Tuesday, November 30, 2010


It was a wonderful edition of the great American holiday. And we have all been gathering for this for what has now been several years, first at Betsy's cabin in the Poconos and now Ann's Apricot in Farmington, Connecticut. Not to forget how far back some of us recall: memories conjured up by Vikki's bringing the little baskets of nuts we enjoyed at the Red Barn in Westport.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Break of Noon

Here's an instance where I feel the critics had it all wrong. I've found Neil LaBute to be one of the most provoking contemporary playwrights--yes, I know, that may constitute faint praise. His new play, The Break of Noon, opened earlier this week and we saw it last night Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel (nee the Theatre de Lys) on Christopher St., West Village. The Times lead critic liked the beginning and most of the cast but found the whole enterprise disappointing. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal more or less trashed the whole thing.

The well-known David Duchovny is the lead, a man who somehow has survived the worst office massacre (37 dead) and now has intimations of being a spiritual guru to the world. Supported by the marvelous Amanda Peet, as well as Tracy Chimo and John Earl Jelks, Duchovny is on stage throughout the play--a series of blackout scenes--and manages, in my view, to stay atop the flow of great LaBute dialogue.

Last year we saw LaBute's excellent reasons to be pretty on Broadway at the Lyceum. That was also excellent and had its run shortened -- in my view -- only because it was nominated but captured no Tony awards and had no known names in its four roles. It recently was produced by one of the Washington theatre companies, Signature, I think.

LaBute has been accused of misogynist attitudes--I haven't yet seen his best-known work, the movie In the Company of Men--but I find he's far better generally at portraying women than a more successful playwright to whom he is often compared and whom I usually find compelling: David Mamet. His dialogue is crisp and often funny, helping him to push past the exteriors into these characters.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Greatest Rivalry

It's nice that the first football game in the new Yankee Stadium will be a revival of Army v. Notre Dame. This was once the greatest rivalry in college football--any football. And the fact that it was mostly played at the Stadium was one factor in making it such a great contest. Actually, ND won most of the games. But the competition started off with a bang in 1913 on the Plains at West Point where the most celebrated early forward pass was thrown and caught by ND--caught by Knute Rockne, later ND's coach and probably the most famous coach in football history.

The game moved to Ebbets Field and then the Polo Grounds and then in 1925 to the Stadium where it remained for almost every year in the next two decades. It's hard to believe that after World War II, when the 1945 and 1946 games decided the national championship, the two schools discontinued the series because it had become too big. Can you imagine any so-called academic institution doing that today?

There were a few renewals but Army more or less has fallen down to where it even schedules Ivy League teams. Navy maintained the rivalry with ND over more than 30 years when the Middies failed to win, but now they have a two-year streak going. That's because the Irish aren't what they were either. The Subway Alumni--a term coined for the mobs supporting ND who stormed the Stadium for the Army game every year--will still turn out but the only hands-up scoring signals have often come only from Touchdown Jesus out there in South Bend.

Everything you ever heard of in college football happened in this series and usually at the Stadium. Davis and Blanchard--Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside--versus Johnny Lujack in '46. The Four Horsemen in '24. Rockne's speech--whether pre-game or, as tradition holds, at half-time, in '28 where he exhorted his eleven to win one for the Gipper. And it all began with that forward pass--long heralded as the first but now just the most famous early one--from Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne in '13 as they led an unknown ND club to their unexpected triumph at West Point.

It won't be for anything resembling a national championship and it won't even be close to that level of play at the Stadium Saturday but perhaps there will be a future for these two ancient rivals to renew the competition more regularly. People will still come out because of their names. And the game that was eliminated because of becoming too big a deal may eventually come to stand for the maintenance of a tradition, whatever the significance of the game. Get out your raccoon coat and flask.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bought and Owned

"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity," proclaimed William Butler Yeats in another time, but doesn't his line perfectly reflect our current situation? I suppose that even the politicians I respect seem so supine is that almost all of them are bought and paid for by their contributors in one form or another. And the big contributors are the corporate ones, especially now that they need not identify themselves. You might thus wonder why you heard very little criticism of Wall Street from the supposedly progressive Democrats.

If it's true that FDR saved capitalism from its own excesses, then this time unregulated capitalism has managed to win without even having a fight. How quickly the disasters brought on by deregulation are forgotten--Katrina, the West Virginia mine disaster. Obama and Bush II both worked on TARP to save Wall Street from itself and both took nothing but abuse for it. And at least for a while, Obama saved GM and you'd think he might merit some praise for it.

But America is also the land of P.T. Barnum. If you don't sell yourself and have others sell for you, you will wither on the vine. The Democrats failed to take on the right-wing media to run on their record. Obama tried to compromise when no one on the other side was interested in making a deal. It seems that you have to be in California or New York for people to realize what is at stake.

The deficit commission is a perfect example. Sure in the long run, Mr Micawber was right about balancing your accounts. But in the midst of an economic downturn? Even Bush II said the other day that he'd choose to be Roosevelt rather than Hoover. Hoover balanced the budget; where did it get anyone? Trim Social Security and the few remaining benefits when the wealthy get huge tax breaks that have made this country the most unequal it has ever been?

The most outspoken voice for reason is a Nobel Prize-winner, professor, and columnist, Paul Krugman. The media are really at fault, of course, but I blame the Democrats for being the party of fear. Conservatism has already served the majority of our population poorly. Are you in favor of foreclosures en masse because greedy banks gave credit to unworthy buyers? The guy who pushed that garbage was a trader on the Chicago exchange--just another Wall Street type.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Klimt and Jack Levine

It was sad to see that Jack Levine, possibly the last of the great social realism painters of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, died, but also satisfying to note that he had managed to live to be 95. The obit writers stressed that he was against abstract art but I think they all seem to miss the way some of those arbitrary distinctions have been fading over time. Levine's works were wonderful in the way they expressed the sometimes savage critique of American society he offered but in no way did his depictions fall into the kind of realism practiced by such as Andrew Wyeth (whose work I have always enjoyed for entirely different reasons but who shared the spark of personality that Levine possessed, despite their distance from one another on the political spectrum).

Levine exaggerated features in the same way as did the most cynical of the great caricaturists--George Grosz and Otto Dix of the Berlin in the 1920s, with a similar world outlook. None of his pictures was realistic in the sense of just sticking to the exact representation--I recall a wonderful rendition he did of the original Budapest String Quartet that would turn up on concert programs and album covers for ages. I framed a copy of it--actually, a program cover--because it seemed to capture the exhilarating style of that stellar group of musicians. It may have been the closest he ever came to being non-political.

The obits recalled the controversy about his paintings being exhibited by U.S. authorities on traveling shows, in one instance in Moscow, I believe. They probably figured he'd be too popular in the old USSR. It was interesting that Eisenhower expressed the view that he didn't especially like Levine's stuff, but he did not in any way signal to anyone to remove them from the show. Today, our media-frightened regime might yank something like a Levine painting before anyone could raise their voice in protest.

The social conscience of the Vienna Secessionists was less obviously portrayed. The show of their work, which spotlighted the greatest of the group, Gustav Klimt, was a high point of my recent long weekend in Budapest courtesy of Eileen, who was conducting a training program in Hungary. Klimt could also be critical of things as they were but in a far more subtle manner. He also prefigured the Wiener Werkstatte, in that he clearly found use of design concepts helpful in his art.

It makes me wonder why we still seem fascinated by Klimt. He did things differently, for one thing. The use of the gold-leaf and the very graphic nudes, to be sure, aroused interest and attention but there's a marvelous artistic sense beneath all that display. His women are no languishing romantic types, even when portrayed in the nude, but are always formidable individuals. His scenes extend the natural beauty of scenes such as gardens and poplar forests. It must be that sometimes undefinable extra element that makes him still so compelling to us a century later.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day Blues

I know, we haven't even lost yet and I'm already in a bad mood. The polls and the media's insistence on making them sound definitive--the Dems should give up already is the clear message. The worst part of this is that too many have already given up. Why can't our beloved President talk plainly to people about the economy? Is it too much for him to agree with Clinton, Carville and Begala about the supreme importance of the economy--that which affects everyone?

Also: I concede that Harry Reid is both occupied out in Nevada and not exactly God's gift to public speaking but where is Nancy Pelosi? Why isn't she travelling about instead of seemingly accepting the negative image the GOP has worked very hard to pin on her? And all the other Dems--especially those who are lucky enough not to be running this year. What a sorry bunch.

Bill Clinton, God save him, is the only stalwart out there day after day doing his damnedest to save the Democratic Party. We need some people who are proud to be Democrats, proud to be looking out for working people, happy to take on Wall St., the corporations, Roberts, Scalia and Alito. We don't need Bob Rubin, Larry Summers and their ilk who helped get us into this mess.

People have a right to be angry when the Dems act just like Republicans--even worse, when they take the lead in bailing out Wall St. I remember one disgusting New York lawyer with whom I had to sit at dinner who was proclaiming in '04 how much experience in foreign policy the GOP had in comparison. So where did all that experience get us?

We have had a succession of disasters that have befallen would-be real leaders of the Dems. Clinton was all right because he knew how to win and survive. But at heart he is at best a centrist or center-rightist. He would not take on Wall St. as it helped push us into the morass. When Robert Kennedy perhaps jumped aboard the antiwar wagon late, he gave us the glimpse of what could have been. John Edwards had a bit of that--too bad he was worse than Clinton in not being able to keep his zipper zipped.

Obama had promise but it appears both he and his advisers lack real belief in our cause. Having been skeptical of Hillary Clinton for years--since I saw her in action at an American Bar Association convention years ago--I realized during her ill-fated campaign that she really had the guts to fight hard and stick it out. She too made cause with the warmakers in Iraq but I think she might have turned out to be an RFK in recognizing how we need to cut our losses in Afghanistan, where we cannot produce anything approximating victory.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Torch Has Been Passed

Last month I was invited to join a good friend at a panel presentation put on by the Smithsonian that featured the speechwriters for half a dozen Presidents. The most renowned of all of them was Ted Sorensen, who died yesterday. He didn't seem in great shape and had to be helped onto the stage but his mind was clear and he told some wonderful stories. It helped that he was joined by a great group of former Presidential speechwriters, beginning with Chris Matthews, who wrote for Jimmy Carter before he became an MSNBC regular. The others were Michael Waldman, Clinton; Michael Gerson, Bush II; and Landon Parvin, Reagan, who amazingly is a regular for GOP Presidents and others when it comes to injecting some humor. He came up with that Second-hand Rose takeoff for Nancy Reagan.

In good Washington style, the first angry questioner asked why there were no women on the panel. The unanimous response was that Peggy Noonan had been invited but was unable to attend and that she was the best Presidential speechwriter except for Sorensen (who stayed out of this one). Sorensen recalled some of his experiences with JFK, including a speech the latter delivered at Rice in Houston. Kennedy was justifying the space program (at a place fairly receptive to it) and observed that we needed to keep trying even if the odds were against any partiuclar project succeeding--he added in the margin to Sorensen's draft: "Why does Rice keep playing Texas?"

Some of the speechwriters had had experiences similar to Sorensen's but few had worked with their principal for as long as Sorensen had. Parvin told some funny stories about getting to know Bush 2d in Texas and then related his own excruciating experience visiting George and Laura while they were in one of the Lafayette Square guest houses that former and future Presidents enjoy using (Bush Senior and Barbara were using the first floor). Parvin goes upstairs to try to teach his candidate how to project while delivering a speech and to get some distance from him, is urged by Bush to go into the bedroom. First he pauses when he sees that Laura Bush is still in bed and then when Bush is shouting at him to sit down next to the bed, he sees that she's left a pair of black panties on the chair. Somehow she realizes the situation and deftly snatches the panties away as he moves to sit in the chair. Sorensen deftly suggested that he would resist continuing the panel discussion at this level. But the humor element was welcome.

Matthews described how difficult Carter was to work with, especially on speeches. He had been used to writing his own, but as Matthews emphasized, Carter was no Lincoln in this respect. The chief writer was Rick Hertzberg, who now pens the opening comment editorial for The New Yorker, maintaining with some success the tradition established by E.B. White. One might think that writers as politically attuned as Hertzberg and Matthews might be able to satisfy most clients but Carter remained immune to their talents. He apparently liked writing his own stuff...and it showed. Matthews grinned as he noted that there was one reference to the duo in Carter's recently-published diary. Carter said that they had sent him a draft of the state of the union address and he didn't like it.