Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fiscal Situation

Yesterday I managed to attend one of Washington's famed breakfast briefings, conducted at the charming Capital Hill home of a p.r. firm head. The speaker was Professor Elizabeth Warren, who's now at Harvard Law and also chairs the panel named to oversee the administration of the TARP--the bailout money that started under Paulson/Bush last fall for the banks.

Professor Warren has previously taught at Penn and Texas law schools and is regarded as the preeminent figure in bankruptcy law and policy today. This has always been an interest of mine, going back to my time with the U.S. Trustees and even in practice--and the courses I had with the likes of Vern Countryman and Peter Coogan. She was talking off the record but said little of direct interest relating to the oversight work, which is the sensitive part of her charge.

She quite clearly outlined the three things that had weakened regulation enough to cause the disaster. First, the regulatory process had been weakened by easing of restrictions and rules such as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment and commercial banks; second, the enforcement mechanisms has been weakened by nonuse and by indications from top policymakers that strict enforcement was not appropriate; and third, the regulatory scheme was not extended to cover new "financial products" such as derivatives, and in fact, these were carefully excluded from its coverage.

Then she observed that one thing that might have prevented the subprime mortgage crisis was the barring of collection of prepayment penalties on mortgages. Apparently the enticingly low rates offered were only to sucker people in, after which rates rose and prepayment penalties made getting out more difficult.

I keep wondering if we will really get reform with the same people from Wall Street running the financial area of the government as who got us into this, at least in part. In short, Larry Summers was wrong about deregulation. And Bob Rubin and proteges also were wrong. (It's interesting that no one mentions those "sages" of anti-regulation itself, such as Murray Weidenbaum--they deserve to get relocated to one of Dante's lower circles...)

I also only place a small amount of blame on the SEC. When everyone in power--including the commissioners--preaches non-regulation and non-enforcement, it takes a lot to persevere when whistle-blowers or just people doing their job are not well protected. Also, I recall back when in practice I worked with people who had previously been at the SEC. It was a club of its own--and it probably would have taken enormous courage to take on a member in good standing, as evidenced by his membership on key SEC committees and chairmanship of NASD--such as Bernie Madoff. Notice how you see no columnists among those who preached deregulation talking about that now.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Deutsche Musicale

Somehow this is turning out to be a weekend thus far of immersion in German music. Right now I'm at home on Saturday afternoon listening to the Met's final live broadcast of this season, the fourth and final opera of Wagner's Ring--Goetterdaemerung--where all those wonderful themes of heroism, the Rhine, the Valkyries, keep coming at you. My immersion will continue because a friend invited me to attend the dress rehearsal Wednesday (6 PM--11 PM) of theWashington National Opera's Siegfried, the third and not anywhere as interesting opera in the Ring cycle. Even if the opera in general and Wagner in particular leaves you a bit cold, listening to Goetterdaemerung is almost irresistible because of the sheer beauty of the music. It's also fun listening on radio to imagine the carrying out of his stage directions--the collapse of Valhalla and the Rhine overflowing its banks. The Met's production--very realistic and being performed for the last time--does a good job on the buildings of Valhalla crashing down. The Rhine overflowing is a bit beyond it capabilities.

Last night we took in Berliner Kabaret at the Source Theatre, performed by The IN Series, the musical organization run for more than two decades by Carla Hubner, who has managed to maintain this series from its days at the Hand Chapel at the old Mount Vernon College campus, now part of George Washington University. My favorite productions have been her Mozart-DaPonte operas--the Las Vegas version of The Marriage of Figaro and the Long Island version of Don Giovanni. These have fun with the indestructible music and lyrics by making the Count sort of a Wayne newton character and the Don a Don of The Godfather's kind of organization. The show last night featured lots of songs from Berlin in the '20s, many by Kurt Weill and some of those and others with lyrics by Bertoldt Brecht. Staples such as Falling in Love Again and Lili Marlene filled out the bill. Carla always has singers with fine voices and here there were three wonderful women singing with two men who managed to keep up with them, barely. But most of the good songs are for the women anyway. Washington is a small musical world--Carla teaches at Levine School of Music where Vanessa studied violin--so the pianist for the evening was Alice Mikolajewski, who accompanied Vanessa at many of her recitals. She also accompanied on accordion for the Useless Song (from The Threepenny Opera) which came off wonderfully. The prevailing impression, of course, is that everyone in Berlin then was either a drunk or a whore. And the interpolated recitations (ranging from George Grosz to Hitler) didn't add a whole lot. But for those of us who especially love Kurt Weill music, there was a lovely rendition of Surabaya Johnny and the lesser Alabama Song. All that was missing was Pirate Jenny. This was from Berlin, and much was sung in the original German, so we did not get to hear the Weill music after he emigrated to the U.S., such as September Song.

The Kabaret reminded me of my having seen Marlene Dietrich in what must have been one of her last performances, probably more than 30 years ago, at the North Shore Summer Theatre off Route 128 above Boston. The old gal was likely in her 80s, a bit unsteady of foot, and had her gaze permanently fixed on her conductor of the lush string orchestra (a standard part of the retinue of famed aged performers, such as Pavarotti). Since she never had that much of a pure voice, she was still able to provide a good evening's entertainment and needless to say, the crowd went crazy at her finale of Falling in Love Again. I also recalled two other performances of hers worth remembering: her Christine Helm in the film of Agatha Christie's Witness For the Prosecution, opposite Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton, and her live appearance way back in the '50s, when I accompanied my dad to opening night at Madison Square Garden (the old one on 49th & Eighth) of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, where she fulfilled the vision of every man's fantasy dressed as the ringmistress with whip for the circus. This was an opening night only appearance, and the other star of the show was Marilyn Monroe atop a pink elephant.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Now I Like Ike

When I first became aware of anything concerning national politics, it was 1952 and all right-thinking people (who certainly didn’t include the vast majority of my grade-school class) adored Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, making the first of his two ill-fated runs for the Presidency. Of course I was influenced by my parents’ views but I was already reading the daily paper—a habit that got me into trouble at the local barber shop one day when I was enjoying the sports page of the Daily Mirror and another, far older customer wanted it, probably for the racing charts. The barber snatched it from my hands, told me reading the paper was “too old for me” and advised me to stick with the comics—not that I had any problem with reading comic books. My mother bemoaned the perceived anti-intellectualism of the barber.

Like most U.S. papers in the 1950s, the Daily Mirror supported Eisenhower for President. It was owned by Hearst but just about every other paper was owned by Republicans and Ike was plenty popular. Probably the only paper I saw that supported Stevenson was the old, liberal New York Post, long before its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch. Democrats bristled when a televised Madison Square Garden rally for Ike was emceed by FDR's turncoat son, John Roosevelt.

In the mid-1960s, possibly when Eisenhower was still alive, the general attitude, especially among the better-educated, was still that Ike was a genial tool of the reactionary GOP, was probably as confused as his mixed-up syntax indicated, and that it was a great thing that Kennedy had succeeded him. The first change in this prevailing conventional wisdom came from a noted liberal columnist but always an independent thinker, Murray Kempton, then of the aforesaid Post but writing this time in the home of “new journalism,” Esquire magazine.

Kempton recalled that Eisenhower had managed to win World War II in Europe by making good use of such antagonists as Patton and Montgomery. He posited the view that Eisenhower purposely played dumb. He noted that Eisenhower had done much good, such as go along with the Interstate Highway System, and had ended the Korean War. As years have passed, Americans have yearned for Eisenhower’s days, because at the least, it was said, he didn’t do the wrong thing, as so many of his successors did, even if he didn’t do anything.

Eisenhower understood that there were times not to do anything. I read a piece last week that pointed out what I had not known—that when he visited Korea right after his election, as he had promised: “I shall go to Korea”—he made sure to tour the front lines by helicopter and see all the terrible mountainous territory that had been fought over. He rapidly drew on his experience as a general to conclude that the war should be ended, Upon his return his cabinet, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (dull, duller, dulles) and Secretary of Defense Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson (he had been head of GM, a much stronger qualification for high office then than now), resisted his conclusion and actually wanted to take the Chinese Communists, as they then were called, on in what they may have hoped was Armageddon, or at least, a prequel to it. Despite that he moved quietly but quickly—as he always did—to end the war and he did just that. There was a ceasefire that has prevailed since then.

Would that we had a President who had the nerve (and who probably would need the prestige of military background Eisenhower had) to end the war in Iraq. The other giveaway that Eisenhower once let out that he was playing the possum was in response to his press secretary’s complaint of having nothing to say on an important topic. “Don’t worry, Jim,” he told Jim Hagerty, who had been a distinguished reporter before being press secretary (when did that last happen?), “I’ll go out and confuse them.”

We used to complain that he wouldn’t pick up and run with liberal issues any more than he did with the truly conservative ones. He never came out and endorsed Brown v. Board of Education but did act by sending troops to Little Rock to ensure that the high school was integrated. He would not directly oppose Senator McCarthy, even when McCarthy viciously attacked Ike’s mentor, General George C. Marshall, but somehow Ike had no problem with the Senate censure that effectively ended McCarthy’s career.

It turned out that Stevenson, who died rather young at 65, had a rather mixed reputation at the end. He made a great speech in the U.N. against missiles in Cuba but turned out to be about as well informed on the subject by the Kennedy Administration as Colin Powell was by his president, and thus just about as inaccurate. Some of the less attractive aspects of Stevenson's character slowly emerged: he was a true elitist and didn't truck much with having any ordinary people around him. As with Harry Truman, Eisenhower looks better and better as the years roll on.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Marriage a la Mode

Now I wish I would have already seen more of Neil LaBute's work than I've already seen. Last Friday, we saw his first play to get a Broadway production, reasons to be pretty, and last year, Vanessa and I saw In the Dark Dark House Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel in the West Village (formerly the Theatre de Lys, where the famed production of The Threepenny Opera ran for ages in the early 60s).

His best known work is still the film In the Company of Men which I have yet to catch up with. But he can write dialogue with the steady fury of David Mamet, plus, despite allegations of sexism, he;'s much much better at writing women's parts--at least in the current play--than anything I've ever seen of Mamet's. This play shows how a relationship breaks up because a friend passes on an ill-timed and ill-thought remark of one partner to the other. The series of short blackout scenes has each half of the two couples interacting with the others--inevitably, everything resolves itself, as the central figure almost deludes himself into thinking he's keeping a key secret or two or that whether he does or not really matters. Just think of this play when you're tempted to say, even in jest, that your spouse has a "regular" face.

Also took in the revival on Bway of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, which features a late-career turn by Angela Lansbury, with superb support from Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole. The play's a bit of a trifle, and Lansbury was good, hamming it up some, and probably deserving of the standing ovation she got mainly on past performances--I, for one, found her great roles of Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Raymond's mother in the movie, The Manchurian Candidate, about as good as any. Everett and Ebersole, however, made the sometimes creaky vehicle keep running--I'm not sure if Coward's plays will survive that much longer on their own merits. The Shakespeare Theater Company here in DC is doing Design for Living next month.

Another revival took place on the northwest corner of 161st St. and River Ave. in the Bronx. My friend Marcus was kind enough to invite me to use the extra ticket to Game 3 in the new Yankee Stadium last Saturday. This was the debacle when the Tribe scored a record (against the Yanks, that is) 14 runs in the second inning to go on to a 22-4 wipeout of the home club. Given the dough dropped to recreate the old stadium, complete with frieze, but the decision to make the dimensions higher, the prevailing theory holds that this cuts the wind resistance so home-run balls go flying over the right-center wall in regular procession--the Yanks had five homers the day before.

The fact that I've never been a Yankee fan is indisputable: I came of age, baseball-wise, in 1954 when the world began and ended with Willie Mays and the Giants as they upset the heavily-favored Tribe in four straight, across the river in the now-gone Polo Grounds. But unlike many--especially Dodger fans, who now have a memorial Rotunda recreating that feature of Ebbets Field at the new Mets emporium--I never became a Yankee-hater either. Mainly this was because, we hardly ever played them until interleague play began--that miserable '62 series when McCovey failed to save Mays what would have been his last chance for a majestic at-bat--and when we did, they would win. Or, as I just learned from longtime first baseman Whitey Lockman's recent obit, yet another strain that hurt the Giants going into the '51 Series against the Yanks after the Shot Heard Round the World got them there was Lockman pulling his shoulder helping to carry Bobby Thompson off the field. End of story.

The new Stadium--there really is only one such field in baseball--is reasonably pleasant; as with every park opened since Camden Yards, you can see the field from the concession-rest room consourses. Many fans complained that the always haughty Yankee management, whether it be the Steinbrenners or the old George Weiss-Dan Topping days, managed to give everyone worse seats than they had in the old Stadium. But the one thing that came across from this game and the others played there so far is that for a while, this will be pitchers' hell.

Everyone wears player shirts at the Stadium, it seems. If someone can find me one for Vic Raschi or Allie (the Chief) Reynolds, I might be willing to don one next time I emerge from the D train. Despite all the construction, incidentally, those blocks of postwar apartment houses to the northwest of the Stadium look exactly the same, although one misses seeing the old shuttle line to the Polo Grounds (yes, there was one) that went through the hill and under an apartment block back when the Giants were there.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

BU Follows the Ride of the Valkyries

Everyone found it kind of strange that the NCAA Frozen Four--the ice hockey championships--was played here in DC this past weekend. For one thing, no college around here plays hockey--but this year the success of the NHL Caps has almost made up for the vacuum. The local press, though, has no conception of covering this major event. On Friday, after two big semifinals, in which Miami of Ohio put a stop to the amazing run of Bemidji State, and Boston University topped Vermont, all there was in the Washington Post was a feature story on the B.U. star. Today, finally, B.U. got the attention it deserves as champion by winning in an wild and exciting sudden-death overtime after being down 3-1.

Eileen and I watched it from a hotel room in Stamford, where we were visiting her mom, newly installed in a new senior living spot, and, once again, college hockey lived up to its potential as a truly exciting sport. Bemidji State was the team from nowhere (well, somewhere in Minnesota), and aside from my regret that their entry to the Frozen Four was by beating Cornell in the regional finals, they were the Cinderella club. Of course, those who follow this sport might add that in past years, the likes of Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and a few other non-household words in college sports have won the championships.

B.U. has been fantastically successful over quite a few years--during my undergrad days and shortly thereafter, we at Cornell had a good spell of appearances--unprecedented and definitely unequaled--under our now-legendary coach Ned Harkness (who died last fall in his mid-80s). The Big Red was in the final four times between '67 and '72 and won twice, in '67, my senior year, and '70. When I had the chance to chat with Ned at my last Cornell reunion and mentioned to him that the vaunted rivalry with B.U. had returned in the form of what may become a traditional meeting at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Saturday, all he would say was, "When I was coach, we went 9-0 against them."

Making the drive to Connecticut more palatable Saturday was the chance to hear the Met's production of the second Wagner Ring opera, Die Walkure, on radio. This has always been everyone's favorite opera of the four-opera Ring series--I realize that for you who are skeptical of opera in general and vitriolic about Wagner in particular, that may not carry much weight--but the Met showed that its casting these days runs right down the line in terms of quality. Even the veteran bass James Morris singing Wotan, the king of the gods, was memorable, if not at the level he attained when this production debuted two decades ago, with him in the same role.

The Washington National Opera, still a second-tier company even under Placido Domingo's general managership, had the distinction of lending the Met its Brunnhilde, Irene Theorin, a Swedish soprano who will still make her official U.S. debut here later this spring in Wagner's next Ring opera, Siegfried. I thought she sang well, as did Waltraud Meyer, playing Sieglinde, half of the set of twins who discover this fact just as they also become lovers. (Don't worry--Wagner makes sure that the family goddess, Fricka, wife of Wotan, makes him punish all concerned for the incest.) Ms. Meyer, whom I saw sing Santuzza, the soprano lead in Cav, a few weeks ago, has an almost unprecedented ability to shift from Italian verismo to Wagnerian challenges. It was also nice to hear the Washington Opera spokeswoman declare that everyone has to be willing to help another company replace a Brunnhilde who suddenly is unable to perform; I'm sure there are a million favors the Met can conjure up to repay Washington for its generosity.

The most sheer fun part of Die Walkure is the third act, in anticipation of the start of which the chimes ending the intermission's Opera Quiz used to toll "Da-Dum-De-Da-Dum-Dum". The act opens with the always-stirring Ride of the Valkyries (think of Robert Duvall and those helicopters in Apocalypse Now) and proceeds through Brunnhilde's Ho-Jo-To-Ho to the ravishingly beautiful Wotan's Farewell and Fire Music that end the opera.

The Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts, which intro'd opera to the likes of me and many, many others around the U.S. and Canada, and now elsewhere too, are a treasure. The host is now Margaret Junkwite, who lends an authoritative air to the proceedings and also presides over a souped-up program between acts that features snap interviews with leading singers and designers and Met operatives. Those of us who grew up with Milton Cross and Peter Allen, who retained the old-time dignity of live radio but who would introduce some dry lecturers during each first intermission, at first resented the new wave but now have come to enjoy Ms. Junkwite. Her companion in the booth is a bit of a Met flack--everything is always glorious--but it is marvelous that the whole show goes on every season from December until early May, some years.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29

My only reason for mentioning the film of this name, which I saw this afternoon at the Avalon Theatre, D.C., is that I happened to be present in Harvard Stadium on November 23, 1968, when this famous game took place. As my friend Albert, present both at the game with me (and his father, and Noah Griffin, who got the tickets for all of us) and at the movie today, observed, "This picture has a somewhat limited audience."

Summarized, this was the year (my 2nd year of law school) when Harvard and Yale came into The Game undefeated for the first time in their histories, which go back to the beginning of football. Yale was heavily favored, its team featuring Brian Dowling, a quarterback who hadn't lost a game since the 7th grade and was the inspiration for the character B.D. in Garry Trudeau's strip, Doonesbury, which began in the Yale Daily News -- some of his drawings appear in the movie and you can see how less sophisticated their lines were in contrast to his always-superb ear. The Elis also boasted of Calvin Hill, later a star for the Dallas Cowboys (when Ivy Leaguers still made it to the NFL), and one of the few players on either team absent from being interviewed in the movie, presumably by choice.

Harvard, as one of its players from '68 noted, was expected to have a rebuilding year, i.e., not a championship contender. Somehow the Crimson won all its games that year and thus faced the Yale team that had not only beaten all its opponents but did so mightily. The movie was apparently made by a Harvard man, and I can't say I found its sympathies unpleasant, although as a law student who had gone to Cornell, this was probably the only game of the year when I was likely to cheer for the 10,000 men of Harvard (as the song starts).

One might think from the interviews that Harvard did not recruit nation-wide as Yale clearly did. The principal Harvard players all had Massachusetts accents and ones that reflected origins in Everett and Quincy as well as fancier locales. The Yalies came from all over--one noted that many in his family had attended the college--and still seemed to feel they had been deprived of a victory they clearly deserved.

Harvard Stadium, also known as Soldiers Field, was familiar to me as the first place I covered an away football game when a sophomore sportswriter on The Cornell Daily Sun. Although no one would claim that Ithaca has less precipitation than Cambridge, the Crimson eleven was clearly superior as a rain-oriented squad in that game. The echoes of the public-address announcer in the movie using the unusual and typically Cantabridgian locution, "the pass failed" instead of calling it incomplete brought back those early press-box memories. It's also fun to recall that Harvard Stadium's tight sidelines--where the seats are almost on the field--are responsible for the width of the football field. In 1904 when the foundation for the stadium was being installed, the football field was widened but the reason it isn't wider today is because Harvard had already started building its stadium and there were about a half dozen major college teams back then, of which the Crimson and of course the Bulldogs were two of the foremost.

The movie shifts back and forth between good game sequences (from a televised record) and the interviews. Especially memorable were a sardonic and likeable defender J.P. Goldsmith and Harvard's second-string quarterback hero Frank Champi. There was one Yale defensive star who kept referring now to his clear intent then to take various Harvard players out of the game by actively striving to injure them, as "it was too dangerous to let him play any more." This guy was an exact double of the bad guy in the W.A.S.P.-y house in Animal House who terrorizes freshmen while riding a horse.

The heart of the story is that after trailing the whole game, Harvard, down 29-13, late into the 4th quarter, pulls off a series of amazing plays of all kinds, receives a few favorable calls by the officials, and recovers an onside kick to score 16 points in less than two minutes and tie the game. I've never seen it happen in real life before or since. Oh sure, come-from-behind finishes, yes, there were three of them at Cornell when I was a freshman, but not the whole panoply of circumstances that prevailed at this game.

As it happened, I saw the crucial last two or three minutes of the game from the sidelines--since the action was at the other end of the field, I saw little. We had been happy to get our lousy seats--in the first row of temporary stands in the end zone at the open end of the stadium. I figured Harvard was going to go down, so I set out to catch up with my cousin Eric Hertz in the Yale Band and figured I better start practicing eating crow.

It did make me realize that the big difference is that today, Ivy League football really is a joke. Back then, it had more of an amateur flavor but yet produced a few NFL prospects every year. The other joke of course is that Harvard and Yale, along with the other Ivies, recruit like crazy for players they think they can get--as for academic qualifications, some of the players in the movie conceded that getting through either school was not easy for them. Yale had a coach the players revered; Harvard's coach was seen as irrelevant by the players.