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


– 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.

Goldwater for President Wednesday, Sep 3 2014 

Today marks the date of the 50th anniversary of the kickoff to Barry Goldwater’s general election campaign for the presidency. The place was Prescott, Arizona, the small desert town Goldwater’s family had settled in when they arrived from Poland more than a century before. It was where Goldwater had kicked off his first campaign for national office, running for U.S. senator and upsetting Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in 1952.

There would be no upset in the presidential race against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Goldwater knew it. Issues aside, he told those close to him, the country was still recovering from the shock of the Kennedy assassination, and wasn’t in any mood to have three presidents in two years.

Not that there were any issues put aside in the campaign the Johnson White House waged against its Republican opponent. Goldwater, having won his party’s nomination running as a heartland conservative, made an easy target for Democratic speakers (and journalists) by telling senior citizens in Florida that if elected he’d privatize social security and voters in Knoxville he’d sell off the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As if that weren’t enough to make Republican strategists cringe, the Arizona senator’s blunt talk about dealing with the Soviet Union inspired TV ads implying a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear war.

An electoral disaster was looming, but as the Republican candidate told his cringing advisers, “I’m going to lose this election and lose it big, but I’m going to do it my own damned way.”

And that he did, in one of the biggest landslides in presidential campaign history, the conventional wisdom being that Barry Goldwater was hopelessly behind the times. As it turned out, however, Goldwater’s problem (apart from unvarnished candor) was that he was ahead of his time. Sixteen years later Ronald Reagan would win the presidency on virtually the same conservative platform Goldwater had run on.

Easy to explain, said the Republican presidential candidate of 1964. “If I’d believed everything they said and wrote about Barry Goldwater (during that campaign), I’d have voted against the sonofabitch myself.”

Sound bite to remember

“Politics is like bullfighting and every once in a while you get gored. Forget about it.”

– Barry Goldwater, reassuring his young press aide Vic Gold after Gold had blown an assignment, September 1964

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)

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