Mass Appeal

Unguided Missal? Mass composer Leonard Bernstein in 1971.

Last week on The New Yorker’s website, music critic Alex Ross wrote three articles based on newly released Freedom of Information Act-obtained government documents regarding inquiries into composer-conductor-polymath Leonard Bernstein’s politics. They include an 800-page FBI file, memos from the Nixon White House Special Investigation Unit (aka Plumbers), and several taped conversations between RN and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman regarding the impending premiere of Bernstein’s Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center in September 1971.

Alex Ross is to music what Pauline Kael was to movies. Both New Yorker critics share a commuunicable enthusiasm for their subject, an unintimidating expertise, and a ravishing prose style. In his New Yorker columns, on his blog, and in The Rest Is Noise, his recent best selling history of modern music, Mr. Ross renders the uncompromisingly unlistenable relentlessly readable.

And the Bernstein material he has uncovered is fascinating enough in itself.

The inquiries into the young conductor’s politics began with the Truman White House’s request to the FBI for an ideological vetting:

Although Hoover’s operatives began tracking Bernstein’s left-wing activities as early as the mid-nineteen-forties, the first serious inquiry came in March, 1949, when David Niles, President Truman’s administrative assistant, asked the Bureau to look into the young musician’s background. Niles wanted the information because Truman and Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, were scheduled to attend an event at which Bernstein was slated to perform. A memo from D. M. Ladd to Hoover states that Bernstein was “connected, affiliated, or in some manner associated” with various organizations described as Communist fronts…

Director Hoover found the file’s contents insufficient to merit his endorsement (“This phraseology means nothing + most certainly I can’t send to W. H. [the White House] such ambiguous + sweeping statements.”), so Mr. Niles was back at square one.  In the event, Bernstein conducted and Truman sent his regrets.

In 1951, Bernstein’s name turned up on the Prominent Individuals Section of the Security Index — apparently a list of people who would be rounded up in the event of war with the USSR. In 1953, in order for the State Department to renew his passport, Bernstein had to submit an 11-page affidavit swearing that he had never been a member of the Communist Party or knowingly engaged in any communist-friendly activities.


From the Ross Bernstein documents: Leonard Bernstein’s Truman era Security Index Card.

A thorough FBI investigation, in 1954-55, yielded no hard evidence to contradict Bernstein’s affidavit—only “hearsay,” according to a memo dated August, 1955. Yet the FBI continued to collect accusations and insinuations. In 1958, one informant stated: “I know that Bernstein is a card-carrying Communist but I have no proof of it but I can tell by the way he talks.”

The thin record —ranging from soulless bureaucratese to squirrely handwritten denunciations— was typical of the times; today it makes dispiriting, albeit fascinating, reading. Looking back at his long life, nineteen years after the Maestro’s death, it’s easy to see that the prodigiously talented Bernstein, when it came to politics, was an enthusiastic idealist; and, for all his great sophistication, an idealistic naïf.

After flying under the FBI’s radar for several years, Bernstein re-emerged in 1968 —with LBJ now in the White House— as a result of his ardent flirtation with the Black Panthers.

Although at first only those on the FBI’s need-to-know distribution list were kept abreast of the Bernsteins’ Panthermania, before long —on 8 June 1970 to be exact— the world would read about it in Tom Wolfe’s devastating New York Magazine piece “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”  Thanks to Wolfe’s kandy-kolored prose, the Bernsteins’ unironic earnestness was soon common knowledge and the subject of national mockery.


The Kennedy Center: The Wall Street Journal’s review of its 1971 opening said: “Unfortunately, a perfect opening may be one of the few things the Kennedy Center will have going for it.  Its monumental building which has been described by one well-known critic as “gemutlich Speer,” is, not to put too fine a point on it, awesome but cold.  It is in the style of the Soviet palaces of science and culture, and the dizzying halls of states and nations convey a distinct feeling of the Moscow underground.”

After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy decided that the only monument in Washington to her late husband’s memory would be the cultural center —the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts— to be built on the banks of the Potomac.

She commissioned Bernstein —a longtime Kennedy friend and unquestionably the nation’s preeminent conductor and composer— to write a major original work, to be paid for by the late President’s family, for the opening of the Center.   His initial idea was to compose a traditional Requiem mass in the tradition of Mozart, Verdi, and Faure.

But, being Bernstein, he soon fastened on a less conventional approach. The result, very accurately titled Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, was a hybrid of the concert hall and the Broadway stage, with a thick gloss of ‘60s Greening of America schmalz.

As the Alex Ross New Yorker articles show, there was some concern in the Nixon White House about the advisability of RN’s attending the Kennedy Center’s opening.

The press and TV, not surprisingly, were obsessed with the long-anticipated event.   Although Mrs. Kennedy had become Mrs. Onassis in the meantime, this would represent the refurling of Camelot’s flag in the heart of Nixonian Washington.  There was serious speculation devoted to whether Mrs. Onassis and/or President Nixon would attend; and, if they both did, about how that would be choreographed. There was also considerable grousing in the predictable circles that RN, by attending, would be intruding where he certainly wasn’t wanted and arguably didn’t belong.

Further, Bernstein and “sources close to Mass” had been hinting and leaking stories about the work in progress (which continued to be in progress right up to the premiere) that the event would be as much political as artistic.  There was speculation that the composer would use this Mass —with its likely captive audience of national leaders— as his means of speaking antiwar truth to power.


“Nixon + Jackie and Joe Blow”:  Bernstein made notes about Mass at the McDowell Colony in 1970.  Regarding The Communion (the Kiss of Peace) he wrote: “Something should happen that turns the militancy to love.  For me the Communion and the Kiss of Peace are not two things, but one: the kiss is the communion and should pass through the whole company in a ritual way, + be somehow transmitted on through the house, to Nixon + Jackie and Joe Blow — What music?  Quiet chorale, or big gay sound?”

The upshot was an FBI memo —dated 16 August 1971, roughly three weeks before opening night— on the subject: “PROPOSED PLANS OF ANTIWAR ELEMENTS TO EMBARRASS THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.”  The memo’s purpose was set out in the first paragraph:

To advise that information regarding a previously reported plot by Leonard Bernstein, conductor and composer, to embarrass the President and other Government official through an antiwar and anti-Government musical composition to be played at the dedication of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has been reported by the press.

The report in question was from Human Events that “rumors are sweeping Washington” that Bernstein would embarrass RN with an anti-administration bombshell.  It was noted that he had met in jail with the anti-war Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who was serving a three year sentence for destroying draft files, and who was rumored to be a collaborator on the Mass’s Latin libretto.

As Bernstein’s working notes show, he had, indeed, received advice from Fr. Berrigan, and had originally considered writing “4 Lullabies for Martyrs” (JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X).  The “Epistle” —the produced Mass’s most explicitly political section— intersperses quotations from Second Timothy with letters from an imprisoned draft resister.

So the fact that this highly public and potentially politically sensitive event was the subject of discussion among RN and his staff isn’t surprising.

Robert Mardian, then head of the DOJ’s Internal Security Division, wrote a memo summarizing the situation as the premiere approached.  He paid particular attention to the Bernstein-Berrigan visit at the Danbury Correctional Institution on 25 May 1971.

One could surmise that this visit by Bernstein was in connection with his “Mass,” particularly when considered in the light of information circulation within the pro-Berrigan camp to the effect that Bernstein has requested Father Berrigan to compose words for the “Mass” in Latin and it would follow an antiwar theme.  If this is true, consider the implications and the publicity which would accrue to the antiwar movement if this “Mass” were to be politely applauded by high ranking Government officials who undoubtedly will attend the dedication ceremonies at the Kennedy Center and who probably are not conversant in Latin.

Mardian concluded:

The fact that two such controversial figures as Bernstein and Father Berrigan are collaborating on the dedication program should appear to offer sufficient reason for inquiries as to just what mischief they are up to.  It would also be interesting to know just how Father Berrigan’s contribution to this “Mass” is to be furnished to Bernstein — openly through regular channels, or clandestinely.

The Mardian memo reached Pat Buchanan, who sent it to the Domestic Council’s Bud Krogh.  Buchanan wrote: “My view is that we ought to find someone who can definitely translate that Latin Mass Bernstein is working on — to make sure this is accurate.”  And he had someone in mind: “”get us a good Jesuit to translate, maybe Father McLaughlin…”  This was John McLaughlin, a friend of Buchanan’s, who had recently joined the White House speechwriting staff.

Coincidentally, two weeks before, Krogh had been tasked with tracking down information regarding the leak of the Pentagon Papers (which had first appeared on the front page of The New York Times on 13 June).  Mr. Ross, understandably but incorrectly, assumes that this was common knowledge and explains why Krogh was given this assignment — an assumption supported by the fact that Krogh in turn tasked his new aide G. Gordon Liddy with obtaining a copy of the Mass’s libretto.  What Buchanan more likely had in mind when he wrote “we should be able to get a copy of what he is preparing — there will have to be rehearsals,” was Krogh’s Domestic Council responsibility for matters involving the District of Columbia.

Mr. Ross writes —correctly— that “Several personalities involved in this exchange of memos had ties to the White House’s Special Investigations Unit, better known as the Plumbers, and later to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP, which” —incorrectly— “organized the Watergate break-in of 1972.”  (The break-in emerged full-blown from the pervervid brain of G. Gordon Liddy, under the patronage of John Dean, and with the acquiescence of Jeb Magruder and, alas at least temporarily, John Mitchell; its only —tangential— CREEP connection was the presence of CRP employee James McCord among the burglars.)

Liddy, on 6 August, reported that he had met with White House Counsel John Dean —the spider at the center of so many webs—who “stated that his office had had the matter for more than a week and obtained a copy of the Mass.  Dean stated that it is definitely anti-war and anti-establishment, etc.”

On 9 August Haldeman told RN that Fr. McLaughlin’s opinion, rather than reflecting Dean’s dire judgment, was simply that Mass would be “very depressing.”   Reporting on a preview performance of Mass on 7 September, Haldeman answered RN’s question “Is it an opera?” by simply saying that it was “weird.”  The next day Haldeman reported that, while some passages were spectacular, others were “atonal-type music.”

As is clear from the several tapes Mr. Ross excerpts in his third post (”Bernstein in the Nixon Tapes“), RN’s conversations with Haldeman have mostly to do with the media minefields involved in attending —and thereby imposing Presidential protocol on— what would clearly otherwise be a Kennedy celebration.  (As it turned out to be.  Following the performance, Rose Kennedy presented Bernstein with a commemorative medal.)

The Solomonic solution they worked out was that RN would give the Presidential Box to Mrs. Onassis for Wednesday night’s opening of the Opera House with the Mass she had commissioned for the occasion.

And on the following, Thursday, night, RN would attend the National Symphony’s opening of the Center’s Concert Hall.

On 9 September, Haldeman informed RN that The New York Times’ review of Mass, by the paper’s chief music critic Harold Schonberg, would apparently “kick it around,” calling the work superficial and overplayed.  In fact, Schoenberg —who had been no friend of Bernstein’s for some time— pulled out all the stops when it came to Mass.  In the Sunday paper he called it “A combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce.”

Haldeman reported Len Garment’s opinion that it is “quite spectacular theater” but, as a combination of West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hair, “it’s got a lot of lousy stuff in it.”

Most of Mass’s reviews ranged from lukewarm to underwhelmed; many were downright hostile.  Among the major national publications, the only glowing review appeared in The Wall Street Journal. And that review was written by, of all people, a new member of the Nixon White House staff —only on board since 2 August— who was working in the small room he shared with Dick Cheney in Don Rumsfeld’s second floor West Wing suite.

On the night of Wednesday, 8 September, this newly-minted aide was in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House for the premiere of Mass.  And on the 10th, his fulsome review appeared in the Journal.

And that fellow was…

I had been reviewing books for the Journal for a couple of years, and had contributed a few theater reviews before moving to Washington to begin a White House Fellowship.  I had suggested the Mass reviewing gig, and the paper, which hadn’t planned to  note the occasion, had been able to make last minute arrangements for a single ticket.

I opened my review noting that Mrs. Onassis, by deciding not to turn up for the opening, had succeeded in making herself the center of attention.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts should have achieved its apotheosis at its opening on Wednesday night.

Everything was right for a unique and moving moment in American history.  The opening piece was Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” which was commissioned by Mrs. Kennedy soon after the President’s death.  It was the right choice of music from the right composer.

So for the opening of this center, the late President’s memorial in Washington, the sole, but crucial, missing element was Mrs. Onassis herself.  By suddenly deciding not to attend, she did exactly what she said she was trying to avoid, and for many people turned the opening night into yet another Jackie-watch.  Would she or wouldn’t she?  She didn’t, and “Mass” was thus robbed of the real presence it needed to consecrate the hall.

Because for all its musical interest and worth, “Mass” was of necessity a piece d’occasion.  This center is the memorial by which John F. Kennedy will be remembered.  Now, short years later, when historians are already placing him in a troubled and critical perspective is the time to recall and commemorate that vision and spirit which he represented and embodied.

Then I plunged right in praising Mass:

Mr. Bernstein’s work…is a complex, convoluted, striking, rollicking, stunning work of art.  It is also very beautiful, both to hear and to look at.  The concept itself is not perhaps as original as it must have been when he first began work on it.  Indeed, it is now almost a genre piece, and as such it will undoubtedly be weighed and found wanting by many.  Hard rockers will find it inferior to the Electric Prune’s “Mass in F Minor”; the general public will find it less appealing and catchy than “Jesus Christ Superstar”; and theater-goers will find it far less stimulating than “Hair.”

And yet it is the mixed-media masterpiece toward which Mr. Bernstein’s theatrical and musical careers have been pointing.  Echoes of all the best that have gone before are here fulfilled; his broad and deep theological vision, already indicated in his first (Jeremiah) and third (Kaddish) symphonies; his exquisite solo settings in the lamentation and kaddish of the symphonies and in the stunning “Chichester Psalms”; his popular melodic and rhythmic command in “West Side Story.”

Mass opens simply, with the Celebrant strumming a guitar and singing “A Simple Song.”  This clip is from a staged concert performance in August 2007 in Riga, Latvia.  The Celebrant is Douglas Webster; the conductor is Maris Sirmais.

At least to my ears, the Latin text turned out to be mostly in Broadway ballad-friendly English.

The texts of the “Mass” are from the Roman liturgy with additions by the composer and the young author of “Godspell,” Stephen Schwartz.  But Mr. Bernstein’s hand is the most heavily present; the same kind of almost embarrassingly naïve and obvious lyrics which marked his opera “Trouble in Tahiti” are here, but here they are serving a vision so grand and towering that they seem to give it both an impetus of sincerity and a comforting human touch.

Gordon Davidson impressively and theatrically marshaled the cast of two hundred — including Alvin Ailey’s dancers, a brass band, and a massed choir — and kept the almost two hour intermissionless production from ever being “depressing.”  But there was no doubt that it was —as befits a requiem— serious bordering on sombre.

This “Mass” is in fact an anguished cry about our loss of faith.  The Gloria is a quiet little song regretting that the girl doesn’t ever seem to say Gloria any more; and the Credo is a driving lament that the man can no longer say “I believe.”  The Agnus Dei becomes a fierce, almost revolutionary red-lit surging, stopping demand for the peace promised: dona nobis pacem.  At the end a Mahleresque flute birdsong and the plainsung voice of a child restore the hope if not the faith for the final whispered Pax Tecum and the moving choral communion.  The text is full of word-plays in Latin, English, Greek and Hebrew.  “Accidents Do Happen,” sung during the consecration after the host and wine have been dropped, is perhaps the most obvious if not the best.

There are, to be sure, moments of excess and even a few of pure hoke, but in a work of this size and scale these are inevitable and piddling.  The insight Mr. Bernstein has shown into the mass and our times is uncanny and overwhelming; it is also very sophisticated and can hardly be justly judged on the basis of one viewing of this really razzmatazz theater show.

My review appeared on Friday, so I was able to include the Thursday night Concert Hall opening (which I hadn’t attended):

In the concert hall, which opened last night, President and Mrs. Nixon were treated to a program that would have been solid midweek subscription concert series fare for a good municipal orchestra.  Like “La Grande Scene,” the center’s expensive restaurant, whose menu is entirely in French, the National Symphony under Antal Dorati chose a wholly non-American program.  Is it parochial or foolish patriotic to have preferred hearing Leontyne Price singing Samuel Barber, Gershwin’s “Concerto in F”, and, say, and Ives symphony, to hearing “the Rite of Spring” for the Nth time, however well played?  Some of the center’s future fare is similarly prosaic or unaccountably exotic, and whether the center will be a viable economic proposition at the box-office will remain, anxiously, to be seen.  Be that as it may, it is now well and truly opened.


Before the kissing had to start: Leonard Bernstein, flanked (left) by director Gordon Davidson and co-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, takes a curtain call following the premiere of Mass at the Kennedy Center on 8 September 1971.

Bernstein’s notes for Mass reflect some of the advice given by Daniel Berrigan: “Father Dan said today: Leave them with the militant mood. You yell at them and turn off the lights.”  In fact, the ending Bernstein chose for Mass was exactly the opposite: a serenely moving, all but unaccompanied, choral hymn.

Almighty Father, incline thine ear.
Bless us and all those who have gathered here.
They angels send us,
Who shall defend us all:
And fill with grace
All who dwell in this place.

A dozen years later —in 1984— the overture had already begun at a preview of a Broadway musical when three people arrived, late, to take the adjacent seats.  As I stood to let them pass I summoned up my best “if looks could kill” look — and found that I was bestowing it upon Adolph Comden, Betty Green, and Leonard Bernstein, who took the seat next to me.

At the intermission I introduced myself to him as a long-time admirer.  To set myself apart in that vast category, I said that, although I doubted he would remember it, I had written The Wall Street Journal’s review of Mass.  He smiled warmly, claimed to remember it, and said “Let me buy you a drink.”  (Reading my review last week, a friend said, “For that review he should have bought you a car.”)

Despite its critical drubbing —with the one noted notable exception— Mass found an immediate popular audience; in fact, it remains the best-selling multi-disc classical recording of all time.  Of the three currently available recordings, my favorite is the contemporaneous studio recording conducted by the composer and featuring the original cast. In 2004 Kent Nagano, and earlier this year Kristjan Jarvi released their versions.  On 25 August, Marin Alsop’s much-awaited Baltimore Symphony recording will be available; she prepared it as part of her 2008 Bernstein season celebrating what would have been her mentor’s 90th birthday.

There is also a DVD of a 1999 performance at Vatican City.

Posted in American Politics, Culture, Frost/Nixon, Music, U.S. History, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Palin, Nixon, And The “Secret Plan”

At CQ Politics, Jonathan Allen contrasts Sarah Palin and Richard Nixon.  “Palin doesn’t have Nixon’s interest in, or knowledge of, foreign affairs,” he writes. “Imagine the reaction if Palin suggested she had a “secret plan” to win the war in Afghanistan.”  He is undoubtedly right on his major point, but I must nitpick the second sentence. As Frank Gannon and yours truly have noted on this site, RN never said that he had a secret plan to win the war in Vietnam.  That urban legend started with a wire report that inaccurately paraphrased his comments at a town meeting.

The CQ article links to a piece that acknowledges this point, while suggesting that RN let the myth stand during the 1968 campaign because it worked to his advantage.  Actually, as Nixon speechwriter Raymond Price has written:  “We on the Nixon staff immediately pointed out, to all who would listen, that he had not claimed a `plan.’ Nixon himself told reporters that if he had one, he would have given it to President Johnson.”  Nelson Rockefeller kept the canard alive as a way of attacking Nixon.  Richard Reeves reported in the New York Times on March 19, 1968:

When he has been alone with friends, Mr. Rockefeller has scornfully mocked Mr. Nixon by patting his suit pocket and saying that he keeps a peace plan there while hundreds of Americans die each week in Vietnam. The Governor has said that he will ‘pound away’ at Mr. Nixon’s secret plan during the Oregon campaign.

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Ron Silver 1946 – 2009

Ron Silver died in his sleep on Sunday at his home in Manhattan.  He was 62.

When I was named editor of Saturday Review in 1984, one of my first tasks was to liven up that distinguished by moribund institution.  In my search for interesting and unusual reviewers and writers, I came across the information that Ron Silver spoke and read Chinese.

In fact, as I discovered when we met, he had majored in Chinese and Spanish at SUNY Binghamton, and then taken a Masters in Chinese at St. John’s, followed by a year on scholarship at the University of Taiwan.  He spent almost half of that time backpacking through the Golden Triangle.  Or, as I would put it to him, “backpacking”.   He was too serious to be a tourist; and too smart to be on some Pineapple Express.  What else was left but CIA?  His reply to my questioning and teasing would always be one of those patented Silverian smiles, half way between smug and inscrutable.  (He later told Cindy Adams that he was, in fact, working for the Company:  ”I thought it was patriotic. But then time came that life, love and girls distracted me.”  But I bet he said it with one of those same smiles.)

He wrote some reviews for us and, for the September 1986 issue, he interviewed China’s foremost female writer — the non-English speaking Zhang Jie.  In several hundred words he sketched the history of feminism and popular literature under communism in China.  He wrote with real insight and considerable style.  (Not to mention that, despite the heavy demands of his day jobs, his print-ready copy was always delivered on time.)

“We Chinese open our gifts after the guests leave — unlike Westerners who share them with others publicly.  The content is the same.”

The subject was sex, not birthday presents.  The speaker was the feminist author Zhang Jie.  A striking women whose jet-black hair is streaked with gray, she represnts a new breed of Chinese writer.  Apparently, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, these artists feel free to discuss the angst of the individual —including some matters of romance, love and sex — without the traditional ideological packaging.

For over 5,000 years, the burden of social responsibility fell heavily on Chinese women.  Female oppression was brutal and deeply entrenched; female infanticide and foot binding were widely practiced.  After marriage, women went from servitude in their homes to servitude in their mother-in-laws’.  Until 1949, in fact, wives were called “neiren,” or “inside persons.”

Zhang’s heroines are often “inside persons” who break out.  They are outsiders, strong women unafraid of taking risks — not unlike Zhang herself.  In a land where divorce still carries a stigma, Zhang is divorced with one child.  During the Cultural Revolution she was “sent down” to work in the countryside, an experience which shaped her current belief in women’s superior abilities to withstand adversity.

Ron was already widely known and recognized as a young TV star (he was Valerie Harper’s swinging bachelor neighbor on Rhoda) and a journeyman movie actor before a breakthrough role in 1983’s Silkwood.

He was interested in politics and fascinated by RN, so we started meeting every so often —usually at Orso, but sometimes at home— for dinner.  In those days Adam and Alexandra were toddlers, but his wife Lynne joined us whenever she could.  He was a great and expansive raconteur with an observant eye, a lively wit, and, not surprisingly, the ability to supply dialog and dialects and shtick.

He was a hidebound Democrat, but his curiosity about RN —and particularly about his foreign policy and the way his mind worked— was as sincere as it was intense and challenging.  I like to think that he put some of these conversations to use when he played Henry Kissinger (to Beau Bridges’ RN) in the 1995 TV movie Kissinger and Nixon.

By the late 1980s he was embarked on a political  journey that included being president of  Actors’ Equity (1991-2000) and co-founder and president of the Creative Coalition (1989-1993).  He became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  He was on the Board of Advisors of the Israel Project; and on the advisory board of Scooter Libby’s Defense Trust.

He was an admirer, a supporter, and a friend of Rudy Giuliani.

On The West Wing, he played Bruno Gianelli, the political consultant who manages President Bartlett’s re-election campaign.

Apparently Ron —a longtime smoker with a particular fondness for big cigars— was diagnosed with esophageal cancer two years ago.  He kept the diagnosis to himself and fought the disease right to the end.  That knowledge makes this clip from an appearance six months ago on David Frost’s British TV show particularly poignant and painful.

The Los Angeles Times’ ”Top of the Ticket” blog noted:

As you can imagine, yesterday’s death of Ron Silver from esophageal cancer at 62 is inspiring many conservative ecomiums for the liberal actor who full-throatedly embraced the reelection of President George W. Bush in 2004. In a speech to the Republican National Convention, Silver admitted being “a well-recognized liberal,” but rapped his colleagues:

I find it ironic that many human rights advocates and outspoken members of my       own entertainment community are often on the front lines to protest repression …       but they are usually the first ones to oppose any use of force to take care of these       horrors that they catalogue repeatedly.

Under the unwavering leadership of President Bush, the cause of freedom and       democracy is being advanced by the courageous men and women serving in our       armed services. The president is doing exactly the right thing.

In Hollywood, of course, it’s slightly dangerous to veer off the approved ideological path, but Silver’s liberal bona fides were unassailable, and he was able to cross party lines without much repercussion.

Although he didn’t know of any jobs he lost because of his beliefs, he was realistic about the fact that he was very much the odd man out in an instinctively liberal profession.  He said that after his speech at the Republican Convention “The phone stopped ringing . . . nada . . . not a thing.”

The New York Times‘ obituary is headed “Persuasive Actor and Activist” and deftly handles the latter characterization:

An activist most frequently allied with left-wing issues, he was president of Actors’ Equity, the stage actors union, for most of the 1990s and was a co-founder of the Creative Coalition, a group that advocates for First Amendment rights, public education and arts support. He campaigned for Bill Clinton for president.

“I’m an actor by calling but an activist by inclination,” Mr. Silver said in a 1994 interview.

Still, he had contrary impulses, and he paid attention to them. He was an advocate for President  Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense plan, and he supported Mr. Giuliani’s campaign for mayor of New York in 1994. In 2004, he made headlines when he was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan, supporting the nomination of President George W. Bush for a second term, largely because of the president’s stance against Islamic terrorism. He supported Mr. Giuliani for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Alas, the Times ends its notice on a churlish note.  After mentioning his family (but not that they were with him when he died), it concludes:

His acting awed them, his conservative streak confounded them, [his brother] Mitchell Silver said.

“Ron’s politics, as far as I know, were not shared by anyone he knew, except for the people he knew because of his politics,” Mitchell Silver said. He paused and added, “He told me that he did vote for Barack Obama in the end.”

(Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger: A Biography was the basis for Kissinger and Nixon, a 1995 made-for-TV movie that starred Beau Bridges as RN and Ron Silver as HAK.  The screenplay was by Lionel Chetwynd; the director was Daniel Petrie.  Ron Silver’s other notable film roles included Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune, Angelo Dundee in Ali, and the deliciously villainous Senator Aaron McComb in Timecop.  On Broadway he won the Tony for Best Actor for his role opposite Joe Mantegna and Madonna in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow.)

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We’re All Nixonians Now

Bruce Bartlett is a former Reagan administration official who wrote in 2002 that President Nixon had “betrayed” conservative principles by acquiescing in big-government policies. Bartlett now argues that all conservatives will have to live with big government and higher taxes. He wants them to focus on promoting economic growth and keeping tax increases as moderate as possible:

I think conservatives would better spend their diminished political capital figuring out how to finance the welfare state at the least cost to the economy and individual liberty, rather than fighting a losing battle to slash popular spending programs. But this will require them to accept the necessity of higher revenues.

It is simply unrealistic to think that tax cuts will continue to be a viable political strategy when the budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, as it will this year. Nor is it realistic to think that taxes can be kept at 19 percent of GDP when spending is projected to grow by about 50 percent of GDP over the next generation, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. And that’s without any new spending programs being enacted.

I had an enjoyable exchange of e-mails with Mr. Bartlett in response to this post. I don’t have his permission to reproduce his messages, so I won’t. But in his first one, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I accused him of flip-flopping when it came to the need to hew to conservative principles no matter what. My reply:

I wouldn’t say a flip-flop at all. Just an irony. You make clear that we are in unanticipated times and that conservatives need a new script to match. It does seem that for nearly a century they have been fighting the same improvisational and ultimately losing rear guard action against the growth of government. Depression, World War II, Cold War, war on poverty, civil rights, Vietnam, 1980s recession, Social Security crisis, war on terrorism, war on global meltdown — in response to every crisis, government has grown. I believe it was you who demonstrated somewhere that by the end of his term Ronald Reagan himself had earned the title of biggest tax increaser ever.

I hear you saying that there’s a point at which the market will cease having an incentive to recover and grow. Perhaps one sign would be the feds telling Detroit what kinds of cars to build in the teeth of a recession. (Oops! Already happened.)

As for President Nixon, whatever his pragmatic disposition, I don’t think conservative critics have appreciated how hard it was to stay in Vietnam (which he’d determined was a vital national interest) with a Democrat-dominated Congress. He couldn’t have been more conservative if he’d wanted to (which the tapes and memos show he did, at least sometimes). In California even the governor was tacking to the center. It took the 1980s for Reagan to be Reagan. In the early 1970s, I’ll bet he would’ve been Nixon.

Posted in Economic issues, Presidents, Richard Nixon | Tagged | Leave a comment

Of Mice, Pumpkins, And Former Presidents

Sometime after the transition in January of 1969, President Richard Nixon asked his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, how it felt the moment he knew he wasn’t president anymore. LBJ replied:

I don’t know whether you’ll understand this now or not, but you certainly will later. I sat there on that platform and waited for you to stand up and raise your right hand and take the oath of office, and the most pleasant words that I ever – that ever came to my ears were ‘So help me God’ that you repeated after that oath. Because at that time I no longer had the fear that I was the man that could make the mistake of involving the country in war, that I was no longer the man that would have to carry the terrifying responsibility of protecting the lives of this country and maybe the entire world, unleashing the horrors of some of our great power if I felt that was required.

As the nation watches the high and historic drama unfold on January 20th, all eyes will be on Barack Obama and his beautiful family. While he assumes the awesome responsibilities that come with being America’s 44th president, there will be another – much quieter – drama unfolding.

George W. Bush will fade into the political sunset and take his first steps as a former leader of the free world. And as he takes a final lap during these waning moments of his administration, complete with exit interviews, a press conference, and address to the nation, he has the look of someone who is very much looking forward to some of what Lyndon Johnson was talking about.

Harry Truman remarked at the moment he inherited the presidency that he felt as if a “load of hay” had fallen on him. Well, hay or whatever, the day he left office he felt relief. As he sat on the platform listening to Dwight D. Eisenhower deliver his inaugural address, Truman found his mind wandering. A short while later, he was in a limousine for a ride to a farewell luncheon. Suddenly, the driver stopped for a red light – the first such traffic observance for Truman since April of 1945.

Those first hours as a former president must be interesting indeed.

In 1921, Woodrow Wilson was a shell of the man who had heard cheering in so many languages just a year or so earlier. There was a moment when he had been seen as an almost Messiah-like figure. But then, virtually wheelchair bound due to the debilitating effects of several strokes, his health prevented him from sitting outdoors to observe Warren Harding’s inauguration. Instead, as he heard cheers for his successor in the distance, he was driven along the quiet streets of Washington, D.C. to his home on S Street.

But Wilson was still in the vicinity of the Capitol as his presidency expired, not so with Richard Nixon who relinquished the burdens of his presidency 39,000 feet over Jefferson City, Missouri on August 9, 1974, as Gerald R. Ford was taking the presidential oath in the White House East Room. The moment was marked by the singularly simple act of Colonel Ralph Albertazzie, the pilot of the presidential plane carrying Nixon to California. He changed the aircraft’s call sign from Air Force One to SAM 27000.

The most dramatic inauguration day in recent memory was in 1981. At the very moment Ronald Reagan was succeeding Jimmy Carter, 52 hostages held by the Iranians for 444 days were boarding a plane at Tehran’s airport en route to freedom. Carter had spent a sleepless night monitoring the situation. The next day, the 39th president flew to Germany on behalf of the 40th to meet the freed Americans. Mr. Carter’s defeat in the recent election was due, in part, to his inability to obtain their release. The timing of the plane’s departure from Iran was delayed. This was one final act of insult by the captors. They didn’t let the captives go until the new president was sworn in.

As the now-former president met with the hostages, one aid, Hamilton Jordan, noted that Jimmy Carter “looked as old and tired as I had ever seen him.”

Years before he was elected to the nation’s highest office, William Howard Taft – who had a well-known aversion to overt politics – said: “It will be a cold day when I go to the White House.” He was right. That inauguration 100 years ago (though then still taking place on the 4th of March) was conducted against the backdrop of frigid temperatures and freezing rain that formed an arctic crust over the Capitol grounds. But the weather wasn’t the only frosty element that day – outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt, already less-than-enamored of his hand-picked successor’s moves away from “continuity,” watched the proceedings with “a stony expression and balled up fists.” This body language seemed to telegraph coming problems between Teddy and Taft.

John F. Kennedy’s celebrated inauguration was also tempered by hard and bitter weather, in the wake of a blizzard in Washington. As he spoke that day, vapor surrounded his words. The contrast between the youthful new leader and his aged predecessor was stark.

Following the ceremony, Eisenhower and his wife Mamie slipped out a side exit and went to the F Street Club for a luncheon with close friends. They then got in their car – just the two of them – and drove to their farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The drive should have taken a couple of hours, but because of the weather it turned into a ten-hour ordeal.

Eisenhower, by the way, was the first former president to retain the services of a personal Secret Service bodyguard after leaving the White House – but only for two weeks.

On March 4, 1933, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt rode together from the White House to the Capitol to transfer power at a critical moment in our nation’s history. But any eavesdropping fly on the car window would have been disappointed at the dialogue. Breaking a long and awkward silence, the generally loquacious Roosevelt noted the new Commerce building under construction. Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce before becoming president, so FDR likely thought this would be a good icebreaker. The man who would soon take the oath of office remarked: “Lovely steel.”

Hoover had no response. It was the last time they would ever “speak.”

Whatever warm fraternity exists these days between former presidents – as was demonstrated last week at the ultimate White House power lunch – no such feelings were anywhere to be found 76 years ago as administrations changed during that time of severe economic crisis.

By the way, one of the first things Harry Truman did after becoming president was to invite Herbert Hoover back to the White for the first time since March 4, 1933. Truman correctly sensed that only former presidents truly understand what the office personally means.

The journey from power to lack thereof is a short one. It passes as quickly as the flip of a switch as the clock marks the moment and solemn words are uttered. In this unique split-second, one person assumes an awesome burden, while another gives it away.

As you watch the events unfold on Tuesday, look closely at the faces of George Bush and Barack Obama and you’ll see two men smiling – one out of relief, the other out of excitement. And both men will likely be thinking “Now what?”

Long after nightfall on January 20, 1969, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived at their 330-acre Texas ranch. LBJ had been an ex-President for just a few hours. Throughout the day friends had gathered – first at Andrews Air Force Base, then at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. They showed up to say thank you to the man who had ascended to the presidency in those chaotic Dallas moments more than five years before – and who less than a year before had pulled himself out of the race for a final term in the White House.

One of the first tell-tale signs that life was going to be comparatively perk-free was when they came upon their massive collection of luggage that had been left in the carport that evening, with no one around to carry the bags. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson laughed. Ladybird then uttered a phrase that captures what all former presidents probably come to understand as they take their first steps as former presidents:

“The coach has turned back into the pumpkin and all the mice have run away.”

Posted in American Politics, History, Presidents, Republican Party, Richard Nixon, U.S. History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

F/N Gathering Its Rosebuds While, And Where, It May

As RN often equably observed, his books could always count on at least a couple of hundred thousand sales because the cons —who were eagerly anticipating delicious new Nixonian excesses and outrages— were as likely to buy them as were the pros —who were patiently awaiting the latest expressions of Nixonian wisdom.

Indeed, Rose Mary Woods kept a “book list” —ultimately amounting to a couple of hundred thousand names— of those who wrote regarding RN’s oeuvre. Almost evenly divided between the pro and the con, the list would be maintained and used as the basis for the next book’s sales plan.

This is the context in which a press release from Universal Pictures announcing that Frost/Nixon enjoyed the biggest per-screen debut of any film released in 2008 should probably be read.

“Frost/Nixon”, Universal Pictures’ new electrifying drama, directed by Academy Award(R) winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) and starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, had a remarkable first weekend at the domestic box office, it was announced today. Over the weekend, the film accumulated $180,708 from just three locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto, for a per- screen average of $60,236. This figure gives “Frost/Nixon” the biggest per- screen debut of any film released in 2008.

“This is a spectacular opening, and we are thrilled with the result,” said Adam Fogelson, President of Marketing and Distribution for Universal Pictures. “Ron Howard, his cast and crew created one of the best films of the year, and it is gratifying that audiences and critics alike are celebrating it with such enthusiasm. We look forward to bringing ‘Frost/Nixon’ to additional markets through Christmas so audiences everywhere can discover for themselves what has people crowding into these early theaters.”

Currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, F/N will expand to 29 additional markets (including Washington DC) on Friday. It will open wide on Christmas Day — timing which some snarks will probably see as Universal’s coal in the stockings of America.

The major critics have now weighed in, and the film has received a pretty decisive endorsement: 92% positive among all critics (per Rotten Tomatoes) and 95% among the top tier. And the combination of strong reviews and potentially strong word of mouth could extend the film’s charmed life in Friday’s targeted cities,

But the answer to the question of whether F/N will “Sizzle or Fizzle” can, surely, never really be in doubt.

Given the reviews and degree of interest to date —not to mention the remnants of Rose Woods’ list — it’s hard to see a complete fizzle in F/N’s future. But —unless lightning were to strike in the form, say, of a Best Actor or Best Director Oscar— it’s hard to imagine the film finding a wider audience after the sizable but finite universe of interested individuals —the people who still love and the people who still love to hate RN, plus the hardcore universe of younger political junkies— have seen it.

Depending on how much it cost to make —and there’s nothing to indicate that this was a budget-busting project— the film seems bound to deliver a respectable, and even a strong, return on investment.

But, sizzle is a slipprier standard. In Clintonian terms, it depends on what you mean by it. Such sizzle as there may be in F/N’s future is almost precisely there — in the future. Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s earlier success —The Queen— did respectable business, but no more, before Helen Mirren won her Oscar. This holiday season, along with visions of sugar plums, visions of Frank Langella’s Oscar acceptance speech are undoubtedly unfolding before the wondering eyes of Messrs. Morgan, Howard, Grazer, and Fogelson, et al. (and, of course, Mr. Langella).

That’s the only route to true sizzle for F/N. But there’s a precedent. And stranger things have happened.

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Helen Gahagan Douglas Redux

I apologize in advance for the shameless bit of name dropping that is about to take place…..but I remember asking Henry Fonda why he so disliked RN — was it because of Vietnam (the conversation took place the spring of 1972) or the economy or something else?

I was prepared for almost any answer other than the one I received.

He thought for a moment and said: “No, I think he’s trying to end the war as fast as he can, and I don’t think the President has that much impact on the economy. But I would go anywhere and do anything I could to stop Richard Nixon because I will never forget or forgive what he did to Helen Gahagan Douglas.”

The bitterness of that 1950 Senate campaign lived on —indeed, lives on— and tonight, at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles, a screening of the Palin-Biden debate will be followed by a staged reading of the play Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas, written by Michele Willens and Wendy Kout.

The production will feature Wendie Malick as Mrs. Douglas, Charles Shaughnessy as Mr. (actor Melvyn) Douglas, Patrick Breen as RN, and Michael Dutra as everyone else (in this case including HST, LBJ, and JFK).

It’s a benefit sponsored by, among others, John Cusask, Robert Redford, Tim Daly, Gore Vidal, and Mike Farrell.  The event will also honor Paul Newman, and the proceeds from the $100 ducats will go to The Nation magazine.

I can’t say that the description of the work on the Landmark Theatre’s website exactly bodes well for accuracy or objectivity:

Historians say that politics as we know it changed as a result of a California Senate race in 1950. That’s when a young Richard Nixon falsely accused his opponent, the beautiful, three term liberal congresswoman and ex-Broadway and opera star, Helen Gahagan Douglas, of being a Communist. Nixon earned the name “Tricky Dick,” Helen was dubbed the “Pink Lady.” He ascended to the Presidency… until Watergate. She was forgotten… until now. This four actor (one plays multiple roles) play, set in Hollywood and Washington D.C., builds to that dirty, dramatic race while telling the cautionary personal tale of Helen, a flawed and remarkable heroine.

I understand that this is hype.  But, even so…..

  • I’m sure that there have been a few —or even, given the numbers of historians, many— historians who say that politics as we know it changed as a result of the Nixon-Douglas race.  But they would be very myopic (and, frankly, very poor) historans indeed.   It was a colorful and, in terms of RN’s subsequent career, a consequential race — but not much more than that.
  • It is simply not true on any reading of the facts that RN accused Mrs. Douglas “of being a Communist”.
  • Nor is it really true that she has been forgotten until now.  She was quite active and vocal and lionized for many years until her death in 1980 and her memory has lived on as one of the earliest victims of Nixonian mendacity.

However, there’s no question that it’s a highly dramatic story with lots of vivid characters and flashpoints, so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t make a smashing play — and maybe that’s just what will unfold on stage at the Landmark tonight.  We’ll have to wait for the reviews to find out.


Helen Douglas was born in New Jersey in 1900.  She was a major star of Broadway musicals in the 1920s.  In 1931 she married actor Melvyn Douglas and moved to California.  She only made one movie —1935’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s exotic story She (as in “she who must be obeyed”).

Her liberal political activism in Hollywood brought her to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt who introduced her to the President.  In 1943 she was elected to the House of Representatives and from her earliest days in Washington she was welcome at the White House.  As Robert Caro has chronicled, during those years she carried on an open affair with Lyndon Johnson; indeed, they lived together while their respective spouses remained at home.

In 1948 she was elected to her third House term, and in 1950 she decided to challenge the incumbent two term Democrat, Sheridan Downey, for his seat in the U.S. Senate.  This was a no less bold or even shocking move in those days than it would be now.  The aggressiveness of her attacks led to conflict within the Democratic party and put steel in Downey’s back (he had been suffering from an ulcer and had considered not standing for re-election).

Helen Gahagan Douglas was a quintessential unreconstructed left-liberal New Dealer who was instinctively anti-communist but who felt equally strongly that communism represented no meaningful threat to American security or interests.  Her votes (for the Marshall Plan but against Truman Plan aid to Greece or Turkey) reflected this kind of dichotomy.  Within the context of the times it made her vulnerable to criticism and attack from the center and right of her own party as well as from the Republicans.  It also placed her clearly outside the mainstream of public opinion in California and the nation.


She was one of only twenty congresspersons of either party to vote against the McCarran-Wood bill requiring registration of communists.  This may be viewed as a highly principled act — but principles can’t logically be adduced post facto as reasons for contemporary immunity from political consequences.

She also took sides on State-related issues that, while undoubtedly also principled, were unquestionably also controversial.  She was, for example, the only member of the California delegation opposed to the return of the offshore oil-rich tidelands to the State.  And she was one of a small minority on the highly-charged issues involving land ownership and water rights.

Perhaps it was her show business temperament —where she was used to being a star and receiving star treatment— or perhaps too much of her “she who must be obeyed” role had rubbed off, but whatever the reasons she was not known for her collegial approach to an institution that was, above all else, intensely collegial.

There was also, no doubt, an element of outright chauvinism at work.  At best she would have been less than welcome as a woman in what was resolutely a man’s world.  That she wasn’t even a compliant or retiring woman would have been further held against her.

As RN recorded in RN:

Mrs. Douglas was a handsome woman with a dramatic presence.  She had many fans among the public and many admirers in the press and in the entertainment industry, but she was not, to put it mildly, the most popular member of the House of Representatives.  Generally, when two members of the House run against each other for another office their fellow congressmen maintain a friendly attitude and wish both of them well.  But in our case, even many of the House Democrats let me know that they hoped I could defeat Helen Douglas.

One afternoon in 1950, I was working in my office when Dorothy Cox, my personal secretary, came in and said, “Congressman Kennedy is here and would like to talk to you.”

Jack Kennedy was ushered in and I motioned him into a chair.  He took an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to me.   “Dick, I know you’re in for a pretty rough campaign,” he said, “and my father wanted to help out.”

We talked for a while about the campaign.  As he rose to leave, he said, “I obviously can’t endorse you, but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss into Hollywood’s gain.”

After he left I opened the envelope and found it contained a $1,000 contribution.   Three days after I won in November, Kennedy told an informal gathering of professors and students at Harvard that he was personally very happy that I had defeated Mrs. Douglas.

President Truman had his reservations about Mrs. Douglas, and although he sent many representatives and Cabinet members to campaign for her, he canceled his own scheduled appearances.


When Sheridan Downey’s ulcer finally forced him to withdraw from the campaign in March, he was immediately replaced by the maverick Los Angeles newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy.  Downey was so bitter about what he referred to as the “vicious and unethical propaganda” Mrs. Douglas had used against him that he said she was unqualified to be a Senator and remained uninvolved in the campaign (despite Truman’s requests for reconciliation).

Boddy, who had supported her congressional campaigns, called her an extremist and issued a detailed comparison of her voting record with that of New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who was considered to be the gold standard of sympathy with socialist and communist causes.

The primary was held in June and RN received one million votes; Mrs. Douglas 890,000; and Manchester Boddy 535,000.  Twenty-two percent of Democratic voters crossed over and voted for RN, compared with thirteen percent of Republican crossovers who voted for her.

After Mrs. Douglas won the primary, the Nixon campaign adopted the Boddy campaign’s Marcantonio ad in toto and reprinted it on pink stock.  It became known as “the pink sheet” and was widely seen (and, in liberal quarters, disparaged) as an example of a Nixon smear.  The fact that the substance of the charges had emerged from the Democratic Party’s own primary fight was ignored as an inconvenient truth in the high dudgeon over the color of the paper.

It has also conveniently been forgotten that Mrs. Douglas, presumably intending to frame the issue in her favor with a preemptive strike, fired the first mud salvo.  Before the Nixon campaign had even powered up, she called him a “demagogue” who was selling “fear and…..nice, unadulterated fascism.”  Her literature denigrated him as a “Peewee trying to frighten people so that they are too afraid to turn out the lights.”  She referred to “the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts” at a time when such words were still recent and potent references to Hitler’s brown and Mussolini’s black shirted thugs.  Her campaign put out rumors that Pat Nixon was a lapsed Catholic.

And Mrs. Douglas even had her own rather bizarre version of the “pink sheet”.   The “yellow sheet” was a handbill printed on yellow stock in which she claimed that it was Nixon whose record actually matched the controversial Marcantonio’s.  There were some instances in which this was literally true; but, as a campaign ploy, this was, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain weird.

The decision to attack —and to attack first— turned out to be a major miscalculation.  It seemed to prevent her own campaign from defining itself, and it undoubtedly shaped the Nixon camp’s response.  Whatever excesses RN may (or may not) have committed, it should at least be remembered who first crossed that muddy Rubicon.


Most of these have been largely forgotten. But there is one still-lingering legacy of the 1950 Senate campaign: Mrs. Douglas’s memorable labeling of RN as “Tricky Dick”.

There is no doubt that the campaign included heated, intense, and, occasionally, distasteful levels of excess on both sides.  Even the judicious Herbert Parmet concludes that Mrs. Douglas’ “campaign operators operated with the élan of apprentice butchers and the tactics of desperation.”  But because (a) RN won and (b) RN was RN, the parity of blame has been all but universally overlooked.

The nature of public discourse at the time —and particularly where questions of New Deal liberalism and communist influence in Washington were concerned— was generally hyperbolic and often extreme.  But a lot of the phrases and epithets that are cringe-making by today’s standards were pretty much par for the course back in the day, and should be analyzed in that context.

I remember being invited to dinner one night at La Casa Pacifica in 1977 when the Nixons were entertaining James and Mary Roosevelt.  James —“Jimmy”— was FDR’s eldest son; he had run unsuccessfully for Governor against the two-term incumbent Earl Warren in 1950; and he had stood in for Mrs. Douglas when she decided to stay in Washington rather than face RN in the first of their three scheduled public debates.

Jimmy Roosevelt laughed as he remembered how he had been pressed into service at the last minute, and how typical that had been of Mrs. Douglas’s high handed personal manner and generally badly run campaign.  He said that he hadn’t had enough time to prepare, but that even if he had, his heart wasn’t really in it.

Mrs. Douglas walked out of the third debate after she had made her own speech, so she only faced off with RN once — in a debate that he handily won. Another Roosevelt figured in that second (the only face-to-face) debate, when RN created quite a stir and achieved something of a coup by holding up a letter and announcing that it was an endorsement of him by Mrs. Roosevelt.  He read it all through before he reached the punchline — the signature was “Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.”.

I later had the opportunity to interview the legendary lawyer, civic leader, and Democratic power broker Paul Ziffren, who had been one of the managers of Mrs. Douglas’s ’50 campaign.  He reminisced in fascinating detail about the whole exercise.  He laughed —fondly— about the candidate’s highly impolitic way of conducting politics and said that the campaign had been very dirty on both sides.  Newspaper endorsements ran twenty-to-one in RN’s favor.

In the end, RN won by 19% — almost 700,000 votes.  The results were: 2,183,454 to 1,502,507.   His victory was part of the usual off-year trend in which the opposition party picks up seats.  In this case, there were five new Republicans in the Senate and 28 in the House.  Aside from her own problems and her poorly run campaign, it can’t have helped Mrs. Douglas that the Korean War had begun in June; or that, two days before the election, Chinese communist troops escalated the conflict by crossing the Yalu River.

I think that Conrad Black’s judgment is informed and balanced:

It is hard not to like and admire Helen Douglas at a distance; glamorous, courageous, and principled, she fought gamely against lengthening odds, and was soundly defeated by a politician who has received little subsequent approbation.  But she had made herself vulnerable, did nothing to reunite her party behind her, opened the floodgates of negative campaigning, was thoroughly disorganized, and ran a sophomoric campaign.  She also had a number of rather prissy, soft-left views that were unsound in themselves and wildly out of concert with the place and times.


This brings up another —and I think underestimated— aspect of RN’s career.  Sometimes the luck of the draw means that a politician will have to run against someone who, in purely physical terms, embodies the public’s and the media’s idea of what the ideal candidate should look and sound like.  But untll he was paired with Hubert Humphrey in 1968, RN had the truly extraordinary bad luck of having to run every time against candidates who would have been sent from central casting in response to requests for a “perfect” candidate.

When RN challenged him in 1946, the press corps had just named the tweedy suave Jerry Voorhis as the most popular congressman in Washington.  Mrs. Douglas was, literally, a star; and JFK carried himself lke one.   Adlai Stevenson was the media’s beau ideal of the enlightened liberal politician.  And Pat Brown was an immensely likable and appealing fellow.

It was easy for RN —the serious, striving, somewhat stiff young man with the heavy brow and the five o’clock shadow— to be unfavorably contrasted with the actual or invested star quality of his opponents.

In the case of Mrs. Douglas, RN also became an ongoing lightning rod for a lot of the enmity that her candidacy occasioned within her own professional community.  Although she was well and widely liked in Hollywood, there were some who found her air of Broadway superiority annoying; and there were many who found her politics personally uncongenial and even considered them embarrassing for the industry.  Many of the studio heads and major stars supported RN, and long after the election was over, the strong and divisive emotions it had engendered lingered on.

There’s some fascinating footage of the 1950 campaign —along with some tendentious narrative portentously delivered— in this documentary excerpt.

There is one widespread canard —at least I’m convinced it’s a canard— that I would like to challenge.  It is generally accepted that during the 1950 campaign, RN referred to Mrs. Douglas as being “pink right down to her underwear”.

Although many of the accounts make it sound as if this were a recurring punchline of his campaign rhetoric, there is no record of his having said it in public.  The actual claim —such as it is— is only that he said it once at a closed meeting of campaign contributors.

The only original citation I have been able to track down is an article printed several years later in The New Republic in which it is reported, at second hand, as having been spoken at the fat cat session.

So the story is pretty thin —and I would suggest suspect— on purely factual grounds.

But it also strikes me as improbable given the nature of the man and the nature of the times.  Despite the apparent contrary evidence of the White House tape recordings, RN was, throughout his life, highly circumspect in his use of language both in private and in public — but especially in public.  Many people today think RN cursed like a sailor; but even when he was a sailor, his cursing was situation-based and highly selective.

In light of today’s coarsened public discourse, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when talk about the color of female undergarments would have been considered inappropriate and even risque.  But there was and that time was 1950.

And in 1950 RN was still generally seen (and especially by his supporters) as a serious, modest, earnest, clean-cut ex-Naval officer by whose dogged determination the Hiss case had been broken.  RN, at the age of thirty-seven and running for his first statewide office, was not going to stand up in front of a group of older and established business and community leaders, many of whom he hardly knew, and make what would have been considered as an off-color remark.

I have no doubt that this was a widely quoted quip during the 1950 campaign; and it seems likely to have emerged from RN’s campaign.  The way for its widespread acceptance had already been cleared by the undisputedly official pink sheet.

But unless and until I can find at least an additional —and dependable— source for RN himself having said it, I’m not buying it.

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Herman Perry’s Letter to Richard Nixon

Sixty-three years ago today, businessman Herman Perry wrote a letter to Richard Nixon asking him if he was interested in running for a seat in the House of Representatives. At the time, incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis was representing the 12th congressional district of California. Nixon was a young up-and-coming attorney, a graduate of Duke University Law School, and a naval officer during World War II who had returned to his hometown of Whittier to work at an established law firm. “I am writing this short note to ask you if you would like to be a candidate for Congress on the Republican ticket in 1946,” Perry’s letter said. “Jerry Voorhis expects to run—registration is about 50-50. The Republicans are gaining. Please airmail me your reply if you are interested.”

On October 6, 1945, Nixon drafted a reply. “I feel very strongly that Jerry Voorhis can be beaten and I’d welcome the opportunity to take a crack at him. An aggressive, vigorous campaign on a platform of practical liberalism should be the antidote the people have been looking for to take the place of Voorhis’ particular brand of New Deal idealism. You can be sure that I’ll do everything possible to win if the party gives me the chance to run,” he wrote. “I’m sure that I can hold my own with Voorhis on the speaking platform, and without meaning to toot my own horn, I believe I have the fight, spirit and background which can beat him.”

In 1946, Nixon defeated Voorhis for his first political victory. The rest, as they say, is history.

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OK — My Bad — But I Get To Keep My Job

“I really don’t believe making mistakes means you have to give up your career,” Representative Charles B. Rangel said at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday.

Already dealing with the backdraft from several other scandals, eternal Harlem Congressman and immensely powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Charles Rangel has now acknowledged that he failed to pay tax on rental income from a Dominican Republic resort condo (the acquisition of which is already under separate scrutiny). That’s a long sentence, I know, but it’s carrying a lot of information; just as the jaunty, dapper, gravelly-voiced Chairman appears to be carrying a lot of baggage.

The 19-term Congressman was first elected in 1970, replacing the legendary Adam Clayton Powell; his first assignment was to the Judiciary Committee, and in 1974 he was part of the Impeachment Inquiry.  He has been re-elected with scarcely even token opposition ever since.

The rental income-tax story is reported in today’s New York Times:

Representative Charles B. Rangel paid no interest for more than a decade on a mortgage extended to him to buy a villa at a beachfront resort in the Dominican Republic, according to Mr. Rangel’s lawyer and records from the resort.

The loan was given to him by the resort development company, in which Theodore Kheel, a prominent New York labor lawyer, was a principal investor. Mr. Kheel, who has given tens of thousands of dollars to Mr. Rangel’s campaigns over the past decade, had encouraged the congressman to be one of the initial investors in the project.

In fact, it was the New York Post that broke the story — and that has been on “Tricky Charlie’s” (as they style him) finances and living arrangements like a Weimaraner on a pork chop for the last several months.

Chairman Rangel is far and away the biggest recipient of contributions from lobbyists in the New York delegation (and that sets a very high standard indeed.)  In the first half of this year he took in almost three quarters of a million dollars in this manner.


The DNC returned a $100,000 check he gave from the money raised at his 77th birthday party  fundraiser.  (The party, held at The Tavern on the Green in August 2007, raised more than $1 million.)  The technicality was that it went against the Obama campaign’s decision not to accept any PAC-related money, but it was widely seen as a serious slap at the formerly sacrosanct Chairman.

Its namesake’s way of supporting the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York doesn’t, in the words of the Washington Post, “pass the smell test”.  The paper editorialized about “Rep. Rangel’s Tin Cup”:

In the corridors of money and power in New York City, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), is called simply “Mr. Chairman.” Everyone knows that he’s chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. With his sway over tax and trade policy, captains of industry around the country are eager to have his ear. So when a letter from Mr. Rangel, especially if it’s on his congressional stationary, arrives, the 19-term Harlem congressman receives close attention.

As Post staff writer Christopher Lee reported Tuesday, Mr. Rangel has been requesting meetings with business and philanthropic leaders since 2005 to discuss the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. It’s a $30 million facility Mr. Rangel says is dedicated to ensuring that the next generation of public servants reflects America’s diversity and “will allow me to locate the inspirational aspects of my legacy in my home Harlem community.” So far, $12.2 million has been raised. That includes a $1.9 million earmark, $690,500 in grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $100,000 from the New York City Council, $7.1 million from foundations and $2.3 million from individuals. The largest single gift ($5 million) came from the C.V. Starr Foundation, which is chaired by Maurice R. “Hank” Greenberg, a former head of insurance and financial services giant AIG. Mr. Rangel and college officials had a separate meeting with AIG this year, and another gift is under consideration.

Mr. Rangel’s actions raise a couple of red flags. First, House rules forbid solicitations on official letterhead, even for nonprofits. At a minimum, he should stop this practice. Next, Mr. Rangel says that congressional business never comes up at his meetings. We’ll take him at his word. But those with business before Mr. Rangel’s committee could try to curry favor with him by donating to the Rangel Center. The appearance problem here is huge.

Charlie Rangel is a colorful and engaging figure.  He’s the first to admit that “modesty is not really my best trait.” Before the 2004 he joked to voters that, if he became a powerful Committee Chair, “I don’t want to be treated differently than any other world leader.”  You can get an example of his winning ways on this interview given just as he was poised to assume his Chairmanship back in 2007.

Last July it was revealed —again by the New York Post— that Mr. Rangel, whose declared net worth was in the high six figures, was living in four apartments in Manhattan that were rent-stabilized in order to help low income tenants find decent housing.  I wrote about this story here at the time.

Even The Times’ usually restrained prose (especially where powerful Manhattan Democratic Committee Chairs are involved) showed some righteous indignation at the patent unfairness (and political foolhardiness) of Mr. Rangel’s living arrangements:

While aggressive evictions are reducing the number of rent-stabilized apartments in New York, Representative Charles B. Rangel is enjoying four of them, including three adjacent units on the 16th floor overlooking Upper Manhattan in a building owned by one of New York’s premier real estate developers.

The Olnick Organization and other real estate firms have been accused of overzealous tactics as they move to evict tenants from their rent-stabilized apartments and convert the units into market-rate housing.

The current market-rate rent for similar apartments in Mr. Rangel’s building would total $7,465 to $8,125 a month, according to the Web site of the owner, the Olnick Organization.

Mr. Rangel, the powerful Democrat who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, uses his fourth apartment, six floors below, as a campaign office, despite state and city regulations that require rent-stabilized apartments to be used as a primary residence.

Mr. Rangel, who has a net worth of $566,000 to $1.2 million, according to Congressional disclosure records, paid a total rent of $3,894 monthly in 2007 for the four apartments at Lenox Terrace, a 1,700-unit luxury development of six towers, with doormen, that is described in real estate publications as Harlem’s most prestigious address.

It’s one thing to to have a sweetheart deal of a questionable nature.  It’s quite another thing to flaunt it in a lavish rich-and-famous lifestyles coffeetable book.  What could have been the thought processes behind inviting the photographer over for that gig?

Me?  I’m of two minds about all this.  At least I think I am; and, if I am, then it’s at least two.  As a New Yorker, I’m long-accustomed to Mr. Rangel’s colorful ways and means and have developed what amounts to an affection for him.  He can be bombastic and he can be outrageous.  He’s one of the last lions left over from the old days when outsize personalities were not uncommon; and, if you had the right stuff to back them up, they were widely admired.  He is known as a prodigiously hard worker; a good boss; an excellent constituent services provider; and as the kind of all around good guy that is sadly missing and sorely missed around Washington these days.

He is a heart-on-sleeve liberal partisan, many (if not most) of whose positions I couldn’t disagree with more.   But whether you agree with him or not, you know where he stands and you can depend on him to stand up for what he believes in.

Given the unbelievable extent to which all Congresspersons —much less senior Democrats and powerful Committee Chairmen— are isolated from the realities of ordinary daily life while their asses are kissed six ways til Sunday 24/7/365, he has remained refreshingly accessible and good-natured.  And, at least based on what has surfaced so far, he is probably still only in the mid single digits on a ten point run-of-the-mill congressional corruption scale.

He has a very compelling personal story that he set down in an autobiography published earlier this year: And I Haven’t Had A Bad Day Since.  It got such good reviews and word of mouth that I actually bought a copy.  Although I ended up skimming a lot of the political boilerplate towards the end, the earlier sections were vivid and candid.  They include the tales of a somewhat misspent youth, a spell in the Army in Korea where he won a Purple Heart (his reaction to that incident gave the book its title), and the beginnings of a hugely successful career in politics.

But what about his current arguments that he didn’t know about his tax obligations and that he thought his accountants and lawyers were handling everything.  I suppose they’re OK as far as they go.  The question is: how far do they go?   After all, the man is generally acknowledged to be brilliant; he’s a graduate of NYU’s School of Commerce and St. John’s Law School; and he’s surrounded by very large and capable staffs entirely devoted to his continuance in office.  And he hasn’t got to where he is by being inattentive to details.

This ignorance defense is very popular on Capitol Hill these days.  In the last few months it has been invoked by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad to explain the highly favorable non-competitive rates they got on mortgages for second homes from a lender who had business with their Committees.

What level of responsibility —and accountability— should attach to legislators who are in charge of regulating the nation’s banks and writing the nation’s tax laws and who claim ignorance as their defense when serious questions are raised about their financial and tax affairs?

The tide seems to be turning against Mr. Rangel these days.  Slowly now, to be sure; but perceptively gaining speed. His fund-raising prowess, formerly admired, is under investigation.  Ethics Committee involvement is under way.  His ardent support for Senator Clinton’s presidential bid has left him naked to his enemies at the Obamaized DNC.  And it can never be a good sign when you hire Lanny Davis as your defense attorney.

The admirable philosophy that has brought him so far for so long is about to be sorely tested: Charlie Rangel is about to have some very bad days.

UPDATE 9/13/08: In today’s Wall Street Journal, Eileen Norcross has an interesting column about rent control and stabilization in the New York City housing market.

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The Soundtrack Of Our Lives

Every Sunday, The Soundtrack of Our Lives looks back at some of the music that was popular, and the performers who were influential, around the time Richard Nixon was elected President.


At the March on Washington in 1963, one of the artists who performed for the crowd before Dr. King spoke was Odetta. She had already been famous for several years as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”. Before Washington she had sung at Selma. And not long after she played for President Kennedy and his cabinet on a nationally-televised civil rights special Dinner with the President.

This role and these commitments has tended to overshadow the seminal role she played in the establishment of folk music as a popular form during the 1960s.

It took the middle class white troubadours —Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary— to move folk music into the mainstream.

It was Ms. Baez who truly brought it all back home by making the cover of Time in November 1962. Scoring that spot doesn’t mean all that much these days; but in the ’50s and ’60s it was the secular equivalent of canonization. When her portrait (not particularly flattering but very period) appeared in that hallowed place, it was a clear signal that this new music —with its message, its lifestyle, its artists, and its vast new campus audience— was more than just a fad. When Time took notice America paid attention.

But a decade before Ms. Baez even arrived at Harvard Square or Mr. Dylan ambled into Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, Odetta had been on the road and in the studio. It’s no disrespect to them to say that Odetta was a giant on whose shoulders they were able to stand — as they have been the first to acknowledge.

Bob Dylan: “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers [Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues] in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. … [That album was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were- ‘Mule Skinner’, ‘Waterboy’, ‘Jack of Diamonds’, ”Buked and Scorned’.”

In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan, Odetta’s influence was discussed and this short clip of her distinctive hammer-hits-rock version of Avery Robinson’s 1922 prison work song “Waterboy” was featured:

In some respects Odetta had been born just a shade too soon (in Birmingham, Alabama, on 31 December 1930) and was maybe just a tad too talented. The fact that she didn’t write original material undoubtedly limited her commercial potential (a limitation Judy Collins and others —including Ms. Baez herself— soon set themselves to overcoming). And her repertoire was so diverse that she never slotted easily into a single niche which is never good for building blockbuster sales or arena audiences. And her commitment to causes, and her availability for radical rallies and protests, was considered disturbing or risky by many managers and bookers.

An Odetta performance or LP could include classic Child ballads and traditional American folk songs, Negro spirituals and slave songs, civil rights anthems, foursquare hymns, weary love or strident protest blues, outright jazz, and, increasingly, the original compositions of the new generation. Christmas Spirituals was released in 1960; Odetta and the Blues appeared in 1962; Odetta Sings Dylan followed in ‘65.

She showed off the warmth and breadth of her range when she joined Tennessee Ernie Ford on the hymn “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” on his popular network variety show. Here’s how the show’s archives describe it:

One of folk music’s most stunningly original performers is Ernie’s guest for this March 10, 1960 show. In one of only two network television appearances in five years, Odetta graces this Ford Show with some of the most awesome music and powerful performances ever captured on kinescope. At a time when folk was on the cusp of completely changing the American cultural landscape, every other prime-time variety show out there was playing it decidedly safe and definitely conservative; booking The Kingston Trio, The Dillards or The Smothers Brothers. “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” was about about as controversial as the Big Three wanted to be. Odetta, however, was anything but conservative. A major voice among the rising ranks of folk artists in Boston, Connecticut and The Village, she had become, by 1960, one of the principal influences and architects of the new wave of social protest. …On the Ernie FordShow!?

Odetta Holmes grew up in Los Angeles. She started classical voice training at 13 and by 19 she had a degree in music from LA City College. She found her first jobs touring in road companies of Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls.

She settled down in San Francisco where she felt immediately at home in the burgeoning coffee house scene that combined caffeine with poetry and music and protest. She worked cleaning houses so she could play gigs.

She had a naturally commanding stage presence, and before long she was headlining in important night clubs, including San Francisco’s hungry i, Chicago’s Gate of Horn, and New York’s Blue Angel.

A gig at the legendary Chicago venue lent its name to one of her first hit LPs — 1957’s At the Gate of Horn —although it was a studio album. Odetta at Carnegie Hall (1960) was recorded live, followed by Odetta at Town Hall (1962).

Odetta participated in and performed at civil rights rallies and marches. Her signature song (which she sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963) was the “Spiritual Trilogy” comprised of “Oh Freedom”, Come And Go With Me”, and “I’m On My Way”.

After the Newport Folk Festival infamously plugged itself in for the first time in 1965, the folk movement started taking a decided turn towards folk pop and folk rock — the sound increasingly amplified not only by electrical current but by controlled substances. As folk became more flexible and market oriented, she remained committed to the causes she believed in and that made her less commercial by comparison to her erstwhile folkie admirers.

Although her recording slowed down in the late 1970s, Odetta continued to perform in colleges and clubs and at civil rights events right through the ’80s. She appeared in a couple of films including the TV classic The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

In the late 1990s, she signed with a new management and returned to the studio for To Ella — a tribute album to her recently-deceased friend Ella Fitzgerald. Blues Everywhere I Go, her tribute to famous blues singers, won a Grammy nomination in 2000.

David Letterman decided to bring The Late Show back on the air during the week of 17 September 2001; on the 19th, Odetta was the musical guest, backed by the Boys Choir of Harlem. Here’s how the Home Office’s diarist remembers that night on the show’s website:

They started with “We Shall Overcome,” which led into “This Little Light of Mine.” During the commercial break Odetta blessed us with “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing Grace” gets me every time. It’s a real “lump-in-the-throat” producer. I’m sure I’ll be hearing it quite a bit on the bagpipes in the days ahead.

As she has added on the years, she has added on the honors. In 1999 President Clinton presented her with the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal. She noted that it was a special honor to receive it in Constitution Hall on the same stage on which, sixty years before, her friend Marian Anderson had been forbidden to sing.

In 2004, Odetta received a Kennedy Center “Visionary Award” along with a tribute performance by Tracy Chapman. In 2005 the Library of Congress presented Odetta with a rare “Living Legend Award”.

For several years she had a productive performance and recording collaboration with Seth Farber (who accompanies her on the following clip as he did above on “Midnight Special/This Little Light of Mine”). Here is “The House of the Rising Sun” from a 2005 concert. Her version of the song alone is simply definitive. And her a capella interpolation of the old Anglo-American ballad “One Morning in May” is riveting.

Any notion that age or honor have made Odetta lose her bite will be dispelled by a viewing of a recent concert performance of Leadbelly’s 1938 “Bourgeois Blues” which manages to be scathing and rollicking in almost equal parts. Its embedding has been disabled (my guess would be by the Washington D.C. Chamber of Commerce) so I can’t do the work for you. But if you take my advice —and when have I ever misled you?—-you will watch it by clicking here.

Her most recent album is last year’s Grammy-nominated Gonna Let It Shine — a live concert recording of Christmas songs.

In 2005, on the eve of her 75th birthday, she talked with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition about her early life. She serenaded him with “Amazing Grace” and sang the segment out with an abstract account of “Home on the Range”. In January of this year she appeared on the Tavis Smiley Show. It’s an excellent interview and worth listening to.

Here’s a clip from that show’s conclusion — her performance of “Keep On Movin’ It On”. This is a master class in authority, mastery, restraint, presence, commitment, joy, spirit, and soul — and all in two minutes. Odetta will be 78 on New Year’s Eve; she is now confined to performing in a wheel chair, but she shows that you don’t need legs to give a song wings.

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