To get into heaven, don't snap for a seven Live clean, don't have no fault Oh, I take the gospel, whenever it's possible But with a grain of salt
—"It Ain't Necessarily So," from Porgy & Bess by George and Ira Gershwin
Edward Kennedy Ellington celebrated his 70th birthday at the White House, where he received the first Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by the newly inaugurated chief resident. Although Duke Ellington was a widely celebrated bandleader, and already recognized as among the greatest composers in American history, when the original Medal of Freedom was conceived by Harry Truman in 1945 the intention had been that certain U.S. cabinet secretaries could use it for recognizing outstanding civilian contribution to the war effort. It wouldn't be until 1963 that the scope of the award expanded.
But Harry S. Truman was indeed a big music fan, and later invited Ellington to the White House. During his visit on September 29th, 1950, Duke gave the president a manuscript copy of the score to his first major extended composition, Harlem, which had recently been commissioned by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Per the syllabus for the New York Philharmonic's Take Note educational program, on that occasion Ellington wrote to the President that the proceeds of Harlem would be used 'to help fight for your civil rights program — to stamp out segregation, discrimination, bigotry, and a variety of other intolerances in our own American society.'" A year and a half after becoming president when Franklin Roosevelt died in office, Truman, a Missouri-born member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had formed the President's Committee on Civil Rights, the most pro-active civil rights step yet taken by a modern president. Later, on July 26, 1948, further risking his already unlikely chance of being re-elected in the upcoming presidential election, he had signed Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the federal work force and in the armed forces, thus initiating the beginning of desegregation. Edward Kennedy Ellington and Harry Truman were mutual fans.
To the amazement of many, so were he and Richard M. Nixon. On April 29th, 1969, the 100th day of Nixon's first term in office, Ellington received acknowledgement at last for his unparalleled activities as a worldwide musical ambassador. Similar in some ways to Bing Crosby's movie musicals that contributed so greatly to helping reinvigorate a postwar nation, his performances around the globe with the Duke Ellington Orchestra had helped re-establish America as the leading exporter of the music this world can never get enough of. His sophisticated jazz, swinging sense of style and profound humanity got people from Fargo to Moscow up on their feet and dancing.
In The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) Penny M. Von Eschen reveals that two years later, Duke Ellington's 26-city tour of the USSR in Sept./Oct. 1971 was accorded legendary status at the U.S. State Department, for its significant role in helping to thaw relations between the two Cold War-embattled nations. The political context," she writes, was critical: Ellington's trip followed the announcement of Nixon's impending visit to the Soviet Union." The Russian jazz fans had seen visits from Benny Goodman in 1962 and Earl Hines in 1966, but no one since. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's misguided economic policies had made food increasingly difficult to come by, but they were momentarily forgiven by the 126,000 ecstatic jazz fans who paid as much as $50 ($283 in today's dollars) for a scalped ticket to see the legendary jazz icon and his orchestra. For some Soviet fans it was [as] if modernity itself had walked in the door with Ellington," writes Von Eschen, who then quotes Ellington's close friend and noted jazz critic (but no fan of Nixon's), Leonard Feather, who characterized the 1971 tour as the greatest coup in the history of musical diplomacy."
It would be easy to look at an award like the Presidential Medal of Freedom (thus renamed during John F. Kennedy's term in office) and try to read political cronyism or pandering into a particular president's choices, but research doesn't support the argument. It may be that George H.W. Bush's award to Douglas Dillon in 1989, or Bill Clinton's to Morris Udall in 1996, were political thank-you notes, not to mention a few awards over the years that may have been the thank-you-in-advance notes sometimes popular in election years. But in looking at a list of the musicians who have received this country's highest civilian honor, the choices have largely indicated a president's personal tastes. In re-establishing the award just before his untimely death, John F. Kennedy had selected Pablo Casals, Rudolf Serkin and Marian Anderson. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, he chose (among others) Pearl Bailey, Eubie Blake, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Kate Smith to receive it. It's hard to argue with giving any of those people a medal, no matter what your political allegiances are.
This last May 29th, the president's medal was given to Bob Dylan, another honoree I wouldn't argue with. Many people remember that he is associated with the civil rights movement, including a performance as part of the historic Great March on Washington on August 28, 1963, at which Martin Luther King delivered his stirring I Have A Dream" speech. What many people do not know is that later that same year, chafing at being pigeon-holed, he had occasion to say a few unexpected words about music and political protest. On his receiving the Tom Paine Award that December 13th at the Emergency Civil Liberties Union's annual Bill of Rights dinner, he sensed that his recent celebrity was being exploited for something he didn't entirely agree with. He received the award, but said he was accepting it on behalf of Philip Luce, an American who had led a group to Cuba in protest of the U.S. embargo against that country. Then he startled the crowd by saying, There's no black and white, left and right, to me anymore. There's only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics." His comments shouldn't have come as a shock to anyone familiar with his music, but the crowd responded by booing him. Later, in Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary film about Dylan, No Direction Home, the songwriter said: I was up close when King was giving that speech. To this day it still affects me in a profound way." But as for his use as a movement figurehead, he commented, You know, they were trying to build me up as a topical songwriter. I was never a topical songwriter to begin with. For whatever reasons they were doing it ... reasons, not really ... that didn't really apply to me."
The Political Season
Musical taste is based on freedom of choice. Whether you are the President of the United States or President of the Professional Musicians Local 47 in Los Angeles, you get to decide what music is pleasing to you based strictly on your own preferences. Performing it or listening to it, you get to decide for yourself what sounds good to your ears. It's personal. You can like whatever sort of music you wish, and it should be easy to allow others to like whatever they like, and make their own choices. Your choices and theirs can be as different as can be, exist side by side, without ever interfering with each other.
Not so with politics. The concept of the word politics, which derives from the Greek politikos, means of, for or relating to citizens." In the arduous business of governing thee and me, and the navigation of that murky swamp known as public policy, it seems the basic urge to collaborate with the rest of humankind is so great that eventually one becomes involved in managing other people's lives—where possible, getting them to adhere to one's own beliefs and ideals, and where it's not, at least preventing them from interfering with one's own. As the citizenry grows and mistakes are made, the bad decisions and their consequences are regretted, rationalized, and explained away; or they run afoul of another basic urge, the disastrously self-defeating desire to abdicate one's responsibilities and obligations to someone else.
In a civilized" society that isn't ready to perish, nearly all aspects of daily existence that one finds difficult to confront and deal with are abandoned in favor of letting someone else take care of them. If acted on soon enough, these abandoned areas can eventually be organized, and become known collectively as government. This includes an ever-growing list of duties, everything from maintaining our national security and defense to putting out our fires, inspecting the purity of our food, delivering the mail and teaching our children to read. It goes from there. But the more of our lives we relinquish to others, the less control we have over the outcome. Have you ever paid someone to do a something for you that you could have done better and more efficiently yourself? Of course you have.
Complaint and argument eventually take the place of public discourse, followed by demands for solutions to the problems we have abandoned and placed on our government—that growing entity composed of all the people we have hired with our tax dollars to take over our original responsibilities.
Soon it becomes the responsibility" of every citizen, regardless of education—or lack of it—to have opinions and complain about how the governing should be done. What is a government for, if not for complaining and telling them how to do it? They're not called public servants for nothing, right?
Democratic forms of government are eventually reduced to a large bureaucracy of governing bodies, with the voting citizens functioning only to decide who will be allowed to represent us in controlling everything we have lost control of. And as the various governing bodies grow, we develop the additional problem of how to maintain some control over all of the people who govern them, those people we expect to be in control of all the people who are now managing those aspects of daily life for us.
As the size of this sea of governors and governing bodies swells, our ultimate political ambitions in a democracy appear to deteriorate finally into a desire to acquire and maintain at least what Alexis de Tocqueville called a tyranny of the majority." Our political affiliations become an accumulation of those requisite associations formed not out of any natural affinity for the people involved, but out of a desire for acquiring the power of numbers, the power of gathering hordes of like-minded people who agree with us and will join forces with us, that we might gain control of all the people who do not agree with us. Politics makes strange bedfellows.
We've been reminded often of this dismaying fact of life since Shakespeare first published its preamble in 1623, as a line for Trinculo to speak in The Tempest, Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Over two centuries later the dark-and-stormy Lord Bulwer-Lytton's thoroughly modern comment in his 1849 novel, The Caxtons, was that poverty has strange bedfellows." However, it was Mark Twain's friend, writer and editor, Charles Dudley Warner, who finally wrote the sobering phrase that we all now quote: Politics makes strange bedfellows."
But note that neither the Bard, the Lord, nor the Hartford Courant Editor (whose other famous line, Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," has also been famously mis-attributed to his friend Twain for well over a hundred years) ever uses the word enemy" to describe one of these associations. That's because a bedfellow, no matter how antagonistic or offensive one otherwise finds him, is in fact a friend in at least one important respect, maybe more. Dictionary.com says a bedfellow is an associate or collaborator, especially one who forms a temporary alliance for reasons of expediency." The online Macmillan dictionary says such a person is someone or something that is connected with another person or thing in some way, often unexpectedly." Characterized by enlightened (or not) self-interest, hard to explain later, strange and uneasy though these coyote-ugly liaisons may be, they are alliances. A bedfellow is still someone you are in bed with. And as much as you might wish it weren't so, the relationship usually lasts longer than one night. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of... We are in the political season, as it is called in these election years.
Hatfields & McCoys
Not coincidentally, at 9:00 p.m. on this last Memorial Day, aka Opening Day Eve of said political season, the History Channel aired its first-ever scripted drama, experiencing great success with 13.9 million viewers across most of the demographic spectrum, and over the ensuing two nights set the record for the most-watched broadcast on advertising-supported cable television (exclusive of sports), ever.
Though not overtly about politics, the timing of the Hatfields & McCoys series was unmistakable, and held the possibility of an intelligent, allegorical look at all the basest and most detestable aspects of civilized" existence, including the currently base, detestable state of American politics. Once past some of the usual fiddle-and-banjo Dixie clichés about hillbillies and moonshine, the camera told the story, and an entirely new kind of drama unfolded. The History Channel's insistence on factual correctness provided a level of detailed accuracy rarely seen in historical fiction, or even in much historical documentary.
This is an informed, ambitious work designed to do far more than entertain. The story could well have been entitled The American Civil War, Part II," inasmuch as it is the story of how a psychotic ex-Confederate initiated and sought to perpetuate a blood feud by indiscriminately killing a homeward-bound Union soldier. As familiar as that beginning might sound, however, Hatfields & McCoys soon departs the simplistic civics-lesson platitudes we are accustomed to accepting as the story of the postbellum South.
The warring hill folk align mostly according to family ties. These may be strange families with stranger bedfellows, but as we get to know them, they begin to look uncomfortably familiar. Eschewing sweeping generalities and corny stereotypes, the film's good writing, direction and acting from a cast headed by Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Mare Winningham and Tom Berenger, results in a real story about real people whose lives have been mocked and sneered at for decades. If it has a shortcoming it's that, as Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara said in her review, when faced with a choice between historic detail and story, Hatfields & McCoys errs on the side of detail."
Such a problem.
The difficulty of getting the details right hasn't traditionally been a reason for television producers to lose sleep—in fact, the tradition has been to dismiss such concern for facts as silly, justifying their less-than-fact-based product by saying they are just giving the customers what they want." How nice it is to see that an accurately told, meaningful story is what the customers want.
That doesn't mean Hatfields & McCoys is an easy film to watch. We are all inured by now to visual images of point-blank gunshots and exploding arteries, but the bleak devastation and economic privation of the Reconstruction South still take some getting used to. It will be a long time before the psychic wounds heal well enough that this war, the brother-against-brother battle that cost more American lives than all subsequent wars combined, will be understood. It will be longer still before Americans consider that, just as much as racial animosity and cultural dissonance, this civil war was the result of political machinations and misguided governance north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as south of it, on Virginia's Potomac River as well as the Tug Fork of West Virginia's Big Sandy River.
True, if you feel the need to confirm any personal beliefs or prejudices about a society polarized between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, religious and secularist, educated and ignorant, you'll find some of it here. But fortunately for you, if you are looking for insight into the human condition, you'll find much more of that.
When William Anderson Devil Anse" Hatfield finally realized that he could put an end to all of the insanity while there were still a few of his family among the living, he did so—partly because he knew that it takes two to tango, and he was tired of the dance, i.e., if he could allow his counterpart, Randolph McCoy, to proceed unobstructed with whatever he thought would even the score, and not contest it, the feud would die; and partly because something had changed in Hatfield's mind. The feud's driving animus—embodied symbolically and factually in his drunken, blood-crazed uncle Jim Vance, whose senseless original murder of Union partisan Asa McCoy had started it all, and whose endless provocations were only meant to stoke the raging fire of insanity and keep it burning—was blissfully dead at last, at the hand of McCoy ally Bad" Frank Phillips, an ex-Pinkerton gunman. Twenty-five years after Vance had started it, after the eventual involvement of two different state governments, an 1888 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed Ellison Cottontop" Mounts and seven others who had been taken from West Virginia to Kentucky without proper extradition for their part in murdering Alafair McCoy, to be tried. All were imprisoned for life except Mounts, who was hanged at 12:37 p.m. on February 19, 1890.
That ended it for the Hatfield and McCoy families, just as Devil Anse" Hatfield had anticipated, although the two families' descendants did hold a joint family reunion one hundred ten years later on June 10th, 2000, to symbolically put an end to it for all time. That should have ended if for the rest of us, too. But it didn't.
To this day, the ingrained, nearly Jungian symbology of North vs. South, and its tormented social model of the Hatfields and McCoys, is kept as luridly alive as ever in our national dialogue, as defined and dictated by our daily newscasts and print media. Instead of North vs. South or Hatfields vs. McCoys, it is The Rich vs. The Poor; The Insured vs. The Uninsured; Socialists vs. Capitalists; Patriots vs. Apologists; Government Employee Unions vs. Union-Busting Governors; Republicans vs. Democrats; Occupy Wall Street vs. the Tea Party; ad nauseam.
AMERICA DIVIDED!," a grim-faced news anchor intones sternly each day (no doubt advised to do so by his producers) while a solemn black-and-white graphic of the same message appears at the bottom of the screen. But who is dividing it?
The people who profit from the division, of course. People like the news anchor and his employers. Such individuals want you to believe a cancerous political division is threatening to destroy us all. They encourage you to stay informed," i.e., continue listening to them day after day, finding guidance in their tidal flow of information and counsel, hoping to learn what to do next in working your way through the confusions of conducting your life.
So that we may mend the division? Not exactly.
Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews use their electronic bully pulpits to shout, badger and scream at you, night after night, lecturing you unceasingly about how we are a politically and culturally polarized nation. Worse yet, their other message is that instead of mending the divide, we should each dig in our heels and battle the half of the American population who disagree with our personal political beliefs—after all, there are only two sides, right? The battle lines have been drawn, and you're either fer us or agin us," as the Hatfields and McCoys would say.
Every day our elected representatives go to work on Capitol Hill and endeavor to guide the ship of state. But every night they are undermined by commentary accompanying sound bytes and video clips edited with scientific precision to create the impression that compromise, the very essence of the political process, is impossible—and since none of them can agree on anything, that the problems are unsolvable. Have a nice day.
If people didn't spend much time watching television, you might dismiss this concern. But they do. And contrary to popular wisdom, the older people get, the more they watch. According to the Nielson Company, teenagers between the ages of 12-17 watch the least television of any age group, averaging a mere 23 hrs. 41 min. per week. Once people reach voting age, the average climbs... and climbs, until it peaks at an average of 47 hrs. 33 min. for the 65+ age group.
Coincidentally, voter turnout percentage is highest for that same demographic. Per the most recent census information, a consistent 70% of people between 65 and 75 voted in the 2000 and 2004 elections, by far the highest percentage of any age group. No more than 45% of voters between 18 and 29 ever show up. Taken at face value, these particular statistics (from Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin who teaches polling analysis, and writes a fascinating blog called PollsAndVotes.com), and the ones from Nielson, show that at the very least, a correlation between age and both voting and television-watching. Further digging could be done in related areas, like whether there is a connection between watching television news and voter participation and/or voting tendencies. Franklin may have already analyzed this (I just discovered his website). But for now, let's just look at these few facts.
I won't take it beyond one single point. Media influence on the electorate? Are you kidding? When the age group that watches the most television is the same age group with the greatest likelihood of voting, the impact of television news is pretty significant.
So when these pundits and media vultures who are accepted as your eyes and ears start preaching that there is an enormous, unnegotiable chasm separating you from half of the people in the country (or more, if one accepts the thumb-in-the-eye, incompatible-with-everyone model), where does that leave you?
Sitting in your chair, waiting for the next bulletin. Just as it was intended to be.
So you need to ask yourself if you really believe that Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow know so much more about the complexities of the nation's governance, and its impact on our lives, that they should be listened to so closely. Is Rush Limbaugh really privy to the The Truth? Does Brian Williams really learn things at those Beltway cocktail parties that give him Big Insights you could never expect to attain yourself? Are Dennis Miller's Bristol Palin jokes any worse or better than Bill Maher's? Is David Gregory's opinion really any more valuable than your Starbucks barrista's?
I'm not suggesting that everyone in the news media is bad, or that you should cut yourself off from all outside information sources and influences. The people I've mentioned have occasional moments of clarity. But you could live quite well without them, and maybe lead a happier life. Because, while your cable provider or internet provider can supply you with opinions from the entire gamut of political views, facts are in short supply, no matter which of them you listen to. No matter which sources of information you use, all are influenced in their reporting by individual viewpoints, prejudices and opinions. Quite aside from that, each network boss' or newspaper publisher's agenda can and does trump any one of their own views, and dictate what any one of them says. If that talking head you are watching wishes to be on the air tomorrow and collect a check at the end of the week, he or she has not only gotten the memo, they've got it framed. They are doing most of what they do for money and power, selling you viewpoints like barkers at a carnival.
Finding the Off Switch
Sorting the wheat from the chaff can be tedious, sometimes impossible work. But facts are unquestionably what you need. It's a big world, and it's getting bigger. The planet's many cultures, the multiplicity of concerns and interactions, and the permutating implications for all of us, have reached daunting proportions. But no matter how big it all gets, no matter how tempting it would be to have an oracle or seer you could rely on for filtering and interpreting it, you will never be able to trust anything as much as what you can see with your own eyes.
In fact, there is great danger in drawing conclusions and making decisions based on anything but what you have observed for yourself. That means you are in for a lot of work. The 1976 movie Network won four Academy Awards for telling a truth so terrible that it made people laugh, a truth that is even truer and more terrible in the era of cable news than it was then. It is the story of network news anchor Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings." Paddy Chayevsky's acidly satiric screenplay and Peter Finch's brilliant acting (as well as that of William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight, et al) brought the corruption of the Information Age into disturbingly sharp focus.
Finch's Howard Beale, after discovering he's going to be sacked in two weeks because of sagging ratings, decides to literally go out with a bang. An alcoholic whose life is already in shambles, Beale unravels and announces on the air that the following Tuesday he will kill himself during a live broadcast. In the intervening days he begins ranting dramatically, detailing his views on the dissolution of our culture at the hands of his employer, the fictional UBS television network, its parent corporation CCA, and the Saudi conglomerate which is buying CCA. His rants have a unmistakable bell-like ring of truth. As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean no one is after you.
This farcical Shakespearean tragedy has several unhappy endings, and continues to have them on both sides of the blurred and often-moved line between fact and fiction. Within a few weeks of the film's release, Finch was dead of a heart attack at age 60, and four years later Paddy Chayevsky, dead of cancer at age 58. It wasn't for lousy ratings that they had died, though, but for the sins that would be committed in television news for all the decades to come. Any flicker of truth that has managed to find a way into the information stream pouring from this proverbial tube/screen has been used to sell us layer after layer of distortions, confusions, and lies.
The greatest of these lies is that we are a divided people who can't talk to each other. True, it's difficult to assign all the blame for forwarding this fiction to the electronic news media. The print boys do their fair share, too. There are people in advertising agencies and PR firms who will do anything for a buck, so wrapping a destructive communication in a pretty package is fine with them. And of course, there is that politician who has no qualms about employing any and all of these people and their skills to gain ascendancy. Divide and conquer is the oldest strategy in history. To spare your enemies and use these heinous tactics on your fellows is the filthiest crime there is.
Why? Because we need each other, and we know it. In hard times, we need each other even more, and we know it. We need to pull together. Nearly everyone understands this quite well.
But it's obvious that not everyone accepts the idea, because when times are this hard, someone is making it hard. When the majority of us 314 million Americans are working harder than ever, spending more wisely and focusing our energies more discerningly than we have in three generations, and the situation still refuses to improve, something is deadly wrong. Someone—some ones of us—are pushing down even harder than the majority of us are pushing upward. How hard are these few psychos working to stop the thing from getting anywhere? Harder than the combined efforts of all the rest of us to get it working again. That's a lot of push-down. But it's not a class or race or political party or philosophy or type or income bracket or demographic category that is pushing down. It is a person who tells you the solution as a society is to engage in name-calling, subterfuge and division. You vs. All of Them is the battle cry of the insane.
Sadly, in these difficult, contentious times, a person promulgating the concept of a politically divided America is accepted more easily than during the good times. People are looking for answers even more earnestly than ever. The purveyors of chaos and preachers of doom know this, depend on it in fact, because without your acceptance of their simplistic black-and-white dichotomies that pit one generalized philosophy or position or group against another—You against the Other—they'd have no power of persuasion over you, and no solution" to sell you.
People harbor grudges, of course. Some carry on feuds, vendettas fueled by personal hurts and wrongs, real or imagined. No sane person would dispute that there are indeed a few real enemies in the world, evil beings who demonstrably seek the destruction of all things good and well intended.
Cats and Dogs Sleep Together
But it isn't the Liberals and Conservatives. They are not natural enemies any more than are union workers and non-union workers, small businesses and big corporations, Gentiles and Jews, or blacks and whites. I don't believe I've ever asked someone how they voted in an election, or whether they were Republican or Democrat. I've never had a single friend who condemned or deserted me because of my political philosophy, religious beliefs or work affiliation, let alone sought my destruction for it. I can count the number of times in my life that I've been asked by anyone (other than a pollster or hospital administrator) to place myself in one of these artificial societal categories—to indicate whether I am Republican or Democrat, gay or straight, Christian or Jew, pro-life or pro-choice, etc.—on the fingers of one hand. More to the point, in each of these cases the inquiry was a result of the inquiring person's imperceptiveness or unwillingness to have a real conversation. On the other hand, if you cloister yourself and never associate with anyone outside a small, unchanging circle of like-minded priests and priestesses devoted to your own orthodox ideology, the noise that glass seal on the fire alarm makes when you break it will be nothing compared to the alarm.
In 1972, just weeks after one of the few actual landslide presidential elections in American history (Republican candidate Richard Nixon received 520 electoral votes, his Democrat opponent George McGovern got 17, and Libertarian John Hospers, 1) Pauline Kael, the iconic film critic for the New Yorker magazine, is famously quoted as saying she couldn't believe Nixon had won, because no one she knew had voted for him—apparently due to the infrequency of her trips away from Manhattan into any other part of New York, whose voters had helped elect Nixon. Whether it was her line or someone else's, the more revealing quote (according to Israel Shenker's New York Times article of December 28, 1972, covering the lecture she gave at the Modern Language Association) quoted Kael as saying, I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."
Brilliant writer and wit though she was, she really did need to get out more. Just like Nixon, who was pacing around the West Wing a couple hundred miles south of her, as he considered who among his detractors and pursuers needed to be assigned to his famous enemies list, she seems to have been living her life in a small, closed-in world that had far more in common with Nixon's than the one her many devoted readers lived in. While the esteemed pioneer of film criticism huddled in her darkened movie theater, hypersensitively detecting the presence of a Republican voter in the audience, Nixon roamed the dim hallways of the White House confiding his growing paranoia to the presidential portraits on the walls. Both were seeing ghosts. Neither seemed to know any real flesh-and-blood people.
Think of the world problems that Richard Nixon and Pauline Kael might have solved by having tea together in the Rose Garden one June afternoon. Just to chat. Not for bitter arguments or venomous debates, but just for a chance to talk to someone outside their closely controlled inner circle of sycophants and power brokers, someone who could disagree with them, without being disagreeable. They might have come out of their oddly calcified shells a little. Like two agoraphobics, they could have taken just a few small steps outside, and sat down at an umbrella-covered table in the shadow of the big white Georgian house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I've inadvertently engaged in a handful of political arguments in my life, been witness to hundreds more, and all but two or three occasions have been an utter waste of time. Commiserating with a partisan who shares your views can feel good sometimes, help let off a little steam, but done excessively just entrenches one's position without much examination or evaluation. If it isn't too depressing a conversation, it may occasionally help establish some solidarity and get the person to vote—or to stop whining and register to vote—but it has little long-term value. The really intense discussions, the emotionally enflamed arguments, have either been in defense of a position, or were an attempt to persuade someone to change his or her mind, which is just as big a waste of time. The point of a real conversation between civilized people isn't to change anyone's mind, or to change your own—it's an opportunity to shut up and hear what someone else has to say. Someone with a different viewpoint than your own, someone who will let you walk a mile in their shoes. If there is any merit in someone else's views, anything of use to you, you'll recognize it—now, or later when you've had a chance to think about it. But you have to stop talking and let the other speak before you can hear it. Once you have digested the other person's viewpoint—uncensored, uninterrupted, uncontested—you often learn something.
So if Pauline had accepted Richard's invitation, he could have had her picked up in a nice limo and flown by Marine helicopter to the South Lawn, then regaled her with jasmine tea and biscuits served on White House china. He would likely have made the first overture by going on and on rapturously about his new favorite film, Patton. She would have gasped for air and said she thought it was a long, boring tableau of a story about a comic-book hero whose only reason to live was to wage war. He'd have said, I'm winding things down in Viet Nam, you know." She'd say, Sure you are. That's what you said last year." And he'd say, No, really, Henry's working on it." It would have taken a few minutes for her to make up her mind, but they'd have had a second cuppa, and he would have invited her to come back for tea again next month to screen a John Wayne picture over a big bowl of popcorn, freshly popped by the White House Executive Chef. She'd have responded with something brittle but not too insulting.
Pauline and Richard. I really miss those two. I sometimes got so angry reading her brilliant prose as she flayed my favorite directors, like Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, or actors, like Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston in Rancho Deluxe, whose performances were rendered with letter-perfect Montana sensibilities... or when she praised bad acting, like the strangely cast Slim Pickens, again in Rancho Deluxe, playing his role like he was from another planet in the same cracked voice he always used whenever he put on a Stetson. But I used to get even angrier at Richard Nixon—along with everyone else in the Woodstock generation—for all the usual reasons, for Viet Nam, for the Draft, for Kent State, for Watergate, for John Lennon's immigration blockade, but mostly for looking so frightened and sheepish when he finally resigned, because when he and everything he stood for finally flew away from the White House on August 9th, 1974, he took away the things I disagreed with and hated and thought about and cared about the most. Because in the end, shadowboxing is never as fun as landing a real punch. That's what sparring partners like Richard and Pauline are for. Each of you wears headgear. Nobody gets hurt.
My neighbor sometimes sticks a sign in his nice front lawn during the political season, but in the 18 years we've lived across the street from each other, we've never really discussed politics. The vicissitudes of our two versions of self-employment, or the cost of supporting his two collegiate kids in a collapsed national economy, yes. Sports, jazz, literature, yes. Politics, almost never. It doesn't come up in conversation. He's never asked me how I will vote (or have voted) in an election, or what my party affiliation is, and I've never asked him. We both have a pretty good idea of what the other's political views are, which are occasionally contrary to our own. But if he has something he wants to talk about, I just let him talk about it. If what he has to say has a political angle, that isn't what is important—what is important is that it concerns him. So I listen. He isn't a member of a class or category to me, he's a friend.
He told me a story about his college days that says more about his politics than any lawn sign. He says he and a friend made a pilgrimage to upstate New York to see a writer they both admired, one I also admire greatly, the novelist Frederick Exley. They found him in a local Watertown bar and had drinks with him—though they were probably out-quaffed two drinks to each one of theirs. Published in 1968 and subtitled A Fictional Memoir, Exley's A Fan's Notes is one of the most radical novels written in the 20th century. Likely begun when he was institutionalized in Harlem Valley State Hospital in Dover, New York, it is brilliantly written prose that combines self-deprecating hilarity with the chilling truths of self-discovery, warts, bunions, calluses, contusions and all. Though it bears a passing resemblance to Ken Kesey's great One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published a few years earlier, it bears a greater one to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Exley's novel dives so deep, and in such a distinctive and personal voice, that a reader cannot escape the knowledge of what it is to be obsessed—with football heroes, greatness, manic and maniacal creativity, the next sweet breath of life. The politics of locking up Frederick Exley in a madhouse and treating him like a prisoner of some spiritual war, bombarding this soul with electro-convulsive shock, goes beyond any humane version of politics into the deathly realm of enforced will. It is useful to be reminded often of why Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, defending himself against some ignorant bigots who opposed his election, that ...I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
I learn a lot by talking to my neighbor. The topic is rarely as important as the fact that we are talking and listening to each other. Displaying a little friendly common sense and genuine concern for another human being go beyond any political party or category of social interaction. It is simply friendship.
So my plan for the summer is to make some new friends, and encourage people I know to do the same. I want to meet and talk to and befriend Liberals, Conservatives, Libertarians, Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Union Members, Non-Union Members, Gays, Straights, Socialists, Capitalists, Lance Armstrong Fans, Lance Armstrong Detractors...
If I meet someone who has raised his daughter to be a good Liberal who's since turned out to be a damned Neo-Con—and who asks my advice—I will first of all tell him that I don't really believe in giving advice, because he knows much more about his own life than I ever will, and is better off consulting with himself. If he insists on asking me what I think, I'll tell him the same thing I would if he said he'd raised his daughter to be a good Conservative who then turned out to be a flaming Liberal. I'd say to talk to her, i.e., let her talk while you listen; don't interrupt her, challenge her, or in any way argue with her. Hear her out. No rebuttals. Thank her for her viewpoints and taking the time to talk. Then move on. If she wants your advice, she'll ask for it.
If I meet a woman who solicits my thoughts on a son she raised to be a good Christian, and he's turned out to be an apostate, an atheist covered in garish tattoos and metal studs, the advice will be the same. An uncle who wants his gay daughter to move out of the house, or a gay niece who wants to run away or move out of her father's house, the same advice. A mother who can't stand her liberal employee's politics, or a father who can't abide his boss' conservative politics, the same advice.
Most of all, I plan to try to take my own advice.
I also plan to take Howard Beale's advice and turn off my television more often, go for lots of walks and meet as many new neighbors as I can. I know quite a few of them, but I can't believe how many of them I've never met. Plus, a few people have moved away and new ones have moved in, and I want to meet them. In addition to that, I plan to listen to a bunch of Duke Ellington recordings I've not heard before, plus listen again to the all the ones I have. I want to check YouTube for videos of the Duke that have been posted since the last time I checked. I think I'll try giving Ken Burns' Jazz another chance. I plan to listen to as many new and different recordings as I can find, either ones I've never heard of, ones I've heard of and am curious about, or ones I discarded without giving a real chance. If I hear anything I really like, I plan to write about it and spread the word. Music has healing power. It brings people closer, soothes wounds, bridges divides.
The last thing I want to do is print out a copy of what Richard Nixon and Edward Kennedy Ellington said to each other unscripted (except for Nixon's citation) on stage that evening, when Duke received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and file it under just when you think you know somebody," then stick it up on the wall over my desk where I can see it every day:
For the first time during this administration, I have the honor of presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I think it is most appropriate that that medal be presented to Duke Ellington.
When we think of freedom, we think of many things. But Duke Ellington is one who has carried the message of freedom to all the nations of the world through music, through understanding, understanding that reaches over all national boundaries and over all the boundaries of prejudice and over all boundaries of language.
Because he has an unusual gift, a gift that he has shared with us, his own fellow citizens, and with the citizens of the world, we believe that this citation fits him particularly well. I will read it to you.
'The President of the United States of America awards this Presidential Medal of Freedom to Edward Kennedy Ellington. Edward Kennedy Ellington, pianist, composer, and orchestra leader, has long enhanced American music with his unique style, his intelligence, his impeccable taste. For more than 40 years he has helped to expand the frontiers of jazz, while at the same time retaining in his music the individuality and freedom of expression that are the soul of jazz. In the royalty of American music, no man swings more or stands higher than the Duke.'"
Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
This is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And the word 'freedom' is one, coincidentally, that we are using at the moment in our Sacred Concert.
And, of course, we speak of freedom of expression and we speak of freedom generally as being something very sweet and fat and things like that. In the end when we get down to the payoff, what we actually say is that we would like very much to mention the four major freedoms that my friend and writing-and-arranging composer, Billy Strayhorn, lived by and enjoyed.
That was freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear of possibly doing something that may help someone else more than it would him; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he is better than his brother."
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