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Friday, March 30, 2012

What is the Role of the White House?

For more than 200 years, the nature of the White House, home to 43 of the 44 presidents of the United States, has been the subject of debate.

Here we are back at the White House after 39 years
Leery of the trappings of royal power, but cognizant of the inherent symbolism of the presidency, early  presidents and planners struggled to create a house that was grand, but not too grand.  In modern times, that struggle has shifted on how to keep the White House open to the public while still maintaining the security necessary for such a vital center of democracy and freedom to operate. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the White House simultaneously serves as
  • a home for the president and his family
  • a functioning operational site to determine and run US positions both here and around the world
  • a political center to celebrate freedom and contributions of citizens from all 50 states
  • a symbol of the power, grandeur, and history of America
  • a museum of the presidency and
  • one of Washington's leading tourist attractions, a site which can attract as as many as 100,000 visitors a month. 
My wife Judy and I last visited the White House more than 40 years ago. Today, we returned to the home of our presidents to see how much such a visit has changed in 4 decades.

The most obvious changes concern increased security measures. After the 9/11 attacks, all tours must be arranged through a member of Congress, permission that can only be granted after much paperwork and a background check. You may only take 4 items on the tour. The permitted items are cell phones, wallets, car keys, and umbrellas. You will pass through 2 checkpoints where your ID will be scrutinized. You must also submit to a complete X-ray screening.

President Obama listens as Jagger sings in the Blue Room
However, once inside, you are able to wander at your own pace through the open portions of the building and grounds. Although the tour is self-guided, knowledgeable and helpful guide/guards are stationed throughout to answer your questions.You can pause and envision yourself at a presidential press conference or see yourself at a state dinner. I chose to imagine myself at the recent tribute to the blues concert where B. B. King graced the notes of "The Thrill Is Gone," Mick Jagger pranced while singing "Miss You," and president Obama himself sang a few lines of "Sweet Home Chicago."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Probably every one who tours the White House thinks about running into the president. But such encounters are extremely rare. In fact, it may actually be better for you as a visitor if the president is not on site at the time of your visit. That way there is less chance that your tour will be called off at the last moment for some presidential business or crisis. On the day of our visit, President Barack Obama was in Vermont, where one of my favorite bands Grace Potter and the Nocturnals served as his warm-up. Since he wasn't there to greet us, I plan to write him and tell him how much we enjoyed our visit.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eugene O'Neill: Life as Art

He is considered one of America's premier playwrights. His early experimental plays stretched the boundaries of theater. He transformed the ancient Greek use of masks and Shakespeare's soliloquies into a modern format. He employed psychological ideas and motifs to shape the tragical circumstances of his personal life into great art. He won 4 Pulitzer Prizes for Literature. And now, Eugene O'Neill and his plays are the subject of a 3-month festival here in DC.

Tonight, 4 O'Neill experts engaged in a panel discussion on how O'Neill's life influenced his work. Entitled O:'Neill: My Life in Art, it was held at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.

The panel, moderated by University of Maryland theater history professor Frank Hildy, included Eugene O'Neill Festival producer Erin Dailey, senior theater researcher Aaron Malkin, and actor Rob Janson, who has written a one-man play about O'Neill and has starred as O'Neill's alter-ego in his masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night.

Dailey said she immersed herself in O'Neill, known for both his on-stage and off-stage tragedies, in the months prior to the festival. "It was a very dark period in my life," Daily joked. "I was amazed about how much of himself he poured into his work."

Janson, who said his first encounter with O'Neill's powerful works "changed my life," agreed with Daily, noting "the blurred line" where the playwright's life and work "runs into one another."

Hildy said O'Neill's greatest contribution to American theater may be that "he was the 1st playwright to look at his own life experiences in a serious way. He was using the plays as a kind of therapy for himself"

The 1st of the festival's 3 major productions, Ah, Wilderness, is typical O'Neill in that it is based on personal experiences, but starkly different from the rest of his work in that it is comedic in nature.

"He put a different kind of spin on this play. This is a play of what he would have liked his family life to be like. He knew people who had that kind of childhood. People (who see the play) say 'I didn't know you could feel so warm at the end of an Eugene O'Neill play," Malkin said.

Dailey said that the greatest of all tragedies surrounding O'Neill is that despite his popular and critical success, the playwright never believed he truly achieved his ambitious writing aims. "He showed that the life we live every day is art. But it's so sad that he never really felt he got it," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The coming weeks are a treasure for O'Neill fans who can make it to DC or live in the Washington area. The main part of the O'Neill Festival consists of 3 of his better-known works. Ah, Wilderness is running until April 8. Strange Interlude ends April 29. Long Day's Journey into Night concludes on May 6. The festival also showcases several original works, readings, rehearsals, and discussions. You can check out the complete schedule by clicking here.

The Titanic Sinking: A New Look After 100 Years

In August 2010, Samuel Halperin and 10 other researchers of  the Titanic began an intensive re-look at the tragedy using modern technology and new information that has surfaced during the 100 years since the initial investigations into the sinking of the ship after it struck an iceberg in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean .

The group planned to publish their findings in a book patterned after the 15-chapter report issued immediately following the 1912 Titanic probes in American and England.

"We wondered if they knew then what we know now 100 years later, how would that report be different," Halperin said. "We modernized our effort, making use of technology and all the information we now know."

Those updated finding were indeed compiled in a book entitled Report into the Loss of the S.S. Titanic: A Centennial Reappraisal and Halperin appeared at the National Archives today to discuss the recently released work.

So what did the new group find?

The most tragic finding was a reinforcement of the fact that not only were there too few lifeboats on board, but those that were used for passengers to escape the doomed ship were not filled to capacity.  "The average lifeboat was only filled to a 61% capacity," Halperin said, noting, for example that the group found one lifeboat ferrying only 35 people when it could have held 57.

The new verified outcome of passengers stands at 1,496 lost and only 712 saved. One of the major problems with rescue was that the number of required lifeboats was based on "woefully inadequate" rules from the 1880s which never envisioned the increased passenger capacity of early 20th Century cruise ships. "Clearly, there was never enough lifeboats and life rafts for the passengers and the crew," Halperin said.

"One of the major tragedies of the disaster was that not all classes were treated equally," he added. The poorer passengers in 3rd class died in disproportionate numbers to those in 1st and 2nd class. Halperin said that while only 6.4% of the higher paying passengers did not survive, that percentage was 52.9 in steerage. The main reasons for the discrepancy were locked gates and guards who refused to let the steerage passengers come up on deck.

Other new or revised findings included:
  • there were actually 55 seconds between the 1st lookout report of the iceberg and the striking, not the 30 seconds initially reported
  •  the ship was filled with water as the result of 5 broken seams, not a 300-foot gash as was originally thought.
  • the ship did indeed break into 2 parts before sinking
  • the ship would have survived if only 4 compartments had been filled with water; it was unable to handle 5 filled compartments
  • the ship was not weak structurally and was not thought by its builders to be unsinkable. "They knew there was no such thing as an unsinkable ship," Halperin said. "Nobody could ever imagine something that would open up 5 compartments."
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Halperin's talk, which was accompanied by a host of detailed slides, photos and animations, was only the 1st of a series of programs at the Archives dealing with the Titanic. On April 13,  Julie Hedgepeth Williams will discuss her book: A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells' Story of Survival." The following day, there will be a free showing of the classic film A Night to Remember based on the sinking. The Archives is also featuring a collection of artifacts from The Titanic collected as part of the 1912 hearings in Washington about the sinking.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Celebrating Tennessee Williams

In 1935, the 3 college friends spent much time together on Washington University campus in St. Louis, discussing writing as a craft and reading their poems to each other. One - Clark Mills, a senior - was already a well-known poet. The other 2 - Bill, a freshman, and Tom, also a senior - also hoped to become published writers and poets. But probably neither one of them ever envisioned exactly what the future had in store for them. For Bill was to become William Jay Smith, noted American poet and Library of Congress Consultant on Poetry. And his friend Tom was to become Tennessee Williams, one of America's greatest dramatists and the winner of 2 Pulitzer Prizes.

Tonight, Smith, now 93, returned to the Library of Congress to read from his latest book My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams and discuss his long friendship with Williams, who would have celebrated his 101st today.

The poet William Jay Smith
"I am probably one of the few people alive who knew Tom before he became Tennessee," Smith said. "He was always exactly the same, a warm person."

Smith said his new book "is not a long book, but it has been long in the making."

After college, Smith and Williams went their separate ways for a short period. After Smith returned from World War II, the 2 reunited in New York where Williams' play The Glass Menagerie was being performed. Much of the play was autobiographical and Smith, as a friend, was able to recognize all those details and nuances.

"It was somewhat strange because I spent so many years in that home he depicts so beautifully in that play," Smith said.

From that point on they remained in contact until Williams' death in 1983. In addition to recollections of personal memories and conversations, Smith consulted the vast trove of materials Williams left behind. "He never tore anything up because he thought there might be something in it that could be saved," Smith said.

Smith said that even though his friend became known for his dramas, he never lost the poet's touch. "He had a great ear. His characters spoke as they would. But his work has a rhythm like you would hear if you were reading poetry. I think some of his work is really prose poetry," Smith explained.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
Williams at work
I have a few connections to Tennessee Williams. He was the subject of my senior English paper at Villanova University. My assignment was to read everything that Williams had ever published and then try to give it my perspective. Of course, this gave me the opportunity to really learn to appreciate Williams and his craft. Tennessee and I also share the same March 26th birth date. So, attending this free presentation was a birthday gift to myself. However, Smith, in his remarks, gave me one of the the greatest surprise gifts of my life. His poem, "American Primitive" is one of my favorite short poems. After explaining that both he and Williams wrote to reconcile and understand their feelings about their family, Smith proceeded to recite the poem from memory. So thank you, Mr. Smith and Mr. Williams, for making my 60th birthday special.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Education of a President

It was the summer of 2007. Presidential aspirant Barack Obama, then a political long shot for the White House, was really just an asterisk on the political scene. It was his 46th birthday. He got a call from one of his financial advisers Robert Wolf, who was ensconced on a massive $12 million yacht where a hedge fund manager had just finished  describing a once-in-a-lifetime impending financial collapse. Wolf wanted to alert Obama, "to make him see what I am seeing from where I am standing."

Wolf carefully detailed a grim future. Then he wished Obama a happy birthday, "Yeah, right, happy birthday," Obama said after hearing Wolf's bleak description. But the bad news seemed to enliven the candidate. Maybe real changes could be made in the way America did business.

Obama was surrounded by not one, but 2 economic "dream teams," according to author Ron Suskind, who dubbed the groups Team A and Team B. Team A was headed by economist Paul Volcker. Volcker and his group advocated that Obama, once elected, could use the crisis to create needed fundamental change in the way banks and Wall Street did business. Team B, headed by economic adviser Larry Summers, whom Suskind describes as a colorful "character in search of a good novelist," pushed to first "do no harm," that the financial markets are self-correcting and the situation would take care of itself., Suskind said that eventually Team B "sort of pushed Team A out of the way."

Suskind, who appeared at an Inside Media edition at the Newseum today, said the lack of activity after Obama's election was a missed moment. "You could have had a fundamental Rooseveltian  change. He (Obama) had a 70% approval rating. He arrived on the surf of yearning. He had extraordinary political capital. He was a Prometheus not bound," Suskind said.

Instead, Obama, tried a "let's all get together and work this out tactic and that was the wrong path," Suskind said.

During his talk, Suskind discussed 2 of the more controversial aspects of his book, Confidence Men; Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of the President. One was where Summers was supposed to have said: "We're home alone. There is no one in charge. Bill Clinton never would have done that." The other was detailing a belief on the part of female White House workers that they were being treated "as a piece of meat" and being asked to carry out their duties "in a hostile work environment."

Part of the initial problem, Suskind said, is the difficulty of being President and running the massive White House operation. "Four years before Obama had been a state senator sharing 1 staffer with another senator and now he found himself at the center of the most complex management organization in the world," Suskind said.

"I think the 1st year was a year of real chaos," Suskind said. "Obama showed all kinds of pre-game aptitude, but he couldn't imagine what exactly it would be like to be president. People saw in him what they felt they needed to see. He kind of got the wind knocked out of him. But he ramped up a learning curve faster than anyone could imagine. You could see him everyday growing into his fullness."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During the question and answer portion, Suskind was asked what might happen to the economy if President Obama gets re-elected. "The betting line right now is that he is in pretty good shape. He is certainly more like Roosevelt in '37 than Hoover in '29. If he wins, it could be viewed as a fresh mandate and he would get another 100 days to push his plans." Suskind cautioned, however, the business world makes a tough opponent. "We are really a nation of 2 capitols," he said. "Washington is the political capitol and New York is the financial capitol. New York has a technical clarity and influence peddling is the business of Washington. You have to fight the currents. It takes real courage."

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Disaster Through Artists' Eyes

Art has the ability to promote peace or provocation. It can soothe or stir up. Sometimes, it has the power to do all of these things simultaneously. And that is the case with 2:46 and Thereafter, an exhibit by a group of Japanese artists at the Edison Gallery on 8th Street.

The title refers to the exact time that the powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku area of Japan on March 11 of last year, damaging nuclear reactors and, for a time, threatening the entire nation.

Members of the Dandan art group were commissioned to create new works based on their feelings and reflections of that natural devastation, about 20 of which were on display here.

"The disaster reminded us of the importance of being humble in the face of the might of Mother Nature. We can never conquer nature; we must learn to live with it," says Dandan General Director Kazuko Aso. "It makes us look at what is the essential value in life? - the value that can never fully be satisfied with materialism."

Probably the most ironic piece is by Mosaharu Fotoyu. It is a replica of an illuminated sign that hung at the entrance to a shopping center less than 3 miles from the damaged Fukushimo Daiichi nuclear power plant. In Japanese, that bright signs reads: "Atomic Power is the Energy of the Brighter Future."

In one piece, "Afternoon" by Yasushi Ebihara (pictured above), there was a definite connection (at least to me) to the famed Japanese monster of nuclear awakening Godzilla. In this painting, a young, sad-looking woman is laying on the floor. Her unnaturally long black hair flows everywhere, appearing almost twisted in to the electric cord powering the single pole lamp illuminating the room. Strewn around her are toy houses and trucks, similar in position to those uprooted by the disaster. Above her prone body looms an ominous, supernaturally large preying mantis.

Another colorful piece was a 2-set painting by Ryota Unno. In the first, called "Tohuko's Ark", historical characters like drummers, dragons,, and baseball players practice local traditions.  In the 2nd, "Tohoku's Hero," rescuers and builders work to restore the Ark and its mountainous area. In both pictures, a giant tsunami is striking.

In another series of 3 works, Shinichi Tsuchigu used photographs he had taken of the area to create 3 picture puzzles in shadow boxes. The pictures all were missing pieces, some of which were scattered on the edges of the 3 framed boxes.

"This work represents my belief that the affected area, too, will make a full recovery and complete its picture," Tsuchiogu says in a booklet describing the exhibition, which was scheduled to close on March 25.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
This particular exhibit may be closed, but there is no shortage of things Japanese to do in DC over the next 4 weeks. It is Cherry Blossom Festival time and flowers and Japanese cultural art works are blooming, not just in the tidal basin and the National Mall, but all over the city. For anyone wishing to take part in the festivities, here are a few on-line sites with suggestions and schedules you can check out.
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Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Importance of Being Figurative

Whenever Black artist and art professor Kerry James Marshall would tour a major art gallery, he was reminded of the old Sesame Street song that goes "one of these things is not like the other, one of these things is just not the same." The problem, as Marshall saw it, was that all the art work, at least when it came to forms and figures, was exactly the same. All those pictured were of European descent. Rarely, if ever, were there black or brown faces.

When he consulted the major art history books, the situation was much the same. There might be mention of Jacob Lawrence, or Romare Bearden, or Jean-Michael Basquiat, but for the most part African-American art and artists were dismissed as primitive and not worthy of the acclaim awarded their white counterparts.

"There needs to be more about people of color. There is scant representation of black folk at every level," Marshall says. "We ain't goin' nowhere. We're here and we've been here."

Marshall, 57, has spent his career as an artist focusing on black figures. Last year, his painting "Great America" was selected to be included in the permanent collection of the National Gallery. And today, he appeared at the East Wing of the Gallery to deliver a lecture on the state of art entitled "The Importance of Being Figurative."

Including more faces of diverse colors in a collection of art benefits all the works, Marshall contended. "If everything is the same, those things fade into the other things that are just like them," he said. "You want the clearest distinction possible. That has a value in its own right regardless of what you think of the work. You can make the case that an expanded field is not a diminished field."  To prove his point, Marshall showed a slide containing all white portraits; then he replaced one portrait to include a black female face and the contrast did enhance the entire collection.

He said that much of his art work has been designed to "fill in the gaps" that have been created by the exclusion of Black artists from the mainstream.

For example, is perusing books claiming to define beauty, black representation isn't there. "In the Great American Pin-Up there is not a single black figure. That is a problem," Marshall said, adding that he created a series of pin-up posters depicting black females.

The idea of a hero in art culture also excludes blacks. "To allow that to stand unchallenged is unhealthy," he said. To remedy that deficiency, Marshal is continuing to display a comic book character series called Rythm MASTR. There, black figures escape from the Chicago Art Museum to do good and battle evil.

In another series of works called Monuments, Marshall attaches some type of slave reference to established symbols of freedom such as the Washington Monument. "This is to show that there were other people fighting for their freedom, too," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
With its elements of folk art, myth and social consciousness, I don't find Black figurative art primitive, I find it powerful. And James Kerry Marshall's "Great America" (1994) is a prime example of that power. The large painting, which is now hanging in the permanent collection of the National Gallery in DC, is an absolute must-see. It re-imagines Black freedom as a theme park boat ride through a haunted house. So much symbolism. The boat trip as Middle Passage journey. The haunting ghosts as white sheet-clad KKKers. The ribbons bearing the title reminiscent of patriotic mottoes. The use of red (and blue and white). The word WOW in stark white letters surrounded by a field of red. The red cross. Judy and I spent more than 10 minutes in front of the painting, talking and trying to take it all in. Powerful, powerful, stuff, indeed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How Creativity Works

Portrait of Bob Dylan in 1965
It was the early Summer of 1965. Bob Dylan was winding up an exhaustive tour of England. He felt he had been ruined by fame. He was performing the same songs night after night. Reporters were asking him questions ranging from what is truth to why is there a cat on your last album cover? Bored and soul sick, Dylan was giving inane answers like his music was the result of "chaos, watermelon, and clocks." He thought "what good is it having everyone dig your music if you yourself don't dig it." After a bout of severe food poisoning in Spain, he made a decision - he would quit making music forever. He might paint. He might write a novel . But he wouldn't compose any more songs. He was done.

Arriving in America, he headed toward upstate New York on his motorcycle. He didn't even take his guitar with him. But a short time later, something extremely bizarre happened. He was seized by an uncontrollable urge to write something down. He grabbed a pencil and began scribbling frantically. He later called it "a long piece of vomit" that poured from him "as if a ghost was writing." He headed to a recording studio. He and his session band worked on the product. The result was Dylan's masterpiece "Like a Rolling Stone." It revolutionized all of rock and roll. Rolling Stone magazine has repeatedly selected "Like a Rolling Stone" as the greatest rock song ever written. Bruce Springsteen calls the first time he heard the song on the radio "one of the most important moments of my life."

For science writer Jonah Lehrer, the Dylan example is just one of those creative moments of insight in mankind's story which provide the world with something new and true. Archimedes with his eureka moment in the bathtub. Sir Issac Newton with his theory of gravity literally falling from a tree.

Tonight, Lehrer appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his new best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer said that while much study remains to be done, scientists are now finding that insightful creative ideas come from the portion of the human brain that is also involved in understanding metaphors and laughing at jokes.

"Things go through a mental blender. There are remote associations that bring together ideas," Lehrer said. These creative insights are linked to brain-produced alpha waves. Hooking subjects up to brain scanners, scientists have found that there is about an 8 second advance warning that one of these break-through insights is about to occur. "It's sort of like they can say 'sorry buddy, you are wasting your time or in about 7-and-a-half seconds you are going to have an epiphany,'" Lehrer said.

So is there a way to bring on these moments? Yes, Lehrer says, but it the exact opposite of how most people struggle for the break through. It won't come from stressing at a computer or laboring over a problem. It comes through relaxation. "Take a hot shower. Lie on the couch. Drink a beer. Take a walk. Do whatever puts you at ease. Turn the spotlight inward. You just may hear that voice you need," he said.

But what then is the proper place of work and refinement in creativity? Well, they are definitely part of the process.  For example, the great composer Beethoven was known to try hundreds of variations of notes in a passage before he was satisfied that he had created masterful music.

Scientists are finding that truly creative people are not smarter than others, but "are a little more open to experience." They are also finding that time again, the truly creative exhibit "grit", which they define as "refusing to quit."  J. K. Rowling is a prime example. Lehrer suggested that you consider the case of the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, then a British mother on welfare, surrounded by a pile of rejection letters, continuing to write in a coffee house with her infant by her side until today she finds herself one of the most-read authors in history and richer than the Queen of England.

But this grit factor can not be tested by any short term measure. It only reveals itself over an extended period of time. That idea is anathema in today's test-happy world where everything must be measured immediately. As a prime example of such fallacious thinking, Lehrer cited the National Football League's combine for prospective draft picks. The candidates are given all kinds of tests. But studies have shown that only 1 - the 40-yard dash for running backs - shows any relationship to later success. "The NFL combine is a big waste of time and money," Lehrer says.

It comes down to grit. "Grit is what allows you to show up again and again and again and again. You can't measure that with some kind of multiple choice test," Lehrer said, adding that creativity is as difficult to produce as it is to measure. "If it (some great insight or performance that leads to a great accomplishment) were easy, it already would have been done," he maintained.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During the question-and-answer portion of the program, Lehrer was asked how the findings examined in his book could be applied to helping solve America's alarming crisis in education. He briefly outlined a 4-part beginning plan:
  • since studies show that the greatest learning gap begins around 4th grade that should be the target area for most of the resources
  • there should be much less emphasis on testing and more on promoting creativity at every level and in every learning
  • all students should be given mulitiple activities and opportunities to increase their "grit."
  • the entire process we use to produce world class athletes should be replicated in the educational world. "The United States is really good at producing athletes," Lehrer says "We have wonderful mechanisms. We need to apply these same basic lessons to our schools. We need to celebrate creativity not just on (football) Sunday, but every day as a culture."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Could Lincoln Be President Today? Probably Not.

From the 1950s fuzzy black and white TV coverage to today's frenzy of 24-hour cable news networks, internet sites, blogs, and Twitter, the media has drastically shaped both the actions of American presidents and indeed who can actually get elected to that post, presidential historian Michael Beschloss says.

The immense power of  visual media first surfaced during the presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Those who watched the debate on TV clearly believed Kennedy was the winner. Those listening on radio gave the victory to Nixon. Kennedy eventually won that highly-contested 1960 election. But another winner was television, which had clearly demonstrated its power, a power that was only to grow during the ensuing years.

Tonight, Beschloss appeared at a special program at the Newseum to discuss how presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama had both used and been affected by the contemporary media of their times.  Beschloss' talk was part of the Newseum's recently opened exhibit Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press.

For his part, Eisenhower saw little effect from the media. "He was so popular he could say almost anything and it wouldn't change anyone's opinion of him," Beschloss said.  In fact, Eisenhower, genuinely mystified, once replied to a question by saying "What could a reporter do to me?"

But by Kennedy's time the president/media situation was much different.  "After the debate, it meant you had a different kind of president," Beschloss said, noting that in 1963 national polls showed that more people received their news from television than from newspapers.

Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was obsessed with media coverage. He had 3 television sets tuned to the news showing on the 3 major networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC. He also had 2 ticker tapes constantly running to see what was being reported between the nightly broadcasts. It was not unusual for Johnson to pick up the phone and angrily call a network executive insisting "get that off the ticker, it is completely wrong" or "kill that one for the western feed. That is completely wrong."

Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon, who had a testy and challenging relationship with the press which eventually culminated in his resignation as president due to the highly and competitively reported Watergate scandal.

Both Gerald Ford and his successor Jimmy Carter had image problems created in part by the media. Ford, one of the most athletic presidents in history, became portrayed as a a bumbler on Saturday Night Live sketches after he beaned one of his secret agents with a golf ball and stumbled exiting an airplane. Carter never really recovered from admitting in a Playboy magazine interview that he had "often had lust in his heart."

As a former actor, Ronald Reagan was extremely comfortable in front of the camera. "He was LBJ's nightmare of what the presidency would be turned into by television," Beschloss said.

George H. Bush admitted that television was "not a medium he ever handled well." In fact, during a debate with Bill Clinton who would deny Bush a chance at a second term, a defining moment came when Bush kept looking at his watch, an action viewers took to mean that he was "an effete, out-of-touch person who felt that the debates were somehow beneath him" Bush's action contrasted greatly with those of the personable Clinton.

During Clinton's 8 years in office, the modern media that we now have today first came into being. "There were suddenly three 24-hour cable news networks that were extremely competitive and we had the first 50 pages (of politics) on the internet," Beschloss pointed out.

George W. Bush used television to push his agenda after the 9/11 attacks. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected after running the most sophisticated media campaign in American history, a trend that Beschloss is convinced will only grow with Obama's upcoming campaign against his as-yet undecided Republican challenger.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During his talk, Beschloss raised a truly terrifying possibility from the unrelenting 24-hour news cycle. The time for presidential action has been dramatically shortened. That means hard decisions have to made much more quickly than in the past. As just one frightening example, Beschloss cited the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Initially,  President Kennedy favored military action against the Russian missile sites in Cuba, an action which almost certainly would have plunged the world into nuclear confrontation. However, he was able to hold off his final decision for more than a week and the crisis was averted. "Can you imagine if something like that happened today to President Obama? It's a much different atmosphere. It's much more immediate. When you think about who you want in office, you need to choose someone who has the strength to hold those kinds of decisions off despite media pressure," Beschloss said. Of course, if the press acted the way they do in today's anything is reportable era, there is a good chance that Kennedy would never have been elected. The press knew about his incessant womanizing, but due to the tone and unstated rules of that time, never reported about it. That is a silence that is simply unimaginable today.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Neighbor of Note: Mr. Rogers and Me

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

I've always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.

I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

Won't you please,

Won't you please?
Please won't you be my neighbor?”

                                              -- Fred Rogers
                                                 Host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers trademark sweater is in the Smithsonian
For 35 years on PBS Television, Fred Rogers exchanged his shoes for sneakers, pulled his cardigan sweater out of the closet, asked thousands upon thousands of young kids to be his neighbor, and promised to like them just the way they were.

Many responded. All were rewarded. But for some, like Benjamin Wagner, the experience was more personal. For Ben, Mr. Rogers was not just the kindliest TV neighbor ever, he was a real-life neighbor on the island of Nantucket.

Wagner met Mr. Rogers as he was celebrating his 30th birthday. After singing his signature song from his show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and "Happy Birthday" to Wagner, Mr. Rogers offered him  this advice: “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex." And then he asked Wagner to “spread the message.”

After Mr. Rogers' death in 2003, Wagner teamed up with his brother Christopher to begin making the documentary Mr. Rogers and Me, an 80-minute film detailing Mr. Rogers' life and legacy.

Today, the Wagner brothers appeared at the Newseum to show their film, which debuts on selected PBS stations and on DVD this month. Following the movie, the brothers hosted a panel of 3 of Mr. Rogers' friends to describe in person the effects Mr. Rogers has had on them. The panelists were:
  • Maureen Orth, the wife of the late Meet the Press Host Tim Russert and another real-life Nantucket neighbor.
  • NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg who had been involved with taping specials on children and divorce with Mr. Rogers and
  • Amy Hollingsworth, who after a 10-year friendship with Mr. Rogers, wrote the book The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers   
Stamberg said Rogers, who was shy, overweight and bullied as a child, had an innate ability to make people feel comfortable. For example, she became extremely nervous and unsure when it became time to work with Rogers on a special for children. She received a long telephone call from Daniel Tiger (a Rogers character from his show) who said she shouldn't be afraid.

"He knew just what I needed to hear," Stamberg said. "He had me almost wanting to suck my thumb. He's was amazing. He was everybody's Fred Rogers.

Wagner agreed that there is a universality to Mr. Rogers, noting that the "Me" in his film title refers to the unique relationships Rogers developed with people he encountered both on screen and in real life.

"The message is about Mr. Rogers the man, the values, the work," Wagner said. "He said the greatest gift you can give anyone is your honest self. He gave that gift to all of us"

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Mr. Rogers stopped producing his show, which debuted in 1968, in 2001. It is no longer on the air. However, DVDs of the episodes are available for purchase for people who want to see them again or show them to their children. Wagner said a show involving Rogers' character Daniel Tiger is ready for broadcast. The are many websites, such as this one, which contain pieces of Mr. Rogers'  spiritual wisdom. And, now there is the Wagner brothers' documentary. "There are people who say it (Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) feels dated. I would say it feels timeless," Wagner said.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Chieftains Show Their Irish Roots

For 50 years, The Chieftains have been playing the best of Irish roots music and tonight the band gave DC a day-early St. Patrick's Day gift by performing at the Kennedy Center as part of their 50th anniversary tour.

As it has been since the beginning, the group is fronted by Paddy Moloney on tin whistle and Uillean pipes. The rest of this year's touring lineup, each member of which was given ample time to shine on extended solos, includes:
  • Matt Malloy, flute
  • Kevin Conneff, dodhran and vocals
  • Sean Kean, fiddle
  • Jon Pilatzke, fiddle and dancer
  • Triona Marshall, harp and keyboards
  •  Jeff White, guitar and vocals
  • Deanie Richardson, fiddle
On several numbers, the main band was augmented by Alyth McCormack on vocals and Cara Butler and Nathan Pilatzke as ethnic dance demonstrators. For one number each and the finale, the Chieftains were joined by a DC-area young Irish dance group and a high school drum and bagpipe corps.

In a special tribute to both The Chieftains and the incredible lasting power of Celtic music, Irish-American astronaut Cady Coleman joined the group on several numbers. The NASA astronaut marked last St. Patrick's Day in space by playing a solo on Paddy Moloney's pennywhistle and Matt Molloy's 100-year-old Irish flute she had borrowed as she traveled on the international space station.

"I might not have mentioned that the trip would have been six months long and that their flutes would have traveled millions of miles before they came home. Actually, they were never far from home because we flew over Ireland several times a day," Coleman said following a video of her far out (in space) performance.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
In their 50-year career, The Chieftains have recorded with a who's who of rock and country music stars, including Sting, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, and Vince Gill. My favorite Chieftains CD is The Long Black Veil, which included the title track with Mick Jagger and "The Rocky Road to Dublin" with all the Rolling Stones. Tonight the band (without the Stones) played the latter track. To get an idea of what the Celtic Roots/Rock combination can sound like, check out these 2 videos. The 1st is The Chieftains with the all-female Irish band The Corrs, who opened for the Rolling Stones on one of their tours. The 2nd is a version of The Who classic "Behind Blue Eyes" sung by Roger Daltrey with backing from the Chieftains.



Back from the Big Apple

If you read this blog regularly, you know we haven't posted for a few days. That's because Judy and I were spending some time in New York City.

While there, we attended a concert at Carnegie Hall where 21 different music stars performed 1 song each from The Rolling Stones' greatest hits LP Hot Rocks and a still-in-previews Broadway production of the political play Gore Vidal's The Best Man with James Earl Jones and a host of great TV and film actors. We also viewed Twin Peaks' director David Lynch's 1st solo NYC art show since 1989, 3 exhibitions at the MoMA including Diego Rivera murals, and an exhibit on British Romantic poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein, at the NY City Library.

You can get more details on our quick trip by clinking on this The Prices Go to NYC travel blog link.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I like New York. Judy doesn't. She says its dirty, costly, and crowded. But there is an energy there unlike any other American city and there are many things you can only see and do in New York.  However, when it comes to living, we both prefer the DC area. It's less crowded, it's cleaner, and, with all the free museums, book talks, and concerts, it's definitely cheaper.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Picturing Frida Kahlo

When you think of Frida Kahlo and pictures, you probably think paintings, not photographs. But over the years Kahlo collected more than 6,500 personal photographs, 240 of which are on display at the Frida Kahlo Her Photos: The Celebrated Artist's Life Revealed Through Personal Photographs at the Artisphere in Rossyln.

The exhibit is divided into 6 sections or rooms. They are
  1. The Origins (young Kahlo and her family)
  2. The Blue House (the home where Kahlo was born, lived, and died)
  3. The Broken Body (images of Kahlo's recovery from the tram accident that almost killed her)
  4. Loves (friendships and deeper relationships)
  5. The Photography (influences on her work)
  6. Diego's Eyes (images presumed to have been shot by her husband Diego Rivera)
The Rossyln exhibition marks the only United States showing this year of the collection, curated by Mexican photographer Ortiz Monasterio. Kahlo and Her Photos will close March 25.

Tales, Tidbits, and  Tips
We viewed the Kahlo exhibit immediately on our return from a 3-day New York City trip. The Vamoose bus which we had used for transport dropped us off just a block from the Artisphere. The Kahlo exhibition provided a nice artistic closing for our journey since we had viewed the murals of her husband Diego Rivera at the Musuem of Modern Art (MoMA) as part of our NYC stay. You can check out details about Rivera and our NYC trip by clicking here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Fighting Stereotypes with Art

For Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura, a seismic shift in his art came, strangely enough, following a surreal chat with a farmer at a Kansas auction. Shimomura, who spent 2 years of his childhood behind barbed wire at an internment camp in Idaho, tells the story this way:

At the time I was collecting windup toys. I was at an auction looking for items and this farmer kept inching closer to me. Finally, he said, I was listening to you talk and I was wondering how you came to speak the (English) language so well? Where are you from? Seattle, I replied. Well, then where are your parents from? Seattle, I replied. I knew what he was after but I wanted him to have to work for it. Are you Indian, he asked? I said no, I was Japanese-American. Then he drawled, Well Ka-nich-eee-wa. Me and the little lady collect them Gee-she girls with Kimonos. Do you paint that kind of stuff?

Returning to his studio, Shimomura was unable to get the conversation filled with stereotyped thinking out of his mind. The thoughts drove him to create Oriental Masterpiece, originally fifty 5' by 5' paintings in a series containing Oriental items. Before the series was completed, it came to number almost 150 works.

Shimomura Crosses the Delaware
Shimomura, who appeared at the National Portrait Gallery today to discuss his unique works of social commentary, then spent the next 4 decades creating art inspired by his views of the challenges of being different in America.

At the beginning of his 1-hour presentation, held in a small gallery room containing 5 of his works all created within the last 2 years, Shimomura said he really didn't like to discuss the works themselves. "You make work disappear by talking too much about it. It is up to the viewer to fill in the sentences," he said.

American vs. Disney Stereotypes
The artist, who is a professor at the University of Kansas, said that his latest art falls into 3 broad thematic categories.

First, were paintings based on the interment camp years. Although Shimomura did have a few memories of those years, much of his work came from the 56 years of diary entries his grandmother had kept which he had to have translated from the original Japanese.

That was followed by years of work on dealing with "yellow-term stereotypes" especially prevalent during the World War II years. Using Ebay, Shimomura amassed a collection of more than 2,000 such items, many of which found their way into his art. He said he was particularly struck with what at the time were called "Jap hunting licenses." These free cards, distributed at barbershops and other places where young people might congregate, jokingly allowed the bearer to kill any Japanese and further specified the method (gun, knife etc) that was to be used. Shimomura said that even in today's more tolerant America, insidious stereotypes can still make an appearance. During a recent auto crisis, Shimomura said an advertisement in a Kansas periodical depicted a yellow, buck-toothed, slanty-eyed Japanese pilot bombing America with Toyotas and Hondas.

American Born
Finally, Shimomura said some of his work deals with "the whiny sort of issues that I've had about being Asian-American." As an example, Shimomura cited the oft-expressed belief that all Orientals are the same. "I get upset when someone mistakes me for a Chinese. People are always asking - where were you born? I'm an American. I was born here. You put me in a concentration camp. I've been in your damn army. I don't know what else I can do," he said.

Tales,Tidbits, and Tips
Shimomura's 5-piece collection is part of a larger show at the National Portrait Gallery entitled Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter. That exhibition is on view until October 14.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Journopalooza: It Rocked with the Write Stuff

By day, like mild-mannered Clark Kents and Lois Lanes, they worked their journalistic jobs - editor, columnist, public policy writer. But as darkness descended on DC tonight, they exchanged their pens for guitars and their laptops for drum kits and  transformed into reporter-rockers, intent on helping their groups win best band at Journopalooza.

Proceeds from the charity event, which this year was being held on the new Hamilton concert stage, would benefit Writopia, an organization which helps young student writers, and REACH Incorporated, which trains low-level reading high school students to help younger struggling students become better readers.

For our $20 each, we would get to see 7 bands compete to become the reigning 2012 news band of Washington. The contribution entitled you to cast 1 vote for the band of your choice. You could cast additional votes by placing money in tip jars which lined the stage.

After a welcome by Grammy-nominated progressive hip-hop artist and host Christylez Bacon, Paddy Goes West kicked off the contest. Dennis Dunleavy, senior Washington editor of ABC News, joked as he tuned his acoustic guitar that the purpose of their opening was "to make the other bands look younger" and, in actuality, "sound better." However, with their instrumental lineup of Irish fiddle, penny whistle, and hammered dulcimer, the band managed to pull off a rousing rendition of the Steve Earle-penned "Galway Girl" before leaving the stage.

Next up was Lethal Bark led by Tom Toles, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. From his drum kit, chief song-writer Toles directed the guitar-less band with its 3 boa-ed female vocalists and lead violinist in progressive originals about such subjects as Tom's bother by the same mother, George, and narcissism.

The 3rd act was the band we had really come to see - the cover band Stepping Stones, anchored on drums by John Kelly who writes the 5-day-a-week "John Kelly's Washington" column in The Post. As the group's name implies, the band plays a heavy rotation of Monkees tunes, song choices particularly appropriate considering the death of Monkee lead singer Davey Jones earlier this month.  The band, whose main vocalist wore a black  arm band over his white jacket in Jones' memory, played several Monkee hits including "Last Train to Clarksville,  "I'm a Believer" and "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone," as well as lesser known tunes such as the Jones' song "Cuddly Toy." But, for me, the band sealed the performance with the Kinks' garage classic "Till the End of the Day," one of my favorite 60s album cuts of all time.

After The Stepping Stones finished, we cast our votes and headed home. Of course, leaving early meant we missed the last 4 performers - The Charm Offensive, Dirty Bomb, Nobody's Business, and last year's Journopalooza winner Suspicious Package. However, with a room full of reporters, I was certain I would hear the news of this year's winner soon enough.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
To say that Washington's music scene is vibrant and growing is an understatement. Since we moved to the area last summer, 3 new venues have opened and 1 more is scheduled to debut next month. First up was the Filmore in Silver Springs. Next came the jazz and blues Melody Tavern , located less than a mile from our Crystal City apartment. Earlier this year, The Hamilton began in a reconverted Borders on 14th Street. And next month, concerts will resume at the renovated Howard Theater, which lunched the careers of DC legends Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye.

Game Change: Behind the Scenes

Ed Harris as McCain, Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in the HBO movie Game Change
Journalists Mark Halperin and John Heileman say they always conceived of  their best-selling book Game Change, part of which was made into the HBO movie by the same name , in cinematic terms with broad set pieces and vivid characters..

The idea for the book came early in the 2008 election campaign as Halperin and Heileman were riding back together from a John McCain event in Washington, DC.

"We knew the nomination races would have great plot twists and be very cinematic," Heileman says. "So I turned to Mark and said 'let's write a movie.' Mark asked if I had ever written a screenplay and I said no. He said let's focus on something we actually know how to do."

So the pair wrote the book, actually titled Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime about the "human story" behind the candidates and the process. The book rights were purchased by HBO. After a couple of false starts, a decision was made to create a movie based on the 2 chapters of the book that deal with the selection of charismatic, controversial Sarah Palin as McCain's Vice Presidential running mate.

The movie has generated a great amount of news coverage, much of it attempting to judge how fairly it portrays McCain and especially Palin. Both GOP political figures have indicated they have no plans to watch the film.

Today, Halperin and Heileman appeared at The Newseum to discuss their book, the film, and the reactions it has provoked. The talk, part of the Newseum's ongoing Inside Media series, came one day after the facility hosted an invitation-only world premier for Game Change attended by such Hollywood luminaries as actress Julianne Moore, who uncannily portrays Sarah Palin, and producer Tom Hanks, as well as a who's who of Washington DC media stars..

Heileman, who stood only a few feet away as Palin, then a virtual unknown governor of Alaska, made a spectacular entrance into the world of national politics with her riveting acceptance speech at the GOP Convention to nominate McCain, said Palin's unusual story line and characteristics provided natural material to translate into a  powerful film.

"There was a press frenzy around her," Heileman said. "The pressure on her could not have been greater. She could have fallen like a souffle and been taken off the ticket. But with her speech, I don't know how she could have done any better. She showed her natural charisma. The pick looked like genius. At that moment, Sarah Palin took over the heart of the Republican party."

But in the weeks that followed, Palin's star tarnished. Based on a series of gaffes and comments, much of America judged her as unfit to be vice president and she and McCain lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the 2008 election.

Some of Palin's diminished appeal came from a perception that she lacked intelligence and political acumen, a failing comedian Tina Fey promoted with her spot-on impersonations of Palin on Saturday Night Live. 

Fey's impersonation was  so fixed in the public's mind, that it sparked a natural question - why not have Fey portray Palin in the movie?  "It was a brilliant, funny caricature, but it wouldn't  have worked in a serious movie," Halperin said.

Concerning widespread criticism from Republican die-hards about the film, Halperin replied that "people should see the film. Then, if they have specific criticisms, we would love to hear them."

As for Palin's political future, both authors said the last chapter in that real-life story has yet to be written. "Gov. Palin still has a huge voice in the Republican party. She will be part of the national discussion for a long time.," Halperin said.

Heileman agreed. "She is young. She still packs the house like no one else. It wouldn't be a surprise at all if she someday runs for president," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, most of the Inside Media program focused on Game Change. However, since both Halperin and Heileman are covering this year's GOP primaries, questions about that race also surfaced. Halperin said Mitt Romney began the campaign as the front-runner and he "still is that."
He cautioned that despite his lead, Romney still faces 3 major problems: he may not have the required majority of delegates by the time the convention begins, he didn't do well in the recent voting in the South, and with Alabama and Mississippi next, "you can begin to talk about a scenario in which Rick Santorum can take Mitt Romney out." Heileman, who has called this political season "whack-a-doodle" in his writings, says Romney's weak support demonstrates how many voters  are "reluctant to embrace him. He's not really in sync with where the Republican party is today." Heileman said that is somewhat ironic since Romney was considered the conservative alternative to McCain in 2008. In a national election, it appears Romney would struggle to gain the votes he would need from Hispanics, women, and independent voters to gain the presidency. "He  has done himself damage, but whether it is lasting damage or temporary damage remains to be seen," Heileman said. Despite the outcome, the authors revealed that they would be writing a sequel of sorts. Heileman jokingly suggested that they already had 2 good titles: Game Change 2: This Time It's Personal or Game-ier, Change-ier

Talking Grace; Talking Hate

And the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
                                            -- Paul Simon
                                              The Sounds of Silence

He entered the Yellow Line Metro car, a smiling black man probably in his early 40s, and sat down directly across from us, next to a young woman reading a book.

"I'm Chuck. I 'm a subway preacher and rapper," he said in a loud clear voice, looking first at us and then turning left to look at more of the passengers, some standing, most sitting in the crowded rush hour train headed toward DC.

"Now I have a statement. It's not a confession. A statement ... not a confession," he said, slowing his phrasing for emphasis. "I am a sinner. I am human, therefore I am a sinner."

"I know I have sinned today. Let me look at my phone. It's 6:15. I've sinned  ... oh 6 or 7 times today, probably more like 10 or 12 if I thought really hard about it. But that's OK. I'm a sinner. Jesus Christ came to take care of my sins. Through him I can be forgiven."

The young woman next to Chuck buried herself deeper in her reading. The older man to Chuck's immediate left, their shoes almost touching, looked awkward and pained. The 2 women in fashionable boots, possibly secretaries for some Arlington business firm, stood 3 feet from Chuck, talking and making plans for their weekend. The rest of the commuters throughout the car seemed oblivious, doing whatever it is that passengers do on the 6:15 Metro after a day of work.

"Let's keep it real," Chuck said, reaching into the black gym bag he had dropped by his feet when he first came through the Metro doors. He pulled out a black, well-worn copy of  the Bible. "Keep it real. I am going to read something here. I need to hear it. You need to hear it."

He read from Ephesians Chapter 2: Verses 8-10. He started face forward, then turned slowly left, then right, as he read in a clear and passion-filled voice. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —  not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

"Do you hear that? That is God's gift. He gave it to me. He gave it to you. You can't buy that gift. If you bought it, then it wouldn't be a gift. You cannot earn it. God gives it to you. You should do good works. But his Grace, God gives it to you."

"You see," he stood up, the Bible in his left hand. "We are all the same. I  am no better than you. You are no better than me. He is no better than her. She is no better than him. We all have grace. We all have God's gift."

He sat down. He carefully placed the Bible back in his gym bag, which he slung over his shoulder. He adjusted the brown Kango hat which had slipped slightly when he had bent forward to store his Bible. The train slowed as it reached the L'Enfant Plaza Station. It lurched a few times and came to a stop. The doors opened. Chuck sprang from his seat. "This is my stop. I must go now," he said. "But you have a blessed day." He disappeared out the door. The young woman continued reading. The older man just looked relieved.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As I listened to our Metro missionary, I was reminded of another voice I had been hearing all week - the voice of conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. One speaker's voice was filled with words of grace; the other with words of hate. One speaker rode a train, speaking to an audience that appeared not to hear; the other sat in front of a microphone, his voice riding the airways to thousands and thousands of listeners nationwide. One speaker asked for no money, convinced that all he needed was contained in the black bag he carried; the other is scheduled to make an estimated $400 million to rant until 2016. One speaker called for equality; the other created disunity. Interestingly, if asked, they both  would say they were doing God's work. However, if there turns out to be a Heaven, I think they may be in for quite different receptions there. One speaker might hear: "you spoke of My grace. Come in. The gates are open." The other might hear "Sorry. Slut just doesn't cut it here. You sir, can rush straight to hell."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Roger Williams: A Rebel with Our Cause

He should be considered America's first great trouble-making rebel, who despite a life-sustaining devotion to God, believed just as deeply in complete separation of the sacred and the secular. His writings and ideas greatly shaped the 3 iconic documents that form the basis for our country, especially the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. During his time, he was both revered and reviled, finally literally being cast out of his Massachusetts community for the then-savage wilds of what is today Rhode Island for his beliefs about the essentials of liberty and conscience.  But never, in all the turmoil and the triumphs, did Roger Williams ever waver from those beliefs. To do so, he said, succinctly, would "stink in the nostrils of God."

To try to capture the essence of this engaging 17th Century historical presence, John Barry appeared at the Newseum tonight to discuss his book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

At the beginning of his talk, Barry acknowledged that a study of Williams' ideas is particularly pertinent given today's emotionally charged political debates concerning the roles of government and religion. "It is a little bit too timely. I wish it were a little bit less timely," Barry said. "Really not much has changed about the arguments except the spelling and the grammar. It's a fault line that runs through 400 years of American history."

The beginnings of the argument can be focused on the ideas of 2 men, both of whom were among the earliest English settlers of America. The more prominent majority view was encapsulated by the thoughts of John Winthrop, the originator of the idea of a new, purified government operating as "a shining city on the hill" run by "a new chosen people" putting into practice God's will as outlined in the Bible.

Williams, although equally sure of God's existence, wanted a separation from "the wilderness of the world and the garden that was the church." Barry said Williams was convinced that "if you mix religion and politics, you get politics" and to force worship and religion into governance would be "a monstrosity" that "would stink in God's nostrils."

Barry told the audience that it was important to remember that this initial debate was not theoretical, but came "as a specific response to specific historical events." For his part, Williams' views were a refined version of those held by his mentor and the great English jurist Edward Coke, who pioneered the idea of habeus corpus and established the legal concept that "the house of everyone is as his castle."

"Coke's views on liberty ran in Roger Williams' veins," Barry said. It is equally apparent that Coke shaped Williams stand on moral courage. When he was imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James, Coke said "If the king desires my head, he knows where he can find it."

After arriving in New England, Williams, discouraged by what he saw developing around him, began sounding the trumpet for the idea that government didn't get its authority from God, but from the people. "Today, it's hard to imagine how revolutionary that idea was," Barry said.

Eventually, those expressed thoughts earned Williams a banishment into the bitter, harsh New England winter. He went on to establish Providence, which in its time was the freest place the world had even seen. Williams "allowed all religions, even atheism, to flourish, not just be tolerated. While his northern Puritan neighbors were hanging Quakers, Williams wanted to debate them," Walker said. 

"He was the first to link the freedom of religion to political freedom," Barry said. "He established that government can't get its authority from God, but from the people."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We almost didn't get in to hear Barry's fascinating talk. Arriving at the Newseum, we noticed about 20 yellow-vested valets on the sidewalks parking cars. The people streaming through the front door were all dressed in fancy suits and fine dresses. Confused, we walked up to one of the half-dozen or so black-dressed women obviously registering these important looking people. "Is this for the Roger Williams talk," I asked a woman behind a sign that clearly indicated for Congressmen only. "No, this is a Comcast event," she said. "But you might ask her. I think she might be with the Newseum," she said, pointing to a black-dressed lady with a dangling lanyard around her neck. I darted in front of 2 men wearing expensive Italian suits and asked, "Is there a talk on Roger Williams here tonight?" . Making no attempt to disguise her crinkling nose and raised, carefully plucked eyebrows as she looked at me in my orange work-shirt, orange and white Tennessee Volunteer t-shirt, and ripped, faded jeans, she curtly replied, "No, it's not here. It was never even scheduled." Now, more confused than ever, I dragged Judy outside and plopped down on an empty bench to check my i-Phone. There it was. 7 p.m. Newseum. John H. Barry speaks about his new book on Roger Williams. "Let's try another door," I said.  On the side of the building, we did indeed find the right entrance, were cheerfully checked in, and rode the elevator to the 8th floor for our talk. Now I know there were no valets at our entrance and the audience wasn't as impeccably arrayed as the first-floor crew, but I have the suspicion that the ideas we received were probably wiser than any message those lobbyists and Congressmen downstairs got. Now, as for what Mitt Romney, or Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich, would believe, that, as they say, is another story.

Secret Agent Man

Since the 1960s, when Americans think of spies, the first name that probably comes to mind is  James Bond, that suave fictional British agent extraordinaire.  However, the most important name in American spydom is actually Wild Bill Donovan, a wealthy Republican Wall Street lawyer and political figure who created the OSS and modern American espionage and, interestingly enough, worked as a spy with Ian Fleming, the British author who created the Bond character.

Today, author Douglas Walker appeared at the National Archives to discuss the life, times, and legacy of Donovan, the subject of Walker's latest book entitled aptly enough Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage.

Walker said that during the years of research for his book, 3 intriguing stories developed. First, there was the biography of an extremely interesting character. Secondly, there was an engrossing tale of World War II spying and the creation of the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services) which was the forerunner to today's the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Finally, there was a a tale of political intrigue at the highest levels of American and world governments.

According to Walker, Donovan was rakishly handsome with flashing blue eyes that made him irresistible to women. He slept only 3 hours a night and speed-read at least 3 books a week. He spent lavishly and often wore a colorful ascot with his military uniform. Before becoming America's top spy, he had been a starting quarterback for Columbia University, a Congressional Medal of Honor winning colonel from World War I, a successful New York lawyer, and a failed GOP candidate for New York governor.

Donovan got his name from the men he trained for combat in World War I. Acutely aware of the dangerous, difficult times they would be facing, he was relentless in his training. One day, the story goes, as his men lay breathless on the ground around him after a particularly brutal session, Donovan began berating them, pointing out that, although older, he was not the least bit tired. One of the men reportedly hollered out: "we are not as wild as you are" and the nickname stuck. Although Donovan later publicly indicated that he did not like the nickname because it clashed with the cool, calm spy image he was trying to project,  his wife said that privately he was really pleased.

Walker said Donovan appeared to be absolutely fearless. "He actually enjoyed combat and wrote his wife that going out on a combat mission was like trick or treating on Halloween night," Walker said.

In 1940, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing America for what he knew would be entry into World War II, he called on Donovan to undertake fact-finding missions to Europe, the most important of which was to determine if Britain could keep from being defeated by Nazi Germany. It was during the first of these fact finding missions that Donovan would be escorted by British spy Fleming.

After the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, FDR charged Donovan with creating the OSS to provide intelligence for an Allied victory. Starting with only himself and 1 agent, Donovan, who was open to any and all ideas no matter how outlandish, quickly started to build a spy network. These steps and plans included:
  • asking Kodak Eastman to supply travel pictures from Europe
  • enlisting salesmen to bring back information from their travels
  • employing economists and insurance agents to suggest the best targets for air strikes
  • testing various truth serums on unsuspecting subjects, including Mafia mobsters.
  • trying to find Hitler's vegetable garden and injecting the vegetables with female hormones so the Fuhrer's mustache would fall off and he would gain a falsetto voice
  • distributing pamphlets from the made up League of Lonely Women to German troops on the front lines claiming their wives and girlfriends at home were having wanton sex with other comrades
  • dropping fire-bomb loaded bats from airplanes onto the wooden homes of the Japanese, a plan that had to be aborted when the bats, made super heavy from the incendiary devices, simply plummeted to their deaths.
After the war ended, Donovan, fearing a threat from the Soviet Union, hoped to remain on and continue to head up an intelligence gathering group. But he had made many enemies, including powerful generals, disgruntled members of his own organization, and head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. In fact, Donovan once said that his "enemies in Washington were as ferocious as Adolph Hitler."

Walker said not all the spying in World War II had been directed toward the enemy; Allied groups kept constant covert tabs on each other, too. "As I was researching I sometimes wondered when did they have time to spy on the Axis because they were always spying on each other," Walker said.

Often these tactics were brutish and dirty. For example, someone, believed to have been Hoover, leaked a report to FDR's successor Harry Truman claiming that Donovan was having an affair with his own daughter-in-law.  While the OSS chief had indeed had a series of mistresses and affairs, his relationship with his son's wife was purely platonic.

In 1947, Truman authorized the formation of the CIA and there was no place for Donovan. He hoped to regain his stature in 1953, but new Republican President Dwight Eisenhower bypassed Donovan for one of Donovan's own World War II underlings, Allen Foster Dulles.  Donovan died in 1959 at the age of 76, still estranged from the intelligence community he had helped formulate.

Asked how important Donovan's group was to America's success in World War II, the Cold War, and the rest of the modern era, Walker replied: "Well, 4 of the CIA's first directors cut their teeth learning their craft under Donovan."

As to the war effort, even Donovan acknowledged that other groups such as the code-breakers for Project Magic were more important to the winning effort.

"The OSS isn't what won the war; brute force won the war," Walker said. "But the OSS played a part just like a soldier in Europe and a sailor in the Pacific and Rosie the Riveter back home."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Hollywood had long glamorized spies. But in World War II, the movie industry actually played a significant role in the secret agent/intelligence war effort. As a lawyer Donovan had represented Mae West and other Hollywood stars and his brother Vincent was known as the Hollywood priest to the stars. Donovan used his California connections often and wisely. For example, he convinced director John Ford to produce pro-US propaganda films for public consumption. He was also able to work out a deal with Paramount Pictures. The film company had large reserves of foreign currencies that the spies could use as cash.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dancing Your Pants Off

Now modern interpretive dance is just one of the millions of things I know virtually nothing about.

In truth, dance just isn't my thing.

In elementary school, I hid in the boys' room whenever they announced a ladies' choice number at Tune Time.

In high school, I played keyboard in a rock band, so I was performing when everyone else learned to do the pony, and the horse, and the funky chicken.

In college, I vividly remember staring in wide-eyed, stoned wonder for 4 hours at 2 of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen who walked over after the mixer and told me and my Neil Young-lookalike friend Frank Haircut, "we do know how to dance and you missed your chance" before leaving out the door forever.

I am still having nightmares from the time a few years back when my wife dragged me to a dance recital for her god-daughter that I swear featured 7,000 munchkins and went on for a week-and-a-half.

And there was that episode just last month where Fidel Castro tried to evict me from Cuba for attempting to kill the well-endowed professional Cuban salsa dancer who was trying to instruct me in her art. All I did was stomp on her feet, blindly stumble, and desperately grab her endowments, which caused her to scream and both of us to wildly crash into a precious, irreplaceable Santeria altar. And I swear I was during really well for the 3 seconds before the unfortunate mishap.

Now I tell you all this to set the stage to try to explain my inexplicable decision to purchase 2 tickets to the Kennedy Center tonight to see the Keigwin + Company dance performance. It may have had something to do with the preview of the performance I had read in The Washington Post. That preview said innovative and hip company director Larry Keigwin grew up dancing behind his bedroom door to an '80s MTV playlist: Michael Jackson (when he was alive), Madonna (when she was young), Whitney Houston (when she was still alive) and the original cast recording of "Cats." The previewer promised an evening of provocative and stylish entertainment. I like provocative. Stylish can be good. And there was that fact that my wife was still smarting from my ruining her romantic Havana Valentine's Day with my very unstylish Salsa stumble.

I bought the tickets. I wanted to have a good view so they were directly center stage. But given my previous dance record, I wanted to be safe so I made sure they were in the last row in the 2nd balcony of the massive Eisenhower Theater. You know, just in case.

We arrived at the theater and after climbing a whole lot of stairs, we found our seats. Despite our distance from the stage, the view was great. Just like a rock concert, they were playing warmup music. I made out Boy George's "Karma Chameleon." And 2 or 3 hits by Madonna I recognized. Hey, I may be able to get into this modern dancey thing, I thought.

The lights dimmed for the 1st of 4 scheduled movements - "Megalopolis." 12 dancers in futuristic black and silver garb moved around the stage in impressive machine-like motions. Then there was a part with a darkened stage and a dancer with 2 flashlights performing to a pulsing MIA song. Then more futuristic marching to a minimalist, but still driving soundtrack. Then another brief club moment. Then a curtain. I wasn't certain exactly what I had seen, but I had enjoyed it immensely. If I had to say, it had something to do with the impersonality of the future world and man's search for connection and meaning in such a place. Like Charlie Chaplin's classic silent film Modern Times. In fact, the whole thing was sort of like a fast-forward version of Chaplin's film with 2 extra doses of a night in a hot NYC club. I was content with my interpretation of the work. But I knew if I wanted to,  I could find out the real story by asking anyone around me. I could tell I was in the midst of modern dance experts. They had vibrant stylish scarves draped fashionably around their necks and wore expensive dangling earrings. And that was just the men.

The lights dimmed for movement 2 - "Mattress Suite." On stage left, you could see a solo dancer in a wedding dress. In the center was a mattress on its edge. Stage right was still dark. Then the lone dancer began to move. "Oh my God no," I silently screamed to myself. She was dancing to an opera track. I hate opera. I mean I really hate opera. I hate opera so much that it has made me deathly afraid of any full-figured woman. I am terrified that if I so much as look at one, she will break out in a high-pitched powerful song in a language I have no chance of understanding. I closed my eyes, but I couldn't close my ears. It got worse. A 2nd opera track. I finally opened my eyes. There was a man in a wedding tux dancing. But wait. What was that in the darkened back corner of stage left? It couldn't be. This was the staid, proper Kennedy Center. But it appeared the early dancer was disrobing. I strained forward to see better. Yes, she definitely was suggestively swaying slowly as she slid her wedding dress down over her shoulders. In the faint stage back light, I saw glimpses of her white bra. She let the dress fall to the floor. Now she was in just bra and panties. In my concentration on the 1st dancer, I had failed to recognize that the 2nd male dancer had also stripped to his tidy-whities. The pair flipped the bed down.. For the next few minutes, they bounced, and intertwined, and flipped and retwined on the bed. But then something happened and the woman stormed off stage, leaving the male to dance a hauntingly sad solo with the mattress to Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." Then somehow there were 3 dudes (including the married guy) cavorting on that much used mattress to a Verdi backing. I didn't care for this much, but those earring wearers I referred to earlier seemed to really get into it. In the final scene, the female wedding dancer returned to close the movement with a beautiful solo dance to Etta James' "At Last." Much of this was done while touching the now again upright mattress. To be honest, unlike the 1st movement, I really didn't have a thematic clue about this section other than it involved multiple looks at different aspects of love. But I did like the costumes, except the ones on the 3 dudes.

After intermission, the lights dimmed for the 3rd movement - "Love Songs." Now my wife swears I don't have a romantic bone in my body, but I was convinced I would like this movement the best. First, there were no stupid opera tracks. And I was extremely familiar with all 6 songs the 3 couples would be dancing to. Two were by Roy Orbison - "Blue Bayou" and "Crying." Two were by Aretha Franklin - "Baby, I Love You" and "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I love You)." Two were by Nina Simone "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "I Put a Spell on You." As I thought, I loved the movement. After the curtain came down and I finished applauding, I turned to my wife. "See, I can do romantic," I said. She just shook her head.

Now, I was really ready for the final movement - "Runway." According to the previewer, it was a look at modeling in a 1960s-meets-techno-music sort of way. And sure enough, 12 dancers turned the stage, and indeed the entire bottom of the theater, into a giant runway. The women wore pastel-colored 60s mini-dresses and sported high-poofed hair. The men wore black suits with white shirts and skinny black ties. I was still taking in the initial costuming when it suddenly got even better. Four of the 6 females stripped down to bra and panties which matched the pastel colors of their dresses. Four of the men also stripped down too, but you can't expect everything in a dance performance to be perfect. All too soon the final movement, and indeed, the performance was over. One bow. Two bows. One breast. Two breasts. Then fini. Our night with Keigwin + Company was complete.

Now I'm sure you're asking - Dave, given your past history with dance did you really enjoy the performance? And the answer is an unqualified (and with my lack of knowledge about modern dance I mean really unqualified) yes. I give those big thumbs up even with the 2 opera tracks and 3 dudes cavorting in their tidy-whities on that mattress. In fact, I was so moved by the 4 movements that I am going to take my wife to National Geographic on April 13th for a night of Cuban Salsa dancing. And to keep in practice, I am going to make a few visits to the posh, discreet Gentlemen's Club just across the street from our apartment. I know I can learn some really cool dance moves from those talented hard working girls, especially Kat, and Krystal, and Kandi, who I have been following closely on the internet. I definitely want to keep abreast of this dancing thing. And I'm virtually certain that I won't be subjected to any opera songs. I believe they are banned in Gentlemen's Clubs. I just hope that same ban applies to earringed men in tidy whities.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
I'm sure you understand that I may have played fast and loose with a few facts in my above re-creation of our neat night with Keigwin + Company. First, my Villanova University buddy wasn't named Frank Haircut. His real name was Frank Hackett, but we did call him Frank Haircut and he was a dead ringer for a 1970s Neil Young. Obviously, there really weren't 7,000 munchkins at the described local dance recital. The dancers weren't munchkins at all; they were cute little girls and there couldn't have been more than 6,973 of them tops.. Finally, for full disclosure, I wasn't  ordered out of Cuba by Fidel Castro. It was really his 80-year-old younger brother, Raul. I just always thought Fidel was way cooler. Now as to my enjoyment of the Keigwin + Company performance, my only concern is that my meager writing talents failed to convey how much I truly enjoyed the night. And I swear, no matter what you think, it was all about the dancing, not the costuming.

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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