Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Roger Mudd — 1928-2021

He was a great journalist.

Mr. Mudd spent almost 20 years covering Capitol Hill, political campaigns and corruption scandals for CBS News. He did special reports on the Watergate scandal and its fallout, including the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

His 1979 interview of Kennedy, who represented Massachusetts, was credited with crushing the senator’s presidential ambitions just as he was preparing to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination.

Kennedy awkwardly offered incomplete, rambling answers to basic questions about his family and personal life and was stopped cold when Mr. Mudd asked him directly: “Why do you want to be president?”

There was a long, awkward pause before Kennedy could say a word. When Mr. Mudd asked what distinguished him from Carter, Kennedy failed to provide substantive answers to fundamental questions, giving viewers the impression that the senator was ill-prepared for the job of commander in chief.

The interview remains one of the most devastating in political history. Kennedy — whose brother John was president and whose brother Robert was assassinated on the campaign trail — lost his bid for the nomination and never mounted a run for the presidency again.

I also remember that on the night Richard Nixon announced he was resigning and the panel at CBS News was analyzing the stunning news, Mr. Mudd summed it all up by saying that Mr. Nixon never said he was sorry or apologized for all the trauma he’d put the country through.

Thank you, Mr. Mudd.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

My friends and I read his poetry outside of English class in the late ’60’s because he was counterculture.  Even if we at the age of fifteen or so didn’t always get the gist, the fact that he could write things that upset people and get away with it was enough.  Later it all made sense and fed our own desires to write works that would rattle the cages.

When guns are roaring, the Muses have no right to be silent!

Write on.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sunday Reading

Like Drinking From A Fire Hose — Margaret Sullivan on fact-checking Trump.

Daniel Dale met President Trump’s convention speech with a tirade of truth Thursday night — a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.

The cable network’s resident fact-checker motored through at least 21 falsehoods and misstatements he had found in Trump’s 70-minute speech, breathlessly debunking them at such a pace that when he finished, Cooper, looking bemused, paused for a moment and then deadpanned, “Oh, that’s it?”

So, so much was simply wrong. Claims about the border wall, about drug prices, about unemployment, about his response to the pandemic, about rival Joe Biden’s supposed desire to defund the police (which Biden has said he opposes).

Dale is a national treasure, imported last year from the Toronto Star, where he won accolades for bravely tackling the Sisyphean task of fact-checking Trump. My skilled colleagues of The Washington Post Fact-Checker team, who recently published a whole book on the president’s lies, have similarly done their best to hold back the tide of Trumpian falsehoods.

Dozens of organizations, from to and many others, are kept busy chasing political lies, so many of which come from the current White House. But here’s the rub. More than a decade after the innovative Florida-based fact-checking organization won a Pulitzer Prize, fact-checking may make less of a difference than ever.

More and more, fact-checkers seem to be trying to bail out an ancient, rusty and sinking freighter with the energetic use of measuring cups and thimbles.

“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times put it last week.

I happened to be sitting in the WAMU studio in late 2016 when Scottie Nell Hughes — then a frequent surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump and a paid commentator for CNN during the 2016 campaign — said something startling, live on the Diane Rehm radio show: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, (as) facts.”

Rehm had pressed her about Trump’s false assertion that he, not Hillary Clinton, would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally. That was a claim he seemingly had heard on Infowars — the conspiracy-theory-crazed site run by Alex Jones, who at one time claimed that the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six staff members at an Connecticut elementary school was a government-sponsored hoax.

Hughes gave not an inch of ground: Trump’s false claims, she insisted, “amongst a certain crowd . . . a large part of the population, are truth.”

Belief, therefore, takes the place of fact.

The situation has only become worse since then. And as scholars have observed, calling out falsehoods forcefully may actually cause people to hold tighter to their beliefs.

That’s the “backfire effect” that academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler wrote about in their study “When Corrections Fail” about the persistence of political misperceptions: “Direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs.”

Not knowing what media sources to believe — and the growing mistrust in the press among many segments of the public — has added to the problem of politicians who lie.

Last week, I was asked to settle a family dispute about the believability of a news report that had been circulating on a group text-message chain.

One family member (I’m being vague since I hope to continue to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner) was outraged by the supposed revelations in a Newsweek article whose headline read “Brand New Mail Sorting Machine Thrown Out at USPS Center, Leaving Workers Sorting by Hand.”

Another family member had serious doubts about whether this was true. He dismissed it as “hearsay.”

And a third asked me to take a look: Would I have published the article?

It didn’t take me long to decide it wasn’t credible or publication-worthy. Newsweek, despite its legacy name, is suspect from the start these days. The article’s sourcing was thin. And a hyperlink, its main piece of evidence, led me to a local news site that already corrected the main element of its story. (Days later, Newsweek still hadn’t updated its story.)

These family members care about the facts, and were engaged enough to be curious about whether a report is accurate. And while it may have suited their politics better if it were true, they were open to hearing that it wasn’t.

But most people don’t have the time or energy to do research projects on the news they are reading, or the claims they are hearing from the White House, or the conspiracy theories that flood their Facebook feeds.

Most people no longer share with their fellow citizens the trust in news organizations — or in political actors — that would give them confidence in a shared basis of reality. And worst of all, the flow of disinformation on social media is both vile and unstoppable.

In this world, challenging official lies and seeking truth remains necessary, even essential. The yeoman’s work of Daniel Dale, and others like him, remains appreciated.

But I’m with Warzel on this: As Americans, we’re in trouble when it comes to a common ground of reality on which to stand.

And no amount of fact-checking is going to solve that overwhelming problem.

An Appreciation of Chadwick Boseman — Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

In an era that prizes and praises actors’ conspicuous exertion (like Joaquin Phoenix, in “Joker,” and Leonardo DiCaprio, in “The Revenant”), Chadwick Boseman never wrestled the bear, never turned acting into stunt work for the sheer self-congratulatory pride in effort. He also, at a time when technical skill is venerated, never flaunted his own formidable acting technique. Boseman, who died on Friday, at the age of forty-three, never won an Oscar—was never even nominated. True, he had only a handful of leading roles, but he won overwhelming and justified acclaim for each of them. Yet he didn’t sufficiently impress his award-granting peers in the industry, perhaps because his style of acting set him apart from—and in crucial ways, above—the customs, habits, and conventions of the profession.

Boseman’s talent had never been in doubt; what had largely gone unrecognized was his originality. His breakthrough came in that most accursed of genres, the bio-pic, in “42,” which was released in 2013, when he was thirty-six years old. There, alongside the enormous historical responsibility that the role of Jackie Robinson (the first Black player in major-league baseball) imposed, Boseman had a hard script to contend with. It’s a movie written and directed with 20/20 hindsight regarding progress in American race relations. Boseman’s solution to the dramatic and technical problem of conveying Robinson’s supremely controlled bearing and the passion that roiled beneath it was to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of bio-pic performances: he neither reinvents the role to fit his own art (as do some other notables who’ve won Oscars for performances in the genre) nor does he impersonate the character of Robinson with sheer virtuosity. Rather, Boseman incarnates Robinson, catches an element of physical bearing that comes not from imitation but identification, from a profound empathy that goes beneath the skin and seemingly takes on not merely the character’s actions and experiences but also the subconscious, the automatic aspect.

That sense of lived-in spontaneity born of imagination is both the source of Boseman’s profound art and the reason that he had not been hailed as other actors have been. His method puts his own bearing severely to the test, and that bearing is supremely graceful: he makes the extreme difficulty of embodying Robinson (and, then, James Brown, in “Get On Up”) look effortless, and makes his distinctive and unusual craft look like second nature rather than like the actorly modernism that it is. In “Marshall,” Boseman plays Thurgood Marshall (in a story of Marshall’s work as a civil-rights attorney, set decades before he became a Supreme Court Justice) with a similarly inhabited air—an expansive power that’s the opposite of haunted or theatrical. Boseman’s performance is grandly dialectical, but his way with the word conveys, above all, the intellectual power and the historical undercurrent that gives rise to the word; here, too, his virtuosity is subordinated into a physical presence that virtually bursts through the screen with a startling immediacy that nonetheless seems to be entirely that of Marshall.

Boseman was an extraordinarily graceful actor—perhaps the most graceful one of his generation. His ability to generate enormous power with the appearance of minimal strain is both an art and a mark of personality, of a devotion and a humility that Hollywood values even less for its authenticity, its sincerity. In the role of T’Challa, in “Black Panther,” Boseman dons the royal mantle with a serenity that reflects a clear and principled sense of purpose—and that again wears lightly the burden of responsibility that comes with it. The movie, for all its Marvelous artifice, both asserts the Black identity of superheroic characters and of American pop culture at large, while also joining American Blackness to the heritage of African culture. The movie, through the creative efforts of its director, Ryan Coogler (who wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole), takes on a responsibility far greater than that of any other film in the Marvel cycle, greater perhaps than any work of mass entertainment in recent years—and Boseman, at its center, carries that responsibility with an understated grandeur that, once more, conveys a sense of humility.

What’s more, Boseman, for all that he achieved, did so quickly but belatedly. He had only a handful of starring and major roles; though he died at forty-three, he was really only just getting started. He had only begun to work with the leading directors of the time; his art and his style, though fully formed, had only begun to reveal their immense, historic possibilities. Boseman’s role in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” as Stormin’ Norman, the troop commander who, while fighting in Vietnam, was also a virtual mentor in Black history and politics to the men serving under his command, is similarly imbued with the responsibility and the weight of history. The role, despite its brevity, is the fulcrum of the movie, the source of emotional energy and of ideas that propel the drama.

The casting in Lee’s film is apt: here, Boseman, while inhabiting the role fully, is also, in a way, emblematic of his own artistic passion for history, for properly redefining the cultural record to reflect the centrality of Black lives and achievements. This, too, is part of Boseman’s gracefulness and devotion—his performances suggest that the only thing that’s remarkable about such an effort is the distressing fact that it is, today, still necessary. It is, perhaps, this very sense of history, of responsibility, of implicit but intensely personal political commitment, that also inhibited the acclaim, while Boseman lived and worked, from his timid and stumbling Hollywood milieu.

Doonesbury — Turnabout.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

John Lewis — 1940-2020

Via the New York Times:

Representative John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality, and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday. He was 80.

His death was confirmed in a statement by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mr. Lewis, of Georgia, announced on Dec. 29 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said.

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Mr. Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Mr. Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against police killings of Black people and, more broadly, against systemic racism in many corners of society. He saw those protests as a continuation of his life’s work, though his illness had left him to watch from the sidelines.

“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets — to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” Mr. Lewis told “CBS This Morning” in June.

“This feels and looks so different,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement, which drove the anti-racism demonstrations. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive.” He added, “There will be no turning back.”

He died on the same day as did another stalwart of the civil rights movement, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Lewis’s personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. He was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, the Black and white activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which coordinated lunch-counter sit-ins. He helped organize the March on Washington, where Dr. King was the main speaker, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Mr. Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.

On March 7, 1965, he led one of the most famous marches in American history. In the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied, Mr. Lewis marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., into a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear.

Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. In the melee, known as Bloody Sunday, a trooper cracked Mr. Lewis’s skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up.


In 2016, after a massacre at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub left 49 people dead, he led a sit-in on the House floor to protest federal inaction on gun control. The demonstration drew the support of 170 lawmakers, but Republicans dismissed it as a publicity stunt and squelched any legislative action.

Through it all, the events of Bloody Sunday were never far from his mind, and every year Mr. Lewis traveled to Selma to commemorate its anniversary. Over time, he watched attitudes change. At the ceremony in 1998, Joseph T. Smitherman, who had been Selma’s segregationist mayor in 1965 and was still mayor — though a repentant one — gave Mr. Lewis a key to the city.

“Back then, I called him an outside rabble-rouser,” Mr. Smitherman said of Mr. Lewis. “Today, I call him one of the most courageous people I ever met.”

Mr. Lewis was a popular speaker at college commencements and always offered the same advice — that the graduates get into “good trouble,” as he had done against his parents’ wishes.

He put it this way on Twitter in 2018:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Monday, May 25, 2020

Philip Williams – 1926-2020

Dad and Tupper in 1954

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.

Love, Philip.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sunday Reading

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

Sunday Reading

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

Random Youtubery

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

Jerry Herman — 1931-2019

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

Sunday Reading

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

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sunday Reading

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

Cokie Roberts

Rest in peace.

Cokie Roberts, a journalist and political commentator who became one of the most prominent Washington broadcasters of her era and championed young women in media during a long career with NPR and ABC News, died Sept. 17 in Washington. She was 75.

The cause was complications from breast cancer, according to a family statement provided by ABC.

Ms. Roberts earned three Emmy Awards, was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named a “living legend” by the Library of Congress in 2008.

From a young age, she was intimately familiar with the trappings of power in Washington. She wandered the halls of Congress, where her father, Rep. Thomas Hale Boggs Sr. of Louisiana, rose to become Democratic majority leader. Her mother, Lindy Boggs, launched her own congressional career after her husband died in a 1972 plane crash.

She used to annoy me with her card-carrying both-sides-do-it attitude in her commentary, but I strongly and firmly admired her for her fearless strides into broadcast journalism where men ruled as a matter of course.  For that alone she was a remarkable force.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019