Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Secrets to San Antonio / Houston’s dolphins / Tarantino’s ‘Star Trek’ / The best Texas playlist / Kirsten Gillibrand in the spotlight / Robert Caro and LBJ

This week: Secrets to San Antonio / Houston’s dolphins / Tarantino’s ‘Star Trek’ / The best Texas playlist / Kirsten Gillibrand in the spotlight

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Insider’s Guide to San Antonio
By Lauren Smith Ford | Texas Monthly | December 2017
“Join the dapper Mike Casey for a bicycle tour of his favorite bars, restaurants and more in the funky, charming King William neighborhood.”

2. Galveston Bay dolphins struggle to recover from Hurricane Harvey
By Alex Stuckey | Houston Chronicle | November 2017
“Researchers observe lesions covering the marine mammals”

3. Pulp science-fiction? How Quentin Tarantino could save Star Trek
By Luke Holland | The Guardian | December 2017
“The tepid recent installment left Kirk and co needing direction, dialogue and a decent baddie. Luckily Hollywood’s grandmaster of profanity has one more film to make.”

4. Hundreds of dams in Texas could fail in worst-case flood
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz | Austin American-Statesman | November 2017
“Texas applies its strictest safety standards only if a dam’s failure would probably cost seven or more lives.”

5. Winston Churchill Got a Lot of Things Wrong, But One Big Thing Right
By Matt Lewis | The Daily Beast | December 2017
“He contemplated using poison gas on German civilians. He wanted to keep England white. And more. But he had the quality Britain needed most at exactly the moment it was needed.”

6. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Moment Has Arrived
By David Freedlander | Politico Magazine | December 2017
“The New York senator has made sexual assault the focus of her political career. Now, the world has caught up with her.”

7. Oil and gas industry is causing Texas earthquakes, a ‘landmark’ study suggests
By Ben Guarino | The Washington Post | November 2017
“An unnatural number of earthquakes hit Texas in the past decade, and the region’s seismic activity is increasing. In 2008, two earthquakes stronger than magnitude 3 struck the state. Eight years later, 12 did.”

8. You May Want to Marry My Husband
By Amy Krouse Rosenthal | Modern Love :: The New York Times | March 2017
“He is an easy man to fall in love with. I did it in one day.”

9. Listen to the Ultimate Texas Music Playlist
By Katy Vine | Texas Monthly | November 2017
“We set out to hear what our state sounds like. We brought back the latest and best of Texas music — so listen up.”

10. Robert Caro: Rising Early, With a New Sentence in Mind
By John Leland | Sunday Routine :: The New York Times | May 2012
“I always remember Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers: always quit for the day when you know what the next sentence is.”
Also see: Robert Caro’s Big Dig | Robert Caro’s Painstaking Process

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Saliva and our history / Research your home’s past / Purging to remake Turkey / Meet Dina Powell / Assad and U.S. presidents / LBJ and the Secret Service

This week: Saliva and our history / Research your home’s past / Purging to remake Turkey / Meet Dina Powell / Assad and U.S. presidents / LBJ and the Secret Service

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. What 770,000 Tubes of Saliva Reveal About America
Ancestry.com | April 2017
“This unique map shows this country’s great migrations, the echoes of our pioneer ancestors in our genes today.”

2. Has Trump Gone Washington?
By Niall Stanage | The Memo :: The Hill | April 15
“The Trump diehards are queasy at the notion that a president who ran as a proud outsider might be co-opted by a Washington establishment they loathe.”

3. Inside Turkey’s Purge
By Suzy Hansen | The New York Times Magazine | April 13
“As the ruling party expands the ranks of its enemies, life in a fragile democracy becomes stranger and stranger.”

4. How to research a property’s history using Bexar County’s free records search
By John Tedesco | JohnTedesco.net | November 2009
“Here you can search foreclosure notices, marriage licenses, business records — life’s important moments, all documented and filed at the county courthouse.”

5. Who’s Dina Powell? A rising Trump national security figure
By Catherine Lucey | Associated Press | April 13
“An Egyptian-American with international experience and fluency in Arabic, she was soon moved to the National Security Council, though she retains her economic title.”

6. Turkey will never be the same after this vote
By Henri Barkey | The Washington Post | April 11
“The consequences for Turkey are simple: A ‘no’ vote could potentially unleash a period of profound uncertainty and instability. By contrast, a ‘yes’ vote would institutionalize a populist authoritarian system that risks cataclysmic collapse …”

7. The Assad Family: Nemesis of Nine U.S. Presidents
By Robin Wright | The New Yorker | April 11
“Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have coaxed and cajoled, prodded and praised, and, most recently, confronted and condemned the Assads to induce policy changes.”

8. Can a coin dropped from the Empire State Building kill you?
By Reed Tucker | The New York Post | April 1
“From tumbling air conditioners to defective sidewalk grates to deli salad-bar tuna, there’s a random death potentially waiting around every corner in New York City.”

9. The spy who couldn’t spell: how the biggest heist in the history of US espionage was foiled
By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee | The Guardian | October 2016
“Ever since childhood, Brian Regan had been made to feel stupid because of his severe dyslexia. So he thought no one would suspect him of stealing secrets”

10. L.B.J.’s Bravado and a Secret Service Under Scrutiny
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | October 2014
“Johnson built an excellent relationship with the Secret Service. But as early as the week after the Dallas assassination, the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was an old Johnson friend and Washington neighbor, tried to sow seeds of doubt in the president’s mind about the service.”

Book gems of 2016, Part 2

This week … a brief look at some of the best works on presidents and the political world.

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Summer is upon us, and the season of leisure is the perfect time for new stories, characters, ideas, and adventures. Throughout the next few weeks, Stillness of Heart continues its occasional series of critical recommendations, from Civil War battle histories to memoirs, and from intellectual histories to photobooks almost as beautiful as the natural world they celebrate.

Read Part 1 of this 2016 series here and subsequent essays in this series here.

This week … a brief look at some of the best works on presidents and the political world.

Editor Edith Gelles presents Abigail Adams: Letters (Library of America, 1180 pp., $40), a stellar collection of correspondence capturing the complexity, nuances, and uncertainties of the American Republic’s earliest era and of its first generation of political and intellectual leaders. It is a tribute to her intelligence, insight, bravery, and patriotic devotion. It is best read alongside John Adams: Writings from the New Nation, 1784-1826, edited by Gordon S. Wood (Library of America, 905 pp., $40). Taken together, the books illustrate a decades-long romance between a brilliant man and woman, the intellectual and cultural forces that shaped their lives, and an inspirational example for all Americans who should be just as devoted to the enrichment of their democracy as the Adamses.

Ronald L. Feinman’s Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman & Littlefield, 274 pp., $38) grimly examines the consistent danger faced by presidential candidates when the harsh public spotlight is perverted into a bullseye on their lives. Feinman turns the historic attempts and successful murders into case studies analyzing the government’s and public’s reactions to the crimes, providing fascinating and important perspectives on a too-often understudied aspect of presidential and political history. Mel Ayton’s Plotting to Kill the President: Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover (University of Nebraska Press, 376 pp., $32.95) takes a broader and more casual approach to the same issues, but from a different time frame and with many more details and anecdotes. They should complement each other quite well.

Seymour Morris Jr.’s Fit for the Presidency? Winners, Losers, What-Ifs, and Also-Rans (Potomac Books, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press, 462 pp., $32.95) arrives at the perfect time, just when Americans are overwhelmed from the campaign season’s speeches, news coverage, political ads, and scandals. If it makes us feel any better, previous generations of Americans did not have it much better. Morris unfurls an amazing and very colorful tapestry of personalities, ambitions, bizarre surprises, and the raw emotions of victory and defeat. Nothing better complements or enriches presidential history than the shadow history of the people those presidents defeated.

Jefferson Cowie’s The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 288 pp., $27.95) promises to be a fascinating and sobering reminder that any progress toward economic equality in American society is essentially paddling against the stream of traditional social and economic inequality. A strong, centralized, pro-active federal government forcibly reordered the democratic system to better benefit the lower-class citizens, from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, and that may be what is required for today’s America. Cowie’s book is not just a smart history but a call to action for today’s citizens and political leaders, along with a warning from the past of what resulted from inaction.

Marne L. Campbell’s Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850-1917 (University of North Carolina Press, 246 pp., $29.95) paints an extraordinary portrait of black families from the post-Mexican War era to World War I, illustrating how they grew, endured countless forms of discrimination, and struggled to build and sustain a viable community as the town steadily grew into an important city. Women, she discovered, were key to strengthening the relationships between different classes of black communities, thereby enabling their entire community to fight for economic independence, racial expression, and, ultimately, political power.

LBJ’s Neglected Legacy: How Lyndon Johnson Reshaped Domestic Policy and Government, edited by Robert H. Wilson, Norman J. Glickman, and Laurence E. Lynn, Jr. (University of Texas Press, 493 pp., $29.95), is an excellent essay anthology examining the lasting effects of Great Society legislation on modern American society, government, and economics. As the title suggests, the contributors argue that Johnson receives too-little credit for how his ambitions and political skills built the governmental and ideological architecture shaping today’s American society and the issues over which today’s loudest debates take place.

Doreen Mattingly’s A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America’s Culture Wars (Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $23.96) reminds us that the fight for feminism and equal rights could be difficult even under Democratic presidents. Costanza challenged President Jimmy Carter to support women’s right to choose, LGBTQ rights, and gender equality. She was a bright light in a dark America desperate for an undeniable and intelligent voice in the halls of power. Mattingly’s portrait challenges today’s generations to remember the heroic efforts that lead the initial assaults in the civil rights struggles still waged today.

******

Book gems of 2016
An occasional series
Jan. 3: Antiquity, Civil War, World War II, and space
June 22: Presidents and the political world
June 29: Texas and Texas history
July 6: Latin America
July 13: Slavery and the Civil War era
July 20: World War I and II, science, culture, and literature

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Prince and Beyonce / Tubman on the $20 / QEII turns 90 / Abigail Adams / Shakespeare, the American

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Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Boston cheers Tubman going on the $20 bill
By Eric Moskowitz | The Boston Globe | April 21
“Although Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland and spent most of her free life in upstate New York, she has deep ties to Massachusetts, the center of the abolitionist movement.”

2. Tubman’s In. Jackson’s Out. What’s It Mean?
By Jennifer Schuessler, Binyamin Appelbaum, and Wesley Morris | The New York Times | April 20
“Does having her on the bill make a real difference — either to how we think about our history, or how we think about our money?”

3. What Prince Taught Me About Love. And Sex. And Time.
By Dave Holmes | Esquire | April 21
“Thirty-five years ago, I heard Prince’s voice. Eighteen years later, I was in his presence.”

4. The Best Tweets By People Losing Their Sh*t Thinking Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Was a Divorce Announcement
Cosmopolitan and Esquire | April 24
“Some people think she’s writing about her dad’s infidelity, not Jay Z’s, but it seems unlikely he is totally innocent here.”

5. Veep’s most profane, brutal and brilliant burns
By Janet Upadhye | Salon | April 24
“The result is 160 seconds of hilarity. Enjoy.”

6. Trump terrifies world leaders
By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Bryan Bender | Politico | April 21
“And Obama’s reassurances aren’t calming them down.”

7. William Shakespeare: a quintessentially American author
By Robert McCrum | The Guardian | April 9
“From Abraham Lincoln’s White House readings to Hollywood westerns and West Side Story, Shakespeare’s plays are an integral part of the American dream. So how did this icon of Englishness become a U.S. phenomenon?”

8. ‘Remember the Ladies’: Edith Gelles on the incomparable letters of Abigail Adams
Library of America | April 18
“Abigail Adams’s letters are the best record we have of the American Revolution from a woman’s point of view. No other Founding family has left such a trove of family letters as the Adamses.”

9. A Busy Queen Elizabeth II Pencils In a 90th Birthday
By Dan Bilefsky | The New York Times | April 20
“Through seven decades, she has remained gloriously and relentlessly enigmatic in one of her signature pastel outfits and colorful hats, chosen, royal experts say, so onlookers can spot her in a crowd.”

10. Kennedy, L.B.J. and a Disputed Deer Hunt
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | August 2014
“Someone present thought the president-elect looked ‘like a football fan.’ Another felt that in the rural Texas setting, Kennedy looked as if he were ‘on Mars.’ ”

Kings are killed. Politics is power, nothing more.

In January 2011, David D. Robbins Jr., and Fernando Ortiz Jr., discussed three presidential quasi-biopics by film director Oliver Stone: “J.F.K.,” “Nixon,” and W.” The ideas and issues still resonate throughout our current conversations about film, history, politics, and culture.

25th anniversary of Nixon resignation

In January 2011, David D. Robbins Jr., author of the blog The Fade-Out, and Fernando Ortiz Jr., author of this blog, Stillness of Heart, shared their thoughts about three presidential quasi-biopics by film director Oliver Stone: “J.F.K.,” “Nixon,” and W.” They discussed the films and the politics surrounding them. They also considered what the films show us about ourselves and about American politics in general. This is a recently re-edited version of that conversation and is republished — with special permission — on Stillness of Heart. Its ideas and issues still resonate throughout our current conversations about film, history, politics, and culture.

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(Letter No. 1): From David D. Robbins Jr. to Fernando Ortiz Jr.:

“Karl, in Texas we call that walkin’.”

Hey Fernando, let me first say, I’m so glad to be talking about these films with you. I can think of no better and more knowledgeable partner. Taken in totality, these are such crucial films to the American movie canon. It seems we’re forever minted by them. I want to start off talking with you about the lesser of the three films, “W.” Much like you, I’ve seen each of these films more times than I can count. I re-watched “W.” a couple of days ago to see if I felt any different than I did the first time I watched it. I saw it at the theater when it came out, and enjoyed it — but it felt trite — something I never felt while watching “J.F.K.” and “Nixon.” I thought I remembered reading somewhere that director Oliver Stone said he purposefully made it trite, because then-President George W. Bush wasn’t really worth a serious look.

The first thing that struck me about this film was just how closely it stayed to the script. The near-death pretzel episode. Bush getting his cabinet lost at Crawford. They were all stories we’re familiar with, and the film’s scenes felt a bit like parody or vignettes stitched together. When I saw the film at the theater, it received a ton of laughs, especially during scenes where Bush Jr. mispronounced words, or got tangled in common phrases. I chuckled a bit, but didn’t find it all that funny because here was a man whose decisions resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians. Much like what he did in “Nixon,” Stone made Bush sympathetic in “W.” (Unlike what conservative critics, who probably never even watched the film, characterized Stone’s portrayal to be.) And that rubbed me the wrong way.

Stone put some very delicious lines in Bush’s mouth, like that scene where he and political strategist Karl Rove are discussing him taking a run at the presidency. Rove lists a few things Bush needs to change about himself to get votes on a national level. He asks Bush Jr. about his cocky swagger. Bush replies, “Karl, in Texas we call that walkin’.” It’s a fantastic line. Or when Bush, in the Situation Room, says, “I’m not Bill Clinton. I’m not gonna use a $2 million missile to destroy a $10 tent and hit a donkey in the ass.” Granted, I have to give some respect to Stone for not making Bush Jr. into a completely one-dimensional character just to fit a popular conception. But it must have been tempting. There are stories told by many historians that are even more ridiculous than the ones presented by Stone. Bob Woodward tells a story in “Plan of Attack” about Bush Jr. the first day he was briefed by the Joint Chiefs. Vice President Dick Cheney was falling asleep. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld kept asking the group to “speak up” because he was so hard of hearing. Apparently, they were describing the two no-fly zones over Iraq, with a map on the table. To outline the areas on the map, they used three mints. Bush Jr. grabbed a mint and ate it. A few minutes later he asked if anyone wanted the second mint. By the end of the meeting, he eyed the third mint and a JCS staffer, spotting his gaze, quickly grabbed up the mint and handed it to Bush — who popped it in his mouth. It doesn’t get any funnier (or sadder) than that.

At first I didn’t like Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice accent. It threw me off. But I suppose it didn’t much matter — because much like her role as Bush Jr.’s National Security Advisor — she remained relatively mute during the movie too. I don’t think there’s ever been a head of the NSA so befuddled by the job — so much so, she simply was a Bush Jr. lapdog. Fernando, imagine Brent Scowcroft or McGeorge Bundy acquiescing to the president’s whims without much interjection or give and take.

Let it be said, I’ve never been a fan of Bush Jr., but I don’t hate the man either. Being president is the most difficult, thankless, life-sapping job on the planet. Tough decisions are made everyday that would crush a normal person. But I do dislike Cheney and Rumsfeld. Thousands have lost their lives and limbs for the egos of those two men. Note how often Stone frames Cheney just at the edge of the picture, or barely within the periphery, lurking in the darkness. Right at all the crucial moments, he jumps in with his point of view. It’s accurate from all the books I’ve read of the man, including the brilliant “Angler” written by Washington Post writer Barton Gellman. Cheney isn’t a complicated person to understand. He’s been in politics for 42 years, and according to Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” he even held a meeting about “schooling” the new president on Iraq with departing Secretary of Defense William Cohen before Bush Jr.’s inauguration. In other words, Cheney had his eye on Iraq, Saddam Hussein and Iran before he was even officially vice president. He was such a runaway train that even his colleagues said he was “obsessive” about Iraq. We only need to read Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side” to get an even larger picture of his paranoia. Add this to the calculated opportunism of Rumsfeld (who clearly suffers from the ‘Smartest Man in the Room’ syndrome), a dysfunctional intelligence apparatus headed by a clueless Rice, the tragedy of 9/11, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s memo, and you’ve got a perfect storm.

History is messy, and often it’s a meeting of perfect storms. We don’t make history as much as history sweeps us up. What happens if JFK doesn’t go to Dallas? What if the often-brilliant Nixon stopped thinking it was his administration against the world? What if Bush Jr. didn’t have Cheney whispering into his ear like some evil Lady MacBeth? What if 9/11 never occurred to push Bush Jr. away from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s thinking and into the realm of war-machine stalwarts like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz? Just today, I opened up my newspaper to read Cheney daring to talk about current president Barack Obama’s character and his chances for a second term. If I was Obama, it would be hard to swallow lectures from an unapologetic liar, who from day one camped out at Langley trying to force the intelligence to fit his script — turning 9/11 into a phony search for WMDs he knew didn’t exist, and later inventing a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam in order to push his vision. Cheney is still at it. Still desperately trying to re-write history. Rumsfeld, who had been in politics even longer than Cheney, has quietly and thankfully fallen away into silence. It’s funny how in the movie, whenever ‘Rummy’ speaks, Bush Jr. just rolls his eyes and goes on to the next person. Rumsfeld’s complicated verbiage, or “known unknowns,” impressed Bush about as much as it did the press corps — which is to say not at all. He was shown in the film and in books like “By His Own Rules” (by Bradley Graham) to be a guy who liked to keep insulated. No one would get to know the real Rumsfeld, if that person even exists. He’d give points of view, but rarely let those around him know exactly why he gave them. Ultimately, this administration’s decision to go into Iraq was disastrous in battling terrorism. It refueled a jihadist mentality in Muslims around the world and made Osama bin Laden’s prediction that the U.S.’s long-range goal really was occupation, control of the region and command over oil wells seem all the more correct.

I’m sorry I’ve veered so far away from the movie. But I felt like starting off the conversation with a seriousness the movie lacked. The scenes with Bush Jr. dreaming of baseball came off like a tedious metaphor. Bush Jr.’s ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment was treated fairly by Stone, but it too felt stale and obligatory. Perhaps the one question answered by this movie was how in the world a beer-guzzling, doltish, young Bush could land the bookish Laura Welch. The film presents Bush as a bumbling charmer at a barbecue, where he meets his future wife. Talking with his mouth full, spittle flying, he proceeds to sweep her off her feet. The movie never touches the topic of Welch killing a friend in a car accident, which is fine because it’s not a movie about her. But I suspect that had a major effect on the type of person she became. An accident like that makes one very slow to judge the faults of others. I could see her being very forgiving about Bush Jr.’s defects. It’s a life perspective that transformed her into one of America’s most beloved first ladies. I enjoyed this film. But for me it doesn’t come close to what Stone did in “Nixon” or “JFK”.

 

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(Letter No. 2): From Fernando Ortiz Jr. to David D. Robbins Jr.:

“You’re a Bush! Act like one!”

David, it’s a dream come true to have this virtual conversation with you. Over the last decade, so many of Oliver Stone’s films have made it into our best conversations and casual analyses of the insane world around us. It only seems right to take a moment to focus directly on some of Stone’s best work.

Beginning this series with “W.” is quite timely. Recent days saw Tony Blair’s second appearance before the Chilcot committee, which is investigating British involvement in the 2003 Iraq war. Deadly bombings shattered the notion of a tense peace returning to Baghdad. And at a symposium in College Station, Texas, George H.W. Bush led the architects of the 1991 Persian Gulf War in a re-examination of their strategic decisions, including the decision not to topple Saddam Hussein’s government after Allied forces ejected the Iraqis from Kuwait.

I mention the 1991 war because I sometimes consider the 1991 and 2003 Iraq conflicts as two pieces of a larger whole, a larger era bookmarked by the two Bush presidencies, with the latter war a grand symptom of the bitter relationship the disappointed father shared with his defiant son. As a budding novelist, that relationship has fascinated me for so many years, and Stone’s illustration of that relationship is what, for me, elevates “W.” from the otherwise broad and shallow strokes brushed across a rather cheap canvas. For nuanced explorations of the fascinating power plays throughout the second Bush administration, the intellectual and psuedo-intellectual fires fueling the drive toward a second Iraq war and the catastrophic consequences of so many astoundingly shortsighted decisions, one needs to look no further than the brilliant PBS series “Frontline.”

To me, aside from the exploration of the fragmented father-son connection, the value of “W.” lies in how it challenges us, like all decent biopics, to sympathize with George W. Bush as a person. I agree with you that Stone succeeded at that. We see W. daydreaming during meetings, make terrible jokes, sit on the toilet as he talks to his wife, dance on bars, yearn for parental approval, demand respect, and dream of a happy future. Who among us can’t feel the same tinge of regret, loneliness or hope as we wander through our mediocre days, seemingly locked into our orbits around the men and women who dominate our emotional lives? Like some of the smartest reporting on W., the film warns us to never make the mistake of underestimating him, as so many of his opponents did, and as his father did. It’s a daring approach for Stone, Josh Brolin, and many of the film’s other actors who spoke out against the Iraq war and against the men and women they portray. I wish they received more credit for that artistic decision and a bigger audience to savor it.

It’s a tribute to Stone and his team that they managed to assemble a film of such breezy intelligence and mischievousness so quickly. A small project like this could have been so easily relegated to TNT or Showtime, never to be seen again, except in the $3 DVD bin at Wal-Mart. The director was blessed with an incredible ensemble, and that also is one of the aspects that elevates this film. In the DVD commentary Stone said it was his best ensemble ever. As you know, I still insist “Nixon” had the best cast, followed by “JFK.” But we’ll save that issue for another day.

I thought Condi Rice deserved a deeper, complex portrayal, far from the one Thandie Newton gave her. I don’t even know why they wasted her time as an actress. The role was nothing. As I watched her, I kept picturing in my mind those classic Oliphant editorial cartoons of Rice as a bird, squawking and repeating everything W. said. Rice deserved better, and I hope that a future, more serious film of this era takes a closer look at her. Yes, she was ineffectual as national security adviser, and certainly she was overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by Cheney and Rumsfeld. I suppose I just want a film that will show that with patience, intelligence and layered dramatic force, even if it shows her frustration, her private insecurities, and her determination to hit back when she becomes secretary of state. Take a moment to make her human too, Oliver. I was also unmoved by Jeremy Wright as Colin Powell. I love Wright as an actor, and he did his usual fine job here, but he just didn’t project Powell in a full-bodied way. Powell too deserves a major examination on film.

I want to say the same for Rumsfeld, but Scott Glenn’s smarmy, sneering portrayal wins me over every time. It’s a little bit of his drug-dealer from “Training Day” and a little bit of his Jack Crawford from “Silence of the Lambs.” Then he’ll smile, settle back into his slime and let the audience’s memory do the rest. Naturally, thanks to the real Rummy and his mutated Churchillian acrobatics with the English language, Glenn gets one of the best lines of the movie, a classic: “Sir, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” I still laugh every time I hear that. Maybe we’ll get a better view of Rumsfeld after his sure-to-be moronic but deliciously controversial memoir, “Known and Unknown,” is published on Feb. 8.

As for Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, I can’t think of anyone who could’ve done a better job portraying the vice president. I can only imagine what must have been going through Cheney’s mind as he watched a subservient, intellectually listless president follow his lead in shattering the spotlights of democratic accountability and moral decency, thereby creating that dark side to this war on terror. Bush didn’t just unlock the doors to the gun rack of executive war powers. He threw the keys to Cheney and told his neocon barbarians to lock up when they were done. The look Dreyfuss almost always seems to have on his face in “W.,” that particular gleam in the eye, exclaims, “I can’t believe my luck! I can’t believe this is happening! How many moments had to align in the universe for him to be president and me to be his co-president?!?!” Dreyfuss has always been brilliant at playing complete bastards. Just look at two of my favorite bastards, Bill Babowski in “Tin Men” and Alexander Haig in “The Day Reagan Was Shot.” Both films were the blackest of black comedies, perfectly attuned to some of the best moments in “W.”

My favorite performance — I won’t say it was the best performance — was James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. “What do you think you are?” he bellows to his screw-up son, “A Kennedy? You’re a Bush! Act like one!” I loved that line. It represents the seismic faultline between father and son, fracturing that relationship I found so interesting, as I said earlier, and perhaps exposing lifelong vulnerabilities in W. that Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld exploited to drive forward their own agenda. “Don’t act like that other Bush,” they seemed to hiss like serpents from a tree branch. “Don’t deliberate. Don’t draw on the experience from a vast diplomatic career. Ignore history’s lessons. Act with your gut instinct. Act with your heart.” Stone’s W. heard them well, and he agreed with their tempting reassurances that everything was going to be OK.

George H.W. Bush could only look on helplessly as he saw the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan consume his son’s presidency. The Beast, as Stone’s Nixon would have seen it, turned on its master for one final bloody meal. Cromwell’s performance, somehow both cold and loving, distant and supportive, reminded me of how much still remains to learn about H.W. Bush, how unappreciated he still is, and how amazing his career truly was, long before he was vice president to Ronald Reagan, long before Dana Carvey portrayed him as a befuddled, brainless wimp. H.W. Bush was everything Reagan pretended to be.

And therein lies the last elevating value of “W.” It drives me to learn more about W.’s father, the post-Cold War era he inaugurated, and how his Democratic and Republican successors shaped what he left behind. It drives me more to learn about his family, and about the sons who looked up to him for approval, support and guidance. And it drives me to learn more about that one son who thought that rejecting his father’s example would earn his father’s respect, even at the cost thousands of lives and the guarantee of a prominent place in the blood-stained catalog of American infamy.

 

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(Letter No. 3): From Fernando Ortiz Jr. to David D. Robbins Jr.:

“We’re just a patsy!”

By 1991, I was aware of Oliver Stone as a film director, particularly for his films “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” but he wasn’t someone I considered a role model. I was 17, and as I looked forward to finally graduating from high school and moving on to college, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. Perhaps join the military, like my grandfather. Perhaps study history and, like narrative historian David McCullough, write about it. Perhaps simply write, like novelist James Michener.

I briefly considered studying film, perhaps even becoming a film director someday, like Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Now those were role models. Stone hadn’t yet earned a place in my pantheon. And yet he was the one who came along with a film that year that electrified all of my passions. “JFK” was like a meteor strike, driving right into the core of my imagination and intellect, changing forever my understanding of how powerful a bold, historical film could truly be.

OK, “historical” may not be an appropriate word to describe what Stone throws at you. Rolling Stone called the film “a dishonest search for the truth.” But many other reviews used the word “riveting.” Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece.” The Washington Post said it best: “It’s not journalism. It’s not history. It is not legal evidence. Much of it is ludicrous. It’s a piece of art or entertainment.”

I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces when I was 17, but I knew enough not to take the film seriously, no matter how dazzling it was. I staggered from the theater and into humid Christmas-time Texas Gulf Coast seabreeze, and for weeks I remained dazed and tingling and inspired by such a creative imagination. I was disappointed by how many people despised the film because they took it all too seriously. It’s too bad Stone never prefaced the film with a note like, “This is not to be taken as a sincere exploration of what happened and why, but simply a playfully creative summary of all of the crazy theories out there. Do your own damn research like a normal, intelligent American and decide for yourself.”

As an aspiring filmmaker — or so I thought myself to be at that tender age — “JFK” was the master class on bold, controversial filmmaking. But it also served as the supreme cautionary example. I saw Stone irresponsibly promoting his work as a credible thesis worthy of defense, worthy of consideration among the bitter ranks of men and women committed to exposing the supposed conspiracy behind the assassination. It wasn’t enough for him to accept the laurels from critics who loved his vision, who were moved by his fearless confrontation of the “story that won’t go away,” as the film was subtitled. It wasn’t enough to create a striking, ingenious kaleidoscopic freefall through the caverns of distrust and insecurity looming under the sense of American pride. He had to take the film as seriously as his critics did.

What I loved then and still love now about “JFK” is how it plays with history, the way Picasso played with the bombing of Guernica, the way HBO played with the fall of the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic dynasty. Everyone sees everything differently. How boring would life be if everyone saw everything the same, and in some sense the film understands that. The film’s beauty and power comes from the depth of its distortions, from the way the filmmakers mopped up all of the paranoia, ignorance and fear pouring from the wounds fired into the American identity, strained it through their own mutated agendas and beliefs, and served us this putrid, blood-red broth, daring us to drink it. History was merely the paint. Our own imaginations were the canvas, and what amazing work did those deranged painters produce.

I later savored the descendants of that pop culture on-screen paranoia in “The X-Files” and in “Millennium,” where FBI Agents Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and Frank Black battled shadowy quasi-governmental conspiracies, and in the epileptic corpse that was “24,” where no season was complete without some ridiculous presidential coup d’etat or paramilitary operation. “JFK’s” older, smarter, and more insanely brilliant sibling, “Nixon,” took it all to a whole new level — it was the greatest of Stone’s imaginings — and it still inspires me. Any high-minded musings about why Kennedy was killed came from Robert Stone and “Frontline.”

Throughout the subsequent years and decades, almost none of those descendants affected me as deeply as “JFK.” It was for Stone definitely a big step forward into a new phase of chaotic, energetic filmmaking and film editing, so different from the somber elegant styles used to illustrate the lush, deadly Vietnamese jungle, the strained loneliness in “Talk Radio” or the cold Wall Street boardrooms. Perhaps there were hints of the flashy, fever-dream experience in “Born on the Fourth of July.” Certainly “The Doors” sent the fame-drunk and drug-addled characters careening through spectacular reels of Stone’s twisted vision.

But “JFK” achieved a new level of surreal imaginings for me. I saw not simply a vision induced by drugs or tropical heat or lust for power. It was a story of murder, one of the greatest of all murders, deconstructed not just moment by moment, but sensation by sensation. How many shots were heard? What did people see? How did they feel? Layered in between comprehension of those sensations are flashes of what they think they heard, blurred images of what they think they saw, how they absorbed what had happened and what warped those absorptions. Half-shrouded faces in the dark, puffs of smoke, black streaks of malice snaking along sunny motorcade routes, rifles aimed, machetes gleaming in the humid night, breaths frozen in time, bodies wheeled away, heartstopping nightmares, hot flashes of rage, blood turned cold, screams, silence — Stone’s cameras imagined it all for us. History and myths were somehow splintered — some conspiracy fanatics would say “shattered” — and then re-assembled to resemble the mutated American monster he argues we became after Nov. 22, 1963.

Like everyone else, I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like had Kennedy not been killed. He may have dropped Johnson as running mate in the 1964 presidential election. Would Kennedy have picked someone more liberal? What would have happened to his civil rights legislation, which needed at least some southern Democrats to vote for it? Johnson at least was one of their own, who wielded his own mighty arsenal of determination and tactical brilliance when faced with a raucous legislative process. Are we so sure Kennedy would have pulled out all American forces from Vietnam? Certainly we can all think of a more recent Democrat in the White House who has not only reversed his position on pulling out of an unpopular, pointless war, but has escalated and prolonged it. How would Kennedy’s deteriorating health affected his second term? His back was always a major issue. In “Unfinished Life,” historian Robert Dallek said Kennedy wore a back brace during his ride through Dallas, holding him upright. Oswald fired three shots at Kennedy. “Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect,” Dallek writes, “a third and fatal shot to the back of the head would not have found its mark.” What about Kennedy’s reckless behavior? Bobby Kennedy worked tirelessly to quash news stories about Kennedy’s womanizing, as J. Edgar Hoover’s intelligence file on Kennedy’s extracurricular activities grew thicker every month. No matter how polite the mainstream media remained in the mid-1960’s, the shadows of some looming scandal or potential blackmail was always darkening the skies over the administration’s future.

The dreamy musings about a world caressed by two-term Kennedy presidency (we can all agree he would have defeated Barry Goldwater) always make me smile, reminding me of how perversely (and politically) lucky Lincoln was to die when he did. You don’t ever see people sitting around wondering what great things James Garfield or William McKinley would have done in the world had they not been killed. No one is accusing Chester Arthur of masterminding a government takeover. You don’t hear whispers of how Theodore Roosevelt managed a conspiracy to not only take down McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., but also to frame Leon Czolgosz as the patsy. Even for those presidents who died of natural causes, you don’t see movies speculating about a devious John Tyler leading a coup d’etat to take down Old Tippecanoe. “Naw, man. You don’t need a coat. You’re Old Tipp! You can handle two hours in the cold and rain! Take your time reading that inaugural address.”

I suppose it comes down to public image, something Kennedy always had in his favor, especially in an age without HD television or a media that would have breathlessly told us about the rivers of steroids, painkillers and other drugs swimming through his bloodstream, his back braces, crutches, past surgeries and other health problems. Added to the tragedy is what he left behind: a young, unhappy wife and two small children oblivious to their parents’ emotional distance. Americans love youth and vigor, even if it’s manufactured, and especially when it’s lost. When it comes to McKinley’s assassination, historians seem to be more excited about the rise of young Theodore Roosevelt, the perfect man for the new century, a young leader for a young country, blah, blah, blah. Rest assured, if it had been President Johnson murdered and Vice President Kennedy who stepped in to take over, we would have heard the exact same sentiments. “Lyndon Who? Oh, yeah, the guy who finally got out of JFK’s way.”

Over the years, Stone’s hopefulness planted in me the seeds of cynicism as I studied more of American history, learned the cycles of how power is distributed in an American democracy, and bitterly accepted the limits of what can actually be accomplished within the system of checks and balances. But sometimes I will set all of that aside, relax and remember not to take it all so seriously, certainly not as seriously as Stone does. So I’ll reach into my DVD library and pull out “JFK” for yet another viewing. It still remains one of my all-time favorite films, where, ironically, I can set aside all of that grumpiness and sadness, reach for some popcorn, and savor yet again my favorite line: “Kings are killed, Mr. Garrison. Politics is power. Nothing more.”

Indeed.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Enduring sexism / LBJ and the Secret Service / Exercise and depression / The Roman Empire / The political Eva Longoria

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This week: Enduring sexism / LBJ and the Secret Service / Exercise and depression / The Roman Empire / The political Eva Longoria

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere
By Jessica Williams | The Daily Show | Oct. 2
“Also, that’s redundant.”

2. L.B.J.’s Bravado and a Secret Service Under Scrutiny
By Michael Beschloss | The Upshot :: The New York Times | Oct. 2
“Not long after President Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson chafed under his Secret Service protection.”

3. What made Japan’s deadly volcanic eruption so unpredictable?
By Judy Woodruff and Miles O’Brien | PBS NewsHour | Sept. 30
“More than 250 people were out hiking and enjoying a nice fall day, when a surprise eruption littered the mountain with falling boulders, thick smoke and piles of ash. At least 36 people were killed.”

4. This Is How Eva Longoria Is Trying to Win the Midterms
By Asawin Suebsaeng | The Daily Beast | Oct. 1
“From working behind the scenes in the midterms to making a new farm labor documentary, the former Desperate Housewife has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in liberal politics.”

5. How Exercise May Protect Against Depression
By Gretchen Reynolds | Well :: The New York Times | Oct. 1
“Exercise may help to safeguard the mind against depression through previously unknown effects on working muscles.”

6. The Elements of Style
By Sasha Weiss | The Sunday Book Review :: The New York Times | Oct. 3
“Watching other women, seeing how they’re dressed and how they pull it off, is the way most of us learn to become ourselves.”

7. Former Haiti president Duvalier dies
By Mike Wooldridge | BBC News | Oct. 4
“Duvalier was just 19 when in 1971 he inherited the title of “president-for-life” from his father, the notorious Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. He was accused of corruption, human rights abuses and repression in his rule, which ended in a 1986 uprising.”

8. Catastrophic Coltrane
By Geoff Dyer | NYR Gallery :: New York Review of Books | Oct. 4
“The interest of recordings from this final phase — in which Coltrane’s playing became increasingly frenzied and the accompaniment more abstracted — lies partly in what they preserve and partly in any hints they contain as to where Trane might have headed next.”

9. The Aral Sea’s Disappearing Act
By Anna Nemtsova | The Daily Beast | Oct. 4
“Satellite photos show how the depredations of dictators have turned the world’s fourth largest inland sea into a poisonous desert.”

10. 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire
By Timothy B. Lee | Vox | Aug. 19
“Two thousand years ago, on August 19, 14 AD, Caesar Augustus died. … Under Augustus and his successors, the empire experienced 200 years of relative peace and prosperity. Here are 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire — its rise and fall, its culture and economy, and how it laid the foundations of the modern world.”

The Disco Pall

The mirage inspired the working class and their tenuous allies toward distant horizons of hope, unaware that only predators awaited them in the night.

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The mirage inspired the working class and their tenuous allies toward distant horizons of hope, unaware that only predators awaited them in the night.
A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

Discussed in this essay:

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. By Jefferson Cowie. New York: The New Press, 2010. Pp. 464. $19.58

*****

Jefferson Cowie illustrates in Stayin’ Alive a sad era of American labor’s political and economic strife. The book recounts 40 years of corporations, political figures, and labor’s own leaders undermining, defusing, or ravaging the postwar economic opportunities of working-class Americans, who gradually lost every ally gained during the New Deal era. The working-class identity at the beginning of his story captures their pride and belief in a better future. Their identity at the end is strangled, stabbed, and ground down into a pitiable symbol of social irrelevance, political isolation, and self-absorbed psychic catatonia.1

Cowie divides his story into two sections: “Hope in the Confusion, 1968-1974” and “Despair in the Order, 1974-1982.” He begins with vivid accounts of labor’s role as “junior partners” in a New Deal coalition to re-engineer American capitalism and of a younger generation’s struggles against calcified labor leaders in the 1960s to improve their economic standing. He then moves into the chaos of the 1968 presidential campaigns. Public uproar over the Vietnam War left President Lyndon B. Johnson exhausted. He refused to run for another term, leaving the desiccated corpse of the presidency for Democratic contenders to rip apart like starved hyenas. Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the violent Democratic nominating convention as the last man standing, with only the labor machinery at his side, Cowie writes, making labor the “big boss in the Democratic Party.”2

Labor’s support of the Vietnam War, Cowie explains, meant no alliance with anti-war Democrats. Patriarchal labor leaders rejected civil rights and social movements, which poisoned any relationship with social liberals, women, and minorities. Humphrey’s nomination triumph and labor alliance amounted to little more than a Pyrrhic victory when Richard Nixon, leading a Republican resurgence against divided Democrats, won the election. The cracks in the Democratic lines would also lead to complete political failure in 1972 when Democrat George McGovern challenged then-President Nixon and was obliterated.3

The tragic and foreboding theme of division overshadows every working-class ambition, and Cowie highlights its importance at every turn. The compromised aspirations of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are two of his best examples. Both aimed for “occupational justice.” The former enabled union formation and opened economic opportunities to immigrants. The latter ensured non-white, non-male, and non-Christian workers would not face workplace discrimination. The former was rooted in the hopes for economic equality. The latter was rooted in the hopes for cultural and gender equality. Some victories required the exclusion of black rights.

Others required the exclusion of women’s rights. Inherent tensions between the governmental and political forces that achieved both victories doomed the unity needed to face foes in the 1970s and 1980s, who exploited “an unbridgeable chasm” between allies fighting over race or over class. Cowie is at his best when he explores these key flaws in the coalition the unions depended upon throughout the postwar decades.4

Nixon cynically targeted that central cultural-vs.-material dichotomy in the workers’ outlook. He lured them into his New Majority, his own coalition of Republicans, conservative Democrats, and white workers disgusted by the civil rights or other social movements. He emphasized his empathy with their frustrations, and he shared their disgust for “effete” Northern elitists and antiwar protesters. He anesthetized their doubts or shame over their support for a Republican with dazzling themes of shared patriotism. Once working-class Democrats were numbed to their own political transformation and suffocated by the rhetorical American flags in which he wrapped them, Nixon added their votes to his victorious totals, laughed at their seeming blindness to his manipulations, and then subsequently did little to justify their support.5

Cowie ends the book’s first half with the convincing contention that in 1973, after years of high earnings and low unemployment, labor’s prospect for further prosperity began to fade. That year was a turning point, he writes, when “a troika of disasters” began to unfold: an oil embargo, the spread of suffocating stagflation, and the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Nixon, Cowie argues, “was the last [postwar president] to court labor seriously.” Instead of playing on the old New Deal chessboard, Nixon simply invented a new game with new rules. After 1974, labor faced threats it was no longer armed against, on battlefield on which it had no effective allies, and fought for a place in an economy that no longer valued its contribution or importance.6

If the book’s first half sees the working class feel the unstable shoreline crumble under their feet, the second half sees them slide helplessly into the shark-infested water. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, defeated Ronald Reagan for the 1976 presidential nomination. Democrat Jimmy Carter then defeated Ford in the general election. Nixon’s and Ford’s defeats emboldened Democratic liberals, and their triumph blinded them to Carter’s limitations as a labor ally. At first, liberals and labor saw new hope in the new president, who could potentially fuse old George Wallace supporters, Southern Democrats, Northern workers, and minorities into a new coalition. Cowie points to hopes for new legislation that would generate more jobs, improve labor laws, and begin a national health insurance. But Carter had little regard for liberal dreams, and his career was not beholden to labor’s support. His narrow and principled vision focused only on particular priorities, and his stiff rudder rarely moved to accommodate labor’s needs.7

Labor needed help more than ever before. Companies laid off workers and moved production overseas. Plants closed. Industries gravitated to regions that rejected union activism, instituted right-to-work laws, and promised tax incentives and low regulation. The general economic malaise acted like a drought, drying up what little hope remained for labor to find economic or political rejuvenation in the Democratic Party’s empty and neglected fountains. By 1980, Cowie explains, “a unionized manufacturing job … had become a rare and coveted source of security” -– a stale scrap from the corporate table crowded with conservative allies.8

Cowie’s pursuit of working-class identity throughout the postwar decades is a powerful intellectual feature of the book. He also argues that working-class identity found itself reflected in TV shows like All in the Family, in ballads from Bruce Springsteen and Devo, and in films like Saturday Night Fever. But the musing quickly turns into bloviating and regrettable tedium. Much of what he wanted to say could have been condensed from two chapters into one, or incorporated into the photos section with enriched captions. The attempt to casually expound on entertainment diminishes the power of Cowie’s serious and informative history.9

Republican Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980. By then, Cowie laments, the “redefinition of the working class beyond its New Deal form” had failed. Postwar attempts to maintain workers in the middle class failed. Conservative enemies torpedoed their legislative and policy accomplishments. Carter and a new generation of liberal Democrats had no shared history with labor and little inspiration to court their rusted and scarred loyalties.10 The working classes had nowhere to go but inward in their search for a credible identity. Ironically, that desperation left them open to another round of Nixonian seduction. Reagan’s New Right vision promised a return to a revitalized America built on the rubble Carter and his Eastern elites had left behind, one nation under God, ruled by white Christian men just as they ruled in their own communities.

The potent, sickening sweetness of Reagan’s nostalgic platitudes — Cowie calls it “symbolic sanctuary” — mesmerized workers who hungered for a time when they mattered to American society. Reagan swung the final major blow to the remnants of the labor movement when he shattered the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) union strike in 1981. Cowie calls Reagan’s decision “one of the boldest acts of his administration.” Cowie could have added details of the administration’s decision-making process, internal debates, or recollections from Reagan advisors. Instead, the incident, which signaled to the corporate world how weak and vulnerable the union community truly was, is barely explored in a rush to finish the second half of the book, which ends in 1982. By the 1990s, a globalized economy of union-free service workers emerges, ruled by a conservative coalition descended not solely from conservative victories, Cowie argues, but also from liberalism’s failures and shortsighted divisions.11

Cowie’s sad and fascinating story points to the “internal weaknesses” of the working class when explaining why labor movements failed to sustain cohesion and strength long enough after the New Deal to pose a significant challenge to “[m]arket orthodoxy.”12 Perhaps, he argues, their noble alliance was little more than a “conceptual unity” that never truly existed. The mirage inspired the working class – enthused by their New Deal identities — and their tenuous allies toward distant horizons of hope, unaware that only predators awaited them in the night.


1. Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010), 9-11.
2. Cowie, 9, 29, 83.
3. Cowie, 41, 84.
4. Cowie, 236-237.
5. Cowie, 122-124, 132-133.
6. Cowie, 12, 164.
7. Cowie, 14, 266.
8. Cowie, 15.
9. Cowie, 209-210, 357-369.
10. Cowie, 366.
11. Cowie, 362-364.
12. Cowie, 18.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Ideas to explore Mars / Love the child-free life / Appreciating our national parks / Ashtrays on airplanes / Sexy T-shirt sniffing

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism.

1. Expatriates in drug violence-riddled Mexico: Stay or go?
By David Agren | USA Today | May 23
“Horrific violence between warring drug cartels has been a fact of life in parts of Mexico for years. What is most frightening to Mexicans here, though, is that the victims were selected because they were innocent.”

2. Mars or Bust! Scientists Flood NASA With 400 Ideas to Explore Red Planet
Space.com | May 25
“Scientists have responded in a big way to NASA’s call to help reformulate its Mars robotic exploration strategy, submitting about 400 ideas and Red Planet mission concepts to the space agency.”

3. Childfree Women: Tell Us What You Love Most About Not Having Kids
By Emma Gray | The Huffington Post | May 23
“I’m content to live a life that just wouldn’t be possible if I was financially and emotionally responsible for another human being.”

4. Robert Caro: The Big Book
By Chris Jones | Esquire | April 12
“Time has eaten everything around him, and still he is not done. But until he is done, one part of the world that we will never see again will not die.”

5. Mars probe catches its own shadow
Associated Press | May 24
“Mars Rover Opportunity catches its own late-afternoon shadow in a view eastward across Endeavour Crater on Mars.”

6. Ken Burns: National parks feed America’s soul
By Ken Burns | USA Today | May 21
“These parks are part of our commonwealth, part of that which brings us together as Americans, that which has served as a beacon to the rest of the world.”

7. Staying Secure on the Road
By J.D. Biersdorfer | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | May 22
“Is hotel Wi-Fi safe to use?”

8. Why Airplanes Still Have Ashtrays in the Bathrooms
By Jamie Condliffe | Gizmodo | May 22
“You might think that they’re a hangover, from more liberal days, on planes yet to be replaced — but you’d be wrong.”

9. Job, economy fears mix with hope for Class of ’12
By Sharon Cohen | Associated Press | May 26
“For thousands of new graduates making the big transition this spring, there are pressures to find jobs quickly, pay off loans and, in some cases, start a second career, all against the backdrop of the slow-healing economy.”

10. Sex, scents and pheromones
By Lauren Eggert-Crowe | Salon | May 19
“At L.A.’s hottest new party, singles hook up by sniffing slept-in T-shirts. Is it science or speed dating?”

**************

TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. MANNISH BOY Muddy Waters
2. IT’S RAINING Irma Thomas
3. HOW BLUE CAN YOU GET? (Live) B.B. King
4. GOOD TO ME Irma Thomas
5. CATFISH BLUES B.B. King
6. HIGH HEEL SNEAKERS Tommy Tucker
7. AT LAST Etta James
8. THE THRILL IS GONE B.B. King
9. A CHANGE IS GONNA COME Sam Cooke
10. ALL I COULD DO IS CRY Etta James & Riley Hampton

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Colin Powell reflects / Political advice from Cicero / A parent’s suicide / Camp David’s relaxed influence / Video frames

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. Colin Powell on the Bush Administration’s Iraq War Mistakes
By Colin Powell | Newsweek | May 13
“Colin Powell reflects on lessons from the battlefield to the halls of power — including the mistakes of the Iraq War, his infamous U.N. speech, and the crimes at Abu Ghraib. ”

2. The spirit of 1812
The Economist | May 19
“The [U.S. Navy] hopes to restore its prestige by celebrating a forgotten conflict”

3. Campaign Tips From Cicero
By Quintus Tullius Cicero and James Carville | Foreign Affairs | May/June 2012
“[T]he author clearly knew a lot about Roman politics in the first century BC, which turn out to have a distinctly familiar feel.”

4. When a Parent Commits Suicide: A Psychiatrist’s Advice
By Harold S. Koplewicz | The Daily Beast | May 18
“It’s the kind of death that’s doubly painful for children, who often need help handling conflicting and disturbing feelings. How to help the kids who are left behind.”

5. Robert Caro’s Tristram Shandy Moment
By Dean Robinson | The 6th Floor :: The New York Times | May 18
“Two hundred and fifty years ago, another writer — albeit a fictional one, trapped inside a novel — got similarly bogged down trying biographize his own self. ”

6. Camp David and Thurmont: A mountain shared, a world apart
By David Zak | The Washington Post | May 17
“Town officials are prepared for the worst, expecting the best, and will support citizens who want to exercise their constitutional rights by chanting in the general direction of a campground they can’t get within four miles of.”

7. Dickens, Browning and Lear: what’s in a reputation?
By Robert Crum | The Guardian | May 17
“The bicentenaries of three great Victorian writers underline the capricious nature of literary afterlives”

8. Q&A: Capturing a Video Frame
By J.D. Biersdorfer | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | May 14
“How can I extract a single frame of the video and change it into a still picture?”

9. Rereading: Mildred Pierce by James M Cain
By Sarah Churchwell | The Guardian | June 24
“Todd Haynes has adapted Mildred Pierce, James M Cain’s novel about a divorced mother in the depression, as a sumptuous TV mini-series. But what has been gained and what lost in the process?”

10. The Greensboro Four
Witness :: BBC News | February 1
“On 1 February 1960, four young black men began a protest in Greensboro, North Carolina against the racial segregation of shops and restaurants in the US southern states.”

**************

TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. CAN’T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING The Rolling Stones
2. DEEP DARK TRUTHFUL MIRROR (Unplugged) Elvis Costello
3. A STROKE OF LUCK Garbage
4. GIMME SHELTER The Rolling Stones
5. FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST (Unplugged) Rod Stewart
6. HARD TO MAKE A STAND Sheryl Crow
7. MUSIC Madonna
8. WE CAN WORK IT OUT (Unplugged) Paul McCartney
9. SHE’S WAITING Eric Clapton
10. HEY JOE Jimi Hendrix