North Korea “considers” strike on Guam.
Deadly earthquake in southwest China.
Report: Trump has sent “greetings” to Robert Mueller.
Australia debates voting on gay marriage by mail.
R.I.P. Glen Campbell, 81.
Rest in peace, Barbara Cook.
Mueller convenes a grand jury in Russia probe.
Trump pressed Mexican president to stop talking about the wall.
Majority of new Harvard class is “not white.”
EPA chief backtracks on Obama-era emissions rules.
R.I.P. Robert Hardy, 91, actor in “All Creatures Great and Small” and the Harry Potter films.
Otto Warmbier, sent home by North Korea after lapsing into a coma, dies.
Police identify London mosque attacker.
Russia not happy that U.S. downed Syrian jet.
Largest ever breach of U.S. voter data reported.
Supreme Court to rule on Wisconsin gerrymandering.
Innocent Bystanders — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.
You knew it was coming.
You felt it with a sickening certainty the instant news of a mass shooting flashed out from Alexandria, Virginia. So it was disheartening, but hardly surprising, to hear certain conservatives reflexively blame Democrats and their so-called “hate speech” for the carnage.
It happened Wednesday morning. The quiet camaraderie of Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game against their Democratic colleagues was shattered by rifle shots from one James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. Police officers providing security returned fire.
When the shooting was done, five people were wounded, including two officers and Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, whose injuries were critical. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old left winger and former supporter of Bernie Sanders who was apparently motivated by hatred for Donald Trump and the GOP, was mortally wounded.
There was still blood on the ground when conservatives began laying the shooting at liberals’ feet. Republican Rep. Chris Collins blamed “outrageous” Democratic rhetoric. (He later expressed regret for that comment.) The InfoWars website cited a “hysterical anti-Trump narrative.” Radio host Michael Savage spoke of a “constant drumbeat of hatred.”
It was predictable because it’s what we always do. Jerry Falwell blamed the ACLU for 9/11. Jane Fonda blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
At some point, you’d think we’d learn that rhetoric — excluding that which explicitly or implicitly calls for violence — does not “cause” people to shoot, stab, or bomb. By that logic, you’d have to blame Fox “News” and other organs of the right for the Planned Parenthood shooting and the Atlanta Olympics bombing.
It makes about as much sense. You know who’s to blame for this shooting? James Hodgkinson is.
Frankly, this sudden concern for the tenor of political discourse feels precious, even sanctimonious, given conservatives’ history of invective and lies. Where was all this fretting last year when Donald Trump said “Second Amendment people” might stop Hillary Clinton? Where was it week before last, when Eric Trump said Democrats are “not even people” to him?
The bottom line is that a president of unprecedented incompetence is being enabled by a Congress of criminal complicity in an agenda of frightful destructiveness. To see that and not say it loudly and emphatically would be an act of journalistic, political or civic malpractice. It would be un-American.
Not that liberals have any reason to feel smug about this. Taken in conjunction with a recent string of attacks on police officers, Wednesday’s shooting suggests something as startling as it is troubling. Namely, that left-wing terrorism might be making a comeback.
It has been 40 years since the likes of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen disappeared from view, and in those years domestic terrorism has been exclusively a phenomenon of the political right. That may be changing now. It’s a deeply disturbing idea, suggesting as it does a nation ever faster pulling itself apart, a people riven by irreconcilable differences, a country that isn’t even sure it wants to be a country anymore.
These tired games of political one-upsmanship are too small for such a moment. This moment is for soul-searching, for considering who and what and even if we are, as Americans. It is for wondering what it means when baseball is not safe and being a Republican gets you shot. Nothing less than our national identity and ideals are at stake here.
A maniac shot up a ball field Wednesday morning. Five people were hit.
Three hundred and twenty-five million were wounded.
Propaganda Pros — Terry Heaton in Huffington Post on how the Religious Right pioneered right-wing propaganda.
So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.
Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.
Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.
William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.
That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy.
At The 700 Club, we exploited attacking the press in order to insert ourselves to the right of everybody else in presenting a Biblical, a.k.a. Republican perspective on current events. We offered a daily news program that expressed Republican party talking points that we marketed as a Christian worldview. Thus began the shifting of evangelicals to the GOP and the shifting of the GOP to the right. We served as the intellectual wing of the Moral Majority, although there was no theological love lost between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
So let’s look at these events closely, because it has a direct bearing on the conflict today. Let me be very clear: the right-wing “news” that we created was a political response to the progressive nature of news and information. It’s important to understand this, because “right-wing news” is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, because the right represents olds, not news. By definition, news is new, and new is progressive. That conservatives view this as a bias is fine, but elevating that to some evil command-and-control mechanism for political liberals is a false narrative. Rush Limbaugh has made a living off of this phony hegemony, as well as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and whole host of mostly broadcasting personalities. Why? Because it sells and has been selling for almost 50 years.
But it’s entirely false, for the press is not the purveyor of fake news. That title belongs with those who create stories for political gain and clickthroughs. It may be politically expedient to label the mainstream as fake, but in order to do so, one’s source must be propaganda and nothing else. To us in the early ‘80s, it was easy to stake our claim in the world of journalism without complaint, because the press thought us outside Hallin’s Sphere of Legitimate Controversy and therefore unnecessary to cover. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, Daniel C. Hallin identified three spheres of coverage by the Washington press corps.
Ron Powers once said of us on CBS Sunday Morning that we were “so slanted as to be vertical,” but for the most part, we operated without notice, which gave us the time to write our playbook, the one borrowed in order to create Fox News.
The editorial commentators of media companies determine their political leanings, not the content of the news itself. To behave otherwise is a violation of journalistic ethics and tenets, and no self-respecting news outlet would deliberately compromise its relationship with viewers or readers for political gain. It’s just not their cultural role. Only political propagandists are permitted such luxury, and where that is disguised as news, it cannot be trusted. And yet many people do, because their ears have been trained by people such as myself to identify clever social engineering as information they need in order to get back what they feel has been taken from them or get what feel they deserve from life.
We need to grow out of childish ranting that “Billy started it” or “everybody is doing it too” and let our inner adults take over. Democracy doesn’t stand a chance without an independent Fourth Estate.
Class Act — Ben Brantley in the New York Times with an appreciation of playwright A.R. Gurney.
There have been many tributes to A. R. Gurney, a prolific playwright whose worldly elegance of style was matched by his ingenuous enthusiasm for his craft. But Mr. Gurney, who died on Tuesday at 86, wrote what was surely the most exultant of these eulogies himself, in a play performed in New York more than 10 years ago.
The play is appropriately named “Post Mortem.” Staged at the tiny Flea Theater in 2006, it is set in a very near future in which Mr. Gurney is now dead (assassinated — rumor has it — at the behest of Dick Cheney), and an ideologically oppressive, technology-dominated United States is hostile to the antiquated art form known as theater. (The American government, bankrupted by the war in Iraq, has turned all Broadway houses into casinos.)
But a graduate student and his professor at a “faith based” American university unearth a manuscript of an incendiary play that they are determined to bring to light. And though the all-seeing eyes of the surveillance state discover the work’s existence and have it destroyed, our determined academic heroes recreate it from memory.
And what a profoundly influential play it turns out to be, as its performances spark rebellion against reactionary governments throughout the world. Its title? Also “Post Mortem.” Its author? One A.R. Gurney, described dismissively as a “minor late-20th-, early-21st-century” writer of the “middle-class comedy of manners,” who it now emerges had not only secretly written an earthshaking drama but also had affairs with Cameron Diaz and both Audrey and Katharine Hepburn.
Mr. Gurney’s writing never brought him the fame and wealth of contemporaries like Edward Albee and Neil Simon. His only plays seen on Broadway in recent years were short-lived revivals of his charming “Sylvia” (1995), about a divisive family dog, and the lyrical two-hander “Love Letters” (1989), an epistolary work that charts the course of a relationship over many decades.
Yet Mr. Gurney adored the theater with a passion that spilled over the edges of even his most decorous comedies, and he feared for its survival. He was his generation’s greatest practitioner of that gentle paradox, the elegiac comedy, which considered the passing of the civilization he grew up in.
This sensibility is most pointed in the works that made his reputation, starting in the early 1980s with “The Dining Room.” The leading characters in these plays were members of an upper middle class of Anglo-Saxon descent and dwindling affluence and influence. Mr. Gurney regarded such folk, his spiritual and genetic kin, with a critical fondness that was too cleareyed to be nostalgic.
Some reviewers still felt that Mr. Gurney was terminally limited by the gentility that shaped his characters. But as he grew older, he increasingly chafed against such perceptions. He began to experiment with new subject matter — retelling the story of Shakespeare’s Shylock in “Overtime” (1996), probing the Middle East conflict in “O Jerusalem” (2003) and crossing the ocean to set his diffident alter ego to roam (and get lost) in Japan in his poignant, autobiographical “Far East” (1999).
Unlike many of his social stratum, Mr. Gurney’s political sympathies skewed left, and he was enraged by what he saw as the failings of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the experimental Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan, overseen by his friend Jim Simpson, Mr. Gurney found an unlikely forum for expressing his grievances.
Writing in his 70s and 80s, he produced for the Flea a series of vigorous and fanciful satires about the state of his nation, which were written and produced quickly enough to feel as topical as the headlines on the days of their performances. They included “Screen Play” (2005), a prescient variation on the film “Casablanca,” in which American freedom fighters are smuggled into Canada.
My enduring favorite, though, is the wonderful “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004), in which Sigourney Weaver played a socialite with a secret (it involved the sitting president) and John Lithgow her William F. Buckley-esque husband. Ms. Weaver’s character was ultimately too, well, well mannered to detonate the metaphorical bomb that might have brought down the Bush administration.
Mr. Gurney, though, had by that time shed many of his own inhibitions as a playwright. And he waged his own small but determined battle for the theater as a tool of resistance and enlightenment.
I can think of few artists who were reincarnated as angry young men in their old age as unexpectedly and vitally as Mr. Gurney was. And young is the right adjective. The last new work I saw by him, at the Flea last fall, was a double bill of short works that pondered the boundaries of classic theater (in the first) and gender (in the second) with an infectious excitement you associate with writers in their 20s.
Its title was “Two Class Acts,” referring to subversive intellectual exploration, theatrical performance and honorable behavior under siege. Those who would pigeonhole its creator should remember that all the meanings of “class act” apply to Mr. Gurney.
Doonesbury — Who’s minding the kids?
My uncle Stephen Williams — my father’s twin — passed away yesterday. He was an archaeologist by profession and passion. His idea of a fun afternoon was poking around a ruin on a New Mexico mesa, and his love of history and scholarship was infectious. He was my inspiration to become a scholar, and he bought me my cap, gown, and hood when I received my PhD in 1988. He introduced me to Tabasco sauce, Santa Fe, Pontiac station wagons (ours was green, his was red) and the intricate streets surrounding Harvard, where he was a professor for forty years.
In 1991 he published “Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory” in which he debunked some of the more outrageous pseudoarchaeological myths such as Atlantis, Mu, and visits by aliens leaving calling cards. He wistfully said that it would be great if the science was all Indiana Jones, but in reality it’s a lot of intricate exploration and piecing together the history of our civilization bit by bit.
He leaves his loving wife Eunice and sons John and Tim, two grandsons, and his brother who shared that bond that only twins can know of.
R.I.P. Gregg Allman.
F.B.I. confirms probe into Trump-Russia connection.
Neil Gorsuch goes before Senate committee.
U.S. to ban electronics on certain flights to and from the Middle East.
Stephen Hawking fears he may not be welcome in Trump’s America.
R.I.P David Rockefeller, 101, last grandchild of John D. Rockefeller.
Fighting erupts in Syrian capital.
GOP representative says “no evidence” of of Trump-Russia links.
Democratic representative says there’s “circumstantial evidence” of Trump-Russia links.
North Korea holds “high thrust” missile engine test.
Wildfire near Boulder, Colorado, forces thousands to evacuate.
R.I.P. Jimmy Breslin, 88, columnist and writer.
I met him once, in 1975. He was next-door neighbors to my aunt and uncle in Wayzata, Minnesota, and he was out jogging one day when we were out getting the mail. We chatted and it was only after he went on down the road that I found out who he was.
I went to several concerts when I lived in Minneapolis. I also auditioned as an announcer for a classical music station and part of it was to read a list of the names of composers and conductors. His name was on the list and I nailed it: “Skrow-va-chev-ski” (Didn’t get the job, however.) He was a wonderful conductor and a great gift to music and Minnesota. Peace.
Back to the Future — Adam Gopnick in The New Yorker on how Orwell’s “1984” applies today.
I have, I’m afraid, a terrible confession to make: I have never been a huge fan of George Orwell’s “1984.” It always seemed, in its extrapolations from present to future, too pat, a little lacking in the imaginative extrapolations we want from dystopian literature. As the British author Anthony Burgess pointed out a long time ago, Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on. That other ninth-grade classic, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where a permanent playground of sex and drugs persists in a fiercely inegalitarian society, seemed to me far more prescient, and so did any work of Philip K. Dick’s that extrapolated forward our bizarre American entertainment obsessions into an ever more brutal future in which Ken and Barbie might be worshipped as gods. “1984” seemed, in contrast, too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens.
An unbidden apology rises to the lips, as Orwell’s book duly climbs high in the Amazon rankings: it was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think. What it took, of course, to change this view was the Presidency of Donald Trump. Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.
There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior. He lies, he repeats the lie, and his listeners either cower in fear, stammer in disbelief, or try to see how they can turn the lie to their own benefit. Every continental wiseguy, from Žižek to Baudrillard, insisted that when they pulled the full totalitarian wool over our eyes next time, we wouldn’t even know it was happening. Not a bit of it. Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation. They are not postmodern traps and temptations; they are primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.
The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance. Trump is pure raging authoritarian id.
And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.
When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters—a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true—he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.
And so CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his credit, may announce boldly that the story is false from beginning to end—but then he is led by his own caution and sense of professionalism to ask Trump whether, if he sees it as true, there ought to be an investigation into it. Tapper, like everyone else, knows perfectly well that a minimally honest investigation would turn up no proof of this absurdity at all. But that, of course, is the trap, the game. Watch: there will be a “commission” consisting of experts borrowed from Breitbart; it will hold no hearings, or hold absurdly closed ones; or hold ones with testimony from frequent callers to “The Alex Jones Show”—and this clownish commission will then baldly conclude that there is, indeed, widespread evidence of voter fraud. And Trump will reassert the lie and point to his commission’s findings as his evidence.
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress, thoroughly intimidated, fear shining from one eye and cupidity from the other, will exploit the “question” of voter fraud to pursue policies of actually suppressing minority voters. Caligula, the mad Roman emperor, infamously appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, and that has been for millennia a byword for cracked authoritarian action. But we now know what would happen if Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate if the modern Republican Party happened to be in the majority there: first the Republicans would say that they didn’t want to get into disputes about the Emperor’s personnel choices, and then they’d quickly see how the presence of the horse could help justify dismantling regulations in the horse-chariot industry. (“Well, you know, he’s an unorthodox kind of Emperor, so I don’t want to get into that, Jake—but I will say that, whatever the Emperor’s beliefs, we have a very inclusive party, and, if we’re slackening regulations on the stables, I want to point out it’s with the full and welcome participation of a horse.”) The Emperor’s lunacy and the senators’ larceny match perfectly.
Starting this week, it’s vital that everyone who is trying to maintain sanity understand that this is so—that it is a myth that reason, as normally undertaken, is going to affect this process or that “consequences,” as they are normally understood, will, either. Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason. Conservative intellectuals, as a reading of the Times each day reveals, turn out to share these resentments far more deeply than they value the rational practices. Having experienced this condescension, or so they imagine, on the larger stage of universities and publishing houses, they may mistrust the demagogue, but they actively hate those who demonstrate against him. The demagogue they regard only with disdain; his critics are an ancient object of hatred and contempt. If forced to choose, they will always choose the demagogue before the demonstrators. If there’s one thing we really do know from social science, it’s that people are far more determined to see their ancient enemies made miserable than themselves made happier.
On the positive side, well, there were the women’s marches last weekend, which filled any sane heart with hope. What had seemed doubtful a short week before—that there could be unified, peaceful, indeed joyous mass action against the madness—was fully realized, and for what one hopes will be only the first of many times. It left our minds inspired with simple slogans that did not oversimplify: Community is the only cure for catastrophe. Action is the only antidote to anger. If these sound a bit like Winston’s private mutterings in “1984”—when he writes secretly, for instance, that sanity is not statistical—at least they are, for the moment, still fully public truths. Pray that they remain so.
Their Lying’ Eyes — Alan Levinovitz in Slate on why Trump supporters insist on believing the lies.
The most frightening part of the otherwise ridiculous story about Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd size is not whether he believes his lie that his crowd was the biggest ever. It’s that a portion of his supporters bought it—and seem to still support it even when directly presented with photographic evidence to the contrary.
Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks asked 1,388 Americans questions about inauguration crowd sizes after showing participants two pictures—one from Obama’s 2009 inauguration and one from Trump’s. They asked half of the participants which (unlabeled) photo was from which inauguration and found that 41 percent of Trump supporters picked wrong. That was not terribly surprising. But the question they asked the second half of participants revealed something scary: They asked these people to just assess which photo showed more people. A full 15 percent of Trump supporters said his inauguration displayed more people, despite looking at direct photographic evidence to the contrary. (Read the researchers’ full write-up in the Washington Post.)
In the analysis of the research, the authors suggest that Trump supporters don’t actually believe the photo of his inauguration shows more people. “If there were no political controversy,” they write, “any respondent would see more people” in the Obama inauguration picture. Instead, Trump supporters are engaging in “expressive signaling,” where people purposely give the wrong answer as an ideological gesture.
There’s actually good reason to think that at least some Trump supporters really do believe there are more people in Trump’s inauguration photo. In the landmark 1956 sociological study, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter join an apocalyptic UFO cult. When the prophesied time comes and goes, the cult members do not lose faith. Instead, they came up with an alternative explanation—God saved the world thanks to their work—and continued to preach their message with even greater vigor. The same thing happened in 2011 with doomsday prophet Harold Camping, whose followers eagerly awaited the end of the world on May 21, despite Camping’s repeated failures in the past.
Trump and his vision actually have a lot in common with UFO-enthusiast cults. They’re both charlatans, selling snake oil. His appeal lies in the salvific vision he has sold to his supporters, a compelling narrative of paradise past, the fallen present, and a glorious future. For his followers, it is essential to reinterpret apparent facts so they fit this narrative—otherwise they lose the hope it provides and the dignity they’ve invested in its truth.
I’ve made this argument before. And here’s one major problem with charlatans:
The process of embracing a charlatan’s empowering vision is not rational, which means that rational arguments are unlikely, in isolation, to dispel it. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people cling tenaciously to their worldviews, and conflicting data may actually strengthen their beliefs. (Just look at this family who thinks Trump is “a man of faith who will bring Godliness back.”) To renounce Trump would mean admitting that one’s worldview—of a country wracked by carnage, as the president put it in his inaugural address, and a truth-telling hero who can heal it—is fundamentally mistaken. And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea. It is much easier to forgive Trump for not locking her up than to wrestle with such truths.
It’s also much easier to convince yourself that a crowd is larger than it appears, particularly when the man you’ve put your faith in is arguing the same thing. And in the case of the photographs, it didn’t take much to come up with an explanation for the apparent discrepancy. Trump himself supplied it: Mainstream media manipulated both images to make it appear as if Obama’s had more. Trump even asked the National Park Service, which oversees the National Mall, for other aerial shots so that he could better assess the crowd sizes.
If Trump is really more like a false prophet than a political leader, we should expect his supporters to deny reality—not for the sake of expressive signaling, but because the coherence of their worldview depends on it. Once a false prophet has succeeded in gathering true believers, even doomsday can come and go without any repercussions, and the size of a crowd is whatever you want it to be. After all, that’s clearly how it works for Trump.
Throw Your Hat in the Air — Charlie Pierce pays tribute to Mary Tyler Moore.
No television show ever has meant as much to me as did The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I back up to nobody in my love for the original Law and Order or the original Star Trek. I have binged away on the various and glorious productions brought to us by HBO. But MTM holds a special place in my heart. I am not prepared to say why. The early shows, before it caught its stride, have not aged well. There’s too much of the old Laura (“Ohhhhh, Rawwwwwb!”) Petrie to Mary’s character. And I never could stand Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom.
But, as the show moved away from the apartment with the big white “M” on the wall and into the thickly linoleum’ed newsroom of WJM-TV, these problems melted away. The writing was sharpened and the characters made real and indelible. And it was not merely Mary Richards and Lou Grant, although their relationship became the heart of the show the moment that Ed Asner delivered the classic “I hate spunk!” in the series’ pilot.
They all had more than their share of moments, and Ted Knight made Ted Baxter the accepted shorthand for the vain, dim anchorman long before Will Ferrell ever got around to it. Sue Ann Nivens was the character that kicked off Betty White’s drive for immortality. (The scene in her Arabian Nights-meets-Tara-meets-The Bunny Ranch bedroom alone was enough to do that.) And, of course, it all came together in the unfortunate demise of Chuckles The Clown, which I will go to my grave believing is the funniest single half-hour of television comedy ever filmed.
It was perfect—from Sue Ann’s special, What’s All This Fuss About Famine?, to Ted’s anguish at being denied the chance to ride in the circus parade, to Lou’s old wire-service training kicking in (“The elephant’s name was Jocko!”), to Chuckles’ deathless sign-off:
“A little song, a little dance/A little seltzer down your pants.”
But it was Mary’s show, always. She was occasionally wobbly, but ultimately the steadily beating heart of all the lives around her. She gave terrible parties—Johnny Carson and a pre-Fonz Henry Winkler were honored guests at two of the catastrophes—and she ended up entangled with Ted Bessell, of all people, at the end of things. And, in the last show, when everyone but Ted gets fired and they’re all leaving WJM for the last time, she spoke for all of them and for all of us, too:
“Well I just wanted to let you know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought what is family anyway? It’s the people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.”
Mary Tyler Moore died on Wednesday. She was 80 years old. Excuse me now, I’m going to go outside and throw my hat in the air.
Doonesbury — The doctor is out of it.
Most of us remember Mary Tyler Moore as a gifted comic actor in her roles as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and her eponymous TV series from 1970 to 1977. But she was able to do brilliant work in serious roles such as her Oscar-nominated portrayal of an icy mother in “Ordinary People” in 1980.
Directed by Robert Redford and co-starring Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, and Judd Hirsch, it showed the quiet desperation of the upper middle class’s inability to deal with the tragedies of ordinary life. Ms. Moore’s portrayal is amazing.
Rest in peace, Mary Tyler Moore.