Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bravery and Bribery


Arthur McArthur as an 18-year-old adjutant
Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s father, Captain Arthur MacArthur, was a Union Army Civil War veteran of conspicuous bravery. He went on to become part of that western cavalry that later came riding to the rescue in the horse-opera movies, but was actually engaged in the steady, colonial displacement of the Native American tribes.
“As Douglas told the story late in life, his father was serving on a military court in New Orleans when a cotton broker, urgently needing the loan of army transport facilities, attempted to suborn him. The bribe was to be a large sum of cash, which was left on his desk, and a night with an exquisite Southern girl. Wiring Washington the details, Arthur concluded, ‘I am depositing the money with the Treasury of the United States and request immediate relief from this command. They are getting close to my price.’”
— William Manchester, American Caesar.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Consider Character as Clay


I’m impressed by the similarities in the Buddhist ethical views described here and those of Aristotle, who held that habits form our moral character, as well as the existentialists, who claimed that existence precedes essence.
“According to Buddhism, humans have free will, and in the exercise of free will they engage in self-determination,” Damien Keown wrote in his book Buddhism. “In a very real sense, individuals create themselves through their moral choices. By freely and repeatedly choosing certain sorts of things, an individual shapes his character, and through his character his future. As the proverb has it: “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’”
“The process maybe likened to the work of a potter who molds the clay into a finished shape: the soft clay is one’s character, and when we make moral choices we hold ourselves in our hands and shape our natures for good or ill.”
This tends to support the view known as “virtue ethics,” summarized by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “…a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: ‘Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.’”

Help Wanted: A Publisher Who'll Pitch In


A classified ad sales rep at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, which was thrown in her honor

Vexing union troubles in the 1970s had the unexpected side effect of giving publisher Katharine Graham a lot of experience in how the Washington Post worked.
“I learned to take classified ads and spent hours at it,” she recalled in her autobiography, Personal History. “We were stunned at what hard work it was, with no let-up. You took an ad and hung up, and the light was already on with a new caller. Electric typewriters were then used to fill in the complicated classified forms, but since my typing wasn’t up to speed, I took the ads by hand and gave them to someone else to type.
“I tried to avoid the callers who had long, complicated ads — used-car dealers calling in to advertise several cars, for example. But one day toward the end of the strike, I got a Mercedes dealer on the phone, and everyone else was busy, so I had no choice.
“I told him, ‘Look, I’m new around here, so please go easy.’ We struggled through his list of six cars for sale and then he said doubtfully, ‘I think you’d better read it back.’ ‘All right,’ I said, and reread the ad swiftly and accurately. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You sound overqualified. You could be anyone. You could be Katharine Graham.’ I was startled for a moment before I replied, ‘As a matter of fact, I am.’”

Saturday, November 22, 2014

See No Evil, Report No Evil, Broadcast No Evil

I contend that the primary problem with the American system right now is the complicity and corruption of the corporate news media, which lets the right-wing arsonists do they like without ever sounding the alarm.
The corporate, political and bureaucratic imperatives under which we operate today preclude the idea that anyone owes the American public the truth. That’s why professional journalism is not merely dying because of shifting commercial considerations. It is actively being slain.

Friday, November 21, 2014

When Cute Things Clash


Matt and I went to see “Big Hero 6” — good-hearted and light-hearted, with an “Incredibles” vibe and a moral point about revenge and compassion. The movie also convincingly makes the point that it’s remarkably easy to turn an endearing, blimpy nursing robot into a superhero. And yes, Stan Lee takes a bow. Hollywood’s live-action movies and animated movies continue on their path of absolute convergence.

The Warring Ghosts of Watergate


Legendary Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham
The Washington Post’s investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal had forced President Richard Nixon’s back to the wall.
The existence of a secret taping system in the Oval Office had been disclosed, and Nixon knew that if the criminal conspiracy on those tapes were to come to light, his presidency would be destroyed. So he launched what came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was honest and intractable, so Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. Richardson refused, so Nixon fired him and ordered Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused and was fired in turn. The next official in line, Robert Bork, turned out to be craven enough to do Nixon’s bidding and fire Cox.
The facts that Nixon was desperate cover up all confirmed the truth of what the Washington Post had been reporting, but the truth was what many Americans still didn’t want to hear.
“The Post remained under attack — and the attack was becoming much more public,” Publisher Katharine Graham recalled in her autobiography, Personal History. “By this time I had warmed up to a degree of toughness of which I probably wouldn’t have been capable the year before.”
“At some point, I even engaged in a behind-the-scenes back and forth with Clare Boothe Luce,” Graham recalled, referring to the acid-tongued author and ambassador who was the widow of the founder of Time Magazine.
“Personally I admired her, but I was not in accord with her extremely conservative views,” Graham said. “She sometimes overdramatized things in speeches. In a major address to the Newspaper Publishers Association, she said she had written a speech but was troubled about it and, thinking about it, she went to bed. That night, she said, the spirit of her late husband, Henry Luce, came to her and told her to tell the truth about Watergate. She then attacked the Post for our reporting and for hiring ‘enemies’ of the president.”
After Luce’s speech, Graham remarked drily that her own late husband, publisher Phil Graham, had appeared to her in a vision and told her to tell Clare Booth Luce to shove it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Three Faces of the Shadow


It interests me that the Shadow existed in two immensely popular but distinct versions over a long period.
The pulp Shadow, born in 1931, could not become invisible, commanded a network of agents and merely posed as millionaire Lamont Cranston. 
The radio Shadow, born in 1938, could become invisible, had no network of agents and really was Lamont Cranston. 
Both characters derived from a third, preexisting Shadow who was merely a mysterious voice narrating radio mystery stories beginning in 1929. The voice became so popular that Street & Smith, the company that owned the program, decided to build a magazine around it, the first hero pulp. The popularity of the pulp inspired the second radio Shadow, whose abilities were tailored to a perfect fit for the medium: the man no one can see.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

We Have Nothing to Fear But TV News Itself

New panic wanted to fill immediate position. Ideal candidate will be trumped-up, distracting, alarmist, jingoistic and fundamentally speculative. Apply with references to CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Relatively Speaking, "Interstellar" is Gripping


To clear the mental palate, I went to see Interstellar today. It’s intelligent science fiction with a veneer of verisimilitude to gloss over the improbabilities. The thing I like best about it was the heart it put into describing the horrors and wonders of relativity. 
The thing I liked worst about it was using an adjective as a title. The film holds two great actors in reserve as a special surprise.
The tagline to this 2001-ish epic might be, “In space, no one can hear you talking to yourself across the space-time continuum.”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

From "Smallville" to "Gotham:" TV's Travels and Travails with Superheroes


Reb Brown played Captain America in two late-1970s TV movies: Ah, no.
Shows like “Smallville” and “Gotham” reflect the intersection of an immensely popular genre with a medium considered to be ill-suited to present that genre. Such shows necessarily try to have it both ways.
The costumed romanticism and colorful childish conventions of superhero comics do not blend well with the mundane, realistic surfaces preferred by television (even though TV's plots are anything but realistic). 
"The Bionic Woman:" TV prefers its super people sensibly dressed.
This is one of the reasons why shows about costumed characters like Spider-Man and Captain America failed so badly on 1970s TV, while normally dressed bionic super-spies and the Incredible Hulk succeeded. The Hulk was, after all, just a Universal Pictures monster writ large, coupled with the familiar TV formula of "The Fugitive." I remember a long sequence on a Spider-Man TV episode that was actually given over to a car chase — the very dullest of television conventions weighing down a character who should have soared.
Even several years earlier, in 1971, Marvel’s blind superhero Daredevil arguably became, in TV writer Stirling Silliphant’s hands, a private detective named Longstreet, played by James Franciscus. Silliphant had consulted with Stan Lee about a Daredevil TV series before he created Mike Longstreet. The character’s heightened remaining senses could pick up clues others missed, and he could fight with spectacular martial arts abilities taught to him by Bruce Lee. Dramatic radio, the theatre of the mind, was hospitable to immensely popular superheroes like the Shadow, the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet even before the comic book variety arrived, and welcomed Superman almost as soon as he landed. Costumed characters are no dramatic obstacle when you’re the one imagining how they look. Movies, with their bigger budgets and audiences seated in the cavernous dark before a giant glowing screen, also find it easy to trade in the fantastic. But the living-room medium remains uncomfortable with anything that looks out of place in a living room. Superhero comics prefer the fantastic to look fantastic, while television prefers the fantastic to look pedestrian.

All the Post's Fears


Hal Holbrook as Bob Woodward's shadowy secret source "Deep Throat" in "All the President's Men."

Being lionized in a major Hollywood movie can make you as nervous as a cat.
At least that was the experience of the people at the Washington Post when Robert Redford announced his determination to make a film about the newspaper’s Watergate reporting. The dogged investigation by two street-level reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, had overturned the rock of so much corruption that a U.S. president was forced to resign from office.
But as proud as they were of the paper’s reporting, Publisher Katharine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee weren’t at all sure about this movie business.
Carl Bernstein, Katharine Graham and Bob Woodward during the Watergate era
“Redford was charming and professional, and he had a critical advantage over me in our first discussions: he knew he was going to make the movie and I didn’t,” Bradlee recalled in his memoir A Good Life. “And his wish list scared us all.”
Redford told them he wanted to call the newspaper “The Washington Post,” and to use all their real names, and to shoot the film in the newspaper’s offices. No, no, and absolutely not, Bradlee and company replied.
In the end, they were forced to relent on all but the last point, and, at a cost of $450,000, the Washington Post’s offices were duplicated in California, right down to the trash in the wastebaskets.
“In many ways, the idea of a movie scared me witless,” Graham said in her autobiography Personal History. “Despite Redford’s assurances that he wanted to make a good movie about the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I was naturally nervous about having the image and reputation of the Post in the hands of a movie company whose interests did not necessarily coincide with ours.”
In May 1974, in a breakfast at her home, Graham met the actor-producer. “I should have been pleased and interested to meet Redford, but we didn’t get along, thanks partially, I’m sure, to my own defensive crouch — the result of al my concerns, however real or imagined.”
Redford recalled the tension. “It was brittle,” he said. “She was gracious but tense. There was a definite tight-jawed, blueblood quality to Graham that cannot be covered by any amount of association with Ben Bradlee or other street types.”
“I respected her for not wanting her privacy invaded … but we weren’t interested in her personal life,” Redford added. “And I was puzzled. If she wanted to maintain so low a profile, why did she keep making speeches and accepting awards?”
Ben Bradlee
Bradlee said he didn’t think the film should be made, but — realizing that Redford was going to produce it with or without him — he played along, thinking it “made more sense to try to influence it factually.”
The film was to be based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book All the President’s Men. The paperback rights alone had sold for $1 million, an irony not lost on Graham during a Newspaper Guild strike.
“I vividly recall watching a news broadcast that showed the two of them leaving the building with their files, and I caused a stir with a rather acid remark about their being the only two people ever to have made a million dollars while on strike,” she said.
Speculation about casting was inevitable. Graham joked with circulation managers that “…my role will be played by Raquel Welch — assuming our measurements match.”
Bradlee flattered her with glamorous suggestions like Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal — and teased her with the names of creakingly venerable actresses like Edna May Oliver and Marie Dressler.
But somewhat to her relief, Graham’s role in the film was reduced to a single vulgar reference by Richard Nixon’s criminal Attorney General John Mitchell. Bradlee got the glamour treatment, being played by Jason Robards, while Managing Editor Howard Simons was portrayed by character actor Martin Balsam.
The script’s heroic emphasis on Bradlee and de-emphasis of Simons damaged their long friendship. “Our relationship, which had been such a joyous one, so congenial and close we could literally finish each other’s sentences, was never the same after the film,” Bradlee said.
Bradlee lost a friend by being portrayed, and Graham was surprised to find that she had mixed feelings about not being portrayed. “I was told that no one understood the role of a publisher, and it was too extraneous to explain,” she said. “Redford imagined that I would be relieved, which I was, but to my surprise, my feelings were hurt by being omitted altogether, except for the one famous allusion to my anatomy.”
Then, in March 1976, came the day they’d dreaded. Redford invited them to Jack Valenti’s screening room at the Motion Picture Association to see a preliminary print of the film.
“We were all so nervous, we sat in pockets around the room,” Graham recalled.
“Each of us sat alone, afraid to react or be caught reacting,” Bradlee said. “And when it was over, no one said a word.”
Redford couldn’t stand it. He said, “Jesus, say something! You must have some reaction to it!”
Indeed, ultimately, they did. How could they not have loved a sophisticated, intelligent movie that celebrated their values and portrayed them as heroic historic figures?
Graham put her feelings in a letter to Redford. “I suddenly realized that the impact of the movie as we saw it, with you and with each other, was so great and we were all so tense, that I have never told you what I thought of it,” she wrote. “It’s just extraordinary in every way.”
The staff of the Washington Post, according to Hollywood
Noting that none of her fears about the film had been realized, she told Redford, “I want you to be very sure you know that I deeply admire what you did in creating ‘All the President’s Men.’ It pictures Carl and Bob almost, eerily, as I perceive them. They are tenacious, able, complex, intelligent and wise beyond their years, funny and nice … It really does tell people what a newspaper is like — the important thing I thought you couldn’t do.”
A decade or so later, Woodward came to Eastern Illinois University to speak, and I interviewed him at a press conference. I asked him something I’d long vaguely wondered about — was his apartment really as messy as Redford’s was in the film? “No, I’m really very neat,” Woodward replied. “The filmmakers said they had to do that to ‘humanize’ me.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Find the Day


The mural "Building Hope" by Debens

We've got it rough. So did lots of honest people throughout history, in the plagues, in the Inquisition, in the Civil War, in the world wars, when we came damn near close to blowing up human civilization when I was 8 years old. We can but fight on, or give up. I'm for fighting on with a smile, and assuming we'll get the breaks. As Shakespeare said, the night is long that never finds the day.