The Voice and the Veep Saturday, Apr 11 2015 

“There are two kinds of people in this town,” my boss Sam Bledsoe advised when I first arrived in Washington more than half a century ago. “Those that drop names and those whose names are dropped.” His advice, obviously, was to try to be the latter.

Sorry Sam, I tried my damnedest…

About Frank Sinatra, whose life was celebrated this past week by an HBO documentary: I knew him, introduced him to (another name-drop coming) Bear Bryant, and even spent time at his place in Palm Desert, thanks to another employer after Sam, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and his personal aide Peter Malatesta, a Sinatra friend and (if you’re still counting name-drops) Bob Hope’s nephew.

The story that goes with all this empty-calorie self-aggrandizement has to do with the first time I saw The Godfather, back in 1971. Agnew was a guest at Sinatra’s Palm Desert villa and Frank (if you’re going to name-drop the first name is more impressive) asked if there were any new movies the Vice President would like to see. He’d have one flown in to show in his private theater.

Whether as a joke or to test the limits of their friendship, Agnew asked to see The Godfather – a movie Sinatra was said to get ballistic over because it alluded to the mythic rumor that the Mafia had muscled (1) Tommy Dorsey into releasing him from his contract, and (2) the producer of From Here to Eternity into giving him the Academy Award-winning role of Maggio.

Sinatra, to his credit, didn’t flinch at Agnew’s request. So it was that we gathered that evening – the Vice President, Frank, his mother, Dolly, and a few other guests to see the movie based on a novel that Frank hated so much he threatened to punch out its author, Mario Puzo.

Our host’s reaction? Not a murmur during the scenes in which his on-screen character, Johnny Fontane, appeared, but when it came to the scene where Clemenza talks about preparing spaghetti and meatballs, both Sinatras, mother and son, exploded. Clearly, we were led to conclude, whoever wrote the screenplay knew nothing about cooking Italian.

Asked by our host the next morning what he thought of the movie, the Vice President, pushing the envelope, told Sinatra it was okay except for Brando’s don, adding, “You would have been better for the part.” To which Frank, not missing a beat, narrowed his eyelids and, with mock guttural inflection, replied, “You’re right.” Agnew laughed.  So did another person at the table, whose name escapes me.

Sound bite to remember

“I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

–Frank Sinatra, asked about his religious beliefs, circa 1963

Biden to Jews: Stay Packed Tuesday, Mar 24 2015 

“Folks, there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply you are involved in the United States . . . there is no guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.”

–Vice President Joe Biden to a Jewish American group, as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic.

I had always thought of Joe Biden, whether as a U.S. senator or Vice President, as a feckless, if influential crackpot. But on reading this statement made to Jewish American leaders last fall, I now see him as a mindless demagogue.

As a Jewish American who came of age in the 1940s, I am well aware of the argument that what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany and other countries over the centuries could happen in the United States. It is usually made by ardent Zionists, however, not by American Vice Presidents who, if nothing else, should have a deeper appreciation of what makes this country different from others – the fact that the United States is the only country in the world based on an idea, not ethnic bloodlines.

Or is it that this Vice President doesn’t, in his bones, believe in America’s singularity as a national haven for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free?

On this point, as a Jewish American, I have also visited Israel and found it, the enduring spirit of the Exodus aside, a foreign country. Other than sharing a Bronze Age faith, I have as little in common with its inhabitants (many of whom, based on my American dietary habits alone, would consider me an infidel) as I do with those of Romania, the country my father left over a century ago to become an American.

Not that I’m blind to the existence of anti-Semitism and discrimination against other minority groups in this country – or in the case of African Americans, of persecution. But as Frederick Douglass pointedly reminded Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln suggested that once the slaves were freed they might return to Africa, there is no turning back. However they arrive here, those who come to America become Americans, here to stay.

And so it is with me. Unless, of course, by some odd quirk of history, a patronizing dumbass like Joe Biden were to become president.

 Sound bite to remember

 “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

       –President George Washington in a letter to the Sephardic Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, August 1790

When the Satire Becomes Fact…. Saturday, Mar 14 2015 

The New York Times reports that Speaker/Toastmaster Boehner has invited the president of Ukraine to address the Congress — just as we satirically predicted in our last blog entry.

 

Sound bite to remember

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

 Mark Twain

FOREIGN POLICY LECTURE SERIES, U.S. CONGRESS Thursday, Mar 5 2015 

Spring-Summer 2015
John Boehner, Toastmaster

April 15: Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, on why Congress should oppose U.S. policy in Latin America.

May 8: Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine, on why Congress should oppose U.S. policy in eastern Europe.

June 12: Francois Hollande, president of France, on why Congress should oppose U.S. policy in western Europe.

July 21: Park Geun-hye, president of the Republic of Korea, on why Congress should oppose U.S. policy in Asia.

August 11: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel (return engagement by popular demand) on why Congress should oppose U.S. policy in [TBA].

Sound bite to remember

“Partisan politics stops at the water’s edge.”

–Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee / 1947

To Exploit a Mockingbird Saturday, Feb 7 2015 

“She can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s sister, on Harper’s condition in an assisted living home

 

For more than half a century publishers and editors pleaded with Harper Lee to write a second novel after the worldwide success of To Kill a Mockingbird. For more than half a century, she refused.

Meanwhile, known to Harper, her publisher and her editor, a manuscript existed of a rough draft of a novel titled Go Set a Watchman, which neither Lee nor her publisher and editor considered worthy of putting into print – despite the clamor for another Harper Lee book.

Now, fifty-five years later – Harper’s sister Alice, who guided her business interests over the years, having died last fall – a publisher, a lawyer and an agent have “newly discovered” her old manuscript and persuaded the author to put it into print.

Harper Lee, at age 88, with her legacy secure as author of a great American novel, doesn’t need or want the money. Others obviously do.

It’s times like these that I think of the last scene of the movie Harvey, the story of Elwood P. Dowd (played by Jimmy Stewart), who imagines and talks to a huge rabbit no one else can see. A team of doctors recommends a medical procedure that would cure the condition, but as a taxi driver (played by Fred Gwynne) notes, that would simply turn Elwood into a normal human being – and, as the driver says, “You know what bastards they are.”

That we do, though sometimes we forget – until a story like Harper Lee’s “newly discovered” novel comes along.

 

Sound bite to remember (especially by Seattle Seahawks’ coaches) . . .

“When you pass, three things can happen – and two of ’em are bad.”
–Texas Longhorn coach Darrell Royal (circa 1965)

The Limits of Satire Sunday, Dec 21 2014 

Sony made a mistake. Not in canceling release of “The Interview” – theater chains had sent word they wouldn’t show it – but in first giving the green light to a satire plotted around the assassination of a real-life political figure.

You say, as Alan Dershowitz does, that canceling the movie was a blow to artistic expression, allowing the dictator of North Korea to suppress free speech? Fine. How about a satirical film about a couple of zany Palestinians who plot – and carry out – the assassination of Benjamin Netanyahu?

Or, like Michael Moore, that refusing to release “The Interview” is caving in to hackers? Fine. Let him produce and try to screen a satire plotted around a couple of dumb-and-dumber rednecks who set out – and succeed – in assassinating a live American president.

Imagine the odds on films like that being green-lighted. Imagine too Alan Dershowitz’s outraged op-ed piece in The New York Times if they were, and Al Sharpton’s organizing a nationwide boycott to shut down theaters that showed them.

Years ago I turned off a “Saturday Night Live” that featured a satirical conversation between Katharine Hepburn and Muhammad Ali, both suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. Somebody thought it was funny. Had I been in charge, I’d have canceled it. Obviously my appreciation of satire and free speech comes up short.

Sound bite to remember 

“Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.”

–Samuel Johnson

Citizen Frank Monday, Oct 27 2014 

Other than speaking the same language and observing the same national holidays Frank Mankiewicz and I had little in common other than a passion for politics and sports.

In politics we couldn’t have disagreed more. While he was working for Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern, I was working for Barry Goldwater and Spiro Agnew. But in sports we were blood brothers, lifelong followers of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Frank, who had grown up in Los Angeles, recalled rooting for the Cardinals as the westernmost major league team in the days when there were only 16 teams in both leagues. Growing up in New Orleans I recalled going to Pelican Stadium with my father on weekend afternoons, when the local AA team was a Cardinal farm club.

Together, recognizing the relative unimportance of politics next to the tribal pull of childhood fantasy, Frank and I organized the Stan Musial Society, an informal luncheon group that brought together the wide and equally passionate Cardinal fan base in the National Capital area.

With Frank’s passing last week the country and the capital lost one of the most perceptive, not to mention witty, observers of our political and cultural scene. Like his legendary father, Herman, whose gift for screenwriting gave us “Citizen Kane,” Frank was a treasure trove of incisive one-liners that spoke truth to pomposity in ways few in the world of entertainment and politics dared.

My favorite Frank one-liner came during the 1972 presidential campaign, when his beleaguered candidate George McGovern, accosted by an abrasive heckler, told the man to “kiss my ass.” In a dull campaign, comments like that are seized on by a gotcha press as candidate gaffes and the question was how McGovern’s intemperate (if justified) remark could be explained away.

Other, less resourceful campaign managers would have tried to squirm out with a trite and tired explanation to the effect that the remark was “taken out of context,” but not Frank. Easy to explain, he told the inquiring press the next morning. After all, “George is a Democrat. What would you expect him to say, ‘Kiss my elephant’?”

End of story. No, they don’t make them like that anymore. And even when they did, they made only one.

Sound bite to remember

“Imagine that, the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass.”

— Herman Mankiewicz at the Columbia studio lunch table, on being told by Columbia president Harry Cohn that any movie that made him squirm in his seat was bad (circa 1935). It was the one-liner that got Herman fired at Columbia.

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