R.I.P. Vera Lynn.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Monday, May 25, 2020
He loved animal jokes. Take any story about a priest, a rabbi, and a pastor walking into a bar and recast it with a fox, a squirrel, and a raccoon, and he’d be rolling on the floor. There was something about the gentle world of “The Wind in the Willows” and the adventures of Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Woods that told us what a gentle and humble man he was: giving, loving, flawed, human, and who tried his best to do what he could for his family, his friends, and his community.
There are so many memories that he created with us. Teaching his children how to sail, taking us to baseball and football games, teaching us how to play golf, taking us skiing, sharing the little things that brought him joy, and giving of himself in ways that we didn’t realize until we were older, and setting examples for his children and how to raise their own children. Yes, of course we had our struggles; no family or marriage lasts nearly seventy-two years without them. He had disappointments and made mistakes. He would be the first to admit them. But through it all, the basic goodness of my father withstood it and came through to the other side.
He and Mom raised four children who could not be any more different from each other, and yet there’s something of him in all of us aside from the DNA. I know that for myself, my love of a good story about sailing and an appreciation of a quiet afternoon listening to the Tigers on the back porch or taking a walk to go bird-watching came from his side of the family. It melded well with the appreciation for jazz and certain art forms that I got from Mom to become what I am. I know my path through life probably wasn’t what he envisioned, but through it all I knew I had his support, guidance, and love.
He loved us all, even when we mocked him for it. In the middle of one our many raucous family “discussions,” he would plead with us to “love one another,” as if that would solve all our problems. We even found a sign that hung over our kitchen fireplace with that plea on it. But I think he gets the last word because when you get right down to it, that’s all he ever wanted for us. He welcomed the new members of the family: husbands, wives, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren with nothing but unconditional love.
I am glad I was able to see him a few weeks ago through the dance of pixels and electrons of Zoom. All of us were there on the screen, and Dad looked pretty good for someone in his condition. He waved to us and said he loved us. I hoped against hope that it would not be the last time I saw him; that after this was all over I would get to be with him and share the two books I sent him: “Swallows and Amazons,” the books from his childhood that he shared with me and taught me to love good writing and sailing, and the “Field Guide to the Birds” by Roger Tory Peterson, the book that we shared when we walked through the woods or watched them at the bird-feeders. Those books were on the shelf in his room when he slipped away. That was as close as I could be to him, and it was all I could ask.
One last thing: Hey, Dad, did you hear the one about the fox, the squirrel, and the raccoon? It’s a really good one.
Sunday, May 10, 2020
An Appreciation of Little Richard — Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic.
Little Richard, the rock-and-roll force who embodied the word irrepressible, quit music in 1957. Not yet 25, he’d already recorded most of the chattering, licentious classics—“Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “The Girl Can’t Help It”—that anchored the career now being mourned upon his death today at age 87. His schedule was full of worldwide-tour dates and film and TV appearances. But he started seeing eerie signs: fiery plumes from a plane’s engines; a red blaze streaking in the sky over one of his concerts (perhaps, it’s been speculated, from the Sputnik launch). One night he awoke from a dream about the end of the world with a message in his head: Prepare for eternal life. He took heed by leaving rock and roll and joining the ministry.
If he’d stayed there, cloistered in a church as the sound he helped create swept the globe, his legacy may well have remained intact. Those great, early songs would still have been covered again and again. His imagery—the pompadour, the mascara, the somehow proud standing posture he maintained even while hunched over the piano—would likely still have inspired spectacular entertainers from David Bowie to Prince to Lil Uzi Vert. But Richard came back to music in the ’60s, first as a gospel singer and then again as a full-fledged rocker. From then on he served as an uproarious evangelist for the idea that there’s nothing profane in pleasure, noise, and living one’s own full, messy truth.
Born to a poor family in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was one of 12 children—“the best-looking one of all of them, and I’m not conceited at all,” he once said. He was musical from an early age, singing with gusto in church and banging on pots and pans at home. The gospel-rock pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe had him open a show for her when he was 14; soon after, he began performing in vaudeville revues, which helped hone his showmanship and his makeup skills. An early record contract that failed to produce any hits left him disillusioned, and by the time of his big break he was working as a dishwasher in a Greyhound station.
But what a break it was. His first hit, 1955’s “Tutti Frutti,” lays bare the idea that rock and roll thrives in some blend of order and anarchy, with a steady, driving boogie beat and a lightning-struck vocal performance. The lyrics—“A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!”—are the sort of nonsense that articulates some inarticulable lust. Indeed, hired songwriters reworked some of Richard’s original, overtly raunchy lyrics to be radio-friendly. According to some accounts, the song once went, “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.”
Pat Boone’s cover of the song would chart higher than Richard’s original, establishing a pattern in which white artists benefitted from his breakthroughs. Richard brought the Beatles with him on tour when they were mostly unknowns. He inspired Elvis in obvious ways. Over the years, he asserted his status as an underappreciated architect of rock and roll with a blend of graciousness and grievance. “I believe that if Elvis had been black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “If I was white, do you know how huge I’d be? If I was white, I’d be able to sit on top of the White House!” But he also, in that interview and others, expressed gratitude to the likes of Pat Boone for helping boost his own career.
In addition to race, another facet of his identity shaped his career in complex ways: sexuality. He was mocked as effeminate as a child and later in life had run-ins with authorities while acting on same-sex desires. Over the years, he sometimes condemned homosexuality as sinful; other times, he described himself as gay or omnisexual. Many of his songs fixated on alluring women while leaving open a queer subtext. Through it all, his flamboyant public presentation scrambled gender paradigms, and much of his appeal lay in the way he never seemed all that concerned with reconciling his apparent contradictions. In 1972, an interviewer asked him why he was wearing makeup. “You’re suppose to wear makeup,” Richard replied. “Just like when you toast your bread or put sugar in your coffee, you’re supposed to add a little touch to it.”
In that same interview—which, like every TV appearance Richard gave, is a must-watch performance in itself—the singer was asked about why he’d left gospel music behind. Richard insisted that he hadn’t. “I consider my music sacred; I consider ‘Long Tall Sally’ sacred,” he said, referring to the 1956 hit that many listeners believed to be about a promiscuous woman and that other listeners heard as a riff on gay slang. “I don’t mean that it’s a hymn like it’s an anthem in church. It’s a song of love and joy in a world of chaos and commotion and strife.” He then summed up the magic, spanning all categories of identity and sound, with which he’d changed the world: “When I sing my songs, you can’t sit still. Your big toe shoot up in your boot!”
Doonesbury — Things are rough all over.
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Biden Finds His Voice in South Carolina — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.
Joe Biden has long said that South Carolina would prove to be the electoral firewall in his bid for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, and it turned out he was right. As the votes came in on Saturday night from across the Palmetto State, it quickly became clear that the former Vice-President had scored a blowout victory in the most populous and most diverse state to vote so far in this primary season.
With ninety-nine per cent of the votes counted, Biden had about forty-eight per cent of the total. He was running twenty-eight percentage points ahead of Bernie Sanders and thirty-seven percentage points ahead of Tom Steyer, who subsequently announced that he was giving up his Presidential campaign. The other candidates came in nowhere.
Among black voters, who made up more than half of the primary electorate, Biden’s margin of victory was even larger. According to an exit poll carried out by Edison Media Research for a national consortium of news outlets, sixty-one per cent of African-American voters had voted for him versus seventeen per cent for Sanders and thirteen per cent for Steyer.
Biden appeared to have won every county in the state. The exit poll suggested that he won the white vote, the college-degree vote, the non-college-degree vote, and every age demographic except seventeen- to twenty-nine-year-olds. According to the poll, he even finished thirteen points ahead of Sanders among voters who identified themselves as very liberal.
Of course, there is a reason that Biden declared South Carolina as his firewall: he has close ties to some of the state’s political leaders, including James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, who endorsed him on Wednesday, and its demographics are favorable to him. But, as recently as this past week, opinion polls had shown Sanders closing to within four or five points of Biden, and the Vermont senator had predicted that he would pull off a come-from-behind win. If that had happened, Biden’s campaign would have been sunk. By the time the former Vice-President took the stage, in Columbia, shortly before 9 P.M. on Saturday night, however, he was assured of a sweeping victory.
At least in this campaign, it is an understatement to say that Biden hasn’t been noted for his oratory. But, as he demonstrated at the 2012 Democratic convention, he is capable of giving a good speech on a big occasion, and this was arguably the biggest of his political career. With his campaign running out of money, Biden’s South Carolina win was a rare opportunity to address the Democratic electorate at large before Tuesday, when fourteen more states will vote, including California, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.
He began in predictable fashion, hailing “my buddy Jim Clyburn” and casting himself as the comeback kid. “For all those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” he declared. From there, the speech became more pointed, more strategic, and more emotive. Biden’s advisers are well aware that winning one state won’t be enough to stop Sanders, especially if the Vermont senator scores big victories on Tuesday in delegate-rich California and Texas, where the polls show him in the lead. The immediate goals for the Biden campaign are twofold: to cement Biden’s place as the only viable alternative to Sanders and to limit the Vermont senator’s lead in the delegate count by persuading enough Democrats that a Sanders candidacy would be an electoral disaster for the entire Party, not just its hopes of driving Donald Trump out of the White House. “The decisions Democrats make all across America in the next few days will determine what this party stands for, what we believe, and what we’ll get done,” Biden said. “If the Democrats nominate me, I believe we can defeat Donald Trump, keep Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives as Speaker, and take the U.S. Senate.”
Although he didn’t mention Sanders by name, he cast doubt on his electability, his policies, his ideology, and his loyalty to the Democratic Party. “If the Democrats want a nominee who is a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, then join us,” he declared. Mocking one of Sanders’s slogans, he went on, “Most Americans don’t want the promise of revolution. They want more than promises. They want results.” Biden also depicted Sanders as a divisive figure. At one point, he even compared him to Donald Trump, or, at least, he compared the impact of the Sanders movement on the Democratic Party to what the Trump movement did to the G.O.P. “We have to beat Donald Trump and the Republican Party,” Biden said. “But here’s the deal: we can’t become like them . . . We can’t have a never-ending war.”
That was the political pitch, but Biden also sounded a more personal note about the need for healing the soul of the country after the Trump Presidency. He recalled how, in June, 2015, shortly after his son Beau died of cancer, he and his wife, Jill, attended Sunday service at the Emanuel A.M.E. church, where a young white supremacist had recently gunned down nine parishioners. “We left here, having arrived in overwhelming pain, thinking we can do this, we’d get through this,” Biden said. Then, with the raucous crowd having fallen silent, he brought up Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Clyburn had mentioned in his introduction, saying, “This multi-ethnic country we call our democracy, America, it can’t survive unless we focus on our goodness.”
On the page, it reads like a somewhat awkward transition, but Biden knew exactly where he was going. “We can build a more perfect union, because the American people in the last three and a half years have seen the alternative,” he went on. “No, I really mean it. Think about it. They’ve seen how utterly mean, selfish, lack of any sense of empathy or concern for anybody else—a President who not only has horrible policies, but the way he mocks and makes fun of other people.”
In finishing, Biden thanked Clyburn again and declared to the crowd, “The Bidens love you guys.”Despite his big victory, he still faces a number of challenges. Sanders, having won two of the first four states and virtually tied in another, remains the front-runner, and his supporters aren’t going anywhere. And even after Steyer’s exit, there are four candidates vying for the non-Sanders vote, with the presence of Michael Bloomberg presenting a particular problem for Biden. In the past couple of months, the former mayor of New York has spent ungodly sums of money advertising all across the Super Tuesday map. He could take moderate voters from the former Vice-President everywhere, but particularly in a number of Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina—where the Biden camp is hoping to blunt Sanders’s advantage out West.
In an ideal world for Biden, Bloomberg would drop out of the race before Super Tuesday and throw his support behind him, but on Saturday night Bloomberg’s aides rejected that idea to reporters. (Bloomberg was not on the ballot in South Carolina.) For now, Biden can do little about Bloomberg. All he could do on Saturday was win big in South Carolina and then give a memorable speech. He managed both, and shortly after he left the stage in Columbia one of his erstwhile opponents, Andrew Yang, who is now a commentator on CNN, paid him a compliment. “That was the best I’ve ever seen him,” Yang said.
What Katherine Johnson Means to Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space.
Two years after I joined NASA in 1987, I was preparing for a trip to Brazil to help the United States Information Service celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The souvenir posters I would give out referred to the “first American men on the moon.” I suggested it would be more appropriate if they read “first humans on the moon.”
A male astronaut sneered at the idea and said that it had been “men who landed on the moon.”
“But it was women who helped put them there!” I pushed back.
I was referring to the countless generations of women who have done so much to support human achievements but have gone unrecognized.
Even though I was soon to become the first woman of color who went to space, at that time I did not know of the mathematician Katherine Johnson, who died on Monday at the age of 101, or of the crucial calculations she made for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
It would have put such a fierce smile on my face had I known about Katherine Johnson, her colleagues Mary Jackson and Jackie Vaughn and the other women mathematicians at NASA when I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. I always assumed that I would go into space, even though the United States had no astronauts who were women or of color at the time. I could see on TV that the mission control rooms were filled with white men. Even at 8, 9 or 10 years old, I was sure that the picture misrepresented the capabilities women and I possessed.
Though I majored in African and African-American studies as well as chemical engineering at Stanford, when I joined the NASA astronaut corps I only knew vaguely of some African-American women at NASA and in aviation. I knew of African-American men and white women who were science and exploration legends. Yet I was unfamiliar with Bessie Coleman, who became the first black woman in the world to get a pilot’s license in 1921; or Willa Brown, an African-American and the first U.S. woman to get both a pilot’s and a mechanic’s license and who lobbied the government to integrate the Army Air Corps. That helped lead to the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen, a number of whom she trained.
It fortified me to get to know and work with Christine Darden, Patricia Cowings and other women scientists, engineers and mathematicians of all ethnicities who worked at NASA centers throughout the nation.
I am so pleased the book and movie “Hidden Figures” allowed the world to meet and celebrate Katherine Johnson and her colleagues.
Katherine Johnson was a revelation. An inspiration. But she was not a “one-off” to be put on a shelf and admired for her singular genius. She was representative of the deep well of talent and potential that is so often buried by lack of opportunity, access, exposure and expectation for women and particularly women of color in science and technical fields.
She was a beacon who heralded the contributions made by women that were hidden and stymied by the deep institutional and societal bias that accredits achievements to white men, deemed by society to be the unique holders of genius.
Johnson today is a balm for the discomfort that arises when you stand up in a crowd — a crowd that doubts your capabilities due only to your gender or race — and press a point, disagree with a widely held premise or challenge the sugar coating of facts meant to make the powerful feel better while disregarding the less powerful, who need the truth revealed.
I have been working with a group of experts to understand what is needed to achieve the equitable participation and leadership of women in STEM fields. The insight may be uncomfortable for some allies, because effective, lasting solutions demand profound change in core beliefs and behaviors.
The changes require the dismantling of a gantlet: of persistent bias, obstacles and actions that block women’s entry or push them out. It is a gantlet that has gone unacknowledged even decades after Katherine Johnson’s accomplishments at NASA. Organizations value women for their work when it aligns with the organization’s traditional perspectives; but they fall back on exclusionary behavior when new, diverse perspectives are generated or required.
Women have continued to advance within NASA — Peggy Whitson is the American astronaut who has spent the most time in space. In October, a pair of female astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, walked in space together.
Even great organizations may be blind to persistent intersectional bias that treats African-American women so differently. As I testified before the House space and science committee in May, there have been just six African-American women astronauts; three of them have flown in space. It is confounding that of 338 NASA astronauts, two of these African-American women, of stellar accomplishments and tenures of over 10 years each, are the only American astronauts who have been denied or pulled from a spaceflight assignment without any official explanation.
While I did not meet Katherine Johnson, when I channel her, I am jazzed. Katherine Johnson is the shining example. Through her I see the possibilities when the full scope of human experience, talent and perspectives are engaged to address the challenges and opportunities to improve life on Earth for all and push the limits of our knowledge.
Doonesbury — I’m confused.
Saturday, February 1, 2020
With the passing of Jack Burns this week, the team of Burns and Schreiber are together again in the comedy team afterlife.
Friday, December 27, 2019
This was my first Jerry Herman musical. I saw it on Broadway in November 1967 and still remember the thrill of hearing the music live from the orchestra pit. Rest in peace, Jerry. Thank you for all you did for theatre and for our shared alma mater, the University of Miami and the Ring Theatre, now named in your honor as the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.
Saturday, October 26, 2019
Sunday, October 20, 2019
Learning To Speak Evangelical — Eliza Griswold in The New Yorker on teaching Democrats how to win back faith-based voters.
On a Tuesday afternoon this past summer, Doug Pagitt, a fifty-three-year-old pastor in a blue straw hat and glasses, stood in a conference room at the Democratic Congressional Committee’s office in Washington, D.C., laying out sandwiches. Pagitt was preparing to lead a training session for Democratic members of Congress on how to speak to evangelicals. A table was littered with blue-and-orange lapel pins reading “Vote Common Good,” the name of an organization that Pagitt launched last year to make the religious left more visible. “We want people to know that it exists, and they can join it,” he said. Last year, the group’s members spent a month travelling the country in a tour bus, campaigning for roughly forty progressive candidates on their religious message, but this was their first time speaking to politicians in Washington. Five members of the group took seats around the conference table, some wearing blazers and sensible sandals. Pagitt generally projects an air of ease, but this afternoon he was anxious. “Today is pretty much a beta test,” he told me.
A few minutes later, Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio who, at seventy-three, is the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives, arrived wearing a sea-foam jacket. Soon after, Representative Katherine Clark, from Massachusetts, and Ted Lieu, from California, walked in, followed by a half-dozen staff members. Robb Ryerse, a self-described former fundamentalist pastor and the political director of Vote Common Good, opened the meeting with a tip. “Trying to memorize John 3:16 in the car on your way to the event and then quote that is probably not the best way to connect with faith-based voters,” he said. He had seen a candidate try this trick on the way to a rally in Kansas and then struggle to remember the phrase onstage.
The exodus of religious voters from the Democratic Party over the past several decades is typically explained by the culture wars, most notably over abortion. As the historian of religion Randall Balmer notes in his book “Thy Kingdom Come,” in the sixties and seventies, the Democratic Party had a large Catholic contingent and mostly opposed abortion. By contrast, many prominent Republicans—including Nelson Rockefeller; Ronald Reagan, during his time as the governor of California; and Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion in Roe v. Wade—affirmed and expanded abortion rights. But, beginning in the early seventies, evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson worked with Republican strategists to press the Party to more vigorously oppose abortion. At the same time, the second-wave feminist movement pushed the Democratic Party to defend women’s reproductive rights. As a result, pro-life Democrats, most notably religious voters, began defecting from the Party.
Pagitt believes that this history is overly simplistic. He points out that a large percentage of Democratic voters—sixty-seven per cent, according to a Pew poll from 2018—still claim a religious affiliation. He believes that many moderate evangelicals would be happy to vote for Democrats, but that the Party often overlooks them during campaigns. In 2008, Barack Obama courted evangelicals, along with Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and Jewish voters, by asking religious leaders to appear as campaign surrogates and to take part in a regular conference call. Pagitt worked on behalf of the campaign, approaching conservative leaders and calling evangelicals who had voted for George W. Bush in 2004. “It wasn’t just me; they kept calling hundreds of leaders and asking if we could spare one more weekend,” Pagitt said. Obama succeeded in taking a large number of white evangelical and Catholic Bush voters.
But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton failed to woo these voters: between 2008 and 2016, the percentage of people who voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate declined among voters in every religious affiliation, and the dropoff was especially sharp among evangelicals. Pagitt pointed out that, though Clinton is a devout Methodist and received daily devotional readings during the campaign, she almost never spoke about her faith in public. “I don’t even know what her favorite Bible passage was,” he said. “I thought, Well, her polling numbers must tell her she doesn’t need religious voters.”
Pagitt describes himself as an evangelical, though he thinks of this as more of a sociological term than a strict theological one. “It’s like saying I’m Midwestern,” he told me. “It locates me.” He grew up near Minneapolis, in a non-religious family, and converted as a teen-ager. He spent eleven years as a pastor at Wooddale, an evangelical megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. In 1999, he planted a progressive, nondenominational church in Minneapolis called Solomon’s Porch. But, in 2018, feeling disappointed by Clinton’s loss, he founded Vote Common Good to target the voters that Clinton had overlooked. In the leadup to the midterm elections, he and fourteen other members held religious revivals in support of candidates across the country. The events featured beer on tap and thumping music from dirty-gospel acts, including Reverend Vince Anderson and Meah Pace. The family-friendly party atmosphere was modelled on revivals that the conservative evangelist Franklin Graham was holding for Donald Trump and other Republicans. “The larger goals were loving your neighbor and creating a check on power,” Diana Butler Bass, a prominent progressive theologian who joined Pagitt’s tour, told me.
Pagitt felt hopeful after the votes were cast. In 2016, eighty-one per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump; last year, in the midterm elections, seventy-five per cent of white evangelicals voted Republican. Pagitt and the other members of Vote Common Good saw this small decline as a sign of progress: in ones and twos, evangelicals were becoming disenchanted with Trump—especially with his overt racism and misogyny, which some saw as against their values. “I don’t think it’s a silent majority,” Ryerse, Vote Common Good’s political director, told me, “but I think there’s a significant silent percentage.”
In the conference room, Katie Paris, a media trainer with Vote Common Good, discussed campaign tactics with the representatives. She noted that, during the midterms, Republicans had contacted religious leaders district by district to shore up their support, and often remained in close touch with them between election seasons. “You need to make it more difficult for the right to organize against you,” she said. She suggested that the representatives also reach out to religious leaders to introduce themselves. They didn’t have to fake piety, she said, but they should acknowledge that these communities were important to their constituencies. She also felt that Democrats had become afraid to mention religion at campaign events, which ceded faith to the right. She urged the representatives to discuss spirituality “wherever your values come from”—whether or not they were believers. The important thing was to make it clear that they took religion seriously and didn’t look down on the devout.
Pagitt thinks that, among the Democratic Presidential candidates, for example, Elizabeth Warren is doing a good job of integrating faith seamlessly into her message, beginning sentences with phrases like “As a Sunday-school teacher . . .” and by singing the hymns from her conservative childhood church in a defense of same-sex marriage. Bernie Sanders seems to avoid speaking of religion—his own, Judaism, or that of others—at all costs. Cory Booker often speaks about God in generalizations that can feel bland. Some candidates seem willing to openly antagonize religious voters; last week, at a town-hall discussion on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, Beto O’Rourke said that he would revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage—the first time a major Presidential candidate has stated such a position.
Paris encouraged the representatives to think of people they knew who were motivated by their faith, whom they could mention on the trail. After a minute, she asked Kaptur brightly, “You got one?”
“I got thousands,” Kaptur replied, slightly irritated.
“My mom is one,” Clark offered. Her mother had been a committed Episcopalian and an ardent feminist who was also an early advocate for women to be priests. (The Episcopal Church officially began ordaining women in 1976.) “I do talk about her frequently,” Clark said. “But I can’t recall talking about her faith.”
“You should,” Paris said.
As the event wound to a close, Pagitt called for questions. “How do you talk about abortion?” Lieu asked. He comes from a progressive district, but he felt that the issue would be central to other races around the country. Pagitt noted that there is a divide between pro-life voters who want to reverse Roe v. Wade and criminalize abortions, and those who are primarily focussed on reducing their number. There wasn’t much to say to the former, he said, but when speaking to the latter, candidates should emphasize that making abortion illegal had historically proved ineffective at reducing the number. In the past, Democrats had backed measures aimed at reducing abortions. Barack Obama tasked a joint White House initiative between the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Council on Women and Girls with “reducing the need for abortion.” Bill Clinton had made a motto of making abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” But, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had dropped the “rare” from her platform, bringing the Party further to the left on the issue. Pagitt felt that a more moderate approach to abortion could help attract religious voters.
This may have its own pitfalls. There are many voters within the Party who don’t want to see it give up ground on progressive issues like reproductive rights. There are also many who believe that religion is a private matter that should be separated from politics, and that publicly discussing it alienates religious minorities and non-religious voters. “We get pushback all the time from people within the political industry saying that the Democratic Party shouldn’t court these evangelical people,” he said. But he felt that evangelicals represented a large enough segment of the electorate that the Party had to take them into consideration. “What we want you to do is like religious people enough that you can ask for their votes,” he said. “There are seventy million evangelicals. Moving fifteen per cent of seventy million is a large number.”
After the meeting in Washington, Pagitt decided that the group would do more good advising candidates in the field and decided to take it back on the road. Since then, Vote Common Good has run several training seminars in New York City and around the country for Democratic congressional candidates. “In all five boroughs, there are evangelicals and other religiously motivated candidates,” he told me recently, while in New York. “We give candidates a breakdown by religious affiliation in their districts, and it’s shocking how many religious voters there are.” Last week, they launched a love-in-politics pledge, which is based on I Corinthians 13:4-7 (“Love is patient, love is kind . . .”) and calls on politicians to hold others to a standard of decency and compassion. “We’re skeptical of Mike Pence’s willingness to be swayed,” he said, of the Vice-President. “But we’re helping religiously motivated voters to have the rationale and support to change their votes.” The group is also planning a forum in Iowa, in January, where Democratic Presidential candidates could reflect on their vision of faith. Pagitt says that the major campaigns have indicated interest, though none has committed. “I think they should take religiously motivated voters seriously,” he told me. “If they don’t, it’s at their own peril.”
Winter Soldier — Charles P. Pierce pays tribute to Elijah Cummings.
Upon hearing the news of Rep. Elijah Cummings’ passing Thursday morning, the first thing I thought of was the beginning of the eulogy that the late Robin Williams delivered for rock promoter Bill Graham: “Bill’s dead and Strom Thurmond doesn’t even have a cold?”
The first time I met Elijah Cummings was at a campaign event at Morgan State University in his beloved Baltimore. It was 1999 and Cummings was campaigning for Bill Bradley’s primary challenge to then-Vice President Al Gore. I was on assignment for this magazine to write about it. The Bradley campaign—and the candidate, as well—were beginning to show the early symptoms of the creeping petrification that eventually would doom it and him. Outside the hall, I stopped to chat with Cummings, and Bradley’s incomprehensible stiffness came up in the conversation. Cummings smiled that canny politician’s smile that I’ve seen on everyone from Tip O’Neill to AOC.
“We’re working on that,” he said, twinkling. “We’re working on loosening the man up.”
I liked him a great deal that day, so I was happy over the past decade when he became an eloquent and ferocious legislative warrior against a Republican Party that had lost so much of its mind that it couldn’t stop itself from electing a vulgar talking yam in 2016. In the minority, he fought hard against the phony Benghazi, BENGHAZI, BENGHAZI! farce, and against the depthless fraud that was perpetrated against Hillary Rodham Clinton over Her Emails. In the majority, as chair of the House Oversight Committee, nobody did more to call to account the renegade incompetence and bone-deep corruption that is the only perceivable characteristic of the current administration*.
Elijah Cummings—and nobody ever has been more worthy of his first name than he was—never wavered, never faltered, and never took one step backwards in his defense of the Constitution and the rule of law. To borrow a turn of phrase from the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, as she was contemplating the impeachment of another criminal president: Elijah Cummings’ faith in the Constitution was whole, it was complete, and he didn’t plan to sit there and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of it. He was, as Thomas Paine wrote, a winter soldier of the first rank.
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
Paine fought for a golden ideal. Elijah Cummings fought to keep it alive against all the forces that would coin it into cheap brass. They would like each other a great deal, I’m thinking today.
Doonesbury — aging gracefully?
Thursday, October 17, 2019
Rest in peace, Elijah Cummings.
Sunday, October 6, 2019
The Smoking Arsenal — Charles P. Pierce.
What the hell do we call this? The smoking arsenal?
The release of a motherlode of criminal evidence in the form of texts between various inmates at Camp Runamuck, all of which concerns the president*’s attempt to extort Ukraine into helping him ratfck the 2020 election, establishes the guilt of the president* beyond the shadow of a doubt. In the released material, you can see a whole brigade of hapless functionaries stumbling from one crime to another, fully aware that they are doing so, and concocting strategies on the fly to carry out the president*’s criminal orders. You read for yourself how they all ended up toadying to Rudy Giuliani’s insane “mission” to Kiev. It’s like reading a John Le Carré novel starring the Marx Brothers.
The simple politics of the release is pure genius. On Thursday, former envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker briefed House investigators on the matter. Around midday, presidential* lawn ornaments Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows threw themselves at a microphone to deliver the Nothing To See Here party line. Then, the texts were released and now every single Republican in the Congress looks like a fool or a crook. There’s no third alternative.
But the politics of it are a lesser concern. The conduct revealed in the texts is as subversive as anything undertaken by any KGB operative in the high days of the Cold War. The president* set the government of the United States against itself, and he used a vulnerable ally to do so. He could have travelled the world shooting our ambassadors personally and done less damage. Nobody will trust American diplomats again for a very long time, nor should they. From NBC News:
In fact, the only U.S. official included in the text messages who pushes back is a career diplomat, William Taylor, who became the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine after Trump pulled Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch out of her post earlier this year. Yovanovitch’s ouster has become another topic of key interest to Democratic lawmakers in their impeachment inquiry.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor wrote, using an acronym for the White House, after Trump canceled a planned meeting with Zelenskiy in Poland. A week later, he told Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland, several hours later, pushed back, telling Taylor that Trump “has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind.” He suggests they stop discussing the matter via text message.
That certainly sounds legitimate to me. Sondland is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Now, Ukraine is not a member of the European Union. So what, you may wonder, is Sondland’s dog in this fight. Clearly, he was one of the White House messenger boys in the extortion and bribery plot that was unfolding all around West Asia. And the conspicuous “no quid pro quo,” followed immediately by a suggestion that they no longer put these perfectly innocent requests into writing, would be comic if the stakes weren’t so very high. From The New York Times:
Mr. Volker told the House investigators that the Ukrainians had earlier proposed language promising a statement on fighting corruption that did not specifically mention Burisma and 2016. When Mr. Giuliani was shown that original language, Mr. Volker told the House, he indicated to Mr. Volker that it was not sufficient and said the Ukrainians should be asked for specific public commitments to investigate Burisma and 2016.
By Mr. Volker’s account, according to the person familiar with his testimony, he was eventually told by Mr. Yermak that the Ukrainian government could not agree to the language being sought by Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Volker told Mr. Yermak that he was right, and the idea was dropped, according to the account Mr. Volker provided the House.
I have no sympathy for any of these people, and neither should you. They sold their souls to a crook and a charlatan who may well be half-mad into the bargain. They sold out the diplomatic status of the country in service to a lunatic conspiracy theory that was the obsession of a president* who believes anything his favorite TV commentators tell him. They sold out an embattled ally in order to aid in the reelection of a president* against whom this country may not survive in recognizable form.
On Thursday, just as the current storm was rising, the president* tweeted of his “absolute right” to conduct foreign policy in this manner. No president has an “absolute right” to do fck-all. The longer this man is allowed to infect this republic, the more it will change into something very different. He cannot be allowed to remain in office and, god help us, he cannot be reelected. That would be the end of things.
Glamour and Substance — Nichelle Gainer has an appreciation of Diahann Carroll.
I am an ’80s kid. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb that, to my mind’s eye, bore more than a passing resemblance to the fictional town in “Stranger Things.” While I enjoyed shows like “Square Pegs” and movies like “The Breakfast Club,” I was perplexed by how homogeneous they were, especially since my high school had nearly an even balance of black and white kids.
That’s where Jet magazine came in. At that time, black faces were still rare enough on the big and small screens that the publication printed out a listing of every black performer appearing on American television that week. Thanks to those listings, I discovered a magnetic performance by one of my favorite stars Diahann Carroll, who died this week at 84.
It was from the NBC TV movie “Sister, Sister,” which first aired in 1982. Written by Maya Angelou, the story follows three very different siblings and their struggle to heal old wounds and sell their family home following the death of their mother. In one of my favorite scenes, two of the sisters (played by Ms. Carroll and Rosalind Cash) confront each other about long-held secrets and their screaming match turns to blows. It is glorious and satisfying — a “cat fight” that would make the “Dynasty” divas Dominique Devereaux and Alexis Carrington applaud in respect.
Even when she was sparring onscreen, Ms. Carroll’s class and elegance went unquestioned, but early in her career, the public perception of her commitment to issues affecting black Americans was another matter. Like many black stars in the ’60s and ’70s, her personal and professional moves were scrutinized relentlessly. She wore clothes by white designers, married white men and, to the untrained eye, appeared to live in a mostly white world, seemingly oblivious to “real” problems. Her character on “Julia” was a single mother, and aside from the occasional guest star the show lacked a consistent black father figure.
Yet Ms. Carroll is also the same star who testified before Adam Clayton Powell Jr. about the lack of opportunities for black performers and held a fund-raiser in her home for the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm. She never allowed public perception to dictate the choices she made.
It is crucial to remember her substance. Her educated and well-spoken character Julia Baker, the first black professional woman depicted in an American TV series, stood in stark contrast to the subservient roles typically reserved for black characters. Ms. Carroll was keenly aware of the responsibility she bore in this role and was strategic in how she handled the press at a time when riots in black neighborhoods in major cities across the country were not infrequent. She refused to do any interviews for “Julia” without “racial quotes” being read back to her.
She once said of a “well-meaning” reporter: “He was not aware that a little word here and a little word there could kill me.”
She added, “I told him I think everything going on in the black community now has a more positive feeling than before. He wanted me to say that a certain element was detrimental and I wouldn’t.”
She rebuffed those who felt she lacked social awareness. “I was not ignorant about the issues of civil rights in this country, or my place as a national celebrity who could voice opinions to help make changes,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir “The Legs Are the Last to Go.” She would point to the efforts she made in supporting the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers.
Beyond the checklist of history-making “firsts,” she was savvy throughout her career, navigating the minefields of racism and sexism with an aplomb that seemed effortless. She attended charm school, modeled for Ebony magazine as a teenager and transformed her glitzy look from her early days as a Las Vegas nightclub performer to the softer, housewife chic that would be more “relatable” to “Julia” television audiences who needed to be spoon fed images of a black woman who did not fit a stereotype.
She often told the story of her first meeting with Richard Rodgers, who created her Tony-winning role in “No Strings.”
“The day that he asked me to join him for lunch before he left for Europe, I thought it was very important that I startle him when I arrived at the restaurant,” she recalled in 1998. “I think that business of overwhelming people with your presence, and your grooming — it’s not part of today. It’s not important today. I cannot tell you what it meant then. I was dressed in Givenchy from head to toe. It meant a great deal during an interview.”
Sometimes, she deglamorized herself, as she did in her Oscar-nominated role as a poor mother of six in the 1974 film, “Claudine,” or as a fortune teller in the 1997 film, “Eve’s Bayou.”
Ms. Carroll’s career and life were long enough for her to bear witness to the fruits of her labor. Black performers of her generation were accustomed to the pressures of navigating rarefied spaces in Hollywood, and so it was no surprise that she said she was proud to see so many young black people behind the scenes on the set of “A Different World” and was “choked up” as she watched Shonda Rhimes call the shots on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy” nearly a decade later.
“Some people come of age as teenagers, I came of age as a senior citizen,” she wrote in her memoir. Sometimes we forget that even timeless legends don’t see themselves the way that we do. Diahann Carroll not only embodied glamour, she expanded its very definition with her bold choices while never attempting to hide herself behind a perfect image. I will forever be in awe.
Photo: NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images.
Doonesbury — Pick a fact! (Click on the picture to embiggen.)
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Monday, August 19, 2019
One life lost, and another journey ended.
Gil Christner, the creator of the blog skippy the bush kangaroo which cited this blog and taught a lot of us how to do it, passed away at the end of July.
Melissa McEwan, the creator and driving force of Shakesville, has retired from blogging and said farewell in the style and forthrightness that only she could bring to the pixels. Over the last fifteen years she has been a presence in my work and blogging, and for a long time I was a regular contributor to Shakesville. Her dedication to her work and to her community stand head and shoulders above so many others, and while I am glad that she is going out in style and on her own terms, I will miss her very, very much.
Thank you, Gil, and thank you, Melissa. The world was made better with you here with us.
Saturday, July 6, 2019
R.I.P. João Gilberto.
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Saturday, April 20, 2019
Twenty years after the massacre at the high school in Colorado, the worst thing is that we thought it could never happen again.
And we were wrong.
Monday, March 18, 2019
R.I.P. Dick Dale, the man who took an Arabic folk song and turned it into the sound of a genre that defines a generation.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
R.I.P. Peter Tork.
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
The parade never passed her by. R.I.P. Carol Channing.
Sunday, December 2, 2018
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…