Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shaggy Dog Stories

Every time New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes about Mitt Romney, she mentions Seamus's wild and uncomfortable ride atop the Romneymobile 28 years ago. It's the basis for the cover of the current The New Yorker, where Amy Davidson writes on-line that if a journalist as fearsome and relentless as Collins had been covering Richard Nixon's Checkers speech in 1952, the world might've been been saved from 37. It sounds as if Davidson hopes that Romney, at least, will end up going to the dogs. "There are character issues at stake here," she writes.

Lenten Light

The late John Castelli's Christus Rex cross at St. John's, draped for Lent
Photo by Andrew Guilford

Skipping Stone

Roger Stone, the ultimate Nixonite, explains why he's supporting former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate in 2012:
[A] candidate for president who opposes the war in Afghanistan, favors a woman's right to choose, supports gay marriage equality, and backs the legalization of marijuana at the same time he supports deep cuts in spending, radical tax reduction, smaller government, gun owner's rights and an adherence to constitutional principles has a unique opportunity to impact the 2012 presidential race....

The American people have never been offered a candidate who is a fiscal conservative and social liberal. If you voted for the Republican because you favored spending and tax cuts you also had to swallow a ban on abortion and opposition to gay marriage. If you voted for the Democrat because you were pro-choice, you also had to support fiscal policies that would bankrupt us.

The Source Of All Passion

While Jennifer Westfeldt's script for "Friends With Kids" doesn't give him many lines, little Joe, nearly two years old by the end of the story, returns an explosive performance. There's a de rigueur diarrhea incident, of course. But he's a massive character for another reason. His gravitational pull on parents Jason and Julie (Adam Scott and Westfeldt, who also directed the movie and gives an easy, believable, and deeply moving performance), is irresistible. Jason proudly proclaims his and Julie's aversion to organized religion. In the opening scene, we see a copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion next to his bed. But when it comes to marriage, at least insofar as the sacramental notion of families being one flesh is concerned, "Friends With Kids" is as traditional as Gen. 2.

Buddies since college who claim they're not attracted to each other, Jason and Julie become brave domestic reformers. They observe that the sex lives of their married friends deteriorate after they have kids. So they decide they can leapfrog the dictates of natural and family law by having a baby, parenting as friends without putting anything in writing, and then finding partners whom they love and will have spared the rigors of early childhood. No, they don't really think it through.

Before cheerful little Joe drags them back into the prevailing paradigm of familial enslavement, one couple in their circle, Alex and Leslie (beautifully played by Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph), makes it through the fire swamp of child-rearing, while Missy and Ben (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm) don't. Many of these players are from "Bridesmaids," and I expected Wiig's to be a comic performance instead of a finely-etched tragic one. Hamm is outstanding as well, his despair and frustration seeming to totter on the edge of violence. Their marriage explodes in a merciless scene that occurs over a New Year's Eve dinner (shades of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?"). Jason and Julie have dragged along their current partners, played by Megan Fox and Edward Burns, who look great on paper and screen but whose long-term prospects are, one always senses and especially so at the New Year's dinner, poor. The writing's already on the nursery wall, where a sign reads "Joe."

After all, Jason and Julie begin with the deeply traditional idea that creating and rearing children are imperatives of human relationship. They live in apartments a few floors away and cheerfully share duties and expenses. A few months after Joe's birth, their married friends arrive for a party, expecting the experiment to have dissolved into chaos. Instead, Julie's apartment is perfect. She and Jason are cheerful and attentive to each other and their guests. She sees to the quiche while he goes to change a diaper. The marrieds are slack-jawed as a perfect afternoon unfolds right out of the pages of "Real Simple." But Julie and Jason aren't succeeding because they're unmarried. Married people can act like that, too. All people can. They're succeeding because they're serving and supporting one another in a good purpose, aka our relentless buddy Joe, which ends up being the source of their and all enduring passion.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why Men Usually Die First

Hat tip to Tom Tierney

Lonely Palestine

As Israel vs. Iran crowds Israel and Palestine off the top of the Middle East agenda, Palestinian leaders are sounding wistful:
“The biggest challenge we face — apart from occupation — is marginalization,” Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (below), said in an interview. “This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring where people are preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. The United States is in an election year and has economic problems, Europe has its worries. We’re in a corner.”
A year ago, some predicted that Israel, feeling encircled by hostility as a result of the Arab spring, would be more eager to establish a Palestinian state. Perhaps the Palestinians thought so, too. If so, they were wrong. It's not the first time they've either put too much faith in the leverage applied by regional and global friends or walked away from the table believing that they could get a better deal next time. In late 2001, Yasser Arafat told former President Bill Clinton that he should've taken the deal the U.S. brokered in 2000. The Palestinians balked again in 2008, when the Bush administration did the honors. They squandered the 2009 Obama initiative by insisting that Israel suspend its West Bank settlements before even coming to the table.

It's actually astonishing to hear Fayyad say Palestinians feel marginalized, since they've been an A-list international cause for a generation. Three U.S. presidents have committed substantial effort and capital to a Palestinian state. They've been the toast of their Arab brethren throughout the region, though it's usually been all gas and no champagne. In her memoir, No Higher Honor, Condi Rice writes that when she was George W. Bush's national security adviser she told a group of representatives of Arab nations, "If you care so much about the Palestinians, why have each and every one of you expelled them from your country at some point in time?" Rice adds, "I can't count the number of phone calls I made to the rich Arabs, begging them to give just a little bit of their excess oil revenue to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority."

Now the world is otherwise occupied. Arabs are dealing with their revolutions, the Obama administration and Israel are dealing with Iran, and the Palestinians say they're in a corner. Indeed they are, and it's a corner of their own painting. They've been so fixated on what they believe Israel and the U.S. should do that they've failed to appreciate the basic truth of their situation, which is that Israel will do for them what it wishes, what it determines to be in its long-term interests, and no more. In the end, there are two negotiating partners, and no amount of external pressure can change the fact that Israel is in the stronger position, perhaps more isolated since the Arab spring but still indomitable.

Until now, it's been hard to avoid the impression that Palestinians' understandable feelings of resentment and entitlement have contributed to their failure to make the most of their opportunities with friendlier Israeli regimes. Here's hoping that their new feeling of isolation will help Palestinians understand that, if the two-state solution is to be salvaged, they should make the best territorial settlement they can as soon as possible. Israel has exploited over a decade of Palestinian hesitation and vacillation by building and expanding more and more settlements in the West Bank. Israel won't stop, and the U.S. can't make her stop. Only the Palestinians can, by finally saying yes.

Who's The Expletive-Deleted Library Director?

During 2010-11, Nixon library director Tim Naftali was under relentless pressure over the Watergate exhibit that his bosses at the National Archives had ordered him to design and install. We know about the secret maneuvers by Nixon and Bob Haldeman operatives such as Sen. Lamar Alexander and the Watergate truth squad that included perjurer Dwight Chapin. Now historian and former Nixon archivist Maarja Krusten reports that a taxpayer-paid presidential library director got into the act and actually cussed Naftali out. Krusten says the event occurred in the last couple of years. I wonder if this publicly accountable official was representing the get-Naftali mission of the Haldeman clique and, if so, why.

"When My Train Pulls In," Gary Clark Jr.

Chicago? Austin.

Who You Calling An Ambassador?

Max Holland's book about Mark Felt, Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source, gets kudos from former Nixon counsel John Dean (shown here), who compares it favorably with what he describes as a sloppy account of the scandal in Tim Weiner's new book about the FBI. Among other things he lauds Holland for making his own Watergate transcripts:
Weiner quotes Nixon from a conversation when he was reacting to information I had learned on October 19, 1972, which unequivocally established that Mark Felt was leaking information. At one point, Nixon said to Haldeman, in Weiner’s (incorrect) version: “You know what I’d do with him [Felt]? Bastard!” In fact, what Nixon really said to Haldeman was much more telling, and interesting. He didn’t say “Bastard!” Rather, he said, “Ambassador.”

In short, Nixon would have done with Felt what he would later do with CIA director Richard Helms, to keep him happy and get him out of the way: make him an ambassador in a foreign land.

According to Dean, Weiner doesn't identify his sources for Watergate transcripts. NARA tapes specialist Samuel W. Rushay, Jr. writes that two scholars have made this particular error, one of whom is Stanley Kutler, who rushed out a book of transcripts in 1998. More about Kutler's errors here. Kutler also erred when transcribing a comment of Nixon's about the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee, Howard Baker. One day in 1973, Nixon told his aides that Baker needed bucking up, one of his classic idioms. Kutler picked another consonant. Funny how these mistakes never make 37 look better.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Dousing The Kindle Fire

Why the old-fashioned dedicated e-reader like my trusty Kindle 2 is a better reader's tool (and why I canceled my Kindle Fire order just in time):

People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.

E-mail lurks tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.