Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Bond or The Spy Who Nurtured Me

Skyfall Bond and M bond

“She sent you after me, knowing you’re not ready, knowing you would likely die. Mommy was very bad.” James Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) attempt to repair their friendship while on the run from the madman out to get revenge on M as 007 returns to Ian Flemingesque form by way of John le Carre in the newest and maybe the best Bond movie, Skyfall.

Skyfall is the only Bond film I can think of that presents us with a character besides Bond who isn’t a villain or a love interest that we’re meant to care about as a character.


Skyfall is Judi Dench’s movie almost as much as it’s Daniel Craig’s.  In fact, their relationship, M and Bond’s, is what Skyfall is about.  The spectacular opening chase, Javier Bardem’s beautifully weird turn as the villain, the sneaky build-up of in-jokes towards the best in-joke of all, the re-introduction of Q in the form of Ben Wishlaw auditioning to be the next Doctor Who, the stunts, crashes, chases, fights, and Peckinpagh-esque gun battle at the end, and Skyfall Eve in gold the delicious Naomie Harris as Eve (last name withheld, but it’s not a double-entendre), the most all-around competent Bond Girl since Honor Blackman---Not quite as good as Bond but better than the average 00- at whatever she puts her hand to, Eve is an expert stunt driver, field agent, bureaucrat and office politician, barber, and wearer of gold-lame dresses as in-joke.  She’s not the crack shot she needs to be at one point, but in her defense, she’s being rushed.---all that’s for fun and show, giftwrapping on a story about a pair of good friends whose unusual occupation is destroying their friendship.

Fans of the Craig Bonds who like Craig’s more realistic 007 will take note that what’s real about his Bond in Skyfall is that he has things on his mind besides sex, violence, his mission, and how to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B alive.  It’s more than that he hurts and suffers and emotes.  He feels. And he thinks.  And he thinks about what he feels and feels things in reaction to what he thinks.  He has an inner life.

He has a life.

But what grounds Craig’s Bond in reality is Bond’s relationship with M (and Craig’s work with Dench. They make a good team.).  M is real.  And she makes Bond real. Dench’s performance is realistic enough that she could take it as it is, walk it into a very different sort of spy movie, and it would fit right in  Her M would get along well with George Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Dame.

In Bond’s relationship with M, when can see glimmers of what it would have been like between Control and “scalp-hunter” Jim Prideaux or Smiley and Ricky Tarr, the original jumped-up thug Craig’s Bond appears to be at the beginning of Casino Royale, if John le Carre had gone in for conventional spy stories, just as before Skyfall we could see glimmers in those relationships of a more realistic Bond.

Skyfall, more than any other Bond, is about how spies are people before and while they are busy being spies.  And not particularly interesting people, at that. At least not any more interesting than lawyers or chartered accountants and therefore they are subject to the same kind of novelistic treatment.  In other words, Skyfall is the first Bond to acknowledge the alternative universe of espionage created by le Carre, whose writing career began as a critique of Ian Fleming’s, and concede he may have a point.

Director Sam Mendes doesn’t take us into the world of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  M’s people aren’t Smiley’s people. But he’s scouted the territory and is reporting back that things there are similar to how they are here.  The spy game is grubby, soul-deadening work when it’s not boring and routine.  Espionage is on the whole a bureaucratic and political endeavor.  And spies have feelings about what they do and about each other that aren’t always high-minded or noble but aren’t necessarily the opposites.  Spies (with one exception, and he’s less an exception than he’s been previously shown to be) are basically ordinary men and women, and like other ordinary men and women their professional relationships are often, sadly and messily, personal, as well.

At the beginning of Skyfall, M is losing on the political and bureaucratic side and is failing right before our eyes on the professional and personal levels.  She’s in trouble with the Prime Minister for overseeing a bungled mission that got several agents killed, including (apparently) MI6’s very best agent, without achieving its intended result.  And that best agent is angry at her for making the decision that would have gotten him killed if he wasn’t James Bond and not blessed with a supernatural amount of luck.  He’s punishing her by pretending to be as dead as he should be, leaving her hurt, guilty, and afraid, with no one to turn to for help.

And she needs help.

Not just to save her career.

To save her life.

She’s been targeted.  A former agent (Bardem) from her field days as head of the Hong Kong bureau, one who in his time may have been as good as Bond is in his, and like Bond something of a personal favorite of M’s, has returned from his apparent death, which, like Bond’s, was caused by her decision to sacrifice him for the sake of a mission.  The agent, who now goes by the name of Silva, intends to get revenge on M for leaving him to die in despair in a Chinese prison.

M can be ruthless.

We’ve seen this side of her before, when she burned Bond in the guise of Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day, doing to him when he was captured by the North Koreans what she did to Silva when he was captured by the Chinese, leaving him in prison to rot.  That was in a different universe and in that universe M’s ruthlessness was official.  Bond had to be sacrificed for Queen and Country.  Her coldness was her strength.  In this universe, it’s a sign of weakness.  Under intense pressure with the clock ticking down, she’s prone to flinching at the last second.  She opts for the ruthless decision as the easier decision, knowing she can rationalize it to herself and to her superiors and her agents later. She does it right at the top of Skyfall to Bond and another agent.

This is a good place to stop for a reminder that the move to reboot the Bond franchise in a more serious vein began with the Timothy Dalton Bonds, The Living Daylights and License to Kill, and it was meant to accelerate in the Pierce Brosnan years.  It got untracked because the producers kept losing their nerve and retreating into Roger Moore territory and because, until Halle Berry showed up in Die Another Day, Brosnan was never given a real actress to work with as a leading lady and, after Sean Bean in GoldenEye, all his villains were just cackling madmen so obsessed with their schemes for world domination they hardly seemed to notice Bond even while monologuing at him.  Even the good actors, Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies and Robert Carlyle in The World is Not Enough, were too wrapped up in their characters’ megalomania to give Brosnan anything to work with.  So he was usually left standing in his own bubble of reality alone, except when he was joined in there by Judi Dench.

Carrying Dench over into the Craig films was one of the best decisions the producers made and she, as much as Craig, has been responsible for what’s real in these realistic Bonds.

But Casino Royale didn’t succeed at making a more serious Bond just by changing the tone.  It succeeded by taking itself seriously as a movie as opposed to the entertainments, spectacles, and amusement park rides so many past Bond films had been.

Quantum of Solace almost threw all this good work away. It wasn’t a good movie. It wasn’t even a good Bond movie.  It was a routine revenge thriller not as compelling as either of the first two Bourne movies or half as much fun as Taken with tired and uninspired stunts and routine special effects that made me nostalgic for the days when John Glen was directing the Bonds.

Skyfall will wipe away any lingering memories you may have of Quantum of Solace.  It’s a better Bond and a better movie than Casino Royale.  Mendes even stakes his claim that it’s as good a movie as or at least deserves to be judged alongside highly regarded films of very different sorts by alluding to or quoting directly from:  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (of course), The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, The Thomas Crown Affair (Pierce Brosnan Edition), Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, Rear Window, Blade Runner, Straw Dogs (I think), and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The reference to Harry Potter I thought I caught might just have been my fevered imagination at work.

But there are probably others I’ll pick up on when I see it again.

Mendes has also included tributes to the other Bonds, mainly Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, but Sean Connery above all.


I’m pretty sure Mendes was being deliberately cheeky risking self-parody with nods to Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English movies.

Think I’m stretching?

Ask yourself what’s with Bardem’s ridiculous hair and fey, bordering on camp performance?

Here’s Bardem as Silva in Skyfall.

1123220 - Skyfall 

And here’s John Malkovich as the villain in Johnny English.

Skyfall meets Johnny English


Ok.  Skyfall’s screenplay is by John Logan and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.

Johnny English was written by William Davies and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.

I even think Purvis and Wade, with Mendes’ help, were getting some of their own back from Atkinson.  If you haven’t seen Johnny English Reborn you should if only for Atkinson’s send up of the literally over the top (and under and around and through everything else) parkour chase at the beginning of Casino Royale. The chase that opens Skyfall is a challenge to Atkinson if he makes a third Johnny English, Mendes, Purvis, and Wade saying: “Ok, wiseguy. Let’s see how you handle this one.”

By the way, both Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn are very good Bond movies the way Galaxy Quest is a very good Star Trek movie.  Which figures. Purvis and Wade know their Bond, having written or had a hand in all the Bonds going back to the Pierce Brosnan days and The World is not Enough.

There are also borrowings from some TV shows, like Leverage and Sherlock, and it appears Purvis and Wade familiar with Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

So…is it a good movie?  Yes. How good? Pretty darn good. Is it a good Bond? Definitely. One of the best. Is it the best?  That depends.

It depends on when and how you got to know Bond and became a fan.

Anyone answering the question What’s the best Bond? is probably actually answering two other questions: Who’s your favorite Bond and Which is your favorite of his movies?

Seems most people prefer Sean Connery’s Bond.  But I have a soft spot for Roger Moore because he was the first Bond I got to know and Live and Let Die was the first Bond movie I saw on a big screen. I saw the Connery Bonds after that, cut up for TV.  It’s hard to take Moore seriously anymore because we look back at his Bond through his later outings, the execrable View to a Kill and the ridiculous Octopussy and the wacky Moonraker, all three made when Moore was too for Bond, too boot. (For Your Eyes Only isn’t so bad, but it actually shows Moore’s age more than the others.)  But his first three are good, and The Spy Who Loved Me still has the best opening gambit of all time, and if Moore had started with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which almost happened, and quit while he was ahead after The Spy Who Loved Me, then I think, although he may not have been the best Bond, he’d have made the best series of Bond movies to date.

Timothy Dalton didn’t make enough Bonds to establish himself in my mind, but if he had started when he might have, with Diamonds Are Forever or Live and Let Die, and continued through GoldenEye, he might have rivaled Connery.

I’m a Pierce Brosnan fan and enjoyed his Bond, but except for GoldenEye and the first third of Die Another Day, his series of movies were kind of dull.  And he always seemed to be Pierce Brosnan doing Bond.  His best Bondian turns were actually in The Tailor of Panama and The Thomas Crown Affair.  But suppose he had started where he almost did with The Living Daylights and License to Kill.

Skyfall Bond James Bond 3 I like Craig’s Bond, but he’s not yet my favorite.  My sense is that he’s the favorite Bond of fans who really wish Sean Connery was still young and toupeed and of people who never cared much for Bond in any incarnation before Casino Royale.  If either’s the case with you, then the fun or the joke is on you in Skyfall.  One of the themes of Skyfall is that in the years since we last saw him at the end of Quantum of Solace (or at the end of Casino Royale, if you prefer to pretend Quantum Solace never happened), this Bond has grown more like the Bond we know of old and he’s only going to grow more so over the coming movies. He’s more suave now, more relaxed in a tux, more amused by himself and by what’s going on around him, and more cold.  More callous towards women too, more likely to treat the death of a bad girl Bond Girl as he treats the death of anyone out to kill him or get him killed, as the occasion for a cruel joke.

And he’s more of a company man.  More of a patriot.  More the kind of Doing It For Queen and Country hero who would have a Union Jack for a parachute.

The point is driven home by something appearing at the end that’s conspicuously missing at the beginning.  Leading up to it are those in-jokes and some surprises that you’ll probably see coming if you call yourself a true fan.  But taken together they add up to this.  The reboot is over.  Now, Bond, James Bond, is back in business.




As usual, a title card appears in the closing credits announcing that James Bond Will Return.  But it doesn’t say what the name of the next movie will be.  The producers haven’t decided yet.  There are only three authentic Ian Fleming titles left and all resound with a thud.  But I know what the title should be.

I won’t say it here because it’s something of a spoiler. But I proud of the joke and can’t resist, so I’m putting it in the comments.

Reminder: Although I hope people will be considerate, the comment section is not a spoiler-free zone.


From the files, For Your Eyes Only: Dame Judi Dench as the the ultimate Bond Girl.

And, from January, here’s my review of the movie (not the novel or the TV series) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


The Blonde’s Bond Blurb: “Very English, and I don’t mean Johnny.”

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, screenplay by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Wishaw, Rory Kincaid, Helen McCory, and Albert Finney. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.


This week’s feature for Mannion Family Movie Night is the Mannion Guys’ introduction to Sean Connery’s Bond, You Only Live Twice, which Tony Dayoub says, “is instructive in explaining why Connery was getting fed up with the series and how the Bond movies would eventually stray quite far from their source material before its triumphant reboot decades later.” In other words, it’s the movie in which things began to go a little nutty. But, hey, it’s got the volcano hide-out and ninjas!

Read Tony’s whole post at Cinema Viewfinder.


The deserted island city where Silva has his lair isn’t a set or the work of elaborate cgi. It’s a real place, abandoned forty years ago for economic reasons.

Hat tip to Kathryn Schulz.

The painting Q and Bond discuss at their first meeting is also real.  The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up by J.M.W. Turner.

Skyfall The Fighting Temeraire wiki


If you’ve got time: The parkour chase from Casino Royale:

And the parody from Johnny English Reborn:

Johnny English 2 Rooftop chase by teasertrailer

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Don’t Drink and Fly: A Public Service Announcement from the Makers of Flight

Flight Whip surveys the wreck

Whip surveys the wreckage: Denzel Washington is very good as a hero pilot who saves the passengers on his broken airliner but in the process exposes himself as an alcoholic and drug addict in Robert Zemeckis’ earnest and at times preachy melodrama, Flight.

John Goodman bursts onto the screen, shaded, goateed, trailing a long, braided ponytail, the even longer cord on the earjack of his iPod, the improbable name of Harling Mays, and the promise of some comic relief, which we sorely need after the harrowing plane crash that opens Robert Zemeckis’ overly earnest, over-long, and over-done drama Flight, starring Denzel Washington as a hero pilot with six Jack Lemmons’, three Ray Millands’, and at least one Nicolas Cage’s worth of an Oscar-baiting drinking problem that he balances out with a Michael J. Fox level of an addiction to coke and pills.

Flight Enter the devilAs Washington’s drug and booze connection and personal anti-nutritionist and unfitness guru, Goodman arrives as if blown in from another movie, patly accompanied on the soundtrack by Sympathy for the Devil, raising hopes (my hopes, at any rate) that he is the devil or at least one of the devil’s human avatars and he’s about to turn Flight into a very different sort of movie.  A satire on the media and the nature of heroism, maybe, which is what I was expecting, because, really, who needs another earnest morality tale about the fall, recovery, and redemption of a drunk?

It turns out Goodman might as well be in another movie for all his character and his performance have to do with what Zemeckis is up to in Flight. Washington and the actress playing his nurse in the hospital where he's recuperating from the crash seem not to know what to make of Goodman either, as if they weren't expecting him ---Goodman not Mayes---to show up, at least not like this. I can't recall ever seeing actors in a movie just stop acting and stare in complete bewilderment at a co-star's performance. It's almost as if Goodman had said to himself, Screw this! and thrown his script away just before the camera started to roll. (I know. Cameras don't roll anymore. Give me time. I'll catch up.) what I suspect was actually going on is that Zemeckis couldn't reconcile what he had them doing with what he had Goodman doing, which is a general weakness throughout flight.

Goodman isn't the only one who seems to be in a different movie from the one---the ones---everyone else is in.

Kelly Reilly is in a gender-switched version of The Basketball Diaries cleaned up and made more family-friendly for a showing on Lifetime. Don Cheadle's starring in a courtroom drama a la A Civil Action.  Washington's acting up a storm in an update of  The Lost Weekend.  And Zemeckis hasn't found a way to blend them all tonally, structurally, thematically, or stylistically. He leaves it up to Washington to pull it all together with the magnetism of his charisma and the binding force of his performance.

Flight Denzel Washington It's one heck of a performance. As Whip Whitaker a commercial airline pilot who hasn't lost the swagger or the the recklessness of his days as a Navy fighter pilot and who just to keep himself sharp flies his jetliner as if he was still in the cockpit of an F-14, when he's not so hungover or drunk or high he has to leave all the work to his co-pilot and take a nap in the cockpit, Washington is very good. He's very good a lot.   John Gatins’ screenplay makes sure that he doesn’t lack for opportunities to be very good.  The script will give him a chance to be very good in a scene and one scene later he'll be called on to be very good again.  Sometimes he gets to be very good twice in the same scene.

You're getting the picture, right?

Flight is a showcase for Denzel Washington to the point that his being very good becomes the point of the movie.

What Flight isn't is a coherent story about a pilot who happens to be an alcoholic becoming a hero despite himself and having his sudden fame threatening to expose his secrets and many flaws to the world.  Instead it's the story of an alcoholic who incidentally is a pilot but might as well be a lawyer or a doctor or a politician or an insurance agent for all it really matters to who he is as a character or to the story he's in. The crash and the investigation that follows are plot devices that drive him towards choosing between confronting the truth about his drinking problem or continuing along his current path of self-destruction.

Now here’s where a critic like me can get himself in trouble. And by “a critic like me” I mean me.  When I start to review the movie I wish the director had made instead of the one he did make.  And clearly I wish Zemeckis had made a different kind of movie.  One more like Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe or Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero or Stephen Frears’ 1992’s Hero, in which Dustin Hoffman plays an obnoxious and selfish little nudnik who despite himself acts heroically to save the lives of passengers of an airplane that has crashed in an icy river only to have the credit for the rescue go to a more conventionally heroic sort played by Andy Garcia.  Flight sets up the same questions as those films---What happens when the public’s perception of a hero is very different from the hero’s own perception of himself? What happens if the hero is in fact not a hero? What if the hero doesn’t deserve the acclaim and the love and the rewards being bestowed on him?---but Zemeckis and Gatins not only don’t try to answer them, they don’t even address them.  A pilot who pulled off in real life what Whip pulls off in the movie would be revered by the public and worshiped by the media.  Ask Captain Sully Sullenberger.

But while we’re told Whip’s a national hero, we never see or hear anybody treating him as one.  As soon as Whip’s recovered enough to leave the hospital, he retreats to his family farm way out in the country to hide and from there on out nobody seems much interested in him as a hero.  Whip has reasons to feel as guilty about what happened as proud and of course he has an excellent reason not to want the public get to know who and what he is in addition to being the best goddamn pilot in the world.  But it turns out that everybody he comes in contact with---and Whip keeps forgetting he’s trying to hide and wandering away from the farm, usually to go buy more beer and booze (Why he doesn’t call on Harling Mays to bring it to him, I don’t know.)---seems privy to his secrets and dedicated to making him feel more guilty while the reporters and TV crews on his trail seem intent not on exploiting his heroism for ratings and page views but exposing him as a fraud, which if they were part of the Washington political press corps and Whip was a Democrat running for office might happen, but in the case of hero pilot who saved ninety-six people with his skill and derring-do?  Not likely. It’s as if Zemeckis and Gatins have never seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Melodramas about characters confronting their demons in the form of various addictions have a venerable and even illustrious tradition. They’re not my favorite sort of movies and I was disappointed that Flight turned out to be one of those.  But if Zemeckis had wanted to make one of those, the crash wouldn’t have been necessary.  The possibility of a crash would have been enough.  It doesn’t matter that this one time Whip has the skill and the courage to save his broken plane even while drunk.  It matters that one of these days when he climbs into the cockpit drunk or high he will make a mistake he can’t recover from and rack up the plane. By including the crash, which makes for spectacular cinema, by the way, although, as I’ve been saying, the by-the-wayness of it is a problem, Zemeckis raises questions and expectations that that he spends the rest of the movie ignoring.  That’s not a good thing for a director to do. 

Beyond that, though, there’s Zemeckis’ failure to bring together the different types of movies his characters are in.

Cheadle never gets to show off the impressive legal skills his character boasts of.  Reilly follows her own road to redemption right out of the movie. Nothing really gets going with Goodman. All these separate subplots do is add length to a movie that clocking in at two hours and eighteen minutes is half an hour too long. But Zemeckis also draws things out through a lack of economy.  He rarely does with one shot what he can do with three or lets a character say with a look or a gesture what they can say with a long speech.  He repeats himself.  He lets his actors repeat themselves.

And never mind that Flight isn’t the satire I’d have preferred.  Except for the scenes with Goodman, this a movie strikingly low on humor or wit or any sense of irony.

Also, it’s preachy. In fact, at times, it borders on the out and out Christian. Not quite in the way of redemptive, uplifting, and overtly religious movies like Soul Surfer, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants.  More in the tradition of old-fashioned, homilitic Hollywood tearjerkers, just without any kindly priests of the Pat O’Brien/Spencer Tracy mold and no late night, lonely visits to church, although Whip is dragged to an AA meeting at one point.

Most damaging of all is that Flight is a realistic movie that never feels real.  It’s not just that the Media don’t behave like the Media or that people don’t react to Whip as they did to Sully Sullenberger.  It’s not just that the script seems to be inventing rules and regulations, practices and procedures for the airline industry for the convenience of the plot. It’s that the movie misses the implications of one of its own major plot points.

Whip’s plane goes into a nose dive mid-flight because an vital component of the hydraulic system snaps.  That component, we’re told, had been identified in an inspection as past due for replacement a year before this flight!

I don’t believe that if the news came out that an airline was putting defective planes in the air anybody would care that the pilot who saved the passengers on one of those planes that came apart in midair might have been a little the worse for a few drinks.

Well, actually, the movie presents us with one person who does care.  I didn’t mention another member of the cast who’s stuck in her own movie.

Melissa Leo has a delicious and devilish (though a very different sort of devil than Goodman’s) cameo as an inspector for the National Transportation Safety Board who is on to Whip from the beginning and seems determined to expose him and send him to jail.  In her apparent lack of interest in the real crime---the airline’s negligence---and obsession with bringing Whip to her idea of justice, she’s like a more well-intentioned Javert to Whip’s much less noble Jean Valjean.

Now that’s a movie I would have liked to see.

Of course I’ll have my chance in December.

But to get back to the movie I did see.

Flight annoyed and disappointed me but it’s not terrible.  And there’s one compelling reason to see it.

Denzel Washington is very good.

Did I mention that?

Very, very good.

The Blonde’s Blurb: “Denzel! Wow!”

Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by John Gatins. Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, and Nadine Valazquez.  Rated R. Now in theaters.

Don’t Drink and Fly: A Public Service Announcement from the Makers of Flight was originally published at LanceMannion.com.

“The best bad idea we have.”

Lost in the bazaar:  Ben Affleck as CIA operative Tony Mendez leads the six American diplomats he’s come to rescue down a street in Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in Argo, an Affleck-directed political thriller based on an actual covert mission that involved putting a fake movie into pretended production and having the diplomats pose as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for their non-existent Star Wars rip-off.

Lost in the bazaar:  Ben Affleck as CIA operative Tony Mendez leads the six American diplomats he’s come to rescue down a street in Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in Argo, an Affleck-directed political thriller based on an actual covert mission that involved putting a fake movie into pretended production and having the diplomats pose as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for their non-existent Star Wars rip-off.

If you sit still when the lights come on and the credits start to roll at the end of Argo---which you should do because 1. It’s a good movie and you should be sitting all the way through it anyway and 2. These days filmmakers are in the habit of opening up audience-rewarding Easter eggs during and after the credits of their movies and you should still be kicking yourself if you didn’t wait until the very, very last credit of The Avengers---you’ll see how proud Argo’s director and star Ben Affleck is of his movie’s visual historical accuracy. And you can’t blame him.

Affleck juxtaposes scenes from Argo with pictures of the real people and events that show how closely he’s captured the look and feel and sense of those long, terrible 444 days from November 1979 until January 1981 when Iranian revolutionaries held fifty-two American diplomats hostage within the seized U.S. embassy in Tehran and with them our national pride and, I’d argue, our collective mental balance.

It’s not just that many of the key players are the spitting images of their real-life counterparts (with one notable exception).  That’s the easy part.  It’s that the movie’s recreations of the scenes outside and inside the embassy and in the streets of Tehran more than look like the pictures on TV and in newspapers and magazines at the time---they have the same energy and evoke the same sense of something terrible, terrifying, and tragic happening right before our eyes and the same sense of frustration and helplessness that follows that godawful despairing realization that There’s nothing we can do!

If you’re old enough to remember the Hostage Crisis, though, you won’t need the pictures at the end to tell you how exactly Affleck and his cinematographer and designers got that right.  You’ll have felt it right from the start.

That’s one of the very good things about Argo but it’s not the best thing.  It makes the best things possible.  If Affleck had been content with historical evocations, Argo would be a simple costume drama with blocky polyesters and bad facial hair choices in place of bustles and stovepipe hats.

Of course, the history doesn’t just drive the plot. The history is the plot. But it also provides Argo with its look, its feel, its mood, and one of its important themes.

Outside the embassy On November 4, 1979, as the crowds of Iranian protesters and militants stormed the embassy, six members of the station slipped out the back and found sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, who hid them out for three months until the situation became dire and untenable.  The Canadians were recalling the ambassador.  The Iranians were on the hunt.  There was nowhere else safe for them to hide.  The fear back in Washington was that if they were caught they’d be treated as spies but if the U.S. tried to rescue them, the Iranians would take revenge on the fifty-two hostages at the embassy.

CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), who specialized in sneaking operatives, assets, and defectors out from under the noses of hostile governments, was tasked with developing a plan to get the six out.  Inspired by his son’s love of Star Wars and Planet of the Apes, he came up with the idea of passing the six off as members of a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a science-fiction movie.

In real life the movie was called Lord of Light for which an actual script existed, based on the novel by Roger Zelazny.  In Argo the movie is a Star Wars rip-off called…Argo.  In order to fool any Iranians who might go looking for physical evidence that a movie is in production, Mendez makes a side-trip to Hollywood where with the help of an Oscar-winning make-up artist named John Chambers (a real person played by a lookalike John Goodman) and Lester Siegel, an irascible producer with a World War II secret service background and a patriotic streak that he forgot he had (Alan Arkin playing a composite of four actual people), he sets up a phony production company, secures “financing”, and generates public relations campaign that results in puff pieces in the trades.

As evocative of the period as it is, it’s just as evocative of the movies of the period, particularly the political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

Affleck and his director of photography Rodrigo Prieto have given Argo the gloomy and gritty texture of those films, conjuring up the same look and feel of a society that had given up on itself, of a world literally crumbling from neglect---summed up by an anachronistic shot of the iconic Hollywood sign falling to pieces, which really had happened, although by the time of the Hostage Crisis it had been put back together.  and nobody seemed interested in putting it back together---the same mood of reasonable paranoia, the same sense of people taking shelter in lonely, little groups, hiding out from an almost sourceless menace. Mendez’s apartment in Virginia, his hotel room in Tehran, the kitchen of the Canadian Ambassador’s house reminded me of Faye Dunaway’s basement apartment in Three Days of the Condor and Jane Alexander’s character’s sister’s house in All the President’s Men.  And I couldn’t help thinking of President Carter looking lost and alone in his self-imposed imprisonment in the White House.  Throughout the movie, Carter is mostly seen on television sets in the background in real news footage, looking shrunken, isolated, trapped, and ignored.  In those ‘70s political thrillers, the threat comes from a secret source inside the government, if not from the government itself. In Argo, the government is as threatened and baffled as everyone else.

I feel like I’m making Argo sound unremittingly grim and didactic as well.  It’s neither.  It’s not exactly light-hearted but it is full of humor and not all of it of the gallows kind.  The movie has a satirical edge, although the edge is of a blade fingered behind the back rather than drawn and pointed.  Its targets are Hollywood, of course, but the government, politics, bureaucracy, and the spy game come in for it and, to a darker and more circumspect degree, so does the Iranian Revolution, which produced its own absurd bureaucracies and brand of politicians.

But in all cases the humors arises not from the institutions or systems being satirized but from the people who make them up. Argo’s Hollywood is a collection of lunatics among whom eccentrics like Chambers and Siegel connive to thrive and survive.  Mendez, Chambers, and Siegel have no trouble setting up their phony production company.  The easy joke would be that that’s because one way or another everybody in the business is a phony and the whole industry depends on all these phonies pretending not to notice each other’s phoniness. But in Argo it’s more the case of everyone being too caught up in their own problems to pay close attention to what others are up to.  It turns out to be a similar case among the Iranians, with the difference being that people’s individual problems are often matters of life and death.  Revolutionary Iran is a scary place even for revolutionaries.  But Mendez’s plan depends on individual Iranians having too much else to worry about besides whether or not he might be a spy.

Affleck takes the view that no matter how dire the circumstances get, people will be people and that means that they’re often ridiculous. We’re funny that way.  But it’s one of the things that makes us strong and resilient. We just can’t take it all in in.  Our egos and vanities and misperceptions get in the way.  Our best defense is that we aren’t aware enough to realize how much trouble we’re in.  It’s a likable trait, even admirable in its way, and it’s the root of our commonality.  Before we’re anything else, an American spy or an Iranian revolutionary, we are ourselves. We just can’t help it.

To illustrate this point, Aflleck fills Argo with characters being themselves despite themselves. All of them, from the leads and supports, and cameos to the nameless bureaucrats and spies in Washington and at Langley, to the bit players, stagehands, suits, and hangers-on in Hollywood, to the Iranian citizens, soldiers, shopkeepers, low-level government officials, and airport workers, are given dialog, even if only a line or two, or a shot in a scene that reveals them as distinct individuals with feelings and thoughts that transcend their function in the plot.

In hiding The odd exceptions are the six diplomats Mendez is trying to rescue who are differentiated mainly by their their hairstyles and shirt collar widths.  One of the six is given more lines and screen time than any of the others but for the most part he’s the spokesmen for their collective fears, doubts, and regrets.  Except for one scene, and it’s a redeeming exception, he doesn’t speak for himself or, rather, he doesn’t speak as a particular self we get to know and understand on his own terms.  I’m guessing Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, were being tactful and taking into consideration the feelings of the of the real people all of whom are still alive and probably still haunted by their ordeal and Affleck may have been too careful about not seeming to exploit it or them they wouldn’t like to see it or them for dramatic effect.

But while this weakness may be deliberate and understandable, it’s all the more glaring because of how vividly almost all the other characters in the movie are portrayed.

Argo is an ensemble piece.  Affleck is undoubtedly the star and his character is the hero, but although it’s a star’s part, it requires him not to do a star turn.  The job he’s given himself is to be the calm center around which the craziness swirls.  He builds a sheltered space where we can stand with him and watch and think along with him.  In fact, much of his performance is watching and thinking.  The showier work is left to others, with Goodman and Arkin getting the best of it and having the most obvious fun.

John Goodman and Alan Arkin as John Chambers and Lester Siegel As Chambers and Siegel, they make a dueling but amusingly complementary pair of cynics.  Different types of cynics.  Chambers is the good-natured, forgiving type, amused by other people’s foolishness but grateful for it because it allows him to lead his two lives as artist and spy.  Goodman plays him with an almost permanent grin as if he’s on the brink of bursting into a hearty laugh that will give away the whole game. Siegel is a cynic of the self-loathing kind whose disdain for humanity in general begins with disdain for himself in particular.  Siegel has himself convinced that he’s not doing anything worthwhile with his life. It’s a feeling leftover from his glory days an intelligence officer in World War II.  Making movies, even award-winning ones, just doesn’t compare to fighting Nazis.  But like most movie cynics he’s a closet romantic and an idealist and, while profanely and grumpily expressing reluctance, he jumps at the chance to get back to meaningful work.  Since he’s played by Alan Arkin, however, he’s even grumpier and more profane in his idealism than in his cynicism.

Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina, as Mendez’s immediate superior at the CIA and the agent in charge of operations in the control room at Langley, have almost as much to do as Affleck in roles that allow them to be more active and show more range than the star’s own.  Bob Gunton as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Philip Baker Hall in an uncredited appearance as Vance’s unnamed deputy who almost certainly is meant to be Warren Christopher have one brief scene together that apart from its effectiveness in its own right serves up one of the best Muppet jokes ever not made by the Muppets themselves.  Richard Kind turns up as a shark of a Hollywood agent who is almost a match in cynicism and irascibility for Arkin’s Siegel. Adrienne Barbeau turns up an a fiery cameo as one of Siegel’s ex-wives.  Zeljko Ivanek and Keith Szarabajka bluster and storm as State Department officials and capture the frustration and desperate need to do something, anything, but what? that gripped not just the administration but much of the entire country.

Compelling in quieter roles are Kyle Chandler as Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, Victor Garber and Page Leong as Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife Pat, Sheila Vand as their young Iranian housekeeper Sahar whose loyalties are a mystery even to herself, Ali Saam as a member of the Revolutionary guard who comes calling at the Canadian embassy and tests Sahar’s loyalties, and Hooshang Tooze as the Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance who is probably something more than the simple bureaucrat he presents himself to Mendez as being.

Argo Sahar The last three along with other actors playing Iranians of all sorts and conditions are important to Affleck’s determination to individualize the Iranians and make us see the Revolution through their eyes and not as the angry mobs we saw on TV at the time.  This doesn’t mean that he wants us to sympathize with the revolution.  The Iranians are shown as dangerous and implacable enemies of the United States, which, although Affleck doesn’t shy away from our transgressions and mistakes and crimes in the Middle East, is still us to the Iranians them.  But sorting out the good guys from the bad guys isn’t the issue. and the question of who’s right and who’s wrong---or who’s more right or less wrong---is irrelevant because it’s irrelevant to the characters in the movie.  They can’t do anything about it and figuring out an answer won’t help them solve their problem at the moment.

Which brings me back to the way Affleck uses history in Argo.

Affleck and Terrio grant themselves a good deal of dramatic license, naturally. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie without the filmmakers taking liberties with the facts.  And Argo is a movie, a thriller not a docudrama.  But Affleck never lets us forget the reality behind his story.  As I said, it does more than drive the plot.  It gives Argo its mood and its tension.  And it’s vital thematically. 

Affleck lets us know from the beginning and keeps reminding us that we’re not to expect a sense of triumph if Mendez pulls this off.  At best we’ll feel relieved.  Then he keeps the pressure on so that intensely that relief, if it comes, will be enough.  We’re not allowed to see the operation as a potential surrogate victory over the Iranians or even a moral one.  This is a job that has to be done for its own sake.  It will have no effect on the larger crisis except in that if the mission fails it might make things worse.

There are times when there really isn’t anything we can do.  There are problems that can’t be solved.  There are situations where even someone as powerful as the President of the United States has no control.  Under those circumstances, when success isn’t an option, despair and surrender are temptations that must still be resisted.  The best thing we can do is do our jobs, to exercise what little control we have in the little sphere in which we still have it, and instead of holing up by ourselves, reach out to those nearest whom we can help.  We have to take care of each other.

“I’ve never left anyone behind,” Mendez tells the six people he’s come to rescue.

He’s not boasting. He’s not merely trying to be encouraging.  He’s stating a simple fact.  This is his job, to make sure no one gets left behind.

That’s all our jobs.

No matter what else, we’re here to make sure none of us gets left behind.

Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman.  Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, and Chris Messina.  Rated R. Now in theaters.

“The Best Bad Idea We Have” originally posted at LanceMannion.com.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The bishops, again…

Here’s all you need to know about the bishops. To them, worse than the idea of a war with Iran, worse than millions of American children going without decent health care, worse than the prospect of old people dining on catfood and families bankrupting themselves to pay for nursing homes, worse than living in a country with a serial liar for a President who thinks of corporations as people and people as costs to be controlled or resources to be exploited, worse than all that is that a woman might have her birth control pills or IUD covered by insurance that she paid for!

Catholic Bishop Who Compared Obama To Hitler Orders Anti-Obama Letter Read From Pulpit

Decent, but not too decent

Thomas Eagleton and George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami

The Democratic Presidential Ticket…for the moment.  The Democratic nominee for President, George McGovern (right) and his Vice Presidential pick, Thomas Eagleton, at the 1972 convention. Less than three weeks later, McGovern would be looking for Eagleton’s replacement, a story told in Joshua M. Glasser’s sobering and cautionary The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis.

If you were voting in the New York Democratic Presidential primary in 1972, you didn’t vote for your preferred candidate. You voted for a slate of delegates from your Congressional district pledged to that candidate. That year Pop Mannion headed a slate of seven potential delegates pledged to George McGovern.  The other slate on the ballot was headed by the boss of the Albany political machine, Dan O’Connell, and included six other stalwarts of the Democratic establishment, and they were all pledged to…Uncommitted.

Uncommitted won in a walk.

They never did commit.  Not to McGovern, at any rate. At the Democratic convention, McGovern carried the New York delegation but not unanimously.  In the end, if I’m remembering it right, seven New York delegates voted for Scoop Jackson.

Twelve years later, I’m in grad school in Iowa, and George McGovern is running for President again, mainly as a protest candidate trying to get his fellow Democrats to focus on issues dear to his heart, like hunger and poverty.  He came to the University to speak and when he finished I chased after him because I wanted to tell him about Pop’s quixotic support for him back in ‘72.

I caught up with him in a stairwell, much to the bemusement of the two aides with him, and introduced myself.  McGovern himself seemed a little wary.  I guess he wasn’t used to people wanting to talk to him---his was a very lonely campaign that year---but he stopped and let me shake his hand and I started to tell him in a rush what I wanted to tell him, how Pop had been a fervent supporter and how his slate had been beaten by Uncommitted.

“Where was that?” McGovern asked.

“Albany, New York.”

He looked thoughtful for a second then said, “That was O’Connell and his people, right?”

I was taken aback.  I didn’t expect him to even know about what went on in the politics of upstate New York, let alone remember it a dozen years later.  But of course he remembered.  And it wasn’t the sting of defeat still smarting that kept the memories fresh.  It was that the consummate politician that he was remembered because as a consummate politician he knew that he always had to keep count.

It was also that those seven Uncommitteds represented one of McGovern’s several big problems in 1972.  Old-school Democratic establishment types didn’t like or trust him.  Not just because he was the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” And ten points to anyone who knows the ironic source of that characterization.  But because his reforms of the Party’s nominating process were muscling them out in favor of women and minorities and younger, more liberal Democrats of all sorts and conditions.

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate book coverAnd that, as Joshua M Glasser lays out the story in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, helps explain how McGovern wound up with Thomas Eagleton as his running mate coming out of the convention and why it took as long as it did for McGovern to dump him after the news began to come out about Eagleton’s history of depression and the electroshock therapy he underwent to treat it, a decision McGovern turned out not to be too decent to make.

It was politics, plain and simple.

In the days after McGovern’s death on October 21, many of the news stories eulogizing him emphasized his great and undeniable decency to the point, though, of asserting that he may have been too decent for contemporary American politics.

As the son of another decent man who was also a consummate politician (and, never mind the loss in the primary, a mostly winning one), I object to that characterization.  It implies that there is something fundamentally indecent about being a successful politician or that McGovern somehow managed to be successful in spite of himself or that he was not a successful politician.  Obviously, in the fall 1972, he wasn’t.  Before that?  Even one campaign after that?

George McGovern, a liberal Democrat, got himself elected Congressman from the very Republican and conservative state of South Dakota.  He did that by building the Democratic Party in South Dakota, practically from scratch and single-handed.  He got himself re-elected by beating back a challenge from a popular former governor.  He lost in is his first try for the Senate, but then won the seat in 1962.  He got himself re-elected in 1968 and re-elected again in 1974, only two years after South Dakota, along with forty-nine other states, had rejected its native son for President in a landslide of historic magnitude.  He lost his Senate seat in 1980, a casualty of the Reagan sweep, and except for that symbolic run for President in 1984, was done with running for political office for the many years of life he had left to him.  But that’s still a lot of political success for someone too decent for politics, and the point is that the people of South Dakota not send him to Washington for two terms in the House of Representatives and three in the United States Senate because they thought he was a decent guy.

They thought he was a decent guy who would get the job done for them.

They expected that he would represent their interests and wishes and be a skilled enough politician to get legislation passed and money allocated that would advance those interests and realize those wishes. And McGovern was glad to represent them.  But South Dakota was a farming and ranching state and identified itself, accordingly, as rural, small town, Western, and, befitting a state of independent businessmen---ranchers, farmers, and the owners of the businesses that served them---and Republicans, pro business and therefore anti-union.  Unions were big city, Eastern, anti-business, Democratic, and corrupt and corrupting.  To represent South Dakota, McGovern had to be strongly pro-agriculture, which was easy, and, not anti-union, at least not aggressively so, but not the friend of labor most establishment Democrats were at the time. He kept his distance from labor leaders and when he saw union interests conflicting with the interests of his constituents he voted for the latter and against the former.

Naturally, union leaders and their friends and allies among party establishment types like the Uncommitted slate from Albany did not look kindly on McGovern’s candidacy.  But McGovern needed union support, union money, union workboots on the ground, union votes.  And that’s how he came to pick Eagleton.

McGovern’s ideal running mate was Ted Kennedy. Polls showed that McGovern’s best odds in the general election were with Kennedy on the ticket.  But Kennedy turned him down, repeatedly.  Glasser doesn’t go deeply into Kennedy’s reasons. He relays what Kennedy told McGovern: He’d promised the family that as the last surviving brother he would stay out of Presidential politics.  And he points out that it was only three years after Chappaquiddick, which was probably a big reason Kennedy chose not to run for President himself.  But it’s also likely that Kennedy had sized up McGovern’s chances against Nixon and decided to keep himself untainted by being part of a losing team for his own eventual run in ‘76 or ‘80. McGovern had others in mind, he barely knew Eagleton, despite having served with him in the Senate for three years.  But the others turned him down too, and so did the obvious choices among McGovern’s top rivals for the nomination, Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. Meanwhile, his staff was looking around for someone who could appeal to the same constituencies as Kennedy.  Someone pro-labor and someone labor was pro in return.  Someone young.  Someone Catholic.

The was the junior senator from Missouri. Tom Eagleton.

And…Eagleton was a product of the St Louis Democratic machine.

He wasn’t well-known outside Missouri, but Party bosses inside the state could vouch for him to Party bosses in other states.

Among the more interesting sections of The Eighteen-day Running Mate are the ones devoted to Eagleton’s swift rise in Missouri politics through a mixture of hard work, talent, family connections, and the skill and the willingness to play the game without becoming beholden to the wrong the people.  Eagleton was every bit the politician as McGovern.  He may not have been quite as decent a guy.

But before getting into anything else: The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a cautionary tale for anyone nostalgic for the days when conventions decided who’d be the Parties’ nominees.  McGovern arrived in Miami in ‘72 well ahead of his rivals (who included, besides Humphrey and Muskie, Scoop Jackson and George Wallace.  That was also the year Shirley Chisholm ran.) in the delegate count but still short of the number he needed to win the nomination.  McGovern and his staff had to work desperately hard to to round up the extra votes and just as hard to keep ones they had in hand from straying.  Deals had to me made and unmade. Promises were exchanged, favors called in.  Without having any of the obvious and popular favorites to offer, the Vice-Presidential pick became part of the wheeling and dealing, which made it difficult for McGovern’s people to identify and settle on a candidate. With the first roll call vote looming, they were scrambling and when Eagleton was finally offered the spot and accepted, they were left with very little time to vett him.  In the end, they may have done even less due diligence than John McCain did when choosing Sarah Palin.  “Vetting” amounted to little more than Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s political director, calling up Eagleton at his hotel in Miami and asking a few perfunctory questions that Eagleton later distilled as, “Any skeletons in your closet?” and more or less taking Eagleton’s word for it when he said there weren’t.

Eagleton wasn’t lying. Not in his own mind, at any rate.  He just did not believe his having suffered from what he considered separate and isolated bouts of depression—as though depression was like the flu and something he was susceptible to---in the past but not anymore---as far as he was concerned, he was cured---and having been treated with intensive electro-shock therapy as skeletons.  He believed it was nobody’s business but his own.

Eagleton was rushed to the nomination pretty much on his own say-so that he was fit for the job.

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is not an insider account of the 1972 Presidential campaign in the vein of Game Change or Theodore White’s The Making of the President series.  It’s a straight-forward, sober---and sobering---history of how a particular set of professional politicians tried to do their jobs during a period of crisis for them, not a gossipy account of how the game is played.  There is no gossip.  What could have been treated as gossip is only included because in this case the personal is inseparable from the political.  And the most personal was the source of the political problem: the state of Tom Eagleton’s mental health.

People in 1972 knew that Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered from serious depression.  But would they have judged that Eagleton deserved the same understanding and benefit of the doubt as a Lincoln or a Churchill?  Put that way, it doesn’t seem likely, does it?  And it didn’t seem likely to McGovern’s advisors.  But what was more worrisome than the depression itself and the possibility that it might recur if Vice-President Eagleton became President Eagleton was how it had been treated.

Electroshock did not have the best public image.

It was barbaric.

It was the tool of mad scientists and torturers.

It was a method of last resort used only on the craziest of crazy people.

It didn’t work.

So it was thought people thought.

Which was ironic because electroshock therapy represented a more advanced or at least advancing view of mental illness, which was to see it as an illness with definite physical symptoms if not causes that could be treated medically.  In the East, where Freud reigned supreme, mental illnesses---defined mainly as neuroses of various sorts---were assumed to be mental and their causes were assumed to be traumas to the psyche that had to be revealed by probing into a patient’s subconscious and unconscious under the guidance of a therapist who helped the patient talk his or her way around mental blocks and defenses to the root of the problem and, it was to be hoped, that would allow the patient to get control of the neurotic symptoms if not actually result in a cure.  Talk therapy was fashionable.  Anybody who was anybody saw a shrink, including, for a time when he was Vice President, Richard Nixon, a fact that wasn’t generally known but wasn’t exactly a state secret either.  But it was more than a fashion.  It was the method.

Contrary ideas had to go west, then, for a hearing.  And many of the doctors and neuroscientists willing to listen were gathered in the teaching hospitals of the Midwest, like the ones where Eagleton sought help.  His doctors didn’t see electroshock as an extreme measure.  They saw it as an effective alternative to to the psychotropic drugs available at the time, of which there were few that worked and all of them had debilitating side effects. His doctors would have advised electroshock in almost the same way they’d have advised an operation to remove a tumor.  Eagleton would have had good reason to think that having had electroshock was nothing to be ashamed of (which isn’t to say he didn’t worry about what voters might think. He kept not only his treatment but his episodes of depression secret from voters back home.) and good reason to think it had worked, that he was cured.  In the several years between his last treatment and McGovern’s offering him a place on the ticket, he hadn’t suffered any more episodes.

He had good reason to think that because it was behind him it had no bearing on whether or not he was qualified to be Vice President of the United States.

He didn’t have good reason to think everybody else agreed with him, and he knew it, and although he didn’t feel he was lying to Mankiewicz when he said their were no skeletons rattling in his closet, good Catholic boy that he was, he must have known it was a Jesuit’s truth.  He may not have been lying, but he was being deceptive, and when it came out, as it did in a hurry, McGovern had good reason for feeling he’d been deceived.

Glasser manages to be detailed and informative on the perceptions of mental illness and its treatment in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s without losing his narrative thread.  The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is ultimately a dual political biography and portrait of two basically decent and well-intentioned but ambitious and determined men not being seen at their best. Glasser works hard at remaining objective---truly objective, not political journalist “Astronomers say the earth revolves around the sun, though some disagree objective.” He reports what as far as he's been able to determine actually happened, while withholding judgment...until judgment is called for.

Eagleton comes off as the more flawed and less admirable man, vain, dissembling (with himself as much as with anyone else), self-absorbed, selfish, and often immature. He seems to have had a habit of presenting himself in speeches as if he was talking about some other Tom Eagleton, a plucky, put-upon kid brother to himself he loved and admired and felt sorry for.

But Glasser seems more forgiving of Eagleton's flaws than of McGovern's, perhaps because he recognizes that McGovern was the better man and, as people are inclined to do with better men and women, expects more of him.

McGovern, as Glasser sees him, could be vain and self-deceptive in his own right. He was a decent man, but his problem wasn't that he was too decent for politics. His problem was that he was too proud of his reputation for decency for his own political good. He would hold off making a pragmatic political decision until he'd persuaded himself that it was the morally correct decision and he didn't blame himself for mistakes and failures if he could find a way to blame someone else for letting him down by not doing the decent thing as he saw it. He was compassionate and sympathetic towards Eagleton. His daughter Terry suffered from severe depression and, Glasser suggests, McGovern felt that giving up on Eagleton would be like giving up on Terry, something he would never do. He knew right away he needed to cut Eagleton loose and he had good grounds to do it. However Eagleton had convinced himself that he hadn't technically lied to Mankiewicz, he had in fact been deliberately deceptive.

But McGovern put it off in the hope that Eagleton would make the decision for him by doing the decent thing and withdrawing from the ticket. When Eagleton didn't and even began maneuvering to make it impossible foe McGovern to get rid of him, McGovern grew angry and resentful, but he still delayed in no small part in order to protect his image and his self-regard. When Eagleton finally got the push, instead of getting credit for patience and understanding, McGovern had created the impression that he was weak, indecisive, ultimately untrustworthy, and most damaging of all, exactly what cynics suspected, a posturing and self-serving hypocrite.

All these years later, it's probably impossible to know how much of an effect those eighteen days had on voters' perceptions of McGovern and on the election. Polling wasn't what it was to become and contemporary political reporting is unreliable because, as Timothy Crouse would soon reveal in The Boys on the Bus, the political press corps was well on its way to becoming what it is now, if it wasn't always what it is now, cynical, trivia-minded, horserace obsessed, easily  distracted and bored, self-referential, convinced that what they gossiped about over lunch was what the American people were thinking about and caring about, and just plain not all that smart when it came to covering the issues at stake in a Presidential election. My own very unreliable recollection is that McGovern wasn't hurt as much by the fiasco with Eagleton as by the pathetic farce that followed as McGovern went begging for a credible replacement and was turned down by all and sundry until the Kennedys took pity on him and gave him Sargent Shriver.

But Glasser’s not all that concerned with questions along those lines, except in how they figured in the thinking of McGovern, Eagleton, and their advisors in the moment as they struggled to work their way through the mess they were in.  In fact, the larger campaign and the issues at stake and what took place on the political and national and international scenes before the convention and after Eagleton's departure from the ticket are mostly left unexamined or only cursorily so.

As a result, Richard Nixon makes only a cameo appearance, Watergate gets barely  a mention, the war in Vietnam is hardly discussed except as an issue that was important to McGovern personally and politically, and the cultural and political upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s that gave the impetus to McGovern's candidacy and were to a great measure its whole reason for being and which made it so alien and such a threat to Nixon’s Silent Majority---the anti-war movement and the rise of identity politics among women, African Americans, Hispanics, and gays---are kept offstage, sometimes reported on but never coming openly into view.

But this is because Glasser needs to keep his focus narrow to keep it sharp.

Glasser assumes his readers know, probably all too well, what else was going on around the very specific set of events that are his subject. The job he's given himself in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is to tell a particular story that is interesting and dramatic in its own right apart from its place in a larger history of those or these times. Whatever lessons there are to draw from this, whatever connections there are to be made to events then or now Glaser leaves up to us.


In political science’s Department of How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin, students and scholars debate just how much influence a Presidential candidate’s choice of running mate have on the election.

I remember being glad and feeling…reassured when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore. To me, it said Clinton was serious about being President. It wasn’t just the economy, stupid. He was thinking about the national security and the environment and how to get get things done in Washington where Gore, although it’s hard to believe now, was highly regarded, something like the Democrats’ Paul Ryan, except he actually knew what he was saying.  And I always considered Gore’s choice of a running mate a mistake. Joe Lieberman might have corralled the ticket some votes in Florida (not enough, as it turned out), but he was already a notorious quisling, having given aid and comfort to the Republicans during the Impeachment Crisis by being the only Democratic Senator to publicly condemn the President for his affair with Monica Lewinsky and he did it on the Senate floor.  Gore, I thought, had picked Lieberman as a signal that he was his own man and had cut himself free from Bill Clinton, which, as far as I was concerned, meant he was cutting himself free from a major reason I was voting for him, to continue what Bill Clinton had started.  John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards left me cold, but I was never much impressed by Edwards.  That’s not 20-20 hindsight.  Ask Pop Mannion. Once, when I was visiting the old homestead shortly after the Republican justices on the Supreme Court stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush, Pop and I were speculating on who the Democrats could run in 2004 who’d have a chance against Bush. Pop asked me what I thought about Edwards and I said he reminded me too much of a television evangelist.  But when Kerry picked him, I figured the points in Edwards’ favor were that he was young, Southern, and working class and he was meant to balance out Kerry’s elitist, New England, not exactly hip anymore image.  But when Barack Obama tapped Joe Biden I was genuinely perplexed.  Here, though, is where I made my bloomer, and it was the same bloomer I made when thinking about the other VP choices. I thought the object was always and mainly to impress me in my ill-fitting guise as an average voter or, at least, an average Democratic voter.

It’s still a question how much Sarah Palin hurt John McCain in 2008.  I think the prevailing wisdom is settling on the idea that the damage was actually more of the shooting himself in his own foot variety.  By rushing to pick someone who turned out to be so obviously and frighteningly unfit for any political office, let alone the one that put her next in line for President, without any serious attempt to vett her, McCain showed himself up as rash, reckless, thoughtless, and so desperate to be President he was willing to foist this idiot and lunatic on the nation.  But here’s the thing.  That idea began to develop after McCain had already shown himself up as rash, reckless, thoughtless, and desperate when the economy collapsed in mid-September.  When it became clear what a horror show Palin was---and thank you, Tina Fey, because the political press corps was smitten and took years to become truly unsmitten---it confirmed what people were concluding about McCain based on his own behavior.  But for a few weeks after the Republican convention, Palin helped McCain by firing up the base and keeping attention off of him, until he called it back himself.  And I believe she continued to be a help right up until the election because she kept the base from abandoning him.

This is the insight I gained from The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.  In trying to figure out the effect of a candidate’s choice of running mate on the election, first look at which constituency or constituencies within the candidate’s own party the choice was made to win over.  I’m not sure it’s been all sorted out in McCain’s choice of Palin.  At the time, it was assumed by the Political Press Corps---and said by some inside the campaign---that the hope was that a woman on the ticket would appeal to women in general and disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters in particular.  If that was the reason, then Palin was bad for McCain from the start, because women did not like her.   If the idea was that her supposed maverickyness complemented and highlighted his reputation as a maverick, then that didn’t work out quite they way it was expected.  But if she was there to whip up enthusiasm for the ticket among the Right Wing rank and file, then she definitely did her job.

When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, Democrats couldn’t contain their glee.  They believed that Ryan’s reputation as a ruthless Social Darwinist intent on destroying Medicare and, eventually, Social Security---that is, that people knew and despised Ryan as, in Charles Pierce’s immortal words, a zombie-eyed granny-starver---would sink Mitt with just about any constituency you could name.  But they forgot to name three within the Republican Party.

Christian Right. The Tea Party Right. And the Corporatist Right.

All three got Mitt’s message. 

The general voting public probably takes note of the VP pick but then folds him or her into their image of the guy at the top of the ticket.  For good, ill, or nil, he or she becomes part of the Presidential candidate’s identity. It’s just that Mitt Romney has turned out to be pretty adept at avoiding having an identity.  He’s been more of his own logo for the brand of Super Save the Nation Oil (With All New Secret Ingredients) he’s selling. Most voters, I suspect, have forgotten Paul Ryan’s part of the mix.

But those three core constituencies hear Mitt’s real sales pitch loud and clear:

“Don’t worry about what I did back when I was governor of Massachusetts or things I had to say and have to say to appear moderate in order to fool the Lamestream Media.  When I’m President, you will have my attention and my gratitude. I will owe you. And Paul Ryan will be there to make sure I pay you back.”

And that, the second part of it, with different and better intentions, is very similar to the message George McGovern meant to send to core Democratic constituencies with his choice of Thomas Eagleton:

“When I’m President, you will have my attention and my gratitude. I will owe you. And Tom Eagleton will be there to make sure I pay you back.”

As Glasser makes clear in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, it was politics, pure and simple, and not decency, that dictated that message. The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a riveting and enlightening account of how it happened that the message never had a chance to get delivered.

And, tragically, decency had little to do with that either.

Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis by Joshua M. Glasser, publshed by Yale University Press.  Available in hardback and for kindle from Amazon.

Top photo courtesy of Yale Books.  Bottom photo courtesy of the Nixon Library.


Related Mannion Re-run: Richard Nixon as the object of their affection, my review of Thomas Mallon’s novel Watergate.

Also: Is Decency in Politics Always Doomed? by Rick Perlstein and George McGovern: Too Decent to be President by digby.

Decent, but not too decent originally posted at LanceMannion.com.

As American as apple pie, deep dish pizza, and gangsters: politics the Chicago Way

Scoundrels Big Bill

Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson, the central figure in Gary Krist’s sometimes rollicking, sometimes chilling, always informative chronicle of a very bad couple of weeks in the history of Chicago, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, out and about in the city he ran for his own fun and profit, circa 1919.

Of all the words the people who hate President Obama use to call him an “other”, to avoid the word they really want to use but that they know ought to stick in their throats, to demonize and delegitimize and denigrate him, and to justify their contempt and their fury at a black man’s holding the office of President of their country---Kenyan, Socialist, Marxist, fascist, terrorist’s pal---the word they use least often is the one that actually had a measure of truth behind it.

Chicago.Not that they don’t use it.  It just gets less emphasis because it doesn’t carry quite the same force of anger and vituperation.  It doesn’t imply his otherness as much as those other words.  There is a racist tinge to it.  Chicago is a city and cities are where they live.  But mainly cities are where Democrats live and vote, early and often and even after they’re dead.  Cities are where Democrats run the show for their own personal gain. Cities are corrupt, city politicians are corrupt, and no city and no city’s politicians are more corrupt than Chicago.

That’s the rap on the Windy City, which supposedly got its nickname not from the winds blasting in from Lake Michigan but from the longwinded politicians fanning the town with their hot air, and it’s thanks to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Boss, that this reputation was engraved on the living public’s imagination.  Tying the word Chicago to Barack Obama is tying him to the Daley Machine, and that’s enough to give even good Democrats a pause or two.  The President did learn the political trade in Chicago.  The Daley Machine was broken by the time young Barry Obama arrived in town to take up work as a community organizer, and the truly relevant figure in his political biography is Harold Washington not Richard Daley, but he has close ties to the living Daleys, close enough to have made one, William, his chief of staff for a while, a blessedly short while. (See? What did I say about even good Democrats?) And then, of course, there’s Rahm.

So there are reasons Chicago ought to work as a smear against the President and you’d think the Right would hit with it harder.  The problem is that it doesn’t otherize him to the degree they want to otherize him.  In fact, just the opposite.

Chicago isn’t just the Daleys.  It’s the Cubs. It’s the White Sox. It’s the Bears. It’s Michael Jordan!  It’s deep dish pizza.  It’s sweet home to the Blues Brothers and his kind of town to Sinatra.  It’s Mrs O’Leary’s cow, who did not cause the fire, but never mind. It’s Carl Sandburg’s city of the big shoulders, hog butcher for the world, home of Carson’s Ribs, immortalized in an episode of M*A*S*H as Adam’s Ribs, for whose specialty characters would walk all the way in from Joliet on their knees in the snow.  It’s Al Capone and John Dillinger and the Roaring ‘20s, and what’s more American than our fascination with gangsters?

Baseball. Apple pie. Chevrolet. And…corrupt politicians.

They’re everywhere.  Southern small town pols are notorious. Northeastern suburbs have their fair share of corruption too.  There’s an upscale suburb close to us whose supervisor is being investigated for arson, the suspicion being that he arranged a fire to cover up evidence of a dozen instances of his robbing and bilking his constituents.  And he was re-elected with this going on.  By voters who knew he was robbing and bilking them.  But, what the heck, the roads get plowed…by the highway department run by his brother.  In towns and cities where things aren’t corrupt or aren’t as overtly corrupt, it’s because rival factions keep each other from laying sole hands on the spoils or powerful bosses make sure they have a say in every bribe and payoff and scam.  Things aren’t as wide-open as they once were, but it can still be the case that “honest” politicians are the ones who wait until after leaving office to collect their payoffs or the ones who are most subtle and least overtly greedy when they practice what the old-time Tammany boss George Washington Plunkitt defined as “honest graft,” getting rich off of public works projects that are actually necessary and good for their constituents. 

And Republicans as well as Democrats have been good at lining their pockets this way.  That’s what Daley did.  But he may not have been the most corrupt mayor of Chicago ever.  That distinction may belong to a Republican.  Willam Hale “Big Bill” Thompson.  Who was mayor when Al Capone ran the city’s underworld and a good deal of the rest of it, as well.

COS Capone PBS LoC Capone was said to have three portraits hanging on his office wall. George Washington’s. Abraham Lincoln’s. And Big Bill Thompson’s.

The basis of Capone’s affection for Thompson was Prohibition.  Thompson opposed it, which didn’t make him a rarity among big city mayors at the time.  But unlike most of the others he didn’t even make a show of enforcing the law.  In fact, he promised to do the opposite.

“When I’m elected we will not only reopen places these people have closed,but we’ll open ten thousand new ones…. No copper will invade your home and fan your mattress for a hip flask.”

Once in office, he not only kept his promise, but he seems to have regarded Prohibition as a government program to supplement the incomes of cops, judges, and politicians, himself included.  Bribes and payoffs were a form of sales tax.

That was during Thompson's second go round as mayor. His first time through--- he served two terms between 1915 and 1923---he made his money and his reputation as a politician with his hand in the till the old -fashioned way, by straight-forward skimming, not scrupling, apparently, between honest and dishonest graft.  Thompson was a builder. We meet him in City of Scoundrels, Gary Krist’s engaging narrative history of twelve very bad days during Thompson’s second term, proudly presiding over the opening of the Monroe street drawbridge and Krist credits him with encouraging and initiating the developments and improvements, including Michigan Avenue's Miracle Mile, that made Chicago into the most architecturally advanced and inspiring cities in the United States. But he promised far more than he delivered, gave the go ahead and financing to projects that were never completed or in many cases never even started, with the money appropriated disappearing into many pockets including Thompson's own, and did not bother to check if the city could actually pay for any of it.

COS City of Scoundrels Cover But during those twelve days that are the focus of City of Scoundrels, Thompson was too busy running his city to concentrate on profiting by it.

Running it?

Just trying to hold it together.

The trouble started during a heat wave in late July of 1919 with the very first Goodyear blimp crashing in flames on top a bank in the Loop. It continued with the disappearance of six-year old Janet Wilkinson and the citywide manhunt for who the police were sadly sure would turn out to be her molester and murderer. Then there was a transit strike, and then came five days of racial riots that left dozens dead, hundreds injured, and much of the South Side's African American neighborhoods burnt and looted.

Thompson was the son of well-to-do parents, a star athlete in high school who skipped college to go to work on ranches in Nebraska and Wyoming. By the time he became mayor, the only trace of the star athlete he’d been was how he’d gone to fat in the way many former linemen and heavyweight boxers do.  He liked to wear a Stetson to remind people he’d once been a real cowboy, but when he saddled up for parades and campaign appearances, the sympathy of the crowds was with the horse.  In those days there was still reason for Republicans to think of themselves as belonging to the Party of Lincoln, but the party was already divided between corporatists and money men, whom Thompson openly despised and defied, and progressives of the likes of Theodore Roosevelt brand, reformers, do-gooders, and good government types, and Thompson was not one of those either.  He was a populist who didn’t believe in good government or using government to do good.  He believed that it was a good…as long as it was useful.  At a time when Republicans tended to see immigrants and their children either as infections or as projects for improvement, Thompson saw them as people who needed jobs and good schools and safe streets.

Or maybe he just figured that the surest way to buy their votes was to give them jobs and good schools and safe streets.  Promise them those things, at least.

It didn’t hurt him with his Irish and German constituencies that he was an outspoken Wet and opposed Prohibition.  To his surprise and chagrin, it didn’t help him as much as he expected when he opposed America’s entry into the Great War in Europe.  It got him branded “Kaiser Bill” and there was concern (or hope, depending on how you felt about him) that accusations of a lack of patriotism would hurt him as he prepared to run for re-election in 1918.

But Thompson had another constituency he’d been cultivating while his political rivals, Democrats and Republicans, either ignored them or outright despised and dismissed them.

African Americans.

As an effect of the Great Migration that was bringing black people up from the South in search of jobs in Northern factories and some measure of escape from Jim Crow, Chicago had quickly growing African American population, whom Thompson courted with promises of jobs and public works projects in their neighborhoods, promises he often kept.  He appointed African Americans to important positions in his administration, as well.  And when he campaigned he was open in his appeals to black voters.  This was tricky politically for him.  Besides racial antagonisms, his black voters and his white ethnic voters were economic rivals.  White workers tended to be union members while black workers were generally non-union (often because they were excluded from the unions). He managed the trick well enough to get himself re-elected, but it became an even larger and more dangerous problem when the riots began.

As you would expect, the riots, which began when a group of black teenagers swimming in the lake crossed an imagined line in the water and a white thug threw a rock that knocked one of the swimmers unconscious causing him to slip under the water and drown, take up the largest sections of City of Scoundrels.  They went on for nearly a week, ranged over wide swaths of the city, caught thousands up in their violence, and caused Chicago’s second great fire.

The sections of City of Scoundrels covering the riots are harrowing and informative, especially if like me you didn’t know anything about this part of Chicago’s history.  But they aren’t the most entertaining sections.  Not that riots are entertainments or that nonfiction writing about riots and the attendant deaths and destruction ought to be entertaining in the way of writing about the Battle for Helm’s Deep.  But there’s no reason it shouldn’t entertain readers by engaging their sympathies and stirring their emotions.  It should be more than interesting.  It should excite our interest.  And the best way to do that, in nonfiction as well as fiction, is to give readers people to identify with and care about.  Krist does a fine job of laying out the terrain and explaining the situation as it unfolds and leading us through the confusion and tumult.  But there’s a distance in the presentation, as if we’re hearing about the riots from reporters who can’t get past the police cordons and are relaying what they’re being told by officials who are relaying what they’ve been told by other officials who are too busy trying to do their jobs to keep track exactly of what’s going on.  Effectively, the sections on the riots read like a summarization of an official report pieced together from second and third hand reports well after the fact.  The people involved appear more or less as statistics.  So and so was beaten. So and so shot. So and so’s house was burned down. So and so was arrested along with…The neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the violence are located more than describe and treated as scenes of crimes or accidents instead of places where people lived, worked, and died.

COS Black Belt neighborhood Walgreens wiki Most of Chicago’s African Americans lived in neighborhoods on the South Side in an area that taken together was known as the Black Belt, and that’s where the rioting was concentrated.  But we don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to live in the Black Belt under normal circumstances let alone during a nearly week long series of riots.  Krist presents the Black Belt more as an object of sociological and historical study than as a place alive and bustling at a particular point in time with its own particular culture and ways of doing business, enlivened by the comings and goings of particular people with their own particular interests, passions and concerns. We see the Black Belt from the outside, through the eyes of outsiders, white outsiders. Krist’s two main eyewitnesses to the riots are Carl Sandburg, who was working as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and Sterling Morton, an heir to the Morton Salt fortune who was a lieutenant in the state militia that summer, and Sandburg’s reports from the scene are…reports, and Sterling, along with his unit and the rest of the militia sent to backup the police if the mayor called on them, spent the first several days waiting and then when the militia marched in at last, he was naturally more focused on the immediate dangers to him and his men than on gathering information about the people he was there to protect or round up. Morton viewed the Black Belt as a battleground not a part of his hometown. 

So we don’t get anyone speaking for the neighborhoods and the people who live there or speaking for themselves as people living in the neighborhood.  In fact, Chicago’s African American community has practically no voice of its own in the book.  The journalist and activist Ida B. Wells (whom Krist refers to throughout by her full legal name, Wells-Barnett) has a prominent role in City of Scoundrels, and she lived on the South Side and was active in helping victims during the riots, but Krist mostly has her speaking in her role as a public figure and rarely as a private citizen of a city coming down around her ears.  And in her public persona she often comes across as representing a party and community of one.

That’s a big chunk of the city to leave voiceless. And it gets at something I would have liked to have more of.  Characters.  City of Scoundrels is populated by many biographies but not enough characters, that is, we’re introduced to a lot people and get to know them through the facts of their lives, but we meet fewer people who speak for themselves and come off as having real lives off the page and in the process give us an intimate sense of what it was like to live in the city of Chicago a hundred years ago.

Two of the most alive characters, in that sense, are Thomas Fitzgerald, the suspect in Janet Wilkinson's abduction and murder---that's not a spoiler. From the beginning of her part of the book, there's not a doubt about what happened. The details are too familiar from the countless similar cases that make the news to this day. In newspaper interviews neighbors of the suspect and Janet's family sound depressingly like any you'd hear on Nancy Grace.---and a diary-keeping University of Chicago student who is the ingenue of City of Scoundrel's romantic subplot.

Twenty year old Emily Frankenstein (Yes. Really. Frankenstein. There’s more. Her doctor father was named Victor!) was the daughter of a prosperous Jewish family secretly engaged to a recently demobbed soldier her parents disapproved of because of his working class background and his growing interest in Christian Science. Emily wasn't comfortable with the Christian Science thing either, but she was convinced she could argue him out of it and improve him in other ways as well.

Emily's account of their courtship is lively, entertaining, and, for a twenty year old in love, psychologically astute. But, understandably, her focus is herself and her attention doesn't range far beyond her own front porch, and she was protected from the calamities and tragedies shaking the city by privilege and distance. We learn a lot from her about what it was like to be Emily Frankenstein. We don't get much of a picture of what it was like for Emily Frankenstein to be out and about in Chicago in the summer of 1919.

We get a much more detailed and illuminating picture of the daily life of the city and how ordinary people lived and worked and interacted in the sections on Janet Wilkerson's murder, since the investigation depended on tracing the comings and goings of Janet and her friends and family and their neighbors on the day of her disappearance.

The most vivid sections of City of Scoundrels, the ones with the most chills thrills, excitement, and, to me, news, are also ones in which Chicago and its people come to life, although, horrifyingly, in a number of cases, in the moments before they are burnt or crushed to death, and those are the sections dealing with the flaming crash of the airship The Wingfoot Express on top of Illinois Trust and Savings just as the bank was closing up for the day.

COS Big Bill the Builder PBS But it’s Big Bill Thompson who dominates the book, casting his hulking, cowboy-hatted shadow over every page. He was a colorful and amusing personality although not all that interesting a person. He doesn't seem to have left much of an account of himself or attracted the interest of any writers in a way that made them want to write seriously about him, the way Richard Daley would come to obsess Mike Royko.  Mostly Thompson inspired the broadest satire or the narrowest sort of demonization.  If there's a book out there like Royko's Boss or A.J Liebling's classic The Earl of Louisiana, Krist doesn’t make a lot of use of it.  The result is that Thompson doesn't have much of a voice in City of Scoundrels. We "hear" him mainly through his speeches and public pronouncements in which he tended to mix populist rabble rousing with patriotic bombast typical of the day and the professional politician's usual forms of boasting and self-flattery. Thompson doesn't come across as intellectually or emotionally engaged in any of the events Krist is chronicling, except in a reverse way during the riots when he was trying his damnedest not to be engaged---he couldn't figure out how to appear active and in charge without alienating his white and black voters. The police were overwhelmed. The governor had the state militia ready to march in. All he was waiting for was for Thompson to ask for the help.  But the governor was a political rival, and Thompson wanted his police department to get the credit for saving the city.

But people did write about him. He made news. And while. as he presented himself in public, he was all show and he seems to have had no friends or intimates of a literary bent who recorded his private thoughts and feelings, his enemies couldn't say enough about him. None of what they had to say was kind or even grudgingly complimentary. But what they did say and write (and you can imagine the most even-tempered of them writing much of what Krist quotes with red faces and clenched jaws) leaves no doubt that Thompson was very, very, very good at playing politics.

Few of his opponents and rivals came away from any dealings with Big Bill feeling they'd got the better of him. Often they came away feeling as dirty as they thought him. Nobody believed Thompson represented anyboby's best interests but his own. Nobody except the voters.  Which led to a number of his enemies among the Chicago and Illinois political and economic elite giving vent to the not always well-suppressed suspicion, held by many elitist reformers regardless of party, that the problem with democracy is that the little people get to thinking they run things.

It wasn't a difficult leap from thinking the mayor was corrupt to thinking the people who voted for him were corrupt.

Democracy, as practiced in Chicago under Big Bill Thompson, and in every city for that matter, was a system by which the poor and undeserving voted to give themselves unearned goods and services bought with rich and deserving men's money.

And there you have it, the roots of Mitt Romney' 47 %, of the fear and loathing and self-righteous indignation behind Republican legislatures passing laws designed to keep people, particularly city people, those people, from voting, of some of the small town and suburbanite Tea Party types’ feeling that their country has been stolen from them, of the corporatist Right's contempt for the Welfare state and democracy itself as forms of theft.

It can all be summed up in that one word. Chicago.

Big Bill's second stint as mayor lasted just one term. When Democrat Anton Cermak defeated him in 1931, the Chicago Tribune delivered Thompson's political eulogy:

For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy.... He has given the city an international reputation for moronic buffoonery, barbaric crime, triumphant hoodlumism, unchecked graft, and a dejected citizenship. He nearly ruined the property and completely destroyed the pride of the city. He made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization. In his attempt to continue this he excelled himself as a liar and defamer of character.

Of course I believe that the President not even in spite of but because of the political lessons he learned in Chicago is no Big Bill Thompson, but still Thompson is a relevant figure in this year's election and that makes City of Scoundrels not just an interesting and entertaining book but a useful one for understanding some of what's still going on today.

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist, published by Crown, available in hardback and for kindle from Amazon.

Originally posted at LanceMannion.com: As American as apple pie, deep dish pizza, and gangsters: politics the Chicago Way