Sunday, October 30, 2005

October 30, 1988: A new world

Seventeen years ago today was also a Sunday. We were living in Fort Wayne. Early that morning I went for a walk along the banks of the St Marys River.

Frost in the night. Green leaves freeze-dried on the branch. Hardly a breeze, but the slightest stir drops a leaf. Leaves plane down, nose dive, hit with weight, making a crunching noise on impact that can be heard yards away.

Walk through a couple of patches where trees have denuded themselves in a heap of still green leaves—mostly basswood; maples, elms having turned. Cottonwoods holding on to their leaves, which are browning at the tips and curling on the branch.—heaps look unnatural, manmade and repulsive. Otherwise the morning is the finest of the fall.

Arguing mallards hard to make out in the glare off the river. Skins of slushy ice at the riverbends. Go off the path into the woods on some high ground that rises up from the the river. Crunching of frosted leaves underfoot startle geese at the foot of the bluff. Hear splashes and the whiffle of their wings as they wing-walk out of the red sedge into the clear water where they gather complaining, “Hank hank hank hank.” Count thirty-five in the flock, more whiffling out of the sedge.

I need binoculars and a better memory. Robin or starling-sized birds, four or five in a single tree, with buff bellies spotted brown or black. Looking up into the sun, it’s hard to tell the color of their heads and wings. Audubon gives me three possibilities. Female redwings, starlings whose winter plumage includes flecks of white, and wood thrushes. My birds have small heads—thrush? But bent tails, Groucho’s coattails—starlings. Musical call, not clucks, so I lean toward wood thrush. Audubon calls it a familiar bird and puts it in the neighborhood: “Nests regularly in the vicinity of houses.” Quotes Thoreau on the wood thrush’s song:

“Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.”

Monday, October 17, 2005

Roman Polanski makes a movie called Oliver Twist that is really about the greatness of Oliver Reed

There are no young adults in Roman Polanski's new version of Oliver Twist.

There are children, a few teenagers---including, interestingly, the prostitutes Nancy and Bet---everybody else is either deep into a hard middle age or very old. Even the policemen are elderly, as if 50 was the minimum age at which a man could be considered for the job.

The 12 year old and I went to see it last night. He liked it. I was alternately bemused, baffled, amused, and caught up in it and entertained. I'll probably write a review later. Right now I'm interested in the effect of the film's strange age-ism.

I don't know where Polanski was going with this, if he was going anywhere. Maybe he was trying to make a point about the harshness of life in early Victorian England: It robbed people of their youth and made them old almost before they stopped being children. It's a big change from Dickens' novel, though, which while it has at its center a child and the tug of war over his soul between two old men, Fagin and Mr Brownlow, is full of youth. Besides Nancy, who is probably no more than 19, but a 19th Century 19, a grownup, not like the movie's 21st Century 16 or 17 year old Nancy, who is a child forced by Fate and circumstance to act like a grownup, there are the young lovers Harry and Rose, Oliver's villainous step-brother Monks, and, hovering above it all and haunting every scene and shining out through the eyes of her orphaned son, the ghost of Oliver's young mother.

And then there is Bill Sikes.

Polanski dispenses with the subplots involving Harry and Rose---removing from the story an active hero and heroine and with them, well, activity, not to mention youth and beauty---and Monks' attempts to rob Oliver of his inheritance. Oliver's mother is completely forgotten, except as a plot point in one scene, which is not the scene of Oliver's birth; the movie begins with Oliver already 9 and being delivered to the workhouse by Mr Bumble. Every other adaptation of Oliver Twist begins with Oliver's mother dragging herself up to the gates of the workhouse on the night Oliver is born, and I guess Polanski wanted his movie to be different, although the strikingly different opening turns out to be about the only striking variation from the book or other adaptations.

But there are reasons all the others begin with that scene, besides the fact that that's how the novel starts and it's an excuse to cast another pretty young actress.

The main one being that the whole rest of the story is the struggle to finish that young woman's act of heroism and see that her child is delivered safely into the world. Just getting his body born doesn't do it.

So Oliver's mother's gone, Monks is gone, Harry and Rose are gone, and Nancy is regressed to a child-woman, which is interesting in its historical implications but, considering the reason Roman Polanski isn't making movies in the United States anymore, also a bit creepy.

Which leaves Bill Sikes.

Polanski's made him middle-aged---and short. He's cast Jamie Foreman as Sikes and Foreman is pushing 50 and looks it. Life as a thief has been hard on him, worn him to a frazzle, in fact. He looks ready for the Old Thugs' Retirement Home and in a number of scenes he looks shurnken, shriveled, and wasting away before our eyes, ready to pull back into his coat like a turtle and leave his hat sitting on top of his collar.

In the novel, Sikes occupies the place of a hero. He's active, skillful, intelligent, adventurous, bold, brave, and driven by a personal code, not of honor, by any means, but a code of manly pride, at least. He's a bad guy, dangerous, bloody-minded, vicious, and heartless. He cares only for himself and whatever tender feelings he has for Nancy---and he has some---are based entirely on how well she cares for him. He's a villain, but you can see why in the world of the thieves he's looked up to as heroic. In fact, he even takes on the role of a true hero, temporarily, and late in the novel, after he's murdered Nancy and when he's wandering the countryside discovering he still has a conscience---he joins a crowd fighting a fire and dashes in and out of the burning house several times to rescue people trapped inside.

We can see why the Dodger and Charlie Bates admire him and want to grow up to be like him, and we can see that Oliver, with all his virtues perverted, will become a Bill Sikes himself, if he's not rescued from Fagin.

Jamie Foreman isn't bad as Sikes, and he's not as ridiculous in the part as Tim Curry was in a TV adaptation I saw a long time ago. It was silly to have Curry, still famous only for playing Dr Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, looking up a full foot to scowl menacingly at George C. Scott's Fagin, who acted frightened but who looked as though if he put a thumb on the top of Curry's head could drive him down into the floor like a tack.

Foreman's not the least bit heroic. He's just a run of the mill thug. And he's not at all imposing. It's hard to see how he could scare anybody, even Nancy and the boys. He keeps Nancy in line by waving his club and threatening to sic his dog on her, but it's clear that in a fair fight she could hold her own against him, and late in the movie the Artful Dodger tackles him, knocks him to the ground, and pummels him pretty good before Sikes is able to roll out from underneath him and Fagin pulls the Dodger away.

In short, there is no reason in the world for Nancy to have devoted her life to the man. It's possible she'd be too scared to leave him. But a hundred other guys in her circle could easily take her away from this Sikes and do for him good if he put up a fuss about it.

(Also, allowing a 30 year age difference between his pair of lovers was probably not the most self-aware casting call Polanski could have made.)

Foreman's bringing nothing special to the part, and taking a lot away from it to boot, makes Polanski's choosing him for it a very strange decision. It's made stranger by the casting of Mark Strong as Sikes' sometime partner in housebreaking, Toby Crackitt. Strong is made comically villainous by a Bozo-esque mop of red hair and a silly set of false teeth, appropriate for the pretentious and vain Flash Toby. But I've seen Strong without makeup and playing the role of a heroic villain. He's tall, dark, charismatic and menacingly sexy, and a youthful looking 42 as opposed to Foreman's severely weathered 47. Which means that Polanski looked at Strong, looked at Foreman, and, what, didn't see the difference? It's almost as though what happened was that he cast Strong as Sikes and Foreman as Crackitt and things got all mixed up in the dressing room and they came out wearing each other's costumes, at which point the assitant director just shrugged and said, "Too late to fix it. Camera's rolling," and hustled them out onto the set where Polanski failed to spot the impromptu role swap.

But as I was watching the movie, I wasn't thinking of what it would have been like if Strong had played the part. I was thinking of what it was like when Oliver Reed did it.

The movie version of the musical Oliver! is pretty good. A little too sunny and clean, and having a cute, cuddly Fagin raises thematic problems that are never dealt with in a satisfying way---life among Fagin's boys is meant to appear to Oliver to be a lot more jolly and secure than life in the workhouse, but it shouldn't appear to be a whole lot more jolly and attractive to the audience than life with Mr Brownlow. But the songs are good, the acting's excellent---particularly Jack Wild as the Dodger and Ron Moody as Fagin.

And then there's Oliver Reed's Sikes.

Reed was 30 at the time and his drinking hadn't begun to show on him at all. (The Siren took a look at the effect of hard living on the faces and careers of a number of great British actors, including Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed.) He wasn't just handsome. He was close to beautiful, in a dark, dangerous, brooding way. And when Nancy sings that she would stick with him as long as he needs her, you understand why. You understand why this Sikes would make a girl sing. And you understand why she'd give her life for him rather than live without him.

And you understand why she is absolutely terrified of him.

Foreman's Sikes yells all the time. Reed's Sikes' practically whispers his whole way through the film. Yet there is far more menace in a single glance from Reed than in all of Foreman's fist-waving and club pounding, kicking and screaming.

To me, Reed always came across as the most dangerous man alive. This made him awfully difficult to cast well. He was too handsome and heroic looking to play your average movie villain, and too goddamn full of barely repressed violence and rage to play an appealing hero. His two best roles were, therefore, Sikes, the villain who could have been a hero, and Athos in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, a hero who's as callous, bloody-minded, and deadly as any villain, and who in one way goes even farther than Sikes in awfulness---Sikes beats the woman who loves him to death and then is haunted by his conscience; Athos coolly orders the woman he loves executed and then watches without a twinge as she's rowed out into the middle of a lake, beheaded, and dumped into the water.

And given Reed's performance up to that point, it comes as no surprise that he can do this. One of my favorite scenes among all my favorite scenes in all my favorite movies is in The Four Musketteers when Reed's Athos confronts Faye Dunaway's Milady de Winter and promises that he will kill her if she continues to plot against D'Artagnan. He is so deadly serious and at the same time so compelling that Dunaway is driven to playing actual passion for once---she is swooning with desire as well as fear, and almost gives the impression that if he were to pull the trigger on the pistol he's pointing at her at the moment she would welcome it and die having an orgasm. That's all Reed's doing. He could make looking at a woman an act of rape.

Late in his career, Reed showed he could have been a great character actor. I loved him as Captain Billy Bones in a TV movie of Treasure Island that starred Charlton Heston and a very young Christian Bale. But that was another part that mixed up heroism with villainy. You could see that before rum and illness took hold of him, Billy Bones was a pirate to be reckoned with and even admired, like two other movie pirates who also always insist on being called Captain, Peter Blood and Jack Sparrow.

This is why I have always thought that somebody missed a bet, and Reed missed out on the role he was born for, when Roger Moore was cast to replace Sean Connery as James Bond.

Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Bronson played Bond as a smoothie who had learned to be a thug when he had to be. Bronson plays Bond as if he's tortured by this. Dalton played him as corrupted by it. Moore, making a wise choice, played it as just a bother.

But Connery's bond was a thug who had learned how to be a smoothie. Giving him a license to kill was just accepting ahead of time the inevitable result of any job he was sent on. And that's how I think Reed would have played it.

Which ends what I have to say about Bill Sikes and Oliver Reed and brings up the new James Bond.

I was convinced that Clive Owen would replace Brosnan in the part. I picked him out for it when I saw him in Gosford Park. He was riveting. And suitably suave and dangerous. Another thug who'd learned to be a smoothie. I have a good track record for picking out James Bonds too. While Moore was still doing the movies, I predicted Timothy Dalton would be next and that Pierce Brosnan would follow him. I did so! Ask the blonde.

I did not and would not have predicted Daniel Craig.

Who is this guy?

He looks as if somebody in the James Bond franchise office said, "You know what would be a funny change? If we made Bond look like one of those English professors freshman girls swoon over him when he recites poetry but who turns out to be absolutely devoted to his wife."

Ah well.

Maybe he'll be this century's George Lazenby. One Bond and he's out.

On the other hand, he tested well.

And he's got to be better than two other actors I read were seriously considered for and considering playing Bond.

Jude Law.

And Ewan McGregor.

"The name's Kenobi. Obi-wan Kenobi."

Then again, maybe McGregor could have pulled it off, too short for Bond as he is.

The most interesting thing in the final two Star Wars movies was the suggestion that when he didn't have to drag Anakin around with him, Obi-wan was leading the life of a Jedi Philip Marlowe.

But that's another post.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I've been watching a lot of old Dick Van Dyke shows, as you might have guessed, and thinking, Darnit, I wish I was living Rob Petrie's life.

That, by the way, includes wishing that it was 1961, I'm 32 years old, commuting into New York City every day to write for a television show, and wearing a white shirt with a skinny black tie everywhere, even when I'm home at night watching television with my beautiful well-coiffed ex-dancer wife or playing bridge with the kooky but loveable neighbors from next door.

It also means I wish that we had parties like the Petries, with lots of our attractive friends, all of whom can sing or dance or tell jokes or hypnotize the host's wife at the drop of a hat and make her deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Up until the other day I thought I was fantasizing about living a fantasy. You know it's a fantasy of suburban life circa 1960, because none of those attractive guests at the Petries' parties is holding a highball glass.

But maybe it's not. It dawned on me recently that it's not Rob Petrie's fantasy life I'm envying. It's Carl Reiner's real life. Reiner, the creator, producer, and chief writer of the Dick Van Dyke Show, based the premise and many of the stories on his own experience as a second banana for Sid Caesar. He didn't write for Your Show of Shows and its successors---whenever he tried to contribute a joke or an idea for a sketch, the show's head writer, who was nothing like Rob Petrie, would remind him, kindly, "What the fuck do you know? You're just a fucking actor." But Reiner wrote in his spare time at home and his best friend on the show's staff was a young writer named Mel somebody or other. Mel Streams. Mel Rivers. Mel something to do with running water. Did an act with Reiner at parties, like the parties at Rob and Laura's, in which he pretended to be a man 2000 years old and Reiner interviewed him about famous events from history like the time Murray discovered "ladies."

Mel Creeks?

What ever became of that guy?

At any rate, I'm reading one of Reiner's books of memoirs, My Anecdotal Life, and it turns out that he's led something of a charmed life. A very talented guy who's been very lucky, who also worked very hard and earned his luck, and through it all managed to remain a decent guy.

You got to hate him.

One of Reiner's writer heroes is Mark Twain, so one of the proudest moments in his life was when President Clinton presented him with the Mark Twain Prize.

There was a big awards ceremony for television, but Clinton asked Reiner to come to the White House the next day so he could pin the medal on him personally.

The whole Reiner family was invited and showed up. Reiner's wife, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, and Reiner's brother Charlie, who was losing a long battle with cancer but was going down swinging. Charlie insisted on showing up even though he had to come in a wheelchair.

Some friends of Reiner's were there too. Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, all of them gathered around a table in a meeting room off the Oval Office.

Clinton comes in, presents Reiner with his medal, and then shakes hands with everybody there.

Clinton never just shakes hands. Shaking hands with Bill Clinton means you talk with Bill Clinton. Secret Service hates this, of course. So do his advance people. He's late for everything because of it. Clinton once came to Syracuse. Took him two hours to get out of the airport. So Clinton has little chats with all of Reiner's family and friends. Last person he comes to is Reiner's brother Charlie.

Reiner makes the introductions, and then, because Clinton had recently been to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, Reiner tells the President that Charlie had been in 11 major battles in World War II, including the invasion of Normandy.

"D-Day, Omaha Beach?" Clinton asks.

"No," says Charlie, "Utah Beach, D-Day plus four." And tells the President he was with the 27th Infantry, Ninth Division, First Army.

Clinton says, "Your outfit took Ste Marie l'Eglise and St Malo?"

Charlie's amazed. "How did you know that?"

Clinton grins. "I read a lot."

For the next 15 minutes the two of them talk. Charlie's in his wheelchair, of course, so Clinton sits down on the edge of the table to get closer to his level. They talk about the war and about the ceremony at Normandy and some of the things Clinton heard from the veterans that day. Fifteen minutes. At one point an aide comes in to tell the President his helicopter's waiting to take him somewhere. Clinton waves him off. "Tell 'em I'll be there in a minute." And he and Charlie talk some more.

Keep in mind who else is in that room. Besides Carl Reiner, there's Rob Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, and Mary Tyler Moore. Mary Tyler Moore's right there. Sure, she's older, but you've seen her, she looks great, and, come on, it's Bill Clinton. But he's not talking to her. He's not talking to the celebrities.

All of his attention is focused on a dying old man in a wheelchair.

Where it ought to be.

I don't want anybody putting in the comments any comparisons between Bill and George Bush, because it just wouldn't be fair. It would be like putting Abraham Lincoln next to John Adams and complimenting Lincoln on being a foot taller. In fact, it would be like standing all the Presidents in a line and deciding Lincoln's the greatest because he's the tallest. (Or does Lyndon Johnson have him by a fraction of an inch?) We're talking about a gift here. This is Clinton's gift, the way he was favored by the gods. No President was as good at this as he is.

Lincoln could come close. LBJ, but there was always an element of bullying in Johnson's good old boy friendliness.

Other Presidents who are supposed to have had a special rapport with people, Reagan, FDR, JFK, George Washington---really, everybody who met him fell in love with Washington---were really more the beneficiaries of people's projected emotions. They accepted adulation with a special grace that looked like understanding.

But Bill's out there all alone, far ahead of them. His special grace is that he does understand. He's an empath, which makes him practically a Martian. Like I said, it's a gift. But gifts aren't admirable unless they are put to use in the right ways.

I hate the book Primary Colors and I only don't hate the movie version because of John Travolta's remarkable Clinton impersonation. Both the book and the movie are cartoons. But there's one scene that strikes me as true, so true that I think it must have been taken from life. In fact, I know that there have been plenty of moments like it in Clinton's life.

It's the scene in which the aide who is the protagonist of the story comes looking for his candidate, Governor Jack Stanton, in his hotel room late at night and discovers Stanton's snuck out. The aide's baffled and a bit anxious, worried Stanton's out tomcatting around, but he happens to look out the hotel room window and he sees across the parking lot a diner. The diner's lit up but there are only two nighthawks in it. The counterman and the candidate.

The counterman is talking, yakking away, a long, long story that probably has no point, no punchline, and no importance to anybody but him. But Stanton's attention is riveted on him. He's hanging on every word. And he's smiling. A great big smile of pure joy. He's where he wants to be, doing what he wants to do, putting his gift to work.

I know that if that didn't happen exactly like that it happened in a hundred variations.

It happened that day in the White House, when Charlie met Bill and they talked.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Evil Vanquished

So what have learned?

That Paul O'Neill was the greatest Yankee player since Reggie.

Haven't checked the stats, but his contribution may not be in the stats. The apparent fact is that he carried them through the post-seasons during their glory days in the late 90s, and when he was done in 2001, the Yankees were done.

Their division titles and one---count 'em, one---League Chamipionship since have been echoes. We thought we were seeing the old Yankees every fall but we were really looking at some weird warp in the space time continuum that produced illusions of pinstriped uniforms on the field.

Scott Lemieux almost gave up hope after the Yankees came back on Sunday to win it. But I never worried that we'd have to watch them in the World Series.

They were finished by the time they got to Boston for the final series of the regular season. So were the Red Sox, but the Red Sox had to face a good baseball team in their playoff, while the Yankees lucked out with the Angels, who have no business being in the post-season. What it looks like to me is that Seattle, Oakland, Texas, and the Angels drew straws to see which one of them would have the dubious honor of representing their thoroughly mediocre division in the playoffs and the Angels chose the short straw.

Then they played pick up games against each other all season until it was time for the Angels to go lose to whatever real baseball team won a lot of games in a truly competitive division.

Amazingly, they found themselves up against a mirage of the New York Yankees.

I have to admit, however, that my Yankee hatred is vestigial these days. Joe Torre's teams have never been as thoroughly obnoxious as the great Yankee teams of the past. Just to begin with, it's really hard to hate a team that has Bernie Williams on it.

It helped, though, when they picked up Sheffield. He's fun to hate.

And while I'll be sorry to see Joe go, he will be gone, and I'm counting on Steinbrenner finding someone truly unlikable to take over. Larry Bowa, maybe.

Meanwhile, over in the NL, I've been glad to see that no one yet has made any comparisons between the Astros and Braves' marathon Sunday and the greatest playoff game ever played, beyond noting that this Astros team took two more innings to win than the 86 Astros took to lose.

It will hard to beat that one. Besides it being just a tremendous game itself, it finished off one of the best playoff series ever, which happened to be played between two teams that had hated each other all season long. I still clench my teeth when I hear the name Mike Scott.

And it was played at the same time as one of the other very best playoff series ever. Last year's comebacks barely top what the Red Sox did against the Angels in that one, and I think all you need to know about Red Sox fans is that the name Dave Henderson is not anywheres near as well remembered as Bill Buckner's.

And both these series set the stage for one of the greatest World Series ever played. The only thing that would have made it better would have been for Game 7's having some suspense. The Series was over when the ball scooted through Buckner's legs. Even though the Sox were ahead for a while, the seventh game looked and felt like an exhibition game and the forgone conclusion was written on Jim Rice's scowling face all game long.

Even Gedman and Evans looked defeated as they trotted the bases after hitting home runs, as if they knew that Fate was just toying with them.

By the way, Rice should not have to wait for the Old Timers' Committee to put him in to get his plaque in the Hall of Fame.

But the gloriousness of that game between the Astros and Mets was also due to its being played during the day in the middle of the work week. The whole country stopped to watch. Roger Angell wrote a wonderful essay describing how he made his way through Manhattan that day, island hopping from television set to radio to TV, and everywhere he went crowds of people who had pretty much quit work for the day were gathered round.

The blonde and I had a similar experience in 93 as we walked across downtown Philadelphia while the Phillies and the Braves fought it out for 10 innings. But that was on Columbus Day and half the City was shut down anyway, so it wasn't quite as exciting.

Game was only 10 innings but it was a long game. Don't know why. It was a pitcher's duel most of the way. It went on so long that they were playing when we got on the train to go back to the blonde's parents' home in the suburbs and they were still playing when we walked in the door. We got back in time to see the Braves tie it up in the bottom of the 9th.

Phillies went ahead in the top of the 10th and won it, while it was still daylight out!

Maybe one of these days the powers that be at Major League Baseball will come to their senses and realize that for the greater good of the game they should start playing more playoff games and World Series games during the day.

There're probably greater long-term profits in it too. Sure, you can charge more for ads during a night game, but what good will it do when all the little kids who aren't watching because the games are on past their bedtimes grow up with no real attachment to baseball?

How young are you if you remember the teacher telling everyone to close their books at 2 in the afternoon and rolling out a TV so your class, and the teacher, could watch the World Series?

I'm sure I'm as devoted a baseball fan as I am now because my earliest World Series memories are of me keeping close track of the games so I could give my dad all the details he missed on his drive home, early, from work. He always listened and asked careful questions too and never reminded me he had a radio in the car.

And this, by the way, Domoni, is partly why I'm going to be rooting for the Cardinals against Chicago in the Series. I spent a lot of time when I was little studying Bob Gibson's scowl, which was never, ever, ever, defeated like Jim Ed Rice's.

Yep, that's my prediction. The Cardinals against the White Sox. The Good Guys against the Other Good Guys, while the evil Yankees sit home dreaming of next year and wondering who their manager's going to be.

At any rate:

Best Playoffs? Best World Series? Best World Series?

"Bye, Dad!"

The 12 year old takes a bus this year, so it's just the 9 year old and I walking over to school in the morning.

I walk. He scooters.

We don't really travel up to school together. We go as far as the bike rack. I'm required to see him from the door to the bike rack, but once the scooter's locked up, my job is done. I'm not allowed to walk him right to the school doors. He locks the scooter, pockets the key, gives me a quick "Bye, Dad!" and, without so much as a glance back, charges off to join the other kids making their way into school.

Bye, my little boy.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Lincoln's melancholy, Bush's anger, Truman's decisiveness

Last week, in comments on my post Lincoln's melancholy, Bush's anger, Rasselas and Earl Bockenfeld expressed discomfort with any comparisons between our worst President and one of our greatest.

They saw leveling, as though just putting Bush's name in the same paragraph as Lincoln's demeaned Lincoln or egregiously aggrandized Bush. Possibly they were thinking of how Right Wing idolators of George W. Bush have trouble distinguishing him from Teddy Roosevelt, except for the ones who see Teddy as the weakling.

Rasselas wrote:

Lincoln was great, and Bush is so small that comparing him to the Railsplitter, even to his disadvantage, is too bitter even for gallows humor.

then he made the case that dignifying Bush's behavior with the word depressive gave the man too much credit and did him favors he in no way deserves.

And Earl sounded to me as though he may even have scented blasphemy:

It's troublesome to compare/contrast the greatest president and the worst president at the same time. Lincoln's melancholy seems totally different than George's personality quirks like hostility, meanness, lying even when not self-serving, delusions, narcissism and casual indifference to ideas and matters of state. I look at Lincoln's eyes and see a man crying on the inside, I look at Bush's eyes and see no one at home there.

Of course both Earl and Rasselas knew that I didn't mean to suggest that Bush was anywheres near the President Lincoln was or close to be being as great a man. I was just wondering if Bush and Linclon might have shared the same affliction. I think that comparing Presidents is a good and useful exercise. It can help us make decisions about who deserves our vote and, I'm thinking of Clinton and Carter here, that being a good President isn't a matter of always doing the right thing and never making mistakes.

I used to think that if the Media had been in the habit of judging Presidential candidates against past Presidents we wouldn't be subjected to such idiotic notions that a qualification for the job is being a regular guy or that it's ok if a candidate isn't all that smart, what matters is what's in his heart and his gut.

Quickly: None of our best Presidents were regular guys and very few of the rest were either. And while smart men have turned out to be bad Presidents, no good President has been less than brilliant, and I include FDR with his supposed "second-rate intellect."

But then truths that are self-evident to me are apparently not so to Harvard Law professors.

In the New Republic, William J. Stuntz manages to compare Bush to Harry Truman to Bush's credit!

Creative, insightful people are scattered through the world of government service. But they don't always rise to the top. Some of the people who do rise to the top are better at impressing the boss than at generating innovative ideas.

Harriet Miers may be one of those people. If so, we can chalk this bad appointment up to the governing style of a president who makes decisions easily but not always well, a president who has seen steep highs and deep lows, a president who trusts his intuitions even when he shouldn't. A president who, on his bad days as well as his good ones, looks a lot like Harry Truman.

Stuntz asks how Bush could have followed up appointing John Roberts by nominating Harriet Miers and concludes that it's because Bush is Truman-like in his decision-making style. After all, Truman, like Bush, appointed political cronies to the Supreme Court as well as learned and experienced judges.

Truman didn't believe in deferring to experts; as the sign on his desk said, the buck stopped with him. Though an ex-senator, he had a very un-legislative disdain for decision-making procedure. Mostly, he just called 'em as he saw 'em, with little reflection and no second-guessing...

Like Truman, George W. Bush makes decisions easily. He obviously trusts his own intuitions, especially about people--remember, this is the man who looked into Vladimir Putin's soul. Also like Truman, Bush does not readily admit mistakes, and hence rarely corrects them.

Also, both of them "fought badly improvised wars." See, because they were badly improvised, Korea and Iraq are exactly alike so nevermind that in Korea we were coming to the defense of an ally who'd been invaded and in Iraq we were the invaders, and nevermind that for Korea we asked for and secured the help of the United Nations and for Iraq we didn't quite do that, and nevermind that Truman told us why we were going into Korea and Bush lied and continues to lie about why we went to Iraq, and nevermind that when the Korean War ended the allies we came to rescue were rescued and when the War in Iraq ends the Islamic Fundamentalists who are our enemies will likely be in charge and the Iraqi people, especially Iraqi women, won't feel the least bit rescued, and nevermind that there are really no good comparisons between the two wars, they were both badly improvised and that makes Bush Trumanesque.

Without making direct comparisons, Stuntz also manages to imply that Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz are in the same league as Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and George Kenner.

Even if you accept that their decision-making styles are alike---and I don't. There's a difference between calling 'em as you see 'em based on years of hard experience, a lifelong habit of hard work and hard study, and long, hardheaded conversations with smart advisors, and calling 'em as you see 'em because you can't be bothered---that's about the only way only the two men resemble each other.

In fact, a random scan of their biographies shows that it's not just that Bush isn't much like Truman, and it's not just that he doesn't measure up. Bush is practically the anti-Truman.

Truman_senator Truman: Voracious reader; checked out half the Library of Congress.

Bush: Married a librarian.

Truman: Oversaw the birth of the United Nations.

Bush: Appointed John Bolton as UN Ambassador.

Truman: Fired MacArthur.

Bush: Gave Paul Bremer a medal; hired Michael Brown back as a consultant.

Truman: Enlisted in the National Guard. Served 37 years! Saw combat as a Captain of Artillery in World War I.

Bush: Do we need to go into it?

Truman: Stood up to the Klan; desegregated the military.

Bush: Spoke at Bob Jones University; let Karl Rove smear John McCain by spreading racist lies.

Truman: As US Senator took on war profiteers.

Bush: As President gave no bid contracts to Haliburton.

Truman: Served as FDR's Vice-President; carried on the New Deal after Roosevelt died.

Bush: Wants to destroy Social Security.

Truman: Worked a real farm.

Bush: Vacations on a toy ranch.

Truman: Played the piano.

Bush: Pretends to play the guitar.

Truman: With George Marshall, rebuilt post-war Europe.

Bush: Let New Orleans drown.

Truman: The buck stops here.

Bush: Buck?

This could go on and on. But I guess this explains why it's taken so long for the American People to see Bush for what he is. They look at the White House and they keep being told by smart guys like Stuntz that Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, or even, absurdly---See Rich Lowry on Bush's bold new ideas.---Franklin Roosevelt still lives there.

Bush himself sometimes thinks that he's either Abe Lincoln, FDR, or Lyndon Johnson.

He's a War President, you know.

And no President has done as much for Civil Rights as he has.

Post script: My copy of Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy has arrived. I started it last night. And it opens with an anecdote about Leo Tolstoy that Earl Bockenfeld will enjoy.

Tolstoy visited a Cossack village and met with the young chieftan who wanted to know the news about the great wide world. The chief was especially interested in learning more about a man that he'd heard was "the greatest general and greatest ruler in the world."

The young chief continued:

"He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds as strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses...He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man."

Tolstoy told them all he knew about Lincoln and he managed to find a photograph of Lincoln to give to the chief.

"It was interesting," Tolstoy said, "to witness the gravity of his face and the trembling of his hands when he received my present. He gazed for several minutes silently, lie one in a revernet prayer: his eyes filled with tears. He was deeply touched and I asked him why he became so sad."

The young man answered with a question of his own. "Don't you find," he said, "judging from his picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow?"