Sunday, January 18, 2004

Sunday Puzzles

One of the little luxuries I allow myself is a subscription to the Sunday New York Times, something I picked up from my parents. (Sorry, Miami Herald – you have too many ads and the crossword puzzle is the same as the Times except a week later.) I read most of it, usually skipping the Travel section (can’t afford to go to Greece right now), and make an effort to look at the Money section (speaking of Greek…), but of course I read the Arts & Leisure and Week In Review before getting to the real reason I pay $25 a month: the crossword puzzle tucked in the back of the Magazine. I have a special pen (yes, I do it in ink) and hardcover coffee table book that is just the right size to provide solid support while I slouch on the couch or out on the patio and fill in the little boxes carefully. I usually finish it by the end of the day – stopping for meals or a nap or blogging – and if I get stuck, I will leave it on the coffee table and come back to it later.

But sometimes the Times offers other puzzles. For example, how could a man barely able to carry out the duties of his office due to illness and frailty sit through a movie and offer a review? Frank Rich has a great column on Pope John Paul II’s “review” of Mel Gibson’s upcoming film The Passion of The Christ and the rising tide of spiritual McCarthyism.

Pope John Paul II, frail with Parkinson’s at age 83, is rarely able to celebrate mass. In recent weeks, such annual holiday ceremonies as the ordination of bishops and the baptism of children in the Sistine Chapel were dropped from his schedule. But why should his suffering deter a Hollywood producer from roping him into a publicity campaign to sell a movie? In what is surely the most bizarre commercial endorsement since Eleanor Roosevelt did an ad for Good Luck Margarine in 1959, the ailing pontiff has been recruited, however unwittingly, to help hawk “The Passion of the Christ,” as Mel Gibson’s film about Jesus’s final 12 hours is now titled. While Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed a margarine for charity, John Paul’s free plug is being exploited by the Gibson camp to aid the movie star’s effort to recoup the $25 million he personally sank into a biblical drama filmed in those crowd-pleasing tongues of Latin and Aramaic.


This game of hard-knuckle religious politics is all too recognizable in our new millennium, when there are products to be sold and votes to be won by pandering to church-going Americans. At its most noxious, this was the game played by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on Sept. 13, 2001, when they went on TV to pin the terrorist attacks of two days earlier on God’s wrath, which Mr. Falwell took it upon himself to say was aimed at all of those “who have tried to secularize America” by “throwing God out of the public square.” The two men later apologized, but this didn’t stop Mr. Robertson from declaring this month that he was hearing “from the Lord” that President Bush is going to win this year’s election in a blowout. “It doesn’t make any difference what he does, good or bad,” Mr. Robertson said. “God picks him up because he’s a man of prayer and God’s blessing him.”


…[Y]ou’ve got to give Mel Gibson’s minions credit for getting the pope, or at least the aide who these days most frequently speaks in his name, to endorse their film in the weeks before it opens in 2,000-plus theaters. In keeping with every other p.r. strategy for “The Passion” — Mr. Gibson has said he felt that the Holy Ghost was the movie’s actual director — Mr. Michelini says that the successful campaign for the Vatican thumbs up is an example of divine providence. Jews in show business might have another word for it — chutzpah.

And there’s this article from The Public Editor by Daniel Okrent – the Times‘s version of ombudsman – and his defensive mea culpa for articles on Howard Dean.

The paper has made mistakes. [Reporter Jodi] Wilgoren’s description of Dean listening to Al Gore announce his endorsement (Dec. 10) was inappropriate in a news article: ”Dr. Dean smirked his trademark smirk”; that’s columnist language. The visual used to illustrate an article on Dean’s temper (Jan. 3) was more problematic; it was the cover of a recent issue of National Review, with the face of an inflamed Dean above the headline, ”Please Nominate This Man.” The caption noted that National Review is a ”conservative journal,” but there’s no escaping the fact that this wasn’t an example of Dean’s temper, but of what an avowedly partisan publication thinks of Dean’s temper.


I have a suggestion for angry Deaniacs (including those who objected to reporter Todd Purdum’s use of the term “Deaniacs” on Jan. 11, even though many of Dean’s own supporters use the term themselves – see Think of a politician you dislike – maybe one of the Democrats Dean is battling – and substitute his name for Dean’s in any piece about your man. If it still sounds unfair, there’s the possibility it is. But without passing such a test, you’re left not with ”an insult to our democracy,” as one of my correspondents calls the paper’s campaign coverage, but with journalism.

So there. Nyah. I suppose Okrent needs to get back a little of his dignity, and granted, there is a slightly fanatical edge to some of Dean’s backers (something you don’t often see in a Democratic mainstream candidate), but I daresay there would a hell of a lot more backlash if the Times gave President Bush the same treatment – after all, if the reporters can mock Dr. Dean’s smirk, it should be open season on smirking by every candidte. (“Smirking?” Okay, that’s a gerund I hope escapes popular appeal).

I’m sure there are plenty of other puzzles in the paper today. And if you get stumped, leave them on the coffee table…maybe they’ll make sense after a while.