Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Top Court Once Again Degrades Free Speech In The Service Of Buying Elections

Campaign spending has long been a slippery slope, and finding a balance between private and public interests and wealthy benefactors and nickel-dime contributors has been difficult. But the goal — trying to mitigate the impact of big bucks on election campaigns — has been a worthy one. And one that the Roberts Supreme Court has once again determined to be less worthy than allowing corporations and others with deep pockets to inordinately influence if not outright buy elections.

Coming on the heels of the Citizens United ruling in which a narrow (and of course conservative) majority of justices astonishingly conferred free speech rights on the Fortune 500′s finest when it came to unbridled campaign contributions, the same five justices this week struck down the Arizona Clean Elections Act, a 1998 ballot initiative that gave public money to candidates who agreed to limit their personal spending to $500, participate in at least one debate, and return unspent money.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts banged a by-now familiar drum, declaring that “Laws like Arizona’s matching funds provision that inhibit robust and wide-open political debate without sufficient justification cannot stand.”

For good measure, Justice Samuel Alito called the law “an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises” free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and none of the majority justices were swayed by Justice Elena Kagan’s view that “What the law does — all the law does — is fund more speech.”

Like Citizens United, the decision was an astonishing leap of legal logic when viewed in an historic context but not unexpected from a court that has been slavishly pro-big business while chipping away at the rights of mere individuals. Several other states have similar laws and you can expect them to also die painful deaths as the court marches toward its eventual goal, which is undermine any form of public financing that fetters big business and fat cats.

Two Hundred Seventeen Thousand Big Ones


Monday, June 27, 2011

When Did America Become Rome?

There has been a fascinating discussion going on over at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish concerning when America became Rome. That is, when did it forswear faith in its leaders and morality for greed and decadence.

The comparison, of course, is somewhat precious as well as a time-worn cliche, but it works well enough for the purposes of trying to figure out why we are going to hell in a hand basket.

The reasons that I enunciated in a post titled "Why The American Dream Is Dead" included the usual suspects: The abandonment of
our elderly and its poor, imprisoning millions of citizens for the most trivial of offenses, suffocating the middle class, an enormously powerful corporatocracy, government by paralysis, and ignorance of our own history. In another post titled "We Have The World's Finest Universities, Why Then Is America Such A Mess?", I agreed with 19th century journalist-historian Henry Adams that going to a university is "time wasted" and that self-education through life experiences, friendships and reading are ultimately more important. How else to explain the fact that America boasts the best higher education system anywhere but itself is so screwed up?

These, I suppose, are symptoms and the question is still begged of when American became Rome.

A favorite of Andrew's readers is when the American people, or at least a shockingly large number of them, accepted the notion that John McCain believed that Sarah Palin was qualified to be president should he be elected and something happened to him. It either did not register -- or matter -- that Palin was unqualified to be president because of an appalling ignorance, the Christianist bilge she spouted, and was a serial liar to boot, attributes that have not diminished one iota as she casts her beady eyes on the presidency three years on.

Alas, the McCain-Palin metaphor does not work. That nadir in our political history occurred in 2008, well after America's downward drift had accelerated. Besides which, no single event -- whether in Rome or in America -- can be attributed as turning points.

That so noted, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to name a single event my nominee would be when Bill Clinton swore on national television in 1998 that he "never had sex with that woman . . . Monica Lewinsky." Beyond setting off a fierce debate on whether blowjobs are in fact sex, Clinton in one fell swoop undermined the credibility of the presidency as not even Richard Nixon had been able. The Oval Office has never been the same.

* * * * *
So much for faith in leaders, and so on to morality. Which is to say greed trumping morality and its little brother ethics.

Like Rome, there have been merchants of greed in America since its founding. Think robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and more recently Ken Lay of Enron. But on the cusp of the new millennium the number of greed merchants and even institutions built on greed (think of investment banks) are staggering in number and, lest we need a reminder of their power to inflict enormous harm, their responsibility for the Bush Recession and its lingering effects.

But it took a recent New York Times op-ed piece by UCLA prof John McCumber to point me to where the decline and fall of Rome and the decline and fall of America probably intersected. This was the early Cold War years when the nation's best and brightest, including RAND Corporation analysts and other brainiacs, sought to understand the inner workings of American individualism with mathematical models first used to understand voting behavior as part of a government-funded effort to push back against the Communist and socialist collectivism then very much in vogue.

America, of course, once accorded unique rights and freedoms to individuals. Putting aside for a moment the fact that the Roberts Supreme Court is chipping away at those rights and freedoms while deciding that corporations are individuals who are to be accorded the rights and freedoms the Founders granted true individuals, McCumber says the overall conclusion of the studies into what makes individualism tick was that the choice inherent in individualism begets, in philosopher G.F.W. Hegel's terms, a clear and compelling imperative to increase ones wealth and power.

He notes that individualism comes in several flavors. There is the selfish individualism that Tocqueville attributed to post-Colonial America and the expressive individualism of touchy feelys like Emerson and Whitman, while after World War II a third variant emerged defining individualism as the making of choices so as to maximize one's preferences, a wave that was helped along by the novels of another Rand (Ayn).

Like kudzu weed, this so-called rational choice philosophy -- what McCumber refers to as "a point-for-point antidote to the collective dialectics of Marxism" -- gradually insinuated itself into university curricula and then out into the real world of business and government. A consequence was that morality and ethics took a hike, something that was oft noted when Wall Street drove the economy into the toilet in 2008 but of course was quickly forgotten.

* * * * *
Hey, I'm inherently suspicious of any explanation for the decline of America that is framed in absolutist terms and includes catchphrases like selfish individualism, but absent a more cogent explanation it works well enough for me.

This leaves a big question unanswered: Can America avoid Rome's fate? Absent a very close encounter with a meteor or doomsday preacher Harold Camping finally getting it right, it's hard to see how.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Naples, 1964)
By Bruno Barby/Magnum Pictures

Friday, June 24, 2011

F. Gilman Spencer (1925-2011)

The call came in May 1981. I had been out of the newspaper business for three years and was earning an honest living as a carpenter, but the economy was crapping out and the Philadelphia Daily News needed a night city editor.

Several days later Gladys Fisher, the editor-in-chief's secretary, led me into the office of F. Gilman Spencer III on the 7th floor of a building that the feisty tabloid Daily News shared with the button-down Inquirer. There behind a modern oak desk slouched an Ichabod Crane-like figure who seemed to be seven feet tall.

He was wearing an Oxford cloth shirt open at the collar, necktie slung over his right shoulder, with pin-striped suit pants and tassel loafers. His head and torso were cosseted by a leather swivel executive's chair bent back at such an angle that it seemed on the verge of tipping over, while his long legs and big feet covered much of the desk. A cigarette -- an unfiltered Camel, if I recall correctly, hung from his lips as he chatted on the phone and gestured me to sit in a captain's chair with a two-foot-high stack of newspapers on it.

Gil hired me on the spot and without formality. We spent the rest of the hour chatting about baseball and other stuff having little to do with newspapering, but mostly about horse racing and Rufus Primus, a thoroughbred nag he owned that had distinguished himself by finishing last in every race he ran before being mercifully put out to pasture.

Our discussion was interrupted twice by wastepaper can fires ignited because of Gil's incurable habit of emptying his ashtray -- the brass base of an old lamp, really -- with not quite extinguished butts. Each time there was a flare-up, Gladys, whom Gil kept on despite her advanced dotage, ran screaming into his office with a pitcher of water, which she would dump in the can.

* * * * *
I had a pretty good run of bosses at the newspapers where I worked over a 32-year career. I disliked only one, whom I concluded was afraid of me, or perhaps jealous of the long shadow that I cast in a newsroom where she was deeply unpopular.

But Gil was the best of my bosses, the ultimate hands-off boss, and a real piece of work, to boot.

I never heard him raise his voice or chew anyone out. He protected us from the publisher and the chicanery of the owners. If in his judgment you made a mistake you might not find out until months later when he would insinuate his view into a conversation over oysters at Old Original Bookbinders in so subtle a way that it wasn't until later that you'd realize your screw-up.

We were absolutely and utterly loyal to Gil and he to us. You just
wanted to do your best for him and we did, earning him a couple of Pulitzer Prizes on top of the one he had won himself years earlier for taking on a corrupt New Jersey political machine. We also won him a slew of other awards that earned the Daily News a reputation as a street-smart newspaper with brass balls and an intimate relationship with its readers that was the envy of other papers who never seemed to grasp that journalists are not god-like figures sent to Earth to chronicle the fate of the planet.

"He insisted that the paper not take itself too seriously but that it be a serious newspaper," is how a colleague put it.

When the Philadelphia Phillies won their first World Series in October 1981, Gil chain-smoked his way around the newsroom soliciting ideas for the all-important page one headline. None of them worked. Then the bell in the elevator lobby rang and the midnight-to-8 custodian ambled off with broom, mop and trashcan in hand. Gil raced over to the guy and asked him what
he thought the headline should be.

shouted the front page the next day.

Gil left the
Daily News in 1984 to run tabloids in New York City and Denver and earned a reputation for pulling struggling newspapers back from the brink. Ensconced as editor of the New York Daily News, he reveled in that city's tabloid wars, and when Long Island-based Newsday launched a New York edition, he famously dismissed the competitor as "a tabloid in a tutu."

Gil was a mentor who brought out the best in me as well as being a friend who helped teach me the quiet power of humility. He died yesterday morning at New York University Hospital after doctors were unable beat a persistent infection that had followed a bout of pneumonia

New York Daily News file photo

Cartoon du Jour

Joe Pett/Louisville (Ky.) Courier Journal

Brian Haw (1949-2011)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Wink

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Confession Of The Century?

Perhaps no one knows when O.J. Simpson hit bottom -- probably not even The Juice himself -- but it probably occurred sometime in the run-up to the 1995 slaying deaths of his wife and Ron Goldman, which I concluded as a journalist who covered the story nonstop from murders to acquittal were a consequence of a cocaine-fueled binge, a fit of jealousy, or most likely both.

In any event, it is sadly obvious that Simpson, whose good looks have faded at age 64, has been bottom crawling since then. I will leave it to greater minds to do the moral calculus on whether his October 2008 conviction of armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas 13 years to the day of his acquittal and a jail sentence of nine years somehow makes up for him getting off in 1995.

My own view is that life -- and death -- don't work that way, besides which Simpson seems incapable of being chastened no matter how hard he looked once looked for "the real killers" and how much time he does.

That reality helps lend the air of unreality to his apparent forthcoming confession to the murders to Ophrah Winfrey, an "event" that sadly diminishes the cred of the former daytime television queen. Oprah, whose new OWN cable network is struggling to attract viewers, has stoked the pre-confession hype by claiming that she had a dream that O.J. had confessed to her. Horse hockey. Oprah wants to use O.J. to help put her network on the ratings map -- but only on the condition that he promise to use the opportunity to say he killed Nicole and Goldman.

The confession, if it is indeed made, will come with a hefty qualifier:

O.J. claims that he killed his ex-wife and her friend in self defense, an allegation that is easily rebutted should the case -- heaven forbid -- be reopened because he has been widely quoted by intimates as having acknowledged that Nicole snubbed him when he interrupted a meal she was having at a restaurant with her children, went home, worked himself into a rage and then went to her condo in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. There is no evidence to his claim, nor was it alleged at the 1995 trial, that Nicole was wielding a large knife when she opened the front door.

At the 1995 proceeding, dubbed the Trial of the Century, nine of the 12 jurors were black, while reactions to the verdict broke down along racial lines with most African Americans unconvinced of Simpson's guilt and most whites convinced that the case against him was solid. My own view is that O.J. was as guilty as sin but justice was done in its own messy way because the prosecution did not prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

There was irony in O.J.'s contention that blacks were intentionally eliminated from the all-white Las Vegas jury.

This is because in a society that judges a person by the color of their skin, O.J. had something that few well-known black Americans can claim: He was so accomplished and at one time was so popular that, in advertising agency parlance, he was "race neutral." Ditto for Oprah.

That is to say that when most people looked at O.J. they saw not a black man who happened to have overcome a disadvantaged childhood in a broken home, but a handsome and gifted athlete who had found fame and fortune by parlaying outstanding college and professional football careers into a successful career off the field selling everything from men's footwear to rental cars, and later as a not-bad Hollywood actor. Who just happened to be black.

Two years after the murder trial, the Brown and Goldman families were awarded $33 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a civil trial that to O.J. seemed like a big joke.

He had bottom crawled to Florida after the murder trial where liberal bankruptcy laws shielded him from many of his creditors, and aside from an occasional dust-up on a golf course or nightclub, run-ins with cable companies for pirating their signals and other petty offenses, as well as his off again, on again "fictional" account of the murders, he was mercifully out of the news if not out of trouble until 2006 when Fox News announced that Judith Reagan had interviewed him for over four hours and had gotten him to confess on camera.

After harsh criticism, that bastion of cable news probity announced that it would not air the interview, while its parent company cancelled its deal to publish If I Did It, a Reagan-authored follow-up book. Like others before and after her, Reagan would regret insinuating herself into O.J.'s orbit. She was fired from one of the highest-profile jobs in publishing.

Then came the Las Vegas incident. And now the Confession of the Century.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Celebrating An Interstate State Of Mind

Kiko's House at White Sands, New Mexico, May 1976
While most of my friends -- the sane ones, anyway -- were buying houses and raising families in the 1970s, I was seeing the U.S.A. in a Volkswagen bus that I had customized to be a comfy home away from home.

I had globetrotted in previous years and realized after my return stateside that I knew more about the Far East than East L.A., so I embarked on a year-on, year-off, year-on exploration of the contiguous 48 states. I had seen Hawaii and Alaska traveling to and from Japan, and except for Kentucky and Montana, ended up driving through the other 46 states courtesy of the interstate highway system, which celebrated its 55th anniversary this week.

The system was the brainchild of President Eisenhower, who believed that the U.S. needed a first-class national road system for military transportation like the German Autobahn in the event of war with the Soviet Union.

That war was never fought, of course, but the system -- officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways -- kept growing and today includes 47,000 miles of highway, 14,750 interchanges, 55,500 bridges and 104 tunnels. But no traffic lights.

The interstate's impact on America, as well as my peripatetic travels, was profound.

From the interstates grew suburbs, service stations, motels and strip malls, not to mention the recreation vehicle boom and O.J. Simpson low-speed police chase.

There also have been downsides.

It could mean a death sentence for a rural burg if the interstate passed it by, most famously the necklace of towns along legendary Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. The highways also were nearly a fatal blow for America's decrepit passenger rail system. Gridlock entered the nation's vocabulary and stayed, while all of those service stations, motels and strip malls are not exactly eye candy.

And more recently, the interstates and the lengthy commutes they have encouraged have become a bane and a pain in the face of soaring gasoline prices.

All that said, I have many fond memories of my travels on America's interstates and the highways and byways and interesting places and people that the interstates took me to.

Here are a few:

* Waking in a sleeping bag at the edge of a pasture off of I-80 near Rock Springs, Wyoming and drowsily realizing that I was being watched -- by 10 or so curious wild horses that had surrounded my van.

* Sitting out a torrential downpour in the Florida Everglades near I-75 where I watched an embarrassed hawk get blown from a fence post in gale force winds and then flap back up onto its roost.

* Cresting the last hill on I-80 on a beautiful August morning and seeing the sun-draped vistas of Oakland and San Francisco emerge as Seals & Croft's "Summer Breeze" came on the radio.

* Standing next to my van on a corner in Winslow, Arizona off of I-40 as Jackson Browne crooned the lyrics "I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see . . . " on the tape player.

* Sitting in a San Francisco Muni bus a few blocks from I-280 that had stopped for pedestrians crossing Broadway at Columbus Avenue as I read a passage from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums in which Cody Pomeray was crossing Broadway at Columbus Avenue.

* Driving around a bend on a mountain pass off of I-25 in southeastern Colorado and coming upon a herd of real cattle being driven to their summer grazing range by real cowboys on real horses -- and a Honda ATV.

* Sitting at the same spot for five and a half hours in a blizzard on I-95 in Chester, Pennsylvania and thanking my lucky stars that I had started my drive with a full fuel tank.

* Having the driver's side mirror on my van sheared off by a low flying crow part way down a long downhill run on I-84 near the Idaho-Oregon state line, finally breaking to a stop and walking a half mile back uphill where the only sign of the bird were scattered feathers. I couldn't find the mirror.

* Breaking down on I-40 outside of Nashville, Tennessee and coasting off the highway, through an interchange and into the parking lot of an auto parts store where I swapped out a bum spark plug and was on the road again in less than an hour.

* Leaving I-90 and driving into a South Dakota hamlet (whose name I have forgotten) with an unpaved main street a but a single business, a cafe where I had the most delicious apple pie a la mode ever. The check, with a cup of coffee and refills, came to 50 cents.

* Picking up a hitchhiking teen and his border collie on I-80 at State Line, Nevada who told me a couple of hundred miles later than he was running away from home. I stopped for gas at Winnemucca and told him to call home. He did and we arranged for he and his dog to be picked up by his mother at the local sheriff's office.

* Hurtling down I-25 in New Mexico and aware that I could see a car-free 10 miles or so ahead, stepping on the gas and briefly hitting 100 miles an hour.

* Stopping for the night off of I-81 near Woodstock, New York where the temperature hit 35 degrees F below zero.

* Leaving I-25 and driving into Rifle, Colorado as the temperature hit 120 degrees F and not long after finding an exquisite waterfall tucked into a small canyon where I brought my body temperature down to below 98.6 degrees F.

* Having a lady toll collector on I-70 near Lawrence, Kansas proposition me as I paid her. I declined.

* Sprinting 3,250 miles from Oregon to Delaware on various interstates in 36 hours with stops only for gas and bathroom breaks.

* Seeing a lightning strike raise an enormous cloud of sand a mere quarter mile or so away as I crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats on I-80 in Utah.

* Binoculars in hand, watching a magnificent condor alight in the top branches of a Ponderosa pine above I-5 near Santa Clarita in Southern California.

* Spacing out in the intense heat later the same day and leaving my wallet atop a vending machine at a gas station off of I-5 near Coalinga in Central California, driving 100 miles before realizing what I had done, backtracking and recovering the wallet.

* Going on a slow-motion, dawn-to-dusk trip down an unpaved, deeply rutted and totally unmarked road from I-80 in Wyoming into northwestern Colorado and seeing no sign of human habitation for the entire 80-mile trip. As well as one of the most beautiful sunsets in my memory.

And finally:

* Being waved off of I-10 west of Yuma, Arizona by a California Highway Patrol officer because of dangerously high desert winds. I spent the evening at a roadhouse with a bar with embedded silver dollars and a honky-tonk jukebox to die for taking turns buying rounds of beers, swapping stories and dancing with a delightful group of strangers that included truckers, bikers and vacationing retirees.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Composite image by Dennis di Cicco & Sean Walker

Monday, June 20, 2011

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(El Jem, Tunisia)
By Jann Arthus-Bertrand

What Is War Good For? That Depends On The Political Party In Pow-Pow-Power

The Republican Party has long been the party of war, and one has to go all the way back to Herbert Hoover, a committed pacifist, to find a Republican president who was not a hawk. Dwight Eisenhower gets a slide both because he inherited the Korean conflict and probably understood the horrors of war better than any president since George Washington.

So it is no surprise that war fits comfortably with the contemporary Republican embrace of American exceptionalism, neocon saber rattling trumping diplomacy, and rewarding rapacious defense contractors for their profit-making death machines and lavish campaign contributions.

So recent statements from House Majority Leader John Boehner, among other Republican bigs, questioning President Obama's embrace of the NATO-led mission against Moammar Quadaffi in Libya, as well as more muted criticism of the war in Afghanistan might appear to be a break with the party's bloody past.

It is not, of course, and is merely yet another manifestation of criticizing everything that Obama says and does.

As painful as the thought is, consider what the Republican response would be if John "One Hundred Year War" McCain had been elected president. Lock-step support for any military mission anywhere anytime for any reason.

That, of course, was the case during the Bush interregnum, and the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history: The wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place, a conflict that has taken 4,400 American lives and was so expensive that in tandem with tax cuts for the rich drained the federal treasury and was an underlying cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The come-lately views of Boehner over the war thing are balancing acts. This as noted is because these guys aren't against war in principle, only against wars that Obama is for.

Nevertheless, an argument can be made that the president's decision to commit the U.S. to a major role in Libya is troubling because he has all but ignored the War Powers Act while embracing the dubious legality of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, a law enacted in the legislative frenzy after the 9/11 attacks

Never mind that there would not have been a peep out of Republicans had Bush or McCain done the same thing.

No less troubling is the CIA's involvement in strikes against terrorists in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere, but here Obama again has used the legal cover AUFT to argue, again with dubious legality, that the CIA can be considered a military force when it suits the president.

There is an arrogance about this that does not become Obama and is sadly reminiscent of his predecessor and his predecessor's vice president and defense secretary.

When Robert Gates retires at the end of the month, he will have been the fourth longest serving secretary of defense. And without question the most competent of the modern era. (Ironically, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, who were the longest serving, were among the worst.)

Appointed by President Bush after the unceremonious departure of Rumsfeld in December 2006, Gates has not been afraid to ax big shots, including the secretary of the Army and Army surgeon general over the Walter Reed Army Hospital Scandal, and the secretary of the Air Force and Air Force chief of staff over misshipments of nuclear weapons.

Gates became the first defense secretary to serve under two presidents when he was reappointed by Obama. He formed a formidable relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had marginalized Colin Powell and then Condoleeza Rice), presided over an enormous shift back toward conventional warfare from the slavish embrace of immensely expensive weapons system, backed Don't Ask Don't Tell and lifted the ban on women serving on submarines.

In a parting shot this month, Gates spoke a truth that has been evident for years: NATO hasn't pulled its weight practically from its inception in 1949 and the U.S. is tired of carrying the load, including three quarters of the cost of funding it.

And in a recent interview he acknowledged that the human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had made him far more wary about unleashing the might of the American armed forces.

"When I took this job, the United States was fighting two very difficult, very costly wars," Gates told The New York Times. "And it has seemed to me: Let’s get this business wrapped up before we go looking for more opportunities."

On Our Liberal & Socialist Military

If Republicans understood what was going on behind the scenes with the U.S. military they'd probably blow a gasket.

As Nicholas Kristof
notes, the armed forces are downright liberal and socialist, which is to say that in many respects they represent the antithesis of contemporary Republicanism.

First of all, they are a huge melting pot that draws soldiers, sailors and airmen from diverse backgrounds, whereas the Republican Party is white, white, white.

They invest in the best education and job training, whereas the Republican Party never misses an opportunity to try to cut or eliminate federal funding for both.

They have a first-class health-care system, whereas the Republican Party has relentlessly sought to eliminate the modest strides toward health-care reform enacted on Obama's watch.

They have superb child care and early childhood education for the working parents that so many soldiers, sailors and airmen are, whereas the Republican Party would do away with federal funding for both if it had its way.

Finally, they have pay equity. While CEOs of large corporations make about 300 times as much as their lowliest workers make, senior generals and admirals earn only about 10 times what the lower enlisted ranks make, whereas the Republican Party takes the yawning income inequity in the civilian workforce about as seriously as global warming.

Don't you think that it's about time that the Republicans tried to start dismantling all of this?

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

'War, Only Friend To The Undertaker'

By Edwin Starr

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, y'all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

Ohhh, war, I despise
Because it means destruction
Of innocent lives

War means tears
To thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons go to fight
And lose their lives

I said, war, huh
Good God, y'all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again

War, whoa, Lord
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it ain't nothing
But a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker
Ooooh, war
It's an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die
Aaaaah, war-huh
Good God y'all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it, say it, say it
War, huh
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again y'all
War, huh, good God
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it ain't nothing but a heartbreaker
War, it's got one friend
That's the undertaker
Ooooh, war, has shattered
Many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much to short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can't give life
It can only take it away

Ooooh, war, huh
Good God y'all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again

War, whoa, Lord
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it ain't nothing but a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker
Peace, love and understanding
Tell me, is there no place for them today
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord knows there's got to be a better way

Ooooooh, war, huh
Good God y'all
What is it good for
You tell me
Say it, say it, say it, say it

War, huh
Good God y'all
What is it good for
Stand up and shout it

Clarence Clemons (1942-2011)


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kiko's House Is On The Road Again

We'll be back Monday with our usual assortment
of crap and corruption. And Happy Fathers Day
to all the daddyos out there.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Cyd Charisse: An Appreciation

With Kelly (top) in
Singin' in the Rain and Astaire in Bandwagon
Let's get the physical stuff out of the way first: Cyd Charisse had the finest legs in Hollywood, was the greatest dancer – and unquestionably the most sensuous -- to ever grace the silver screen in a skirt and was every bit as good as the great Fred Astaire and the almost as great Gene Kelly.

Given those attributes, the fact that Charisse could hold her own as an actress put her in rarified territory, and if there was a downside to her career it was that she was relegated to more conventional rolls when the era of the great screen musicals ended in the 1950s.

Oh, and she was married to the same man for nearly 60 years, a notable length for Tinseltown.

* * * * *

Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, in 1922 by her own account (or 1921, according to others) to a homemaker mother and jeweler father. Her nickname was "Sid" for how a younger sibling tried to say “Sis," later changed by the ever inventive MGM publicity machine to "Cyd" to give her an air of mystery.

Sid/Cyd was a sickly girl who started dancing lessons at age 6 at the suggestion of her father to build up her strength after a bout with polio left her with a slight atrophy on her right side. During a family vacation in Los Angeles when she was 12, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes at a school in Hollywood, where one of her teachers was Nico Charisse.

At 14 she auditioned for and studied ballet in Los Angeles with Adolph Bolm and Bronislava Nijinska, and subsequently danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for Colonel W. de Basil under the stage names Celia Siderova and later Maria Istromena because everyone in the troupe was required to take a Russian-sounding name. It was while touring in Europe that she again met Nico Charisse. They eloped in Paris in 1939 and divorced in 1947.

The Ballet Russes broke up at the outbreak of World War II and Charisse, who was to keep her husband’s name, returned to Los Angeles, where David Lichine offered her a dancing role in Gregory Ratoff's Something to Shout About (1943). This brought her to the attention of choreographer Robert Alton, who had also discovered Gene Kelly, and soon signed with MGM, where she became the resident ballet dancer.

Charisse is, of course, principally celebrated for her on-screen pairings with Fred Astaire and Kelly.

Her lithe body, gorgeous looks and simmering sensuality -- as well as having extraordinary chops because of her Russian ballet training -- contrasted starkly with the usual Hollywood dancers, who film historian Larry Billman wrote were "typically cute and fluffy."

She first appeared with Astaire in a brief routine in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and then in her first lead role in The Band Wagon (1953).

Astaire plays a fading Hollywood song-and-dance man hoping to make a comeback on Broadway in The Band Wagon. He finds himself cast in a show opposite Charisse, who plays a snooty ballerina. The couple do not see eye-to-eye until they take a nighttime carriage ride through Central Park and wind up embracing to the strains of "Dancing in the Dark," which invariably sends chills up my spine whenever I see it. The movie also contains the equally famous "The Girl Hunt Ballet" in which Charisse plays a vamp to Astaire’s private-eye stage character.

In 1957, she rejoined Astaire in the film version of Silk Stockings, a musical remake of 1939's Ninotchka, with Charisse taking Greta Garbo's role.

It was Debbie Reynolds' lack of training as a dancer that led Kelly to choose Charisse to partner him in the celebrated "Broadway Melody" ballet finale (top photo) from the steamy Singin' in the Rain (1952). She also co-starred with him in Brigadoon (1954) and again took the lead female role alongside him in his penultimate MGM musical It's Always Fair Weather (1956).

In her autobiography, Charisse reflected on her experience:

"As one of the handful of girls who worked with both of those dance geniuses, I think I can give an honest comparison. In my opinion, Kelly is the more inventive choreographer of the two. Astaire, with Hermes Pan's help, creates fabulous numbers — for himself and his partner. But Kelly can create an entire number for somebody else . . . I think, however, that Astaire's coordination is better than Kelly's . . . his sense of rhythm is uncanny. Kelly, on the other hand, is the stronger of the two. When he lifts you, he lifts you! . . .

"To sum it up, I'd say they were the two greatest dancing personalities who were ever on screen. But it's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious."

Looking back on her work with Kelly and Astaire during a 2002 interview, Charisse said that her husband always knew whom she had been dancing with: "If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch."

For his part, Astaire called Charisse "beautiful dynamite." while New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote that she was "the only dancer who could make a pirouette look sexy."

MGM claimed that it had a $5 million insurance policy on her legs, earning her mention in the Guinness Book of World Records under "Most Valuable Legs," but Charisse later revealed that was another invention of the MGM publicity machine.

After the decline of the Hollywood musical in the late 1950s, Charisse retired from dancing but continued to appear in film and TV productions through the 1990s. She made cameo appearances in Blue Mercedes's "I Want To Be Your Property" (1987) and Janet Jackson's "Alright" (1990) music videos, and made an exercise video for senior citizens.

Charisse was married to Tony Martin, a singer and nightclub entertainer with whom she danced in nightclubs and on television, from 1948 until her death. The marriage lasted almost 60 years, a notable length among Hollywood marriages, matched in 2008 amongst living American actors by only Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, who also married in 1948.

She had two sons, Nico "Nicky" Charisse from her first marriage, and Tony Martin, Jr. from her second.

Charisse was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after suffering an apparent heart attack. She died three years ago today at age 86.

Photos from (top) MGM via Photofest and The Associated Press

Cartoon du Jour

Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Wally Pacholka

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Joys Of Working With Your Hands

One of the best decisions that I ever made was to take a deep breath after 10 years in the newspaper business, some of it spent covering big stories in exotic locales, and ponder my future. The upshot was that I quit the business to learn something that I had long yearned to do -- be a carpenter.

I ended up apprenticing to a fine carpenter nearly 10 years my junior and over the next two years learned how to build houses (and some rather pricey ones at that) from the foundations up, including doing hand-cut cedar shake shingle roofs, interior trim and other finish work, installing skylights so that they never would leak, and some of the other more complex aspects of the nail-bending trade.

More or less contemporaneous with my second career was the decision to move to a farm where I pitched in with the milking, planting, harvesting and other chores.

While I had felt out of balance, I did not realize how cattywampus my chi (Chinese for life force) was until I had spent a few months away from rush-hour traffic, fluorescent lights, typewriters and the occasional word-processor screen. (Widespread use of computers was a few years off and the Internet well over the horizon.)

The housing market collapsed in the first months of the Reagan presidency and I went back to the newspaper business for good, but never again did I feel as out of balance as I had. This is because I made sure that I leavened my day-job loaf with hiking, gardening, cutting wood and swimming -- lots of swimming. The joys of working with my hands was a wonderful lesson that was easy to learn and impossible to forget.

If there was a downside, it is that when I would come home from an especially exhausting day of handwork I seldom felt like doing anything other than eating, drinking and screwing. But I eventually learned to balance those primal urges and resumed book reading and writing in a journal.

Hey, if you've spent your life sitting on your keister, it's never too late to trade in your executive desk chair or Barcalounger for dirty fingernails even if it's only some of the time.

Image by Asbestos

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Carl Gardner (1928-2011)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Vidar

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This, That & The Other Thing

I did a big house cleaning the other day because I found myself again accumulating too much stuff and figure I'll be shutting down the old pied-à-terre sometime next year and heading for the mountains for good.

Among the stuff that I gifted the big dumpster at a nearby apartment complex was an HP printer that is a bad memory of when I still was a PC slave, three or so years of e-mail printouts that for the life of me I can't remember why I printed out, a bunch of road maps of places I hope to never return to, and a large-format map of downtown Baghdad which I taped to the wall over the desk in the early years of the Iraq war in an effort to better understand the terrain that I was blogging about.

Alas, I never really did.

* * * * *
You know that your dogs are smart when you can't say, let alone spell out, words like walk, swim, eat or ball without them waking from what you thought were deep sleeps and madly wagging their tails.

And so the Dear Friend & Conscience and I have to improvise. Ball become canine orb, and so on and so forth.

* * * * *
It's obvious that we live in difficult times when someone writes that they hope Sarah Palin is elected president so she can drive the country the rest of the way into the ground and the rebuilding can then begin in earnest.

* * * * *
There's an old saying among investigative journalists: If it seems too good to be true then it probably isn't. Perhaps the saying isn't merely old, but obsolete.

Bloggers and other commentators swallowed whole a claim on the blog
A Gay Girl in Damascus that the blog's Syrian-American lesbian author, caught up in the pro-democracy protest movement, had been detained in the Syrian capital.

Well no, because it was revealed over the weekend as a work of fiction by a 40-year-old American man. And yes, the revelation came in the form of an apology by the man and not because of any journalistic truth-seeking.

* * * * *
We finally saw Black Swan the other night. Natalie Portman was superb both acting, of which there was an abundance, and dancing, of which there was far too little. I should say that we finally saw most of Black Swan, because it was just too intense.

The world is screwed up enough without sitting through two hours of nagging by an obsessive former ballerina mother, mind forking by an artistic director and an obsessive relationship between the Portman character and a fellow ballerina who forces her to get in touch with her dark side.

All that said, Portman certainly deserved her Best Actress Oscar, but The Red Shoes is more our speed.

* * * * *
Had my annual physical the other day and learned that I'd lost 15 pounds over the last 12 months without trying to. The reasons: Less snacking, fewer take-out meals and falling head over heels for Tuscan cooking, which I now do regularly with from-scratch ingredients except the pasta.

Tuscan cooking is a match made in heaven: Delicious and nutritious fare that for the most part is light compared to other Italian cooking and uses ingredients that I especially love like seafood, nuts and herbs.

Cartoon du Jour

Nick Anderson/Houston Chronicle

Beautiful Photograph du Jour


Photograph by P.K. Weis/

Monday, June 13, 2011

Arctic Noir: Why Scandinavian Murder Mysteries Are Hot -- And Deservedly So

My appetite for great murder mysteries is never sated. For me they are like eating popcorn and a welcome escape from the heavier foods that make up my literary diet such as historical tracts, biographies and scientific tomes.

Over the years, I've read my way through the great murder mystery writers --
Dashielle Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and P.D. James, to name but a few -- and thought I had pretty much tapped out the genre.

That was until I picked up the English translation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, in 2009. Since then I have been cherry picking my way through Scandinavian murder mysteries, and they have been a revelation.

As fellow travelers Wendy Lesser and Nathanial Rich note in Slate commentaries published in 2009 and last month, an argument can be made that the best Scandinavian mysteries are better than others, which is a bold claim considering that Sweden, Norway and Denmark collectively are just about the most murder-free societies on the planet and seem unlikely to spawn a host of great murder mystery writers.

But part of the power of these novels is their deceivingly tranquil settings, which
make it all the more shocking when a crime occurs. Or, as Rich notes, "A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley."

I agree with Lesser and Rich, but with an important qualification.

What the great Swedish murder mysteries have in common with the classics is that they are deeply and grippingly psychological, pitting the fiendish murderer against the dogged investigator.

But compared to a fuddy duddy like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or a hard-boiled period piece like Hammett's Sam Spade, Larsson's eccentric Lisbeth Salander has a steel-trap mind, a penchant for getting back at her enemies, and is positively hip with her arsenal of Mac Books, electronic eavesdropping devices and computer hacking skills, while cohort Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist is a disgraced investigative journalist who digs deeply into the dark side of Sweden's political, corporate and social worlds. Holmes' Victorian parlor society and Spade's Tenderloin district escapades seem positively quaint by comparison.
I have now plowed through about two dozen Scandinavian whodunits and can say without qualification that Smilla's Sense of Snow (1995) by Peter Høeg is my hand's down favorite. Jo Nesbo's The Snowman (2010) is second, while Larsson's trilogy is a bit further down the list because not even the thrilling plots can overcome his maladriotness as a writer, something that is obvious in translation.

Like Larssen's Salander,
Høeg's Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is a diminutive loner (minus the electronic bells and whistles) who struggles to live with a fractured past and an uncertain future.

As the book opens, Smilla is struggling to understand the death of Isaiah, a
small boy who falls from the roof of her Copenhagen apartment building. Because of her childhood in Greenland, she has the ability to understand the complex structures of snow (hence the title) and notices that the boy's footprints show he ran to his death. Smilla uncovers a series of ever more bizarre conspiracies and cover-ups as she attempts to solve the mystery, a journey that takes her from Copenhagen to an icebound island off of the coast of Greenland where the book ends in a thrilling concluding scene.

The movie versions of Larssen's Millennium Trilogy include The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. All were released in Sweden in 2009. All are terrific movies true to the plots of the books on which they are based, but therein lies a problem.

Dragon Tattoo bristles with subplots and the cast of characters is dizzying, which is to say confusing. This makes the movie version pretty much impossible to understand if you didn't read the book, so do yourself a favor and read it before you rent or download the movie.

Same goes for the second and third books, but the screenwriters apparently understood that they couldn't suffocate viewers and dialed back on the number of subplots that made it to the big screen. None are missed. You don't have to necessarily have read the books, but that still helps.
I don't know if there are dubbed English versions of the Millennium Trilogy movies. If there are, resist the temptation and screen the versions with English subtitles. Swedish is a lovely language, to my ears a softer variation of German, and in each case I quickly fell into having a pretty good idea of what was being sad. The subtitles merely reinforced that.

Hollywood versions of the books are on the way this year and in 2012 and 2013. I plan to avoid them.

The movie version of
Høeg Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), which stars Julia Ormond as Smilla, is another matter.

The plot is straightforward and unencumbered by a cast of dozens. You don't have to read the book first, but read it anyhow, because the movie does not do it justice. Ormond and the rest of the cast sprint through the plot, which in the hands of
Høeg, whose talent comes through in translation, is beautifully paced.

Alas, Smilla could have been a terrific movie, although it appropriately carried the tagline "Everything is covered in snow -- except the truth.