Scientific America — Charles P. Pierce on the march for science.
WASHINGTON—They named this town—Forgive me, This Town—after a man of science, a surveyor and an experimental farmer from down the cowpaths in Virginia. In 1783, while waiting to hear that the fighting part of the American Revolution was over, he took time to team up with another science aficionado, a not-altogether successful engineer named Thomas Paine, to investigate the phenomena caused by swamp gas in Virginia. Four years later, in a closed laboratory of politics in Philadelphia, he presided over the deliberations that produced a Constitution that, in the eighth section of its very first article, promised that the new government would,
“…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…”
Talking through a thick mist thickening swiftly into a hard rain, and talking from a stage beneath the obelisk dedicated to that one famous polymath out of an age famous for producing them, Bill Nye took it upon himself to remind the people who had gathered on Saturday to March For Science, that they were descended in every important way from men of science.
The Framers of our Constitution, which has become a model for constitutions of governments everywhere, included Article I, Section 8… Its intent was to motivate innovators and drive the economy by means of just laws. They knew our economy would falter without them, without scientifically literate citizens, the U.S. cannot compete on the world stage.
(Speaking immediately before Nye, Manu Prakash, a Stanford neuroscientist, argued that scientific literacy was a basic human right because, in so many places, it literally is a matter of life and death.)
Yet, today, we have lawmakers, here and around the world, deliberately ignoring or actively suppressing science. Their inclination is misguided and it is in nobody’s best interest.
This, of course, was the central paradox of Saturday’s event, which coincided with the 47th celebration of Earth Day. It was the brainchild of a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, who had been on fire for what was then called “ecology” or “conservation” ever since he ran through the woods in and around Clear Lake, the small village in northern Wisconsin where he grew up.
As he came up through politics, Nelson was steeped in the Progressive heritage of his home state. In 1963, in his first year in the Senate after two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, an ascension to which Nelson’s environmental policies were critical, Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to embark on a series of speeches across the country concerning the environment, one of the most public demonstrations of White House commitment in that regard since the death of Teddy Roosevelt even though Kennedy was swamped on the tour with questions about a nuclear test-ban treaty that he’d recently concluded with the Soviet Union.
By 1970, Nelson was in his second term in the Senate and the news had become full of environmental catastrophe. In January of 1969, there was a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara in California and, almost exactly six months later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously caught on fire. On April 22, 1970, Nelson helped organize Earth Day, which was a massive outbreak of activism around the country. That kicked off what became known as the Environmental Decade, wherein was passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental regulations, all of them based on a sturdy bipartisan scientific consensus.
That was then. This is now. In 2017, the country needs a series of marches across the landscape to remind itself that scientific progress and American democracy are inextricably bound for their mutual survival. The current president* has leaked a budget that decimates the federal government’s role in all manner of scientific research, from the fight against epidemic disease to the war on climate change. Which was why, walking through the drizzly day on the White House end of the National Mall, you saw epidemiologists sharing umbrellas with geologists, or a group of microbiologists huddling low under a spreading cherry tree alongside a knot of anesthesiologists. People walked around dressed as bees and as lobsters and as Beaker, the lab assistant from the Muppet Show. People walked around in overalls and in lab coats. They wore the now-classic pussy hats repurposed to resemble the configurations of the human brain and they wore stethoscopes around their necks.
“What do we want?” the signs said.
“When do we want it?”
“After peer review!”
(The musical interludes from the main stage were enlivened by the appearance of Thomas Dolby, who performed his hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” backed by John Batiste and Stay Human, which gave Dolby’s vintage techno-pop tune a bit of New Orleans second-line juice.)
There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.
The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.
Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.
Beka Economopoulos runs something called the Natural History Museum, a project that takes her around the country not only educating students on the natural world, but also taking expeditions to places in which environmental damage is severe. “We collaborate with scientists, local community organizations, and museums across the country to address pressing community concerns and global challenges,” she said. “Science has never been apolitical. It’s always been situated within a context. All science is dedicated to pursue truth, but there are decisions made on what kind of science gets funded and what doesn’t, what kinds of questions get asked.
“The goal of science is not the popularization of knowledge. It’s the pursuit of truth. Scientists look to obliterate existing knowledge by finding something beyond it. Copernicus, Galileo, Rachel Carson, these are scientists that disrupted the status quo but, we look back at them now, and we see that they advanced humanity and the world we live in.”
When the speeches were done, all those people who’d hung in there through the rain walked up the wide boulevards past all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in the 1840’s at the bequest of an Englishman named James Smithson. “I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men,” Smithson’s will read. As they walked past the buildings founded out of Smithson’s generosity, you wondered in the mist and rain why it all seemed so much like archaeology now.
On-The-Job Training — Jeff Shesol in The New Yorker on learning how to be president.
“There’s just something about this job as President . . .” George W. Bush observed last week, in an interview with NPR. “You think one thing going in and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world, you know, are different than you thought.” Bush wasn’t reminiscing about his own Presidency; he was “opining,” he said, about the current one. The reality that Bush had in mind—the one that he hopes President Trump will embrace—is that it is in America’s national interest “to be allies with Mexico and not alienate Mexico.”
Trump, of course, has invested a great deal of energy in denying that particular reality—along with many others, from the existence of climate change to the role of Russian meddling in last year’s Presidential election. Yet, in recent weeks, Trump has conceded that he might, in fact, have been wrong about a thing or two, and now stands corrected. “It turns out” and “nobody knew” are two of the signal phrases by which Trump indicates that an epiphany has arrived: that health-care policy is “so complicated,” or that North Korea is not a Chinese client state. “After listening [to President Xi Jinping, of China] for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Never mind the obviousness of these statements, or Trump’s weird guilelessness in presenting them as insights; they are being received, by some, as signs that Trump is growing in office. “I think President Trump is learning the job,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said last week.
Learning the job, in fairness, is a big task for any new President. “Regardless of his prior training, nothing he has done will have prepared him for all the facets of that job,” Richard Neustadt, the great scholar of the American Presidency, wrote in “Presidential Power,” his influential study, in 1960. All Presidents, he argued, enter office ignorant, innocent, and arrogant—liabilities it can take two, three, or even six years for them to overcome. Some never do. Neustadt saw “a certain rhythm” in the Presidential learning process, and, indeed, in most cases, it follows a well-worn path: the chaotic cram session of the transition; the headiness and disappointments of the first year; the midterm elections in the second (a “shellacking” of the President’s party, as Barack Obama described it in 2010, tends to dispel any lingering arrogance); and, of course, the crises—domestic and foreign—that come without warning. The education of a President is episodic, driven by events. The results, as we know, are uneven. They depend not only on fate but on the answers to three basic questions: what are the “particulars of [a President’s] ignorance,” in Neustadt’s phrase; does he have the humility to acknowledge them; and does he have the capacity—political, moral, intellectual—to address them?
John F. Kennedy faced all these questions. He entered the White House well prepared despite his youth: he had served fourteen years on Capitol Hill, had commanded, with distinction, a Navy torpedo boat during the Second World War, and had spent the better part of his life studying and exercising power. Yet, during his first few months as President, his particular ignorance emerged: an excess of trust in the C.I.A. and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who convinced him, despite his doubts, to approve an invasion of Communist Cuba by a brigade of exiles. Kennedy hesitated; he asked tough questions of his briefers, but, in the end, he acceded, taken in by their optimism. The instant and utter failure of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961, filled Kennedy with self-doubt and self-blame. “It is a hell of a way to learn things,” he said over lunch with James Reston, of the Times, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But he did learn things, and soon changed things, as well: he not only replaced the leaders of the C.I.A. but also, from that point forward, regarded intelligence estimates and military plans with far greater skepticism. The historian Robert Dallek, in his biography of J.F.K., writes that Kennedy saw his missteps as “object lessons in how to be more effective. His resolve stood him in good stead: he managed coming crises”—most significantly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year—“with greater skill.”
Bill Clinton, too, stumbled out of the gate. “Clinton terrified me,” one of his policy advisers, Bill Galston, later confessed, “because he almost always knew a good deal more about the subject, or at least some aspect of the subject, than you did.” Yet the disorder of the White House during Clinton’s first year—the famously long meetings that circled an issue but never really resolved it—raised the question of whether his intellect was always an asset. Clinton had a lot to learn in a hurry: about managing (and allowing himself to be managed by) the White House staff; about the hostility of the press corps and the snobbery of the Washington establishment; about the ideological stalemate in Congress; and, not least, about U.S. leadership in a shifting, often perplexing, post-Cold War world. Anthony Lake, his national-security adviser, and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, urged Clinton to get more engaged in the foreign-policy process and to conduct himself as Commander-in-Chief. “It took a while for Clinton to do the commander bit, which is to say issuing orders crisply,” Lake recalled in an oral-history interview. “It’s in the little things.” It was also in the big things: in August, 1995, after two years of discussion and delay, the Clinton Administration decided to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, and led a successful NATO bombing campaign. By 1996, Clinton was more sure of his footing on the global stage. The Times—which had been quite critical of Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy—endorsed his bid for reëlection, noting that he was now “regarded internationally as a leader with a sophisticated grasp of a superpower’s obligation to help the world manage its conflicts and economic contests.”
What is Trump’s particular ignorance? It is not a stretch to say that Trump knows less about policy, history, the workings of government, and world affairs than any of the men who preceded him as President. Trump’s ignorance sends historians and commentators scrambling for sufficient adverbs: to Daniel Bell of Princeton, Trump is “abysmally” ignorant; to Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, he is “militant[ly]” so. “Proudly” is another popular one. Last summer, Trump told the Washington Post that he doesn’t need to read much because he makes great decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.” The problem is not just what Trump doesn’t know; there is an expanding, alternative universe of things he imagines or insists to be true, from his claim that “millions” of illegal immigrants gave Hillary Clinton her victory in the popular vote to his charge that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. “He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote earlier this month. Trump is somehow both credulous and cynical; if he were “mugged by reality,” in the old, conservative cliché, he would pin it on Obama, or perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This is not to say that Trump is incapable of learning in office. His recent changes of tone, opinion, and direction—on the importance of NATO, for example, or U.S.-China relations—might be signs that his thinking is evolving. They could also be tactical moves, or head-fakes, or further evidence that—unmoored from any core convictions—he is easily swayed by certain advisers. Whatever the case, it is one thing for Trump to acquaint himself with reality; it is another thing to know what to do about it. The singular burden of the Presidency is not merely to acknowledge obvious facts; it is, as Neustadt wrote, to determine a course of action “when conventional wisdom fails, the experts disagree and confusion dominates.” It turns out this job is not so easy.
So Nice To Have You Back Where You Belong — Ben Brantley reviews the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.
The pinnacle of fine dining in New York these days can’t be found in a Michelin-starred restaurant, though it will probably cost you just as much. No, you’ll have to get yourself and your wide-open wallet to the Shubert Theater, where the savory spectacle of Bette Midler eating turns out to be the culinary event of the year.
Ms. Midler — who opened in the title role of “Hello, Bette!,” I mean “Hello, Dolly!,” on Thursday night — not only knows how to make a meal out of a juicy part; she knows how to make a meal out of a meal. In the second act of this exceedingly bright and brassy revival, Ms. Midler can be found sitting alone at a table, slowly and deliberately polishing off the remnants of an expensive dinner, from a turkey bone dipped in gravy to a multitude of dumplings, while the rest of the cast freezes in open-mouthed amazement.
Ms. Midler brings such comic brio — both barn-side broad and needlepoint precise — to the task of playing with her food that I promise you it stops the show. Then again, pretty much everything Ms. Midler does stops the show. As for that much anticipated moment when she puts on fire-engine red plumes and sequins to lead a cakewalk of singing waiters, well, let’s just hope that this show’s producers have earthquake insurance.
Back on a Broadway stage in a book musical for the first time (can it be?) since “Fiddler on the Roof” half a century ago, Ms. Midler is generating a succession of seismic responses that make Trump election rallies look like Quaker prayer meetings. Her audiences, of course, are primed for Ms. Midler to give them their money’s worth in Jerry Zaks’s revival of this 1964 portrait of a human steamroller out to land a rich husband in 19th-century New York. The show was a scalper’s delight from the moment tickets went on sale.
But Ms. Midler isn’t coasting on the good will of theatergoers who remember her as the queen of 1980s movie comedies or as the bawdy earth goddess of self-satirizing revues from the ’70s onward. As the center and raison d’être of this show, which also features David Hyde Pierce in a springtime-fresh cartoon of the archetypal grumpy old man, Ms. Midler works hard for her ovations, while making you feel that the pleasure is all hers. In the process she deftly shoves the clamorous memories of Carol Channing (who created the role on Broadway) and Barbra Streisand (in the 1969 film) at least temporarily into the wings.
The show as a whole — which has been designed by Santo Loquasto to resemble a bank of Knickerbocker-themed, department store Christmas windows — could benefit from studying how its star earns her laughs and our love. Playing the pushiest of roles, the endlessly enterprising matchmaker Dolly Levi, Ms. Midler never pushes for effect. Her every bit of shtick has been precisely chosen and honed, and rather than forcing it down our throats, she makes us come to her to admire it.
Much of the rest of Mr. Zaks’s production charges at us like a prancing elephant, festooned in shades of pink. This is true of the hot pastels of Mr. Loquasto’s sets and costumes, and of Warren Carlyle’s athletic golden-age-of-musicals choreography, which is both expert and exhausting.
When an onstage laugh is called for, it comes out as a deafening cackle or a guffaw, which is then stretched and repeated. Double takes, grins and grimaces are magnified into crushing largeness, while the chase sequences bring to mind slap-happy Blake Edwards comedies. Even reliably charming performers like Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, who play the plot’s supporting lovers (with Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein as their second bananas), seem under the impression they’re in a Mack Sennett farce.
My audience couldn’t have been more tickled by these hard-sell tactics, which hew closely to Gower Champion’s original staging. A tone of sunny desperation isn’t out of keeping with what seems to be this production’s escapist mission, which is to deliver nostalgia with an exclamation point.
Featuring a book by Michael Stewart and a tenaciously wriggling earworm of a score by Jerry Herman (given gleaming orchestral life here), “Hello, Dolly!” is a natural vehicle for rose-colored remembrance. It was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” which grew out of his “The Merchant of Yonkers,” itself adapted from an 1842 Austrian reworking of an 1835 American one-acter.
With its folksy wisdom and air of life-affirming wonder, Wilder’s script translated fluently into the hyperbole of a big song-and-dance show, which spoke (loudly) not only of a more innocent age of American history but also of a time when musicals were upbeat spectacles, with outsize stars to match. (Ms. Channing was succeeded by a cavalcade of divas, from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey.) Don’t forget that “Hello, Dolly!” opened just two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the United States felt anything but united.
The genius of casting Ms. Midler as Dolly, a widow who decides to rejoin life by marrying the rich and curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Mr. Pierce), is that she built her career on making nostalgia hip. Even when she was sassing and strutting for the gay boys at the Continental Baths in her youth (when the original “Hello, Dolly!” was still on the boards), she was channeling entertainers from the days of burlesque.
With Ms. Midler, such hommages were never merely camp. She exuded bone-deep affection and respect for vaudeville stylings, in which impeccably controlled artifice became a conduit for sentimentality as well as rowdy humor. That affinity pervades every aspect of her Dolly, which is less a fluid performance than a series of calculated gestures that somehow coalesce into a seamless personality.
Consider, for starters, her hydraulic walk, made up of short, chugging steps. (A real train materializes for the big “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number, but Ms. Midler is the real locomotive wonder.) Or her take-charge New Yawk accent, spiced with the insinuating inflections of Sophie Tucker. Or her stylized collapse into exhaustion in the middle of the title song.
Without stripping gears, she makes fast switches from explosive comedy to a sober emotionalism that never cloys. (Her pop hits, you may remember, include the weepy “Wind Beneath My Wings.”) And her final scenes with Mr. Pierce, who delivers a beautifully drawn caricature (and is rewarded with a solo that was cut from the original), may leave you with tears in your eyes without your quite understanding why.
Ms. Midler’s talents have never included a conventionally pretty voice. Yet when she rasps out the anthem “Before the Parade Passes By,” you hear her voice as that of a nightingale. And when she hikes up her period skirts to shuffle her feet, she gives the impression she’s dancing up a storm.
She’s not, of course. (Her kicks in her big numbers are only from the knees.) But a great star performance is at least 50 percent illusion, conjured by irresistible will power and cunning. Ms. Midler arranges her component parts with the seductive insistence with which Dolly Levi arranges other people’s lives.
After two acts of fending off Dolly’s charms, Horace finds himself proclaiming, in happy defeat, “Wonderful woman!” Nobody is about to argue with him. [Photo by Sarah Krulwich/New York Times]
Doonesbury — Action Figure.