Sweet Home Alabama Sunday, Aug 3 2014 

There’s a new book out on Harper Lee that tells us why the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” never wrote another novel and what she thinks of the late Truman Capote, who served as the model for Dill, a character in “Mockingbird.”

Though just two weeks into print, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee” has already stirred a controversy. The author, Marja Mills, says she wrote it with Lee’s full approval, even moving to Monroeville, Alabama, for a year to get close to her subject. Lee, whose friends call her Nelle, says the book is unauthorized, inaccurate and an invasion of her privacy.

Due respect to Lee, I tend to believe Mills. A little personal background: Though a contemporary of Lee at the University of Alabama, I didn’t get to know her well until three decades later when, at an Alabama gathering in New York City, we drew aside to compare notes on our shared experience of having been law students who also wrote for the school paper and humor magazine.

Three decades living in Manhattan (though she spent half her time back in Monroeville with her older sister Alice) hadn’t changed the essential Nelle Lee. As a student in the late 1940s, she was ahead of her time as a female liberationist, going about campus in blue jeans and driving a pickup truck — true to her small-town roots but still, make no mistake, very much a woman (though not of the Southern belle variety).

Our conversation at that reception in the mid-1970s ranged from politics (she was a Democratic populist) to sports (and a Crimson Tide fan). Somehow, though I wasn’t the one who brought up the subject, talk turned to the veracity of her erstwhile childhood friend Truman Capote. In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Marja Mills quotes Lee as calling Capote a lying, mean-streaked “psychopath” who “thought the rules that applied to everybody else didn’t apply to him.”

Give or take a few feisty expletives, that was pretty much the way Lee described Capote to me forty years ago. What had aroused her ire, both personal and professional, was the persistent rumor spread by Capote that he had a hand in writing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Not only was that a (expletive deleted) lie, said Lee, but in fact Capote owed her a literary debt for having helped on his best-selling docu-novel “In Cold Blood.”

That said, our conversation turned nostalgic, to mutual friends we’d had on campus and what they were up to. No, I didn’t raise the question of why she hadn’t written another book after “Mockingbird.”  It would have been a sure conversation-stopper, since she must have been asked that a thousand times by everyone from her agent to the checkout cashier at her neighborhood supermarket.

In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Mills quotes Lee’s sister Alice (now a remarkable 103 years old) saying that Nelle, for all her feistiness, simply felt she could never match what she’d done in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.”

That I believe. Half a century after publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it remains one of the most widely read and admired works of 20th-century American fiction, not only in this country but throughout the world. Could a second novel by Harper Lee have met the standard she set for herself? She didn’t think so, and while other notable writers simply took the money and ran – Norman Mailer, and yes, Truman Capote come to mind – Harper Lee, for all the millions offered her simply for trying, wouldn’t succumb to the lure of tinsel celebrity.

Now 88 years old, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” suffered a stroke a few years back, but she still remains feisty — and devoted to her alma mater.

The football season approaches. There is, you should know, a road that runs through the Alabama campus called Paul Bryant Drive, a tribute to the nonpareil Bear. But those who think of Alabama as only a football factory should know there is also a road called Harper Lee Drive, a tribute to the nonpareil Mockingbird.

Roll Tide.

Sound Bite to Remember

Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By that time, you’ll be a mile away and he won’t have any shoes to chase you in.

– Wimp Sanderson, Alabama basketball coach (circa 1990)

The Twitter-speak president Tuesday, May 27 2014 

Front page, The Washington Post, May 24, 2014, reporting on President Obama’s nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as secretary of housing and urban development: “Castro has been focused on ‘revitalizing one of our most wonderful cities,’ Obama said in making the announcement, describing the nominee as someone who has ‘worked his tail off to achieve the American dream.’”

On being told that “one thing about Jerry Ford is he’s like the guy next door,” Richard Nixon agreed, but added, “Would you want the guy next door to be President of the United States?”

Thirty years later, the great thing about George W. Bush, we were told, was his filling the bill as “the guy you’d like to have a beer with.”

In the new age of Twitter-speak eloquence, we’re treated to a President of the United States who’s not only the guy next door you’d like to have a beer with, but brings things down to a level even an adolescent dropout can understand.

Memorial Day having passed, we can now look forward to his July Fourth announcement noting how Jefferson, Franklin, and all those Founding guys “worked their tails off to give us the American dream.”

Soundbite 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 on the practical limits to the First Amendment 

If I die and go to hell…. Friday, Mar 21 2014 

Reubin Askew, two-term governor of Florida during the 1970s, died last week. But for the breaks of history, he would have made a good, possibly a great president.

It all goes back to air travel connections in what someone of my age, in an addled remembrance of the past, thinks of as the good old days.

Airline travel in the South half a century ago was best characterized by the frequent flyer’s complaint that if he died and went to hell, he’d have to layover in Atlanta. This was true of national reporters sent down to cover the political and social upheaval taking place in the region during the ongoing civil rights revolution. A layover in Atlanta? What better way to spend time in the Georgia capital than visiting its progressive new governor, Jimmy Carter, and getting his views on the state of the nation?

So it was that after more than a year of interviews with stopover national correspondents, the always available Carter was hailed on the cover of Time magazine as the leading voice of the New South.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles downwind as the crow and Delta Airlines flew (but didn’t stopover), another new face of the changing South, Reubin Askew, was running the show in Tallahassee, Florida.  How successful a Southern governor was Reubin Askew in the turbulent Seventies? As his obituary in the Washington Post told us:

“Defying political custom, party loyalties and entrenched business interests, Mr. Askew launched a series of reforms designed to make state government more open and to increase opportunities for the poor and disenfranchised. . . . A supporter of racial equality (he) integrated the state highway patrol and other state agencies, supported busing to end school segregation, despite overwhelming opposition, appointed the first African American to the state supreme court . . . and the first African American cabinet official since Reconstruction.”

And more: Following Askew’s eight years in office, one of his leading opponents in the state legislature conceded, “He has exhibited a kind of morality in office that causes people to have faith in the governor’s office to a higher degree than we have seen in a long, long time.”

Askew served two terms as Florida’s governor. Jimmy Carter, after one term in Georgia (deemed by Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy as politically disastrous), launched his campaign for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination the moment his foot touched ground outside the Georgia statehouse.

James Thurber once wrote an alternative history describing the fate of a frustrated young Napoleon born thirty years after the French Revolution, his gift as a great military leader unused and unwanted. For Reubin Askew it wasn’t a matter of living in the wrong time, however, but in the wrong place. Had Delta or United marked just a few of their flights from New York and Washington for stopovers in Tallahassee, we might be looking back at the good old days when President Askew was in charge.

Sound bite to remember

“I did the best I could with what I had.”

–Former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, on being asked to sum up his legendary boxing career, circa 1951.

Aboard the Good Ship Lollipop Thursday, Feb 13 2014 

The candidate’s husband met me at the San Francisco airport that August day in 1967 with what he considered good news: According to the latest poll we were riding high, with a 2-to-1 advantage over our nearest opponent in the special election to fill a congressional seat.

So went my first morning as campaign advisor to Shirley Temple Black, explaining to her husband, Charles, on the drive from the airport that the poll he thought was good was in fact awful. True, we had a 2-to-1 advantage over Pete McCloskey, but it was 12 to 6 percent, with no fewer than eight of 10 voters undecided. That wasn’t bad in itself, but brought on heartburn when the numbers also told us that our candidate had an astounding 98 percent recognition factor among registered votes in San Mateo County.

In short, voters knew her, even liked her (the favorable ratio was just as good), but 80 percent couldn’t see her as their representative in Congress. Though now a mother with two growing girls, people still saw her as adorable little Shirley, dancing with Bill Robinson aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

It would not, I’d learn in the weeks ahead, be an impression easy to overcome. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, the myth has grown that being an actor gives a candidate a decided edge in campaigning for office. Not so if the candidate, like Shirley Temple Black, is reluctant to play the role set out by professional political handlers (like me).

Shirley had her own ideas about the way she wanted to run for office and that was that. No superficial sound bites, no hedging on the issues, no campaign rallies between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m. because the most important thing in her day was to be with her children at dinnertime (remembering, she told me, her own young days when work at the studio came before family gatherings).

Who could argue with that? I’d worked with Barry Goldwater three years before and knew the style: She might win the race, she might lose it, but in either case she was going to do it her own way. What beat us, however, wasn’t so much her style as the Vietnam War. Pete McCloskey, a Vietnam veteran, was against it and had the best of both political worlds on the most important issue of the day.

My candidate that summer and fall of 1967 went on, as we know, to make her contribution as an ambassador overseas, her good cheer and earnest approach to the job serving her and her country well. But had she been elected to Congress, I’m sure, the skipper of the Good Ship Lollipop would have made an outstanding Member – and who knows where it might have gone from there?

Sound bite to remember

“He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and both his children are adopted.”

–Florida legislator, circa 1970, explaining why Governor Reubin Askew’s political opponents weren’t likely to catch him in any political scandal.

The Forrest Gump Principle Wednesday, Jan 1 2014 

My resolution for the new year – the same resolve I’ve made over the past three decades – is to forgo arguments with those who hold a different point of view on matters cosmic or mundane. Discussions, yes, but not arguments that come under the rubric of the Forrest Gump Principle. Why Forrest Gump? That in a minute. First, the incident that led to my initial resolve on New Year’s Day 1982: At a holiday party I got into a heated argument with a Democratic activist over the state of the economy, in recession during Reagan’s first year as president.

Though not much when it comes to economic analysis, I did know enough to argue that bad as things seemed to be, there was reason for optimism. Christmas sales were up, I pointed out, at an all-time high; to which my verbal antagonist replied, with no hint of irony, “That’s only because people are afraid this might be the last Christmas.”

That settled it. No more arguments trying to change other people’s opinion; though that idiot response did come to mind some years later, when Charlie Thornton, Alabama’s sports information director under Coach Bear Bryant, told me of a communications problem he had following release of the Tom Hanks movie “Forrest Gump.”

Among Gump’s exploits, you’ll recall, was a four-year stint as an All-American halfback playing for Alabama. Not long after the film’s release, Thornton started getting calls and letters from fans asking what years Gump played for Bryant: “I kept telling them it was only a movie, not real life, but they didn’t believe me. So I finally made up a year – 1967 – and they’d go away happy.”

My Forrest Gump Principle, for 2014 and beyond: People are going to believe what they want to believe. Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake; JFK was killed by a mafia hit man hiding on the grassy knoll; the Chicago Cubs are going to win the National League pennant next year.

Happy New Year — let’s hope, not the last one.

Sound Bite to Remember

Every man has his price. If they didn’t, people like me couldn’t exist.

– Howard Hughes

Is the Tea Party “Populist”? Sunday, Nov 17 2013 

Its members claim it is, and political reporters describe it as such. But the record says otherwise.

Take the recent race for governor in Virginia. The Republican nomination went to Ken Cuccinelli, the Tea Party favorite chosen not by popular vote in a primary – that was an option, but Cuccinelli and his Tea Party followers rejected it in favor of a closed convention, the old-fashioned party boss way.

Had there been a primary, chances are that Cuccinelli would have lost the nomination to Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, not considered conservative enough for the Tea Party bosses. (And who, if nominated, would by all odds have defeated Terry McAuliffe in the general election.)

But evidence that the Tea Party is simply masquerading as a populist movement doesn’t stop there. Beyond Virginia, there is the national Tea Party movement, spearheaded by the ideological harebrain Rand Paul, to repeal the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which provides for the popular election of United States senators.

That is, the Tea Party would take the power to choose who represents the people in the United States Senate away from the people and put it back in the hands of state legislators.

The irony – or more appropriately, the hypocrisy – in all this is that passage of the 17th Amendment was and is considered the signature achievement of the grassroots Populist Party of a century ago.

Soundbite to Remember

“No, I took journalism. It was easier.”

 Jets quarterback Joe Namath on being asked by a New York sports reporter whether he had majored in basket-weaving at the University of Alabama (circa 1965)

Hail to the… Monday, Oct 14 2013 

About the pressing issue of what to call the National Football League team situated in the nation’s capital, brought to the top-of-the-news by the Celebrity in Chief: Why not change the name from the Washington Redskins to the Washington Native Americans, to be otherwise known (like the baseball team) as the Nats?*

*This is not to be taken seriously, though in today’s pc world, it may very well be.

Soundbite to remember

The squeaking wheel doesn’t always get the grease. Sometimes it gets replaced.

                        — Dale Gold

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