Letter From Los Angeles
January 2009
© 2009 Joel

The Longest One Yet

  • Quickie Quips
  • “Real Men” When It Comes to Gays
  • Yea, Israel! Yea, Palestine! Win! Win!! WIN!!!
  • “A Perfectly Good Crisis!”
  • In Praise of Eight (Years of Bush)
  • Reviews: W., Doubt, Slum Dog Millionaire and Milk
  • In Memory of Baila: Some Startling Thoughts on Death
  • The Obama Years: Curtain Up!

Quickie Quips

“Buddy, can you spare a trillion?” Scholar Nail Ferguson on the government bailout funds

In response to then President Elect Obama’s oft stated, “one president at a time,” Congressman Barney Frank quipped, “I think that overstates how many presidents we have.”

A(n) (Un)popular Song

I’m just wild about Bernie, (Madoff), And I’m just mad about Rod, (Blagojevich).....

Public recognition for the reader who most satisfactorily completes this verse based on that old favorite, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Suggested rhymes include “in an urn, he,” “on a gurney” or anything involving “clod.” And, what rhymes with “evich???” We laugh through our tears, for one stands accused of having abused the power of his office and the other of the ruination and even loss of human lives.

Step Up and Meet A Couple of “Real Men”

Remember how at camp or in school they told the boys to behave like “real men?” (What did they admonish girls, to act like unreal women???) I want to commend a former congressman and a leading gay cleric for being real men.

Now, what exactly makes one a real woman or a real man? Playing handball and talking tough? Don’t laugh. Over a decade ago, where I used to swim in San Francisco, the following conversation from the direction of the handball court was overheard.

“Those f__ing gays! Those f__ing gays!! Those f___ing gays deserve their f__ng rights. Why don’t those f__ing so called “Christians” leave those f__ing gays alone?” All right, maybe not the words I would have chosen ( who am I kidding?), but I was privileged to hear men, real men, converse.

Real people aren’t bound by ideologies that belittle or exclude. They have the courage to admit they’ve been mistaken, and instead of hating, they love. They have hearts. So do the others, they just need to jump start the beat.

Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, once one of the most archconservative homophobes in the land, has in recent years distinguished himself as a Libertarian and a liberal in the truest sense of the word, for Bob Barr now works his tail off for the cause of the free.

Barr, author of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, has called for its repeal. His rationale has more to do with the primacy of state governments over the federal in such matters, but the man is now operating from a more reasonable position than blanket antipathy toward gays. Barr also sees no legal justification for banning the use of medicinal marijuana.

And Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, over whom the worldwide Anglican Episcopal Church sees fit to tear itself apart, asked God to “bless us with anger- at discrimination against refugees, immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian and transgender people.” He had also said of the celebrated pastor below, “The God he’s praying to isn’t the God I know.”

Rick Warren, unabashed homophobe and Barack Obama’s personal choice to deliver the Inaugural invocation, in observer Frank Rich’s words “the inaugural’s de facto pope,” is praised for his AIDS efforts in Africa despite his alliance with Uganda’s Rev. Martin Ssempa, whose “efforts” include outing gay men in local newspapers, burning condoms and urging imprisonment of gays.

Mr. President, tolerating intolerance at your inauguration goes too far. Gays are justified in worrying that now that he’s gotten our votes, Obama will abandon gay Americans just as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Bill, whom Harvard’s Kennedy School historian Timothy McCarthy remembers as “ a sweet talking swindler who would throw us (gays) under the bus for political expediency,” did. Don’t imagine I won’t be watching.

Yea Israel. Yea Palestine. Win! Win!! Win!!!

A friend jumps up and down every time Israel delivers a blow in Gaza because, “Israel is my team.” An Israeli American New Yorker has told me that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians desire peace, doubtlessly true. Another Manhattan reader has legitimate worries about an Israel under attack by those committed to its doom.

The only Palestinian I know owns the coffee and cheese shop in San Francisco’s Castro District which appears briefly on screen in the movie Milk. Several years ago, a customer introduced Ken, the owner, to a friend who was visiting from Israel, this on the day of an especially brutal Palestinian assault on that land. Ken walked from behind the counter, hugged the visitor and said, “I am so sorry about what happened in your country today,” as they both cried.

Some emphasize the right of Israel to defend itself; others that Gaza’s men, women and kids deserve, at the very least, to remain alive and whole. They’re right.

A scholar and author, Walter Russell Mead and, of all people, Warren Buffet, offer clarity in dealing with a damnably difficult situation in which so very much is at stake.

Russell, a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers an uncommonly objective analysis of the long, long conflict in “Change They Can Believe In,” Foreign Affairs, January, February 2009. Mead acknowledges that solutions have eluded one and all even as he takes his scalpel directly to the conflict’s heart. Rarely do I quote at length, but Russell’s words are worth it.

“The conflict is about more than land; many people on both sides feel profoundly that a compromise would be morally wrong,” Mead argues as he leads a walking tour in the other person’s shoes. Palestinians and Israelis “had a very different experience in the twentieth century, but both have been left with a fractured national consciousness and institutions too weak to make or enforce political decisions.”

As Jews would say, there’s plenty of “tsauris” to go around. Their cup of grief, Russell explains, includes “a Holocaust, the failure of Jewish assimilation, centuries of persecution before the Enlightenment (and) the world’s ghastly betrayal of the desperate refugees from Nazi Germany seeking countries to take them in. Jews arriving in Israel from the Muslim world brought their own history of betrayal, discrimination and victimization- culminating in what for many was a flight every bit as frightening and impoverishing as anything the Palestinians experienced. This is not a people that can easily trust.”

Some may be surprised to learn that, “The situation among the Palestinians is surprisingly similar,” as “basic definitional questions continue to haunt their national consciousness.” Such as being rejected by the other inhabitants of their region, the realities of their own diaspora, “the absence of a state,” and a twentieth century of betrayal and exploitation by the British, the U.N. and “at virtually every turn...by various Arab leaders.”

“The twentieth century taught Jews and Palestinians that the international community’s grand moral claims are mostly hollow, that the great powers are cynical and brutal, that international politics is a blood sport, and that, at the end of the day, a people can depend only on itself. The Jews clawed their way out of the ruins of Europe to build a state and then turned it into a regional superpower despite repeated efforts to destroy it. The Palestinians created a national movement in the face of disaster...and succeeded in placing their cause on the international community’s agenda. Both peoples trust their own instincts much more than they do the promises of any single power or of all the world’s powers together. They distrust each other because they know how tough and even how ruthless each of them had to be to survive. And both understand, as no others can, the bitterness and the intimacy of the unique situation they share.”

I leave you to visit Foreign Affairs for Doctor Russell’s bold, tough Rx. Imagine! We can gain our own goals in part by showing the other side that their thoughts, experiences and feelings, even if strenuously opposed, have been respectfully heard, valued and perhaps even understood.

I feel the tap on the shoulder asking how Warren Buffett fits in. First, you have to know that Joel’s favorite three letter word (not that one!) is “win,” a word of which I am so fond I like to say twice, as in “win/win!”

In my view, Israel wins when it gets its utterly deserved security, and the Palestinians when they get their utterly deserved compensation and their state. Those on either side whose idea of winning involves destroying themselves and one another have my blessing to convene on a desert island with all the weapons they need, ASAP. To the “We’re right, they are wrong” crowd I offer, “Wanna lose? Be my guest,” but not at the expense of my humanity or the good of the U.S.A.

Old man Buffett (at last!), when speaking of investing, advises us to put our emotions aside and get on with the business of, yes, winning! Thank you, WR, and thank you, WB.

“A Perfectly Good Crisis”

A wonderful minister named Galen Guengerich of Manhattan’s All Souls Unitarian Church, in addressing the topic of “What Really Counts” in a United States “founded on the belief that happiness and material well being are directly related” refers to “the inimitable words of Rahm Emanuel, the new White House Chief of Staff, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’” Galen then toys with San Diego’s Dave Bruno’s movement to limit one’s possession to “a mere 100 things.” (Joel would comply if each thing were a million dollar bill)

Of course, Galen is referring to our current economic gloom, but taken out of that specific context, what a rule for living. In capital letters, his words. “WE HAVE BEEN HANDED A PERFECTLY GOOD CRISIS; I HOPE WE DO NOT LET IT GO TO WASTE.”

Experiencing health difficulties? Financial problems? Inner turmoil or family strife? A vague anxiety that all is going too well? (No takers?) I plan to explore the application of that quote to a sampling of common problems, using real life cases, in letters to come.

In that exploration no one, not even the professional victim, is going to be cast as a loser, and it’s likely to be fun. I close with a Sergeant Shriver benediction. On his office wall the Peace Corps first Director displayed the plea, “God, Today Bring Me Bad News.” I told you, it’s going to be fun.

In Praise of Eight (Years of Bush)

First, the Florida reversal shock, followed by Bush v. Gore, Gore’s concession, and the Eight.

The New York Times, late in 2000, opined that given the precarious nature of his victory, President Elect George W. Bush would toward the median move. Our national mantra became, “the adults,” e.g. Cheney and Rumsfeld, had come back. Thoughtful liberal friends at the World Affairs Council argued that because “W” had gone to Harvard and Yale he was no dummy indeed, while a newspaper in Berkeley caricatured Bush as a chimp.

When I look back at these very long eight years I’m reminded of an I Love Lucy episode in which a Lucy literary effort made the chapter of a writer’s manual entitled, “Don’t Let This Happen to You!” Yet, I’m almost grateful for the past eight years because sometimes it takes a good self-inflicted kick in the pants to set a country straight.

Bush followed Karl Rove’s prescription for victory, which was to get the God, guns and gays set to the polls in order to run government for the benefit of the very rich and leave those naive supporters in the dust.

Many thoughtful, mainstream conservative Americans have mistakenly thought the shots at Bush were being directed at them. Among them some were appalled by his governance, too. Liberals with a touch of the victim had the time of their lives playing “Ain’t it awful?” I sided with a friend who opened each get-together with, “Look, we all know that Bush is awful. Now, can we talk about something else?” The President had a knack for bringing out the worst in us all, did he not?

And everything he touched, it seems, has turned to rust. Our net worth, now known to have often been built on sand, puffed us up with the pride of the rich, and we borrowed and we spent rich. Suburban Utility Vehicles, trophy homes and other extravagances and gizmos we could barely afford amid the dubious consolations of endless, mindless entertainment and celebrity worship, habits hardly new but exacerbated in the years of Bush, have come home to roost with an ear splitting crash.

Traditional values like saving, thinking of others, modesty and making do with less may be salvageable yet. Our tolerance of the intolerant is wearing thin, too. Humorist Will Rogers’ insight that, through their labor, every working American has contributed at least a dime (in 1930’s dollars) to the rich man’s purse may gain currency once more.

The Bush years have called us to reset our priorities with the rest of the world as well. Barack Obama recognizes that other countries have legitimate priorities that have nothing to do with serving the interests of the United States. The time has come to re-earn the world’s often begrudging respect. Even though America is “finished” (thank goodness, we’re so awful!) and China and anybody but us is where it’s “at,” ours are the borders people risk their lives to cross but rarely to leave.

Now I’m really going to go retro on you. Remember allies? The distinction between leadership and domination? Our setting an example of respect for the rule of law? Tears welling over the inscription at the Statue of Liberty’s base (“Give me your tired and your poor”) born not of nationalist hubris but of the pull of the human heart? When optimism, “compassion” (Mr. Bush!), and hope were more than slogans created to win votes?

No president, vice-president or even secretary of defense wakes up in the morning and thinks, “What can I do to harm my country today?” Madeline Albright tells us we cannot imagine the pressure our national leaders endure. Yet I want to know where the George W. Bush who, upon attending a school reunion and learning that a classmate had a sex change, hurried over to see her “as she was really meant to be” has been all these years.

If it took eight years of Cheney and Bush to shake us out of our sleep perhaps somethings have been gained. Whether we awaken fully, and to what, remains to be seen .

Three Gems and a Dog On Screen

Oliver Stone’s W., as the former president was known, has the rare ability to transcend a slow paced, unremarkable narrative riddled with flat out inadequate performances and puzzling casting choices regarding those who played Laura Bush, Condi Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Karl Rove as well as Richard Dreyfus’s Cheney, among the supremely inspired ones of Josh Brolin and James Cromwell, to become a motion picture I find hard to forget.

Stone has fashioned an instructive portrayal of President Bush as the runt of the litter in a family in which human frailty was everywhere yet seemed to have no place. His W. seems a born loser who drank and failed repeatedly before finding politics and God. Josh Brolin deserves award nominations for having gotten this George W. Bush just right.

Viewers have sympathized with W.’s being born into a family whose expectations he couldn’t meet and for bearing the scars even as they regret America’s having been saddled with him these eight years.

James Cromwell, whose portrayal of Prince Philip in “Queen” would be laughable were it not so real, comes close to perfection as Bush 41, a man who cries, but only for himself, whose sole remembrance from his father, Senator Preston Bush, was a pair of cufflinks he passed on to Bush 43, and whose emotions are so restricted he can only convey affection through handwritten notes. Ellen Burstyn’s Barbara gets the film’s biggest laugh arguing that W’s loudness and impulsive bluntness make him too much like herself. Regrettably, whether because of script limitations or miscasting, Burstyn contributes little to our understanding of a woman who seems not to have a clue about her family scene.

So, the story of “43” is enshrined for all times. Well, perhaps. Is W a facile analysis or right on the dime? Long after we’re gone they’ll be printing or electronically transmitting “fresh material,” “new looks,” “indispensable guides” and “crackling good stories based on previously inaccessible sources” analyzing how Bush got where he did and got us where we are.

Meryl Streep As Doubt Filled Creep

Having grown up in the Bronx surrounded by Irish Americans, I know more about Bronx accents and the Catholic Church than you might think. I also know an excellent movie when I see one, and Doubt is one such film. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who also gave us Moonstruck, Doubt is adapted from the Broadway production starring Cherry Jones.

Basically, Sister Aloyisus, which rhymes with vicious, principal of a Bronx Catholic school in the 1964 in which Lincoln, Roosevelt and John Kennedy were the greatest American presidents, becomes convinced that the parish priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is making hanky panky with an altar boy who is also the only “Negro” in her school.

The lengths to which Sister goes to nab her man are devious and great, and to divulge the story’s many surprises and disturbing conclusion would be unfair. Shanley makes the case that despite our divisions we are united in doubt. Let’s just say that if this one doesn’t engage your feelings and bother the hell out of you, go back to the collected works of Adam Sandler or see Hotel for Pets along with the Members of the Academy who didn’t see fit to nominate this picture for their Award.

Meryl Streep gives one of the best performances I’ve even seen, this coming from someone who has never enjoyed anything she’s done before, and Shanley’s masterfully crafted tale will have you thinking, discussing- don’t see this one alone-and wondering as well.

My only skepticism is about the ahead of her time “Negro” mother’s acceptance of her son’s “nature.” I would have preferred one like her in my life at that time.

Some feel that Hoffman’s performance is second to that of Brian F. O’ Bryne’s in the Broadway show, while others carp about whether the scene between the two mothers (well, Sister was a “mother” all right) wouldn’t have been more effective if performed indoors. What are they getting picky about? Have you seen Slum Dog Millionaire?

A (Slum) Dog (Millionaire) Gets a Golden Bone

I should have known early on, when the protagonist, a very poor Indian boy, willingly emerges from a cesspool covered with what Harry Truman euphemistically would have described as “manure” to get an autograph from a visiting star, that the whiff was going to be more than one scene deep.

I had hoped to avoid even mentioning this sentimentalized crowd pleaser, and had Slum Dog Millionaire not won the Golden Globe for Best Picture I would have gotten my wish. An otherwise eye opening depiction of slum conditions and social class inequities in India, combined with the story of a boy from the slums who by fantastic coincidence and purity of heart gets the girl and a million bucks against all odds in the end, not to mention the nearly giddy grisly death of one of the film’s major characters in a bathtub filled with dirty cash (his final words, “God is good,” seeming somewhat incongruous given his fate), is too Billy Elliot, The Musical, for words.

And, aping Billy Elliot, the film’s credits roll over the principal actors leading a line dance in the Grand Central Station of Mumbai, a theatrical innovation that leaves some scratching their heads.

Let’s not stop here. How about the curtain call of A Long Day’s Journey with the Tyrones shouting “Charleston?” Frost and Nixon in a near embrace to a fox trot or a waltz? The late Danish prince, his perished mom and two popped pops engaged in a dance of Queen Elizabeth’s day? Medea and The Kids doing the Twist?

Milk

I can hardly be objective about the dramatization of a people, place and time that was the highlight of my life, but the first thing I want you to know is that Milk, written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Gus Van Sant, is not about what your mother told you to finish or about a cow.

At the dawn of the 70’s, Harvey Milk, son of Brooklyn grocers Minnie and Morris and just forty, arrived in San Francisco with a lover in tow and opened a camera shop in Eureka Valley, later The Castro, a traditionally Irish and Italian neighborhood where gays had begun to live welcome mat out or not. In 1977, after several failed attempts, Milk was elected from his district to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, making him the first openly gay elected office holder in the United States. A year later he was dead.

To augment your appreciation of Harvey Milk or the film, I recommend you get hold of the 1980’s Academy Award winning documentary, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. And something you won’t find anywhere about this astute political leader. Harvey the great speaker, I’ve been told by a newspaper editor of the time, wrote so poorly that material he submitted for publication always had to be rewritten, whereas his far less eloquent successor as Supervisor put words on paper quite well.

Please remember that Lloyd and I were a permanent part of this scene from early ’78 on. We were on Castro Street the night Harvey got in. John, whom we were to meet the following March, arrived in town the day of Mayor Moscone’s funeral. The handsomest three extras in Milk, by the way, were playing us.

My first political activity ever was knocking on doors in a staid middle class neighborhood bordering Golden Gate Park to urge a “no” vote on Proposition 6, which would have banned gay school teachers in my new state. Paired with a man who has become a lifelong friend, we nervously rang the bell at a convent and were told by the answering sister that opinion was divided in the house. Roman Catholic nuns on our side, at least in this, less than a decade after there was any such thing as Gay Lib.

I still have photos of Harvey and of Joan Baez at a No on 6 rally days before the election. At the No on 6 victory celebration I saw Milk and Mayor Moscone for the last time. The film fails to mention an important figure in that cause, lesbian college professor Sally Gearhardt, who debated alongside Harvey all the way. Harvey told the crowds that he and Sally had spent so much time together they just as well become lovers, and Sally laughingly disagreed. At the victory party Sally told us, “We’re strong, we’re beautiful and ( long pause for effect), we have friends!” Like some nuns.

Lloyd called me at home that Monday after Thanksgiving with the news. On t.v. I watched then President of the Board and soon to become Mayor Dianne Feinstein announce the worst. As I write, I see out of the corner of my eye a thirty year older Senator Feinstein emceeing the Inauguration on t.v.

With several others who simply did not know what to do I headed for City Hall and hung around. A nascent Gay Men’s Chorus, the first in history, informally dealt with our feelings through song.

That night we joined tens of thousands of San Franciscans, gay and straight, in the candlelight march to City Hall, to the beat of muffled drums. The marquee on the landmark Castro Theater saluted the memory of the fallen mayor and of Milk. Folksinger Joan Baez told the crowd that if she came from a culture in which death was not considered sad she might be happy, but that neither was the case. Baez’s remarks permanently altered my thinking about death, which you will read more of later on.

On what became known as White Night, when due to assassin Dan White’s lenient sentence gay rage exploded at City Hall, we were preparing for a ride down to L.A. to celebrate having met John. As we packed, San Francisco’s finest marched into the Castro, destroyed property and randomly beat up innocent bystanders. For months after gays were told not to say anything about having participated in the City Hall riots to strangers, who might be cops in disguise. About disciplining the officers who had run amok Mayor Feinstein, who had sat barricaded in her office not knowing what to do during the entire affair, did little at all.

In some ways a small, close and personal movie, Milk simply took our breath away and put my doubts and fears about the future of gay America in perspective. A heterosexual friend told me he watched the movie with tears in his eyes. The audience the night we went, large considering the hour and mostly straight young couples, audibly gasped at crucial moments and broke into applause at the end.

Words are inadequate to express my admiration and respect for Sean Penn for how he played Harvey Milk, and for his A+ supporting cast. We’re ecstatic that our story was acted and told in such a magnificent way.

The only glaring error was the short shrift given to George Moscone, who had been a truly progressive political figure and not Victor Garber’s amiable cipher on the screen .

In Harvey Milk’s day we were privileged to encounter the religious who were right. At a No on 6 rally at the Congregational Church, the Rabbi of San Francisco’s prestigious Temple Emanuel began the familiar story, “First they came for the black people, then they came for the Jews...” and halted mid-way. “I’m not here for any of that,” he asserted. “I’m here because of you.”

And the old neighborhood guard who experienced a change of heart when they saw what good neighbors gay people were (and the subsequent rise in property values) and realized that we weren’t from Mars? Older neighbors began to smile in passing, and when AIDS came along, motherly and fatherly worshippers at Most Holy Redeemer R.C. Church volunteered their time to comfort and look after the sick. One reporter commented that he was touched and amused to learn that saints in the 1980’s wore double knit slacks. In my next Letter I ‘m going to share some memories and chronicle some monumental changes in a segment I may call, “GROWING UP GAY: THE QUEEN IS I.”

In Memory of Baila: Some Thoughts About Death

“Everybody dies, but no one is dead.” The Dalai Lama

“Death would be a monumental injustice only if science found a way to keep us alive forever provided we could pay.” Joel

This past autumn, those who knew Baila Zheutlin, our Berkshire summer neighbor, college professor, community association president and dear, dear friend were saddened by her death from pancreatic cancer.

As I joked in my holiday newsletter, being everyone seems to do it, dying doesn’t take a heck of a lot of talent, but living well surely does. But what about dying, and what of death? We’ve all been conditioned to regard the end of our lives and our loved ones as the ultimate assault. The expression, “a fate worse than death” is gallows humor for “no fate is worse.”

The day Baila died I wrote, “Not that we should even consider forgoing life’s enjoyments and loves- far from it!- but we would do well to adopt a certain detachment from all that we cherish. even from life itself. On the one hand life is all we’ve got, yet we all know that no matter what our age or health, our lives are susceptible to ending at any given time. The inevitability of someday saying ‘farewell’ to everything and everyone we love we must learn to accept with a degree of grace.”

“Detachment isn’t for retinas alone.” Joel

Remember Joan Baez’s musing about a place where death is not considered sad? A radical thinker named Byron Katie goes to that place in her heart. In Loving What Is, Katie asks if we grieve “when the lawnmower cuts the grass.”

She continues, “In the fall, you don’t grieve because the leaves are falling and dying. You say, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Well, we’re the same way. There are seasons. We all fall sooner or later. It’s all so beautiful. It’s beautiful to be a leaf, to be born, to fall, to give way to the next, to become food for the roots. It’s life, always changing in form and always giving itself completely.” Great Great Great Uncle Max may be all but forgotten, but he lived, and that may be enough.

Few doubt that all that lives dies. Neither Baila nor old Max will be coming through the door any time soon. But are they really “dead?” A descendant finds Max in a old census record and reacts, “Wow!” Baila had counseled thousands of young people in and helped change their lives. A scholarship has been established in her name. She, too, feeds the roots.

“A teacher’s work affects all eternity” wrote Henry Adams, “he can never tell where his influence stops.” In this life, we all teach.

The Obama Years: Curtain Up

Overture: Snatches from Hail to the Chief, The Star Spangled Banner, Happy Days Are Here Again, Brother Can You Spare A Dime?, and There’s No Business Like Show Business, in that order.

Permit me to be serious if only this once. I am unexpectedly happy over what is already a world of difference; it’s awfully nice to see the Democrats back and to almost taste the fresh air. I see a potentially successful presidency, and I wish the new administration every good break in the world. Barack Obama strikes me as a pragmatic liberal and an exceptional leader, which time of course will tell.

No time necessary, say some. For them, Obama comes to office an Abraham Lincoln, though Abraham Lincoln had first to become Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln and other presidents we fondly remember, Obama sits down to a banquet of crises which offer the opportunity to become great.

Obama’s first steps as president- closing Guantanamo, forbidding the use of torture, which he deems “an obligation that dates back to our founding fathers,” prioritizing transparency in government, and prohibiting former staff members from lobbying during his term- are, through no fault of his own, as much about correcting bad as doing good. Bush’s act is not hard to follow.

The President has been wise to begin managing supporter’s expectations that Rome can be rebuilt in a day. Mature citizens take that for granted, but the younger groupies expected to wake up January 21 to a world without corporations, conflicts or cars, and ultraliberals to a world minus anyone else but themselves. The Cadillac standard for the democratic process is when each party walks away a little unhappy for having given up some things in order to gain others.

I love these lines from the Inaugural address:

“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man.”

For us, they (our forbearers, not risk averse, strong hearted and often “obscure in their labor”) packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.”

“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.....Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.”

“To those leaders around the world who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

That address beats the living daylights out of Jimmy Carter’s softly purred nothings, Ronald Reagan’s nonsense, and even John F. Kennedy’s fabled rhetoric, in my view. Obama’s prose gives mine an inferiority complex.

Get the Son worshippers out of what is left of my hair and I might get to appreciate this man. I do not wish to hear another word about Barack Obama; I want to hear about Barack Obama, President of the United States.

Politicians sell themselves, which is part of their job. FDR sired the President as Friend, Kennedy, as Exemplar of Grace and Glitz. Barack Obama has brilliantly invited us to market him, as, by talking up the latest electronic gizmo, we have done Steve’s Job for him. We haven’t been sold Obama as much as we have bought Obama, who, fortunately for us, is a superior piece of goods. Imagine! Within little more than a generation we’ve bought ourselves a Reagan, a Clinton, a “W” and now a “Barack,” with nary an extended contract or a warrantee.

Having no intellectually challenged, “emotionally retarded” monarchy of our own, Americans have become fascinated by the British crown and by a indigenous “royalty” of utterly useless celebrities. Hollywood stars, and the progeny of those who have clawed their way to prominence and great wealth.

For the role of paterfamilias and model of all role models we turn to the President of the United States, which is not lost on a news media that exploits such frenzy to boost sales. On Inauguration Day, CNN invited viewers to email their impressions of “The Moment” the new president took the oath. The Moment! Gee!!!

Matt Bai, in The New York Times, Sunday, January 18, writes of the extraordinary bond between the President and his fans. “It is one thing to vote for a man; it is quite another to have literally invested in him a small chunk of your weekly paycheck- and not just once, but repeatedly. Those Americans who gave to the campaign feel more bound to Obama than to any politician in their lifetimes.” (Hope, change, and commodification; an interesting mix. Joel note) And, “62 percent of Obama supporters expect that they will urge other people to support his policies. This suggests an intimacy between president and voter that surpasses anything in the broadcast age.” Bai correctly explains that “This is what technology does, after all-it closes distances,” as if there’s anything inherently wrong with distance.

Bai is anxious, however, about the potential “peril” that this high tech intimacy may somehow make the office of president “seem smaller and less regal.” Oh, come now. What about the potential for perils more profound?

Under the decent Obama, the worst would be the establishment of a formidable political machine- not exactly change, but believable. My concern is that the ease with which we give ourselves to manipulation and control could deliver us into far less benign hands. So perhaps nothing is inherently wrong with distance after all.

Call me old fashioned, which I literally am, but I don’t establish intimacy with individuals I am unlikely to ever meet or get to know, or, worse, with those who do not even exist.

Viewers of the t.v. soap opera Days of Our Lives regularly invite the characters played by actor Bill Hayes and his wife to their weddings and other personal events because, “You (the fictitious characters, not Mr. or Mrs. Hayes)) are part of our family.” Now we all feel we’ve gotten to believe in a character in a favorite book, movie or play, but to invite Elizabeth Taylor and expect Cleopatra would be the other side of sane.

For intimacy I recommend turning to a friend or a spouse, for worship visiting a church, and for entertainment taking in a movie or a Broadway show. Right now the latter could sure use our bucks.

Next Time, or Soon

  • Senior(s) Matter(s)
  • The Economy
  • Our Schools: Better “Screening”
  • How to Argue with a Republican, or a Liberal
  • Mental Health and Productive Living
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    Growing Up Gay: The Queen Is I

    Archive 2009