Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A "Merry Little Christmas" Song

I remember sitting in the TV lounge in the dormitory in those pre-cable television days, watching "Meet Me In St. Louis" with a gaggle of college mates. The film is the 1944 romantic musical set in 1904 St. Louis, just before the World's Fair. The four Smith sisters learn their father must take a job in New York City and they will have to leave their home town.

On Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character, Esther, comforts her distraught younger sister, Tootie, (played by Margaret O'Brien) by singing her a Christmas ballad.

I had never seen the movie or heard the song and what I heard then was a melancholy, glass-half-empty air, a Christmas song somehow grounded in reality, (OK, Hollywood reality), reflecting a nation at war and a family facing crisis, a song both hopeful and sad.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas/
"Let your heart be light/
"Next year all our troubles/
"Will be out of sight."

It's been said that singers of ballads and sad songs should sing them as if they do not know how the song will end. The brilliant Garland, then just 22 years old, makes that happen.

"Someday soon we all will be together/
"If the fates allow/
"Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
"So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."

The back story to the song is that from the beginnning the MGM folks and director Vincente Minnelli worried that "Merry Little Christmas" was, well, not merry enough. Upbeat changes were made, though "muddling though" somehow survived.

And in 1957, Frank Sinatra, who should have known better, lobbied for a lyric change as a condition of putting the song on a Christmas album. So "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was transformed into "hang a shining star upon the highest bough..." And there you have it.

By now, of course, I'm sick of the song. It's been covered by everyone from Jim Nabors to Celtic Women, from Tony Bennett to Gloria Estefan. It drones underneath holiday sitcoms and TV melodramas and crowds the radio. You cannot miss it if you try. But there was a moment.

So Merry Christmas, Judy, and thanks. And to Hugh Martin as well, who wrote the first "dark" version of the song and the one that made it into the movie.

NOTE: Hugh Martin died March 11, 2011

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sweet Home Chicago

Published in CJR Online - 12/4/09

By Steve Daley

It’s December and real Chicagoans are making ready for the onset of a Lake Michigan winter and for the arctic wind – the storied Hawk – that will howl across town for the foreseeable future.

Right on time, those Chicagoans who have made their way to Washington with President Barack Obama should be feeling a chill.

The first one who needs to seek shelter and a warm coat is White House social secretary Desiree Rogers.

Born in New Orleans, Rogers became a fixture in Chicago’s business community, political culture and party-going circuit, in part as protege of Obama best friend and current White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. Until last week, the Washington press corps seemed to agree that not only was Ms. Rogers cuter than a speckled pup in a little red wagon, she was playing a serious game as well.

This from an adoring profile in the April 30, 2009 Wall Street Journal:

“With her direct access to the first couple and unparalled connections to White House staff, as well as DC and Chicago power brokers, Rogers is considered by many to be the key to Brand Obama. She stands at the center of the careful marketing of the first family and administration-wide effort to make the White House appear a hip and accessible abode.“

She may have taken that assignment a bit too seriously. On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about the gate-crashing Virginia grifters who waltzed into a White House state dinner last month. But Dowd soon turned her attention to Ms. Rogers, who is clearly - and suddenly - viewed as having gotten too big for her designer britches. (According to Dowd, Rogers had been “cruising for a bruising” ever since the Journal article appeared.)

The same day, the Washington Post’s Style section had let its readers know that while the Secret Service may have been a trifle inattentive with Presidential security, Ms. Rogers was guilty of the high crime of preening and drawing attention to herself.

Until last Wednesday the Post had been giddy over the stylish Harvard-educated executive-socialite, the first African-American to assume the social secretary’s role.

Now, at least two sections of the paper keep wondering why Rogers wasn’t staking out the Southeast Gate in the rain on the night in question, wearing cargo pants and running shoes.

And begins the ceremonial shellacking of the interlopers, driven, as ever, by declining job-approval numbers for the president. Any president.

The history of Washington insiders making hash of interlopers stretches back – at least – to the Carter years and top Georgian aides Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan. It’s a Washington ritual, like figuring out where the big-time lobbyists eat lunch and who is sitting in the owner’s box at Washington Redskin games.

One of the best ways to move forward with the regional shellacking is the blind quote (Washington Post, 12/2):

“’All this talk about Desiree being lifetime friends with the Obamas is bunk. She is there because of Valerie,’ says someone who has known Rogers for years but didn’t want to be identified so as not to upset her.”

The working principal is one best articulated by college football coaches who must deal with cranky alumni: We’re with you, win or tie.

In March there was this full gush, complete with requisite slideshow, from the Huffington Post: “She’s only been in Washington a little over two months but Chicago transplant Desiree Rogers has already been crowned the District’s best-dressed woman by Huffington Post readers.”

This week, the Huffingtons had moved on to sterner stuff, the Dec. 2 headline reading, “The Twilight Saga: Does Desiree Rogers Have a Future?”

Declining poll numbers are chum in the water for presidential aides and advisors, and it’s hard to see how even a well-articulated escalation of the war in Afghanistan is going to help Obama’s numbers.

Which means what? Time to assign a little blame, or maybe a lot. Who’s next?

For the moment Rahm Emanauel retains his tough-guy status despite compelling evidence that he hasn’t scared anyone but a few reporters since he became Obama’s Chief of Staff.

Congressional Democrats ignore him when it comes time to vote and Republicans make mewling noises about his crusty lack of bipartisanship even as they ceaselessly demonize and insult his boss.

Most everyone seems to like White House senior advisor David Axelrod, the longtime Chicago political consultant who so effectively ran the Obama campaign. But then everyone seemed to like Mack McLarty when he came to town from Little Rock to help Bill Clinton.

Being liked in Washington is a sometime thing.

And there is Valerie Jarrett, who brought Ms. Rogers to town. Who hired Michelle Robinson when she worked for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Who carries a wispy title and wonky job description but is reportedly in on every significant call the President makes. Who has not heard a discouraging word from the press-and-pundit class since she moved into the West Wing.

Bundle up, Valerie. There’s been a change in the weather.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Find the Feature

Published in CJR Online - - 11/11/09

By Steve Daley

To: All Hands

From: The Executive Editor

RE: The Redesign

The continuing controversy over the (size of the weather map; the shuttering of the Book section; the fight in the newsroom) should not diminish our excitement over the ongoing redesign of the newspaper.

We are moving ahead with a sweeping redesign that (comes at a critical juncture and decision point for the health and survival of our paper; finds new ways to highlight our differentiated content while creating new efficiencies; spells an end to Times New Roman as a font).

There is much to report on the progress of the redesign, but first a couple of housekeeping matters:

After protracted internal discussions, we have determined that those filling the “Comment” sections in our online edition (must be brought to justice; must limit their use of body-part references; must stop calling our reporters and columnists “douche bags”).

Unless the blogosphere gets really upset, those commenting on our online content will now be required to (identify themselves by something other than a screen name; seek psychological counseling; learn to spell).

A last word about the weather map. It’s true we have reversed our decision to (reduce the size of the map to something resembling a baseball card; tell our readers to get their damn pollen counts online; give readers less and tell them it’s more).

As you know, we originally trimmed the weather map (to make space for a house ad; to enhance the reader’s navigation experience; to expand our “Twitter Roundup” feature).

Out of respect for our readers, who are always (aging and cranky; our editorial true north; consistently unwilling to embrace our strategic vision), we (brought the old map back, better than ever; totally caved; responded in a way that provides our readers with new products that serve them well).

For the seventh time in 20 years, we have moved “Doonesbury” (from the comics page to the editorial page; from the editorial page to the comics page; from the editorial page to the feature section, right below the gossip column).

The comics page has been revamped and the comics in 2009 are now (microscopic; about as funny as Timothy Geithner; basically knockoffs from “The Far Side,” “Shoe” and “Calvin & Hobbes”).

Finally, the issue of copy editors.

It is true that as the right sizing has gone forward over the last two years or so, a number of veteran copy editors were (reassigned to work on the publisher’s lakeside estate; exiled to strip-mall bureaus out where the buses don’t run; given MapQuest information for finding the community college).

We miss them and we honor their years of service.

Yes, we were upset when (First Lady Michelle Obama was misidentified as talk show host Tyra Banks; we reported that the Administration is considering sending 40,00 combat troops to Albania; our Daylight Savings Time, spring forward, fall back clock thing was off by seven months).

But to make the sacrifices that are necessary as shift our focus to a digital platform, we must (lower our expectations; move forward toward a bright and economically healthy future; get with the program or get the hell out). Your job is your perk, people.

Sure, it’s a work in progress, but I think you’ll agree that the redesign has (enhanced the product in ways that will improve both usage and commerce; solved all the problems created by last year’s redesign; bought a lot more yellow boxes and exclamation points into the editorial mix).

Later this afternoon we hope everyone will join us for coffee and ice cream (by the elevators; near the former ombudsman’s office; in the area where the movie critic, the art critic and the TV critic used to sit).

We’ll be (discussing the end of the ESOP plan; chatting with Jayson Blair on newsroom ethics; reporting on progress being made with taking whole the thing nonprofit, just like NPR).

Hope to see you all there.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cable Fables

The promo rolled across the to the television screen like a million others. The whine of snowmobiles; a helicopter whirling over a frozen landscape; a thumping sound track meant to convey the sense that something exciting was actually going on. And a burly chap in a flannel shirt invoking the Wasilla mantra: “It’s the last frontier.”

“Alaska State Troopers.” OK. On National Geographic Channel.

Now that’s rebranding that’s going to leave a bruise.

National Geographic. Epic stories in pictures, taken by crazy guys hanging out of small planes: The ecological fate of the Serengheti Plain. Hard life across all 11 Russian time zones. The rhythms of the Marble Mountain Wilderness. Whither the wetlands?

National Geographic, “supporting exploration, education and conservation since 1888.” National Geographic, with a magazine seemingly older than Stonehenge and its own grandiose pile of real estate located near the White House.

National Geographic Channel, now chronicling the travails of law enforcement in a setting Homer Simpson described, perhaps too harshly, as “a place where you can’t be too fat or too drunk.”

Is this what we all signed up for? When did the balloon boy’s father take charge of serious cable content?

Back in the mid-1980s, television critics (including me, then with the Chicago Tribune) were pondering the emergence of shiny new cable networks such as Bravo, A&E (Arts & Entertainment), the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

The Learning Channel, dedicated to using the medium of television for “real education,” according to the early network propaganda, had been in place since the early 1970s when it debuted as the Appalachian Community Service Network.

You can almost hear the fiddles and the 1960s, can’t you? It became TLC in 1980.

The fashionable argument at the time was that these fledgling networks, which tossed words like “arts” around with abandon, were seen to be in the process of supplanting the need for PBS. There would be plenty of places to go now for history and ballet and public affairs programming and environmental worry-warting, or so the argument was framed.

Maybe it was effective marketing. Maybe it was fatigue with those endless “pledge drives” on public television. Maybe it was the fact that these cable outlets were billed as “commercial-free.”

Clearly a new media day was upon us, a day when arts programming and “independent” films and award-winning documentaries would flourish on cable, leaving the lowbrow sitcoms and the quiz shows to the creaky broadcast networks.

The truth is, many of these cable networks got off to respectable starts. Each of them produced quality programming and each strived to live up to their own pretentious billing. For a time.

For Bravo, the shift came around 2003 with the launch of the popular “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” followed by "Project Runway," "Top Chef" and “Showbiz Moms & Dads.” The History Channel was mocked some time ago as devolving into “The Hitler Channel.” That seems gratuitous unless you go on the channel’s website this week and see, well, Hitler. And later, “Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey.”

For A&E, the heady days of the weekly "A&E Stage," with its mix of plays, documentaries and concerts, has given way to "Gene Simmons Family Jewels," "Growing Up Gotti," "Flip This House" and "King of Cars." Visit the network’s home page and Hulk Hoganesque visage of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” stares back at you.

Parsing the life cycle of TLC might better be left to the cast of Monty Python. Once the Discovery Channel acquired it in 1991, the “learning” aspect began to unwind (unless interior design shows and “Junkyard Wars” are considered learning.) It now describes itself as “an affirmative and connective experience.”

And then came the family Gosselin, a kind of brain-damaged 21st century “Eight Is Enough” that is both wildly successful and increasingly moronic. It’s Jon and Kate and the sextuplets and twins. Well, it was. There’s “rebranding” going on, along with the lawsuits and affairs and court orders and bank withdrawals and bodyguards.

What’s interesting it that while PBS continues to be sniped at by some critics for costume dramas and a “NewsHour” that doesn’t move fast enough, not much is said about the cable networks that bowed to the marketplace and abandoned their initial missions faster than actor Steven Seagal can swing a pool cue.

These days, Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” is considered cable highbrow. And the aforementioned Steven Seagal, that aging B-movie dispenser of mayhem, has a show that debuts on A&E in December.

PBS gave us the Swedish Chef and Ken Burns. The History Channel gave us “Ice Road Truckers.” A generation later, that’s how it all turned out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Night's All That's Left Behind

I've always been a little too comfortable in saloons. Just a little. Possibly an Irish deal. No one but my internist and a couple of women I dated years ago ever viewed it as a problem. The thing was, the first time I walked into one of the damn places I discovered I liked just about everything about them.

It must have been like Pete Sampras walking on to a tennis court when he was a little nipper or Bill Clinton standing up to talk to the class when he was 14.

Now I'm not saying I was as good at saloon life as Pete was with the running forehand or Bill was with the patter. But I was pretty good on both sides of the bar, and my standards were high.

I tended bar in Washington DC after college for about five years. Three decades later I have far more friends from the saloon life than from the fine university I attended. And if I could get a slick quarterly magazine that said "Bars" rather than "American University," I'd sit by the fire and peruse every word and photo.

I met my wife, Jane, when she worked day shifts at a pub around the corner from a place I worked at night. And OK, it's true we met in the mid 1970s and got married in 1992, but that's how saloon people are. Careful, except when they're not.

I gravitated from saloons to the newspaper dodge, which was a pretty quick trip in those days. The fact is, I got my first newspaper job and my first byline at the old Washington Star precisely because I tended bar and because I poured whiskey for reporters and editors.

Hey, I was not born rich or handsome, as the man said. But in the words of George Washington Plunkitt, I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.

By the way, I long ago stopped telling this writing bartender story to aspiring newspaper types. It was both inspirational and depressing (for them). Now it doesn't matter. These days, if someone tells me they want to be a newspaper reporter I tell them to lie down until the swelling subsides.

What is it (was it?) about the bars.

I loved that feeling of getting away with a little something. Regardless of your station in life, you could put on a clean sport coat and wander into PJ Clarke's in Manhattan or the Washington Square Bar & Grill in San Francisco or the Lodge or the Billy Goat in Chicago or McDaid's in Dublin or too many other good joints in too many places, throw down a $20 and act like you belonged there.

From the beginning, I knew better than to talk to the other customers. Usually a bad idea. I was there to talk to the folks I was with, or with the bartenders and servers. Much better audience, and usually a better story to tell. And the rules are largely pretty simple. Don't be a jerk; understand that the dishy bartendress/waitress is likely not interested; leave 20 percent or better if you plan on coming back.

Trust me on all this - some things don't change.

These days, my interest in saloons is largely anthropological. I'm a snob who thinks most urban gin mills are too expensive and filled with youthful bores. With notable exceptions, of course. A few years go, before the smoking ban in DC, I would espy a brace of young lawyers in suits from Joseph Banks firing up $20 cigars while sipping $22 single malt whiskeys and think, what a gaggle of chowderheads.

That said, I'm now just the sort of drinker I used to be amused by. A couple of drinks after work and home by 7:30 or so. That guy. Which is just fine.

As my friend and saloon companion Chris Reidy phrased it a while ago, we've stopped aerobicizing our livers. And just in time, too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Regiment Will Bury Its Dead."

It is perhaps nothing more than a kind of tribal madness, a mix of sentimentality and romanticiscm and dashed hopes. For those who grew up in a certain America at a certain time, the death of Edward M. Kennedy is about so much more than the falling of the last branch of a legendary political family.

If you understand the madness, you know that when Teddy Kennedy dies and it's important to you, you think of a speech his brother Bobby made long ago in South Africa, before apartheid ended, before Mandela was released from bondage.

In Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, speaking to college students, Robert Kennedy said this: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

When Teddy Kennedy dies, you think of being in junior high school in 1963 and being sent home to your Irish-Catholic family to watch your father weep in front of the television at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. You remember the night Bobby Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles and you remember thinking that, with Dr. King dead just a few weeks, the country you were living in was broken and forever different. You had no idea that in many ways it would only get worse that summer, and beyond.

When Teddy Kennedy dies you reflect on the words of the Boston Globe obituary today, which characterized him as "an American original:"

"He was the youngest child of a famous family, but his legacy derived from quiet subcommittee meetings, conference reports, and markup sessions. The result of his efforts meant hospital care for a grandmother, a federal loan for a working college student, or a better wage for a dishwasher."

You remember that, drunk or sober, frankly, Teddy Kennedy was the guy who was never too busy or too cynical to give up on the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP. That's heating oil subsidies for old people in cold places. Quaint, huh?

Or, more famously, he was tireless on health care reform that was not marginal or incremental or designed to make sure the insurance companies and the Chamber of Commerce didn't get too upset. Or taking on Judge Bork at a particularly low ebb for the Democratic Party and those whose interests and beliefs they purport to represent.

Immigration. The minimum wage. Childhood education. A just peace in Northern Ireland. The Americans with Disabilities Act. OSHA. Voting rights. A roaring opposition to Bush's Iraq war in 2002. Nothing here for the faint of heart or the "Blue Dogs."

The New York Times headline today called him "Gifted, Flawed." Fair play to the New York Times. Most Irishmen would take that one for a sendoff.

For millions of Americans, of course, this is nonsense.

The political class that for 40 years raised untold millions by demonizing the unabashed liberal from Massachusetts have already gotten plenty of room to talk about Kennedy's failings and weaknesses. He was an imperfect man, Lord knows, and the yammerers and the haters on cable TV will take a respite from scaring old people over health care to remind us of all that.

And his death comes at a moment when his chosen candidate for President, the triumphant Barack Obama, is in full retreat on matters great and small, many of them important to his most celebrated backer in 2008.

To better days, as the Irish would say. And when Teddy Kennedy dies and it's important to you, you recall the words he used in his heart-breaking eulogy for his brother, Robert, in June, 1968: "He was always on our side."

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Obama, Gates & Crowley

"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to practice either of them." - Mark Twain

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friendly Confines

Published in CJR Online

Behind the News — July 16, 2009
The Chicago Tribune, the Cubs, and Me
TribCo is selling the Chicago Cubs. Steve Daley was there when they bought in

By Steve Daley

The week I went to work as a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 1981 was the week the Tribune Co. bought the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Hello.

That era is about to end, or so it appears, with reports that moguls from Ameritrade and their millionaire “Go, Cubs, Go” amigos will acquire the storied franchise and Wrigley Field from what’s left of the Tribune Co. for $900 million or so.

Consider this: Tribune Co. bought the Cubs, Wrigley Field, the ivy, the post-season curse, the bleachers, a national fan base, and the broadcast operations from the Wrigley family of chewing-gum renown for about $21 million.

$21 million. $900 million. Makes you wonder how over the same period of time the same company managed to commit suicide with its newspapers.

In 1981 the stunning news felt like a dicey proposition for opinionated pay-rollers such as myself. The fact that the folks who ran the sports department at the Tribune didn’t seem to have any more advance warning of the Cubs’ sale than the newest employee—me—wasn’t much comfort.

Certainly the prospect of savaging the Cubs was a columnist’s delight. But having the Tribune Co. money guys—synergy gurus and lawyers from Notre Dame—poring over my column for blasphemy and heresy was a daunting image.

So I had no sooner acquired a press credential and figured out how to get to Clark and Addison Sts. from my apartment than I began to wonder what all the suits on the upper floors of the Tribune Tower on N. Michigan Ave. were thinking of my deathless prose.

The expectation was that I would write columns about this enterprise in a manner that would engage readers and maintain the paper’s editorial independence. But how do you keep telling people that the boss’s most celebrated asset couldn’t be driven off the lot?

The thing is, the 1981 Cubs were awful, and they were part of a longstanding tradition of awful. The 1982 Cubs were no better. They finished nineteen games out of the first place in the National League East and they repeated that soul-destroying performance in 1983.

As the new guy, I suspect my batting average for paranoia was higher than most. I knew some readers—maybe a lot of readers—were skeptical of the arrangement. Rabid fans of the Chicago White Sox saw Tribune collusion in every Cubs story and the boys and girls at the Chicago Sun-Times seemed to relish our discomfort, as they should have.

You didn’t hear much from the team. In 1981, the affable Joey Amalfitano managed the team, to no real avail. He was replaced the following year by Lee Elia, a product of the Philadelphia baseball organization and a man best known for a legendary tape-recorded rave-out in 1983 about the lives and ambitions of the Cub fans who showed up in the bleachers for day baseball.

At spring training in Arizona in 1982, what would now be called senior management of the Tribune Co. sought to ease the minds of its paid typists.

In those days, Stanton R. Cook was Chairman of the Board of the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and president of the Chicago Cubs.

Stan—“Call me Stan”—was a tall, silver-haired, hand-shaking Midwesterner who could have played himself in the movie. He had more titles than the guy who runs North Korea but was much nicer.

That spring, in the friendly confines of HoHoKam Park, Cook assured the scribblers, one at the time, that he understood the concept of “church and state” and that there would be no interference when we suggested in his newspaper that maybe Wayne Nordhagen wasn’t the answer in left field.

From my end, Cook and his minions kept that promise. And by 1984, manager Jim Frey and general manager Dallas Green had performed baseball alchemy, putting the Cubs in the post-season for the first time since the Japanese surrendered on board the USS Missouri in 1945.

They lost in the playoffs, of course, but it was a great summer in Chicago. And it was left to Green, the bumptious “baseball guy from Philly,” to explain to me my sensitive relationship with the Tribune Co. suits.

“They don’t give a damn what you write,” Green snarled at me one afternoon. “Bet they don’t even read it.”

Years later, I suspect he was right.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Winners and Losers

In February, in a story that did not get much attention, a talented Israeli tennis player named Shahar Peer was denied a visa to enter Dubai and play in the ATP Dubai Tennis Championships.

The government of Dubai, those well-moneyed moderates in the United Arab Emirates much loved by the U.S., never got around to a coherent explanation of their decision, save the fact they suggested that Peer night have a "security problem" if she played tennis in their cute little country.

The American tennis establishment and the sanctioning organizations collapsed into irate letter-writing and rhetorical chin-pulling over the insult. There was even a fine of $300,000 levied against Dubai tennis poohbahs. But Peer kept quiet, the press was disinterested and most everyone seemed to think it was a situation that required a good leaving alone.

A number of American players characterized the denial of the visa as "unfortunate," but Venus Williams apparently spoke for many of the players when she said she wasn't interested in "rocking the boat."

Andy Roddick stayed home.

The defending champion in the $2.2 million Dubai event, Roddick saw the situation with a moral and ethical clarity that seemed to escape, well, just about everyone else. He had just won a tournament in Memphis and he did not make the trip to Dubai.

"I think a big part if it is I didn't really agree with what went on over there," Roddick said at the time.

Roddick, an affable 26-year-old with no history of political activism, was alone in his protest. The two best male players in the world, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, had timely injuries and nothing to say. Tennis professionals from all over the world - not just the U.S. - did nothing in support of Peer.

There were some moments. The cable Tennis Channel chose not to cover the event and the Wall Street Journal dropped its partial sponsorship. But commerce prevailed. Venus Williams won the women's event. Novak Djokovic of Serbia won the men's title.

Roddick sought no credit or praise for his protest of the egregious harm done to Peer (a woman he had never met at the time). Nor did he earn much praise or attention for his clear-eyed and singular courage.

You can draw your own conclusions as to what would have happened if, say, the Dubai government had decided that Venus Williams had "a security problem" and could not enter the country. The "what ifs" run off into geopolitics, but the story is long gone.

On Sunday, Andy Roddick, the boat-rocker, lost an epic five-set Wimbledon men's final to Roger Federer. The fifth set was 16-14, if you're counting.

The Swiss wizard now has 15 Gtand Slam titles and Roddick has just one, the 2003 U.S. Open. But from where I sit, nobody in tennis had a better year than Andy Roddick.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Let Franken be Franken


Let Franken Be Franken!

By Steve Daley

Washington doesn’t need any more hard-working pols. When Al finally gets to town, let’s please . . .

When Al Franken is finally installed as the junior senator from Minnesota, we need him to be Al Franken.

Waiting out the recounts and court fights that have kept Franken back home since November, the former Saturday Night Live star has done a good imitation of your typical 21st-century US senator.

He’s been dull.

Duller than a quorum call. Duller than a Harry Reid/Mitch McConnell photo op. Few interviews, no barbed commentary about Republicans, no declarations in that foghorn of a voice.

There are reasons why. The notion of Senator Al Franken (D-Funny) probably scares both the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

They want his crucial Senate vote, and it’s fine with them if Franken is mistaken inside the Beltway for Mark Dayton, Rudy Boschwitz, Rod Grams, or any of his predecessors from the Land of Sky-Blue Waters.

Franken told the St. Paul newspaper that once he’s sworn in, he’ll be “putting [his] head down and getting to work.”

That’s not what we need. We need some laughs. We need some characters.

Let’s face it: The United States Senate is a place where Utah’s Orrin Hatch is considered witty. Where being colorful means starting a second family at 55. Where wild and crazy means not having a 6 am tennis game three mornings a week.

Let’s take a partial roll call.

Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Ben Cardin of Maryland. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Susan Collins of Maine. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

These are distinguished public servants, but they could walk up to a door with an electric eye and chances are the door wouldn’t open.

We need a senator who might do some impersonations. In his SNL days, Franken nailed a pair of senatorial Pauls—Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Paul Simon of Illinois. He aped Pat Robertson, Lyndon LaRouche, and Henry Kissinger.

We need a politician who might plant a camera on his pith helmet and report live from the scene, as Franken did on SNL.

We could use a senator who’d say things like “What do Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey, and George Will have in common? Answer: They’ve all been married one less time than Rush Limbaugh.”

We need a man who would publish a book called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and preface it with a mock New York Times review allegedly written by former Reagan foreign-policy adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick.

Extending the joke, Franken offered his own fake letter to the editor bemoaning the fact that his “former lover” had been assigned to review the book.

“As anyone who was familiar with the Manhattan eighties’ club scene knows,” Franken wrote, “Ms. Kirkpatrick and I endured a somewhat stormy and all too public affair during her tenure as our country’s UN ambassador. . . . Come on! Be fair. Next time get someone who isn’t my former lover to review my book.”

At the 1994 White House Correspondents Dinner, Franken told the audience he had discussed the merits of an Al Gore joke with Tipper Gore. He shared the joke:

“Vice President Gore continued to show his commitment to the environment by announcing today that he is going to change the policy on the stick up his butt. Instead of replacing the stick every day with a new stick, the Vice President will keep the same stick up his butt for the rest of the administration. Evidently, this will save an entire rain forest.”

Here’s another possibility: For much of his comedic career, Franken had a sidekick. His name was Tom Davis, and he had grown up with Franken in Minneapolis, where they began writing comedy.

Davis was a pioneering writer on SNL, but as a performer he was about as funny as Dutch elm disease. Remember Franken and Davis as the lunkhead gorilla handlers in Eddie Murphy’s Trading Places?

Suppose Franken had a sidekick in the Senate. A Barney Rubble, a Sancho Panza, a Joe Biden, an Ed McMahon, a Vinny Cerrato. A walk-around guy to set up the one-liners, get the bottled water, clear the press away from the Senate elevators.

Match that, Arlen Specter.

The world of entertainment has not been a historic proving ground for the Senate.

Senator Fred Thompson, the truck-drivin’ man from Tennessee, did walk among us for a time. It was after his movie roles in The Hunt for Red October and Curly Sue, though he had started out as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s.

Back when spittoons were still in fashion, a Hollywood hoofer named George Murphy (Broadway Melody of 1940) made his way to the Senate from California, serving a solo term between former JFK spokesman Pierre Salinger and John V. Tunney, described as the lightweight son of onetime heavyweight champ Gene Tunney.

Jesse Helms of North Carolina came to us from radio, and Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of Texas also got his start in radio, offering up old-timey music with the Light Crust Doughboys.

Pappy served eight years in the Senate after being governor, famously defeating Lyndon Johnson by 1,300 votes in 1941. A man before his time, Pappy argued that Texas needed its own army and navy to guard the Mexican border.

“Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” wasn’t much of a senator, but his platform—the Ten Commandments—was good enough to get him elected.

Yes, there was a time when Senator Huey Long raced around Washington under the watchful eye of the Louisiana troopers he brought with him, when committee chairmen were pickled by sundown, when being defined as a character had nothing to do with airport lavatories.

But we know how this ends. Senator Al Franken will go all fair and balanced.

He’ll learn to love those dusty markups on the agriculture committee. He’ll come to believe that every meeting in Washington is “productive” and that every Senate colleague is worthy of placement on Mount Rushmore.

But do we want another distinguished member who will yield the floor? What this town needs is some of that old SNL attitude—the kind that says: “Live from Capitol Hill—it’s Al Franken!”

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cuba Libre

The saga of Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers, spies, has amused me far more than it should.

I'm sure it is a tragedy for the Myers family and the unfolding tale of espionage and intrigue - sort of - has caused profound embarrassment to an American foreign policy establishment that has bungled Cuban policy since Ike was president.

Kendall, 72 and the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, had a long career as a State Department analyst while Gwendolyn, now 71, parlayed some Capitol Hill experience and "political activism," in the arch parlance of the New York Times, into a covert career than has more in common with the comic fiction of Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen than with spymaster Aldrich Ames.

The Myers are pretty clearly guilty of something. And since their crimes are of no particular consequence, they are of course being held without bail. Better they should have looted Wall Street or figured out a way to get us involved in two bloody wars and steal millions of taxpayers dollars in the process. With few exceptions, those activities earn you a spot in the Obama kitchen Cabinet or a seat of power at the American Enterprise Institute.

Over time, the Myers allegedly sent documents to a Cuban government that cannot get out of its own way. They made copies of these mysterious documents and passed them to intermediaries in grocery stores. And they once had an audience with Fidel Castro.

As far as U.S. law enforcement can determine the Myers took no money for these activities, which is good because all evidence suggests the Cuban government doesn't have any money.

In short, nitwits.

To be more specific, '60s nitiwits. My people. McGovern supporters (It was 1972, kids). Guilt-ridden bleeding hearts. Ruling class liberals. World savers. Fans of the United Nations. To each according to his need; let's get some sushi.

In 1979, in their 40s, Kendall followed Gwendolyn Steingraber to Pierre S.D. where she had a job in the Public Utilities Commission, helping farmers use alternative energy sources. Perfect. Kendall worked on a biography of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the most celebrated appeaser of the 20th century. He was apparently a man Kendall admired. Perfect.

They grew marijuana plants in their South Dakota basement until the cops showed up. Again, perfect. Gwendolyn lost her political appointee's job and the pair returned to Washington, got married and became Cuban agents 202 and 123. Nitwits.

I'm thinking a 13-episode sitcom here. Kendall and Gwendolyn's Excellent Adventure.

Of course it wasn't the spying that drew attention to Agents 202 and 123. Remember the 9/11 terrorists and the flying lessons? As they say down South, the foreign policy crowd couldn't make cornbread if you gave them a cornbread-making machine,

No, apparently Kendall Myers made an unauthorized speech at a university suggesting that President George W. Bush had duped British Prime Minister Tony Blair into supporting the Iraq war.

Not very diplomatic, but I doubt any of Blair's friends or family would dispute that assessment. But the British press picked up the speech, painted Myers as something more than a Foggy Bottom contractor and that's part of what got the government's attention.

I don't know what sorts of papers the hapless Myers' gang was passing along to the Fidelistas. They'd have done Cuba more good if they'd smuggled in new transmissions and tires for those 1956 Chevy Bel Airs that crowd Havana streets.

This is a country that imports 80% of its food. The average worker makes about $21 a month, U.S. It has a well-educated population, so it trades doctors and nurses for oil from Hugo Chavez.

Cuba and Castro have played no significant role in world affairs since the 1960s, save annoying two generations of U.S. presidents and generations of foreign policy geniuses of the sort who gave Kendall Myers a Top Security clearance.

By the book, Kendall and Gwendolyn are a bit old to qualify as Baby Boomers, but I know this crowd. My guess is that they spied for Cuba - if the charges are true - because they spent their own lives being disappointed by the policy failings and moral failings of their own government. You know, Vietnam. The Reagan adventures. Iran-contra. Decades of failure in the Middle East. A history of backing the wrong side of history in places such as Iran.

They fell for the socialist myth of Cuba and El Jefe, as many in my political crowd did, long ago. It's just that most bleeding hearts saw through the mythology 35 years ago or so.

They'll probably bring the hammer down on Kendall and Gwendolyn and Fox News will probably spend itself trying to link them to the Symbionese Liberation Army, or at least to William Ayers.

If they're going to do time, I hope it's a place they can sit around, have an herbal tea and talk about the Port Huron Statement.

Look it up.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jeff MacNelly

Nine years ago his week my friend Jeff MacNelly died of cancer. He was 52.

Jeff was a cartoonist, which is a little like saying Bob Dylan is a songwriter. MacNelly didn't much like Dylan, but no matter. Jeff won three Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning, his first at 24, just two years after he "almost graduated" from college in Chapel Hill.

He wrote and drew the cartoon strip "Shoe" for more than 25 years, seven times a week, no complaints. A multiple winner of the Reuben award for cartooning, he was generally regarded as the best of his generation, both on the editorial page and in the funny papers.

MacNelly knew he was a big talent, but he was utterly lacking in pretense or vanity. I wrote once that he was nearly always not only the most talented person in the room, but the most decent, the most generous, and the funniest.

Ideas, laughs and perfect drawings poured out of him. In 1988, we worked together on a project for the Chicago Tribune. They let us do a series of full-page, full-color posters on the presidential campaign - the primaries, the conventions, the outcome. MacNelly and I would motor around Iowa or New Hampshire, happily drinking in the madness, usually in a rented Lincoln Town Car, Jeff being somewhere north of 6 foot 5.

After dinner we would talk about the events the day and I would generally have an idea. Jeff would have nine of them. Maybe a dozen. All good. Really good. All reflecting an astonishing eye for the moment, the characters, the detail and the nuance.

Some nights he would just start drawing on the placemats - Bob Dole in a fury; Michael Dukakis clenching his hands and babbling; a map of Illinois that included O'Hare International Airport and - just as big - O'Hare Baggage Claim.

On the editorial page MacNelly had great fun at the expense of Democrats, notably Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He was a big fan of the Gipper. Our politics intersected at virtually no point, but it never mattered. You just looked at the page and shook your head in admiration.

"Shoe" was about whatever Jeff wanted it to be, which is why he loved it. Among comic strips, he admired Walt Kelly's "Pogo," he said, because "it wasn't about anything." Whenever a celebrated cartoonist would go on hiatus, citing creative burnout, MacNelly would offer the big, rueful smile that was a trademark. "We're drawing cartoons here," he'd say. "It's a cartoon strip."

Late in a too-short life, Jeff took up painting and sculpture, with a focus on Key West in the former and on the American West in the latter. His work was, of course, vivid and striking and unforgettable. But again, there was never a need to get all artsy-craftsy about it. For example, MacNelly delighted in the fact that the legendary Western artist Charles Marion Russell used to toss off drawings on scraps of paper to pay his saloon bills.

On a snowy night in 1989 in a Washington restaurant, my wife Jane and I introduced Jeff to Jane's longtime friend Sue Spekin. It seemed liked the snow had not even melted before she was Sue MacNelly, on the hilltop in Rappahannock County, with the barn and horses and dogs, representing the best interests of the guy she called "the 'toonist."

These days, Sue and a pair of his old cartoon amigos keep "Shoe" moving forward. If you can't find it in the paper - let's face it, you can't find anything in the paper anymore - it's all at The paintings are there, too.

Jeff's work graces our house and our lives, as does a photograph of him taken by our friend David Burnett. MacNelly is on his hilltop, smiling that electric smile, posed in front of his beloved, becalmed 1959 DeSoto.

They tell you that in this life you're supposed to get over this stuff. But you never, ever do. We miss Jeff every day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The President and the Vice President Walk Into a Bar ...

Last week President Obama made yet another lunch-hour cheeseburger foray, this time to a Five Guys outlet near the Washington Nationals’ ballpark.

So far, the president has been sighted at Ben’s Chili Bowl, Ray’s Hell Burgers across the river in Arlington and now at a Five Guys. It’s fun to watch, although, as with all presidential maneuverings, it’s about as spontaneous as a production of “The Kennedy Center Honors.” On the Five Guys outing, the President just happened to have NBC anchor guy Brian Williams in tow.

And why the unblinking fascination with cheeseburgers? If the President is going to hit the streets, why should he limit himself and his traveling party to cheese pucks?

Suppose, instead of going out for burgers and fries, the President opted to slip out - in a spontaneous kind of way - to a downtown saloon for happy hour, maybe a bar on 19th St., not far the White House, maybe with the Vice President:

POTUS and VP approach the bar, Obama in a red tie, Biden in blue …

Biden: Hey, Ace. How about getting a couple drinks for me and my father down here? Hahahaha

Kevin the bartender: How did you know my name was Ace?

Biden: Just a lucky guess. Hahahaha. Anyway, the Boss and I are playing a little hooky.
If the First Lady calls, you know, mum’s the word. He’s not here. We told her we had to go see Hillary at the State Department, then stop by the hardware store on the way home. Hahahaha.

Bartender: Got it. Can I get anyone a drink?

Biden: Whattaya think, Mr. President? I’m going to have a Heineken.

POTUS (to bartender): There are those who would argue that this is inappropriate, that the Chief Executive should not be at a downtown happy hour at this point in our nation’s history. But I think most Americans would understand that situations such as this one afford me the opportunity to get outside the White House bubble, to walk among the people as Michelle and I did when we lived in Chicago.

Bartender: Would you like a drink, sir?

POTUS: I’ll have a Grey Goose martini, straight up, with extra olives.

Biden: Whoa, Mr. President. Grey Goose martini, straight up? Is that what you drank when you were a community organizer? Hahahaha.

Bartender: Who are all these other people, and what are they drinking?

Biden: Oh, these guys. Just the press pool, a few photographers, Secret Service. That’s Anderson Cooper, the CNN guy, and his crew. He’s doing a spontaneous day-in-the-life thing with the President. Hahahaha. What are you having, Anderson?

Cooper: I should like a Pimm’s Cup. I believe.

POTUS (looking at the entourage): And we’ll need six Miller Lights, five Budweisers, a vodka and tonic, a gin and tonic, a Jack and Coke, two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, a red wine, an iced tea and a Bloody Mary. Did I get everybody?

Entourage: Yes, sir.

POTUS: Many Americans are feeling the strain of the economic downturn and it must be said that we have a long way to go. We’re working hard every day to make that happen. But judging from the atmosphere in this room, it seems the people have maintained a sense of conviviality and good cheer. Can you get ESPN2 on that TV? Love to get a White Sox score.

Bartender: I’ll get the manager.

Biden: Hey, beertender, do you have any bar snacks, pretzels, nuts?

Bartender: No.

Biden: No? In Scranton, where I grew up, even the fancy joints had bar snacks.

Bartender: In Scranton, the fancy joints make the bartenders cover up their tattoos.

Biden: Whoa, a comedian here. Funny guy. Hahahaha.

POTUS: Joe, a question.

Biden: Yes, sir.

POTUS: Were we right to leave Rahm at the White House? He seemed upset.

Biden: He’ll get over it, sir. I told him to do something useful. You know, call up Harry Reid and explain to him what a Democrat is. Hahahaha

POTUS: Joe, Senator Reid is to be commended for his accomplishments, growing up in the relative poverty of his Searchlight, Nevada home, ably representing the interests of the good people of his home state and, indeed, of all Americans

Biden: Just kidding, sir. A little humor. Good old Harry. Hahahaha. I know you’re still mad at me about that inauguration joke with the Chief Justice.

POTUS: Joe, it is so important that we raise the level of discourse here in Washington. As I said in my recent speech at Notre Dame, we must ask how each of us can remain firm to our principles and fight for what we consider right without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side.

Anderson Cooper: Well said, Mr. President. I’ll have another Pimm’s Cup.

Biden: Well, strictly bar rules, sir, all due respect, but maybe you ought to take that stuff up with Cheney and Gingrich. Bartender, I need another Heineken down here. A bird can’t fly on one wing. Hahahaha.

Bartender: Another Grey Goose, Mr. President?

POTUS: Nothing for me. Well, maybe just a splash. And give Joe the check. It’s always best to keep him occupied….

Sunday, May 24, 2009

For What It's Worth

It's an odd ritual, antique almost, with roots linked to the Vietnam War and the political passions that roiled the country during that conflict, and after.

Now, it's thousands of men and women on motorcycles on Memorial Day weekend.

On Sunday of this holiday weekend, hundreds of thousands of bikers took part in what is called - and incorporated - as Rolling Thunder. It used to be Operation Rolling Thunder, named for the bombing campaign against North Vietnam in 1965.

Rolling Thunder was established in 1968 by a pair of Vietnam veterans who wanted to hold the government accountable for the fate of U.S. prisoners of war and those missing in action in southeast Asia. At the initial rally on Capitol Hill, they announced their arrival with the roar of Harley-Davidsons.

You could say it caught on. What evolved was an annual "Road to Freedom" rally and a Washington ritual that, in time, ended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

That was then. Rambo was big. Chuck Norris, too. The political class embraced the bikers, inviting them to the White House. But by the early 1990s, many people bemoaned the fact that the POW-MIA issue had effectively disappeared from the American consciousness.

Now, well, you could say the same thing about the Vietnam War. We're not much on memory, despite our claims to the contrary. Vietnam was going to change everything, remember, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.

We were going to be a more serious country, not a country where millions of people spent their evenings voting on the fate of talentless singers and hoofers on television. Maybe next time.

The disappearance of the POW-MIA issue should have ended Rollling Thunder, but it didn't. Maybe it was simply the roar of the bikes. The political environment has changed but the staging has not.

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, thousands of bikes roll through northern Virginia into Washington along Route 66, choking three lanes of the interstate heading east. As they do, people in neighborhoods like mine in Arlington gather on the overpasses and bridges to greet them, kids and parents waving, bikers waving back, horns tooting and - for the better part of two hours - that all-American Harley roar rending the suburban air.

Families make the effort, parking the SUVs and minvans on the bridges, carrying their coffee, minding the kids against the bridge traffic, smiling at the wall of noise. You see American flags on some of the bikes and even a few ghostly black POW-MIA flags fluttering.

By mid-day Sunday, the bikes are gone from Route 66, across Arlington Memorial Bridge hard by the cemetery. The folks in the neighborhoods are back home; the bikers are at the war memorials. Years ago they used to gather by the hundreds at a two-story beer bar on 19th Street in DC called the Crow's Nest, their bikes shoe-horned into the bar's small parking lot like some Quentin Tarantino fantasy. Pretty sure there's a Kinkos there now.

At this point it seems hard to determine what Rolling Thunder means. But the appeal of the bikes and the bridges and overpasses remains, a constant of Washington's Memorial Day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mixed Vegetables with the President

I do not mock the White House Correspondents Association dinner, though it is easy enough to do.

The prom is Saturday night at the Hinckley Hilton, as ever, and both the smarty-pants set and the "mainstream media" alternate between making fun of the event and speculating about who will be sitting next to Tyra Banks or the Secretary of State or David Axelrod.

I went to a few of these dinners when I was a Washington correspondent for a large Midwestern newspaper, and I generally had a pretty good time.

I would often go with my friend Iris Burnett. Her husband, David, would take photos of us in our party duds and upon arrival Iris would immediately start working 3000 or so people in the room. I would not see her again that evening.

Getting pretty liquored up seemed a prority. My newspaper would generally sponsor a "hospitality suite" before dinner, a good place to establish a beachhead, have several Scotches and figure out which news organization had outdone itself pointlessly rounding up celebrities.

My paper was pretty lame in that regard, but one year a colleague invited Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and he showed up. I got to watch him drink and smoke cigarettes, which was fun, and his skills at small talk were just fine.

My experience was that the evening tended to work better if you didn't think much about it.

It wasn't surprising to me how many people who did not get to go to the dinner would argue that it was an exercise in elitist back-scratching, an inapporopriate mingling of reporters and sources that threatened the very fabric of the Republic.

No, what was surprising was how many people who did get to go to the dinner made these same arguments, at least in public.

I had bureau chief for a while who made something of a name for himself whinging about the worms-in-a-bottle nature of the WHCA dinner and DC generally. But every year he'd get to the dinner, then figure out a way to get invited to English commentator Christopher Hitchens' post-party to discuss the great issues of the day with Tom Selleck and that Huffington woman.

I never got invited to that party, but, for the record, Tom Selleck is a hell of a nice guy.

See, it's just a dinner. Too much is made of it. It's a certainty that the sweathogs on Fox News will spend a good chunk of the weekend railing about the press sucking up to President Obama and citing the dinner as evidence.

The New York Times will not attend the dinner. They don't, except when they do.

Me, I never understood why people refuse to grasp a simple fact: People who are interested in the same stuff tend to cluster. For example: The only people who really care about this senator's health care proposal of that congresswoman's political campaign are journalists. That drives the politicos and the pure of heart nuts, but it's true.

So they show up and circle one another, reporters holding a pithy policy assessment in abeyance in case they get a word with the head of OMB or Ray LaHood.

Never my approach. Not my dinner memories. More interesting to note that Dennis Hopper is really, really short. That Colin Powell looks terrified when talking to Barbra Streisand. That Dana Delany looks fetching in a Size One dress. (She's very nice as well). That nothing caps off the evening like being introduced to Richard Dreyfuss' "policy guy."

No regrets. Except for missing the year when Stephen Colbert pissed off the entire Washington press corps. Would have liked to have been half-drunk for that one.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate

I stole the line from the great Dan Jenkins, who used it as the title of collection of newspaper and magazine pieces a long time ago. I kept thinking about the title because as far as I can tell, the New York Times, a great newspaper, is trying to kill the Boston Globe, a fine newspaper.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune, an old newspaper, is trying to kill itself and at the same time kill the Baltimore Sun, which used to be a fine newspaper. The Times and the Tribune may fail at these ignoble endeavors, but this week it doesn't feel that way.

The Times has gone from bullying the paper it acquired some years ago for $1.1 billion to playing the unions against one another. The Tribune laid off 53 more reporters, editors and photographers on a single day last week, and has systematically reduced the Sun - the paper of H.L. Mencken and countless other worthies - to, well, a joke. It's now a paper you can read in five minutes, like the Miami Herald and too many other surviving metro dailies.

I know most of the cool kids think this doesn't matter much. The hard work, enterprise and commitment to the cities these papers serve will be replaced by ... something. Or so we are assured. The other day I heard a guy with a cable TV platform say that every city didn't need its own newspaper. That, among other things, is a monstrously arrogant point of view. But typical.

The unfolding rationales for the new world order sound innovative but they are as old as home delivery. For example: "New media" will focus on "local news," we're told.

I first heard the local news argument made when I was copy clerk on the old Washington Star in about 1975. In any town where you were the second paper, like the Star, you talked about local news because the bigger paper was killing you on national news, international news, the gamut. Somehow the blogosphere and the media critics make this concept sound as fresh as hand sanitizer.

The continuing debate is not for the squeamish. Folks who love newspapers and work for them are inclined to whine and hold their breath. Most of the online set seems to despise newspapers, in part I guess because they feel they've been disrespected by the newspaper culture. Maybe they have.

But there will be consequences to what is going on here. There is a great deal of sound thinking and good writing on the blogosphere these days. But there is a tidal wave of arrant nonsense as well, and the Boston Globe is not going to be replaced in the homes, schools and businesses of New England by ranting, scavaging, mostly anonymous Websites with ha-ha monikers.

If this ends badly, any number of things will happen. Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, will forever be known as the man who shuttered the Boston Globe. The toffs at Harvard and Tufts and all those other fine schools in Boston will adjust to life without a quality daily newspaper and I don't think they'll like it much.

The Chicago Tribune, where I used to work, is on track to destroy the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the aforementioend Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant. And itself.

The men inherently responsible for this astonishing bidness fiasco - buying those papers as the market was collapsing - are less well known than Sulzberger. Mostly they are living out well-feathered retirements in the Midwest, their looting complete. Some of them comment thoughtfully from time to time on the fate of the newspaper business, often on the blogosphere.

The rest, it seems, is just an exercise in shooting the wounded. Those dogged victims of inexorable fate.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Closet Good Guy

First of all, this reference has nothing at all to do with sexual preferences. That's significant, I guess, because the first public figure I ever heard discuss the concept of "the closet good guy" was the estimable Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

Frank was talking to reporters about a celebrated Washington economist who made his name in the 1980s helping Ronald Reagan wreck the economy and jury-rig the tax code in favor of the well-to-do.

All the time, Frank said, this chap was whispering to those who thought trickle-down economics was taking the middle class off a cliff that he was in fact laboring behind the scenes to make it better, to mitigate the damage. Wink, wink, nod, nod. I'm on your side. Really.

The closet good guy.

Which brings me to my former line of work - the newspaper business. These days the media landscape is littered with closet good guys (and good gals, of course). They're wringing their hands on CNN and MSNBC, furrowing their brows in think tanks and posh universities, typing on the oped pages and yakking on NPR about "What's Wrong" with newspapers.

Most of the answers are already in play. The Internet. Giving away the product. Missing a few fundamental changes in the society. The primacy of shareholder value. Turning the newsroom over the marketing folks. A culture with the attention span of a twitterer.

Most importantly (to me), a loss of faith in the mission and the role of the newspaper. And a pathological need to ignore the base, as they say in politics, and pursue folks who were never, ever going to buy and read a newspaper.

I spent 16 years as a columnist and reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I had a messy divorce from that paper in 1996, long before manufactured-housing mogul Sam Zell and his happy band of new media nitwits took control of the "World's Greatest Newspaper." And what I am suggesting is that the short-sightedeness, arrogance and institutional well-poisoning in the newspaper game didn't get its start in last three years or so.

My experience - and that of many former and current scribes in other papers - is that many editors and managers didn't need a Sam Zell or some equivalent villain to ease them down the road to perdition.

Lots of scrappy reporters who raged over shrinking budgets and shrinking newsholes, unreasonable deadlines, gutless editors and the dumbing down of the product got right in line when they moved into positions of newsroom authority.

Suddenly, the money guys were making a lot of sense when they questioned the need for this bureau or that beat. Sure, an extra copy editor or an editorial cartoonist or an in-house TV critic was nice, but, hey, we gotta start running this place like a business.

From there it was easy.

Now, many in this crowd are numbered among the media commentariat. To hear them tell it, they were all doing the right thing right up until the moment they took the buyout. And there was no back door at the Alamo, either. Everyone died a hero.

So the next time you see a former editor or an ex-publisher or columnist chin-stroking their way through a lofty discussion of the sad state of daily newspapers, consider that they might not have been born in a manger.

It's altogether possible that back in the day they were not strangers to downsizing and closing bureaus, advancing mini-stories and treating disagreeement as insubordination. They might have a newsroom history of their own, and one that will not hold up to much scrutinty.

The truth is, the first time I heard it said in a newsroom that "your job is your perk" was sometime in the late 1980s, about the time that economist was telling Barney Frank they were all on the same side.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"No" to Television

Don't worry. No talk here of turning off the TV, even though the programming has never, ever been worse.

No, this is a high-minded discussion of ground rules and what two people (me and Jane) have determined we will not ever watch. Enter at your own risk.

The thing is, we live in a one-TV home. And we do so by choice. And we never, ever watch anything with:

Sharks. Charles Bronson. Ex-football players dancing, with or without stars. Charles Krauthammer. The fellas in "Entourage." Howie Mandel. Don Rumsfeld. Any of the cartoon shows around "The Simpsons." Extreme Sports (no exceptions). The ESPN show with the four addled sportswriters in the boxes. Pissed-off chefs. Chefs. Sean Hannity. Adam Sandler. Kelly Ripa. The "Money Honey." Jake Tapper. "American Idol." (Again, no exceptions - Gore Vidal once referred to someone as being "blissfully unburdened by the onus of talent". Who knew it would lead to a hit prime-time show)?

David Spade. "The Deadliest Catch." Jack Bauer. Larry King, except when he interviews Bill Maher or Jon Stewart. Mike Barnicle. Dick Morris. "The View." NASCAR (excepting the Daytona 500). Shows about airplane crashes (excepting Capt. Sulley). Lou Dobbs. All shows with brainless, horny 24-year-olds sharing group houses. All shows about legendary surfer dudes. All interviews with Bono. All interviews with Mike Myers. All interviews with Newt Gingrich. Good cable shows you can't ever find ("The Closer," "Rescue Me"). Ben Stein. "Lost." "According to Jim." Shows about enormously fat people trying to lose weight. Dennis Rodman. Donald Trump.

Cramer. Tila Tequila. The traveling Playboy bunnies who kept Hugh Hefner alive with paint thinner or something. Tucker Carlson. "Unsolved Mysteries." Tyra Banks. "Celtic Woman." Larry Kudlow. "Huckabee." All quiz shows except "Jeopardy." "Fox and Friends." Glenn Beck, of course. "Big Love." The National Basketball Association, until the finals of the playoffs. Karl Rove. Judge Judy. The young women trying to read the news in the morning on CNN and their hunky partners. "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." Any Osbourne, doing anything.

Life's too short, my friends ...

Have I left anything out?

My God, I forgot Nancy Grace...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More Salt

Tonight we're waching - and not for the first time - "The Gefilte Fish Chronicles." It's an hour-long celebration of the work of three formidable sisters - Sophie, Peppy and Rosie - as they prepare for Passover. Much chicken, much horseradish, much backtalk and a big helping of family and American family history.

It's the work of friends - Iris and David Burnett. And it's Iris' New Jersey family in the kitchen. Airs on WETA 26/PBS in Washington tonght and in lots more places, we hope. There's a DVD, there's a cookbook, there's a Website. You get the idea. I wouldn't steer you wrong....

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Nothing to Fear

A weekend trip to the Tidal Basin to explore the cherry blossom experience provided a bonus.

The trees, a gift from the Japanese people in 1912, are a big 'ol Washington deal. The bloom, which is spectacular by any measure, is Washington's way of welcoming spring. (Remember, we had no baseball for nearly 40 years).

Tourists flock, as tourists do, and by the way are there any living Americans who do not own digital cameras? Other than Jane and myself?

I have lived here twice for many, many years and of course I had never ventured to Potomac Park to actually see the cherry blossoms. If I had lived near the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 600 BC, I would have gone only if my sister had come for a visit. Urban life deal.

Which helps explain why I had never been to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which graces West Potomac Park between the Tidal Basin and the river. It's a great spot to rendezvous to see the bloom, and it's much more.

I grew up in a family that revered FDR as a man who fought for working people and saved the country. All true.

Not a perfect man. You can get an argument that the Great Depression ended with the start of American engagement in World War II. But in 1933 FDR inherited a systemic economic collapse, a dispirted and frightened citizenry, a growing lack of faith in American institutions and a daunting array of foreign policy threats.

The measure of a political figure ought to be how they respond when faced with overwhelming problems. And this unlikely savior was up the task.

In his first 100 days in office he dealt aggressively with bank failures, factory closings and farm foreclosures. There were policy changes and there were new programs, but there was hope as well in FDR's unflagging spirit.

In the most practical of terms, there was under FDR's leadership the creation of the Social Security system, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. There were jobs programs, programs to assist business and labor, a regulation of the stock market, and subsidies for home and farm mortgage payments.

Does anything look better 75 years later than the FDIC, an institution that guarantees the bank deposits (up to $250,000) of millions of Americans with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government?

Would we in a different place if the SEC as Roosevelt saw it had done its job in the last decade? Did Social Security do anything less than pull an entire generation of Americans (your parents, Baby Boomers) out of poverty?

There are sculptures and inscriptions here, of course, this being a Washington memorial. A George Segal sculpture of men in a bread line stays with you, as does the portrayal of a single man, a desperate man in a straight-back chair hunched in front of a radio, listening to one of FDR's "fireside chats."

A looming sculpture of an aged FDR in a wheeled chair dominates the end of the route through the memorial.
Visitors have rubbed the patina off one of FDR's fingers, and off the ears of Fala, his beloved pooch.

At his second inaugural in 1937, FDR said: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

The news reports tell us that President Obama has been reading "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt," H.W Brand's new biography.

I hope that's true. And I hope Obama ventures out to West Potomac Park to see FDR, if he hasn't been there.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day

I'm a baseball fan, though I was never the kind of fan who would get a little dewy-eyed around Christmas and say things like "Hey, pitchers and catchers report to spring training in only eight weeks."

Baseball fans do that, more than you know. And I'm a baseball fan. My Dad was a passionate Yankee fan, even though we lived 300 miles west of the Bronx. He brought the NY Daily News home every afternoon to read about Mantle and Maris and Yogi and Whitey Ford, and I was right there with him.

We had a hometown team for a while, the Corning Red Sox. It was "A" ball, the NY-Penn League, then the lowest rung of the minor-league hierarchy. But we watched the locals take on Batavia and Wellsville and Bradford, Pa., on warm summer nights. Joe Daley, my Yankee-hating maternal gtandfather, Paul Lovette, and me.

Many of my best friends of both genders are passionate about the game as well. They are fierce in their devotion to the Yankees or the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox, maybe the Baltimore Orioles and, lately, the Washington Nationals.

They have rules, or at least guidelines. They never leave the park before the game is over. They hate goofy mascots, $8 beer and the incessant wail of rock music and/or country music that seems to infest the modern ballyard.

They hate Barry Bonds and steroids, love Cal Ripken, Jr., and Ken Griffey, Jr. They loath the designated hitter and are conflicted about inter-league play. They're convinced today's ballplayers are better athletes but somehow lesser human beings than the players they grew up on.

I'm comfortable with most of that. But for reasons I can't quite determine, Opening Day leaves me cold, as cold as Chicago, where Opening Day this year was scrubbed because it was, well, too cold.

This disenchantment may spring from advancing years, though many of my Baby Boomer amigos have not lost anything off their rooting fastballs. It may stem from the six or so years I spent in a great job as a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune and, before that, at a paper in Palo Alto, CA.

That experience of actually spending time around major league baseball players will change a man. No other way to say it.

When I was writing sports there were a host of bright, talented men wearing the uniform. Two managers, Jim Frey, then of the Cubs and Tony LaRussa, then of the White Sox, come to mind. They were savvy, interesting guys, fun to talk to, though equipped with the wariness that everyone ought to employ when talking to the press.

Not surprisingly, players at the margins tended to be better company than the All-Stars, though not always. But five or six years of hanging around sullen, spoiled, overpaid lads possessed of an arcane skill set will chill the romance.

I imagine most of them felt the same way about me, except for the overpaid part.

These days, many years after I stopped getting into the ballpark for free, I refer to myself as a recovering baseball fan. LaRussa, now in St. Louis, and a handful of graying coaches may be all that's left of the era I got to witness. i never met a single Washington National, and while they are a dismal baseball lot at this point, I find it possible to root for them without equivocation.

Still, I'm happier with the concept of Opening Day than with Opening Day itself.

It's a good thing, it brings some joy to millions, it cements families and friendships, it can galvanize communities in a positive way.

Most of the players don't care about that, believe me.

But if the box scores and the fearless prognostications and the possibility that the Cubs will end their World Series futility in Year 101 leave me stranded at third, I guess that's my problem.

Play ball.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Don't Steal Anything Big

In the precision of the cliche, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was at Disney World when the 16-count federal indictment came down this week. (Why do federal indictments always "come down")?

In the old days he would perhaps have been seeking solace at the Washington Park race track. Lots of history there. It's where an intrepid Chicago reporter named Alfred "Jake" Lingle was gunned down (again, they're always "gunned down," aren't they?), presumably because of his hard-nosed (see!) reportage.

But it turns out Jake was pals with both the police commissioner and a local businessman named Al Capone. Bad idea.

For the most part, Chicagoans love these kinds of stories. I spent a decade there and you will never hear a bad word about the place from me. The locals love their myths and legends the way they love Wrigley Field and, lately, this Obama couple and their children.

And while Chicago is in many ways a big, normal municipality with people going on about their lives, locals of a certain age at least are charmed and in some way proud of the kind of low-brow, pinkie-ring, Mob mopery that seems never to have quite gone away.

One afternoon years ago when I was typing a sports column for the Chicago Tribune, the Managing Editor - a former AP guy who had sloshed through many a crime scene - strode by my cubicle as if he were going to a free meal. Some mobbed-up lawyer/accountant type had been found in the trunk of a car in the western suburbs. The tragedy appeared to be "execution-style" (see!).

The newsroom was abuzz. The natives could not have been happier if they had been handing out Pulitzer Prizes like untainted pistachios. Why worry about global warming or monetary policy when you've got a prominent dead guy in a trunk?

Moving past me, the ME asked if I had heard the good news. I had. "Damn," he said, "this is great. See, we can still do it once in a while."

See, you need to put things in perspective, especially when the last governor - George Ryan - is already in the federal sneezer, and is hardly the first of his gubernatorial breed to to go there.

As for the former governor, well, he was a nitwit before he was the governor. That's no state secret.

Actually, he was a jagoff. Now there's a real Chicago expletive. Jagoff. I believe I heard it the first day I got to Chicago and pretty much every day I lived there.

Jagoff. Rolls off the tongue. Tells you all you need to know.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Schooner Wharf

When the pub-crawl gang got off the bus at the Schooner Wharf bar in Key West Marina on a recent Saturday, the men and women standing behind the beer taps and the slushy-drink machines began the eyeball-rolling.

Schooner Wharf is not a coupon-drink sort of a place. It is a self-proclaimed throwback to a time when Key West was a kind of last outpost of dissipation. It was the French Quarter without beads or cream sauce, a place where collegiate spring-breakers were no more welcome than mosquitos, a place your cousin Davey might have disappeared into back in '78.

Things have changed, of course. Fish with odd sounding names are available for $28 a copy in damask-napkin restaurants. Spring breakers show up in waves from LSU and Alabama and the rest of the SEC. The beat-up rental bike is now $12 a day. But the bike is still the best way to enjoy the above-ground cemetery and Dog Beach, a narrow spot of waterfront where dogs and those who love them chase tennis balls and throw tennis balls into the surf, usually in that order.

It's like that old Jamie McMurtry line about this being a much better place before people like me came here.

That was the view of the professionals behind the stick at the Schooner Wharf on the previously mentioned Saturday. The posture here is anti-Key West 2009, and folks with and without coupons make their way by the fishing boats, T-shirt emporiums and some pretty bad art to get there.

A person who likes bars can feel a bit like a gunslinger walking into Schooner Wharf. That's part of what they're selling. On your right are two guys with those barbed wire tattoos on their arms. They are discussing the merits of a strip club in Marathon whle yanking dollar bills and quarters out of their jeans for another brace of Miller Lights.

On your left is a couple from Eau Claire, Wisc., perhaps. They look about as crazy as Brian Williams, but they're eating and drinking and they don't have coupons. One of women behind the bar - both seaside dishy and slightly ravaged in a Jagermeister T-shirt - likes them just fine.

Hemingway didn't drink here. Deal with it.

On this Saturday, a gentlemen of uncertain years is playing a guitar and singing - really - "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." He sings Jimmy Buffett songs by request as well, though you get the feeling he doesn't want to.

The NCAA basketball tournament spins out on TV but the game isn't drawing much attention. Most of the participants are drinking for the narcotic effect, it seems, and Schooner Wharf is comfortable with that. The beer is cold. The office is a long way away. Nobody cares much about the stimulus package.

Another one? Sure. Jagermeister is standing in front of me, so I tell her I heard The Wailers were in town the other night.

Don't know, hon, she tells me. I was right here.

Fair enough.

Over the last cold one, it struck me that I was in my third decade of seeking out whatever it is the Schooner Wharf was offering. Only a handful of visits in that time, but the place always rose to the occasion.

I bought a T-shirt for $22 - God forgive me - and stumbled off into the sunshine.

Origin of This Species

The title line comes from the Irish writer Brendan Behan, who said many wonderful things including this one: If it were raining soup, the Irish would be outside holding forks.

Enough about the ancestral homeland for now.