Sunday, November 30, 2008

Quote of the Day (Howard Cosell, on Football)

"The importance that our society attaches to sport is incredible. After all, is football a game or a religion? The people of this country have allowed sports to get completely out of hand."—Howard Cosell

(So said the late ABC sportscaster and part of the “Monday Night Football” triumvirate, even as he raked in the cash that came with the game’s explosion in popularity. But for all his hypocrisy on the point, Cosell raised an important point. More and more Americans profess to having no religious affiliation, and don’t mind missing a service. At the same time, more and more people are glued to the set to watch 300-pound-plus mastodons grapple with each other. Guess it beats thinking about life, death, the meaning of it all, and what we owe each other, here and now.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Song Lyric of the Day (The Beatles)

“I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your hand.”—The Beatles

(On this date in 1963, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released as a U.K. single, zooming to #1 on the charts. On the day after Christmas, it was issued in the U.S. and performed the same trick, staying in the top position for seven weeks. Beatlemania was at hand.)

Friday, November 28, 2008

This Day in Diplomatic History (WWII’s “Big 3” Meet at Teheran)

November 28, 1943--For the first time in World War II, the leaders of the “Grand Alliance” against the Axis powers met to map war strategy at the Teheran Conference.

At the time, the confab involving Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin was regarded as a success. Yet already, tensions had arisen among the “Big Three” that would play out in the closing days of the conflict and affect the course of the ensuing Cold War.

Iran was not what one would regard normally as a natural meeting place for the three nations. The only reason why it was chosen was to placate Stalin, who at that time had the northern part of the nation under his control and refused to budge lest he be far removed from any position where he could coordinate battlefield movements.

The Soviet presence in Iran profoundly perturbed Iran, which looked to the U.S. as an “honest broker” between the two colonial powers, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. In late 1943, the Iranian government seemed on the brink of an upheaval, ready to “dissolve into chaos at any moment,” according to Cordell Hull’s warning to FDR.

One outcome of the conference was the Big Three’s promise to preserve Iran’s unity and independence. “In later years,” wrote Barry Rubin in Paved With Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran (1980), “Iranian governments would often refer to that document as the basis for an American obligation to protect their country and to furnish large-scale aid.”

Gen. Patrick Hurley, FDR’s envoy to the Middle East, was not exactly possessed of much knowledge of the region, continually confusing Iraq and Iran. But he at least quickly figured out that America’s two Allies had designs on dismembering the nation, and he wouldn’t accede to that.

Michael Beschloss’ The Conquerors revealed that Heinrich Himmler had even asked German magicians and mystics about the venue of the meeting. To avoid the assassination threat, FDR rode from the airport in a plain Army staff car; meanwhile, a double—complete with the familiar the familiar cape, fedora and cigarette holder—stared out the window.

The difficulties of traveling caught up that night with FDR, whose sudden outbreak of sweat and green face led Secret Service agents to fear he’d been poisoned. In fact, the conference marked a kind of turning point for his health—following influenza he was believed to have picked up there, he never really recovered his old stamina.

One night during the conference, Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, found his patient in one of his character “black dog” moods, voicing concern that a war with the Soviets might even surpass the current one in savagery: “I want to sleep for billions of years….Stupendous issues are unfolding before our eyes, and we are only specks of dust that have settled in the night on the map of the world.”

As the conference drew to a close, one of the most problematic aspects of the conference appeared on the agenda: what to do with Germany. FDR brought up one of his previously bruited ideas—dividing the Third Reich—except that, instead of splitting it in three, as he previously wanted, he now advocated carving it up in five parts. Stalin wanted it cup up even further. FDR agreed with Stalin, noting that Germany was “less dangerous to civilization when it was 107 provinces.”

Quotes of the Day (on Developments in the Vice-Presidency)

“But as for that V.P. talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until someone answers for me what is it, exactly, that the V.P. does every day?”—Alaska Gov. (and future Vice-Presidential candidate) Sarah Palin, appearing on CNBC’s “Kudlow & Company”, July 31, 2008

“I’m sure that there will be discrete assignments over time. But I think his fundamental role is as a trusted counselor. I think that when Obama selected him, he selected him to be a counselor and an adviser on a broad range of issues.--David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, on Joe Biden’s projected role as Vice-President, quoted by Helene Cooper, “For Biden, No Portfolio But the Role of a Counselor,The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2008

"Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again."—Thomas Marshall, Vice-President under Woodrow Wilson, on his office

Palin’s inexperience, in and of itself, was enough to make me cast my vote against John McCain and for Barack Obama. But I think The New Republic erred in listing the quote above from her as part of its “Case Against Sarah Palin.” In her artlessly phrased way, she brought to the surface a real question that every administration faces—what to do with the Vice-President?

She came in for a fair amount of criticism during the campaign for her televised response to a third-quarter’s question about what Vice-Presidents do: “[T]hey’re in charge of the U.S. Senate so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom.”

Okay, this is a turkey of a statement, since the Constitution’s sole sentence on the responsibilities of the Vice-President is the following: “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”

But you know what? The way I figure it is this: Every politician, no matter how seemingly sharp, says or does at least one thing in his career so astoundingly idiotic that it takes the breath away. Russell Baker, for instance, recalled seeing Adlai Stevenson shake hands with a department store mannequin. The way I figure it, politicians are entitled to at least one mulligan to cover such contingencies.

Not to mention that this is the holiday season. So in the season’s spirit of charity, I’m going to take a page from President Bush’s book (the closest book he’s come to in awhile, I’ll reckon!) and pardon this turkey.

In fact, in the best bipartisan tradition I’m going to pardon a second turkey: Governor Palin’s opponent for the Vice-Presidency, Joe Biden, who came out with this whopper in an interview with Katie Couric in September: "When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened.'"

(I’m sure Joe’s handlers—not to mention hundreds of my fellow bloggers—reminded him of the following after this statement: a) It was Herbert Hoover, not FDR, who was around at the time of the stock market crash—a fact of which the Democratic Party successfully reminded the electorate for the following 20 years; b) FDR did not appear on TV until 1939, for the World’s Fair that year; c) Because TV did not develop as a mass medium for nearly another decade after that, the medium the President mastered was radio.)

Look, we know what Joe meant. We know what Sarah meant. Still, this past election might have been the first in which whoever became Vice-President would have duct tape placed over their mouths to prevent further gaffes.

You don’t have to believe me, though. Take a look at Axelrod’s quote above, and especially that word “counselor.” It sounds, to these ears, an awful lot like another “C” word used often in the business world: “consultant.” It’s the term that a number of companies use for executives unceremoniously “transitioned” out the door. These former execs have little to do except twiddle their thumbs while picking up a paycheck.

Axelrod’s “counselor” role sounds like at least a partial reversion to the old role played by Vice-Presidents. Again, we come back to Vice-President Marshall, who, in the frustrating months after Woodrow Wilson’s devastating stroke, noted that “the only business of the vice-president is to ring the White House bell every morning and ask what is the state of health of the president."

Beginning with the greater role that Jimmy Carter gave Walter Mondale, the increasing Presidential practice has been to award Vice-Presidents significant responsibility.

Dick Cheney’s Voldemortian abuse of his wide-ranging portfolio in the departing administration, however, inspired widespread, you might even say bipartisan, revulsion. Even John McCain noted that he was inclined to scale sharply back on the responsibilities of his V-P—without, of course, making the office a nullity once again.

Given this recent history, along with the “team of rivals” envisioned by President-elect Obama for his Cabinet, including Hilary Clinton and Bill Richardson, do you think there’s going to be a significant role for Biden?

Do you think that, given Biden’s penchant for gaffes—or what The New York Times, in the same charitable spirit that the CEO of this blog is displaying, “his voluble past”—that the Obama administration is going to allow him out for much more than the occasional funeral for a head of state?

Do you think that, given how little the Constitution specifically says about the Veep’s duties, that they are going to extend further than Obama’s (still abundant, let’s grant) who-knows-how-long affection and patience for the Senate warhorse who’s now a heartbeat away from him?

Stay tuned, as Gov. Palin’s query about what a Vice-President does all day becomes newly relevant.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Quote of the Day (Robert Browning, on "The Ring and the Book")

“I can have but little doubt but that my writing has been, in the main, too hard for many I should have been pleased to communicate with; but I never designedly tried to puzzle people, as some of my critics have supposed. On the other hand, I never pretended to offer such literature as should be a substitute for a cigar, or a game of dominoes, to an idle man. So perhaps, on the whole, I get my desserts and something over, — not a crowd, but a few I value more.”—Robert Browning to W.G. Kingsland, Nov. 27, 1868

Browning told Kingsland he’d been “far from well, and oppressed by work.” No wonder—he was preparing for publication his epic “murder-poem,” The Ring and the Book. The first volume had appeared six days before Browning’s letter, while the remaining three appeared in each of the following months.

This was indeed a far cry from the American poet Longfellow—who, as I discussed the other day, despite his vast learning, could be read by a larger middle-class audience—but also from the more obscure verses that T.S. Eliot would create in the 20th century. Imagine a Baroque-era Rashomon, set in Rome in 1698, concerning the trial of a count, accused of murdering his wife over her alleged affair with a young minor cleric.

Only it’s more than that—so much more. The poem is long (more 600 pages, not counting notes, in my edition), consisting of 12 sections or books. The action advances, then refocuses, in a series of dramatic monologues, including by the victim, Pompilia, her would-be clerical rescuer, the “man in the street,” the murderer himself, Guido Franceschini, and even Pope Innocent XII (to whom Guido unsuccessfully appealed his guilty verdict).

Browning, who inherited his lifelong fascination with crime from his father, discovered this real-life case when he picked up for a pittance “an old yellow book” from a Florentine bookstall. The beat-up volume was a documentary goldmine, containing legal briefs, pamphlets and letters about the case.

Over the last 15 years, commentators have noted similarities between this case and O.J. Simpson’s. Each contained an element of all-consuming interest for the contemporary society of its day: Catholicism for Rome, race for America.

Although we have to be careful about the dangers of presentism (i.e., judging an incident from the past overwhelmingly with reference to our time and little or none to its own) and some large differences remain (e.g., O.J. was never executed or even found guilty at a criminal trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman), some factors figure prominently in both cases:

* Class—Simpson rose from a low-income neighborhood, Putrero Hill, Calif., just outside San Francisco, to a $5 million Tudor mansion in Brentwood. Franceschini managed to marry into the wealthy Comparini family by misrepresenting his origins as a poor nobleman of inferior rank.

* Domestic violence—L.A. police were constantly called to the Simpson house because of domestic disputes, but in all but one case did not press charges. The Comparani family were enraged that their daughter was living in an impoverished and abused condition, and sought to deny their son-in-law the dowry he would normally have received by claiming in court that Pompilia was adopted—in actuality, the daughter of a prostitute they had saved out of pity—and that, thus, she was illegitimate and her husband was not entitled to their money.

* Legal wrangling--In addition to his infamous criminal trial, Simpson also faced over the years a successful civil suit brought by the father of Ron Goldman--along with the aforementioned calls to the home by the LAPD, two divorces, and his more recent conviction on all charges from a Las Vegas incident involving robbery with a deadly weapon, burglary with a firearm, and others too numerous to mention. A judgment in favor of Guido regarding the dowry settlement was still being appeared at the time of the murder, while a second suit, the summer before the crime, resulted in Caponsacchi being confined to Civita Vecchia for violating his oath of celibacy and in Pompilia being placed in the care of the Scalette Convent.

* Collateral damage—Ron Goldman was unlucky enough to be around when Nicole Simpson was murdered. So were Pompilia’s parents when Guido and the assassins he’d hired came to kill his wife. Goldman suffered multiple stab wounds; the Comparinis were decapitated by the assassins. (Pompilia was mortally wounded, living just long enough to finger her abusive estranged husband.)

* Blaming the victim—Guido sued his wife and minor cleric Guiseppe Caponsacchi for adultery and flight before the Jan. 2, 1698 murder. After Pompilia’s death, an order of nuns, the Convent of Convertites, unsuccessfully sought her estate on the ground that she was a “debased woman.” The Simpson defense team floated, without any evidence, the highly speculative theory that Nicole Simpson had died as part of a Colombian drug hit meant for good friend Faye Resnick.

· Media sensations—Just as the Lindbergh kidnapping case demonstrated the power of the relatively new medium of radio news reporting, the Simpson case confirmed the arrival of the cable-driven, 24-hour news cycle. Neither tabloids nor cable TV were around in the 17th century, but it’s now clear that the murder of the Comparinis were of all-consuming interest during its time. Browning scholars confirmed in the 20th century that the “old yellow book” found by the poet, along with another account presented him by a friend two years later, were not the only contemporary accounts of the case; other manuscripts were found in the Royal Casanatense Library in Rome; the Armstrong Browning Collection at Baylor University, Texas; and a codex twice as large as “the old yellow book” found in the Biblioteca del Comune in Cortona.

Perhaps somebody has done this already, but I think an interesting book could be written on literary masterpieces inspired by real-life tabloid-style crimes. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is one; Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (which I discuss here) was another. The Ring and the Book deserves inclusion on this list.

A Thanksgiving Day Reflection As You Prepare the Food and Watch the Games

“Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence.”—Erma Bombeck

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Quote of the Day (Frank Wolfe, on the aftermath of the Battle of Chattanooga)

“I saw death in almost every conceivable form that could revolt humanity.”—Pennsylvania soldier Frank Wolfe, Nov. 26, 1863, walking past the carnage left on Missionary Ridge from the prior day’s fighting at the Battle of Chattanooga, quoted in James Lee McDonough, Chattanooga: A Death Grip on the Confederacy (1984)

(I have to admit to a form of cheating here: I had intended to cover Chattanooga yesterday, but devoted so much time to the Longfellow post that I couldn’t get to this pivotal Civil War battle.

Riding over the battlefield with a friend called Tom, Frank Wolfe came upon multiple moments evoking sorrow and pity, including a pair of Union soldiers, father and son, being buried side by side; the remains of two houses burned to the ground with wounded servicemen inside; and, on the extreme right of Missionary Ridge, five Rebels from Alabama, “badly cut up.” Wolfe and and Tom shared their food with the Confederates, but there was only so much they could do: I found their wounds still undressed. One was shot in the lungs and evidently dying….They bade God bless us! as we left them.”

Wolfe and Tom, like their Union comrades over the last three days, had fought the Confederates with desperate courage. But now, they displayed the same spirit as Abraham Lincoln, who in a year and a half would cal on his victorious fellow citizens to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

As the two Union friends looked around the battlefield, the thought might have flashed through their minds that the carnage could have happened just as easily to them. Just 24 hours before, on the third day of fighting, the best-laid plans of General Ulysses S. Grant seemed to be coming apart. “Fighting Joe Hooker” had been delayed by four hours from reaching his objective. At the other end of the flank attacking the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg, William T. Sherman could not budge Patrick Cleburne.

Soldiers under the Union’s George Thomas were then asked to make a feint toward the Confederate center. Nobody wanted them at the beginning to charge up the hill. But, with guns bearing down on them, and the area at the foot of the ridge turning into a slaughter-pen, common soldiers decided that to wait meant death. Instead, they charged up the hill.

In years to come, that spontaneous Union charge up Missionary Ridge became the stuff of legend.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Quote of the Day (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on Paul Revere)

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” from Tales of a Wayside Inn

(I know what you’re thinking—wouldn’t that quote be more appropriate for April 19, the date of the midnight ride—or at least February 27, Longfellow’s birthday? But I chose today for a reason—on this date in 1863, the Cambridge poet’s Tales of a Wayside Inn was published. That week surrounding publication became what Anne Morrow Lindbergh would call, in her own life, an “Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead”—a moment of great triumph or happiness followed by disaster or dread.

The first thing to recall about Longfellow’s famous poem, as I learned from touring his home in Cambridge and the Old North Church in Boston, is that ultimately it’s not about the American Revolution at all, but about what was seen by William Henry Seward as “the irrepressible conflict”: the Civil War. Longfellow wanted to remind Americans preparing for this next epic struggle that even a common man such as Paul Revere—not a Virginia aristocrat like George Washington or even a lawyer such as John Adams—could make a difference in the struggle for freedom.

The Atlantic Monthly originally published “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860, but a few years later, as he conceived the idea of a narrative poems centered around travelers gathered together—a device harking back to Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—Longfellow thought he saw a way to introduce this poem into the mix by packaging it as “The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride.” The book—which would be expanded over the next decade—also included “The Legend of Rabbi Ben-Levi” and “The Saga of King Olaf.”

This range of subject matter, I submit, is one of the most attractive aspects of Longfellow. Though not as experimental as Walt Whitman (nor as likely to step outside the boundary of conventional middle-class lifestyles of his or our day), Longfellow might hold a better claim than the Sage of Camden to be able to say, “I contain multitudes.”

A guide at his home at 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass., told me that Longfellow spoke eight languages fluently, could write in 12, and may have known phrases in up to 50 altogether, since his home contained books in up to that many languages. The guy not only wrote sympathetically about Native-Americans in “The Song of Hiawatha,” but did so in the meter of a Finnish epic. Talk about multicultural!

The “Wayside Inn” of the title, Longfellow told intimates, was based on a similar establishment, the 200-year-old Red Horse Tavern, in Sudbury, Mass., and several of the figures in the book—the poet, the Sicilian, and the theologian—were not only real but had spent summer months at the inn.

Nine years after his decision to leave his teaching position at Harvard, Longfellow had made a successful transition into becoming the first American to make his living entirely and successfully as a poet. His publisher’s decision to bring out
Tales of a Wayside Inn in an edition of 15,000 recognized that level of success.

But at the hour of his greatest professional triumph, Longfellow would be indelibly touched, as so many families were, North and South, in those years, by the terrible bloodshed taking place in the South.

An abolitionist who had welcomed the election of Lincoln as “the redemption of the country,” Longfellow was already noting by April 23, 1861 the “weary days of wars and rumors of wars, and marching of troops, and flags waving and people talking.” Within a few more months, I believe, his view of the conflict would alter further by troubles closer to home.

In July, his beloved wife Fanny died when her light summer dress caught fire as he was using hot wax. Longfellow—who had tried to save her by wrapping her in a library rug, then by wrapping himself around her when that didn’t work—was disconsolate—a gloom that deepened when, the day after her funeral, his father-in-law also died.

Longfellow’s unwillingness not to put another family member in harm’s way might account for why he forbade son Charles from joining the Union Army, even if he agreed that the cause was just and so many of Harvard friends were joining the fight.

Charles Longfellow loved adventure and was dismissive of danger—he had lost his left thumb after a gun accident at the age of 11—and, scorning the life of a privileged family, wanted to try his luck against the world. Nor surprisingly, the 19-year-old ran away to Northern Virginia, where he joined the First Massachusetts Cavalry, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

Only two days after Tales of a Wayside Inn was published, Charles was wounded in a skirmish near New Hope, Virginia. He sustained what could have been a mortal wound in the back. His father and brother Ernest, immediately notified of this, traveled to Washington and brought him home to Cambridge. Luckily, the teenager recovered and became an inveterate traveler, filling his journals with accounts of his encounters with Europe and especially the Far East, before he succumbed to pneumonia in 1893.

If you’re even slightly interested in historic travel, you should make it a point to visit the
Longfellow National Historic Site (shown in the picture accompanying this post, which I took while on vacation last month) the next time you’re in the Boston area, for several reasons:

1) You’ll learn not only about one usually talented man—Longfellow—but several generations of fascinating people: John Vassall, the West Indies merchant forced to flee his gorgeous Georgian mansion here beyond of Loyalist tendencies; George Washington, who made this house his headquarters during the siege of Boston; and Nathaniel Appleton, who, as a wealthy man, was in a position to buy this house and present it to his daughter and son-in-law as a wedding present;

2) Longfellow’s children remained in the house for more than 30 years after his death in 1882, so unlike the Edith Wharton and Mark Twain mansions elsewhere in New England, there was no need to reconstruct the look of the home in its heyday; and

3) It’s a great opportunity to learn something about a poet who deserves rediscovery and reevaluation.

Longfellow’s once lofty, even unparalleled, reputation has declined, in my opinion, for a couple of reasons. First, he came to be viewed as a children’s author, practically the kiss of death. There was not only his poem “The Children’s Hour,” famous for the phrase “the patter of little feet,” but that first line of “Paul Revere’s Ride”—“Listen, my children, and you shall hear…” Second, he gave voice to middle-class, Victorian morality, extolling the virtues of hard work and religious piety—and posterity loves rebellion much more.

I think he deserves closer study. To start with, so many of his verses have passed into popular memory for a good reason: they’re skillful. He possessed a wide-ranging intellect and cultural sophistication that surpassed Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who, let me hasten to add, were no slouches in this department. Unlike many of his contemporaries—and, I should say, many of the greatest figures of 20th and 21st century American literature—Longfellow was blessedly tolerant of those who did not share his Anglo-Saxon background.

If you want, consider Longfellow American poetry’s answer to Broadway composer Oscar Hammerstein II: a figure whose seeming surface sentimentality belies a man of considerable intellect, sophistication, and liberal belief in the best possibilities of Americans

Monday, November 24, 2008

This Day in Religious History (Riots Drive Pope Pius IX From Rome)

November 24, 1848—Toward the end of a year of revolution, nationalist sentiment, riots and assassinations, Pope Pius IX was forced to flee in disguise from Quirinal Palace, the longtime papal summer residence, to Gaeta, a city in central Italy, where he would remain, along with several cardinals, for nearly a year. The experience so embittered the pope—who had enjoyed a reputation as a reformer upon his elevation to the papacy—that he became the most reactionary pope of modern times for the rest of his 31-year reign, the longest of any pontiff.

Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti assumed the tiara in 1846 as the best hope of modernizing and liberalizing the Vatican in at least a generation. He possessed connections to Italian liberals; believed strongly in missions to Latin America because of his own service there as a young priest stationed in Chile; and, at 54, possessed an energy, friendliness, sense of humor, and relative youth that would not be seen in the heir of St. Peter until Pope John Paul II.

And if that wasn’t enough to convince an increasingly restless Italian population, there was this: a dove had even sat on the roof of his carriage as it neared Rome. If that didn’t indicate he was blessed by the Holy Spirit, many of the most devout of his time felt, then what did?

The expectations surrounding Pius were staggering. Unfortunately, they were soon outweighed by the challenges facing him.

Pius’ long reign was shaped indelibly by the events of 1848. I’ve long wanted to write a post on an event in Europe in this tumultuous year. For readers who want a sense of what it was like to live then, think of 1989, when Communism fell all over Eastern Europe and even the Communist government of China appeared on the brink of collapse.

The “Springtime of Nations,” they called it. Wherever you turned in Europe, nationalist and democratic forces were rising against governments suffering from arteriosclerosis as the post-Napoleonic order established at the Congress of Vienna began to come apart: Germany, Poland, Austria, France, and Italy. (Even in Ireland, where people were still coping with the aftereffects of the Potato Famine, a revolt planned by the “Young Ireland” group was planned but quickly failed.)

Revolution was coming to Italy, too. Milan and Venice were revolting against their Austrian rulers; Naples, Tuscany and Piedmont imposed constitutional constraints on their sovereigns. The Papal States were broiling over with their own ferment, partly because Pius’ predecessor, Gregory XVI, and the ultramontane faction within the Vatican had been so insistent on the need of the Pope to be a temporal ruler.

Within a year and a half after taking over, Pius signaled that things would change under him, with such measures as:

* A general amnesty for all political exiles and prisoners;
* An advisory council consisting overwhelmingly of laymen, presided over by a cardinal;
* A Roman Civic Guard; and
* A Cabinet Council.

But Pius began to get cold feet not long after these acts, and he grew even more cautious when faced with calls for his blessings on plans to expel Austria by force.

Of all the ironies of this whole year, this might have been the greatest. At the time of his election by the College of Cardinals, Pius was considered so hostile to Austrian interests that there was a real question whether a voting bloc would prevent a favorable vote for him.

But Pius could not abide a war waged against another Catholic country. Nor did he want any part of a federal Italy led by a pope, telling Italians to be faithful to the princes who then ruled the land. When he finally made that position unequivocally clear, chaos ensued:

* Two of Pius’ chief ministers resigned, exhausted from trying to tamp down anti-coup sentiment;
* A third chief minister, the layman Pellegrino Rossi, was stabbed to death as he arrived to open the new parliament;
* The radicals presented Pius with a list of demands he rejected out of hand, including the abolition of all papal temporal power;
* The following day, Pius—transformed almost overnight from an object of near-veneration to one of hatred—was besieged in the Quirinal by an armed mob, which shot Monsignor Palma, the secretary for Latin letters, as he stood in a window.

Nine days ensued in which the Pope, watched over by the Civic Guard, sweated out what to do. Finally, he made it out with the help of two diplomats: the Bavarian Minister, Count Spaur, and the Ambassador of France, the Duc d’Harcourt.

The account of the escape offered by Nicholas Cheetham in Keepers of the Keys certainly has its comic-opera elements. The way the envoys effected the escape was ingenious: Harcourt paid a formal call on the pope. It seemed to be going on for an awfully long time. But what was really happening was this: the diplomat was reading aloud passages from a newspaper—the same kind of time-wasting trick that U.S. Senators possessed of iron lungs and kidneys perform when they decide to mount a filibuster.

Meanwhile, the pope’s valet was frantically helping his boss into an ordinary priest’s dress. When that process was completed, the two slipped down a back passage into the courtyard, then into a waiting carriage, and finally to an arranged meeting with Spaur. Then they made it into a larger vehicle before reaching Gaeta in the Neapolitan region. It would take another nearly another two years before Pius, with the help of French and Austrian troops, re-entered Rome.

But it was the beginning of the end of the longtime temporal power of the pope, and the increasingly secular trend of one of the prime forces behind Italian nationalism, Count Cavour, only further hardened Pius’ opposition to the new order in Italy and Europe as a whole.

Eamon Duffy paints a tragic picture of the pontiff in Saints and Sinners, noting the anomaly of a man who, though possessed of undeniable personal friendliness, wit and warm, became increasingly tied to intolerant forces that insisted on papal supremacy. Two of his acts were particularly egregious in later years: his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, in which he flatly denied the chance that any pope could “reconcile himself with progress, liberalism, and recent civilization”, and the proclamation of papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra as visible head of all Christians.

The statements provided years of talking points to anti-Catholic bigots in America and Britain. It would take a century for the damage to begin to be undone with the Second Vatican Council—and in certain ways that work is still incomplete.

Quote of the Day (Dale Carnegie, on How to Get Ahead in Life)

“Arouse in the other person an eager want.”—One of the three “Fundamental Techniques for Handling People” listed in How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1936)

(Carnegie, born on this date in 1888, wrote one of the most influential books in the entire American literature of self-help—a tradition that, arguably, extends all the way back to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The idea for this project came from Leon Shimkin of Simon & Schuster, who, after taking Carnegie’s course, persuaded him to have a secretary take down notes from the class. The resulting book—along with another Shimkin discovery of the time, J.K. Lasser’s Your Business Tax—helped provide a steady cash flow for the publishing house for the next several decades. There’s no doubt that if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby had been a real-life person, he would have saved every penny he had to purchase the Carnegie title and memorize its lessons by heart.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

This Day in Film History (Gish Silent Finale “The Wind” Opens)

November 23, 1928—With the silent films that made her a star under assault by the talkies, Lillian Gish appeared in The Wind, her last film in the old medium—and one that taxed her physical and emotional resources as perhaps no other actress has been, before or since.

I've racked my brain for other actresses who were pushed so close to their physical limits, and the only two that I can come up with are:

a) Tippi Hedren, forced to endure an assault by countless real birds, rather than mechanical ones, in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (“One of the birds tied on my shoulder only just missed scraping its claw into my eye,” she said in an interview for The Times of London earlier this year)

b) Kate Winslet, who supposedly was dubbed "Kate Whines a Lot" after being continually drenched with ice-cold water, catching colds, and running up fevers while being filmed in Titanic—then had the man who came up with the nickname, director James Cameron, begin calling her "Kate Weighs a Lot" when she put on a few pounds (not exactly gallant behavior on the part of the Oscar-winning, self-styled “King of the World,” if you ask me!).

Now, Gish would have been seriously pushed to the edge merely by virtue of her Wind role as Letty Mason, whose pampered Virginia background leaves her unprepared for both the consequences of her actions as well as the harsh Western landscape (embodied by that omnipresent titular wind) that restricts her at every turn.

True, Gish’s most famous collaborator, D.W. Griffith, had continually cast her as a virgin threatened with rape and all kinds of other mayhem. But after she ended her association with him, she had been cast in psychologically more complicated roles by Swedish director Victor Seastrom, first in The Scarlet Letter, then in The Wind.

In the course of the latter movie, Gish’s Letty Mason has to:

* move to a godforsaken, next-worst-thing-to-a-shack abode in Texas owned by her cousin;
* lose her shelter even there when her cousin grows jealous of the attention her husband is paying this newcomer;
* wed, on the rebound, a tongue-tied cowboy she doesn’t love;
* fend off a rape when a flirtatious stranger on a train comes to the house when her husband is away—then, when he won’t take no for an answer, she pulls the trigger of a gun in the best “Thelma and Louise” style.
* dispose of the corpse as the wind tosses her to and fro; and
* watch from her window as the wind uncovers the dead man by blowing the thin strip of sand away.

If you’re an actress trying to negotiate a character’s shifting psyche, your best possibility for maintaining mental health is remembering the famous Hitchcock dictum, “It’s only a movie.”

But matters get infinitely more difficult if, like Gish, you’re forced to endure "one of my worst experiences in filmmaking." Here's just some of what this actress, considerably tougher than suggested by her waif-like appearance (she’d volunteered to perform her own stunt for Griffith by floating on an ice floe for the climactic scene in Way Down East), had to endure for The Wind:

* The Mojave Desert location shooting featured heat that reached 120 degrees—temperatures so intense that film emulsion melted, rendering much of her hard work for nought (this problem was ingeniously solved by freezing the footage, which was then defrosted and developed back in Culver City.)
* At one point in this environment, Gish absent-mindedly grabbed the metal handle of her car—and for her pains suffered second-degree pains.
* Sand was blown at her by eight airplane propellers.
* Her hair was burned by the hot sun.

Today, The Wind is regarded as one of the summits of silent cinema. When it premiered, however, its box office was poor—and that was even after preview audiences had been so markedly cool to the downbeat original ending that MGM studio production head Irving Thalberg was forced to ask for a more upbeat finale.

In Lulu in Hollywood, fellow silent-screen actress Louise Brooks suggested that MGM greased the skids for Gish’s departure. In any case, like her contemporary Mary Pickford, Gish had to realize that her previous ingénue roles were unsustainable as she approached middle age.

So Gish went back to the stage for a number of years, and, when she wasn’t caring for her ailing mother (the reason why she was forced to turn down Tennessee Williams when he asked her to originate the role of Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire), returning for the occasional supporting character role in Duel in the Sun or Night of the Hunter.

Gish’s last film, The Whales of August, in which she played Bette Davis’ younger sister (quite a feat, given that she was 15 years Davis’ senior), came out in 1987—nearly three-quarters of a century after her first appearance in front of the camera for a new art form she would do so much to advance.

One of Gish’s biographers, Charles Affron, was dismayed to discover after her death that the actress occasionally bent the truth. Maybe so, but she sought to put the truth of life into everything she did onscreen, and she could be witheringly funny in comparing today’s cinema to the one of her youth: “The love scenes I did years ago were sensitive and romantic, but in today's (filmed) lovemaking, couples are trying to swallow each other's tonsils.”

Quote of the Day (Ezekiel, on Tending to Broken Humanity)

“I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment.”—Ezekiel 34:16

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This Day in Classical Music History (Ravel's "Bolero" Premieres)

November 22, 1928—Dancer Ida Rubinstein premiered a ballet written for her by Maurice Ravel, which she performed on a table on the stage of the Paris Opera rather than in the simulated factory setting he preferred. But with time, classical music listeners embraced Bolero wholeheartedly—not to mention aficionados of Bo Derek years later, in the movie 10.

Rubinstein’s interpretation of the material mirrored the one that Blake Edwards took in directing Ms. Derek in the film whose title became a synonym for the ultimate in feminine beauty: it was all about the riveted gaze of the lust-stricken male. Rubinstein’s dancing brought the ballet’s males mad with desire; in the 1979 Edwards movie, Dudley Moore cannot move fast enough when he learns that the young woman who enraptures him finds the Ravel work indispensable for lovemaking.

Oddly enough, the industrial setting that Ravel had wanted for what turned out to be his most famous work resonated with his general approach to musical craftsmanship. Igor Stravinsky put it memorably when he called Ravel “a Swiss clockmaker.” Everything in the piece had to contribute to the impact of the whole—an idea Ravel had taken to heart ever since he’d read it in one of his major cultural influences, Edgar Allan Poe.

If there was any country the composer preferred to France, it wasn’t Switzerland, however, but Spain. He continually pointed to Spanish and Basque ancestors on his mother’s side of the family, though some musicologists question the authenticity of this claim.

The very title of this composition associated indelibly with sensuality certainly invokes Spanish elements. But let’s take a closer look at the term “bolero.” You’ve seen or heard one of these dances, right? What do you remember about it? It’s lively, right? With plenty of castanets and singing, correct?

Now listen to the Ravel piece again. Hear any castanets? Singing? And for several minutes after it starts, would you describe it as lively? Didn’t think so.

There’s only one conclusion you can draw, faithful reader: Ravel’s Bolero bears as much relation to the Spanish dance as the Coen brothers’ film Fargo does to the North Dakota town (or even, for that matter, to country-music songstress Donna Fargo).

Having lost, at least temporarily, the fight over the setting for his piece, Ravel was not about to yield in a struggle over the music itself, even if he called it, with tongue in cheek, “a masterpiece…without a note of music in it.”

A year after the Paris Opera performance, Arturo Toscanini introduced to Americans at the New York Philharmonic the “17-minute crescendo” by the Frenchman-who-wanted-to-be-Spanish. None too pleased by the way the maestro rushed his musicians through their paces, even through the explosive finale with its booming brass, Ravel let the conductor know in no uncertain terms that he was out of line.

Though Bolero is famously slow--repeating its two parts nine times, with only the most subtle shifts in orchestration tightening and driving the effect—Ravel completed it as the result of a fast but necessary improvisation. He had to ditch his original plan—Fandango, the orchestration of some pieces from Iberia—when he discovered that the rights to the material had already been assigned to someone else.

Not a great way to start his four-month tour of America in 1928. But while on vacation on Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ravel was inspired with another Spanish theme. The result, of course, is now a staple of the classical-music repertory, not to mention an unforgettable element of film music.

Song Lyric of the Day (Billy Joel, on JFK)

“J.F.K. blown away, what else do I have to say?”—Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” from his Storm Front CD (1989)

(Billy Joel’s reference to the assassination in Dallas is as short, brutal, concussive and propulsive as that event in November 22, 1963. The rest of his song races through the following 26 years far more breathlessly than the pre-JFK portion, in much the same way that we baby boomers felt the life of this nation and world spinning out of control during this period.

“What else do I have to say?” Many have said plenty, as the literature inspired by the assassination, fiction and nonfiction, shows no end of drying up. A good guide to the conspiracy theories—as well as the better books on the subject—can be found in
this Web page by John McAdams.

Why has the JFK assassination continued to haunt Americans, in a fashion similar to Lincoln’s but far different from Garfield’s or McKinley’s? Several reasons, I think:

* The list of people who wanted JFK dead, for one reason or another, was lengthy;
* Like Lincoln, JFK was a practical politician who nevertheless appealed to the best, most idealistic instincts of Americans, and as such he held the best hope for somehow bridging the ideological, cultural, and racial-ethnic divides that were already opening up in the Sixties;

* People found it impossible to believe that a man gifted far beyond the norm—with riches, the best education, political power, glamour, a seemingly happy family life—could lose all of it in an instant to one lone maniac. In other words, there just had to be a larger, more seemingly rational, albeit malignant, reason for him to be struck down.

“It is going to be for the next generation of American patriots to solve the case of JFK’s murder,” writes journalist William Hughes in an op-ed piece for
this week’s Irish Echo. After a cloud of witnesses, the obfuscation of government agencies such as the CIA and FBI, and the passage of two generations, that hope, to say the least, is highly unlikely.

I read somewhere once that the Kennedy family would prefer that JFK’s birthday be commemorated rather than his death. I don’t believe in hagiography, but I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request. This Web site from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs—extensive, scholarly, and most of all, objective—is, I believe, an excellent place to start.

Friday, November 21, 2008

This Day in History (Coleman Hawkins’ Birthday Gift)

November 21, 1913—Most boys of the time likely requested a toy or baseball equipment for their birthdays, but Coleman Hawkins got a more unusual piece of his heart’s desire from his mother when he turned nine: a C-melody tenor saxophone.

Cordelia Hawkins could never have guessed that her son—whom she had coaxed into practicing classical music on the piano and cello with rewards--could use this gift to become a jazz virtuoso, as surely as Franz Liszt and Pablo Casals had become on their instruments.

At this point, I have to acknowledge at least some degree of inexactitude about this date, because Coleman Hawkins, for all his volubility with later interviewers, was not always precise about the elementary facts of his life. He said, for instance, that he took composition classes at Washburn College in Topeka, Kans., but the school has no record of his attendance.

Historians believe that November 21, 1904, was his date of birth, despite his insistence that it came later. But this most elegant of gentleman and players also claimed that he was born aboard a transatlantic liner—not, perhaps, entirely realistic given that booking passage might have severely pinched the funds of his middle-class parents (Will and Cordelia Hawkins were, respectively, an electrician and schoolteacher living in St. Joseph, Mo., 50 miles north of Kansas City).

If Cordelia wanted to console herself about this purchase, she could have reasoned that the relatively new saxophone (introduced only about 60 years before Coleman’s birth by Adolphe Sax) had been used by the likes of Berlioz, Bizet, Richard Strauss, and Ravel. Yet when Hawkins began playing, noted Gary Giddins in his marvelous collection of music criticism, Visions of Jazz: The First Century, “it was still regarded as an undisciplined poor relation to other reed instruments.”

“The Hawk” changed all of that, first by soaking up influences wherever he found them—in Cordelia’s own piano and organ playing, the composition theory classes he might have audited at Washburn, the Six Brown Brothers in vaudeville, tenor saxophonist Stump Evans in Kansas City, blue singer Mamie Smith, and Fletcher Henderson—before arriving at his own bright, rhythmic command.

The achievement that cemented “The Hawk’s” mastery of the instrument was his 1939 recording of "Body and Soul. " “If Hawkins’ ‘Body and Soul’ isn’t the single most acclaimed improvisation in jazz’s first hundred years,” writes Giddins, “it is unquestionably a leading contender.” If you want to know why, just listen to this recording on YouTube.

The moral of this tale couldn’t be clearer: Parents, you never know when that inexplicable enthusiasm of your child will transform into a hobby, then an avocation, then what so many of us desire: performing the work we love.

Quote of the Day (T.H. White, on Learning)

“’The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.’”–T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone (1958)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

This Day in Vietnam History (French Establish Garrison at Dien Bien Phu, Destined for Disaster)

November 20, 1953—French colonial forces established a garrison in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, whose location on the border between North Vietnam and Northern Laos, it was hoped, would protect the latter country from Communist subversion and staunch the arms being shipped to Marxist revolutionaries in the former.

Instead of solidifying his position, however, French commander Henri Navarre fell into a trap that resulted in one of his nation’s worst military defeats ever—and began the long demise of its colonial empire.

In a postmortem of the catastrophe, the French War College noted that Navarre and his staff had ignored intelligence that did not correspond with their prejudices, and had instead “substituted their preconceived idea of the Vietminh for the facts.” Does this sound to you like Donald Rumsfeld dismissing the warning of respected generals like Eric Shinseki that occupying Iraq and quelling an emergency required many thousands more troops than he had committed to the task?

How often, for instance, does a commander get warnings from his three top subordinates strongly disapproving of the action? Yet that’s exactly what happened when Generals Cogny, Gilles and Dechaux protested Operation Castor, the airborne assault on Dien Bien Phu. Dechaux’s objections were especially cogent, lengthy and disturbing, citing weather, antiaircraft fire, aircraft maintenance issues, inadequate time-over-target, and attrition of fuel, engines and airmen. (You see, Dien Bien Phu was located 183 miles from the French airfield complex near Hanoi—meaning that planes could spend only 15 minutes over the airfield and carrying capacity would be curtailed.)

Now, if you or I were Navarre, I suspect we’d ask something like this: “Wait a sec, mon ami! I already knew we can’t reinforce or resupply the airhead from the road. Now you’re telling me there are going to be problems from the air, too? Let’s have some wine and come up with a good Plan B, okay?”

But no. Navarre could not believe that Vo Nguyen Giap, the military strategist of the Viet Minh—a former schoolteacher and lawyer, hardly a toughened soldier like himself—could defeat superior French élan.

Moreover, he could not conceive that Giap could adapt his tactics from earlier in the eight-year war, when he’d received a good pasting by the tough French troops. Instead of a full-fledged frontal assault, Giap was now readying a siege.

In his Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow quoted one Communist veteran of the battle as follows: “Now the shovel became our most important weapon. Everyone dug tunnels and tenches under fire, sometimes hitting hard soil and only advancing five or six yards a day. But we gradually surrounded Dienbienphu with an underground network several hundred miles long, and we could tighten the noose around the French.”

Most of all, Navarre could not imagine what Giap was prepared to do: lug heavy artillery up the mountains surrounding the valley, where they could blast the French garrison at will; even suffer appalling losses (20,000 Viet Minh vs. 3,000 French killed in the battle for Dien Bien Phu alone), as long as it meant that the French public’s will to resist was wearing thin.

Navarre had broken one of the major rules of military engagement: Never underestimate your enemy.

From the safety of his Saigon headquarters, Navarre gave the order that left the crème de la crème of France’s best fighters outnumbered, outgunned, and cut off from help. In March 1954, Giap began to close the trap by attacking the garrison. Two months later, the prize fell into his hands: the surrender of 9,500 French colonial troops.

Having bankrolled the French government in its nine-year war with the Communists, the American government was not faced with the question of what to do. At least one young senator had strong misgivings about the situation.

Midway through the desperate two-month siege, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts stood on the floor of the Senate and said, with cold-eyed realism: “I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”

The crucial figure, of course, was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Today, it’s clear that he was not the grinning simpleton that so many liberals of the time made him out to be. At the same time, it’s important to recall that he was not quite the critic of the “military-industrial complex” that he blasted in his farewell speech to the American people.

Eisenhower’s administration looked into the possibility of using nuclear arms to come to the aid of the French. He even contemplated putting American troops in harm’s way.

In the end, he decided not to, for a simple reason that made the aging soldier-statesman as much a realist as his eventual successor in the Oval Office, Senator Kennedy: he would not wage unilateral war against a foe thousands of miles away. “Without allies and associates,” he told his staff once, “the leader is just an adventurer, like Genghis Khan.”

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” President Kennedy would observe in the White House. So it proved for the French at Dien Bien Phu, as it would for the Americans’ own experience in Southeast Asia.

Quote of the Day (Jeremy Thorpe, on Loyalty vs. Self-Preservation)

"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life." – Former British Member of Parliament and Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, commenting on the 1962 “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sacked seven Cabinet ministers

(Thorpe had his own problems with friends, as British voters familiar with Rinkagate will remember. But over the next four years, the spirit of the retired pol’s irreverent quip is going to be remembered as the new American administration attempts to gain traction in our nation’s capital--and the not-so-loyal opposition attempts to induce a fall.

I don’t care what your political leanings are—somehow, sometime, some friend of the President is going to get in trouble, either for financial reasons or a personal peccadillo. Never fails.

Every politician adept enough to do what it takes to make it into the Oval Office will become, all of a sudden, Shakespeare’s Prince Hal as he morphs into King Henry V, rejecting his fun-but-now-embarrassing old companion of the revels John Falstaff.

The key question will be how much remains sticking to President Obama when the whole mess ends

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Theater Review: "A Man for All Seasons," by Robert Bolt, at the Roundabout Theater Co.

Like many New York theatergoers, I suspect, I found it hard to efface the memory of Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons when I heard that Frank Langella would be tackling the role.

Don't get me wrong: I'd admired Langella's command of the stage all the way back to Dracula when I was in high school – or, over 10 years ago, his great comic turn as Noel Coward's alter ego Gary Essenden in Present Laughter.

But when I headed to one of the last previews before opening night a few weeks ago in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of the Robert Bolt historical drama, I didn't know how he might measure up. Perhaps my uncertainty stemmed from those roles' generous, unapologetic slabs of ham, whereas More requires a martyr’s self-abnegation.

I needn't have worried. Langella allows us to see this hero of conscience with fresh eyes. From the moment he appeared onstage at the Roundabout's flagship venue, American Airlines Theater, he presented a character who, oddly enough, had something in common with his more flamboyant roles.

A Character Who Fills the Room…An Actor Who Fills the Stage
At his full 6-ft.-4-in. frame, Langella fills a room, making it easy to understand how the statesman and intellectual he plays has become accustomed to the best of everything—the best books, the best wines, the best house, the best family, the best society, and the best perquisites of power. Like the "wise men" of recent Washington vintage, he gets called on whenever a head of state desperately needs a calm, experienced counselor. (And, in truth, the only unconvincing note in this astute performance comes when his More enters the living room just after having performed daily vespers.)

But the way of the cross that England's most powerful statesman must undergo forces More to lose everything but what he grasps most stubbornly: the autonomy of his own soul.

At one point or another, that assertion of will drives to distraction everyone in his orbit: the wife, daughter, son-in-law, best friend, and Archbishop of Canterbury, all of whom try to convince him to go along with Henry VIII’s demand for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

But More will not be yield. An Atticus Finch of Renaissance England, this lawyer-hero might appear almost insufferably decent, but for this fact: his stand is so lonely that it exposes to danger not only himself, but also his family.

In a thousand natural ways, director Fred Zinnemann "opened up" the film (which I saw again, one week after the Roundabout production, for the fourth or fifth time, with my friends Brian and Wilhelmine, at Suffern, NY's wondrous Lafayette Theater).

For example, in the final courtroom scene, he began with More stepping through a narrow passageway into a wider frame—like an ancient Christian entering the Coliseum before being tossed to the lions—before concluding with a master synchronization of Scofield's magnificent voice and body movements. (I discussed this in a prior post.)

The 1966 movie became one of the most deserving Best Picture winners in Oscar history with its expert direction by Zinnemann, a sterling cast, and a screenplay by Bolt that often flashes with Shavian wit.

Reworking Familiar Material
But Zinnemann also, by necessity, reshaped and narrowed this play that depends heavily on words – not just those its playwright gives his protagonist, but the words that More is forced to weigh.

Hughes' stage production restores much of this material (notably, the seriocomic appearances of Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys) while accepting one of the film's major departures: the disappearance of the "Common Man" character who popped up periodically, a la Bertolt Brecht, to comment sardonically on events.

Fortunately, Hughes figures out stage counterparts for some of the notable scenes in the film. On screen, Henry’s vast entourage and More’s family realize the two friends’ growing estrangement on the divorce issue when the voice of the monarch (a scene-stealing turn by Robert Shaw) comes carrying all the way across the grand lawn of More’s estate and into the house.

On stage, the unequal power dynamic between the two men is suggested by the constantly shifting commands of Henry (played by Patrick Page, who looks like a younger version of Tim Curry) about when and how more should sit. As we watch, we become acutely aware what’s dawning on More: the royal is utterly unable to contain enthusiasm, ego or anger, and is all the more dangerous for this capriciousness.

In addition to Langella and Page, several other actors acquitted themselves with unusual skill:

* Zach Grenier brought a growling menace to More’s Machiavellian successor as Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell.
* Jeremy Strong adeptly handled Richard Rich, the kind of small man who rises to the top during political upheavals—as long as they don’t scruple about conscience. He demonstrated how painful—literally—Richard’s political education in Cromwell’s service could be during the act-ender in which he screamed as Cromwell turned his hand for a long period under a candle.
* Hannah Cabell, as Margaret More, the daughter who, centuries ahead of her time, made her father proud with her learning—and endured the anguish of watching him caught up in the viper’s nest of the Tudor court.

A Controversial Production
Reviewers have divided sharply on the need for the revival at all. The naysayers have several issues, the two most common being the lack of a dramatic arc (i.e., we know just what will happen) and the play’s exaggeration of More’s virtue. This hero acted in the name of an absolutist institution, the Roman Catholic Church, they say, and in a supreme irony this politician who hounded Protestants himself became a martyr. Bolt seems to be anticipating their objections right in the play, when he has the all-too-worldly Cardinal Wolsey sniping at More for the latter’s “moral squint.”

I’ll dispose of the “no dramatic arc” objection first. We know what happened to Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, but that has never stopped countless actors from tackling these parts.

As for the second charge: 1) The critics are seeking the kind of impossible goody-two-shoes they blame Bolt for foisting on the world; 2) Protestants of the 16th century persecuted Catholics with a vigor that equaled Catholics’ harassment of themselves; and 3) In judging historical figures, one must assess not just whether they measured up to the standards of our time but if an alternative ethical standard existed in their own to which they could look. As Jason Kuznicki on the "Positive Liberty" blog has convincingly argued, “Until the Enlightenment, wherever an official tolerance existed, it was almost always a particular and revocable license to practice one specific minority religion, and to do so only under highly restrictive conditions.” Unlike late 18th-century America, say, where Thomas Jefferson could have looked to a significant abolitionist strain if he wanted to free his slaves, no tradition of tolerance existed in early 16th century England or the continent that might make him question his pursuit of heretics.

The concern for the rule of law that Bolt’s More enunciated in A Man for All Seasons was something he practiced in his own life. As Peter Ackroyd relates in The Life of Thomas More, the author of Utopia was far more careful, objective and worldly-wise in reviewing cases, for instance, than his predecessor as Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey.

In an excellent post-show discussion, Anne Prescott, a Renaissance literature professor at Columbia University, pointed out the ways that the show diverged from history. Some were amusing (the real-life More preferred beer to wine and grew a beard in the Tower of London), some involved poetic license (four children were reduced to one—More's scholarly daughter Margaret), and some took substantial liberties with characters (in real life, the martyr referred to Protestants with excremental imagery).

For all of that, she noted, Bolt’s play, unlike many others, got the essentials of his life right. I couldn’t agree more. Listen to the trial scene in either the play or move, then compare it to the actual transcript of the proceedings. Tell me if he doesn’t adhere to it with an extraordinary level of fidelity.

The audience seems far more attuned to many reviewers to the value of Bolt’s message. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, the critic-blogger Terry Teachout pointed out the continuing relevance and universal of More’s great response when his son-in-law William Roper says he’d “cut a great road through the law” to eliminate one of Henry’s spies: “"And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, the laws all being flat?"

“Bolt didn't write ‘A Man for All Seasons’ in order to persuade those who saw it to go out and vote Labour,” Teachout observes. “His purpose was to make viewers of all political persuasions reflect on the dangerous consequences of using extralegal means to pursue desirable short-term ends. The result is a deeply political play that is neither liberal nor conservative -- and one that succeeds as a work of art.”

Or, as I overheard a middle-aged female moviegoer say to her friend the day I saw the film at the Lafayette: “I wish our leaders in Washington could see this.” While not the kind of incubator for totalitarianism that Henry’s England was (Prescott noted that one of the king’s contemporaries pointed out that he possessed the dangerous desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), contemporary Washington is filled with opportunists of all political stripes—a metropolis of Richard Riches rather than Thomas Mores.

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, at Gettysburg)

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”—Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address,” delivered at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Penn., Nov. 19, 1863

(Sorry, folks, but Lincoln did not dash off these 272 economically chosen words on the back of an envelope; he’d been working on it since November 2, when he was invited to make a “few appropriate remarks” following the famed orator Edward Everett. When he wanted relief from writing the speech and monitoring the progress of the Civil War, he went to Ford’s Theatre to see The Marble Heart, starring a young actor named John Wilkes Booth. Though some Democratic newspapers derided Lincoln’s three-minute speech at the gravesite—and the President himself even pronounced it a “flat failure”--other papers recognized it immediately for the majestic oration it was.

On the train back to Washington, Lincoln felt spent, dizzy—the onset of varioloid, a mild form of smallpox, that would inflict him for the next three weeks. “Now I have something I can give everybody,” he chuckled. But he had already done that with his stirring words earlier that day.

Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, while tendentious at times, also makes you see the speech anew, the way that the President sought to make Americans see the battle and the wider war in a fresh way. Only four months before, the spot from which he spoke had served as the center of the Union line in the Civil War’s bloodiest engagement.

Not long after the battle ended, rains and wind began to erode the shallow, hastily arranged graves. The ground was threatening to become a public health emergency before funds were arranged for a more appropriate, permanent resting place for the fallen Union dead.

Metaphorically, as Wills shows, Lincoln’s address purified the atmosphere surrounding the war, as the cemetery had done with the casualties. It sought to redefine the war not simply as a struggle to preserve the Union but to bring about “a new birth of freedom” in the destruction of slavery. He neatly accomplished this rhetorical trick in the very first sentence, when he looked past the Constitution—a compromise document shamefully silent on “the peculiar institution”—to the Declaration of Independence—written “four score and seven years ago”—as the true creation of the American republic.

For years, schoolchildren dreaded having to memorize this immortal American speech. I think teachers have gone at it the wrong way.

First, they shouldn’t even begin inflicting it on elementary school children without the maturity to grasp what it’s all about.

Second, teachers should take the address apart first—particularly showing the extended metaphor of birth-death-rebirth that threads the whole fabric together—and ask students if they know or have read of any soldiers today who have given “the last full measure of devotion” to their country.

THEN students would be able to recall it, word for every imperishable word.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

This Day in Western Music (Denver Founded)

November 17, 1858—Crossing cottonwood sticks on a hill overlooking the South Platte River, William Larimer Jr. staked a claim on the east side of Cherry Creek, across from the existing settlement of Auraria. Like much of the way that the American West was founded, the creation of the city of Denver was marked as much by wishful thinking and dumb luck as by geographic logic.

Let’s start with the name. Larimer (his preferred prefix, “General,” came courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Militia) had come from Pittsburgh, where he’d made some serious money in the railroad business, out to eastern Kansas, hoping to make money off the gold fever sweeping the area by picking up and selling tracts of land. Wouldn’t it be great if he could get this spot named the seat of Arapahoe County? He’d even figured out a foolproof way of doing so—name it after James W. Denver, the territorial governor of Kansas.

A great idea. Too bad it ran into reality.

At the time Larimer was sizing up this rise of land, Gov. Denver was doing what one official after another probably wanted to do in the territory: washing his hands of a bad situation. Imagine today’s Iraq, only that instead of Islamic factions you had slaveholders vs. abolitionists, all fighting over the Lecompton Constitution, a device by which the slaveholders tried to foist the peculiar institution on an outraged free soil majority.

Denver had come to this territory originally as President James Buchanan’s commissioner of Indian affairs—certainly not an easy job in those times, but a real day at the beach compared with running interference between the President, the abolitionists and the slaveholders. At least 50 political killings (including a massacre organized by John Brown, later of Harpers Ferry fame) on both sides were documented. No wonder the territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

In fact, slaveholders from Georgia had already appeared in this part of the territory before Larimer. The “Russell Party,” organized by a band of brothers from Georgia, had planted the settlement of Auraria only two weeks before. They didn’t stay long, however, leaving Larimer with the fame of being the founder of the great metropolis of the Rockies.

From 1870 to 1890, a network of railroads made Denver THE place to be in banking, minting, mining and supplies, not to mention agriculture. Larimer died in 1875, but early on he could sense which way the wind was blowing. He couldn’t even stop boosting the city to his wife and kids, writing them in Leavenworth: “It is well the Pilgrims landed upon Plymouth Rock and settled up that country before they saw this one or that would now remain unsettled. Everyone will soon be flocking to Denver for the most picturesque country in the world, with fine air, good water, and everything to make man happy and live to a good old age."

Fifty years after its founding, Denver was selected as the site of the 1908 Democratic National Convention. The Democrats didn’t win that contest, but they had better luck 100 years later, when the running mates they nominated in the same city, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, swept to victory.

Quote of the Day (Richard Nixon)

"I have earned every cent. And in all of my years in public life I have never obstructed justice. People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.”—Richard Nixon to 400 Associated Press managing editors, November 17, 1973

(By the time Nixon said this, many people were already inclined to guffaw. Within four months, others would join them, as the White House announced that the President would pay $432,787.13 in back taxes plus interest. I must admit to being surprised that this statement has not yet made Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—Nixon’s hypocrisy, here at its rankest, would almost guarantee a place in that reference, because it is so memorable.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (Nixon Signs Alaska Pipeline Bill)

November 16, 1973—Over a month after an international oil cartel imposed an embargo on America in retaliation for American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, Richard M. Nixon signed the Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. The bill—part of a larger “Project Independence” that, the President claimed, would wean Americans from dependence on foreign oil in seven years--did little or nothing to curb demand. It did, though, inaugurate an era in which Alaska stagnated, in the worlds of New Republic writer Charles Homans, "in the hands of a single ruling party bolstered by a monolithic extraction economy."

New Yorkers were inclined in the recently concluded Presidential election to laugh off the idea of the governor of Alaska even contemplating being a heartbeat away from the President. The leader of such a state had never handled the kind of complicated problems that the mayor of New York City—“the 51st state,” in Norman Mailer’s famous phrase—did on a regular basis.

Sarah Palin’s lack of experience was as much a disqualifying factor for me as for other voters. But New Yorkers ought not to think they are so much more special than Alaskans. In fact, Gotham might be seen as merely the mirror image of “The Last Frontier.”

True, one electoral entity is blue, the other red; but both are overwhelmingly single-party entities, with their fortunes tied to a fate of a single industry: financial services for New York, oil for Alaska.

The conditions created by the embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—notably including quadrupled oil prices and longer lines at the gas pump—gave the upper hand to those who wanted to extract oil from beneath the ground in Alaska, even if it meant putting at risk environmentally sensitive land. Their eyes alit on the largest oil field ever found in North America: Prudhoe Bay.

Eventually, the oil industry decided that an overland pipeline, crossing 34 major rivers, 800 smaller streams and three mountain ranges, represented the most realistic possibility of getting the gas to market. With the Nixon Administration’s backing, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an enormous engineering project, was constructed, despite environmentalists’ concerns about damaging the wilderness.

Nixon’s optimism about meeting America’s energy needs was misplaced. Six years later, Jimmy Carter would tell the nation, "Beginning this moment, this Nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977–never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation." We know what happened to that. (You were staying awake as the two principal Presidential candidates went at each other rhetorically on energy independence this year, right?)

While Americans’ dependence on foreign oil remained virtually unabated, Alaskans became increasingly enamoured with the money they could make from the project. Oil taxes and revenues funded more than 80 percent of its government, and residents don't have to pay a state income tax.

You would think that governments would more aggressively try to diversify their economies, the way that financial managers have long advised clients to diversify their holdings lest they be exposed to huge risk. It's going to be a nightmare when the gravy train ends for New Yorkers and Alaskans.

Quote of the Day (Ecclesiastes, on Friendship)

“A faithful friend is a strong defense: and he that hath found such an one hath found a treasure.”
--Ecclesiastes 6:14

(Last night, the 30th reunion of my high school class at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J., was a blast! My 401K at work might have taken a beating, but the 100-strong from the class of ’78—and our pals from ’72, ’76, ’77, and ’79, as well as our faculty—proved to me all over again that my friends from way back are, unlike the dollar’s value, enduring and beyond price. Hopefully, in a few days I’ll have pictures and other written material up on this site. In the meantime, my thanks to every who showed up for this exhilarating event!)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“We take care of our health; we lay up money; we make our roof tight, and our clothing sufficient; but who provides wisely that he shall not be wanting in the best property of all, — friends?”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conduct of Life

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Quote of the Day (Toshio Tamogami, On Denying History)

“A country that denies its own history is destined to fall.”—Toshio Tamogami, former head of Japan’s air force, concluding an essay that won a contest denying Japan’s role in sponsoring wartime atrocities, as quoted in “The Ghost of Wartimes Past,” The Economist, November 8, 2008

(Allow me to correct that last quote: A general who denies his country’s past is destined to fall. Not to mention make a fool of himself, and cause his country’s neighbors to shake their hands and ask why it was taking Japan so long to accept that it had a problem in its history.

For a long time, I’ve felt that actors should not be allowed anywhere near keyboards lest they type something beyond their understanding, such as screenplays in which people are expected to speak intelligibly. Now, I’m ready to broaden that blanket prohibition to the military—or, at very least, Japan’s.

I mean, what can you say when Gen. Tamogami was just one of 78 members of Japan’s air force who entered this writing contest? I guess they’ve been reading so many flight plans that they never bothered to read how pissed off other nations were—like the Philippines, North and South Korea, and China—upon reading denials by Japanese leaders and institutions that they ever mistreated anyone in what Tamogami called a “defensive” war.

Maybe if you’re Newt Gingrich—who, when he’s not bloviating for Fox News, has taken to writing what-if scenarios about, among other events, the Battle of Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor and 9/11—you like the idea of alternative histories. But you have to keep that straight from real history.

Fortunately, an anniversary today provides an opportunity for a history lesson that Gen. Tamogami never received all these years. You see, on this date in 1948, Gen. Hideki Tojo—part of the militarist cabal that beat the drums for an unprovoked war against the Chinese in the 1930s, then the virtual dictator of Japan from 1941 to 1944—was found guilty, along with 24 other defendants, of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Tojo and six of his co-defendants were sentenced to death for their roles.

(The charges referred to crimes against other nations, but as far as I’m concerned, Tojo and his associates could just as easily have been charged with crimes against his own country. The recklessness of Tojo’s actions led to a furious reaction by the Allies, who proceeded to launch devastating air raids—and, of course, two nuclear bombs—on the country.)

The 2 ½-year Tokyo trial of Tojo and his compadres has been called the “other Nuremberg trials,” and like that judgment in Germany there were problems with the proceedings. (The Allies decided not to press charges against Emperor Hirohito—and even stopped the trial to persuade Tojo to reconsider his testimony that the monarch knew of and approved his decisions.)

Nonetheless, a mountain of documentary evidence and eyewitness testimony demonstrated conclusively that Tamogami missed the mark in absolving his government and mitigating its culpability for the war:

The Rape of Nanking, in which an estimated 20,000 women became victims of sexual violence at the hands of Japanese soldiers.

* Narcotics trafficking, perpetrated on a wide scale in China to weaken resistance to Japanese aggression.

* Waging aggressive war against the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands and France.

To this day, Japanese textbooks downplay their nation’s role in wartime atrocities. As the Tamogami case proves, perhaps it’s time that these textbooks’ authors should start from scratch and get it right this time. Otherwise, God help the world on the day when Japan’s pacifist constitution is shredded and the military returns to power. )

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Armistice Day Meditation: “The Great War” as Artists’ Spur and Cross

November 11, 1918—“All quiet on the Western Front” became the order of the day as European civilization ceased the suicidal conflict that upended monarchies, fractured empires, killed 9.7 million servicemen and 10 million civilians, and left 21 million with wounds that, figuratively and often literally, never really healed.

Over the 10-plus months I’ve written this blog, I’ve yearned for a chance to write more on two subjects: art and World War I. This post represents an opportunity to redress this failure, at least partially.

In its weekend edition, the Financial Times of London ran an excellent article by art critic and historian Richard Cork, “In the Front Line,” on the toll that the “Great War” (named not because the conflict was so wonderful but because it was so immense) took on avant-garde artists. Sculptors and painters such as Henri Gaudier-Brezeska, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, C.R.W. Nevinson, Jacob Epstein, and Paul Nash expressed their horror in paintings and sculptures—and often fell victim themselves, either in combat or from a breakdown of their spirits.

The artist-poet Isaac Rosenberg gave voice to what might seem at first like hyperbole: “”What is happening to me now is more tragic than the ‘passion play.’ Christ never endured what I endure. It is breaking me completely.”

When I first read this, I felt annoyed at the self-pitying tone, not to mention the audacity of likening oneself to Jesus crucified. But the more I contemplated the situation of Rosenberg (who was killed not long after penning those words), and the more I learned about the suffering and tragic fate of so many artists during these years, I reconsidered. I came to feel that, in some way, Christ was a brother in spirit to every human being who suffered loss during those four years of hell and collective madness.

Art came to play a role in the readjustment of society after the war, in two ways I’d like to highlight. The first came through the profusion of memorials created on both sides of the Atlantic, both small community monuments as well as larger national ones. In her novel The Stone Carvers, the Canadian novelist-poet Jane Urquhart wrote of sculptor Walter Allward’s creation of the Vimy Memorial—and of the transience of it and so much other outdoor public art, despite the exacting labors of its creators:

“The larger, the more impressive the monument, the more miraculous its construction, the more it seems to predict its own fall from grace. Exposed and shining on elevated ground, insisting on prodigious feats of memory from all who come to gaze at it, it appears to be as vulnerable as a flower, and its season seems to be as brief.”

The second way art furthered the halting readjustment of a wounded society came in the form of one of the most bizarre aspects of the war I’d ever come across—one I first heard about on a PBS documentary on the First World War from a European perspective (the title escapes me now, and I can’t find it on the Web at the moment).

In storming well-entrenched positions, soldiers put their faces over trenches, only to end up shot and horribly disfigured. The wounds were so hideous that for the rest of the war and after, civilians didn’t want to be reminded of this and the wounded soldiers ended up isolated. In the postwar period, sculptors such as Anna Coleman Ladd created cosmetic masks that called for paint applied so carefully that the soldiers’ wounds would not be so apparent, at least at first glance. These advances helped to pioneer plastic surgery.

You can read more about this unusual aspect of the war that literally wounded an entire civilization in this NPR report as well as this piece on “Prosthetic Mask Makers of World War I.

Quotes of the Day (James Baldwin and Christiane Taubira, on race in Europe and America, 1951 and 2008)

“The European image of the black man rests finally, one must say, on ignorance, and however expedient this ignorance may be, it is sustained by the objective conditions; whereas the American image of the Negro has been created out of our terrible experience, and it is sustained by an anguished inability to come to terms with that experience, or to conquer the guilty fear and shame which have been its quite inevitable and self-perpetuating legacy. This heritage deprives us entirely of the kind of racial innocence which one finds in Europe. Europeans can blacken their faces with cork because the black man as a human being has no reality in their lives. He is not one of them. But he is one of us—and from this reality there is no escape.”—James Baldwin, “The Negro at Home and Abroad,” The Reporter, November 27, 1951, in his Collected Essays (Library of America, 1998)

“France needs to learn from what is happening with Obama. The U.S. population has grown with Obama, they have overcome their prejudices….Such an experience is impossible in France.”—Black politician Christiane Taubira, former Presidential candidate of the Left Radical Party, quoted in Max Colchester, “France Rethinks Relations With Minorities,” The Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2008

(On November 11, 1948, using what was left of a Rosenwald fellowship, the 24-year-old Baldwin departed for Europe with a one-way ticket, eventually settling in France. The aspiring novelist-essayist had to get out of the United States, he felt, or else racism would not only crush his development as a writer but also strangle him with self-hatred.

It’s safe to say that the author of the urgent 1963 meditation on America’s civil rights crisis
, The Fire Next Time, could not even have conceived of Barack Obama winning the Presidency. Judging from the running commentary throughout the last election, neither could most of the European intelligentsia. The victory of the Illinois senator, however, is now forcing serious rethinking of whether Europe is as open as so many have always claimed.

Consider the following facts outlined in Colchester’s article:

* Only three of the 36,000 elected mayors in mainland France are black;
* Only one member of France’s National Assembly is black;
* There are no black chief executives at major French companies;
* There are no black ambassadors.

All of this, lest we forget, in a population with 10% African or Arab roots, courtesy of its own longtime significant colonial presence, and in a nation that did not, finally, extinguish slavery for good until 1848—only 15 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

We’ve had a Tocqueville, a French observer examining
Democracy in America (or two Tocquevilles, if you count Bernard Henri-Levy’s self-conscious recreation of the earlier Frenchman’s trek in American Vertigo). Now, how about a Tocqueville in reverse—an American analyzing the structure of French society to see how well, in an age of rising minority population, the latter nation that prides itself on “liberty, equality, and fraternity” has been living up to its revolutionary ideals?)

Monday, November 10, 2008

This Day in Music History (Kate Smith Sings Berlin’s “God Bless America” for 1st Time)

November 10, 1938—For her Armistice Day radio show, singer Kate Smith premiered “God Bless America,” a castoff that even composer Irving Berlin deemed too corny. An entire generation of Americans—waging two wars to contain the threat of tyranny around the globe—came to disagree.

In 1918, while inducted into the army, Berlin—already world-famous as the prolific Tin Pin Alley composer behind “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and numerous other hits—came up with the idea for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a show that would star 350 soldiers. The producers convinced him it wouldn’t work, and besides, he had more than enough tunes for the show.

Berlin stuck the tune in a trunk, where it remained for 20 years. Then the request by Ms. Smith’s manager for a song led Berlin to recycle it. Maybe it was his memory of a recent trip to Europe and his understanding of how the continent was about to go off another cliff that led him to reassess the merits of the song.

The song was a huge hit, of course. In fact, the success of this patriotic hymn was so immense that before long, even this songwriter intent on his prerogatives had assigned all future royalties to the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls.

In the 1970s, hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers believed they hit on a lucky charm: not only were fans far more respectful during “God Bless America” than they were for “The Star Spangled Banner,” but the team itself won far more games than it lost—especially during crunch time, when somehow or other, the team would drive the singer down to perform the song during the Stanley Cup finals—and the team pulled out victories!

In the years following his death, music lovers and the public at large became aware that Berlin might have been the most litigious composer in the history of the American Songbook. Jimmy Breslin had to rewrite an entire part of a novel because Berlin wouldn’t give him permission to quote three words from “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and the late cabaret singer Nancy Lamott wryly lamented in a live appearance that a revue she did in tribute to him led him to sue her for copyright infringement!

It’s hard to square such paranoia with the wide-eyed, innocent embrace of the U.S. in “God Bless America.” But the same desperate early circumstances (a family fleeing anti-Semitic Czarist Russia, loss of his father before the age of 10) that made him overly wary about his privileges also left him grateful to the land that rescued him from death, persecution, poverty and obscurity.

In a course I took this semester at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York on “Architects of Tin Pan Alley,” our effortlessly learned instructor, Phil Atteberry, related the story of Berlin’s last public appearance. At the largest-ever sitdown dinner at the White House, at an event celebrating the return of prisoners of war, the octogenarian composer led the 1,300 guests in a singalong of “God Bless America.”

You’d think that people would be moved by the spectacle of this aging embodiment of Americana making such a poignant appearance. But this was just after the end of the Vietnam War, at the height of the Watergate scandal. The POWs presented President Nixon with a plaque reading “Our leader - our comrade, Richard the Lionhearted." John Wayne, a symbol of America in his own right, said, “I want to thank you, Mr. President, not for any one thing, but for everything.”

Seeing Berlin’s gesture not for what it was but in the context of these other incidents, critics pounced on the composer. He was so dumbfounded by the uproar that he never made a similar appearance.

Phil Atteberry noted the generational difference in attitude toward people about this song. Older Americans, he observed, tend to welcome the song unapologetically, while older ones are cynical about the tune.

Too bad. As the sight of U.S. Senators on Capitol Hill bursting into impromptu harmony on Capitol Hill demonstrates, the song still retains the power to unite under special circumstances.