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.

“GOP hits Klain’s lack of medical credentials” Tuesday, Oct 21 2014 

GOP hits Klain’s lack of medical credentials
Republicans say Ebola czar should have been real doctor, not spin doctor
                             —- Headlines, Washington Times, Oct. 20, 2014

Ted Cruz Republicans see the Obama presidency as an overreaching socialist dictatorship; Elizabeth Warren Democrats see it as an underachieving progressive technocracy. Take your pick: Lenin in an Armani suit or Jimmy Carter without the peanuts.

My own view is more comedic than dramatic. As one who has worked in the political trenches for two White House administrations, it’s hard to take seriously a President who would appoint as Ebola czar a political button man whose main claim to fame is having been portrayed by Kevin Spacey in a TV docudrama about the 2000 election recount in Florida.

Why appoint an Ebola czar at all? The only reason is to reassure a fearful public, and for that a serious administration would name a renowned epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic. But no, explains the White House press spokesman in a statement worthy of a “Daily Show” parody, “What we’re looking for is not an Ebola expert but an implementation expert.”

Hmmm … on second thought, I have two other theories: First, that the Republican National Committee has planted a mole in the White House advisory circle; second, that busy as he is on the fundraising circuit, this President has turned the Ebola problem over to Ron Klain’s ex-boss, the comedic figure inhabiting the Vice President’s office.

Sound Bite to Remember

“I think reality is vastly overrated.”

Hollywood director Michael Caton-Jones, circa 1991

BOEHNER: AIR STRIKES NOT ENOUGH Monday, Sep 29 2014 

– Headline, USA Today, Sept. 29, 2014.

Soundbite to remember

“At some point, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground.”

           — House Speaker John Boehner re the current crisis in the Middle East.

 

Fine. Let’s start with yours.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg “dud” Friday, Sep 19 2014 

In a prior life and century I worked for a controversial Vice President named Spiro Agnew who delivered fiery speeches denouncing, among other things, what he called “instant analysis” of presidential speeches.

Instant analysis, a feature of the television age, took place when, immediately following a presidential address, a panel of talking heads appeared on TV screens to tell us not only why the President said what he said, but what was wrong with it. In short order that practice spread to the print media as reporters, once given only to reporting the news, felt it necessary to interpret it for what a new generation of  journalists viewed as the dim-bulb masses.

Agnew’s speeches on the subject, delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, and Montgomery, Alabama in October 1969, were in turn instantly analyzed by his media critics as being “an attack on the First Amendment.” The Vice President, it was written and said by media pundits from Walter Lippmann to CBS’s Eric Sevareid, aimed at producing a “chilling effect” that would inhibit if not stifle critics in a free American press.

If that was Agnew’s aim, he missed his mark badly. Far from being chilled, media critics of presidential speeches since that time have been, if anything, overheated. Take, for example, the instant analysis of President Obama’s speech last week on the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

Though no fan of Obama’s loquacious style of making a point, I thought his speech that night, while predictable, was direct and effective. But no sooner than he finished, a bevy of instant analysts, notably led by CNN’s David Gergen (of Gerald Ford speechwriting fame) and Chris Matthews (of Jimmy Carter speechwriting fame) were on-screen to tell us how bad it was.

All of which brought to mind a piece I wrote back in my Agnewesque days, imagining what a 20th century (now 21st century) press would have to say about a presidential speech made in a small Pennsylvania town in mid-autumn of 1863 . . .

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Nov. 19 – President Lincoln, in what White House aides billed as a “nonpolitical” speech, dedicated a military cemetery here today before a sparse, unresponsive crowd estimated by local authorities as fewer than 300 people.

In a tactical move clearly designed to get the political jump on Gen. George B. McClellan, his probable Democratic opponent next year, Mr. Lincoln made one of his rare trips outside Washington to visit this vote-rich Keystone State. Judging by early reaction to his appearance, however, the White House strategy appears to have backfired.

Not only was the President’s address sharply criticized by political experts for being too brief, but he was upstaged by the main speaker of the day, the brilliant public orator Edward Everett. Moreover, Mr. Lincoln’s glaring failure even to mention McClellan or Gen. George Meade, the victorious Union commander of the battle fought here in July, cast doubt on White House staff claims that the trip was “purely nonpolitical.”

One veteran political observer, noting recent charges that the Lincoln Administration has created a “credibility gap” between itself and the public, termed the President’s omission of McClellan’s and Meade’s names from his speech text “a serious blunder that will come back to haunt him in next year’s election.”

“This is another example of the sloppy White House staff work that has plagued the Administration since the day Lincoln took office,” commented another observer on receiving news that the President’s speech has been hurriedly scribbled on the back of an envelope en route to the speech site.

White House spokesmen vehemently denied this rumor, claiming that Mr. Lincoln had “worked over two drafts of the speech before he left Washington.”

While debate went on regarding the manner in which the speech was drafted, there was general agreement with the opinion rendered by a visiting professor of oratory from the University of Pennsylvania that the President’s address was “a dud.”

Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks in the same high-pitched, vaguely irritating Midwestern inflection that has characterized his past public addresses. Another criticism was that the speech, in the words of one Gettysburg resident, “didn’t say anything we haven’t already heard.”

“My family and I came out here to see and listen to the President of the United States and all we got was a puny two minutes,” said one outraged localite.

Mr. Lincoln remained unsmiling throughout his visit to this small eastern Pennsylvania village. Aides claimed the President’s solemn demeanor was simply “appropriate to the occasion,” but knowledgeable Washington sources have indicated that serious problems in Mr. Lincoln’s home life more likely account for his grim public visage in recent months.

In support of this view, it was noted that Mrs. Lincoln did not accompany the President here.

Another significant absentee from the speaker’s platform was Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Rumors persist that Mr. Lincoln plans to dump Mr. Hamlin as a running mate next year in favor of a Border State Democrat who would be more helpful in pursuing his Administration’s Southern Strategy.

The President, who has not held a major news conference in two years, refused reporters’ requests that he answer questions following his address. In the speech itself, Mr. Lincoln said that the men who died in the battle here gave their lives in order “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

However, the President, who was elected three years ago on a pledge to preserve the Union, once again failed to provide details on any fresh Administration initiative to achieve this objective.

Sound Bites to Remember

“Nattering nabobs of negativism.”
— Spiro Agnew’s description of Democratic critics of the Nixon Administration, words written by speechwriter William Safire, 1970.

“An effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
— Spiro Agnew’s description of antiwar demonstrators, words written by Spiro Agnew, 1969.

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