of late, so nothing would surprise me.

Today, there's another interesting one, listed as an article about Sen. George Allen, from my own backyard: "New Kensington Man Jailed for Alleged Stabbing." This one features the following:

Police say 44-year-old George Allen Jackson is charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

With or without the bugs, we wish Mr. Ruffini good luck in his new role with the RNC website.

John Edwards articles on 2008 Presidential Wire
George Allen articles on 2008 Presidential Wire

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Child Worship in Kathmandu


In 1997, before venturing into the Sagarmatha National Park on my trek of the environs of Mount Everest, I had the opportunity to visit the Kathmandu Buddhist neighborhood of Bodhnath, and there I had a peculiar visit with Deshung Trulku-la, then a 6-year old Tibetan lama.

Deshung Rinpoche III (1906-1987) was a Tibetan lama who was considered to be the third reincarnation of Deshung Lungrig Nyima, the historic founder of the Deshung Monastery in Tibet. During the 1950s, Deshung III fled Tibet at the onslaught of Mao's army, and while teaching and raising funds in the U.S. established the Tharlam Monastery in Bodhnath, near Kathmandu, Nepal.

Seven years after his death, Deshung III's followers found Sonam Wangdu, a 3-year old half-Tibetan child living in Seattle with his mother (his Tibetan father had died in a car accident) and proclaimed him to be the fourth reincarnation of Deshung Lungrig Nyima, or Deshung Rinpoche IV. (Deshung III had apparently told his followers that his successor would be born in Seattle.) Sonam's white American mother, Carolyn Lama, was unhesitatingly cooperative with the monks, much to the highly-publicized wrath of her own parents and child protection authorities: it seems that she had had a dream about her son before he was born that when he was 8 years old, thousands of people (including the Dalai Lama) would come to hear him teach.

Having passed the tests of Deshung III's followers, the tot was enthroned as Deshung Trulku-la, the abbot of Tharlam Monastery, in a ceremony on March 8, 1994. Since then, Carolyn has been permitted to visit her son in Nepal only on rare occasions, while the monks at Tharlam raise Deshung Trulku-la and train him to accept leadership of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. (Incidentally, Bernardo Bertolucci's depiction of a white child from Seattle being a considered as the successor to a Buddhist lama in his 1993 film Little Buddha is merely coincidence and was not based on Deshung Trulku-la's experience.)

While wandering the streets of Bodhnath, I asked my guide for the day, Mr. Surendira, if he knew anything about the boy lama from America, whom I had heard about on an episode of Dateline NBC.

“Oh, yes,” said Surendira, “he lives near here.”

“Well, I’d like to see his monastery,” I said.

“Yes, no problem, I will take you,” he replied, and with that we were sprinting through the streets of Bodhnath. Soon we came upon the Tharlam compound, and I began to take it in, not realizing that in following Surendira, I was wandering into the living quarters of Deshung Trulku-la.

Suddenly, as Mr. Surendira led me to the threshold of a room deep within the compound, I realized, without introduction or ceremony, that I was standing in little Deshung’s room. “Here he is,” Surendira said to me, beaming.

The child was busy playing Power Rangers with a young friend of his from the monastery. “Deshung, this man has come all the way from America to see you,” Surendira said.

Deshung looked up at me. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said wearily, as though it happened a dozen times a day, proceeding then to take a red robot action figure and crash it down onto the head of a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex.

We exchanged few words, to be honest. I asked and received his permission to take a picture. I felt totally unprepared for the moment – as if I were going to the grocery store to buy a bar of soap and suddenly encountered Pope Benedict XVI in the frozen foods section. If you had a chance to speak to an exalted holy man, even if he was only a child – what would you ask? What nagging metaphysical concerns would you seek to clear up? “Nice to meet you,” I said.

After my trek in the Himalayas, I visited the Kumari Bahal, a temple which is the home of the Royal Kumari, or living virgin goddess – at that time, a 4-year old girl who is worshipped as a Hindu goddess by the king of Nepal. She is chosen from among the Buddhist Sakya families of Kathmandu and must possess the 32 qualities of a flawless girl – i.e., she must have eyelashes like a cow’s, a neck like a conch shell, she must be intrepid and unblemished, etc. Then she is taken to spend each day in placid luxury within the walls of the Bahal, dressed in her ceremonial finery, never to emerge except during two celebrations each year, when she is carried through the streets without letting her feet touch the ground. Visitors are not permitted to photograph her, but there are photos of her for sale at the Bahal. When she reaches puberty, she retires with a pension from the king and a new Kumari is chosen.

I entered the courtyard of the Bahal and, for a small donation, I was able to see her briefly in her balcony window. She looked down on me with as blank an expression as I can recall seeing. It is said, however, that she possesses an all-knowing gaze and, like a Magic 8-Ball, can answer your questions with just a glance. Unfortunately, my mind was a blank, too.

There are numerous legends about ex-Kumaris – including, most significantly, that a man who marries one is cursed to live a short unhappy life. One ex-Kumari, an 84-year old woman who was the living goddess in the 1920s and who was married for more than 70 years to a Kathmandu craftsman, took the moment of the installation of a new Kumari to dispel the rumor, pointing to her own experience. Her husband was even more definitive: “I do not say Kumaris' husbands never die,” he said. “Everyone has to die one day. There are widows, widowers. It is natural and not because they were former Kumaris or their husbands.”

Still, one has to assume that the bridegroom of an ex-Kumari must require an exceedingly stiff spine to deal with someone who has lived most of her childhood as a goddess – not unlike the spine one must certainly have if one were to, say, marry an Olsen twin.

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