The parade never passed her by. R.I.P. Carol Channing.
The parade never passed her by. R.I.P. Carol Channing.
Two views on the life of George H.W. Bush.
Nice Guy — Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker.
“Leave the kid alone,” George Herbert Walker Bush said, when, as a teen-age boy at Andover, he spotted a fellow-student being bullied. As if he were Zorro, performing a casual rescue and then vanishing, Bush left Bruce Gelb, the undersized Jewish kid he’d aided, to ask a witness, “Who was that?” Gelb learned that it was Poppy Bush, “the greatest kid in the school.”
The eulogies for “41,” who died on Friday, will note his underage enlistment in the Navy after Pearl Harbor—how he went from preppy god of the baseball diamond to bomber pilot over the Pacific, with no intermediate step—but the scourge-of-bullies story, told in Jon Meacham’s biography of him, is the essential tale from Bush’s Andover days. It contains the boy who, almost fifty years later, startled the Republican Convention that had just nominated him for President by saying that he wanted a “kinder, gentler nation.” The phrase seemed odd, even candy-assed, to some; it would be mocked, its potential meanings never much pondered. What that night’s audience liked better was “Read my lips,” the signal for a no-new-taxes pledge, a piece of absolutism that didn’t come naturally to a pragmatic moderate. It was those words that, four years later, would do Bush in.
The 1988 campaign was anything but kind and gentle. There was the racially charged Willie Horton ad, in which Bush attacked Michael Dukakis’s furlough program for Massachusetts prisoners. Bush’s opponents—and some of his friends—thought that he had cheapened himself in the bare-knuckled grasp of his young campaign manager, Lee Atwater. The opponents acted surprised, claimed they were disappointed in him, as if anyone ever got that far in the game without playing rough. (Al Gore had first gone after the furlough program, albeit without mentioning Horton, when running against Dukakis in the primaries.) Bush’s foes derided his résumé as a sort of gilded joke, reciting all the appointive offices he’d briefly held—U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Republican National Committee chairman, U.S. Special Representative to China, C.I.A. director—as if they were a string of presents meted out to some trust-fund boy who’d done nothing to earn them. In fact, Bush rose in the Party because of electoral, not appointive, politics. And he rose, curiously enough, by losing—twice, in Senate runs in a still-blue Texas, in 1964 and 1970. He took two for the team, and the Republican Party owed him.
Even when he tried to kick ass with the silver foot supposedly lodged in his mouth from birth, there remained an irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, boy-next-door bonhomie, and parody-begging goofiness—“the vision thing.” He can be found, still on his way up, in his late forties, making some appearances, as both conversationalist and subject, on the Nixon White House tapes. On November 29, 1972, the President is making sure that H. R. Haldeman presses Bob Dole to leave the R.N.C. chairmanship sooner rather than later, so that it can be turned over to Bush, who was then the U.N. Ambassador. Nixon, afraid that Bush will be oversensitive to Dole’s feelings and won’t join in the effort to speed up implementation of what’s already a done deal, reminds his chief of staff that “George is such a sweet guy.” He doesn’t say it with the scorn or sarcasm that a word like “sweet” usually called forth from him. He utters it with a sort of charmed appreciation, as if he’s just remembered a unicorn that sometimes gambols on the South Lawn. In November, 1972, weeks after Nixon’s reëlection landslide, with Watergate just a passing cloud, the R.N.C. job was still a plum. A few months later, Bush would start to take a third, prolonged pummelling for the team.
He eventually became the President who presided over a brief but glorious Pax Americana. (Bruce Gelb, by then a wealthy businessman and devoted contributor, became his Ambassador to Belgium, the little country handed to the kid like a signed jersey.) If Reagan had thrown the touchdown pass of the Cold War, Bush was the one who caught it, and when he got to the end zone he famously refused to spike the ball, as if he’d also caught sight of his mother in the grandstand, warning against self-congratulation. (He is the only modern-day President not to have written his memoirs.) Between 1989 and 1993, Bush became, in Maureen Dowd’s phrase, “the gracious cruise director of international politics.” He also directed a just war—Kuwait was being bullied—toward a fast conclusion.
As the “vision thing” goes, kinder and gentler was actually profound. It didn’t take, of course. The nation has become spectacularly meaner, to the point that George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population. Now, instead of having the greatest kid in the school as our President, we have Cartman, someone who surely would have been smacking Bruce Gelb around in 1940. One’s strange reaction to the death of George Bush—the end of a life well-lived into its tenth decade—turns out to be bitter disappointment. I’ve just dug out a friend’s e-mail from December, 2016: “I was discussing 41’s health with a colleague this morning, and we realized that Trump will be delivering his eulogy if GHWB can’t hang on for four years. What a rotten end for an honorable man.”
A Disgrace — Steven W. Thrasher in The Nation.
Just after midnight on December 1, World AIDS Day, I learned that President George Herbert Walker Bush had died. And I was dismayed not just that the hagiography afforded dead presidents would overshadow Bush’s own appalling legacy on AIDS, but that his death would eclipse the tens of millions of lives we should be remembering today.
When I teach AIDS history, I always show a clip of ACT UP’s October 11, 1992, “ashes action” at the White House, in which brave activists took the cremated bodies of loved ones who had died of AIDS and hurled them onto Bush’s lawn. (If you’ve never seen it, I dare you to watch without crying).
The ashes action is brilliant not just for how raw it was but also for how it held a powerful man to account without civility. (ACT UP had also gone to Bush’s vacation home in Maine, and they hounded him up until the night he lost reelection, when they marched the dead body of Mark Fisher to his campaign headquarters.) For in life—and, sadly, in the first obits, in death—Bush dangerously hid the vast nature of American violence beneath the seductive cloak of civility, that opiate of mass media that gets journalists and readers to let violence go unremarked.
But at a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot the day after the ashes action, journalist John Mashek asked Bush:
Mr. President, yesterday tens of thousands of people paraded past the White House to demonstrate about their concern about the disease, AIDS. A celebrated member of your commission, Magic Johnson, quit, saying there was too much inaction. Where is this widespread feeling coming from that your administration is not doing enough about AIDS?
Looking annoyed, Bush listed what his administration was doing before saying, seemingly irritated, “I can’t tell you where it’s coming from. I am very much concerned about AIDS. And I believe we have the best researchers in the world at NIH working on the problem.” But then he added:
It’s one of the few diseases where behavior matters. And I once called on somebody, “Well, change your behavior! If the behavior you’re using is prone to cause AIDs, change the behavior!” Next thing I know, one of these ACT UP groups is saying, “Bush ought to change his behavior!” You can’t talk about it rationally!
Bush’s words are not just cruel; they fundamentally misunderstand what causes AIDS and how to effectively address it. Sex—yes, even gay sex—is a part of being human, and the people who died of AIDS did so because of societal neglect, not because of their human acts. And while he was nominally better than his predecessor (a very low bar) at addressing the consequences of AIDS, he’d been unforgivably quiet as Reagan’s vice president.
But as director of the CIA, vice president, and then president, Bush exacerbated the material conditions that allow AIDS to flourish in the first place. For what causes AIDS? And why has it always so disparately affected black people? Medical research and pharmaceutical interventions are important in dealing with the consequences of seroconversion and limiting onward transmission of HIV. But AIDS is caused by broader social problems: homelessness, inadequate access to to health care, political instability, racism, homophobia, and the violence of capitalism. And on these fronts, Bush is guilty; his “behavior matters.” As a former head of the CIA, Bush created political instability in nations around the globe where AIDS would thrive. He hyped up racism with his Willie Horton ad, by replacing civil-rights titan Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court with Clarence Thomas, and by vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990.
And, of course, in starting the 1991 Iraq War, he set our country on a nearly three-decade-long disaster which has left millions sick, disabled, and dead—many of them LGBTQ soldiers and civilians.
Sadly, gay journalists have been among the worst to immediately whitewash this part of Bush’s legacy. Frank Bruni published a gushing New York Times column on World AIDS Day (“George H.W. Bush’s Uncommon Grace”) without mentioning the words “gay,” “homosexual,” AIDS, or HIV. Meanwhile, over at the gay magazine the Advocate, Neal Boverman headlined his insipid revisionism “George H.W. Bush, No Ally But No Enemy of LGBTQ People, Dead at 94.”
The American desire for civility is so strong that many liberals who were enraged that Trump nominated and stood by Brett Kavanaugh have been silent that Bush nominated and stood by Clarence Thomas. Even in the Me Too era, many seem to be eliding that Bush was recently accused of groping women (while allegedly declaring “I’m David Cop-A-Feel!”).
On World AIDS Day, it would be an unforgivable injury to those who died of AIDS because of Bush’s actions and inactions to let him off the hook. Instead, look at what drove grieving lovers and friends to pour ashes onto Bush’s lawn—and really sit with the violence of American empire embodied by George Herbert Walker Bush.
Doonesbury — Speaking of nice guys…
The last World War II veteran to serve as president.
George H.W. Bush, who in one term as president reasserted the U.S. as the world’s lone superpower, rallying an international coalition against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War and presiding over the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Friday. He was 94.
R.I.P. Roy Clark.
R.I.P. Francis Lai, composer.
From the New York Times:
Mr. Shepard’s killing in 1998, when he was a 21-year-old college student, led to national outrage and, almost overnight, turned him into a symbol of deadly violence against gay people.
Mourners flocked to his funeral that year in Casper, Wyo., but there were also some protesters, carrying derogatory signs. Mr. Shepard’s parents worried that if they chose a final resting place for their son, it would be at risk of desecration.
Now they have found a safe place. On Oct. 26, Mr. Shepard will be interred at the Washington National Cathedral, the neo-Gothic, Episcopal house of worship that is a fixture of American politics and religion.
“I think it’s the perfect, appropriate place,” Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, said in an interview on Thursday. “We are, as a family, happy and relieved that we now have a final home for Matthew, a place that he himself would love.”
Peace be with you, Matthew.
The Right Thing To Do — Charles P. Pierce on the newspaper editorials’ response to Trump.
Congress shall make no law…
To tell you the truth, I was preparing to mock the idea of a couple hundred newspapers’ getting together all at the same time to punch back at El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago. It seems like so much inside-baseball wankery, and it didn’t look to change any minds, and, frankly, the real enemy of local newspapers are the beancounters in the various corporate headquarters who think you can cover a city with two reporters, a laptop, and a couple of drones. Media consolidation and corporate timidity completed the job that Spiro Agnew started in the modern era. But I thought about the year 2030, and then I changed my mind.
One day in the future, when the awful crime this country committed against itself somehow has been largely expiated, it’s going to be important to remember who stood against an incompetent and half-mad Peronista wannabe, and who did not. That the idea came from my most recent alma mater fThe Boston Globe on Thursday, its central theme reiterated in 200 newspapers, small and large, all across the country:From the editorial published in
Replacing a free media with a state-run media has always been a first order of business for any corrupt regime taking over a country. Today in the United States we have a president who has created a mantra that members of the media who do not blatantly support the policies of the current US administration are the “enemy of the people.” This is one of the many lies that have been thrown out by this president, much like an old-time charlatan threw out “magic” dust or water on a hopeful crowd…
There was once broad, bipartisan, intergenerational agreement in the United States that the press played this important role. Yet that view is no longer shared by many Americans. “The news media is the enemy of the American people,” is a sentiment endorsed by 48 percent of Republicans surveyed this month by Ipsos polling firm. That poll is not an outlier. One published this week found 51 percent of Republicans considered the press “the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy.”
Having spent the last two decades watching American newspapers flounder against new technologies, and debase themselves in a hundred ways trying to coddle what readers they had by telling those readers what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear, and turning “objectivity” and “balance” into a kind of survival cult in which any idea, no matter how pernicious, was treated as having an equal value with any other idea simply because a desperate business model didn’t want to lose even one set of eyeballs, it was bracing to see the editorials call out their readers for failing to inform themselves the way good citizens of a self-governing republic should. That was long overdue. It also recognizes that newspapers are trying to atone for their own shortcomings in abetting a spavined and desiccated attitude toward the truth that made the current president* not only possible, but inevitable.
I still don’t think this changes any minds. But I no longer think that’s important. Sometimes, it’s just the right thing to do simply to yell at the correct buildings. Truth is in a fight for survival at the moment, and if this profession won’t join that fight, it’s hard to think of another one that will. If the role of the press in a self-governing republic is going to be imperiled, can it at least be imperiled by a person of some substance, instead of a television carny barker confused by the concept of time zones? I mean, holy hell, this profession has faced down dictators and actual armies. What good are we if we can’t defend ourselves against an obvious clown?
The Clairvoyance of Aretha Franklin — Doreen St. Félix in The New Yorker.
An inarticulate misery, and yet the desperate need to articulate it, is what brought the thunderous wonder of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to the earth. In August of 1932, the musician, who had left the packed blues clubs and rent-raising parties of the South for a Baptist-church choir in Chicago, took brief leave of his pregnant wife, Nettie Dorsey, for a gig in St. Louis. While performing, a messenger handed him a Western Union telegram that read “YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.” The baby died, too. He buried his wife and son in the same casket.
When Dorsey returned to his empty South Side apartment, he was prepared to abandon his God. The Baptist-church elders, stern in their faith, advised him to submit to God’s will. Later, Dorsey would recall being coaxed by his choir associate, Theodore Frye, to approach a piano in a local school. Before the instrument, Dorsey felt overcome with a strange peace. A melody of the nineteenth-century religious composer George Nelson Allen coursed through him. “As my fingers began to manipulate over keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock,” Dorsey later said. He gave the first performance of “Precious Lord” at his church shortly after his wife and baby’s death, and the act of uninhibited spiritual praise was forever changed.
How this hymn, the greatest example of American lamentation, how it travels. It passed through Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who electrified Dorsey’s pleas; through Nina Simone, who grasped the first verse so delicately that it is nearly painful to attend; through Elvis Presley, who dared to root the song more deeply in the workaday wretchedness of man; through Mahalia Jackson, who made the hymn somehow more transcendent. Jackson was in the habit of visiting with C. L. Franklin, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist, in Detroit. She was taken by the preacher’s young daughter Aretha, who was, in her craft, trying to match her father’s prophetic fire. Through Aretha—so many times through Aretha—“Precious Lord” was an existential cry, a justice prayer shed of pretense. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s favorite hymn, and it’s said that his last words were a request to have it ring at his funeral. Franklin sang the song at a memorial service for her friend King, in 1968; she was still in tune with the primal frisson when she delivered her rendition at the dedication of the memorial to King in Washington, D.C., in 2011. She assisted Jackson’s transition to that other realm, washing the faithful with “Precious Lord” at Jackson’s funeral, in Chicago, in 1972. “Precious Lord, take my hand . . . I’m tired / I’m weak / I’m ’lone”: Franklin interprets it as a relationship song—did God do her and her people wrong? The hymn is a confrontation, spurred by agony, then loneliness, then immobilizing veneration.
What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her. She was a vessel and a commander. She knew her God like John Donne did—intensely, almost physically. She was of the black church, the church of protest, the church of brash women, the church of sorrows and of ecstasy, and yet she was also of her own church. We hear that church, already clarion, in the 1956 recording of “Precious Lord,” from her first album, “Songs of Faith.” It was recorded at New Bethel; the congregation hollers. Franklin was just fourteen years old, already a mother, without her mother. She draws from a font of pain and awe and indignation so worldly that you may flinch in disbelief: “Hear my cry, hear my call.” It is as though she is wrapping her instrument around death and strangling it. She then leaves Dorsey’s man-made words behind, as they are inefficient for expressing the way she feels both about her God and about transmitting the miracle of her voice. The child elder starts humming, then moaning, deep and steady and not at all faintly aroused. Moaning in the church. The interlude is a premonition of her career, which imprinted on us the power and the anguish in sacred and sexual love. “Ain’t no harm to moan,” she says, before taking up the verse again. Listening now, during this national wake for her, we know where Franklin will go, what educations she will preach. The fourteen-year-old maybe knows, too. The clairvoyance of her “Precious Lord” is staggering.
Doonesbury — Trivial Pursuit.
Rest in peace, Alan Johnson, the man who choreographed this gem.
We met at the Spring Dance in Boulder on April 22, 1984, and for the next fifteen years he was my partner, my cohort, my love, my best friend, and an indelible part of my life. We went from Colorado to Michigan to New Mexico, raising gardens and a puppy, Sam, and sharing the joys and tribulations, good times and sad, tests and the odds that all couples face. We never married because we couldn’t by law, but we had everything married couples have, and when we parted in June 1999, we stayed friends, even to the point of being better friends apart.
When I moved to Miami in 2001, he moved back to Colorado, and ended up there last year. He suffered a stroke last Christmas and complications developed two weeks ago. He slept away last night in the house he grew up in with his family at his side, at peace and the way he wanted to go.
I have so many memories, so many thoughts, so many pictures; after all, fifteen years together can’t be summarized in just words and pictures. I will just say that my life was better with him in it than without and that he will always be a part of me. The reminders at home and in my heart are good things of good times and a good life.
This is one of my favorite pictures of him, taken in August 1986 when we went on a sailing trip around northern Michigan for my dad’s 60th birthday. Although the biggest piece of water he’d ever seen was the man-made lake behind his house in Longmont, he took to sailing right away. It was the first of many such adventures we took, and his attitude was always “It’ll be fun!” And so it was.
I will always call you sweetheart.
He showed us a world of realities disguised as fiction.
Philip Roth, the prolific, protean, and often blackly comic novelist who was a pre-eminent figure in 20th century literature, died on Tuesday night at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said the writer Judith Thurman, a close friend. Mr. Roth had homes in Manhattan and Connecticut.
In the course of a very long career, Mr. Roth took on many guises — mainly versions of himself — in the exploration of what it means to be an American, a Jew, a writer, a man. He was a champion of Eastern European novelists like Ivan Klima and Bruno Schulz, and also a passionate student of American history and the American vernacular. And more than just about any other writer of his time he was tireless in his exploration of male sexuality. His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.
Mr. Roth was the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers — Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century. Outliving both and borne aloft by an extraordinary second wind, Mr. Roth wrote more novels than either of them. In 2005 he became only the third living writer (after Bellow and Eudora Welty) to have his books enshrined in the Library of America.
“Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the world as it is now,” Mr. Roth once said. “I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.”
The Nobel Prize eluded Mr. Roth, but he won most of the other top honors: two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize.
In his 60s, an age when many writers are winding down, he produced an exceptional sequence of historical novels — “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain” and “I Married a Communist” — a product of his personal re-engagement with America and American themes. And starting with “Everyman” in 2006, when he was 73, he kept up a relentless book-a-year pace, publishing works that while not necessarily major were nevertheless fiercely intelligent and sharply observed. Their theme in one way or another was the ravages of age and mortality itself, and in publishing them Mr. Roth seemed to be defiantly staving off his own decline.
I just read “The Plot Against America,” published in 2004, that is eerily prescient in its alternative history of fascism coming to America with the election of Charles A. Lindbergh as president in 1940, defeating FDR in his bid for a third term. It was written as a warning in the George W. Bush era, but strikes an even more jarring chord in the #MAGA era.
The first Roth novel that I read was “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I will never look at liver the same way again.
I was sad to the point of cursing last night when I heard of the death of Harry Anderson. He became best known as the star of the comedy “Night Court,” which, to my mind, ranks up there with truly good TV sitcoms alongside “M*A*S*H” and “Barney Miller.”
Like those shows, “Night Court” was an ensemble that reminded me more of a play than TV show. With a supporting cast that included John Larroquette, Markie Post, Richard Moll, Charles S. Robinson, and, early on, the incomparable Selma Diamond, whose career in TV comedy is legendary, having been part of the writing crew for Sid Caesar along with Woody Allen and Neil Simon, and Florence Halop, whose own career dates back to the Bowery Boys. Marsha Warfield, who replaced Ms. Halop upon her death, was no slouch, either. But the bond that held them together was Mr. Anderson’s wry sense of humor, his genial touch, and his love of Mel Torme music.
He had another series after “Night Court,” “Dave’s World,” based on the writings of Miami Herald writer Dave Barry, but he’ll be remembered most fondly — at least by me — as Judge Harry.
R.I.P. Steven Bochco, creator of “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” and “NYPD Blue.”
From the BBC:
World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76.
He died peacefully at his home in Cambridge in the early hours of Wednesday, his family said.
The Briton was known for his work with black holes and relativity, and wrote several popular science books including A Brief History of Time.
At the age of 22 Prof Hawking was given only a few years to live after being diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease.
The illness left him in a wheelchair and largely unable to speak except through a voice synthesiser.
In a statement his children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.
“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”
They praised his “courage and persistence” and said his “brilliance and humour” inspired people across the world.
“He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”
He also promoted science to the masses: he guest-starred as himself on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and I think he would appreciate the timing that he left this form of life on Pi Day.
Rest in peace, Ray Thomas. His flute solo on this piece is wonderful.