Friday, April 20, 2012

Suffragan Shutterbug

Bishop Suffragan Mary Douglas Glasspool of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles was so pleased to see us members of the Commission on Ministry doing our homework prior to this weekend's interviews of our diocese's potential postulants and candidates for Holy Orders that she decided to memorialize the moment.

From Bombs To Potholes

At the National Interest, published by the former Nixon Center, Paul Pillar writes that it's time for Israel and the U.S. to reconsider its refusal to talk to Hamas, now preoccupied with the mundane responsibilities of a ruling party:
The Israeli posture and, in lockstep with it, the American posture toward Hamas are stuck in an unhelpful time warp. It is a posture that simply applies the label “terrorist” to the group and assumes that an unchanging refusal to have anything to do with it is the only appropriate implication. A label is no substitute for a policy or for a strategy. And in this case, it is no substitute for understanding the current character and objectives of Hamas, which are not captured by the label.

Can't Get There From Here

Conservative Republicans don't want Mitt Romney to tack to the center. Neither does the White House.

The Real Game-Changer?

Mitt Romney's leading VP picks aren't overwhelmingly exciting. But Condi rules it out. Too bad.

"Ophelia," Levon Helm

Why do the best things always disappear? Helm performing with his Midnight Ramble show band in August 2009 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Hat tip to No Depression.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Brothers Again

Robbie Robertson, guitarist for the Band and composer of most of its greatest songs, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which he wrote for Levon Helm, posted this statement on Facebook, warming the hearts of fans who feared Helm had died before they'd reconciled:
Last week I was shocked and so saddened to hear that my old band mate, Levon, was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. It hit me really hard because I thought he had beaten throat cancer and had no idea that he was this ill. I spoke with his family and made arrangements to go and see him.

On Sunday I went to New York and visited him in the hospital. I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together. It was heartwarming to be greeted by his lovely daughter Amy, whom I have known since she was born. Amy’s mother, Libby Titus, and her husband, Donald Fagen, were so kind to help walk me through this terrible time of sadness. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Sandy.

Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.

Levon Helm, 1940-2012

From Jon Pareles elegant New York Times obit:

Mr. Helm gave his drums a muffled, bottom-heavy sound that placed them in the foundation of the arrangements, and his tom-toms were tuned so that their pitch would bend downward as the tone faded. But his playing didn’t call attention to himself. Three bass-drum thumps at the beginning of one of the Band’s anthems, “The Weight,“ were all that he needed to establish the song’s gravity. His playing served the song. In “The Shape I’m In," he juxtaposed Memphis soul, New Orleans rumba and military tattoo. But though it was tersely responsive to the music, the drumming also had an improvisational feel.

In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Drifting Together

It won't surprise MSNBC host Rachel Maddow's fans that her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, explores how those who wage war have become less accountable to the public. It might surprise them Fox News founder Roger Ailes gave her a blurb. When it comes to issues of war and peace, are the left and right converging? Maddow explored the possibility in a March 27 conversation with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air":

I think the discomfort that we have as civilians in terms of our distance from the military that's been fighting these wars for 10 years is something that people feel on the left and people feel on the right. And I think the problematic political decisions that got us to this point were not made, mostly, for ideological reasons. They were made by politicians on the left and the right for what they thought were pragmatic short-term reasons.

And they've had long-term problematic consequences. And I think Republicans and Democrats are getting closer to each other in terms of how fast we should end the Afghanistan War, for example. I think Republicans and Democrats are finding a lot of overlap among themselves on whether or not the defense budget is where it ought to be.

This is just one of those issues where there isn't a real sharp right/left axis. And I know because I am a liberal and I am known as a liberal, that people might have thought this was going to be a real liberal, anti-war book. This isn't a liberal anti-war book. It's a book about the politics of making war and whether or not they've changed in a way that's bad for the country.

As He Pulls Into Nazareth

A great Levon Helm photo album from the Washington Post.

And Touched The Fascia Of God

Via Geoff Chester at the U.S. Naval Observatory, a view of STS Discovery during its final flight on Tuesday, which took it past Washington National Cathedral.

Sinking Heart

Andrew Sullivan, though a supporter of Barack Obama, isn't pleased with either choice today:
[T]he promise of Obama...was delusional, not so much because he didn't try or have the ability, but because the other side immediately decided that this epochal moment for the country, the first black president, was not a time to compromise and resolve some deep long-standing issues, specifically on taxation and spending. What might have been an integrating, reforming moment evaporated with zero Republican House votes on a desperately needed stimulus in the worst recession since the 1930s.

And so my heart sinks as I see Obama drifting to the left, offering the silly Buffett Rule instead of serious tax reform, and Romney tacks to the W-Cheney right, promising tax cuts, defense increases and drastic debt reduction, without providing any clue as to how this can be afforded.

Least Effective Junk E-Mail Of The Year

From Mitt Romney adviser Beth Myers, who's vetting his VP choices but evidently not his mailing lists:

If you’re a stay-at-home mom, the Democrats have a message for you: you’ve never worked a day in your life.

One Man, One Party

Alon Ben-Meir says that Israel's political center and left could unite and put the peace process back on track -- if it weren't, that is, for the politicians:
[A]ll Israeli politicians are driven by blind personal ambitions. I do not believe that there is a single issue in connection with the Palestinian conflict that Labor, Kadima and even Barak's Independence party could not agree on to move along a unified political agenda to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What prevents them from doing so are personal struggles over who should occupy this or that post and what prerogatives they may or may not be able to exercise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Evening With Levon Helm

Reposted from Nov. 8, 2009

Levon Helm patted Gary and me on the knee when he arrived on stage for his set last night and patted me on the back when he left. Such incarnational moments are surely the stuff of pilgrimages. After he'd given us a big smile, I was so transfigured that I couldn't have cared less about anything else that might have happened. But as a matter of fact, the Band's legendary singer and drummer barely opened his mouth during his two and a half-hour concert last night in his Woodstock studio. A throat cancer survivor, he's still recovering from another scare last summer, when a non-cancerous lesion was removed from his throat.

While he's not yet singing as he works with his vocal coach to get back in shape, he's drumming as powerfully as ever. He powered his 12-piece show band from the right end of the stage, counting four by standing, waving his drumsticks in the air, and mouthing the words. There were plenty of lead vocalists to take up the slack, including his daughter Amy, Teresa Williams and her husband, guitarist Larry Campbell (storied performers in their own right), and, sitting in last night, roadhouse pianist David Keyes, who got to sing this classic Robbie Robertson lyric on "Across The Great Divide":

Standing by your window in pain
A pistol in y
our hand
And I beg you, dear Molly girl

Try and unders
tand your man the best you can...
Now Molly dear, don't ya shed a tear
Your time will surely come

You'll feed your man chicken every Sunday
Now tell me, hon, whatcha done with the gun?

Helm and his band performed five more Band songs -- "Long Black Veil," a country standard which appeared on their "Music From Big Pink," plus "The Shape I'm In," "It Makes No Difference," "Chest Fever," and "The Weight." Songwriter and guitarist Robertson wasn't there, and Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, the group's two best voices besides Helm, died early. All this Band music, but no Band voices? Nobody cared. Nobody cares if it isn't John Wesley singing the hymns he wrote, either.

Robertson is said to have been unappreciative of the Helm-Danko-Manuel-Garth Hudson iterations of the Band that performed without him in the 1980-90s. I guess I can't blame him in view of the fairly showy "goodbye to the road" the Band paid in the film "The Last Waltz." Still, I hope Robertson brings his famous Fender to the Midnight Ramble one time to see how the congregation is doing with his hymns, the classic songs that have entered the canon of American New Orleans-influenced R&B songwriting.

In addition to Band songs, we heard Delta peaches such as Dr. John's "Such A Night," the boisterous "All On A Mardi Gras Day," and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." The Ramble was in Woodstock without being especially redolent of the Woodstock festival, which was more famous for the Who and Jimi Hendrix than for proto-roots music such as the Band's, whose members looked like Mennonites, not acid rockers. The Band played the festival but didn't especially enjoy it. Nor did a certain other Americana band from San Francisco. Bad weather during their set killed the Grateful Dead's spotlights, so nobody saw them. Literally. They said they'd never played worse.

Appropriately enough, Helm's ensemble has its own links to the greater Dead family, Williams and Campbell having recently toured with Dead bassist Phil Lesh. We heard two Dead songs last night: "Tennessee Jed," which Helm recorded on his new album "Electric Dirt," and the Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia collaboration "Attics Of My Life." Here the evening waxed from joyful to sublime, with Williams, Amy Helm, and Campbell singing Hunter's gorgeous lyrics, as the Dead themselves did on their album "American Beauty," in luminous harmony:

I have spent my life
Seeking all that's still unsung

Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see

When there were no strings to play

You played to me

Oh regret, oh grace -- oh, baby boomers! We listened in rapt silence to that aching old song, we men and women of a certain age huddled together in a cozy barn, mostly in our fifties and sixties, though there were a few younger people who'd said they learned about the music from their parents. Welcomed with an easy hospitality by Team Levon, which had lit the muddy parking lot with fragrant stove fires and invited us to bring dishes for a common buffet table, we felt like we were going over to an old friend's house. We sipped beer and wine from red plastic cups they'd provided (we were asked to keep the liquor bottles in our cars) and traded stories about concerts we'd seen, albums we'd loved, sights we'd seen around town. Except in church, which comes with a common vocabulary just like rock and roll, I've rarely bonded so easily with strangers. It felt like going to a show when we were 19.

But we weren't 19. Most of our children won't see 19 again. It might just have been a nostalgia trip, but as one of the passengers, I'm looking for a better word than that. It had something to do with the curtain beginning to come down on a storied if self-absorbed generation and trying to savor and honor people and things and memories we love, trying to discern what's really precious and then find the words to explain it.

One of the things I love is the Band's live version of the Motown song "Don't Do It," recorded at the Academy of Music in New York City on New Year's Eve in 1971. Levon Helm sings lead. It's lean, sharp as an icicle, almost explosively powerful. That long-ago night in New York was the first time the Band had worked with a horn section. Howard Johnson, who'd played with Charles Mingus and later led the Saturday Night Live band, played tuba and baritone sax. The horns helped make "Don't Do It" a masterpiece. Near the end, Helm and the late Rick Danko take this line as Helm plays a complicated drum pattern which you're amazed he can hold together while singing: "My biggest mistake was loving you too much." Then Johnson and the rest of the horns come back in with a mighty roar.

I'd be surprised if I've heard the song fewer than 1,000 times in the course of nearly 40 years. If I could have just one song, I'd be content with "Don't Do It." As it happened, Howard Johnson also anchored the horn section last night at the Midnight Ramble. After the show, he walked out behind Helm, and I touched him on the shoulder and said, "Thank you. God bless you." He smiled and said, "Thank you." Perhaps presumptuous of me, definitely gracious of him. I felt like I was thanking him for all the music I'd ever loved.

And He Shall Be Levon

Levon Helm, the Band's drummer and finest lead singer (they had three), is reported to be near death after battling cancer for several years. In this performance of Marvin Gaye's 1964 classic "Don't Do It," from the Band's legendary late December 1971 run at the Academy of Music in New York, all his gifts are on display. I can't name one thing I'd rather hear than this. At 3:07, listen to him drum when he sings "My biggest mistake was loving you too too much."

He patted my music brother Boom Baker and me on the knee when we saw him and his show band perform in November 2009 at one of his Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock, New York. May all the angels of heaven attend him.

From Emergent To Empire Blue Shield

Diana Butler Bass sees the troubles in the Anglican Communion not in terms of right vs. left as much as grassroots vs. elites:
For centuries, faith was top-down: Spiritual power flowed from pope to the faithful, archbishop to Anglicans, priest to the pious, pastor to congregation. This has changed as regular people confidently assert that spirituality is a grassroots adventure of seeking God, a journey of insight and inspiration involving authenticity and purpose that might or might not happen in a church, synagogue or mosque. Spirituality is an expression of bottom-up faith and does not always fit into accepted patterns of theology or practice. Fearing this change, however, many religious bodies, such as the Anglican Communion, increasingly fixate on order and control, leading them to reassert hierarchical authority and be less responsive to the longings of those they supposedly serve. And that will push religion further into its spiral of irrelevance and decline.
The New Testament and early non-canonical writings are fraught with a comparable tension between the orthodox church and its failed rivals. Experts think that among the Gnostics' alleged heresies was their idea that God's salvation was as near as one's own faithful heart. Who needs a church for that? The Reformation also grasped from the grassroots, as does today's emergent Christianity. Bass doesn't call for the church's de-professionalization, but our doctrines do. We proclaim that all the baptized are called to priesthood and equality and mutuality in the body of Christ. My ordained sistren and brethren and I are theoretically temporary, like socialism on the way to communism and wilderness on the way to the promised land -- though Elaine Pagels, an authority on Gnosticism, does note that without the institutional church, Christianity probably wouldn't have survived Christ by more than a few generations.

As through the brass darkly, we can glimpse a more democratic church. Near the end of our Good Friday service at St John's, two lads in sneakers walked into the middle of our solemn liturgy carrying a rough, splintery cross and planted it in front of the altar. We ministers took off our vestments and clergy collars, tossed it all in a heap, and invited everyone to join us at Golgotha. Come inside the altar rails, we urged them. Come claim the place at the foot of the cross that belongs to you, for good and for shame. "No need to wait in line. Just crowd up here. It's not an altar anymore," I said. "It's just wood that's been nailed and glued together." We rearranged the ministers' chairs in a circle and stacked our prayer books and hymnals on the bare table. Some sat on chairs or the floor; others stood, just as people did one afternoon while watching Jesus suffer. Huddled within the sanctuary, we 60 witnesses put our arms around each other, said a few more prayers, ate up what was left of the consecrated sacrament, and went home.

Like most spiritual leaders, a priest wears a special outfit and game face and carefully observes liturgical forms. For a few moments on Good Friday, I felt the peace of being a companion and fellow witness. Since then, it's been back to the work of the ordained and professionalized in the complex institutions our churches and schools have become -- board meetings, worship planning, preaching and teaching, visiting and comforting the afflicted, budgets, phone calls and e-mails, mass communications, diocesan work, and never-ending due diligence. Might God and we evolve spiritual communities where all responsibilities and competencies are shared by volunteers? The professional pastor is called to mediate the empowerment of the laity to the full extent of their gifting. It would be harder to do without us entirely (though the LDS, with its non-stipendiary ministries, may be a model). Even at new, emergent communities, hierarchy will be an inevitable temptation. A moment must always come when a devoted volunteer finds she's spending so much time on the grassroots adventure of Christianity that she asks if at some point she might get dental.

Why The Federal Government Grows...

...has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.

"Cats in the Cradle," Harry Chapin

Not today; I got a lot to do. The king of the father-son songs, with moving comments by Chapin's lyricist and widow and their son. Hat tip to No Depression.

Arabs Aren't Springing

Hopes aren't high as the Israeli and Palestinian PMs prepare to meet in Jerusalem today, the first high-level contact in 20 months. Traveling in Asia, the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, refreshingly notes that his people's problems aren't all Israel's fault:

Abbas blamed the Arab countries for the severe financial crisis facing the PA. He noted that the Arabs have yet to fulfill their financial promises to support the Palestinians.

NATO In Nazareth?

Steven Strauss argues that the U.S. should promote peace in the Middle East by envisioning it as a focal point for a mini-Marshall Plan:
Offer incentives to both sides (paid for by the U.S. and other interested parties) that provide real reasons to make painful compromises. For both Israel and Palestine (conditioned on their achieving a real peace treaty) -- Entry into NAFTA (or analogous trade concessions) on favorable terms to promote economic growth. For Israel -- Entry into NATO, with a significant number of NATO troops stationed in front-line positions (so an attack on Israel becomes an attack on NATO), and reimbursement of costs for settlers evacuated from the West Bank. For the Palestinians -- Payment of all claims for people displaced during the various wars (by payment directly to the refugees), and citizenship in Western countries for any Palestinian refugees who cannot be resettled in the Middle East.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Jesus On The Mainline," Ry Cooder

Tell him what you want. Cooder and David Lindley, Bobby King, Terry Evans, Willie Green, and Joachim Cooder were performing at the 1994 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Hat tip to Boom Baker

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Mao?

Cheng Shi-Zheng grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, when elites were ruthlessly persecuted by Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. Cheng is directing a new Paris production of the opera "Nixon in China." If Nixon is controversial in the U.S., imagine Mao in China, where victims of the Cultural Revolution are highly influential in politics and culture. The Bangkok Post:

The stage is dominated by a statue of Mao "because he is very much a part today of Chinese life," Cheng said.

But "I don't think any Chinese composer would have written an opera in such a way about Mao ... this is a very sensitive issue. I am not sure this is something that the country is ready to talk about," said Cheng who was banned for five years from returning to his home country because of his work.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Portrait Of The 40%

Bill Keller on the voters Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will need to win:

The middle is not the home of bland, split-the-difference politics, or a cult that worships bipartisan process for its own sake. Swing voters have views; they are just not views that all come from any one party’s menu. Researchers at Third Way, a Clintonian think tank, have assembled a pretty plausible composite profile of these up-for-grabs voters.

¶Swing voters tend to be fiscal conservatives, meaning they are profoundly worried about deficits and debt.

¶They are mostly economic moderates, meaning they are free-marketers but expect government to help provide the physical and intellectual infrastructure that creates opportunity.

¶They are aspirational — that is, they have nothing against the rich — but they don’t oppose tax increases.

¶They want the country well protected, but not throwing its weight around in the world.

¶They tend to be fairly progressive on social issues; they think, for example, that abortion should be discouraged but not prohibited.

Detachment In Detention

In a Brooklyn high school, meditation as an alternative to traditional discipline.

St. John's Sky

4:10 p.m. Saturday

A Pox On Both Your Parties

Nick Gillespie writes that 40% of voters now identify as independents:
If independent voters are the key to the presidency, what are the keys to independent voters? In its summary of 2011 attitudes toward government and political parties, Gallup concluded that the surge in independents stems from the “sluggish economy, record levels of distrust in government, and unfavorable views of both parties.” Indeed, a “historic” 81 percent of Americans overall are “dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed” and 53 percent of us have negative views of the Republican Party and 55 percent of us have negative views of the Democratic Party.
Hat tip to Lisa Sparks

With You And Other Old Friends

That's Hugh Hewitt on the big screen Saturday night at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Kathy O'Connor, Richard Nixon's last chief of staff, has know him since 1980, when they briefly worked together in Nixon's Manhattan office. Born in the Bronx, she calls him You You-it.

Hugh and I are serial job-swappers. In 1979, before the Nixons moved east from their post-Watergate exile in San Clemente, he recommended me (then a Democratic journalist) for a job writing research papers for 37's book Leaders. Then Nixon hired me to replace Hugh after he headed off to go to law school, serve with future chief justice John Roberts in the Reagan White House, and, on my recommendation to Nixon, launch the Nixon library in 1990. I replaced Hugh again when he left the library to become a law professor and nationally syndicated radio talk show host. In the late 1990s, when he starred on a local PBS news program, "Life and Times," he invited me to sit in for him occasionally when he was out of town.

On Saturday Hugh was genial master of ceremonies at a 50th anniversary celebration of the Lincoln Club of Orange County. Thanks to Lisa Hughes of St. John's, who has joined the club's board, I was invited to give the invocation. I paid tribute to club founders' "bold and audacious belief that it was possible to cultivate candidates who embodied conservative virtues but could still win elections in the state of California." At right that's Bruce and Lisa Hughes with Kathy and me.

In the 1990s, during long afternoon conversations at the knee of the late Bob Beaver in historic Fullerton, California, I'd learned how he and other local politicos had built the Lincoln Club from the wreckage of Nixon's disastrous 1962 gubernatorial campaign against popular Democratic Gov. Pat Brown. Bob, inventor and philanthropist Arnold Beckman, and other business-minded Republicans thought Nixon would've won if it hadn't been for his bruising battle for the GOP nomination against a super-conservative state assemblyman, Joe Shell.

So the Lincoln Club actually began by championing moderates. Bob and his friends wanted to identify and fund candidates who could win and scare off those who couldn't. Though Nixon joined the club in its early years, these days it leans well to his right, so he doesn't get quite as much space on the marquee as other famous Republicans. In a video presentation at the dinner, Newt Gingrich credited the club for its longstanding support of Ronald Reagan but didn't even mention Nixon, who in many respects, after all, governed to the left of Barack Obama.

Last night's keynoter, political consultant and George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, is taking Bob Beaver's Lincoln Club model national. He said he's raised $250 million toward the $300 million he wants for political action committees that will oppose Obama while trying to elect and reelect Republicans to the House and Senate. Rove gave a spirited, detailed critique of 44 -- high unemployment, big deficits and growing debt, an increasingly unpopular health care bill, and polls showing him stuck at 45% overall approval and running even with near-certain GOP nominee Mitt Romney. He urged Republicans to run a respectful campaign, warning that Romney won't win without millions of people who voted for Obama or stayed home in 2008.

Other speakers were more pointed. I hadn't been served such a heaping mess of political red meat for years. Romney was getting the same treatment at a Democratic gala somewhere else in the U.S., I'm sure. Hyperbole beats the ways certain other countries settle their differences. Besides, it was fun for Kathy and me to talk to friends from our past lives such as former Gov. Pete Wilson, political stalwarts Jo Ellen Chatham, Doy Henley, Buck Johns, Howard and Janet Klein, Lincoln Club chairman Richard Wagner, and former chairman Mike Capaldi.

But in 2012, I remain 100% undecided. For the next seven months, I'll be waiting with millions of others for answers to two questions. Rove told us that one out of six adult Americans needs a job. Which candidate will do a better job for them? Second, whose policies will spur the kind of Reagan- and Clinton-era GDP growth that we need to create opportunity and jobs and reduce deficits, debt, and the spirit-sapping anxiety of bad economic times?

Romney's advocates will say that Obama would do no better on growth and jobs in a second term than he's done so far. But as I listened to Rove last night, I wondered what a President John McCain would've done in the midst of early 2009's panic. A big-ticket Keynesian stimulus and the GM and Chrysler bailouts, just like Obama? Almost certainly. A health care bill? Certainly not (and I'll bet the president now feels that he should've focused on job creation instead). Obama-style contributions to the national debt, which has swelled to 70% of GDP? Maybe not, if only because McCain, in "Nixon goes to China" style, would've grown federal spending and also raised taxes in the name of fiscal probity, just as the Lincoln Club's hero Ronald Reagan did (and in record fashion). But for purposes of argument, if during a national emergency Congress wouldn't vote modest new revenue for Obama that it very well would have done for a Republican president, whom should we replace: The occupant of the White House, or the House?