Wednesday, October 28, 2020

About That Court

 A good friend said to me yesterday that the new Supreme Court justice does have excellent qualifications, meaning legal ones. My response was that it was a given and should be a given that any nominee these days has the traditional academic success story. But teaching at law school and serving as an appellate judge for two years don't really provide much in the way of understanding the problems of ordinary people.  

I don't judge judicial nominees by their academic standing but I do pay attention to their previous decisions and writings. If  a nominee espouses down-the-line extreme conservatism, I'm not interested in how well she did in law school. She denied having fixed positions on major issues; this was ludicrous, because she has written specifically about why certain key past decisions were wrong. You expect her to reconsider those positions? 

We're in for a bad time. We may need a new president to expand the court's membership just as FDR was finally inclined to do after four years of the Four Horsemen of Reaction: Van Devanter, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Butler. And they were only four. Despite what you may read about the "court packing" episode of 1937, it failed not because the public was against it but because FDR muffed it. He didn't even go over it with his legislative leaders or prepare the ground in any way for the effort.

And FDR acted precipitously, without adequate planning as well as spadework, because his strongest political adviser, Louis McHenry Howe, had just died. Louis Howe never would have let him go into this legislative battle without extensive advance work. He would have made sure that depending on the legislator, either he or FDR or both would have button-holed all of them. 

As has been noted, expanding the court has been successfully proposed and effected by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. Another proposal in today's paper was to set up screening panels made up of rotating members selected from federal appeals court judges to decide what cases should go to the Supremes. That way, the high court justices cannot put a series of cases on the docket to move toward their own personal ideological goals, as several of the current reactionary bunch have been doing.

It's unlikely that we can ever go back to dealing with court membership apart from total political domination of the process. The cats are out of the bag. It's become increasingly partisan as the GOP has returned to its bad old days of putting extreme reactionaries on the court. Democrats for the most part acted as if things hadn't changed--they nominated candidates who were only slightly left of center or actually in the center. The so-called liberal wing hadn't been so liberal for a long time. But just as with the whole Republican party, their nominees have moved way over to the right. Scalia and Thomas set the pattern.

Now that the Supreme Court has jumped right into the political thicket that Frankfurter claimed with little basis that he tried to avoid, and as to which he was wrong, because gerrymandering won't go away when the pols who drew the district lines are the ones in office. Roberts's claim that the nation didn't  need the Voting Rights Act's preclearing was as much of a lie as Trump's saying the pandemic is over.



Two Papers: Their Coverage Diverges More Than Ever


For as long as I've lived in Washington, I've had the Washington Post and New York Times delivered every morning. It always was obvious that each had its strong and weak points; over the years, one never seemed clearly superior. But recently, major shifts in the way the Times covers many subjects bolster a strong feeling that the Post has taken a significant lead in quality.

National politics has always been the Post's stock-in-trade. It devotes many pages and many signed columns to this cornerstone of its news and opinion coverage. Both papers, despite having superb reporters covering the White House and environs, have of course devoted far too much attention to the current President. But both have probed and published major exposes of the corruption and malfeasance of this administration. Even the authoritative Bob Woodward, while holding the title of Associate Editor at the Post but not actually on current staff, still produces newsworthy accounts based on direct contact with presidents and their top staff members. 

The Times, however, seems to have fallen off in terms of its full coverage. It has produced some amazing exposes in recent weeks--the President's taxes, for one. Yet when one looked at its front page this morning, Sunday, October 25, the right lead was a story datelined Bethlehem, Pa., about why people there felt the current President had done a fine job with the nation's economy. The reporter apparently spoke to no one who disagreed with this dubious finding. Nor did the story suggest that there might be anyone who differed from this conclusion.

The need for significant improvement in both staff diversity and coverage when addressing gender and race issues was long evident. Now, one can rarely turn to the Times without every other story focused on one or both of these subjects. In the Times's arts coverage, in particular, there rarely seems to be room for anything but these two topics, as important as they are. If we still had satirical magazines, or if satire relating to these sensitive matters were allowed to be published, the Times's total focus on them would be ripe for targeting.

In contrast, the Post has had a columnist for the past year or more who addresses issues relating to how women are treated in our society; for much longer, it has had a succession of columnists who focus on problems of race.  News stories that involve these topics receive full coverage. Eugene Robinson is a top-notch writer and has been so recognized for his perceptivity; Monica Hesse strikes me as a fair-minded writer who has identified important areas where women's rights are threatened or unfulfilled, and dealt with them well.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Convention


The national political convention as we have known it is gone. Aside from nostalgia--which ignores the incredibly unsavory aspects of the beast--we might give some thought to what will replace it. We may be surprised that the convention's demise will show us why it may be missed.

Reforms often do not turn out as anticipated. It's difficult to conclude that our primaries that now play the leading role in selecting nominees do a better job than the caucus or even the much-despised smoke-filled rooms. Primaries, in fact, have promoted the movement of each party toward the extremes; blame them in part for the chasm in legislatures, especially Congress, that prevents consensus from developing.

Yes, professionals, and that includes professional politicians, tend to prefer the canvas they know and on which they have been operating. But the entire raison d'etre of the convention--selection of the nominees--is gone. It's all over by the time they convene. Carl Hulse, the veteran Congressional correspondent of the N.Y. Times, emphasized today in an op-ed the role of conventions in providing a setting for political business to be done.

This is the real purpose of the parties, state receptions, impromptu caucuses, and their like. We need not mourn the demise of an opportunity for political pros to seek and gain employment on campaigns. That can happen without the need for a convention. More important are the chance and arranged meetings between attendees who may not be connected with any contender. This contributes to a political party maintaining its national focus. Understanding of the issues important in other locales spreads.

Lovers of the traditional political world--as well as those enjoying festivals of alcohol and smoke--may descry the loss, but it has occurred because the need has gradually disappeared. And some aspects of politics have not changed at all. One political chieftain--House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn was able to rescue Joe Biden's campaign with his endorsement just before the South Carolina primary. This was merely a slightly less dramatic version of the surprise switch at the convention depicted by such an admirer of the traditional politics as the late Allen Drury in his novel, Advise and Consent. 



Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Our Man

Richard Holbrooke passed on a decade ago but is still recalled by everyone connected with American foreign policy. He was brilliant, egotistical, arrogant, pragmatic, and likely had more enemies than friends. A book about him, Our Man, by George Packer, now in paperback, presents him, warts and all, as perhaps the last huge, significant figure in U.S. diplomacy. 

He started in the Foreign Service school with the class of 1962, at a time when diplomacy was a prized career in the U.S. In his class was Anthony (Tony) Lake, who for the next thirty-plus years would be a close friend and colleague, and also rival and even enemy. Both were dispatched in the hothouse that was Vietnam as the quagmire was building. 

Holbrooke learned early how politicians never looked beyond the immediate problems. Kennedy more or less let the coup and murder of Diem happen. He watched as special assistant to Henry Cabot Lodge, dispatched to resolve the situation, failed as everyone else had and would in the future. Johnson got caught in the domino theory and fear of losing. 

But Vietnam was where Holbrooke insisted on going into the provinces and managing projects to help peasants and other Vietnamese country people. His pragmatism got him some results but, unlike the military, which really called the shots, and even the others there in the American civilian cadre, he knew it was an incipient disaster. It taught him a lot worth knowing and he used it well, but when he would bring up Vietnam thirty years later, none of the next generation wanted to hear it. 

His last assignment was Afghanistan. He was past his peak, the dividend of a hard-pushing life, and he was no more successful than anyone else in figuring a way out of America’s longest war. His brief included Pakistan, which was equally impossible to negotiate a solution. This didn’t stop Holbrooke from trying. Even after he had alienated almost everyone on all sides, he still kept at it and amazingly, all of these players would meet with him. He was pressing to add India to his terrain when he collapsed in the State Department and was dead half a day later of  aortic shredding.  

Holbrooke’s peak accomplishment was brokering a settlement of hostilities in Bosnia, a republic of t he former Yugoslavia. He had built contacts there for some years dating back to his service as Ambassador to Germany. This made it possible for him to move from meeting with Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, for the Serbs, with President Franco Tudjman of Croatia, and with Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia, representing the Bosnian Muslims. Holbrooke had met with the Bosnian Serbs, but their intractability led him to keep them out of the negotiations and have them represented by Milosevic.  

He brought them to Wright-Patterson air base outside Dayton, Ohio, in the U.S.m because he wanted this conference to occur here and because placing it on the huge base would isolate the parties. There was virtually no where to go off the base except for a small commercial strip. He didn’t know if he would havean agreement until the very last hour of the meeting. But his familiarity with the leaders enabled him to know when to push one or the other, especially Milosevic, who seemed completely concerned only with his internal political situation in Serbia. Reaching the agreement ended a long, terrible war with casualties and the coining of the term “ethnic cleansing”. 

Holbrooke had become Assistant Secretary df State for Far Eastern Affairs at a remarkably early age. His progress slowed thereafter. While he did become Ambassador to the United Nations and was effective there, he constantly battled with the White House National Security staff, no matter who was President or National Security Advisor. His best chance to become Secretary of State saw him nosed out by his later sponsor, Hillary Clinton (when she later became Secretary), who wanted her husband to name the first female Secretary—Madeleine Albright. 

Holbrooke had great regard for the postwar predecessors who he believed had created the firm structures that defined world relations until relatively recently. These were Marshall, Acheson, Harriman, Kennan, and their contemporaries in State and Defense. They were The Wise Men, as their story was entitled in the Walter Isaacson-Evan Thomas book.  

Packer aims to show that Holbrooke may have been the last of the great American diplomats who was larger than life and strived hard to make the U.S. an important but benevolent world power. He sees Holbrooke as emblematic of the gradual decline of American influence worldwide. In this view, even if this diplomat had been more diplomatic, the age of the masterful foreign policy leaders had passed. 

Packer’s judgment of Holbrooke as “almost great” is judicious, and makes his story all the more enthralling because of his personal quirks, They made him the fascinating character he was but they also limited his achievement.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

English Mysteries--Then and Now

 I've always been very fond of one particular author of mysteries which are mostly set in England although she was Scottish--Josephine Tey. She is the mystery savant's favorite: she only published eight novels, and as she died in 1952, there haven't been any new ones for quite some time. Until now, which means beginning in 2008 and continuing currently. A writer named Nicola Upson, whose bio in her books says she lives in Cambridge and Cornwall, which are two rather charming places to live, has so far produced a series of nine "Josephine Tey" mysteries, in which her detective is joined in some manner or other by the character Josephine Tey, the mystery writer.

Tey, as it happens, was also a playwright, and her most successful drama, produced in the West End in the early 1930's, was Richard of Bordeaux, about Richard II forms the setting for Upson's first Tey novel. The play was a success, running a year and a half, and starred a young actor named John Gielgud: it helped to make him famous at an early age. Her other plays were not as popular, but one that featured Mary Queen of Scots had another two members of the renowned English acting trio who all acquired the prefix "Sir" before their names, Ralph Richardson, who was followed in the part of Lord Bothwell, Mary's second husband, by Laurence Olivier, who of course ended up as Lord O. 

The plays were written under the name of Gordon Daviot, Daviot being a small town near Inverness, which was where Tey was from. And to make the story one more bit complicated, Tey herself used that name for the novels, but her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh, The most famous of the novels is The Daughter of Time, in which her detective, Inspector Alan Grant, is laid up in a hospital bed so he is given a book about reversing Shakespeare's verdict of guilty on the last of the Plantaganets (recall that Elizabeth I was a Tudor, and the house's founder, Henry VII, was the Richmond who defeats and terminates Richard III at the end of that play). Probably because Richard III was one of Shakespeare's greatest villains, his play attracts more performances than another good Shakepearean classic, Richard II.

Anyway, Tey did such a fine job in her effort to rehabilitate Richard III, claiming that he did not murder  the Princes in the Tower, that although most historians still disagree, she was responsible for reigniting the centuries-old argument about his guilt. The controversy persists today, largely because people still enjoy reading The Daughter of Time. My introduction to Tey was being sent The Daughter of Time from England in the late 1950's by an English cousin named, of all names, Josephine.  It also should be noted that the Crime Writers Association in England voted this novel "the greatest mystery novel of all time" in 1990.

A more recent e "Tey" novel, Fear in the Sunlight, takes place at Portmeirion, and Upson mixes fictional and real life characters (whose actions in the novel are fictional). Portmeirion is a village resort in Wales which was reconstructed in the 1920's and the novel is based on Tey's negotiating with Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and partner Alma Reville, to turn her novel, A Shilling for Candles, into a movie, which ended up being called Young and Innocent, one of his last made in England. I plan to try to see it because although Hitchcock altered Tey's plot, it is said, almost beyond recognition, it has been heralded as his finest film made in England. You might also associate Portmeirion with the china made there, of which the original Botanical pattern is the most famous.

Tey was shy and avoided publicity as much as possible. Her character in Upson's novels is true to her nature but also captures both in her depiction and behavior and in the novel itself, her marvelous, sophisticated style. All of Tey's novels are worth reading: two of the most praised were early ones, Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair. With a third good one, Miss Pym Disposes, they were collected in a volume entitled Three by Tey. I happen to like both A Shilling for Candles and To Love and Be Wise, two later ones, as well as her first, The Man in the Queue, and the last, published posthumously, The Singing Sands.

That last one is often regarded as the least of her work, perhaps because she never was around to put the final touches on it, but its opening scene in King's Cross station--a favorite locale for Tey, who often took the train from Inverness down to London, often to be involved in productions of her plays--where as Grant boards the night train to Scotland, he sees the rail porter every passenger tried to make sure never came near, Murdo Gallacher, known as Old Yoghourt, who was both lazy and delinquent--example, he rarely managed to serve a cup of tea to a passenger but if he did, the tea would be weak, the sugar and cream jugs dirty, and the spoon missing.

Tey almost rejoices in pointing out that one passenger has finally gotten revenge on Yoghourt, causing im more bother than any other and which he cannot slip away from: a dead body is discovered in his sleeping car. Not that he was the murderer, but now he will be enveloped in hours of questioning and being made to go over the details again and again when he normally would be sleeping in lieu of taking care of his passengers' needs.

Not only does Nicola Upson capture Tey's own personality but she in many ways provides a new version of her wonderful writing style. Here are nine more novels--I'm still making my way through them--that give you some more enjoyment in the great tradition of Josephine Tey.

Beach Week

I'm writing this while the whole East Coast is encountering Tropical Storm Isaias--the local TV stations have kept their weather and news people on the air so no Today or Good Morning America or CBS Morning News. They did just keep on jawing on Morning Joe. It's going to rain all day and yes, we needed it, but I do hope we don't lose power, which hasn't happened often here, but tornadoes haven't hit much either, and there have been quite a few already in Virginia.

But last week we spent at Middlesex Beach, which is between Bethany and South Bethany, in Delaware. It's the second year we were there, same house, just enough rooms for Vanessa, Dave, and Ethan to join us. We drive about two minutes to park near the beach, which because you need a pass, has never been crowded: physical distancing is easy and the surf is moderate--Vanessa and I love riding the waves and I've developed even more respect for the elements since realizing that I'm not as resilient when bowled over as I always was.

It was a wonderful week there because it was warm and sunny until Friday. In fact, it was very hot, too hot to stay on the beach for very long. But even with the strictures put in place by the pandemic, it was fun being at the beach. We grilled a lot because going out was less enticing. Crabcakes were great--both the ones we had at a local cafe and the ones we brought with us. Nic-o-bolis and baked ziti remain the great guilty pleasure of Rehoboth.

I've enjoyed beaches since I was very young and we drove out to Rockaway, first to my Aunt Ruth's in Belle Harbor and then changing at Curley's on Beach 116th St. where you could see grizzled regulars imbibing boilermakers at the oceanside open bar at 7:00 A.M. At the end of every summer, we spent a few days in Atlantic City, which was so pleasant, both the beach and the boardwalk, that I've never returned to see what a sad shell of its glory days A.C. (as Variety referred to it when reviewing its night club acts) has become,

Jones Beach was marvelous but it was a good distance from where I lived--in high school, an occasional expedition highlighted the summer. I grew loving the clam chowder you got get there, almost up to the standard of Lundy's in Sheepshead Bay. My dad, always expert on any waterfront matter, drew the line at going to the beach at Coney Island, because even in the 50's, he regarded it as too crowded and probably unsafe.

Visiting my cousins Herb and Eleanor in San Diego, I had two favorite beaches: the Cove at La Jolla, with its spectacular setting and cliffs, and the beach just below Del Mar, one of the few I know that still has some parking where you can drive right up and walk over the sand to the water. Once you travel north of Santa Barbara, the Pacific starts to become cold, just as the Atlantic begins to chill not too far above Boston, probably around Cape Ann. Vanessa and I once ventured in at Bath, north of Portland, with my cousin Bob Hertz,  where the ocean was clean enough for us to see the bottom but where we likely lasted a couple of minutes in the ice-cold August ocean.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Straw Hat Circuit

Today's Times focused on outdoor theater in the arts section. One article recalled going to see productions of well-known musicals in the summer at theaters that were either outdoors or in less auspicious settings. The writer, one of the paper's theater critics, remembered when he was young, seeing shows like Gypsy with Angela Lansbury at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa.

That's a venue I recall well because I went there with my parents years and years ago in the 50's. It was where I first saw a production of South Pacific with good, second-level leads. My father was in that area checking out a film production located in Chester Springs, Pa., which is not much farther out near the Main Line. A director named Frank Perry was filming there--he had been well know for a time after he made David and Lisa. A rundown "resort" called the Allenberry was there and now I see ads for it, after it has apparently been renovated and is somewhat posh.

There were circuits of these summer musical theaters in those days. The Valley Forge one was one of the classier ones, run by some Philadelphia people and later expanded to theaters further up the East Coast. I think they originally started the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. All are gone now, although Westbury still hosts trendy pop bands.

An operator named St. John Terrell ran theaters in Lambertville, N.J., and Rye, N.Y. His shows were not quite as well cast as the Philly outfit's.  Once when we were watching a production of Carousel at his Rye venue, they cut the Soliloquy from the end of the first act. Why? They needed more time at intermission for a fashion show.

Going to these and other summer theaters--the Times used to call them "the straw-hat circuit"-- was a great way to see a lot of classic musicals. Perhaps the last time I went to one was north of Boston near Route 128 where a theater-in-the-round, outdoors, presented Marlene Dietrich in what had to have been one of her last appearances, in the 1970s. She looked a little shaky but her voice and style were still pretty distinctive and worth hearing. She always kept her eyes totally focused on her conductor -- I'm sure he probably travelled with her, as was the case with Luciano Pavarotti when he made appearances on tour. I figured that she was afraid of losing track of everything if she lost that eye contact with her maestro.

When I was travelling through Vermont around 1974 and later in the 1970's, there was a chain of summer theaters where we caught plays. I remember that one playhouse was in Dorset, Vt. Usually they didn't have musicals, although those were popular, because it cost more to stage them. I recall seeing old chestnuts like George Kelly's The Show-off and George M. Cohan's Seven Keys to Baldpate. The latter was at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth.

The piece brought back lots of memories and made me feel we've lost something even before what we're enduring now. As the writer said, you could see a lot of shows for tickets that were priced under $9.