Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Journalist's Death

People younger than I am and whom I knew in school are starting to check out. One of them died last weekend—at a hospital near Washington where, coincidentally, my daughter worked for two years. He was a journalist named Bart Reppert and he had been one since I first met him.

He was three years behind me at Cornell and wound up as a successor in my job as managing editor of The Cornell Daily Sun, which tends to be a high point in the lives of most of those who have been lucky enough to fill that post as undergraduates. Unlike me, he stayed a journalist, working for many years for the Associated Press, the AP, which is real, fact-driven journalism, wire service style.

The oft-told tale of how newspapers break your heart—and these days they break your bank account too, since they quickly disappear or their staffs disappear—probably applies to Bart. He was made for the wire service, a demanding trade that prefigured the 24-7 world journalism now inhabits, because that’s what working for the AP was even then.

Bart has been depicted as a conservative type as an undergrad—which in the late 60s meant you wore a tie. I suspect some of his conservatism was merely reactive against the tenor of his times, which were radical, especially on college campuses. Today, had he been a college editor, he might have drifted leftward in reaction to the successful revival of conservatism in politics. But mostly he was of the inclination that most of those of us who were managing editors were: stick-to-the-facts types, trying our best to be objective in an opinionated world.

Bart was better than most at that. He was always fascinated by science and made it his beat at the AP and thereafter. I’m sure he had his opinions as much as anyone else, but he did a better job than many at keeping them out of his product. If he went after the Russians for bugging U.S. operations when he was an AP correspondent in Moscow in the bad old Cold War days, that’s because he had investigated and found out just what they were doing. He probably didn’t like them politically either but that would not have gotten in the way of or advanced the story.

Can journalists really be objective? I was sympathetic to antiwar forces when in college but ended up being depicted as the candidate of the right when I was running for a top job on the newspaper because I was first and foremost firm in my aim to provide an objective report in the paper. To this day, I want to hear both sides and my back goes up when I hear someone say you only need to hear one.

Bart ended up having a hard time after he left the AP, which treated him as badly as it treated just about everyone else who ever worked there. He never quite found another niche and learned that working on your own putting out newsletters is a tough line of work. Like most journalists, he was not a salesman; he thought people naturally wanted the straight undiluted stuff and assumed that was worth something.

His marriage broke up; his mental health declined. People ended up ducking his calls because he was eventually looking for cash. I’m sure his siblings may tell a different side to the story (how ironic in Bart’s case!) but from the way he described his relations with them, it sounded like they made his last years harder than they should have been. In his case, there was no home as in the place where you go that they have to take you in.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union

I knew that when the President did an effective job of laying out a principled path for the country in his State of the Union speech last night that someone would start muttering about his not being specific enough. I also hope that his presentation might continue to bolster his poll numbers since that's what seems to impress most politicians these days.

So far, of course, I've seen nothing to make me think that the Republicans have any real interest in working together on anything except accepting a cave-in to their ridiculous positions. They just seem to want markers, e.g., pass a repeal health care bill in the House. Sure, Pelosi led the effort to pass things in the House without them because they had no interest in working with any of the Democrats then...or now, or so it seems.

I was pleased that the President reiterated the idiocy of tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. People who want that can seriously talk about the deficit? I also have had it with this "big lie" talk by the likes of Ryan and Bachman about "the failed stimulus"--I would suggest that the stimulus, which per Paul Krugman, wasn't large enough, likely kept us from sinking deeper into recession. Until we make it worth their while for corporations to focus on doing things in the U.S., by taxing their overseas profits, you can wait for more jobs here until the warming oceans freeze over. Where do all the "jobs, jobs, jobs" people think jobs will come from? By trickle-down from rich people who got tax breaks?

The current Economist had an obit for an actual economist, and one whom I had been lucky enough to meet years ago at Cornell, the ever-entrancing Fred Kahn. I think of him when I realize that people oftimes must go against some principles to get things done: he opted for the market on airline dereg and admitted that it had mixed results. Prices fell and have stayed down but service has fallen off too.

I think he might have pointed out that when we speak of state and local governments being pressed and needing to slice expenditures, including contracted-for pensions (notice how the right of contract only exists to protect Wall Street bonuses?), no one seems to recall that this all resulted from people falling for right-wing tax propositions that protected the rich from being taxed at the rates they deserve to be taxed with and that we did up through the Eisenhower years. Cut pensions and services or raise taxes on the people making $1,000,000 or more--tell me that's not an easy choice.

Kahn had credibility because he could tell the pols that they didn't know what they were talking about and go back to academe, which he did. I remember meeting him when he was running a major faculty committee and invited me to attend one of its sessions where the panel was hearing from academics and students about the quality of undergraduate instruction. He sat at the head of the table and fired fusillades of questions at various opinionated people who came in only to make speeches. He demanded facts, backup information, and probed everything without allowing the witnesses to obfuscate and avoid any questions. It might have been out of the Gilbert & Sullivan works of which he was a savant and it was a total delight. I guess his really great skill was in doing all that and coming off as such a nice guy. He was totally amazing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tough All Over

There's an illuminating story told about possibly the last great figure of the British Labour Party's left, Aneurin "Nye" Bevan, who served as Minister of Health in the postwar Labour government that started the National Health Service, which we should only be so lucky as to have here, even with the diminishments in its effectiveness put upon it both by Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair's regimes.

Bevan was a fiery orator for the working class but he observed how he and his fellow Labourites were "hard on the outside but soft on the inside." The Tories (the British Conservative Party, as it has always been known), on the other hand, were friendly and accommodating, i.e., soft "on the outside," but hard on the inside, in terms of sticking to their positions.

Sometimes I think that the Democrats are hard neither on the outside nor the inside. Last year, they were afraid to run on what was an excellent record of legislative accomplishment and overall excellence in undoing some of the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney era. Will they stand up and fight when the Republicans get going on their backward campaign to repeal health care? Or will they offer to compromise--in the same way that catering to such as "Insurance Joe" Lieberman compromised away much of the best parts--the public option, for example--of the health care legislation? They didn't win any Republican votes and they were held up by the Liebermans, Ben Nelsons, and "Loser" Blanche Lincolns of their own party.

The media, of course, actually bends over backwards to give the Republicans more than a fair hearing--and Fox of course gives them everything. Watch the pundits tell the Democrats that they have to compromise--why should they? Stand up for what you believe in--if you believe in anything except sucking up to Wall Street to raise campaign funds. No one ever made the Republicans explain why such obvious "trickle-down" ploys as tax cuts for millionaires made sense--in case anyone wonders, count up how much the millionaires have done to jump-start our economy with their extra income.

I hope the Democrats are willing to go to the mat this time and make it a battle of principle. The President has recovered by taking the high ground in Arizona and I hope he's willing to show that he actually will stand up for something. That, of course, was the ultimate undoing of Bill Clinton--a great politician and speaker and leader, but at bottom, did he stand for anything?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Something for MLK Day

I like to think I'm reasonably well-acquainted with American history. Yet this weekend I've heard a few discussions, all on NPR, about a new book that presents us with the first known account of the largest slave uprising in this country, which was in New Orleans in 1811. The book is American Uprising, by Daniel Rasmussen.

Yes, there was a slave revolt, involving more than 500 black men, led by a man who had been a slave driver, or overseer, and yes, it was suppressed, but we've never even heard about it because of the long tradition of Southern sympathizers successfully shaping history to reflect their prejudices.

Rasmussen is also not a member of any historical fraternity. He graduated from Harvard in 2009 and this book is an expansion of his honors thesis. To me, the major fact of this story is how the history of the revolt was suppressed for two centuries and how it reflects our national willingness to accept the Gone With the Wind approach to the antebellum period: happy slaves toiling in the fields until agitators fired them up, aided by turncoats such as the white overseer so beautifully and villainously played by the fabulous Victor Jory.

Slavery was no nicer than the Holocaust. The leaders of the revolt were brutally murdered and their severed heads held up on pikes as examples, similar to what the English did in the medieval days on London Bridge.

This shows of course that the historical profession still has a lot to undo from the days around 1900 when William A. Dunning of Columbia cooperated in depicting Reconstruction as an evil time foisted on the South. Dunning and his ilk--he sent graduate students all over the South to write separate histories of Reconstruction from his Southern-oriented point of view--bought the Confederate side hook, line, and sinker. From the South itself, you had people like Ulrich B. Phillips, who presented the Southern cause as a great states' right fight and inspired use of the "War Between the States" moniker rather than the rebellion that it was.

My friend Noah Griffin reminded me that the oft-deified Ronald Reagan, who opposed MLK Day, launched his campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Miss., ignoring the one thing that town was known for, infamously--the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers. I did my part in trying to keep that fact alive back when I was at Cornell and there was a memorial service for Mickey Schwerner, one of the three, and a Cornell grad. Someone was good enough to reprint my Sun column in that year's school yearbook.

So then we have the Trent Lott celebration of the Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat run for President in 1948 and Haley Barbour's recent recollection of how things were so comparatively peaceful when he grew up in Yazoo City, Miss.

We have to speak up every time someone tries to revise history this way. You can see how we have a long sordid line of people still now trying to change facts. It's the old "the names have been changed--to protect the guilty" variation on the old Dragnet intro.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Original Teddy

Just started reading the second volume of Edmund Morris’s wonderfully-written, three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt—this one covers the presidential years (1901-09) and is entitled Theodore Rex. The third volume, Colonel Roosevelt, was just published in hard-cover, and deals with the last decade of TR’s life, when he emerged from the White House and despite much activity, found he had no constructive role to play.

But starting with the train trip to Buffalo following McKinley’s assassination there and his subsequent return to Washington by train (on a route that no longer provides passenger service), this volume grabs you right from the start with the sheer energy of the man in his prime. He was and remains the youngest President to take office—at 42. He had already conquered a sickly childhood, aided by spending time in what was then the Wild West of Wyoming, served in a multitude of posts from Police Commissioner of New York City to Governor of New York to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and then of course won fame by leading the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

On the long journey from climbing down Mt. Marcy, New York’s highest peak in the Adirondacks, to Buffalo, and then to Washington, Roosevelt has a chance in between meeting with Cabinet members, politicians, and newspapermen to consider where he would seek to lead the nation. He makes you realize the right meaning of conservative: someone who believes in conservation of the best.

He sees the stumps of trees in central Pennsylvania left by clear-cutting by one or another of the “combinations” or “trusts” that controlled the American economy and, as in our time, represented pure, uncontrolled greed. Rockefeller, who controlled the entire oil business, was shameless in decrying competition as inefficient. J.P. Morgan, who controlled even more, knew enough to say little—perhaps TR was inspired by his example when he uttered, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Roosevelt had grown from being violently anti-labor at the time of the Haymarket Square riot to realizing that something needed to be done for the workingman who had received no benefit from America’s new-found wealth. Eventually he would take on the trusts and the combinations, upon which the Sherman Act had had negligible impact since its enactment in 1890.

Was Roosevelt perfect? Of course not. At the start of this volume, it’s clear that he had little interest in women’s suffrage—still almost two decades in the future. Nor did he have much liking for immigrants or people of color. He was in that sense a man of his times. But he realized that complete economic inequality—toward which we have been moving for the past two decades—would not serve America well.

So he managed to use the Republican party to launch the Progressive Movement at the presidential level. And much good resulted from the Square Deal and his other initiatives, especially with regard to conservation—now our environmental movement. He rose to the challenge as did his distant cousin, FDR, thirty-some years later. Having spent himself--and suffering from the loss of one of his sons in World War I--he was dead at 60. We could benefit mightily from his like today.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

It's a Whole New Year

Random notes on various subjects in honor of the new year:


Conventional wisdom, which had more or less consigned Obama to the political graveyard after Election Day 2010, now has lifted him from the grave, so far without noting any vampire characteristics. He's now seen here as having benefitted mightily from the lame-duck session and is ostensibly gearing up to deal effectively with the next Congress.

I agree that he improved his standing generally and probably across the country. I also hope he has learned that he got things done because the Republicans were finally afraid of being caught on the wrong side of the blame game. It may prove fortunate for Obama that the GOP leadership will have to spend time managing its more disparate troops. One almost despairs of Obama or anyone else being able to rally the Democrats who still fail to realize they would have fared a lot better had they run on their and Obama's excellent record. It was their fault that they let the other side depict the image of the health-care and financial-reform legislation and that they didn't remind some rust-belt voters of the fact that Obama bailed out the auto industry--successfully--when the other side would have let it expire.

I can only hope he can have some fun when they start their deficit talk again--by pointing out that the tax cuts for the billionaires (or even millionaires) were clearly far more important to the GOP than any worry about running the deficit. Recall when Gingrich made them shut down the government and put Boehner right on the spot when it comes time to lift the debt limit.


In a few days in New York I could only get to see two shows. One was a Daniel Margolies play, Time Stands Still, which featured the likes of Laura Linney, Eric Bogosian and Christina Ricci. It was good drama--presented nice strong issues with good dialogue. Margolies writes well; I recall seeing his Dinner With Friends some years ago. Also caught Million Dollar Quartet--the show with music (rather than a musical) about the day in the 1950s when Cash, Perkins, Presley and the young Jerry Lee Lewis all were at Sun Records in Memphis together. Levi Kraus played Jerry Lee, won a deserved Tony for his frenetic and superb portrayal of the wild man. Show as a whole was not at the level of Jersey Boys--which had really surprised me with its strength both musically and dramatically.

Best book of the season re shows is Larry Stempel's Showtime, which combines well-written theatre history with some musical analysis. I find it the kind of enjoyable tome that you pick up and read a chapter, whether it be on Broadway's varied moves to cross the operatic curtain, or the fascinating story of Bert Williams, the great vaudevillian, or how Cole Porter and Irving Berlin adapted to the postwar change in how musicals now advanced their stories musically, courtesy of Oscar Hammerstein II, despite his ham-handed story-telling tendencies.

Another enjoyable book was David Lehman's A Fine Romance, which rather ingeniously told the stories of a number of the fabled songwriter composers and lyricists. I didn't know all that much about the lives of either Jerome Kern or Harold Arlen, so I learned plenty about these amazingly skillful tunesmiths. Lehman makes a big deal about their Jewish backgrounds--all but Cole Porter, of course, who defied all the typing by being WASP, Midwestern, rich, and Yale-educated.

Yet another book about Jews and music is Norman Lebrecht's The Song of Names--both his and Lehman's books have been around for a couple of years. Lebrecht has been a columnist and music critic for various London papers and engaged in plenty of controversy, especially in the musical realm. This novel is nicely done in both its musical aspect and its presentation of two English Jewish boys of vastly different backgrounds within that sphere.


If you haven't had the chance to take in The King's Speech yet, do so. It's a tour de force for Geoffrey Rush, playing the Australian speech consultant to the then-Duke of York, soon to be (in the picture) King George VI. Colin Firth is outstanding in the leading role, closely followed by the always-wonderful Helena Bonham Carter as the young Duchess of York who became the long-lived and prescient Queen Mum. Strong casting down the line is evidenced by Michael Gambon as George V and Claire Bloom as the hatless Queen Mary. Probably the most surprising appearances were the now aged Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the no-longer blond Anthony Andrews (Sebastion in Brideshead Revisited) as Tory P.M. Stanley Baldwin. Guy Pearce perfectly captures how Edward VIII was ensnared by Mrs. Simpson.


The current major show at the Museum of Modern Art draws on its most known strength--Abstract Expressionism-New York says it all. These painters have never been my favorites even at MoMA but you do get a chance to see how the likes of Pollock, De Kooning, Guston,
and Rothko, among others, developed. The show in this way reminded me of the major Jackson Pollock show of a few years back. To me, however, Arshile Gorky's Summations was the most fascinating piece in the show--and he was included largely as an influence on the main current of New York art from the 40s through the 60s.


You usually do not think of New York City as a place that features home-calling sports officials, but Kansas State got jobbed at Yankee Stadium's Pinstripe Bowl last week. Calling them for excessive celebration after a last-seconds TD, so that they failed to make the 2-pointer from 17 yards out has to be the height of homer behavior.

In contrast, TCU lifted many spirits--although it was only one of five other teams that defeated the Big Ten on New Year's Day (or a day or two previous). The Horned Frogs were the reps of all the small schools who had been virtually excluded from Bowl consideration but ended up ranked third and thus playing against Wisconsin for the roses in Pasadena. It's too bad that even if Auburn and Oregon look awful in their big name Jan 10, TCU would be unlikely to get the deserved Number One rating.

Winning the battle for the behavioral basement, however, was Maryland, for the ugly and idiotic way the new A.D. bounced Ralph Fridgeon, who took the Terrapin to seven bowls in 10 years and also turned the team around after a disastrous year in 2009. They say it was a rich alum from Texas who wanted to clear the way for the A&M coach, but "Fridge" was the only one to emerge with any class. A long-ago parallel was the way Penn dispatched Steve Sebo as its grid coach (early 60s?) after losing the first two games--he then went on to lead the team to win all the rest of the schedule and the Ivy crown, before departing--later he was A.D. at the University of Virginia.