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.