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Friday, April 27, 2012

In Black and White

When it comes to artful photography what you see is not always the whole truth, according to University of Maryland art professor Rene Ater. For such pictures also tell stories and deliver powerful messages beyond just what you see on the surface

Ater appeared at the Smithsonian American Art Museum today to deliver a lecture designed to kick off the museum's new exhibit African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance, The Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, which features works from 43 black artists.

Entitled Telling Stories, Sending Messages: Insight and Inspiration for African-American Photography in the mid-20th Century, Ater's remarks focused on 3 black and white pictures included in the exhibit. They were:
  • "Make a Wish (Bronx Slave Market, 170th Street, New York" (1938) by Robert McNeil
  • "Harlem - Gang Warfare" (1948) by Gordon Parks
  • "Graduation" (1949) by Roy DeCarava
 In "Make a Wish," McNeil captures 2 black women and 1 black man waiting on a bright, cold morning for someone to choose them for domestic day work. Ater said the picture was part of a series condemning appalling labor conditions in depression era New York City where unemployment for blacks was 50 percent and a day-laborer might make 15 cents an hour.

"You have the dignity of the well-dressed women against the indignity of their working conditions," Ater said. "And then there is irony of the movie poster behind them. What are they wishing for?"

 In 1948, Gordon Parks shot a revealing feature spread in Life magazine about the life and living conditions of Red Jackson (picture above) a young Harlem gang member.

In "Harlem - Gang Warfare", Parks graphically captured Jackson and 5 other African-American young men engaged in a violent night-time gang rumble. Ater said Parks undertook his 4-week chronicle into Jackson's world to show "the limited choices for young people in a world of poverty and discrimination. He wanted it to serve as a window into the toughness of that life."


 In the 1940s, Roy DeCarava shot a series of symbolic pictures "to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people." In "Graduation," DeCarava captures a young teenager in her gown heading down the debris-strewn streets of Harlem past an empty lot strewed with trash. "There are many questions here," Ater said. "Is this a picture of potential or a condemnation of urban blight? It is a powerful picture."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you would like to see the exhibit for yourself, you do have quite a bit of time. It is scheduled to run until Sept. 3

The President's Club

It is clearly the most exclusive club in the free world. Today, it has only 5 members. But those members have a secret clubhouse. And a newsletter. And they share life experiences that only they can truly relate to. Even in old age, they are powerful. In their times, they have been both popular and unpopular. They are the current and former presidents of the United States. They are The Presidents Club.

A few years ago, authors and Time magazine editors Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs began looking into the idea of writing a book about The Presidents Club, an organization former presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman jokingly formed at the presidential inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

Duffy and Gibbs appeared today at the National Archives to discuss their new book appropriately titled  The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity.

"We tend to look at our presidents as individuals, but this idea of a club is something that binds them together," Duffy said.

"The club is much more real than even we thought," Gibbs added.

The interesting give-and-take presentation, accompanied by slides, was divided into 4 segments: power, rivalry, consolation, and protecting the office. The talk was interspersed with well-researched anecdotes and tales compiled by the authors.

When he was president, Harry Truman, despite objections from his party, reached out to former Republican President Herbert Hoover and asked him to help restore war-ravaged Europe. Hoover traveled to 22 countries as part of his mission. Based on that success, the pair decided a club might help incoming presidents and provide a way for former presidents to continue to be of service to their country.

"Fine," Truman reportedly said. "You (Hoover) be the president of the club. And I will be the secretary." Since then, every president has availed himself of both formal and informal help from club members.

For example, Lyndon Johnson turned to former president Eisenhower for counsel many times after he succeeded assassinated President John Kennedy. In fact, Johnson called Eisenhower "the best chief of staff I've got."

The club allows presidents to get to know one another better in informal ways. When then President Ronald Reagan dispatched former presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter on a foreign mission, Ford suggested that the trio just make it "Dick, Jimmy, and Jerry" while on the trip.

Although they were considered psychological and political polar opposites, Nixon and then-president Bill Clinton became "late night pen pals." In fact, Clinton says he re-reads a particularly powerful letter from Nixon every year.

Clinton, upon first meeting with Reagan, asked him how he could be a better president. Reagan warned Clinton that the pressures of the office would be immense and he would need to "go to (presidential retreat) Camp David" as often as he could. Reagan also said that he had noticed that Clinton didn't know how to salute properly. So after demonstrating the proper way, Reagan aided Clinton in practicing saluting until he thought his pupil had mastered it.

The questions incoming presidents ask their counterparts are often similar: How do you run an efficient office? How do you manage your day-to-day schedule? How do you live under the most powerful microscope in the world? How do make hard decisions? How do you avoid agonizing over even the simplest of choices?

And, while all ex-presidents make efforts to help each other, some bonds are greater than others. Obviously, the strongest tie in modern times has been the father-son relationship between the Bushes.

Of course, Duffy and Gibbs said, every club must have its "black sheep." And in the President's Club, that is Jimmy Carter. "Carter has really redefined the genre," Duffy said. "He has created a new position - that of being the ex-president of the United States. If you hand him a script, he pretty much ignores it."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We are currently witnessing an effect of the Presidents Club. When Barack Obama was opposing  Clinton's wife for the Democratic nomination 4 years ago, Obama and Clinton "fought like ferrets" Duffy said. Now, however, Clinton is becoming a cornerstone of Obama's re-election campaign.



Thursday, April 26, 2012

Political Campaigns: What Are the Costs?

This was '72. What is campaigning like today?
Keep your eye on the ball. Take one for the team. Sprint to the finish line. Step up to the plate. Call in the heavy hitters. That's a slam dunk. In recent years, phrases such as these have crossed from the sports pages to the political pages as politicians and writers increasingly use sports metaphors to explain the political process.

But widespread athletic nomenclature, especially portraying political campaigns as sports contests, is troubling to some observers of the political scene such as American University Communications Professor Leonard Steinhorn.

"It frustrates me," Steinhorn says. "This is not a game. Campaigns are really not about entertainment; they are about consequences. They determine our history and our future."

Tonight, Steinhorn moderated a 5-member panel at the National Archives here which discussed the topic Past, Present, and Future of Congressional and Presidential Campaigns. The panel members were:
  • Fred Thompson (R), a former Tennessee Senator and candidate for president
  • Jim Slattery (D), a former Congressman from Kansas
  • Bob Livingston (R), a former Congressman from Louisiana
  • Chet Edwards (D), a former Congressman from Texas who was on the short list of running mates for President Barack Obama and
  • John Ashford, a political consultant who has worked on more than 200 campaigns around the world.
In their individual remarks, all the panelists agreed that campaigning today is dominated by money and media coverage.

"Today, it's money, money, money," said Livingston, who was the winner in 12 of the 14 campaigns he engaged in before retiring from politics..

Edwards lamented that it is becoming increasingly difficult in a politically polarized America to be viewed as a moderate.

"Moderates are an endangered species, if not an extinct species," Edwards said, noting his belief that compromise is essential in politics and should not be considered a dirty word. "There is no political incentive to come to the middle. In fact, you can sometimes be punished for crossing the aisle."

Ashford, who has led numerous campaigns, said he sees 3 increasing trends in the coming years. First, is the effects of new technology and the internet. "Now there is a record of everything that happens and if it happens it will come out," Ashford said. Then there are the Super PACS with their amazing amounts of money to spend. For example, Ashford said by mid April, $90 million had been spent on the Republican presidential campaign. Ashford also said there is an increasing tendency for more partisan party members to oppose members of the same party, a situation that was virtually unheard of in old-time politics.

Slattery said that he won his first campaign on his 24th birthday by knocking on doors and initially spending $200 on campaign pamphlets. He said he fears "the profound effect on the political process of the fading out of localism" once provided by local newspapers. "People believed what they were reading but that belief of truth is gone,"Slattery said.

Thompson said that while public approval of politicians may be at an all-time low, "there are still a lot of good people that are running for the right reasons."  He also contended that a complete study of U.S political campaigns from the 18th Century to today would show that such campaigns, unseemly as they may seem, are actually "cleaner and more ethical than they have ever been."

"The public still determines outcomes," Thompson said. "Whatever is rewarded is what is going to be done."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Thompson, who is also known for his movie portrayals and his starring role in the long-running TV series Law and Order, showed that he has not lost that Tennessee ability to appreciate down-home wisdom. He said that a political old-timer once told him the best way to be successful in politics is to first "run in a good year" and then "remain 1 step ahead of the undertaker and 2 steps ahead of the sheriff."

Monday, April 23, 2012

New Media Galley New at Newseum

File photo of the Newseum's new HP New Media Gallery
With timed previews for Newseum members, The Newseum tonight unveiled its HP New Media Gallery, an innovative, interactive experience that uses the latest technology to allow visitors to step into a multidimensional social network, demonstrating new media's powerful impact on the news and our world.

"The rapid rise of new media is changing ways that news is generated, reported and absorbed by the public," said Jim Duff, CEO of the Newseum. "The HP New Media Gallery will help Newseum visitors understand, in a fun and engaging way, how social networks and mobile devices have fundamentally altered the journalism landscape."

When visitors first enter the gallery they can stop at the Check-in Area, where they can have their photo taken and answer today's question.

Next are two 11-foot-wide interactive touch walls where visitors can learn about the impact of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Included in this exhibit is the Will.i.am Yes I Can video and the viral Obama girl video from the 2008 Presidential campaign, as well as tweets from the 2008 eatrthquake in China and Facebook postings from the revolution in Egypt last year.

In  the Choose the News section, visitors can peruse news stories in various categories, then using prepared designs, build their own newspaper and publish it to a large display wall.

The Game Zone features motion-tracking technology that allows visitors to use hand gestures to test their knowledge of social media.

The 2,500-square-foot gallery is the first permanent addition to the museum since its grand opening in 2008.   The HP New Media Gallery was made possible with support from the Hewlett-Packard Company.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
The HP Gallery opens to the public on April 27. Also that day, the Newseum will launch newmedia.newseum.org, where visitors can download their gallery photos and custom-made news pages, participate in daily polls, and comment on news events as they happen.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Richer Sex

Rapidly changing economic conditions are combining to cook up a new recipe for just who are the family breadwinners and who are the family bread makers. In what is being called the big flip, women are assuming the top family wage earning position long held by men. Currently, females are bringing in the higher salary in 40 percent of all American families and experts say that figure will exceed 50 percent in less than 20 years.

In her new book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, author Liza Mundy examines both the causes and effects of the big flip and today she appeared at the Newseum to discuss her findings.

Mundy believes the change will prove to be beneficial for both women and men. "I try to argue in my book that this is a good thing," Mundy said.

As recently as 150 years, American women couldn't even hold property, meaning that marriage was "really the only path open to a women to be successful economically," Mundy said. Until the 1980s, men dominated the economic picture in almost all families.

However, that picture is changing. Part of the shift is happening because the number of college educated women is growing. Today, women make up 57% of all college students, and, as is noted in studies, college graduates can expect to earn substantially more income. "For women, that payoff is starting to show up in their paychecks," Mundy said.

At the same time, high-paying industrial jobs that were once almost the sole province of males are rapidly disappearing. "Those high paying jobs that you could get with just a high school diploma just aren't there like they used to be," the author said.


However, as with all changes, there are downsides. Some experts claim that men "will fall off the rails if they don't have the pressure to provide." Mundy said new studies show many young men are more directionless these days, showing "to a certain extent this might be true."

And now, this "really super-charged generation of young women" are finding that their higher salaries are creating a new set of problems for them. In dating, for example, many women find they are too intimidating and are overshadowing the men they are meeting. Many underplay their job or simply "laugh and lie and just say we're cosmetologists,"Mundy reported.

In the book, one woman found it difficult to accept some of the conditions that come with role reversals. "It's difficult to be the distant parent," she told Mundy. "When we go to back-to-school nights, he's Danny (to the teachers) and I'm Mrs. Hawkins."

Other women are hesitant to discuss salary discrepancies between their spouses and themselves for fear that they will stigmatize their husbands, Mundy said.

Responding to questions, Mundy said that while the book focuses on the American experience, the big flip appears to be happening in almost all modern countries.  The situation is particularly acute in countries with formalized traditional roles for men and women such as Japan or Spain. In Japan, for example, men who want a traditional Japanese relationship with women are importing wives from less industrialized Asian nations like Vietnam. "It's a genuine crisis for men and women," Mundy said. "Many Japanese women are convinced they will be a single woman for life."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As any regular reader of this blog knows, we are big fans of the Newseum. And apparently we are not alone. Despite the fact that Washington is filled with free museums and monuments, the Newseum was recently rated 4th best of 212 DC attractions by the popular travel website TripAdvisor. You can check out the Newseum results by clicking here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Picturing Ronald Reagan

For Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Edmund Morris, it was a 20-second NBC video clip that convinced him he wanted to write a biography of former President Ronald Reagan. The short May, 1985 clip captured an obviously moved Reagan and his wife Nancy visibly shaken in front of a horribly disturbing image of a dead, emaciated Holocaust victim spread-eagle on the ground at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

"I didn't really find him that interesting until that moment," Morris said. The author spent the next 14 years talking to Reagan and his family, friends, associates, and critics. The result was Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.

Morris appeared at the Smithsonian American Art Museum today as part of the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series, a series which encourages a contemporary writer or artist to unravel the meaning they find behind a single image of an eminent figure of American culture. The series is co-sponsored by Washington College and the National Portrait Gallery.

In his insightful and witty remarks, Morris described his 14-year Reagan project. "The power of that image, it went through me like a knife," Morris said. "All art grows out of a seed of some sort and I like to think of biography as an art."

Admitting to being "speculative," Morris said he believes the Holocaust picture affected Reagan on several levels. First, was the power of the image itself. Then, Reagan often talked about an incident where he found his alcoholic father passed out spread-eagle on the ground in a pose similar to that of the Holocaust victim. Finally, during World War II as an intelligence officer, Reagan had been required to examine stills and footage taken of concentration camps all over Europe. "He looked at all that ghastly footage and it transformed him for life," Morris said. When he left the service, Reagan took some of the film home. He would then show his children when they reached age 14 "to make then understand the atrocities of which human beings were capable."

As a former actor, Reagan was extremely aware of the power of images.  "Images can express things mere words cannot say and he was a creature of the visible culture of the land," Morris said

Morris also showed and discussed several other shots that he believes are important to understanding Reagan both as a person and as a president. For example, he showed a picture of a smiling, engaging President Reagan meeting Princeton University historian Arthur Link. Link, a life-long Democrat, viewed the Republican conservative Reagan as the antichrist. However, with his actor's insights and charisma, Reagan immediately moved to charm the professor. "In about 20 minutes he had Link," said Morris who was present at the meeting. "It was a perfect example of how Reagan deployed his charm."

One picture showed Reagan alone in a car, his reflection in the window also distinctly captured. Morris said that the picture conveyed the 2 sides of Reagan: the warm genial actor/president and the pensive, private person. "I often wondered which of those 2 guys I was writing about," Morris said.

The final picture showed an Illinois lake where, as a teenager and young man, Reagan had spent 7 summers as a lifeguard. During his time there, he was credited with saving 77 lives. After his presidency, as dementia began robbing Reagan of his vitality and his mind, he would point with pride to that picture and describe what it meant to him. "I saved 77 people at that lake," Morris said Reagan would tell visitors. "It was the last coherent sentence he was capable of."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of course, Morris' biography of Reagan was about a then-living subject. Morris is most known for his definitive 3-part biography of President Teddy Roosevelt and a biography of Beethoven, both of whom were long-deceased subjects. During the question and answer period, Morris was asked if it was  easier to write about a living or a dead subject. Morris said that when an interviewer first asked him that question years ago, he didn't really have an answer. However, he wife Sylvia, who had been listening in another room, immediately shouted out, "dead is easier." "She was absolutely right," Morris said, acknowledging the laughter of his wife who was in the audience. "It's really better if they're not here."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic at 100

Examining a photo of the Titanic wreckage
Exactly a century ago yesterday, the Titanic sunk, taking the ship and almost 1,500 passengers to a watery grave 2-and-a-half miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But, today, 100 years later, great fascination with the fate of the supposedly unsinkable vessel continues. In fact, there is a contention that after God and Coca Cola, Titanic is the 3rd most recognized title around the world.

Today, a panel of 3 Titanic experts, 2 of whom have actually visited the ocean-bottom wreckage site, appeared at an Inside Media edition at the Newseum to discuss why the event and its aftermath continue to hold such importance.

"I think it's funny that  after 100 years we can still say we are learning about the Titanic," said James Delgado, the first archeologist to dive to the ship and the chief scientist for the most recent mapping of the Titanic site. "It's not just about history, it's about science, it's about culture, it's about underwater archeology."

"The sea really is the final frontier," Delgado added. "We know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do about the deep."

Captain Craig McClean, who led a mission in 2004 to study the site, said that viewing the site first-hand is "awe inspiring and almost magical."

Looking out at the sunken ship through a tiny portal in a cramped diving submarine is "like describing the high school you went to at night in the rain with a flashlight," McLean said. "It's like a ghost town."

A boot from an  unknown victim rests on the ocean bottom
Near the ship are vivid reminders of the human cost of the tragedy. A boot.  A piece of luggage. "These are little time capsules that give voice to those people who are forever silenced in those cold waters," Delgado said.

The site was first discovered in 1985. Since then there have been a dozen scientific expedition to the site, each one made more significant with technological improvements. For example, as recently as 2004, human divers could only spend 10 hours at the site before being brought back to the surface. Today, using robotics, that time for up-close study has been increased to more than 3 days. Scientists are not only learning about the ship, but also about a new environment. For example, there is a previously undiscovered bacteria that is literally eating the ship and makes the bow and stern sections appear that they are covered in "rusticles."

Perhaps the most disturbing finding is the fact that divers have discovered modern debris dumped from passing vessels at the Titanic site. The panel showed a video picture of a beer can. Plastic waste has also been discovered. "Why would you throw garbage away at the site? In fact, why would you throw garbage into the ocean at all?" Delgado said. "It's another reminder to keep care of all our planet. Those plastic cups could be there long after the Titanic has rusted completely away."

Ole Varmer, the 3rd member of the panel, is an attorney who has been actively overseeing the legal aspects of the Titanic site and any salvage efforts. To date, about 5,500 artifacts from the Titanic have been brought to the surface, a figure that represents about 1% of 1% of what is actually there.

Varmer said international maritime legal efforts have been put in place to make certain that the artifacts are only used for scientific study or museum exhibitions. The law specifies that the site itself is considered an underwater memorial to the massive tragedy. McClean said the Titanic legal experience is providing "the rule of how we can manage deep sea history."

"The Titanic really belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone," McClean said

Delgado agreed. "It's not a book. It's not a movie. It's the place where it happened," he said. "The journey ... the discovery continue."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Although today marked the actual 100th anniversary of the sinking, the Titanic story continues to unfold here in Washington. The Newseum is temporarily displaying actual front pages describing the tragedy in its front-page display cases outside the facility. Nearby, the National Archives has its own display of Titanic-related items. And the National Geographic Museum here is featuring an exhibition on the Titanic that will run until July 8.

Ben Franklin: In Search of a Better World

An engraving of Ben Franklin found on a French snuff box
When he was just 7 years old, Benjamin Franklin was given a few coins. With his money in his pocket, young Franklin visited a store where he became fascinated with a toy whistle. He gave all his coins to the clerk and hurried home to play with his new toy. However, as he began whistling around the house, his brothers and cousins stopped him and asked him how much his whistle had cost. When he told them, they began laughing, telling him that he spent at least 4 times more than the whistle was worth. Young Franklin began to cry as his pleasure with his new whistle was replaced by the chagrin of his overpayment.

Throughout his life, Franklin, who was immensely concerned with both personal and community rightness, was to use that story of "giving too much for the whistle" time and again whenever he encountered anyone not valuing the right commodity or placing too much value on something they did not need.

The story of Ben Franklin and his whistle serves as the introduction to the exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World now on display at the National Archives. The exhibit traces Franklin's extraordinary life from his birth in 1706 to his death in 1790 as one of the Founding Fathers of America and the greatest statesmen/scientist in United States History.

Although he received little formal schooling, Franklin was a voracious reader. "Often I sat up in my Room reading the greatest part of the Night, when the Book was borrowed in the Evening, and to be return'd early in the Morning," Franklin wrote.

After serving as an apprentice, Franklin opened his own printing shop in Philadelphia, a move which provided him with enough financial success that he was able to retire at 42 and spend the rest of his life inventing ideas, civic organizations, and indeed the country that was to become the United States. It also gave him the perfect platform to disseminate his important writings such as Poor Richard's Almanack and the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Franklin always contended that civic groups could perform far more good than individuals. "The good particular Men may do separately ... is small compared with what they may do collectively," Franklin wrote in 1751. In Philadelphia, Franklin played a pivotal role in establishing the Library Company of Philadelphia, the 1st fire insurance company, the Philadelphia Academy (now the University of Pennsylvania), and the Pennsylvania Hospital.

In his role as a scientist, in addition to his well-known role in the story of electricity, stoves, and spectacles, Franklin was credited with several other inventions. Several replicas of a chair with an attached fan that stirred air when you pumped a pedal are spread throughout the exhibit. Also on display is a musical instrument called the armonica, which produced songs featuring the sound made by wet fingers running around a glass. Both Mozart and Beethoven composed pieces for that instrument. However, believing that all inventions should benefit society, Franklin never patented any of his creations.

Arguably, Franklin's most important role came in the 3 decades he served as America's 1st great statesmen. In total, he made 8 crossing of the Atlantic to represent the interests of first the colonies and later the fledgling country in both England and France.   Here at home, he was instrumental in drafting both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The exhibit on Franklin will run at the Archives until May 6. However, you may view the website by clicking here.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Franklin's powers of persuasion were legendary. This is the way John Adams, also one of America's Founding Fathers and the 2nd president of the United States, describes one of his encounters with Franklin's way of thinking. In 1776, Franklin and Adams were forced to share a bed in a crowded boarding house in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Franklin, who believed you needed fresh air to sleep even on the coldest of nights, opened the bedroom window. Adams rose out of bed and closed the window. Whereupon, Franklin left the bed, reopened the window, and began a long, detailed rationale on why open windows were always best. Franklin's argument droned on so long that Adams says he fell into a fitful sleep despite the cold.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Summer of '68: Baseball in a Time of Turmoil

1968. It was a tragic, tumultuous, violent year. There was the war in Vietnam, riots in the streets, protests on college campuses, and a sense of revolution in the air. In April, Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis and just weeks later Robert Kennedy was killed in California. For a while, it seemed like the entire world was coming unhinged.

Even our staid national pastime, baseball, was not immune to the chaos. And no teams appeared more affected than the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers, who, as fate often decrees, were to meet in the fall of that year to battle in what is still called one the greatest World Series ever played.

Today, Tim Wendell appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his new book Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever in which he chronicles the cultural, political, and sports upheaval of that strange time.

The star of the Cardinals was proud, feisty, black Bob Gibson, he of the competitive scowl and blazing fastball. Gibson, who never could wrap himself around the idea of non-violence, along with the rest of his team, was in Florida in spring training camp when he heard the news of King's assassination. The next day a distraught Gibson got in a heated exchange with his catcher, Tim McCarver.  Gibson angrily turned his back on his white battery mate. McCarver persisted, trying in vain to convince Gibson that not all white people were the enemy, using himself, a white boy raised in the south, as an example. He recalled how Gibson and fellow black teammates used to make fun of him because he would not share a sip of soda. "There was a lot of truth in your teasing. But it is possible for people to change," McCarver said as Gibson stormed away.

Meanwhile, as the Detroit Tigers prepared for their season, team members knew all too well the violence of the times. In 1967, riots exploded in Detroit. Slugger Willie Horton, deeply involved in the local community, had rushed out of the club house still in his uniform to the scene of the riot, jumped on the hood of a taxi cab, and unsuccessfully implored enraged residents to return to their homes. For his part, Mickey Lolich, who along with Denny McClain, served as the anchors for the Detroit pitching staff, was told to exchange his baseball uniform for the one he wore as a National Guardsman and begin immediately patrolling the riot-torn streets of the city where he played.

The aftermath of King's assassination forced the postponement of Opening Day. But eventually the games resumed. Gibson seemed unable to overcome his feelings and pitched poorly. Then came the assassination of Robert Kennedy. With the season already underway, the commissioner left it up to individual teams whether they wanted to play regularly scheduled games. The choice divided many teams. Milt Pappas urged his fellow Cincinnati Reds not to play. After several votes, they finally decided to go on with the game. Three days later, Pappas was traded. New York Mets manager Gil Hodges employed a different tactic. Even though their opponents, the San Francisco Giants, wanted to play, Hodges went to the rooms of each of his players, telling them not even to go to the ballpark.

After the second assassination, something happened to Gibson; he reversed his poor start and started on his way to one of the most dominant seasons ever in pitching history - 21 complete games, 13 shutouts, and an ERA of 1.12, all figures that will probably never be equaled. In the World Series, Gibson has to win 2 games. In the 1st game, Gibson set a World Series record by striking out 17 Detroit Tigers. However, after being down 3 games to 1, the Tigers improbably came back to win 3 straight games with Game 7 featuring Gibson on the mound for the Cardinals and Lolich pitching for the Tigers.

Wendel said that doing research for the book proved "how much sports and politics are intertwined at times."

The author also said he came to think more about the importance of rituals such as sports in trying times. "In 1968, you could go to the ballpark and see how people could work together. The Detroit Tigers knew what was at stake and they did it," he said. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While most of 1968 was serious, somber, and downright scary, it was not without some humorous moments. Some of the best of them in baseball were provided by Detroit pitcher Denny McClain, who won 31 games that season and came to be known as the 1st sports star to really embrace what we have come to know as the lifestyle of the modern sports celebrity. Wendel recounted this story of McClain. Late in the season, McClain was on the mound facing the New York Yankees. Detroit was already assured of the pennant and McClain was coasting with a comfortable 6-1 lead. Coming up to the plate was legendary Yankees center fielder Mickey Mantle, who needed 1 home run to move ahead of slugger Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list. McClain called Tigers catcher Jim Price to the mound.  "I want Mantle to hit one," McClain said. "What?," asked Price. "I want Mantle to hit a home run. Go tell him to 'get ready, Mick." Price did as ordered. McClain served up a perfect home run ball. Mantle looked at it for strike one. "What the hell was that?," he asked Price. "I told you be ready," Price said. McClain delivered another perfect-to-hit pitch. A still startled Mantle took that for strike 2. "Do you think he is going to do it again?" Mantle asked. "Let me go ask him," Price said. On the mound, McClain responded, "Oh course, I'm going to do it again" To make certain, he signaled Mantle, asking him exactly where he wanted the ball. Mantle indicated a delivery that was letter high on the inside of the plate. McClain threw a 3rd pitch to the exact spot where Mantle had asked for it. Mantle powered the ball into the stands for his 535th career home run. As he rounded the bases, Mantle shouted thanks to McClain and doffed his cap. The next batter was Yankee 1st baseman Joe Pepitone. Pepitone, mimicking Mantle, indicated where he wanted McClain to throw his pitch. McClain wound up and threw a fastball which just missed striking Pepitone in the chin.

Showdown: Barack Obama as Battler

David Corn, author and Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones magazine, can understand why backers of Barack Obama became disappointed with Obama's early performance as president. Critics, many of them once staunch supporters,  contended that Obama wasn't really fighting  hard on issues, was capitulating way to easily and often to conservative right-wing Republican legislators, and was failing to use his impressive oratorical skills to push his positions and rally a country foundering in financial and political disorder.

But a deeper examination, such as Corn was forced to take for his latest book, reveals that Obama has stuck to a steady plan that may well lead him to a second term and another chance to create an America more to his supporters' liking.

Corn, who appeared at Politics and Prose today to talk about his new book Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner, Cantor, and the Tea Party, says President Obama possesses a tremendous amount of what the author calls "strategic patience," a rare commodity in Washington where everyone else is dealing with "the story of the nano second."

"He has a longtime idea of how to draw a very sharp vision and he is deeply pragmatic about how to get there," Corn said. "It's not winning the fight of the moment, but looking at the long-term win."

Corn said that White House advisers readily admit that the administration made many mistakes early on. "We did things badly. We were overwhelmed," several staffers told Corn. The darkest point came with the crushing Democratic defeat in the 2010 midterm elections. However, even there, staffers told Corn that the president seemed resolute. "Look, it was a bad night," Obama said. "But we're not going to be gnashing our teeth." He then continued to list several projects he wanted to move on right away. Some of those hearing the president thought "our boss is crazy. What does he see that we don't see?"

But in the months that followed, Obama's slow, steady approach seemed to make more sense in the poisoned, political culture. "He saw a different way of looking at the future. He began attacking the Republicans for not being optimistic. This is how he sees it and he began talking about it.," Corn said.

The author said that as he began writing he "felt like he was describing a guy who was working a Rubik's Cube. I had new appreciation for the difficulty (the President) faced. I thought this is really hard stuff ... I don't know what I would do."

Corn said his research confirmed that Obama encountered almost unbelievable obstruction from the opposition. "How do you negotiate with (GOP leader) John Boehner when he can't even bring his own people to the table?"

One of the greatest examples of the new idea that political dysfunction is the way things function in Washington came during an interview with a Senator. The Senator complained that the President had never invited even one Senator to the White House to watch a movie. "I though you know, you need to grow up a little bit," Corn said.

Corn indicated that while it is too early to say with certainty, Obama should be able to recapture much of that enthusiastic support that propelled him to the White House. "Your first campaign election is like a honeymoon. Now it's more like a marriage. I think he will find a way to re-energize people," Corn said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Corn said his new book has prompted criticism, mostly from right-wing pundits and news organizations. Fox News has complained about a section where President Obama said he was "fed up with Fox saying 24/7 that I am a Muslim." Corn said that while Fox newscasters complained, his research showed many times when they supported the idea that Obama was a closet Muslim. They would say things like "Well, I don't know if Obama is a Muslim but here are 27 reasons why people might believe he is a Muslim." But Corn says his favorite criticism is coming from controversial right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh. "I have been criticized (for the book) on 3 separate occasions by Rush Limbaugh. That's very gratifying to me, almost as gratifying as the New York Times best selling list," Corn said..

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Long Day's Journey into Night

Peter Goetz as James Tyrone and Helen Carey as his wife, Mary
Great writers have the ability to transform personal tragedy into great art. Take playwright Eugene O'Neill. In his hands, the alcoholism that haunted male members of his family and his mother's tragic morphine addiction form the driving impetus behind his masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night.

Tonight, we attended the Arena Stage performance of that classic, one of 3 O'Neill plays that are at the center for a 2-month Eugene O'Neill Festival now underway in DC.

Almost painful to witness,  Long Day's Journey into Night, which won O'Neill 1 of his 4 Pulitzer Prizes, has to be mentioned in any discussion of the greatest tragic American play ever written.

The play is a disturbing expose of the role of the past as both refuge and burden, as well as the broken communication, ill-conceived illusions, and acute isolation that can exist in families that profess to love one another. "I'm sorry or I didn't mean that," become the constant refrains of the play, as the characters futilely try to atone for hurtful speech or harmful action.

In its review of the play, The Washington Examiner aptly chooses a sub-headline of Four Characters in Search of Peace. But despite vast quantities of alcohol and morphine consumed, the peace each character so desperately craves remains illusive. Just as the literal fog mentioned so often in the play hides both sights and sites outside the setting of their seaside Connecticut home, the characters remain lost to themselves and each other in a mimicking fog of emotional distance and substance abuse they employ to survive the pain of their daily living.

The play leaves you haunted by the final scene of Mary Tyrone, lost in her personal fog of morphine, delivering a last rambling monologue as her drunken husband dejectedly holds her wedding dress and her 2 sons despondently sink into their own alcoholic stupors. For the Tyrones, dark night has truly come. But through O'Neill's brilliant display of his family's personal demons, perhaps those of us fortunate enough to heed the warnings in his play can try to find our way back to the light.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
When I studied American drama during my years at Villanova University, I had 3 favorite playwrights. They were Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O'Neill.  For each, I had a favorite play. For Williams, it was Cat of a Hot Tin Roof. For Miller, it was Death of a Salesmen. And for O'Neill, it was Long Day's Journey into Night. Watching the production tonight, I can say with certainty that my old O'Neill favorite has lost none of its power in the 40 years since I first encountered it.

Drumming and Dancing to a Japanese Beat

The flowers may have fallen from the trees in the Tidal Basin, but the Japanese-influenced Cherry Blossom Festival is still in full bloom in DC.

The Tamagawa University Taiko Drum and Dance Troupe, which has been touring the world since 1961, performed tonight on the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center as part of the 2012 festival.

The most fascinating of the 7 numbers performed was the Zeni-taiko, a traditional folk dance from the Shimane prefecture. In this dance, exquisitely clad dancers in kimonos twirl and toss special aqua blue drumsticks with coins inside as they continue to rhythmically move around all parts of the stage. According to ancient tradition, the coins express hope for a year of happiness.

The other 6 numbers were
  • Kunsa, a drum piece created by Kazuhiro Tsuyiki to express appreciation for life
  • Kasa-odori, a traditional folk dance of the Tottori prefecture which expresses wishes for rainfall after a long draught
  • Nadeshiko, a piece created for the 2012 tour which expresses loveliness and the strength of of women.
  • Chikara, a powerful drum piece with the theme of perseverance
  • Jongara, a traditional folk dance of Tsuguru in the Amori prefecture which is designed to lift village spirits during a long, harsh winter and
  • Ren, a drum piece expressing both the power of the wind in the mountains and wishes for world peace and harmony
You can watch the full performance by clicking on this Kennedy Center link since every Millennium Stage performance is taped and archived.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first cherry trees being part of the Washington scene. The Millennium Stage is also marking a celebration - the 15th year of providing a world-class performance 365 days a year at 6 p.m. for free. You can click here to discover what the rest of April's schedule will be.

A Story of Titanic Survival

Even now, 100 years later, the numbers are staggering. When the Titanic sunk, 1,496 people perished. Only 712 survived. Today, author and journalism professor Julie Hedgepeth Williams appeared at the National Archives to tell the story of 3 of those survivors: her great-uncle Albert Caldwell, his wife Sylvia, and their son Alden, who was 10 months old at the time of the tragedy.

The story, which Williams describes more fully in  her book A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells' Story of Survival, details those seemingly insignificant moments that can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Albert and Sylvia were married in 1909 and almost immediately left for Bangkok, Thailand where they would serve as a missionary/teacher family in a Presbyterian-run school. In Bangkok, however, Sylvia became ill after Alden was born, and the family cashed in all their Thai savings into gold coin and prepared to return to the United States.

After a harrowing 1-month voyage through the Indian Ocean, the couple finally arrived in Naples, Italy. In the port of that city they found a ship, the Carpathia, which was preparing to sail to the U.S. However, the ship was approximately the same size as the one they had sailed the Indian Ocean on and Sylvia, who had suffered extreme sea sickness on that entire voyage, did not want to cross the Atlantic on a similar-sized ship.

While in Naples, Albert ran across an advertisement for the maiden voyage of the Titanic, which would be sailing from London. "There. That's the ship we're going on," Albert told his wife. He hurried to buy tickets for 2nd class passage on the ship, only to find out that all tickets had been sold. However, the agent said he should come back later to see if there had been any cancellations. Returning the next day, Albert was able to purchase the tickets for 2nd-class passage.

So, after buying new wardrobes for the family in Paris, the Caldwells headed to London to board the Titanic for the last leg of their voyage home. But even at boarding time, Sylvia was still skeptical of sailing. As she prepared to head on board, Sylvia asked a crewman, "Is it really unsinklable?" The crewman uttered a famous response which has appeared in numerous books and films about the ship: "God, Himself, could not sink this ship."

On board, the Caldwells reveled in the magnificent luxury of the Titanic. They road the elevators. They ate the sumptuous meals. They enjoyed the daily musical performances. Albert documented the experience with his camera. He really wanted to see the operation of the ship's enormous engine room. He convinced an officer to escort him to the bottom of the ship. There he snapped pictures of the stokers as they stuffed mounds of coal into the engines. He had an idea. He asked one of the stokers to trade places with him. He would stuff coal and the stoker would take his picture. Laughing, the stoker agreed. The picture was taken; a picture which literally came to save the life of Albert and his family.

That night, it was unusually cold on the Atlantic. Albert and his family went to bed early to keep warm. Albert had found that one of the best byproducts of the ship was that the engines kept the bed vibrating, an action which provided him with a restful sleep. However, in the middle of the night, Albert awoke and realized the bed was no longer vibrating. This meant the engines had stopped. He left the cabin and went up on deck. There, an officer told him: "We've hit an iceberg. It's nothing. Don't worry. Go back to bed."

However, a short time later, came a knock on the door and a summons for all passengers to appear on the top deck. The Caldwells got dressed, but were unable to find the key for young Alden's trunk. They wrapped the infant in a blanket and proceeded to the main deck.

Once there, they found a calm scene. Even when an order came for women and children to take to the lifeboats, most, including the Caldwells, appeared unconcerned. The ship was unsinkable. What could there be to worry about.

As the Caldwells stood, trying to decide what to do, some of the stokers noticed the man who had earlier been taking their picture. "Mr. Caldwell, if you value your life, get off this ship," one said.

The Caldwells immediately boarded Lifeboat 13. Albert, who had been carrying Alden, was allowed on board. The lifeboat, pitching forward and back, began its jerky descent toward the Atlantic. The passengers and crew were forced to hang on. When the boat finally settled in the ocean, the lever designed to allow the lifeboat to leave the Titanic wouldn't work. Apparently, the red paint used for the ship had gummed up the catch. The situation became dire. Lifeboat 15 had begun its descent and would crash directly on top of Lifeboat 13. The crew and passengers began shouting frantically, but the roar of the evacuation made it impossible to be heard. Finally, just seconds before impact, some of the crew were able to beat on the bottom of the approaching lifeboat and got it stopped. Crewmen with knives cut away the ropes and launched Lifeboat 13.

With both crew and male passengers rowing, the boat was able to get a 1/2 mile from the sinking ship. Then, the night's true horror began. The passengers watched in fright and shock as the lights on the giant vessel winked out. It rose from the ocean, split in two, and, with a gentle final swish, was gone.

"Then," Sylvia was later to write, "We heard the most appalling, heart-rending noise that ever a mortal might hear - the cry of hundreds of human souls for help."

In a strange twist of fate,  the very iceberg that had sunk the Titanic provided safety for the lifeboats. It blocked the waves that could have swamped them. But in a darkened Atlantic, the survivors began to first fear that they would never be discovered. Finally, lights of an approaching ship were spotted. Then a new fear emerged. The lifeboat had no lights. The approaching ship, unable to see the boat, would run it down. One woman had saved a diary she was writing and the crew set indiviual pages on fire to serve as a beacon.

The passengers of Lifeboat 13 were rescued. Ironically, the rescuing ships was the Carpathia, the very same vessel the Caldwells had rejected in Naples for their voyage home.

Arriving in the United States, the Caldwells continued their lives. Eventually, Albert and Sylvia got a divorce. Albert, who died in 1977 at the age of 91, spent most of life, speaking to individuals and groups about that night of tragedy and survival.

One of his most avid listeners was his young grand-niece Julie. In all his retellings to her he would joke," Honey,when they find the Titanic you can have those gold coins." He also reflected on his lost camera at the bottom of the sea."If they'd only find my camera, what a story it could tell."

But although all of the photos Albert shot were lost, one family photo taken on board the ship survived. It was taken by an Irish newsman in London at the time of the sailing and later sent to the Caldwells. That shot appears as the cover of Williams' book.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Williams says her great-uncle never experienced survivor guilt. "My sister says Uncle Albert believed he had a second chance at life at 26 and he took it," she says. "He believed it was a public service to talk about the experience." However, Albert always skipped the part where he and the others were floating in the Atlantic awaiting rescue, continually haunted by the sounds of the dying. "You just have to forget the screams or you would go crazy," Williams said her great-uncle told her.

From CD to DC to You: Live Track for the Weekend - Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - We Take Care of Our Own (Greensb...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Inside Look at the Supreme Court

From the Citizens United ruling that corporations are people and as such can contribute to political campaigns to its impending ruling on health care, the U. S. Supreme Court has been making big news recently. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, in its early  years, the highest court in the land didn't have any cases and had difficulty finding justices.

"It didn't seem like a place that was going anywhere," says Linda Greenhouse, who covered the supreme court for the New York Times for 30 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for her efforts. "The court is the author of its own story. Its role has been largely self-created."

Greenhouse, who appeared to discuss her new book The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction at Politics and Prose tonight, said that while Article III of the Constitution ordered the creation of the court, that document specified nothing about its operation. There wasn't even a mention of a Chief Justice to lead the court. The idea of a Chief Justice had to be inferred from the article that calls for such a position to serve in the case of an impeachment trial of a president.

Until the 1920s, the Supreme Court simply heard whatever cases came to it. However, in that decade, the justices began setting their own docket, deciding to hear some cases and rejecting others that failed to meet their standards of questions of constitutionality.

"That really was the key to making the court the institution it is today. It's the court that's setting the country's legal agenda," Greenhouse said.

So how does the court decide which cases its should hear? To some extent, its decisions are an outgrowth of issues that are affecting the country. "The justices don't live in the bubble that we think they do. They know what's going on," Greenhouse said.

Just as times change, so obviously has the criteria for judges. Initally, religious affiliation was a concern. Today, however, it isn't a consideration. For example, on the current court, there are no practicing Protestants. The court is made up of 6 Catholic members and 3 Jewish members. "The Founding Fathers would be turning over in their graves," Greenhouse joked.

Geography used to be a big deal. But today all 9 justices come from the Eastern part of America and received their training at either Harvard or Yale.

Initially, judges came from the political world. But Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female judge (currently 3 of the justices are female) who retired in 1981, was the last justice with political experience. Today, 8 of the 9 justices served as federal judges before their appointment to the court. In the Warren Court of the mid 20th Century, none of the justices had ever served as federal judges.

Of course, judges are appointed for life by the president, but must be confirmed by Congress. Today, that confirmation cannot be taken for granted. "That's changed the whole narrative," Greenhouse said. As an example she cited the recent confirmation process for President Obama's choice, Sonia Sotomayor. Initially, many Republicans were prepared to vote for Obama's choice. However, GOP leaders asked the National Rifle Association to rate Sotomayor. Since Sotomayor had not handled any gun cases in her court, she could not receive a high rating from the NRA. This in turn led GOP support to fade and few Republicans voted for confirmation.

One of the main charges against the court today is that it is too political, a charge some feel is supported by the number of cases decided by a 5-4 vote along strict political lines. Greenhouse said she isn't really surprised that the majority of Republican judges hold different views than their 4 Democratic counterparts. "The justices are chosen by the president and the country is pretty sharply divided," Greenhouse noted.

Other critics want to do away with life-time appointments for justices contending that when the Founding Fathers designed the court, they never considered that appointments would serve for 35 or 40 years. "It has taken on a kind of different meaning," Greenhouse said. The author noted that all other modern democracies have either age or term limits for their justices. "Initally, I was against it, but it is interesting to consider," Greenhouse said.

Greenhouse said she isn't surprised about President Obama's recent comments that he didn't believe the Supreme Court would overturn the health care plan he promoted. Those comments started a political firestorm with Republicans claiming the President was interfering in court matters. "There has always been struggles between the branches of government," Greenhouse said. "The relationship is not static and it has never been static. There is a struggle for supremacy. Sometimes one branch is up; sometimes another branch is up."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of course, many members of the large crowd that packed Politics and Prose had the fate of the health care law on their minds. Last month, the Supreme Court held 3 days worth of oral arguments on the question. And how does Greenhouse think the court will rule? Will they, as so many feel, vote along political lines and reject the health care package endorsed by President Obama and passed by Congress. "I believe the law will be upheld," Greenhouse said. "I actually feel they are going to vote on the law and the law is going to lead them to uphold the statute."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Time and Chance: The Burdens of Vietnam

McNamara tried to keep Americans on point in Vietnam ...
In 1968, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, worn down by years of dealing with the burdens of the Vietnam War, resigned his post, his associates at the Department of Defense gave him a large globe inscribed with the words: "To the outstanding public servant of our time."

But during the ensuing years, that view came to be severely challenged. Disgruntled with a seemingly unending, unwinable contest, a rising death toll, and the harsh divisions it was causing in America, McNamara's critics began calling Vietnam "Mr. McNamara's War."

One of McNamara's associates, Dr. Robert Brown, who was there on the day McNamara received his going away gift and later himself became Secretary of Defense in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, believes if you judge his former boss solely on his first four years, the accolade is deserving. "He revolutionized the Department of Defense," Brown says.

... however pictures like this told a different story.
However, all those brilliant advances were undone during his second 3 years, Brown contends  "That was a tragedy, a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions," Brown explained. "It was a tragedy for him, for President (Lyndon) Johnson and, most of all, for the country."

Brown was one of 3 panelists who participated today in a program at the National Archives entitled McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965 - 1969. The program was presented by the Archives, the Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.

Initially a strong proponent of the war, McNamara, like so many of his contemporaries, didn't become skeptical of the chances of a U.S. success until the war had expanded to almost a point of difficult return. "He tried to find ways to limit the war, but he couldn't and so he resigned," Brown said.

Toward the end of his tenure, McNamara, who was known for his fierce loyalty to the office of the presidency, had to support positions he didn't hold. "We knew when a position wasn't his," Brown said. "He would speak louder, lean forward, and pull his socks up."

Ironically, McNamara had only intended to serve 4 years, according to Brown. "There is an old saying in Washington that friends come and go, but enemies accumulate," Brown said. "Four years is long enough. You begin to mistake familiarity with wisdom. It's hard to rethink things. It's hard to clean up your own mess."

Dr. George Herring, a professor and Vietnam War historian, agreed with Brown's assessment of McNamara's brilliance and energy. "He came to personify the ethos of the (early) 69s," Herring said. "He was the can-do man in the can-do society in the can-do era."

Herring said that President Johnson's decision not to seek re-election and McNamara's steeping down from his post, both triggered by the Vietnam quagmire, heralded "the end of an era bright with promise."

As the war continued, McNamara found himself besieged by critics on both sides of the political spectrum. The doves on the left blamed him for starting and continuing a senseless war. Meanwhile, the hawks on the right chastised him for failing to give the military the support it needed for victory.

"In my 40 years of talking to Vietnam veterans, only the name of Jane Fonda is likely to provoke more anger than that of Robert McNamara," Herring said. "He put his loyalty to the president above the truth. Ultimately, he was done in by the war that came to bear his name."

Dr. Edward Drea, whose book McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965 - 1969, gave its title to this presentation, said that those setting American policy failed to take into account the unrelenting determination to prevail by the North Vietnamese and the deep corruptness of the South Vietnamese government.

Despite McNamara's many strengths, like all men, he obviously had flaws, flaws which often become exacerbated with increased power. Drea cited one such flaw of McNamara, pointed out by fellow adviser McGeorge Bundy. "Once his (McNamara's) mind is made up, he does not keep the sharpest eye out for new evidence," Drea quoted Bundy as saying.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
It is one of the most popular, great unanswerable questions in American history. So, of course, it was asked today. What would have happened in Vietnam, and by extension to America itself, if President John Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963? Although Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon are most often associated with Vietnam, President Dwight Eisenhower and his successor Kennedy, also had roles to play. At  the time of his assassination, Kennedy had more than 16,000 American troops serving in an advisory capacity in Vietnam. "We don't know what would have happened, but we know Kennedy had a powerful aversion to sending in combat troops," Dr. Herring said. "But I don't buy the early withdrawal theory. Those 16,000 advisers would make it much more difficult to get out." Drea said Kennedy might have used his popularity and great political skills to keep public opinion focused on winning the war. "He might have made it a more popular war," Drea said. "He had the rhetorical flair and the charisma. He could have made some decisions that Johnson was terrified to make." However, former Defense Secretary Brown cautioned that there are limitations, even in a popular war. "Making it popular wouldn't have necessarily made it winnable," he said.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Words as Art

Most people don't think of words as art. But for Mel Bochner, a pioneer of conceptual art, they are one in the same. In fact, for Bochner, his copy of Roget's Thesaurus is just as important an art tool as his paint brush. Since the mid 1960s, Bochner has been creating drawings and paintings that force viewers to examine the words we use on a daily basis.

Currently, 9 large word pieces that Bochner has created since 2005 form the focus for an exhibition of his work that are part of the In the Tower series at the East Wing of the National Gallery. 

The 9 works each have short titles. They include:
  • Die
  • Sputtle
  • Useless
  • Masters of the Universe
  • Oh Well
  • Amazing
  • Babble
  • Observer
  • Money
In his works, Bochner begins with the title and then adds related words or phrases meaning approximately the same thing taken from the thesaurus and dictionaries of slang. For example, in his work Amazing, amazing is followed in vertical order by awesome, breath-taking, heart-stopping, mind blowing, out of site, cool, wow, groovy, crazy, killer, bitchin', bad, rad, gnarly, da bomb, shut-up, OMG, and yesss. Each word is in all caps and is followed by an exclamation mark.

Bochner forces viewers to really look closely at the work with his choice of colors. Some of the words appear in a distinct hue; others use a new color for each letter. Both techniques are deliberate attempts by the artist to make reading more difficult.

A National Gallery pamphlet available at the exhibition summarizes Bochner's latest works this way:

The words Bochner paints in these works are ordinary and adamantly contemporary. Just as he once used the thesaurus to portray his friends and their works of art, (in his earlier works, some of which are on display in an adjoining room) now he uses the same reference work to depict language itself. Bochner represents the way we speak now, the chatter of the cell phone and the street. Indeed, many of the paintings seem to portray what some might consider linguistic decline.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
Since the show is closing April 8, you probably won't get a chance to see the Bochner works.  However, more great shows are headed to DC.  For example, opening April 27 at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art is African American Art: The Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Era, and BeyondJoan Miro: The Ladder of Escape will be arriving at the National Gallery on May 6. The National Gallery will also be housing a major retrospective of George Bellows which begins June 10.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (Mr. President)

President Woodrow Wilson shows his form
In 1910, President William Howard Taft started a tradition that all his successors have followed since, with the lone exception of softball-loving Jimmy Carter. Sitting in an extra large stadium chair the Washington franchise had built especially for him, Taft, at 320 pounds America's heaviest president, threw out the first pitch to start the 1910 baseball season.

"One common thread that most of the 20th Century presidents have is a passion for baseball," baseball historian Mel Marmer says.

Marmer, wearing a Baseball Is Life sweatshirt, appeared at The Renwick Gallery here today on the official opening day of the 2012 baseball season to discuss the connection between the American presidency and the sport still known as America's national pastime.

Actually, President Ulysses S. Grant was the first president to become involved with the sport when he hosted the first professional baseball team the Cincinnati Red Stockings at the White House in 1869. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to receive a 14-carat gold all-game season baseball pass. However, Marmer said the response of Roosevelt, an avid outdoors man, was "less than enthusiastic."

It remained for Taft to cement the connection between baseball and the presidency. Ironically, during much of the early 20th Century, the hometown team, the Washington Senators, were dreadful. They lost so many games that one baseball writer came up with the slogan, "Washington: First, in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

Taft had another connection to baseball lore. In 1911, a young boy born was given the name William Howard Mays after the then president. He went on to have a son named William Howard Mays Jr. That son went on to become legendary baseball hall of fame center fielder Willie Mays, "The Say Hey Kid."

President Woodrow Wilson, who became the first president to attend a World Series game, started his college career as a center fielder for the Davidson College team. 

During the 1920s and 30s, baseball's biggest star was Babe Ruth. And, of course, the Babe had baseball tales in his background. When the Republicans wanted Ruth to endorse their presidential candidate because Ty Cobb was backing the Democratic choice, Babe reportedly replied: "Hell, no. I'm a Democrat" before asking "well, how much are they offering?" But the greatest Ruth/president story centers around the then-astounding pay offered the Yankee star in 1930. A reporter pointed out that Ruth's $80,000 annual salary would exceed President Herbert Hoover's salary by $10,000. "I know," Ruth said. "But I had a better year than Hoover."

When it comes to opening games and presidents, the record-holder is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR threw out the first pitch in 8 opening day games. "FDR was a true baseball fan," Marmer said. "It was said that he enjoyed going to a ball game as much as a kid on Christmas morning." In 1937, Roosevelt became the first president to throw out the first pitch at an All-Star game. During World War II, Roosevelt signed his "green light letter" which allowed the major leagues to continue operating to provide a diversion from the war.

President Harry Truman attended 16 home games for the Washington franchise. He also had the distinction of being America's first ambidextrous president, throwing out some first pitches right-handed and some left-handed.

Truman's successor Dwight Eisenhower once showed a preference for golf over baseball. He  planned on missing opening day to be the first president to attend the Master's Golf tournament. However, opening day was rained out and the president made it back to D.C. to perform his ceremonial duties. Eisenhower was the only American president to play baseball professionally. He played for a short time in the Kansas League under an assumed last name before he entered West Point.

President John Kennedy became the first president to preside over the dedication of a new baseball stadium with the 1962 ceremonies heralding the opening of DC Stadium. That stadium was renamed RFK Stadium in 1968 to memorialize Kennedy's younger brother Robert, who was assassinated that year while running for the office his brother had held until his own assassination in 1963.

Kennedy's successor Lyndon Baines Johnson missed throwing out the opening pitch for the 1968 baseball season. The usual festive atmosphere of opening day that year was darkened by the assassination of Martin Luther King just days before the scheduled season start. LBJ was just one of the 20,000 ticket holders who didn't make opening day that year in riot-damaged DC, which was then under guard of federal troops.

President Richard Nixon, before he was forced to resign his post in disgrace by the Watergate scandal, was one of America's most knowledgeable presidents about professional sports. For their part, sports leaders respected Nixon as a sports enthusiast. In 1962, after he lost a bid to become Governor of California, the owners of baseball's professional teams asked him to become the Commissioner of Baseball. Nixon refused. "But don't tell (my wife) Pat," Marmer said Nixon added. "She'll kill me for turning you down"

President Gerald Ford, a former University of Michigan football star who is widely believed to be the best athlete to ever hold the presidency, was in attendance on opening day in Cincinnati when Atlanta Braves star Hank Aaron hit his 714th home run to tie Babe Ruth's record that he had held for 40 years.

The string of opening day appearances by a president was broken by Ford's successor Jimmy Carter despite the fact that he often pitched competitive softball on the White House lawn. He never threw out an opening day pitch or attended a professional baseball game during the 4 years of his presidency.

Ronald Reagan had several connections to the game. He was the only president to ever broadcast telegraphic recreations of professional baseball games, which he did after college until he took off for Hollywood in 1937. In one of his film roles there, Reagan portrayed baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. Thus, Alexander became the only professional baseball player to ever be named after a president and have an actor who was to become president play him in a movie. Reagan also became the first president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch from the pitcher's mound.

The only president to ever play in the college World Series was Reagan's successor George H. G. Bush, who was the first baseman and captain on his Yale University baseball team. "I'm sure that he was the only president who kept his first baseman's glove in his White House desk," Marmer said.

Bush's son George W. Bush became only the second son of a president to preside in the Oval office. (The first was John Quincy Adams, the son of America's second president John Adams). "When he was young, he dreamed of following in the footsteps of Willie Mays," Marmer said. But instead of starring in center field, the younger Bush became president of the Texas Rangers professional baseball team prior to winning election to the nation's highest office. Bush also starred in one of the most powerful moments in the long history between presidents and baseball, when he threw out the first pitch in New York for a World Series that came just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

President Obama keeps the tradition alive
For his part, current President Barack Obama has kept the baseball tradition alive, although his first sports love is basketball. "He makes no secret about it. He's a Chicago White Sox fan," Marmer said.

Ironically, despite all the baseball in their duties, no sitting president has ever visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. "Both Clinton and Bush have been there, but not while they were president," Marmer said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Following his talk, Marmer held a quiz about baseball opening days and records. And I was one of 3 winners. I won by answering the question: who was the only pitcher in baseball history to throw back-to-back no-hitters? The answer: Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds. And my prize? A baseball containing the pictures of the presidents and 25 replicas of their signatures. See, I knew  those baseball cards and old issues of the Sporting News would come in handy one day.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Joan Osborne R&B's the Birchmere

The pattern was established early. Joan Osborne and her incredibly tight 4-piece band had just finished their 1st number, "Qualified," from Osborne's new CD of soul and blues covers Bring It on Home. As soon as the enthusiastic applause from The Birchmere crowd died down, a lone, loud male voice called out "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."

It was clear from the outset of the show that Osborne was touring to showcase her new CD. She followed up the opening number with 4 consecutive songs from that collection including the rollicking "I Don't Need No Doctor" and the bombastic boogie "Shake Your Hips."

But it was equally apparent that at least one vocal fan also wanted some of her older, popular material, specifically " ... Brokenhearted," Osborne's phenomenal version of the Jimmy Ruffin song which served as a centerpiece for Standing in the Shadows of Love, the documentary of Motown's legendary musicians collectively known as The Funk Brothers. After most of the new songs, the insistent fan continued to plead "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted"
Finally, about 3/4 of the way into the 90-minute show, Osborne acknowledged the requester. "I'm  keeping count up here," she said, smiling as she sipped from a large tea mug to smooth her throat.

Osborne's situation is a constant for all performers. How do you keep yourself and your fans happy? You want to play new material to keep your performances vibrant and different. Some fans look forward to this. Many, however, have certain favorites they believe they simply must hear. For the early part of her spring tour at least, it appears that Osborne is going for the new. Prior to the encore portion of the set, she only played 2 of her older songs "Spider Web" and "St. Teresa," both from her best-selling 1995 album Relish. In addition to tunes off the new CD, she also performed 2 as-yet unreleased numbers.

For me, the highlight of the show came at about the midway point. "This is a song I used to play all the time in small clubs and venues when I was first starting out. But then I kind of got away from it. It's a song by Van Morrison," Osborne said, as her long-time keyboard  accompanist Keith Cotton broke into the opening notes of "Tupelo Honey." For about 1/2 the song it was just Osborne and Cotton, but eventually they were rejoined by lead guitar, bass, and drums, each instrument entering seamlessly. 

But if the set was all about new stage performances, the encore was a nod to the past. "Here's one you might know," Osborne said before the band struck the opening of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" The final song was a stripped -down, haunting rendition of Osborne's huge 90s hit (and one of my favorite songs of all-time) "What If God Was One of Us" performed with only Cotton's chords and Osborne's sultry voice. Now I'm not sure about God, but with her outstanding performance tonight, I'm sure glad Joan Osborne is still one of us.
Above is a YouTube video of Cotton and Osborne performing "What If God Was One of Us" last year at The Birchmere. If you are getting this post by email and want to view the video, just go to The Prices Do DC blog website at www.thepriceswrite-dlp.blogspot.com

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Tonight's Birchmere show marked the 5th time I have seen Joan Osborne in concert. And each show has been remarkably different. I first saw Osborne in the mid 90's when Relish had just been released and "What If God Was One of Us" was beginning to break out. Next up, was her tour as part of The Funk Brothers review. That was followed by her stint as a vocalist for The Dead. Two years ago, she performed a laid-back show of soul and original hits at the Grand Opera  House in Wilmington, Delaware. And then tonight there was the sexy, ballsy blues performance. So which Osborne version was the best? I know it sounds like a cop-out, but I can't decide. They were all great in their own way, leaving me only to say viva le difference and that I can't wait for Joan Osborne 6.0.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ah, Wilderness

Leads William Riley and June Schreiner
One of the things about being a writer is that you get to reexamine, re-imagine, revise, and rewrite your own personal story if you choose to do so. Take playwright Eugene O'Neill, whose early life was certainly far from idyllic. Born in a Broadway hotel, he spent most of his formative years on the road and in boarding schools. His father was a self-involved actor who struggled with alcohol. His mother became a morphine addict, never fully recovering from the death of her second son. And his only brother Jamie, whom he revered, lost his own battles with alcohol, despondency, and fast living.

But in 1932, O'Neill wrote Ah, Wilderness!, an idealized look at family life as it could have been, and indeed was for some. The subtitle for the play strongly hints at O'Neill's intention. That subtitle reads: A Nostalgic Comedy of the Ancient Days When Youth Was Young, and Right Was Right, and Life Was a Wicked Opportunity.

Tonight, we got to see a performance of Ah, Wilderness! at the Arena Stage. A strong cast allowed the basic humanity of the play to shine through. Judging from the laughter in the audience, the struggle between the young and their parents is as pertinent today as it was in the 1930s. But, of course, today instead of socialism, spooning and Shaw, we have tattoos, and violent video games, and rap. All shocking in their time, but all part of the growing process..

In a letter to his own son in 1933, O'Neill outlined what he hoped to accomplish with his latest play:

Ah! Wilderness is more the capture of a mood, an evocation (of) the period in which my middle teens were spent - a memory of the time of my youth - not of my youth but of the youth in which my generation spent youth ... It is a comedy ... not satiric ... and not deliberately spoofing at the period ... but laughing at its absurdities while at the same time appreciating and emphasizing its lost spiritual & ethical values.

Well, Mr. O'Neill, for about 2-and-a-half hours tonight a stellar cast let those lost spiritual and ethical values live again, if only for a few brief moments on stage. If you had seen their performance, I think you would have been pleased. I know I was.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
This was the 1st time we viewed a play at the Arena Stage here. But you can bet it won't be the last. Already, we have purchased tickets for another O'Neill drama, his dark masterpiece A Long Day's Journey into Night. And tonight we discovered 4 more plays we want to attend here as part of the company's upcoming 2012-2013 season. Those plays are:
  • One Night with Janis Joplin (Sept. 28 to Nov. 4)
  • Pullman Porter Blues (Nov. 23 to Jan. 6)
  • Metamorphoses (Feb. 8 to March 17)
  • The Mountain Top (March 29 to May 12


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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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