Saturday, December 20, 2008

Maybe It was Michael Jordan

Joan Collins:
I saw the face of true fame when we attended a Halloween party given by pop-star Natalie Baine of the Dixie Chicks. Arriving at dusk at her mansion there were several helicopters hovering above the gated entrance and dozens of those lurking paps, waiting for famous faces, no doubt. I was ushered into a private room — I was told — to meet someone special. I thought the person sitting on the sofa had the most realistic Michael Jackson mask I’d ever seen. I marvelled at the resemblance — the voice, the mannerisms, the detailed knowledge — and then I realised it was actually Michael Jackson in the flesh.
She means Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

Caroline Kennedy: He's Definitely Against It

Leon Wieseltier:
In a society as wounded as our own, there is something repellent about the assertions of elitism. Its most awful expression, of course, is the acquiescence of almost everybody in the dynastic ambitions of the Kennedys. I can almost not imagine a more obvious mutilation of the meritocratic ideal than the appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the United State Senate. A Senate seat is a...valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing. But of course it will not be given away for nothing: the princess and her family will be delighted to pay for it.

No More Toots For Yoots

Pre-Nov. 4 conventional wisdom on U.S. youth: Tired of politics as usual; hope of the future. New CW on youth: Figures of fun because they're not sure who Caroline Kennedy is.

$775 Billion, And Not A Penny More

As the New York Times reports that the Obama stimulus plan will now go as high as $775 billion, we read:
The message from Mr. Obama was that “there was not going to be any spending money for the sake of spending money,” said Lawrence H. Summers, who will be the senior economic adviser in the White House.
That explains what happened to that last $25 billion: Fiscal prudence.

Perfect Songs: "Amen" (1761)

The Bethany College Choir, Bethany, West Virginia, performing the closing chorus from "Messiah" by G. F. Handel

Discreet Caroline

Big breakthrough: After several unsatisfactory meetings with the media during her exploration of upstate New York this week, Senator-presumptive Caroline Kennedy's staff (how come she's got a staff already?) provides written answers to questions from the New York Times.

Perfect Songs: "Orange Crush" (1988)


Obama/Warren: Who's Coopting Whom?

Alan Wolfe:
Warren's decision to accept an invitation from a liberal president is as clear a symbol of the entry of evangelicals into mainstream culture as one can imagine. In the conservative Christian subculture, liberals are treated with scorn. In the real world, they control the White House and Congress. How many evangelical preachers will be able to demonize Obama once Mr. Evangelical himself has blessed him? By opposing Warren's choice with such vehemence, the left seems determined to drive evangelicals back to the world of victimology and conspiracy-mongering. This is not wise.
Like Pastor Rick would ever have said no!

Pastor Souljah?

Has there ever been such controversy about who's going to give the invocation at a Presidential inauguration? Bill O'Reilly thinks the PE's made a deft move designed to disassociate himself from Pastor Jeremiah Wright. My Episcopal colleague the Rev. Susan Russell, who heads Integrity, our church's advocacy group for gay and lesbian people, says she's disappointed because of Warren's prominent role in the culture wars.

Andrew Sullivan thinks some critics have overreacted to the Warren choice:
I think Obama is different. I think the earnestness and sincerity of his campaign, and its generational force, have given us a chance for something new, and I fear that in responding too viscerally to the Warren choice, we may be throwing something very valuable away far too prematurely.
That has always been Sullivan's hope about Obama, and while it would be churlish at this early date to say he's wrong, Obama's earnestness and generational force don't especially impress me (especially after we saw the youthful author of all that highfalutin rhetoric pawing a cardboard Clinton).

What's bothered me about the Warren choice was that it felt calculated and even a bit cynical from the beginning. Isn't there someone in the country who could've invoked the healing power of the Almighty without inspiring more anger and division? Instead, it looks as if the PE was either repaying Warren for inviting him to Saddleback Church early in the campaign cycle or using the choice to make straight (with apologies to Isaiah and my friend Susan) his pathway to the political center -- basically, a Pastor Souljah move.

I'm not saying that Pastor Rick's views on homosexuality or any issue disqualify him from a star turn at the inauguration. Any number of pastors, left, right, and center, are toting potentially controversial theological baggage. Warren's ministry has made a difference in tens of millions of lives. And yet because of his prominent role in the campaign and outspokenness on highly emotional questions, Warren lacks the magisterial, above-it-all quality of a Billy Graham.

Obama may not have grasped the difference between choosing someone to pray for the nation and someone to head HHS. As a result, the man who was supposed to bring us together politically has taken wedge politics all the way to the gates of heaven.

Friday, December 19, 2008

O'Reilly On Obama's Unknown Factor

Bill O'Reilly, host of the most popular news program on cable television, believed that he's summoned, and uniquely positioned, to serve the public, which he calls "the folks," in an era of change and crisis. "The television 'Factor' is going to be a major factor in this country," O'Reilly said Friday evening before a crowd of nearly 1,200 at the Nixon Library. "The O'Reilly Factor's" mission in the year to come: Figuring President Obama out and, if necessary, holding him accountable. "Nobody else in the media's doing what we're doing," he said.

While O'Reilly believes that Obama realizes his political future depends on rescuing the economy in his first two years, the PE's perspective on the war on terrorism seems murkier. One reason: his aggressively anti-torture AG-designate. "There's not an intelligence guy in the country who wants to look over his shoulder and see Eric Holder, who may indict you for anything," O'Reilly said, adding that his sources tell him that professionals are leaving the intelligence services at a startling rate as Bush Administration opponents demand indictments and trials. If there's no new terrorist attack, O'Reilly said, "then they'll harass Bush and Cheney until 2022." If, heaven forbid, there is a new attack, then the anti-torture movement will lose its salience: "Bush and Cheney will say, 'Yeah, [when we were in] we beat the crap out of 'em'."

As harsh as that looks in type, it went over great with O'Reilly's audience, with whom he got into an easy rhythm the moment he took the stage. He's plain-spoken, non-ideological, funny, and unapologetic about his sometimes aggressive populism. It sounded as though everyone watches his show daily and had seen the recent greatest hits, including his famous brawl with Rep. Barney Frank. "I haven't paid for a sandwich and soda in a deli since that interview," he said, adding that the secret of his success is that "I just reflect what you feel." Whether on the left or right, he said, Americans are angry, "and it's justifiable, when your 401(k) evaporates, and people on Wall Street are stealing us blind."

One of the reasons Sen. McCain lost the election, O'Reilly said, is that he didn't sound angry enough at those who had brought the economy to the brink of chaos. O'Reilly said he was sorry he too hadn't paid more attention to economic issues on "the Factor" before the mid-September crash. "We were busy looking to the outside for the threat," he said.

O'Reilly is promoting his fifth non-fiction bestseller, the highly readable memoir A Bold Fresh Piece Of Humanity. He invoked old-fashioned virtues of family and discipline as learned from his parents in Levittown, New York and the nuns in parochial school. An opponent of gay marriage, he said Obama's choice of the evangelical Pastor Rick Warren to pray at his Inauguration was "a stroke of genius" designed to further separate himself from his controversial former pastor and friend, Jeremiah Wright. "Obama's thinking, 'Okay, the gays are mad. Where're they gonna go?' My five-year-old son says, 'I'm running away,' and I say, 'See you later'." Only if Obama fails to deliver on key domestic issues such as national health insurance, O'Reilly said, would he be in danger of losing substantial elements of his so-called progressive supporters.

Asked about President Nixon, O'Reilly said that Fox News colleague Monica Crowley, an aide in the former President's New Jersey office, has told him of RN's graciousness and many unheralded gestures of support to those in need. "He was on the way of doing some significant things when he got hung up on Watergate, the same way Bush got hung up on Iraq," he said. "He paid for his mistakes."

Slate: "Deep Throat Was Not A Good Man"

When Timothy Noah of "Slate" asked Mark Felt in 1999 if he had been Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source, Felt lied and said no. Noah pressed on: Would it be so terrible to be the heroic Presidency- destroyer?

"It would be terrible," Felt replied. "This would completely undermine the reputation that you might have as a loyal, logical employee of the FBI. It just wouldn't fit at all."

But a lot of people thought Deep Throat was a hero for getting the truth out about Richard Nixon's crimes in the White House.

"That's not my view at all," he said. "It would be contrary to my responsibility as a loyal employee of the FBI to leak information."

And so it was. Law enforcement officials aren't supposed to prosecute Americans via leaks to the press; if you doubt how destructive this can be, ask Wen Ho Lee. It's also against the law. Even if you were to recast Felt as a whistle-blower, at the time the FBI was exempt from the protections the law extended to whistle-blowers.

Noah goes on to detail Felt's other abuses of power, which resulted in a felony conviction while enabling Weather Underground bomber William Ayers to evade prosecution. He describes Woodward's poor treatment of Felt and the ex-FBI official's family's profiteering. Noah overlooks Felt's most likely motive for giving Woodward government secrets to get Nixon: He'd been passed over for J. Edgar Hoover's job.

All in all, it's a sordid story. It's obvious why Woodward had hoped to keep the secret until Felt's death, if not beyond. "Deep Throat was not a good man," reads the subhead on Noah's article. But it really doesn't matter, does it? Because when you're going after Richard Nixon, all's fair.

Perfect Songs: "Speaking With The Angel" (1995)

Ron Sexsmith

Blago Liked McCain, Too. So What?

Who says April's the cruelest month? So far in December, the 37th President has been in the news thanks to the Nixon Library's latest tapes opening, the release of "Frost/Nixon," and the death of W. Mark Felt (Bob Woodward's famous Watergate source). Now word comes that RN was the political hero of...Do I really have to say it? Do I really have to speak his name? "Time":

While going to school at Northwestern University, [Rod] Blagojevich idolized Nixon, according to friends, frequently defending him during the Watergate scandal. According to a long-time Blagojevich friend, the future governor often found inspiration in Nixon's "me against the world" sensibility. Blagojevich particularly loved the fact that Nixon bounced back after the "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore" speech after losing the race for California governor in 1962.
As you may imagine, the "Time" story pretty much writes itself from there. ("Gawker" presented the snapshot above, which was taken in 1980, apparently in New York City.) Someday this kind of superficial compare-and-contrast sidebar will actually be cranked out by a next-level computer program as part of the new financial paradigm resulting from the death of print journalism.

In this case, reporters Eric Ferkenhoff and Howard Chua-Eoan push the envelope way too far by eliding Blagojevich's financial corruption with the profoundly ideological Vietnam-Watergate episode.

They also assert that Mr. Nixon "overstayed his welcome on the national stage." One might ask the young (if I may assume) journalists how they figured that out. Obviously there are those who thought January 21, 1969 was one day too long, whereas others (and this would also be a partisan statement) think the impeached President who should've moved out years earlier was Bill Clinton.

Lacking a script for the premature voluntary end of a modern Presidency, Mr. Nixon waited until the House Judiciary Committee had passed Articles of Impeachment, conducted a straw poll in the Senate, and resigned. What would Ferkenhoff and Chua-Eoan's approach have been? Do they have an alternative date in mind?

It's not the reporters' fault that Blagojevich liked RN, nor RN's, for that matter. But just as with the disgraced governor and his other hero, Sen. McCain, their stories and personalities aren't remotely comparable.

As a matter of fact, maybe a computer would've done better.

Special, For My Four Followers Only!

Actor Frank Langella, portraying Richard Nixon, flanked by two of RN's real-life post-Presidential chiefs of staff: Kathy O'Connor and her husband, your host. Photo by my cousin, and the production's still photographer, Ralph Nelson, in the Nixon Library's White House East Room, September 2007

Uncle Scrooge, Now Or Later

"The Economist," on this morning's short-term auto bailout:
[W]age cuts, which the UAW have so far seemed disinclined to accept, are surely a necessity if America’s car companies are to have any chance of survival.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This Explains Everything!

Variety, in a massive package celebrating "Frost/Nixon" director Ron Howard's 50 years in show business, has this detail:
"My dad once spanked me on the set of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' " Howard says, recalling a downside of growing up in Mayberry. "It wasn't about trying to get me to do a scene. I was being a smartass, a 9- or 10-year-old brat who was disobedient."

RIP W. Mark Felt

Carl Bernstein, Mark Felt, and Bob Woodward with Felt's coauthor, John O'Connor

The FBI official who gave government secrets to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and was later dubbed Deep Throat has died at age 95.

Hold The Vinegar And Soy Sauce For Now

Reflecting on the approaching 30th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-U.S. relations, the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, the voice of the central government, enjoys the appetizing word play of Winston Lord, former aide to RN and HAK and ex-U.S. ambassador to China:
"I love Chinese food so I always call the relationship sweet and sour," quipped the former ambassador. "Right now it's in a quite positive phase," said Lord, whose sharp mind and witty words easily betray his background as a seasoned diplomat. "I would say it's 81.5 percent positive and 18.5 percent negative," he added, with a smile.

Time For Readers To Bail Out Journalists

Richard Perez-Pena sums up the crisis facing journalism and democracy. In 2000, Cox Newspapers had 30 journalists in Washington, filing copy for 17 newspapers, including dailies in Atlanta and Austin. On April 1, the bureau will close. A year ago, papers owned by the bankrupt Tribune Co., including the LA Times, had 70 in their combined Washington bureau; today, it's 32. Papers are also closing foreign bureaus.

They can still buy coverage from news services such as the Associated Press. But like all news services, it's almost completely dependent on the overall health of the newspaper business. Five years ago, it was interesting that people were going to Yahoo to read AP content. Five years from now, unless an alternative financial model can be found to pay for its team of editors and reporters, there may not be an AP.

Assisted by reporter Jacques Steinberg, Perez-Pena puts his finger on the problem:

“I think the cop is leaving the beat here, and I think it’s a terrible loss for citizens,” said Andy Alexander, the Cox bureau chief, who is retiring.

Most hackosphere content on this vital subject misses the point, probably because its denizens' veneration of digital media borders on the idolatrous. It's not that printed newspapers are being made obsolete by on-line sources, since the latter depend umbilically on the former. If you want well-reported editorial content, the best sources are still web sites and blogs supported by printed media. Without papers' and magazines' advertising and circulation revenue, few blogs could offer any high-quality reported information, not because they don't mean well, but because such information comes from people who do it for a living.

Some blogs, such as "Politico," appear to do their own reporting. But could "Politico" support itself just through its on-line presence if demand for its printed edition dried up and Joe Allbritton's Capitol News Co. couldn't subsidize it? Where would the Atlantic Monthly Group's blogpen be without the printed magazine? As for newspaper sites, several tried to charge for access at first, but that's not the ethos of the 'net in which we've become entangled. In their wisdom, younger people, themselves sometimes objects of excessive veneration, have ruled that content should be free. Yet how many of the best news sites could survive -- supporting staffs with hundred of editorial workers -- with no revenue from their printed papers? My guess is none.

Some believe salvation is in the non-profit model, which so far only manages to pay reporters and editors what teachers make. A government bailout for news professionals? A U.S. version of China's all powerful Xinhua News Agency? You've got to be kidding.

It's time to be blunt about whose fault this is -- "Time"'s mid-1980s "Machine of the Year," the personal computer. Its radical re-framing of how people work, communicate, read, and ultimately think is imperiling our republic. Mr. and Mrs. PC have raised two generations of quintessentially American individualists who are systematically dumbing themselves down in the name of intellectual empowerment.

Vital and indispensable in every free society on earth are teams of editorial professionals who compile daily digests from around the world of what a citizen should know. Presumptuous, elitist, but time-tested. You may think you can do it yourself by visiting "The Daily Dish," "Slate," and "The Drudge Report." If so, you're wrong. You can't possibly know enough about the world to know what you need to be told each day! Besides, each of those sites, and almost every other news and commentary site -- not to mention each TV network -- depends in one way or another on old-fashioned newspaper and magazine reporting and editing. Such work is done not by bloggers sitting in Starbucks but by highly trained journalists, many of them specialists in the complex fields they cover, who are paid enough to call it a career, people who can put their kids through college and plan for their retirement, people being paid, say, $80,000 or more a year plus benefits.

Virtually all that money is still coming from the dying, circulation- and advertising-dependent paradigm. To replace it, journalists will have to find other ways to charge readers for content. It's that simple. I still think the answer is the Kindle and devices like it. If not, somebody had better think of something else quick. I would prefer if my news about what China will be getting up to in the next 30 years came from someone besides the State Department, the Ministry of Defense in Beijing, and Matthew Yglesias.

A Subject Where Everyone Has An Opinion

In a New York Times article about Presidential decorating, the Nixon family stars on the front page, in this photo of the Nixons, Tricia Nixon, and Eisenhowers in the White House family quarters. Several Presidents come up for teasing, along with the PE's family:

For his part, [comedian Andy] Borowitz wondered if Michelle Obama might take “that victory dress and upholster a couch with it.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Confidence Will Come Surging Back

Boris Johnson, mayor of London and former editor of the Spectator, is bullish on the economy, as bad in England as here:
It was the great Colonel Kilgore in "Apocalypse" Now who said, ‘Some day this war’s gonna end.’ And some day this recession is going to end too. Confidence is going to come surging back with all the biological inevitability of the new infatuation that follows a broken heart. In the meantime, there’s always bicycle hire schemes and bacon sandwiches.

Perfect Songs: "Thunder Road" (1976)

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

From North Carolina To The Moon

Bob Lemberger, who helped organize the Nixon Library's popular model train exhibitions over the holidays in 2006 and 2007, writes as follows about an interplanetary image he brought back from a recent visit to North Carolina, birth state of flight:
I took it at Kill Devil Hills, not Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their historic flight. Atop the large hill named Big Kill Devil Hill is a granite monument dedicated in 1932 commemorating the first man-powered flight in 1903. The dedication was attended by Orville Wright; Wilbur had passed away in 1912. The hill was often used by the brothers for testing gliders for a three-year period starting in 1900 and was the site of their first attempted powered flight, which resulted in Wilbur crashing their Wright Flier. Three days later, after some repairs, Orville made the first successful flight from level ground a few hundred yards away.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon with a small piece of fabric from the wing of the 1903 Wright Flier along with a small sliver from one of its propellers. Look in the upper right hand corner of the picture, and you can see the moon rising. I like the picture, as it captures where man's powered flight first began and where it has gone -- so far.

President Before God?

Google's most popular query in 2007: Who is God? In '08: Who is Obama? God didn't even make the top ten this year. Maybe everyone's figured Him out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Blessing It Wasn't Worse

White House press secretary Dana Perino got a black eye in the scuffle that inevitably resulted when Muntather al-Zaidi attacked the President in a crowded room full of heavily armed security agents.

Welcome To Our Shoe

The courageous John Dickerson manages a kind word for the President, assaulted by a lunatic in a foreign country with not a Secret Service agent in sight:

Bush brushed off the incident, joking that he saw into his attacker's "sole," a reference to his famous misreading of Vladimir Putin. It's the kind of incident where Bush's no-big-deal attitude, so maddening in other contexts, serves him well. "It was just a bizarre moment," Bush told journalists later on Air Force One. "But I've had other bizarre moments in the presidency."...

At the very least, I suspect a spark of patriotism will kick in when some Americans watch the tape or see al-Zaidi heralded in the streets as a hero. Hey, you can't throw shoes at our president, they might say. Only we can throw shoes at our president. This may test Nixon's theory that presidents benefit from rough treatment by journalists.

Perfect Songs: "Like A Rolling Stone" (1965)

Bob Dylan in 1966, accompanied by musicians who would later be known as The Band (although that doesn't look like drummer Levon Helm)

A Prophet For Then And Now

Isaiah, the prophet of the Christian season of Advent, lived in the 8th century before Christ and advised a scared young king named Ahaz, who had the bright idea of leveraging the Assyrians against the Syrians to keep his tiny kingdom of Judah safe. Isaiah advised him to trust in God instead of diplomacy or military power:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [9:6, NRSV]
It would be a little like President Bush saying to Secretary Gates that then Russians and al-Qaeda were coming, and Gates replying, "Wait for the messiah; trust not in B-2s and the CIA." Hebrew Testament potentates usually found prophets annoying as best.

As far as Christians are concerned, Ahaz would've had to wait 740 years for the promise to be kept, in the form of the Bethlehem baby. In "Messiah," G. F. Handel set the King James Version of Isaiah 9:6 to such sublime music that the words can seem to belong exclusively to Christ's story. (That's world-class bass-baritone Robbie Britt at right, appearing in a recent Nixon Library performance of selections from Handel's oratorio.) Yet Christians' challenge is to enjoy the wonder of Isaiah's prophecy without diminishing the significance in his own time of his powerful vision of peace and God's saving power.

My church friend Randall Lanham (above) deftly walked that frontier while appearing as the great prophet in my 5th grade religion classes at St. John's. Randall's message for the children: "God always keeps his promises," whether the Hebrew Testament's promise of justice and righteousness or the New Testament's of a Christ to save all creation.

Trig Palin 1, Andrew Sullivan 0

Andrew Sullivan’s modified limited hang-out on the Palin pass-the-baby story. Having let his adjutant rebut him last week on his own site, “The Daily Dish,” he has announced a suspension of the distasteful campaign he has been waging to get Gov. Palin to prove she is Trig’s mother.

It’s a relief he won’t be harrassing Trig anymore. It’s a shame he wasn’t accountable for having republished a lie on his Atlantic Monthly-owned web site without checking the facts. No other “Atlantic” journalist would have, and he shouldn’t have, either. Ever since, Sullivan says he’s just been trying to get the truth. It’s actually looked as though he’s been trying to get Palin or Sen. McCain to provide records or some other official response so that he would be able to say he had posed a legitimate question. In this effort, he has failed.

Whenever he insists, as he does yet again in his last (we hope) post, that by republishing a lie and then defending his behavior for months, he was just asking questions or expressing opinions, he underscores how desperately we need newspapers, or at least professionally-trained newspaper reporters. The Hackosphere — though not Sullivan; this was a bizarre aberration — is still too prone to sophomoric and poorly-formed content, and blatant lies carefully disguised as fact (what first fooled Sullivan). Bloggers also go to bed too early. Last week no “Atlantic” blogger had anything on the failure of the auto bailout until the next morning.

The Trig story was the most effective libel of the ‘08 campaign, and Sullivan will always be complicit in it. He gets some credit for letting a contrarian colleague say his piece and using it as a means of making a passably graceful exit from a disgraceful episode in the history of the so-called new media.

Hey, Ron: How About "Moorer/Nixon"?

During 1969-73, before he was consumed by Watergate, Richard Nixon redrew the geopolitical map, repositioning the United States in relationship to the Soviet Union and China and helping usher in the era of globalism. His administration also conducted secret talks with the North Vietnamese in the hope of bringing U.S. involvement in Indochina to an honorable end.

These initiatives and others made Pentagon hawks so nervous that they spied on the President and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Papers illegally stolen from the White House over a 13-month period by a Navy yeoman were passed up the line to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Thomas Moorer (pictured here), who eventually admitted he'd read them without inquiring too aggressively where they'd come from. The thefts were uncovered by the famed White House Plumbers, figures of fun for most historians, little-sung heroes in this case.

New details about the Radford affair, which struck at the heart of the concept of civilian authority over the military, are revealed in an article by Fox News's James Rosen, author of a remarkable new biography of John Mitchell whose new insights about Watergate and John Dean, though startling, didn't merit a review in the New York Times.

Perhaps for some of the same reasons, Radford never got as much as attention as Watergate. Those who like to say that Mr. Nixon was undermining the Constitution have never seemed exercised about the tunnel the brass were busy digging under the White House. As "Frost/Nixon" shows, Nixon as sinner is potentially big box office. When he was sinned against? Rarely green lighted.

One reason may be that for the sake of the military's credibility, the President chose not to make more of the affair. According to Rosen, here's how he put it on one of the tapes:
"Admiral Moorer," Nixon told an aide in May 1973, "I could have screwed him on that and been a big hero, you know. I could have screwed the whole Pentagon about that damn thing ... Why didn't I do it? Because I thought more of the services."

Steve's Breakdown

According to the good folks at "No Depression," the music magazine for our times, comedian Steve Martin (who hails from Orange County, California) is making a banjo album, due out in 2009. He's a pretty good bluegrass picker, as you'll see in this 2006 Letterman performance in which he appears alongside Earl Scruggs playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which Scruggs says he wrote in about 15 minutes in 1949. Those of a certain age will remember it from "Bonnie and Clyde."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Perfect Songs: "We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In the Morning" (1969)

Joe Doe and Kathleen Edwards (written by Gram Parsons)

Perfect Songs: "Do You Hear What I Hear" (1962)

Perry Como. The song was written by Noel Regney and his wife, Gloria Shayne Baker, during the Cuban missile crisis.

Richard's Dinner With Richard

Richard Holbrooke recounts the normalization of relations between the United States and China 30 years ago this week — and reveals how he asked for RN’s autograph.

The Shocking Challenge Of Jesus Christ

From the Archbishiop of Canterbury at Christmas:
Human beings, left to themselves, have imagined God in all sorts of shapes; but - although there were one or two instances, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, of gods being pictured as boys - it took Christianity to introduce the world to the idea of God in the form of a baby: in the form of complete dependence and fragility, without power or control. If you stop to think about it, it is still shocking. And it is also deeply challenging.
Click here for the whole message.

How Does Nixon Make You Feel?

Daniel Frick faces up to the emotional need liberals of a certain age have to despise Richard Nixon:
After the Frost interviews, Richard Nixon went on to write nine bestselling books and serve as a private counselor to Ronald Reagan and other Republican politicians. Truth is, we're scared that he hasn't really gone away. We're more comfortable when we demonize him, keeping him in his place.

Give Them Bush And Circuses

Long a critic of the Bush Administration’s use of extreme interrogation techniques — some call them torture — Andrew Sullivan throws down the gauntlet in the great Bush v. Nixon divide. Assessing the Senate’s recent bipartisan report, he writes:
The report itself is not that long and I highly recommend reading it all closely. It is the most sobering indictment of high government officials in the U.S. since Watergate. And, in the gravity of crimes, it is a far more profound violation of the law and the constitution and the security of the United States than Watergate ever was. Bush’s crimes are far greater than Nixon’s - because war crimes are far graver than burglaries. And there is no statute of limitations for war crimes.

Those of a certain political bent would enjoy contemplating a vision of hell in which Bush and Nixon factotums vie eternally for second-worse. An even more thankless task: Keeping a light lit for them both in history’s window.

The Vietnam war, the central event of the Nixon administration, needs more study and scholarship. Emotions run too high among those who lived through those events. Beside herself that “Frost/Nixon” is too friendly to /Nixon, Elizabeth Drew still waxes sarcastic about the invasion of Cambodia.

As for the war on terrorism, as Sullivan notes, President Bush’s directive exempting interrogators from the restrictions in the Geneva Conventions was signed in early 2002. Back then I remember feeling the United States faced an existential threat. One can only imagine how it looked from the White House, and how it may look today. To say the President may have known more bloodcurdling things than we doesn’t excuse unlawfulness nor the descent into practices and policies that are intrinsically un-American. But we can learn what we need to know through the usual means: Journalism, history-writing, and congressional hearings.

And yet many seem to crave criminal proceedings. It’s possible that President Obama, should progressives complain that they aren’t getting what they expected on the policy front, will be tempted to try to distract them with the bread and circuses of indictments and trials. That handing over a predecessor for pillory would weaken the Presidency ought to go without saying. In any event, Obama may be less interested in such an approach now that he’s getting the same briefings as Bush.

Nixon Critic Calls Ron Howard "Dishonorable"

Elizabeth Drew, so appalled by Richard Nixon that she couldn't bring herself to give a speech about him in Yorba Linda (our federal colleagues arranged for her to appear at the LA public library instead), calls Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" "dishonorable." Drew says Nixon was not funny, not likeable, not redeemable, and not worthy of the prodigious talents of Frank Langella (we're beginning to detect a theme that could silence Oscar buzz). She is still waxing sarcastic about the invasion of Cambodia. Hey, Ron: Welcome to our world!

Read my New Nixon colleague Robert Nedelkoff's thoughts here.

The Awful Aughts And The Hungry Forties

It may be a lean Christmas for the 1.3 million who have lost their jobs in the last six months as well as for their families and all who depend on them in our interdependent time (including tax revenue-strapped states that can't cover everyone's unemployment checks).

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which we're enjoying in our reading circle at St. John's, was the product of bad times in England -- the so-called Hungry Forties. Working-class and poor families were hammered by a ferocious downturn. Many elites concluded that such suffering was just the way of the world in a heartless new age.

As Scrooge himself notes early in the narrative, the Poor Law was in full vigor, but compared to the provisions we make today for those in need, it was weak gruel. In 1834, in the spirit of the times, Parliament had passed reforms designed to make assistance even harder for poor people to get. (That's Alastair Sim above in the 1951 film "Scrooge," which follows the text pretty faithfully.)

Scholar Michael Slater shows that in his simple story, Dickens accomplished two missions. He capitalized on a nostalgic re-embrace of pre-Victorian Christmas traditions which had lagged in the industrial age. He almost single-handedly reconceptionalized Christmas as a magnifying glass for people's better angels, whether they were faithful or not. Scrooge's nephew gives the key speech:
I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it, can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Our Awful Aughts don't quite compare to England's Hungry Forties. Scrooge complained that Bob Cratchit picked his pocket every Dec. 25, whereas Uncle Sam and a variety of entities pick most of ours every third day. Hundreds of billions are given to charity (though less this year, with most foundation and individual portfolios down by a third or more). At least in the U.S., few suffer as horrendously as 160 years ago.

But one thing hasn't changed since Scrooge's time. The cry is still heard, as in Victoria's day, that Christmas isn't what it used to be. Neither politically radical nor exceptionally pious, Dickens probably wouldn't bemoan the commercialism or even the occasional Christlessness. But the occasional heartlessness? The periodic selfishness? These things he would recognize as enduring human traits. This year, we really need a good Christmas.

A Question The Times Shouldn't Have Asked

The New York Times devotes considerable effort to asking Iraqis what they think about the President of the United States being attacked by an operative of an anti-Maliki TV network. So low has the President sunk in the media's (and indeed the American people's) estimation that it evidently doesn't occur to the Times that attacking Mr. Bush in a crowded room actually falls below the threshold of legitimate expression.

According to the Times, some Iraqis think the attack was just fine. A way to go, I guess, in establishing a mature polity in their country.

I wonder if the reporters and stringers collecting the quotations followed up with these questions: How would you feel if either President had been hurt or killed? If security agents had opened fire and hurt or killed others in the room? If the President's press secretary had been more severely injured than she was in the scuffle? And if any of them ever saw a "reporter" throw a shoe at Saddam Hussein?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Child's Christmas In Whittier

Richard Nixon wasn't always a master diplomat. Thankfully, no one ever went to war over mincemeat pie.

RN himself would tell the story of the festive holiday dinner in Whittier, perhaps at Christmas, when as a little boy he proclaimed to his aunt Rose Olive, Hannah's youngest sister, that she made the best pie in the world. "You should never say that," Rose Olive said gently, "because your mother's is always the best pie in the world."

Diplomacy aside, Rose Olive's view probably had the additional advantage of being true. Visitors to the President's restored birthplace in Yorba Linda learn from our volunteer docents that Hannah Milhous Nixon was a master baker. As expenses mounted from the illness of RN's elder brother Harold, Hannah would get up at four in the morning to make all the pies and cakes for the family market, and they always sold out early.

At Christmastime, after services at Yorba Linda Friends Church she and her husband Frank would load up pies and sons and presents for the ride from Yorba Linda to the Whittier home of her parents, Franklin and Almira Milhous. (The Nixons moved to Whittier themselves in 1922.) Some of Hannah's siblings, and later their children, still lived at home. They got to open their stockings Christmas morning, but Mrs. Milhous insisted that gifts not be exchanged until family members arrived from Yorba Linda, Riverside, and Lindsay, a Quaker community in central California.

Richard looked forward to hearing voices from his Quaker heritage during these family reunions. Hannah and her sisters didn't use the plain speech in their own homes -- "Is thee going today?"; "Is this thine?" -- but their mother did. At Christmas, she and her daughters would slip back into the plain speech, which Richard loved.

Rose Olive, who raised her own family in her parents' house, liked to open gifts only after someone had played "Joy to the World" and everyone had sung along. Perhaps the pianist was RN's Aunt Jane Beeson, just in from Lindsay, or in later years her pupil Richard. At least two other aunts were pianists as well. RN remembered that "Joy to the World" was the first song he picked out by ear on the family's Crown piano, still on display in the birthplace.

Writing in the late 1970s, President Nixon recalled that his grandmother, wearing her best red velvet dress, would sit in the parlor near the Christmas tree, which was festooned with tinsel, garlands, paper chains, and glass figurines, while her grandchildren brought their modest presents to her. "She praised them all equally," RN wrote, "remarking that each was something she had particularly wanted."

Ham or turkey dinner was served in the dining room, with kids at a separate table. It was family style at first; as the family grew, the food was set out in a buffet. After some of that great pie, as neighborhood fires scented the chill evening air, the grandchildren were sometimes called upon to read verses of Scripture in turn. One wonders if anyone in that jovial and peace-worshiping Quaker family, even Richard himself, was ever asked to read Isaiah 2:4, God's great call to beat swords into plowshares and make war no more.

The Bible they probably used those evenings is also in the Nixon museum, a powerful link to successions of California Christmases and sturdy forebears. It was given to Richard's grandfather Franklin and his wife Emily in the 1870s, as they started their life together in Jennings County, Indiana. Emily died when her husband was 28. Eighteen years later, in 1897, he brought his second wife Almira, their nine children (including Hannah), most of the wood from their farmhouse, and the Bible to Whittier. Those Indiana planks are thought to buttress the Whittier house, which stands to this day. And when Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969 during a time of war and violent dissent, Pat Nixon held Franklin and Emily's Bible, opened to Isaiah 2:4, as he took the oath of office.

Whatever passages Richard may have read in long-ago Whittier with his family gathered around, Almira Milhous must have sensed something fateful about him. On his 13th birthday she gave him a present he treasured all his life and that is still in the birthplace, over his parents' bed. It was a framed picture of Abraham Lincoln, whom she revered for his abolitionist views, with a passage from Longfellow:

Lives of great men oft remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

President Nixon's restored birthplace is open to visitors every day this season, and all seasons, except Christmas, New Year's, and Thanksgiving days.

First published on the Nixon Foundation web site in December 2000.

This Tosser Should've Gotten The Boot

The Iraqi journalist who attacked President Bush works for a Egypt-based network that supports Sunni insurgents (the word people use when for some reason they decide not to use "terrorists") working to destroy the Iraqi government, according to Juan Cole via Andrew Sullivan. What was he doing in the same room with the President? Why didn't agents remove Mr. Bush from the room immediately? How did they know it wasn't part of an organized effort to kill our President?

As for the bogus journalist, he's lucky he's not dead, and the Secret Service is lucky Mr. Bush wasn't hurt. It should do a better job next time -- checking out those who are going to be in the President's presence, and acting less tentatively in an emergency.