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.