March 30, 2012
There is a scene in a PBS documentary about Jack Paar that illustrates as well as anything why William Shakespeare would have loved Richard Nixon.
The scene comes from a 1963 episode of Paar’s groundbreaking talk show. Nixon, since leaving the vice presidency, had lost elections for president and for governor of California, but for a two-time loser, he was in a good mood — one might say light-hearted, a term not often associated with RMN.
Paar reminds the audience of something that was widely known at the time, namely that Nixon was a piano player. Paar also explained, to Nixon’s obvious amusement, that Nixon had also written some music for the piano and that his wife had made recordings of him playing his own tunes.
Paar said that bandleader Jose Meles had used one of those recordings to write an arrangement to back up one of Nixon’s compositions, and Paar asked Nixon to take to the keyboard.
Before complying, Nixon noted that Paar had asked earlier about Nixon’s political ambition. ”If last November didn’t finish it, this will,” Nixon said, “because — believe me — the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House,” a reference to Harry S. Truman whose musical virtuosity was about on the same level as Nixon’s.
When I saw this incident on a PBS documentary about Paar, I thought about what a complex creature a human being is, and I thought about that again when I read Don Fulsom’s book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. Considering the depth and breadth of Nixon’s corruption and paranoia, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a writer to do a hatchet job on the old trickster, but Don Fulsom has managed it.
On paper, at least, Fulsom has some credentials to be writing about this subject. He covered the White House and was Washington bureau chief for United Press International, which once upon a time was a viable news agency. Having been a journalist myself for more than 40 years, I would have expected a writer with Fulsom’s resumé, producing a book this long after Nixon’s death, to provide some insight into the whole man. As deeply immersed in muck as he was, after all, Nixon didn’t spend his whole time drinking himself blotto, assaulting people who annoyed him, beating his wife, raking in dough through his bag men, or plotting to have people like Jack Anderson killed.
And while his administration was forever besmirched by his prolongation of the Vietnam war and his order for the secret and murderous bombing of Cambodia, it was productive in many ways, including creation of the Occupational and Health Safety Administration , the National Endowment on the Arts, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon approved the first significant step toward a federal affirmative action program. And Nixon — as probably only he could have — altered the course of modern history by changing the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and China.
Although Fulsom has riffled through some of the more recently released documents about Nixon, he hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding by recounting in nauseating detail the depravities of the man’s life. We get it. He was a sleaze. But he was also this other guy. This guy with a remarkable grasp of foreign affairs. This guy who supported a lot of moderate initiatives. And this guy who played the piano. And from this distance, that’s what’s so fascinating about him.
Look for Fulsom’s book with the scandal rags at the checkout counter. Shakespeare would have told the whole story.
You can see Nixon playing the piano on Jack Paar’s show by clicking HERE.
August 17, 2011
I caught a few minutes of Ann Coulter’s appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows this week, and found that by not tuning in earlier I had missed hearing her reasons for promoting Chris Christie as a Republican presidential candidate.
Apparently, it wasn’t a half-hearted endorsement; I heard her refer to the governor as “my first love.”
Coulter is not the first person to make this case. Christie is a controversial figure in terms of his public policy and his style, but he seems to be developing a following around the country.
Still this kind of talk has an unfamiliar ring to us in New Jersey because, except for Bill Bradley’s failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 2000, making presidents has not been our thing in recent decades.
Even the two we contributed in the distant past had imperfect credentials. Woodrow Wilson wasn’t born in New Jersey, and Grover Cleveland – who was born here and is buried here – spent most of his life someplace else.
Christie hasn’t lent much credibility to the idea that he would be a willing candidate, but if he should run, one thing that has come up already and surely would get a lot of attention in the news coverage – and late-night commentaries – would be his girth.
Christie himself has often acknowledged that his weight is a result of his eating habits and that it is unhealthy.
In the world we live in, it is also a potential liability from the aesthetic point of view.
There already have been stories speculating as to whether a man of Christie’s size can be elected president – kind of a diss on the intelligence of the body politic.
In fact, that question has already been answered twice by the elections of William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland.
Taft, the largest president so far, was six feet tall and weighed more than 330 pounds when he was elected president in 1908. After Taft had left the presidency, he lost about 80 pounds, which lowered his blood pressure and improved his ability to sleep.
Cleveland – whose weight isn’t mentioned as frequently as Taft’s – was five-feet-eleven and weighed between 235 and 280 pounds. His weight is noticeable in photographs from his presidential years, but it apparently didn’t trouble the citizens who gave him the majority of the popular vote three times in a row – the only president besides Franklin Roosevelt to achieve that. (In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the majority of the electoral votes.)
The criticism directed at political candidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be as cruel, in its own way, as the attacks that are leveled today. Cartoonists gleefully exploited the proportions of both Cleveland and Taft, and no one’s physical appearance attracted more public ridicule than that of Abraham Lincoln.
But the pervasive and relentless nature of media in our age add a lot of destructive power to negative messages.
Some voters might be legitimately concerned about the life-threatening nature of Christie’s weight, but the web of electronic communications has given people the idea that they can – and should – say virtually anything that comes into their heads. The comments posted on web sites suggest that many writers think it’s a virtue to be as coarse and demeaning as they can.
I noticed, for instance, that folks who frequent a Facebook page for graduates of my high school alma mater, say some pretty awful things about former teachers and classmates – undaunted by the fact that most of their targets are still living and could easily read these messages.
For his own well-being – particularly if he takes on the rigors of a presidential campaign and a term or two in the White House – Christie ought to do something about his weight.
Besides prolonging his life, it would spare him and his family the meanness that has become the lingua franca of smart alecs in the digital age.
July 27, 2011
There’s a place in New Brunswick that serves up a hot dog known as the “crackler.” A strip of bacon is wrapped around the dog like an armature, and the dog and bacon are deep fried. I used to frequent that place — Tido ‘n His Junkyard Dogs — before the Gannett Co. discovered that I was of no further use and I had to find work in another neighborhood. I thought to myself at first that it might be easier to forego the cracker and simply put a loaded revolver to my head, but my watering palate got the best of me, and indulged myself from time to time. I suppose one could make the argument that I was putting my family’s future at risk by abusing my arteries in that manner, but I was, after all, accepted “for better or for worse,” and if this was as bad as “worse” got, perhaps it wasn’t a bad bargain for anyone concerned.
I have often wondered, standing in a checkout line while some bloke at the front asks the clerk for an eight-dollar pack of cigarettes from the vault, whether I would still lay down that much money if I had been a smoker. I have never been a smoker, so I have never had to confront that dilemma, but it seems as if New York Times columnist Mark Bittman would like to come at me from a different direction.
Bittman wrote this week that the federal government should heavily tax unhealthy foods so as to discourage people like me from becoming a drain on the health care system.
This is the approach that has already been taken with cigarettes, which the feds and the states have gleefully taxed and taxed again, boasting that they’re only looking out for people who can’t look out for themselves, whereas what they’re really doing is compensating for their own inability to control government spending by making scapegoats of people engaged in an unpopular but legal activity. The last I heard, beer wasn’t a healthy drink. Why don’t governments tax the hell out of that? I think you know why.
Bittman isn’t in government, and I don’t suspect him of such a cynical motive — although he does mention the potential for billions in tax revenues from consumers of donuts and Pepsi. I think he means well, and in a way that’s almost worse. Government can do whatever it wants in the way of public education — things such as Mayor Bloomberg’s calorie-posting requirement — but slapping what amounts to a financial penalty on people exercising their freedom to eat what they choose, which is perfectly legal, is too much government in private life.
You can read Mark Bittman’s column by clicking HERE.
February 8, 2011
There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.
In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.
Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.
Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants
As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.
Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.
March 3, 2010
I suppose Jim Bunning is used to being taken off the mound. As good a pitcher as he was, he still got the hook from time to time, so the maneuver tonight to put an end to his filibuster so the Senate could pass a bill extending unemployment benefits and other programs should have felt familiar.
If Republican leaders have found Bunning hard to handle, they will get some sympathy from Gene Mauch, who managed — some say mismanaged — Bunning when he was playing for the Phillies and Mauch was his manager. Mauch, who is a partaker in Glory at present, was an early practitioner of calling pitches from the bench — that is, giving signs to the catcher as to what pitch to call for.
Bunning would irritate Mauch by shaking off pitches repeatedly when he knew the signs were coming from the manager. Mauch, who is deservedly well respected as a manager, has come in for some criticism of the way he used Bunning and Chris Short during the 1964 National League pennant race. The Phillies that year performed the flop heard ’round the world. They had a 6 1/2 game lead on September 21, but they lost 10 games in a row to finish tied for second place while the Cardinals won the pennant. Mauch, some say, overdid his reliance on Bunning and Short, who were worn out by that time in the season. I think he started Bunning three times in one week.
It’s a shame that Bunning, whose baseball career was outstanding, chose to make himself a laughing stock in Congress. He might have emulated Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, who pitched in the majors for nine years and ended up with a winning record and a respectable lifetime earned run average. He was no Jim Bunning on the mound, and he was no Jim Bunning in Congress. A conservative Republican like Bunning, he was one of the most popular men in the House of Representatives, where he represented a North Carolina district from 1968 to 1974, when he was swept away in the voters’ reaction the scandals of the Nixon Administration. He later served in a number of appointed federal offices.
December 5, 2009
Some baseball players lose their edge over time, but Jim Bunning ain’t one of ‘em. He can still put them over the plate, as he demonstrated last week in his verbal assault on Ben Bernanke, who was appearing before a U.S. Senate committee that was considering Bernanke’s nomination to continue as head of the Federal Reserve.
Bunning, a Republican senator from Kentucky and one of the most conservative members of Congress, made a statement at the hearing in which he explained not only why Bernanke shouldn’t be reappointed but why — as my brother might put it — he has no reason to exist. Amid a detailed dissection of what Bunning considers Bernanke’s contributions to the nation’s financial crisis, the senator said: “You are the definition of a moral hazard … Your time as Fed Chairman has been a failure.” The complete statement was published by the Huffington Post at THIS link.
Bunning holds a degree in economics, so for all I know he could be right about Bernanke and about Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan, for whom the senator has at least as much affection. On the other hand, his political career has been peppered with bizarre incidents and statements, including his prediction of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg and his public pronouncement that he doesn’t read newspapers and gets all his information from Fox News. His approval ratings, for what they’re worth, are at present in the sewer. He has been unable to raise campaign funds — which he blames on a conspiracy against him within his own party — and he will not run for reelection.
Well, if his political career hasn’t been exemplary, that fact will never outweigh his baseball career. He was one of the very best pitchers of his time and is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He could throw strikes — oh, could he ever! He struck out 2,855 batters while walking only 1,000. Bunning was one of only 40 pitchers in the history of baseball to strike out the side by throwing nine pitches — all strikes. Try that sometime.
October 17, 2009
The AARP recently pointed out in its monthly bulletin that President Richard Nixon in 1972 proposed a health-care reform program that was shot out of the sky, with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wielding one of the guns.
“Nixon’s plan,” editor Jim Toedtman wrote, “required employers to provide health care insurance for their employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor and created rural health clinics and a network of state committees to set industry standards, guarantee basic coverage and coordinate insurance for the self-employed. In the process, it would have extended health care coverage to almost all Americans.”
According to Toedtman’s commentary, Kennedy told the Boston Globe earlier this year that Nixon’s initiative was a “missed opportunity” and that, “We should have jumped on it.”
Should have. What were the chances that a Democrat, and a Kennedy at that, would support a sweeping program like that coming from Nixon? Ted Kennedy had his own ideas about health-care reform, and the twain never met. As a result, 37 years later, the problems perceived with health care then — cost and accessibility — are exponentially worse, partisanship still trumps the general welfare, and fundamental reform is no more likely, no matter what bill Congress may pass.
Nixon, meanwhile — if he can hear the debate from where he reposes — is probably as surprised as anyone to learn from his own party that he was a socialist.
October 9, 2009
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and author, made some of the more salient points I’ve heard today about the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama. Wiesel was interviewed by Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio. The core of the interview, from the NPR web page, was as follows:
Mr. WIESEL: I’ll tell you. First of all, it’s strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate. … After all, he’s the president of the United States. But at the same time, seriously, he made history by allowing the American people to correct its own old racial injustices. After all, he’s the first black person to have been elected to that high office, and in doing so he did bring hope and dignity to the fact, to the very position. And therefore I think he gave something to the Nobel Prize.
INSKEEP: He added to the Nobel Prize rather than the other way around.
Mr. WIESEL: It goes both ways. But in this case, really, for the president of the United States, a sitting president, who is nine months in office, it’s true that he tries and tries – I’m sure he tries in many areas to do the right thing, and he will succeed, but in this case the prize will add or increase his moral authority.
INSKEEP: Moral authority. Well, let’s talk about that. Because this is a president who has begun many efforts around the world and the Nobel committee cited them, from reducing the threat of nuclear weapons to reducing nuclear arms stockpiles, efforts to bring peace in different parts of the world. But it’s been widely noted this morning that although many efforts have begun, none have really been concluded. Do you think it will make a big difference in those efforts that the peace prize goes to the president?
Mr. WIESEL: First of all, I think he is being recognized for his efforts and his beginnings, as you say. But I am a person who loves beginnings, I love beginnings. The mystery of beginnings is part of Jewish mysticism. And in this case, in politics, of course, because it’s also – it’s also politics – it is a good thing, it’s a promise. The Nobel committee says that he represents a promise and I’m sure that he will try to fulfill it.
INSKEEP: And they do say that they want to encourage him on his way. Is that normal for the Nobel Prize to be used to encourage rather than just reward people?
Mr. WIESEL: Not really. But the Nobel Prize committee has its own rules, and they may decide anything they want. They may decide that encouragement is part of the experiment.
September 16, 2009
Well, the least that can be said of Joe Wilson is that he didn’t know what he would be unleashing when he pulled the cork out of that bottle — the bottle being his indiscreet mouth.
Not only has he been accused of racism for his heckling of President Obama from the floor of the House of Representatives, but he has been branded as a symbol of a latent racism far bigger than he. As though Congress weren’t already in a state of self-paralyzing partisanship, it was divided even more deeply by the vote to reprimand Wilson. Meanwhile the latter-day No-Nothings have adopted him as their hero. Can a Wilson-Palen ticket be far behind?
The mind races back to the first quarter of the 19th century — well, mine does, at least.
William H. Crawford of Georgia, the secretary of the treasury, is at the White House demanding to know what President James Monroe intends to do about a list of political appointments Crawford has recommended.
“That,” Monroe — perhaps injudiciously — tells Crawford, “is none of your damned business.” To which provocation Crawford responds by lunging at Monroe with a cane, calling him “you infernal scoundrel.” Monroe goes to the fireplace and grabs a poker to defend himself, and the secretary of the treasury is forcibly removed from the executive mansion, apologizing on the way out.
“You lie!” “You infernal scoundrel.”
At least Crawford had some style.