The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, and Giovanni Ribisi, is set in a post-Northern Exposure movie and tv show dreamland where quirky characters living in quaint and eccentric small towns stumble half-comically, half-sadly through small misadventures, searching for a modest bit of happiness and at least a glimmer of understanding about how to make their lives a little better.
You Can Count On Me, The Station Agent, Garden State, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, Mumford, Sunshine State, Cookie’s Fortune—Cookie’s Fortune is an interesting case because it was Altman’s influence on TV ensemble dramas like MASH, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that made Northern Exposure possible, which makes Cookie’s Fortune a case of influence as a game of telephone, the original message circling back on itself.
Some of these movies are darker than others, depending on how much to the fore they allow the facts of death and violence and the worst of life’s evils and sorrows. But, setting aside Fargo, even in the darkest of them, and Big White is among the darkest, the main characters, even the villains, are fairly decent and well-meaning types who don’t wish each other harm. Conflict arises from the clashing interests of if not good then not really bad people forced to act selfishly to save themselves or those they love from troubles that have come about simply because what’s good for one person may be bad for another. It’s not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but trying-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them against other trying-but-maybe not trying-as-hard-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them.
Life is hard enough, these movies seem to be saying, even when it’s apparently going well, that for an hour and a half or two hours it’s ok for us to worry about the problems of some characters who aren’t threatened by war, natural disasters, or grinding poverty.
Life is hard enough for Paul Barnell. Barnell (Williams) is the owner of a failing travel agency. He’s up to his ears in debt. He has no prospects for digging himself out. There’s no one he can turn to for help. But his biggest problem, the one that may have partly caused the others by forcing him to take his focus and energy away from running his business, is that his wife, Margaret (Hunter), whom he adores, has gone crazy, and she shows signs of going even crazier. She’s falling down deep into herself, as if into a well. Paul has her by the tails of the pajamas she wears all the time, holding her back from the edge, but he feels his grip slipping.
Margaret can feel it slipping too. She is still sane enough to know she’s going insane and she’s terrified. So she’s convinced herself that she has developed Tourette Syndrome. Tourette is a disease, she’s reasoned, it’s an organic malfunction that can be controlled with medicine. If she has Tourette she’s not crazy, she’s just sick, and she’ll get better.
She spends a lot of her time mimicking what she thinks are the symptoms of Tourette. She’s not fooling anyone. But Paul does his best to make her believe he believes her.
Speaking of Northern Exposure, The Big White is also set in Alaska. But Northern Exposure’s Cecily was a part of Alaska. It had fitted itself into the landscape and assimilated and been assimilated by the Native American culture that was there ahead of it. In order to live there happily and feel at home in the place, all you had to do was get along with your neighbors and adapt to the rhythms of the place. You learned to love the weather. That was Fleischman’s problem. He refused to get along or adapt.
But the unnamed town that’s the setting for The Big White is a transplanted piece of Anywhere, America, an assemblage of strip malls and ranch house developments dropped on the tundra. The residents can’t adapt to living in Alaska because to go about their daily business requires them to live as if they’re in a suburb of Sacramento, Toledo, or Wilmington, Delaware.
Even in the coldest and snowiest of winters they’re forced to spend lots of time alone in their cars driving from isolated homes to isolated businesses. It’s a place that seems to have been designed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. The ads for Waikiki Airplanes and posters for Hawaiian vacations in Paul’s office emphasize the emptiness of the place and the futility of his business. The scenes of surfers and smiling, beautiful couples walking hand in hand on beaches don’t inspire a longing to get away. They only remind you of the cold and the snow outside and encourage a surrender to the bleakness. They don’t make you want to rush to the airport. They send you home to hide or to a bar to drink.
In such a place you wonder how it is that everyone hasn’t gone as crazy as Margaret. Then it dawns on you. They have.
Paul is convinced, naturally, that if he can just get Margaret out of here and take her someplace warm she’ll recover and return to her old self.
In order to leave and set up somewhere else, though, he needs to settle his debts.
He has only one asset, his brother’s million dollar life insurance policy that names Paul as beneficiary.
The good news is that Raymond Barnell has been missing for years, and, a wild guy, a heavy drinker, with a bad temper and a self-destructive streak, it’s a good bet he’s dead.
The bad news is that state law requires that a person be missing for seven years before they can be declared legally dead. Raymond has been gone only five. Paul has to wait two more years before he can collect on Raymond’s policy, unless, of course, Raymond’s dead body turns up.
Which it does.
Well, a dead body does.
A pair of legbreakers who, against their better nature, have upscaled their business to include murder for hire have done a guy for another, meaner thug named Dave—
First legbreaker (as they’re dumping the body): What’d he do anyway?
Second legbreaker: Don’t know. But Dave said if he did it again he’d break his neck.
It being winter and the ground being frozen and under a foot of snow, they can’t bury the body, and their being inexperienced in these matters and apparently never having watched The Sopranos, Gary and Jimbo aren’t sure how to dispose of the body. So they decide to leave it for the professionals. They drop it off in a dumpster.
Where Paul finds it.
Now all he’s got to do is pass the body off as his brother’s while deflecting the suspicions of the insurance investigator. The first part turns out to be easy. The insurance investigator is more of a problem.
Ted Watters (Ribisi) isn't just a crackerjack investigator, he's a desperate one. In his way, he's as desperate as Paul. Sent up to Alaska by his company's home office to whip the department into shape and train a promising rookie, Ted has begun to suspect that what was supposed to be the prelude to a promotion was actually a punishment for an unwitting mistake the company's never bothered to explain to him. He's been up here for thirteen months and is feeling permanently banished. When Paul shows up, attempting what Ted sees as obvious insurance fraud, he decides he can get himself back into corporate's good graces by exposing Paul and saving the company a million bucks.
He's astonished when the company execs accept Paul's story and decide to pay off. And he's frustrated when after he presses the case they tell him to forget about it. He determines to do the right thing and get the goods on Paul. This turns out to be a perverse and self-destructive move on his part and bizarrely makes him a villain in everyone else's eyes. He is shocked that doing his job, doing the honest thing, leads to his being not just disliked but physically punished by Fate. This is so obviously unfair that it just makes him more determined to bring Paul down.
Meanwhile, the thug who hired Gary and Jimbo doesn’t believe they’ve done their job. He demands visual proof. He wants to see the body. When they return to the dumpster to fetch it—apparently they’ve checked the pick-up schedule and expect it to still be where they left it—and find out it’s gone, it doesn’t take them long to figure out where it went.
They’re naive for hitmen, but they’re not stupid. They guess that the body must have been discovered by someone who uses the dumpster regularly, someone in one of the businesses nearby, learn that Paul has recently buried his “brother” whose body turned up mysteriously, and track him down. They break into his house, take Margaret hostage, and demand Paul return the body.
There is some black comedy in The Big White—I won’t tell you what Paul has to go through to pass the body off as his brother’s—
---but this is really a very sad and sweet little movie, mainly because of the loving marriage between Paul and Margaret that is at the movie’s heart and Williams’ and Hunter’s performances.
Hunter is adorable...and believably crazy. We get only a single glimpse of Margaret as she used to be. In a home video Paul took on one of their vacations, a waiter spills a drink on her and she reacts with good grace and great good humor. What Hunter does is make us realize that in going crazy Margaret hasn’t changed that much. She is the same person we see in the video, the same person Paul fell in love with 15 years ago, only more so. It’s a terrifying and terribly sad definition of madness as an intensification of personality. Going mad means becoming more like yourself.
To a lesser degree, but still to a degree of madness, this is what has happened to both Paul and Ted too. Each man has become more like himself. And the more you are lost in yourself the less room you have for other people. Paul will always have room for Margaret, but Ted is squeezing the woman he loves out of his life, and he definitely doesn't have any room for Paul and his troubles except as means to solving his own problem.
Williams does a very nice job of using that puppy dog quality of his that can be so annoying in his Patch Adams-Love Me Love Me roles to real effect beyond playing for the camera's affections. He turns it exclusively on Margaret, making it into a blanket of niceness that he attempts to keep wrapped around her to protect her from her own fear. This frees him up to be less than nice with the other characters. Williams allows Paul to be angry. Paul isn't a martyr. He isn't resigned to what's happening to him and Margaret. It's unfair and it's awful and it makes him furious, and he can barely keep his anger in check. The unfairness of it has also made him willing to be unfair, to return meanness with meanness, and to do whatever he has to do to save Margaret, up to the point of being willing to commit murder.
As Ted, Ribisi does something you don't see young American actors do very often. He plays a thirty year old as a full-fledged adult.
Ted likes his job, he's good at it, he works hard at what he does and he defines himself by himself by his work, and he carries himself accordingly. Overgrown college boys do not hold positions of trust and responsibility like the one Ted has earned. Ted is a man doing a man's job. He's sober, serious, responsible, disciplined, decent, honest, and nuts.
Ribisi makes no special pleas for his honest and decent character's honesty and decency or for any of his other virtues. Ted may be in the right, but he's doing the right thing for suspect reasons, reasons that border on mania if not outright madness, and Ribisi fixes his eyes in an unblinking beady-eyed stare that repels sympathy. He trusts enough in the character's basic attractiveness and in his own likability as a young leading man to play up Ted's unattractive side.
He also trusts in Alison Lohman as Ted's devoted girlfriend, Tiffany. Tiffany is a lovable character---the most lovable in the movie---and it helps that Lohman is as lovable as Tiffany's supposed to be. But Ribisi doesn't simply trust that we'll like Ted for Tiffany's sake. He understands that if Ted is to be liked he must learn to be likable, and he has only one person to learn it from, Tiffany.
Getting back to Northern Exposure, Ted is the character with Joel Fleischman's problem. Like Joel, he knows he would be happier if he would just relax and learn to get along with his new neighbors. But also like Flieschman, he knows that getting along and learning to like living where he's stuck living is a form of surrender. He doesn't want to like it there. He wants out of there, now.
So he resists anything and everything that might make him like it there. This includes Tiffany.
Tiffany loves him, but Ted refuses to love her back---or to admit that he does.
The more fool him.
Tiffany runs a psychic hotline out of the house she and Ted share. She is a good-natured fraud, untroubled in her conscience by what Ted calls her "carny scam," because she believes her callers understand that she's a fake. She and they pretend together that she's a psychic so they don't have to admit to themselves that they ought to be smart enough to solve the problems they bring to her on their own.
The real point is, though, that their problems are problems and she does help solve them. What Tiffany is is a talented psychologist and practical nurse who didn't have the money or luck to go to college and earn an actual degree in the field she was born for.
Ted is blind to her talent, or pretends to be, and even more willfully blind to the fact that her most challenging client, the person who most needs her help and advice, is himself.
Lohman, who I was afraid would disappear into Hollywood movie starlet-dom after her wonderful turn as the young Jessica Lange to Ewan McGregor's young Albert Finney in Big Fish, plays Tiffany without any trace of a starlet's vanity. Tiffany is pretty because Lohman is pretty, but the fact doesn't seem to interest either one of them. Tiffany is smart too, but that doesn't matter all that much to her either. And she's good-hearted, another fact about herself Tiffany doesn't overvalue. She doesn't believe that her good-heartedness has earned her any special favors from life. This is the big difference between her and Ted and between her and Paul. She doesn't feel owed.
Learning not to feel owed is the first lesson Ted needs to learn from her.
I hope I'm getting at what Ribisi and Lohman manage to do so well by saying that watching Ted's slow realization and conversion is like watching Lohman teach Ribisi how to dance. She's an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, but patient and slow, and he's trusting enough and modest enough to let her lead.
It's to director Mark Mylod's and screenwriter Collin Friesen's great credit, as well as to Ribisi's, that they leave Ted still in the process of learning when the movie ends. Ted has only progressed so far that he's no longer stepping on her toes. He's got a ways to go before he can take over on the dance floor.
The movie doesn't end with Ted and Tiffany exactly duplicating the loving married couple, Margaret and Paul. Ted hasn't completely given in. But his last line makes clear that he'll get there.
Tiffany (taking Ted's arm as the snow falls on them): Don't you just love this weather.
Ted (looking at the sky warily but hopefully): Learning to.
Woody Harrelson makes a vivid and terrifying appearance bringing kind of violence and menace that is usually kept just out of range in these Northern Exposure-influenced movies and shows. His character is another one who has gone nuts by becoming too much like himself. Unfortunately, in his case it means becoming more of a monster of selfishness and anger.
I think Mylod let him overdo it a bit, but Harrelson gets his final scene just right nonetheless, and it's a powerful and moving moment that leads to another sad and perfect little grace note by Williams.
Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown as the erstwhile hitmen, Gary and Jimbo, are a lot of fun, especially when Gary attempts to make Margaret admit she's faking her Tourette symptoms because he likes her and is concerned about her. Margaret calls Gary and Jimbo the Gay Mafia, but it's never clear that the characters are lovers. They are, however, married, in their fashion. They are a devoted couple and the small, quiet ways Brown and Nelson show the men's domestic familiarity and their affection are both funny and touching.
The Big White. Directed by Mark Mylod. Written by Collin Friesen. Starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and W. Earl Brown. Echo Bridge Entertainment in association with Capitol Films. 2005.
Have to go out and shoot some hoops for charity tonight and since I may not make it home in time for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and I don't have a guest host lined up this week, there will be no live-blogging, and that may be a good thing.
About a quarter way into last week's episode I began to feel a terrible sense of deja vu. "I've written this all before," I told myself. Sure enough, everything I typed had an echo. I think I've said all I have to say about Studio 60 and after last week's show I'd say that Aaron Sorkin doesn't plan to give me anything new to write about...except for his leading men's very strange and juvenile ideas on how to impress the women they love.
Is it me, or are Danny and Matt bordering on the creepy when it comes to Jordan and Harriet?
If you're watching, feel free to use this as an open thread, but I have to tell you...I'd rather you answered my questions at the end of the post below. I have a feeling it'll be a heck of a lot more fun to write about the good movies you've seen this year than about Sorkin's feeble Snakes on a Plane jokes.
10:45. I'm not here.
Ok. I'm here. But I'm not staying. But I can't resist.
Tom: I have to remind you that the legal age for drinking in California is 21.
Tarted up Kim: What's the legal age for taking you back to my hotel room and dancing for you?
Why doesn't Simon have his own date? This is the second episode where he's pimped for Tom. At least this time he isn't handing the girl over to him.
This is all Sorkin can think of to do with DL Hughley? Have him play blacker than thou with Darius and Leering Sidekick to Tom?
Ok, I'm done.
Except I got to say I love the guy with the snakes and the ferrett.
Also I knew the other bidder for the dinner with Harriet was making a George Lucas reference with his handle Luke5858.
That is all.
Was there a time when who wins the Oscar mattered to people outside Hollywood?
The Academy Awards show has always mattered. Watching the movie stars is fun, and not just in an OH MY GOD! Whatever possessed her to make her wear THAT? way, and not just in a Who's that with Jack this year and what does Anjelica think? way. There are fewer movie stars than there used to be, true. The Red Carpet gets tracked up by more TV actors, celebrities because they're celebrities, and hangers on than actual movie stars, and even the movie stars aren't so much stars as they are personalities. But it's still a night of vicarious glamor and fame, of reveling in the incarnations of vague or explicit romantic and erotic longings and idealizations of self and beloved "other" etc etc etc.
And once the nominees are announced, you can't help but develop a rooting interest based on who you'd like to see up on the stage, who you want to see lose and fake a good sport grin for the cameras, which of your personal favorites you hope will be judged deserving to validate your own good taste and judgment, how important it is to you to have "picked" the winners...
But was there ever a time when the Oscars mattered as in the sense of something important having been decided?
I didn't think so.
There are always people who have money riding on the outcomes, and, by the way, who's giving odds on Little Miss Sunshine? I'd like a piece of that action.
But here's an AP story about the SAG Awards last night that treats them as important because of what predictive value that might have come Oscar night and treats the importance of their predictive value as mattering as if we all had money riding on what happens Oscar night.
This is the Academy Awards covered as if they're a Presidential Election, and these days Presidential Elections are covered as if they are Sports, and Sports are covered as if they are important because of the personalities involved and the amount of money being tossed around---in other words as if they were part of the movie industry as covered by Variety.
It's all about winning and losing, whatever It is. We're not allowed to enjoy Sports because they are just beautiful. We're not allowed to be interested in politics because...well, the fate of the nation's at stake. We're not allowed to enjoy the Oscars because we like movies.
There are winners and there are losers, and the winners are the ones who make the money.
That's what we're allowed to be interested in.
Show us the money!
Ironic this year, with Little Miss Sunshine being nominated for Best Picture, since the main theme of the movie is an explicit rejection of the idea of dividing humanity into winners and losers.
At any rate, another Oscar season is upon us and once again I probably won't have seen more than one of the major nominees by Oscar night.
As usual, this is mostly due to the blonde's and my not being able to get out to the movies regularly. Hollywood doesn't help us, now that only movies released in the late fall are going to get any of the major nominations. (Little Miss Sunshine is the exception that proves the rule because it surely benefited from coming out on DVD in early December.) We can't even make it out to one movie a month. No way we're going to be able to squeeze ten or twelve in between November and Oscar time.
But it's also due to the fact that except for Little Miss Sunshine, which we just wanted to see for fun, there's not a single one of the Best Movie Nominees that we'd have made the extra effort to see.
That's not another way of saying "They don't make 'em like that anymore." Movies made like that were always a rarity. It is a way of saying that Hollywood doesn't make as many fun movies as it used to. It makes movies that are frivolous and amusing and are therefore fun in the sense of not being actually painful, although plenty of them are---anything that's sold as a romantic comedy usually falls into this category. And it makes movies that are thrill rides and are fun the way an amusement park is fun---most anything sold as an action-adventure movie. And it makes movies that are funny and are fun because it's fun to laugh---more and more of these are animated. Open Season had more laughs in any five minutes than RV had in all 90.
But they don't make many that are fun just because they are well-made, well-written, full of laughs, chills, thrills, spills and surprises and feature real movie stars doing excellent work but obviously enjoying themselves. Fun movies don't have to be epics. They don't have to be works of art. But they need to be something more than filmed sitcoms or extended episodes of Law and Order. The Lord of the Rings movies were the last great recent example(s) I can think of. Spider-man 2. The Life Aquatic. The Incredibles. (What does it say that there's a cartoon on the list?) Space Cowboys. Get Shorty. Three Kings. The Thomas Crown Affair. The Fugitive. Seabiscuit. Catch Me if You Can. Secondhand Lions. The Illusionist.
These are the kind of movies that make the habit of going to the movies rewarding. And being in the habit of going to the movies is how you find yourself sitting through and enjoying movies you wouldn't have thought before you saw them would be up your alley.
Would work like this for me.
Blood Diamond looks like fun. I'd have liked to have seen that. If I'd enjoyed it, I might have said, That reminds me. Nevermind the silly accent. Leo is awful darn good. I wonder how he is in The Departed.
The Good Shepherd doesn't look like a lot of fun, but I'd have gone to see Matt Damon doing something different and his performance might have made me think, I should see what else he's capable of, and again I'd have wound up watching The Departed.
I'm a Mozart, Monet, Paris kind of guy, if you get my drift.
Ok, give me some help here.
Which of the Oscar nominees do I need to rush out and see before February 25?
What was the last movie you saw that was fun?
Cross-posted at newcritics.
Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote this column going on ten days ago and I thought I'd managed to shrug it off, but I guess it's been working away slowly on my mental immune system. Stupidity is a persistent little microbe.
Here's Fineman's opening:
You knew Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high school. At least I did. They were candidates in the student senate election. She was the worthy but puffed-up Miss Perfect, all poodle skirts and multicolored binders clutched to her chest. He was the lanky, mysterious transfer student—from Hawaii by way of Indonesia no less—who Knew Things and was way too cool to carry more than one book at a time. Who would be leader of the pack?
Presidential elections are high school writ large...
Yep. Exactly as I remember it. Our high school student government had a multi-trillion dollar budget to play around with, a stockpile of nuclear weapons, thousands and thousands of miles of roads to repair and bridges to inspect, and trade treaties with Japan, China, and Great Britain all set to expire.
My junior year the big issue in the class elections was whether or not the incoming student president would continue the war in the Middle East the previous administration had started. There was a lot of angry debate about redeployment and whether or not what one of the candidates was proposing should be called a surge or escalation.
My God, there is so much stupidity packed into Fineman's paragraph that I have no idea where to start shoveling.
Guess I'll start with the very easiest.
Howard, who are you writing to? Poodle skirts? I'm old, Howard, but you must be ancient. My mother wore poodle skirts.
And guess what, Howard. Your column was written as a "web exclusive." Most of the people who read "web exclusives" are younger than my mother. Think about this. People born the year Hillary Clinton started high school, 1961, will turn 46 years old this year. They graduated from high school in 1979! How many poodle skirts flounced through American high schools in 1979? And people who graduated high school in 1979 are among the senior citizens of Internet users.
By the way, guess what year Barack Obama was born.
So, I ask again, who are you writing to, Howard?
An audience of narcissistic old men and women who haven't gotten around to admitting they're old and the world is now being run by their middle-aged children? (See note below.)
Ok, moving on to the next easiest.
Whatever kinds of skirts Hillary wore in high school, she is now 60 years old. I don't know what Chelsea Clinton is up to romantically these days, but it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that she could make her mother a grandmother within the next couple of years. She meets someone nice, they have a whirlwind courtship...it happens.
In other words, Hillary Clinton is not a kid. She is not even middle-aged anymore. She is a 60 year old United States Senator who may be the next President of the United States and writing about her as if she is a girl is very strange.
There's a whole post in this, but an awful lot of Beltway Media Insiders don't seem to have realized that time has passed since 1992, and it seemed to me back then that back then they didn't seem to realize that time had passed since 1972. They treated Bill and Hillary Clinton, a youthful and handsome middle-aged couple approaching 50, as if they were a young and beautiful couple approaching 30.
I think that goes a long way toward explaining the obsession with their sex lives, then and now. The Media didn't look at the Clintons and see the President of the United States and his accomplished wife. They saw a Baby Boomer Ideal of Their Generation, and this is a generation that collectively has taken an unconscionably long time to get their heads around the fact that they are not Forever Young.
They covered the Clintons like movie stars and what use are movie stars if they can't fuel our erotic daydreams?
The hysteria that overwhelmed the Beltway Media during the Impeachment Crisis, when as one an entire industry of mostly middle-aged mostly men who previously prided themselves on their cynicism and worldliness gasped, reeled, reached for the smelling salts, and started scolding like a gaggle of spinster aunts in a story by PG Wodehouse, only makes sense as the acting out of a pack of hypocrites who had suddenly seen their own sexual fantasies revealed on the nightly news.
The Broderites have announced that they plan to revisit the Impeachment Crisis for as long as Hillary is in the race. By the Impeachment Crisis they do not mean the Republican Right's attempt to use the Constitution to overthrow the legitimate government. They mean Monica dancing with her cigar.
They mean they are going to cover Hillary as if she and Bill are what the Media treated them as 15 years ago!
Which means they are going to continue to write about Hillary Clinton as if she was young enough to be played by Hilary Swank in the movie version. They are going to write about her as if she is Hillary Swank in the movie version.
There's junk in Fineman's column about the girls all flocking around Barack Obama so I guess he'll be played by Terrence Howard in the Media coverage of his Presidential campaign.
Now, to the more complicated stuff, the thing that makes my head swim.
Fineman is no Joe Klein but he is still one of the more insider-y of the Beltway Insider types and, as TBogg shows, prone to drivelling like this.
Beltway Insiders prefer to see politics as high school, which is to say as a constant struggle for status and popularity among the cool kids.
The questions of who will be the next President, which political party will run Congress, what direction the country will head, questions those of us living outside Washington think of as being about matters life and death, they see as purely personal, social matters---who gets invited to what parties, who gets to join which clubs, who's in and who's out, who's up and who's down.
Fineman's column internalizes and exemplifies that trivial and self-serving and self-aggrandizing---if the question of who is in the White House is merely a matter of who gets invited where, then the people like Sally Quinn who run the social scene in DC are more important than the people who actually run the country---and useful---it makes your job so much easier if you can cover a debate over policy as if it's a football game or a movie or a high school musical---mindset.
But there's more going on.
Fineman is making Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama responsible for Fineman's own literary conceit. He's the one calling the Democratic campaign for President a replay of high school but he's writing as if this is the Democrats' fault, as if they're the ones who don't take what they do seriously.
This is something Somerby, Atrios, digby, Alterman, Boehlert, and many others have written about again and again. Members of the Media Elite write about what they do as if they aren't doing it. They cover politics as if the Media aren't part of the process and as if reporters, pundits, editors, publishers, producers, and anchors have no influence on anything---not on the way stories are covered, not on what stories are covered, not on what people think about the stories.
They court the access and want the influence that comes with the access, but they refuse to accept any responsibility for their influence.
They refuse to look at the ways their desire and need for access affect the ways they do their jobs.
A bunch of Insider journalists get together for drinks, somebody makes a joke about how Hillary reminds him of a girl he knew in high school, this leads to a bull session about how life is just high school all over again, how politicians they don't like are just like the kids they didn't like in high school---Fineman is using his high school election conceit to insult as well as diminish Clinton and Obama---and then a few days later, lazily casting around for something to write about or to say on TV, they repeat their dumb conversation as if it's a profound insight.
There is a truth in the observation that adult life often seems to be a constant repeat of high school, because people's characters are, to a near final degree, formed in high school and too many of us stop right there, never growing mentally, emotionally, or spiritually beyond the age of 18, and the rest of us who manage to fake our way to a kind of maturity are all too likely to revert when we let our guards down.
Character is destiny, and it can be useful to try to understand what's going on in the world by looking at the characters of the characters involved. Biography is an important part of history.
This is one of the points Robert D.Kaplan was making in his Atlantic article, A Historian for Our Times. You can learn something about what a politician is up to by looking at his past.
George W. Bush is a fascinating case study because of the way he was given a pass on his own past by the Media Insiders. Somehow the Media, who love to play amateur psychologists when the subject on the couch is a Democrat, were persuaded that the story of Bush's life up until the day he decided to run for President not only didn't matter, it practically hadn't even happened. Recently, they've taken some tentative steps towards discovering what a destructive role Bush's twisted, love-hate relationship with his father has had on his Presidency.
But biography is a precision tool. It requires not just insight into the subject but insight into the biographer. To understand someone else's motives, you first have to understand your own. A good biographer is a demanding self-critic.
The ability to criticize themselves is not common among DC journalists. And one of my points here is that Fineman's column is a product of his profession's rejection of self-examination.
But even if it wasn't, there's a big difference between comparing a public figure to what she was like when she was a young woman and writing about her as if she still is that young woman, which isn't even what Fineman's done, blockheaded as that would be. He's written about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as if they are kids that Fineman claims he used to know in high school. But he didn't know such kids. Nobody did, because he's describing stereotypes, caricatures of types he might have encountered in high school, but which he more likely knows from the same places we all know those stereotypes from, TV and movies.
But even if he had written with more wit and insight about Clinton and Obama as character types, even if he had them pegged, he would still be missing the point.
A person might be so immature and unformed that at 50 or 60 they are emotionally and intellectually indistinguishable from high school students, but the fact that their votes in the Senate may provide the difference between whether soldiers will live or die, old men and women will be able to buy their medicines, and children will get to go to good schools or even get to eat tonight makes them creatures an entire universe away from the prom queens, football heroes, geeks, freaks, hoods, goths, stoners, slackers, teachers' pets, or rebels without a cause they might have been 35 and 45 years ago.
To those of us outside DC who have managed some degree of an adult's appreciation of how the world works, what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and George Bush, were like when they were 16 is interesting only because what they do every day in the here and now affects the world in life and death ways.
Inside the Beltway, apparently, what they do every day is interesting only to the degree that it allows journalists and pundits to write about them as if they are characters on Saved by the Bell.
Couple weeks back I wrote about some new piece of nitwittery perpetrated by Joe Klein. One of my regular readers dropped a comment dismissing Klein as not worth attention. Klein's a jerk and a dope, he more or less agreed, but the real problem is the foolishness of the American people who keep buying the obvious garbage that Klein and his ilk are peddling.
Now, I've felt that way myself, but the evidence is that the American people aren't buying it anymore, not in bulk anyway. But if they are, or---I should say---when they do, why wouldn't they? It's what's on TV. It's what's in the newspapers and magazines. We want and depend upon an informed citizenry and it's from the likes of Joe Klein and Howard Fineman that the people get their information.
(Blogs and the Internet in general are wonderful, but most people who read blogs read them at work, and those most people are not most people. Most people do not work at jobs that plant them at computers out of sight of their bosses for hours on end. Nobody reads a blog while standing at a cash register or wielding a blow torch or driving a delivery truck or pushing a broom. And nobody who does those things all day has a lot of energy, mental or physical, left to boot up the computer and start following all Atrios' and Avedon's links when they get home. Newsweek and TIME, NBC and ABC, traditional outlets that write guys like Fineman and Klein their paychecks, are what most people have to depend on.)
Joe Klein is the devil, and he's the devil because he's a celebrity. His stupid book set the tone and made him famous. It put him on the Sunday talk shows where he's become the standard. Lots of people have contributed, but Klein led the way.
Without the influence of Joe Klein, I doubt Howard Fineman would be writing about two people who might be the President who has to deal with the hell George Bush has made out of Iraq---the hell he seems intent on making out of the entire Middle East---as if the most important outcome of the next election is who gets on the decorating committee for the Senior Ball.
My post on Kaplan's Atlantic essay on Herodotus with the same offer repeated: drop me a note at email@example.com if you're not an Atlantic subscriber and would like me to email you the article.
I don't know exactly how old Fineman is himself. From his Newsweek biography I'm guessing he graduated from college in the early 1970s, which would put him in high school in the late 1960s when I'm betting he knew a lot more girls who wore miniskirts and granny dresses than he did Miss Perfects in poodle skirts. Why Fineman thought he needed to make himself out to be older than he is, I can't imagine, unless he was just afraid he couldn't bring up the fashions of his high school days without dragging the whole counterculture movement into it. But it's probably more likely that the reason is that Fineman was confusing his high school days with Wally Cleaver's.
Say you know a guy who likes to kick his dog.
Every morning you see him out walking his dog and whenever the dog stops to sniff around the guy gives the poor mutt a swift kick in the ribs.
You tell your neighbors about him. One of the neighbors says, "Boy, you really don't like this guy, do you?"
"No, I don't," you say, "Who likes someone who's mean to his dog?"
Little time later you hear this guy who kicks his dog wants to open a kennel in the neighborhood. Board pets, groom them. Where he wants to put the kennel is zoned residential so he's asking the town board for a variance. You go to the town board meeting and stand up and say you don't think he should get the variance. It'd ruin the neighborhood, you say. Besides that, you add, this guy abuses animals.
Your neighbor, the one who observed how much you dislike the guy for kicking his dog, stands up and tells the town board not to pay any attention to what you say. Because you just dislike the guy.
Woman you know at work is always plotting something behind her colleagues' backs. Everybody knows this about her. She steals ideas, undermines people she doesn't like by gossiping about them. She's head of a department and she routinely raids other departments to steal away their best workers and then drives them out of the company because she's, well, evil. You are in charge of one of the departments she's screwed that way. You complain about her to a co-worker.
Co-worker observes, You hate her, don't you?
Inexplicably, though, one of the three brothers who own the company is nuts about her and wants to promote her, put her in charge of a whole new division. One of the other brothers has a different candidate in mind. The third brother is open to persuasion. He comes to you and asks your opinion.
You voice your concerns about this woman's competence and loyalties.
But instead of taking what you say to heart, he dismisses it out of hand. He says, "I heard you don't like her and this proves it. We can't discuss this if you're not going to be rational about it."
Ok. Every time you see the guy kick his dog you are furious. There are days you get so mad you rush out the door and start screaming at the guy to stop.
The backstabbing department head drives you crazy. Some nights after having spent the whole dealing with her and the problems she's created you have to stop off at a bar and have a drink. Two drinks. You rant and rave about her to the bartender. You go home and rant and rave some more to your family. You wake up in the middle of the night, your stomach in a knot, and you sign onto your computer and rant and rave about her on your blog.
Both these people make you crazy with rage sometimes.
But you are not crazy for getting angry at what they do. And you are not crazy for disliking them for what they do. It is not irrational for you to think that the guy who kicks dogs should not be allowed to open a business where he gets to kick other people's dogs. It is not irrational for you to think that a manager who is incompetent and puts her own ambitions ahead of what's good for the company will make a terrible division head.
You're a contractor. You get a job. New housing development. Twenty-five units. You start looking for sub-contractors. There's an electrical contractor wants the job of wiring the houses. Husband and wife outfit. You know them. You can't stand them. They go to your church. Smug, hypocritical, mean-spirited people, both of them. Made for each other. Their kids are pieces of work. You won't let your own kids near them.
What's more, they live ostentatious lifestyles, drive his and her matching Hummers, wear ugly clothes, and have painted their house pink and purple with lime green trim.
They both dye their hair too.
You can't stand them and you've let the world know it.
But on top of all this, they do substandard work. They cut corners, hire non-union workers off the books, they're being sued six ways to Sunday by people whose homes and businesses they've made fire traps with faulty wiring.
No way you're going to let them near your units.
But somehow they get past your secretary one day. She was out sick and a temp scheduled an appointment for them. You find yourself taking the meeting out of a mixture of inertia and politeness. They make their pitch. Tell you how they're going to do this job for you, quick and reasonable. But you know them and you know your business and you know right away they're proposing to do their usual substandard work in their usual shady and cheap way. You can't stand it. You blow your stack. You tell them what you think of them, their business, tell them what they can do with their paperwork. You make the wife cry.
Sunday comes around. You go to church. After the service you hang around for coffee and donuts. The pastor comes up to you, takes you aside, gives you one of those looks, the kind that say, My child, I need to talk to you about the state of your soul.
Pastor tells you he's heard about the meeting, about how you rejected the couple's bid out of hand, how you made the wife cry. Tells you a secret, just between you and him. The couple's hurting. Their business is failing. The IRS is auditing them. One of their kids is suffering from terrible depression. The husband's aging mother needs to go into a nursing home, she's got Alzheimer's.
Pastor asks, Couldn't you see your way to giving them the contract, for charity's sake?
No, you say, because, one. It'd be a stupid business move for you. And two, it wouldn't be charitable to the people who are going to move into homes with suspect wiring.
The pastor redoubles that look and says, Are you sure those are the only reasons?
You say, Aren't they enough?
And the pastor says, Are you sure your judgment isn't clouded by your irrational dislike of these people?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Liberals, Bush's proposed "health plan," and the Media's unshakeable belief in our irrational hatred of George W. Bush.
Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post:
If George W. Bush proposes something, it must be bad. Such is the knee-jerk state of partisan suspiciousness that when the president actually endorses a tax increase -- a tax increase that would primarily hit the well-off, no less -- Democrats still howl.
....Listening to Democratic reaction to Bush's new health insurance proposal, you get the sense that if Bush picked a plank right out of the Democratic platform -- if he introduced Hillarycare itself -- and stuck it in his State of the Union address, Democrats would churn out press releases denouncing it.
I would just like to point out, as if it hasn't been pointed out a thousand times and won't need to be pointed out a thousand more, that the reason Liberals don't like George W. Bush's plans is that they are bad plans that he makes worse by managing them incompetently and corruptly---in fact, incompetence and corruption are usually built into them as selling points to Republicans.
And the reason we don't like him is that he has a long history of pushing bad plans that he makes worse by managing them incompetently and corruptly.
We don't like people who kick dogs.
We don't like corporate executives who abuse employees and hurt their own companies.
We don't like dishonest electricians who do substandard work.
We don't like incompetence and corruption.
And we don't like Presidents who start unnecessary wars and lose them, who let cities drown, who bankrupt the Treasury and give away the store to their rich pals and cronies, who write legislation specifically designed to undermine existing government services, make things worse for the poor and the middle class, and give away the store to their rich pals and cronies.
Too bad for us.
We're irrational on the subject.
Thanks to Avedon Carol who has some other good links and sharp things to say in her post, Parsing the Speech.
For longtime regular reader and commenter, harry near indy:
The Baltimore Colts were my favorite football team when I was a little kid and Johnny Unitas was my hero.
I wrote him a letter, using an address I found in an ad in Boys' Life, and asked him how I could grow up to be a great quarterback like him, and he wrote back. He advised me to practice my passing by throwing at tire swinging from a tree and to sharpen my mind by studying hard in school and taking up chess. I was thrilled. I didn't guess it was a form letter and I took his advice to heart. I already played chess, but I played it more often and used my allowance to buy my own chess set. I can't honestly say I studied harder but I read from the World Book Encyclopedia every night, figuring that would help me in school in some way. And we didn't have a tree in the backyard with a branch low enough to hang a tire from---we didn't have an old tire either and Pop Mannion wasn't enthusiastic about going out to find one---but I compensated by throwing my football at the tree I would have hung the tire from if it had had a branch low enough. And for good measure I made 19 my lucky number and inked it onto a t-shirt with a blue magic marker.
Too bad for me I was too late to the game. My hero-worship of Johnny Unitas had been sparked by something I saw in a comic book. Another ad. This one for an Aurora plastic model kit. Aurora specialized in models of Presidents, great moments in sports, movie monsters, and superheroes, as opposed to Revell's cars, planes, and aircraft carriers. The model I fell in love with was of Johnny U. dropping back to pass while one of his linemen braced himself to block a blitzing New York Giants linkebacker. It depicted, said the ad, which was in the form of a comic strip, a moment from one of the greatest football games ever played, a pass to Raymond Berry during one of the greatest scoring drives ever, by one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played the game.
I don't think all those "greatests" were actually in the ad. But I sure heard them in my head.
The game took place when Unitas was in his prime. I read that comic book at the very end of his career. Didn't matter to me. I didn't believe that sports heroes aged any more than superheroes did. I thought Unitas was still the greatest quarterback and I expected he would stay the greatest quarterback until I was old enough to take his place.
For one year, because of Johnny Unitas, I was the most devoted Baltimore fan in upstate New York.
Then in short order, the Colts lost the Super Bowl to the New York Jets, the NFL absorbed the AFL and the Colts were moved to the AFC, Unitas retired, and my heart broke.
When the Colts won the Super Bowl a few years later, defeating the loathsome Dallas Cowboys on a field goal by rookie Jim O'Brien with five seconds left to play, I tried to feel excited, but it was no use. I didn't really care. I wasn't a Colts fan or a football fan anymore.
Whatever feelings I had left for the game and the team were snuffed out when Robert Irsay snuck the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night and set them up in Indianapolis. As far as I was concerned, the Colts had stopped being the real Colts when they'd shifted over to the AFC, but now that they weren't even playing in Baltimore, they might as well have changed their name to the Race Cars and started wearing black and white checkerboard jerseys. Never when looking at a picture in the paper of their players in their classic blue and white uniforms did I feel a twinge of nostalgia. The whole time we lived in Indiana I was never tempted to go down to the Hoosier Dome to watch them play.
But something changed when Peyton Manning came along.
I didn't become a football fan again, let alone a Colts fan. What's happened, though, is that Manning has somehow reestablished the connection for me, to my old team, and to my old feelings. I don't know if I just imagine it or if it's something about him, his build, his style of play, the way the ball flies out of his hand, or just the fact that he is a great quarterback wearing a blue and white uniform and a white helmet with a simple blue horseshoe on it, but he reminds me of Johnny Unitas.
Actually, since I don't really remember Unitas, never having seen him play when he was at his best, what Manning reminds me of is that comic book ad and the Aurora model, which, by the way, I bought and built, although I made the charging linebacker a Minnesota Viking because I couldn't paint the Giants' logo on his helmet realistically enough to my own critical eye and I had the purple paint for his jersey.
The horns turned out pretty well, I think.
Can't say I'm jumping up and down with joy at the prospect of the Colts playing in the Super Bowl. But I did smile when they beat the Patriots. And I will be rooting for them against the Bears.
If I had an Amazon Wish List, this book would be on it.
Eight years ago tonight the blonde and I went to the movies with our friend, Chris the Cop.
Saw Shakespeare in Love tonight with Chris minus J. who was not feeling well. Walking across the food court afterwards, heading downstairs to Mozarella's for some dinner, Chris was greeted by a young woman who passed by so quick I caught only a glimpse of her. I had a sense of prettiness, long dark hair teased and sprayed, black clothes, an outgoing and flirtatious personality. Chris said she works in the DA's office.
"She's not a prosecutor," I said with near Holmesian certainty.
"Nah. Secretary," Chris said and added, "She's a wild one. That one. Caused her father a lot of gray hairs over the years."
The father, he went on, deserved to have a daughter like that. A former state trooper. Real jerk.
Seems that fathers who deserve to have daughters like that get them. What a coincidence.
Nearing the restaurant, Chris spotted a guy going down the escalator he recognized. Drug dealer named Macarthur D. Shortish, dumpy black guy with pale cheeks and what might have been a long curved scar. "Even drug dealers need a night on the town," I said, "Probably saw Shakespeare in Love." Chris doubted it, but did not doubt that Macarthur was armed. He was a little surprised Macarthur didn't recognize him. Decided his beard threw Macarthur off. Back in the days when they had regular contact, Chris was in uniform. He was in the TOPS trailer and Macarthur visited there a lot. Not voluntarily.
After we ordered, I hurried down to the parking garage to move the car, because the garage was going to close at 10 and I didn't trust that the doors would open for us when we beeped as the signs promised. Bumped into Macarthur and a few of his friends standing outside the sporting goods store, discussing items in the window they would like to own. They were taking up a lot of space in the hallway and I had to walk between them to get to the door. Couldn't help it. I felt nervous. Worried about doing something they might construe as a challenge. Damn TV. Macarthur himself isn't too intimidating, ignoring the fact that he was packing heat. He had a friend, though, very tall, very broad across the shoulders, in a too small Army field jacket, Gulf War vintage with desert camouflage. Suspect it was hard for him to find one big enough it wouldn't split up the back when he put it on. They ignored me and everybody else. Just guys out having a good time. So they're carrying weapons? They can't relax and enjoy themselves?
Drug Task Force arrested a guy recently Chris had to interrogate. During the questioning a woman friend of the arrested guy got discussed. Chris asked if she was a crack whore. The guy was offended.
"No," he said, "she's a crack escort."
Chris' big drug bust back in Dec. has expanded, he said, "in interesting ways." One of those ways is in the direction of a realtor. The drug kingpin they took down had bought a house just before he was arrested. House is across from an elementary school and the kingpin dealt out of it, so he's in extra trouble for that. He had tried to buy the house from its former owner directly, going behind the back of the owner's realtor. The owner, who runs an appliance business, refused to screw his realtor. So the transaction had to take place on the books. The kingpin brought another realtor in on the deal. Used him instead of a lawyer to handle the closing. The kingpin was paying cash for the house, naturally. Because there were no banks involved, the closing was held at the county clerk's office. The kingpin's realtor carried the money, 50 grand in cash, in a suitcase, into the courthouse. Money was exchanged in the lobby across from the clerk's office. Just spending money you've made dealing drugs is money laundering. Helping the kingpin buy the house put the realtor in the middle of it. The task force brought him in for questioning this morning. The realtor wanted to know if he should get a lawyer. The detectives said that might be a good idea and he should do it quick.
"Tomorrow?" the realtor asked.
"Tomorrow morning," the detectives suggested helpfully. "Tomorrow afternoon won't be soon enough."
The realtor is a shady character. He owns a lot of property himself and rents are a big source of his income. He's never been arrested. But when his name was run through the computer his kids' names came up...and came up again...and came up a few times more. In trouble a lot, mostly for minor things, although cops have been called in to break up knife fights between them.
Last Chris story for tonight. He was remembering how he'd once been called in on a domestic involving two gay men. One was middle aged, his lover was 20. The twenty year old was the one in a rage. He was so angry that when Chris and his partner showed up he threw an electric clock at Chris.
That was it.
Kid was on his way to a night in jail.
Kid couldn't figure out why Chris was angry at him. Got very upset. Arrived at the station weeping. Booking sergeant asked the standard questions, which include this one: "Do you think the subject might do himself harm?"
"Look at him," Chris said.
The tears were streaming down the kid's face.
He was put under observation.
I have to go to a taxpayers' meeting to grumble about a proposed rape of the land here in town so I won't be watching the President tell us about all the wonderful things he wants to do in the next year to go along with that mission to Mars and all those cheap, hybrid cars that have weaned us from foreign oil.
I'm sorry I'll be missing James Webb deliver the Democrats' response.
The blogs will be clogged with commentary and analysis of course. Tom Watson and Maha Barbara are planning to live-blog the speeches. And later the Drum Major Institutue will be posting an analysis of how what gets said tonight is going to affect the middle class. Check in on Tom and Barbara and then read what DMI said so you'll be smarter than everybody else at the water cooler tomorrow.
Over at TAPPED, Mr Mark Schmitt has requested that liberal bloggers stop referring to Hillary as Hillary and start calling her, more respectfully, Senator Clinton.
Mr Matt Yglesias seconds Mr Schmitt, adding with a cantankerousness well beyond his years, "unless you make a habit of being on a first-name basis with US Senators, don't call her 'Hillary.'"
But as it happens, I am in the habit of being on a first name basis with United States Senators, one of them at least, my own. And I call her Hillary because she's asked me to...or to at least think of her as Hillary when I went to vote for her.
It was on all her campaign posters. "HILLARY: Standing up for New York"
As a lot of commenters on Mr Schmitt's and Mr Yglesias' posts have pointed out, Hillary is Senator Clinton's own brand name for herself. Some Right Wingers and even many on the left side of the bandwidth may refer to Senator Clinton as Hillary thinking it's a way to cut her down to size, but Senator Clinton and her campaign staff refer to her as Hillary because they think it works to her advantage.
Senators are a dime a dozen. There is only one Hillary.
So my initial response to Mr Schmitt and Mr Yglesias' suggestion is the same as Mr Duncan Black's response: I'll stop when they stop.
But with all due respect to Messrs. Schmitt, Yglesias, and Black, there is another reason to stop referring to the junior senator from New York by her first name.
Leveling the playing field.
As has also been pointed out in comments on Mr Schmitt's and Mr Yglesias' posts, we have a tradition of referring to some politicians by their first names or nicknames.
Very few people voted for General Dwight David Eisenhower for President.
They liked Ike.
And while many people voted for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a lot voted for Jack and a lot more went all the way with JFK (although it's hard now to hear that phrase as something other than a double entendre or without hearing its movie echo, All the Way With Bill McKay).
Regional habits play a part, an etiquette of usage will develop---probably, if you're a regular reader of their blogs, it struck you as annoying when I referred to Mr Schmitt and Mr Yglesias. They are known as Mark and Matt around these parts and that's how I normally refer to them. Very friendly of me except that they aren't my friends. Nice guys, both of them, I'm sure, but I've never met either one. And who is Mr Duncan Black? Duncan or Atrios?---and context is all. But generally when a politician or a public figure gets known by his or her first name it's a sign for their opponents to think about cutting their losses and their agents to ask for more money.
The politicians and celebrities we know by their nicknames and first names are those who have achieved a quasi-legendary status. They have definitely grown bigger than life.
Mark is right. I wouldn't call any of Hillary's opponents Joe or John or Bill or Chris, mainly because no one would know who I was talking about. Even using their last names will not cause big bells of instant recognition to ring out loud across the last.
The junior senator from Illinois is another story, and right now it's still a question as to whether his brand name will be Obama or Barack Obama.
It won't be Senator Obama.
To start calling Hillary Senator Clinton isn't a way to show deference and respect. It's a way to force her outside her own legend and make her fit on the same stage as Senators Edwards, Biden, and Dodd and Governor Richardson---or make room on the stage for them to fit there with her.
I don't recall seeing it specifically stated, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people think that calling Hillary Hillary is a way of calling attention to the fact that she is a woman in order to put her in her place.
I can hear it sniffed, "You wouldn't call a male politician of her stature by his first name."
Except of course we do. A select few, at any rate. Say the name Bill in a roomful of political junkies and nobody is thinking of Bill Richardson.
But, yeah, calling her Hillary does call attention to the fact that she's a woman in a man's world and that's deliberate and also to her advantage.
A great part of her appeal and her whole reason for being in the position she is in, poised to become the next President of the United States, is that she is a woman. And a mother, and a wife---the wife of a particular man, a beloved President himself but also a cad who hurt his wife terribly.
As much as the high-minded might wish it, Americans don't vote for a candidate because of her resume but because of her biography. We vote the person not the accomplishments, although we want the person to be accomplished because look at the White House and see what happens when we elect a person whose resume and biography are devoid of any real achievements. Hillary is what she is and will be whatever she manages to become because of her biography and her biography is encapsulated in her name.
Say her first name and you've said in one word what it would take you a thousand to say about Senators Edwards, Biden, and Dodd and Governor Richardson. You've told her life story.
I wrote a less than stellar post last year arguing that the Democrats had allowed a "biography gap" to develop between themselves and the Republicans. I thought the Republicans were better at nominating candidates with life stories that resonated with voters. What I should have said was that they were better at telling their candidates' life stories in ways that resonated with voters. But the main point of the post was that Hillary was the only Democrat on the national stage---at that time---who had a compelling biography that was already resonating.
At that time.
Now Barack Obama is running for President mostly on the strength of his ability to tell his own life story in a compelling way.
John Edwards has a compelling story to tell too, but I don't have the sense that he's figured out how to tell it. When he does, it may be that we'll start referring to him as John (but not, I hope, as Johnny).
As it stands now, though, there is Hillary and then there are those other guys. Calling her Senator Clinton isn't a way to insist she is on their level but to try to pass them off as being on hers.
Now, it's unfair, unfortunate, and from a certain point of view dismaying that the main reason we are interested in Hillary's biography is that she is, not Senator Clinton, but Mrs Clinton. She is what he is because she is the wife of a former President of the United States, and that brings me to a point raised by Messrs Attaturk and Kurtz:
If Hillary Clinton is the nominee in 2008 [Mr Attaturk writes] I'll vote for her. But until then, she is absolutely my last choice among the announced candidates.
It has a little something to do with her constant triangulation, a trait of her husbands that also drove me nuts. I also don't want a President just to the left of Joe Lieberman. But that is not the main reason.
Mostly it is this, and I know it is seemingly petty but nevertheless in the long-run I think it is important.
We are supposed to be a democracy not an oligarchy (or at least we should pretend to be the former). I know that is naive, but nonetheless I think we should at least keep the appearance. I simply cannot abide the United States going Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. It's disturbingly anti-democratic looking if nothing else. This from David Kurtz sums up my thoughts exactly (apparently it is Talking Points Memo day here):
I think you may have touched on this before, but I'd like to reiterate the single biggest mental block that currently makes me think I will not cast my vote for Clinton. It makes my stomach hurt to think that in twenty or thirty years I could look back at a list of presidents that includes "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton." This country is far too great to have to rely on two families for so much presidential leadership. Think about it: a two-term Hillary would be TWENTY-EIGHT years of Bush and Clinton. It's petty, but like I said it's a mental block, and I'm just not sure how I can get over it.
I understand. I used to feel the same way. I used to have nightmares of a President Hillary succeeded by a President Jeb followed by a President Chelsea. I still think it is not a great thing that a Hillary Presidency would be pretty much the result of a very undemocratic tendency in the country to reward people for the accidents of their family connections.
I'm not as bothered by it though I was only a year or two ago.
Mainly, of course, because at this point I don't care who the Democrats run as long as they win and not just for partisan reasons---at this point the good of the country depends on Bush being replaced by somebody as decidely not Bush-like as we can find, and the Republicans are not going to nominate anybody like that.
The appearance of our being a democracy not an oligarchy is not near as important as the fact that under Bush we have been coming closer to actually becoming an oligarchy.
If Hillary wins and then is re-elected, it will have been the case that for 28 years the White House was the home of only two families.
But it is in fact the case that for 28 out of the 40 years before a second President Clinton might take office, the White House was the home of four different families of Republicans and while that might have given the appearance that we're a democracy not an oligarchy, those Republican families weren't concerned with making sure the reality matched the appearance.
Appearances are deceiving, anyway, and short term trends provide limited grounds for long term predictions. Twenty-eight years isn't a long time in the grand scheme of things. I suppose it's possible that a second President Clinton could be succeeded by yet another President Bush---I'd like to think that the present President Bush has made it more likely that will have a President with the last name of Hitler than a third one with the last name of Bush, but I thought the first President Bush had made it unlikely that we'd have a second one in my lifetime---but it's more likely she'll be followed by a President Obama or her own former Vice-President, President Warner.
Yep, I'm predicting that if Hillary's the nominee Mark Warner will be her running mate. Odds?
At one time Democrats looked forward to at least three Presidents Kennedy.
From 1933 until 1961, a period of 28 years, the White House was the home of only three families, and if FDR had had his way---that is if he had not died when he did*---it might have been home to only two.
Life has a way of not cooperating with dynastic dreams.
And then there's this.
Taking a quick glance back in the year 2016, it might look as though for 16 years the United States had two Presidents whose only claim on the office was their family connections.
But anyone in that year who reads the biographies of the past four Presidents will see that while the Republicans put two men in the White House who were both the undeserving beneficiaries of their father's and grandfather's reputations, the Democrats nominated a man and a woman born to ordinary and obscure middle-class families who worked their way up to the White House through diligence, brains, and personal accomplishment.
Sure, the woman was a little luckier than the man. She married well. But in the end, if she does become the second President Clinton, her family connections won't matter as much as whose interests she serves as President.
If Hillary is an accidental aristocrat, well, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon proved in opposite ways that sometimes aristocrats are better stewards of democracy than plebians who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
Just as the first President Clinton and the second President Bush have proven the reverse.
Look at the biography, not the pedigree.
Actual Studio 60 live-blogging will begin at 10:00 EST, 9:00, but the bar and the thread are open now. Feel free to start leaving your comments and getting snockered as soon as you arrive. The management is suggesting that opening comments should focus on the big events from the Christmas episode, THE KISS and Danny's announcement that he's going to start stalking Jordan, but go with your gut. You may have some things to say about Ken Levine's post on Aaron Sorkin or you may want to talk about which character is most likely to be rooting for the Colts in the Superbowl. Knock yourselves out. Meanwhile, our host for the evening is...me, and I've got something serious on my mind. You can tell because I'm wearing my red tie. When I wear my blue tie I'm in a mellow mood, but when I'm wearing the red one...hoo boy! Watch out.
Ok, here I come. Ladies and gentlemen, right here on our stage, live and in person, the man who owns not one but two ties and a pretty decent suit to go with them, if only he'd remembered to wear a shirt...Laaaaaaaaance Maaaaaanion!
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the return of Studio 60 live-blogging. I hope you'll all forgive me if I don't appear to be in the mood for the usual jocularity and hijinks these sessions are famous for.
Those of you who have been a part of our live-blogging before and those of you who have dropped by to lurk know that I usually begin these posts with a few jokes and gentle witticisms. It's all in good fun and meant to put us all at ease and, I hope, we never intentionally hurt anyone in the process. At the end of the day, we are all just fellow creatures of God, denizens of this little rock, three in from the sun, we call home and which I like to call, "Earth."
But tonight I have something important on my mind and I would like to get it out of the way. Clear the air, as it were.
I received an email today. The email was from a person I thought of as a friend, a person whose intelligence, insight, perspicacity, wisdom, and fashion sense I have always admired. Often this person has sent me joshing, almost---how shall I say it---teasing notes, kidding me about things I've written on my blog. I've usually taken it in stride. It's all in fun and the fact that this friend of mine has had several nervous breakdowns and spent three years in a Mexican jail excuses much.
But I think this note was out of line, and I can't help it, I have to share it with you, because I have no doubt that some of you may be thinking the same thought as my friend. Possibly you too have had several nervous breakdowns and spent time in some godforesaken third world hellhole being tortured daily by your guards. I don't know and I wouldn't presume to say. Nevermind. Let's get on with this.
My friend wrote---and forgive me if I can't read this without getting a little red-faced and angry---my friend wrote:
"Oh come off it, Lance. It's time to stop pretending. We all know what's going on. All this obsessing over Sarah Paulson and what a liability she is to Studio 60? You don't fool us. All your going on about how it's not her but her character, how it's Sorkin's writing? Pretending it's the show itself you care about? I call bullshit, buster! It's Paulson herself you're obsessed with! You're crazy in love with her! We all know it! And we all know it's the fact that she's gay that's really gotten under your skin. You're all hot and bothered by the thought of her and Cherry Jones getting it on backstage at the Golden Globes! When Matthew Perry planted the big one on her in the last episode, you were thinking, Wow, I bet she really wishes it was Amanda Peet right now! You're a sick, twisted man, Mannion, and we're onto you. Seek help. I'm including the private phone number of one of the best shrinks in Beverly Hills. Call him now, before you embarrass yourself any more. Best to the blonde. Hugs and kisses. Your old pal and fellow fan of hot girl on girl action..."
I'll refrain from giving you the man's name.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sure you are as appalled by this as I am. As I hope you are aware, we try to maintain an objective, fair and unbiased, professional distance from our subjects. Sure, our criticism can be tough, biting, and sometimes downright harsh, but it's because we care, about you. We want your television watching experience to be the best that it can be and we see it as our job to stand up to the Aaron Sorkins of the world and demand that for you. But we try---I try!---to keep our personal feelings out of this.
I swear to you that Ms Paulson's sexual orientation is absolutely of no interest to me. If she and Ms Jones are involved in a consenting and mutually satisfying Sapphic relationship, I say God bless them. It's their business and we should all just butt out of it. Love is love and it's all we need and if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. My friend was wrong to imply any prurient interest on my part, and he was even more wrong to imply that my judgment is clouded by thoughts of Ms Paulson and Ms Peet and a hot tub and baby oil and Ms Peet''s car breaking down on a cold winter night outside Ms Paulson's secluded house in the country where she lives alone except for the company of a handful of young, French maids all of whom...
What was my point?
Oh yes. I'm sorry I had to start out on such a serious note. But it was necessary. And now that we have that out of the way, let's focus on this week's live-blogging.
If you remember, when we last saw them, Danny had just announced to Jordan that he was "coming for her" in tones more appropriate to John Wayne announcing he'll meet the bad guy on Main Street at high noon than for a no longer young man and recovering drug addict announcing he'd fallen hard for a much younger woman completely out of his league.
Meanwhile, Matt, apparently just to mess with Harriet's love life and screw up her movie deal, catches her backstage, backs her up into a wall, and, without even the benefit of mistletoe, smooches her until her toes curl. Then he strolls off. Sarah Paulson is left trying desperately to make Harriet look like Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief just after Cary Grant kisses her in the hallway outside her hotel room, probably getting herself in character by imagining what it would have been like if Amanda Peet...
Let's just get on with the live blogging...
9:58. Heroes winding up. "Nobody sees me! I'm invisible!" I've felt that way too. I'm not always as angry about it.
9:59. Did they save the cheerleader or not?
10:00 We're off.
10:01 Amanda Peet really is adorable with that bite of sandwich in her cheek. Can somebody save her from Danny?
10:02. Siren! Quick. What's Ray Milland doing on the TV behind Jordan? Is that a Hitchcock movie? Is there a comment on Studio 60 here?
10:04. My God! He is stalking her! Is this what Sorkin means when he says he'll be going for more romantic comedy?
10:09. The Ed Sullivan Show was reality TV? Does anyone in the world of network suits seriously make that argument?
Jordan has Elvis and the Beatles at the forefront of her brain. She's a male baby boomer's dream of a third wife, isn't she?
10:10. Here we are at the Depressives Anonymous Support Group meeting.
10:11. Sorry. It's the writers room.
You know, comedy writers aren't all sweetness and light. Many of them are miserable human beings. Not you, Ken. But there can't be many who have absolutely no sense of humor. Matt Albie has an entire staff of humorless depressives and Sorkin doesn't seem to be treating this as a joke.
10:13. The ebay gag has promise.
An entire writing staff of chronic procrastinators strikes me as too realistic.
10:15. How does Rudy Giuliani have time to do a character bit on Studio 60? Really. Doesn't that board member look like Rudy? Imagine him in a blonde wig and an evening gown.
10:21. What rachel says about Steven Weber.
10:22. Macao again. Ed Asner saying Macao is a sound that's going to haunt me to my grave.
10:26. An organization that encourages people to have sex? "We're in LA. Should be able to throw a rock and hit one." Good. I'm buying a plane ticket to Los Angeles on travelocity later.
10:27. Look! Another pretty Gen Y-er who knows her Baby Boom icons and lore. I love this show!
Is it clever, too clever by half, or just an accident that Jordan and Hallie have the exact same hair style?
10:31. Can I just say something? The way Sorkin has been underusing DL Hughley is criminal.
Can I say something else? No way in the world will I ever start watching The Medium, but I think it's great that there's a hit show starring an actress who looks like an actual human being.
10:35. Characters rehashing conversations we've heard them have has become something of a signature for Sorkin on Studio 60. I would be ok with it if the rehashes weren't so much instant replays.
10:37. More Danny and Matt. Less...everybody else.
But Danny is stalking her.
10:38. The Husky Gymnast sounds like something they'd really do on Saturday Night Live. One of those bits they do over and over again that nobody understands why they do over and over again but which become fan favorites just because they're unfunny and nobody understands why they do them over and over again.
TOM IS BORING!!!!!!!!!
Why is the Brit Chick so wowed by his asking her out?
10:41. Mac commercial. I thought Apple fired the Mac guy? Must be Accepted was a bigger hit than I thought.
By the way, I hope everyone noticed that during that scene between Sarah Paulson and Amanda Peet I did not mention French maids.
10:47. I liked what Weber did with the speed-teaching himself Chinese. I didn't like the sitcom resolution of the problem. Oh you speak English!
The viola player is back. That reminds me. She was supposedly crazy for Tom too. What is it about Tom that makes Sorkin think we'll think he's loaded with animal magentism?
It's that puppy dog quality isn't it? Girls just go crazy for guys who remind them of puppy dogs.
10:53. "Is this dinner with Harriet and Ava Gardner?" Ok, Ava was something, but am I supposed to believe that the first sexy movie star who pops into the mind of a jealous 35 year old television writer who might actually date sexy movie stars is one who's been dead for 17 years?
This is something that's been driving me nuts since the beginning of Studio 60. All the pop culture references would have been stale on a Bob Hope Christmas Special.
And how stale was that reference, Lance?
10:57. Restraining orders are a regular feature of great romantic comedies.
Actually, both Danny and Matt have very strange ideas about how to win the love of a good woman.
11:02. Ok, we're out of here, and what have we learned that we didn't already know?
Darius doesn't want to work with Simon.
Studio 60 has become the TV Drama equivalent of old Big 10 football. A lot of standing around, then a big collision at the line of scrimmage, a cloud of dust, and when the refs pick the last player up out of the pile-up to find the ball, they discover that the home team has lost half a yard.
Fifty minutes and Sorkin managed to move the ball five yards down field.
But there's hope for next week! Snakes on a Soundstage!
And maybe this new blonde clone of Jordan will be evil, pure evil. The show needs some evil. Steven Weber's character was supposed to be evil, pure evil, but he's turned out to be a force for goodness and niceness. Which is fine by me. But I still want to see some evil, pure evil.
I'm out of here, gang, but don't leave on my account. Stick around. Enjoy the sounds of the loons calling to each other across the lake. There are marshmallows in the cabinet, Hershey bars too. Someone run down to the 7-11 and get some Graham crackers and you can toast smores over the grill while the fire burns down.
Those of you coming in from the West Coast, leave you comments, but please. Don't feed the bears.
Good night. I'm off to talk to the blonde about French maid costumes. I only hope she's not busy reading her copy of The 48 Laws of Power.
Update: I've received email from some readers that they can't get the ad to load in their browsers no matter how many times they refresh the page. I've alerted BlogAds.
New BlogAd up this morning. You'll all recognize the face at the top of the ad over there on the left.
Some of you are saying, That's about as far Left as she'll ever get.
I'm sure most of you don't need to be told this, but it's still worth saying. Just because I've approved an ad to run on my page doesn't mean I've endorsed what's being advertised.
So let me make this perfectly clear. I am not a crook....
I mean, I am not endorsing Hillary or anyone for President at this time. You can all guess that I will be voting for whoever's the Democratic nominee in '08, but right now I don't know who I want that to be. I think it's going to be Hillary. But to John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and the man we are all hoping changes his mind and steps in, let me say, Your ads are welcome here too. Buy early, and buy often.
Same offer to the Republicans running. If Sam Brownback wants to place an ad here, his money is just as good as any Democrat's.
So, if some day you sign onto Lance Mannion and see an ad with picture of Rudy Guiliani in a blond wig and lipstick at the top of the lefthand column, remember, that won't mean I am endorsing John McCain for President.
That said, I think this series of Webcasts with Hillary's a good thing and it's probably worth your time to click on the ad, register, tune in, and submit a question.
I hope all the other candidates follow her lead...and buy an ad telling us about it.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip returns from its holiday hiatus tonight with a new episode and we'll be there, live-blogging the aftermath of THE KISS and Danny's announcement that he's going to start stalking Jordan.
See you tonight. I'm opening the thread early tonight, around 9:30 EDT, 8:30 Central, to give my fellow obsessives a chance to comment on THE KISS and Danny's announcement that's he's going to start stalking Jordan. Those of you who have no interest in Studio 60, THE KISS, or Danny's announcement that he's going to start stalking Jordan can stop by to tell me yet again how I need to stop with the Studio 60 blogging and move onto something important like the State of the Union or Project Runway.
But I hope everybody, those of you who are interested in THE KISS and Danny's announcement that he's going to start stalking Jordan and those who couldn't care less about THE KISS and Danny's announcement that he's going to start stalking Jordan, will take a look at this post by Ken Levine.
Back around Christmas, the LA Times ran an article about how real comedy writers don't much care for Studio 60. Article quoted Ken. Aaron Sorkin read it and got mad at Ken. Got so mad in fact he rejected the idea that Ken's a real comedy writer. Which I guess makes Ken a fake comedy writer and all the shows Ken has written for fake comedy shows. Cheers, MASH, Almost Perfect, Wings, Frasier...
To Ken's credit, he stands up like a man and admits that AfterMASH might actually have been a fake comedy show.
Ken's post is a gracious reply to Sorkin and in it he points out what should be obvious to a professional like Sorkin---but which is so hard for human beings with feelings and pride like Sorkin to accept. Criticizing someone's work doesn't mean you want them to fail. And it doesn't mean that you don't admire them or their talent. In fact it often arises from admiration and a sincere wish that the artist being criticized succeeds.
Ken's sympathizes with Sorkin's frustrations, one pro to another, but he has another, self-interested, reason for hoping Sorkin turns Studio 60 around.
Networks and studios are exerting themselves into the creative process now more than ever before. It's like being eaten to death by moths. Very few showrunners enjoy the autonomy that Sorkin has. So if his show is a success, other writers can point to it and say, “See? If you just leave the creator alone he’ll turn out a better show.” If it's not a hit, you're up until 3:00 in the morning upping the stakes and making the actress they forced you to take more likeable.
So read Ken's post, What I really think of Aaron Sorkin. It's a good one, although I do have one criticism.
Ken forgot to say what he thinks about THE KISS and Danny's announcement that he's going to start stalking Jordan.
Maybe he'll drop by tonight for the live blogging and tell us.
Maybe Aaron Sorkin will drop by.
I hope not.
He'll probably tell me I'm not a real blogger.
That will make me cry.
Another update in case you missed the update up top: Live-blogging is underway here.
Back in Syracuse, six years ago today.
We didn't hit with the storm. Weather was actually pretty good all weekend. Biting cold but sunny. This afternoon we went out to Beaver Lake. This time of year most of the trails are reserved for snow shoers and cross country skiers, but people who are merely booted can walk down to the lake on a trail that leads you through a hollow bluely twilighted in the shade of hemlocks. The boys found a blown over hemlock that was a lot of fun to balance on. The tree was caked over with snow and the snow hid the crooks of the branches and every now and then they went plunging through the crust and found themselves standing three and four feet lower than they'd been a second before.
Finding the holes became the point of climbing the tree. We came across another blow over, this one quite recent. A once tall tree, its root disk looked to be about ten feet high and fifteen feet across. The dirt in the roots was still warm and moist not frozen.
The lake was 206 acres of snow. Signs posted all around: "Lake is not frozen." Of course it was criss-crossed with the tracks of skiers and someone had built a snowman way out in the center.
When we'd gotten ourselves thoroughly iced up we went inside the nature center to sit by the fireplace and drink hot chocolate and wander over to the picture window to watch the birds at the feeders. There was one big fat purple finch that was more magenta than purple and I was pleased to see some juncos. They don't come to our feeder much because we don't spread seed on the ground. To attract juncos you have to live with squirrels.
According to Gen. Casey, the "surge" can stop "surging" by the end of the summer and the new troops can come home---is the reverse of a surge a backwash? Once people feel safe in their neighborhoods, Casey says, they won't need us there anymore to actually make them safe. Or something like that. More proof that the "surge" is just an attempt to look as if we're accomplishing something.
Steve Kuusisto on Woody Allen, Oprah, and the "surge":
There was a moment when the film maker Woody Allen understood that he was not going to be sufficiently funny anymore. There's a scene in his film "Stardust Memories" in which a UFO appears and extra-terrestrials tell Woody Allen that he ought to give up on serious film making and return to his earlier funny movies. The joke is of course all about the Id, that base of consciousness and drive that animates western people. The humor is that we can know precisely what's wrong with us and still somehow be helpless in the face of it. Knowing this won't set you free no matter what Oprah Winfrey might say. Irony won't save you either. If you know you're failing and you proceed to fail anyway and somehow you know the reason why this was inevitable, you are a tragic figure according to Aristotle. If you choose to find this funny you are dabbling in high comedy and the difference between this and tragedy is simply a matter of degree.
What's worse, of course, is that you can see people who are perfectly self aware who are making other people pay for their conscious decisions about how they will think about their lives. This is the new American decadence in our new century. The plan for a "surge" of American troops in Iraq is the product of this contemporary decadence. Think tankers and politicos alike know that this is a policy that won't succeed. Back in the days of the Viet Nam war this idea of a "surge" was called "escalation" and we all know how that worked out. Foreign troops cannot prevail in the midst of a civil war. Everyone knows this . But look! The new American decadence about self-hood has taken over. We can know for certain that a plan is bad and endorse it anyway because the infrastructure of the plan still suits our idea about ourselves.
The italics are mine. Steve has a religious objection to italics on Fridays. Click on the link to read the whole of his unitalicized post, American Tragedy.
A handsome young man, a pizza-sized chocolate chip cookie, and her coveting of both---the cookie more than the young man---cause psychiatric resident intueri to try out some "disciplined personal involvement" on herself in order to change her negative thinking and "correctively modify [her own] pathological behavior."
ELICITATION PHASE (patient learns how to describe and analyze the problem situation).
(1) Situational Description:
A wonderfully attractive man was eating a very large chocolate chip cookie. The cookie was the size of a large pizza. While chewing on a bit of cookie, he looked up, saw me staring at the cookie, and smiled at me. I quickly looked down, sighed, and walked away.
(2) Situational Interpretations:
He was gleefully enjoying our cookie disparity. If he wanted to share the gigantic cookie, he would have offered some to me. However, he must be one of those entitled and grandiose types who believes that if I only worked harder, I’d have cookies of my own.
(3) Situational Behavior:
I didn’t say anything. I just walked away.
(4) Pinpointing the Actual Outcome:
I didn’t get a bite of the gigantic chocolate chip cookie. :(
(5) Pinpointing the Desired Outcome:
I wanted to try the gigantic chocolate chip cookie.
(6) Contrasting the Actual Outcome and the Desired Outcome:
No, I didn’t get what I wanted.
Are you trying to tell me that *I* had something to do with it? What?
To find out what happened when the young doctor got to the "Remediation phase," read the rest of her post, A situational analysis...
I hope folks at the Atlantic appreciate all the work I'm doing for them this week.
Another good article in this month's issue is A Historian For Our Time, Robert D. Kaplan's essay on the pure fun of reading the Histories by the Greek historian, Herodotus, and the lessons that can be learned from Herodotus' very human, quirky, and anecdotal accounts of the history of his world as he knew it.
There are some veiled criticisms of George W. Bush Inc. Kaplan finds quotes that make you ask, "How did Herodotus know?" This was my favorite:
He is the best of men who, when he is laying his plans, dreads and reflects on everything that can happen [to] him but is bold when he is in the thick of the action.
Cakewalk, Mr Adelman?
And this is Kaplan summarizing a story from the Histories:
Solon, the Athenian, advises Croesus, the arrogant and wealthy king of Lydia, to call himself lucky, not blessed, no matter how much money he has; as long as he is alive, anything might still happen to him. So it passes that all of Croesus’s wealth and power are lost in a war against the Persian ruler Cyrus. As Croesus lies on a pyre, fettered in chains, waiting to be devoured by fire, in lamentation he calls out, “Solon!”
So much for mandates.
As for torture and its place in the war on terror? Herodotus quotes the general Pausanias explaining why he won't take revenge for an atrocity committed by an enemy with a similar atrocity:
Such actions are more fit for barbarians than Greeks, and even in them we find it a matter of offense. For conduct such as this, God forbid that I should find favor with … any who approve such acts! It is enough for me to please the men of Sparta by decent action and decent words.
Of course, Herodotus knew because he knew people and human nature hasn't changed much in twenty-five hundred years. Herodotus' lessons are general, universal, and timeless, and we are all his subjects. We are all examined and found wanting. Kaplan could have written pretty much the exact same essay ten years ago and I'd have picked up on veiled criticisms of Bill Clinton and lessons I'd have wished he'd heeded.
Kaplan summarizing again:
Fate is like a brute force of nature against which the individual sometimes struggles in vain. As Polycrates, the benevolent tyrant of Samos, grows richer, he is advised to part with the thing he values most, so as to protect himself against a vengeful god. He goes out in a boat and throws away his gold ring. A few days later a man catches a fish that he gives as a gift to the Samian king. When Polycrates’ servants cut up the fish, they find the ring. The thing the king valued most is now back. And it transpires that the king is soon lured to the mainland of Asia Minor by the false promises of the Persian governor of Lydia, who puts him to death by crucifixion.
I can't help thinking what Herodotus would make of the story of Clinton, happy and self-congratulatory at having bested Newt Gingrich during the Budget Crisis, in a mood to celebrate, and in through the Oval Office door walks a plump but pretty young brunette delivering his pizza.
But my enjoyment of Kaplan's essay comes from the way he treats Herodotus as a contemporary, as if he was a new star on the literary scene who's written a fresh, novelistic work of popular history---like David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing or Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star---about figures from our own recent past who happen to have improbable names like Xerxes, Croesus, Polycrates, Aristogoras, and Candaules.
For the most part Kaplan keeps the focus on Herodotus and his stories, but he does draw some specific parallels between Herodotus' time and our own, and here's one that got me thinking:
The old inheres in the new: Herodotus describes the Spartan warriors, who subsist on twice-daily porridge and diluted wine, defeating the Persians, whose general staff ate lavishly upon tables of silver and gold. One can’t help but think of the dining facilities, laden with steak and lobster, of the American troops in Iraq, and the meager fare of the insurgents who often run rings around them.
My first thought after reading that was, Lobster?
Our troops are being served lobsters?
It's not that I don't want them to have nice meals. I'm a cynic and can't help wondering what subsidy of Haliburton is gouging the US Government on the Cheney-approved no-bid contract on that one, but really it's the case that I can't get my head around the incongruity of our soldiers dining on seafood in the desert.
My second thought was a nodding agreement with the idea that the Spartans knew what they were doing by being so...um...Spartan.
I thought of the starveling scarecrows of the Continental Army running rings around the British during our Revolution. I thought of Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe draining the water from their jeep's radiator to make coffee while across the lines the Germans lived off fine French food and slept in feather beds. I thought of George Segal in The Bridge at Remagen taking the bridge single-handedly in the end because he's too tired and too hungry and too disgusted to care anymore.
And then I thought, I'm thinking of a myth, a cartoon, and a movie.
The Confederates were certainly underfed compared to the Union troops but the only reason the Rebs ran circles around the Yanks for the first third of the war is that the Confederacy happened to have one of the best field tacticians and fighting generals in the history of American warfare, and after Stonewell Jackson was killed the Confederates stopped running rings around anyone. They just got hungrier.
That paragraph of Kaplan's is actually an unfair characterization of what's going on in Iraq. If the insurgents are running rings around our troops, it's not because they are lean, mean fighting machines while our soldiers are weighed down by bellies full of steak and lobster.
It's because this is a fact of urban guerrilla warfare where native guerrillas face off against foreign invaders.
Thers, at Whiskey Fire, Scott Lemeiux, and Avedon Carol have dealt recently with a very strange notion among the Insider Punditocracy that can be summarized more or less like this: The reason that the pundits who were so spectacularly wrong about the war in Iraq should still be treated as wise men and women on the subject of the war while those who were right should be shut out of the discussion is that the those who were right were right in the wrong way while those who were wrong were wrong in the right way.
This has also been put this way: It isn't enough that those who were right about the war were right generally; they needed to have been right on every specific. Since they only predicted that the war would be a disaster but did not come up with an itemized list of every mistake and failure, their opinions don't really count, and we should all continue to listen only to the wise men and women who predicted that the war would be a glorious success.
This is insane, of course, but it's also a lie. Lots of people who were against the war were against it for very specific reasons and gave those reasons and almost everything they said would go wrong has gone wrong. (Digby, for one. Back when Hullabaloo was just a gleam in Atrios' eye.) For the most part, they were only mistaken about how badly the Bush Leaguers would screw it all up. They underestimated the Bush Leaguers' ineptitude.
But as Atrios points out the main way people who were against the war were right was in their insisting that there was no reason to invade Iraq. No reason. None. There were no WMD. There was no al-Qaeda connection. Saddam posed no immediate threat to the United States. All that was said at the time and all of it has turned out to be true.
Opponents of the war predicted and were correct about the destablizing effect of removing Saddam from power, about the sectarian violence that would be unleashed, about the real possibility of the country devolving into Civil War, about how hard it would be to maintain an occupation force, about how many more troops would be needed to do the job, about how the war would not be a cakewalk, that it would be bloody, vicious, and almost impossible to conclude.
They were able to predict these things and be right about them not because they are so much smarter than the Insider Pundits who rah-rahed us into war, but because they were all paying attention in 1991 when Bush's father and his generals, including Colin Powell, explained why after driving Saddam out of Kuwait we weren't going to chase his army straight into Baghdad and take him out then and there.
And among the reasons, which included all that I mentioned above, was that if we went into Baghdad we would risk being caught up in an urban guerrilla war of the sort our troops were not trained to fight.
Apparently Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were not the only ones who weren't listening.
I've started reading the Histories. I expect Herodotus has something to say about this. I'll let you know when I come across it.
Same deal as with the previous two Atlantic articles I riffed on. Subscribers only. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like me to email you a copy.
Stonewall Jackson would make a great character study for an American Herodotus and in fact I'd argue he already has---if you haven't already, you should make a point of reading Shelby Foote's The Civil War.
Some of my favorite history books are here.
Young Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Mrs Singer: What is that your business? (To doctor.) He refuses to do his homework!
Young Alvy: What's the point?
Watched Woody Allen's Scoop over the weekend.
Mannion last week, with emphasis added today:
In the end, I think [Edward] Burns will be content to be judged on the body of his work rather than on the excellence of individual movies and he appears confident that the judgment will tell in his favor. Woody Allen is doing the same thing, by the way, and criticisms of his movies should take this into account, looking at each one not in comparison to his past masterpieces but as pieces in the larger puzzle he's been assembling around those great movies.
Mannion today: Forget that!
Oh, I could do it, I suppose. I could try to make the case that Scoop is to Match Point as Northrop Frye said A Midsummer Night's Dream is to Romeo and Juliet, the comedy that is the tragedy in a mirror, and then connect them both to Crimes and Misdemeanors.
And I could point out that the gathering of the journalists to toast the memory of Ian MacShane's character is a deliberate reminder of the gathering of old comics in Broadway Danny Rose and in that way Scoop reaches back to Annie Hall and the scene of Alvy Singer's early days as a comedy writer.
Allen's character, the third rate magician, Sid Waterman, aka the Great Splendini, is just the kind of act Danny Rose would have represented and counted as one of his most successful clients.
And Allen and Scarlett Johansson bumbling through a murder investigation together is reminiscent of Allen and Diane Keaton bumbling through a murder investigation in Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which Keaton and Allen were allowed to have the marriage their characters couldn't bring off in Manhattan.
And the appearance of ghosts harks back to Alice, and there are replays of jokes from Sleeper, and the figure of Death is straight out of Love and Death, although wearing a different sheet, and Death in Love and Death is an homage to Bergman whose influence on Allen travels through Interiors and on into all his "serious" movies leading us back to Match Point which leads us back to Scoop.
I could do it, fit the piece into the puzzle, but is it worth the time and effort, that's what I have to ask myself.
Going by the time and effort Allen himself seems to have devoted to Scoop, I'd have to say no.
The script is slight but amusing enough. But Allen doesn't seem to have put any thought into the cinematography, the staging, or the directing. It's almost as if let an assistant film some middle inning rehearsals. There's a too casual, let's just try it out and see if we can make it work feel to everything. The whole cast seems unsure of their lines. Nobody moves through their scenes with any energy. It's not just as if they're saving it up; it's as if they're still trying to figure it out, still looking for their marks on the floor and hesitant about whether to cross on this word or that or sit before delivering a line or just after.
Ian McShane, in particular, seems lost. Besides being underused, he looks slightly befuddled whenever he appears, as if he'd just been handed his script, in fact, and he's still working his way through it trying to discover just what sort of character he's been hired to play. I swear there were moments when I caught him looking pleadingly at the camera as if to ask Allen, Just what the hell is it you want me doing here?
Scarlett Johansson knows what she wants her character to be, a shy, awkward nerd, a former ugly duckling who to her own bemusement has recently blossomed into a beautiful young woman who happens to look a lot like Scarlett Johanson.
She plays Sondra Pransky---Allen's funniest and sexiest name for a female character since Allison Porchnik---as alternately forgetful of her sex appeal and carried away by it, to her own disadvantage either way, so that she's either coming on too strong or backpedaling away too fast, and not watching where she's going in either direction so that she's constantly in danger of colliding with the furniture or the other characters. In her own head, Sondra's still a skinny teenager and, unused to having all these voluptuous curves, sje treats her own body as not-at-all-convincing disguise. When at one point she squares her shoulders to lift her deep cleavage up into Hugh Jackson's notice, she appears to be thinking, No way am I going to fool this guy with these ridiculously and obviously fake boobs. And she has Sondra walk as if she's wearing somebody else's body. She sticks out her behind and toddles forward in a hurry, leading with her chin and picking up speed like a baby running down a hill, as if she can't find her own center of gravity.
But, again, it's as if we're watching rehearsals. Johansson comes across as being about two weeks away from perfecting the character. She hasn't had time to internalize all the physical comedy. None of it's reflexive yet. She lets us catch her acting. She's thinking her way through the part and you can practically hear the wheels turning on every stumble, every cute nervous twitch, every finger-stab at the glasses sliding down her nose.
Hugh Jackman, though, is the real disappointment. Johansson has the right handle on her character. Jackman has completely missed the boat on his. Jackman, so solid, so angry, so furious, and so hyper-masculine as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, plays Peter Lyman, the aristocrat Johansson and McShane suspect of being a serial killer, as a gelded flyweight. He's so insubstantial that he'd be rejected by Bertie Wooster's Drones Club on the grounds that he wouldn't have the strength let alone the nerve to steal a policeman's helmet on Boat Night.
He's meant to be a charmer, but such charm as he exhibits is that of a high school freshman who is so intimidated by the girl he wants to ask out that when he's invited over to her house he spends all his time in the kitchen with her mother and aunts charming them with a demonstration of his manners and good intentions.
In other words, he's got no sex appeal, and the only reason he and Johansson's character wind up in bed together is that they've both read the same script and know they're supposed to.
The only mystery in the mystery plot of Scoop comes from the question Did he or didn't he? Jackman has decided to make us wonder by playing Lyman as too nice, too gentle, too good to be true. He's trying to force us to ask ourselves, He can't be as perfect as he appears to be, can he?
The only question I had, however, was, Who cares?
I was thinking the whole way, if Lyman turns out to have done it, then all the nice guyness is too obvious a trick, and if he turns out to be innocent, then that's all he is, an innocent, not at all worth Johansson's time or affection.
The obvious cinematic role model for Jackman here should have been Cary Grant in Suspicion. Grant made his suspected murderer suspicious by allowing him a streak of malice that he tried too hard to smooth over. He played Johnnie Aysgarth as if he was a guy who knew he looked and sounded like Cary Grant and had learned to travel on the resemblance.
There's a real Jekyll and Hyde quality to his performance with both sides of his character often appearing at the same time. We see Cary Grant and we see the dangerous cad pretending to be Cary Grant, but there's the suggestion that there's a third side to his character that's being withheld---or that's controlling both the other sides from the wings---and we don't know which side to put our faith in, which is why it's so believeable that Joan Fontaine can't make up her mind about him. He has her coming and going, and it's no wonder she gets to the point where she seems to be appealing to the Cary Grant/Jekyll side of him to rescue her from his Mr Hyde.
For a few minutes after he appears, it appears this is the direction Jackman will be going with Lyman. But then nothing like malice or even anger develops in him. If there is any Cary Grant in him, it's Grant in Bringing Up Baby, baffled and terrified by Katherine Hepburn's apparent insanity and by her playful but intense sexuality.
Of course, what Grant is constantly backing away from in Bringing Up Baby, besides the very real possibility that Hepburn will cause him actual bodily harm, is his own sexual attraction to her. He's a good boy with a fiancee and a career and a reputation as a scientist to protect, and he knows that giving in to his feelings for her is not what a good boy, or a smart boy, would do.
There are times in Scoop when it's Johansson who is the threat to Jackman, but those moments don't last and they don't go anywhere. Most of the rest of their time together, it's the case of Johansson alternately throwing herself into his arms and then pulling away and Jackman accepting it either way because it would be impolite for him to do otherwise.
Still, and again, this isn't so much a bad performance on Jackman's part as it is an unfinished one. If during the course of six weeks of rehearsal for a play with the same story and cast of characters Jackman was trying out this interpretation of Lyman, I'd think, Ok, that's one way to go about it.
Of course, actors in movies rarely have two weeks of rehearsal time, let alone six. That's why they are so dependent on their directors. And not just on the set. Directors continue to shape performances after the wrap in the editing room. Allen, the director, who, however he rates as a filmmaker, has always had a reputation as a meticulous craftsman, appears to have gone AWOL on Scoop, both on the set and in the editing room. It's as if he was content to let point the camera and let it roll and whatever happened happened and then left the editing to an assistant with the only instructions being that the scenes had to make narrative sense.
And when you watch him stumbling and mumbling through the part of Splendini, continually seeming on the verge of calling for a prompt on lines that he wrote, you begin to suspect how the meticulous craftsman came to be responsible for such slipshod work.
My God, you think, he's old!
Well, he is 71. But some people wind down as they get on in years, and some people grow old overnight as if they've walked through a door into another room. Allen appears to have walked through a door.
I'm not suggesting Allen has lost it. It may be that he's not up to his a movie every six months pace and needs to cut back. It may be that he doesn't have the energy to divide anymore between directing and acting. There's a suggestion in the movie that Scoop is Allen's goodbye to acting in his own movies.
Or it may be that Scoop was just a good idea Allen lost interest in just as he was going in to production. Maybe his mind was already on his next project.
We'll see what the next movie's like, and I can't wait for it. Cassandra's Dream, starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, is due out this summer.
Scoop. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, and Ian McShane. 2006.
An almost complete list of Allen's movies available on DVD is here.
Scott Lemeiux on Match Point here.
The comparisons to Cary Grant might have been unfair to Jackman. I had Grant too much on the brain when we watched Scoop because I had just read this article, Becoming Cary Grant, in the Atlantic. Once again, it's subscribers only, so drop me a line if you're not a subscriber and would like me to email you the article.
Cross-posted at newcritics.
One of my favorite comment threads of all time has developed on Thursday's post, In search of the basic tinker unit. Plenty of good suggestions for the TU, some good home repair war stories, and lots of things that made me laugh, which is always a great gift from readers. Thanks, folks.
But Middle Browser and sweatloaf are having an interesting back and forth in the comment thread on Friday's post, Warmongering as the measure of serious statecraft.
Their discussion takes off from what I wrote about the willingness to go to war being the first mark of tyrants and madmen.
Right off the bat, Middle Browser brings up FDR.
Not trying to start an argument here, and our politics are probably more similar than my comment may reflect, but just to be clear, I'm curious -- was FDR a madman or tyrant?
sweetloaf comes right back with the words "Pearl Harbor" and essentially points out that there's a difference between willingly going off to start a war and being willing to fight a war in defense of the nation.
Implicit, though, in Middle Browswer's initial point and his follow-ups is the fact that Roosevelt was preparing to take the country into war well before Pearl Harbor.
He was willing to go to war.
Two points I'd like to make, the first on Middle Browser's side, the second on sweetloaf's.
First, Abraham Lincoln.
Second: there's willing and then there's willing.
Lincoln and Roosevelt were willing to go to war because, finally, they had no other choice. Neither wished for it. Neither wanted it. But the wars came. And they were willing to fight them, at terrible costs. They didn't like it. They would have been willing not to fight, if they had that option. They didn't, so they went to war, willingly, although it would be more accurate to say that what they were willing to do was save the nation and, in FDR's case, Europe and Asia.
Southerners who want to jump in here and argue that Lincoln was doing the opposite of saving the nation better be prepared to deal with the fact of Great Britain and what she was up to during the War of "Northern" Agression.
Anti-Rooseveltians who want to talk about the Iron Curtain and the Cold War need to take note that I'm talking about what FDR was willing to do and tried to do, not what he managed to do.
There is a difference between Lincoln's and FDR's willingness to go to war, and the willingness of a Greek cheiftan to drag all his allies off to a ten year long war because his brother couldn't hold onto his wife's affection.
There's a difference between what they did and the willingness of an English king to invade France just because he doesn't want to pay for the piece of prime real estate he covets, even if Shakespeare did get a good play out of it.
And there's a difference between what they did and what has been done by a man whose main reason for wanting to be President appears to have been to finish the job he believed his daddy was too timid to finish with his war.
Now, while this is an interesting and valuable discussion, what I'm really tempted to do is write an apology for myself. I think the issue arose out of my failure to be precise.
My point yesterday wasn't that nations and Presidents should never be willing to go to war. It wasn't even that George W. Bush is either a tyrant or a madman.
I happen to think that Bush is a would-be tyrant, that he definitely has a tryant's temperamant when it comes to getting his way, but his willingness to take the country to war in Iraq isn't the first piece evidence in the indictment. Ahead of that, I'd submit all he's been willing to do in order to take the country to war and keep us there.
But, as I said, that wasn't my point yesterday.
My point was that measuring a leader's or a political party's toughness on issues of defense solely or even mainly on their willingness to go to war is stupid because by that measure madmen and tyrants are indistinguishable from the likes of FDR and Abraham Lincoln.
But this got me thinking along a different track.
Forget any special pleading on Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s behalf.
In their time, both men were accused of being tyrants---They were also accused of being madmen, especially Lincoln and by Northerners!—and in fact they both did things that even today we who admire them have to admit look tryannical. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus is problematic, but there’s no looking away from FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans.
And the truth is that great leaders have to have a touch of the tyrant. "Your representative," said Edmund Burke,"owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment also; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." There are always times when it is necessary for leaders to impose their judgment of what’s in the nation’s good over the expressed will of the people. There are always times when it is necessary for them to treat some of the people as expendable, to sacrifice their interests if not their lives for the greater good.
Truly great leaders—great as in being strong, wise, and good—keep that side of themselves in check and try never to have to act on it. Roosevelt spent years trying to convince the country that war was inevitable and necessary. No President since who has sent troops into harm’s way have shown either his reluctance or his respect for the American people. And great leaders will do their best to be sure that what they want to do is the best thing to do before imposing their will on the country.
But having a personality trait that can be described as tyrannical doesn’t make a leader a tyrant any more than sharing a personality trait with your brother makes you him.
Conversely, and obviously, a tyrant can have personality traits, admirable traits even, in common with a great and benevolent democratic leader and still be a tyrant.
Hitler loved his dogs.
All of us are a mix of qualities that are neither good nor bad except in how we act upon them.
Consequently, we are often confusing ourselves by focusing on surface differences and skin-deep similarities.
“You’re just like your grandfather. He loved baseball too.”
“I can’t stand her. She’s a pack rat, just like my ex.”
“Truman was unpopular too.”
And we often give the wrong names to qualities, depending on whether or not we admire or disdain the person we're describing or on whether or not we're flattering or criticizing ourselves.
Stubbornness gets called tenacity, anger confused with toughness, vanity mistaken for confidence.
That kid back in high school? The one who got straight A's, always had his homework done on time, studied three hours a night? The one all the teachers loved? Was he hard-working, conscientious, polite and respectful? Or was he an overachieving brown-noser?
We all do this sort of thing, name things according to our prejudices, insist upon differences while dismissing points of similarity, embrace similarities while ignoring shades of difference.
Politicians and their spin doctors are especially adept at it. They are eager to find similarities between themselves and our heroes, happy to mischaracterize their opponents, diligent in manipulating our perceptions, and George Bush has been far from the exception that proves the rule.
At various points throughout his Presidency Bush has been favorably compared, by himself and his apologists, to Truman, Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and even Abe Lincoln---people wanted Lincoln to cut and run from his war, too, you know, and many even had the audacity to vote for his opponent when he ran for re-election, as well.
I'm sure that right about now, with polls showing that 70 per cent of the people are opposed to sending more troops into Iraq, folks around the White House would take great comfort from that quote above from Burke.
And Bush, and Cheney, pretty much based his whole Presidency on making sure he had nothing in common with Bill Clinton, including sound policies on terrorism, North Korea, and the Middle East.
Since 9/11, Bush has been helped in this by the National Media, many of whose wise men and women, having decided that we are a nation of children who needed a hero-king to lead us through hard times and having decided that it was their job to provide us with one by pretending that we already had one, instead of demanding that man act like one, were all too willing to push the Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt comparisions.
But they'd been hard at work at selling us a Man Who Wasn't There for over a year before 9/11, finding, highlighting, and inventing differences between Bush and Al Gore and pushing those differences as virtues. His lack of experience became a refreshing change from Gore's insider elitism. His incuriosity, his intellectual laziness, his snap judgments based on nothing but his prejudices, preconceptions, and self-flattering faith in himself as God's favorite---proof of his down to earth, go with his gut regular guyness, much to be prefered to to Gore's show-offy know-it-all smartest kid in the class act.
That whole regular guyness, Bush as the fellow you'd want to have a beer with, his supposed likeability, all those distinctions without a difference, still gets harped on by many Beltway Insiders, as if Bush's alleged popularity was proof that he was doing a good job, as if it does and should excuse him from criticism, as if, even if it was true that we all liked the guy, we all don't know nice guys and nice gals we wouldn't let borrow our cars, trust to balance our checkbooks, or put in charge of the parish bazaar, let alone run the country, let alone start and manage a war.
For years the cynicism and viciousness of Bush's Rovian political style has been given a pass because, well, all politicians play dirty.
For years, his many and various lies have been left unexamined, even shrugged off, because, heck, all Presidents lie.
Which brings me to the end of this post and the beginning of another one and this article from the Atlantic, Untruth and Consequences, by Carl Cannon.
"Presidents have always lied," says the editors' tag line, "Here's how George W. Bush is different."
To be continued. Unfortunately, Cannon's essay is only available to subscibers. If you aren't a subscriber and would like to read it, drop me a note at email@example.com and I'll email it to you.